Wednesday, October 16, 2019

How gratitude changes us for the better

The Butterball Turkey Company had a hotline to answer consumer questions about preparing holiday turkeys. One woman called to inquire about cooking a turkey that had been in her freezer for twenty-three years. The operator told her it might be safe if the freezer had been kept below zero degrees the entire time. But the operator warned the woman that, even if it were safe, the flavor had probably deteriorated, and she wouldn't recommend eating the turkey.

The caller replied, "That's what we thought. We'll just give it to the church."[1]

Congregations routinely conduct annual pledge campaigns in the weeks before Thanksgiving, a season that encourages gratitude. Too often, people give God second best, what remains after satisfying all of their obligations and even many of their desires. “The flavor is gone. Give it to the church.”

Hearing the word leprosy almost invariably evokes thoughts of Hansen’s disease, which causes flesh to rot away. Entire appendages – fingers, hands, even arms – fall off the leper’s body. Hansen’s disease is highly contagious and until recently had no known cure. To prevent the disease from spreading, victims were exiled to leper colonies, like the one on Molokai, torn from family and friends.

Hansen’s disease seems to have been unknown in Judea during Jesus’ time. Not until the Middle Ages did Christians begin to associate the disease mentioned in this morning’s Gospel lesson with Hansen’s disease. Instead, careful analysis of the Greek combined with medical analysis of diseases described by Hippocrates and other ancient doctors suggest the text actually refers to skin conditions such as psoriasis, ringworm and so forth. These conditions are all curable; some are contagious, others are not.

In first century Judea, people with these various diseases were all treated like victims of Hansen’s disease: they became social pariahs. Jewish law required segregating people with skin diseases from the community. Segregation sometimes served the utilitarian function of preventing a communicable disease from spreading. But that was not its purpose. The goal was to exclude a sinner from the community because disease signified sin. In the reading, ten “lepers” had banded together to form their own community after being cut off from family, friends and employment. So, when they saw Jesus, even as they were asking for help, they kept their distance.

Jesus sent the ten to priests because only priests had the authority to pronounce a person clean and to readmit them to the community. As the ten went, they were healed. Some Christians interpret this supernaturally: God perhaps re-arranging skin molecules to achieve healing. Others, including me, understand the healing in terms of psychosomatic illness – many of the skin conditions an accurate diagnosis would have identified can result from emotional trauma, stress, etc. The text supports this interpretation, reporting that “their faith made them well as they went to the priests.”

The miracle – God's action – was God acting through Jesus to restore the ten to mental and/or emotional health. We can see God at work in this same manner today, giving people gifts of peace, courage, strength and wisdom.

Only one of the ten – a Samaritan, regarded by devout Jews as a heretic but nevertheless welcomed into the small community of ten outcasts – returned to Jesus to thank him for being healed and the life that healing restored to him.

Gratitude can change our attitude toward life, self and others. Gratitude can transform depression into hope, animosity into affection, and alienation into friendship.

For many years, the Rev. Eugene McKinley Pierce was an associate pastor at Norman Vincent Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church. When Pierce was hospitalized for surgery, Peale visited him. "Mac," as people called him, sat in bed opening mail. He was having a good day. The day before, however, had been a dark, hard day.

Mrs. Pierce explained Mac’s change in attitude. She pointed to her pearl necklace. "Mac gave them to me for Christmas. They aren't the best pearls in the world. But I love them and wear them frequently. As I sat by his bed and casually touched them, a thought came to mind. 'Mac,' I said, 'let's start thinking of every wonderful experience we've had in our lives, one for each of these pearls.'"

Mrs. Pierce continued: "We started back when we were first in love and that was the first pearl. Then we went along to our wedding day and then to our first baby. And the first church he served, and so on, all the way around the string of pearls. When we finished with the last pearl," she said, "all the dark shadows had gone and happiness reigned in our minds and in our hearts."[2]

Gratitude also changes our attitude toward God. The earth’s beauty, the wonder of life, gifts of peace, courage, wisdom or strength and healing such as the lepers in today’s gospel reading experienced are blessings that invite us to ponder questions of to whom and for what we should give thanks.

A young toddler who had received an Easter basket a week earlier was saying grace before dinner. "Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts which we are about to receive from Thy bunny." Atheists may as well give thanks to the Easter bunny.

Christians, however, give thanks to the Creator, the Son who teaches the way to eternal life, and the Sustainer who graces us with healing and other good gifts. In response to blessings, we thank God by striving to walk the Jesus’ path, with our generosity and in our Eucharistic celebration. The word eucharist, as you may know, comes from the Greek verb that means to give thanks. In sum, gratitude leads us deeper into the mystery that is God. Amen.

Sermon preached on the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 13, 2019
Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI

[1] Paul Harvey, 1/22/95, in Rik Danielson, Show Low, Arizona, "To Quip . . .," Leadership, Summer 1996, p. 71.
[2] Adapted from Norman Vincent Peale, In God We Trust (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994).

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Increase our faith

A deeply devout Christian woman died. Her son had inherited none of her faith. In his grief, for the first time, he wanted the comfort and strength that only faith can provide. So, he took his mother's glasses, her prayer book and sat in her favorite chair. He opened the prayer book and tried to hear what she heard. He put on the glasses and tried to see what she saw. All to no avail.[1]

We may chuckle at that story, yet at least occasionally most of us wish that our spirituality was stronger, deeper. Similarly, Jesus' disciples approached him and implored, “Increase our faith.”[2]

The early history of Jesus’ teaching about the mustard seed highlights one way to increase our faith. Scholars believe that Mark’s gospel was the first gospel written. In Mark, Jesus teaches his disciples that faith is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds that grows into the largest of shrubs.[3] In Luke’s gospel, as we just heard, Jesus says that faith the size of a mustard seed can relocate a mulberry tree. And in Matthew’s gospel, faith the size of a mustard seed can move a mountain.[4] Christians used hyperbole and similes to remember and to interpret Jesus’ teaching about the power of faith, comparing a tangible seed to power able to move trees and mountains. Imagination makes these figures of speech intelligible and memorable. Spiritual guide and Episcopal priest Morton Kelsey described imagination as “the key that unlocks the door to the inner life.”[5]

With art as a catalyst, our imagination may awaken us to God's presence by evoking a sense of awe, beauty and majesty. Illustratively, you may recall that the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, a monastery outside Castile, Spain, produced an unexpected best-selling CD in 1994, Chant.[6] The monks recorded chants sung in their monastery for a millennium. I listened to the CD as I prepared this sermon. The haunting quality of the chants quiets my spirit and evokes a feeling of the sacred. Perhaps you have had similar experiences listening to the music of Christmas, Handel’s Messiah, modern praise music or other music. Architecture and the visual arts sometimes have the same effect.

Imagination can also transform hope into reality. Possibility thinkers and self-help gurus have packaged and sold this message for a century.[7] Athletes, public speakers and countless others routinely use visualization techniques to help achieve their goals. The disciples’ plea to Jesus, increase our faith, expresses the hope of genuine desire. Jesus' response invited them to use their imaginations to transform nascent hope into reality. We walk in the disciples’ footsteps when we visualize ourselves and others in God's presence. Create imaginary scenarios in which you, your loved ones, and others seek to trust and to obey God more completely. Such visualizations are hopes, prayers, God uses to transform hope into reality. Without hope, faith stagnates and slowly dies.[8]

Additionally, imagination can function as an ear with which to hear God speak.[9] Apocalyptic literature, including the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation, exemplify a genre of literature through which God has spoken to the imagination of many. Likewise, a birth in a manger, walking on water, crucifixion, and resurrection are all images our imagination can use to listen for God to speak.

When you feel tense, over stressed or bereft of inspiration, learn to relax in God's loving embrace. Read the Bible or another book, listen to music or simply sit and daydream. Allow images, words, people and feelings to become vehicles through which God occasionally speaks.

The second part of today’s gospel read may appear unrelated to the disciples’ request for Jesus to increase their faith. Imagination is a key aspect of the interior path to an increased faith. The reading’s second part emphasizes the external path to an increased faith. This exterior path is the way of love, serving Jesus with our time, talent and treasure. Both in this passage and elsewhere, Jesus identified his disciples as God's servants.

Hopefully, your attendance at Holy Nativity facilitates your interior journey. Concurrently, participation here also involves treading the external path of love by which you increase your faith. This fall’s stewardship campaign invites your support of Holy Nativity’s mission to be a place in which people of all ages and backgrounds experience God, a place where the needs of the hungry and other persons are met and the spiritually homeless discover a welcoming community. Priests alone cannot achieve this mission. Holy Nativity can achieve its mission only through your collective and generous gifts of time (whether to the altar guild or the outreach committee), talent (whether to the choir or the vestry) or treasure (money). Give not because Holy Nativity needs your time, talent and treasure. Give because in giving God draws you close and your faith increases.

Sermon preached the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 6, 2019
Church of the Holy Nativity, Honolulu, HI

[1] Pulpit Resource, Vol. 14, No. 4 (1997), 4.
[2] Luke 17:5-10.
[3] Mark 4:31-32.
[4] Matthew 17:20/
[5] Morton T. Kelsey, The Other Side of Silence (New York: Paulist, 1976), p. 178.
[6] The Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, “Chant,” Angel Records, 1994.
[7] Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking (Pawling, New York: Foundation for Christian Living, 1978) and Anthony Robbins, Awaken the Giant Within (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991).
[8] David J. Bryant, “Imago Dei, Imagination, and Ecological Responsibility,” Theology Today, April 2000, pp. 36-40.
[9] H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation (New York: Macmillan, 1941), pp. 67-79.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Celebrating St Francis

This week I will conduct a blessing of animals for the parish where I am the interim rector and for the children enrolled in our parish day school. I value the opportunity to remind adults and to teach children that God loves all of God’s creation, including all animals, whether alive or stuffed (the latter sometimes more popular with young children!).

In an era characterized by diminished protection for endangered species (e.g., expanded permission to drill for oil and natural offshore and in the arctic, rollback of clean air standards, and several attempts to increase coal consumption), celebrating God's concern and care for all life is especially important. Caring for creation is an unavoidable nexus between religion and politics. Whatever one’s political affiliation, God has entrusted humans as God's stewards to care for ALL creation.

St. Francis represents more than a reminder calling us to love and to care for all of God's creation. Theologian Ilia Delio has written:

The saints are icons of evolving love. When Francis of Assisi heard the words, ‘Go, rebuild my church which has fallen into ruin,’ he first took the words literally to mean repairing the broken-down church where he was praying. So he gathered stones and began to rebuild the walls of the church.

In time, however, he realized that the church is not built with stones but with human hearts centered in divine Love. So he threw himself into the project of love, making the love of God the sole purpose of his life. This was not a starry-eyed love sequestered in the privacy of a cloister. Francis encountered divine Love in the disfigured hand of a leper. Overcoming his revulsion of lepers, he found a God who delights to be among the simple and rejected.

The world is pregnant with God, he discovered, but it is only a heart in love who can see God. The love revolution that Francis initiated upset many people, but it changed the world around him. Seeing the beauty of Love’s many expressions, he made his whole body a tongue by which he preached the gospel.[1]

To see God, one must first love. In loving an animal (or a person, flower, star…), a person develops a loving heart that will, in time, begin to see God's presence in the world.

Who or what do you love? In that love, do you see God? If not, perhaps you love the wrong thing (an idol that cannot give life, e.g., money) or perhaps you love insufficiently, with what you call love really being narcissistic self-love.

[1] Ilia Delio, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution, and the Power of Love (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2013), Kindle Location 3866-73.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Cultivating virtue

Virtue does not magically appear in a person. Virtue is excellence intentionally cultivated through developing a particular habit or set of habits, e.g., integrity, truth telling, or courage.

Former Navy Seal and bestselling author Eric Greitens in Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life (Buena Vista, VA: Mariner Books, 2016) identifies five variables that go into training of any kind: frequency, intensity, duration, recovery, and reflection. Athletes, musicians, and others who have developed an excellence will appreciate the importance of each of the five variables:

Frequency is important because we learn through repetition. Our bodies and minds and spirits need to adapt between each practice.

Intensity is important because we grow only when we push ourselves beyond the boundaries of our past experiences.

Duration is important because we need to train as long as necessary for our bodies, minds, and spirits to adapt to our work.

Recovery is important because our bodies, minds, and spirits need time to adapt to what we have learned. When we sleep after exercise, we can grow stronger. When we sleep after studying, we can grow smarter. Even monks take breaks from prayer so that their spirits can grow.

Finally, reflection is important because we have to consider our performance against the standards we have set, adjust ourselves, and integrate what we've learned into our lives. Our times of practice will become isolated islands unless we reflect. Reflection is the bridge between what we practice and the way we live our lives.

Spiritual excellence – a depth of personal spirituality that leads to a growing self-awareness and awareness of the transcendent – entails training built around these five variables. The same is true of moral excellence.

Are you in training to become spiritually and morally excellent? If you were to sketch out, adopt, and then regularly practice a spiritual or moral discipline designed to lead to excellence, what would each of the five elements of that training program involve?

Each person has the potential to become a great soul, a person of estimable excellence. The only reason that we remain immature spiritually and morally because we do not train.