Monday, July 22, 2013

Of Mary, Martha, and Meyers-Briggs

The audio for the sermon I preached at St. Paul’s, Oakland on July 21, 2013 (Luke 10.38-42) is available for streaming here.

There was not a manuscript for this sermon, just the wind of the Spirit wrapped around meditation and study.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sermon on Luke 10.25-37 — Audio

Here is the audio for my sermon on July 14, 2013 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Oakland.

You clicking the above link or clicking here should open a new tab/window for streaming the audio. The manuscript on which it is based is available here.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Sermon on Luke 10.25-37

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews
14 July 2013
Proper 10,C
Luke 10.25-37
The summer after my freshman year I worked for a non-profit called Alabama Rural Ministry. As are many summer camp type job experiences, it was one of the best, worst, and most transformative experiences of my college years. ARM is a non-profit in Alabama about mission camps and plugging youth and anyone else who desires into a meaningful way to serve. There are two sites that run, and one of them is only in the summer. ARM offers day camp for children in the communities it serves and home repair for people whose homes are in need of repair.

Youth groups, adult groups, whoever, come in and assist something of a skeleton staff each week during the summer. Some youth go to the day camp, others go to a construction site. The summer I served, our theme was “Love: the Unspoken Message.” We used the Prayer Attributed to St. Francis as a focusing prayer, and we used the story of the Good Samaritan as our focus text. St. Francis is said to have said, “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use word.”
Hearing this text, doing the same activities around it each week, doing the same foot washing, and hearing some awful examples of how we might be neighbors desensitized me to this text. It’s one that is read often enough and you’ve probably heard it myriad times. You may have heard the message boiled down to what seems self-explanatory from just the text, Juses’ admonition to “Go and do likewise.” Go do like the Samaritan did, go help your neighbors.
You may have heard it spun a variety of ways like why the priest needed to not touch the man because he would have become ritually unclean and wouldn’t have been able to serve the greater good. You may have been left with the question “How do you not help your neighbors? Who are those people you avoid when really you should be doing this great, generous kindness to?”
Now, that is certainly a valid tack to take on this text. It’s certainly worth pointing out that Jesus is baiting the elder of the law by having a Levite and a priest pass the man by, and then one of those awful Samaritans, someone outside of Judaism who surely couldn’t do anything right, help the man out. The elder of the law can’t even bring himself to say that the Samaritan was the man’s neighbor. The elder of the law can probably barely bring himself to say, “the one who had mercy on him.”
If you’ll look in your inserts, let’s look at the question and answer exchange a little more closely. The elder asks how to get into heaven, Jesus gives him an answer, and the man says he’s done that. Then the man says, “But who is my neighbor?”
In typical Jesus form, he doesn’t actually answer the question, he tells a story. Let’s pay attention to the end, though. Jesus says, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The elder of the law then replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” So if we take all of that story and back and forth it reduces to “Who is my neighbor?” with the answer not being “The person in need I help,” but “the person who helps me when I am in need.”
Do you see that? The man asks who his neighbor is. Jesus asks who the neighbor was. The lawyer answers the one who showed mercy. So instead of “We should all be helping our neighbors and not avoiding the panhandlers on the street” — which is certainly true — this text invites us to ask who the people who are helpful to us when we’re beaten and broken down. It asks us to think about those people who are our neighbors not because we reach out a hand of privilege to help them, but because they are with us and care for us when we are in need.
Taylor Burton-Edwards breaks down how clearly the Samaritan man was the beaten man’s neighbor by highlighting nine distinctive actions of the Samaritan man:
1.     He came near.
2.     He was moved with compassion.
3.     He went to him.
4.     He bandaged the wounds.
5.     He poured oil (a soothing agent) and wine (antiseptic) on the wounds.
6.     He put him on his animal.
7.     He brought him to an inn.
8.     He took care of him at the inn. All of this was what we (and Robert Lupton, in the book noted above) might refer to as "triage." These were things this man could not do for himself in his condition. So the Samaritan did.
 When he had to leave, he gave the innkeeper money to keep caring for him, promising to pay more if needed when he returned. This is a bit of triage, but also something more. The Samaritan wasn’t promising to come back right away and keep fixing everything for the man. Instead, he was making it possible for this man to have some kind of community, and supporting the basic support networks of that community, to get him back on his feet again.
Burton-Edwards points out that this is not ministry to, but ministry with. This is the bureaucracy of the incarnation — God coming to us and being in ministry with us in the person of Jesus. In this story on being neighborly, Jesus is inviting us to let ourselves be vulnerable to others’ help and to others’ hurt. On the cross Jesus modeled for us the ultimate vulnerability — not reacting to those crucifying him, but this was a culmination of his ministry of vulnerability where he shared his life with others. He didn’t have to give anyone enough information for them to betray him, but he did anyway.
To follow that example, to be in ministry with people, we have to get to know them, like Jesus the God-man living with humanity. Vulnerability — like Jesus voluntarily showed on the Cross or like the beaten man had forced on him — is not something that is valued in our culture today. Instead fear and self-preservation are often motivating factors.
We learned last night, as Andrew Cohen at TheAtlantic said, “you can go looking for trouble in Florida, with a gun and a great deal of racial bias, and you can find that trouble, and you can act upon that trouble in a way that leaves a young man dead, and none of it guarantees that you will be convicted of a crime.”  
We don’t have to go to Florida to see that white privilege is a real thing. Friday night saw the premier of Fruitvale Station here in Oakland and around the Bay Area, a reminder that two white police officers held a young black man down and shot him at point blank range. This event from my senior year of college was much closer to home for those of you who lived here then and live here now.

Nor do we need to look only at Florida to see how vulnerability and interacting with one another work with and against one another — while not convicted of murder, that police officer was convicted of something. We may see through a glass dimly, but the Kingdom of God has come near

We see in the Cross, and in today’s gospel text, that it doesn’t come near in violence, self-preservation, or self-defense. It doesn’t come near in turf wars, in drive-bys, or pre-planned gun fights. And it certainly doesn’t draw near in fear or retaliation — fear of the Samaritan for not being good enough, so bad as to not be named; fear of the black boy who’d bought a pack of Skittles, or violent retaliation against a broken justice system that privileges people from charges to trials to verdicts to sentencing.

No, beloved, the Kingdom of God has drawn near in people who make themselves vulnerable to be in ministry with those around them, to assess needs from a built relationship and meet them as they are able, not because they are better than.

The Kingdom of God draws near as you help the Food Co-op, in helping the work of Senior Resources at St. Paul’s. Two instances where not only do people — you — show mercy to vulnerable, marginalized people, but those serving show vulnerability by letting themselves know the margins, by leaving their places of comfort to places of disease and discomfort. The Kingdom of God draws near when you stand at sites of shootings in this city and say that they are not okay — and when you work with perpetrators and victims for peace with justice.

The man in today’s gospel text was beaten to that place, and the one who helped him was dismissed because of his race. Jesus admonishes the elder of the law to go and do likewise, but only after he tells him that his neighbor is the one who opened himself to vulnerability. To whom are you being a neighbor in that way?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Sermon on Luke 10.1-11, 16-20

The Rev. Joseph P. Peters-Mathews
Proper 9, C
Lk. 10.1-11, 16-20
7 July 2013
St. Paul’s, Oakland

In the name of God in whose name we are baptized: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I have a secret for you, church, but it really shouldn’t be a secret, and it’s about who these passages are about. Yes, the lesson from the Hebrew scriptures is about Naaman and the lesson from Luke is about the 70. But with every passage of scripture proclaimed on a Sunday morning I like to use one of my step-dad’s tests when people come knocking on his door to try to recruit him: the so what test.

We’re hearing these texts on a Sunday — so what? Why? This season after Pentecost is used to strengthen disciples in ministries we learned about during Eastertide. So these passages are about…us. Every biblical text is about the story itself, and if there weren’t some timeless truth in it for us today the Church wouldn’t have made it a part of our timeless canon centuries ago.

Or Gospel lesson picks up where last week’s left off. Last week Jesus says that if you want to follow him, you have to leave your family, the dead have to bury the dead, you have to set your face to Jerusalem with him — prepared to die to yourself  — and put your hand to the plow and not look back. 

Today Jesus appoints 70 and gives him a simple message. These are the people who have left their families, have promised to try to die, and who are working to be like him. These 70 are us, the us who have waded in the troubled waters, been healed, and been gifted with the Spirit to do this simple, simple task — go to towns, say “the kingdom of God has come near!”, show that it is, and come back to report what happened.

Do you notice what Jesus doesn’t do? He doesn’t just take whoever shows up and expect them to be able to follow him, and he doesn’t send them out on their own willy-nilly. Jesus here knows what he’s doing — treating these new disciples like the youngsters, in following him, that they are. Jesus gives very clear directions: take this, not that; enter here, not there; when things don’t go well, move on — not in anger, but because it’s time to.

Jesus is sending out evangelists to tell the Good News, but he’s been teaching them what the Kingdom of God looks like for a while now. He’s made the difficulty of the journey clear by saying that it’s hard to follow him and forewarning them that it means dying to yourself. Even in the midst of admonition and direction about what they are to do, Jesus reassures them: “Know this! The kingdom of God has come near.”

The 70 go away for some period of time and come back among a changed and changing world. “Jesus! Even the demons submit to us!”

Jesus says, “Yeah, they do, but don’t get too excited about it. I’ve given you authority to do that, but be happier not that you can work wonders, but that you have done the work I have given you to do.”

All of that is exciting and wonderful…but so what? What does that have to do with us? Well, I told you that we’re the seventy, right? So…we’re supposed to be going out, proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near, showing that it has, and then coming back to report it. How well do we do that, both as a congregation and as individuals? Have you seen that the kingdom of God has come near in the last few weeks? Have you told any of your friends about it? Any of your church people about it?

Maybe you have, but our American Mainline Protestant institutions don’t really prepare us to be evangelists. For so long we’ve assumed that everyone around us is Christian, that they’ve heard the Good News so we don’t need to be telling it.

That’s just not true anymore.

We may not be trained to be evangelists, but we have been trained to be witty and make signs. I saw a flyer on the Episcopal Church Memes Facebook page on Friday that made me cringe. Let me paint you a mental picture. The background is grey, but it’s got a white boarder. It opens with, “Think you already know enough about a Christian to not want to be one? THNK AGAIN!”  Below this opener is a picture of Rodin’s Thinker. Below that the flier says, “Think about a church…where God’s inclusive love is available to all; where the focus is on justice, not judgment; where the family values we preach value ALL families. Think about The Episcopal Church!”

There is then an Episcopal shield and our tag, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you,” with tiny copy, “Whoever you are, and wherever your find yourself on the journey of faith there is a place for you in The Episcopal Church. Come and see, and join us as we work together to make God’s love tangible to absolutely everybody.”

Those are a lot of good words, but yes, it made me cringe. For one, I’m a communicator and it had way too much text on it. No one has time to read this much on a bulletin board. The graphics weren’t the best arranged, and the shield and welcome didn’t follow style or font guides established by The Episcopal Church for use of the logo. Those are pedantic critiques, though and barely what made me cringe.

There is no mention of the Kingdom of God drawing near. There’s no mention of Jesus. The focus of what we’re doing today deals with justice, but we’re here to worship and be sent to work. Lots of words for people who already aren’t here — and probably aren’t going to be persuaded to reject their atheism, their agnosticism, or their suspicion of religious institutions because of a flier an anonymous person put up in a coffee shop.

With not just a Church, The Episcopal Church, but a whole faith tradition, Christianity on decline, commentator Taylor Burton-Edwards says, “The institutional solutions all presume we are primarily those who COME to worship and other activities, and that those activities (worship, education programs, and outreach or mission projects we create) are what makes for faithful Christian disciples.
Jesus’s approach is to SEND disciples in ministry in his name, with no programs, no ‘big show worship,’ and little more than an unwavering faith that the gospel is true: God’s kingdom has drawn near, and we can see that happening and participate in it everywhere.”

Here at St. Paul’s you are a people who are working to make the Kingdom of God’s nearness clearer through your participation in SAVE Oakland stand-ins and your advocacy for LGBT people. I’ve seen the kingdom of God come a little closer in the last two weeks with the overturning of Prop 8 and DOMA — and I’ve seen it going a little farther away with the overturning of the Voting Rights Act and a possible end to affirmative action in educational admission. I saw it at the press conference about religious affirmation of marriage equality when women and people of color were shown supporting marriage equality and calling the church to keep working to eradicate the sins of racism and gender discrimination.

You might say, “But Fr. Joseph, those are all just bureaucracy, what does that have to do with the Kingdom of God?” If we let “bureaucracy” mean “working through systems” then the Jesus who we follow engaged it completely from the process of maturing in the womb and being birthed to working his way through a fallen, failing “justice” system before his crucifixion. Jesus the incarnate God lived in our bureaucracy and told us to know that the kingdom of God has come near.

Jesus didn’t send out the 70 to post fliers hoping new people would come back to him. He sent them, like our deacon will do in a few minutes, to proclaim good news to real, live, people they encountered. To share their testimony of how God was changing the world, and to come back to strengthen others with what they saw. This season after Pentecost is about strengthening disciples to proclaim the Good News of the Resurrection, and I’m with you for six more weeks or so of them.

I was just coming into The Episcopal Church when Gerald Ford died; this prompted my Southern Baptist mother to ask me in a joking form, “What’s the one thing an Episcopalian won’t share with you?” I said I didn’t know. Her punch line was “His faith.” I was incensed then but now wonder if this might not be too true.

The kingdom of God has drawn near! Where have you seen it? Who are you telling? Are you sharing everything you have with others except your faith?

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

(Over) Relying on the Prayer Book (pt 2)

Yesterday I wrote about over-relying on the Book of Common Prayer, particularly when the assembly prays for the whole state of Christ’s Church and the world. Yesterday I focused on how the forms of the Prayers of the People can be used more as guides and not necessarily explicit scripts. I used a specific example from the San Francisco Bay Area of how using them as scripts can sometimes miss the point of the Prayers of the People.

The second part of the Prayers of the People that gets to me when the Prayer Book is too heavily relied on is the Collect at the Prayers. One of the things Hatchett points out in “What’s in a rubric?” is that the collects given as options are the fourth choice of the Prayer Book’s preference. “Selecting a Collect” as I read it doesn’t necessarily mean using one from the Prayer Book — it’s praying a prayer that follows the collect form and collects the thoughts.

In seminary I learned the form of the collect. I was drawn to them in college because of their conciseness and focus that is also greatly trinitarian. Many of them have what I call the “why” to them — why are we asking this? I have written collects for various occasions and am prone to selecting them (i.e. making them up) on the spot.

There were many times in seminary that I would hear an outstanding sermon and pray that the presider would connect something from the lessons and sermon to the words of his/her Collect at the Prayers. Other times now I hear biblical texts and can’t help but hope the presider will incorporate them into the Collect. I make it a point, almost always, to do that unless everyone has the collect I’m supposed to be praying in front of them.

I don’t know exactly what I prayed at the conclusion of the Prayers of the People on Sunday. I do know, however, that Jesus had been telling the disciples that the Kingdom of God had come near and that they were to be proclaiming it. I know that when we look for it and when we ask for certain things, we see the Kingdom of God drawing near — and that God knows the best way to answer how we ask. I prayed something about God’s knowing what’s best for us, our being able to see the Kingdom of God drawing near, and that we have been called to proclaim that — and we need help.

“Almighty God, to whom our needs are known before we ask:  Help us to ask only what accords with your will; and those good things which we dare not, or in our blindness cannot  ask, grant us for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen,” would have worked, but I worry that it would have sounded rattled off and disconnected. The readings were about healing and the Kingdom of God drawing near. The sermon was too. Form V of the Prayers wasn’t expanded to include a plane crash or recent deaths to gun violence in the church’s area or uprisings in the Middle East. We weren’t praying for specific things like rain, so a collect about asking only what accords with God’s will (since the petitions were pretty intentionally aligned to do that) wouldn’t have connected I don’t think.

I think we may be scared of praying. I grew up Southern Baptist but think the Prayer Book has made me better at praying. I’ve learned a better language, I’ve learned to gather my thoughts into a collect (thus doing pre-prayer meditation to some extent), and learned how to keep prayers Godwardly focused, not incessantly treating God as a cosmic vending machine.

The Prayer Book is a beautiful tool. I don’t think we need to get rid of it or really any part of it (well, a few lines here and there) or just start making things up all on our own. Our connection of the Book of Common Prayer — that my sponsoring priest in Alabama and I said the same opening acclamation yesterday — is one of the reasons I’m Episcopalian. Probably the biggest reason, but I wonder if we don’t sometimes get in the way of paying attention to what’s around us, what’s in our hearts, and where God might be calling our attentions.

If you’re a priest, how often do you use something other than one of the eight options on pp. 394-395 of the Book of Common Prayer? When you do, what informs your words? Do lay people notice when the same collect is used every week, regardless of anything else? How do you feel about it? Were you aware that this is a place where the Prayer Book gives great flexibility?

Monday, July 8, 2013

(Over) Relying on the Prayer Book (pt 1)

One of the most formative articles for me while I was at General Seminary was Marrion Hatchett’s “What's in a rubric?” I don’t think that we can over-rely on the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer and there are plenty of blog entries and articles about their importance or lack thereof. I do, however, think that we can and do ignore the rubrics in ways that aren’t violations but do, in fact, lead to an over-reliance on the texts of the Book of Common Prayer.

One of the things Hatchett points out in the article is the directions of the Prayer Book concerning the Prayers of the People. Those rubrics are on page 383
Prayer is offered with intercession for
  • The Universal Church, its members, and its mission
  • The Nation and all in authority
  • The welfare of the world
  • The concerns of the local community
  • Those who suffer and those in any trouble
  • The departed (with commemoration of a saint when appropriate)
Any of the forms which follow may be used.
Adaptations or insertions suitable to the occasion may be made.
Any of the forms may be conformed to the language of the Rite being used.
A bar in the margin indicates petitions which may be omitted.
The Celebrant may introduce the Prayers with a sentence of invitation related to the occasion, or the season, or the Proper of the Day. (emphasis mine)
All of my GTS classmates are well aware that I don’t like using the forms from the Book of Common Prayer and prefer free-form intercessions or locally composed ones. Freeform allow the assembly to speak their petitions, and I’m all about not mumbling them; the Eucharist as a whole is the work of the assembly, and the Prayers of the People are not a time for private mumbled prayers. The assembly can’t pray with you if the other members don’t know that for which you are praying.

Locally composed petitions (that meet the six required areas of prayer above) can bring the requirements into sharper focus by letting those on the ground communicate the prayers of the local assembly to God in ways that are especially important to them. A community heavily involved in hunger issues might consistently pray that as we are fed at the altar the Church may work to feed the world. The forms of the Prayer Book are offered as models that may be used.

Yesterday, however, I encountered a strict, direct, straight usage of the Prayers of the People, Form V. I am doing supply work in the Diocese of California at the same congregation for the next two months and am wondering how I might work with their intercessors so that I’m not caught off guard. Not that the prayers are about me, but as has been observed, these are the prayers of the people, not for the people.

Form V has nothing inherently wrong in it, but when we use just the text of a form for the prayers we can miss important things — things that are necessary for us to be praying for. On Saturday a plane crashed at San Francisco International Airport. At the 8 a.m. service yesterday (because I wasn’t thinking on my feet as presider) there was no mention of the crash or any of those affected. The Egyptian military has ousted Egypt’s president, and there’s no telling how or when those conflicts will end. There was no mention of that in the prayers on Sunday, but Form V doesn’t even leave space for people to add things that are important.

Our prayers yesterday were heartfelt and sincere. As we stood, I’m certain that God knew those of us who were concerned for Egypt, all places that are afflicted with daily violence, and the aftermath of the plane crash...but I’m not entirely sure we followed the direction to pray for the concerns of the local community, and I’m wondering how that might be changed throughout the Church.

Now it’s your turn dear reader: How have you introduced getting away from a word-for-word reading of the Book of Common Prayer forms for the Prayers of the People? What has worked in terms of education beforehand to make a transition smoother? Have you had bad experiences with free-form intercessions or locally composed prayers? How do those affect our being in community together?