A few words on Martha’s behalf

Martha_and_MaryAre you a Mary or a Martha? That’s the choice we generally get when faced with today’s Gospel reading–the moral of the story usually being that we should all try to honor our spiritual side and become more like Mary (and by default less like Martha). Or, at the very least, that we should concentrate on being less “worried and distracted” in a world which seems determined to keep us very worried and very distracted. (Again, less like Martha.) Read More

Down to the river to pray: celebrating the Baptism of Jesus

baptism1Last Sunday we sang “Away in a manger” and “Angels we have heard on high” as we remembered Jesus as a baby in Bethlehem. Today we have fast forwarded to Jesus as an adult and we celebrate his baptism and the beginning of his ministry.  We have begun the season of Epiphany, a time in our church calendar which proclaims the manifestation of Jesus to the world.  It is particularly fitting that we begin this season with baptism, a sacrament and experience that most of us share in common with our Lord.

So, what image comes to mind when you think about baptism?

Perhaps you think about how we often see baptism portrayed in the movies.  Do you remember that scene from “O Brother, Where Are Thou?”?  Three escaped convicts are traveling through the woods when they come upon a large group of people in white robes, going “down to the river to pray”.  After an initial hesitation, Delmar bounds into the water, breaks in line and is immersed in the river by the preacher.

Pete says: “Well I’ll be. Delmar’s been saved.”

Delmar comes back beaming: “Well that’s it, boys. I’ve been redeemed. The preacher’s done warshed away all my sins and transgressions. It’s the straight and narrow from here on out, and heaven everlasting’s my reward.  The preacher says all my sins is warshed away, including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo.”

Everett (played by George Clooney) says: “I thought you said you was innocent of those charges?”

Delmar responds: “Well I was lyin’. And the preacher says that that sin’s been warshed away too. Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now. C’mon in boys, the water is fine.”

Most of us have not experienced such a dramatic baptism.  In fact, the truth is that many of us don’t remember our baptism because we received the sacrament as small children or as infants.  We may remember more about our own children’s baptism, but if you are like me, as a young parent at the time of your child’s baptism you were probably thinking less about theology and more about whether your baby was going to scream or sleep through the ceremony.  (We have two children and experienced both options.)

So what exactly is baptism and what meaning does it carry for us?  Our catechism tells us that baptism is one of our major sacraments and that a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.

The outward and visible sign for Baptism is water.  In the Episcopal church, you will usually see the water of the baptismal font as you enter the sanctuary, as a symbol and reminder that the rite of baptism was our initiation into the Christian community.

So what does the water of baptism “do” for us?  Like Delmar, we come to baptism to repent our sins and renounce our sinful desires, turning to Jesus Christ and accepting him as Savior.  However, we also acknowledge our humanity, promising to repent and return to the Lord, when (not if) we again fall into sin.  After all, if baptism was only about repentance, we would probably need to get baptized again every time we came to church!

But wait, there’s more!

If you look at Holy Baptism in the Book of Common Prayer (p. 304), you will read the Baptismal Covenant.  That word “covenant” is important but it refers to a mutual agreement between two parties.  In baptism, we promise to persevere in resisting evil and to repent when we fall into sin, BUT we also are taking vows to:

  • Continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers
  • Proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ
  • Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves
  • Strive for justice and peace among all people

We make these promises for our own lives or, if on behalf of our children, to see that they are raised according to these promises.

So what is God’s part in this covenant agreement?

In Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus is baptized by John, as he is coming up out of the water, he sees the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove upon him.  In another Gospel account, God says: “This is my Son, the Beloved” but in Mark, a voice from heaven says “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Affirmation, acceptance, and blessing.

And so it is for us.  When we are baptized, “we are lovingly adopted by God into God’s family, which we call the Church, and given God’s own life to share and reminded that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ.”  In baptism, we find affirmation and acceptance into God’s family.

In our worldly culture which teaches us to value cheap and easy affirmation (How many friends do I have on Facebook?  How many “likes” did I get on my last status update?), “baptism reminds us that wherever we may go and whatever we may do or have done to us, yet God continues to love us, accept us, and hold onto us.”

January 11, 2015

St Catherine’s Episcopal Church

Temple Terrace, FL

God’s Friday: Music & Silence

reflections on Christ - crucifixionIt is a very hard thing, isn’t it?

We’ve just heard the Passion narrative of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial.  And it is so hard to listen to this story of betrayal, sorrow, pain, and death.  Generally speaking, death is hard for us.  Even when we know it is coming (and in this case we’ve had forty days of Lent to prepare), we don’t know how to handle it.  What to do, what to say.  And in such cases, we often say nothing.  We are silent.

Silence can be an awkward, in-between place for us.  We tend to fill silence in our lives with the background noise from televisions, radios, ipods, computers.  We jump ahead to fill silence in conversations.  Even here in worship, we can be a little unsettled by silence.

I’ve been thinking about silence this week from a musician’s perspective.  I think, in music, that silence is not so much the absence of sound as it is a critical part of our experience.

For example, consider what it is like to attend a concert.  There is a cacophony of noise as instruments warm up–nothing scripted but it always sounds the same.  Finally, everything becomes quiet, silent.  The conductor comes on stage, steps up to the podium and everyone is waiting.  For musicians and audience alike, there is a sense of anticipation and excitement.  I think Christmas Eve is a bit like that.  No matter how noisy and hectic the season, when you arrive here at church for the Christmas Eve service, you become silent and still, waiting for the coming miracle of the baby Jesus.

Silence before music is one thing.  Silence within music is something else.  Think about how crucial silence is within music.  If everyone sang, everyone played their instrument all the time, how boring would that be?  Instead, musicians share the gift of deliberately scheduled silence.  Isn’t it ironic that silence in music is designated by symbols known as “rests”?  I’ve accompanied students who will describe the difficulty of their music by the lack of rests. (“There’s no place for me to breathe in this piece.”)  Some of us have spent this Lenten season looking for this very type of silence, a place to rest and a time to breathe.  Too few rests (in music and in life) can be a problem.

But there’s another difficulty with silence in music for some musicians: too many rests!  Think of the lone cymbal player who must sit attentively through measures and measures of “rest,” focused and counting, waiting for that moment when he or she is called to play that all-important part.  Some of us have spent Lent here, too, waiting and watching for an important event in our own life or that of a loved one.  It may look easy to others but such active waiting and watching is anything but “resting.”

Today, however, we have come to a very different type of silence.  Not in anticipation, not in active waiting.  We are finally still.  We have made our Lenten journey.  We have, once more, passed through the Stations of the Cross.  We have, once more, been with those at the foot of the cross and seen Jesus carried to his tomb.  And now for a brief time we are silent.

And that made me think of one more type of silence that I associate with music.

When a concert concludes, the audience may respond in one of several ways.  Some times there is, of course, immediate and enthusiastic applause with perhaps a spontaneous standing ovation.  On the other hand, if the concert has been more lengthy and less engaging, the audience may rouse themselves to applaud politely while secretly thankful to be finally released. (The performer has to move quickly to get back on stage for that second bow before the applause stops!)

But once in a while, if you are very fortunate you will be witness to a musical performance that was so moving, so emotionally profound, that when it is finished, the audience is momentarily silent.  And as that silence stretches out, it speaks more loudly than the applause which ultimately does follow, ever could.

That is the silence we share here on Good Friday–God’s Friday, as it was once called.

We may ponder questions that this narrative raises for us:

How could Judas betray his Lord? Why did the shouts of “Hosanna” on Sunday turn so quickly to “Crucify him”? Which group bore the greater responsibility for Jesus’ death–the religious leaders or political overlords? What caused Pilate to wash his hands and allow the execution of someone he believed to be innocent?

But ultimately we are faced with the real question as we stand at the foot of the cross and wait by the tomb in the garden: what does Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross mean for me today?  How am I to understand and respond to God’s love for me in Christ?

I think that here on Good Friday we are captured by silence, contemplating guilt and forgiveness, in awe and astonishment at what our Lord has done for us. We sit together in silence, waiting the coming of Easter morning and the joy of resurrection.

And we say in words from final verse of the hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”:

Let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee

Changed from glory into glory till in heaven we take our place,

Till we cast our crowns before thee,

Lost in wonder, love, and praise.









A Sower went out to sow….

Garden07.12 008The parable of the Sower is a very familiar reading for all of us, found in 3 of the 4 Gospels.  We see in it a perfect example of Jesus’ parables, stories that illustrate and enlighten by using vivid pictures from everyday life.  Parables worked on multiple levels for Jesus’ listeners, and served many purposes, not the least of which being a relatively safe way to express revolutionary ideas in a dangerous political climate.

In this story a farmer goes out to scatter seed.  Some lands on hard ground and is eaten by birds.  Some lands on gravel, sprouts up but doesn’t last because it has no real root.  Other seed lands among thorns and is choked by weeds.

And some lands on fertile ground and produces grain thirtyfold, sixtyfold, and a hundredfold.

Like most parables, there are many ways to explore and understand the story.

We might see ourselves as the seeds God is sowing.  How am I growing?  Am I like the seed on gravel, springing up with enthusiasm when I hear God’s word but not persevering and putting down roots?  Am I in the thorns, choked by the weeds of worldly cares and busyness?

Chances are pretty good that none of us here sees himself as those seeds in fertile soil, producing thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold.

Another way to look at this story is to see the seeds as God’s Word and we are the soil on which it lands.  What kind of soil am I and how do I respond to the Word?  Am I hard rock, too judgmental to let God’s mercy take root?  Am I rocks and gravel, admitting in some ideas but not letting them grow and flourish?

Again, I don’t think we generally see ourselves as that fertile soil, feeding and nourishing healthy plants.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes that she always sees the parable of the Sower as a call to action, to improve, be different.  I need to be a better plant, better soil, as she says,“so that if the same parable were ever told about me it would have a happier ending, with all of the seed falling on rich, fertile soil.”

Here’s another thought…..

Those of you who know me have heard me say that I’m no gardener.  For years I had a reputation in my family as one who killed any houseplant that had the misfortune to land in our home.  Other family members had green thumbs but not me.  I left the business of gardens up to those who knew what they were doing and I stayed out of the way.

It is ironic–a bit of God’s humor, I suspect–that I found myself by default in charge of the garden planted just outside our Chapel.  One of our former residents dreamed up the project, my son built it, and suddenly, there I was, mostly in charge with neither of them to help tend it.  To honor their work, I was determined that I would somehow get something to grow in those boxes.

At first it was really intimidating.  After all, I didn’t know what was supposed to grow or when to plant it.  I’d go to Home Depot and wander through their vegetables and flowers, trying to determine from the labels what would grow with the most sunlight, the least amount of water.  The most neglect.  Something that you just could not kill.

I’d talk to the plants that I set out.  I always felt a little guilty when I dumped them out of those tidy comfortable little plastic containers and placed them in our beds.  Under my supervision.  Before I left, I’d tell them to hang in there, be tough.

Surprisingly, some of them (OK, not all) did just fine.  Some of them even grew, maybe not thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold, but well enough.

So last spring I decided to go a step further and buy seeds instead of plants.  More economical at $1.79 a packet.  Surely they would grow too?

I went to Home Depot and wandered through the vegetables and flowers, but this time I went back to the seed racks.

Again, I was intimidated.  There were so many racks, so many choices!  Twenty types of lettuce!  Martha Stewart brands!  (At fifty cents more, were those really better than Burpee?)  And the instructions—planting charts, when & how—how could I interpret those?

I asked a nice young fellow who worked there. He admitted that he didn’t personally have a garden, so he hadn’t ever tried any of the seeds.  His dad, however, had had great success with growing stuff from seeds.  (Unfortunately, he couldn’t specify what it was that his dad had found most indestructible.)

“Well, OK,” I finally told him (and myself).  “I’ll just look through these and pick a few to try.”

“Sure!” he beamed.  “Hey, what’s the worst that could happen, right?”

And that’s the thing….

Getting back to the parable of the Sower.  Where is God in this story?  The Sower, right?

So, why wouldn’t the Sower be planting ALL the seeds on fertile ground, in nice neat little rows with markers and a little fence to keep out critters?  Instead, He is flinging those seeds EVERYWHERE!  Hard soil, rocky soil, big patches of weeds.  In His exuberant, extravagant love for creation, He is just pitching those seeds out.

And maybe that’s what WE should be doing.

Instead of being cautious and deciding who and what is “fertile soil” we should just get busy sowing seed.  What’s the worst that could happen, right?  Some surprises for us, perhaps?  That person or project who didn’t seem “worthy” of our efforts?  Perhaps they will be like that sweet potato vine out in that garden—just growing like crazy and spreading out the Good News, more and more.

Thirtyfold, sixtyfold, and a hundredfold….

Discovering Jubilee: Revolution, Redemption, and Radiohead

One of the things I love about visiting my daughter and son-in-law is the opportunity to attend worship services at their church.  Revolution (Kansas City) is a United Methodist mission located in a traditional old church building in the urban Westport neighborhood.  Sunday morning worship there is a refreshing mixture of new and old, and for me it is always a welcome breath of fresh air.

Their stated mission is to “serve with passion, worship with relevance, and love without judgement.” A strong commitment to social ministry is evident throughout the worship service and (especially) in the activities of the church.  As a member of the congregation, you have ample opportunities to serve in fellowship with your church family.

Worship with relevance is a wonderful mixture of the old and new.  Hymns include some of the old Baptist hymns I remember from my grandmother but the words are up on a screen and the music is played by a band that may or may not include singers, guitar (electric or acoustic), drums, and even a little harmonica.  The congregation is encouraged to bring their Bibles to worship, but as the sermon begins I notice that about half the Bible toters are folks sporting iPhones with Bible apps.  (And that was definitely OK.)

Finally, love without judgment is evidenced in everything from the casual (but reverent) atmosphere to the preached message to the folks still standing around chatting in the sanctuary, 30 minutes after worship had concluded.

This summer we happened to attend during the last two weeks of  four week study of Leviticus.  I knew in advance that it was gonna be good.

The sermon for the first week (week 3 for the gathered assembly) dealt with the rules and regulations of Leviticus, focusing on the original intent to promote the survival and identity of the Israelites and their preservation as a holy people.  And how might we write the rules of Leviticus today to promote the survival and identity of our Christian congregations?

“Thou shalt not text while driving”?

“Wendy’s Baconator shall be considered an abomination to you”?

More importantly, what guidelines would we use to set us apart from contemporary culture as God’s holy people?

Think about it!  Interesting question, isn’t it?  Just wait.  It gets better…..

The second week we were there, the message focused on the Year of Jubilee (Lev 25: 8-12).

The Year of Jubilee was to be a hallowed time, a time set aside every 50th year for rest and rejoicing.  All debts would be forgiven, all prisoners released.  It is a very real reminder that we do not own anything on this earth but are only “strangers and sojourners,” totally dependent on God.

What’s that, you say?  All mortgages cleared after that 50th year?  All the prison doors opened and the criminals released back into our midst?

At that point in the sermon, Pastor Eric reminded the congregation that the word “criminals” in Old Testament prisons referred to debtors.  (The punishment for violent crimes was much more swift, certain, and severe–no expectation of rehabilitation and release!)

And that got me thinking….

Many of us have struggled with unusual debt in the past few years and with our own forms of “debtors’ prison” due to unemployment, rising medical expenses, home foreclosures and short sales, student debt and excessive credit card debt.  For many of us, the burden seems overwhelming–a hole that gets deeper and deeper.

But, if you are currently locked away in today’s debtor’s prision, consider what it would be like if the next harrassing phone call you got, the next scary letter from your lending agent simply said:

“Congratulations!  This is the Year of Jubilee.  The balance owed on your account is now $0.00.  You are now free and clear.  Go and have a wonderful life.”

When I considered this, the meaning and significance of all the New Testament parables about debts, debtors, and forgiveness suddenly shifted for me.  How incredibly amazing would it be to have your debts really forgiven?

Go a step beyond.  How wonderful would it be to have the burden of all those things you did and shouldn’t have, all those times you could have helped and didn’t….



Wiped clean?

Of course, I wondered as I listened to this sermon, how did all this work out for the Israelites?  And also, why have I NEVER heard about this scripture before?

As it turned out, the year of jubilee was apparently never implemented.  (Just not practical when you think it through, you know….)

But we know the Year of Jubilee.  We are privileged to experience Jubilee in Jesus, we are redeemed in the gift of his body and blood.

And as my family deals with the fiscal difficulties of the current economy , the message of Jubilee has not left me.  There is redemption and there is reason to hope.

And Radiohead, too, you may ask?

As we finished the service at Revolution and the band concluded the final hymn, the musicians popped some recorded music into the sound system.  After a moment, I recognized “Paranoid Android” from OK Computer.

Redemption, release, and Radiohead, too?

Yes, indeed, I do love worshiping at Revolution…..

Playing Scared

I had a parking lot conversation the other night with another musician about his upcoming graduate recital.  We were talking about practice and preparation and the conversation naturally turned to dealing with performance anxiety.

If you are a musician, at some point you are going to perform for someone other than the family dog and that can generate a tremendous amount of angst.  Assuming you have prepared well (and if you are performing something that is not well prepared….well, that’s a whole different set of worries!), there is a point where you have done all you can do but still think:

I’m not sure I can do this!

This is gonna fall apart!

I will look like an idiot to EVERYONE in the audience.

The thing is is that this slippery slope leads to playing scared.  That means that you don’t take chances with the music and you think that slower/softer means safer.  What generally happens is that you still make those mistakes you feared PLUS the music is boring and lifeless.

What I said in that parking lot conversation is that I used to assume that a good performance was a “perfect” performance–all the notes and rhythms in the right place.  What I now believe is that a good performance is authentic.  It is musical.  It takes some risks.  It has life.  Yeah, there are some screwups.  But that is life too, isn’t it?

I think we play it scared in our religious practice some times, by the chances we take or not.  Lots of folks have written about witnessing: taking a stand at the water cooler at work and inviting your neighbor to church.  That demands that you be authentic.  And that you take a few risks.

But also–and it can be scary too at times–I think you have to take some risks at church.  Try something new.  Speak up when you don’t understand the theology you see performed in front of you.  Ask questions in that Bible study.  Be honest.  Just for once, don’t just smile, nod and agree.  Open your mouth and say: “You know, this passage has just never made sense to me.  What are we supposed to make of it?”

Afraid you will ask a stupid question?  Sound silly?  Well, maybe.  On the other hand, you just might learn something.  Your faith might be strengthened.

Peter is one of my heroes in the New Testament.  I wish I were more like him.  You have to cringe sometimes for him:

Hey, Jesus!  I can walk on water too!  Oops, wait!  No, I can’t!!”

Peter often seems to jump in before he has thought things through and say the wrong thing.  But he SAYS something (probably what everyone else was thinking but afraid to put into words).  I think Peter would have been a great trumpet player.  Sure, he would have missed some of those high notes.  But he would have gone after them and the ones he hit would have been glorious.

The musician I talked to in the parking lot was getting ready for a graduate recital and, as we all do, voiced some concerns about having things ready.  Last night at his recital he was in the midst of a particularly difficult number when something seemed to go wrong.  He hesitated, his pianist stopped and repeated an entrance.  The soloist put his horn down and abruptly walked to the front of the stage and addressed the audience:

A preacher was delivering a sermon on Genesis when he found his sermon pages to be out of order.  He suddenly stopped in the midst of his message to say:

‘Adam! Adam!’ Eve said. ‘You seem to have a leaf missing.’

I seem to have the pages of my music out of order.  Please excuse us while we start this section over.”

The audience roared with laughter at the joke and settled back to enjoy the rest of the program.  A flawless evening?  No, but authentic and joyful and full of life.  There was a lot of music played that night.

Let us come to our faith with the same enthusiasm and lack of fear.  With God’s grace, the music of our lives will likewise be authentic, joyful, and full of life.

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