Monday, June 21, 2010

Risky Business

The last blog I posted was about Jesus 'seeing' a woman who was in tremendous need and his response. Here in the Diocese of Texas we have a Newcomer Initiative going on. In charge of this effort is a gal by the name of Mary Parmer who is coordinating the project. She is living into her giftedness, passion and experience of working in a large congregation as a coordinator of newcomer ministries, by helping congregations assess exactly how and what they are doing for visitors and persons interested in attending. Won't you take a few minutes to read the article and sermon she recently delivered? They strike at the heart of missionary leadership!
Thanks for following along on this journey of working together to share the Good News of Jesus with others.

The Episcopal Church Welcomes it Risky Business?

I love those little synchronistic moments in our lives when it is as if God taps us on the shoulder and says...."Watch this!" Just now I was outside tediously peeling off the old "Episcopal Church" sticker on my rear car window so that I could put on my new sticker "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You." And I was ruminating about the newcomer project I am working on and the fact that I'm heading out of town this afternoon - so that tomorrow morning I can show up at one of our churches in the Diocese of Texas as an anonymous "mystery guest".........and up walks a young woman who asks if she may use my restroom.

Well, these thoughts raced through my mind...."Do I let her in my home?" "Can I trust this perfect stranger?" "What if..." And then in the middle of all those thoughts I remembered my sermon at St. John's two weeks ago when I said that "Seeing as God sees...and Loving as God RISKY BUSINESS!" So I invited her in and found out she is a foreign exchange student from in the States for the summer...out selling books door to door. She took her shoes off at the door (and answered, when questioned, that it is their custom in Latvia to remove their shoes). After she came out, I handed her a bottle of water, wished her God's blessings, and said goodbye.A small thing, yes. But gift. And although I've already posted the audio link to my sermon on “Jesus, Vision & the Widow at Nain,” I thought I would post the narrative here as well. Hoping and praying that just one person will read it and consider how they look at the OTHER...the their lives.
It is, indeed, risky business.....but oh so gratifying.

Jesus, Vision & the Widow at Nain

If I asked you….’how is your VISION this morning?’……..several things might come to mind. “Is that a literal question or a rhetorical one?.......Do you suppose she’s referring to the Visioning that we as a congregation are going to be doing after our communal lunch today?

Is God giving YOU or this congregation of St. John’s new sight? Webster’s Dictionary defines Vision in a number of ways……as (1) thought, concept or object formed by the imagination….(2) the act or power of Seeing.. And then there’s Visioning (as in a Vision statement) = aspirational description of what an organization would like to achieve or accomplish in the mid or long term future…

This morning I’m going to address the 2nd definition….the act or power of SEEING. And I want to share two stories with you from the not too distant past. Stories of Two Women I’ve known for a number of years - women who are quite different from each other….but who have One striking thing in common.

The first is about a young married woman who moved with her family to a new town in Texas, and shortly after their move the young attorney husband is called up to serve his country in Iraq. Given their prior active membership in an Episcopal Church in anther town, and the desire to get their kids involved in children’s ministry, the young mother sets out to find a church near where they live. And although she does not find the closest church to be the most friendly, nevertheless, she joins and immediately attempts to get involved. Sadly, by the time I caught up with this young mother for a visit over lunch, she has become disheartened. She tells me that to this day, a year or so after she has joined this church, she goes to worship on a Sunday morning and very few if any people speak to her. And although her children like their classes, this young mother, dealing with her own introverted nature and her husband’s long absence from their lives……is unhappy. And this is what she said to me that day……….she goes to church and NO ONE SEES HER.

The second story is this. Not too long ago I received a late night phone call from a friend of mine who had moved to another southern state. Given that she’s a “Texas” girl and a cradle Episcopalian who was very active in her church and this diocese, it was a major decision for her to move all the way across the country to accept a job promotion. So what does this smart, attractive, professional mid-40’s woman do right after she moves into her new home, but to begin visiting all the Episcopal churches in and around the area where she lives. And there were a good number of choices. My friend’s lament that night as we visited on the phone and the reason for her call….was this…she said to me…”Mary in every single church I’ve attended, it’s as if they don’t even SEE me!” “NO ONE SEES ME!!!” She said…I’ve signed guest registers…I’ve written my name on welcome cards for newcomers…and from one church I received a pledge card in the mail.”

NO ONE SEES ME!!!!!!!!!!!!!….

Today’s gospel lesson speaks to the heart of this issue.

Luke tells us that as Jesus & his disciples & a LARGE crowd arrive at the gates of a town called Nain, they encounter a funeral procession with a LARGE crowd of mourners – carrying a dead man. The FIRST thing Jesus does is to LOOK at the woman…….THE LORD SAW HER……and he had COMPASSION for her.

Luke tells us the woman is a WIDOW and the dead man is her only son. Her situation is a dire one. Widows were the most vulnerable in the society of Jesus’ day. She’s lost her husband and now here her only son is dead….her last means of support. The crowd of mourners will go home after this….and she will be left penniless and alone. Unless a relative comes to her aid….her future is bleak. Her life is over….she has no one left to protect and care for her.

Jesus KNOWS this……and he is moved with compassion……he feels what she feels……he experiences her pain…. And then he tells her not to cry…..and he touches the coffin…and says….”young man, I say to you, rise!” And as the young man sits up and begins to speak, Jesus gives him to his mother……

This story in Luke’s gospel is just one of many where Jesus models for us the practice of seeing others with the eyes of compassion..and love…and forgiveness…and non-judgment!!! Christ SAW those around him in ways that others did not and WE are called to do the same.

Jesus PAID ATTENTION to what was going on around him…. He stopped & paid attention to the people he encountered. But not only does he pay attention…..his WORDS and ACTIONS tell us exactly how he sees and what he thinks! In his study of how Jesus loved, Paul Miller writes in his book Love Walked Among Us, that The Gospels mention Jesus looking at people about FORTY times. His compassion for people was often preceded by his Looking.
He looks into the eyes of the widow at Nain…..into her heart. He has compassion for her and raises her son from the dead. In another part of Luke’s gospel, he tells of Jesus entering Jericho and encountering Zaccheus, the chief tax collector. He SEES Zaccheus up in the sycamore tree and invites himself to his house…! He SEES the Samaritan woman at the well in the gospel of John…….and his interaction with her transforms her life!

To SEE with the eyes of God is to SEE humanity as Christ sees humanity……with unconditional love. 1st Samuel 16:7 tells us: “For God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” We all know how difficult this is…..

Jesus asks us to SEE one another in a new way……in the way of love…and compassion…and forgiveness. Jesus MODELS this for us, and we are called to do the same. We are called to really SEE every single person with whom we have contact on a daily basis…..and also……with every single person who walks into the doors of this church.

Are we BLIND to everything and everyone around us but ourselves? Do we really SEE everyone God places in our path on a daily basis? When was the last time you really SAW someone….really looked them in the eye?

Barbara Brown Taylor addresses this in the chapter “the practice of encountering others” in her book An Altar in the World. And she speaks of the practice of “coming face to face with another human being…preferably someone DIFFERENT enough to qualify as a capital “O” OTHER ….and at least entertaining the possibility that this is one of the faces of God.

And she just NAILS me when she writes that we just need to Practice on those who usually just sneak right past us because they are performing some mundane service such as taking our order….or handing us our change.
She writes: “Here is someone who exists even when she is not ringing up your groceries, as hard as that may be for you to imagine. She is someone’s daughter, maybe someone’s mother as well. She has a home she returns to when she hangs up her apron here, a kitchen that smells of last night’s supper, a bed where she occasionally lies awake at night wrestling with her own demons and angels…” “You saved eleven dollars and six cents by shopping at Winn Dixie today,” she says, looking right at you. ALL THAT IS REQUIRED OF YOU IS TO LOOK BACK. JUST MEET HER EYES FOR A MOMENT WHEN YOU SAY, “THANKS.” SOMETIMES THAT IS ALL ANOTHER PERSON NEEDS TO KNOW THAT SHE HAS BEEN SEEN……not the Cashier…but the PERSON! She goes on to say that it’s such a PROFOUND practice that we will almost always meet with inner resistance…. “I don’t WANT to encounter another human being at the cash register, thank you very much…I just want my groceries…honestly…I’m in a hurry……….

Transformation happens in our lives when we are able to SEE old things in NEW ways --- full of new possibilities… Jesus calls us to live transformed lives and to see others in a new way….in the way of love. And…..our Vision is transforming when we adopt a new view of ourselves and a NEW Behavior! Seeing as God sees should ultimately compel us to Love as God Loves. Loving as God loves is a RISKY business!

Every day we should ask the Holy Spirit to give us the GRACE to see as Jesus sees….to see past outward appearances or behavior.
We should pray for the courage and wisdom to engage others in relationship….
If we are finding it hard or impossible to see past a person’s outward appearance or behavior….and to see them as a precious child of God….then we need to get on our knees….and PRAY…PRAY…PRAY!

One writer sums it up this way: “The supreme religious challenge is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image.” [Rabbi Jonathan Sacks]
And it is a Challenge…and it’s Hard!!
It takes prayer….and lots of it!
John O’Donohue says….”Through prayer we learn to see with the eyes of the soul. Prayer helps you to clearer vision.”

IMAGINE what our churches would be like if they were filled with people who had the ability to really see others……..who’ve stopped looking through the narrow lens of their own world……people who have been transformed by the grace of God.
We don’t know….when someone walks through the door of our church…what’s going on in their lives. For that matter, most often we don’t even know what’s going on in the lives of the people sitting in the pew beside us!!!
God has the power to change our lives……to change our SIGHT…… change our VISION.

SEEING as God Sees…..and….. LOVING as God LOVES….. is risky business!
May this be our prayer today……
May we Risk seeing others as Jesus sees them…..
May God’s VISION be our own.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

He Saw Her

The Gospel this Sunday from Luke speaks of the ways that Jesus saw people and acted in response out of his love and compassion for them. In particular, the poor widow grieving her son's death was probably like other women of her time; invisible, insignificant, destined for complete poverty upon the death of her son. What would she do? No husband, no son, no man in her life which, at that time, gave her the only status and means for survival. The scripture speaks of the crowds, carrying the dead son on a bier through the town. Jesus was there. He knew the suffering this woman was going through and the inevitable hardships to come. Scripture says he "sees her" and the boy was restored to life, literally raised from the dead. This was not a case of pleading and begging on the part of this mother for her son's sake. Instead it was God who knew her, had compassion for her, saw her and sought to bless her through bringing her son back to life.

How often does Jesus "see" us and shower us with blessings that go unnoticed because we are insensitive to his holy, life giving touch?

How often do we act out of compassion for others without their asking? "Seeing" people and demonstrating mercy is an essential act of our faith. Do we have the eyes to "see"? Or are we so wrapped up in our own thoughts, needs and busy lives that we are blind to the obvious needs of others all around us?

Let's get down to the simple task of even "seeing" new persons who enter our congregations. Try visiting a church other than your own and notice how many people speak to you. In many congregations new people are invisible, not noticed, not greeted, not welcomed. What is it about Christian communities that don't "see", much less "see" like Jesus saw others? I have heard people say they don't want to approach the visitor in church because they might not want to be noticed. That is a remarkable notion in an age where there are far too many options of things to do on Sunday morning than join a bunch of strangers who sing dated music and respond to an unusual liturgy that requires awkward book juggling. Entering into the doors of a strange church in the 21st century to sit amongst people you do not know takes remarkable courage! The LEAST we can do is "see" and welcome them into our communities!

The good news is that this behavior can change. It takes awareness raising, modeling of new ways of doing things and helping people understand that "seeing" can truly transform a person's day, maybe even lead to new relationships, the building of community and a greater understanding of God. The missionary leader must be at the forefront of helping people understand that "seeing" is a spiritual act of compassion and caring. The missionary leader must teach our communities that this is surely what God would have us do. The missionary leader can create opportunities of engagement when the community is gathered. Once "seeing" becomes a reality with a number of people waking up to the importance and joy of doing this, it often becomes contagious!

Did you attend church today? If so, who did you "see" with the eyes of Jesus? If you are a missionary leader, how did you encourage others to do the same?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

"They Have a Pumpkin Patch"

I was recently visiting a young family I have known for a long time. They are a great young couple, mixed religious affiliation of some Episcopal and Lutheran background but the type of young adults who haven't been to church in years except for weddings of friends and siblings. Their life has recently changed with the purchase of a new home, a move to a suburban community near where they work and the birth of their first child.

This sweet one year old has become the center of their universe and is driving the train of priorities the parents are making. First, find a pre-school near their new home she can eventually attend. Second, find a church they might like to attend. However, the list of criteria for selection of a church is long and all relates to their daughter. Recently they stumbled across a Methodist church not too far from their home. Upon describing this church the young mom said to me, "They have a pumpkin patch and I went on line and saw pictures of children and parties children were enjoying. It seems like a good place to try." Not a word about spiritual life, community, building relationships or God. Just the things her child would enjoy.

It is harder than ever being Church in America. Our society is so saturated with activities that are planned to give us pleasure. The Church can not ignore the need to be attractive to generations who expect these things. However, it is such a fine line that can easily be crossed, losing our focus on our primary mission to reconcile all persons to Christ Jesus. It is about intentionality. We must evaluate all that we do, weighing our activities to be in alignment with our mission. This is possible, but it takes faithful leadership at the top that always asks the questions, "Why are we doing this and how does it align with our mission?" As we seek to reach out to the unchurched and never churched we need to realize that it is going to be hard work to attract and draw into community folks who are looking for activities that we may not value. But these means may be the opening to opportunities for transformation that people can not find in any other way. This is the challenge for the missionary leader. Seeking God's wisdom and discernment and working with other faithful leaders who know "why we are doing this and how it aligns with our mission" will help us do the work of evangelism in a culture that needs to be invited and welcomed into our communities of faith.