Sunday, July 29, 2012

God's Table

This is my last sermon at the Hospital where I have been serving a year as a chaplain. 

Our readings today from Ephesians 3 and John 6

Five Loaves, Two Fishes.

Jesus sure knows how to throw a good party! Today's story shows Jesus taking small things and working a great miracle. Thousands of hungry people who followed Jesus out into the wilderness are fed, their hungry bellies filled.
There are a few ways to look at this story. Some believe it was a real miracle, food appearing out of nowhere, like the Manna in the desert in the time of Moses! Jesus was showing the people that God would provide, if they trusted him. Others wonder if something else might not have happened-could the faith of Jesus and that little boy have inspired people to share what little they had too, so that there was enough for everyone? People who like this version remind us that WE have enough food to feed the world today, if we could use it well to help our hungry neighbors.
Personally I like both versions, because in my experience God WORDS in different ways, through wonders we can't explain, but also through the faith of ordinary, simple people who "show up," like that little boy and offer their gifts and lives to our generous God.

This is a strange story, in some ways because if you think of it, after this great miracle Jesus went back to the normal way of doing things. He and his followers still went hungry many days, and Jesus himself went on to suffer and die for us. Why could he have not made the world right, then and there, and kept it that way? Why couldn't the feast have lasted forever?

In its images of Heaven, the bible tells us one day there WILL be a feast that lasts forever... but for some reason God is asking us to wait "a little longer." This seems especially hard to the people who are suffering or watching their loved ones suffer illness, troubles or depression every day in the hospital. Why can't Jesus show up like he did there, and just fix everything? Why does God seem silent?

These are hard questions- and I don't want to pretend to have a good answer! In times like this, the most important thing seems to listen, and love the person, because most answers ring hollow in a place of pain. But I DO believe that God is Love, and I struggle with these things in my heart. I guess, if I had to guess at PART of an answer, it might have something to do with God wanting to welcome others into his love, Give US time to spread his love a little wider, and even be part of God's miracles.

In our reading from Paul today, we hear of how he saw God working in his time, years after Jesus had risen from the dead but told his followers to do his work and wait for him to come back. When would that be? 2,000 years later, we still don't know! But Paul took joy in the fact God seemed to be doing something new, something Jesus' followers hadn't expected. Because of the "waiting time," more people were coming into the Feast! For the first time, non-Jewish people were joining with Jewish people as a new community. Paul tells us that this experience of waiting and inviting others into God's big Family, teaches us something of the mysterious Love of God which is beyond all words. In loving others, we become more LIKE God.

There's something magical about a Feast, about coming together with friends and sharing whatever you have. Miracles DO happen in these places. One of the ways I saw it most beautifully was with my friends in the Native American Center I worked at in Boston during seminary. We were a very poor community in an old building, often struggling to pay our bills or facing big challenges. But what amazed me is that whenever my Native friends gathered, food would turn up. Someone would bring some eggs, or make some spaghetti, and suddenly our problems seemed to fade away as we sat down and warmth filled our hearts. Food, and love just appeared, in the hardest of times, and it kept people going. Some of my friends there were from the same tribe that welcomed those poor pilgrims at that first Thanksgiving, years ago and I felt a little of what that must be like. My Native friends believed that no matter how tough things might be, you could still be generous or help others. They helped me better understand God's love!

I'd like to close with a final little parable, which I shared in a visit this week. We were talking about how sometimes we just want to see God, see Jesus when times are hard. But sometimes, God comes to us in even better ways than we can imagine.

Ann an old woman loved Jesus very much, but her husband had died and she lived alone, and was often very lonely. She prayed for many long years that God would give her a sign, or come visit her in a special way so she knew he was with her. Suddenly, one day her prayer was answered! She woke up and Found a letter on her door. It said "Ann, your prayers are answered. I'm coming to visit you tonight! -Jesus"

Ann was excited beyond measure! She spent all morning cleaning her house, and planning a special feast. She ran out to the store to get all she needed. But on the way, she saw a young mother crying because her car had broken down. Ann stopped, comforted the her and her babies, and stayed with her until the police arrived to help her. She rushed to the grocery store, with just enough time to get her supplies, and rushed back home hoping she would have time to cook the feast.

As she got close to her neighborhood, though Ann saw another sad sight. A young family's house had burned down, and they stood together at the curb watching firemen spray the ruins of all the had. Heartbroken, Ann stopped, and gave them several bags of her groceries. "I'm so sorry- but perhaps this food will help you get through for a few weeks."

When she got home, though Ann looked at her bags and despaired. All she had left was a can of tuna-fish and some cookies! She rummaged through her fridge to see if she could at least make sandwiches, but then heard cries from next door. A little boy's cat had gotten stuck in a tree! Sighing, she opened the can of tuna and went out to help lure the kitty down to safety. She also gave the grateful boy a cookie.

Wandering back to her house, Ann sat down dejected at her table. All her plans to feed Jesus were ruined! Looking at the clock, she wondered if maybe she'd even missed up. Suddenly, though the wind picked up and a piece of paper slipped under her door. It read:

"Ann, I'm so grateful for your help today. You gave me lunch, helped me get home and saved my pet from a tree. It was the most wonderful feast I could imagine. I love you.  -Jesus"

As tears came to her eyes, Ann had a new understanding of miracles, and what it meant to feed Jesus.

Five Loaves, Two Fishes.  All it takes is a caring heart and what little God has given you. Where is God asking you to throw a feast today?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Earth Day: Liturgy of Planetary Repentance from the First Scripture Read Around the World

On Christmas Eve, December 24th, 1968 the crew of Apollo 8, the first manned-mission to the Moon entered orbit (but did not land).  During a live broadcast, they read from Genesis 1 and sent back the first pictures of Earth from another World, images that to this day remind us of just how precious “this, our Island Home”(Eucharistic Prayer C) is.  I first drafted this liturgy during seminary, at a class on environmental reconciliation at Boston University, and give permission for others to use it for Earth Day, Feast of St. Francis or other celebrations of God’s Creation—simply giving credit. It is written using the King James Version as that was the translation used at the Moon—but others can be substituted if a church wishes.  It can also be updated to reflect recent tragedies, like the Gulf Oil Spill of 2011.

Fun fact- first Sacrament received on the Moon was Presbyterian Communion, from Buzz Aldrin after the Apollo 11 Landing, with a reading from John 15:5.  The first food and drink consumed on another world was the Body and Blood of Christ.  –Kieran Conroy, MDiv

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.  And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.  And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.  And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.  And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

Gracious God, you created light out of darkness, sending your Spirit into chaos to make a Universe that could sustain life.  But we have squandered our inheritance, and wasted the Gift of this World you created.  Send again the True Light of your Son into our hearts, as we confess with grieving hearts of the brokenness of Your Creation. 
Good Lord, forgive us. 

And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.   And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.  And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.

Nurturing God, in Your care you crafted Oceans of Water and Oceans of Air for us to dwell between, a tiny sliver of life between the many waters and cold of space.  But we have polluted Sea and Sky, these treasures upon which we all depend.                                                                                            We confess to you, Good Lord.

And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.   And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.   And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.  And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.  And the evening and the morning were the third day.

Wise God, in your wisdom you created the boundaries of the Earth, spaces for all creatures to live, and move and have their beings.  You made the Earth fertile, a green oasis in the vastness of space.  But we have threatened that balance, draining rivers dry and laying forests bare for greed, and failing to share food with those peoples in greatest need.                                                                       We Confess to You, Good Lord. 

And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years: And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.  And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.  And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.  And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.

Patient Lord, in Your wisdom you established the Seasons and very balance of life itself.  But in our arrogance and shortsightedness we have thrown the Climate itself asunder.  Icebergs melt and Oceans rise, taking homes from animals and peoples alike, and the life giving Sun brings drought and famine to the neediest among us.  Like Babel, we have built our towers to the Heavens, and now risk a great fall.                                                                                                                                             We Confess to You, Good Lord. 

And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.  And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.  And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.  And the evening and the morning were the fifth day.

Generous God, from the Oceans, we know so much of life comes, the food of the world and algae which makes the very air we bring.  Reefs of coral stretching for cities, and the mighty whales, the largest beings to cross this world.  Yet we have made the Oceans our toilet, and cast oil, waste and nuclear fire into their pristine depths.                                                                                                        We Confess to You, Good Lord. 

And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.  And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.  

Creating God, the life you planted upon this Earth has spread to every corner, in forms to varied and beautiful to count.  From the beauty of wild predators to domestic creatures who feed and clothe our children, you have painted this world with life.  Yet, every day uncounted multitudes of the creatures You called good fall before our uncaring greed, some never to be seen again.                                     Merciful God, have compassion on our uncaring hearts. 

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.  So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.  And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth….  Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.                                           

Holy God, You created Humanity in Your Image, the pinnacle and guardian of Your Good Creation.  We have learned to dance among the stars, but have deeply wounded this Earth which gives us life.  We have subdued the Earth without replenishing it, and worst of all we have abused Your very Image in each Human face for differences of faith, gender or simply the color of the skin you gave us.  We take for ourselves, with no thought of those who come after us.                                                            Just God, forgive us for the wounded Earth and the spilt blood of Your dear Children.

And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.  And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.                                                                              

Creating God, You created this World and rested, but grant that we might not rest while Creation groans before Your Throne.  Let we who walk in the Resurrection life of Your Beloved Son care for this Vineyard You have given us, that You will not return to find it barren.  Let us work tirelessly not just for ourselves but for future generations, for the next 7 Generations, as our Native American brothers and sisters say, and beyond.  In Your Holy Name, we Pray,   
Let us care for the life of this World, until You return with life eternal to wipe away every tear and destroy the power of Death forever.   

© Kieran Conroy, 2012

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Following God When the Floods Come

This is the first of my Alegent Health sermons, preached a few weeks ago. The text is the story of Noah, from the Easter vigil service, and the well-timed epistle of Peter from that past lectionary reading that makes a juicy "epilogue" to what happened to people who died in the Flood after Jesus came. Noah's Flood from Gustave Doré Bible engravings

Genesis 7:1-5, 11-12, 17-19, 21-24 8:1
Then the Lord said to Noah, "Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth. For in seven days I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground." And Noah did all that the Lord had commanded him.

…In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights... The flood continued forty days on the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. The waters swelled and increased greatly on the earth; and the ark floated on the face of the waters. The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; ...And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings; everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred fifty days.

But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided;

1 Peter 2:18-20a
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive,
he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.

Following God When the Floods Come
Last week, my friend Kim spoke of the challenge of following “God on a Mission” this Lent. Over the next few weeks we’ll continue to follow “God’s story” through the Bible, reflecting on some of the scriptures read since ancient times on the Easter Vigil- a special service where many people became Christians. Before receiving their Baptism into the faith, a beautiful service of Darkness and Light led the whole church through the “Journey” of God’s saving mission through history. It is our hope that these stories will help OUR Alegent community better see where God is leading each of us this Lent .

Now for our first story of the Flood… I must admit, with some humor that I wrote this message during that scary downpour last night! This story has some challenges though, and I don’t just mean the weather—we see here a side of God that is hard to feel “safe around.” I used to love the story of Noah as a kid because of the animals and the drama—but as a religious ed-teacher friend pointed out recently, it’s really a very “grown up story.” How do we reconcile the God of Love brought to us by Jesus with a God who would wipe out all life on Earth? We are told, before this point that humankind has become evil on a level that is unimaginable—though perhaps places from our own time, like Nazi Concentration Camps might give us just a hint. Still, does that justify God’s killing innocent children, plants and animals too?

These are hard questions, and I personally have tried to make sense of it by wrestling with the thinking of the people who wrote this story. Modern science tells us that the ancient world did in fact have many dramatic, worldshaking floods at the end of the last Ice Age, as ice melted and sea levels rose. Peoples around the world have Flood stories and, whether or not one believes in a literal Biblical-flood, it seems the ancients—from the Middle East to the Native Americans—faced disasters that “washed their whole worlds away.” The ancient peoples tried to understand the actions of their Creator as the Chaos of the natural world turned their lives upside down. However what’s interesting is that many of these stories focus less on the tragedy of Floods, but then of their beliefs in the kindness of the Divine in leading them through to new life on the other side. Even if God punishes or simply allows suffering in this world, God ultimately saves and brings new life. Another ancient tradition of the Church, based on the Bible’s letter from Peter (1 Peter 3:18-20) even suggests God did not forget the people killed in the Flood; Instead, we are told in 1st Peter that Jesus preached to the “imprisoned spirits” of those very people who died in the Flood, alongside other Old Testament characters after his Resurrection, perhaps even giving these people God punished another chance for His Salvation. The ancients believed God was full of surprising mercy and hope, and this helped them cope with the hard questions.

What speaks to me most in this story, then is not just struggling with the “Why’s” of the Floods and Chaotic places of life, but in also finding hope in this God of Surprises. We indeed experience many “Floods” in our world today, places where the Waters rush in and leave no easy answers. From man-made horrors like violence in Syria and the school-shooting this past week, to Tornados and Earthquakes last year, our world suffers from no shortage of Chaos. It also strikes in smaller but no less devastating ways, from crises of sudden illness or loss in our own families, to the daily struggles we as Alegent staff face to address the Financial, Ethical and Community problems our Healing Institution must confront to fulfill its mission. The Bible gives us the startling image of “waters that cover the highest mountains,” and surely some of our problems must feel that way some days!

We are told that “God remembered Noah and all the animals with him in the Ark.” But in these moments we wonder “does God remember us today?” Our lives can be hard. But the message of Jesus, as we begin this Lent remains the hope that God did not just remain in the sky, sending down Floods but became one of us, to share our struggles and lives in the most surprising of ways. In Jesus we have a “God-with-Us,” who promised that works done and lives touched for God matter, and to have faith our struggles will eventually break out into a new day, a world with no more tears but alight in the Love of God itself. That’s God’s Mission, a Mission God invites each of us to be a part of today. I pray we might each take strength from this promise when the Rains come. Amen.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

God's God's Hope for a World of Exiles

As a Chaplain Resident this year with Alegent Health, I've been asked to preach a few Lenten sermons and I've decided to share them here. Alegent is a joint Catholic-Lutheran compassionate faith-based healthcare network across Nebraska, and which includes special concern for underserved and needy populations. This sermon is part of a series about "God on a Mission," echoing Alegent's new brand motto and following God's story through the various Old Testament readings of the Easter Vigil.

James Tissot, The Flight of the Prisoners

God’s Word Has Been Sent Out… It Shall Not Return in Vain

Passages: Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 and Isaiah 55:1-11
In our passages today we receive images of hope-of God calling thirsty, starving people to waters of life, and of God's promise that the Word he sends out will not return empty, but produce much life. These words of hope, however must have sounded shocking to the people of Israel who, in this time were pitiful refugees, languishing in the Babylonian empire which had conquered them several generations before. They had lost their homes, their king, their beautiful temple, and above all the Promised Land God had given their ancestors. They were a broken people, who had come to see themselves punished and hated by the God who made promises of land and hope to their ancestor Abraham.

But to these very people, literally without money and thirsting for the waters of lost milk and honey God promises a new covenant, an Everlasting Covenant that will bless not just them, but nations all over the world. These people, who were surely seen as outcasts and failures by their Babylonian captors are told peoples they do not even know will run to them for blessing. God reminds these people, at their lowest point of a bigger picture, that God's mission is not finished, and that that mission has a wider embrace than they had perhaps been able to see when they had all the comforts of their own land. God is going to so bring them home- but when he does, He's going to do even bigger things. They'd better get ready!

Our psalm, too echoes this, speaking of God bringing in his redeemed from all corners of the world, or all 4 of the directions, as some of my Native American friends would say. When it was first written, perhaps the psalmist only thought he was speaking of his own people- but in later times the Jews, and those Christians who would follow came to believe God's message was meant to be a blessing for people of every tongue, race and continent. Just when the night seemed darkest, God had a new word for us. As Christians, many of us believe Jesus, God's Word made flesh was the most surprising expression of that- God coming to us as HIMSELF as a human being, to win victory through death itself.

What does that mean to us today? John Steinbeck's novel "East of Eden" captures an older Biblical image of Exile from paradise, that all human beings are struggling to live in an imperfect world, a place of unfinished stories that leave us all feeling "homeless in Babylon" many times. As people working in healthcare, we are especially aware as people come to us with broken bodies, or thirsting for care they can afford in a world with so little bread. So much of the work done here, behind the scenes makes that healing ministry happen. But even as we seek to heal others, we must face the broken places, the invasions of grief, loss and disappointment in our own lives and families. We face those questions that strike so many faithful people-- "How could God let this happen!?" and "Where is God when it Hurts?!" We all face our places of exile, sorrow and despair, when we fear life has lost its purpose or, even worse, that God has left us alone. But God's message to us today is still a message of hope to exiles. That as we approach Lent's darkest hour, Jesus' own long night, we will see again a God who has been there, who has himself faced death as one of us, and come out the other side to give us a hope and a promise that will never fade. Though the nights are still long, God is STILL speaking to exiles and bringing healing water into our world today. And still calling us to Come, and Follow Me.

-Kieran Conroy, MDiv Omaha, Spring 2012