Give Yourself- A Sermon for Thanksgiving

Several years ago I rented a movie called “Pieces of April” and I re-watched it recently as it is one of my favorite holiday movies. The movie is about a young woman name April, played by a young Katie Holmes, who lives in New York City, and it takes place entirely on Thanksgiving Day. April’s family is coming down from Connecticut and she is cooking the meal.  There are, however a number of complications to the story, the two most important are that April’s mother is dying of cancer and their relationship has been bad for years. The other problem is that April cannot cook and has never tried to make a Thanksgiving meal. She wants to make it special, so she plans to cook a turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes, Waldorf salad, green bean casserole and cranberry sauce, from a can of course.

As she opens her small oven that day, she realize that it has stopped working. It being Thanksgiving Day the building superintendent is out and the wait is too long for an outside repairman. So April is forced to go door to door in her building looking for an oven to borrow. The first couple she finds are Eugene and Eyvette in 2B. They let her have their oven for 2 hours until they have to start their own meal. Eugene scoffs at April’s use of stuffing from a box, until Evette reminds him of his first Turkey, the “half cooked affair that no one could eat”, and his second turkey that was burned to a crisp. Wayne in 5D helps her until she hurts his feelings and finally a nice Chinese family finishes the cooking.

The movie is made so that you are watching two stories at the same time, one is that of April, the other is of her family driving to the city. Her mother has had a double mastectomy and wears a wig from the effects of chemo. Her mother, Father, sister, brother and grandmother all take the trip together, most of which is spent dreading the trip and reliving painful memories of April growing up. At one point her mother demands that the car be stopped and she jumps out screaming about how she cannot handle one more bad memory.

Pieces of April deals with one subject from two points of view, what happens if this day doesn’t turn out right, what happens if it is a disaster? The anxiety builds over the turkey not being cooked and Thanksgiving not turning out the way it is supposed, to because it may be her mother’s last.

This family lives into something we all have a tendency towards, maybe we could call it the mythology of Thanksgiving. You all know what I am talking about, we almost all hold ourselves to an ideal that no one could possibly meet on Thanksgiving. We constantly think that next door everyone is happy and sitting down to the most perfect Martha Stewart meal. That their family doesn’t fight, that and everyone is on time. That when they sit down the turkey is moist and the dressing has just the right amount of every spice, those people next door or down the street don’t have to worry about burning the rolls or the meringue. But I want to let you in on something, there is no place down the street, every family is just like yours and nothing like yours, each unique but at the same time similar.

Jesus tells us today from our reading Matthew 6:25-34, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. …So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself.” This instruction, from our savior, is meant to remind us of one thing we forget, especially around the holidays, each of you is a beloved child of God, and that, in and of itself deserves thanksgiving.

I say it is meant to remind us because we forget all the time who we are, we try to become something else, someone else, we set our expectations so high that there is no way we could ever meet them. Let me give you an example, I’m not going to ask for a show of hands but I’ll bet some of you will spend you entire Thanksgiving meal listening to the cook tell everyone what is wrong with each dish. “Well,” they will say, “this sweet potato casserole doesn’t taste at all like my mothers, I bet I had bad brown sugar,” “Oh these this stuffing has too much sage.”, “…does this banana pudding taste right”? On and on, to the point that all anyone can remember from year to year is that things were messed up. We miss the present moment for worrying about what it’s not. This is not like last year, or when we were five, or how it will be next year, and you’re right it’s not like that and it’s not supposed to be. There will never be another year like this, nor another month, week, day or hour. This is the only day we have.

Just so it’s not a surprise I want to tell you that, later today someone in this room will cut into a turkey that will be too dry to eat. Now here’s how I know you all have expectations of Thanksgiving, I’ll bet most of you said to yourself, “well that won’t be me”, those of you who didn’t say that will probably spend the few hours worrying about it. The question is, what will you do if it is your Turkey? Will you forget who you are and curse the recipe you got from Rachel Ray or Bobby Flay and spend the rest of your meal sulking. Will it break you? You wanted the same reaction those people on TV always get. You know what I’m talking about, that look of bliss that crosses the face of someone who just tasted Martha Stewart’s white truffle dessert. How with their mouth full they say “Oh my God this is so good”.

Your expectations about how things are supposed to be keeps you blind to the way things actually are. Jesus makes the point that we are to strive first for the kingdom of God, and I can’t tell you exactly what it looks like, but the end of Pieces of April may give us a glimpse. After a day of anxiety and worry, her family and new boyfriend sit down at a table with the Chinese family that helped her cook her turkey and the black couple who taught her how to fix real cranberry sauce. Her small apartment is full of people eating together who don’t know each other, sharing what they had. Just by being present to one another they made the experience real. When we spend our time worrying about what might have been or what could be, we rob those around us of the only thing we have to give, our self.

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Sometimes Things Suck

I wish that this was not so hard. 14 years after September 11th and this has been one of the hardest anniversaries. I have no idea why. There are probably a million theories as to why grief and trauma sneak up on people years after an event. Some of those theories are great and many of the treatments for the pain of hurt and loss are helpful and allow people to live their lives. I know they have helped me. But as my therapist says, “All psychology is made up”. No one really knows for sure how it all works, we just know that some of it does and we stumble, mostly in the dark, until something works for us. Other times nothing works. Everything just feels like a storm of pain, sadness and grief.

For most people September 11th was an event. It was a terrible event, but it was a thing that happened in a far away place, something experienced on a screen. For those of us who were there, and spent time working at the World Trade Center site, it was not something we experienced on a screen, we experienced it in our bodies. With all of our senses we took it in and it became part of us.

It is a part of me that I wish I didn’t have. I don’t wear it as a badge of honor.  I would gladly give it back. Maybe then I would not flinch at the sound of a low flying plane, or have my day ruined by the smell of a certain type of fire. Maybe then September could go back to being a beautiful time of year to celebrate a birthday and enjoy the start of the college football season. Maybe it would not take days to realize that I am snapping at people I love and really just putting on an act for everyone else. Maybe I would not be awake with nightmares at 4am for weeks before and after.

I was raised as a southern boy to become a southern man.  One of the first rules of life I learned was to “suck it up”. Other expressions of this rule were “Be a man” and “Don’t be a pussy”. In other words, take your feelings about a particular thing and either ignore them, smash them, or turn them into one of the acceptable male emotions like anger. It took me years to unravel this fucked up emotional system, but when it comes to the big stuff I still slip into that mode and I hear the voices, “That was 14 years ago, get on with your life”, “You really didn’t lose that much compared to other people who were there. No one you knew died, you weren’t actually in the towers.” “Other people did so much more the you did.”  But better than the guilt and shame, are the over responsibility messages that say, “You have a family, and a child. You can’t be sad, they need you.” “You are a priest and the rector of a big church, there is too much to do, your parishioners need you”. I understand, on my best days, in the midst of pain and hurt that all of these messages are bullshit. The last couple of weeks have not been my best days. I have been on auto pilot at best, shut down and distant or aggravated and frustrated with everything the rest of the time.

I guess I should trust the people who love me and tell me I am acting like a jerk or when I am not “there” . Usually I just get defensive and try harder to act like nothing’s wrong, try harder to not feel what I am actually feeling. That never really turns out well.

This year for some unknown combination of reasons I am really, really sad. The grief and trauma of both the day, September 11th,  and the weeks and months that followed takes a huge toll on so many people. It takes a huge toll on me.  Most of the time this trauma is one that plays in the background, like a radio in another room of the house. Sometimes the volume gets turned up. This year the volume has been turned way up and it sucks. I know over the next month or so the sadness and anxiety will recede as it always does.  I just really wish this was not so hard.

14 years ago today a group of 5 seminarians, including me, spent hours on the corner of Church and Fulton Street behind St Paul’s chapel serving the relief workers at Ground Zero. Throughout the night we were listening for the whistle that warned us to take cover from glass still falling from the buildings in the area. We made the first pot of coffee at St Paul’s Chapel which would later become a relief and pilgrimage site for thousands of people. We organized relief supplies pouring into lower Manhattan from groups around the country, including shoes, dog food, milk, cigarettes and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from Kansas with notes written by kindergarten students.  It was a haunting night spent in the shadow of the burning pile that was once the World Trade Center.

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A Letter to my Namibian Friends as you prepare to Elect a Bishop

This post is specifically for my friends and colleagues in the Anglican Diocese of Namibia as they prepare to elect their next Bishop. The election is tomorrow July 30, 2015. If you read this please take a moment to pray for all the people of Namibia and those who faithfully serve them in the Church.

Orientation Week Onekweya

To my Dear Bishop(s), fellow presbyters, friends and former students in the Diocese of Namibia,

I greet you in the Name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in the power of His Holy Spirit and hope this letter finds you well and lifted up by God’s love. As Paul writes to his friends in Ephesus, so I beg you to lead lives worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing one another in love, and making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

As you prepare to elect the next Diocesan Bishop of Namibia I understand the election has become quite contentious and full of activity that would be unbecoming of anyone who claims Jesus Christ as their Saviour, but especially unbecoming of any who would claim to lead God’s people as Bishop.

I know each of the candidates for Bishop very well. I have hosted them in my home and have shared many services and meals and special occasions with them. As Associate Dean and Rector of St George’s Cathedral it was my privilege to serve with them in the councils of the church.  Each of them brings wonderful gifts and skills for ministry and I have personally seen each of them serve God’s church faithfully. It is also true that each of them is a frail and sinful human being in need of God’s grace. Each of them at some point has fallen short of the Glory of God.

The selfish and prideful actions that have become part of this process are heartbreaking to me and tear down the Body of Christ at a time when our beloved Church is already struggling with challenges to its relevance in the world. How would it be possible to ask someone to follow the commandments of Jesus Christ and pattern their life after Jesus when we are unable to do so? How is it possible to ask others to be humble before the Lord and show no humility? Paul tells us that our ministries are “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the Body of Christ.” Ephesians 4

Recently I found in my papers a writing assignment I gave to students in our seminary at Onekweya in 2008.  I asked you to write about why you wanted to be a priest. Each of you said in your own words that you wanted to follow Jesus Christ and serve God’s people. That your great desire was to build up the saints and to build the Body of Christ. Not one of you wrote that you were interested in positions of power or that you wanted to have control over people.  How is it that decisions are now being made based on selfishness? How is it that there are some who would elect a bishop based on what is in it for you and not what God might be calling from the Church? When each of you started your path to ordination your minds were ever on Jesus Christ. I hope for the sake of the Church that is still true. As a large group of new priests in the Diocese you are capable of making big decisions. With that opportunity comes great responsibility and I pray that each of you will consider in your heart the right decision and not let your choice be influenced by anyone other than Jesus Christ.

On Page 598 in the Anglican Prayer Book 1989 there is a set of questions the Archbishop will ask the bishop elect. I encourage you to read those questions and then ask yourself, which of the candidates for bishop could most honestly answer each one. The question that seems most important as you elect a new Bishop is this “Will you strive to fashion your own life and that of your household according to the Way of Christ?”  Anyone who is unable to do this during an election process will be unable to do it as they kneel before the Archbishop or as they serve as a diocesan bishop. Remember that the actions you see as someone is trying to become bishop are the same actions you will see when they are bishop.

I am praying that God will protect each of you from the power of the enemy in this election. That as the enemy tries to infect this holy moment with pride and selfishness, you will find in the power of Jesus Christ the ability to see through the darkness to the light. I think of you daily and you are always in my prayers. Over the next several days I will be praying for each of you even more.

May the light of our Saviour Jesus Christ surround you now and always.

Blessings and peace my dear friends and colleagues.

In Christ,

The Rev. Jeremy P. Lucas, Rector

Christ Church Lake Oswego, Oregon

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What Not to Say on Easter

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Up and ready to go for Easter Sunday

As I sit and try and write sermons for Holy Week and Easter my thoughts turn to all the people who will be in church on Easter Sunday. Attendance is usually double most other Sundays of the year and in the Episcopal church people joke that they are members of the Church of C and E (Christmas and Easter). I think it is wonderful anytime someone shows up on an Sunday. Living in Portland where 42% of residents are religiously unaffiliated, it is great to see people worshiping on Sundays.

Because there will be a lot of new people in churches this Sunday I offer this list of what to do and not to do when you meet them. I am a little embarassed that I would even need to say this but…

1.  Say hello to someone you do not know. This is very simple and a matter of basic manners.  You do not have to share a 5 minute conversation. Just say “Good morning” or “Happy Easter”. Whatever you share in authentic kindness will go miles towards making someone feel welcome.

2. DO NOT think you are being cute by telling people you don’t recognize “You know we are here every Sunday” or “You know we are open more than Christmas and Easter”. This applies to clergy as well as members of the congregation. There are so many ways we shame people and make them feel bad about getting up and out of the house with their family to come to a place where people say stupid things to them. You are not cute or funny, it is rude, don’t do it.

3. If you walk into church and someone is sitting where you normally sit, go and sit somewhere else. That is not your seat or your pew, even if you have been sitting in it for 30 years. If you say anything like “You are sitting in my pew” I would like to speak to the person who taught you what it means to be a follower of Christ. I would like to find out if you have ever learned what hospitality to the stranger means. If you know you might be upset if someone is sitting in the pew you normally sit in, and you are afraid that you might say something stupid,  make a copy of Hebrews 13:2 and carry it with you. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

4. Be helpful. I am not even sure why I should have to say this. If you see someone new to you who looks lost or appears to be looking for something or someone, speak to them. Ask if you can help. The family with 4 kids, all in their uncomfortable Easter best, might not have any idea where the nursery or bathroom is. Offer to help. See Luke 10: 29-37 if you have any questions about this one.

5. Be yourself. You do not have to say exactly the right thing to someone and you do not have to carry on a long conversation. Simple kindness and good manners go a long way. If you really care about peope it will show.

5(a). Be yourself; Caveat. Be yourself… unless you are a jerk who is rude and mean to people. If you are a jerk who is rude and mean to people stay home. Yes, I know, jerks probably need the love of God more than anyone, but God can hear their prayers and touch them with the Holy Spirit at their house. I often hear that people find God on the golf course when they are not in church.  Too often the rudest and jerkiest people come to church and act out in all kinds of stupid and mean ways, and we either ignore them or avoid them. What I am saying is that the single mother who got her baby up early because she wanted to come and worship God on Easter does not need your stupid rudeness. Yes we are all sinners and have fallen short of the glory of God, (Romans 3:23)  but that is a statement of fact, not an excuse for bad behavior.

There. That is the end of my list. It is as simple as just having decent manners and treating people in the way you would like to be treated.  You may have other things to add to this list. Please feel free to add them in the comments. Now back to writing sermons. Have a blessed Holy Week and joyous Easter.

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I’m Telling You Less than Half the Story

I’m Telling You Less than Half the Story.

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40 Stories- Machine Gun

The first time anyone ever pointed a machine gun at me, I was in the West Bank, on my way to a small village called Dar Sala.  A group of us were visiting Israel and Palestine and this particular day we were travelling in a van to a small school outside of Bethlehem to observe a training in active non-violence organized by the Fatah Youth Organization.

Our small group was staying that the Bethlehem Hotel, just down the block from Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity. That morning we met at the offices of a local peace organization where we were picked up by a local taxi. There were seven of us, including the driver travelling in an old van.  To reach our destination we had to, at one point to cross a “flying” checkpoint setup by the Israeli Defense Force.  We came over the rise of a hill and could see a line of cars stopped, and at the front of the line a military jeep with a 50 caliber machine gun mounted on the back. There were 3 or 4 soldiers standing around checking id’s from the drivers and passengers of the cars in front of us.

For some reason, still unknown to me, the driver of our van decided that he did not want to wait in this line of cars and pulled the van into the oncoming traffic lane and proceeded to speed up as he raced towards the checkpoint. As you might imagine, this go the attention of the soldiers who immediately began yelling for him to stop and raised their weapons, including the massive machine gun on the back of the jeep.

After racing towards the checkpoint for 200 yards or so the driver begin to slow down and pulled slowly to the front of the line to speak to several, very irate soldiers. We were sitting in the back of the van listening to the exchange and I noticed that we were still in the sights of the .50 cal. When the soldiers asked for everyone’s passports things got even more complicated.  Here I was, in a van, on a road outside of Bethlehem, my passport has been taken and there are machine guns aimed at me. In addition, I was actually on the ground working with groups looking for peaceful, non-violent  solutions to the conflict between Israel and Palestine but we were not supposed to be there.

Finally, after several long minutes, one of the soldiers climbed into the front passenger seat of the van and asked us who we were, where we were going and what we were going to do. We said that we were visiting holy sites, which I guess is technically true if you believe that, anywhere people are struggling for justice, freedom and peace is holy.

After 20 minues of questions, and waiting for the entire line of cars we had passed to get throught the checkpoint, our passports were returned and we continued on our way. In my journal for that day 6/3/2005 I wrote myself a note: (getting in trouble in the taxi).

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40 Stories- Whiteness

I was in 3rd grade the first time I came face to face with being white. It was on the playground of Fairview Elementary School on the west side of Birmingham, Alabama.  Through some set of circumstances I found myself on my back with a classmate on my chest holding some black piece of plastic to my throat. He brought his face down just inches from mine and looked me right in the eyes and said “I ain’t nobody’s n*gger no more”.  He was one of the few black children in our school and I honestly do not remember anything that led up to that moment. It is entirely possible, and likely that I had called him that disgusting name just prior to being knocked down.  It was quite common in my household and in our family to use and hear the word “n*gger”. It was quite common in most places in the 70’s in Birmingham.

Although the TV crews had left Alabama, and battle for civil rights was seemingly won, life on the ground for the average person changed very little in that first decade.  Racial tension simmered under the surface as old pain and frustration was never dealt with, and the adaptive process of races living together began.  Much of that adaptation in Birmingham consisted of whites moving farther and farther away from predominately black neighborhoods.  My family followed the Southern migration over or through Red Mountain to the white suburbs of Hoover, Vestavia Hills, Homewood and Mountain Brook.  The neighborhoods of West Birmingham, where my family had lived for generations, Ensley, Fairview, Fairfield, Wylam and many others were left to rot and die.

Years later I was living in Athens, Alabama, working at my first church as a priest.  Limestone County and much of North Alabama are even whiter than the southern suburbs of Birmingham and sometimes the Ku Klux Klan decides they need to come to town to protest. This time they were coming to Athens to protest “illegal Mexican immigrants”.  Much of Alabama’s agricultural industry relies on immigrant labor that is paid less than poverty wages. Many of these laborers are undocumented.  St. Timothy’s had become a sanctuary of sorts for several families in Athens. We provided a low cost preschool that welcomed children from all races and nationalities. We had actually adopted the preschool from another church in town that had kicked it out, over Christmas break, for having “too many Mexican children”.

The Klan was founded just north of Athens in Pulaski, Tennessee so it would not be a long drive for them to come to Athens and spew their hate.  Downtown Athens is also picturesque.  A big limestone clad courthouse sits at the center of a quaint town square, the perfect backdrop for photo ops with white hoods.

I decided that we could not let the Klan come to town without a counter protest of some kind. We organized a silent protest that would, quite literally, surround their hate with love. We called the newspapers and promoted our rally and invited people from all over North Alabama to participate. A few days into the news coverage I was sitting in my office at the church and I got a phone call. On the other end of the line was an elderly black man who proceeded to tell me how he had seen our rally in the news and had grown up in Athens. He remembered as a child seeing the Klan ride through on horses in their white robes and hoods and burn crosses in the middle of town. He told me he had lived in fear his whole life. He also said he never thought he would see the day when people would come out against the Klan in Athens and said that if I was willing to stand up to the Klan, he would stand with me. Silent Protest Love2

So on September 15th, 2007 we walked together through the streets of Athens. With hundreds of others we carried signs that read “LOVE” and walked to City Hall where the Klan was gathering. When we got there we surrounded the 7 or 8 members of the Klan and other counter protestors with a circle. We said nothing but let our actions speak.

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