The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Filling in the gaps

Pentecost 18; Proper 21C
Luke 16:19-31

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Too often in life, it seems that it’s the simplest lessons that can be the hardest to digest.

The parable that we read this morning looks to be, on the surface, one of those “simple lessons”:

The rich man lives a life of luxury - wearing the latest fashions, feasting each day on the finest foods. Meanwhile, at the gate of luxury, there lives a man of despair. So poor, so hungry, so diseased. And though their experiences in their lives are as divergent as anyone could imagine, those experiences converge in the way that all lives do - through death.

As we have come to expect in the literature of the parables, on the other side of this life, the two men’s roles are reversed. The rich man, who stored up his treasures on earth, finds that they have passed away. The poor man, who suffered greatly on earth, finds that his reward had awaited him all along in heaven.

Last week we considered the parable of the dishonest manager. The manager, remember, who was actually commended for being dishonest. It was a tough one. So far from what we expect from Jesus, that, like those who first heard the parable, we were forced to tease out the lesson from amidst the scandal.

This week we’re back to normal. The words of the Magnificat - Mary’s Song of Praise upon reflecting on the Christ in her womb - are borne out in the teaching of this parable. The song says, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” Those words are something like a prologue to the Gospel According to Luke. Throughout the book we are taught again and again to care for the poor and to spurn our dependence on the physical comforts of this world.

So this should be one of the simpler lessons.

We could easily spend our time together today reminding ourselves to care for the poor. We could spend our time imagining the ways that we are like the rich man and considering how we might learn from Moses and the prophets in this life and avoid the fate that he faced.

We might even consider the ways that we are like poor Lazarus - oft-suffering and struggling - but in anticipation of the riches that heaven has in store for us.

Depending upon our situations, those would be perfectly fine things to consider and meditate about on this, the Lord’s Day: if you are suffering, keep calm and carry on. If you are comfortable, offer aid to those less fortunate.

It’s a fine lesson, and if you don’t take anything else away with you today other than that, you will have done well.

But there’s something more lurking under the surface of this story. Each time I read it, I’m struck by one word: chasm.

As Lazarus and the rich man are each reaping the rewards of their lives on earth, the rich man calls out to Abraham begging him to send Lazarus to offer relief to his suffering. In his response, Abraham says, “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can come from there to us.”

Though the parable has the circumstances of each of the men shifting after their lives on earth had ended, their relationship remains, in many ways, the same. In their lives, the men had suffered a divide in their ability to be in relationship with one another. After their lives, this spiritual divide seems to have become physically manifested in the chasm.

Many theologians have interpreted the sin of the rich man as one of “not noticing” the needs of the poor, but I fear it was something greater than that. In reality, the rich man in the parable gives himself away - he calls Lazarus by name. So clearly he had noticed Lazarus in his need.

How many times had he blithely walked by Lazarus while leaving or returning to the comforts of his home? How many times had he heard the cry of Lazarus, begging to sustain himself with the rich man’s wasted riches?

That great chasm was not hewn by God to keep the blessed and the condemned from one another. We chisel it away. Each time we turn a blind eye to the needs of our neighbor and walk away, our footsteps cut into the source, which upholds us. Each time we allow our own wants and desires to distract us from entering into true and holy relationships, we widen the gap.

The rich man knew Lazarus. He was his neighbor.

Who are your neighbors? More importantly, what chasms are you digging out?

It doesn’t have to be about “rich” and “poor”. Most of us don’t live in the kind of opulence that we read about from the rich man in this story. But all of us do have neighbors in need. Is there someone in your world who is lonely? Do you pass the same “faceless” neighbors each day and never reach out to be in relationship with them? We can widen the chasms between us by choosing to ignore those things that make us uncomfortable or that seem to be a hassle; or, we can fill in the gaps. We can choose to be in relationship and not just in proximity.

There’s a degree to which it’s almost harder here in the city. Sociologists have studied the phenomenon of “urban anonymity”. The theory is that despite the dense populations of cities, people are prone to be lonelier. We live and move and have our being within feet or sometimes-even inches of our neighbors, but we don’t see them, and they don’t see us. Life has placed us together, but we tear ourselves apart. We fix great chasms between us and them.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can fill in the gaps: with a warm smile or perhaps a “hello”. How would it feel to walk up to a shopkeeper that you’ve passed for years and take the time to make a formal introduction? What would it be like to get to know a bit of their story and to share a bit of your own? We don’t all have to be best friends, but we can choose not to look away. St. Francis said that we should preach the gospel at all times, and then, when necessary, use words. This is one of the simple ways that we can preach the gospel with our lives: to reach out and build relationships where there had been none or where they had been strained by our ignoring.

It’s a simple lesson. It takes commitment and practice. But how might it change the world?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Unexpected heroes

Pentecost 17; Proper 20C
Luke 16:1-13

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’ve been spending a lot of my free time lately watching The Sopranos on DVD.

It’s that kind of strange time that comes a couple of times each year between the seasons: the summer television shows have stopped for the year, but the shows that start in the fall have yet to begin. I usually fill this inter-seasonal time by watching more news or catching up on some pleasure reading. But sometimes I’ll watch a series on DVD that I haven’t seen or that I haven’t seen in a long time.

This time it’s The Sopranos. Some of my friends find this very hard to believe, but despite having lived in New Jersey for more than six years, I had never seen an episode of The Sopranos until just a couple of weeks ago. I had heard that it was an engaging series. I just never joined in.

Truth be told, I’m kind of kicking myself that it’s taken this long. It only took an episode or two, and I was totally hooked. The characters are just so complex.

The main character is Tony Soprano: a mob boss living in the New Jersey suburbs. He begins having panic attacks that have fairly intense physical manifestations, so he sees a psychiatrist in an attempt to find relief. As much as the series follows his life and his crimes and other exploits, it follows his experience of self-examination and eventual, though slow and stumbling growth.

A curious thing begins to happen as the series progresses: though we’re given plenty of reasons to be angry with Tony, we find ourselves rooting for him. He’s very much a villain in almost any other context, but in his story, he becomes something of the hero. Not in the chivalrous, good guy, helping old ladies cross the street or giving to the poor kind of way; but a hero nonetheless. Doing the best he can in his own context, no matter how undesirable or socially unacceptable that context may be. He stumbles often. In many cases he not only doesn’t attempt to change his negative behavior, he actually embraces it. But in his life, such as it is, he does what he can to learn and to grow. Even if that’s not much.

As I was preparing myself for preaching today, every commentary that I read – without fail – made some remark about the difficulty of preaching this parable.

That’s because there’s a degree to which this parable isn’t what we want – and certainly not we tend to expect – from Jesus. We expect stories of people who make bad decisions but eventually redeem themselves and restore themselves to righteousness: like we’d find in the parable of the Prodigal Son. We expect examples of paradox – people that our cultures tell us are bad, but who surprise us with good behavior: like we’d find in the parable of the Good Samaritan. We expect parables that tell us of the virtuous nature of God like we heard last week in the two short parables of the lost possessions that were sought until they were found.

What we don’t expect is the kind of thing that we heard today: a dishonest manager was about to be fired so he engaged in further dishonesty, and was as such, commended.

It just doesn’t add up. Which is probably why this parable isn’t one of the “greatest hits” that we all tend to turn to in times of crisis or insecurity. It requires a little more unwrapping than most of the others that form the bedrocks of our faith and morality.

We expect to hear about either a conversion from his dishonest ways, or a story of his getting his “just desserts”. Instead, we hear the story of a master finding the good in his servant – however grimly shrouded that good may be – and celebrating it.

Eugene Peterson – who translated and wrote a paraphrase of the Bible in contemporary language – interprets Jesus’ words and the lesson of this parable like this:

“The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way – but for what is right – using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.”

“Not just get by on good behavior.”

Like learning to root for a villain like Tony Soprano, even the villain in this story has something to teach us about being better Christians if only we could get past our own judgment to see the wisdom that is awaiting us.

Too often we, in the church, try to just “get by on good behavior”. Too often, still, we shave even that down and try to get by on just enough good behavior.

But Christ is calling us to more. Living the Christian life is not about getting by. It’s not even really about good behavior. There’s a bigger picture to see if we’ll open our eyes to it: we are called to “creative survival” – to “live, really live”, and not just to “get by”.

This is one of the keys to understanding the last line in today’s Gospel: “You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Serving wealth might be about survival; but serving God is about creative survival. Serving wealth might seem necessary for living – making a living, we call it; but serving God is about really living.

As a parish we’ve said to ourselves that we need to increase Sunday attendance and pledging. I believe both of these things are true, but why? Why do we need to increase Sunday attendance? Why do we need to increase the level of giving to the church?

Is it so we can survive – so we can keep the doors of the church open? Is it so WE can feel good about coming to church?

These are shortsighted answers. They are about getting by, but we are called to the bigger picture.

The real question is not so much about how we can find ways to keep doing what we’re doing here, but about how we can discern who God is calling us to be.

It wasn’t a neat and tidy parable this morning.

It’s one of the ones that requires some real work to cut into its core. And even then, it’s not really sweet and simple.

And the sermon today isn’t really neat and tidy, either. I don’t have the answers to the big questions that will lead us to the big picture: What will it mean for us to do more than just complacently get by on good behavior? Who is God calling us to be? How can we avoid looking for ways to survive and focus, instead, on looking for ways to really live? Who is God calling us to be?

Perhaps we’ll find the answers we expect where and when we expect them. But more likely we’ll learn from people and experiences that we couldn’t have imagined possible. Amen.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Lost and Found

Pentecost 16; Proper 19C
Luke 15:1-10

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I lost my keys this week.

It’s funny how the lectionary texts seem to come around at just the right time.

I don’t typically misplace things. In fact, I’m the one many of my friends turn to when they’ve misplaced things. I’m both good at remembering where I saw them last and good at imagining where they might have been forgotten.

But lately I’ve been losing things or forgetting where they’re placed. Part of it is probably because I’ve just moved and haven’t quite found my way around yet. Part of it is because I’m used to living in much humbler accommodations. I’m attributing the lost keys to living on the grounds with the church, and simply not needing them every day.

I first noticed my lost keys on Friday afternoon. I had popped into the office to check on something for today, when a sudden, inexplicable shift in the pressure happened in the Rectory. Out of nowhere, the door between my office and the house slammed shut.

Instantly I felt in my pocket. Nothing. I stepped over to the door to see if I had left it unlocked, which, of course, I hadn’t.

Fortunately, Vanessa came to my rescue and let me back into the house, but the deeper problem remained. I had to find those keys.

For most of the next day I searched through the house, high and low. I checked the pants that I’d worn the day before. I checked on every flat surface in the house. I checked in the couch cushions. I checked under the bed. I checked places I’d check five times before.

I couldn’t sleep Friday night for thinking about where these keys had gone. When I tried to relax in front of the TV, I couldn’t get through a show because I’d go check somewhere else or somewhere again.

By Saturday afternoon, panic had started to set in. I was having terrifying visions of expensive locksmith bills for the church and my car; visions of wasted time and being unable to leave the house or drive.

But, then, when my search widened to places that they couldn’t possibly be, that’s exactly where I found them. They were in the office: sitting about ten inches from the place where I had waited the day before for Vanessa to come and rescue me. […I’m sorry, Vanessa…]

Of course this is something of a silly story of loss, but we all know what its like to lose things. To lose people. To lose relationships through the agonies of death or estrangement. We understand the fear and the confusion. We understand the sadness.

In the Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus tells two short parables that use somewhat “silly” stories of loss to convey a larger point.

We are told, “all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.” Some of the most undesirable people of society came to sit at the feet of the teacher. And the teacher was foolish enough to welcome them. The leaders of the community were “grumbling” – not so much because Jesus would dare to teach, but because Jesus would dare to welcome.

When we hear parables or other episodes from the Bible, we often imagine where we would fit into the story. Are we the shepherd or the woman: desperately searching for the one that was lost? Are we the sheep or the coin: isolated and alone, immobilized and unable to reach out to the one who seeks us?

Even beyond the parable – are we Christ: spreading the good news of the radical love of God even to those who seem most unworthy? Are we the “tax collectors and sinners”: most unworthy ourselves?

Are we the Pharisees and the scribes sitting in judgment of the love of God?

I think the default position for most people is to identify as the seeker. Like the shepherd and the widow, we’ve been there. Whether it’s for something silly like keys or something or someone more significant, we have all sought. We can identify with that role.

But similarly, not only have we all sought, we all are sought.

There’s a degree to which we are the tax collectors and sinners. We are the bottom rungs of society for whom the “welcome” of Christ seems least likely. But we receive it nonetheless.

But there’s also a degree to which we are the Pharisees and the scribes. We expect the welcome of Christ for ourselves and feel threatened when it’s shared with those on the outside. And we receive it all the same.

It’s like the parable of the keys that I lived earlier this week: when I widened my search to include those places where “they couldn’t possibly be,” I found them. So, too, when we widen our searching for the love of God to those places that logic tells us that it couldn’t possibly be, that’s precisely where we will always find it: among the misdeeds of the tax collectors and the sinners; among the arrogance of the Pharisees and the scribes; even among the misdeeds and arrogance in ourselves.

Though we are lost, we are sought. Amen.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

I'm back!

** Note:  I haven't posted for a REALLY long time.  My last post was my last sermon at St. Paul's, Chatham and this one is my first sermon at St. Paul's, Jersey City.  I told myself that I'd use this time between positions to write about some of the things that have been on my mind and in my worldview that I never seem to be able to get around to when I'm working.  But alas, with moving, and settling into the new place, and taking some time to visit family, and training my new dog (I got a dog, BTW!!), the month has passed and the idea box has been left untouched!

So hopefully there will be some other non-sermon posts again pretty soon...  But until then, thanks for sticking with me through the radio silence.  I'll be preaching every week now, so you can count on more frequent posts, even if it's only sermons!  But hopefully there will be a few other reflections here and there as well!

As for this sermon - it's a first sermon in a new parish, and it was a bit of a doozy of a text, so it may not fit my usual "style" (whatever that is...) but not to worry - we'll be back to our regularly scheduled programming shortly!**

Pentecost 15; Proper 18C
Luke 14:25-33

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

The text this morning is something of a difficult one for a priest preaching his first sermon in a new cure.

For several weeks I’ve been thinking about what I might say to you on this, our first Sunday together. I haven’t met most of you yet, so I had imagined that I might make this a kind of light, introductory speech. I thought I might begin with a little biographical sketch, tell you a little about who I am and what I stand for and how I got here. I thought I might tell a few funny stories from my Louisiana upbringing, and then bring it all to close with a very brief reflection on the text for today.

It’s often been said that the fastest way to make God laugh is to make a plan; and, if the Gospel lesson for today isn’t God laughing in the face of my plans, I don’t know what is.

The lesson for this morning is anything but light. It doesn’t exactly lend itself to a simple, get-to-know-you kind of homily. Did you hear? Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me and does not HATE father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and EVEN LIFE ITSELF, cannot be my disciple.”

Wow. Well… Nice to meet you.

If you know anything at all about me from what you’ve heard or what I’ve written, you certainly know that by this standard, I am no disciple. And today I’m supposed to be introducing myself to you and helping to show you how we can all be better disciples. One of the most important things about who I am is the deep relationships that I have with my family. I wouldn’t begin to know how to hate my father and mother. In fact, I love them quite a lot. My brother is one of my best friends. And I have to admit, despite it challenges and temptations, I’m pretty much a fan of “life itself”. So in this description of a disciple, I clearly fail.

So perhaps this is as good a place as any for us to start. We’ll begin our time together with me being thoroughly honest with you: I am a failure. I have so very far to go before I can really count myself among Jesus’ disciples. I have a lot to learn and I have spiritual growing left to do. And if truth were told, I’d have to admit that I probably always will. I believe – and even hope – that in the final moments of my life, a long time from now, I’ll be resting on my death bed, but still learning and growing.

But perhaps that’s not clear enough for all of us. I’d imagine there are some of you for whom it is easier to several familial relationships. Perhaps it’s conceivable for some of us even to hate our families. But that’s not really the point. So the lesson doesn’t end there. The Gospel goes on to give us two illustrations about the real lesson Jesus is teaching.

First there’s the builder. Before beginning a project, the builder thinks it through. Can he see it though to the finish? Does he have what it takes? Can he give the project all that it requires?

Then there’s the warrior. Before he enters a battle, he thinks it through. Does he have the support he needs for it to end successfully? If not, what are the ways that he can re-imagine his preconceptions of success?

Though it’s never said outright, the message Jesus is sending is something like this: I want you to follow me. I want us to be friends. I want us to LOVE one another. But it won’t be an easy road. And you should know that going in. Just as builders and warriors and everyone in the world must go about their work knowing full-well what it will mean for them in the end, so, too, should you. Spirit-work is costly. I want you to do it with me, but I also want you to know that it’s not easy. It’s not supposed to be easy, and it’s not going to be.

So while a lighter, get-to-know-you message might have been easier or possibly even more desirable for today, this is, perhaps, the most honest first message I could have shared with you:

I am SO excited for us to begin our work together. It’s been a long time coming for both of us. We have all been doing a lot of work for years – long before any of us knew each other – we’ve been preparing ourselves this moment. Even the more immediate and direct preparations seem to have been going on for a long time. It was back in January that I first met with Canon Jacobs at our Diocesan office to discuss the possibility of coming here and serving among you. When I met with the Vestry to begin to explore the possibility of my serving here, we had to turn the heat on in the Rectory, because it was still so cold out. And now summer is waning and our time together is only just beginning.

We’ve all had a very long road to get here.

It might be tempting to sit back now and say that the work is done or that we can rest. But we can’t. The work is just beginning. It’s not time to rest yet. Not for either of us. We all have more that’s being asked of us.

And not just because we’re starting out on this journey together, but because we’re Christians. To follow Christ is a lot of work. It’s risky work. It’s exhausting work. It’s costly in ways that we can’t even imagine. But it is our calling. And when we do it, we will find that it is our joy.

We are called to give ourselves to Christ. In return, we find ourselves in Christ.

It’s been said that the most valuable gift any person can give – next to their love – is their labor. In both our lives as Christians as well as our lives as members of this community, we are asked to give both – BOTH of our most valuable gifts – both our love and our labor.

I know it’s a lot to ask. But let me begin out time together by going on record in asking it of you. And just as importantly, let me go on record in reminding you to ask it of me. We are called to give both our love and our labor to Christ and to this, the community of Christ. To claim any less – for our work to have begun on any kind of a lighter note – would have simply been a lie.

There will be time for us to tell our stories – to be light and to have fun and to laugh and to play; to get to know one another and to cry together and to support one another – in many ways that’s the work that we’re called to do. But it’s not easy. It’s not easy to give yourself up that completely. It’s not meant to be easy. But it is rewarding beyond our imagining. And it is what we’ve been called here to do.

It will take time for us to grow into the community that God imagines for us, but we will do it. It will take a lot of work, but we will most certainly do it, and we’ll do it together.

So thank you. Thank you for joining me on this journey. Thank you for calling me to lead you. Thank you for taking this risk with me. Now let’s get to work. Amen.