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

Friday, September 27, 2013

FCS: Once We Lived Here

Quick facts:
  • Show: Once We Lived Here
  • Off-Off Broadway
  • Date: Thursday, September 26, 2013
  • Time: 8:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: September 29, 2013
  • Venue: Urban Stages
  • Running time: ~2:30 (one 10 minute intermission)
  • My seat: Excellent.  It's a small venue (seats 76, I believe I read) with terraced seating, so it would be hard to go wrong, but it was general admission, and I sat half-way up on the center aisle.  It couldn't have been better.
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: none
Synopsis: The U.S. premiere (produced by Australian Made Entertainment) of Once We Lived Here explores the dynamics of a family reeling with loss: both of their father/husband, and the sheep farm that their family is losing to a severe drought after generations of living and working there.

My thoughts: After my last couple of outings having been sort of disappointing, I was starting to question myself.  I was starting to wonder if perhaps I was becoming a jaded theater goer.  Have I seen so much theater, and is the bar now so high, that now nothing can rise to meet it?  Can I only see negatives?  Will I only ever be annoyed?

Thankfully, Once We Lived Here, by Australian writing team Matthew Frank and Dean Bryant, has brought me back.

From the start, the show had me hooked.  The overture set the tone for a show that would be emotional, rich, and thoughtfully constructed, and it never disappointed.

I'd like to focus for a moment, however, on that word: thoughtful.  I often praise shows for being clever.  In some ways, that's among the highest praise I usually offer.  But this went a step beyond.  It was clever, to be sure, but it was more than that.  It was more than smart, even.

I've often said of preaching that crafting a sermon is more like writing a poem than it is like writing an essay.  Each word must be calculated - each pause, each breath.  It's not enough to write to convey a message, the preacher must endeavor to write to speak to his or her audience.  In my stronger sermons, that's what I'm reaching toward.

The same is true of the theater.  It's not enough to write a good song.  It's not even enough to tell a good story.  The book writer and the lyricist and the composer have to strive for something more.  They have to strive to really communicate - not just with words, but with emotions.

It's not enough to just do everything right.  Everything right must be constructed - painstakingly - to bring together a piece of art.  Each brush stroke must be delicately applied and necessary - never too much, always enough.

Once We Lived Here achieved this as masterfully as any show I've ever seen.  Thinking back, I can only think of one other show I've ever seen that reached this height: the 2012 Public Theatre production of February House.

The thing about shows like this, however, is that they're not just difficult to write.  They can be very difficult to perform and to produce.  You need a team of artists who will give it the attention and the quality that it deserves.

That's where this went from being a good show, to being a mind blowing night of theater.

Being Off-Off Broadway (a designation related to the seating capacity of the theater more than anything else), it could have been hit or miss.  I'm usually willing to take a chance on Off-Off Broadway shows, because, first of all, they usually don't require much of an investment.  Even full price tickets tend to be quite inexpensive.  Beyond that, it gives me an opportunity to see newer works (sometimes still in development), riskier works, and up-and-coming performers and creative designers.

The downside of that can be that you catch something (or someone) that misses the mark.  But every now and then you'll catch a moment of magic, like I did tonight.

The show opens with the number "All Roads Lead to Home".  There's a tint of sentimentality in that, but it's quickly revealed that the real purpose of the song isn't so much to elicit sentimentality as it is to remind us of the primary focus of the show: the baggage that we all carry related to our families of origin.

Years after the husband and father of the family had died and the family's parts had begun to splinter, they all come home for what would be one last visit.

Claire, the mother, is now dying, and soon the family home would have to be sold.  Shaun, the only son, is the heir of his father's depression.  Amy, one of two daughters - the one who stayed home - is desperately trying to become the best of her father, following in his footsteps.  Lecy, the one that got away, is just as desperately searching for her father's love through Burke, the one-time farm hand who becomes her best icon of her late-father.

The story and the music are intricate and complex, and nothing could have been achieved without an outstanding team to deliver it.  The cast was truly an ensemble, and everyone played their equally-significant parts beautifully, but even so, two actors in particular captured me.

The first was Adam Rennie in the role of Shaun.  His voice is simply thrilling.  I remember when I was in voice lessons and my teachers tried to give me an image for singing with strength - they taught me to imagine the sound coming from deep inside me and rising up through my front teeth and pounding into a brick wall across the room.  That seemed to happen with Adam every time he opened his mouth.  It was magic.  I can't wait to hear him again.  And again.

The other shining star of the night was Kathleen Foster in the role of Amy.  She brilliantly drew me into her character and emotions.  I've rarely been touched by any actors on a stage more than these two touched me tonight.

Even the best actors and the best shows need a team of creative people behind them helping to make it all happen.  Notable among the creative team were Scenic designer, Katherine Deneve and Lighting designer Anthony D. Freitas.

The set began to pull me in even before the show began.  I like to get to theaters early to absorb the space and to get comfortable with my surroundings before the show begins.  It occurred to me tonight, in this little theater, that getting into the theater the moment the house opens and waiting for the show is my favorite kind of meditation.  Tonight I had an interesting and engaging set to guide that process.

Deneve's set was simple and articulate.  From the loose pebbles edging the buildings to the perfectly distressed wood and aged hardware - it all communicated.  It didn't shout.  It didn't try too hard.  It was simply artful and compelling.

Similarly, the lighting design for this show could have been boring or unhelpful.  It could easily have been simply a matter of turning them on and off between scenes.  It's not the kind of show that lends itself to wild, rock concert kinds of displays.  But Freitas took things a step further.  The lights were elegant and unobtrusive, but gently guided us from place to place and time to time - from the present to the memory.  It pulled us in the audience along, giving us subtle cues as to where and when we were or needed to be.

Despite the difficult subjects explored in this show, it rises out of its darkest moments in the end.  The finale brings us back to the opening song, "All Roads Lead to Home".  It's still never "sentimental", but it has a hope that was somehow missing at the start of the show.  It's not exactly "happy" as an ending, but it's hopeful.  It's content.  And it points to something more.

Once We Lived Here is the kind of show that makes me optimistic about the state of musical theater.  It exemplifies what a show can do.  It reaches in your gut, squeezes you and twists you and pushes all of your shit aside.  Just when you wonder if you can take it anymore, it puts everything back, better than it was before.

It does more than entertain.  It informs a broader worldview.  It heals and caresses those once-hurting parts that we all have.  It speaks to the soul.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  Absolutely.  No question.  I've already bought the original cast recording.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  Anyone who appreciates real art.  Anyone who expects a little more.
  • Twitter review:  One of the most thrilling shows I've seen in a LONG time.  Beautifully written, beautifully produced.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

We all are sought

Pentecost 17, Proper 19C

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

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 good at remembering where I saw them last and also at imagining where they might have been forgotten.

So in the few times when I have misplaced something, it’s stood out.

I remember one time when I lost my keys.

I first noticed that they were lost on a Friday afternoon.  I had popped into my office to check on something for the following Sunday, when a sudden, inexplicable shift in the wind happened and the door to my house slammed shut.

Dread swept over me.

Instantly I felt in my pocket.  I always keep my keys in my left pocket.  But this time I felt, and there was nothing.  I stepped over to the door to see if maybe I had left it unlocked, which, of course, I hadn’t.

Fortunately, the parish sexton came to my rescue and was able to 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 those 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 again somewhere I’d already checked.

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

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

Of course this is something of a silly story of loss, but we all know what its like to lose things.  To lose people, even.

To lose relationships through death or estrangement.  To lose jobs.  To lose security.  Sometimes even to lose hopes or dreams or expectations.

We understand the fear and the confusion.  We understand the sadness.

When we’re lucky enough to find them again, we understand the joy and relief.

In the Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus tells two short parables that use somewhat “silly” stories of loss - not unlike my lost keys - to illustrate 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 stories 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?

But 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 people practicing 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 might seem least likely.  But we receive it nonetheless.

We understand the joy and the relief when we’ve found what we’ve been looking for.  Just imagine the joy and the relief that comes when we - the least likely and the lost - have been found.

But sometimes, there’s also a degree to which we can be the Pharisees and the scribes.  Perhaps we expect the welcome of Christ for ourselves and then feel threatened when it’s shared with those on the outside.  But we receive it all the same.  We are found even when we didn’t know we were lost.  With all the same joy and all the same relief.

It’s like the parable of the lost keys that I lived through once before: 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 and experience 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 that exists within ourselves.

We are all, at one time or another, lost.

And even though we are lost, we are sought.  Amen.

(this sermon draws from a previous version which appears here.)

Friday, September 13, 2013

FCS: First Date

Quick facts:
  • Show: First Date
  • Broadway
  • Date: Thursday, September 12, 2013
  • Time: 8:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: open-ended
  • Venue: Longacre Theatre
  • Running time: 1:30 (NO intermission)
  • My seat: Very good.  Second row of the mezzanine on aisle near the center, stage right.
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: none
Synopsis: A musical comedy about a blind date.

My thoughts: Whenever my family gets together, there's usually a fair bit of beer consumed, and then it's not long before the guitars, banjos, and mandolins come out and we all start singing.  We'll be sitting on a porch somewhere in the cool night air singing whatever comes to mind - hymns, southern gospel, old time "country gold", Janis Joplin, early 20th-century folk music...  You never know what you'll hear.  Maybe someone will call out a request, or maybe just start singing and others will join in.

Uncle Donny is our de facto "musical director" for these occasions, mostly because he's just the most accomplished, versatile, and regularly available instrumentalist we have.

Every now and then, when someone makes a request, Uncle Donny will take a stab at it for a few measures before declaring, "That song ain't got no tune!"

We all laugh and move on to whatever is next...

First Date is a musical composed of songs that "ain't got no tune".  It was actually painful to sit there for an hour and a half.  The one redeeming aspect of this stupid little show is that it didn't endeavor to be a full-length, two and a half hour nightmare.

There were funny moments, but mostly it relied on gratuitous foul language, cheap sexual expletives, and exploiting stereotypes to lazily get laughs from an audience with low expectations.

Let me be clear: I have NO problem whatsoever with so-called "bad words" or sexual expression.  What I do have a problem with is laziness and bad writing.

This is the kind of show that if I'd seen it as an original work produced by a college theater department, or maybe as a part of some fringe festival, I might think it was cute and a good effort.  But for a Broadway production it was offensive.  Again - not offensive because of the crude attempts at humor, but offensive because the audience deserves more.

One of the brightest spots (an admittedly low bar, but a bright spot, nonetheless) was the performance by Zachary Levi in his Broadway debut.  Levi has performed extensively in film and television, but this was his first at-bat on the Broadway stage.  Somehow he rose above the substandard book and score and still managed to charm.  It would be great to see what he might do with a show that was worth our time!

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for his co-star and Broadway veteran of Smash (television) fame, Krysta Rodriguez.  Her acting was ably performed, but she seemed vocally strained through much of the performance.

Despite the structural weaknesses of the show they were there to support, the creative arts team gave the production something significant.  Most notable was the work of David Gallo as Scenic and Media designer.  The set was fairly simple, engaging, and skillfully contributed to the story-telling (even if the story itself shouldn't have been told...).  His shining achievement was in his projection designs.  They demonstrated a cleverness and subtlety that rose above anything else offered by any other aspect of the production.  I was particularly impressed by the cute decision at one point to use the actual speakers on the edge of the proscenium as a projection surface.  It was the only redeeming characteristic of that particular song!

All in all, First Date was just as disappointing and awkward and interminable as most actual first dates.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  Not a chance.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  No way.
  • Twitter review:  I generally like to support new work on Broadway.  This time I shouldn't have.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

FCS: Soul Doctor

Quick facts:
  • Show: Soul Doctor
  • Broadway
  • Date: Thursday, September 5, 2013
  • Time: 7:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: open-ended
  • Venue: Circle in the Square Theatre
  • Running time: 2:30 (one intermission)
  • My seat: Excellent.  The box office mistakenly gave my tickets away to someone else, so my tickets were upgraded.  They handled the simple mistake with a lot of grace.  We were near the center, in the second row of terraced seating.  An excellent view for this intimate venue.
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: none
Synopsis: The story of a rabbi in the 1960s reconciling his traditional beliefs with the changing times.

My thoughts: Nothing about Soul Doctor was great, but a lot was good.  Granted, I may have been coming into it from a better than average perspective.  For one - I had great company - a friend who I don't get to see nearly often enough!  Also, it had been three and a half months since I'd been inside a Broadway theater!!  I was jonesing...  In such conditions, it probably would not have taken much to satisfy me!

My initial reaction is that it's kind of like a cross between a Jewish version of Hair and Leader of the Pack - the short-lived 1985 musical with a weak book telling the story of Ellie Greenwich - a writer of many popular songs in the 1960s.  Really, the second musical in that juxtaposition could have been any "Behind the Music"-esque jukebox musical, but I chose Leader of the Pack because of its self-indulgence and obscurity.  Soul Doctor struck me as both.  Though it's clearly not self-indulgent for the now deceased Schlomo Carlebach - something tells me it is for someone.

The book by Daniel S. Wise (also co-creator and director) was weak.  It felt as if its primary purpose was not to tell a good story, but to educate the audience about a story that the writer thought the audience ought to know.  The truth is, it is a good story - and it probably is one that people would benefit from hearing.  But the moment a show moves from story-telling to preachy-educating, I'm lost.  Annoyed and lost.

There are many elements that could have been captivating - how Carlebach's sense of mission led him into strained relationships with his family, his need to compromise how he had previously understood the practice of his faith in order to reach out to a new generation, the borderline sexual tension between he and Nina Simone, and more.  Any of those could have pointed to a larger theme.  Instead they were presented as bullet points in a live-action lecture.  It never gave me any connection to an emotional inlet.

The one truly emotional reaction I had was to Amber Iman in the role of Nina Simone.  Iman was simply captivating.  Though her role was far too cursory for my desires, her skills as an actor and a singer had her holding the audience in the palm of her hands with the velvety-firm grip of a Cicely Tyson.  Time and again I found myself wishing Soul Doctor was staring Ms. Iman in a show about Nina Simone, with the role of Schlomo Carlebach as the interesting aside that pointed to the larger theme.

From the perspective of this 30-something priest trying to set the world on fire, I was sympathetic to the experience of Carlebach and his story of facing opposition while trying to do a new thing to take the mission to which he had been called into new territories and to reach new people.  That's exactly the kind of thing that I try to do in my own vocation, and I get what it's like to face opposition in that.  It can be soul-defeating and painful.  As such, I was glad to have encountered the story, even though it failed to meet the standards I expect from a Broadway production.

The creative aspects of the production were well-designed.  The set design by Neil Patel was simple, and well-utilized by Wise's staging.  The lighting design by the ever-effective Jeff Croiter (such successes as Newsies and Peter and the Starcatcher) was subtle and evocative.

On the whole, the production was not a total failure.  There were funny moments.  The music was pretty good.  But something was left missing.

I wouldn't expect this show to run very long, but I do expect it to go on to a long life being revived as high school musicals in Jewish private schools and community centers all across the country for a long time to come.  Sadly, however, it will never have the impact of bringing the story of Schlomo Carlebach to the masses.  I just can't imagine that that's in the cards.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  No thanks.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  It's an okay show, but I won't go out of my way to recommend it to anyone.
  • Twitter review: Not a flop, but a lot left to be desired.

Costs of Discipleship

Pentecost 16, Proper 18C

In the name of God.  Amen.

The gospel lesson we read today always seems to come around at the most inconvenient times.

Either in the last few Sundays of summer, or the first few Sundays of the new school year - when our minds aren’t quite “hunkered down” yet - we hear this challenging command from Jesus.

Today, we’re trying to kick off our new program year - just one week after the summer slow-down - welcoming people back from their vacations, commissioning one another for our ministries together, starting off together on the right foot.  This would be one of those times when it would be nice to hear one of the sweeter messages.  One of the easier, more uplifting ones.  Maybe, “Let the little children come unto me,” - something like that.

Instead, we get this: “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…”

Welcome back!

Instead of something easy or uplifting, we get “the cost of discipleship”.

It’s a shocking thing to hear - this business of hating your family and even your own life.  And I think it was meant to shock us.  Frankly, I don’t think Jesus was really calling us to hate anyone.  All of the evidence from everything else we hear from him says that that’s not what he was about.  But I do think he was trying to say something so surprising that it would jar us out of our complacency.  Jesus knew that following him would be a costly undertaking.  It should be costly.  It should be difficult.  He was leading a revolution - not just a shiny, happy, feel-good group of wanderers.

Most of us, in the church these days, don’t tend to spend a lot of time talking about “the cost of discipleship”.  It makes us a little uncomfortable.  We’re afraid that people don’t want to hear it.  So we make believe that being a Christian and being a member of a church should always be easy.  We make believe that being a Christian and being a member of a church should always be free.

But it’s just not true.  There are costs.  There is work involved.  It takes sacrifice to be a church.

Often the costs are literal - financial.  Just this week we had to replace the hot water heater in the church.  It seems that there aren’t many weeks that go by that we don’t have something like that happen - some expensive emergency that requires our action and spending some money to keep this place going.  Without the members of this church accepting the financial costs of discipleship in this community, it wouldn’t be long before this place crumbled around us.

But sometimes the costs are a little more hidden.  Being a disciple in this place takes time.  It takes energy.

Just ask anyone who stands up here in a few minutes to be commissioned for ministry.  There are times when the only reason we show up is because we’ve agreed to show up.

Sometimes we’re tired, or we’d rather be doing something else, or because of outside pressures and stresses our spirits seem weak or disengaged.

I’d bet you could ask anyone in this room who participates in the ministries of this parish - which is almost everyone in this room - and they’d tell you the same thing: sometimes it’s costly.

Sometimes we don’t want to read in church.  Or serve on the Altar Guild.  Or tend to the buildings and grounds.  Or go to Vestry meetings.  Or get up early to attend choir practice.  Or whatever else.

But we do it.

We do it because we’ve made a commitment to Christ and to this community.

We do it, because while it’s sometimes costly, it’s also sometimes rewarding.

That’s why we’re commissioning one another for ministry today: to remind each other of those others in this community who are doing the costly work of discipleship on our behalf; to thank them; to undergird them with our prayers for their work; and to be thanked and supported for all of the work that we all do.

The community that serves us and that we serve - this community that thanks us and that we thank - it is both the cost and the reward.

Last week I quoted Lillian Daniel, the author of When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough.  At another point in that same interview she says, “Any idiot can find God alone in the sunset. It takes a certain maturity to find God in the person sitting next to you who not only voted for the wrong political party but has a baby who is crying while you’re trying to listen to the sermon. Community is where the religious rubber meets the road. People challenge us, ask hard questions, disagree, need things from us, require our forgiveness. It’s where we get to practice all the things we preach.”

Community can be costly, but it’s also rewarding.  It’s where we get to practice all those things we think we believe.

But to act like there’s no cost is a lie.

We need to be reminded of Jesus’ difficult words about the cost of discipleship - perhaps even most of all on a day like today.

As we enter into a new year of ministry together, we’re wise to remember that there’s a cost.

We are here to support one another through those costs.  And celebrate with one another when it’s most rewarding.  That’s why we worship God in community.  It’s where the rubber meets the road.  It’s where the cost meets the reward.  Amen.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

True Religion

Pentecost 15, Proper 17C

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

It’s “true religion” Sunday.

Periodically throughout the church year, there are a few Sundays that sort of stand out because of the collects we say.  Particularly in this “ordinary” time through the summer and into the fall, when we don’t have the larger arch of the major seasons of the church to capture our attention, the collects seem to direct us to a particular theme.

Perhaps it’s because many of them are now so old, that even in their contemporary language settings, the phrasing can sometimes stand out to us.

Today it’s “true religion”.

“Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things… increase in us true religion…”

What exactly is “true religion”?

Well, you may or may not be aware, but if you were to ask most young people walking the streets these days, they’re just as likely (if not more likely) to tell you that True Religion is a brand of high fashion blue jeans.

It’s true.  For about two to three hundred dollars, you, too, can own a piece of True Religion - which would mean you’re at the height of fashion.  Though, of course, it would be pretty unlikely that I could ever be the priest of a church that meant that by “true religion”.  I’ve never been accused of being particularly fashion-conscious.

So, what do we mean when we ask God to “increase in us true religion”?

You’re likely to hear a very different explanation of it from me than you might from a rural, Southern Baptist preacher.

As such, it’s one of those terms that can make me a bit nervous.  Too often we define “true religion” as that particular brand of religion that makes us most comfortable - that feeds our own presuppositions - that reinforces our established opinions.

That may be a window into our true selves, but it’s not always “true religion”.

Earlier this week, I was reading an interview with LillianDaniel, the author of a book called When “Spiritual but Not Religious” Is Not Enough.  Without using those particular words, Daniel talks about “true religion” and how, if left to our own devises, we often miss that mark.

Using herself as an example, she says, “If I could make up my own individualized religion, God would let me make my weekly offering at the shoe department at Nordstrom.  And the closest thing to an admonition would be a gentle nudge to lose the five pounds after Thanksgiving I already wanted to lose anyway.  I like that religion but it’s not going to do anything to change me or the world.”

With that, I think, she starts to get at a biblical understanding of what “true religion” actually is.  It’s not about us.  It’s not about meeting our own needs, or catering to our own desires.  It’s about shifting our perspective to something outside of ourselves and our own self-interests.

It would be easy to hear Jesus’ parables from the gospel lesson today as little more than tips and tricks for better living and upward mobility.  Don’t assume the place of honor, because you might get pushed down to a lower rung, which would be embarrassing.  Instead, assume a humble place, and perhaps get invited up.

That’s a logical strategy for social advancement.

But it’s about more than just that.

In both of the parables Jesus told - about when you’re the guest and when you’re the host - the message isn’t just about getting ahead.  It’s about shifting your focus to those who are usually overlooked, ignored, or abused.

When you’re a guest, don’t just focus on the places of honor, but turn toward the other end of the table.  See the people and places that most people would rather avoid.  Embrace them.

And when you’re a host, don’t just invite the people who can do the most for you, but make it an occasion of doing something for someone else who has need - not just someone who has power.

Use your life to bring change to yourself and to the world.  Use your life to make it better.

We hear echoes of the same kind of charge in the letter to the Hebrews: “Let mutual love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers…  Remember those who are in prison… [and] those who are being tortured… Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

God doesn’t want us to just think of ourselves.  God needs us to think of others, to care for others, and to turn our attention to those who are most in need among us.

I think that’s what the collect means by “true religion”.  That’s what we pray to have increased among us.

“True religion” isn’t just a self-indulgent pair of blue jeans, or a weekly offering at Nordstrom.  It’s not even your weekly “pick me up” at church to fuel you for the week ahead.

“True religion” is about a discipline of sacrifice.  It’s about a mindset of consciousness.  It’s a heart that beats for mission and service.

May it increase in us.  Amen.