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, December 14, 2014

One whom we do not know

Advent 3B
John 1:6-8, 19-28

In the name of God.  Amen.


One of the things that I really appreciate about Advent, is that it represents an entire season of the church year where our main focus is waiting.  The rest of the world is almost always about busyness and productivity and generating outcomes to justify our existence.  But in contrast, the church tries to direct us during this time to slow down - to listen - to wait.

We’re watching and preparing, but the preparations - for the spiritual observance, at least - are more about preparing ourselves spiritually than they are about preparing anything physical that is around us.

Today, in the Gospel that we’ve read, we hear again about John the Baptist.  Though this time, he isn’t baptizing - at least not at the moment.  Instead, he’s testifying to the waiting that he’s doing - that all of them were doing, whether they knew it or not.

The religious authorities of the day questioned him about who he was, but he wasn’t any of the people or things that they anticipated.  Instead, he was the one to lead the waiting.  He was the one to point to the one who is to come.

You may have noticed this increased focus on waiting that we’ve built into our liturgy for Advent.  Through these weeks, we’ve had an increased emphasis on silence.  There’s a more deliberate, and extended pause after the sermon.  The prayers of the people don’t have a spoken response after each petition, but instead, a time of silence to reflect on what how we’re speaking to God.

In a culture so committed to activity as our is, silence and waiting can seem unnatural.  Uncomfortable, even.  It certainly was uncomfortable for the religious authorities of the first century, and they expressed that discomfort in their concerned questioning of John the Baptist.  The one who leads the waiting - the one who came to point to another - represented a challenge to those authorities.  Authorities like to be in control.  They expect it.  Their social station depends on it.  And John represented, for them, a threat to their control.

They knew what the Messiah would be.  They had been praying for him for generations.  So they knew.  Or at least they thought that they knew.  What they knew was that the Messiah would be a great political power.  He would be a man who would come in power and great glory to overthrow their oppressors.

But John’s message threatened those assumptions.  “Among you stands one, whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me…”  The one you’ve been waiting for is so unlike what you’ve been expecting that he’s right there in the midst of you and you can’t even see it.

It’s easy to look back on those religious authorities of that day and to feel righteously judgmental.  They had, after all, gotten things so very wrong.  But the truth of the matter is, we still struggle with what it means to wait for Christ.

On one hand, we struggle in the manner in which we do it.  We tend to use Advent, not for holy waiting and spiritual reflection and preparation, but as a season for accomplishing tasks.  We have shopping lists to get through, and holiday parties to attend, and family arrangements to make, and decorations to put up, and presents to wrap, and… and… and…

But our struggle isn’t just in how we go about preparing.  Even if we’re capable of keeping our minds solely focused on the coming of Christ (and I’m not convinced any of us really do), what sort of Christ do we have in mind?  The irony is that the church, in its too-often self-righteous judgment of those first century leaders, very often makes the same mistake that they did.

Listen again to the collect that we prayed this morning: “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us…”  Do you hear anything familiar?  We’re praying for the same kind of saving figure as our first century Jewish forebears were.  We’re praying for “power” and “great might”.

But that’s not how Christ came to them.  Christ came as an infant.  Christ came in a fragile and frail human shell.  Christ came as one of us.  Not as some lofty power that would squash our oppressors, but as one oppressed.  He stood among them as one whom they did not know.

It’s only natural for us to want some big, bold sign.  We want flashes of lightning and claps of thunder and voices from the heavens.  That would be harder for us to mess up, or to miss.

But Christ still stands among us as one whom we do not know.

There’s a kind of schizophrenia to Advent.  There’s a series of disconnects between what we pray for, and what our experience tells us is God’s way of acting in the world, and what our scriptures point us toward.  We wrap the season up in nostalgia and comfort and tradition, when its purpose is really more about radically defying expectations and surprising us and meeting God where we’d least expect to.

Christ stands among us as one whom we do not know.  So our main goal in Advent is to get to know the ones among us who may be Christ - to seek out and to experience the incarnations of God in the world around us.  God is here, even when we don’t know it.

So that’s why we wait.  Not in boredom.  Not twiddling our thumbs.  Not letting our minds wander.  Not so that the time will simply pass.  But we wait in preparation and expectation.  We wait with a purpose.  We wait to clear out the clutter of our minds and to wade through the distractions of our lives so that there will be space to recognize Christ.

Christ stands among us as one whom we do not know, and Advent is when we try to open ourselves to knowing.  Christ won’t likely come as we’d expect.  That’s just not how God usually works.

So we wait, in the hope that we’ll know.


Sunday, December 07, 2014

Preparing for Christ

Advent 2B
Mark 1:1-8

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

I forget if I’ve brought y’all a West Wing story in my preaching yet.  If I haven’t, it’s definitely time.  If I have…  Well…  Here’s another.

One of my favorite television shows of all time is The West Wing.  It’s smart, and fast paced, and it addresses serious social issues, and it’s all centered around one of my favorite spectator sports - politics.  So I watch the show over and over again.  Most situations in life tend to have a relevant West Wing reference…  At least most things in my life.

So, as I was reading again this year about John the Baptist, and his relationship with Jesus, this scene from The West Wing kept playing again in my mind: the President is in the Oval Office talking with his Deputy Chief of Staff, Josh Lyman.  Josh runs the White House Legislative Affairs operation, and has just suffered an embarrassing defeat.  He’s apologizing to the President, and feeling forlorn about it all, when the tension is interrupted by the President’s half-humorous observation.  The President says to him, “You know what the difference is between you and me, Josh?  I want to be the man.  You want to be the guy that the man depends on.”

That’s a really rare thing to find in politics - someone whose highest aspiration is to help someone else be great.  And, in truth, it’s a rare thing to find anywhere in our culture.  We live in a culture that idealizes individualism, and expects each person to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and to strive for greatness - for their own greatness - often to the peril of anyone else’s interests.

But in the figure of John the Baptist, we have a model of service.

In his time wandering the Judean wilderness, John the Baptist had made something of a name for himself.  I’m sure it was true that a number of folks thought he was just plain crazy, but he had established himself as a noteworthy prophet.  He had followers, and he had a message.

The truth is, John could have gone on quite well, just like that.  He could have embraced his moderate fame - he might have even grown it a bit as the word continued to spread.  He could have focused on himself, and his own needs, and his own advancement.  If humanity then was anything like what it usually seems to be now, he may have even felt some pressure to do just that.

But the central lure of Christ is to be in relationship - to care about others - to build up community.

Christianity is not about erasing anyone’s individuality - just ask John the Baptist.  He was thoroughly individual.  He wore rough-hewn rags of coarse skin as his clothes.  He ate of the meager fare of his wilderness foraging.  He screamed the hard truths to the curious crowds that no one else was willing to say.  And his role as one of the first to be called by Christ was simply to be himself.  Not to fall in line and act like all the others.  Not to tend and nurture his political power until he could become influential and respected.  No, he was called as who he was, to minister in the way that he was ministering.  And, as is always true of the most important ministry, his ministry pointed not to himself, or to his own achievements, or even to the centrality of his own message.  Instead, his ministry pointed to something bigger than himself.  His ministry pointed to what was to come.

On Thanksgiving Day, as I was setting the table and getting some of the last details ready for the feast that was about to begin, a friend of mine who was there with me noticed across the room a collection of religious icons from around the world that I have hanging together and she asked me: “What do you think of the second coming?”

Believe it or not, this is one of those questions that priests get asked a lot.  So, I didn’t have to struggle or search for an answer.  I had it ready.  I said, “It happens every day.”

We’ve talked about it here a lot.  Christ is present when someone looks beyond their own self-interest toward the needs of someone else.  Christ is present, as we heard just a few weeks ago, when we perform acts of kindness toward those who are seen as the “least” in the world.  Christ is present when people of privilege use their influence to speak out against injustice.

In short: Christ comes in community.

When most people talk about “the second coming of Christ” they’re talking about the end of the world.  But if experience is any indicator, when Christ comes, it’s less about the “end” than it is about the beginning of something great.

And just as John the Baptist was called to prepare the way of the Lord in that first Advent, so, too, are we called to prepare the way of Christ in our own time and place, and in all of the “advents” of our own lives.

A few years ago I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Jesus is coming - look busy!”

Well, Advent isn’t so much about “looking busy” as it is about readying our hearts to see Christ.  It’s about opening ourselves to the wonder of God’s presence.  It’s about reminding ourselves that we can see Christ, if only we’ll look.

That’s how we prepare the way of the Lord - how we live into our Advent calling to be John-the-Baptists for our own world.  Looking for Christ might seem strange to the rest of the world.  That’s okay.  John the Baptist was certainly strange.  But when you find Christ, it will be the beginning of something great - and that’s the miracle that we’re working toward for Christmas.  It’s not about a single day or a single season.  It’s not about a birth.  It’s not about a baby.  It’s not even about a man who would someday save the world.  It’s about a shift in perspective that keeps saving the world over and over again.  A shift in perspective that transforms both individuals and whole communities.

That’s what we’re getting ready for: not Christmas, but Christ.  You are called to prepare the way.  Amen.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The times, they are a changing...

Advent 1B
Mark 13:24-37

 In the name of God: who was, and who is, and who is to come.  Amen.

The times, they are a changing…

That’s a subject that often makes us a bit nervous - change.  But it’s been said that the only constant in life is change, so we’d better find a way to make our peace with it.

But change doesn’t have to be scary if we ready ourselves for it.  And that’s what Advent is all about - readying ourselves for the change that’s in store.

This Advent may feel a little bit different to you.  There are different schools of thought about the role of Advent in the life of the church, and how it should be observed.  Some liturgists think of Advent as like a “little Lent” - drawing on the similarities between Advent and Lent, in that they are both seasons of preparation for understanding new realities about God.

But some other scholars of liturgy would argue that there’s a different tone in the sense of preparation between the two seasons.  Where Lent is a season of penitence as we prepare for the death of Jesus; Advent is a season of expectation, wherein we prepare for his birth.  While both seasons hold elements of surprise for the people of God, the surprise of resurrection is a little more jarring than the surprise of birth - even this birth.  Lent is meant to mirror the season of preparation that Jesus experienced when we spent 40 days in the wilderness steeling himself for ministry.  Advent, on the other hand, is more like the season of preparation that new parents go through when they’re expecting the birth of a child.  Advent is a season that is pregnant with hope and expectation that keeps growing until it can no longer be contained: it must be birthed into the world.

So, you can see - there are certainly some similarities between Advent and Lent, but there are also some differences.  I expect that I’ll be highlighting the differences a little more than you may be used to.

And though change may sometimes seem unsettling, it’s important to remember that it is a hallmark of our faith.  If there were any doubt of that, we would only have to look at the lessons appointed for today - on this, the first Sunday of Advent - to see how much the church is driving us toward embracing change.

The prophecy of Isaiah is crying out to God to intercede on the suffering of God’s people.  It embraces the role of God as the agent of holy change: “we are the clay, and you are our potter”.  Change us, the prophet prays.

Jesus speaks of change on a more cosmic scale: “Heaven and earth will pass away,” he says, “but my words will not pass away.”

Wrap your minds around that for just a moment.  Even if we can imagine the earth passing away - how sure must Christ’s words be, if they are more stable even than heaven?  “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not…”

We often meet change with anxiety.  But not only is it inevitable, it’s often for the best.

Earlier this week, I stumbled across a lovely (and sort of challenging) prayer written by Sir Francis Drake as he was preparing to embark on a voyage to circumnavigate the earth.  We may not be able to really imagine what a feat that was - to sail around the world - but remember that it had only been done successfully one time before.  It had been less than a century since Columbus had crossed the Atlantic.  The world, for those travelers was vast and untamed.  Anything could happen on such a voyage.  It would be perilous, at best.

In those days of preparation for what might have easily been the last days of Drake’s life, these were his words:
Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
with the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wilder seas
Where storms will show Your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.

We ask you to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push back the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.

This we ask in the name of our Captain,
Who is Jesus Christ.

It is a daring and brave thing to pray for God’s disturbance.  We are the people of a God who is a masterful disturber.  And while it may be an intimidating thing to pray for that disturbing, the truth of the matter is, God is going to disturb us.  God is going to disrupt us.  When we are complacent with the comforts of the world; when we are complicit with the injustices of the world; when we are conspirators with the false powers of the world: we need to be disturbed.  And God will do that for us, whether we want it or not - whether we expect it or not.  Whether we are ready or not.  God is a disturbing God.

If you think about it, is that really such a bad thing?

In a world gripped by violence and fear, we could stand to have the status quo disturbed.  In a world defined by income inequality that leaves a few people of privilege with vast, unfathomable resources, while the rest of the world struggles, often futilely, merely to survive, we need change, no matter how much we fear it.  In a world of racism, and xenophobia, and all of the other products that come from the marriage of fear and greed, we need Christ.  We need God to intercede.

The hope of Advent is that Christ will disturb us where we most need it.  The promise of Christmas is that by knowing God more intimately, we will be changed.  Even though it’s probably a little bit scary, we need to be changed.  We might as well get ready.

The times, they are a changing.  Amen.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

But what if we fail?

Proper 28A
Matthew 25:14-30

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

Somehow, to my surprise, I’ve made all the way through mid-November, and I haven’t used a single football metaphor in my preaching this Fall.  I almost can’t believe it.  It’s probably because my team - LSU - hasn’t had a particularly inspiring season, so it’s been hard to think of the game as a source of inspiration this year.

But even so, as I was preparing for today, this football-related quote kept running through my mind: “One of the hardest things in the world to do, is to go into a locker room at halftime, and chuck a strategy that’s been working all season up to now, and try to do something entirely different.”

We long for stability.  We tend to want things to stay just as they are - just as we understand them.  We yearn for predictability, and the comfort of “the way we’ve always done it”.  We often joke about that in the church - the paralysis that can come from “the way we’ve always done it” - but it’s not just true in the church.  It’s a temptation that we all face in our lives at one point or another, and every human system (being made up of humans, as they are) can easily fall into that same trap: the trap of familiarity and safety and comfort.

We hear about the paralysis that can come from an idolatry of the familiar in the Parable of the Talents.  It might be among the most misunderstood of the parables.  But here’s a hint: it’s not really about money at all.

On the surface, however, that might be all we’re tempted to hear.  For one thing, money is so much at the center of our lives.  It’s no wonder we might catch ourselves seeing it everywhere we turn.  Also, since this parable always comes to us around this time of year, churches will often try to fold it into the annual stewardship campaigns.

But the reality is, in this parable, money is nothing more than a tool.  It’s a metaphor.  A device that’s used to make a larger point.

If we were to take this parable at face value, without giving it a critical eye and a discerning heart, we’d get a very unappealing idea of who God is, and what God’s dreams for us are.  At face value, it almost seems that Jesus is offering us the image of a God who is greedy and demanding.  A God whom the average person could never hope to please.  A God who is only looking for us to give him more - more money, more work, more product…

But thankfully we do have the critical eyes and discerning hearts that God has given us!

What I hear in this parable is not so much about answering the idolatry of greed, or the idolatry of busy-ness.  Instead, what I hear is God calling us away from our risk-averse propensities, and toward a place of faith in action.

Several weeks ago I introduced a concept in one of my sermons: functional atheism.  Basically, functional atheism is what happens when people claim to be people of faith, but who fail to live as though they have faith.  Functional atheism happens when we try to micromanage the world around us into producing our desired results, with little thought to placing faith in God to deliver us.  It’s when we try to engineer our own salvation, as if we don’t trust that God already has.

Functional atheism can manifest as our actions - as if our business will somehow secure our destiny.  Or, it can also manifest as inaction - holding perfectly still, as if we could somehow keep the world from changing into something we’d wished it wouldn’t.

Today’s Gospel lesson is about rejecting the temptation of functional atheism: the inactive kind.

The slave who is put forward as the example not to follow - the one who simply buried what he had been given - wasn’t “cast into the outer darkness” so much because of his inability to produce huge results, but because he didn’t even try.  He was motivated only by fear.  Because he was afraid to do something wrong, he did nothing at all.

So often we can be that way in the church.  We are afraid to take risks.  We let one nay-sayer derail a widely supported project because we are afraid someone might leave.  We turn our focus in toward ourselves because we’re afraid to trust that God will protect us when we move beyond our comfortable, or at least contended environs.

This is particularly true when churches feel threatened.  When we see our attendance numbers trending downward, or when our pledges stop being enough to sustain us through the year - whenever the institution starts to recognize it’s own potential mortality - we retreat.  We wall ourselves off.  We try to play it safe.  In the words of the Gospel: we bury our talents.

But God is not a safe God.  If we look back through the story of our faith, we see that God is always pushing boundaries, and trying new things, and making God’s self available to creation in ever-new ways.

To be a Christian - to be a follower of this God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of Mary, Jesus, and Paul - to follow that risky God, we, too, will have to risk.  We can’t bury our talents in the ground.  We have to boldly try for something that seems impossible.

I don’t know what that means yet here at Holy Trinity.  But I do know that it’s true.  I know that we’re going to have to risk being a little uncomfortable.  I know that we’re going to have to risk turning ourselves away from “the way we’ve always done it”.  We may even have to risk letting some people get mad at us.

That doesn’t mean we’ll be irresponsible.  It certainly doesn’t mean that we’ll be uncaring.  It just means that we have to be open to new ways of being the Body of Christ here in Valley Stream, or wherever we may be called.

It might mean that we’ll fail.  That’s a scary thing to think about, but it is the other side of risk.  Sometimes we fail.  But the only way we can guarantee failure is to shield and hoard all that we’ve been given and refuse to let it blossom into the will of God.  We’re capable of so much more.

One of the great preachers of the 20th century was the Rev. William Sloan Coffin, Jr.  One of his famous benedictions is still timely advice for the church.  May they be our guide as we listen for how God is calling us.

    “May God grant you the grace never to sell yourself short;
    grace to risk something big for the sake of something good;
    grace to remember that the world is now too dangerous for anything but truth
    and too small for anything but love.”

If we live our lives and guide this church with this in mind, we are sure to find the will of God.  Amen.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Loving God. Loving each other. 25A
Matthew 22:34-46

In the name of God.  Amen.

One of the things that can be both exciting, but also sometimes a little bit maddening about Jesus is the way he can twist a question to give the answer he wants to give.  Or, like unto that, the way his answers to questions are sometimes so obtuse that even those first apostles were often left scratching their heads.  If there’s any one overarching personality trait about Jesus that transcends the various Gospel accounts, it’s that: the surprising ways that he answers (and sometimes refuses to answer) questions.

It can be exciting watching him thwart those who mean to oppose him.  But for us - people who simply want to learn and to grow and to follow Christ - his answers can sometimes be a little bit maddening.  Sometimes, we just need a clear, concise answer.  Sometimes we don’t want to have to work so hard.  But that’s not usually Jesus’ way.  Usually, we have to work for it.

Today, however, we hear one of those rare occasions when - even though the Pharisee was trying to test him - Jesus answered plainly and directly.  There could be no mistaking or misunderstanding.

“Which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

Perhaps it was meant to trip him up.  Perhaps they were thinking that if they put him on the spot, he might say something that they could use to incriminate him.

Instead, he spoke about as directly as he ever could have.  He answered clearly, and concisely - in one of those phrases that we should all have etched on our hearts and in our minds to guide us through everything that we do.

“Which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two hang all the law and the prophets.”

It couldn’t be any clearer.  This is what we’re about.  Despite all the ways that people have talked about the faith, and written about it, and done theology, and fought and died and conquered - this is what it all comes down to.

Or at least, what it should all come down to.

Unfortunately, too often it doesn’t.  Too often we add rules and questions and fears and anxiety.  But the real crux of it all is really pretty simple.  It’s about being in relationship.  It’s about loving God, and loving each other.

It seems like Christianity should be the easiest thing in the world to master.  But too often we fall short.

Over the weekend, I had the great opportunity to join a couple of other priests in our diocese to represent the Diocese of Long Island at an event celebrating and supporting the work of the Ali Forney Center in New York City.  For those who are unfamiliar with their work, AFC is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing support for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender youth who are homeless or whose housing status is insecure.  When teens and young adults come out to their parents as Lesbian, Gay, Bi, or Trans as many as a quarter of them are disowned by their families and put out of their homes - left to fend for themselves and to find their way without the support most young people can expect from their families.  Because this rejection by families is so common, more than half of all homeless youth identify as a member of the LGBT community.

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two hang all the law and the prophets.”

The Ali Forney Center is battling this scourge with emergency shelters, education programs, drop in centers, and much more.  They are living out the words of Jesus - perhaps better than most of our churches do.

Of course they are not a Christian organization.  They aren’t associated with any religious community or tradition.  But they are doing ministry.  They are living examples of how we should love God and each other.

But, as moving as it was to learn about their work and their mission, and to hear about the great strides that they’re making in easing the effects of a real life problem that’s happening here - in our own back yards; the thing that was most surprising, and most moving to me was the fact that, from the moment we arrived, people kept coming up to us, and stopping us, and thanking us for being there.  Among the thousands of people at this event, we were the only priests, and we stood out.

It should be an embarrassment for Christians everywhere, but the number one reason that young LGBT people are expelled from their homes is because of their parents’ religious beliefs.

So standing out, and being priests at that event was a powerful witness.  It was important for us to be there, and to proclaim proudly that not all Christians are so filled with hate.

One of the most significant things Jesus says in his summary of the law is that little connector between the two commandments.  He says, “A second is like it”.

It’s not just that we are called to love God and to love each other - as separate tasks.  Jesus is saying that it’s almost the same thing.  Part of how we love God is through loving each other.  The best way to show your love for God is to love the people God has created, and also loves.

The Ali Forney Center started from one man’s vision for how the world could be a little bit better.  He imagined what the world would be like if we could divert a little bit of love to some folks who’ve been among the most unloved in our society - to even the scales, just a little.  In doing so, he and the organization have saved untold thousands of lives.

That’s what love can do.

We may not all start multimillion dollar non-profit organizations to address major social needs.  In fact, most of us won’t.  But what we can do - one of the best ways that we can live out our Christian vocations - is by loving the people whom God has put into our lives.

Sometimes the answers are really simple.  Love God.  Love each other.  That’s the basis of all that we’re called to do.  Amen.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Reflections of God

Proper 24A
Matthew 22:15-22

In the name of God: our source, our strength, and our sustenance.  Amen.

In the gospel lesson for today, Jesus finds himself in the kind of predicament we all dread.  And we’ve all been there.  Cornered.  On the spot.  Whether it was in a meeting, or a business dinner, or on a date, or “meeting the parents” for the first time, we all know what it’s like to face these “gotcha” questions, where, no matter how we answer, it’s probably going to be wrong in one way or another.

I saw an example of this kind of thing on the news earlier this week in the political coverage of the Senate debate in Kentucky.  The Senate minority leader is facing a tough challenge from a young Democratic candidate named Alison Lundergran Grimes.  Though Grimes has been trending behind her opponent through most of the race, it’s gained a fair bit of national attention because she’s been trailing only a little bit behind in the usually solidly Republican state.  She has a real shot at unseating a long-tenured and powerful Senator.

In close political standoffs, there is very little room for error.  Especially this late in the game, small mistakes can make a big impact.  So everyone is watching their words very closely.  Perhaps a little too closely.  Sometimes mistakes come from being too careful, to the degree that your words begin to seem disingenuous.

At the debate this week, Grimes was asked who she had voted for in the last Presidential election.  Watching her answer - or really, more like her non-answer - was like watching a car crash in slow motion.  Being a Democrat, one would assume that she’d supported the President.  But, in the Republican-leaning state, she feared that admitting that would work against her in the election.  On the other hand, if she had said that she didn’t support the President, it would seem disloyal at best, but more likely dishonest.

It was absolutely a “gotcha” question.  There was no obvious way that she could answer the question without hurting her campaign.  She stammered around, making a speech about the sacred value of the secret ballot, trying not to answer the question, but it was pretty plain to see that her real motivation was not so much about her noble values as it was about seeking a path of minimal political damages.  By trying to avoid saying something that might hurt her chances at becoming a Senator, she actually hurt her chances even more.  She turned what might have been a barely-noticed blip on the radar into a glaring obstacle.

It seems to be an all-too-rare gift, but I’ve always admired those people who can think of just the right thing to say at just the right time.  And that’s what we hear from Jesus today - someone who not only “wins” an argument, he wins an argument that was intended to be - designed to be, unwinable.

The Pharisees and the Herodians disagreed about almost everything.  But the one thing they could both get behind was their shared opposition to Jesus.  The Pharisees were the established and recognized leaders of the institutional faith.  The Herodians were the supporters of Herod - the Roman-appointed king of the Jews.  They both had power to protect.  They were threatened by each other, but that was nothing compared to the threat they both faced from potential insurrectionists like Jesus.

So, the question that they posed to him was, essentially: do you support the way of the Pharisees, or do you support the way of the Herodians?  Those were the only two options.  If he had sided with the Pharisees, he would be in trouble with the political leaders.  If he had sided with the Herodians, his mass appeal among the Jews would evaporate.

There’s seemingly no answer.

But Jesus takes that “gotcha” question, and turns it on its head.  His answer is “none of the above”.

We all know the line.  It’s one of those pithy sayings that’s easy to remember, but, perhaps, hard to understand.  He says, “Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s.  Give to God what is God’s.”

He starts by looking at the coin, and inviting others to look at it, too.  “Whose image is on here?  Whose face do you see?”  They see the emperor.

But the unasked question is: How do we determine what is God’s?  Where do we see God’s face?  What is it that bears the likeness of God?  What is God-like?  With a big G.  With a small g, god-like is idolatry.  It says something is like a god to us.  But with a big G, God-like asks us to see the image of God - the reflection of God - in the world around us.  What is like God?

That’s how we tell what is God’s - those places/people/things wherein we see God reflected back.  The cheap, “churchy” answer may be that everything is God’s.  And while I can’t really argue with that, a stronger spiritual discipline would be to not just flatly proclaim that everything is God’s, but to look for the image of God in everything.  Imagine how our lives would be different if we trained ourselves to look for the image of God in everything we encountered.  Imagine how relationships might be shaped if we got used to trying to see the image of God in everyone we met.

The way this story is usually used in stewardship campaigns around the church is to sort of guilt you into giving more money to the church by reminding you that everything you have is already God’s stuff anyway.  But as we near the end of our formal stewardship campaign here at Holy Trinity, I’d invite you to look at it in a different way.  The church certainly has a lot of need.  No one can deny that.  Our financial picture is troubling.  I think you all know that.  And if you don’t, please feel free to chat with me, or your wardens, or any of the members of the vestry.  We’d all be happy to give you more information about the significant financial need we have.

But as you think about your pledge of support for Holy Trinity for the coming year, I hope you’ll examine more than simply your own personal budget, or even our budget as a parish.  Instead, I hope you’ll think about this familiar, but often misunderstood story from the life of Jesus and through it, examine your own heart a little more deeply.  Think about what it might mean for you to practice looking for the reflection of God all around you.

It’s a very different experience to give out of gratitude than it is to give because of some unmet need.  If you give because you feel an obligation to meet someone else’s need, it might feel like paying a bill each week.  It’s not very satisfying.  But if you give as a joyful response to having seen the face of God, it will feel very different.

It won’t come instantly.  It’s not just a matter of flipping a switch and suddenly seeing things in a different way.  It takes practice.  It’s a skill that’s developed over time.  And that’s why we have the church.: to practice these approaches to living the way of Christ.  We do it first here, in a loving and safe community, so that as we get better at it, we can take these lessons out with us into the rest of our lives.

Before long, you’ll begin to see reflections of God almost everywhere you look.  That’s not only how we address the challenges of the church, it’s how we change the world.  Amen.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Turning, turning, turning through the years...

Proper 22A
Matthew 21:33-46

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

Last week, Evelyn came to me - almost apologetically - in her capacity as the head of the Altar Guild to ask me a question about Advent.  I know: it must sound really surprising to think that we’re already thinking about Advent - Evelyn thought so, too!  We’re still having lots of days when we can get away with shorts and short sleeves and open windows and sitting outside.  Fall officially started a couple of weeks ago, but even so, we’re early enough into it that summer’s memory isn’t quite as distant as it will become.  And Advent means the coming of Christmas.  There’s no way we’re ready for Christmas!  But, in the life of the church year, we are already starting to turn our eyes toward Advent.

There was a movement in the church not too long ago - a movement that’s probably still going on among some liturgical scholars - to redraw the annual liturgical calendar, making Advent longer.  I believe the proposal was to extend it from four weeks to eight.

One of the reasons for this was out of a recognition that culturally, Advent has become consumed by Christmas.  Of course we, in the church, are steadfast in our observance of Christmas beginning on the 25th of December.  But might we all be served by a liturgical observance that places a greater focus on the sense of hope and expectancy that we have as a part of our Christian heritage?

Another reason - just in case you were sitting there wondering why your priest has been talking so much about the run-up to Christmas here at the start of October - is because a faithful reading of the texts leads us to begin to recognize that Advent really does start earlier than we’ve been observing it.  The liturgical year doesn’t have the kinds of fixed boundaries that we’ve tried to impose upon it: Year A stops here.  Year B begins not one moment before!  But instead, the years and the seasons tend to blend between one another.  We don’t just suddenly turn our heads in another direction when Advent starts - the calendar of the church and the cycle of our readings has been slowly pointing us in that direction for a long time.  There aren’t sharp lines.  There’s almost always some aspect of the church’s teachings that are pointing us toward the miracle and the gift of incarnation.  And there’s almost always some aspect of the church’s teachings that are pointing us toward the miracle and the gift of the resurrection.  Though some Sundays seem to have one focus or another, it’s never entirely one or the other.

So, the lessons that we’re hearing here at the end of the liturgical year, start to take shape as a kind of advent to Advent.

It starts from a place within us that we all intuitively know: life leads to death.  It’s a painful part of the story of our humanity, but one that we all have to face.  In the story of Jesus, we know from the moment he is born: he will die.  But the Christian promise is that there will also be something more.  That “life leads to death” won’t be all that we’ll know.  Death will also lead to life.  We know that from the moment Jesus dies.  It’s never the end of the story.

And we incorporate that into all of our own lives.  When we celebrate baptisms or the life cycles and stages of our children, part of the gift that they represent for us is an antidote to our own mortality.  They keep the world going even after we’re gone.  And when we’re gone, and when the ones we love go before us, we trust that we’ll all live on in the promise of the resurrection, and in the resurrection incarnated in our relationships and our communities.

The same thing is happening in the church year.  As I told you last week, the section of Matthew that we’re reading right now is, in the chronology of Jesus’ life, a part of the Holy Week story.  These teachings and parables are being taught and told in Jerusalem, on the cusp of his death.

Jesus’ life, will ultimately lead to his death.  And that death will lead to life.  And life to death, and death to life, and on, and on, through the ages.

We have to hear things over and over again before we can really learn them - before we can truly integrate them into our lives and into our beings.  We have to experience the cycle again and again.  We need each Advent to point to the Resurrection, and we need each death to point to some new Advent - some new season of hope and expectation that we’ve been previously unable to fully see.

And that’s a bit of what we’re hearing in this sort of obtuse parable - the Parable of the Absent Landlord.  It’s a rather unfortunate name, because it seems almost undeniable that in this allegory, the absent landlord is meant to represent God.  It’s uncomfortable to imagine God as absent.  At least it is, for me.

But this difficult tale tells us that God sent workers again and again to do the work of the kingdom.  We’ve certainly heard about all of that - the many ways that God has tried to deliver us from evil - or another way of thinking about it: from the shortcomings of our humanity.  Just this morning we heard one of those ways that God has tried to intercede: in the giving of the Law - the Ten Commandments.  But there have been countless others.  There are books upon books throughout the Bible that tell the story of God reaching out to people, only to have us turn away.  That was the function of all of the prophets.  That was the work of all of the kings.  Each time, God was reaching out to the people, and each time the people found some way to try to push God away.

It can be tempting to hear the Parable of the Absent Landlord as a kind of foreshadowing to the death that Jesus would face on Good Friday, but perhaps it’s not foreshadowing at all.  Perhaps it’s not even a clever prediction.  Perhaps the cycle of the tenants rejecting the messengers of the landlord is a reminder to us - not just the us of then; the us of the Holy Week narrative, but even us, here today.

Our history as the people of God has shown us that when we’re not paying attention, we all too often find ourselves trying to push God away.  Of course God isn’t going anywhere, but even so, it can bring harm to ourselves and to those around us when we try to push God away.

In our Wednesday morning worship group, we’ve been spending some time praying through the calendar of saints together.  One of the things we talked about together this week was, how is it that we hold on to the discipline that the stories of the saints are trying to impart to us?  We have these examples of holy living, but how do we keep them in our minds and guiding our actions?  There are so many forces in the world trying to drive us away from clearly experiencing and embracing the presence of God.  There are external forces such as the idols that our culture constantly pushes on us like greed, and consumerism, and self-centeredness.  But there are also internal forces like anger, resentment, judgement, and prejudice.  All of these are things that can cause us to feel separated from God.  They’re things that can make the landlord seem absent.  They’re things that can keep us from accomplishing the ministry for which we’ve been called.

Like those tenants so prone to evil, we, too, must be called again and again back to God.  We, too, need the law, and the prophets, and the kings, and even God’s own child to remind us where we should be and what we should be doing.  Like the endless cycle of life, death, and resurrection; and life, death, and resurrection; and life, death, and resurrection…  We also need the cycle of repenting and returning to the Lord.

The cycle of the church year - with it’s not so clear and always repeating and intermingling beginnings, middles, and ends - reflects the very cycles of faith, and falling from faith, and returning to faith that make up so much of our lives.

The landlord of the parable was never truly absent.  Even if the tenants couldn’t see him, they were always on his mind.  He grieved their failings, and he kept trying again and again to bring out the fruits of the vineyard that he knew were there.

I hope that we’re never as evil as the tenants we’ve heard about this morning.  But even so, the little evils that keep us feeling separate from God will come.  When they do - when you feel most alone - try to remember that while you may not know God is there, God knows you are there.  God is still trying to be known.  God is still trying to bring forth the best fruits of your life and labor that you have to offer.  And while you’re trying to remember, use the tools and the traditions of our faith that have been given to you.  Connect with the cycles of the church.  Pray through the cycles of life, death, and resurrection.

The thing about cycles is, they always come around.  Soon they’ll come around for you, too.  Soon, what feels like death will be shown to be really life.  Just don’t give up.  Amen.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Our authority is in our faith

Proper 21A
Matthew 21:23-32

In the name of God.  Amen.

The topic of authority is interesting - particularly for us in communities of faith.  It’s played out in all of our relationships - no matter how major or minor - every day.  A driver takes up two parking spaces in a crowded lot and we quietly say to ourselves, “He must think he owns the place.”  A child is eating a piece of candy when his mother says, “Who said you could have that?”  A coworker suggests a course of action only to have her colleague bitterly growl back, “Who asked you?”

Even in our own relationships here in this church, questions of authority come up all the time.  Since we’re fairly new in our priest and parish relationship, they come up probably more than they would at other times.  Last week I met with the altar guild because they wanted to honor my authority as your priest to make sure all the things for worship were being set up as I’d expect.  Each day as I’m sorting the mail at the church I have to ask myself, “Under whose authority does this fall?”  As we plan programs and services and events for the coming year, we sometimes defer to the authority of the wardens, and sometimes to the authority of the outreach committee, and sometimes to the members of the vestry, or whomever else.  And since we’re all still getting to know one another, sometimes it’s hard to decide who holds the authority for what.

Clear channels of authority can help us to keep order.  But misunderstood or changing systems of authority can lead to confusion and sometimes conflict.

So it’s easy to see why the chief priests and the elders of the community were concerned with authority.  They were troubled by Jesus, not so much because of what he was doing, necessarily, but because of who he was to be doing it.  He wasn’t within the established systems of authority.

We’re joining this story in mid-thought, so bare with me for a moment while I give you some context, and bring you up to speed.

This first thing we really have to know about this story is that even though we’re reading it now, it’s actually a Holy Week story.  In the chronology of Jesus’ life as it’s depicted in Matthew’s gospel, this is taking place just after Palm Sunday.  The crowds had joyfully welcomed him into the city, and they had waved palms and shouted Hosanna.  There had been a lot of good feelings around.

But we all know the story of Holy Week, and we know that the joy and the excitement and the anticipation of Palm Sunday isn’t the end of the story.  There is no tidy “happily ever after” in the cards.

Tension was starting to build around Jesus, almost as soon as he arrived in Jerusalem.  And Jesus really didn’t do anything to try to ease it.  In fact, he sort of made it worse.

Just the day before - in this account, just a few verses before what we read this morning - Jesus had grown angry in the Temple and had overturned the tables of the moneychangers for turning the sacred rituals of the faith into a profit-making business and defiling the house of God with their greed.  And he had angered the leaders of the temple by doing acts of healing there in spite of the authority of the rituals of the faith.

The next morning, he looked for figs in a tree that was bare, and when he found none he cursed the tree and it died at once.  When the disciples saw what he had done, they were amazed and asked him how it had happened.  He explained to them that even their own proclamations made in earnest faith would have enough authority to do anything - even more than what they had just seen.

So, by the time we get to where we are in the story today, Jesus had already been challenging the authorities all around him for a while.  He’d challenged the authority of the capitalist enterprises that were driving the temple market.  He’d challenged the authority of the priests by healing the sick and the disabled without the usual rituals of the faith.  He’d even challenged the supposedly impermeable authority of nature by using only his words to cause a huge tree to wither and die at his command.

Finally, when he was teaching in the temple, the priests and the elders had seen enough.  After all the times that his actions had called the authorities into question, it was time for someone to question his authority.  But the teaching that we heard about today was just the tip of the iceberg.  The catalog of Jesus’ infractions against the status quo had been building up for quite a while.

So authority can also have another side.  When it’s unchecked, as it was in the case of the chief priests and scribes and elders of the temple, authority can become tyrannical.  When an established authority is worshiped as if it were a god - where all things are in deference to it, and it alone - the authority can be stifling.  It can keep us from experiencing and embracing the movement of the Holy Spirit.  That’s what happened later that week with Jesus.  The authorities felt so threatened by him that they killed him.  But, of course, the power of God can wither trees and move mountains, so through Christ, even the authority of death was called into question - and it was found to be lacking.

So much of our lives are eaten up in questions of authority.  Who has it?  How can we get it? Who’s using it wrong?  Who do we want to give it to?  How can we wash our hands of it?

Authority is everywhere.  But it’s also really nowhere.  At least, nowhere we’ve been looking.

The message of Christ is that our authority is borne out of faith.  Jesus said, “If you have faith and don’t doubt, not only will you be able to do like I have done with this fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done.  Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.”

Our authority as Christians comes not from anything we do, nor from any level of study we have attained, nor from any expression of piety we can muster, not even from any level of authority thrust on us by our peers - our only authority comes from the sincerity of our faith in God.  All else is vanity.

And God - the one who created the heavens and the earth; the one who raised the mountains, and who can just as easily throw them into the sea, that same God of great power and might who can even raise the dead - that same God is shown to be of great power and might not chiefly because of any display of strength or control, but chiefly in showing mercy.  That’s where God’s authority lies.

The lesson we hear in the stories of the leaders of the temple is that they looked for authority in all the wrong places - even when it was right under their noses.  They respected their own authority too exclusively, when a greater authority was right there for them.  Too often, we do the same thing.

Our authority is in our faith.  God’s authority is in God’s mercy.  Wherever else we look is in vain. 

In the church, authority doesn’t always look like we’d expect it to.  Authorities in the spiritual realm can be surprising.  As we explore and negotiate questions of authority as a community, here, we’d be wise to remember that.  Christian authority can be subtle.  It can be surprising.  And if we can remain open to the creative power of God, and to the inspiration of Christ, and to the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, it can move whatever mountains might be in our way.

God is at work within us.  Have faith.  That’s the real authority we hold.  That, and God’s mercy.  Nothing can stand in our way.  Amen.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Trusting in God through transition

** First Sunday at Holy Trinity, Valley Stream, NY

In the name of God.  Amen.

I’m going to do something today that I almost never do.  It may not seem particularly out of the ordinary to you, since you’re not used to my preaching style or patterns or voice, but I assure you it’s highly out of character for me.

When I was first exploring this preaching vocation, my mentor trained me to “preach the Gospel”.  That, she assured me, was my call.  And sure, while there are certainly ways to preach the gospel without using the words of the gospels’ accounts of Jesus, the surest way to make sure that you’re actually doing it, is to preach from the words of the gospels.  Not from the Hebrew Bible, or from the Epistles, or from some extra-canonical text, but from the four gospel accounts of Jesus Christ.

That advice has served me well throughout my preaching life, and I’ll return you to that regularly scheduled programming shortly.  But for today, I’d like to take a little side trip.

There aren’t many times in the course of a ministry when the appointed texts or prayers of the lectionary cycles line up so nicely with the pastoral needs of a congregation (and, if I’m honest, with the pastoral needs of their priest) as is the case today.  When I read what the crafters of our Prayer Book had set up for us, I almost laughed at how appropriate it is.

In case you missed it at the start of the service, let’s hear that collect again:

Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

I really can’t think of better words for us to hear and say as we begin this journey together.  “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts…”  Even if the prayer didn’t go on from there that alone would be enough for us to live by.  But this beautifully appropriate prayer doesn’t stop there.  We are warned against “confiding in our own strength”, and we’re urged instead to “make our boast of God’s mercy.”

Transition can be unsettling.  It might even be scary, sometimes.  I know, as I’ve moved into this transition in my own life - of leaving a full-time parish position, and going back to school to try to develop skills to enable and enhance my vocation as a priest - it has been literally unsettling.  I’ve moved.  Into a new house, a new diocese, a new state…  That’s about as literally “unsettling” as something can be.  And, it’s frightening.  I’m starting a new master’s program at Adelphi.  I haven’t been in school for a long time, so it’s a little unnerving to consider going back into a classroom again.  It’s scary to be taking on new student loans again - despite Paul’s warnings against owing anyone anything.  It’s daunting to imagine taking on the rigors of starting a new ministry in a parish at the same time that I’m taking on the rigors of being a student.

It all feels tenuous and unstable.  Unsettled.  Scary.

But before your eyes glaze over entirely - let me assure you that I know that preaching isn’t all about me!  I’m telling you all of this so you’ll see that I’m in the boat with you.  I understand that transition can be a difficult season in our lives - I understand it because I’m living it right along side you.

Christianity has been described as “one beggar showing another beggar where to find bread.”  In this peculiar community that grows around our faith, no one is above another.  No one is the boss of another.  No one is at the top of the ladder lording his or her position over another.  We are simply fellow sojourners, traveling the way of Christ together, sharing with each other what we’ve learned on the journey to ease one another’s passage.

That’s not to say that we don’t have leaders, or that we don’t each have our own place within the community or our own tasks to accomplish and our own goals to strive toward.  Of course we do.  But the essence of the Christian experience is that we’re traveling together.  We’re each flawed.  We’re each burdened in our own ways.  But we’re also each gifted in our own ways.  We’re each empowered in our own ways.

We’re all looking for bread, and we’re all here to help each other find it.

So, in this season of transition - the transition we’re embarking on together as a community, and all of the other transitions that we’re all facing in our own lives, both large and small - in this season of transition we all need to help show each other a bit of the way.  For whatever legs of the journey through which we hold the map, we need to share that wisdom freely and joyfully.  For those legs of the journey when we feel lost or disoriented, we need to be ready and willing to be vulnerable with one another and to know when it’s time to let someone else lead the way.

We are called to trust in God with our whole hearts.  Not to rely on our own strength, but to boast, instead, of the Lord’s mercy.  Part of how we experience that mercy is through the wisdom and guidance of the gathered community.

In times of stress or uncertainty - the kinds of stress and uncertainty that we might experience during times of transition - it can be easy to try to rely solely on our own capacities.  It can be easy to try to imagine that we have it all - that we have everything that we need.  But the truth is, none of us do.  As individuals, we need the community.  As a community, we need the world beyond the sanctuary of these familiar and safe walls.  And through it all, we need the guidance, love, and support of God our creator, the Christ who came to set us free, and the Spirit who continues to birth renewed freedom into our lives.

We can’t do it alone.  We need God and we need the resources God has given us, in each other and in the world around us, rightly used.  We need to trust in God with our whole hearts, because we can’t ever do all that we’ve been called to do alone.

The paradox of it all is, confiding in our own strength will only reveal our weakness.  Our real strength is in the mercy of God.

Through this journey that we’re about to take together, we need to be strong enough to show each other the way.  And, perhaps even more importantly, we must be vulnerable enough to follow someone else.  That’s the only way we’ll find bread. 

So take out the lessons insert for today, and join me in reading the collect for the day.  May it become the collect, not just for today, but for our whole time together:

Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

And Amen.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Confronting our privilege so that we can be the church

Pentecost 10, Proper 15A
Matthew 15:10-28

**Note - this is my final sermon at Good Shepherd Church in Philadelphia

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

There are times when you only need a few words - sometimes not even an entire verse - to have enough fodder for a sermon.  Then there are times, when it seems you just can’t get enough.

In this morning’s Gospel reading, the first ten verses were optional.  But in reality, for the passage to make all the sense that it needs to, we really should have read the ten before it, too.

What we’ve missed is the story of a confrontation that Jesus has with the Pharisees.  They are challenging him for leading disciples who don’t always follow the traditions of the faith as strictly as they should.  Specifically, the have failed to abide by the tradition of performing a cleansing ritual prior to eating.

That brings us up to speed with what we’ve read this morning: Jesus counters the accusations of the Pharisees by reminding them that the real defilement that humans are capable of committing comes not from the rituals we perform or perform incorrectly or fail to perform, but from the evil that too often lives in our hearts and that we too easily spread throughout the world.  That is the behavior that truly defiles.  More than any religious tradition can purify, we, ourselves, are even more capable of contaminating.  Religious traditions can’t save us if the truth inside us (and the actions that it inspires) grieves the heart of God.

That alone would be a sufficient message for the day: worry less about how you are religious, and worry more about how to be a better person.  Let the religion flow from that.

But it’s not the end of the story.

The next thing we hear - which almost seems unrelated - is that Jesus and the disciples are traveling on, when their journey is interrupted by a foreigner begging for Christ’s blessing.

At first, they try ignoring her.  But she is persistent.  Then the disciples urge Jesus to send her away.  He tries - saying, basically: that’s not my department.  You aren’t the right kind of person to receive God’s blessing.  Even so, she refuses to go unheard.  She kneels in front of him - stopping him in his tracks - and pleads her case.

In what always strikes me as a surprisingly terse, and insensitive tone coming from Jesus, he says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

The dogs.

Even if you’re like me, and happen to love dogs, it’s hard not to hear that and not be taken aback.  Jesus compares this woman to a dog.  And not even just her, but her entire ethnicity.  He claims that she is, because of her heritage, unfit to receive the blessings of God.

It’s really hard to hear.

But even so, the woman remains insistent.  She accepts his cruelty and continues to argue her case.

From there we know how the story ends.  Even if we didn’t know, we could certainly guess.  He is moved by her persistence and by the steadfastness of her faith and sends her on her way, having received the healing for her daughter that she initially sought.  If it had ended any other way, it hardly would be a story.

But the connective tissue here is the tradition and the heart’s inner truths.  Just on the cusp of Jesus chiding the Pharisees for being more interested in their traditions than what was in their hearts, Jesus finds himself cornered by traditions of his own - traditions so deeply ingrained that he probably didn’t even notice it at first.

The tradition of patriarchy in the Ancient Near East was so commonplace and so deep, that it hardly even counts as a tradition.  It was just automatic.  So, first and foremost, it’s unimaginable to the minds of those days that a woman should stop this rabbi, and rebuff his refusals, and insist to be heard.  Women were not meant to be heard.  It wasn’t their place.

Moreover, she wasn’t just a woman, but a foreigner, as well.  She wasn’t an Israelite.  She wasn’t chosen.  To a faithful Jew of that time and place, she was worse than invisible.  She was outside the circle.  God’s love was thought to be impossible for her.

Even so, she demanded to be heard, and she demanded to know the love of God.  She demanded blessing.  She was the wrong gender and the wrong ethnicity, and even so, she demanded attention.

Jesus, as should have been expected of a Jewish man of his time, tried his best to ignore her.  When he couldn’t do that anymore, he tried to shoo her away - even with cruel insults if necessary.  But eventually, through her persistence, he was forced to examine his privilege.  He was forced to listen to himself, and to hear himself through the lens of the lessons that he, himself, had only just taught.

He had just told the Pharisees that our relationships with the traditions don’t defile us nearly as easily as do our hearts.  It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles, he said, but what comes out.

This is where the lesson lies for each of us: following the example of Christ, we have to examine our privilege.  Who do we see as no more than dogs, whether we admit it or not?  What does it say about our lives as Christians if when we are food secure, we deny that security to others?  What does it say about us, if we rise from our soft beds in our warm houses each morning, only to ignore the homeless, or worse yet, to actively refuse them the help they need?  What is the truth coming out of our hearts if those of us who aren’t victimized by the scourge of racism sit quietly, enjoying our privilege, without hearing the cries coming not just from Ferguson, Missouri, but from across the country, and even here in our own city?

The mega-church pastor, Craig Groeschel said, “God is not calling us to go to church, but to BE the church - the hope of the world.”

It’s not enough that we live by our traditions.  It’s not enough that we go to church.  We have to be the church as well.  We have to constantly strive to have the truth that is pouring out of our hearts - through our words and through our actions - be a truth that will not defile us.  It must build up the realm of God.  That will be what purifies our hearts and our souls - more than any tradition we might keep.

As I take my leave from this place, this is both my prayer for you and my goal for myself: that we will BE the church, that we will always examine our own privileges, and look for better ways to bring hope to the world.  It’s a lesson that even Jesus Christ had to learn.  Surely we can, too.  Amen.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

"Somebody has got to play fair with us in the end." -- Elaine Stritch

Proper 11A
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

In the name of God.  Amen.

One of the problems of preaching the parables - hearing and discussing the heart of Jesus’ teaching - the words we most closely attribute to him - one of the problems that brings for us in the church, is when his words make us uncomfortable.  When he teaches something unlike what we’re comfortable having taught.

This seems to happen in the parables a lot.  Particularly in Matthew’s account.  Too often the end of the story bring someone being thrown into a fire, and weeping and gnashing of teeth.  It’s just not what I most want to hear from Jesus.

This week we hear another parable set in the world of agriculture.  Seeds are sown again.  Last week we heard about seeds falling in the various places seeds might fall: where they were meant to fall, certainly, but also in a lot of other places.  Places that can’t sustain seeds.  Places where they fail to meet the potential for which they were designed.

This week we hear about another plight of the humble seed.  Seeds are sown - this time where they’re meant to be sown: in the field.  But they’re not alone.  Under the cover of darkness, an enemy comes and sows more seeds.  Not wheat.  Nothing that brings goodness and sustenance.  Weeds.  The very kinds of weeds that we heard about last week that would steal nutrients from the wheat, and cut the plants off, and choke them.

The problem is, no one noticed it until it was too late.  The weeds and wheat had grown together.  There was no way of killing the one they wanted out without also taking out the other.  The only solution was to wait until the wheat was mature enough for the harvest, and separate the good grains from the destructive grasses after uprooting it could no longer do any harm.

I’m sure Jesus must have meant for this parable to be a comfort to his followers.  Like all people in conflict, Jesus’ followers saw themselves as valuable wheat and their opposition as choking weeds.  It’s easy to imagine Jesus trying to tamp down the beginnings of violence within the ranks of his followers.  There were probably those who wanted to simply tear the weeds out.  But Jesus knew that doing so would hurt the wheat as well - not just the weeds.

That’s the way it is.

I’ve told you before about my summer habit of re-watching some favorite television shows on Netflix or DVD.  Once the networks enter their summer hiatus there’s not much on, and it’s easier to re-watch old shows than to search for something that’s worth my time.

For a while this summer, I’ve been watching Dexter again.  In case you’re not familiar with it: it was a series on Showtime telling the story of a serial killer who  At one point in the series, Dexter finds himself in something of a relationship with a woman who had been abused, and who had barely escaped a group of men who were planning to kill her.  Through the course of the season, Dexter and his companion set about hunting down and killing all of the men who had been her abusers.
only kills other criminals.

During one of the final kills, the woman announces to Dexter that she wants to do the killing this time.  She doesn’t want him to do it for her anymore.  As they’re discussing it, Dexter warns her: I’ve done this before.  This is a part of who I am.  But once you do this, you can’t ever take it back.  It will change you.

I think that’s part of the message that Jesus is trying to teach his followers.  The weeds may be problematic.  They may be a nuisance.  They may even be depriving the wheat of what it needs to thrive.  But eliminating it will hurt more than just the weeds.

It’s a lesson that we’d be wise to heed in the troubles of our world.  This has been a heck of a week on the global stage.  Tensions between Israel and Palestine are heating up to terrifying degrees.  Tens of thousands of unaccompanied children have made a harrowing journey from Central America to try to find peace in our land and to escape from the brutality and fear that they faced at home.  In the ongoing tension between Russia and Ukraine, an airplane full of innocent civilians was shot out of the sky and each side is blaming the other.

In each of these scenes each side thinks it’s the wheat and that the other is the weeds.  Each stalk of self-proclaimed wheat is willing, if not eager to pull the ones they see as weeds out of the ground.  But like Dexter warned his friend, and like Jesus warns us in the parable, we can’t harm the other without harming ourselves.  It damages us to hurt another.

Earlier this week, Elaine Stritch died.  She was a Broadway veteran among Broadway veterans.  She was revered in the community - even if sometimes maligned by the industry.  She was brassy and brave and she wore her shortcomings and her challenges just as proudly - if not more proudly - than the accolades that she often received.  The New York Times posted a video online of an interview that they’d done with her several years ago.  The interview was clearly a retrospective - a kind of living obituary for herself.  Among the questions she answered, she was asked what she thought about death and the afterlife.

As if she were preaching this parable for us today, she said, “What an adventure it’s gonna be!  And if it’s nothing…  Are you kidding?...  Nothing comes from nothing…  If it is nothing, it’s nothing.  But I don’t think so, though.  I don’t think so.  Too many people are getting a raw deal, you know?  You gotta even the score here someplace.  Somebody has got to play fair with us in the end.”

Jesus’ comfort to us in the midst of this raw deal is that somebody is gonna play fair with us in the end.  It doesn’t do any good for us to sort out the good from the bad - the evil from the righteous - the wheat from the weed.  We’re not very good at it anyway.  When we try, we invariably hurt ourselves and those around us.

But the raw deal isn’t the end of the story.  Maybe you’re like me, and you get a little uncomfortable when you start hearing about some being “thrown into the fire” and the “weeping and gnashing of teeth”.  Those are never my favorite parts of the Bible.

But to hear that we shouldn’t hurt each other: that’s the gospel.  To be reminded that the “too many” who are getting a “raw deal” haven’t heard the end of the story: that’s the gospel.

Throughout the world we hear a lot of proclamations of who is evil and who is righteous.  We hear people shouting about who is the wheat and who are the weeds.  You can hear that everywhere you turn.  But even in the midst of all of that, listen for the gospel.  Listen for those subtle bits of truth that build you up.  They’re sometimes harder to hear, but it’s worth it to try.  Amen.