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, 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.