Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Becoming Children of God

Scripture read on the 1st Sunday after Christmas includes Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 3:23-25 and 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

Today, St. Paul tells us that God became a child in a manger so that you and I might become children of God.

And today, St. John tells us that all who receive Jesus, who believe in his name, are given power to become children of God.

Who says it’s so important to act like an adult?

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of God.” That’s Jesus weighing in on the question.

Change how? This question seems to dance throughout our readings today.

Recover our ability to play. Adults play to compete, and I doubt that’s what Jesus has in mind for the skill set needed in God’s kingdom. I also doubt whether children need to be taught to compete—they come by it naturally—but the kind of play adults might recover for God is marked by imagination, simplicity, making do with what’s at hand, delight, self-expression, and openness to one another.

Recover our ability to play. And realize the importance of our senses. Seeing and feeling color and texture and form. Smelling the frankincense, letting the myrrh drip through our fingers. Vibrating our voices in song and appreciating music made by others. Hearing one another. Listening in silence. Moving and reaching in rhythms of sharing, giving, receiving.

Recover our ability to play. Realize the value of our senses. And rely less on analytical thought. Not that it’s unneeded in the kingdom of God—it’s surely needed in ordering the life of the Church, and in understanding the faith of the Church, and in achieving the work of the Church to bring justice and peace on earth. But adults practice compulsive analysis, while the central power of a child is impulsive trust. Which of these powers leads you to God?

Recover play. Realize senses. Rely on trust. And recognize true wealth, replacing money and things with roots and wings. That’s from the old Shaker saying that there are just two lasting gifts that our children need, roots and wings. If a pot of gold and a retirement plan lie at the end of the rainbow for adults, for children it’s belonging that balances them for becoming, exploring, and engaging life.

Recover play-- organize less.

Realize senses-- let them illuminate words and thoughts.

Rely on trust-- value questions more than answers, reach answers through the heart.

Recognize true wealth-- and share it.

The Love Song of God

I wonder if you recall reading about a proposal that a new generation of astronauts may have to be willing to accept the ultimate mission of landing on a distant planet without any prospect of returning to earth.

The general drift of this concept is that soon we’ll have the technology to get you there, but we don’t yet have the know-how to get you back. We’ll get you there so you can lay claim to some portion of this vast new territory, start a base of operations, and conduct amazing experiments (one of which is you), but we can’t get you back. We know lots of ways to support you, but at the start it’s going to be you and a brave new world.

Whereupon a political wag was heard to comment, “We already have this system in place. It’s how we send a President into the Oval Office.”

Does that harrowing job description of a future astronaut help us comprehend the mission Jesus accepted in being born of Mary? “Thou didst leave thy throne and thy kingly crown when thou camest to earth for me,” sings a 19th-century carol, when space flight couldn’t have been imagined. The carol evokes a sense of exile: does Jesus come to earth to be strategically stranded like that future astronaut?

Theologians among you will recognize that this comparison doesn’t work. An earthling on Mars would be an alien invasion. An earthling on Mars doesn’t belong there. The incarnation of God in Jesus is not the result of an extra-terrestrial mission injecting alien life into our world; it is the result of our world groaning in travail, yearning for healing, reaching for reconciling love, birthing in new creation. Jesus doesn’t come from heaven: Jesus comes from a fertilized egg in Mary’s womb; and while tradition explains this as miracle by the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary, that spiritual “how” doesn’t contradict the physical “what” that we hear in the opening chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. There we find a long genealogy showing Jesus to be descended from wise Solomon and charismatic David and obedient Abraham—and it is Joseph’s genealogy, it is his seed that generates Jesus.

In the definition battled-out at the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451, the “Definition of the Union of the Divine and Human Natures in the Person of Christ,” he is said to be “truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood…”

Jesus Christ is like us in all respects, except that he is not exiled from God, not stuck in sin as we tend to be (though he knows what such exile feels like, he has gotten so close to the margins we have crossed). Reading again from that 5th-century definition: In him are held together, perfectly blended, “two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation… coming together to form one person and subsistence…one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ…”

I never thought I would be using the words of the Chalcedonian Definition in a Christmas sermon, but they eloquently express what I’m trying to say: Jesus is not an alien stranded in another world than his own: he is the most truly native son of earth, fulfilling the mind of its maker. Which means that his mission is to draw into unity all things, all people, all the created order into unity with God in himself.

The stranded astronaut, to the contrary, divides the planet he invades by claiming a portion of it as his, belonging to his country. He is exiled from earth but carries with him the earthbound sin of claiming what is not his to own.

As this is not the way of Jesus, how will he gather into one a fractured creation? By claiming what is his to own, his truth resonating with what is true in us, his love recognizing what is love in us, his mercy reaching to renew our integrity, his wisdom building with the wisdoms of diverse humanity, his self-giving encouraging and inspiring the generosity of all brave hearts.

Here is good news, sung like a lovesong from God, to all who carry in their bodies, minds, or hearts wounds from being exiled from home…, exiled from innocence…, alienated from God…, alienated by religion…, separated from a loved one (or a once-loved one)…, disillusioned by politics…, all who feel they are refugees from a dominant culture…, strangers in a changing world…

He knows all about our exile. He comprehends it all. He is at work there, on those frontiers of our own alienations, offering sanctuary, offering repair, offering renewal in his own body and his own Spirit and in the community that bears his name.

Here is good news, sung like a lovesong from God. How shall we sing back?

Our Longing, God's Longing

Scripture for the 4th Sunday in Advent includes Isaiah 7:10-16; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

Christmas (twelve days) and Advent (four weeks), even when combined, are the shortest seasons in the church year. So short… and yet they are all about longing. Our longing, and God’s longing.

What are you longing for? Go ahead: say it out loud!

Light in a dark season? Warmth in the cold? For Christmas Day to come? For Christmas Day to be over? For all the clutter of a material holiday to disappear? For your loved ones to be happy? For you yourself to feel joy?

Are you longing for God?

What is God longing for? If answering that question is central to our experience of Advent and Christmas, the material clutter of the holidays will not reveal the answer. We’ll have to step back from the Christmas tree with hands in the air, leave the crime scene of the kitchen, silence the computer’s siren seductive last-minute shopping opportunities, and go take a walk. If it’s on a star-bedazzled night, we might look up and dare to hear the answer: What God longs for, God whose name is Emmanuel, is to be with us.

How many times have you looked up, looked out a hospital window, raised your eyes from a graveside to see through tears darkly, in your solitude searched the heavens and asked, “God, where are you?”

And to think that simultaneously God yearns to be with us! Such a disconnect just sharpens the edge of the Collect we prayed: daily God visits us to hum near our ear the lovesong of heaven, shaping in us both conscience (the voice of God within) and consciousness (awareness of God, reverence for life), and it is for us to prepare more and more a place for the Christ God sends. Sharpened by this short sweet season is the Prayer Book’s lesson that the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

Our Christmas observance, in church and at home, should advance this mission. Our Christmas celebration can be the lovesong we sing to God, what we send our children home humming after their pageant is performed, the music of the spheres globally repositioning us, preparing us to slough off the skin of an old year and find ourselves new.

With Jesus Christ at the center of it all, no wonder Matthew’s Gospel, the very first page we meet in the New Testament, is all about who Jesus is and how God comes to be with us in him.

We’re given only the second half of Matthew’s first chapter. Do you recall what’s in the first half? Yes, all the begats. That we don’t get to hear all those generations today suggests that our church elders may have thought there isn’t enough time in Advent for that kind of thing.

But the question of who Jesus is gets answered in part by a genealogy covering forty-two generations in three sections with fourteen generations in each. The first starts with the Hebrew patriarch Abraham and goes fourteen generations to great King David. Then come fourteen generations from Solomon to the time of the disaster, the sixth- century BCE, when Israel’s leading citizens were forced into exile by the Babylonian emperor. In the last section of this genealogy, fourteen generations bring us Joseph “the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.”

This genealogy says that Jesus sums up the longing of God to be with his people in a faithful servant, obedient like Abraham, charismatic like David, wise like Solomon.

This genealogy also says that Jesus sums up the human longing of God’s people, and will carry in his own body the pain and suffering they know in their exile from home.

And this genealogy does a surprising thing. Unusual for a Jewish author of that time, Matthew includes women, a surprising selection of women. Tamar, a Gentile, tricked and seduced her father-in-law, then bore illegitimate twins. Rahab, another Gentile, once worked as a prostitute. Ruth also grew up as a pagan Gentile, and Uriah’s wife Bathsheba committed adultery with charismatic King David. Not a few of the men listed had unsavory pasts. This genealogy says that Jesus had some pretty shady ancestors.

I’m guessing that most of us have a family tree with some dodgey characters in it, and perhaps some births out of wedlock. Guess what? So does Jesus. And who can miss Matthew’s carefully-crafted message? When he says, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way…” he means that God works equally well outside, as well as inside, what we mortals called traditional. God is free to make choices.

A similar point is made when Matthew tells us about Joseph, to whom Mary was betrothed. By tradition, that put them beyond engagement in a formal way that could be dissolved only by divorce. That a betrothed woman was pregnant would be understood as meaning (so long as her betrothed had been behaving himself) that the child did not belong to the husband-to-be. In a strict adherence to tradition, Mary would have been charged with adultery.

But Joseph, being a just man, was not willing to expose her to public disgrace. Or to expose himself? Sure. He must have wanted it all to go away, as in that stage of grief when it hurts so much you lose your imagination, your awareness that you have choices.

Then came the dream. In deep sleep, Emmanuel hums the Christmas message, “Do not be afraid… Do not be afraid to stay the course, to face the world with courage you do not know you have, for there’s something at work here that exceeds all that you long for. But it takes you for it to happen. It takes you making certain very good (and likely very hard) choices.”

What is it about Joseph that is so useful to God? It is that he did not react according to the law when he decided to protect Mary from humiliation and punishment. His sense of justice exceeded the justice of law. This will be the constant message of Jesus in Matthew, that God is shaping in us a higher and finer sense of right and wrong than the standards of the world, the ways of business, and the traditions of culture. God is shaping in us awareness of choices, and the ability to welcome such grace as will show us our best choices.

This higher and finer sense is what we want for Julian, whom we will baptize this morning. We want his senses free and clear to recognize that in the adventure of life there is available to him more than he can desire or pray for, God with him humming in his ear the lovesong of heaven, shaping in him conscience that will seek justice exceeding law, and consciousness that will revere and love and reveal to him his very best choices.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Protecting the House

Scripture for the 1st Sunday in Advent includes Isaiah 2:1-5, Romans 13:11-14, and Matthew 24:36-44

The rule of thumb in Advent is the same one you hear when you travel by air: When the oxygen masks drop overhead, fasten your own before attempting to help the person next to you.

With that in mind, visit the table near the font and find a good resource for yourself as you step into a new year (that’s what the Church says we’re doing today) and as you face the daily choice, either to ride the escalator that takes you to every floor of the Christmas Extravaganza (from Santa’s lap on the mezzanine all the way up to the credit office, top floor), or to walk and wait and breathe and enjoy and encourage a sweet short season that opens you to the reason we shall celebrate the Christ who comes.

And while you’re selecting a good resource for you, look for something you might give to a friend. Who knows, maybe it will give the two of you something fresh to talk about, some fresh air to breathe together this Advent (whether you’re reading the same daily meditations, or different ones). Who knows?

We notice a lot of not-knowing in today’s Gospel. A decisive moment for the universe is near, but no one (not even Jesus) knows exactly when. Jesus teaches that this sharp turn will affect everyone, and he likens it to the ancient story of Noah and the flood, when Noah’s family obediently (if reluctantly) prepared for the rising of the sea, while just about everybody else partied on, or plodded on, knowing nothing until Noah entered that crowded ark and the flood waters rose.

There is in that ancient story more than a hint that people didn’t want to know anything that confronted and challenged their expected daily routine. The partiers wanted to party and the plodders wanted to plod, and it was nobody’s business to sound any alarms. Don’t try to regulate our partying, those partiers might have shouted. It’s not government’s business to interfere with our plodding, argued the others.

Meanwhile, animals were getting restless. Horses pawed the ground, bees looked lost, burrowing creatures skittered uphill—they all knew, they all showed it.

Rain splattered everywhere like a legion of catapults, and still the wise species did not know, except for Noah the awake, Noah the aware.

And that’s all we need from that primeval story. Jesus doesn’t give us all of it, just enough to show us how tempting it is, in anxious times, to bury your head in your party (or in your plodding) and know nothing except what entertains and justifies and comforts.

Quickly he reaches for another metaphor. What’s coming, he says, will separate people from one another, will divide friends and neighbors, fracture society. Imagining this needn’t be like in science fiction, an invasion of body snatchers. Two people could be watching the news, one on PBS, the other on Fox. Are they both seeing one and the same world? Or one will be watching Dancing with the Stars, the other Frontline. One will be here, one will be there, not unlike living on two different planets! One person’s reality is not real to the next: it all depends on to what, and to whom, you’re paying attention.

Two women will be in the workforce, working as they have, side by side, for many years. Suddenly one is laid off. Losing her job, she is taken into a parallel universe of unemployment compensation on which she and her dependents cannot rely, because society is coming apart at the seams of its old safety nets.

Thinking globally, as we approach World AIDS Day, 33.3 million people are living with HIV, including 2.5 million children. Last year, 2.6 million people became newly infected with the virus. 1.8 million died of AIDS.

In keeping with our Gospel’s insistence on awareness, consider two people living with HIV, one in this country, the other in one of the sub-Saharan nations of Africa.

Both will need good nutrition. Eating well can help each of these two people prevent or delay loss of muscle tissue, sometimes called wasting. Eating well can strengthen the immune system, reduce viral mutations, decrease infections and hospitalizations, and lessen the symptoms of HIV/AIDS, and the side-effects of anti-retroviral drugs.

Our two people living with HIV/AIDS need better nutrition than their neighbors have—let’s say 30% better if they’re adults, 100% better if they are children. In this country, better-than-average nutrition may be available. In sub-Saharan Africa? It’s unlikely. There, the rule may be that food goes to whoever is the wage-earner in the family, not so much the young, the old, or the sick.

Of our two people, the African faces at best a 50% chance of getting the anti-retroviral drugs he or she needs. The rule about food may apply to a family’s share of anti-retroviral drugs: if several members of the family need them, they will go first to the wage-earners, a harsh fact of life, a different reality from the American person’s experience.

What else gets in the way of drug therapy? In Mozambique, floods. In Zimbabwe, an unstable political and economic situation. In South Africa, public sector strikes. When society is fractured, people needing health care suffer. And the global recession has seen several western nations cut their financial commitment to equalizing access to drug therapy (though the United States, if I’m not mistaken, has kept on schedule with its aid).

“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready…”

What is the house that we own, that we are to protect?

Is it a fractured nation, needing reunification and brave government?

Is it a society whose safety nets are in tatters, and its values as well?

Is it a global economy requiring worldwide purging of graft and bribery, insider deals and outsized pay disparity?

Is it our one world, comprising the well and the ill, the affluent and the poor, the seas rising on us all?

Is it the kingdom of God, the realm of light where we learn how to beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, technology freed to serve the new creation?

We also must be ready, freed, and prepared.

That he makes us able to be so is good news, telling us that he walks with us and before us, that his grace will meet us and equip us.

But he needs us, and needs us to be ready.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

On What Do We Stake Our Lives?

Bible portions read on the 25th Sunday after Pentecost include Isaiah 65:17-25; II Thessalonians 3:6-13; and Luke 21:5-19

As Christians, we stake our lives on what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit.

But something about that claim seems limited if it’s put in a past tense, and if we claim it’s only for and about us. Isn’t it truer, worthier, and more exciting to stake our lives on what God is doing for the world in Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit?

Next Sunday will be Christ the King Sunday, when the Church contemplates and celebrates the reign of Jesus Christ on earth. A King? What sort of king is he? A King? Such an antique title. But there it is, throughout the New Testament: the Kingdom of God is proclaimed, announced, preached as a new ordering of life that is near, but not yet here.

Today the prophet Isaiah helps us anticipate this question, What is God doing for the world? “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.” The promised king, the promised kingdom, and what it means to be citizens of that kingdom are all about joy.

Isaiah shows us why. Justice. Mercy. Lovingkindness. Peace. Of all these powers is God’s kingdom built. In that kingdom fully realized, these powers will show themselves tangibly in the incidence of infant mortality (zero), the extension of life expectancy (to one hundred), affordable and sustainable housing and agriculture safe from foreclosure and the depredation of enemies. Enjoyable work with meaningful purpose, children’s futures secure from the ravages of war, peace so pervasive that nature is no longer red in tooth and claw. And the relationship between God and people so open that nothing gets in the way of calling and answering, speaking and hearing.

Oh, sign us up!

No, no, don’t analyze it, don’t critique it—imagine it! Can you sketch a finer version of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness? Sure, it sounds unmanageable on a limited planet—but listen to the mind of the Maker, at least according to the prophet Isaiah.

The experiment in democracy that we call the United States of America seemed barely imaginable or manageable, just more than two centuries ago. Now we know it’s only unmanageable.

All the more reason, then, to listen to the mind of the Maker. If we’re going to experience unmanageability, let’s do it for the highest good. If we’re going to take any passage in the Bible literally, why not this one from Isaiah?

And as the report from a bipartisan committee on abolishing our national debt dramatizes our unmanageability, let it also remind us that creating a new order is God’s work. At least to the extent that our vision for national and international life is to serve God’s passionate purposes of justice, mercy, and peace; at least to the extent that we want our national and international life to implement God’s agenda published by the prophet Isaiah, we can be working hand in hand with God.

So I’d better bridge the two testaments, and make clear my case that what God is doing for the world in Jesus Christ is that reordering of life into a new creation that Isaiah sketches. You will recall that it is often Isaiah whom Jesus quotes, as in his very first sermon (“for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives… to let the oppressed go free…”) Such is the kingdom Jesus proclaimed and preached, the kingdom he could best describe and recruit for by means of parables that got people wondering and imagining what it meant to them, what it required of them. Such is the kingdom Jesus realized by healing sick people’s bodies and minds; consorting with and promoting poor people, uneducated people, children; confronting the arrogant and the narrow-minded; provoking the backward-looking; stimulating hope among the neglected and the nearly-disappeared. Such is the kingdom he died for, to root it for all time in the ground of our being and to free it for all times and places by putting its seed into the hands of ordinary women and men and children, calling them to sow that seed by humble potent acts of faith and hope and love, always multiplied by the divine Spirit that dwells within and hovers over the whole creation.

As Christians, we stake our lives on what God is doing for the world in Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit. We accept and honor and try to meet God’s call to sow the seeds of the kingdom by humble potent acts of faith and hope and love. God’s new creation must be the Church’s first and constant passion. The Church must not mistake itself for that new creation, or that kingdom, but must be its servant in the world. The Church must not assume it is the only theater in which God is acting, for the world belongs to God, and all that is within it. And the Church must not rely on money, or professionals, or real estate, or committees, or canon law, or tribal customs, or magic, or the same people all the time to meet God’s call to serve, and to sow the seeds of the kingdom in the world.

“Unless the LORD builds the house, their labor is in vain who build it.” Those are lyrics to a song sung in ancient Israel several hundred years before Christ, and they mark the truth of the Church.

Meanwhile, the Church is going through a whole lot of deconstruction. Even familiar houses of prayer are closing, right and left.

The Methodist congregations in North Adams and Williamstown have voted to merge, and have put both church buildings on the market, intending some day to build on the border between towns a flexible, sustainable church center.

St. Mark’s in Adams and St. John’s in North Adams have begun two weekends of voting on a proposal to merge. Their approach will be to retain one of their two buildings, and let go of the other.

St. James’ in Great Barrington has left its historic buildings, after the collapse of a wall behind the altar. A non-profit corporation headed by a parishioner has purchased the property with the goal of creating a multi-use center, with the repaired sanctuary someday available again to the congregation on a leased basis, the congregation (it may be) a tenant with the landlord among its own.

And all across the land Roman Catholic churches that were for generations fix- tures in their communities have gone through mergings and closings.

Imagine how Christians who are experiencing such deconstruction may hear today’s Gospel: “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

I expect that none of us would rush to join their numbers, and that each of us would find it painful to lose a house of prayer and friendship that has come to mean so much over the years. Such letting-go would put us on a sharp learning curve.

Put differently, the fact that so many of our neighbors are rising on that curve tells us that we must learn what they are learning.

And the lesson most worth learning is that as Christians, we stake our lives not on having a church building, or a professional staff, or a beautiful liturgy, or fabulous stained glass windows. We stake our lives on what God has done for us—and is doing for the world-- in Jesus Christ, by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit. And we open ourselves to God’s call to serve the new creation in the world, where God is at work, and where we are needed to sow seeds of the kingdom by humble potent acts of faith, hope, and love.

That call does not require a building, but that call must be heard in this place, and often. That call to serve in the world, in our own neighborhoods and workplaces, must be heard in our liturgy here so that a greater worshiping of God may be offered beyond this place, including such sweet harmony as must please God when marriages and families and friendships and relationships in workplace and campus life are recognized as sanctuaries where what is holy and what is human are treasured, strengthened, and renewed.

Defining and Revering

Scripture appointed for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost includes Haggai 1:15b-2:9; II Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; and Luke 20:27-38

Those Sadducees irritate me. I can understand their need for rational religion, if that’s what caused them to argue that there is no resurrection. But when they construct a test case and build it out of the very belief they insist they don’t hold, they’re demeaning other people’s religion—as they do here, suggesting that belief in resurrection is absurd.

In this, they are like the anti-God writers today (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens) who tell their readers that only idiots believe in God.

Well, they have a point. The God they demolish in their books is a pretty silly cartoon of the God of Judaism and the God of Christianity. He is an old white man with a great long beard, alternately sappy and peevish, a figure like Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore in Harry Potter, but without his intelligence, his integrity, and his dry wit. The God Dawkins and Hitchens don’t believe in, I don’t either. They aim way too low, and write as if they haven’t read much theology.

In a like way, Sadducees and Pharisees and scribes in the New Testament all appear to have been trained in religious law, but to have no appetite for religious mystery. This encounter some of them have with Jesus today is just one more example of how narrow minds were persistent in the effort to trap Jesus, to catch him saying something that could be held against him in a court of law, or at least used against him as sound bytes in public debates and sabbath day sermons.

Don’t feel bad on Jesus’s behalf, however. He’s always up for a good theological brawl. And we’d never have heard of Saduccees and Pharisess and scribes if their presence in the Gospels didn’t advance the cause of Gospel-writers. These narrow legalistic minds are the perfect foils, sometimes just the right catalysts, for Jesus’s revelation of God.

The law mentioned by Sadducees today allowed a practice called levirate marriage, from the Latin “levir”, brother-in-law. Imagine a man who died without children. His brother was obligated by this law to take his brother’s wife and have children by her. Providing children in this way ensured the flow of property within the family, including security for the brother’s widow. You can find this law in chapter 25 of the Book of Deuteronomy in the Bible, and while you might not be motivated to look that up, you might find it interesting to read what the consequences were if the brother-in-law refused.

But let’s get ourselves out of the first century and back to the present. What might we make of this Gospel?

You might say that this little case study shows how absurd it can be, in any culture, to define a person by her or his relationship to someone else.

“In the resurrection… whose wife will the woman be? For the seven brothers had married her.” And if you were acting this as a skit, that last line would go on to include, “Har, har har!” Which is another reason these Saduccees irritate us, as they demean this woman, and for that matter these several brothers-in-law.

But don’t we have our own struggles defining ourselves and our nearest and dearest? Possessiveness is one form of struggle, and we see it when spouses try to clip one another’s wings or undercut one another’s growth, and when parents fail to cut the strings they’ve attached to their growing children’s freedom (and sometimes when grown children collude and don’t want those strings cut).

Another form of struggle is ours when change redefines relationship. A married person is suddenly single because of the death of a partner. In another couple, each becomes gradually single through separation and divorce. We may react to the demeaning priorities of the Sadducees, but divorce in contemporary America creates custody battles that treat children as if they were property.

And if we’re cataloging changes, the Great Recession keeps them coming, rippling into the future, as lost jobs, lost homes, lost illusions, and lost luxuries redefine who people are. Shift up (or down) from economics to politics, and wonder how the elections of 2010 may redefine who we are as a nation. Or may not.

In common to many of our definings and our redefinings is that, deeper within us than all our gainings and all our losings, is the core of who we truly are. With the memory of last Sunday’s baptisms still fresh, let’s remember that there is no purer sense of that core identity than what we discover at the font, where we stand revealed as children of God, members of Christ’s Body, and inheritors of the Kingdom of God; where we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever; and where we receive the astonishing call to grow into the full stature of Jesus Christ, with the help of all his people.

In the light of all that, hear a slightly tweaked version of what Jesus said to the Sadducees: “Those who belong to this age define who they are in terms of their relationship to husband or wife or parents or children, job or profession, schools attended, political party or religious affiliation—all those empty spaces you fill in on an application. But those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection—those who know they’ve been accepted and can stop filling out the application—they aren’t owned, except by God, and they aren’t afraid of change, because they’ve done their dying, realizing they can’t own anyone, can’t control the lives of others however near and dear, heck, can’t control their own lives, and instead choose to entrust themselves and all whom they love into the care and keeping and transforming love of God.”

You may have noticed that Jesus ends his encounter with the Sadducees by pivoting and sinking a shot from half-court.

“And the fact that the dead are raised is shown by Moses himself, the great law-giver, in the story about the bush. That would be the burning bush, and I’ll bet that story isn’t your favorite because it’s so, well, non-rational. But there Moses faced the sheer mystery of who God is, and how God calls a person to grow. Telling the story, Moses speaks of God as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—not defining God in terms of a bunch of dead people, but revealing how the dead are alive to God.

“And just as important in that story: when Moses tries to get God to define God’s self with a name, God answers, “I am who I am.”

And that’s not a bad model of self-definition for us all.

It requires reverence in response to the sheer otherness of God. And the role that reverence plays in our love of God teaches us, invites us, to respect the distinct otherness of each person we love.

And to recognize our own: that each of us is other than the multiple ways we are defined by our relationships. And it is there, at our core, that we encounter God in prayer, in silence, in conscience, and in reflection on our actual experience as children of God who are called to grow, and to revere that inner life that has less to do with law, more with mystery and grace.

Monday, November 1, 2010

What Are You Going to Be?

Bible passages appointed for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost include Habakkuk 1:1-4 and 2:1-4; II Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; and Luke 19:1-10

It’s not often that we go to church on Hallowe’en. I know, Hallowe’en isn’t until tonight: its name means the evening before All Hallows Day, and All Hallows is a very old name for tomorrow, All Saints Day. On All Saints Day we remember all the people who have helped us see and know and love God, all the people whose examples have hallowed God’s name. We use that very old word in one form of the Lord’s Prayer: “hallowed be your name.” Our saints have shown us the holiness of God.

So, is anyone here going trick or treating tonight as a saint?

No? Why is that? Isn’t it more fun to pretend that you’re something dangerous and scarey? (What are you going to be, when you go out tonight?)

What happens when you put on a costume? It fills your imagination, doesn’t it? You reach to become something you were not, before you put it on. Your costume invites you to act as if you really were what you want people to believe you’re trying to be.

Now that gets me thinking about Zacchaeus. We learned several things about him in our Gospel today. He was the chief tax collector. He was rich. And he was not a tall man. And a fourth thing: he was not afraid to climb a tree. And a fifth: he wasn’t what people thought he was. A generous man lived behind the mask of a greedy tax collector.

I don’t know whether a chief tax collector wore an official costume as part of his job, but he might as well have. Everyone knew, everyone could see, what Zacchaeus did for a living. He took a lot of their money and handed it over to the hated Roman Empire that controlled their country. He was a ratfink. And nothing he could do would ever pretty that up and make people feel differently about him. You can’t make a leopard change his spots, people would have said about him. He’s definitely a ratfink.

If you’re under the age of eighteen, chances are good that you live in a world, Mondays through Fridays, where unpopular people don’t get treated very well. It doesn’t take much to become unpopular, does it? Look a little different, have a sweet and gentle spirit, have zero interest in sports, have not very much money, and poof, you’re at risk of being unpopular, and made fun of, even bullied. Interestingly, some of those same characteristics can contribute to creating a bully.

And if you’re over the age of eighteen, your world isn’t quite as brutal, but unpopularity is still a curse. There’s always pressure to conform, to do what others do and be like others are. On one hand, we talk a lot about respecting diversity. On the other hand, we tend to stay with our own kind, to not cross lines that separate our kind from other kinds, and to react to personal difference with blame and even hatred.

Zacchaeus was deeply unpopular. And he’s the one Jesus seeks out. Oh, that Jesus: he’s full of surprises!

Put this little story on the stage, and you’ll need a whole bunch of extra’s, people who were hoping, even expecting, that Jesus would come to their houses for dinner. Influential people, professional people, religious people, proper people… “Surely, he’ll want to spend the evening with me!” people. Popular people.

And to help us catch the message even better, St. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was short in stature. “He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not…”

Children will find this easy to appreciate. Here in church, there’s always some bigger-than-life adult in front of you, whom you can’t see through. Go to read a lesson at the lectern, and you have to find a stool to stand on.

Wednesday, I read this Gospel at the eucharist at Sweet Brook Care Center. Every person in that congregation was in a wheelchair. They appreciated Zacchaeus’s perspective.

He took his situation in hand and climbed a sycamore tree. Appreciate what he did: In those days, it was considered undignified for a grown man to run in public, and a man of his importance would never climb a tree. Already unpopular, this man made himself a laughingstock, just to see Jesus.

And Jesus appreciated this. Jesus knew just what he was seeing. Jesus went and stood with the man everyone was ridiculing. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” This Jesus is full of surprises! He took that situation and turned it on its head, sending all those self-important people home empty-handed and grumbling, while he instead chose to make one new disciple.

When you listen to what Zacchaeus says to Jesus, you appreciate how God has been working on him for some time. “Half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor…” Who else ever says that in the Bible? Kings, actually, two or three I can think of, expressing such extravagant love for their queens that they pledge half their kingdom. By his generosity Zacchaeus expresses love and devotion, both to God and to neighbor. He gets it. He shows that he gets what it means to fulfill the law and the prophets.

“And if I have defrauded anyone of anything…”—and there’s a good chance he has; tax collectors in those days earned their reputation—“I will pay back four times as much.”

There’s an example for Wall Street.

An example of holy change, the hallowing of a life, one person’s salvation making life better for many people around him. That’s how righteousness works. No one had ever called Zacchaeus a righteous man, but that’s what he’s becoming through this new attitude to money (and to people), and what Jesus hears and sees is proof of what the prophet Habakkuk said, “The righteous live by their faith.” Faith is being born, faith is being shown, in Zacchaeus’s choices.

If he hadn’t made the choice to take those social risks, climbing that sycamore tree, would he and Jesus have found each other? Making that choice positioned him to grow in faith, in stature, in relationship with God and with his world.

So what kind of climbing and reaching do you need to do? I asked that question in a roomful of Sweet Brook residents, wondering if I wasn’t pushing the story a little too hard.

“Believe in God,” answered Owen from the back row. I told him I thought that was a great answer. “Go to church,” he said, moments later. Owen was on a roll.

In just a few moments, it will be your turn to answer. Pay attention to the baptismal covenant, appreciate how each answer you make to each of these questions I will ask is a tree worth climbing in order to grow in faith, in stature, and in relationship with God and with God’s reign of respect, lovingkindness, peace, and justice in this world.

It isn’t often that we gather in church on Hallowe’en. It isn’t often that one is baptized on Hallowe’en, and today three of our children will take that step. ZoĆ«, Ava, and Benedict will become members of a family larger than their first families. Like their original families, their church family is blessed with people who will help them see and know and love God, people whose examples keep hallowing God’s name, saints we call them.

And as these children grow in their discovery of how God loves them, how Jesus stands with them, how the Spirit of God moves through them in love, they will find power to make choices in their sometimes brutal world, choices that can turn their world upside down and make it turn around right, like choosing to sit at lunch with a child who is alone, and choosing to confront bullying when they see it, and not giving in when the price of popularity is just too much to pay.

When the church was young, many centuries ago, long before there was a Hallowe’en, each newly baptized person would be given a plain white garment to wear. It was meant to remind them that when they were baptized, they put on the Lord Jesus Christ like a magnificent cloak, wearing his love in the world—sort of like Harry Potter’s cloak, but not to make them invisible; rather, to make Jesus’s love visible, the kind of costume that fills the imagination and invites one to become who he or she truly is.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Crossing the Chasm

Bible readings for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost include Amos 6:1a, 4-7; I Timothy 6:6-19; and Luke 16:19-31

“If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

That’s an odd way for a parable to end, in a religion that is known for its central claim that Jesus Christ rose from his grave. If we didn’t know better, we might think that St. Luke does not find the resurrection the single most compelling feature of Christianity.

But that’s not what we’re hearing. We’re hearing how hard it is to get the full attention of a cohort of people who are swept up in what the prophet Amos calls “the revelry of the loungers.” The rich, that is, who sing idle songs, anoint themselves with the finest oils, lounge on their couches, but do not care that the country is in ruins, and whole communities of people suffering from want of basic necessities.

It is very hard to get the full attention of the wealthy. They have people who do their bidding and insulate them from the workaday world. St. Paul, writing to Timothy, knows this crowd. Not just those who are rich, but “those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.”

Trapped, says Paul. We all know that the poor get trapped. Miners in Chile get trapped when mine owners don’t care about safety precautions. Villagers in Pakistan get trapped when landowners don’t care if diverting floodwaters this way or that way sends water into this village or that one. America’s working poor and unemployed get trapped when our society has no finer gospel to preach than “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!”

It’s very hard to get the full attention of the well-to-do. And, to keep us from thinking that all those scripture lessons today are talking to someone other than us, let’s admit that it’s hard to pay attention to God when we’re feeling at ease in Zion and secure on Mount Samaria, however those phrases translate in our lives: Hard to pay attention to God when we’re undisturbed in the Purple Bubble of this quiet valley. Difficult to hear the divine voice when every moment of the waking day is scheduled and accounted for. Downright challenging to respond to God when one portion of ourselves is drugged and sated and all tucked into satisfaction with life, leaving available only our randomly jangling dissatisfied nerve endings to be attentive to the world, and to be coaxed into prayer.

I mean to suggest that we find some sympathy for the rich man in Jesus’s parable. We may be related to him.

He has lived his lifetime without giving his best to the world around him, without giving his best to God, and without giving his best to the many Lazaruses at his door. What this rich man called best he kept for himself, to himself.

Until he died, and there was no more keeping.

But isn’t it rather wonderful that, by the terms of Jesus’s parable, after death there is still more learning to do? I don’t believe that was the majority view in the religion of Israel, where the prevailing belief is summed up in Psalm 88:

“Do you work wonders for the dead? Will those who have died stand up and give you thanks? Will your loving-kindness be declared in the grave? Your faithfulness in the land of destruction? Will your wonders be known in the dark? Or your righteousness in the country where all is forgotten?”

No, is the implied answer. So God must meet us in this life to set right what is wrong.

And God does that. Disguised, often, as Lazarus. Or coal miners in Chile. Or displaced villagers in Pakistan. Or our own neighbors in need of transitional assistance (at a time when we’re shutting down offices of transitional assistance because, well, other things matter more).

By the terms of this stunning parable, God doesn’t give up on us when we die. If you’re Lazarus, that’s good news: you discover that the heart of God is not what you’d feared from the inequities of daily life. You learn that there is a place set for you at God’s table, and you’re seated there, not on the floor beneath.

But if you’re the rich man, you might wish that learning did stop at the grave. You discover that abundance doesn’t pass through the eye of the needle with you. In fact, you discover that what filled you in your lifetime wasn’t real and lasting abundance after all. It was stuff, and your primary relationship to stuff, consumption, has fitted you not to be carried away by angels but to sink into the realm of consumption, Hades.

That there is torment there suggests that a lifetime characterized by consuming stuff prepares us to become stuff to be consumed. That’s a dramatic way to say that human beings have a higher calling.

St. Paul describes that calling twice in his letter today. First, “Pursue right standing with God, reach for faith, demonstrate love, practice endurance, show gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession…”

And later he describes the calling again: “Do not be haughty. Do not set your hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment… Do good… be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up the treasure of a good foundation for the future, taking hold of the life that really is life.”

Last Sunday, a portion of Luke’s Gospel prepared us to see a sharp distinction between the children of this age and the children of light. Different values distinguish them. Children of this age are known for keeping. Children of light are known for giving.

Their values create a firewall between the two cohorts, and it’s nowhere described more forcefully than in that verse today, “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed…”, fixed by how lives have been lived.

In the after-death scene in our parable, that chasm cannot be crossed. Such bleak language is meant to drive home the message that in life, on this side of death, the deep gulf created out of conflicting values can be crossed, by choice; must be crossed, from keeping to giving, if we are to take hold of the life that really is life.

That such a simple basic lesson needs driving home by the prophet Amos, the apostle Paul, and our Lord Jesus Christ must go to show that it’s hard to get the full attention of the children of this age. And, truth be told, it’s hard to keep the full attention of the children of light.

What is required is that we pay attention to the world, where God is at work approaching the rich through the poor, and—when we have truly listened to Moses and the prophets and Jesus and Paul—God then works through what is rich within us, freed so we may give our best.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Commending a Dishonest Manager-- Huh?

The Gospel for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost is Luke 16:1-13. R. Alan Culpepper’s commentary on that passage in “The New Interpreter’s Bible”, Volume IX, helped shape my thinking about this parable. Tom Friedman’s column appeared in the September 12th New York Times.

Are you hoping I will talk about that parable, or that I won’t?

I will, and in part because Tom Friedman told me to. Not personally, but his column last Sunday paved the way, when he referred to a problem “we have not faced honestly as we have dug out of this recession: We had a values breakdown—a national epidemic of get-rich-quickism and something-for-nothingism.”

I smell both in today’s Gospel. But let Tom finish his sermon first: “Wall Street may have been dealing the dope, but our lawmakers encouraged it. And far too many of us were happy to buy the dot-com and subprime crack for quick prosperity highs.”

Friedman reminds us that what made the Greatest Generation great, facing huge obstacles like the Depression, Nazism, and Soviet Communism, was their leaders’ fearlessness when it came to asking Americans to sacrifice, and that generation’s readiness to do the sacrificing, pulling together for the good of the country and earning global leadership the only way it can be earned, by saying “Follow me.”

By contrast, he writes, our generation’s leaders never utter the word “sacrifice.” “All solutions,” he says, “must be painless. Which drug would you like? A stimulus from Democrats or a tax cut from Republicans? A national energy policy? Too hard… For a decade we sent our best minds not to make computer chips in Silicon Valley but to make poker chips on Wall Street, while telling ourselves we could have the American dream… without saving and investing, for nothing down and nothing to pay for two years…”

Thanks, Tom. We hear you. Now it’s Jesus’s turn. And what is he saying in this parable?

What is a parable? C. H. Dodd answers that in his book, “The Parables of the Kingdom.” “At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”

Jesus teases us into this story, not of household-level debts and management, but of large commercial dealings. Eight hundred gallons of olive oil, a thousand bushels of wheat. The first-century commodities market.

Jesus takes us to a deeper place, as well. A place of radical decision. It may sound like the slave market, when we hear him say, “No slave can serve two masters; he will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.”

But it’s actually the very frontier of spiritual freedom to which Jesus takes us, when he insists, “In a like way, you cannot serve God and wealth.”

Think of all the times and places when he summoned working people to become his disciples. “Follow me,” he said, to fishermen in their boats, to a tax collector at his booth, to women in their front parlors and in their kitchens. And each time, he created a crisis, a moment requiring judgment, demanding response. You can’t give no answer in such a moment. It’s not an option to have no master. If you are silent at the frontier of spiritual freedom, then you have another master than Jesus and you have renewed your submission to being a child of this age and not a child of light.

In other words, to tease out the message of this parable, we must respect the firewall created between the people of this world and the people of the light, created by the choices they make. Those who belong to this age and those who belong to the light live among one another, they are called to respect and learn from one another, but they have very different values. One is content to drift among the rising and falling tides and currents of a market-driven world. The other is choosing to move with the mind and the heart of God—they may be erratic in learning these moves, may fail sometimes, succeed sometimes, but they try, they want, they practice a sharing of abundance, they value justice and mercy, they learn to roll with the mystery that the first shall be last and the last first, and, as we shall see, they learn to be resourceful.

Jesus locates his story in the business world, but he’s telling his parable to disciples whom he’s training in the ways of the Kingdom of God. To catch the sense he makes, we stand with the disciples on the children of light side of the firewall, and across that divide we watch the behavior of a shrewd manager and the business owner who is firing him. The message we take from Jesus, whatever it will be, respects that boundary, as he says to his little fledgling church, “Consider the behavior of this manager: his values are different from yours, but if you are as bold and decisive and resourceful in caring for the poor and preaching what is true and building human alliances in society, if you are as shrewd and effective in your calling as he was in the crumbling moments of his tenure, then your stewardship will make a difference .

There may be a world of difference between the impact, on one side of the divide, of those urgent words “Follow me” and, on the business side of that wall, the words, “You’re fired.” But in both cases, urgency requires bold and decisive choice. And in both cases, the hearer suddenly realizes that an old life has ended, and a new life requires change, fast and instinctual. Didn’t someone write, “New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth”? Oddly enough, both the summoned disciple and the fired manager find themselves in a thin place, in-between what was known and what will be, unchartered territory that each must suddenly navigate.

Okay, now we’ve put off this moment as long as possible. Why does the master commend the dishonest manager? It all depends on what you think the manager did.

Did he reduce the balance due from his master’s debtors by foregoing his own commission, sacrificing what would have been his, choosing to bank on another kind of wealth and indebtedness (call it goodwill or loyalty)? An interesting theory, but not based on any information Jesus gives us…

Or did the shrewd manager suddenly recall the ancient text in Deuteronomy that forbids Israelites from charging one another interest? This could have justified his reducing those debts to principal only. Is this a swift case of righteousness that put the master over a barrel, a canny chess move the owner could only shake his head at but couldn’t fight without losing face? An intriguing theory, but again nothing in Jesus’s telling leads us to it.

Or… is it, plain and simple as the parable states it, that the steward was cheating the master, and the master was rich enough that he could afford to notice more than the impact on his net worth. He experienced some collateral benediction from his debtors, for as long as those debtors thought the manager was still the manager, he acted with the full authority of the master. What he did glorified his boss, polished his reputation, earned him (who knows, perhaps for the first time) a good name—a new form of wealth, a new kind of net worth.

Such is a good parable, one that teases the hearer into active thought, and thoughtful action.

It brings home the fact that in the New Testament as a whole, Jesus has far more to say about how to deal with wealth than how to handle sex. If our churches occupied themselves proportionally, we could have more to say to our culture’s dishonesty, its devaluing of sacrifice, its get-rich-quickism, and its something-for-nothingism.

On the other hand, lest the Church get to sounding self-righteous, Jesus challenges the people of light to muster for God, and for the poor and the oppressed and the abandoned, boldness and shrewdness and decisive action that can be seen in certain people of the world, even the occasional dishonest manager.

Go figure.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Philadelphia or Bust

Scripture heard on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost included Proverbs 25:6-7; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; and Luke 14:1, 7-14

“Philadelphia.” This is the Greek word that appears at the opening of our 2nd lesson, “Let mutual love continue.” Philadelphia, love of the brethren (in its old translation). We need something roomier now: love of the brotherhood and sisterhood that we have in Jesus Christ.

“Mutual love” sounds a little calculating: You love me and I’ll love you. Eugene Peterson in “The Message” gives us, “Stay on good terms with each other, held together by love.” There’s still something transactional about “staying on good terms,” but I like the awareness that this staying power isn’t all up to us. Holding us together is a costly and generous love.

How costly and how generous is the point of the Gospel, the Good News. Unconditional, is the Gospel answer: love that cannot be earned or bought, love that must give itself fully. Such love is the subject of both our New Testament portions today.

Writing to a struggling church, the apostle who wrote to the Hebrews encourages what might be called fellow-feeling (another term we wish sounded roomier, to include the more empathic 51% of our population). We get the point: try walking in the other person’s sandals. For instance, pray for prisoners by imagining yourself locked in that same cell. Pray for torture victims by letting yourself visualize and feel their suffering.

In both instances it’s worth noticing that, in those days, this would not have meant praying for strangers. When this letter was written and read, Christians were being sent to prison and tortured just for being Christians. Prejudice worked its destructive way against the followers of Jesus, judging them to be dangerous to the nation, blaming them for putting the homeland at risk, seeing them as conspirators wanting to change the culture, outsiders with their own allegiances. Rather the way some Christians are treating Muslims, two thousand years later, here in America.

The prisoners and the tortured mentioned in the Letter to the Hebrews were fellow members of that struggling church. That bond of mutual love, philadelphia, held together both the imprisoned and the free in one brotherhood, sisterhood, and the apostle who writes this letter urges the free members to refuse to let prison walls shut out that brotherly, sisterly love. Imagine yourselves there, he says (with some irony, because they all could be before long); and now, in your freedom, practice fearless compassion as you sit next to the imprisoned and the tortured, in your mind’s eye and your heart’s imagining, and so pray from there, like that. Be part of philadelphia, mutual love, the unconditional love that holds the community together.

Luke’s Gospel brings us teachings of Jesus that answer the question, “How shall we do that?”, from another perspective, that of table fellowship. By his behavior at a Sabbath meal in a Pharisee’s home, and by his parable about a hypothetical wedding banquet, Jesus teaches the meaning of honor. In the Pharisee’s home, Jesus notices how the guests are colliding at the places of honor, presumably the seats nearest the host. To sit next to the President at a White House state dinner is a big deal indeed.

What’s ironic in this social occasion is that all the Pharisees are watching him closely. They’ve heard that he performs miracles, and they intend to see one. At the same time, he is observing them, how they play bumper cars getting at those choice seats. The miracle he has for them today is not what they expect. He wants to heal and convert their egos.

And to do it, he asks them to imagine a wedding banquet, a grander affair than the Sabbath meal before them. It’s no accident that he picks a wedding banquet. In the language of parables, a wedding banquet represents the coming Kingdom of God.

In that kingdom, all relationships are made right. Justice shapes all in that kingdom, where it will be revealed that God has fearless compassion for the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, the abused, and the oppressed. In the world as it is, the first are first and the last are last. In the kingdom as it shall be, things are different.

To that end, Jesus coaches his hearers—and not the Pharisees only, but also his own ragtag army of disciples who frequently fight among themselves over who is greatest—Jesus coaches his hearers to learn the ways of the kingdom of God.

Go and sit down in the lowest place, Jesus teaches. Then it may be that the host will come and invite you to sit nearer the head table, who knows? But if not, it is still good for you to sit in the lowest place by your own choice. So much better, says Jesus, appealing to their egos, than being told by your host, “I’m sorry, but you’re sitting in my mother-in-law’s seat, and you must move.” And by then, the only seat left in the well-packed pecking order would be way out on the back porch.

Does this explain why Episcopalians cluster more at the back of the church than in the front?

If what he teaches about a wedding feast were applied to our Sunday gathering—and why should it not, since the eucharist can be described as the wedding banquet hosted by God to honor his Son whose love for the Church is like the love of a bridegroom for his bride?— what might he want to teach us, as we choose where to go when we enter this banquet hall?

It’s natural that we should choose a seat that honors our own needs and comfort. When we’ve done that once, we may just keep coming back to that same seat (that’s very Episcopal, isn’t it?). But might Jesus teach a different way of entering the banquet hall? Might he invite you to look around to see who you feel drawn to sit with? I don’t know that that’s what he might say… who knows? I do know that this mutual love has a togethering purpose. Where we place ourselves can serve that purpose.

I wonder if he might say, “Wherever you choose to sit, be thoughtful of others. Move to the center of a pew, to welcome others around you without their having to climb over you. In that small way, remember that you are a host to the stranger, the visitor who may come to your pew. Set the tone by whatever gesture of welcome and respect that may honor the others around you.

I don’t know if that’s what he might say. Who knows?

But we do know that he teaches us to choose the lowest place.

Were those Pharisees (and am I? and are you?) ready to imagine where that would take them? They were guests, and they heard his parable refer to guests. But the lowest place at a banquet is at the door, washing the feet of the invited. And in the kitchen, cleaning the pots. And in and out through those swinging doors, busing dishes and waiting on tables.

Later in Luke, we will hear Jesus ask, “Who would you rather be: the one who eats the dinner or the one who serves the dinner? You’d rather eat and be served, right? But I’ve taken my place among you as the one who serves… Now I confer on you the royal authority my Father conferred on me…”

The royal, divine, authority to serve. In that passage late in Luke, Jesus tells his Church that he has conferred on us this Godly power to serve so we can eat and drink at his table in his kingdom and be strengthened to take up responsibilities among the congregations of God’s people. We are fed so that we may feed.

There is set for each of us a place at the head table. This one offers just a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. And the place is set for us here so that we may be strengthened to take the lowest place elsewhere, in the world, where we live.

You’re raising a child? Helping to raise a grandchild? You sometimes sit in lowest places.

You’re the caregiver to a spouse, a parent, a neighbor, multi-tasking to keep on your head all the hats you must wear? You are familiar with lowest places.

Are you working on your marriage, or a friendship, at real cost to yourself? You know what low places are, including those where forgiveness is needed.

You’re volunteering to help, organize, lead other people? You get what it is to serve.

And in recessionary times, you’re in a workplace having to do more with less, having to support colleagues without necessarily getting much support? Daily, you’re rising to the challenge of serving a brotherhood, sisterhood.

Mutual love, love of the brethren, philadelphia, faces deep challenges in our nation and our world. Togethering love must exceed the bitter divisiveness at work in our society. Before we attempt to export democracy, a bold, costly, and generous love must disarm the viruses that afflict us, heal the prejudices and phobias that aim to defeat brotherhood, sisterhood.

As we have it in Jesus Christ, that brotherhood-sisterhood is unconditional.

As we have it in the package of Christianity, that potential togetherness is broken and splintered by narrow thinking and tribal fears—as is sadly true of all the world’s religions.

We must practice our Christianity in full expectation that what we hear in the Letter to the Hebrews is true: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” and in full desire that his unconditional love bring forth in us and in our world philadelphia, togethering love.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Miracle Is in the First Step

Scripture appointed for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost includes Isaiah 58:9b-14, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17

When I bring communion to people at home or in a nursing home, I normally bring with me the Gospel that we’ll hear in church on the next Sunday. So last week, I read today’s Gospel in two different places. One was at the monthly eucharist at Williamstown Commons, where a dozen to fifteen residents, most in wheelchairs, gather in the circle.

“Great,” I said to myself as I glanced ahead to this Gospel. “I’m going to read them this story about the healing of a woman crippled for eighteen years? How is that going to go over?”

The second place was in the apartment of a dear lady in an assisted living facility, where she spends much of her day in a wheelchair. The same question gripped me: “How is this going to be for her, and how is this going to be for me, to read this story to her?”

She got pretty fired up about that religious stuffed-shirt. She knows the passion Jesus has for the oppressed and the sick and the less-able. She said what a shame it was that someone who ought to know better would find fault with Jesus for helping a person on the Sabbath day.

I told her that I imagined telling the story a little differently. The setting is a big old Episcopal church— let’s call it the Church of the Heavenly Comforter. It’s high mass and the choir is singing the offertory anthem, when Jesus stops the show. He has spotted this woman inching her way up the aisle. Everyone’s eyes are drawn to her at one end of the nave, to him at the front, and back again.

He sees her. He calls her to come to him. He does not go to her. Some good churchfolk in the pews start muttering about that: “For heaven’s sake, he could at least save her all that trouble!” But no, he calls her over to him. Like God calling the Hebrew people over the Red Sea to freedom.

The miracle starts with her first step. Before he touches her, he encourages her, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” The journey up that aisle is hers.

When she reaches him, he lays his hands on her and she immediately stands up straight and praises God.

Even the hardest heart among God’s frozen chosen melts and tears are seen, sniffles heard. Not a few proper Episcopalians are thinking, “Good God, if he can do this for her, what might he do with me?”

And it is at this moment that the Rector goes to the microphone (to make sure that all his flock hear him), and harrumphs, “Anyone else desiring prayer for healing will please wait until communion, remain at the rail, and raise their hands like this—which is how we do it here!”

But that version lacks the power of the conflict that Luke captures. Worship in the Episcopal tradition need not exclude healing: we offer prayer for healing every Sunday. But in this Gospel story, the voice of authority says that healing does not belong on the Sabbath day. Any other day of the week is fine, but on the seventh day God is to be honored by doing no work at all.

That’s the argument that Jesus rises to refute. Hypocrisy, he calls it. “You’ll untie your donkey on the seventh day to bring it to the watering trough, won’t you? Here, a woman has been untied from spiritual and physical bondage. She is drinking deeply from the water of new life that I bring. How does this fail to glorify God?”

And at this the entire crowd in that house of prayer erupted in joy, which must have been the sweetest liturgy that place had seen in many a sabbath. The rule of “everything done decently and in good order” is helpful for keeping the donkey out of the sanctuary, but sad if it keeps the Spirit out, as well. And there, in that synagogue that day, the prevailing Spirit gladdened the hearts of all.

It’s worth noticing that Luke tells us that it was a spirit that had crippled that woman for eighteen years. By the slow working of spirit (attitude), a person can be disabled in illness. To say that is not to blame the sick person for being sick—that would be both untrue and perverse. But it is to observe that our human being is an interplay of body and spirit; so is our health. For example, the ordinary and occasional human work of grieving can become distorted into toxic depression, which takes its toll on the body. Luke, nicknamed the blessed physician, tells us that if it is by the path of spirit that chronic illness binds us, it is by the Spirit of God that we find freedom and well-being.

Would that this should mean the full healing of that brave and cheerful lady I visited, her rising from her wheelchair once for all. Would that the same happen a dozen times more, in that circle at the nursing home. The tears I saw in the eyes of one man there said it all: Would that this could happen to me. And the pain I saw in his face, and the pain I felt with him, brought home to me why I was skittish about this Gospel. This might happen. Of course it would.

Yet these are the very ones, less able than you and I (who may be taking for granted our ableness), these are the ones who recognize and value healing in its smallest steps and humblest forms. It will not be lost on them, if the Spirit of God meets them on their journeys up the aisle and simply renews courage (simply?), or reawakens initiative, rekindles a sense of humor, or sharpens perseverance, eases pain, ushers in a good night’s sleep, reanimates a relationship, or inspires forgiveness.

Healing takes many forms. No wonder, that so many of these should engage the spirit. According to the Good News we hear today, whatever healing it will be starts in the first step we take towards the One who stands at the head, at the heart, and calls; the One who respects the fact that the journey is ours.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Political Act of Worship

Scripture read on the 12th Sunday after Pentecost includes Isaiah 5:1-7, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, and Luke 12:49-56

I’ll venture the guess that most of us would prefer the company of Jesus the Good Shepherd, or Jesus the engaging parable-teller, or Jesus who washes the feet of disciples, than this fire-breathing, fierce truth-telling, unapologetically confrontational Jesus we meet today in the Gospel of Luke.

Heavy lifting for a summer Sunday, this kindling of the earth, this stressful baptism, this dividing of households, this accusation of hypocrisy.

You came to church to sing a song or two, feel reconnected to a cheerful sense of belonging, perhaps leave feeling better about yourself? I understand. Instead, we’d better figure out how to explain our singed eyebrows and that soot in our hair, the dazed look we may have as we go from here to whoever we’re meeting next. And won’t that be a challenge if it’s a spouse or a friend who isn’t in the habit of worshiping in church, and who wonders exactly why it is that we get up and make the effort?

Let me tell you one thing that this Gospel gives me. It helps me understand a statement I read, last week, by biblical scholar Paul D. Hanson: “Worship is the most political act in which a person of faith can engage!”

In the language of one of our lessons today, in worship we place ourselves where we will be surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who will urge us to lay aside the past and the sin that clings so closely, and look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

“Worship is the most political act in which a person of faith can engage!” Hanson is arguing against an overly-private view of religion. When I first came upon his words, I thought, “Wow, that might surprise some Episcopalians…” Little did I know that his claim would be borne-out by the Word of God today.

In Luke’s Gospel today, Jesus asks the most political of questions: “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

An example. What do we make of the sharp fiery resistance to the building of a mosque and Islamic community center near Ground Zero? What is that about?

Another example. How do we understand the extremes of weather we’ve experienced this summer, all that steam heat, all those those sudden intense monsoons?

Here’s another. The Gulf Coast is reported to be healing itself after disastrous months of oil spill. Who is saying that, and why?

And one more. As free citizens of a democracy, we look to our elected senators and representatives to, well, represent and lead us. But they keep fighting against each other, producing very little and taking vast amounts of time and money to keep their fights going. What is that about? And why do we allow it?

I agree: enough, already. It’s a summer Sunday, for heaven’s sake; and it’s not as if, by raising these questions, I propose to answer them. But if we find these issues irritating, our Gospel today tells us that there is a holy use for irritation. Why not allow this fiery Jesus to gather up our irritations and use them for his purposes? Isn’t that what we see him doing, in Luke’s apocalyptic teachings?

Try to answer any of those questions I lifted from the daily news, and you’ll find yourself in a swirling vortex of opinions, reasons, ideas, and ideologies. Each issue will generate placards to hold and sound bytes to distort, and ideologies to defend or attack.

And that state of affairs in our present time helps me understand another statement I read recently, by theologian James Alison: “Ideology is what you have when you don’t have faith.”

He was commenting on the Church’s desire for sharply-defined doctrine, and rules, and clear boundaries. All of which, to his theological ear, has more to do with the closed-mindedness of ideology than with the open-heartedness of faith.

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen… By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.” So says the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, just verses before the ones we heard today.

And what we did hear was a series of astounding movie trailers, reminders of all the great action thrillers that fill the books of the Hebrew Bible, an impressive catalog of examples of faith in action, stories replete with blood and guts, sex and spies, wild animals, raging fires, sharp swords, you name it. Stories abounding with courage and perseverance, promises kept, suffering accepted, insurmountable obstacles overcome. All realized by the spirit, the attitude, the power, of faith in God.

Then a most astonishing thing is said. “Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”

Not apart from us. Our practice of faith, sleepy-eyed us, we who may come to church with fairly low expectations (especially in summer), it is our faith in God and how we live it that is to complete, perfect, transform what has gone before us. We are to be part of the “something better” that makes the world better. We are to burn with the love of Christ that kindles, to recognize him baptizing with his presence all human experience, and to tell his truth which sets people free. We are to learn his way of looking into what irritates us, and looking beyond what is seen, into what is not visible but is of God.

And there we may see, in the question of where a mosque is situated, the deeper and most urgent question about reconciling love: Is there enough to go around? And, as we address the question of this particular building, will we insist that destructive prejudice be uprooted from our society?

And there, in the deep realm within and beyond what is seen, we may recognize, in the phenomena of nature, evidence that God calls us to a challenging stewardship that admits no easy answers. And evidence that, to support responsible stewardship of the earth, we must call on our elected leaders to lead.

“You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

To run with perseverance the race that is before us, we look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. When we do, sometimes we see the Good Shepherd, seeking and succoring his flock. Sometimes we sit at the feet of the story-teller who engages our imagination, and we enjoy that. At times, we find we’re having our feet washed and our priorities reordered by Jesus the servant.

And sometimes we meet this fire-breathing, fierce truth-telling, unapologetically confrontational Jesus we encounter today in the Gospel of Luke. He asks us to learn his way of looking into and beyond what is seen, into what is not visible but is of God. He teaches us to look into what irritates our status quo and discern what that’s really about. He asks of us not the closed-mindedness of ideology, but the open-heartedness of faith, a power that can transform what has gone before us, and make this world better.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Mixing Metaphors for the Kingdom of God

Bible readings for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost include Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40

St. Luke sure does know how to mix his metaphors. Purses for heaven. A bridegroom waiting on his servants. A watchful homeowner. “The kingdom of God is like this— and it’s like this—and like this!”

That’s how our Gospels read, in part the result of enthusiasm, and in part the result of how they came to be. Today’s portion is like a short string of pearls, one image follows another; and while each is different from the next, they’re alike in that they teach us about the reign of God on earth as in heaven. That is what strings the pearls. And Bible scholars tell us that the Gospel writers inherited these pithy teachings, short stories, brief parables, and little jewels of illustration from earlier collections of sayings of Jesus. Each Gospel writer assembles them somewhat differently. One Gospel has what another lacks. Details color the same story differently at the hand of St. Luke than in Matthew’s or Mark’s versions. It appears that this is how inspiration works when the Spirit of God moves with one purpose through the minds and hearts of diverse artists, to reach the imaginations and wills of many more diverse hearers and readers.

Each pearl on the string is a gift of good news. And, if it’s a pearl, it’s also a product of irritation, the result of what a creature can do with a grain of sand caught in its craw—or whatever that part of an oyster is that, like a womb, transforms a fleck of intrusion into a thing of beauty.

First, purses for heaven. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” That would be, what, as opposed to selling us the kingdom of God? A silly thought, but how many times does Jesus have to say this to us, that we do not earn the love of God, we cannot buy or bargain for what comes to us as gift, grace, that amazing power of God that saves a wretch like me (and you)?

The reign of God, the kingdom of right relationship, is not for sale. But Jesus doesn’t hesitate to talk about money, does he? “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”

One cannot buy one’s way into the kingdom of God. But if one has too much in one’s pockets, too much on one’s mind, one may not find or fit through the gate (oops, another metaphor). So lighten the burden of whatever wealth you’re lugging around. Give it to the poor, because it is the purpose of God to promote and prefer and relieve the poor. By your giving, you stitch together a purse, so to speak, of generosity that represents your lasting values. Where your treasure is your heart will be also, so in this purse of yours is your very soul, your most valuable asset. What you give from this purse, you give to God.

By nature, the human animal fills a purse with his or her own efforts. By human nature, we decide how to spend or invest or give what is in our purses. By the divine nature that is in us, we keep the drawstring open, we see the whole of the purse coming from God and belonging to God, the whole of the purse an instrument of letting what matters to God matter on earth as in heaven. And what flows out of this purse we make of our values doesn’t just fall to earth (as money keeps doing); it also somehow rises to heaven, perhaps the way praise and adoration and gratitude rise. This “unfailing treasure in heaven” is not, I’m sure, a 401K personal account to retire into (not that we can count on retiring on our 401K’s). I expect it’s more a way of saying that by the choices we make, day by day, we come to resonate more and more (or less and less) with the grace and purposes of God.

Clear the screen. Here comes metaphor # 2. “Be dressed for action…” like those waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so they may open the door for him when he comes home. Alert, they recognize his knock. They expect him (and his bride? and the wedding party?) to require their services at an intimate post-banquet event (you know what weddings are like, one party blurs into the next), but no! Grateful that his servants have stayed at the ready rather than drift out to the edges of the banquet hall, that they have stayed alert to him and his needs, he slips off his tux jacket, ties on an apron, and invites those servants to his own table.

I have been to a lot of weddings, and I must say it’s hard to imagine the scene Luke’s Jesus sketches in this parable. There’s a clear firewall between who’s serving and who is being served. Of course there is: it’s all in the contract, all paid for and had better be delivered.

But that’s not how God’s kingdom works. As important as those twelve disciples were (and as self-important as some of them were), Jesus calls them his little flock (of relatively helpless sheep) and implies in this parable that they ought to think of themselves as servants, even slaves, simply doing their duty. And in the kingdom of God, the master is free to turn the tables and wait on his staff. The first shall be last, and the last first. The master Jesus is remembered in Matthew’s Gospel to have said, “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Now comes that third pearl. It starts with true irritation: a home has been broken into, and the homeowner was away at the time. It’s the point of this little saying to state the obvious: that if the owner knew the thief was coming, the owner would have returned home in time to be ready for him, alert to every sound in the night.

If by our animal nature we defend what is ours… if by our human nature we can tell it is time to prevent injustice… then it is by the nature of God that is in us to be ready to play our part in the emergence of God’s reign on earth.

To receive the gift of God, to take our places in God’s Kingdom, to own a Christian life, we must be ready to recognize and welcome Jesus Christ whenever he comes, at however unexpected an hour and in whatever surprising, perhaps irritating, a manner.

The prophet Isaiah prepares us for the fact that this may not happen in church, not in solemn assemblies and appointed festivals. He will come in the oppressed who need rescue, in the orphan who needs defense, in the widow who needs a friend. As we consider these scriptures today, he will come in the immigrant who arrives with an empty purse but a keen work ethic and a heart filled with hope. Through fear, we may be distracted from recognizing him, may not be alert, may mistake him for a stranger trying to steal his way into our home. But if this is the Son of Man who comes, he who teaches the value of loose purse strings will cause us to treasure the gift of justice and will teach us to keep our homeland as free as we found it.

Each pearl on the string of our Gospel today is a gift of good news. And, if it’s a pearl, it’s also a product of irritation, the result of what a creature can do with a grain of sand caught in its craw—or whatever that part of us is that, like a womb, transforms a fleck of intrusion into a thing of beauty, fulfilling the purpose of God.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Bearish on Chocolate

Bible readings for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost include Hosea 11:1-11 (the basis for this opening prayer), Colossians 3:1-11, and Luke 12:13-21

Holy God, you call us to be yours.
You are to us like a nanny lifting us to her cheek,
like a father teaching us to walk,
a mother leading us with cords of human kindness, bands of love.
You feed us, you heal us.
You sigh in pain when we bend away from you and reject your call.
You roar like a lion to claim us, yet must wait for us to return,
trembling, like doves nearly sacrificed on the altars of false gods.
Your fierce anger flushes us in a flutter of wingbeats,
Free to rise, and choose.

Choice, a theme strong in our summer readings from Luke. Last Sunday, we heard Jesus pray the Our Father, teaching us to choose the Kingdom of God as the lens through which we see all our needs as they get met by the provident Spirit of God.

The Sunday before that, Mary and Martha, sisters from Bethany, showed us how the choice to know Jesus must come before the choice to serve him. “Teacher, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work while she sits at your feet, listening? Tell my sister, then, to help me!”

And do we hear an echo of that anxiety in today’s set-up? “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”

As he did with Martha, Jesus says to this fellow, “The choices you’re making aren’t getting you anywhere, are they?”

A Collect for Guidance in our Prayer Book asks God to “grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what (God) would have us to do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices, and that in (God’s) light we may see light, and in (God’s) straight path may not stumble…”

One false choice this fellow makes today is to cast Jesus in the role of family court judge. This disgruntled brother is anxious. Jesus had to say to Martha, “You are anxious about so many things—one thing is needed…” Here is another anxious sibling, another trembling dove for Jesus to warn away from a false god’s altar. “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in how much you own.”

Like Martha, this man wants Jesus to vindicate him. “I need a judge!”

“No, you need a purpose that will wake up your soul and reveal your true choices.”

In a pattern that Luke uses often, an edgy little story is followed by a pithy little parable. Here, it is the story of a man’s good fortune in the marketplace that ultimately leads to his losing his life on the altar of a false god.

Did you read about Anthony Ward, the hedge fund operator in Europe who has set about cornering the world market in cocoa? In recent weeks he has purchased a quarter million tons of cocoa. That is an astonishing amount, enough cocoa to make 5.3 billion quarter-pound chocolate bars. It represents 7% of the world supply, and while that sounds like a small percentage, it’s enough to drive the price of cocoa even higher than its recent all-time high. This rich man shares an urgent need with the rich man in our parable, for he plans to stockpile all that chocolate, to hoard it, ensuring that prices keep rising until he decides it’s time to start selling.

“What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?”

Let’s not worry too much about Mr. Ward’s problem. Dubbed “Choc Finger” by the British press, Ward in 2002 made £40 million in two months after making a similar deal. He bought 204,000 tons of cocoa when West Africa was experiencing poor harvests and political instability, sat on it a while, then watched the price of cocoa increase from £1,400 a ton to £1,600 Cocoa prices have more than doubled since 2007, following increased demand from China and India, forcing chocolate makers to raise prices and in some cases to change recipes to use less cocoa. Boo…

Mr Ward has not made himself available for comment. He’s rather busy, building larger barns.

That pattern, of course, lies at the heart of our economic system, so who are we to condemn strategic investment? Isn’t it what makes the economic world go ‘round?

But, like most human pursuits, our economic choices require accountability to law and to good ethics. A new financial reform law out of Washington last month may help curb excessive speculation like Mr. Ward’s.

The ethical argument is made by the World Development Movement in a damning report last month saying that risky and secretive financial bets on food prices have deepened the effect of recent poor harvests. Volatile food prices make it harder for producers to plan what to grow, push up prices for consumers, and in poorer countries may spark civil unrest, like the food riots seen in Mexico and Haiti in 2008. 70% of the world’s cocoa comes from five countries-- Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria and Cameroon—some stable, some not. Investment banks like Goldman Sachs make huge profits by gambling on the price of foods, says World Development Movement Director Deborah Doane (interviewed in The Guardian), but only a few wheeler-dealers benefit from this kind of reckless gambling. The Fairtrade Foundation argues that these deals help hedge fund operators hedge, but small farmers cannot hedge, cannot take advantage of short-term price spikes.

“And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” Like our contemporary Choc Finger, this fellow in the parable could likely have come to this conclusion years ago… but isn’t it the nature of greed not to recognize when enough is enough? And isn’t it the nature of greed to put personal security above social and global security?

We use the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible from the lectern, but you can’t beat how the earlier RSV catches the irony in God’s reply to the man who has just said to his soul, “Soul, you’re all set…” “But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’”

And that is a moment brought to you by the Planned Giving Ministry Team… whose members invite you to consider the moral drawn by our Lord, “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

By nature, we lay up treasure for our children and grandchildren and others whom we love. By nature of the kingdom of God, the lens through which we see God’s purposes being worked out on earth as in heaven, we consider what it means to be rich toward God.

“The things you have prepared, whose will they be?” is a question we may answer in a legal document, a will or last testament which, if we’re thoughtful, we’ll draft and keep current as a responsible gift of lovingkindness to those who come after us. By our nature as children of God, we may choose to provide for the future of our wider family, the Church.

And by God’s nature in us, we may hear that question, “The things you have… whose will they be?” and recognize the power we have to choose to return some good portion to the poor who did not get all that great a share, the first time around.

I’m not suggesting that we wait for death to do our strategic investing. To be rich toward God, our present stewarding of our time, talents, and resources must be guided by the purpose of God, the bringing of justice and peace on earth as in heaven.

And that will happen as we worship at the altar of the God of truth, made known to us in Jesus Christ who is our life, who is all and is in all. His word, in story and parable, roars across two thousand years, stirring us doves to fly from the altars of false gods who demand blood sacrifice and give the world nothing but trouble, suffering, and war. His Spirit flushes us, free to rise and choose to be rich toward God.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Coachings in Prayer

Readings for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost include Genesis 18:20-32; Colossians 2:6-19; Luke 11:1-13

Our readings today offer us coaching in prayer. What do we make of it?

Consider that gnarly story from the Book of Genesis, showing us the patriarch Abraham bargaining with the one holy God. The Book of Genesis is built of stories that claim to explain how certain things came to be, and you could say that here we’re encountering an ancient forerunner of the Jewish minyan, the quorum of ten required for public worship. It was the firm belief of the sages that wherever ten righteous children of God are assembled, either for worship or for the study of the Law, the Divine Presence dwells among them.

But look how we get there! God has heard the street reputation of two neighboring towns, Sodom and Gomorrah, where it was alleged that what would become for Israel the eleventh commandment, Thou shalt practice generous hospitality and respect the needs of the guest, was not being honored. God is on a reconnaissance mission to find out if this is true. But Abraham can see that God is loaded for bear, indignant enough to be ready to sweep away the residents of both towns.

Is God like this? Does God have anger management issues? Does God solve problems in the created order by wiping out the problem-makers? A lot hinges on these questions, which ask a larger question: When you pray, to whom are you praying?

Even by confronting God with his questions, Abraham (he is called in both testaments, “the father of us all”, so he’s asking on our behalf) appears to be sticking his foot in heaven’s door so as to nudge his way into revealing the true nature of God. Could Abraham have put his gutsy question, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” if he actually believed in an angry and violent God?

Isn’t this a story that feels like the outing of a merciful God? Aren’t we given the sense that in this primitive time God has a primitive reputation to defend? As if, to keep up with the other boys on the block, ancient deities of the thunder-and-lightning set, the God of Israel ought to throw his weight around in a like manner, bellicose in a zero-tolerance sort of way?

Until, that is, father Abraham comes on the scene. Drafted out of retirement by this very God, Abraham takes him seriously enough to relocate in old age, to father a child in old age, almost to sacrifice that child in obedience to this God. Oh yes, Abraham has every reason to rattle God’s cage and ask the question of theology and of prayer, “Who’s in there? Who are you?”

And to start with, Abraham will require that God be consistent. Our story today takes us into that arm-wrestling relationship between father Abraham and the one holy God, in such a charming tale as might lighten us all up enough to wonder, “Wait a minute: is this story about what God truly is like, or is it more about what humanity dares believe God to be? We might even say that this is one holy shakedown showing the evolution of theology and the evolution of humanity.

And it all culminates in a minyan, the ancient and still-honored tradition that places responsibility for so many people in the hands of so few: enough to save two ornery towns, says the story—if they can be found. Enough to carry the weight of the whole synagogue, the entire Jewish community, ten people willing to observe the sabbath together open the gates of the tabernacle for the Torah to be read and heard and honored.

On summer Sundays, we occasionally slide close to a sense of quorum, don’t we? How many Episcopalians does it take to carry a eucharist? I don’t know, but I do believe summer attendance helps each of us feel how important a decision it is to observe the sabbath together.

How many Christians does it take to claim the divine presence? Two or three, says Jesus, promising to be with us even in that close a quorum. Had Abraham known, he might have tried to talk God down further.

What I’d like you to see from Genesis is how the revealing of God’s nature also reveals human responsibility. That is our first coaching in prayer, this morning.

Now, “Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’”

John the Baptizer was an open air preacher who urged repentance at a time when the greedy rich were inspiring the poor and the merchant class to be greedy too. “Not so,” he told them: true life is not found in having. You have two coats? Give one to someone who needs it. You’re in a position of power? Don’t abuse it by soliciting bribes.” While we aren’t told how John taught his followers to pray, we can believe it featured human responsibility to meet and welcome the kingdom of God that John said has come near.

In the prayer that Jesus teaches, the kingdom or reign of God is one of the first concerns on his lips, but not until he teaches us to let prayer be personal. He wants us to hallow God’s name, to allow God’s holiness to be felt in our hearts. His focus on God’s name is like Abraham’s desire to know who it is he’s dealing with. And that name is deeply personal, Father. We may yearn also to call God Mother. Recognize here the same dimension of personal relation, as Jesus calls God Father. We see evidence in the Gospels that this got him in trouble with the high and mighty, who faulted Jesus for being so familiar with God (as if could Jesus could not have been familiar with God!).

You’ve noticed that Luke doesn’t speak of Our Father in heaven. That’s just one of several differences in Luke. Even the early Church had different ways of praying the Our Father--- worth remembering as in our time we pray it both one way and another.

Allowing, hallowing, feeling the holiness of God, we pray that God’s kingdom comes. There’s the theme of his prayer: the big picture, the deepest reality of God’s way that contantly breaks in on our many little ways, our many conflicting ways, our often aimless and wasteful ways. All else that we pray from here out must be consistent with the big picture of God’s way.

Give us each day our daily bread. And by the rules of the kingdom, teach us how to share it.

And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. Not, for Luke, “as we forgive those who sin against us,” but “for we are seriously practicing your call to forgive everyone who owes us anything.”

And do not bring us to the time of trial. When the new Lord’s Prayer was really new, I recall any number of people saying they didn’t like “trial”, and preferred “temptation.” What a headline that makes: “Episcopalians dislike trial, prefer temptation!”

Blame Luke. And credit Luke for talking straight in dangerous times when to be a Christian led to prison and often death. “Keep us useful to you, fruitful for you, this side of danger in these risky times.” But having started with “Your kingdom come,” we stake our lives on that kingdom mattering more than the dangers that could befall one of us, or ten of us, or fifty of us…but Lord, what if it were all of us who bear your name, your Spirit, and your presence? What would become of your kingdom if the forces of tyranny and greed and brutality swept us all away? We cannot imagine that being your will, you whose kingdom is within us.

Luke has no “Your will be done on earth as in heaven.” But the power of will is the subject of the parable and the teaching that follow. The persistent friend who gets what he wants not because of friendship but because of his tenacious will, his not giving up, his endless knocking on the door. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”

By his coaching so far, Jesus counts on us to ask and search in keeping with God’s kingdom, God’s way, not in line with our own way. That persistent friend was setting a table of hospitality for a guest, not feeding himself.

And to crown his lesson on prayer, sharp questions: If your child asks for a fish, would you give a snake? If hungry for an egg, would you give your child a scorpion? Apply this to your relation to God: rather than be anxious that you might not get what you want, recognize when you are given what you need, most of all the Holy Spirit, the prime gift of God.

Our final coaching on prayer today comes from St. Paul writing to the Christians at Colossae. “Abound in thanksgiving.” He gives many reasons that cause our gratitude to God, but the apostle of many words puts in a nutshell the most important priority we have in prayer: “Abound in thanksgiving.” His many reasons are all about what God has done in Jesus Christ to simultaneously free us for, and root us in, love. He wants us to remember who and whose we are.

It may be that no words do that better for us than the Lord’s Prayer. One day last week, I sat with someone who has lived nearly 100 years, and has little memory left about what just happened, moments ago. When we prayed, and I opened with the words “Our Father,” the tabernacle doors flew open and the words of that prayer came from her lips with a consistency she can no longer muster for herself, but is alive in her, ready to rise.