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.