Thursday, December 1, 2011

Elemental Change

Scripture for the 1st Sunday in Advent includes Isaiah 64:1-9, I Corinthians 1:3-9, and Mark 13:24-37

Our readings today are rich with images of transformation. Isaiah speaks of the visitation of God as if it were fire kindling dry wood, causing a pot of water to boil. God’s movement among us results in elemental change: chemical reaction ignites, physical states change, the unshakeable status quo is shaken, and no one is beyond being affected by what is beyond human expectation. All people may insist on their own ways, but all people are, says Isaiah, like clay on the wheel of a master potter, being shaped by a hand they do not see.

Mark’s Gospel shows Jesus foretelling fearsome transformation of our universe, everything we take for granted acting in opposition to what we expect: the sun to be darkened, and good night, moon! Stars will fall from their places, and the ordering of heaven will become a great swirling cataclysm, as God claps hands to, what, reverse the Big Bang? Clear the decks? However it’s described, this elemental change gathers from the four winds all of God’s people for the ultimate homecoming. And they must be awake and ready for that moment known only to God, or else they’ll miss it.

Which makes it sound as if there’s something God’s people must do at that moment. What is it?

Must they know a secret handshake? Have enough money? Own enough stuff? Know enough answers? Have accomplished enough… accomplishments? Been sufficiently generous?

No. According to Mark’s little parable, God’s people simply must hear the knock on the door signaling that the master of the house has come home and it’s time to throw open the door and welcome him.

That’s a good lesson for a baptismal Sunday. The elemental change that awaits Kimberly Rose this morning requires a pot of water, and the divine energy that touches it and will touch her is the spark of the Holy Spirit that will animate her transformation from being only a child of Eve and Adam (aka Ali and Mitch) into being more: child of God, member of Christ’s Body, inheritor of the kingdom of God.

And in line with Mark’s little parable, what qualifies Kimberly for this changed status that is so beyond human expectation? Nothing that she has done, and nothing that we will have done except to have heard the desire of God to pour out the abundance of divine love, amazing grace, upon this little girl, and to have co-operated with God to throw open the door of this moment for God to come home in her.

That is not where her transformation ends. It is where her elemental change begins. Yet, by the Church’s theology nothing more can ever qualify her for her place at the heavenly banquet. That place will have been set for all time and beyond. It will be for Kimberly to claim her place in the heart of God, and it will be for us, her family and her church family, to model for her what spiritual alertness is, what keeping awake is for, and what allows a good night’s sleep secure in the keeping of God.

These readings given to us to hear on the first day of a new season, Advent, deal in change and transformation. What do they give us for the journey through Advent?

Isaiah invites us to wait for God, because God works for those who wait for a keener timing than their own. This goes hand in glove with Mark’s parable, doesn’t it? Mark urges us to keep alert, keep awake as we experience two dimensions of time, one the kind a clock can measure—and in that kind of time we do the work and love the people we are given—while the other dimension of time is outside and beyond what a wrist watch can measure. It is from there that God works. To be sensitive to God’s time is the interest of both Isaiah and Mark. Mark announces that heaven and earth will pass away in the ticking-down of days and months and years, but the words of Jesus will not pass away. Though spoken once in ordinary time, they are spoken from the heart of God, from beyond time, and so the words of Jesus cradle us, nurse us, stimulate us to gladly do right and remember God in all our ways (to use Isaiah’s language). Our readings today give us the invitation—or is it the demand?—to read and ponder over and savor the Word of God in Advent. Little guide books are waiting for you today, on the back table, to help you do that.

On a day of baptism, we’re reminded of our crucial and central responsibility, to expose Kimberly to the words of Jesus who is the Word of God. On these few and fast days of Advent, we need reminding of how crucial and central it is to each of us that we expose ourselves to this Word, this same hearing of what Jesus says, so we may gladly do what Jesus does and be sensitive to all who knock on our doors in ordinary time, and be alert to the God who gives birth, aware of the shaping work of the master potter, and become more adept at recognizing the touch on our hearts of the one who owns the house we occupy.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Yearning for Unity

Scripture for the Last Sunday after Pentecost, Christ the King Sunday, includes Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1:15-23; and Matthew 25:31-46

The most divided house in America, the United States Congress, was considering last week whether to approve a spending bill that will prevent a government shutdown. Buried in that thick document is one line that defines pizza as a vegetable. You know I’m not making this up. You know this not because of anything you know about me, but because of what we all know can happen in Congress.

The bill’s language would confirm current government policy, which is that two tablespoons of tomato paste spread on a slice of pizza constitutes one vegetable serving. The Department of Agriculture, pushing healthier food for children, has sought a stricter provision, that food must contain half a cup of tomato paste to qualify as a vegetable serving. A spokesman for the American Frozen Food Institute says that this would make it impossible for schools to serve pizza.

The director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, has offered her opinion that pizza ought to be served in school cafeterias with a vegetable, not count as one.

Jon Stewart had his way with this imbroglio: At a time when a congressional super-committee is supposed to be agreeing on spending cuts to the tune of a trillion dollars or more, what our divided government may be able to agree upon is… that pizza is a vegetable.

From another divisive setting, we heard this week that Morgan Management is suing the Town of Williamstown and the State Attorney General’s Office, asking the court to declare that the damage done by Tropical Storm Irene was an act of God.

Of these two astonishing developments, this one stuns me more.

If Irene was an act of God, goes the legal argument by the owners of The Spruces mobile home park, then an act of God has caused the mobile home park to cease. I’m not making that up, either. If the park has ceased, then Massachusetts law —which is extremely clear about the obligations of mobile home parks, inconveniently clear for Morgan Management-- Massachusetts law would no longer apply, and Morgan would be free to walk away from Williamstown with no further responsibilities to its tenants.

And one more painfully divisive experience was felt last week, this in the campus community to which we belong by more than neighborly affinity. Words of racial hatred were scrawled on a wall inside a Williams dormitory last weekend, generating a crisis which, thanks to bold initiatives and wise judgment by students and administration, has become the opportunity for truth-telling. Such incidents have happened before, and may happen again. But what may be unique about this one is that the moment was seized, classes cancelled, and 1500 campus members sat on Chapin lawn, allowing the truth-telling to sink deeper than usual, perhaps deeper than ever, and deep is where it must go to reach those depths where bias and learned hatred linger. A gentle drizzle anointed the crowd near the end of that historic gathering, as if heaven were trying to cleanse us all.

See how many instances of divisiveness can be found in our human community, constantly impinging on our daily life. We yearn for unity, long for what breaks down walls that separate us so we may find what binds us all together in perfect freedom and mutual responsibility. We’re hungry for the antidote to paralyzed government, social segregation, and poisonous words.

And along comes today’s Gospel, the summation of Matthew’s teaching about the return of Jesus Christ in glory to set right a world gone wrong. In recent weeks, he has reported several relevant parables of Jesus—wise and foolish bridesmaids whose one task is to be ready when the bridegroom comes, estate managers entrusted with the master’s wealth investing it well or poorly—and now he is done with parables that tease our minds, and instead spreads out before us an apocalyptic vision unlike any in the other Gospels. But, like the parables, this astonishing mural of the end divides people, sheep from goats, some rising to eternal reward, others being cast into the outer gulags of perdition.

Slim pickings for us who yearn for unity. What’s going on in all this division?

For one thing, the first-century church was pulled in two directions by the question, Where is Jesus? One answer is that he has ascended to heaven, and from there will come again to judge the living and the dead. This is the answer given by the gospel-writer Luke at the end of his Gospel. But there is no ascension in Matthew’s Gospel; rather, his closing scene has the eleven disciples gathered around Jesus on a mountaintop, where he tells them, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Jesus is here with us.

But as we see in today’s portion, Matthew crosses the aisle and agrees that there will be a day when Jesus returns to decisively complete his victory over the realm of evil. As year gave way to year and decade to decade, Matthew’s church yearned for something more than the quiet hiddenness of Jesus’s promised presence (had that come to feel like slim pickings?). Surely Christ’s definitive triumphant return would come in a way seen by all, and surely it would happen soon.

Matthew speaks of Jesus Christ as King, sitting on a glorious throne, from which he will admit the righteous to the kingdom of God, the reign of perfect justice they’d long prayed daily would come on earth as in heaven. Perfect justice, of course, is a very sharp sword; and what it will cut away is the demonic this-worldly tyranny of Jesus’s opponents, the counter-kingdom opposed to God’s reign. Listen to my favorite Methodist commentator, Eugene Boring:

“The two kingdoms that are confused and interwoven in the ambiguities of history now stand disclosed at the end of history. There are only these two kingdoms: the Son of Man with his angels and all the blessed righteous, and the kingdom of God prepared from eternity stand on one side; the devil and his angels, the accursed, and the destiny prepared for the devil and his own stand on the other. The kingdom of God is disclosed as the only true kingdom… ultimately only God is King.”

So welcome to Christ the King Sunday, the nickname of this last Sunday in the long season of Pentecost when it seems the Church has no more imagination than to keep numbering its Sundays after Pentecost—this year 23 of them—but oh yes, we must imagine.

Shaped by the realities of his time, Matthew imagined this cataclysmic end of history that would soon close the curtain on a culture of violence and greed, and throw open the long-veiled reign of God’s justice.

Two thousand years later, we can imagine cataclysmic endings, the human race having invented several ways to end life as we know it, one by nuclear technology harnessed to the cause of war, and one by toxic excess in the name of greed. We need to imagine God’s setting-right of a world gone wrong, and it isn’t hard to imagine that in order to unite the human race there must be divided from human community the counter-forces of racial hatred, violence, and greed.

But don’t give up on the pressing need to imagine a dénouement that frees people to find unity, rather than a judgment day that perpetuates division? How does Matthew’s vision of setting the world right help us 21st-century believers? There are three ways.

First, he reminds us that Jesus Christ is the basis for any setting-right that you and I are called to do. We hear that in all the titles of honor given him: Son of Man, Shepherd, Lord, King. And if we are to represent him faithfully in a world where people of other religions—and people of no religion—have different bases for the reconciling work they are called to do, we must remember and practice the basics: to treat others as we wish them to treat us, to be merciful peacemakers with pure hearts, and to act less as teachers and more as learners. All these are Jesus-traits that Matthew urges us to value and imitate, because Jesus Christ is the basis for the reconciling work we have to do.

Second, Matthew says something more astonishing than anything we have heard recently, and again I’ll let my Methodist commentator say it: In Matthew’s apocalyptic vision, God’s “criterion of judgment is not confession of faith in Christ. Nothing is said of grace, justification, or the forgiveness of sins. What counts is whether one has acted with loving care for needy people. Such deeds are not a matter of ‘extra credit,’ but constitute the decisive criterion of judgment… the ‘weightier matters of the Law.’” To say that Christ is King is to say that his ethics rule.

Third, Matthew makes his whole end-time vision depend on his deep belief that between first and second public appearances, Jesus Christ has never left us. The righteous have no idea that they have fed, welcomed, clothed, and visited him—but we must catch the point that he has been there all along, embedded in these least of our brothers and sisters, his brothers and sisters. Or is it more accurate to say that he is alive in the force-field of loving care between the righteous and the least; and he was there in the void between the self-absorbed and the least. One could even say, true to Matthew’s words, that Jesus Christ has been detained indefinitely among the poor and excluded, willingly and strategically imprisoned with the most vulnerable until the time comes for heaven to set things right on earth.

Isn’t it intriguing, this not-knowing, not-recognizing that shrouds Christ in anonymity? And this strange agnosticism is true equally for the righteous and for the self-absorbed and unresponsive. The first do not know what they have done, and the second have no clue what they have failed to do, until he comes again in public display, disclosing the hearts of all. And, until then, doesn’t that suggest the vocation of the Church, to hold him up so clearly that hearts do open?

We really must imagine what it will take to make right this world gone wrong. Here today, Matthew tells us. He seems to long for division of the human race, and this could cause us not to listen. But if we are to play our part and do what we can, what we must, to help people find their unity with one another and with God, we need Matthew’s wisdom.

And, in a nutshell, it is this: Jesus Christ is our basis for action. Action is required. Self-giving love is that action, and Jesus Christ is right there, in the giving and the receiving.

(M. Eugene Boring’s commentary on Matthew in volume 8 of “The New Interpreter’s Bible” was useful in the preparation of this sermon.)

Investing Well

Scripture for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost includes Judges 4:1-7; I Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

I realize that our collect says that all holy scripture has been written for our learning, but I have no idea what to do with that portion of the Book of Judges. It introduces us to Deborah, a prophetess who functioned as one of the great judges of ancient Israel. I’d thought at first that this passage might be setting us up for a series of readings about her, but not so. It’s a one-off reading that must have depths I haven’t plumbed and applications I haven’t imagined, but darned if I know where to go with it.

Our psalm, however, has a certain currency to it. “…for we have had more than enough of contempt, Too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, and of the derision of the proud.” That sounds as if it comes straight from the Occupy Wall Street movement. I’d judge the popularity rating of that sharp-edged verse at about 99%...maybe 100.

It’s an interesting companion piece to Matthew’s parable of the talents. On the face of it, there’s something cold and steely about this parable, enough to make me wish I could avoid dealing with it. But I’ve struck out on Judges and haven’t found St. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians ringing my bells, so let’s see what we find in this parable.

Rather than re-trace it from the get-go, let’s visit the bottom line. Three estate managers have been handed portions of a wealthy man’s property, to invest and trade upon while he takes the grand tour. He has judged how much to entrust to each, based on their working history. I presume that the one surprise this keen capitalist had on his return was to discover that the fellow he trusted least, the manager from whose skills he expected least, under-performed even the low water mark of their working history.

The Bible commentator tells us that a talent is a large sum of money. Do you have a calculator on your smart phone? Take the wages of a day laborer (let’s say it’s minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, so multiply that by eight hours: $58.00) then multiply that by fifteen years of daily labor (a Jew would not work on the Sabbath, so let’s say six days a week would yield $348.00, multiply that by 52 weeks and we have $18,096, multiply that by 15 and behold, a talent on our terms might be in the neighborhood of $271,440.00. That’s serious money.

I’ve got to say that this story reminds me of our last Finance Committee meeting here in the parish. We have a very sharp committee, and they’ve wisely diversified, placing the management of the parish’s longterm assets in several sets of hands. And there’s one that keeps underperforming. Though I can easily picture us indulging in some judgmental language, I’m not sure we’d go so far as to call that manager wicked and lazy, and I’m positive that, even if the committee decides to remove parish assets from his stewarding, they won’t expect to throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

So what’s with the intensity of the master? Where does all this feeling come from?

From the start, don’t we know that this parable is going to speak about something beyond its literal terms, that while the story is cast in the language of estate management, it’s really about something more, much more. Jesus tips his hand right at the outset, “The kingdom of heaven will be like this…” he says.

And isn’t it intriguing that the word “talent” should carry more than its weight in gold? The commentator tells us that this double meaning wasn’t there in the first century— that stands to reason, since the coincidence occurs in English, not in Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek. As a result of the wide circulation of this story, the word “talent” came into the English language in the Middle Ages as a term meaning God-given abilities, gifts, graces. In the first century, the talents in this story were money on the barrelhead.

But that doesn’t mean that money, wealth, investment, stewardship in this parable represent financial or commercial property. A parable is always an earthly story with a heavenly meaning; or, as the great Bible scholar C. H. Dodd puts it,

“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.” (C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom)

Any Bible scholar would urge us to notice the context in which the Gospel-writer, Matthew in this case, locates the parable. We’re right on the heels of last Sunday’s parable of the ten bridesmaids, which we saw addressing not so much wedding customs as the second coming of Jesus Christ in glory to set right a world gone wrong.

That’s the immediate neighborhood of today’s parable, and it is where it is because Matthew wants his hearers to wrestle with a hard question: In the between-time after our Lord’s first coming and before his return, what ought good and faithful believers be doing with their lives?

A divided first-century church, under pressure of persecution by Roman imperial forces, may have made several answers to Matthew. Some thought what mattered was being theologically correct and pure in that waiting time, keeping your hands clean and your eyes on the prize. Some may have had little idea how to wait for God’s final act on the world stage except to be passive and cautiously watch what happened, but disengaged and in a place of hiding. And some were positive that faithfulness meant strict obedience to the clear instructions of the law and the prophets, following the old rules regardless of all the flux and flow of severe change all around. But there’s yet one other answer that some Christians would make.

Before going there, let’s be sure we’ve been adequately teased. What is that enormous wealth which the master has entrusted to us stewards?

It isn’t money. Remember what can happen to IRAs and endowments, and recognize that this wealth that Jesus bestows upon us is not fragile or fickle or flimsy: it has an eternal weight of glory about it, it is kept in the heart and not in the bank, it grows not by hoarding it but by giving it, putting it to use. We have been given the contents of the vaults of heaven, the love that will not let us go, the hope of eternal life, wisdom that teaches us to sing in harmony with God, unlimited partnership with God in the new creation. We’ve been given certainty and confidence in our place at the table of perfect community. Sacraments, scriptures, prayer, mission, passion, eternity.

What are we to do with this wealth as we await the return of Christ in glory? The one other remaining answer made by many in that first century world was to exercise responsibility, take initiative, run risk that would help God establish the priority of Jesus’s love, Jesus’s values, Jesus’s radical and iconoclastic egalitarianism right here and now on earth as in heaven. Such is what this parable shows two of three stewards doing, and being affirmed for doing, while one is reamed-out for what he has allowed fear and anxiety to do to him, to his freedom and his integrity. Each manager has been free to decide how to use the gift of time and opportunity during the master’s absence, how to live in his stead, by his vision; and yet just two of these three have claimed that freedom and made decisions. The third has dug a hole, a grave, and tried to bury in it the way, the truth, and the life.

But he has apparently never accepted these powers, these gifts, as his. Hear how he blames the master for his own problem of fear. He hasn’t discovered the inner nature of gift and opportunity that animates the new life of grace: “Here you have what is yours,” he grumbles, unaware of what is his own.

We could still ask, why the intensity, the deep feeling that the master expresses, banishing this third steward to outer darkness. And a responsible handling of the Word of God most likely requires us to test the spirit of such rejection and exclusion. Is this the spirit of the kingdom of God? Or might it be the partisan spirit that a divided society can display when leaders don’t lead, the anger that surfaces when some try so hard and others walk away from their responsibilities?

Have we been teased enough by this parable? Enough to see a symbolic case study in the creation not of financial capital, but of social and spiritual capital? Teased enough to ask ourselves what we are generating for God, for the world, for the kingdom of Christ, from the vast wealth that has been entrusted to us?

(M. Eugene Boring’s commentary on Matthew in “The New Interpreter’s Bible”, volume 8, was helpful in preparing this sermon.)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Controversies, Round Three

Scripture for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost includes Deuteronomy 34:1-12; I Thessalonians 2:1-8; and Matthew 22:34-46

Last Sunday, it was taxes. Today, it appears to be philosophy. In that first controversy, the question was whether it was lawful for an observant believer in God to pay taxes to the emperor (who thought he was God). Here, the question is which commandment—not out of the ten, but out of the 613 that composed the legal system of Israel in Jesus’s day—which was greatest.

In-between these two controversies occurred another that we don’t get to hear, in this year’s unfolding of Matthew. That one was engineered by the Sadducees, a Jewish sect of wealthy landowners who were conservative souls for whom only the Torah, only those first five books of the Bible, carried canonical authority. Pharisees believed that God was revealing both divine nature and divine agenda progressively, gradually over the centuries—a rather modern view. Not so the Sadducees, whose controversial question for Jesus was a conundrum about a woman whose husband died, whereupon his brother dutifully married her (in keeping with Torah), and when he died his next brother married her, and on it went through all seven brothers. When she died, whose wife would she be in heaven? Behind that testy question lurked the Sadducees’ resistance to believing there is a heaven (they accused the liberal Pharisees of dreaming up that newfangled idea), and their enshrining of the law which included a provision that a brother should marry his own brother’s widow.

Today we observe the third in Matthew’s series of controversies. Each has a potentially toxic question, meant to trap Jesus into making an unfortunate public statement—the kind that get made in American presidential primary debates—which could then be used against him, as also happens in American presidential primaries. Each of these controversies shows Jesus to be a master of ju-jitsu, using the incoming force to unbalance his adversaries, harnessing the moment to press his own message.

If the Roman coin has the Roman emperor’s face on it, it’s already his, so let him have it. Pause. And give to God what belongs to God.

That poor woman is no one’s wife in heaven: in the resurrection, everyone belongs to God, no one is defined by their earthly relationships. She is herself in the resurrection, precious to God.

And which commandment in the law is the greatest? In all these controversial questions, Jesus is being tempted to play a win-lose game, allowing his interrogators’ either-or way of thinking to dictate his response. Jesus takes this exclusionary thinking and flips it to demonstrate best religious practice: the inclusive win-win approach of both-and thinking.

“’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.”


“And a second is of identical weight and priority: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang (depend, swing) all the law and the prophets.”

What’s going on here was brought home to me by reading Miroslav Volf’s new book, “Allah: A Christian Response” in which this Yale theologian answers a contemporary controversial question: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

Carefully, in rewarding explorations of both religious traditions, he builds his answer, which is Yes. What’s to be admired about his approach is his insistence that worship primarily occurs outside sanctuaries. Jesus’s summary of the law that we hear in today’s Gospel defines worship, locates worship, as happening in our neighborhoods and among our global neighborhoods. Volf applies a bit of ju-jitsu himself as he gets us asking his question, “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” realizing that “worship” simultaneously speaks to the realms of prayer and liturgy, on the one hand, and the domain of ethics and behavior, on the other—as two hands of one body.

And it is in the category of behavior and moral vision that Volf reminds his reader that Jesus commands his followers to love their enemies. He finds that message in the Qur’an as well, but he does not dance around Islam’s sharper edges, posing the question whether loving the enemy is equally central to both religions.

But to call that great challenging command central to Christianity is to have to admit that there is theory and there is practice, the two often poles apart.

And so as not to leave Judaism out of the picture, let’s recognize that this morning’s passage from Deuteronomy, while sounding like a graphic travelogue, is actually the geography of hostile takeover. The promised land is also the stolen land, the vanquished land, and while the Hebrew Bible presents the story in terms of God fulfilling his covenant promises, a point of view that Christianity has by and large agreed with, we can be certain that Arab Christians will not swallow that sugar-coated version of history.

Which is to say that all three Abrahamic faiths have lots to answer for. And the answering the world requires, the answering that God requires, will be demonstrated by obedience to that second commandment, the one that calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves, even when, especially when, they are also our enemies. This is where we show who is the God we worship.

Such love, reaching across battlefields and checkpoints, broken families and shattered economies, divided nations and conflicted loyalties, can move and have its being only because such love is God in action among us and through us. “Almighty and everlasting God,” we prayed in our collect, “Increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity (“caritas”, the love that must show itself); and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command.”

Are your spiritual practices—are mine—opening us to these gifts, these powers of God?

Are we open to our worship of God calling us, equipping us, requiring us, to love and do what God commands, in the neighborhoods of the one world our one human race occupies?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Raising Our Sights

Scripture for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 33:12-23; I Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

Treachery seeps out from these few verses of today’s Gospel. The Pharisees represent the established church of their day. They claimed to be champions of God, but if you’ve read this far in Matthew you know that the Pharisees have already decided that Jesus must be put to death. All the nice things they say as they cozy up to Jesus cannot hide the truth; they are remembered as being agents of evil. They appear to seek our Lord’s wisdom and to welcome dialogue with him, but in fact they are spiders weaving webs of words to trap Jesus into making unfortunate public statements that will be used against him.

The issue they pick is just as controversial today as it was twenty centuries ago: taxes. Specifically, a census tax, a head tax imposed by the Roman emperor in the year 6 of the Common Era, when Judea became a Roman province. Over the next sixty years, this tax—insidious because it taxed a person simply for being, for breathing, for walking the earth in a certain place—this tax fanned the flames of nationalism that would erupt in the Zealot movement that ignited the disastrous war of the years 66-70, when the Roman army sacked Jerusalem, obliterated the great Temple, viciously stamped out resistance, reoriented Judaism from the sacrificial cult of the Temple to a religion observed in the safety of the home, and dispersed the early Christians to the four points of the compass.

As Matthew sets the scene, there are Pharisees and Herodians present in this encounter with Jesus. Herodians were open supporters of the Roman rule of Judea, and paid the tax willingly. Pharisees were crowd-pleasers, in principle resenting and resisting the tax—but not to the extent of public resistance like that of the radical nationalists, the Zealots. By having two of these three parties present, Matthew sets the stage for doubling the likelihood that Jesus will put his foot into quicksand. By having the Herodian tax-advocates present, we may hear the suspicion that Jesus would put his foot down in the camp of the Zealots and urge tax-resistance. He surprises them all.

The Roman tax could be paid only with Roman coin. That’s where the rub came for the Pharisees: on that coin was the image of the emperor, and an inscription that made the emperor sound as if he were divine. Pharisees and Zealots found that blasphemous.

Jesus seems coolly detached from all the hubbub about images and inscriptions. He asks for a Roman coin because he doesn’t have one. Look who does: one of the Pharisees. There is the moment of truth, and we might miss it. It’s the Pharisees who make a public pitch bemoaning this tax and that blasphemous tax coinage, but it is the Pharisees who have the coins in their pockets. They are part of the establishment. They are on the take, supported by state sponsorship. Jesus calls them hypocrites and in that instant proves his point when he asks them to show him the money.

Jesus doesn’t have a coin like this in his pocket. He’s holding a foreign object as he asks, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” “The emperor’s,” they answer.

“Well, then, it’s already his, so let him have it.”


“And let God have the things that belong to God.” Already they belong to God, so let God have them. In the words of a hymn, “All things are thine, no gifts have we, Lord of all gifts, to offer thee; and yet with grateful hearts today thine own before thy feet we lay.”

The Pharisees and Herodians want to weave their web out of talk about taxes. Jesus uses their fixation as a springboard to higher, deeper, keener stewardship. Just as Jesus proves himself master of this situation of malicious encounter, so he teaches us not to be victims of circumstance, but to aim higher and deeper, determine our allegiance to what we do believe and value, not sink in the mire of blame and criticism and complaint.

What is it we say, There are only two sure things, death and taxes? But isn’t it clear that Jesus calls us not to live down to the lowest common standard of what we’re obligated to give, but to live up to our own best standard of what we want to give?

No, he doesn’t offer clearcut guidance. He raises our sights. He sets us free to decide, beyond what we’re against, what we’re for-- and to behave in keeping with what matters most.

What are they not protesting? That question has been asked about demonstrators in scores of locations around our country in the movement known as Occupying Wall Street.

At the corner of Wall and Broadway in Manhattan stands Trinity Church. The Rev. Daniel Simons, priest for liturgy, hospitality, and pilgrimage at that parish, has walked through the protestors’ encampment daily. Listen to his comments: The protestors “are choosing extreme action to make a point. They are the injured knee with torn ligaments that is screaming in unbearable, inarticulate pain. The knee doesn’t know how to fix its tear, but it knows how to draw attention to a problem that affects the whole (body). They have drawn attention by the means they have.”

Every so often, thanks to social networking, larger demonstrations happen. If the encamped protestors appear a bit raggedly disorganized and drifty, Simons observes how normal the participants appear in these larger demonstrations. “There are students and teachers and priests and ironworkers and office workers. They actually have a pretty clear and focused message: There are deep but resolvable cracks in our system of governance, which has artificially rigged the possibility of extreme profit at the expense of the greater good. The most articulate spokesmen identify a single, most pressing need for action…” which is federal regulation to restore firewall between investment banks and commercial banks, preventing investment banks in the future from gambling with their depositors’ money held in commercial banks created by those investment firms.

Wherever is this sermon going, you may wonder. The screaming knee that Fr. Simons observes daily in his neighborhood is drawing attention to what we’re all aware of, what we’re all affected by, and what most of us are waiting for Someone to do something about—and the bottom line is that we have as a society abdicated responsibility which we must reclaim. This reminds me of what we see in today’s Gospel: Jesus raising our sights, calling us to decide what we are for, modeling for us how spiritual clarity lets flow the energy by which evil may be mastered.

Remember how sharply divided the people are in that Gospel: divisions among Herodians, Pharisees, nationalists, and Jesus-followers appear headed toward explosive controversy.

In many American parks and public squares, a them-and-us kind of thinking appears in the protestors’ chant, “We are the 99 percent!” If that’s “us”, then “they” are the profiteering one percent whom we can blame for making us suffer. And where will that approach get us?

Not very far, says Fr. Simons. “We are all complicit in creating (and resolving) what ails us… We are the 100 percent.”

Jesus reveals how God sees in human beings their radical equality. Though the Pharisees are hypocrites and flatterers, they are right when they say that Jesus teaches the way of God in accordance with truth, shows deference to no one, and does not regard people with partiality. They discover how right their estimation of him is only when they are sent away shaking their heads in amazement.

One last word from Fr. Simons: “I write and preach regularly that in God's economy there is only an ‘us,’ and whenever we fall back to us-and-them thinking, we are contributing to a powerful but failed system that Jesus came to tip into collapse. Jesus in his Resurrection, steps beyond death and creates a new dimension. There is no retribution for his killers, how could there be? – he has just stepped into larger life where the only message can be: ‘Come on, join in the party.’ Any act of scapegoating-- it's their fault; this one is to blame -- feeds the old death-bound beast. Making something new is making something together - receiving something together from a God who gives all.

And one last word from me. Jesus does not explain how to draw a line between our allegiance (our trust, our support) that we are obliged to give to civil government and our allegiance to God. Jesus does not explain how we are to distinguish between what belongs to Washington and Boston, and what belongs to God. Jesus expects us to give to God in ways that bear the likeness of God: generously, freely, sacrificially, without complaint, and for the good of the whole “us” loved radically by God.

(I found M. Eugene Boring’s commentary on Matthew helpful in preparing this sermon; it’s found in volume 8 of “The New Interpreter’s Bible. Fr. Daniel Simons’s comments were published by Episcopal News Service.)

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Basics: Water, Spirit, Honesty

Scripture for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 17:1-7; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

What is more basic to life than water? You might hear that question rising from our first reading—and from the daily news, national and international (even extra-terrestrial, as we keep looking for evidence of water on the moon as an indicator of life).

Migrating Israelites were looking for water to slake their thirst during their long seasons and years of wandering in the wilderness, searching for a new homeland. Thirst, profound thirst, did not bring out the best in them. Leaving Egypt, these Hebrew refugees had had a uniquely profound experience of water: as our psalm announces, God “split open the sea and let them pass through; God made the waters stand up like walls.” At that moment they knew without a doubt that God was with them.

But we witness a different moment in today’s portion from Exodus. These were not avid campers. These were folks who liked hot and cold running water. These were people many of us can relate to. They even asked a very modern question, “Is the Lord among us or not?”, indicative of how hard a pendulum can swing from facing too much water and so much grace all at once, to facing the absence of water and a strong sense of abandonment on a march through the desert. Even religious faith appears to hang on what’s in your canteen at the moment.

In this story of the migration of God’s chosen people, God keeps accommodating their needs, but only when those needs reach the proportion of crisis. It’s as if first the President must declare a federal disaster, then FEMA moves in. But in this story, the President, Moses, feels even more helpless than his people. They’re an organized mob. He’s surrounded by their anger. He’s the one who now most must behave as if the Lord is among them. He cries out to God, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me!”

There’s a passage that evokes sympathy for presidents.

The back-story in Exodus is how God loves Moses. God may have a demanding way of showing that love, but greater than the burdens placed by God on the shoulders of Moses is the power, the grace, the spirit with which God endows him. So at this critical moment God prompts Moses to surround himself with some of the elders of Israel (not to go it alone) and to lead that angry crowd to a certain rock at Horeb. “Take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing in front of you. Strike the rock, and let the people find evidence that I am among them.” There and then, as the psalmist sings, “God gave them drink as from the great deep.”

A legend sprang up among later rabbis, how that rock followed the Hebrew people throughout the rest of their journey. Perhaps they meant the memory of it never left them, but the tale they told for imaginative refreshment was that the rock went with them: a wonderful sacramental answer to the peeving question, “Is God with us or not?”

And if you think that’s an astonishing legend, you should hear what St. Paul makes of it in one of his letters: “And the rock was Christ!” I’m not making that up. That is what Paul said, perhaps his way of declaring that Jesus Christ is the living water of God, constant in its flow to keep alive the wandering, the thirsty, all whose resources are dried up.

May countless Somali refugees, fleeing drought and famine, find him with them in their desert migration. And victims of drought in the American Southwest, their homes in ashes after wildfires, may they find him in their desert.

Meanwhile, we in the Northeast are awash as rivers rise and super-saturated air shows us what monsoons can do to a settled way of life. If three days without water can kill a person, one day of a tropical storm making landfall can devastate the vulnerable parts, the vulnerable people, of a community.

What is more central to life than water? Spirit. That is one truth we discover, after a disaster. When a river overflows its banks, neighboring victims experience a flooding of anxiety, a drowning of hope, a washout of energy, the components of depression. As spirit sinks in people whose homes were submerged, the supportive spirit of the wider community helps carry them.

This is what St. Paul talks about when he writes to the church at Philippi, in a different crisis, a time of persecution when the emperor’s men imprisoned and executed Christians who refused to treat the emperor as if he were a god and not a man. Listen to the simple but powerful dimensions of spirit that Paul names and commends among the Philippians: encouragement… consolation… love… sharing…compassion… sympathy…unity… humility… By these spiritual powers a community comes together, people look beyond their own interests to the interests of others. As if defying gravity, people learn to regard what is best in others, what unites them, not separates them. A common mind emerges, and it is one of self-emptying service; it is the mind of Christ.

This is not only Paul’s experience in the first century: it is ours in this community in this 21st century, on the heels of a hurricane.

More central to life than water is spirit. But our hierarchy of values is not yet complete. We take Jesus’s little parable to heart: Honesty is also central to life.

Jesus turns the tables on an argumentative gaggle of clergy in the temple. They try to corner him into naming the authority by which he heals and teaches. What are your credentials, they ask him. Who gave you this authority?

He replies to their question with one of his own. It is designed to put them in a bind. His question takes them right into the muddy waters of the Jordan River. He has stood there, but they have not. Countless other people have stood there, experiencing the baptism of John the Baptizer, an open-air ethical-spiritual revival movement that would have given those temple clergy the heebie-jeebies. But now, when Jesus asks these establishment figures whether John baptized by divine authority or just by his own will, these men cannot answer Jesus. They don’t believe for a moment that God would utilize the outspoken loose-cannon unordained likes of John the Baptist—but they won’t say so in public because they fear alienating the residents of Jerusalem and Judea, in whose eyes John was popular.
When these men refuse to answer Jesus, he refuses to answer them.

But he does tell them a parable, a pithy little story designed to tweak their imagination enough to wonder what he meant by it.

Two sons of one father. The father approaches one son and orders him to work in the family vineyard. “I will not,” this first son sasses back; but later he changes his mind and goes to work.

Then the father says the same to the other son. “I go, sir,” he answers, but he does not go.

“Which of these boys does the will of his father?” asks Jesus. “ The one who contradicts his father but then acts to honor his will, or the one who claims to honor his will but never acts?”

That’s easy, answer the temple clergy, “The first.” But it’s not so easy, is it? Of what does honesty consist? Action, not talk. Remember the touchstone question of Micah the prophet:

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”
--Micah 6:6-8

A similar message is remembered on the lips of the prophet Amos:

“Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
--Amos 5:23-24

Jesus drives home his point. Honesty is the paramount value of the spirit, honesty is required in the kingdom of God. But Jesus finds more honesty among tax collectors and prostitutes than among the established religious community.

It takes honesty to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, placing of first importance what matters most, letting go of the rest. It takes honesty to recognize our need for God. And honesty to recognize that God is at work in us, making us able to see and make our best choices, avoiding the worst. Perhaps that gives us a working definition of honesty: It is the courage to choose what is best, what is true.

Honesty is of paramount importance now as our nation struggles with recession, as too many leaders appear to be bent on trapping one another in corners, turning tables on one another—even at the expense of such urgent business as funding FEMA.

Honesty is needed in this community as we come to terms with what is happening at The Spruces—for mobile homeowners to discern what is in their own best interest, for Morgan Management to come to fair terms with respect to their own future and the future of the residents, and for our wider community to recognize how best to support Spruces residents, and respond to the urgent need for additional affordable housing that is both adequate and safely located.

It may be that we feel like the psalmist who cried, “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck!” But we are here today to affirm that Jesus Christ is the living water of God, constant in its flow to keep alive the thirsty, to renew all who think their resources are dried up, to support us all and teach us how to carry one another.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Letting Grace Rule

Scripture for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 16:2-15; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

When was the last time you were queued up in a long line, and someone cut ahead of you?

How did you react?

At the Post Office, it’s a small thing… at least if there are two clerks behind the counter, I wouldn’t lose more than a minute or two of my day. I could handle that.

But what if, at the end of the line, there isn’t enough to go around? What if everyone in line believes there’s free beer (or a limited number of something even more desirable), to the first however-many reach that counter? What if it’s Black Friday at Best Buy? Or the customer service desk at Delta Airlines, after a cancelled flight?

Then we might see some passion stirred, anxiety felt, and anger rising—as happens in our Lord’s parable of the laborers in the vineyard. More accurately, it is a parable of a generous landowner. We’ll get there in a few moments, but at first blush it looks like there’s more heat to be had if we get in line with those workers.

The early-birds have put in a full day’s work, bearing “the burden of the day and scorching heat,” and it was with a strong work ethic and a keen sense of how much they could earn that day that they had set their alarm clocks to get them out on that street corner, ready for the landowner’s first drive-by in his pick-up truck.

Imagine their shock when they witness the last shift, the johnny-come-latelies who hadn’t shown up until five o’clock in the afternoon, called out first to get paid, and get paid the very same wage that the early-birds had computed on their pocket calculators! “What is happening here?” they ask one another. “Are we going to receive more than we expected?”

When they do not—when they receive the same wage, each and every shift the same wage—their shock turns to anger. Shift by shift that anger grew as they saw no discrimination: each was paid the same. And when the first crew received their wages, they grumbled against that landowner. You bet they did. What screwy kind of way was this to do business?

Here’s where we’d better recognize that this parable is primarily about the landowner, not so much the workers. “I am doing you no wrong,” he says to the early-birds. “Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last (shift) the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

Feel the heat as the lesson of this parable is taught: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” As often as we’ve heard that saying, and recognized it as somehow central to Jesus’s message, and perhaps admired it as being about justice… have we appreciated how painful a lesson this can be?

At the same time, this landowner had it in mind to ease the pain of the last shift. Who were those who were last? “Because no one has hired us,” they answer, when the landowner asks, “Why are you standing here idle all day?”

They are unemployed. Not lazy sleep-abeds… they’ve been at that street corner all day, waiting for their chance, daring to believe (even at five p.m.) that there might be an opportunity, and they’re ready to take it. That approach to job-hunting may seem passive to us, but in those days (as is still the case in many places in our own country) day laborers gather at certain street corners in what is truly a buyer’s market. Taken simply (and parables are meant to be taken simply), they were unemployed through no fault or shortcoming of their own. There just weren’t enough jobs. And not enough landowners who cared to go out of their way to give workers a break.

Why did they need a break? Beyond the unemployment rate, were there more reasons? It’s still taking the parable simply to imagine certain age-old factors: that this last shift included some who were physically or mentally challenged, some who didn’t speak the dominant language, some who couldn’t provide a proper form of identification, some who were very young, some who were old. Some forms of discrimination just don’t change much, do they?

At the heart of this parable is a landowner who is generous. He is not capricious: every single one of those workers went home adequately paid in keeping with the handshake made upon hiring. No, that approach would never agree with union guidelines; and that’s because there’s a higher passion at work in this story than the power of earning. The power of grace is pulsing through this parable.

The Prayer Book defines grace as “God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved.” There’s the rub, there’s the source of the heat in this parable: the arithmetic of grace is not the calculation of earning. The landowner is a champion of grace. The landowner is God. And when you queue-up at God’s table, there is enough to go around to all. There is abundance.

Our Sunday menu of readings often shows us how the scriptures speak to one another. Today that story from Exodus, manna from heaven, quails falling into the stewpots of starving refugees, drives home the nature of God as we meet God in the Bible: generous, gracious, merciful, passionately devoted to finding the lost and saving the endangered.

With that in mind, our parable asserts that it is the power of grace, not the power of earning, that makes the Kingdom of God go ‘round. Christian Socialist Vida Dutton Scudder said it ever so much more elegantly and boldly. Writing before and after the first World War, she scolded American Christianity for carelessly depending on a generally affectionate God and practicing “a domestic religion… calculated to make life pleasant in the family circle—but curiously at ease in Zion,” by which she meant avoiding all agonies of social conscience and all agonies of the inward life.

In 1894, as a brand-new professor at Wellesley College, Scudder attempted (with little success) to stir up the faculty to protest a large gift from the Rockefeller family because it was tainted money, gotten through unjust competition and unfair labor practices. She put the Episcopal Church (and Wellesley) on notice that her agenda for the Church and for the Academy was to move people beyond philanthropy and beyond social reform, and on to social transformation, changing the structures of society that cause poverty. In Vida Scudder’s view, everyone needs transformation: socialists and capitalists, religious and atheist, workers and landowners.

It’s customary to understand today’s parable as talking about religious transformation. The early shifts represent the law and the prophets, the last shift are the johnny-come-latelies of the Jesus movement, the parable showing an evolution that brought even non-Jews to the abundance of God’s table. But for Scudder, this wouldn’t be enough. This wasn’t where she felt the heat of our Lord’s teaching. His gospel must speak to present-day society.

And any attempt at transformation that would apply Christian principles to social and industrial and political life, limited only to a spiritual sphere, would contradict the sacramental philosophy of Christianity. Hear her own words: “The very point of the great truths radiating from the Incarnation (of God in Jesus Christ) is that one harmonious law runs through all spheres of being, wherever the grace of God controls the world; and since our business is to regulate earthly dealings by this divine law, we have no right to deny economic significance to this parable (of the landowner and the workers in his vineyard).”

I take her to mean that we are obligated to labor on so as to make sure that the last are put first, even at the expense of a good deal of grumbling by the first as they get asked to pay higher taxes and to reconsider why they need more of a daily wage than do the poor. And that the last should be put first is not a matter of allowing them to cut in line: it is a matter of ushering them to the front of the line. It is a matter of stitching up the many holes we’ve torn in the safety net that Vida Scudder and her generation stirred this nation to create in the last century.

That’s the kind of talk that generates heat and pain, isn’t it? Without that, thinks Scudder, there will be no transforming of anyone.

I want you to hear one more passage of her own thought, this from her 1921 book “Social Teachings of the Christian Year”: “We are not allowed to forget that our industrial system virtually says, Cursed are the poor, Cursed are the meek… Christian manufacturers, instead of giving unto the last as unto the first, are likely to buy their labor as cheap as they can get it, and are often disposed to fight a living wage to the finish… The permanent contradiction between Christian morals and world morals is a puzzle, and a permanent disgrace.”

Our parable today, being timeless, is perfectly well-timed to be heard in a great and global recession, and well-suited to be considered in a presidential election year. At its heart is the one harmonious divine law that with God, grace rules; and our obligation is to see that it does—to run our shop, school, parish, family, personal life in ways that emulate the landowner’s commitment to engage and advance all who need a break, emulating the practice of generosity that starts in the abundance of God and causes us to recognize that in addition to the bottom lines of profit and losses there is in business a third bottom line: responsibility for transforming society, letting grace rule.

(Vida Scudder's words are cited in Richard H. Schmidt's "Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company,2002. Schmidt's essay on Scudder was useful in the preparation of this sermon.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Shattering of Illusions

Scripture for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 14:19-31; Romans 14:1-12; and Matthew 18:21-35. This Sunday marked the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

"O God, Our Hearts Were Shattered"

A hymn written for the tenth anniversary of 9/11

“O God, our hearts were shattered On that horrendous day;
We heard the news and gathered To grieve and then to pray.
We cried to you and wondered, "Where did the violence start?"
The world as we had known it Had just been torn apart.
We heard of those who perished — Of heroes' sacrifice.
We paused again to cherish The gifts of love and life.
We worried for the future; We hugged our loved ones then.
We cried, "Can peace be found here?" "We can't let terror win!"
Some sought to answer terror The only way they knew —
With anger toward the stranger And calls for vengeance, too.
Yet this is not your answer, Nor what you would create.
May we live toward a future Where love will conquer hate.
God, give us faith and wisdom To be your healing hands;
Give open minds that listen To truth from all your lands.
Give strength to work for justice; Grant love that casts out fear.
Then peace and not destruction Will be the victor here.”
- Carolyn Winfrey Gillette

“O God, our hearts were shattered.” They really were. In those first moments, newscasters speculated that perhaps it was a small plane that had hit the first tower, perhaps a dreadful accident. Explanation and motivation were imagined in their very simplest terms.

But as distracting moments gave way to mesmerizing endless minutes upon minutes, the enormity of that fateful morning came clearer and clearer to us. Our minds and hearts were dragged kicking and screaming to face what was unimaginable beforehand. Even battle-hardened veterans had never seen the ravages of war enacted like this on the soil of our homeland.

Metaphors never behave themselves perfectly. For a heart to shatter, it must be made of what is hard and brittle, and that’s where this metaphor falls short. Though we know that hearts break, we also know they bleed, they tear, they hurt when injured directly; and, when indirectly they experience the suffering of others, hearts move in compassion towards the injured.

We have seen such compassion recently, with residents of the North County giving generous neighbor-to-neighbor gifts to temporarily shelter homeless residents of The Spruces. People have gone far out of their way to volunteer their time, their strength, their talents to help their neighbors, here and in battered communities in Vermont and flood-soaked New York and Pennsylvania. Compassionate hearts have resulted in smalltown markets giving away their inventory rather than letting it go to waste, back-country inns putting on free community-wide meals, restaurants and food coops providing meals for shelter guests, flood victims wading over to help a neighbor whose need seems greater than their own. What a country we live in! A land of big and open hearts.

However the metaphor may work about hearts shattering, we know that Illusions shatter. What is false and inaccurate breaks under the pressures of reality, and that happened on this day, ten years ago, when a nation that assumed itself safe and unassailable discovered how vulnerable its open society is. And while we know ourselves a big-hearted people taking care of our own, what happened ten years ago today shattered the illusion that America is globally admired. We had met such hatred before, in smaller doses; but never before, such committed bitterness.

The ultimate shattering of illusions comes when we become like our worst enemies. Violence begets violence, and bitterness breeds bitterness across battlefields. Injury also triggers injury across any fault line that divides people whose calling is to be united in one body: houses of congress, religious denominations, extended families, all can have the worst brought out in them. In fact, we mark today a decade of increasingly deepening challenges to what is best in the human race: the building of peace and the practice of forbearance and the charity of generous respect.

But if we think this has been a tough ten years for us humans, this must have been a really tough decade to be God.

Each religious franchise is convinced that God is fighting for them, and they are fighting for God. I wonder if God wouldn’t like to take some white-out to some portions of the Hebrew Bible, and the Christian testament, and the Qur’an. Today’s portion from the Book of Exodus might be a candidate: how much delight do we expect God takes in being known as the clogger of chariot wheels and the tosser of soldiers into the sea?

Is it not the more consistent message of holy scripture that God is merciful and expects us to show mercy to one another? So we hear Jesus aim his parable today, when that king reminds his incorrigibly selfish servant that he who has received his master’s mercy ought to show mercy to his fellow servants.

And isn’t it the consistent theme of what we treasure in scripture that the worship God desires is neighbor loving neighbor, especially when it’s hard and costly to do so? And that we are to love, not hate, our enemies?

I know, even so we get our Lord’s parable at the cost of a tag line about this king having that wicked servant tortured until he repays every penny of what he owes. And, even worse, Matthew claims that Jesus himself then threatened his hearers, “And so my heavenly Father will also do to you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” I fear that could be a hard and brittle heart, don’t you?

But perhaps we can hear one or two disciples suppressing laughter in the background (“Aw, go on—he doesn’t mean that!?” “Does he?”). But if you propose that we build a healthy theology on this text taken at its face value, will you forgive me if I imagine God reaching for the white-out?

Because the deepest shattering of our illusions in this past decade has revealed to us our need for the Word of God to restrain us from, not permit, torturing our adversaries as a means to a higher end.

And in the end, says St. Paul today, each of us will be accountable to God. There is another consistent message in holy scripture: each person is responsible for what he or she builds in life, creates in life, chooses in life. We can blame political parties for distorting the truth. We can blame religious traditions for distorting God’s truth; but in the end we are, each of us, responsible for our choices, accountable to God for our behavior.

And so it is mighty important to know who God is in mercy, justice, and love—and so take our bearings for the living of this next decade from the God who is.

In the long run, it is good for us to have our illusions shattered. Then what is finer and truer can take their place.

What will that be?

Perhaps a finer, truer engagement with Islam, a deepening of interfaith understanding and solidarity? I pray so.

Perhaps a humbler walk in the world for America, less the superpower harvesting the world, more the agent of change who is willing to change, ready to learn? Let’s hope so.

Perhaps an open society reclaiming the vision of being open to all who bring good will and good work to the table? Let’s help that happen.

In the long run, the illusion we most need shattered is the one that tells us repeatedly that people of another nation, another religion, another sex, another sexuality, another ethnic group, another income level, are inherently, ultimately, essentially different from us. That people from the other side of our issues, or people from another part of our globe, are really much other than we are.

“Some sought to answer terror The only way they knew —
With anger toward the stranger And calls for vengeance, too.
Yet this is not your answer, Nor what you would create.
May we live toward a future Where love will conquer hate.
God, give us faith and wisdom To be your healing hands;
Give open minds that listen To truth from all your lands.
Give strength to work for justice; Grant love that casts out fear.
Then peace and not destruction Will be the victor here.”

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

This Week the Cross is Red

Scripture for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 12;1-14; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Perhaps you too found it ironic and perverse that a destructive hurricane should be named Irene, from the Greek “eirene”, peace. Irenic it was not. Lives were lost, property damage was devastating, and just when we might have thought the storm was losing its punch, it battered our neighbors in Vermont to an extent beyond our imagining—except for some in this room, who have seen it.

While that was a surprise, it was no surprise that the Hoosic River rapidly flooded, overflowing its banks, and, at The Spruces, even the berm. What followed was the inundation of that mobile home park, 229 homes becoming uninhabitable, at least for now. An estimated 270 residents have been left homeless. We thank God that the angel of death passed over that place: no lives were lost, and for that safe evacuation we can thank Williamstown’s Fire and Police Departments, Village Ambulance personnel, and Brian Grady and his Harper Center colleagues who went door to door.

Town Health Inspector Jeff Kennedy, Town Manager Peter Fohlin, Board of Health members, and town Select Board members, among them Jane Allen, worked tirelessly to triage emergency relief. Red Cross volunteers had been deployed to the Northeast before the storm hit, and they hit the ground running when this disaster happened, quickly opening a shelter at the elementary school.

With school opening the next day, the shelter was moved here (because Jane Allen asked if we could help, and I was sure I knew how you would answer that question). On hand to greet the shelter folks on Monday night were Margot Sanger, Robin Lenz, Polly Macpherson, Tim and Jo Sunn, and I. What we learned instantly was how prepared Red Cross volunteers are, what clear focus they have on their work, and from what great distances they come to perform it. Sue and Harriet drove that big red and white truck all the way from Omaha, arriving just before the storm. Another volunteer had come from Ohio, one from Arkansas, another from Green Bay, Wisconsin, yet another from Mapleton, Iowa, and others from nearer-by in the Northeast. This crew of seven or eight (it was hard to count them, they seldom stood still long enough) are among seven hundred Red Cross volunteers deployed to the Northeast last weekend.

If you stopped by during the week, you noticed intriguing electronic equipment out front and in the lower hallway before Barbara’s office. This was a high-tech emergency communication center manned by six local members of the Amateur Radio Emergency System, among them local educator Kevin Hartmann, who estimated that each of the six had put in forty hours this week monitoring communications from around the Northeast.

Meanwhile, our own Gail Burns was rolling up her sleeves at her workplace, the First Congregational Church, and from Monday morning on Gail and her boss, The Rev. Carrie Bail, have done an outstanding job matching donations with residents needing help. She issued vouchers from the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Affiliates for gasoline, food, and shelter. She distributed gift cards to local stores as she received them from townspeople walking in. She matched displaced residents with townspeople wanting to sponsor them for a few nights in a motel. She kept track of offers of available rooms in homes. If you see Gail, give her a hug.

Here at the shelter, nighttime guests have been few, no more than three on any night, though as many as 19 have sat around the tables at dinnertime (dinners have come spontaneously from local kitchens like Chef’s Hat and Wild Oats), and others have come and gone, perhaps referred on to the disaster assistance service center at the elementary school, open 9 to 4 daily, with representatives from FEMA, the Massachusetts counterpart MEMA, the Red Cross, and housing officials, all ready to give information and register residents needing help facing their loss. It’s expected that personal counselors will also be there this week.

On the heels of the flooding, Spruces residents went to stay with friends and families, dispersing them to the four winds. Genie Smith is staying with Eilleen Drummond. Matt Emerson, Melissa Keil, and little Sydney Rose went to Melissa’s family in Hinsdale. And many, thanks to Gail, went to local motels. Some were given beds at Williamstown Commons. I believe Sweet Brook took some. Sweetwood was preparing to welcome some. Displaced residents with pets have been bunking-in at town hall with their animals (what a sight that must be!), since animals aren’t allowed on-site at Red Cross shelters. Some residents with pets have slept in their cars with them. And I hear that already some people have chosen to relocate to other mobile home parks or apartments in North Adams.

The question so many are asking is, When can residents return to their homes? All have had an initial inspection and each mobile home evaluated. Four have been declared “off limits”, forty have been called “unsafe”, and all the rest “restricted”. There isn’t an encouraging adjective among those words! They are words meant to describe what kind of access owners have to their homes. Most are expected to be repairable, but repairs can’t start until the park’s infrastructure, such as underground electric lines, gets evaluated and fixed—so the uncertainty lingers.

And in that interim a mountain of needs must be met. With apology to St. Paul, we will need to mobilize to make provision for the flesh.

Volunteers are needed to staff the interfaith emergency response center at the First Congregational Church, giving Gail a needed rest (she worked yesterday and will be at it again tomorrow). Volunteers will greet displaced residents, lend an ear and a heart, write vouchers, and answer the phone. Like the assistance center at the elementary school, this office will be open weekdays from 9 to 4, weekdays at least.

Clothing needs to be collected and made available to residents. Members of the Community Bible Church will sort the clothing you bring to the bins on the porch here, and make them available at their facility. We’ll need help delivering bins from here to there.

Non-perishable food and toiletries that you bring to the bins here on the porch will go to a distribution point, probably St. Patrick’s Church. We’ll need help with that delivery.

As long as the shelter here remains open, hot meals at night are a blessing: the signup poster at the font includes this opportunity, if a small cluster of friends want to tackle meal preparation together.

Residents need help cleaning out their homes. Perhaps you’d like to help Matt and Melissa when they tackle theirs, and help Genie when she says it’s time, or offer your services as needed by someone you don’t yet know, who needs you. Yesterday, the new Muslim Chaplain at Williams mobilized twenty students for this work.

With those five examples in mind, you might find it easy to understand that with this kind of parishioner involvement being asked in ten or a dozen or more congregations this weekend, coordination is a must.

We discovered that quickly at Thursday’s emergency meeting of the Interfaith Clergy Association (which includes the chaplains at Williams). It didn’t take us long to see one smart answer, and we’ve hired Robin Lenz to coordinate the congregations in their relief efforts, and to be in daily communication with several local entities—Red Cross, Town Hall, Harper Center, Spruces Tenants Association, Interfaith Affiliates, Northern Berkshire Community Coalition—to ensure that information about needs and available resources flows. A few of us are seeking special funding sources for Robin’s stipend—it will not come from money given to help residents. In the meantime, Robin says our credit is good—and we say it’s a good thing, Robin, that you came home.

Love your neighbor as yourself. So St. Paul sums up what God expects, what God is pleased by. At a time like this, love must put very tangible help in hands that need it. I’ve named several ways, and you know I’m going to name one more.

Raile’s Bowl at the pulpit is open today to receive gifts in the form of paper bills and checks (made payable to St. John’s Church, earmarked Bowl), and a glass vase in front of the lectern will receive pocket change. It’s right that both of those receptacles are so near the spots from which God’s Word is heard, each Sunday, so that God’s Word is done, each Monday through Saturday. None of this money will go to overhead expenses; all will directly benefit our neighbors, those whom we are to love exactly as we want to be loved.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Who Do We Think We Are?

Scripture for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 1:8-2:10; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

This has been a summer of stories from the Hebrew Bible. If you like the romp we’ve taken through the Book of Genesis, you can give the credit to the new table of readings adopted by the Episcopal Church, the Revised Common Lectionary, an ecumenical system intended to increase the likelihood that many Christian denominations are hearing more or less the same portions of scripture today, and to increase the number of scriptural options the local congregation gets to hear.

So, if you don’t like the increased exposure to ancient patriarchal stories that tend to beat the one drum of how the chosen people Israel came to be, then you can blame that on the Revised Common Lectionary. I could be braver about that, and admit that from that lectionary’s options I’ve made the choice this summer to expose you to readings of Torah rather than more customary portions from the prophets.

And I’m sticking to Torah as we ride today from the first of the five so-called Books of Moses, Genesis, to the second, Exodus. We fled like refugees with Jacob from Canaan to Ur of the Chaldees then migrated with him and his abundant new family back again to Canaan. We followed Joseph into slavery in Egypt, watching him rise to royal rank as deputy to Pharoah, and in time be reunited with his squabbling vindictive brothers and their aged father Jacob, whose name was also Israel.

Jacob and Joseph cycles done, today we enter the cycle of Moses stories. They start at a time when “a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” The extended family of Israel in Egypt had multiplied like loaves and fishes (you thought I was going to say rabbits), to a point where Pharoah felt threatened by the rising number of resident aliens in his land. He depended on their manual labor—they were the field workers, brick-makers, pyramid-builders, and nannies helping to hold Egyptian society together (does this sound familiar?). But Pharoah worried that Hebrew loyalty might not be counted on. I wonder if he knew how astute an observation that was theologically, for their loyalty was invested in their God, not in their Pharoah.

So he summoned his advisors to develop oppressive policies. I imagine the Pharoah’s police were authorized to demand a photo ID whenever they encountered someone they thought might be one of them. It doesn’t sound as if Pharoah’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents deported Hebrews back to Canaan: Pharoah had no intention of losing slave labor. But they surely made it hard for the Hebrew people to have a life. In fact, Pharoah ordered the termination of health care for resident aliens: the Hebrew midwives were ordered to kill all male children born to the daughters of Israel.

Loyalty is exactly what those Hebrew midwives showed! They let those boy babies live, claiming to the authorities that Hebrew women were so vigorous that they gave birth before a midwife could arrive. And because they honored God, we’re told, God gave those midwives families (I wonder if those bold ladies whom even Pharoah couldn’t mess with didn’t create nursery shelters to keep those little boys alive).

Thus enters Moses. The man who will one day part the waters of the Red Sea to free his people enters their bondage borne upon the waters of the Nile. As the story of Joseph required his being lifted from the well where his brothers had dumped him and then sold him into slavery, so the story of Moses has him escape slavery by being lifted from the Nile, and by royal hands. You can see that Moses has a rather enchanted story, sung over many centuries to extol both the goodness of God and the superiority of the Hebrew people who could outmaneuver Pharoah’s repressive ways.

That the first five books of the Bible are known as the Books of Moses tells us how important this baby boy would be. Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace laureate and interpreter of Judaism, describes Moses in ways that resemble how Christians may see Jesus: “Moses, the most solitary and most powerful hero in Biblical history… Moses, the man who changed the course of history all by himself… After him, nothing was the same again… His passion for social justice, his struggle for national liberation, his triumphs and disappointments… his requirements and promises, his condemnations and blessings, his bursts of anger, his silences, his efforts to reconcile the law with compassion, authority with integrity—no individual, ever, anywhere, accomplished so much for so many people in so many different domains.”

And yet, of all the patriarchal figures we’re meeting this summer, Moses is the one who least needs to hear St. Paul’s warning “not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think…” He is shown constantly questioning his own qualifications, retreating from center stage because he doesn’t speak well in public, is subject to abrupt changes in mood, doesn’t always play well with others. “And yet. Were it not for him, Israel would have remained a tribe of slaves. Living in the darkness of fear…” says Wiesel.

“Who do you say that I am?” asks Jesus today. Moses asked a similar question of God, with each seemingly impossible demand God made of him in that long struggle to deliver Israel from Egypt. He asked it also of his countrymen, as they expected the impossible of him, while shamelessly rejecting his authority and tempting him to despair.

“Who do people say I am?” asks Jesus. Students of Matthew’s Gospel might say, “You are the new Moses,” for Matthew draws so many parallels between the two men that you can hardly miss his point.

Both Moses and Jesus are known through the gifts of God’s Spirit emanating from them, freeing the people around them, blessing the world through them.

Guess what? The same is true of you. Paul teaches us that today: “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us…”

Who do we think we are?

Who does God believe we are?

As Christians, we answer those questions from out of our spiritual practice. Our praying, our worshiping, our life in community, our stewardship of resources, our outreach and mission, our reading and study (especially of scripture) teach us who we are: on a good day, gift-bearers, Spirit-emanators, liberators, blessers. And on many a day, unqualified to lead, unaware of what God is doing around us, more conformed to the values of the world than transformed by renewal, sometimes just about able to get up, show up, and cope. We know Moses had those days. Jesus must have, too.

But such lean days are within our spiritual practice. Learning from our summer patriarchs, the very name Israel means “the one who struggles with God and prevails” (though not in any hurry). And, we could add, struggles with faith, with hope, with love. Hand in hand, our summer Gospels have revealed the Christ who is with us not only on good days, but throughout stormy ones as well.

Who do we think we are? Who does God believe we are?

Gift-bearers in a culture of scarcity. Spirit-emanators in a society splintered by blame and abuse. Liberators in a time when many are in paralyzing bondage to fear, and in repressive reaction to fear. Blessers in an apathetic world.

Some days more than others, we know who we are and we do what God’s grace and gifts enable us to do. Each day, our spiritual practice reminds us whose we are, and draws our attention off ourselves and onto movements of grace and gifts within the one body of Christ in which we are members one of another.

All this knowing and doing and reminding and drawing and belonging are gifts and signs of Jesus Christ and we have them entirely because of who he is and what he does in all who recognize him, all who trust him.

(For Elie Wiesel on Moses, see his "Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends", Summit Books, 1976. Quoted material is from pp. 181-183.)

Friday, August 19, 2011

Throwing the Life-line

Scripture for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost includes Genesis 45:1-15; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15: 21-28

My father crossed the Atlantic in 1908 at the age of two, with his mother and sister, in steerage. His father and older brothers had come across from Scotland earlier, and I assume that once they had found work, it was time for the family to reunite in the new world.

What caused them to emigrate was never discussed in our family, but for sure it was hardship, not enough to go around, a chronic lack of work, poverty. I have from my father some of the precious things they brought with them: a punch bowl—a punch bowl, for heaven’s sake!—and a set of dessert plates with spaces in the rims for threading ribbon. These people were going to have a life again! Had these been wedding gifts? They’re in surprisingly good shape, once carefully packed in that steamer trunk, kept now for nearly a century on one set of shelves after another, silent reminders of a great and challenging journey compelled by hard times. Reminders, too, to be ready to celebrate, once good times came.

For a family, such a momentous move may come seldom. But if you could imagine time-lapse photography capturing all the movements of migrating humanity, from the beginning til now, planet earth would seldom be still. Some of those migrations would be massive, like the one going on now in East Africa, as Somalia empties itself one way into Kenya, another into Ethiopia, both of those nations increasingly desperate to stem the tide and bring pressure upon Somalia to take care of its own (which it won't, perhaps can't) or, failing that, to press other nations to intervene and locate new camps within Somalia.

Meanwhile, this famine respects no national borders and asserts itself as a regional disaster. None of its fleeing refugees will be carrying punch bowls or dessert plates, though we pray that they will see good days again, sooner than later. As they flee, they are barely able to carry themselves. People in many nations are feeling the distress of hard times. The peoples of East Africa are in the hardest of times, and we do right to keep plugging away, week by week, gathering our gifts in Raile’s Bowl, multiplying those gifts by matching dollars through our mission funding, and helping three world-class organizations do good in our name, the World Food Program, Doctors without Borders, and the International Rescue Committee.

Famine is the back-story of the Joseph saga coming to us from the Book of Genesis. Last week, we watched his brothers sell Joseph into slavery after that youngest upstart brother with the big ego had pressed their buttons one time too often. By the hindsight of a couple of decades living through the disaster of his own hard times, Joseph tells those same brothers, “It was not you who sent me here, but God…” And “here” was Egypt, where Joseph, by his talents and gifts and sheer chutzpah, had become like a father to Pharoah, a royal advisor to the king who was treated like a god.

Joseph, poster-child of resilience and making-the-best-of-a-bad-situation, impresses his masters by his natural talents, charm, and efficiency. Promoted and placed in the household of Potiphar, a royal officer, Joseph runs afoul of Mrs. Potiphar who is attracted by his physical beauty and then quickly frustrated and embarrassed by his principled rejection of her campaign to seduce him. This lands Joseph in jail, where he shows his stuff by correctly interpreting the dreams of two of Pharoah’s key servants imprisoned for displeasing their king. Meanwhile, Pharoah himself struggles with the meaning of mysterious dreams, so Joseph makes his mark as a psychoanalyst to the king, interpreting his dreams.

Joseph goes from strength to strength and glory to glory, and soon he is put in charge of the royal response to a massive famine in the land. Wisely, Joseph stockpiles foodstuffs while he can, filling Pharoah’s warehouses. The famine worsening, people line up at those warehouses for relief. When they can no longer pay with money, they pay with the deeds to their land, and, as the famine reaches yet deeper and wider, they indenture themselves as slaves to Pharoah.

Presiding over this national disaster is Joseph, Joseph the Just as Jewish tradition remembers him. Instituting a national system of slavery is far from just, but at its primitive best the story has Joseph saving the lives of the Egyptians and matching the inexorable collapse of that economy with the unifying order of central authority.

All of which is back-story to what is foremost throughout the Book of Genesis, the birthing of the nation Israel and God’s fulfillment of the promises made to Joseph’s paternal forebears, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel, to settle them in a land, and to bless the world through them.

Though veiled, that fulfillment is happening before their eyes. Joseph has been a blessing to Egypt, serving its Pharoah and saving its people. And with that regional famine afflicting the land of Canaan where Joseph’s family of origin were still tending their sheep and claiming the land as theirs, the only way they would survive was by migrating south to Egypt where the food was, and where—who could ever have guessed it?—Joseph of the mighty ego, rejected by his brothers, had been given such power that he could welcome as resident aliens not just his father and brothers and families, but all their tribal counterparts who would have ridden the coattails of this miracle and been rescued from poverty. So down from the hill country they came in their donkey carts, their punch bowls and dessert plates packed for the journey. One day, generations hence, their descendants, numbering in the many thousands, would follow Moses out of Egypt and across to Canaan, into what they would call the promised land. The witness and message of the Bible as a whole, both Hebrew and Christian testaments, is, as Paul says today, that “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”

And universal, international, multicultural, so these readings suggest today. To fulfill the covenant promises made to Israel, God is at work in Egypt, to bless Egypt. In our Gospel, Jesus the Messiah blesses a Canaanite woman and recognizes that this crossing of boundaries helps fulfill his mission to serve and save the house of Israel.

She and Jesus cross two boundaries to have this encounter. He is a Jew from Galilee to the north, she a Gentile from the coast, from what was in ancient times Canaan, the original “promised land” that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel colonized. This is an Arab woman who approaches Jesus. The first step was his, as he crossed from his country to hers. Culturally, just as great a step is taken as a woman speaks in public to a man, and the man replies.

Though he doesn’t, at first. She has shouted across all the gulfs that separate them (race, sex, religion), begging him to intervene on behalf of her tormented daughter. Jesus does not answer.

“Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us, just like that!” the disciples tell him. Perhaps when he sees how closed they are to her, he opens to her, crossing that gulf with thin words—like when a sailor on a rescue boat throws a lifeline to a boat in distress, he hurls a heavy knot (it’s called a monkey’s paw) wound around a stone and tied to a light line that the receiving sailor can pull across. At its far end is the heavier lifeline that will pull to safety.

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. It isn’t fair to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to dogs.” That’s about as thin a line of compassion as a man can toss.

“You’re right, Master, but beggar dogs do get scraps from the master’s table,” she says, catching that monkey paw in mid-air. She realizes that his replying means that he is opening to her, and she will not miss this moment. She will pull that thin line, and pull, and pull until that strong secure lifeline is in her hands. Subtly, he rises and opens to her the moment… to which she decisively rises, and in her bold appeal for God’s help, Jesus recognizes the same gracious God who has ordained his bold mission.

“For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind; and the heart of the eternal is most wonderfully kind,” we sang, moments ago. That’s what our readings today announce.

And they challenge us to complete the verse: “If our love were but more faithful, we should take him at his word; and our life would be thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord.”

Today’s Bible voices urge us to step across the boundaries of nations, look across the gulf of race and class, and gain from East Africa fresh perspective on our own relative distress, and from our own relative abundance throw the lifeline.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Keys to Metamorphosis

Scripture for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost includes Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-32

Our exposure to scripture this summer has featured the series “As Jacob’s world turns.” His saga, rife with treachery and deceit while also rich with perseverance and faithfulness, now rolls into the Joseph saga, featuring Jacob’s favorite son. Yes, batten down the hatches: we’re in for two or three more weeks of patriarchal stories.

Like the story of Jacob and his brother Esau, Joseph’s cycle of stories begins where brothers have become enemies. You would think that Jacob might have learned to avoid favoritism: it was his being the apple of his mother Rebekah’s eye that helped set the stage for a whole generation of trouble. But Joseph is the brightest star in his father’s sky, because Joseph is the son of Jacob’s first love, his deceased wife Rachel, “the son of his old age,” as we heard today.

That creates a whole nest of angry brothers. Do you remember the musical, “Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”? While the other boys, the older brothers, got their clothes at J. C. Penney, Jacob took Joseph to Ralph Lauren.

Having reached the ripe age of seventeen when we meet him today, he can’t be expected to be the soul of discretion. Add to this the fact that he’s a dreamer—literally, he’s his father’s boy, for you remember how Jacob was visited by God in a dream, way back when. Joseph’s dreams predict his own bright future, and while a more circumspect young man might have kept those nocturnal visions to himself, Joseph is neither endowed with humility nor likely to pass up an opportunity to announce to his his brothers his superiority. The natural results of such self-celebration we heard today. They hated him.

There’s no one better than Elie Wiesel to comment on the patriarchal stories of the Book of Genesis. He offers an overview of the Joseph saga, and says that what this story is all about is “man’s capacity for transformation. The tale of Joseph is the tale of a metamorphosis—no, a series of metamorphoses.

“First, a family metamorphosis: a favorite child falls victim to his own prerogatives.

“A social metamorphosis: a poor immigrant becomes a huge success in his adopted country,” Egypt.

“A political transformation: a servant turns activist and changes the socio-economic policy of the land,” as Pharoah’s Egypt struggles with severe famine.

“A philosophical or artistic metamorphosis: the slave turns into a prince,” the stuff of opera and drama.

“And finally, a purely Jewish metamorphosis: a young refugee, without friends or connections, builds himself an astounding political career culminating with his accession to the post of chief royal advisor,” right-hand man to the Pharoah.

“No wonder,” says Wiesel, “that in our traditional literature Joseph is the object of passionate admiration bordering on worship. Here is a Jew whose tribulations had a happy ending, who owed his success to no one, who imposed his ideas on hostile surroundings thanks only to his natural gifts, who transformed exile into a kingdom, misery into splendor, and even humiliation into mercy. He was indebted to no one and that made him a free man, a man free to do whatever he chose.

“…Abraham is respected and admired; Isaac is pitied; Jacob is followed; but only Joseph is loved.

“…Abraham was obedient, Isaac was brave, Jacob was faithful. Only Joseph was just.”

All this transformation, you recall, happened in the land of Egypt, a nation we watch changing before our eyes today. Let’s pray that the Mubarak trial will help the people of Egypt hear a calling to a finer purpose than revenge, will help that nation metamorphose out of violence into peace, out of corruption into justice. If not, the future of a free Egypt could be in peril.

The transformation of a people is underway also in our Gospel today. Crowds play a role in the birthing of a new social order: we have seen that in Egypt, and there has been a large crowd in an open place in our recent portions of Matthew’s Gospel. Last Sunday, Jesus gave his disciples the greatest challenge they had ever faced: feeding a hungry crowd that numbered in the thousands. He also gave those disciples the best object lesson ever: When faced with an impossible task, generously model the first step towards the remedy, then trust God to be at work among the people. We have seen a similar model at work in this Arab Spring: at its start, handfuls of protestors boldly, generously, modeled the first step toward remedy, trusting God to be at work in the people. Risky, for sure. So, it seems, five thousand men (not counting women and children) were fed.

It is fresh from that public demonstration that Jesus despatched his worn-out disciples to get some rest, away from the crowds. Fishermen that they were, the twelve took to their boats. Jesus climbed a steep hill for his solitude, and from that vantage point he kept an eye on the twelve, and noticed their emergency, how a storm was engulfing them. And while I have no pet theory about what happened next, I see the point: that Jesus is the Messiah who is forever with his people, right in the thick of all the changes and chances and storms of this mortal life.

Following his own model from the feeding story, Jesus generously models the first step towards the remedy, then trusts God to be at work among the people. He walks toward them, calls out to them when their terrors multiply at the very sight of him and they mistake him for the Grim Reaper. He urges them to take heart and not be afraid—not that feelings should be denied, but that fear distracts people from the metamorphosis they must make. Trust, only trust, will focus them on that transformation.

Peter, always first among the twelve (first to get it, first to flub it), does what he sees his Lord doing: he will lead his brothers through this crisis. Jesus agrees: “Lead, Peter, come.” And his first steps are God at work in him. Then Peter notices the wind. The force that makes him lose balance. The distraction that breaks his focus. The opposition. The distance yet to go. The improbability of it all. And it sinks him. And his next step is God at work in him: “Save me!” he cries, honestly, openly, while simultaneously Jesus reaches out his hand and catches him, all of a moment.

“You had it right in those first steps,” I hear Jesus say to him. “More of those, next time. And remember to choose who and what you pay attention to.”

There are keys to proper metamorphosis, as disciples, as nations, as people of God: Trust God to be at work in first steps. Lead by generous modeling of the first step, trusting God to be at work in the people you lead and serve. Pay attention to whomever, whatever, wherever you recognize the call of God to originate. Let distractions sink around you, as you keep balance. When you lose balance, reach for the hand that reaches for you.

And, to do justice to Joseph today, shed all illusions of superiority. We’re all in this metamorphosing of the human race together, and the sooner that religions and nations cease believing that they are called by God to be exceptional and exclusively special, the sooner we may be free to know and love and serve the one God who works in people’s transformation, meets people in their throes of change, steadies people for the work of metamorphosis (the reaching-out), and calls people to lead.

(For more of Elie Wiesel on Joseph, find his book "Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends", Summit Books, 1976. The quoted material here comes from pp. 139-141.)