Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Inspired by Malala and Kailash

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday in Advent includes Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; I Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

I hear that last Sunday it was revealed that standing beneath the Advent wreath can be risky. So far, so good today: we’ve lit the pink candle for what tradition calls Laudate Sunday, from the Latin for the scripture’s call to rejoice. “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God, who has clothed me with the garments of salvation, has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”

“Rejoice always,” echoes Paul writing to the church at Thessalonika. Texts like these have long been heard on the 3rd Sunday in Advent, when in this little season of penitence the curtain is raised just for a few moments to allow a flash of skirts, a burst of joy-in-the-making, a streak of warm and fleshy pink against the earnest dark of purple. And we hear the call to look up and catch the purpose of the season, training us so to count our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom, to count our thanks and our blessings even more insistently than we count our losses and disappointments, to recognize what truly does count in life and what does not.

The pink is meant to warm us up. It’s the appetizer Jesus our host serves up to draw us to our place at his table. The pink is a hint of the joy to come, a reminder of where joy comes from. This burst of color is to open us up to the true light that St. John the Gospel writer tells us comes into the world to enlighten everyone.

Nothing does a better job revealing and celebrating those themes of enlightenment and universality than the annual awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize. We at St. John’s have learned to stop in our tracks, each Advent, to notice who the year’s recipients are.

Seventeen-year-old Pakistani Malala Yousafzai, a Muslim, and sixty-year-old Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian, share this year’s award in recognition of their struggle against the suppression of children and young people, and their passionate advocacy for universal education. Announcing the award recipients, the Nobel Committee stressed the importance that a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, have joined in a common struggle for education and against extremism. In addition to focusing on children’s rights, this joint award is made in the hope that it may bring India and Pakistan closer together.

Quoting from the Committee’s announcement, “Both recipients had much at stake as they battled for what they believed in. In Satyarthi’s case, it was to end the exploitation of children for financial gain. In the case of Yousafzai—the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner, at seventeen—it was for girls’ right to an education, a quest that nearly cost her her life when Taliban fighters called her out and shot her in the head two years ago.

“While it is in the nature of extremism to create enemies and frightening images, and to divide the world into us and them, the laureates show us something else… Both (represent what) the world needs—namely… unity.”

Of the two laureates, it is Malala whose name has become a global symbol of what one human being can do to break the bondage that would oppress countless others. This is the passion shown by both recipients. For Satyarthi, it has been forced labor and child slavery that he has attacked—literally, mounting raids on factories where children were forced to work. He is credited for having rescued and helped rehabilitate 80,000 children from slavery.

In his Nobel acceptance speech, Satyarthi condemned the blind eye that gets turned to child bondage in some countries. “I refuse to accept,” he said, “that the world is so poor when just one week of military expenditures can bring all children to classrooms. I refuse to accept that all the laws and constitutions and police and judges are unable to protect our children. I refuse to accept that shackles of slavery can ever be stronger than the quest for freedom.”

In the year 2000, it was estimated that there were 246 million child laborers around the world. Today, the estimate is 78 million fewer. The world is responding.

There has been uniquely universal response to Malala’s courageous fight, both for education and for her own life after that dreadful day when Taliban fighters tried to silence this young heretic. She realizes that she may face the barrel of a gun again, any day. Her response?

"I think of it often and imagine the scene clearly. Even if they come to kill me, I will tell them what they are doing is wrong, that education is our basic right," Yousafzai said on her Website.

"They can only shoot a body, they cannot shoot my dreams," she said. "They shot me because they wanted to tell me that, 'we want to kill you and to stop you campaigning', but they did the biggest mistake: they injured me, and they told me through that attack, that even death is supporting me, even death does not want to kill me."

Speaking on Wednesday, she said the Nobel Peace Prize “is not just for me. It is for those forgotten children who want education. It is for those frightened children who want peace. It is for those voiceless children who want change.

“I’m here to stand up for their rights, to raise their voice,” she said. “It is not time to pity them… It is time to take action, so it becomes the last time… that we see a child deprived of education.”

“So the LORD God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations,” declared the prophet Isaiah.

What is righteousness? We explored that question at last Tuesday morning’s eucharist, where we often have conversation about the scriptures. The closest we got to a workable answer is that we know what righteousness is NOT when the prefix “self-“ is added to it. So righteousness is pretty much the opposite of that, we figured. Right relationship is one way to think of it, and perhaps a set of Matryoshka dolls comes in handy to imagine a threefold love. The threefold love Jesus calls forth from us is to love God with the whole heart, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Play with that image of the dolls that are held within one another, consider how they might tell us something of the threefold love Jesus summons us to practice: these loves co-operate, they co-inhere with one another, the whole-hearted love of God starts and frees and shapes and inspires, fills and guides and repairs, a healthy love of self that reaches out to give and opens to receive the love of the other person, and that love evokes, frees, encourages, in turn.

Don’t you find it easy to see and sense the threefold love in Malala Yousafzai and in Kailash Satyarthi? The love that Jesus says counts in life shines brightly in this Muslim and this Hindu. Hearing their stories, feeling their passions, imagining what their choices and commitments have cost them and yet may, for me these two world citizens raise my sights this Advent to realize what we await, what we long for, what our world needs.

A hymn sums it up. I’ll bet you’ll find these words familiar.

"One Lord, in one great Name unite us all who own thee;
cast out our pride and shame that hinder to enthrone thee;
the world has waited long, has travailed long in pain;
to heal its ancient wrong, come, Prince of Peace, and reign." The Hymnal 1982, No. 542

How does this vision of universal peace and justice, exemplified in remarkable lives, and awaiting fulfilment, sit with our preparations for Christmas 2014?

A passionate care for the rights and needs of children shines from our Giving Tree. Our Christmas Offering will go to the parish’s Outreach to Kids Fund that helps equip us to respond year-‘round to urgent needs of children and families in the North County, and Heifer Project International will receive the other half of the Offering.

A parish family brings a trunkload of food to the Friendship Center Food Pantry, having asked that their Christmas party guests bring food for those who need it. Last weekend’s Lessons and Carols at the College collected food in the same way. The CIAO concert will collect donations to support a village school in Uganda.

Our Advent season of waiting and longing is full of generous sharing. Many more examples are known to you and not to me, done, as the carol puts it, “how silently, how silently…”

By comparison to what Malala and Kailash do in their lives, we are so carrying the light end of the load. They would say to us: Turn a seeing eye to the oppressed children, the most vulnerable children, those with fewest resources, those who some will say have no right to be here, but are here; those who some will say have no further claim on our nation’s resources, while in fact they are among our nation’s resources. Turn a seeing eye and learn what part of the load we are called to carry.

Articles posted on three sites proved helpful in preparing this sermon:

“Nobel Peace Prize 2014: Pakistani Malala Yousafzai, Indian Kailash Satyarthi Honored For Fighting For Children's Rights”, The Huffington Post, 10/10/14, by Jade Walker

“Malala, Satyarthi accept Nobel Peace Prize, press children's rights fight”, by Greg Botelho, CNN, December 10, 2014

"The Nobel Peace Prize 2014 - Press Release". Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 17 Dec 2014.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Wilder Church

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

Here we are, on the other side of the season’s first big snow storm. We’ve survived the first rush of winter adrenalin, as snow projections inched upwards and colors changed on those high-tech maps behind the weather people.

Given our penchant for traveling at Thanksgiving—which meets the need and desire we have to gather with family and friends on that day—this storm put probably most households through a round of fretting over travelers’ safety and navigating changes in travelers’ plans.

But there we were, Thanksgiving Day, having made the best of it and found our way to the tables where we belonged. And here we are today, observing the first Sunday of Advent. And the “we” of this family gathering are the members of three sister congregations, as St. John’s is delighted to welcome the people of All Saints and St. Andrew’s.

I have looked forward to this Sunday as an opportunity to taste and to feel what is sometimes called “the wider Church”, the Church beyond what Bishop Fisher calls the silo of our own home congregation.

We experience the wider Church when we gather in Diocesan Convention. Not only are 60-some congregations represented by several delegates each, filling the ballroom, but the agenda is also filled with snapshots and video clips and story-telling about our many mission partners in the wider Church within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, in other parts of the country, and in other parts of the world.

Someone here at St. John’s, who shall remain nameless, calls it not the wider Church, but the wilder Church. So I’ve been looking forward to today as an experience of the wilder Church.

Let’s get back to Bishop Fisher’s image of the silo church. That, by the way, is church with a small c. Talk about the wider Church, and that deserves a capital C, because where we’re headed with that wideness is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of the creeds. And where we’re headed is the universal Body of Christ expressed in the sacrament of baptism. This capital-C Church is wider than, and certainly wilder than, the Episcopal Church. It’s more than the sum of all its denominational parts: it includes all whose faith is known to God alone, all whose spirituality may not carry the labels of organized religion, but whose compassion is nonetheless the love of God flowing into the world.

By contrast, the silo church keeps itself closeted from the world, preferring—or feeling obligated—to take care of that silo, patching the holes to keep what’s inside dry and ready to feed those cows that come with the silo.

We get the point. The church that lives unto itself will die by itself. That rule is universal; it applies to all congregations, not one is exempt.

Hence the remedy, the prescription that our Bishop offers to all sixty-some congregations in Western MA: take the Church out into the streets. I think he would capitalize that C, because for sure he doesn’t mean take out into the world the churchy preoccupations with itself. He means take into the world the all-embracing compassion of God, the fearless reverence for life of Jesus Christ, and intimate imaginative trust in the Holy Spirit—the very powers given to us in baptism, renewed in us by worship and community, sharpened in us by servant ministry. The very powers the world and its people need.

These are the powers and attitudes Bishop Fisher takes with him in his walking each of the three geographic corridors of our Diocese. Each 60-70 mile trek is meant to get him and us out of our churches, into the world for which God entered our human flesh.

What does it mean, to take the Church out into the streets? It’s a darned good thing that all sixty-some congregations (not to mention the hundreds and thousands of others across the land) are scratching their heads on this question together. Because it will require togetherness to find our answers. Not that those answers will fit equally all congregations, not even in as small a territory as the North Berkshires, but that each congregation has its own genius, its own lessons to teach, and its own gifts to bring to the table.

As I look around this room this morning, I wonder how God may be calling our three congregations to think and act and worship outside our siloes in this new year that opens to us, this Advent Sunday.

How might we find ways to listen together for God’s answers to that question? Does our coming together today suggest that we have already begun to do this kind of listening?

One Sunday afternoon this fall, a golden day when the foliage was at its peak, Diana and I drove to Cricket Creek Farm in South Williamstown and then walked north on Oblong Road.
It was a right time to remember poet Mary Oliver’s words:

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment…

Suddenly, a fellow passed us, running along the shoulder of the road, then darting into the open pasture of Field Farm. We could see he was a young farmhand. What was his hurry?

Well, it was 4:00 p.m. and the cows were due to be milked at 5:00. How long does it take to move a herd of cows? How many Episcopalians would it take to move a herd of cows?

It took one farm hand. The closer we got to him, the clearer his singing became. Was it singing, or more like a chant? I won’t try to reproduce it—I expect it’s an acquired skill. It was a mix of his calling some cows by name—the outliers, the ones that mooed back at him in what sounded for all the world like sheer defiance. But mostly he just sang to the herd a song of his own making, telling them it was time to move, time to head back to the barn.

And what amazed us was how those cows knew just what to do. The farmhand went to the northernmost back edge of the herd, and the cows at the front edge did their slow pirouette and headed along the pasture, the avant-garde leading their sisters as they paralleled the road, then crossed the road without the benefit of a crossing guard, into the barnyard.

Those cows out front were motivated. A full udder is a perfect homing device. To them, that farmhand’s song was pure good news, for a cow has to do what a cow has to do.

Is our little herd of North Berkshire Episcopalians finding fresh motivation to work together? Rather than assuming that it will be necessity that motivates us, what if we welcomed a new togetherness based on our fullnesses? What if Christ the farm-hand is singing us into working together to share our various kinds of abundance? I’m not so much thinking of sharing with one another (though today should show us that’s enjoyable). I’m thinking that Jesus is calling us to share him with this corner of his world.

Words to a song he’s singing on this Advent Sunday are heard in the Gospel. He wants to gather his people from the four winds. He is near, and like the simple prodding presence of the farm-hand, his closeness to us calls us to move, to act, to share that closeness with people who long for it without yet recognizing it.

He calls us to be doorkeepers on the watch, keeping awake, alert to our opportunities to throw open our churches’ doors and windows, and our opportunities to take our churches out for a walk in this wider and wilder world.

(Mary Oliver’s full poem “In Blackwater Woods” is found in her “New and Selected Poems”, Beacon Press.)

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Sheep and Goats

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

Where to begin?

Today is Christ the King Sunday, a nickname we’ve borrowed from Roman Catholic tradition to distinguish the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, last of those Sundays numbered like streets in a city. Call this Christ the King Sunday and you give notice that we worship and serve the one who promises to make all things new.

And that makes today just the right time to remind ourselves that next Sunday a new year begins in the Christian calendar. Advent we call it, that short season of personal preparation not just for the coming of Christmas but the coming of Christ, a taller order and a deeper calling than erecting the tree and schlepping through the mall. Set out for you today is an array of free Advent devotional booklets and for-sale Advent calendars, tools for your use at home or at work, for your own personal preparation.

My favorite step into Advent is to bundle up and walk out into the deep darkness of night when there’s no cloud cover and as little ambient light as possible, to look up and regain a sense of what a speck in the universe earth is, albeit a hallowed speck precious to the One who set in motion, one starry night, the Incarnation of the divine in the human, Jesus.

So today is just the right time to give you a heads-up that next Sunday we’ll celebrate Advent with more than a touch of incarnation as we welcome parishioners of All Saints and members of St. Andrew’s, our sister congregations in the North County. This fall, they’ve been worshiping together at St. Andrew’s, while All Saints installs new front steps and a ramp, and a new fire safety system. What prompted our inviting them here was hearing that they couldn’t find a priest available to them on the 30th, and our wardens didn’t miss a beat spotting an opportunity to let the word become flesh.

And today is when we will say farewell to Judy Buhner, who for the past dozen years has brought us her uniquely gracious mix of Quaker clarity and what she eventually discovered was her secret Anglican appetite for sermons and singing. Judy has served on Vestry, Stewardship Ministry Team, has been a lector, has preached, extended pastoral care in many ways, and has been a loyal member of our knitting group. She and Bob will soon close on selling their house (to a young family in our parish) then heading to Georgia for the winter before taking up residence in their new home in the Lathrop Community in Northampton.

So, as I said at the start, where to focus next on a Sunday with so much swirling around?

Let’s focus for a few moments on prayer. I have in mind the Prayers of the People. If you worship here frequently, you know we use a variety of prayer formats. The one we call the Iona Prayers expects no vocal participation. The silences built into that form are kept silent for the interior work of calling to mind the variety of needs summed-up in that bidding prayer.

But the one we’re using these days, adapted from the New Zealand Prayer Book, encourages voices to be heard. Four times, the leader pauses to invite you to name out loud the people and the concerns you bring with you today. If you’ll take your orange announcements sheet, you’ll see in a grid the four categories of intercession that can make this particular form sound like the Prayers of the People.

These categories include our concerns for the world; our hopes for the community we live in; the needs of individuals we’ve brought with us on our hearts and minds today; and those who have died or are grieving.

I hope that seeing what’s coming may help us choose what to do with those four opportunities when we get there. Perhaps (during this sermon) you may want to jot down in that little grid names and concerns that come to mind, and be readier to let your voice be heard.

Speaking of voices, how do you hear the voice of Jesus in that apocalyptic Gospel portion we heard? “Apocalypse” is a Greek word for “uncovering”, and here Jesus reveals a vision of the Last Judgment. Is he advocating a judgmental world view?

I doubt that his dramatic view of the end of time and the setting-right of the world’s ancient wrongs is much on the minds of 21st-century believers, and surely isn’t at the top of the charts for non-believers. But in the Middle Ages, this theme loomed large: over the main doorway of many a European cathedral is a panoramic sculpture that conveys the triumph of the good and the vanquishing of evil. This kind of scene is found painted on chancel walls in parish churches. In one half of the fresco is a glimpse of beatific glory; in the other half, it’s gruesome going. But the prominence given to these scenes presents a fascination with one line in the Creed, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”

Not so, the kingdoms of this world. They will all have their day, then pass into oblivion; but on the last great day God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven. But it’s not as if God’s kingdom hasn’t been here all along. According to Jesus’s vision (or is it Matthew’s vision?) two kingdoms have been interwoven in the roller coaster ride of history, the demonic kingdoms of this world represent one kind of kingdom that is all about self-serving, greed, violence, and oppression; and God’s reign, revealed wherever the polar opposites of those vices are to be found in virtues that are surprisingly down-to-earth. The apocalypse is the uncovering, the unwinding, the pulling apart of these two kingdoms.

This isn’t the first time in recent weeks that we’ve heard Matthew relay Jesus’s stories in ways that surprise us for what they do and don’t care about: Here in this vision of the end in today’s Gospel, the criterion of judgment is not confession of faith in Christ, and it is not doctrinal agreement with all the creedal beliefs in grace, justification, and the forgiveness of sins. The one criterion is whether we act with loving care and uncalculating generosity for people in need.

But something more is happening here than a lesson in ethics. The people who take care of others, sheltering, and feeding, visiting and encouraging, they aren’t aware of a deeper dimension to the various acts of compassion they’ve taken part in. They were content with the part they could see, that basic needs were met. But they were also part of something far greater than they knew, a global movement of compassion (at least as global as around the Mediterannean Sea and along the fault lines of the Roman Empire), namely the kingdom of God that entered our biosphere from the womb of an at-risk young mother and would forever be subversive likewise in its dealings with the powers and principalities of this world.

Wherever an act of lovingkindness moves across the synapse between the caregiver and the cared-for, one of the two kinds of kingdoms in Matthew’s apocalypse grows. Being below the radar, this growth is creatively subversive as time moves along towards what can only be called The Great Reversal at the end of time. And talk about subversive: those doom scenes from the Middle Ages show very well-fed, fashionable, powerful people, some even wearing church vestments, even mitres on their heads, being consigned to the nether reaches of eternal punishment. And the other half? They are “the least” in society, the poor, prisoners, the homeless; and, surprising even to the helpers and givers, these “least” are, says Jesus, “members of my family.”

So, while this vision of the end time reveals the primacy of ethics as essential to the kingdom of God, the vision itself reveals the nature and mission of Jesus Christ. He fulfills the great commandments of the ancient law, “Hear, you people: the Lord God is One, and you shall love the Lord with all your heart and mind and soul; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Fulfilling this law in himself, his Spirit is available to be poured out upon all who seek the equipping of all to love all.

Back, then, to my question a ways back: What do you hear in the voice of Jesus in this vision of the last judgment? On the surface of it all, he appears to see the world in terms of all or nothing, white or black, good or bad. That’s not the world we occupy—or if we believe it is, it’s at our own peril.

What Jesus does in his role as judge is to reveal the great lie that such dualism is built upon, the error that says that God and Satan are equally matched and locked in everlasting struggle. While the nightly news goes far to reinforce this error, Jesus’s apocalyptic vision reveals the truth that there is one God and only one God. Once that is known, should there be any longer a need to separate sheep from goats, a need to judge people for their differences?

What I hear in the voice of Jesus is his judging not of people but of their differences, a careful weighing of what does and what does not matter, and I hear him training us to practice that skill. Already, we’ve heard the message that differences of belief and differences of opinion are not what matter in the kingdom of God. Behavior does matter, is essential, is transformative, is what counts. Differences in behavior deserve to be judged.

By his behavior, Pope Francis shows himself an agent of change, subversive to a tipping point that will elevate compassion over compulsion, comprehension above conformity.

By their behavior, ISIS jihadis perpetuate the ancient wrongs and demean the very name of religion.

In this world, there are sheep and goats. A more blatant example of behavioral difference would be hard to find, than the one I just cited. But the insidious judgmentalism practiced by neighbors and cousins is just as likely to ignite barbarism. I mean the xenophobia that results in neighboring groups fearing and hating one another simply because they have been trained to, and because they belong to opposing parties or claim different customs and religious traditions.

Reflecting on his first eighteen months as Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, Justin Welby recently addressed the Church of England’s General Synod (where, at very long last, the ordination of women as bishops was finally approved and made law).

The Anglican Communion, he says, is flourishing in 165 countries. He reported how incredibly diverse he finds Anglicanism to be. “Within the Communion are perhaps more than 2000 languages and perhaps more than 500 distinct cultures and ways of looking at the world… The vast majority are poor. Many are in countries where change is at a rate that we cannot even begin to imagine.

“At the same time, there is a profound unity… underpinning the Communion, a unity imposed by the Spirit of God on those who name Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour… The potential of the Communion under God is beyond anything we can imagine… The prize is visible unity in Christ despite functional diversity. It is a prize that is not only of infinite value, but also requires enormous sacrifice and struggle to achieve.

“Yet if we can get near it we can speak with authority to a world where over the last year we have seen more than ever an incapacity to deal with difference, and a desire to oversimplify the complex and diverse nature of human existence for no better reason than we cannot manage difference and dealing with The Other. Yet in Christ we are held together. In Christ the barriers are broken, peace is held out to us as a gift established, which needs living. In Christ there is hope of a life that provides hope of peace.

“The future of the Communion requires sacrifice. The biggest sacrifice is that we cannot only work with those we like, and hang out with those whose views are also ours. Groups of like-minded individuals meeting to support and encourage each other may be necessary… but they are never sufficient. Sufficiency is in loving those with whom we disagree…

“We must grasp the challenge… The prize is a world seeing Christ loved and obeyed in His church, a world hearing the news of his salvation.”

(Archbishop Welby’s comments appear in a press release from Episcopal News Service dated November 17, 2014, “Archbishop on the Communion’s challenges and the way forward.”
M. Eugene Boring’s commentary on Matthew in Vol. VIII of “The Interpreter’s Bible”, Abingdon Press, 1995, was helpful in preparing this sermon.)

Monday, November 17, 2014

Exploring Space, Outer and Inner

Scripture for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost includes Judges 4:1-7; I Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

What do you think of those Europeans, landing a scientific probe on a tiny comet, an exciting first in—here’s a new word for me—cometary exploration.

Who knew what those Europeans were up to? Well, we did—though it may not have been the kind of news that grabbed much attention, the United States and the European Union have been partnered in the international Rosetta Mission since 1993.

Rosetta, we’ve learned, is the name of the orbiter satellite launched from French Guiana in 2004, into a circuitous ten-year trek across the solar system, crossing the asteroid belt and traveling into deep space, 6.4 billion kilometers, more than five times earth’s distance from the sun, to its rendezvous with Comet 67P. Piggy-backed on Rosetta since 2004 was the landing device named Philae, about the size of a kitchen dishwasher. I wish my kitchen appliances remained intact that long.

The Rosetta Stone is a slab of volcanic basalt inscribed with hieroglyphics that eventually provided the key to understanding an ancient civilization. The Rosetta Mission opens a door to the origin of planet earth, explores the role that comets may have played in the evolution of life on earth, and fosters a better understanding of our future.

67P is a mysterious cosmic iceberg. It has lobes that make it look like an oversized ginger root. It surely qualifies for that outer darkness where the master exiles the fearful slave who fails to invest the talent he has been given.

That is truly an Uh-Oh moment in the parable. All has been affirmative so far, as those other two investment managers report on their successes. But with the third slave, the master lowers the boom and sweeps him away into outer orbit.

There were Uh-Oh moments in outer space, last week. Before the lander probe Philae was launched from Rosetta, operations control detected a failure in the thruster engine on top of the probe, meant to occasionally offset the lack of gravity that would otherwise cause the dishwasher-sized probe to float away from the comet’s surface. Then, upon landing, harpoon-like devices meant to anchor Philae also failed to fire. Uh-oh.

The result: The Little Probe That Could suddenly couldn’t prevent itself from touching down not once, but three times. News reports have told us that Philae may be perched on the edge of a steep cliff, one of its three tripod legs dangling over the edge. The lander is thought to be lying on its side, its battery power diminishing without much exposure to the sun’s renewing light. Uh-Oh.

That name Philae comes from an island, a temple, and a stone. The island of Philae is (or was) located in Lake Nasser in one of the cataracts of the Nile in Egypt, south of the vast Aswan Dam. On that island was the great temple to the Egyptian god Osiris. You may recall that before the Aswan flooding reached Philae, a famous internationally-supported rescue of the temple was achieved by UNESCO, relocating it above the flood waters.

But I suspect the name Philae was given to the probe because it is also the name of another puzzle-breaking inscribed stone, whose hieroglyphics, in tandem with the Rosetta Stone, helped open the history of ancient Egypt.

Why ever am I going on and on like this? For one thing, I’m wondering if there’s a parable hidden within this historic event in space exploration. What allegories might there be?

Philae cannot transmit or communicate with humans on earth except through the orbiter Rosetta. The knowledge and comprehension we long for requires more than scientific probing (Philae); the divine knowledge we yearn for requires also the ancient texts (Rosetta).

And consider Philae’s tripod legs. Those three supports are meant to balance and secure the probe for its probing. The Anglican theologian Richard Hooker, whom I brought into the pulpit with me last Sunday, is remembered for his Three-Legged-Stool model of Christian authority: Informing our decisions, shaping our religious faith and practice, are the three legs of holy scripture, received tradition, and Spirit-guided reason. All three are needed to comprehend what God gives us, what God asks of us, what truly matters. I can’t picture Philae’s Uh-Oh placement right now without thinking, “Oh, so that’s what may happen to me if I lose sight of even one of those three witnesses to truth that God provides: scripture, tradition, reason. I’ll be tipped over on one side or another, blocked from the light I need to recharge by. I’ll have fallen and can’t get up.

Enough allegorizing. Let me ask one question before we step across to that perplexing parable. Even with its misfirings, even with its fallen nature now, the Philae probe and the Rosetta Mission are considered a wild success. How come our parable ends up in such a nasty sense of failure around this third fellow? Why is that third manager so scorned as a failure and then brutally banished? (I understand his failure: he didn’t earn a penny of interest—but he does better than his counterpart in Luke’s version, who wraps his talent in a napkin and is darned lucky it’s still there when the master returns. At least Matthew’s third fellow hides his talent in the ground… What I don’t get is the excessive punishment.

I mean, who needs sacred texts like this one? Is it divine knowledge we experience passing to us through this scripture?

Give me instead my favorite verses. My very favorite is also from Matthew, and I can’t hear it often enough: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and by burden is light.” That’s my idea of a key sacred text conveying knowledge of God, and I could happily hear that as the Gospel every Sunday.

But the Christian faith does not let us rest content on the laurels of a few verses. Instead, we get stretched by parables that lead us first in one direction, then in another, creating (as today’s parable does) a dilemma. Rather than resolving the dilemma for us, we must choose which direction summons us in our own journey towards being good and faithful servants.

So let’s probe this parable. Jesus tells it to bring down to earth a clearer sense of what the kingdom of heaven will be. What Jesus needs first is a creative absence: a wealthy man goes on a journey, and to free him for that journey he entrusts his property to his slaves. A recipe for disaster? No, we’re told that in those days trusted slaves rose in the ranks as managers. It was a Do It Yourself society, no wealth managers, no stock exchanges; how a wealthy person grew wealthier required inventive opportunism. Come to think of it, that hasn’t changed much, has it?

But one thing has: banks are (or were, before 2008) mostly trusted institutions that most people utilize, including an expectation of earning some degree of interest, however little these days. By contrast, Hebrew law prohibited the exacting of interest in personal loans. Let’s wonder more about that.

Is this wealthy man not a Jew, but a Gentile whom the story sets up as a straw man who can be ruthless because that’s just the way Gentiles are? And if exacting interest is not allowed, how does this story square with the ancient law?

A talent was a big deal: equal to the wages of a day laborer for fifteen years. Given the short life expectancy then, we’re talking about a lifetime’s earnings, all the money a worker might see across the better part of an adult career.

But here’s the thing. If we want to unlock the mystery of this parable, we have to pay attention to the stage directions of the drama being played out. What these three slaves do with what is entrusted to them they do during their master’s absence. His being gone is the key to this Rosetta Stone.

For first-century Christians, the very nature of their lives was waiting, waiting for the second coming of Christ. They were taught to expect it in their lifetime, and they did. But how do you invest yourself when the central person in your life has gone? The master’s absence in this parable is no minor thing: it’s the setting and the key. The criteria for being counted good and faithful in this time of waiting are set out clearly. It is not theological correctness that matters. It is not passive retreat from the world. It is not strict obedience to a set of defined instructions, even if those come straight from the ancient law.

It is active responsibility that takes initiative and accepts risks. That’s the criterion that matters in the first-century Church. Methodist commentator M. Eugene Boring helps us here. “In the story, the master gives no instructions as to what is to be done with the money, so faithfulness is not merely obedience to directions. Each servant must decide how to use his or her time during the master’s absence.” It is all about discerning and deciding. It is up to each one of us what we make of the present.

Then notice the surprising twist: When the master returns, he reveals two things. First, he reveals to his servants that their mission has been primarily about trust, not money. Second, he reveals to us hearers what is as unexpected to us as it was to those servants: that the master invites them to enter into his joy is his way of saying that he has given them the vast wealth that was his. Only the third servant keeps regarding the wealth as not his own. His failure to generate interest is tied to his failing to recognize what the master was meaning to do: to call and empower slaves to become so much more than slaves.

Instead, this third servant has chosen to believe not the best, but the worst about the master. To use St. Paul’s language from his letter heard today, this fellow believed himself destined for wrath; and that, says Paul, just isn’t true. But such distrust will shape a person’s attitude, letting fear dominate discernment and decision, immobilizing the human capacity for taking responsibility and taking strategic risks. It is so up to us how we conceive of God.

Can we take the sting out of the master’s final action? It didn’t take long for some of the early Christians to try. In the apocryphal “Gospel of the Nazarenes”, a book later than Matthew and one that didn’t make it into the New Testament canon, this story is retold so that one servant multiplies the money, one hides it, and one squanders it with harlots and flute girls. The first is rewarded, the second rebuked, and the third cast into prison.

“This version is more satisfying to our aesthetic and moral sense,” writes the commentator, “therefore, it is furthest removed from the original story of Jesus, which was upsetting to our ideas of justice.”

The fact is, the very purpose of much of the New Testament is to frustrate the human desire to summarize the way God works into nice neat coherent packages. What else should we expect of the Christ who comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable?

And where do we come into this parable?

Our coffee conversations members are reading about Emergence Christianity, a re-articulating of Christian faith and practice so as to speak effectively to 21st-century people who have emerged from outmoded ideas and require a nimble, fresh, truthful expression of Christianity—one that takes the Church outside the church and into the world.

We come into today’s parable as Emergence Christians responsible for stewarding the faith and the resources entrusted to us. Required of us is the willingness to risk the loss of familiar forms and ways and means of being the Church, to explore and experiment with a courage and trust and boundary-crossing collaboration comparable to those teams of scientists and engineers who keep extending our frontiers, deepening our comprehension, and expanding our reach.

The One who is in it all with us—Source, Guide, and Goal of all that is—will meet us on the way, guide our orbit, reward our probing, and embrace the world in grace.

(M. Eugene Boring’s commentary on Matthew is found in Volume 8 of “The New Interpreter’s Bible”, Abingdon Press, 1995. His insights form the basis for this sermon’s approach to this parable.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Final Comprehension

Scripture for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost includes Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; I Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Is it possible to imagine a more beautiful fall than the one we’re transitioning through on our way into winter? Still we see swaths of color on the eastern-facing slopes, and here and there a tree explodes in shimmering gold or burns blood-red, surprising us on an autumn walk in the woods. Jack Frost has dawdled with us, but hasn’t bitten us hard yet.

It’s a perfect transitional time to hear the poet Mary Oliver, her poem “In Blackwater Woods”:
Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

-- Mary Oliver, "New and Selected Poems"

A black river of loss cuts its way across our nation, dividing us into warring camps fighting culture wars, opposing parties that attack and blame each other, opponents and proponents who know how to talk the talk but seem clueless how to work together for the good of the whole.

Tuesday night, we witnessed a transition. It was a river of loss for one party, a welcome turning of the tide for the other. To borrow the poet’s thought, we don’t know what’s on the other side of this transition. Or, yes we do: we’re mature enough to know that this too shall pass, and two years hence we’ll be bracing for transition again. Meanwhile, gridlock, anxiety, and a radical lack of imagination have inoculated us against believing in quick fixes.

If I could nominate one saint to preside as our transition coach, it would be Richard Hooker, 16th-century Anglican parish priest and theologian. Schooled in the thinking of Thomas Aquinas, Hooker taught the severely divided church of his time how important it was to reframe all arguments, all positions (including his own) broad-mindedly. In a perilous time of transition, when Queen Elizabeth I was attempting to steer the Church of England to a healthy settlement of issues that bitterly divided catholic Christians from reformed Christians, and reformed Christians from the ultra-reformed Puritans, Hooker insisted that much of what divided them all—namely, how they organized themselves—were “things indifferent” to God.

Here is a Wikipedia snippet about Hooker’s contribution: “He wrote that minor doctrinal issues were not issues that damned or saved the soul, but rather frameworks surrounding the moral and religious life of the believer. He argued there were good monarchies and bad ones, good democracies and bad ones, and good church hierarchies and bad ones: what mattered was the piety of the people. At the same time, Hooker argued that authority was commanded by the Bible and by the traditions of the early church, but authority was something that had to be based on piety and reason rather than automatic investiture. This was because authority had to be obeyed even if it were wrong and needed to be remedied by right reason and the Holy Spirit.”

So what caught my eye, last Monday at Morning Prayer, it being November 3rd, the Feast of Blessed Richard Hooker, was the collect appointed for the day.

“O God of truth and peace, you raised up your servant Richard Hooker in a day of bitter controversy to defend with sound reasoning and great charity the catholic and reformed religion: Grant that we may maintain that middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

If you didn’t catch it, hear it again. The middle way has capacity for being more—and being other-- than compromise for the sake of peace; it can also achieve comprehension for the sake of truth. While we do not know exactly what salvation will mean, surely it stands for the final comprehension, the final truth, and can best be served by our practicing comprehension and truth-telling along the way.

The final comprehension at the end of time is a theme that runs through our propers today. The collect sets our sights on the day when Jesus Christ will come again with power and great glory for the world’s final and ultimate transition: from its longstanding embattled divisiveness, to a reconciled humanity… from the partly-realized rule of God, to God’s kingdom come on earth as in heaven… from its chronic subjection to tyrannical emperors and greedy business moguls, to the reign of God’s peace and justice.

It is then that all who have been made his in baptism hope “to be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom.” You’ll recall from the last baptism you witnessed here that an astonishing goal is announced for each person: that he or she “grow into the full stature of Christ.” It’s meant to take our breath away, and to raise our sights. Our collect today extends the timeline for such barely imaginable fulfilment: it is on the last great day that this likening to Christ may be ours.

The final comprehension of the living and the dead is why the apostle Paul is able to comfort the Thessalonians who are struggling with a hard question. They expected, as did all in the first-century church, to see the second coming of Christ in their own time. Instead, more and more time passed, more and more exemplary believers—and ordinary beloved members—died. Would they be deprived of witnessing his return in glory?

Far from it, answers Paul. The dead in Christ will rise first, he announces, and we can hear the Thessalonian Christians breathing a great sigh of relief. Having this hope is the apostolic call not to grieve as if all there will be at the end is the black river of loss. That is the world’s belief, and explains the iron grip of fear that marks the world’s grieving. The message is not “Do not grieve.” It is “do not lose your hope.” The hope that in the final comprehension, “We who are alive… will be caught up in the clouds together with (those who have died) to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”

These words of encouragement promise the resilience of the communion of all believers. I trust that by believers is meant those who do their best to love as Jesus loves, all who have done their best to let Jesus’s love love through them, not those who have studied for the final exam, answered all the questions correctly, written an approved essay, worshiped a certain way, and subscribed to all the articles of the Nicene Creed. For it to be the final comprehension, it will be the gathering-in of all, not just some, and it will be to serve the purposes of God, not the agendas of religions, governments, and businesses.

From Richard Hooker’s viewpoint, religion must advance and deepen and serve the piety of the people, their powers of trust and hope and generous caring. These are the tenacious powers that matter to God, matter to the world, matter to the final comprehension.

That is the oil it takes to light our lamps, to keep our lamps lit. It isn’t enough to carry a lamp that gets you to the doorway of the party: your lamp must be fueled enough to see you through to the completion of what you’ve been chosen to do. It isn’t enough to win an election with flashy campaign rhetoric—the talk must give way to the work, the honor be secondary to the responsibility to serve.

And Joshua’s warnings have a timely ring. In his time, the Hebrew people found many appealing false gods on both sides of the river, familiar old Egyptian gods from their slavery days before they crossed over, then enticing new fertility gods in the land of Canaan. Temptations galore!

Joshua drew a line in the sands of that desert exodus, insisting that the Hebrew people would make the transition from slavery to freedom only insofar as they decided what God they would serve: false gods old and new, or the one true God, the people’s source and goal and guide.

For Americans to work together for the good of the whole, we’re all going to have to put away our false gods. Principles and priorities enshrined by our political parties, inherited from the past, need to be set aside if they do not serve the American people now.

To break the gridlock in American governance, to end the captivity of elected leaders (and hence of us all), we all are called to put away our false gods. We all are called to hold to higher standards of service the leaders we have chosen. We all are called to keep awake, and to remain engaged.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Sing a Song of the Saints of God

Scripture for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost includes Joshua 3:7-17; I Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12

Aren’t we beyond delighted to welcome Bob Hansler to the organ bench? While he, our new Organist and Choir Director, is rightly the focal point of our gratitude today, it has truly taken a parish to fill that organ bench. First, a dedicated search team with five people at its core, and for them—Claudia, Margot, Celia, Alison, and me—this is a sweet day, isn’t it? Then more parishioners swelled the ranks as interviewers and auditioners and hosts. We raised some eyebrows as people familiar with the professional search process at other institutions around us heard how many people we were trusting to keep within the bounds of confidentiality, and how many participants we were trying to organize. Perhaps it can be said, Not as the world searches does the church search…

Then came a strong summer of homegrown musical leadership, as Ellen and Jimmy and Celia and Jane and Carl and Matt and several guest musicians wove their various styles into a coat of many colors.

And there’s the Choir, rallying this fall to practice the fine art of adjusting to one new style of leadership from Kevin Estes before another should arrive today. The generous devotion of this choir deserves our deep gratitude. And blessed are the flexible, for they shall inherit… the future!

To say that it takes a parish to fill an organ bench is to notice one example of the communion of saints, a theme many preachers will be exploring, this morning. What keeps a choir committed to practicing and offering their best, not just once a week but twice? It has to be more than obligation. This ministry resonates not just in their vocal cords, but in their souls, where fleeting experiences of harmony and beauty and comfort and challenge, and sometimes sacrifice, all play their part in spiritual experience. And perhaps it’s that all-playing-their-parts that takes them to a place of wonder, as sections enter on time and all cross the finish line together. Not every time, granted—but isn’t that also part of the analogy to the communion of saints, that there is mercy at the heart of it all, and laughter?

In this holy space, the communion of saints always hovers above us in the great rose window, where a slice of all the saints is shown in those eight petals of the rose, each bearing three saints doing homage to the risen Christ at the heart of it all. Who’s up there? It takes a pair of binoculars to tell. Here’s the celebrity list:

John the Baptist, the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Elizabeth of Hungary
St. Joan of Arc, St. Martin of Tours, St. Catherine of Siena
St. Peter, St. Benedict of Nursia, the prophet Elijah
Isaiah the prophet, Daniel the prophet, King David
Jesse (father of King David), the patriarch Abraham, Moses
Joshua, Gideon, St. Augustine of Hippo
St. Paul, St. Jerome, St. Anthony
St. Francis of Assisi, Saint Cecilia…

And one more, but we don’t know who it is. The parish history names only 23. Who is that next saint? Is it someone you know? Is it you? “And there’s not any reason, no, not the least, why I shouldn’t be one too…”

Calling for the ingathering of financial pledges for the new year on All Saints Sunday is a good fit. Our Stewardship Ministry Team has been led in recent years by Alison Kolesar. At the end of this appeal, she will rotate off that team—we hope just for a while, as it’s hard to picture a future without Alison’s energy for stewardship. That team has a reputation for dreaming up visceral ways to enlist our imagination in the practice of stewardship. This year, we’ve created a path just as colorful as the rose window, each “stone” representing answers to a pair of questions asked in the 2015 appeal: What do you most need as you walk the path of a pilgrim, that is, as you walk the walk of a follower of Jesus, a disciple learning to recognize and trust and join the presence and the work of God all around us? And conversely, what do you most need to let go of, to walk this path? In the words of our collect today, this is a path for learning how to run without stumbling to obtain God’s heavenly promises.

We do this ingathering to raise the funds needed to continue making possible all that St. John’s does and all that this parish means, as a generous congregation prepares for a new year of internal growth and external outreach. And we issue this call to give generously because it is good for each one of us to practice singing the scales of gratitude and take part in building a common wealth that we will use in the wider world to practice what we preach. Commitment to this vital dynamic chain of giving that originates in the grace that pulses in the heart of God, the unearned grace that finds us, frees us, unites us, utilizes us—all this is the communion of saints.

Last weekend, I twice tasted the bread and wine of the communion of saints. One was in our annual gathering in Diocesan Convention. At six in the morning, Mary, Jane, Claudia, Sam and I met in the parking lot here to fill my Subaru, and off we trekked to Agawam. It was for me the 40th year in a row driving somewhere or other to the southeast, to be part of the action as 60-some Episcopal congregations in Western Massachusetts gather to literally be put in their place. That is, to be called out of our siloes, our geographic bubbles, our locavore ministries, and hear how the Spirit blows in other valleys.

We heard Bishop Fisher share his plans to walk the south-to-north length of each of the three geographic corridors of the Diocese, starting in the east (a 60-mile trek he completed on Friday). Listen to what he says in his blog:

“We have an ancient Jewish/Christian tradition of pilgrimage – walking and praying and talking with other pilgrims on the way to a sacred place. I think Western Massachusetts is a sacred place. So I have decided, with the enthusiastic support of my staff, to walk the diocese.

“We are calling this adventure “Walking Together on Sacred Ground.” The “together” is anyone who wants to walk with me for any part of the journey. I want to hear the stories of our church members and those who have no church at all. We will stop along the way and have prayer services in parking lots and street corners. I’ll visit prisons and colleges and farms. And I will pray as I walk, lifted up by the beauty of God’s creation in this blessed region and one with all our churches who are taking part in the Creation Season.

“The plan is to walk this one “corridor” at a time, each one 60-70 miles. The walk through the Pioneer Valley Corridor will be the week after Easter. The Berkshires leg will be sometime in late May or early June.

“I’ll walk with a shepherd’s staff that Bishop Wissemann gave me this summer – just a few weeks before his death. Bishops carry staffs (croziers) to symbolize the Good Shepherd of us all and there is another reason. In the early church the bishop used a walking stick because the bishop was supposed to be on the move as the living embodiment of the connection between churches. I’ll walk with the shepherd’s staff as a reminder that silo ministry (one church working on its own in isolation) is over and we live in a new/old age of collaboration between churches.

“And I walk because we are called to take the faith out of the churches and into the streets, where Jesus’ mission of mercy, compassion and hope is transforming the world.

“I’m excited for this great adventure. If you are near my pilgrimage come walk with me.

Last Sunday, Diana and I drove to Great Barrington to take part in Janet Zimmerman’s installation as Priest-in-charge of Grace Church, the new name of the merged congregations of St. James in Great Barrington and St. George’s, Lee. Merger wasn’t the only challenging chapter in their history. Not many years back, the rear wall of St. James’ historic stone building began collapsing. Long story short, the members concluded it was completely beyond their means—and even contradictory to their mission—to sink a lot of money into repairs. Hindsight only reinforces their wisdom, as the new owners are investing six or seven million dollars to restore the buildings and repurpose them as a performance space and offices.

Grace Church now owns no property. They rent a spacious banquet hall (hmm… Saturday’s convention took place in a banquet hall… what does this say about us?), this one right behind the Brewery. It’s an appealing, attractive, flexible space. They also rent a suite of rooms at the center of town, for a parish office, meeting space, and chapel. Their third strategic venue is Gideon’s Garden, two borrowed acres of highly productive farmland on which their volunteers grow tons of produce for local feeding programs.

I wondered with them whether their mission might some day include creating a 12-step program for clergy and vestries addicted to the ownership and maintenance of historic old churches. Lest I misrepresent myself, I went no further without adding, “Hi. My name is Peter, and I suffer from edifice addiction.” They could afford to laugh at that freely, while for us it’s apt to be a frightening thought, isn’t it, imagining St. John’s without this familiar holy space. Let’s pray—and work-- that we don’t come to that day. But if we do, the story, and the people, and the very name of Grace Church, Great Barrington, convey the lesson that the Church is not its buildings but its people, and the power, support, and guidance needed for faithful stewardship of our resources is the grace of God, the pulsing gift at the heart of the communion of saints.

At this Celebration of a New Ministry, the neighboring parishes of St. Paul’s in Stockbridge and the combined Christ Episcopal and Trinity Lutheran in Sheffield chose to forego their usual services and attend the celebration in Great Barrington, evidence of their intention to draw closer in the future. Attending also were representatives of the several South County human services agencies supported by the people of Grace Church. One of these organizations works with developmentally challenged adults, and several of them were present.

Our ties with the Zimmermans go back to 1999, when the first of three Zimmerman sons came to Williams. What followed was eleven years of seamless Zimmermans, as first Patrick (who would later be married here) and brother Thomas, and then brother Frank (who lived in the old rectory, senior year) passed through our doorways. Somewhere along the path, Janet recognized a long-simmering desire to prepare for ordination, and off she went to Virginia Seminary, her husband Sey moving his law practice to Alexandria; then back to their home state, Texas, for Janet’s first parish appointment, then back to D.C., where she became a school chaplain and parish associate before this call to the Berkshires.

We never know just where the path will take us, do we? But we know the One who walks it with us, and who knows the way, and is the way, and the truth, and the life.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Putting First Things First

Scripture for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 33:12-23; I Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

There are moments in life when it comes crystal clear what matters most.

When your house is burning to the ground, but you’ve gotten your children out and they’re safely in your arms.

When your path report comes back positive, and you’re faced with having to decide how best to treat an illness that seems to reframe your life.

This theme of discerning what matters most is heard also in a story from years ago when an oppressive regime held a missionary family in house arrest. Word came that in 24 hours they must be packed, and must limit themselves to two hundred pounds of belongings. Father and mother and two children gathered what most mattered and packed it, set to go. When soldiers arrived, the captain looked at the baggage, shook his head, then turned to the parents and asked, “The children. Have you weighed the children?”

There are three vignettes suggesting that adversity may sharpen our recognizing and appreciating what matters most. But why wait for adversity to motivate us?

Our 2015 stewardship appeal invites us to ask ourselves, What do we most need—and what do we most need to let go of—as we walk the path of new life in Christ? Each colored paper stone represents someone’s answer to those questions. Help us build that path by laying a stone today. Don’t limit yourself to one stone. Help move us forward on our journey.

I traveled to East Longmeadow on Tuesday to attend the Bishop’s Fall Clergy Day. This time, that was Bishops plural, s’, as Episcopal Bishop Doug Fisher was joined by Bishop James Hazelwood of the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Joining Episcopal clergy that day were many of the Lutheran pastors from across Western Massachusetts. In small groups comprising both traditions we bit into today’s Gospel, the next episode in St. Matthew’s unfolding narrative of escalating hostility towards Jesus, from religious leaders who felt threatened by his teaching. In these encounters, as we saw last Sunday, Jesus does not retreat into protective self-isolation. He sends a return volley. He fulfills the divine trait expressed in Psalm 18, “With the pure you show yourself pure, but with the crooked you are wily.”

“Wily” isn’t a bad description of Jesus’s answer to the Pharisees and the Herodians, is it?
Catch the collusion going on here. The Pharisees organize this lynching party. Chapters back in Matthew, we’re told that the Pharisees had decided that Jesus must die: He was that much of a threat to their status quo. Who are these people?

Tax payers, all of them. The Pharisees, however, were resistant tax payers. They weren’t as radical in their resistance as the Zealots we hear about in the New Testament; they were more grumblers than activists. But because they could deliver a sharp political commercial, the Pharisees were popular. Grumbling is often intriguing in its own dark way—election season is always full of it, and often little else—but of course in the first century no one ran for office, no one got elected. This did not stop the Pharisees from stirring up popular protest against the regime of imperial Rome, in particular the costly census tax, imposed in the year 6 in the common era, when Judea became a Roman province. (Remember how the story of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ begins, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered… while Quirinius was governor of Syria…”? That was not being registered to vote. It was for enrolling tax payers.

Thirty some years have passed, and that heavy imperial hand has kept reaching into the pockets of Judea. The Herodians in our story today represent the overt supporters of the Roman Empire: they had no problem paying the tax, for ultimately it lined the nest of their own prosperity as collaborators and quislings of the emperor. Their role in this story is to show how the Pharisees’ lynching party is truly a piece of bipartisan cooperation. They’ve crossed the aisle to join forces and make doubly sure this Jesus gets what’s coming to him.

They think they’ve set the perfect mouse trap by asking Jesus to decide just what the emperor has coming to him. By asking “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?”, clearly they don’t mean to ask about imperial law, but about Israel’s religious law: does it allow unquestioning allegiance to Rome?

Here’s where a commentary comes in handy. By Roman law, the tax could be paid only in Roman coins, most of which contained an image of Caesar and words that were blasphemous to Jews, declaring Caesar divine, and calling him “high priest”. The coin itself became a symbol of the deeper problem, the idolatry that Caesar mattered more than the living God of Israel.

They were in the temple precincts, where custom forebade carrying the imperial coins. Money-changers, as we know from another famous story, exchanged currency. But look who has this unholy change rattling in their pockets. When Jesus asks, “show me the coin used for the tax,” it’s the Pharisees who have it! They talk the talk; they do not walk the walk.

Not surprised, Jesus aims his words like a laser beam: “Whose head is this? Whose title?” They answer as they must, “The emperor’s.”

In his words spoken next, does Jesus mean, “It’s his already, so let him have it…”? Is he saying, “The emperor now owns the economic system of Judea: You Herodians are making sure of that, and you Pharisees are complicit. Despite your grumbling about oppression and idolatry, look whose coins you carry here in the temple, where they should not be.

Their lynching party has turned into his chess match. As he declares Checkmate, he changes the terms of this confrontation by yoking to their civic duty (“Pay taxes”) their spiritual duty (“Pay attention to the claims of God”, “Pay homage to the one and only God”, “Pay forward with the generosity that God shows you.” Jesus redirects this confrontation to be about what God has coming to God.

They were amazed (says the New Revised Standard Version). They were astonished (says the New International Version). They were in shock (according to The New Interpreter’s Bible).

Hear what one commentator says. “The kingdom of God represented by Jesus embraces all of life. Indeed, Matthew could hardly advocate the separation of religion and politics. He pictures Jesus and the Christian community as belonging to the series of Israel’s prophets, who never made a split between religion and the political aspects of life.

“While Matthew is clear that loyalty to God is a different and higher category than loyalty to Caesar, this text is not instruction on how people who live in a complex world of competing loyalties may determine what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. It simply declares that the distinction between what belongs to Caesar (as some things do) and what belongs to God (the ultimate loyalty) must be made, and he leaves it to readers in their own situations to be ‘Jesus theologians’ who, in the light of his own life and teachings, actualize the distinction.”

In one of his many letters, C. S. Lewis wrote,

"Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things."

Today, we baptize Claire and Ruby. We join their parents, Pete and Rachaele, and their Godparents, Jan and Eric, committing ourselves to encouraging and supporting these girls in their discerning what matters most, and in their practice of putting first things first.

We pledge our time and talent and treasure to make sure Ruby and Claire discover the divine image imprinted on them and on all people, and we pledge our readiness to help them feel and know and claim the titles inscribed on their hearts and minds today: Children of God, members of Christ’s Body, and heirs of the kingdom of God.

(The Gospel commentary quoted here is M. Eugene Boring’s, found on pp. 420-421 in Volume VIII of “The New Interpreter’s Bible”. C. S. Lewis’s words come from a letter dated 23 April 1951. I'm grateful to The Very Rev. Jim Munroe for introducing me to Lewis's letter and the story of the missionary family.)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Walking the Walk

Scripture for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 32:1-14; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

When I meet monthly with residents of our local nursing homes to celebrate the holy eucharist, I usually read the Gospel for the coming Sunday. It’s often my first encounter with a text I’ll be preaching on, a few days later. Maybe.

But not this time around. I chose instead Paul’s little sermon to the believers at Philippi. In my snap judgment, those frail but courageous sisters and brothers at Williamstown Commons, circled round in their wheelchairs, had been battered enough by life without having to make sense of the raging violence in Matthew’s chilling parable.

Whether I could then avoid it today remained to be seen; but for sure I could bring them a brighter dose of good news through Paul’s message about the peace of God and the God of peace.

At both nursing homes, I can count on the residents wanting to sing a favorite hymn. At Sweet Brook, it’s “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” At Williamstown Commons, it’s “Amazing Grace.” If all we did at these services were the singing of their one favorite hymn, they’d likely wheel out of that room satisfied that they’d heard and sung good news that day.

Though I always announce the page number in their large-print hymnal (#93 for What a Friend, #4 for Amazing Grace), these folks don’t need the book for these hymns: By and large, they have the words inside them. Whether or not their eyesight lets them read the page, they know the words: “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

And on the heels of that hymn, Wednesday, came today’s collect: “We pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works.”

What is amazing about the Christian concept of grace is the omnipresence of this love which we neither deserve (says our Prayer Book catechism) nor recognize (most of the time), nor even desire (said our collect last Sunday) because we are too busy desiring otherwise: desiring stuff, success, satisfaction, relief, stimulation, release, admiration. What a list we have! What amazing goals! Maybe those are our favorite hymns: What a List We Have… Amazing Goals, How Sweet the Sound that Spends my Soul on Thee…

And along comes our 2015 stewardship appeal with the question, “What do you most need—or most need to let go of—as you walk the path in life?” Each of us is invited to lay stones in the path we’re building here in the center aisle, and let these stones represent your answers to that question.

This living metaphor of an expanding path is meant to take this community into closer communion with God, lead us to the table of new life, then aim us out into the world that needs us to give ourselves to good works. It is a foot path, not a highway; what it requires of us is not to see how fast we can get somewhere and how much we can accomplish, but to keep putting one foot in front of the other, moving deliberately (and gently, as Paul instructs the Philippians), letting go of worrying our way forward, choosing instead to pay attention to grace. Grace before us, grace behind us. Grace ahead of us to know the way, show the way, and meet us on the way. Grace following us to heal the damage we don’t intend to commit but do, grace to recognize by hindsight the gifts to be grateful for, grace to remember what we’ve learned.

So… what can we learn from Matthew’s little parable from hell? For one thing, never take a passage of the Bible out of its context. Remember that grace is behind us, and requires using our rear-view mirror to recognize it for what it is. Backspace just a verse or two and hear how chapter 21 ends (in Eugene Peterson’s “The Message”): “When the religious leaders heard Jesus’s parables, they knew he was aiming his words at them. They wanted to arrest him and put him in jail, but, intimidated by public opinion, they held back. Most people held him to be a prophet of God.”

Then today’s portion begins, “Jesus responded by telling still more parables.” He did not back down from the hostility he met. He countered it with a return volley.

This story of the wedding banquet presents his answer—or is it Matthew’s answer? Or is it the early Church’s answer?—to the question, “Who is it who are gathered into the embrace of God’s grace? Who is it who walk in the light and wisdom of God? Who are the enduring people of God faithful to God’s steadfast covenant love?”

The answer given in this tortuous parable is: Not the people who say that they are the heirs of God’s grace and favor, but the people who show that they are, by how they act. Not the ones who talk the talk, but the ones who walk the walk.

The action desired by the king in this story (so we can read the allegory to mean it is the action God wants) is that all should come to the wedding banquet he has set for his Messiah, the anointed one who embodies love and achieves justice by righting the ancient wrong.

Those who were first invited were expected to come because they would have identified themselves as heirs of God’s grace and favor—but they refuse to come, preferring their own busyness as they pursue stuff, success, satisfaction, relief, stimulation, release, admiration. What a list they have!

And those who finally do come may not yet have appreciated the generous impulse behind the invitation, and so they have not discovered their responsibility to allow grace to shape their generosity. In the language of today’s collect, they are not given to good works.

The fellow who is singled out for not dressing up appears to be made an object lesson—but we scratch our heads and wonder why. Reach for a commentary, and you learn that the proper dress, the wedding robe, stands for the new life of good works which is meant to be our response to the Gospel of grace. I’ll bet that first-century hearers of this story would have instantly thought of the plain white tunic, the simple shift worn by men and women and children when they were baptized.

“How did you get in here without a wedding robe?” asks the king. The only demand made by Jesus, (as it was by John the Baptist before him), is that we must intentionally turn from evil and towards God, from oppression to freedom, from greed to grace, from violence to peace—in order to enter the kingdom of God, repentance is the doorway.

This fellow has slipped- in some other way. It won’t work. To borrow other New Testament language, he has not worn the fine linen of righteous deeds. He is speechless when confronted because, having done no good works, there is nothing, and no one, to speak for him. He has not put on the Lord Jesus Christ.

We really have to work hard, to get the marrow out of the bone in this Gospel. I can’t think of a Gospel I’d rather not have to preach on, ever again.

But in times as violent as ours, let’s not rush to erase the struggles our first-century forebears had as they welcomed the gracious invitation to the wedding banquet while having to navigate a brutal world. So do we.

The central message of this crusty parable, if we can set aside the sputtering rage of conflicting ideologies, is that God invites us to a wedding banquet: this is one of Jesus’s favorite ways to describe the spiritual life and the purpose of religion. To be human is to be invited into the intimate and joyful community of a wedding banquet, where what is expected is intentional delight and love devoted to, and shaped by, that pulsing love at the center of the party, at the head table. Wow! So that’s what church is for!

And while we’re understandably turned off by intimidation (and this parable’s little cup overflows with that), we all can stand a dose of the message that God calls us not just to show up and sing our favorite hymns, but to repent of all those desirings that point our path not towards God but away; and to repent of the collateral damage we do. And freed by God’s grace in Jesus Christ, make way for the Spirit to move us to be given to good works, making known a gentleness that this world yearns to see (and so do we), making do with less worry and more of the promised peace of God so that the God of peace may reign on earth.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Our Cross Is Green

Scripture for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 17:1-7; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

From the files of campus security at Williams College: "Friday, September 12, 2014,4:22 p.m. St. John’s Church: Officers received a report that students were climbing the exterior of the church. A Williamstown Police Department officer also responded. Officers identified four students who had already packed up their pads and climbing equipment and were about to leave. They admitted to climbing the church. Officers explained that for safety and liability reasons, as well as private property rules, they are not allowed to climb the church.”

There was a collision of authorities. “By what authority are you climbing this church?” ask the officers of the law. “By what authority are you telling us we cannot?” might have been a cheeky reply. We know what we’re doing. We’re good at it. And climbing the church is a whole lot more exciting and challenging than the climbing wall at the Field House…”

Who knows, maybe one of those students tried that confrontational approach, hence the listing of reasons—three of them—mentioned in the blotter.

I don’t know. I wasn’t at this end of our buildings that day at that hour. I was diligently at my workstation, attempting to work out with fear and trembling my sermon for that weekend. Darn it all! I missed all the action!

There’s a confrontation of authorities going on in Matthew’s Gospel today. Jesus has carried his itinerant ministry into the sacred precincts of the temple in Jerusalem. The clergy and Vestry are not pleased. They’re used to calling the shots. Nobody climbs their walls without permission. And this Jesus is, in their eyes, a nobody.

“Who gave you authority to heal the sick, feed the hungry, illuminate the blind, speak publicly to women and poor people and tax collectors and sinners? Huh? Who?”

Cheeky Jesus replies, “I will also ask you a question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”

Ooh. That’s hitting the ecclesiastical authorities right where it hurts. Though the Gospel writers do not blame the religious leaders for John’s imprisonment and beheading—the political powers and principalities of Herod’s household get the blame for those perversions of justice—nonetheless, the grassroots spiritual, religious, and ethical movement that John blazed across Judea was every bit as threatening to the temple as the Jesus movement had become. Now Jesus, who held John dear and willingly submitted to his kind of baptism, Jesus now makes the righteous squirm.

Because the city is watching, listening. The walls of that temple have ears and eyes, as countless ordinary people come and go, climbing the rules of temple sacrifice, enriching the coffers of organized religion, in its collaboration with the Roman imperial forces of occupation. These same common people had flocked to the frontiers where John conducted his open-air preaching and baptizing, and here now Jesus is pressing the authorities to admit their choice to collude with the enemy rather than welcome a prophet from God.

The weak-kneed spokesmen for security at all cost answer, “Well, we’ll never know, will we?” Such proper Anglicans, these fellows. I can imagine a longer version of this story, one Matthew decided not to waste ink or vellum on, where the Archdeacon clears his throat and says, “On the one hand…” And the Canon Theologian interjects, “While on the other hand…”

So… if he can’t get a straight answer from the establishment, whom do you imagine Jesus addressing when he asks, “What do you think? What do YOU think?" Had he turned away from the quislings and now spoke into the great stairway filled with pilgrims in from the countryside, as he pitches to them his little parable?

About a man with two sons, whom he asks to go and work in the vineyard. “No way,” answers the first. “Sure, Dad,” answers the second. Then the parable does a pirouette, and the first son reconsiders his refusal, changes into his work clothes, and off to the vineyard he goes. At the same time, the glib promiser gets wrapped up in a video game and pretty soon it’s suppertime.

“Which of these two did the will of their father?” asks Jesus. I think it’s from the stairwell that we hear, “the first one!” Then I imagine Jesus turning back towards the champions of security to deliver this stinging message: “The truth is, people of the street are closer to the kingdom of God than you fearful souls afraid to think new thoughts lest the whole house of cards come tumbling down.”

Ouch. Just as this parable is aimed at us all, so is this warning that would have us avoid the closing of our minds.

The religion of Jesus Christ is not shy about the Ouch factor. He who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” teaches us to “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

As we look to the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, we see him high above the altar nailed to a cross, and the cross has about it the most astonishing characteristic. Do you see what I mean? It’s green. Why doesn’t that make us stop in our tracks and refuse to budge until we deal with it? His cross is green. It is the tree of life. It is God’s Yes to the world’s defeatist No. It is the color of hope. It is the band in the rainbow that binds our Ouch to the great Passion of God in Jesus. While you and I must deal with the pain of working out our own salvation with fear and trembling, that green is God at work in us, the grace enabling us “both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.”

Whatever authority we find attractive and trustworthy—the authority of a political leader, the authority of a movement, the authority of a scientist, the authority of the Bible, the authority of our own experience—the grace of Christ’s green cross rises above them all. And the only answer from us that God finds authoritative (according to our parable today) is not what we say or what we think, but what we do, when we let our action be shaped by the grace of God already at work in us. And when our obedience resembles the obedience of Jesus Christ, should we be surprised if there is an Ouch factor? No. Nor should we be afraid of it.

A famous moment of conflict appears in our reading from Exodus, reinforcing the same message. No water. The Hebrew refugees, rescued from their bondage, are trekking across the desert and have run out of water. “Give us water to drink,” they chant in the direction of Moses. Or else.

“What shall I do with these people?” prays Moses to God, as those many tens of thousands (some scholars say three or four hundred thousand) voice their complaint. God instructs Moses to go on ahead of his people, take a few elders along, take in hand his walking stick, and demonstrate leadership.

Detailed instructions of exactly how are apparently not as important in the great scheme of things as is trust. We aren ‘t told whether it’s sooner or later, but this little scouting party reaches Horeb, where there is a wadi, an Arab name for a rocky watercourse, a wet riverbed in rainy season, dry as dust at other times—and perhaps this was a time soon enough after rainy season that there was water to be had by digging down around that rock.

This was not magic. This was work. This was working out their salvation in fear and trembling. This is the work of leadership. Some of the rabbis insisted that this rock at Horeb followed the Hebrew people on their journey until they crossed the Jordan and found the Promised Land. St. Paul, in one of his letters, gives a gloss on that story by announcing his belief that the rock at Horeb was Christ. Christ, the one who enables the holy digging of salvation. Christ, who is with us, always and everywhere, persuading us to not fear challenges and conflicts, even the global-scale challenges that confront us now, for he is already there, at work in the crisis, calling us to discern his work and join him in it.

Last Sunday, countless congregations and communities sent leaders on ahead of the rest of us, to the Peoples’ Climate March in New York. Two members of our parish community, Robin and Margie, were among the 300,000-400,000 marchers who gathered along Central Park West. At Steering Committee last week, Robin described how well organized this was, with marshals in green shirts directing marchers to drinking water and bathrooms. Funny, isn’t it, how meeting the needs of Water In and Water Out are so central to human security?

Robin told us how she marched with people from Bangladesh, where the rising ocean level threatens the very existence of that nation. The Ouch Factor of climate change in the poorer oceanic countries is truly one of sheer survival. St. Paul’s admonition to look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others was brought home as the World Summit at the U.N. revealed the fear and trembling of developing nations, and exposed basic questions such as what constitutes security in the face of climate change and how do nations help one another respond to insecurity?

As marchers made their way through those city streets, at an appointed moment the marchers stopped—an impressive accomplishment for 300,000-400,000 people (Moses would have been impressed)—and for two minutes of silence marchers raised their hands in the ancient posture of prayer, wordless, “as if the whole city went silent,” Robin said, ended by the tolling of church bells.

To what end? And by what authority will human change rise to meet the challenge of climate change? By the authority of action that is shaped by grace, that throbbing green in the cross of Christ. And if such action trains people to a finer care for the earth and all its life-forms—more room for grace, less room for greed—if such action transforms our understanding of security and insecurity, then we will become freer, better at hearing God’s Yes.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

As Many as Seven Times?

Scripture for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 14:19-31; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

As many as seven times?

It doesn’t take long for the first-century Gospels to present the good news that conflict is not an alien force to be ducked or denied. Last Sunday, we heard our Lord instruct that first generation of disciples (and all subsequent generations) to deal with it head-on.

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. .. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses… a section of Matthew’s Gospel that ends with the promise, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Yes, but how often are we to practice this approach with the same individual? As many as seven times?

How many times does an organ student or a trumpet student practice scales?

No, not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times. Or, as the ancient texts of Matthew have it, seventy times seven. That’s a lot. Just ask the mothers of the organ student and the trumpet student… It takes a lot of practice to get good at anything, doesn’t it?

And isn’t there a poet who writes about practicing the scales of love? Isn’t that precisely what any covenant calls us to do? Covenanted love between two people, the kind that marries two lives into one lasting partnership, provides daily opportunity and daily requirement to sing the scales of love, to get in tune with one another. The baptismal covenant we renewed here last Sunday likewise provides endless opportunity (and, most fortunately, the grace required) to grow not just up but into the full stature of Christ.

From that perspective, whoever counts has not yet forgiven, has chosen rather to keep track of the offences, and not give way to the uncalculating, incalculable grace, the power that undergirds our covenants.

What makes a covenant different from lesser agreements and contracts we enter is that a covenant—at least as it is understood in a spiritual context—entails God, involves God, a power higher and far greater than the human beings involved in the agreement. There is always promising in a covenant—two people pledge fidelity to one another, an individual at the font pledges (or parents and Godparents pledge their intention to help their child be able one day) to trust, love, and follow Jesus Christ. There is always a plural nature to covenant, that two-or-threeness that Jesus promises. And truly, what is most promising about our covenants is not what we bring to them, but how God helps us keep our covenants. The Book of Common Prayer doesn’t expect us to promise fidelity by responding, “Sure, I’ll do that!”, but by responding, “I will, God being my helper.”

So when we screw up in our covenants—and who among us does not?—we count not just on what’s in the human buckets that we bring to the relationship but on what’s in God’s deeper well of mercy and grace, where the bucket can never hit bottom.

Unconditional love is not what we bring to one another in our relationships, but it is what undergirds and frees our best practices with one another.

Even in the face of death? St. Paul answers that question about how far the baptismal covenant extends, and how durable it is: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” Unlike your next car, or your next ipad, the warranty on God’s love does not expire, ever. And you can’t buy this unconditionality: it is sheer gift of God. And it is the Word that wants continually to be made flesh, in our marriages and our families, in our church and in our world; so it requires practicing our scales.

I don’t find unconditional love in the parable Jesus tells today. The king is an eye-for-an-eye sort of fellow, perfectly ready to punish anyone who crosses him. In fact, his final version of justice exacted against one of his slaves involves torture. I wussed out when I read the story this morning and brought to you the paraphrase version from “The Message”. If you followed it in the New Revised Standard Version, you heard Jesus promise similar punishment to anyone who fails to forgive a brother or sister from the heart. I’m confessing to you that after four decades preaching it’s still well above my pay grade to make good sense of that troubling promise. Bible scholars assure us that this gruesome piece of theology belongs to Matthew and not to Jesus, but still…

It’s overkill in the cause of a theme worth considering. Jesus appears to say that it is futile for us to ask for forgiveness if we are not willing to forgive. This is the point of his parable, isn’t it? The man who owes much is saved, along with his family, from going to the auction block, because his plight reaches down deep into the well of the king’s pity. I imagine a great shockwave moving through that royal audience, as people wonder what’s come over their king, who has just acted in a most extraordinary uncharacteristic way. Perhaps he surprised even himself, taking a chance on someone who has run out of chances, someone who has screwed up bigtime.

That describes the first debtor. 10,000 talents at that time would exceed the yearly tax revenues from Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, and Samaria combined. That number is meant to sound fantastic (the way a million dollars used to sound to us). His debt is uncountable, and more to the point, unpayable. This is no household slave: this is upper management, or upper mismanagement. This is a first-century Bernie Madoff.

And then this debtor puts the screws on a lowly household slave who owes him about three months’ wages—one serious crisis-worth of borrowing, you might say. “Pay what you owe!” growls the first debtor, as he seizes the second by the throat. Both these men are slaves, in the great scheme of things equals; but it’s as if the first debtor looks upon the second as if he belonged to a different race (and perhaps he did), and the lack of fellow-feeling is shocking. Though their debts are dramatically different, the words of their prayer, their desperate hope, are identical. “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” Words that paid off for the major debtor fail to stir his pity for this lesser debtor, and the next sound we hear is the clanging shut of the prison door.

Big mistake. Picture all this happening in the public square, where eyes and ears noticed it all. Both debtors are slaves, and their fellow slaves, appalled by the betrayal they have witnessed, report it to the king. The dissonance of the big debtor’s latest screw-up grates against the scales of compassion; his outrageous demand topples the scales of justice.

That common sense binds the moral perception of slaves and king. By failing to forgive the small debtor with even a single note of the mercy that had been sung to him, the big debtor forfeits his future. In Matthew’s Gospel, the Lord’s Prayer reads, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Those are the scales to be practiced.

There’s one scriptural voice I haven’t mentioned yet. Moses.

We heard today the foundational story of the covenant binding Israel to God. What happens to the Hebrew people at the Red Sea is not just a dramatic rescue of slaves: It is an equally dramatic transformation of their status from slaves to free men and women. This was neither simple nor magical.

Not simple in that as slaves they had a predictable life, one they were reluctant to leave. They knew what to expect. In later seasons, during their wanderings as refugees in Canaan, they would grumble against Moses because at least in those old days back in Egypt they had leeks and onions and garlic in their stewpots. They had to give up what they knew. The institution of slavery is pernicious in its fostering co-dependence across generations, addicting slaves and masters to The Way Things Are, reinforcing worst habits, worst practices that glued the system together.

Their transformation was not magical in that the Hebrew slaves had to choose to reach for freedom. What faced them at the Red Sea was certain death, or so it looked. Pharoah’s horsemen closing in on them, what choice did they have but to enter the sea?

Elie Wiesel writes of this moment, “Yet, according to one commentator, Moses suddenly ordered everyone to a halt: Wait a moment. Think, take a moment to reassess what it is you are doing. Enter the sea not as frightened fugitives but as free men and women and children! And everyone obeyed. They paused in their rush toward the sea. And Moses turned to God with a prayer. But God reminded him that this was not the right moment to pray: Tell the people of Israel to hurry! And the people, united as never before, swept ahead and crossed the Red Sea, which drew back to let the Jews go through. When they had passed, those same waters rushed back and swallowed up the Egyptian troops, their chariots and horsemen, with great loss of life.”

The Exodus story shows that our survival depends on how we behave, how we act; and that in turn depends on what we believe about ourselves.

What is required of us in this day is to practice our scales of forgiveness and mercy, finding the harmonies that will help center us as we face conflict with courage and hope. And, as we face a hostile sea of threats and challenges, recognize the urgent call to claim freedom from slavery to the old brutalities and futilities, even the familiar status quo, freeing us to take our part in God’s fulfilment of promised grace.

From Matthew’s first century to our own twenty-first, people of faith have believed that God’s passion, compassion, and purpose extend well beyond church, synagogue, and mosque. On into the marketplace, the workplace, the courtroom—in short, on into civic life on all frontiers where conflicting values and visions constitute sharply divided beliefs about what justice demands and what love requires.

We cannot speak for synagogue or mosque, but for twenty centuries the church has been shaped by the Bible’s understanding that the common life of the faith community is given to us by God so that we may learn those scales of mercy and become tuned to the harmonies of peace. What we do here is meant to have influence and bearing there on the social frontiers of our wider, broader world.

There, where debtor nations struggle in futility, as unpayable debts curtail domestic growth. And here, where a new Gilded Age ensures not a tide that raises all ships, but a rising tide of personal debt, bankruptcies, and pay disparity.

May the God of covenant faithfulness preside here and in every congregation, that what we do, and who we are, be shaped by what we believe about ourselves.

(I have paraphrased from Elie Wiesel’s “Messengers of God”, Summit Books, 1976, pp. 191-194. I found M. Eugene Boring’s commentary on Matthew helpful, in Volume VIII of “The New Interpreter’s Bible.)