Month: July 2013

Give us this day our daily bread Sermon at St. Paul’s Church, Ossining 7/28/2013

Lord, teach us to pray. Amen.

Give us this day...

The Lord’s Prayer has been around as long as we have.  Since before the Gospels were written, it has been THE prayer of Christian disciples.  Even among skeptical moderns there are those who assert Jesus taught his disciples this prayer as an emblem of their discipleship.  We still repeat this prayer at virtually every service of worship.

It is the essence of Christian prayer, and as such, almost impossible to approach as a preacher. Thousands of volumes have been written about it, many by people much more learned and wise than me.  But I hesitate even more, because the holiness of the mystery of the Lord’s Prayer repels unworthy additions, ornamentations or deconstructions.   

The prayer is simple and in that simplicity is its profundity.    The prayer as we usually pray it has 9 petitions:   I read the structure as being four parallel pairs—our father; your kingdom; forgive us; lead us not into temptation; and a single petition in the middle: Give us this day our daily bread.   In Luke’s version in today’s Gospel lesson there are five petitions with the same meaning–this petition about bread is in the center of both, but it’s not buried—it sticks out because it breaks the parallelism.

The Lord’s Prayer is filled with terms which are eschatological.  Eschatology is a theological term which refers to “the end.”  It is a whole sub-discipline of systematic theology where things are discussed like heaven and hell, the final judgment and so forth.  When we look at Jesus, the most important image of this sort is the Kingdom of God—the final action of God is brought among us, in this world.  When we look at this prayer of Jesus, there is lots of eschatology there:  kingdom of god, the “trial” or “temptation”—so in this context, how do we understand—Give us today our daily bread?

First, I think we should avoid our churchly inclination to look toward the altar every time bread is mentioned (maybe we should look toward the altar more frequently when wine is the matter of concern).  This central petition of the Lord’s Prayer can’t be understood properly, if we don’t first understand that it is a prayer for actual daily bread.  In the Middle East, bread was the normal way that normal people ate their daily allotment of grain.  And in most parts of the world, for most of history, most of the people make most of their diet from that daily allotment of grain.  And for a huge portion of people, now as well as then, the most important drama in their lives comes from the uncertainty of whether that daily bread will be available.  It may be that there is less starvation in this country today than has been the case in most places historically.  Yet anyplace that I have looked around—in the rural Midwest, in the suburbs, in the city—there are plenty of people whose day to day financial existence is precarious, for whom daily survival is the overwhelming preoccupation.

Jesus teaches his disciples to pray for their daily bread, that in the continuing crisis of human life they would survive to pray for the kingdom.  It is real bread that this prayer is concerned with, and if Christians are not concerned with real bread for the real people who really need it, they have no business approaching this Holy Prayer.  It’s good if some Christians are involved in local and even broader solutions to problems of hunger and poverty, but it is absolutely essential that every aspect of Christian spirituality be involved in the material needs, sufferings and feelings of the people of this world.  Those who are comfortable enough to live the life of the mind are called to humbly listen to those who await their daily bread, with no assurance that it will come.

Through this daily bread, this ordinary bread of ordinary people, the eschatology of the prayer comes into focus:  “thy kingdom come, thy will be done”—the kingdom where God’s name is indeed hallowed is where all those who need their daily bread will have it without anxiety or fear that it may not be there for their children.  The Kingdom that is breaking in is radical, because it is comfort for the ordinary workaday people, not for the religious or cultural elite.

“Forgive us our sins as we also have forgiven our debtors”— the Gospel of Luke indeed has debts (not trespasses)In the Jubilee year, which is found in the Book of Leviticus—which may have been honored more in the breach than in the observance , especially by the first century)—all debts were to be forgiven—sort of a universal no-fault bankruptcy.  All those people whose credit cards were maxed out from paying the grocery bill; and the small farmers whose land was in pledge to pay for seed, equipment, and perhaps food, in years of famine, got their land back and were restored to even.  Perhaps this petition refers to a restoration of the Jubilee—perhaps as a component of the eschatological kingdom  … as we forgive our debtors—participation in the Jubilee is not simply getting rewards, but also restoring others to wholeness by giving up our own advantage.

“Save us from the time of trial,” is interpreted many ways, often eschatologically (especially among pre-millennial dispensationalists, who want to talk about the rapture and the tribulation) –and indeed, we may be talking about an overwhelming cataclysm, like persecution, or war, or the end of life.  It might also point to the failure of the daily bread. The trial could be a simple one, however; as simple as the anxiety and suffering of not being able to put food on the table.  People who don’t know where their daily bread is coming from can appreciate how very close and real that trial can be.

We have our daily bread. Now we can turn to the altar and give thanks.

Hospitality Sermon for Trinity Church Ossining, July 21, 2013

Hospitality of Abraham

Hospitality of Abraham

When Abraham saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, “My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant.”

Our lesson from the Old Testament is the classic description of hospitality in the ancient world.  On a hot summer afternoon, Abraham sees three travelers walking along the road and he leaves his tent, and runs to catch them and stops them so he can beg for the privilege of serving them and entertaining them.  You might get the impression that Abraham was doing this because he knew who it was…at the beginning of the lesson it says that “the Lord appeared to Abraham.” But there is nothing in the story that follows to indicate that he knew that until he was surprised by the promise at the end of the story.  In fact, the Epistle to the Hebrews refers to this story by saying, ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that, some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

What Abraham did on that hot afternoon was the right and normal way to show hospitality to strangers coming along that lonely road in the arid countryside.  The quick preparations for the meal are perhaps lavish and difficult, but normal for a feast in those days and true hospitality did call for a feast.  The point of the story is the gift this hospitable couple received: the promise of a child and a legacy of a great and numerous nation.  Abraham’s hospitality was exemplary, but it was an example of what everyone back then expected.

Our Gospel lesson is another instance of hospitality—the sisters Martha and Mary extend hospitality to Jesus—Martha was taking care of all the preparation, very much like Abraham and Sarah—and Mary was attending to Jesus, listening to his Word.  I have heard so many discussions of this that focus on the conflict, and often come down to a competition between Martha taking care of things and Mary being a contemplative.  But we don’t need to read it this way.  The preparations, the hard work, the gifts, the whole structure of welcoming guests are essential to hospitality.  Often it gets to be a bit much for the hostess, as it did with Martha.  I don’t read Jesus’ response to Martha as a rebuke.  What was it that Mary had been doing?  She had been sitting at Jesus’ feet—the position of a servant or a pupil, and the Greek text says she was hearing his Word—the word of the Prophet who spoke for God.  The emphasis is that the one thing that is good is to hear that Word and to attend to that speaker and that person who is the guest—both Martha and Mary were extending hospitality—Jesus is highlighting that the point is to care for and attend to the person, or people who are the guest.

In the Gospel of Luke, today’s lesson follows immediately after the Gospel from last week: Jesus’ challenging story about who is my neighbor. The two episodes are two perspectives on a single theme.  Hospitality is not solely for people on your “A” list: remember, Abraham’s hospitality was to three strangers on the road.  Hospitality and being a neighbor specifically are about overcoming our own preoccupation with what we feel and what we want and to welcome and help those who might make us uncomfortable.

On Friday, President Obama spoke about events over the last week or so that have resulted in much concern in our country.  I was struck by how the things he had to say relate to real problems over how to be neighbors, and how hospitality has broken down—particularly when people aren’t even aware of what they are doing:

Here are a couple of passages from his remarks at Friday’s press conference:

“There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator…And I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.”

Because the president was being so careful to be measured and balanced, and not to attack or blame anyone, it struck me how really pervasive these things are.  So pervasive that it can’t be just the bigots or racists who lock their doors or follow young men around in stores.  It is often people of good will who aren’t really aware of their own behavior. Thus the challenge to be a neighbor, to extend hospitality  the way that God wants us to, is very difficult and usually not achieved.

But hospitality is basic to our faith.  The great Russian icon of the Trinity portrays Abraham extending hospitality to the three strangers at table.  Of course, we would prefer to first feel good about people and trust them and then extend hospitality.  But that’s not our call.  Be like Martha and put together those structures of hospitality, no matter how it feels.  Be like Mary and attend to the person you meet and listen.  Be like Abraham who ran out and asked the strangers for a favor, the favor of his being able to give them something to eat and a place to rest.  Hospitality is not about how good it makes us feel, or about all distrust and bad feelings disappearing.  Our blessing comes from the love of God, and it comes as a surprise, like the angels promising the aged Sarah a child–and, in the very next verse after the close of today’s lesson–she laughed.

The Good Samaritan Sermon for Trinity Church Ossining, July 14, 2013

“A lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher, he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’

So Jesus asks the lawyer what the law says, or rather, to summarize what Holy Scripture has to say on the topic.  And the lawyer knows it, he says it perfectly, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  This is not controversial; everybody who knows scripture acknowledges this.  But being a lawyer, this man wants to define the limits of his liability on this: “And who is my neighbor?”

So Jesus tells a story which has become so familiar that everybody is sure that they know it: “Yeah, yeah, Good Samaritan. Let’s eat.”   The thing we often skip over, or misunderstand is who the Samaritans are, or especially how they were regarded among Jesus’ hearers.  Under kings David and Solomon there was a united kingdom of Israel which broke into a northern kingdom called Israel and a southern kingdom called Judah after Solomon’s death. The Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, represent the religion and perspective of the southern kingdom of Judah. The capital of the northern kingdom was Samaria until it was destroyed by the Assyrians about 200 years later.  It was another century and a half later that the Babylonians destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and took the leading citizens of Judah into exile in Babylon.

Samaritan worship

There is still a very small community of Samaritans that live on the slopes of Mount Gerizim and live according to the laws in the Torah and offer sacrifices there.  There is a complex and interesting history of the Samaritans which I won’t go into, but they were a substantial population during Jesus’ time, not quite as large as the Jewish population, but many villages in the part of Judea between Jerusalem and Galilee were populated by Samaritans.  The Jews and the Samaritans had different understandings about the origins of the Samaritans though their shared scriptures varied only in whether God should be worshiped at the temple on Mt. Gerizim or on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem.

The account that was accepted by the Jews (and supported by the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah) was that the Assyrians had destroyed and deported most of the residents of the kingdom of Israel (thus the 10 lost tribes of Israel) and settled non-Israelites who were also idolaters in the land.  Any Israelites who were left had intermarried with these idolaters—thus any of their worship was polluted, idolatrous and heretical. The Samaritans believed on the other hand, that they carried on the true traditions of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses and that the Judeans had profaned the worship by moving it from Mt. Gerizim to Jerusalem.  This was very serious business; each group regarded the other as worse than other sorts of foreigners because of their betrayal of what was most holy.  Of course, other characteristics were attributed to these people, as people do with groups that are despised—they were dirty, dishonest, ignorant…  From either group’s perspective, not only would you not want your daughter to marry one, you wouldn’t want to come into contact with one at all.

There are many examples or analogies that apply to people today, in our American pluralism, our prejudices have become so diverse that what might have impact on some, might simply make others feel self-righteous or offended.

Eric Barreto teaches New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. I will read a brief passage from something he wrote on this story:

“Imagine yourself not as the Samaritan seeking to love God and neighbor. Imagine yourself as the person in need. A man on the brink of death. A woman in deepest grief. A man lost in the world. A woman with no hope. Imagine yourself at your most vulnerable, deep in despair with only one hope: perhaps someone will help me.

Now imagine that the stranger who is most kind, most loving is not the upstanding citizen who looks and thinks like you. Imagine that she or he is that person you dismiss as a bigot or a heathen, a racist or an instigator, a misogynist or a baby-killer. Imagine that your succor is delivered by someone whom you would never consider to be your neighbor, your friend, your sister or brother in the faith. Imagine that your greatest need is filled by such a person. What would that teach us about the meaning of loving God and loving neighbor?

In short, we might discover that loving God and neighbor know no bounds — that if we look at the world with God’s eyes, we would see Good Samaritans all around us.”

The Kingdom of God that Jesus brings is a community of those who aren’t necessarily alike.  In fact members of the Body of Christ may not even like one another—even to the point of finding one another a bit scary.  But as neighbors we learn to accept the love of one another—even of the scary Samaritans—and that’s what brings us together in our communion meal.

Chariots and horses … and humility

Sermon for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, St. Paul’s Ossining, NY. July 7, 2013

So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house…
I was reading a Fourth of July blog this week, entitled, “Why I love my Country.”

Its author is Jim Wallis, who is the editor of Sojourners magazine, and an evangelical pastor whose politics are quite a contrast to what we usually think of as the politics of evangelical pastors. I was struck by the following passage:

“…One night, I was staying in the Soweto Township home of Frank Chicane, the head of the South African Council of Churches. Late that evening, Frank wanted to show me something and spread some papers out on his kitchen table. He confided in me that Nelson Mandela, even while still in prison, had asked a few people to begin the drafting of a new South African constitution. And Frank was one of them.As he began to show me the work, I noticed two other documents on the table: the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Ironically, at that very moment there were two South African military vehicles outside Frank’s house: the one that always parked there to monitor Frank and one to monitor me, because the government had discovered I was in the country. The South African regime of apartheid was being supported at the time by the American government’s “constructive engagement” policy, but inside a little house in a black township, a dissident clergyman was drafting a new constitution based on the documents that announced American freedom. Despite the contradictions in all that, I loved that exceptional contribution from my country.”

I was in South Africa about a dozen years after the time Jim Wallis is writing about, shortly after the elections, and the South Africans talked about those military vehicles—they called them “Hippos”, because of their shape and size—they were armored and carried soldiers who could shoot from inside.

South African Fighting Vehicle

So as I read that Naaman, the commander of the army of the king of Aram, drove up with his horses and chariots of war and parked them in front of Elisha’s house, I was struck by the similarity. Naaman was a powerful man, who was used to getting his way through the use, or at least the demonstration of that power. Note that he didn’t go to the prophet first, but to the King of Israel—who saw the lavish gifts as an assertion of power, indeed as a threat.

But Elisha plays it cool. He sends out a messenger—Go wash in the Jordan River and you’ll be clean. Naaman responds as if he doesn’t think Elisha is taking him seriously enough—‘I thought he would come out, wave his hand, call on the name of his God’—we’ve got bigger and better rivers back home! This very important person felt that he wasn’t being treated according to his importance. Which of course he wasn’t and that’s the point. The grace and gift of God do not come through power, or prestige, or connections. Not even cash up front makes a difference—though it’s not so difficult to find representatives of the Church who would do whatever was necessary to accept that.

This story is about how Naaman came to humility before God—he even had to accept advice from his own servants to be healed. The lectionary reading cuts off about halfway through the story, but if you read through the rest of the fifth chapter of Second Kings, including the tidbit about Elisha’s servant Gehazi, you’ll see that the point is further reinforced—we receive life and health only as the gift of God, and we can only see that by becoming humble.

The Epistle and Gospel lessons are also about humility—Jesus sent out pairs of disciples to make the way ready for him: “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals …say ‘Peace with this house’. Don’t move around, eat what is put before you, cure the sick who are there, and tell them, the kingdom of God has come near to you.” It’s not a grand strategy of changing the world: 35 pairs of people in these little towns, maybe even in a single household, attending to what is right there before them. The Kingdom of God is not a proposal for comprehensive solutions to every problem, but humble attention to what is put before us. In living in their humility, the disciples discovered tremendous things, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” Without fear and with nothing to lose, miraculous things could and did happen. Jesus’ response is: “I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing will hurt you.” Of course this has resulted in people deciding that this means that should handle poisonous snakes in their worship services, rather than understanding that this is the setup for the concluding part of Jesus statement: “…do not rejoice, at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” The Kingdom of God, which the disciples experienced in humbly receiving and giving hospitality, that is the important reality—casting out of demons and so forth is but a consequence.

It has been twenty years since South Africa adopted its first democratic constitution, complete with a bill of rights. Nelson Mandela, whose strength as a leader was forged in humility, is now near death. As we remember this past week the declaration of our own country’s independence, we should remember that it takes great humility and strength to really understand the ideals of our country’s founding documents and still more to live them out.