Month: September 2016

For the birds

A sermon for the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (and remembering St. Francis of Assisi)

October 2, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

We like to look to Jesus, and to St. Francis, for that matter, for comfort, for them to make us feel better. But in today’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook, he challenges his disciples… and us. The disciples say, “Lord! Increase our faith!”  Jesus’ answer is basically—“What are you talking about? You don’t need any more reason to trust God. If you just trusted a microscopic amount, huge things would happen.” He continues with an illustration from the duties of a slave. You aren’t entitled to some huge bonus, extra vacation and a testimonial dinner for just doing your ordinary job. Trusting God in difficult times, having mercy and patience with other human beings and being generous with our lives and our substance are just part of being responsible adults in this world. God expects it of us and the blessing of God’s mercy is not greater because we occasionally remember to do it.

That may sound grumpy, but the thing is, religious people can sometimes get self-congratulatory about their own virtue; puffed up over simple acts of generosity or kindness—and in doing so they neglect to see the goodness and generosity in others and fail to respect the holiness and integrity in those who receive their gifts. That is the last thing that Jesus wants of his disciples. God’s mercy is abundant for us—there is no sense in which anyone can say that they have done enough to deserve more than anyone else.

All of this is in keeping with a beloved feast we are celebrating today: the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, which we observe through the blessing of the animals.

Of all the people of the Middle Ages, Francis of Assisi was the most concerned with Jesus. His preaching and the preaching of his followers, the Franciscans, centered on stories and images of Jesus. This was quite a contrast both from the learned and abstract doctrinal teaching of the universities and the moralistic preaching of most parish clergy at the time. Francis saw many of the same things that Jesus did: the manipulation of rules and teaching by those with some wealth or authority for the sake of their own comfort, accompanied by the miserable suffering of the poor.

He embraced poverty—Lady Poverty, he called her—calling to mind the troubadour and courtly love traditions of his time. He was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, and as he embraced poverty and came into conflict with his father, he appeared in the public square before the Bishop of Assisi and a gathered crowd, and he removed all of his rich clothing, and left it there, walking out of the square naked.

Like Jesus, Francis was not particularly impressed by people who used their advantages to make themselves comfortable. Since most people are that way sometimes, Francis sometimes found it necessary to find a better audience. Very early in the time that Francis started his ministry of preaching, he saw a huge flock of birds in a tree, and he spoke to them in their simplicity, so that people might learn to be so simple:

francis-and-the-birds“My little sisters the birds, ye owe much to God, your Creator, and ye ought to sing his praise at all times and in all places, because he has given you liberty to fly about into all places; and though ye neither spin nor sew, he has given you a twofold and a threefold clothing for yourselves and for your offspring. Two of all your species he sent into the Ark with Noah that you might not be lost to the world; besides which, he feeds you, though ye neither sow nor reap. He has given you fountains and rivers to quench your thirst, mountains and valleys in which to take refuge, and trees in which to build your nests; so that your Creator loves you much, having thus favoured you with such bounties. Beware, my little sisters, of the sin of ingratitude, and study always to give praise to God.”

If the birds can be grateful, so should we. There is so much that we have been given: the gift of reason and of human love; of enough to eat, and the ability to give to others. Some of us have been blessed with the companionship of animals, creatures with personalities who give and receive affection. They are God’s creatures who bless us with their presence.

Let us give thanks to God for the blessing of their simplicity and their vitality. A little later we will have a blessing of the animals, and we pray for all animals to be well treated and well taken care of. We also pray for those who care for animals, that they may be blessed and be able to give good care to them. Please also remember the animals who have died and the families that have lost them. The place of such an animal in the life of a family or community is particularly noticed when they are gone. Let us be grateful to God for all these lives among us.

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A rich man

A sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 25, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

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

There is a deep irony to this last sentence of today’s Gospel. The Gospels are not written as mystery stories with a surprise ending. They are the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ who rose from the dead. This story that Jesus told is not about the dead, it is about the living. The story starts, “There was a rich man…”

monopoly-manA lot of the stories in the Gospel of Luke have those words:  The rich young man who asked Jesus how he might attain everlasting life, the rich man who tore down his granaries to build bigger ones, the rich man who had a steward, the rich tax collector Zacchaeus who followed Jesus. If you look at all of these stories, there is no particular animosity towards wealth or the wealthy—rich people certainly existed in the ancient world. But there weren’t that many, so why do they show up so often in the gospels?

In the Gospels, the stories are there to be readily understood, to make their point clear. And one thing that was clear in the ancient world was that if you were rich, you were free to act. As opposed to almost everyone else, whose lives were pretty much circumscribed, especially the slaves. There was, after all, very little of what we consider middle class in Jesus’ time. So it was only the rich who had almost total control over their lives and the choices they made, which is why the rich show up so often in Jesus’ stories – as examples of people who could choose to live responsible – or irresponsible lives.  And Jesus’ listeners could realize that they too, could take responsibility for their own choices.

Which means that these stories apply equally to us.

So Jesus is telling a story. A folk tale or a parable, really. It’s about a rich man and a beggar whose name is Lazarus. That is to say, a person responsible for his own actions and someone who was suffering and unable to take care of his own needs. The rich man is described as feasting sumptuously every day—that appeared to be the sum total of his occupation. In fact, the rich man isn’t even given a name because there isn’t anything to say about him beyond that he was only taking care of himself, and ignoring the needs of others, or, in this case, Lazarus. Even after the rich man dies and is begging Abraham for relief, he wants Lazarus to be used as a slave, to bring him water.

This story isn’t moralistic in the way we understand fables. It’s not saying that the rich man learned anything after he died and was in the same miserable condition as Lazarus. Look what he does: He asks for the servant to return from the dead to warn the members of his family about his heritage or legacy. He still gives not one whit for Lazarus the beggar, nor the people of Israel – he cares only for himself and his own. And there’s no reason to believe that the brothers he wants warned were any different. They weren’t going to change and respect the warning of Lazarus—even if a man were raised from the dead.

This story is about the respect of the living for the living. The prophets spoke to Israel about justice, about respect for the poor and the weak. The books of Moses spoke about respect for the strangers living in the land. The rich man in this story had no excuse – because of his wealth he was fully responsible for his actions. His lack of compassion was his own, it was not forced by God or by circumstances. Yet somehow he behaved as if it was. “Let Lazarus bring me water.” “Send Lazarus to warn my brothers.” As if some special personal warning would guide them to take care of their interests, as if God owed them those things that they denied to other human beings, as if their only problem was a lack of information. This man’s life was impoverished because he lacked compassion and mercy, the basic building blocks of an abundant spiritual life. He was free and able to avail himself of all the generosity of God, the wisdom of the Torah and the passion of the prophets, but instead he looked to himself, to his own self-centered benefit—and ultimately, self-pity. There was no magic solution, some astonishing miracle was not going to change that.

This story is deeply ironic. Jesus WAS raised from the dead. But it is not the impressiveness of the miracle that makes that significant, it is the depth of his compassion. Jesus faced death—suffered death as a free person with compassion to all, even his executioners. His resurrection is the compassion of God for all of us. His mercy and compassion do away with indignity, and indifference. We are one in Christ, let us do away with indignity and indifference, and respect all those, even those most different from us, with the mercy and compassion of Jesus.

 

Mammon, Inc.

A sermon for the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 18, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

Today’s gospel reading is well known among preachers as one of the hardest of Jesus’ parables to interpret and preach on. Part of that is because people often think that Jesus’ parables are allegories where one of the characters is God; and another piece is that we often expect Jesus’ stories to be moralistic and tell people how to behave. Today’s parable proves that those things aren’t always true. Jesus’ stories are about the real world of human experience. There is nothing particularly moral about anybody in this story and the rich man is definitely NOT God. Let’s step back a bit and just listen to the story as a story. It’s easy enough to retell this in a contemporary idiom:

There was a CEO of a very large company, a national or international concern that makes a lot of money in many ways. big-short It came to his attention that one of his regional or divisional managers was not doing so well. The manager had been there a long time and had a very good salary, but unlike the rest of the company, this manager’s area of responsibility was on the decline—accounts were being cancelled and going to competitors, market share was declining, revenue was down while at the same time expenses were up.  Something was wrong. It probably wasn’t criminal—an embezzler would cover his tracks better. The CEO sends a message notifying the manager that there would be a Special Review of that division’s performance. The manager in question didn’t just fall off the turnip truck—he knew what that meant. In this company, a Special Review meant the end for the manager. And usually those Reviews were used to document how to justify eliminating most of the severance and bonus eligibility for the manager on the way out.  He still had kids in college, lots of expenses and it was way too early to retire.  And the job market at his level for people his age was none too good, especially because his most notable achievements were years ago.

So our manager considers his situation. And he comes up with a plan. He finds the most important of the accounts that his division oversees and he goes to see the person in charge of each one. I can’t say the specifics of what he worked out with them. It may well have involved criminal actions—it certainly violated the terms of his employment arrangements with his company. In a few days, he had made personal and professional arrangements that were so advantageous to the clients that they made consulting arrangements with him that guaranteed enough income for his kids to get through college and for him to reach retirement with at least as good a situation as he would have had if he had served his time with the company without being fired.

When it came time for the Special Review, the CEO could see what had happened, at least in outline. In all likelihood, the company would decide not to get investigators involved in the details of its operations and finances, and its attorneys would simply work to contain the damage and keep the manager from expanding his advantage. They wouldn’t necessarily be pleasant, but they weren’t going to be able to recover much either.

The CEO shakes his head, and says to the manager, “Wow! If you had been this creative and aggressive for the company for the past five years, I would have put you in charge of a lot more!”

That’s how I read the end of the parable when it says, “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” Jesus tells a realistic story about his time, which is exactly parallel to this modern story. Nobody in the story is a moral exemplar—each person was out for his own advantage.

Jesus is talking to his disciples. He says, look—even out there, the unrighteous find ways to adapt, they find ways to get done what is important, when to take a risk to achieve a goal. The manager who had been indolent and wasteful and complacent was not shrewd or commended by either the CEO or by Jesus.  The children of light are sometimes just that complacent thinking that the life of faith is a passive thing; that loving sisters and brothers can be done by just letting someone else do it; that somehow being forgiven takes away all responsibility for being resourceful and performing our best for the Kingdom of God.

There’s a word in today’s Gospel that occurs a couple of times and is translated as “wealth,” or “money.” It’s actually a Hebrew word that is nonetheless used in the Greek gospels: Mammon. Mammon is a word that doesn’t appear in the Old Testament but it’s found in several other Hebrew texts. It means property, or assets. It has a neutral connotation in itself. Of course when you look at the dealings of this manager, you are looking at “unjust Mammon.” The priorities of the CEO and the manager were indeed Mammon. They were shrewd and efficient in how they dealt with it, and obtained it—the point at which the CEO decided to call in the Manager to discipline him was when he was not shrewd and efficient with the Mammon entrusted to him. His later faithfulness to Mammon was what got the CEO’s admiration.

Jesus is bringing the Kingdom of God, the love of God, the fellowship of God. And his expectations of his disciples with regard to what is entrusted to them—that is to say what is entrusted to us—are not less than the CEO’s expectations of that divisional manager of Mammon, Inc. Jesus’ expectations are far higher, to serve the Kingdom of Love with shrewdness and single-minded commitment. To live, without counting the cost for ourselves, but rather the benefit for the children of God.

At the end of the lesson, Jesus makes it clear that the priorities of the CEO and the Manager are not those of the Kingdom of God. We are the slaves of God, not of wealth: “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon.”

There is a collect from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, that brings this all together. Let us pray.

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who declarest they glory and showest forth thy handiwork in the heavens and in the earth. Deliver us, we beseech thee, in our several callings, from the service of mammon, that we may do the work which thou givest us to do, in truth, in beauty, and in righteousness, with singleness of heart as thy servants, and to the benefit of our fellow men; for the sake of him who came among us as one that serveth, thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Lost Sheep

A sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 11, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“Which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

The Gospel today is the Parable of the Lost Sheep. Not many of us have herded sheep, though I remember a couple of days of sheep shearing on my grandfather’s farm. Jesus could count on more of the people who listened to him understanding what was involved in being a shepherd. A hundred sheep was a pretty good-sized band for one person, and it would account for the bulk of that person’s assets and income.

sheep-on-hillsideA shepherd would take the sheep out into open country to graze—generally that land didn’t belong to the shepherd, it was just open country and he made his living by finding grass and water so that the sheep could grow and reproduce so that there would be wool, and meat, and new lambs to replenish the flock or sell. The sentimental side—of how sweet or cuddly the lambs might be and how much he loves them—didn’t make that much difference to most shepherds, but tending these living creatures so that they thrived and were kept safe was the whole job—if the flock dwindled or did not grow, the shepherd failed to have enough to maintain himself or his family and there would not even be any food.

The shepherd had to protect the sheep from predators and thieves, so you didn’t just leave the sheep alone. But when one turns out to be missing, the shepherd has to take the risk to leave the bulk of the flock there grazing and go find that sheep.

I was the director of a theological library. I was a librarian for over 25 years. We had about 175,000 volumes in our library, but when it came to my attention that someone wanted a book and it was missing, I became a bit of a terror until it was found. I would set aside other projects and look—where the book should be on the shelf, where it might be in transit, where it would be likely to be mis-shelved, where it could be mis-processed, where it was last seen alive… until I was sadly satisfied that the book couldn’t be found and apologize to the person who needed the book. I usually found the book. Some might question the management efficiency of having the most highly-paid administrator using all of this time to search after a single book. However, we want students and researchers to expect that the books and other resources that we say we have will be there when they need them. It is not acceptable to not care about that. The integrity of the system hangs on caring about the important details. So it is with the shepherd and this one sheep.

I’ve read commentaries, probably written by people who haven’t actually herded sheep, that say that it was irresponsible or not a good risk for the shepherd to leave the flock alone while looking for the one. Yet the integrity of the herd was broken by missing that one, and the shepherd’s job was to restore that. The image is that the shepherd searches: diligently, intelligently and quickly and he sees that sheep. He walks up to it and picks it up and puts it on his shoulders—‘you aren’t wandering off any more today’—and then hurries back to the rest of the flock, hoping that nothing has gone wrong.

The shepherd has to care, that’s his job. That’s what Jesus is getting at in telling this story: God cares, and Jesus cares, and as Christ’s body, we have to care—that’s our job. The religious leaders and the lawyers were criticizing Jesus because he was hanging around with the wrong kind of people—he shouldn’t be caring about THOSE people. But for Jesus, it was precisely the people that nobody cared about who he was there for: the children, the disabled, the homeless, the ones that we would rather just let somebody else welcome.

Today is September 11.  Fifteen years ago, Paula and I vacated our apartment on Canal Street in New York a couple of months before that date to move to Washington, D.C.. I remember frequently looking out the back windows that framed the two towers of the World Trade Center. I have a friend whose view was of a fire station in midtown Manhattan. On September 11, he watched fire companies leave for the World Trade Center. That evening he saw the fire engines return without their crews. A member of our new church in Washington commanded a unit that had moved out of the affected part of the Pentagon only six weeks before.  It was a tearing event, a time of great loss. With an injury like that, you can’t just recover a lost item, or rebuild a building. The body must be healed, the integrity of the whole must be restored. That takes time. But it also takes the building of trust between people, knitting together the different sorts of people who make up a country like ours, and the body of Christ. Turning inward into groups in fearfulness and anger disrupts the healing process—it is the opposite of going to find that lost sheep and restoring the integrity of the flock.

The church doesn’t belong to us; it belongs to Christ. And it is important to Christ that everyone can expect welcome in his name whenever they enter one of his churches. No person and no congregation is insignificant, the Good Shepherd seeks us out, every one of us. And every one of us is called to care for all of Christ’s flock.

The Church of England, and The Sex In Sexuality

Wisdom from Beth Routledge, a physician and member of the Scottish Episcopal Church. She has put it better than I can.

The Road Less Travelled

The Church of England spent this last weekend finding that they have a gay bishop in their midst, and then by turns tearing its hair out about it and pretending to be completely relaxed about it.

Late on Friday, the news broke on the Guardian website that the Bishop of Grantham, the Right Reverend Nicholas Chamberlain, had given an interview to Harriet Sherwood about his sexuality and his relationship by way of pre-empting a Sunday newspaper that had threatened to out him. He is a gay man, and he is in a long-term relationship that he describes in the most positive of terms: “It is faithful, it is loving, we are like-minded, we enjoy each other’s company, and we share each other’s life.” It is also sexually abstinent — a requirement of all clergy in the Church of England in same-sex relationships, although not of clergy in opposite-sex relationships.

And…

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Come-go down to the potter’s house

A sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost

St. James Church, Lincoln, California

“Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.”

The prophet Jeremiah was invited by God to observe a potter at his work. We might expect this to be an image of the potter lovingly crafting a pot, gradually smoothing it into the desired and perfected shape. Certainly that’s the implication of some popular religious songs about the potter and the clay.  But is that what Jeremiah saw? The potter Clay_Mixing_for_Potterywas working on the vessel, something didn’t go right, and the potter smashed it down, destroyed it and started over on something new. Not nearly as comfortable an image as we might expect.  And these are the words of the Lord to Jeremiah:

“At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good thing that I had intended to do to it.”

God is free, and won’t be played for a fool. In the imagination of our hearts, we may think that God has promised us things will be a certain way.  But at any point, the Divine Potter may look at that vessel, that vessel of our imagination, take it, smash it, form it back into a lump and start something new.  God is not to be controlled by human expectations.

This can be frightening in many ways because what it means it that we are not protected from God.

Two sociologists interviewed teenagers about their religious beliefs and found that, for many of these young people, their belief system boiled down to: One has the right in life to be happy and to feel good about yourself and we don’t need God’s presence unless we need a problem solved. Many modern adults ascribe to a similar theory of religion. But that’s not what this passage from Jeremiah is telling us.

What this text is saying is that God is faithful to God’s mercy and justice. God is sovereign in bestowing grace. God promises good, and that good is a gift. But grace is not a right, it is a free gift of a free God. We can’t manipulate God into a corner.

There’s a movie, written and directed by Kevin Smith, entitled Dogma. It’s a comedy, with a well-earned “R” rating, in which a couple of fallen angels have learned that the Catholic Church in New Jersey has set up a plenary indulgence so that any person who enters one particular church building will have her or his sins forgiven and will go to heaven.  These fallen angels figure that if they can get there, have their wings removed so that they become mortal and enter the church, they will go to Heaven, despite God’s eternal decree assigning them to Hell. The film maker is actually leading his audience into a serious reflection on the meaning of the Gospel, even though there was quite a bit of horrified reaction from certain ends of the religious spectrum when the film came out.

But these angels—they were trying to game God. Their premise was that God was rigidly bound by every pronouncement. You’ll have to watch the movie to see how it works out in the movie, but in the real world, God will not be gamed. It is only God’s love meeting human repentance that remains in the end.  It surprises us, who God loves. It certainly surprised the princes of Judah, when Jeremiah told them that their enemies were forgiven.

Jesus surprises us. He turns to the crowds, who are expecting him to be nice and to talk about nothing but love, and he says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” There is no avoiding that this is an intense statement.  When Jesus uses the word, “hate” it is the opposite of the word, “love”. However, we moderns tend to always default to thinking of “love” and “hate” as matters of feeling, indeed of personal feelings. But love is a matter of behavior.

A renowned scholar puts it this way: “The terms denote attitude and modes of action, not emotions. The point is not how one feels toward parents and family but one’s effective attitude when it comes to a choice for the kingdom.”[i] Jesus is the embodiment of the compassion of God. We are invited into that compassion. But that invitation is not to go along with the crowds, or a political party or faction, or our own neighbors and family. The invitation is to accompany Jesus—and his life defines compassion, not any of those other things. Jesus walks with us into the truth of the free God. That freedom has its cost, as the parables about the tower builder and the king going to war that end today’s Gospel lesson indicate. A Christian life in the world in which we live involves loss, suffering and sacrifice and with Jesus, we accept that squarely, without trying to avoid it, or push the consequences away, leaving others to endure the consequences.

The promise of God is God’s mercy, his mercy to all. The Gospel is God’s freedom that sets us free. Manipulation and scheming are of no use. We are free of the need to make excuses, or to make ourselves look like we are the ones who are in the right. We do not know how things will come out—we live in the freedom of God. What we do know is that God is the God of Love. God’s mercy extends beyond our imaginations. But wherever we suffer or doubt, God’s mercy is there for us.

 

[i] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 229, n. 26.