Mercy

Traveling light

 A sermon for the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 17, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

People often base their ideas about the Bible on rumors they have overheard, or popular prejudices, or images they have seen based on those things rather than paying attention to the biblical text itself. So the Israelites cross the Red Sea and we envision Charlton Heston in Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments. The sudden parting of the sea with walls as straight and plumb as we see on those steps that Dan Holzli has been fixing outside our kitchen, with ground in between so dry that a hygrometer would read zero moisture. And we hear about the chariots and we see the same Charlton Heston in the Roman chariot race in Ben Hur. These images—great film images as they may be—get in the way of hearing the story as it is.

The chariots of the Egyptians—1500 years before the Romans began racing with their own version of chariots—those Egyptian chariots carried a crew of at least two, perhaps three or four, with a driver and archers meant to chase down scattered soldiers or fleeing Israelites.

Here is the text:

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land, and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.’ Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.”

It’s still pretty miraculous but the imagery is less like a conjuror’s trick and more like a stormy night during a war. One little linguistic note—the term that gets translated as Red Sea, is more accurately rendered Sea of Reeds, and might refer to a swampy lake which existed until the Suez Canal was dug through that area. In any case, the wind blew all night and the Israelites walked across on the ground that was exposed. You may note that in the account of the Passover that was read last week, the Israelites were traveling extremely light and quickly. Dry ground for them was not measured by a hygrometer, but that it was firm enough to walk across. The Egyptians were armed heavily, their chariots the equivalent of a Bradley fighting vehicle, but with narrow iron tires. To accomplish their aims of overtaking the fleeing slaves and wiping them out with arrows and swords, they needed those vehicles, so they pursued across the mud flats in the dark.  They were panicked and weighed down by all their equipment, and it was too late to turn around and get to safety. They found themselves unable to achieve their goal of dominating or killing this group of foreigners who had been in their midst. Stuck in the mud, they died as the storm ended and the water returned to its normal place.

The Israelites, who were pretty ordinary people, by the way, as we find in looking at their history for the next forty years after this point and going forward… the Israelites were led by God across the sea to safety and freedom. Moses was their leader, but he didn’t look like Charlton Heston. In particular, he didn’t speak with the brash confidence of Charlton Heston.  Moses had some sort of speech impediment or perhaps severe shyness. He couldn’t speak much in public or argue in debates with the Egyptian leaders. He had to rely on his brother to do the talking for him. Moses had to rely on God’s guidance, the guidance of God’s love, not on his own brilliance or strength.

In following where God led, the Israelites had to travel light. You may remember last week’s reading from Exodus: at the Passover, as the Israelites were preparing to be brought out of the land of Egypt by the Lord, they were fully clothed, with sandals and walking staff and cooked their bread in haste, without leavening it, so that they would not be held back by all things that people usually convince themselves that they need.  They followed the Lord along with Moses, and led by the cloud, they crossed the Red Sea without getting bogged down in the mud.

In the Egyptians with their chariots, we see how people are often bogged down … with selfishness, violence … seeking to get the upper hand over others.  Last week, I gave a bit of a spoiler about today’s Gospel lesson. These lessons are always intertwining.  This King had a major audit of his books and the first slave he brings in, somehow owes him ten thousand talents.  I looked up what a talent was—it was a measure that was about a cubic foot, and when it is money, it is a talent of gold or maybe silver. 10,000 cubic feet, that’s a lot of silver.  That amount would have been enough to keep a legion in the field for several years in those days.  So Jesus is using a bit of hyperbole, but he’s deadly serious—this man, though he was forgiven a debt larger than anyone could conceive of repaying, immediately turned around and treated the first poor fool to come along with great brutality. Talk about stuck in the mud of his own violence and selfishness—perhaps that has something to do with how he got into such great debt in the first place.

God has given us another path. With Jesus, we can travel light by living in his compassion with his courage. In this world of ours, we can feel like we’re burdened with ten-thousand talents of debt—it’s tempting to try to hold on, focus on the loss of all that, figure out how to make our chariot run through the mud so that we can win. But in Jesus, we see something else, generosity, not winning; compassion not cruelty; sacrifice for the sake of others, not fear.

I have just recently arrived here at Calvary. But what I have experienced is a community of caring and mutual support, people who care deeply about their children and young people overall. We live in hope because Christ is alive—not burdened by fear of death, or the ghost of ten thousand talents, but traveling light. Our job together is to explore and discover who we are as Christ’s community here in Flemington and then to listen and watch for where God is leading us.  As they were led by the pillar of cloud and fire, we are led and protected by the cross of Christ, and we discern it in the love of God, in God’s generosity and peace.

Let’s pray once again our collect for today:

O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

Advertisements

Not an ideal, but a divine community

A sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, September 10, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.

If you take today’s Gospel lesson by itself, in isolation, it looks like an outline of a dispute resolution manual for litigation in the church. It’s often approached that way, but I think that is a big mistake. This lesson is the middle of the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. In this chapter, Jesus’ disciples ask him the question, “who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” and he responds by pointing out the humility of a small child. Not only is the child a model for us all, but “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

This chapter is about God’s welcome and God’s mercy. Today’s lesson is sandwiched between the Parable of the Lost Sheep—where the shepherd leaves his flock to go search for the single missing sheep—and the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant—where the servant is pardoned of a great crime and a great debt but then turns around and brutally deals with another servant who owed him a small amount.

The context of today’s gospel is illustrations of God’s compassion and the life of compassion—of Jesus’ expectation of generosity of spirit and energy, and of the ugly consequences of selfishness and a lack of mercy. In case you’re not familiar with the story, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant ends thus: “ ‘Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.”

So this passage is about life in the community of mercy and compassion. It’s about including the little ones who might be lost, overlooked or put to the side. When Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you…” he’s not giving instructions on how to find the sinners and put them to right; he’s not setting as a goal tossing out all the bad people who make life miserable—what Jesus is talking about here is living together in God’s mercy.

I’ve been reading a little book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Life Together.  It is about life in Christian community. Bonhoeffer writes:

Christian community is not an ideal, but a divine reality. Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it.  But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams.

God’s grace—in other words, it is the gift of God that our community is filled with imperfect people, people definitely in need of God’s mercy, and it is the gift of God that our overly perfect expectations are shattered, leaving the real community in its place. There is no Christian who is not in need of compassion—from God, and from our sisters and our brothers.  Those who think their goal should be to be so perfect or self-sufficient as to not need compassion will find themselves frustrated, disappointed, embarrassed and unhappy. And if there is someone who thinks they have no need of forgiveness or compassion, that is a very serious problem indeed, for them or anyone whose lives are affected by them.

So when Jesus says, “… go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” it’s not about identifying who is in the wrong, who is the sinner, who is the bad person. It is not about that at all, it is a matter of honesty among the sinners in God’s community, of communicating clearly about hurts and offenses taken. Sometimes that communication is hard or frightening, and it takes another—someone outside the relationship, someone to help communication or provide support when getting truth told is a daunting prospect.  This passage frankly acknowledges that there might be situations where relationships are so badly damaged and trust so ruptured that reconciliation won’t take place. It is clear that such things happened in the churches we know about from the New Testament and historically in every age. But Jesus is not looking for a community where there will be no disagreements or hurts. Quite the opposite, Jesus creates a community where there will be hurts and breaches of trust, and in his presence they will be healed. We are called to be the mercy of Christ and it takes real work to live that honestly and compassionately.

The lectionary chops the lessons in some odd ways sometimes, and today is one of them. Today’s lesson is followed by the parable of the Unmerciful Servant—one who asserted his rights in a brutal and uncompassionate way—a warning to those who would cleave to the values of this world rather than the mercy of God’s Kingdom. But the ending of todays’ lesson is interrupted.  Here’s how the section ends in the Gospel of Matthew:

“Again, Amen I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name. I am among them. Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’”

Then Jesus launches directly into the parable I just mentioned. It’s on good authority that we constantly misunderstand this lesson. St. Peter himself wants to limit the mercy in the community to a certain number of offenses before you’re tossed. Jesus’ response is basically to shake his head—No! Not just a number of times you can count—seventy-seven! (Some manuscripts actually say seventy times seven—perhaps he really meant seven to the seventieth power.) We are held fast in the community of God’s mercy. The realities of sins, missteps or offenses do not break the fabric of that divine community—we are blessed to live in the honesty of Christ’s mercy.  St. Paul says it this way in today’s epistle:

“You know what time it is, how it is now the time for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day.”

I’m very happy to join with all of you here at Calvary.  As we walk together in the light we will focus on Jesus and how he leads us into the compassion of God. Church is not about the priest, or program, or success. It is about our lives being incorporated into the mercy of God in the real world.

In your compassion, there is a lot to remember this week in that world: remember on the anniversary of September 11th, those who died sixteen years ago in the World Trade Center and those who still mourn them; remember also those in harm’s way at this time, including those suffering from the earthquake in Mexico, the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana, and those suffering from Hurricane Irma which is now passing through Florida. Trust in God, and hold God’s children in your hearts.

You would uproot the Wheat along with the Weeds

A sermon for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 23, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

“In gathering the weeds, you would uproot the wheat along with them.”

So the scene is the same as last week’s gospel. Jesus is still out on the boat, talking to the same people he as talking to on the beach about seeds. As the story continues, the field is planted, and inexplicably, there are all sorts of weeds growing among the grain. The word for “weed” refers to something similar to what we called, “cheat grass” where I grew up. It resembles grain, except it’s inedible for people and gives little sustenance to livestock. But you can’t easily see the difference between it and grain until it starts to blossom and grow its seed. By then it has developed a root system that is much more extensive and stronger than wheat.

The servants see the problem—weeds! Invasive weeds, taking up the soil and nutrients and water! Bad thing, we must do something! Just like everybody else, they see a problem, get anxious about it, and jump to a solution. The farmer, however, looks with the eye of experience. The weeds are going to reduce his yield, there is no doubt. But if these weeds are pulled up now, the grain will be removed at a greater rate than the weeds, and the yield will go down to zero. During this cycle, the number of weeds is the number of weeds, leaving them won’t result in more, so leave them. We will get the wheat that ripens—we will deal with the weeds when there is wheat to harvest. The fruit of the wheat field will nourish people, provide bread, be sold to supply for the needs of the farmer’s household. A superabundance of weeds is only one of the ordinary calamities that typically face farmers; that make a situation that promises easy abundance into difficulty and privation. The farmer waits and judges the ripeness of the wheat. At the right time the weeds are pulled out and separated from the nourishing crop. There is a big bonfire, getting rid of the nuisance and the waste. Then the remaining wheat is gathered—and there is food for all.

So why is this, as Jesus said, like the Kingdom of Heaven?  Note first of all that this is a real-world situation—we expect a beautiful, uniform field of wheat, growing perfectly, moving from green in the springtime, to golden at harvest—but what we get is disrupted by weeds and other occurrences, that are just not ideal. I’ve been reading a little book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Life Together.  It is about life in Christian community. Bonhoeffer writes:

Christian community is not an ideal, but a divine reality. Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it.  But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams.

God’s grace—in other words, it is the gift of God that our community is filled with imperfect people, people definitely in need of God’s mercy and it is the gift of God that our overly perfect expectations are shattered, leaving the real community in its place. And the Kingdom of God happens in the real world, a world with difficulties and disappointments.  And indeed, some of those things that happen are evil, or are the result of evil.  So, we don’t just say that whatever happens is fine, or certainly not that it is the will of God. We stand up to evil for the sake of the good of others. But we don’t go around weeding out imperfections, as if every annoyance or imperfection was evil.

Those servants were very anxious about those weeds. That’s understandable—the weeds were going to reduce the yield and make them look like they weren’t doing their job properly. But acting on that anxiety could have been utter disaster, resulting in a long winter with little or no food available. In living with imperfection and disappointment the community grows and shares in God’s love. And when evil—that is to say those forces that hurt and destroy the children of God through selfishness, fear or hatred—when evil afflicts such a community, the love of that community gives it the courage and resilience to respond and repel the evil and to be a source of life for God’s children.

I’m not convinced that the ending of this lesson, with its apocalyptic allegory, fits with Jesus’ original story. It’s a bit annoying that the framers of the lectionary left out the two intervening parables so that the interpretation naively appears to be a part of the story. In the Gospel of Matthew, the story of the weeds is followed by the Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Parable of the Yeast. Then the party breaks up and Jesus goes into the house with his disciples where they ask for more explanation.  That literary break is very important—we move from the public ministry of Jesus to the organized teaching of the disciples—that is to say, the church of Matthew’s day.  In the Matthew Gospel, the problematic weeds are evil people, reflecting the intense conflicts of the church in the last decades of the first century.  But still, note this: the ambiguity is the same. It is not up to the disciples or the children of the kingdom to decide and separate the weeds and the wheat—it is angels that do the reaping at the end of the age. Until then we grow together.  As for the consequences of evil being a furnace of fire with weeping and gnashing of teeth… if you claim the right to be truly and unrepentantly evil, hurting and destroying the children of God… well … we all take our chances, don’t we?

However, this story is not about punishment or destruction. It is about the challenge of life in the real world. Life in Christ is life in hope—a community that shares life and finds life in the mercy that God has for each of us, for all of God’s children.

St. Paul is addressing this in this morning’s epistle:

When we cry, “Abba! Father!” It is that Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact we suffer with him that we may also be glorified with him.

 

That reference, to “Abba” may in fact be the earliest reference we have to the Lord’s Prayer—the prayer Jesus gave his disciples—we are disciples in being God’s children: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Paul did not address idyllic and perfect Christian communities, he wrote to churches who experienced conflict or suffering. And he continues:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now, and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

We are God’s people, gathered here. Our hope is in the divine reality of a community gathered in diversity and imperfection, discovering God’s mercy together.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of you Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

My Yoke is Easy

A sermon for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 9, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

“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 my burden is light.”

Those of us who grew up long ago in the Episcopal Church recognize the first part of this as the “Comfortable Words” that were said right after the confession and absolution every week in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer communion service. Sometimes they are said in the Rite I Eucharist. When I think about it, it is very appropriate to hear these words every week—Jesus says who he is for everyone—I will give you rest—my yoke is easy. The Gospel is good news for everyone; you don’t have to be one of the elite. His yoke is easy, and you don’t have to be a great mystic exercising ascetic discipline, you don’t have to be smart or well educated, you don’t even need to be as well-off as your neighbors, or as good as you expect yourself to be. “Come to me”—Jesus welcomes each one, and refreshes us all, particularly in our harried, too fast, too many expectations contemporary existence.

All of us need to hear that regularly, and anybody who thinks they have outgrown it or is too advanced to need it, is probably mistaken. That’s what Jesus says to us, but what do we say to one another? The top of today’s Gospel lesson has a pretty good summary: Jesus compares the current generation – I think the current generation 2,000 years ago was probably not measurably different than the generation we are in – he compares them to bratty kids in the market place, who complain whether somebody dances or whether they mourn. Nothing is ever good enough or satisfactory. Sometimes it’s noted how mean kids can be, I’ve certainly seen it and even been on the receiving end of it when I was a child. However, people don’t actually outgrow that, they just get better at concealing it, though maybe not, if you spend much time on Twitter or Facebook.

Jesus points out that religious people were the same way with John the Baptist and with him. John was a scary prophet, who spent a lot of his time fasting, praying and calling people to repentance. Rather than listening to him, those who represented themselves as religious said, “Oh, he has a demon, and besides I don’t like his choice of clothes.” Jesus, on the other hand, spent a lot of time enjoying people, extending hospitality and accepting hospitality from others. The same people responded, “Way too much partying here, and those people he welcomes are just not the right kind of people.”

Jesus’ words are comfortable and simple: Come to me—Everyone! Rest with me awhile. But people, often those who claim to be the very ones to whom Jesus is extending his invitation, will find ways to make those words complicated and definitely uncomfortable, especially for those who are not the right kind of people.

Someone once said, “Since we know that at least one homeless person will come in glory to judge the living and the dead, we ought to be careful about the way we treat the rest of them.” People like to draw circles around themselves and have some people inside the circle and others outside. But Jesus makes it hard for us to get away with that kind of thing. For one thing, he had the very characteristics that people of his time—and some still in our time—would use to exclude him. He was a Jew, he hung around with sinners and, in regard to sinners, he was an equal opportunity offender: tax collectors and political collaborators, the poor and the zealot anti-Roman insurrectionists, the prostitutes and the Pharisees, the widows and centurions were all people with whom Jesus shared hospitality and his life.

Jesus leads us into a realm that includes possibilities that we resist, and welcome that we often can’t believe. Thus he said,

“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”

Beyond our power and planning, the Kingdom of God is built by the innocence of infants, yet includes even the arrogant and the fearful, and others who are not as welcoming as Jesus. It even includes our political opponents and those who are clearly mistaken. For all of us are called in those comfortable words:

“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 my burden is light.”

For the saints of God are just folk like me …

A sermon for All Saints Sunday, November 6, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

 

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

 

st-james-saintsToday we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. So what do we mean by Saints? The word “saint” means “Holy” as in holy people. Popularly that’s sort of understood as meaning that saints are some kind of Christian super-heroes, totally divorced and apart from anything that ordinary people could be, or would want to be. I’ll talk more about that later. But in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament, the saints are all of the holy people of God, and every one of them is made holy, not by being some sort of hero, but by the action of God who makes all of us holy through his Son Jesus Christ.

The Gospel lesson today is for and about those saints, ordinary people, living ordinary lives. It is the beginning of Jesus’ teaching: in the Gospel of Matthew it’s called the Sermon on the Mount, but here in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has come down from the mountain to a flat plain—maybe it’s a sermon to California’s Central Valley? Anyway, this part of it is called the Beatitudes—the blessings, or the description of those who are blessed. Sometimes people take these Beatitudes one at a time, but really, taken together they are Jesus’ outline of the spirituality of the Christian life.

So why does it start “Blessed are the poor?” Who are the poor? — They are those who have little or nothing left to lose. The more that people and organizations have that they might lose, the more afraid they become of risking those things for the sake of the Kingdom of God. But it is the Kingdom of God that gives life, not the things that we might have lost or might lose.

Likewise, those who are hungry. They don’t have enough to eat—they have to seek out that food—and really, in this world, sometimes people do not find it. It is for them that Jesus is concerned—in the Kingdom of God they will be satisfied.

And in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus emphasizes these things by pronouncing woe on those who are the opposite: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.”  For those of us who are well-fed and not poor, that can be difficult to hear.

Jesus does not allow us to take comfort in our complacency or to fail to respect those who are hungry or poor just as we respect ourselves.

This is not to say that we should not rejoice in the good things that God has given us, and when we lose important things or people who are dear to us that we should not mourn. “Blessed are those who weep now, for you will laugh.” There is no one who does not lose: friends, loved ones, and hopes that are deeply valued—we are blessed during our tears by the compassion of God.  We mourn and we hurt. The comfort that God gives does not take that hurt away, or explain away our sorrow. God comforts us by traveling the road with us, healing our hurts and giving mercy. Our Christian spirituality takes seriously the losses of everyone; of every person. Laughter and derision because we are not the ones who are in pain or loss—that kind of laughter brings woe. It is not of the Kingdom of God.

And the last of the beatitudes: “Blessed are you when people hate you, exclude you or revile you…” This completes the Christian spirituality that Jesus is presenting—it is so easy to fall into presenting ourselves in ways that will get a positive response, regardless of whether it is compassionate, or truthful. Insisting on respect for all people; regarding the poor and hungry as the same as the rich, the powerful, and the popular; doing those things openly can be frightening, they can trigger all sorts of responses, even hatred.  Just ask Jesus. But believe me, Jesus is not the only example.

How do we live our lives as Christians? He says, “Love your enemies, do good to those that hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” In the New Testament, and especially in the Gospel of Luke, Love is not about how you feel. How do you love your enemies? Do good to those who hate you. Seek to improve the world around you, don’t be deterred by the scoffing of others. As we struggle to find just a little bit of justice or righteousness in the church or in the world, we would become embittered and lost, were it not for God’s mercy to us, guiding us into the path of being merciful human beings. For who can be just or righteous in this world? It is certainly not those who are always convinced of their own rightness. It is in dwelling in that mercy that we can approach pureness in our heart and mind, perhaps getting a glimpse of what God has in store.

Jesus invites us all, not to some sort of heroic sainthood, but to a holiness of life that values his kingdom above all else. Many of the saints we remember were martyrs—St. Sebastian is one and, more recently Archbishop Oscar Romero, are a couple who come to mind. Not all saints, however, died for their faith, the word martyrs is a translation of the word “witness” or “confessor.” We often think of them as somehow having religious superpowers. But in reality they were not superheroes—they were Christian people. There are many that you run into each day that are just as good, just as faithful. The real characteristic of saints is that they continue to seek the kingdom with Jesus—even when, to put it in down-to-earth terms—they had a really bad day. And, because of the circumstances of their holding fast to their faith in a time of great trouble, or because they were such eloquent witnesses to the faith—or both—they have been enshrined through the ages.

But what does all this mean to us in our church here in our present-day world?

I often think about the small Episcopal Church I attended when I was a kid in Idaho. This church had no important programs, no fine choir, not much to brag about. But we did sing out of the hymnal, and it was that music, as poorly performed as it might have been, that sustained my spirit through the years. One of my favorite hymns in my childhood was the one we just sang for the gospel hymn. Perhaps the text may seem limited to early twentieth century England, but for me the images emphasize how ordinary people participate in that great cloud of witnesses that is the communion of saints: “for the saints of God are just folk like me and I mean to be one too.”

Together, we are the community of Jesus’ saints. Not superheroes or champions. Every bit as scruffy and in need of support as the homeless, the hungry and the infirm who we might encounter. Together we worship God. Together we serve the saints, and even serve those who scoff at the saints. Each of us, may from time to time be hungry, impoverished, unable to love, or be devastated by loss. At St. James, we live the Gospel, in all the real-world messiness that entails. This small assembly in the communion of saints upholds one another, welcomes the stranger and is blessed by God’s mercy in Jesus Christ.

This Sunday, our stewardship committee has asked all of us saints to commit ourselves to the support of this community where Christ accomplishes his blessing far more than any of us would be able to do individually.

After the announcements we will begin our offertory by asking each person or family to bring forward your pledge card and put it on the altar. Each person’s financial circumstances are different. We are all blessed in our poverty and in our generosity. As we all offer what we have on the altar, we are blessed by God.

 

They were righteous and regarded others with contempt?

A sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, October 23, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other…”

When we hear today’s parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector, praying in the temple, it’s enough to make us think, “Wow, I’m glad I’m not a Pharisee!”

So who were the Pharisees?

They were the devout. They were those who were regular in attendance at worship. They observed pious practices and sought to purify their lives in accord with the commands of scripture. (The most likely derivation of the word “Pharisee” is from the word for “pure”).

The Pharisees pledged and paid their pledge. They attended parish meetings and volunteered for committees. They really cared about their religious faith.

They were just like us.

Christians sometimes miss that. As St. Luke introduces this parable: “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

Regarded others with contempt. There is nothing further from Christian values than to regard others with contempt. Any time that we baptize new Christians we all promise to “respect the dignity of every human being.” Without that respect, there is no growth in a Christian church, no matter what anyone says. It is tempting to regard others with contempt, particularly in the current political climate of our country.  So how is it with the Pharisee in this parable? He says, “God, I thank you…” That part is good—all good is from God and we should always live our lives as thanksgiving and give voice to God in thanks as much as possible. He continues, “… that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers …”

Hmmm. He is NOT like other people. And he makes a long list in ways he’s not like other people. Included in that list are behaviors that most of us agree are bad behaviors such as theft, unrighteousness and adultery. So that makes the Pharisee irreproachable—because he’s not a thief, unrighteous or an adulterer.

Fair enough, but now, the parable tells us that the Pharisee mentions the man standing next to him with contempt. That man, the tax collector of the story, is standing there and what is he saying? Unlike the Pharisee, he isn’t separating himself from others or categorizing others by their behavior. He says: “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”

I look around our country, and what I hear is people defending themselves by accusation, of categorizing others according to their sins or imagined sins. I myself have been angry from time to time, and in that anger characterized others as the unrighteous and myself and my friends as the righteous. That does not lead to healing or the resolution of the situation. For me, healing only comes through reaching out to others in compassion, hearing the pain and complexity in their lives, and encouraging others in the abundance of God’s mercy.  That’s usually a long process if trust has been broken between people. It also doesn’t mean that we have to give up on our deeply-held positive values.  In some situations where trust has really been broken, the life of compassion has to be developed elsewhere, with others, not directly and quickly with those we have been in conflict.  But it is not through accusation that we find the truth, but through sharing in the mercy of God, of trying to understand the struggles and suffering of others.

praying-aloneThe tax collector was well aware of how things were in his life. It wasn’t just that others despised tax collectors because they were associated with the Roman rule and got substantial income and privilege from their work. The tax collector also knew of the pressures and temptations to extort from some and play favorites with others that characterized the somewhat chaotic Roman system of tax farming. Getting along in that job often ended up meaning that a tax collector went along with, and practiced things that went beyond his ethical boundaries. The truth could be devastating—and the picture in this parable is of a man facing that truth.

“I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other…” There’s no easy answer in this story. But even so, the tax collector could receive God’s mercy because he was trying to live in the truth.

How common is it in our lives that we are tempted to avoid acknowledging the truth? How common that we fib to make ourselves look better? And how common is it for people to pretend that they don’t need mercy? That they don’t have to ask for forgiveness, because they can’t remember any wrong that they have done?

Jesus is here to give mercy and to welcome us into the truth.

Today happens to be the feast of Saint James of Jerusalem, the patron of our church. He was the leader of the Church in Jerusalem during the early days of the church, working along with and in discussion with, and sometimes in conflict with St. Paul and St. Peter on the relationship between Gentile converts and Jewish Christians. We know from the writings of Paul that sometimes these became partisan battles, and James was key in resolving these conflicts in a way that the mission of the church moved forward.

The collect for this feast is a fitting ending to this reflection. Let us pray.

Grant, O God, that, following the example of your servant James the Just, brother of our Lord, your Church may give itself continually to prayer and to the reconciliation of all who are at variance and enmity, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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.