Tuesday, December 23, 2008
LIGHTING UP THE WORLD
How does the word get out that God is love? How did the meaning of God being love get transmitted beyond the small group of disciples whose darkness was lit up like the flash of lightning across the sky?
The story of the Epiphany seems simple enough. Three Gentile magicians read in the stars that a new king of Israel is to be born and they made their way to this child's manger. Once they arrived they found a small child tucked tightly into bed clothing in rather humble surroundings.
They followed the light of a star to find this new king. Nature announced the birth and provided the navigational tool that enabled them to find the baby king.
What light led you to the life of Jesus? For me, it began as I listened to the great stories of the Bible being told by my Grandmother Odessa. She spoke with deep reverence and familiarity about the characters and places of stories. It was almost as if she knew Adam, Eve, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Peter, Paul, and Jesus the way she knew her neighbors of many years.
We see the light that guides us to Jesus and to God through nature, but even more profoundly through other human beings who have already begun their journey towards the promise and hope of God’s Kingdom or who seem to have begun to glimpse it from afar.
For me, books have been a treasure of light. Perhaps the most brilliant light came to me when, at the age of 26, I picked up C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. The light from Lewis’ pen filled my heart and my imagination with images of God that seemed to call me to move “further up and further in” to the Kingdom of Heaven, to see the face of God in Jesus.
I read everything Lewis wrote and then discovered The Reverend John Sanford whose work on dreams and the deep things of the human soul represented a new part of my journey towards the light. I met The Reverend Morton Kelsey and Carl Jung and many other notables along this road.
In seminary I encountered some of the giants of theology and Biblical study and my love of this demanding discipline of theology has continued to be a source of light in my journey towards God. Most recently the work of Gil Baillie, James Allison, Rene Girard, and others have been light that has furthered my journey.
The journey we are all on as Christians and just simply as human beings is most often lit up by the people who have loved us and cared about us in our daily lives. My parents, brother, wife, children, friends, and even those with whom I have disagreed and argued have been light along the way.
May your days of following the light bring you to the Christ of God and the Kingdom of love, peace, and joy.
Monday, December 22, 2008
We are flying to Maryland to visit our Granddaughter, Alexandra. We leave on December 26th. We will return after celebrating Christmas with Alex and our son, Matt and daughter-in-law, Sarah.
I am a new Grandpa, but I really love that little red haired, blue-eyed baby. Every time I hear her voice on the phone or by SKYPE and see her charge across the floor in search of new adventures, I smile and sometimes just laugh at her sheer joy in life.
Jesus must have seen this joy when he invited children to be at the center of his vision of God's Kingdom.
What does that mean to us?
It means that the vulnerability of children and their dependence upon the adult world for survival is very much like our vulnerability and dependence upon God for our survival. The Kingdom thrives when we realize our need of others and their need of us. These qualities are often lost as we grow up. We see ourselves as no longer vulnerable or dependent upon God or others.
I pray that this Christmas we will remember all of the children of our world, the ones who make our Christ Church community such a joyful place to be and to worship and those whose needs are measured in staggering statistics of poverty, hunger, thirst, disease and mortality.
Jesus came to us as an infant, vulnerable and dependent upon human love and support for his physical survival. In each child of our world, God abides in special ways. God allowed us to be children and continues to bless us with children and grandchildren to raise our eyes towards the Kingdom of Heaven where we all become children of a loving God and we are bid to care for each other.
I will enjoy being with and playing with Alexandra this Christmas. When you see me on January 4th I will probably still be smiling from being in the presence of God who will smile and squeal and cry and play and try to say “grandpa.”
“Of such are the kingdom of heaven.”
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
“A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes ... and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.”
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor and philosopher (1906-1945) imprisoned and executed for his attempt to overthrow Adolf Hitler.
When I read this quote from Bonhoeffer and realized that he was involved in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, his words made sense. He was in prison and was finally killed just before the camp was liberated by the allied forces, but the prison cell of which he spoke was not the one to which he was sentenced to live out his life.
The prison cell seems to be the violent world in which he sought to live out the Christian Gospel of love and peace. That he had to resort to violence to bring peace demonstrated to him how much in need of God we all continue to be. He felt locked into this world of spiraling violence like a prisoner in a cell. He considered his participation in the plot against Hitler to be sin. He was very clear that killing was not “the way, the truth, and the life,” but a desperate and temporary solution to humanity’s ongoing slavery and blindness.
The pain created in him by his decision to kill was the result of his lack of blindness. He killed knowing that killing was as dark and evil as the genocidal acts of Hitler. He judged himself guilty of this sin and prayed for God’s mercy. He would not take the more comfortable path of justifying his actions to kill by claiming that a higher good would be fulfilled.
Our collect for this Sunday is really about turning our prison cells into mansions. Here is what it says:
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Most of us will never find ourselves involved in a plot to kill another human being, but God’s daily visitations are still part of our Christians vocation. In visiting us each day, God attempts to touch our eyes to give us sight to see ourselves in the faces of even our enemies. When we have such vision the iron bars of our prison cells of violence begin to be transformed into a mansion prepared for the one whom the world judged as the enemy of our ways of creating peace and unity, wealth and poverty, dominance and domination.
Without these daily visitations to our prison cells we would remain blind. We would continue to believe that our ways are god’s ways and our thoughts are god’s thoughts. Advent is the promise of the daily visitations that will liberate us from a world that is locked in sin and suffering and death.
In Jesus birth we find that we have a new cell mate in the prison. God not only has come from outside our prison cells to visit, but God has joined us inside our corporate cell. Jesus exercised no violence against those who sought to kill him, nor did he encourage any of his followers (past, present, or future) to use violence as a way of setting the world right.
His mother sang of a new day coming while she bore her son into life. She was pregnant with that change and yet she herself really did not comprehend the path her son would walk. Like mothers throughout history, Mary stood ready and willing to raise her son to make a difference in the world.
Imagine her shock and dismay and horror when her son was seen as the cause of all that was wrong in the world and that his death would allow the powerful and rich to continue their rule as if God was on their side.
God greatly enlarged Mary as she bore this special child. Her vision of a reversal of fortune for the rich and poor and the powerful and weak is still perceived as threatening today, but religion has a way of taking the transformative Gospel message and making it part of the justification for the way the world is. Our life in the prison cell is all we have known and we vainly seek to see our cells as private mansions.
For some Mary’s song is a violent melody.
He has shown the strength of his arm, * he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, * and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, * and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, * for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, * to Abraham and his children for ever.
How could the words of a powerless, impoverished and pregnant minor be possibly construed as condoning violence? Consider the outcomes she offers. How in the world could the mighty be cast down from their thrones and the poor be lifted up without an armed insurrection of monumental scope? How could the hungry be filled with good things when those who control the food supply have not already seen fit to share in this way? And sending the rich away empty would require a yet to be seen revolutionary force of great power and cunning.
Mary gives birth to God. She is called “Theotokos” (by the Eastern Orthodox Christians) which means “God bearer” or “Mother of God.” Mary opens herself up to the peaceful and loving God of creation and she is filled with the fullness of God. In Mary, we see an image of the Church standing poised to respond to God’s visitation and offering herself to be filled with God. The Church is the place where the rich and the poor; the powerful and weak; the proud and the humiliated; the rulers and the slaves come together for the transformation of our world, our prison cells.
In coming together in prayer and openness to God, we see in each other the work of God as God builds a mansion in us and in our world that will be a fitting dwelling place for the Christ child who was born into our prison cell.
In the power of the Holy Spirit who spoke to Mary and Joseph, we will discover that the prison doors have been opened and that we are free of the old ways of violence as a way of life.
The child birthed in captivity and violence will finally be seen in the faces of all humanity. God, the Holy Spirit, by her daily visitations will have opened our eyes to see and purified our hearts to embrace Mary’s child in each of us—a mansion built by God.
Monday, December 08, 2008
As time goes by, the gods of my making seems to recede further and further into the past. Without my make believe gods, the world sometimes seems like a dark and hopeless place. The gods of our making are what the prophets of Israel called idols and the prophets continually warned their people about following these idols. Of course, nothing can convince us like failure and Israel was repeatedly and overwhelmingly disappointed in these gods of their making. It was Israel’s vocation to go beyond the usual human response to failing gods.
How does the God whom Jesus made flesh and blood in his life speak to us when our idols fail us? We are very devoted to our idols, but over time we either abandon them altogether and any hope of finding the real deal or we continue to "spin" our experiences to keep our idols in business or trade for a new god that seems to offer us what we need and want. It was Israel, the Jewish disciples of Jesus, who finally saw beyond the gods of human tribes and culture.
Jesus spoke to the human heart that was utterly and completely disappointed in the gods of Israel and Rome, but he did it in an ever so gentle way. In the darkness of the historical events of war, economic exploitation and ruin, and empires dominating the poor, Jesus came as light.
That is what John the baptizer said of Jesus. He was the true light which can enlighten the human heart that has given up on the idols of time. John was baptizing, but he was also watching for someone whose presence was full of the True God. John was a prophet who spent little time denouncing the idols of his day and more time watching for the real and true God.
In Advent, we are told to be watchful like John, but for what are we watching? Jesus told his disciples to stay awake and be watchful for the coming of God’s Kingdom. So, as the gods of my making fail to stand up to the test of time and the hardships of life, I watch for God, the God who is like no other and whose character and existence shine like light in darkness.
Advent bids us to stay awake to the presence and coming of God in our lives as individuals, but more importantly in our community and in the world. The kingdom breaks in like light and reveals the past shabby gods we have made as laughably inadequate while opening our hearts up to the God of our creation, redemption, and sanctification.
The first coming of this God of light and love was a total surprise and continues to be overlooked as a quaint story about a baby being born to two loving parents in the midst of a murderous and violent world. Keep watch for we do not know the time or the place of God’s appearing. The story of the birth of Jesus is to help train us to be expectant and watchful for a kingdom, a way of being, that is not like the kingdoms or cultures of our idols, our gods.
If we are looking for a kingdom which only benefits me and my friends, we watch in vain.
If we are looking for a kingdom in which some are welcome and others are not, we watch in vain.
If we are looking for a kingdom in which love is not the final word for every child of God, we watch in vain.
Advent is for those whose make believe gods have left us still wanting and watching for light and more light and for those who are willing to be watchful and peer through the dark nights of our days. Keep watch for the one in whom we hope. We look for the God whose light and life are finally worth our faith--a God that can be believed. AMEN.
Tuesday, December 02, 2008
I love the beginning of a new book, especially if the author is someone whose work I have found rich and compelling. I found the Chronicles of Narnia, a children’s series by C.S. Lewis, when I was 27 years old. Lewis had the most amazing way of painting pictures with words. I remember staying up late for several nights because I could not put the books down. There were 7 volumes and each one was a treasure to me.
After finishing one volume, I quickly began the next one like a hungry man sitting down to a table of plenty. Perhaps you remember when you finished a book that fed you like these books fed me. In my case, not knowing that Lewis had died on the same day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated, I wanted to write him a letter of thanks. When I found out he had died, I felt a real sadness that such a grand writer was no longer alive to offer his gifts to us.
I have to report that since that time, I have found many satisfying and extraordinary authors and books to read and I continue to relish those first few pages of each book. But I want to share a very different experience in reading that I have had reading the Bible. This Sunday we will hear the beginning of the Gospel of St. Mark which goes like this:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
"See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
`Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,'"
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
Mark starts this shortest of all of the Gospels by giving us a bit of information about Jesus’ identity which most of the characters in the book do not have. In fact, at the end of Mark’s Gospel very few, if anyone has managed to see Jesus as anything other than a man who was killed on a Roman cross as a criminal and blasphemer.
So, Mark writes about Good News for a world that was incapable of recognizing Jesus as the Christ and Son of God. Reading this Gospel or any of the Gospels will not be a one time experience. Every time I finish reading chapters 1-16, I find myself returning to the beginning again praying for the eyes of faith through which Mark and his community saw Jesus.
I have read this Gospel over and over again, in the liturgical setting of the Holy Eucharist and Morning and Evening Prayer, with pen and note pad in personal study and reflection, and sometimes in brief moments between this and that activity. With each reading I find Mark’s beginning proclamation more and more compelling.
At each of our beginnings, the first chapters of our births and infancies, God proclaims us to be his beloved children, but like the Gospel, it takes us a life time of reading and re-reading our life for us see our true identities. I would suggest that since we have difficulty seeing Jesus’ true identity, we might just be unable to clearly see our own very special place in God’s heart. Maybe it is time to go back to the beginning again in both the story of Jesus and our own stories.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When someone found it, they hid it again, and then in their joy went and sold all they had and bought that field."
The season of Advent marks the beginning of a new church year. Our Scripture passage for this past year has been about discovering what we value in our lives. During this season of hope and anticipation, we will prayerfully and thoughtfully make a choice about our giving for the coming year. I would like to offer some thoughts on the spiritual values of giving that I hope you will consider.
When I was a child growing up in the Episcopal Church, I was taught about giving money to the church. The kids were given pledge envelopes just like the adults, only a bit smaller. I was 8 years old and selling newspapers on the street corners of Hermosa Beach, so my giving to the church was taken out of my earnings for the week. I am not sure how I arrived at the amount that I gave, but giving seemed to be an act of freedom for me.
You may ask why an 8 year old would experience freedom by placing a quarter in the plate at church each week. I have thought about this question a good deal over my life time and I have come to a place where I can offer a few observations.
I earned $1.00 to $2.50 per week selling the Daily Breeze, the L.A. Mirror, Examiner, and Times. I got a penny for the Daily Breeze and two pennies for the other papers. You can well imagine how long it took me to earn my weekly wage. I decided that no matter how much I earned, I would give $.25 per week to the church. This amount usually came out to be at least 10% of my earnings.
What I gave each Sunday was not much compared to what most of the adults in the congregation were pledging, but for me it was an act of freedom that brought me unspeakable joy. In giving money to God through the church that I could have spent on toys, candy, cookies, or ice cream, I experienced freedom from these things that might have otherwise claimed every penny I made.
My money represented time and effort and so I also committed myself to worshipping each Sunday, attending church school and singing in the choir which required a mid-week rehearsal. As I got older, I joined with other young people my age on Sunday evenings for fellowship and service. I learned that giving is about making choices and being faithful to the choices I make.
What I experienced and learned as a child has stayed with me throughout my life. There is a powerful spiritual freedom in offering ourselves in service to God. Making a commitment to pledge to our faith community is a sign of our devotion to God and God’s purpose.
But giving is about more than money. It is also about offering ourselves to regular worship each Sunday and finding ways to be of service. It is making choices about how we spend our time, talent, and resources for the spread of the Gospel that gives us joy and freedom.
Let us celebrate and embrace the freedom of Christ in the joyful giving of our selves, our souls and bodies, to the loving mission of God in the world.
God’s Peace, Freedom, and Joy in Giving,
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
This Sunday we will celebrate our parish feast day. Other churches are named after other saints like, Peter, Paul, and Mary (not the folk singing group), but we are named after the one whom we call God in the flesh, the Christ. We celebrate Christ as King on this special Sunday, but when we use the word, king, it is hard to imagine anything else, but the sort of royalty that sits or sat on the thrones of Spain, England, France and other European kingdoms.
A king is considered to be powerful with an army and navy and other military power at his command. The kings of old also claimed divine right as their source of authority, power, and rule. God was definitely on the side of the kings. If we go way back to the beginnings of human culture, kings were actually chosen and given authority by those they ruled in a ritual that seems rather strange to our modern eyes.
These early kings were chosen with the understanding that they would be sacrificed at some time in the future. Israel did not start out with kings, but were ruled by judges who were raised up by God to provide leadership for a given time and place, but were not considered to be kings.
The prophet Samuel warned the people of Israel against having a king. He said that, like the Gentiles, Israel’s kings would tax them and go take their sons to war. Israel’s decision to disregard Samuel resulted in their first of many kings, Saul. Saul was a warrior king and did rule like the Gentile kings.
What sort of King is Christ? Was his death at our hands simply the carrying out of this human ritual of making kings and queens and maybe even heads of state, the sacrificial victims of the people, the mob? Is Christ like all human royalty, exercising violence to keep the people he rules and the people he would conquer in check? How we answer this question is critical to our understanding God and God’s Christ.
The collect prayer for this week speaks to this question of the character of Christ the King.
Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Christ as King is about restoring humanity and all creation according to the gracious, merciful, loving, forgiving will of God. The description of our current state of existence is powerful. We are divided and enslaved by sin. Sin, in fact, describes how we are divided and enslaved. Sin is about refusing God’s will and entering into a fatal attraction with others that is filled with envy, strife, and violence. We are divided and enslaved by our resentments and our rivalries with others and we don’t seem to be able to get out of the mess in which we find ourselves.
Many kings and nations have fought wars to “liberate” a captive people, but Christ the King rules with graciousness that frees us and unifies us without anyone being left out and without the use of violence. Violence to stop violence does not address the cause of our divisions and slavery, it only reminds us of how desperate we truly are for a new sort of king.
Our Gospel for this Sunday is a parable told by Jesus about the judgment of the nations during which people of these nations are separated into two categories: sheep and goats. The sheep are the ones who unknowingly render assistance to those who are afflicted by hunger, thirst, imprisonment, being a stranger in need of welcome, and nakedness. The goats are the ones who unknowingly miss every opportunity to assist those in such dire straits.
The goats and the sheep basically respond to the character Jesus calls “the Son of Man” and “the King” in the same way. It seems that this judging figure of a King/Son of Man has been residing in the humanity of those who were either helped or ignored. Even after being told that the King/Son of Man before whom they stood was in each and every one of the people they ignored, the goats claimed ignorance without any sense of regret. They simply did not see the King/Son of Man in the wretches around them.
This parable is not so much about a future historical judgment that ends in a clean and simple reward and punishment scene. Goats go to hell. Sheep go to heaven. It is Jesus’ way of stretching our imaginations to see God in each and every person. This belief is an important part of what is often called incarnational theology. The Incarnation or Christmas celebrates the coming of God in the flesh and blood of Jesus, but it also announces that all along God has been and will continue to be in the flesh and blood of humanity.
Jesus chose the term “Son of Man” for a good reason. It has several meanings including the judge of humanity, but it also says most clearly that the Son of Man is a generic for all created humanity. The ending of the parable goes like this:
“Then they (goats) also will answer, `Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' Then he will answer them, `Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
Neither the sheep nor the goats recognized God’s presence in humanity, but the sheep, for some unknown reason, responded with compassion to those in need. This parable offers us an opportunity to change our way of looking at one another.
When did we forget that all human beings bear a burning bit of God within them? When did we forget that even our enemies are Christ-bearers. The old bumper sticker that reminds us to be careful driving near a young family’s car “Caution: Baby on Board” could be re-written to reflect God’s presence in all of us: “Caution: Christ on board!”
If we truly believe that God is incarnated (made flesh and blood) in creation, would we treat other people with more respect and dignity? Would we see the needs of others, especially our enemies, as an opportunity to serve God?
This parable is not a prediction of a future judgment, but of a very present judgment before the throne of Christ our King. Where is Christ’s throne? Jesus died on a cross that was his throne. He was put on the cross by the kings of this world who did what kings and heads of nations do—maintain the peace.
But the throne of the Christ is the cross and we come like the sheep and goats for judgment each and every day.
Since God is in each of us, especially those whom we believe to be the least of God’s family members—the poor, the hungry, the naked, the stranger, the imprisoned, and the thirsty we find his throne in each of them. God is not hiding from us. The King is at work as a servant to the goats who continue to miss God in themselves and others.
Finally, this parable invites us to the freedom of Christ the King. The liberation from the stuff that divides us into goats and sheep; rich and poor; hungry and satiated; thirsty and refreshed; naked and well-appointed; guards and prisoners; friends and enemies is an inside job as well as an outside job.
What God announced and accomplished in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus does not require one more human life to be lost. We are invited to unite without exception around the throne of Christ the King and finally see in each other the charity and compassion of God. That day will be the final Day of the Lord when the good shepherd calls us by name and gathers us together in peace.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Jesus said, "For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.
The “it” that Jesus is talking about is the Kingdom of Heaven, but for those of us who have invested money in the stock market through 401 K programs, we may quickly identify with the man going on a journey and leaving money for his slaves to manage.
We have certainly witnessed a great deal of anger and frustration being directed towards those in whose trust we placed our money.
For many of us, our investments are part of our retirement planning. Perhaps our parable might be seen differently if the slaves who did well in the investment strategies had not doubled their master’s money, but lost it all, save what the third slave buried for fear of losing it all and suffering the wrath of his master.
Then he went away.
I am like this guy. I put some of my money in an investment vehicle and have basically forgotten all about it—almost. Every year I do get a letter showing me how my investment is doing. In the beginning, I made very modest gains, but these were followed by several years of near zero growth or losses. I could say that my “slaves” have not done well by me.
The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.
After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, `Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' His master said to him, `Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.'
And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, `Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' His master said to him, `Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.'
Now if my investment team had doubled my money, I would have to honestly report that I would be ecstatic. I would probably not ask too many questions about how they did it, but I would certainly do what the man in the parable did and give my investment team that doubled money to invest for even greater gains.
These successful traders were praised by their master for being “good and trustworthy slaves” and then were rewarded with the opportunity to make more money for their master. Being in charge of the wealth of the master was the reward and was called “the joy of your master.”
The story does not end here with a happy investor and joyful slaves going forth to double the fortune of the master. The unfinished business of the master is to deal with one of his slaves who did not even try to increase his master’s money.
Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, `Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.'
But his master replied, `You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.
So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' "
Do you think the master is unfair? Should the master have given this slave even more of his money to invest in hope that a second chance after a severe chastisement would result in a different outcome?
I am sure there may be some whose life’s savings and retirements have been adversely impacted by the actions of the complex realities of our economic system who would like to do what the master in this story did to the third slave.
The master is Jesus’ story some might suggest is God or Jesus who expects us to double God’s investment of wealth. Such an interpretation seems to only work if we get into some fairly complicated metaphorical gymnastics. We also might do well to consider that in most of Jesus’ parables, the people who come out as winners do not necessarily act in ways that are consistent with the values Jesus expressed in his teachings or demonstrated in his life and death.
The Kingdom of Heaven is what this parable is about, but it is the Kingdom as it is experienced in this age amidst the powerful and successful traders and the people whom they serve. The kingdom of heaven is cast out, like Jesus was cast out, by violent and wrathful human beings in service of a different god.
Without too much imagination, we might consider a different outcome to this parable. What if the successful traders were not so successful? What if instead of doubling the master’s money, they lost it all. How would the master deal with such slaves? Would the third slave who simply buried the master’s money be the hero in this parable?
In Matthew 11:12, we read a very interesting observation made by Jesus about the Kingdom of Heaven: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”
In the context of the parable of the talents this cryptic comment seems to suggest that the kingdom is the suffering victim of violence, not the successful traders in the wealth of the world.
The third slave demonstrates a knowledge of the master’s true character and speaks it even as the master condemns him to the outer darkness. If you recall from my previous reflections on the parables of the kingdom in Matthew, the outer darkness is reserved for Jesus and all of those who fail to live by the standards and ethics of this world.
This third slave says of the master: `Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.'
Where else would you hide something of value? The third slave renders unto his master what belongs to his master. The slave is motivated by fear, but it is fear that does not lead him to avoid the harsh treatment of his master. There seems to be a bit of a rebellious quality about this slave’s behavior. In the face of his great fear, the slave opts out of the threatening and violent world of the master and buries his wealth in the ground.
The third slave represents the Kingdom of Heaven as it is judged by the world. The master calls him a wicked, lazy, and worthless slave.
Do you really think God renders that judgment on anyone?
Consider the world of the master in the parable. Is this the world in which we live?
Is your value as a person tied to your ability and luck to create value for others?
Is failure to meet the demands of the world the final verdict of your value as a person?
Is our value subject to the shifting financial sands of the world wide economic system and its rules?
How are you like this third slave?
Could you defend this third slave before his master?
Why isn’t the Kingdom of Heaven embraced by the world as the answer to our prayers for peace, unity, and grace?
Will the Kingdom of Heaven continue to suffer violence at the hands of the violent?
The Kingdom comes back to us from the place to which it was cast, the outer darkness, from the cross and the tomb in the garden. St. Paul suggests that it comes like a “thief in the night.” Does the thief come to condemn or to bless; to give or to take away; to create or to destroy?
If you answer these questions, you may just have a sermon to preach on Sunday.
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
Today is Tuesday November 4, 2008 at 11:00 AM.
I am getting ready to meet Madelyn for lunch and then we are both going to our polling place and cast our ballots. This is a very special day. By the time you receive this UPDATE, we will have a new president and vice-president elect and our nation will be called together to begin the work of love in service to our neighbors at home and abroad.
We have much to be thankful for and I pray that our gratitude for our life in this wonderful nation will issue in a renewed sense of commitment to the values of Jesus' Kingdom. I will be preaching at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in San Pedro this Sunday. It is their annual pledge Sunday. The Gospel text for preaching on stewardship may seem at first reading to require a real stretch of the text, but before I begin to reflect on these two questions of stewardship and the 5 wise and 5 foolish bridesmaids please read this text. In my reflection on the text I will be suggesting that the parable serves as a spiritual Rorschach Test. See if you can see how this might be true as you read.
Jesus said, "Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, `Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.' Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.
The foolish said to the wise, `Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' But the wise replied, `No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.' And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, `Lord, lord, open to us.' But he replied, `Truly I tell you, I do not know you.' Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."
So how is the Kingdom of Heaven known in the telling of this parable?
Let me suggest that this parable is about how the Kingdom of Heaven was experienced by Jesus, Matthew’s community, and if we are open to Scripture, is how the Kingdom continues to be experienced today.
The Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus proclaimed was considered foolishness by the world into which he came and the ways of world were considered wise. The powerful and influential in this world were the wise ones. Caesar ruled, a kind of peace reigned, and learning this wisdom was required to fit into the party that Rome was throwing.
Paul speaks about this contrast between God’s wisdom and power in his letter to the church at Corinth (1:17-31):
17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. 18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart." 20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength. 26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord."
While our initial reading of Jesus parable about the wise and foolish bridesmaids might suggest that those who prepared in advance for a delay in the coming of the bridegroom were the ones Jesus was commending to us as role models of watchfulness, I would invite you to consider the alternate view.
The foolish ones lived as if the bridegroom was coming immediately. There was a high expectation of the immediate return of Jesus after his resurrection, so the foolish Christians kept their lamps lit in heightened hope. The bridegroom who is described in the parable rejects these foolish ones and the wise bridesmaids refuse to share from their extra oil reserves leaving the foolish ones outside the party. The bridegroom hears them crying to be allowed into the party, but denies this request with this damning line: “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”
As Paul reminds us, the wise and powerful were unable to recognize God when God came to the world in the flesh and blood of Jesus. The bridegroom of Jesus’ story seems to represent the world that in wisdom and power rejects the Kingdom of Heaven.
As we consider stewardship, what are we to make of the symbol of oil and lamps contained in this parable? The oil allows the lamp to bring light into the world.
The light allows us to see a reality to which we may have previously been blind. Love is often connected to light. It is love that gives us a way of seeing God in our world and each other. Jesus reminds us that we will never really know when the Kingdom of Heaven will arrive. We are to watch by the light of God’s love and keep our lamps burning. In the Kingdom of Heaven there is no shortage of oil, or love, or life, or peace.
We are stewards of this unlimited foolish, powerless love of God. How will be share this love with others? What is the spiritual connection between this unlimited resource and our limited human resources? We are called by the love of God to be watchful and expectant. We are called to perhaps appear foolish and powerless by the standards of the world as we await the coming of God’s great marriage feast. The bridegroom will come.Let your light shine so that at his coming we will all know the love and grace of God.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Today is Tuesday at 11:00 AM.
I am sitting in a hospital room on the sixth floor of
Torrance Memorial Hospital. Hospitals are busy
places. As I was getting on the elevator this morning
bound for the sixth floor, one of the workers at the
hospital asked me about one of the rings I wear. The
ring has the Greek letters, alpha and omega on it.
He knew the term alpha and omega meant the
beginning and the end from his study of the book of
Revelation. Jesus said in that book: "I am the alpha
and the omega, the first and the last."
The gentleman said the first was about being born
and the last was about when we die. I said, "I guess
that happens here in the hospital everyday." He
smiled and nodded his head. "Yes, I imagine that is
true." The door opened for the third floor and our brief
This Sunday we will be celebrating All Saints Day. We
will remember in prayer those "whom we love, but see
no longer." During the Prayers of the People, we will give plenty of time for everyone present to name those loved ones who were the saints in their lives. I would suggest making a written list of these saints and placing that list in a special offering plate on Sunday morning to be placed on the altar during the Holy Eucharist.
This celebration is highlighted in the Apostles Creed: “I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”
The Holy Spirit is the one who ties us altogether, both the living and the dead. Actually, the dead are not really a category in the creed. Once Jesus was raised from the dead, death ceased to be a necessary category or way of describing those whose journeys on earth have come to an end. The Holy Spirit creates the communion of saints as God’s way of describing us and relating to us. Notice that the communion of saints is named and then the way of creating and the foundation of this community is offered: the forgiveness of sins.
Our communion of saints is the church here on earth and in heaven and that community only exists as a place and community of forgiveness. The creed then names this forgiving community as the resurrection of the body. As Paul says: “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s possession.”
The church is a seamless community that spans all human definitions of life and death and gives us the ultimate meaning of the “life everlasting,” as our participation in the communion of saints where forgiveness is the cornerstone and the resurrection of Christ is the first of those who find their way into the Kingdom of Heaven.
My ring celebrates Jesus as the beginning and ending of all of our journeys. Whether we are just beginning, in the middle, or nearing the end of our journeys, God is with us. Death no longer needs to be the end of our membership in life, in the communion of saints. The life we are called to live does not include death as a threat or as an end of life.
Our Gospel for this day is the Beatitudes as contained in Matthew. In these words from Jesus, we are given a panoramic view of the communion of saints. Please spend some time reading this magnificent offering from Jesus. In it you will find that God is not about death, but about life.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Monday, October 20, 2008
Today is Monday at 2:30 PM.
This Wednesday I will going to Mount Calvary Retreat Center for a training program which I have been engaged in for over four years. I love my time in this very special community of Benedictine brothers. They welcome pilgrims to their daily cycle of prayers, their table fellowship, and their space.
Part of my Christian vocation given to me in baptism includes such times of retreat and prayer. Our vestry did a short retreat this past weekend and found it to be a refreshing time away. Sometimes God can touch us and speak to us when we are away from our usual routines. I hope that many of you will join me some time soon on such a retreat to Mount Calvary or the Holy Spirit Retreat Center in Encino.
I would especially like to invite our junior high and high school folks to experience such a time together. I know it made a huge impact on me when I was young.
My offering for this week comes as a series of questions for your consideration. The questions will serve as preparation for this Sunday's collect and readings. My sermon will address each of these questions, so it would help if you got a sense of the readings in advance. Such preparation deepens the experience of worship.
Here is the Collect (prayer) for this Sunday.
Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In our collect (prayer for the day), why do you think it says that "faith, hope, and charity are gifts from God?
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.
You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD.
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.
The reading from Leviticus seems to add to what Jesus says are the "greatest commandments." How do these additional commandments fit with what Jesus said?
Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, * nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful!
Their delight is in the law of the LORD, * and they meditate on his law day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; * everything they do shall prosper.
It is not so with the wicked; * they are like chaff which the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes, * nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.
For the LORD knows the way of the righteous, * but the way of the wicked is doomed.
Praise God the Father for the gift of his child, Jesus, and for the Holy Spirit who brings us together today. Amen.
According to Psalm 1, what does seems to separate a wicked person from a righteous person?
Second Reading1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.
As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.
According to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, did he receive a royal welcome at Phillipi or Thessalonica when he offered the Gospel of God?
The Gospel Matthew 22:34-46
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: "What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?" They said to him, "The son of David." He said to them, "How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
`The Lord said to my Lord,
"Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet"'?
If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?" No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
* In today’s Gospel reading, Matthew mentions two groups who seem to be at odds with what Jesus was doing and teaching. What were the differences between the Pharisees and the Sadducees?
*In the Gospel for today, Jesus offers an answer to the question about the greatest commandments. Why do you think he said that these two commandments are like hangers on which all the law and the prophets hang?
*Why did Jesus asked the Pharisees and Sadducees: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?”
*Why do you think Jesus questioned the answer these two groups offered? (“The Son of David)
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
The only certainties in life are death and taxes.
As the political race for the presidency of our nation continues we hear much about taxation. Like those who sought to entrap Jesus, the issue of how we tax and who we tax and how much we tax continues to be a source of conflict and division and political defeat. Both candidates seem to want to give us tax cuts, but each seems to say that some of us will get more than others of us. For many of us without technical knowledge of this complex issue or much inclination to delve into those murky waters we simply rely on trusting who we think is on “our side.”
The Gospel for this week includes this oft quoted line from Jesus: “Render unto Caesar the things that belong to Caesar, but unto God the things that belong to God.” The question for Jesus was about whether it was right for a Jew to pay Caesar’s taxes. The option would be to rebel against the oppressive Roman occupation and refuse to pay tribute to Caesar.
This question continues the discussion about authority that the Gospel of Matthew started to explore through Jesus encounters with the religious establishment of his day. Jesus basically refused to give an answer about where he got the authority to heal, exorcize demons, and teach about a loving and forgiving God by responding with a question about John the Baptist’s authority. Since those who questioned him would not offer whether John’s authority came from God or from human institutions, Jesus would not tell them the source of his authority.
Think about what a hot button issue our economy is today. Think about all of the claims and counter claims offered by the two parties about whether we should cut or not cut taxes. As volatile as these issues are for us, this issue of taxation to which Jesus was being asked to respond only allowed two answers.
If Jesus said it was right to pay Caesar taxes, he would be labeled a Roman collaborator and his poll numbers among his own people would not drop and might have even resulted in his death at the hands of angry Jewish zealots.
If Jesus said it was wrong for a good Jew to support the Roman Empire that oppressed his people, he would have been labeled a rebel and gained the support of his people of those who might have taken him to be a zealot intent on using violence to rid Israel of the unwanted Roman overlords.
Jesus’ response is more that a simple answer that would take him down those two troubled roads. He simply places the responsibility for deciding on those who ask such questions. What does belong to Caesar? What does belong to God? The answer to these questions requires that we look at the whole issue of ownership. It demands that look for the image of God as well as the image of Caesar in our world and surrender those things which belong to each to their respective owners.
This is not an abstract bit of questioning because we all have already made our choices of surrendering. In whose image are we made? To whom do we belong? Who is at the center of our lives that serves as our model for who we are and what we do? By what authority did Jesus do the things that he did? By what authority does Caesar, by whatever name or title he or she takes, do the things done by them? Whom shall we serve?
Tuesday, October 07, 2008
Last Sunday we read the parable of certain tenants who refused to give to the rightful owner of the land they worked, what most people would say belonged to the land owner. Did you form an opinion about what the landowner should do to those who killed his slaves and even his son? Some of Jesus’ listeners sure did. They knew what they would do (Give those scoundrels the boot), but is what they would do the same as what God would do?
So let’s look at this week’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel that follows last week’s lesson. Yes, it is another opportunity for clarity and judgment. There are interesting historical issues that are tied up in this reading surrounding King Herod’s capture of Jerusalem, but I would like us to focus on the various characters in this parable.
There is the King, his son who is getting married and who we don’t really know much about, the King’s slaves, the invited guests to the wedding who were contacted by the King’s slaves twice, and a large group of folks both good and bad whom the King’s slaves brought to the party. There is also a final, rather mysterious chap, who comes in with the rabble of previously uninvited guests. The first time they just did not come and the second time they either made a joke about not going, made business or farming excuses, while a third group seized, mistreated and killed the King’s slaves.
Now read the Gospel for this Sunday posted below and see where the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus speaks about is present in this story.
Once more Jesus spoke to the people in parables, saying: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, `Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.' But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, `The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.' Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
"But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, `Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?' And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, `Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' For many are called, but few are chosen."
FOR FURTHER CONSIDERATION
Who are the “few” that are chosen and what are they chosen to do? Let me suggest a reading of this parable that may just set you off on a rant or a meditation. What if the man without the wedding robe represents Christ?
What if the whole episode that Jesus tells us is really just a description of the world into which the kingdom is coming? What if the Kingdom, as Jesus says in Matthew, suffers violence and this suffering is depicted in the way this lone guest is treated?
Will the Kingdom of God always be subjected to ejection?
Is the weeping and gnashing of teeth that Jesus describes simply the state of those who have also been thrown out of the wedding of feast? Could John the Baptist be among those who are believed to be in the outer darkness by Herod and others? Do you remember how Jesus reacted at his trial—was he not speechless?
Join me on Sunday as we consider these questions and meditate upon our baptism into the Body of Christ which is the church.
Sunday, September 28, 2008
Today is Sunday at 6:00 PM. I am working on getting the UPDATE finished before heading off to Coffeyville, Kansas on Wednesday for my Mother's burial. I apologize in advance for these rather personal observations about her dying and death. She is much on my mind and in my heart and it is difficult for me to write about much else. I hope you will understand.
My Mother will be buried on Thursday with the rest of her family, save her 100 year old sister, Pauline, who continues to live in Coffeyville, Kansas. I have shared the yoo-hoo story several times with this congregation, but as I was preparing the service for my Mother’s burial, I realized that my brother and I have been the ones who have been keeping our Mother in our view during her past seven years of difficult journey through “the valley of the shadow of death.”
During these years, Mom wandered away from the life she had made for herself as her brain struggled to hold fast to the precious bits of memory that made up her life. Mike and I watched her as she struggled to remember names and faces. She must have thought she was all alone in this growing darkness.
When I would visit her she would say that she was just that moment hoping I would come to see her. I knew that my face, even when it was no longer seen as the face of her son, at least represented a time of peace. She was known and seemed to be loved. Many of my visits were spent telling her about our family. I could tell that she struggled to remember how she was related to all of the people I told her about.
When her great granddaughter, Alex, was born, I took Mom photographs of her. As she starred at the image of that small child, I let her know who this little one was. She would tear up and hold the photo close to her. She so wished to remember this newest member of the family and her pulling the photo close to her heart was her prayer to make Alex a part of her memories.
Alzheimer’s disease is not sentimental. It does not allow these tender moments to remain conscious or to be stored for future remembering. Just as Mike and I believed ourselves to be lost as small children, my Mother must have felt this loss of self coming on each day. In her journal she practiced writing the names of everyone in the family and old Bible verses she had committed to memory. With each new filled up journal book, her ability to remember the long list of names and Bible verses began to leave her and the entries in her journal became shorter and finally stopped altogether.
I did try to keep my Mom in view during her long dark journey. Some days were harder than others. When she finally did not know me at all there was a deep sense of loss for me. She had disappeared from sight. Unlike the happy ending of the yoo-hoo getting lost story, Mom did not come back for me to comfort and reassure. Her comfort and reassurance were now to come as she came into the presence of the loving God who had created her, redeemed her, and made her life holy and gave it meaning.
As Christians we live in the hope of life in God. The yoo-hoo story that I shared with you all finds its full meaning when those we love move beyond our view and our ability to be there for them. God gives us one another, children and parents, larger family and friends on our earthly pilgrimage to be with us and for us when we get lost and seem to be beyond anyone’s caring vision or embrace. As death separates us from those we love our faith offers us consolation.
The burial service that we will use to celebrate my Mother’s life contains our yoo-hoo to God, our Father: “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” While we have lost sight of those we love, God continues to keep them and us in his loving view. Neither we, the living, nor those who have died are beyond God’s gracious and loving gaze. This is what the church calls the Communion of Saints.
As Mike and I make our way back to Coffeyville, I invite you to offer a yoo-hoo prayer for us, for our Mom and for all of those you love but see no longer. God is in the midst of us. Alleluia!
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
"By the power vested in me by the state of Califoria, I hereby declare you husband and wife." A Justice of the Peace may say these words when performing a marriage on behalf of the state of California.
But, by what authority do you or I act? Who gives us the power/authority to get married, to be parents, to do our jobs, or to do good or ill to a friend or stranger? Who died and made us Popes or Kings or Presidents in our own particular lives? These are questions which are seldom asked because we pretty much know what gives us such authority for each of these.
The State of California is in charge of legal marriages. If they say we can be married, we are authorized to get married and to exercise the rights and responsibilities of that particular relationship. By virtue of our authorization to be married, we are also authorized to bear and raise children.
When we are employed to do a certain job or other, our employer empowers us and authorizes us to do our job. Those for whom we work have power over us by reason of the authority given to them by our common employer. Of course our employers are answerable to the government and to different agencies who may need to also authorize us to do our jobs. Teachers are credentialed; people who work for the government, directly or indirectly, are required to pass security screens and all employers have some bare minimum requirements in terms of education, experience, and other attributes needed for the job.
Here is a trickier question. Who gives us the right, authority, or power to do good or ill to our friends or strangers? Jesus is asked this question in our Gospel for this Sunday. He had been healing those who were ill and outcast; he was casting out demons (setting people who had been demonized by their communities free of this terrible curse), and including those who, by the traditional authority, had been excluded. All of his works of doing good for those who were ill or demon possessed or excluded were violations of authority and tradition. That is why the leaders or authorities asked him to show his source of authority.
Jesus responds with a challenge of his own. He asks the authorities about John the Baptist’s authority. The religious leaders did not really approve of John because he operated outside their control. He offered forgiveness of sins without going through the priesthood of Jerusalem. John’s father was a priest, but John did not take his father’s name nor did he follow in his father’s footsteps.
So, Jesus asks the religious leaders of Jerusalem to identify John’s source of authority. Was it from heaven or from men? The leadership were trapped in their own belief system. They did not think John was truly acting on authority from God because it was commonly believed by them that only the priesthood in Jerusalem had such power to mediate forgiveness. But, they also were worldly wise and knew that John was popular with the people and to say that his authority came from men would result in their loss of face and perhaps place in the eyes of the people. So they offered no answer.
The question left unanswered by the religious authorities about John truly answers their question about Jesus’ authority. He was doing works that required power, but the power did not come from his popular appeal to the people. In other words, his power was not from human sources of authority, but from heaven.
Jesus concludes his exchange with the religious leaders with the story of two sons who are asked by their father to work in his vineyard. The first son says he will not work in the vineyard, but later had a change of heart and did go out into the vineyard to work.
The second son told his father he would go out into the vineyard and work, but then he did not go.
Jesus asks the religious leaders which of these two sons did the will of his father.
When the religious leaders say that the first had done the father’s will, Jesus says to them:
“Truly I tell you, the tax collector and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”
Jesus points to John’s ministry as being like his own. They both offered a compelling message, good news that those who were not valued by the power that is constituted by human laws and institutions and enforced by threat, prohibitions, and violence were of great value to God. They could change and be the children of a loving God.
This final word from Jesus simply and completely reveals the authority that comes from human beings and the authority that comes from God. So the question is for us: “by what authority do we do good or ill to our friends and strangers?”
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Taxation as a way of redistributing wealth in the United States is seen as bad policy by many of our fellow citizens. There are many reasons for this assessment. One belief is that if government taxes the wealthy to pay for services provided to the poor and to give the middle class tax breaks, you are creating a negative environment for wealth making. Many members of our congregation have a much better understanding of this belief than I do. I guess that how we are taxed is will continue to be a major issue in this and every election.
Money, how we earn it and how we spend it, is given considerable space in scripture. This Sunday’s Gospel reading is all about how people perceive wealth and fairness in the distribution of wealth. Jesus uses a parable about a wealthy land owner who goes out at different times during the day and hires laborers to work in his vineyard. From the beginning of the day until the sun began to set he offered employment and a fair (whatever is right) wage to everyone he sent into the fields.
Now imagine yourself as one of the laborers whose work started at the crack of dawn. You come to get your pay and find yourself at the end of the line. Ahead of you, you see those who worked only a couple of hours as the day was beginning to cool off. They seem to be overjoyed at their pay for the short day of work. The question of how much you will receive immediately bubbles up in your consciousness.
If a guy who worked an hour gets a full day’s pay, how much more might you expect to receive? They say you should never count your chickens before they are hatched and this is so true as you look at the Kingdom of Heaven through the magnifying glass of a Jesus’ parable. So having been the first one sent out to work, you extend your hands in anticipation of a huge two hands pay day. Imagine your disappointment when you receive only a day’s pay like the guys who were first in line and last to go out and work.
So, you and your fellow all day laborers begin to protest the way you have been treated. Like good labor union folk, you remind the landowner and his double dealing manager of how unjust, unfair, and just plain wrong they are in their dealings with this hard working, long suffering group.
What response from the landowner could possibly satisfy the aggrieved workers? The landowner simply says: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
The landowner may seem like a pretty unfair person. Again, imagine if it were you who worked all day for the same pay as someone who had only worked an hour?
What seems to be clear is that the laborers do not own anything, but their time and the choice to work or not work. In point of fact, many people back in Jesus’ day were forced to accept whatever wages an employer wished to pay. The economic system under the dominating power of Rome and other empires had created a huge previously landed population that subsisted, like day laborers do today, on whatever they could earn by the sweat of their brow. At the end of the day, they had earned their “daily bread.” Jesus’ story was directed towards the landowners who were listening to him. At first they would be very much in agreement with the power of wealth exercised by the landowner. They genuinely believed they had “earned” their wealth and that they were free to pay people as they saw fit. Their power was the final word and anyone who might challenge that use of money and power were obviously simply envious of the landowner’s wealth and status.
But, there is a twist. At this point, the day laborers would understand this story as simply a retelling of their daily struggle to survive in a world controlled by the wealthiest and most powerful. Jesus has a punch line to his story and here it is: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Who are the first? Who are the last? Whose generosity is being poured out for all of humanity? Who is the ultimate landowner? Why would such a landowner give so generously and without envy that those to whom he gives would begin to claim it for themselves as an earned wealth and maintain by force of law and power?
St. Paul in today’s reading from his letter to the church at Phillipi expresses his relationship to the generous God of his creation, redemption, and sanctification:
“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.”
The pay day for Paul is knowing Christ and through Christ knowing God as generously overflowing with life, love, forgiveness, and mercy. Sharing Christ is, therefore, the labor of Paul’s life and the labor of our lives. Some people who have come late in their lives to this beautiful Gospel of God and the labor of sharing it with others (the vineyard) are receiving their daily bread. We all get the same God—generous, loving, merciful, forgiving, creative, and life transforming—in that daily bread. Length of service is simply joy in faith.
Paul also wrote: “For the wages of sin is death; but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Jesus’ story about the landowner is meant to reveal to us the death that our world view brings us. God is the always generous creator and sustainer of creation. Who claims to own what God gives so freely? Paul sees is in such a claim the sin and the payoff for that sin in self-inflicted rivalries and violence. But he also sees the cure for what is killing us in accepting the gracious gifts of God and the laboring with those gifts so that all may live as brothers and sisters.
On Sunday, come forward to receive your daily bread, your gift without price, your life lived in God’s kingdom of grace and then live out that gift in the labors of your life. Amen.
Saturday, September 06, 2008
If you are on my blog list, you will be receiving this first installment on my reflection over a week and a day before I will preach on it. It is strange how God can take a simple note of sympathy from two friends to lead me down a path that both honors my continued grief and comforts me with a view of God into whose loving arms we all live and die.
I have been re-reading the end of the story from Genesis about Joseph, Jacob's favorite child, who saw himself early on in his life as the center of the universe. He even had grand dreams of his brothers and even his father, bowing down to him. Here is that conclusion:
Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph's brothers said, "What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?" So they approached Joseph, saying, "Your father gave this instruction before he died, `Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.' Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father." Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, "We are here as your slaves." But Joseph said to them, "Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones." In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
Joseph's father had introduced Joseph and his other sons to the world of rivalry, violence, pain, and suffering by his exceptional treatment of Joseph. Joseph's ego was rather large (how could it not be) and his brothers feeling the less for all of this special treatment moved from admiration, to resentment, to rivalry, and finally to violence against their dream telling brother.
They sold him into captivity to some foreign traders and Joseph ended up going through a series of reversals where his previous high opinion of himself and his future were changed forever. He ended up being admired by the Egyptian Pharaoh because he alone could interpret Pharaoh’s dream of seven fat cows being swallowed by seven skinny cows and seven fat corn cobs being swallowed by seven skinny corn cobs. He told the Pharaoh about 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of famine.
Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of the project of storing food for the time of famine that was coming. Joseph's family, his brothers and father and all of their family go to Egypt to buy grain so that they can survive too. Joseph goes through an elaborate process of revealing himself to them. His father thought he was dead. He brothers thought he was somebody's slave. But Joseph had been transformed into what one Christian mystic called: "the glory of God is a human being fully alive."
Joseph through his suffering, his being confronted by powers greater than his fragile ego and his developing love for others and a desire to be of service was transformed into a human being fully alive.
When Joseph's brothers discovered that he now held the power of life and death over them, they were very frightened, believing that Joseph would pay them back for their violent treatment of him. But here, in the very opening pages of Jewish scripture we find the heart and soul of God revealed in Joseph. He forgives them and clearly says that whereas his brothers had intended him harm and evil, God had no such agenda for him and would have no such agenda for his brothers.
He tells them clearly: "I am in the place of God?" What a remarkable revelation for human kind. Joseph, who had believed he was in the place of God, discovered God to be an altogether different and compelling person. Joseph left all thought of pay back to God with the slight suspicion that God was not the sort of God who would act in a way that was contrary to his expectations for his human creation.
Monday, September 01, 2008
I am taking time to grieve the death of my Mother. Grief is a complex process and can sometimes be like one of those super balls that bounce unpredicably. Tears come and go; happy memories pop up and gently fade away; a sense of relief that Mom no longer has to suffer is like a melody that repeats through all of the other feelings;. Finally, I feel gratitude for being her youngest son.
I want to share with you the very special person she was. She taught me about God in the everyday stuff of life. She mothered my brother and me into a relationship with God. It is truly amazing that in her very clear and simple and loving way, my Mom taught us how to fulfill "the law and the prophets." As I complete the business of her life and prepare to take her home to Coffeyville, Kansas with my brother on October 1, I hope that by repeating something I preached on Easter Sunday, 2006 and wrote about in 2007 I will honor her memory.
God's Peace in the Grief,
What is the good news about Easter? Last year on Easter Sunday, I told the story from my childhood about getting lost in a park and forgetting to follow our Mother's three basic rules to follow when on an adventure:
1. Stay together.
2. Hold hands.
3. Yell yoo-hoo every once in a while to let her know where we were.
I am not sure where she got those rules, but they did work and my brother and me, having been lost, were found. The difference between being lost and found was simply being in the presence of someone who loves us. There is really no place or condition in which we might find ourselves that can be called “lost,” if we are in the presence of God.
The power of resurrection is in the message that Jesus entered into the most shameful, violent, and cursed experience we all fear and seek to avoid as human beings and yet continued to be held in God’s arms. When my brother and I were lost, our Mom never lost sight of us and her love for us claimed us as found.
Come to hear the story of Easter as we celebrate the love and forgiveness of God and discover that no matter how lost we are, God hears our deepest, voiceless cry. Let us stay together, hold hands, and make our voices cry out to God.
The yoo-hoo prayer that our Mom taught us works. The day of resurrection proclaims that there is no one left alone in the place of shame or curse. No one is lost. God knows where we are and claims us as found and loved. Let’s come together to celebrate being found and then gracefully and gratefully share this good news and take the hand of others whom the world has declared to be lost.
God’s Peace in the Alleluia Yoo-Hoo,
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
It is Tuesday, August 26, 2008, at 5:03 PM. Here are my thoughts on this week's Gospel and Epistle readings as I continue to prepare for Sunday.
What can Peter teach us about going from the rock on which the entire church is built to being a stone on which Jesus might stumble and become something much less than the Messiah of God? He begins by showing us (see last week’s Gospel reading) that we often say things about God that we really do not understand or believe.
Peter proclaims Jesus is the messiah, the Son of the living God and Jesus praises him by making a pun on the name Peter. Peter in Greek also means rock (as in petrified, turned to stone). So Jesus says Rock, you are rock and on this rock I will build my church. I believe that Peter’s gift of saying that Jesus was the messiah without totally understanding what this title actually meant was and continues to be the rock on which the church is built.
Week after week, we gather as a worshipping community around the Table that Jesus sets for us. We read about him in scriptures and the preacher seeks to share the good news these scriptures offer. We affirm the Nicene Creed which describes Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. We do these things sometimes without fully understanding or even accepting this formula of faith. Is this the rock on which Jesus is building his church?
For now, I would say, “yes.” Jesus worked with Peter despite his inability to understand what being the messiah of God or the Son of God really meant. Jesus entrusted to him and to us, the keys to the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven against which the powers of Hades will not prevail. Do you feel trustworthy enough to be handed these keys? Do you feel qualified to know what sins and sinners should be forgiven and which ones should not be?
To complicate our reflections on these questions, professor Peter shows us how quickly he and the church can become a stumbling stone or block to Jesus. After Jesus announces that he is going to Jerusalem to suffer and die, Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to lecture him about what Jesus had said. Have you ever used the expression, “God forbid?” What does that mean to you? Is Peter simply exercising his love and concern for Jesus or he is somehow compulsively and therefore, unknowingly, participating in the very wrathful systemic violence that Jesus’ suffering and death continue to unveil and forgive?
A stumbling stone or block is also called a scandal. Jesus calls Peter “Satan” and orders him to get behind him. It is as if Jesus were back in the wilderness of temptation and being offered a choice that was hard to resist by the Adversary (AKA, Satan or the devil). What was Satanic about Peter’s warning to Jesus? Why would his warning be seen as a stumbling block or stone?
Many people still attribute wrath to God or the gods. We hear some say that they God is going to rain down his wrath on sinners. Jesus seems to have a different relationship with God and therefore a different understanding of who God is. Jesus calls God, Our Father. As a Son in relationship to Our Father, Jesus knew that God was not violent, wrathful, or vengeful. But how could he show us most clearly the Father whom he knew and loved?
When one of the disciples asked Jesus to show them the Father, Jesus responded saying: “Have I been with you so long and you still do not see the Father who is in me?” To see Jesus is to see the heart of Our Father. Jesus did not raise an army or instigate violence against Caesar or anyone else. If he knew God our Father to be utterly non-violent and fully alive, he “must” go to Jerusalem.
He goes to this place of rejection, suffering, and death not to condemn us, but to save us from ourselves. Peter’s seemingly loving concern was based upon his knowledge of the wrathful human ways. He really did not yet know the Father who had revealed Jesus as his Son. But his words were taken right out of the book written to keep things just the way they have always been.
Fear preaches a million sermons a day and Peter spoke to Jesus as if he were Satan himself. Satan is the principle (Prince) of human wrath and violence, dividing us up and cheering on one side and then the other with the belief that violence can and will rid the world of all evil. Peter did not see Jesus raising armies or using his divine power to rain down death on his enemies. Since Jesus would not fight, Peter counseled him to avoid the powerful Romans and the zealous religious folks who dispensed suffering and death to maintain what they called life.
Jesus called Peter, his disciples, and us to pick up our cross. Our cross is not our individual hardships that come to many people during the course of a life time, but our mission to be servants and children of God. We carry our cross together as the church. We follow a vision of God that does not include the anthropomorphic gods of violence which allow us to justify violence against our enemies. We pray for our enemies and offer them nourishment when they are hungry and thirsty. That is the cross we must bear together and sometimes individually.
How can we learn from Peter and not become a stumbling block or stone to Jesus? I think the deeper question is: How can we become the rock on which the church is built given that we have been conformed to a world of wrath that threatens, expels, and murders the Messiah? Jesus offers us time with him. Peter shares his story of faith with us. St. Paul also shares his story and offers us a way of being which may look like a cross to us (See our reading from Romans for Sunday), but which truly gives us the chance to loose our so-called way of being to gain true life.
I hope to see you Sunday.
God’s Peace in Rocks of Stumbling and the Rock on which the Church is Built,