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December 3, 2017, 1st Sunday of Advent YR B

Year B, Advent 1
December 3, 2017
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“…the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

Welcome to Advent, everyone!  It is a new liturgical year, our calendar starts today.  The church year follows the cycle of life defined by Jesus.  We have this time now, Advent, a time of waiting and preparation for the Incarnation, the prelude of the big event.  Then there is the brief Christmas season, the festival of God’s light in the darkest time of the year.  This is followed by Epiphany, that mirrors the prime of Jesus’ ministry, the shining of His light far and wide.  Lent comes next, our season for fasting, our season of penance.   We follow Jesus on His slow march to Jerusalem, then through Holy Week to the cross and through that dark night to the glory of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, and the 50 days our Risen Lord walked with us.  The Spirit comes on Pentecost, and in Her wake and company, we have the Season after Pentecost, Ordinary Time, that makes up half the year.  That is now, not Advent 1, but this epoch in history, the post Easter age, the time of waiting between when He ascended to when He comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead.  Every year the wheel turns, and us with it, and here we are again, at the beginning, at the first Sunday of Advent.

I love the blue.  Marian blue.  Did anyone see our travelers yet?  Mary and Joseph?  Where are they?  Keep an eye on them each week as they make their way to Jerusalem.  Who has an Advent calendar?  Did you start on the 1st or wait until today?  We miss a couple of days of Advent this year.  It starts today, not December 1.  It is a new year, which we will spend largely with St. Mark’s Gospel.  (This past year was with St. Matthew, next with St. Luke.  St. John is sprinkled in here and there to keep it fresh).  I love the lighting of the Advent wreath.  We’re making them downstairs after Mass.  It is quiet.  I love Advent.

So it is a new year.  We’re on to the next big thing, right?  We’re making a fresh start, right?  Christmas is right around the corner, all’s about to be right with the world…  You wouldn’t know it by the scripture this morning, would you?  We have Isaiah 64, written in the mean years after the return from the Babylonian exile.  The Babylonians had done a number on Israel, and the Prophet called out, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…”  Because YHWH didn’t seem very present.  It was bleak to the prophet.

The passage from 1st Corinthians is pretty nice, it is the greeting at the start of that letter, but we get it over on the gospel side.  We’re just coming off of several weeks of Jesus’ eschatological discourse in Matthew.  Rough scripture.  The end times.  Being thrown into the outer darkness.  The separation of the sheep and the goats, one to eternal life, the other to eternal death.  The Reign of Christ was last week, we should be in the fresh new year getting ready for Christmas, so our first taste of Mark should be a sweet morsel, right?  No, it is Mark’s Little Apocalypse.  “…the sun will be darkened… the stars will be falling from heaven…”  Three times Jesus exhorts us, keep awake!  “You do not know when the master of the house will come.”  That is not what most of us think about when we think about Advent, is it?

The following passage frames so well the essence of the First Sunday of Advent.  “Contrary to the manner in which it is often celebrated in the churches, Advent begins not on a note of joy, but of despair. Humankind has reached the end of its rope. All our schemes for self-improvement, for extracting ourselves from the traps we have set for ourselves, have come to nothing. We have now realized at the deepest level of our being that we cannot save ourselves, and that, apart from the intervention of God, we are totally and irretrievably lost.”

That’s pretty heavy, but that is the story, isn’t it?  When the Word was made Flesh and dwelt among us, when Jesus was born, what kind of state was the world in?  It was pretty rough, wasn’t it?  The Romans were an unkind imperial occupier.  (We all are).  The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Herodians were all squabbling.  The Essenes were so disgusted by the corruption of the world that they renounced and evacuated to the Dead Sea.  And all these stories, they came together in the wake of the desolating sacrilege, the destruction of the temple.  Mark was writing maybe just a few years after what was the worst thing that ever happened in Israel.  It was the dark night of that nation’s soul.  Sounds timely.

Why did Jesus come?  Why did God enter this world in this particular form, a fragile, vulnerable baby born to a peasant girl in a most extraordinary way, sure, but also in an extraordinarily bad time to be a pregnant peasant girl.  Why did God do this?

Because God promised, right?  There had been a time when things were really bad, people were doing everything they shouldn’t and nothing they should.  What happened?  (Hint: It was another time that the heavens were torn open as Isaiah alludes to).  The Flood.  Swept it clean.  A big redux.  But never again, God said.

So Jesus came because God promised, promised us a Second Covenant, but why did God promise that?  Because we would need it, right?  We would need saving, God knew that.  There’s a pattern.  We’d be with God and slip away.  We’d come back, and be dragged off.  We’d come back again, but then turn our back and walk in the other direction.  Time and again God called us to return.  God knew that we would need saving.  And here we are.  We need saving.

We are at the end of our rope.  The world.  That list is too ugly for the children to hear.  Garrison Keillor, for goodness sake!  Our lives.  Relationships are strained, tattered.  We drink too much, smoke too much, take too many pills, spend too much, eat too much, stare at our phones too much.  And this after Easter.  After Jesus redeemed us.  Ordinary Time is the season of the holy spirit working in the world, life as it goes in a post-Easter world.  And here we find ourselves, back at the beginning again, and what do we find?  We still need to be redeemed.  We still, still, again and again need to listen to God’s call to us, because we have been unable to do it ourselves.  We cannot save ourselves.

Maybe that is all that needs to be said: We can’t save ourselves.  That’s a step towards faith, isn’t it?  That we need help. Maybe the first step is knowing that we are broken, Learning that, admitting that to ourselves. That’s the first step, knowing that we are all separated from God, we are all sinners.  Maybe the second step of faith is realizing that we can’t do it alone, we can’t save ourselves.

Let’s take a pause for some of our younger folks here, our lectors and ushers and acolytes, all the youth Sunday folks.  When I say sinner, that we are all sinners, that doesn’t mean that we are bad, that we are wicked or naughty or dirty.  No, sin, being a sinner is a church way of talking about how things, the world, we are not as they should be, are not as God dreamed of us.  We get cranky.  We get mad.  We hurt people.  Other people do all these things too and for no good reason.  We do things and say things that we know we should not.  Sometimes is seems easier to do what we shouldn’t do, doesn’t it? That’s sin.  Sin is the things we do because we don’t feel God in our hearts, and those things we do that keep us from feeling God in our hearts.  It is why things aren’t as good as they could be, as the should be, as God wants them to me.

And God, Jesus, saves us from that sin.  He heals our hearts, shows us that we are loved.  And when we know we are loved, when we feel it, everything is different.  Like when you fall and your mom comes and helps.  It still hurts, but that doesn’t matter nearly enough when you know someone feels it with you.  Jesus feels everything with you.  That is one way to understand being  saved.  Being saved can mean a lot of things.  Some people talk about it being saved from going to hell.  Others talk about it being saved from suffering, from pain and feeling bad about things, about yourself and other people.  I usually think about it more like everything being in its place.  Everything going along as God wants it to go along.  People getting along.  The grass growing, the bees buzzing, the rain falling, the flowers blooming, everything in its time, in its place.  It is like a river.  It flows crookedly to the sea because it is supposed to flow crookedly to the sea.  The fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience… all of those, when they come naturally, that’s what happens when you are saved.  It’s a big deal.  Do you think we can do that all by ourselves?  Tidy up all the messes in the world on our own?  I can’t even keep my desk clean!  Heal ourselves?  No, we can’t do this on our own.

The third Holy truth is that we can be saved.  There is a way, a path.  We are not condemned to the darkness, but are called, lovingly, gathered like a hen gathers her chicks around her, her wings out stretched, holding them all in together.  Have you ever seen a chicken doing that?  We had a hen lay a clutch of eggs out in the woods that somehow the foxes, raccoons, coyotes, cats and dogs missed.  She showed up one morning with a dozen balls of fluff, and she would cluck, cluck all over them, trying to keep them all together.  A border collie couldn’t do a better job of herding.  God does the same for us, holds us, keeps us all together in one big, cute, fluffy clutch.  We can feel it if we pay close attention.  We can be saved.

And the way to being saved?  Jesus.  The Way.  The Way, the Truth and the Life.  This is what we are supposed to be getting ready for in Advent, the incarnation of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.  But it is not so big a deal, Christmas isn’t, if you don’ think you need Him.  So that is why we start this season like we do, with these dark passages from the Bible about hard times.  With Mark’s little apocalypse.  Reminding us that God came into the world 200 years ago because things weren’t so good.

Observing Advent is quite a practice of faith.  We start by noticing, or remembering how hard it is, how hard it has been, how hard it might become.  And you hold that in one hand.  And you keep holding it.  Then slowly, week by week, as you light the candles and it gets brighter, slowly brighter.  You still hold it, the darkness, the things hurt, you hold that in your hand.  But you also hold here, in the other hand, that little candy cane you find in your Advent calendar, or the little Advent Bible passage you read each morning, that sweet taste of what is to come, of Jesus, whom God promised to us.  A tiny, helpless baby who is God.  Who will be born, grow up, be baptized, will teach and preach and eventually get in all sorts of trouble, make lots of people mad and end up on the cross as fragile and helpless as He came into the world.  And in that, in following Him on the path He lays out for us, we are saved.  All things are put right inside of us, and with a world full of people like that, what a wonderful world it would be.  That’s the Kingdom of God for sure.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the church, to the observance of a holy Advent.  Have faith.  It is bleak.  We are sinners, broken and distant and we can’t save ourselves.  But we can be saved, and Jesus is coming to do just that.  Take your time over this season.  Remember who you are and where you are in your life, hold that in one hand.  And then remember what has been promised you, eternal life, hold that in the other.  Jesus is coming, soon.  Keep awake.  AMEN

November 26, 2017, Reign of Christ YR A

Year A, Reign of Christ
November 26, 2017
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Before we came to Eugene I ran a farming project at an Anglican monastery.  We had a little CSA, farm interns, retreatants sometimes helped; it was pretty exciting.  Maybe a bit too exciting for a monastery.  I called the project, “Helping the Land Help People Know God.”  Most folks didn’t get it, didn’t understand the connection, so I used to joke about it, saying one of the reasons we did it was to increase people’s relationships to the Biblical stories.  “Too many folks don’t know the difference between sheep and goats let alone how to separate them!”  I don’t know if that helped anyone understand what I was up to, but it sure took some pressure off of some very uncomfortable scripture.

We’ve had a few weeks of rough scripture.  Today, we hear the conclusion of Jesus’ eschatological sermon to His disciples in the story of the sheep being separated from the goats, with the clear judgment, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”   The setting, the context of this sermon in Jesus’ story speaks to how important this is.  The next thing that happens is the plot, then the Passion.  This is serious stuff.

Eschatological… That means having to do with the end times, the conclusion of history, the fullness of time.  Eschatology is one of the basic categories Christian doctrine.  To have a comprehensive, or systematic theology, you have to account for time.  How does it begin, exist and end?  We have a basic answer for that.  Yes.  It began, it is, it will end. The Gloria Patri, “…as it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever.”  And that forever is marked by some point where judgment happens. His coming in glory to judge the living and the dead, the resurrection of the body and the  life of the world to come, those things we wince at in the creeds, they can, and do, mean a lot of things.  When we talk in terms of end times, of eschatology, it is a rhetorical amplifier, a foot stomp that signifies that the subject at hand is important.  It matters.  A lot.  This is one of those cases.  How we act in the world, according to Jesus, matters.  A lot.

One of the great gifts of the Anglican form of Christianity, is that we are not expected to believe very much by way of specifics.  Orthodoxy (right belief), is not an Anglican virtue in the way that orthopraxis, (right practice) is.  You can have all sorts of ideas so long as you stand or kneel when you are supposed to at Mass. We are criticized for that, this what I call “flexibility”.  That flexibility, or theological expansiveness is not being lackadaisical or accommodating liberal indiscipline (or it is not necessarily or just that).  I don’t know if it is possible or even desirable to have a whole bunch of humans actually believing or striving to believe the exact same thing.  Human history is littered with horror stories of large groups of people being held to strict orthodoxy.  Moral man, immoral society.  So we don’t need to have the same interpretation of stories like this, stories of the end times.  But I do think we need to have a story.  I think you need to have a story.

When we speak of eschatology, the end times, in the Episcopal Church, heavens, the variety of religious beliefs that we find in our midst on this subject!  The bishop who ordained me took an almost perverse pride in his belief in the “resurrection of the body”, the real physical body coming back together on that last day of judgment.  Our banner has been put away for a while, but as Resurrection, the image is Jesus pulling people out of a grave.  My bishop knew that it made nice, liberal Massachusetts folks uncomfortable and I think he goaded us with that old-time religion.  That’s fine.  I might have some thoughts on his motivation and how he told people about his beliefs, but his beliefs, well, there were his.  They had centuries and centuries of precedence.  They brought him comfort when I knew him when he was healthy, I hope they brought him even more as he died from cancer.

On the other end of the spectrum, the most common thing I hear on this subject, on the end times around the Church of the Resurrection is nothing.  Zilch.  Nada.  “Don’t want to think about it, don’t want to talk about it.”  I totally hear that.  It is quite a story.  Quite a fantastic concept, the eschaton, the end.  Judgment.  Sheep and goats.  Eternal punishment or eternal life.  I think a lot of people, thinking people in particular, dismiss these parts of the story as superstitions.  You can’t verify any of this, not by modern standards.  It is as nonsensical empirically as the creation in six days or the flood. Very third leg of the stool, very reasonable, even though scripture and tradition might give different answers to what happens in the fullness of time.

I don’t know what happens in the end.  I do know that I am getting less suspicious of those whose faith has given them a glimpse.  It doesn’t mean I need to believe them, but it doesn’t mean I should to dismiss them as whack-jobs, either.  Religious knowledge is a legitimate source of knowledge.  For thousands of years it was the only legitimate source of knowledge, faith, religion, our encounter with Divine mystery.  The Enlightenment corrected that, there are other sources of knowledge, but religious knowledge, the knowledge of faith is still legitimate.  Silence can teach you things as profound and important and true as a physics textbook.  The truth of beauty can be revealed in a faithfully executed Easter Vigil as much as in a sonnet by Shakespeare, or a painting by Monet or a concerto by Bach.  What you experience as you receive the Body and Blood of Jesus, is as true an experience of reality as anything that we as humans have ever done, ever do.  What we do here, delving into scripture, gathering at this altar, what we do here together is very real.  Very true.  Very important.  I don’t claim any special knowledge of the details of many of these stories, like the sheep and the goats, and what happens in the final days, but my faith is telling me that there is something here, something important, something that we need to attend to.  The details are not important.  Or as Marcus Borg says, “I don’t know if it happened this way, but I know this story is true.”  What is true here in this scripture, in the conclusion of Jesus’ eschatological discourse, is that what we do, what we do here and now, what we do in this life, matters.  There are consequences to how we live.

Jesus teaches this lesson to His disciples (and us) in such a beautiful way, perfect.  “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”  He makes this revolutionary, salvific revelation that the way you treat the meanest, most downtrodden, most oppressed and despised and wretched of the earth, that is how you are treating God.  God is with the broken; treat them accordingly.  God is with the weak; treat them as such.  God is hungry and thirsty and alone and naked and sick and in jail, and you worship God, you are as you are supposed to be in the world when you relieve the suffering of the creation, when you engage with eyes wide open to the fullness of the world.  Wheh.  And if that isn’t profound enough or stirring enough, Jesus lets us know that if you don’t do those things you will “go away into eternal punishment.”

I am trying to diversify my religious knowledge base, so I am using a variety of resources in preparing my sermons.  One commentary I reference is more conservative than I am, or espouses a more traditional take on things.  On Matthew 25:31-46, it urges the preacher to not make this simply a humanitarian sermon.  (Perish the thought).  But their point is right on.  This is not a religious call to work at 2nd Sunday breakfast or give money to the Home Starter Kit Advent Tree.  Though both of these acts are encouraged and appreciated, they are not going to get you into heaven (or out of hell), this is not a quid pro quo kind of situation.  Be good, get rewarded.  No.  We are justified by faith, not works.  The faith is that what we do, how we are, who we are in the world, matters.  Matters deeply.  Matters to the fullness of time.  The specifics don’t matter, there isn’t some formula of conduct to conform too, though you could do worse than follow the examples He listed, but you can’t just be out for number one, be totally selfish or greedy or slothful any of the other deadly sins and think that there are not consequences of one form or another.  Like consequences to the end.

I sat with this scripture all week.  Today is the Solemnity of the Reign of Christ, or more traditionally (and patriarchaly), Christ the King.  It is a relatively modern (1925) feast holding up the ancient notion of Jesus as King of the Universe, sovereign of Heaven and Earth.  What happens in heaven, in the eternity beyond our knowing matters.  What happens here, in time, in our lives, it matters.  Jesus is concerned with all of it.  Jesus is concerned with all of us.  With all of you.  And what we do, matters.

This doesn’t mean you need to run to the Sudan and start an orphanage, or give up tenure to feed homeless folks, not necessarily.  For some of us, it is exactly what it means, but not for all of us.  I know I get some critique for implying that to be Christians faithful to the gospel we need to tear the system down, that we can’t work within it, it being so corrupt and structurally sinful.  I’ve made some strident claims at times, that is true, I am sorry if any of them put you out.  But it is kind of funny since I am an Episcopal priest, I couldn’t get much more institutionally entrenched than that.  But what I mean is that that liberal ideal of “Doing well while doing good,” can be a slippery slope of delusion and self-indulgence.  Doing well, making a lot of money, having prestige, influence, doing well by worldly standards, that needs to be secondary to doing good in the world.  That is the very least that Jesus said to his disciples so long ago, that is a low bar.

We are Anglicans, so what I, your priest, thinks about what an appropriate balance between worldly fortunes and Godly service doesn’t matter, not in an end times sort of way.  You are responsible for discerning what is enough.  You are responsible for figuring out what feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, all those things Jesus commends to you, you are responsible for what that actually looks like in your life.  That is on you.  That is on each of us.  Maybe being the kindest boss, ensuring that the people you are responsible for are treated fairly and decently and are paid well and work in safe conditions, maybe that is exactly what you are supposed to be doing.  Maybe it is being a teacher who opens the minds of students, edifying them with the beauty of knowledge, lifting their spirits to some Platonic plateau of righteousness.  Maybe it is staying home with the kids and helping them become the moral people we want the world left to.  Or being a good friend, a generous neighbor, a loving member of a community, a devoted partner.  Only you know if what you are doing is what God wants you to be doing, and if you are doing enough of it, or if you lean more towards doing well than doing good, you get to get to discern that.  My job is to make sure that you are asking the question of yourself and offer what our scripture and tradition has to say on it.  And on both accounts, it is pretty clear.  What we do, matters in the end.  A lot.

I am not saying that focusing more on your own good than the common good is going to get you sent to the line with the goats.  What I am saying is that for thousands of years, across the globe, in culture after culture, including from the mouth of Jesus Christ, we have been told that what we do matters in a most desperate way.  Truly, that is Good News.  It is reassuring news.  I’d hate to think that what we do here is meaningless, just doesn’t matter.  But for something to be meaningful, that means that there are responsibilities that go with it.  And with getting responsibility, there are consequences; some good, some less so.

You’ve been doing it wrong?  Had your priorities messed up?  Fear not, God in Christ is merciful and forgiveness is always and extravagantly offered.  You, all of us can change our ways.  For remember, forgiveness is offered to the repentant.  It is offered to those who repent, which means those who change what they are doing, a change the direction of their lives.  What you do matters.  And you can always change what you do, but, that doesn’t change how much it matters.

This is the end of the church year.  Liturgically this is the end, the new year begins next week with Advent 1, our time of waiting and preparation for God to fulfill the promise of a savoir to be born among us, King of the Universe born to a poor peasant girl in a backwater province of a great empire.  That matters.  This matters.  You matter.  All we can do is live as if that is true, sometimes it is by faith alone.  AMEN

 

 

November 19, 2017, 24th Sunday after Pentecost YR A

Year A, Proper 28
November 19, 2017
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“For to all 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.”

This is the Parable of the Talents, or if we follow Karl Barth’s dictum and preach with the Gospel in one hand and the newspaper in the other, we could call this the Parable of the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.”  Have you heard much about the tax plan that just passed in the House?  One of the provisions is to make graduate student fee waivers taxable income.  Another increases the threshold of the estate tax to $11 million, meaning no taxes are paid on any inheritance worth under $11 million for a single person, $22 million for couples.  Taking from those with little and giving to those who have much.  Some things change, some things never do.

This parable is part of what some call the Sermon on the Mount of Olives.  He left the Temple after picking those fights with the scribes and Pharisees, and went over to the Mount of Olives where He spoke to the disciples.  He gave an apocalyptic sermon, a sermon about the eschaton, the end times.  There is the Parable of the Slave Left in Charge, about the one who stays diligent in his work as opposed to the one who beats and cheats those left in his charge.  That story is followed by last week’s Parable of the Bridesmaids, some who brought oil, some who did not, “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  Then we hear this week’s Parable of the Talents, and then it ends with the Son of Man coming in glory, gathering the people dividing them as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  The righteous, those who serve the least of these, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, visiting the prisoner are placed on one side. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me.”  Those who don’t do these things on the other,  “…these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”  This is as hard as Jesus preaches and it incurs wrath.  The next thing that happens in the story is the plot to kill Jesus, which flows directly to the Passion.

Is this the way the world is supposed to be?  Is going to be?  Is this a parable of how the world is?  Each of those possibilities have very, very different implications.  How do we make meaning of, or use of a parable such as this?  I think the short answer is “very carefully.” What does this story mean?

Is this how it is supposed to be?  No.  Jesus is not saying that the Kingdom of God is like this master giving talents to his slaves and going away.  That was the case with the Bridesmaids.  He said be alert, do what needs doing because it takes work, salvation, and you never know when it is you time.  But that is not what is being said here.

Some allegorize this parable.  Jesus is the master and the Gospel is given to the people.  Some work hard with it, do what needs doing and are rewarded.  Some are fearful and hide it away, don’t do anything with the gift God, Jesus offers and they punished horrendously for it.  But Jesus does not reap where He does not sow.  So that allegory falters.

Some say that it is about fear.  The Master is generous in his trust, but that comes with great responsibility.  (And great responsibility can be scary).  A talent was worth a lot, something like 6000 denari.  A denari was the wage for a typical day’s labor.  So five talents is something like 80 years worth of salary, or $4 ¼ million in today’s dollars based on median income.  OK.  That kind of responsibility could be scary.  The first two slaves did not act out of their fear, they rose to the occasion, but the third did, he was paralyzed by his fear.  So maybe we’re supposed to consider how often we are motivated by fear in our own lives?  Question what we are willing to risk for the sake of love, for what is right?

  1. But it would seem that that third slave had reason to fear the master.  He was overly conservative in the master’s eyes, but at least the master got his talent back. What would have happened if he had invested and lost the money?  Was it the effort that counted in the master’s eye or the result?  I am just guessing here, that a slave owner willing to throw someone into the outer darkness for under-achievement is not going to be very forgiving of failure.   So I don’t think that is it.  This is not a parable about how it is supposed to be.

It could be about how it is going to be.  The historical context is important.  Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience, Jews who saw Jesus as a reform within Judaism, not as a wholly new religious movement.  And it is written by and to folks who existed in the wake of the desolating sacrilege that Jesus predicts at the beginning of this sermon: the destruction of the Temple and the heart of the nation of Israel with it.  They were trying to make sense of life in the wake of the destruction of the Temple.  Why did it happen?  What does that mean about God?  Jesus was crucified.  The infantile church scattered, then was hunted and persecuted by people like Saul of Tarsus.  The temple was destroyed.   So much was lost.  Apocalyptic discourses like this come about in times of great peril and uncertainty, trying to make meaning slips so easily in trying to assign blame in times like that.  Look into our politics right now, everyone is turning on everyone.  “It’s your fault!”  “No, it’s yours!”  “It’s his!”  “It’s hers.”  “It’s theirs!”  Blame is so in our nature.

So this parable could be the Matthean community trying to find meaning, which often devolves into assigning blame for the horrendous evil that had and continued to rain down upon them.  That could explain how and why these words are coming from Jesus’ mouth, but it doesn’t make it very useful to us other than a significant cautionary tale.

So maybe this parable is about the way that it is.  Not everything is like this, gross injustice, abuse by the powerful on the powerless, but it is enough of the time.  Less than one percent of the world’s population controls wealth equivalent to the wealth of the bottom 3.8 billion of us.  Slavery still exists.  There are 21,541 homeless students in Oregon public schools.  We counted 1,529 homeless on our streets in January during the HUD Point-in-time count.  That wasn’t everyone.  We had 1,677 unique guests at Egan last year.   That is more than we counted in January.  Guns flow freely on our streets.  Health care is being taken away from millions.  Racial and religious minorities, immigrants, LGBTQ folks are persecuted for who they are or who they appear to be.   Women, women!  We are finally, just now, beginning to acknowledge as a society how bad so many men treat so many women.  So this parable, the story of what happens to you if you don’t play the man’s game, is descriptive of the experience of many.  So maybe Jesus is trying to say that this is how it is?  Or maybe it isn’t going to always be like this for those of us who are righteous?  Who are willing to bring our spiritual oil with us, do what it takes to be ready for what will come?

Or maybe this parable is about fear, real and understandable fear because it can be scary out there, sometimes.  It sure seems to me that that master was an evil one, reaping where he did not sow.  The only thing he risked was capital.  The slaves risked their lives, as if they had any choice in the matter.  But actually, there was choice, that third slave decided not to help the master, not to collaborate with his obvious enemy, his owner.  No he didn’t destroy anything but potential earnings that were lost, but that is still a pretty strong moral statement.  He refused to do what he did not believe in, that he thought was wrong, or just did not want to work to enrich an evildoer through risks he would have to take and efforts he would have to make.  And do you know what that resistance cost him?  Everything.

Someone gave me a beautiful set of modern day icons.  They sit right behind my laptop on the desk where I write my sermons.  They depict Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, the four Churchwomen of El Salvador, Dorothy Day and the Martyrs of San Salvador, the six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her 16 year-old daughter who were imprisoned, tortured, raped and killed by American trained troops of an American backed government in 1989, the year I graduated high school.  Not ancient history.  They, each of these martyrs (minus Dorothy Day, she’ll be a saint, but not for martyrdom), each of them paid as heavy a price as can be paid to do what was right.

God willing, none of us will have to pay the price of everything, or anything even remotely near to what those heroes of the church paid.  But at the same time, we have to abandon the notion that living right, doing the right thing, being what Jesus asks us to be in the world and doing what Jesus tells us to do in the world doesn’t take effort, doesn’t take risk, is painless.  It is not, never has been, and never will be until “that great gittin’ up morning” as James Weldon Johnson calls it, the fullness of time.  Doing the right thing is risky, and can be very costly.  The first two slaves avoided the problem.  They went along to get along and they got their reward.  It worked out for them in the near term at least, “enter into your master’s joy.”  But what did their enriching of him do?  It got them out of the hot seat, for one thing.  OK.  Very understandable.  But maybe they were slipping into what Bonhoeffer warned of when he said, “The sin of respectable people is running away from responsibility.”  The “good slaves’” efforts earned the master more wealth so he could what, buy more slaves and put how many others under the threat of being declared useless and cast into the outer darkness?  I left the business world in large part because I realized that the sole reason for my work was to make a lot of money for myself, and a whole lot more for the people up the chain.  I knew those guys, they were nice enough, but they didn’t need to get any richer and didn’t need my help getting there.  Maybe this parable is about how it is and how high the cost of discipleship can be.  <Sigh>

Where’ the Good News here?  Where’s the hope?  What do you think?  You read the newspapers.  Watch the news.  Listen to NPR.  You live in this modern world.  Where do you see the Good News?  Think about that for a moment.

Remember, thinking about the Good News is not just ignoring the bad.  That is the easy way, not the Way of Jesus.  The really Good News, the capital G capital N Good News doesn’t avoid the bad, the evil, the outer darkness, those who are cast there and who do the casting.  It doesn’t need to, it is that Good.

I see the Good News constantly.  It brings tears to my eyes.  I see it in my daughters as they struggle to learn to be good girls who will grow into good women.  A lot of tears in their eyes going through all of that, Lord have mercy, growing up is hard, but it is Good News.  I see Good News in the forests in Jasper.  There is a big clear cut along the property line up in the hills, talk about desolating sacrilege.  But even after years of a getting a glysophate/2,4-D/goodness knows what else cocktail, life is eking its way in.  There’s more and more green up there and I saw bear scat, and deer and elk droppings all over one part of it last year during elk season.  (No elk, though).  That’s Good News.  I think the best news I have heard recently was sitting with Nerine and Jim as they died.  Their families were there.  Peace had been made.  They were ready.  It was time.  “…we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to the earth we shall return.  For so did you ordain when you created me saying, ‘You are dust, and to dust you shall return.’  All of us go down to the dust…”  Those are the words we commend a body with.  Nothing painless about any of that in the least, “…yet,” the prayer continues, “even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that yes, it is hard, there is pain and suffering and horror and evil in the world that seems sometimes bent on crushing that which is most beautiful, that which is most fragile and precious.  There is fear and trembling, sickness unto death, and outer darknesses do in fact exist, but that is not the end of the story.  That is not how the story ends, not how our story ends.  Following Jesus we are children of light, our end is not darkness.  As St. Paul commended his friends in Thessalonica, “let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.  For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with Him.”  And that is some Good News indeed.  AMEN

November 12, 2017, 23rd Sunday after Pentecost YR A

Year A, Proper 27
November 12, 2017
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“The kingdom of heaven will be like this.”

Next week is the conclusion of our annual pledge campaign.  We’ve received a goodly number of pledges already, and we’re going to collect the pledges of the leaders of the congregation today at the offertory, but next week its your turn.  We’ll collect them all together, offer a special blessing and then gather for lunch downstairs.  We’ll even have wine, thanks to Steven and Cathy and their vineyard out in Crow.  So bring your pledge cards next week!  We have plenty on the back table if you need one.

Money, in particular money being given to the church is not a comfortable topic for many of us.  I don’t know what it is like in other churches, but it is very uncomfortable in Episcopal churches, so we don’t talk about it much.  And wouldn’t you guess it, Episcopalians give at the lowest rate of any mainline Protestant denomination.  (We’re also the denomination with the highest per capita income.  That’s something to think about).

But we need to talk about money.  It might be a necessary evil, but it is necessary, at least until the kingdom erupts as promised.  So that’s what I want to talk about a bit today, about how and why we give, and maybe give you somethings to think about as you discern what you will offer to Resurrection this year.

Why do you give (or not give)?  That’s the key question.  Our campaign in general is designed to show the deep and abiding work of this parish and how that work changes us, converts us into better Christians, better people.  This year we focused on the formation of our children, how we welcome them into the Christian family, how we form them as moral human beings and equip them to thrive in a difficult world.  We heard how that ministry changes them, and in doing that ministry, changes us.  We heard form Stevie, from Annie, we heard about the whole life of the parish from Debbie last week.  Brilliant.  (Her poem, and brilliant, all the things we do here).  That’s all what we give for.  But why do you give to that?

Some of us give out of a sense of obligation; we are supposed to give to church.  That’s how we were raised. It is just a given.  In some churches, like the Mormon Church, it is a basic ethic of Christian life.  You give because that is the teaching.  (I wasn’t raised that way).  I had a bunk-mate in the Marines, a fellow Lieutenant, who was having financial problems.  Our Captain sat down with him and helped with a budget, and found that he tithed, he gave 10%.  He was a good, corn-fed, Indiana Christian boy.  He gave because that is what you do.  His tithe was less negotiable than his student loans.  He wasn’t forced to do it, but he needed to do that, it was part of his faith, his obligation.  He figured it out, his money problems.  He said it would, “it always works out, somehow!  God is good.”  He was a cheerful one.  We have people here in this parish that approach giving like that and they are some of our largest donors; our budget depends on that sort of dedication.  Real strength is shown, real growth can happen when you stick to principles, to obligations in a full way.  Some people give from a sense of obligation.

Some people give out of a very positive sense of charity.  We, the church, certainly Resurrection, are a Good Cause!  We together, collectively, corporately, are a good cause, we help in the world.  From the direct services we offer to our most vulnerable neighbors, to the community space we provide, to the care of our sick and dying, the formation of children into spirited, moral actors in the world… we do God’s good in the world and that aligns with your values and is something worth investing in and supporting.  And we need the support to do our ministry in the world and it does align with your values.  One reason why some Episcopalians don’t give as much to the church as others is probably because they give to lots of other things, too.  And that is great.  The HIV Alliance needs your help, too.  So does the ACLU, SquareOne Villages, the Relief Nursery and Beyond Toxics.  And we are a Good Cause, too.  Our 38 ministries relieve suffering, help the helpless and just make Eugene better, and we need your support.  Some people give out of a sense of charity.

Some members of the church give to the church like it is  membership dues.  Not fee for service, but an individual contribution to a communal project.  You get something out of it, it is a benefit to you in some way AND it is a good cause, it helps the community.  Joining the YMCA is a similar example.  You join and give because of everything you get from being their and by you supporting it, a net good exists in the community.  We are, in a way, a religious gymnasium: you come and get your spirit exercised, stretched, firmed up, smoothed out.  We keep spiritually fit.  I think we fit that model more than a spiritual spa.  I hope we are more rigorous than a spa, we ought not come here for solace only, like the Eucharistic prayer says, this is not just a place for rest, but must also be a place for strengthening, learning, preparing for the journey on the Way of Christ.

It is a little harder to figure out how to support the church as a membership organization.  In your giving statements, we have to include a clause that says that the only thing received from the giving were “intangible religious benefits.”  I whole-heartedly disagree, I think religions benefits are extremely tangible, but they are hard to quantify.  How do you monetize spiritual benefit?

In doing weddings or funerals, most folks have no idea how much to pay the priest as we don’t usually have set prices.  One guide I have heard is spend the same on the priest as you do the flowers, or the appetizers.  So are we worth as much as your gym membership?  Your cell phone/cable/internet bundle?  Your monthly entertainment budget?  A predecessor of mine in a cynical moment once quipped that if people gave what they spent at the liquor store each week the church would never want for money again.  I’m just saying… Maybe it is eating out, or iTunes, or impulse Amazon Prime purchases: how much do you spend on your most expensive vice?  Your spending is a window into your priorities, your values.  It can be sobering, maybe literally.  There are profound theological implications to our budgets.

So an ethical obligation, charitable giving, membership dues… these are some reasons why we give.  Let me offer another: religious practice.  Religious practices are regular practices, things we do that bring us closer to God. Coming to church regularly is the most common practice in this parish.  And it is a good one.  There are countless others.  Saying all or part of the Daily Office.  Meditating or doing centering prayer.  Saying grace before you eat (and maybe thank you afterwards).  Reading Scripture.  Using the Forward Day By Day.  Walking the labyrinth.  Serving week in, week out with religious intentions.  These are practices that can bring us closer to God.  Giving can, too.

So our family income for next year is going to be just about $71,000.  As a priest, there is an spoken expectation that we tithe, give 10%.  We are working towards that, have been since we’ve been here, increasing each year.  We are giving $4800 this year, $600 more than last year.  Just about 7%.  The percentage isn’t what is important to me religiously.  What is important to me, religiously, is that I, we, can feel it.  It is our largest expenditure each month after housing and food.  We notice it.  And that’s the point.

You want to buy something, but you can’t afford it.  If you can’t because you are poor, or the thing you need (not want, need) is beyond your capacity to pay, that is a tragedy.  Poverty is a blight, a structural sin from which no merit arises.  But if you can’t afford something because of a principal, a religious practice, something very different happens.  When I encounter some wanted thing that I cannot afford, sure there is disappointment or craving desire that is unsatisfied, but when I remind myself that I am giving x up because of my giving, I take pause.  I feel full.  I feel present.  I feel, even in the petty little sacrifices I make throughout my month, I feel like I have given something up intentionally, for God, for the sake of my relationship with God.  And do you know what I am doing in that moment?  Thinking about God.  Thinking about how Jesus Christ is more important to me than that $5 mocha.  And it is still there, that want (I like $5 mochas), but the sting is very rewarding, and over time, that process of sacrifice can become very gratifying.  If you can’t feel your gift, you lose out on many of the spiritual benefits of giving.  I am totally serious here.  This is not a sales pitch.  It feels, not good, like pleasurable good, but good, like going to the gym good.

Our gospel this morning is another harsh Jesus one.  The door is closed.  “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Jesus is saying a lot in this parable of the Kingdom.  There are many lessons that can be gleaned.  One of those, the one important to us this morning, is that it takes effort.  Life.  A relationship with God.  Salvation.  It takes effort, exertion, or to go back to that old-time religion, being a follower of Jesus Christ takes sacrifice.

No one expects their garden to grow without maintaining the fertility of the soil.  No one expects to do well in school without studying.  No one expects to get in shape without any effort.  I know you can’t tell under the slimming lines of this Chasuble, but I started going to the Y recently.  If I want my body to be healthy, it is going to take effort.  It could be fasting, removing harmful things from my diet or life habits.  It could be a practice, in this case, working out.  But I have absolutely no expectation that I will get in shape without real effort.  Why do we expect that same of our spirits?  It takes effort, sometimes strenuous effort to draw closer to God.  That is one of the important lessons in the parable of the ten bridesmaids.

God is always there, warm comfortable arms wide open for us, ever welcoming, ever forgiving.  So we’re not working to get God to love us, grace is real and that love is offered unconditionally to everyone.  But most of us aren’t able to accept it.  Aren’t able to experience the love of God in Christ with the Holy Spirit.  We’re all tangled up.  We are far too much of the world as well as being firmly in it.  Practice, prayer, it works in that it works on us, opens us to God and neighbor, points us in the direction of God, opens us so God’s bright light can shine in our usually dark and closed hearts.  It takes a lot of effort to do that.  Immense effort.  Think of the story of any spiritual hero.  Immense effort.

The bridesmaids who made it to the banquet, they had prepared, they had made an effort.  They made sacrifices to get the oil in time.  They did what they were supposed to do and therefore were ready when the time came.  I am not sure why they didn’t share the oil, but that doesn’t change the lesson that to be in right relationship with God we need to exert effort.

A lot of my life is guided by my religious practices.  I pray the office and for all of you.  I do my chi kung.  I read my scripture.  I go to church a lot.  I serve the poor.  I give.  I must say, that when I am mindful, and engage with the money that I give, it is as profound a practice as I do.  It is concrete.  It is a real experience of intention.  It is, excuse me Mr. Tax Man, it is tangible.  It really does become money given to God via the church.  It is a sacrifice, and it is one that returns forty, and sixty and one hundred fold.

The Church of the Resurrection depends on your giving.  I depend on your giving.  You are generous people, you have kept this church alive for 54 years.  You are generous people, you support me and my family well.  Thank you for that.  And thank you for considering a pledge this year.  I am not saying give ‘til it hurts, but I am suggesting that giving ‘til you feel it, feels really good.  And it is good for you.  We’ll see you with your pledge cards next week.  Thank you.  AMEN

November 5, 2017, All Saints Sunday YR A

Year A, All Saints (transferred)
November 5, 2017
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

Today we are celebrating the Feast of All Saints. It is a Principal Feast of the Church, the one on which we celebrate the Communion of Saints.

Now what is that, the Communion of Saints? Or before we get ahead of ourselves, what is a saint? The most popular notion is that a saint is a very holy person who has been recognized, canonized by the Church. They are heroic examples, they effect miracles and by praying to them, they can intercede for us to God. For example, people pray to St. Anthony for God’s help in finding lost things, and St. Anthony is a conduit or amplifier of that prayer. He intercedes. That’s a Roman Catholic understanding of sainthood. It is great. There is a rich and vital culture of the saints that draws from deep and ancient wells. But that is not exactly how we do it.

As Anglicans, we don’t pray to saints, we don’t ask them to intercede with God for us. Some of us use the Hail Mary (we ask her to “…pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. AMEN”) I use it all the time, but more as a form, a contemplative object than a petition, so that’s OK. But canonization, heroic examples, intercessors… that’s one take on what a saint is. Here’s another, as defined in The Book of Common Prayer, the Communion of Saints is, “…the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer and praise.” Another way to say that is that a saint is anyone who is or was, sanctified. Now there is a great church word: Sanctified. It just means to be holy (just!), so that means that the Communion of Saints is the entirety of the holy people of God.

That sounds like a pretty high bar, being sanctified, being holy. Sounds like that would be hard to be, that we’d maybe have to feed some lions, or perform some miracles. Well, maybe. We probably don’t have worry about the lions, the miracles, though; I guess that depends on how you define a miracle.

The short answer and technical answer as to who the saints are is you. Members of the Body of Christ. “The whole family of God, the living and the dead…” This explicitly happens when you are baptized. When you are baptized, you are sanctified. You are purposely and intentionally set apart, ordained into the priesthood of all believers, you are made holy. And that is renewed every time you come here to this table. And every time you pray. And every time you praise God in all the ways that we praise God, from serving the poor, to being humble in a world infected with hubris, to being kind to everyone you can kind to, even to your little sister when she does all those wicked things that little sisters do! All of that joins us to the Body of Christ, makes us members of the family of God, consecrates us as saints.

Sometimes, though, we need a little more. The world is hard, being Christian in this world, trying to live up to Jesus’ example, to take in the beatitudes is hard. “Blessed are the merciful… Blessed are the peacemakers… Blessed are the pure in heart…” Wheh. Hard. How do you learn to aspire to meekness? Sometimes we need examples. We need people to emulate, to be inspired by, to set our sights on things greater than we can ask or imagine of our selves in this world.

Think of Sts. Francis and Clare. He and his poverellos, she and her Order of the Poor Ladies, now known as the Poor Clares. Their faith was so strong that they gave everything they had to serve God and God’s people. They left 13th century high society for a community of lepers, they wandered the streets of Assisi in rags praying, blessing people and begging for food, singing, “For sister poverty, we give thanks!” Their spiritual descendants serve all over this world.

Think of St. Julian of Norwich. So dedicated was she to her life of prayer, that she became an anchoress, meaning that she was bricked up in a small cell attached to a church; she never left her room. And she prayed. And people came to gain her counsel. And she prayed some more, and some more and more until she had a series of visions of Jesus, bleeding and broken, and it gave insight into His suffering and His love for us. She wrote it all down as The Revelations of Divine Love, probably the first book to be written by a woman in English. And that book has changed and keeps changing lives, bringing people closer to God for 600 years.

What saints do is point us to God. Sometimes they give us a path, a clear practice to take up and follow. Sometimes they give us an example, an inspirational bar for us to strive for. Sometimes they give us reassurance and encouragement. What they all do is point us towards God.

You don’t need to be in Butler’s Lives of the Saints to do that. You don’t need to be in Holy Women and Holy Men, our book of saints to do that. You just need to be someone pointed towards God, who helps others on their way.

Who in your life points you towards God? They might be alive. They might be dead. You may know or have known them, or you may have read about them in a book, or read their book. Who points you to God?

So I want to tell you all about a church, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels down in Los Angeles. I talked about this a few years ago, but there are a lot of new folks and I want the children to hear about it. In any case, I think it is worth hearing again.

So this cathedral, the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, was finished in 2002, and it is amazing. Right off the bat, a primary design feature is that the building and its major systems and furnishings are supposed to last for 500 years. I thought it was cool that Bell Labs built the old rotary phones to last for 40; think 500 years. We don’t do anything with an eye on 500 years out. Now that’s some faith laid out in very concrete terms; literally concrete terms. It is made of poured concrete, and the overall form and color of the building is reminiscent of the old Spanish missions that have been built in the LA area since 1771. The building is just awesome, right down to the cathedral, the Archbishop’s throne that is made of wood from all six continents where trees grow, representing communities represented in the Archdiocese.

The most stunning part of the building for me hangs along the walls of the sanctuary. They are the giant tapestries by the California artist John Nava, called “The Communion of Saints.” It is a series of 25 tapestries, averaging 18 feet tall and picturing 135 saints and “blessed” from around the world. The saints are all labeled, and intermixed are children of various ages, anonymous saints. Each figure is pictured in the dress they may actually have worn, and where they knew what the saints looked like, from photos or art work, they found models with similar appearances. Even the background, it is fresco-like, and was made from scans of archeological digs on the actual Via Dolarosa in Jerusalem. It is awesome.

The whole project was a cross of modernity and antiquity. The images were of real people. He took digital pictures of the models. Then Nava talked to friends about how they prayed, what posture they used. Folded hands. Kneeling. Hands out stretched. Just standing there. And these elements were all combined digitally, and emailed from his California studio to very special computerized looms in Brugges, Belgium, that then took two months to weave. It is all woven in cotton, which lasts. We have textiles from the time of the pharaohs, because that 500-year thing, that includes the tapestries.

That is all super-cool and very interesting, but what matters is what the art does to you. And sitting there in that massive concrete cathedral, you are surrounded by the communion of saints. You are part of the communion of saints. They are all around you, they are with you, you are with them, and if you follow their eyes, all 135 pairs of them, they all lead directly to the great cross-shaped window directly above the altar where Eucharist is celebrated. They point directly to that place where so many encounter God week after week after week. The Communion of Saints point us to God.

Who points you to God? Who are the saints in your lives that point you to God? Sometimes we are pointed to God in churchy ways. We are led to this beautiful building, to this loving congregation, to the sacred mystery of Christ’ Body and Blood, to the communion of saints of which we here are but a tiny fragment. And that is very good.

But saints lead us to God in other ways, too. Because what is it to be pointed to God but to be pointed towards the most important thing? Isn’t that what God’s face looks? The most important thing in any given instant? That how one of the great theologians of the last century defined God, “ultimate concern.” The most important thing. Who shows you what is most important? Minute to minute, God, that which is most important, shape-shifts. God manifests in startling ways, and we encounter, engage, praise God in all sorts of ways. We do it in being kind to everyone we can be kind to. We do it in being patient and graceful with everyone we can be patient and graceful with. When we are generous, merciful, pure. When we are peacemakers. When we are righteously humble and meek in the face of opposition. When we are those things, we are doing the most important thing for the most important One, for God. In each of those moments, and the myriad of other moments in each of our days, God is completely present, and we honor God, we praise God, we meet God face to face in all of God’s Glory every time we rise to meet Her or Him, we lack the proper pronoun, maybe Thou. That is being a good Christian. That is being a saint in this blessed communion.

Who points you to God? Someone did. None of us got here on our own. And that’s kind of a miracle, being pointed to God. Who do you point to God? We all can. Most all of us do, in some way when we try to live up to Jesus’ expectation of us. The communion of saints. We here are part of it, we the living and our dead, and we celebrate that today. God bless us, everyone. AMEN

October 29, 2017, 21st Sunday after Pentecost YR A

Year A, Proper 25
October 29, 2017
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“…we had courage in our God to declare to you the Gospel of God in spite of great opposition.”

With apologies to the historians among us, I am not going to talk about the Protestant Reformation on its 500th anniversary.  That is not what we need to talk about this morning.  That could be the wrong choice, but what we need to talk about today is Jesus.  We’ll have to keep it to the fact that a mighty fortress is our God.  Jesus was a reformer, too.  He protested.  He called out the authorities of His time for their corruption and hypocrisy.  Over the course of the past few weeks we’ve been hearing about his confrontations with the Pharisees, the Herodians and the Chief Priests, the triune establishment of power in Israel of His day.  His protest, His calls for reform escalated as He entered Jerusalem.  Jesus brought the fight to them.

Think of the readings these past few weeks.  The Vineyard owner and the wicked tenants, then the King’s wedding banquet ending with the outer darkness and gnashing of teeth.  Last week we heard about whether it was lawful to pay taxes. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.”  And today we hear him slam dunk them over who David called Lord.  From that day no one dared to ask him any more questions.

This is all happening in Holy Week.  Jesus knew where this was leading.  These parables, each told in direct response to challenges by the established, institutional leaders, were fighting words.  Jesus was there to pick a fight. “You hypocrites!”  “You brood of vipers!”  “For many are called but few are chosen.”  (And you ain’t the chosen).  Those are hard words.  It was a hard moment, a hard moment that led very directly to the hard wood of the Cross.

This is all very uncomfortable, this hellfire and brimstone Jesus.  This angry Jesus.  This condemning Jesus.  A lot of us in the progressive Main Line protestant churches aren’t very comfortable with this side of Jesus.  “Separating sheep from goats, wheat from chaff, isn’t everyone welcome?”  “He doesn’t really mean ‘unquenchable fired’ does He?”

You know that famous picture of Jesus, Sallman’s “Head of Christ”? Long, flowing light brown hair, a long flowing beard and he is looking up slightly with a kind of glow all around him.  At least He doesn’t have blue eyes, but it is a distinctly European looking Jesus.  It is a comfortable picture of Jesus for white folks.  He looks so gentle.  It is the “welcome them as little children” Jesus.  The “come to me all that are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest” Jesus.  And we need that.  Heavens to betsy, in this world, in being mortal creatures facing the great unknown of suffering and death, we need the comfort and encouragement of God through the person of Jesus Christ.  And Jesus and His apostles offer that in so many of the comforting words found in Scripture.  In Rite I, right after the confession, there is a part called the “Comfortable Words.”  They are reassuring lines of scripture. But as these Gospel passages the past weeks show us, as the long walk to the Cross teaches us, that is not the whole story.  Jesus, the world He inhabited, our world, is not always comfortable.

There are some things bubbling over into our public discourse right now that are very uncomfortable.  Issues concerning race, the abuse of immigrants, endemic harassment and assault of women.  These are very uncomfortable realities that are seeing the light of day in new ways right now.  None of this should be surprising.  None of this is surprising to anyone who suffers, has suffered, likely will suffer abuse and discrimination at the hands of the dominate culture.  The dominant, the default culture of this nation is (obviously) male, white, straight, native born, educated, financially secure, healthy… the categories go on and on.  That is the default of what is “normal” in America.  Women, you are not surprised by anything in the news right now about how men too often treat women, are you?  People of color, you are not surprised by anything in the news right now about how much race matters, are you?  Or if you are gay in a straight world, or Muslim or Jewish in a Christian world, you are not surprised that hate crimes happen and are happening more frequently, are you?

You can’t prioritize racism or anti-Semitism or any of the other categories or forms of oppression, they are all evils, each in their own special and insidious ways, but this morning I want to talk specifically about women, about what happens to women, or more directly, what too many men do to too many women.

A woman, my wife, sent me an article by another woman, Courtney Martin, a widely published writer. Her article is addressed specifically to men.  She writes,

“If you are capable, and even if you aren’t sure you are, feel the sadness of being a part of the group of people that has most violently and repeatedly created and maintained a world like this. Feel the excruciating pain of complicity.

Don’t soothe it with thoughts of your own exceptionalism. Don’t jump to perform your love of women. Don’t talk about your mother or your sister or daughter. Just sit. Feel the feelings.

You honor the pain that has been expressed so courageously by giving yourself over to the discomfort of actually feeling what it is to live in this world — a world filled with sexual harassment and assault — as a man. Sitting with that discomfort will change you. And the changed you can then take action with a different kind of wisdom.”

Does that make you feel uncomfortable?  It does me.  I know exactly what she is talking about.  I read the articles, hear the stories, talk with Windy about all of this, and the feelings I am flooded with…  All the pain women have to hide.  Shame on us, men.  I feel shame.  There is a lot of that.  Self-doubt, “where in my life have I failed?  How do I continue to fail?”  Flashes of defensiveness, “Yah, but I didn’t…”  Roiling feelings, so many of them.  It is so uncomfortable.  There are so many things I want to say, do, change in the world.  Sure, I want this world to be better, and I really, really want these feelings to go away… Now that is some male privilege blatantly on display, thinking I/we can choose to make those uncomfortable feelings go away.  Because we can.  Because we do.  Survivors can’t choose that.  No, we must not make those feelings go away.

Feeling these feelings is the first step.  And it is monumental for it is the root cause of all of this.  The lack of feelings, the lack of empathy for those we share the world with is exactly why it is so easy for so many of us to be so horrible.  It is impossible to overestimate the extreme measures we will go to to avoid feeling feelings like these.  Feelings like the shame and guilt of complicity, the feeling of powerlessness, and maybe most powerfully (and most shamefully) the alienating feeling of it not being all about us.  We are the cause; this is about women.

In our culture as a whole, and I think particularly for men, we go to incredible lengths to avoid feeling uncomfortable feelings. All of this is a lot like grief.  We are collectively terrible at grief.  Someone dies and what do we say? “They passed away.”  We even avoid the word death.  We try to comfort each other with statements like, “They are in a better place.”  “They are at peace now.”  Yes they are and their resurrection in the fullness of time is assured.  And that loss hurts right now.  And there is nothing you can do about that. Yes, you can make up stories, you can bury the feelings, think about other things, busy yourself with the details of life, but it is still there, that void, that person now missing from your life and the lives of those you love.  And there is nothing you can do about that and those feelings can be overwhelming and overwhelmingly uncomfortable.

Grieving, true and honest grieving is simply letting all of the feelings you have happen as they happen.  Grieving, you sit there, in the ash heap like Job, and you feel it.  Feel it all.  The loss.  The regret.  The could’ves and should’ves.  The relief… that’s a hard one to feel in the wake of a death. You can be all over the place, feelings changing minute to minute sometimes.   Letting that all happen, letting what you feel be what you feel, that is grieving.  And it can be incredibly hard.  It can be desperately uncomfortable, but that is the way we heal.  It can be a way that we grow.  But it is a long and daunting path, especially if you don’t want to go down it.  But all of us, men in particular, must go down this uncomfortable path.

Jesus, specifically our worship of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, is a guide for us.  His story is a map, an example of going down the path experiencing, feeling the fullness of the human experience.  His is not just a story of a baby in a manger and easy yokes and loaves and fishes for everyone who needs them.  His is also a story of punishing fasts in the wilderness, torment, abandonment, death on the cross.

One of the most powerful moments of the church year comes at the end of the Maundy Thursday liturgy.  We have an Agape feast downstairs, our remembrance of the Last Supper; it is bright and fun.  We move up here, the light dims, the energy starts changing.  We wash each other’s feet and it gets more and more quiet as the line gets shorter and we sit together in the failing light.  The altar guild, women of the church, they do what women have done for so long, they clean up the mess.  They strip altar as the words of the 22nd Psalm are said: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?…  O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”  In the end a single candle is left on the Altar of Repose right next to the Body of our Lord.  It is silent. And some of us sit with that all night.  Unsettled.  Bleary-eyed.  Tired.  Uncomfortable.

Holy Week is a ritual of grief.  It is a practice of sitting with uncomfortable things.  So is the Mass.  What’s the story?  The world is amazing!  “Galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses and this fragile earth our island home.”  It is fabulous, the creation, wonderful, a miracle, but… “…but we turned against you, and betrayed your trust; and we turned against one another…” and we, humans, we destroy the thing most precious to God: Jesus.  And each week, we break that bread, we break Jesus’ body week after week, and in that silence at the fraction, the breaking, right before we sing “Halleluiah” imagine yourself on the edge of the abyss, sitting in the dim light on Maundy Thursday with a candle flickering on the bare altar.  “Sitting with that discomfort will change you. And the changed you can then take action with a different kind of wisdom.”

Men, maybe we need to grieve the loss of the world that we benefit from.  That is where so many the uncomfortable feelings come from, that is why we avoid them so violently.  We need to sit on the edge of the abyss and feel everything that we will feel.  We caused this problem, but we cannot fix it, not alone, and we don’t get the last word.  I’ll end with the words Ms. Barnes ends her article with.  “Yet, this moment could be the first one that you choose to do something different, to lay the first brick in a world that is built differently, a world safe for women’s bodies and men’s feelings, a world worthy of everyone’s wholeness.”  AMEN

 

 

October 22, 2017, 20th Sunday after Pentecost YR A

20th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Proper 24
October 22, 2017
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“Grace to you and peace.”

This morning we have a message of encouragement from our sponsor.

Psalm 96. Cantate Domino  A song of David for the people of God.
1 Sing to the Lord a new song; *
sing to the Lord, all the whole earth.
2 Sing to the Lord and bless God’s Name; *
proclaim the good news of God’s salvation from day to day.
3 Declare God’s glory among the nations *
and God’s wonders among all peoples.
4 For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; *
he is more to be feared than all gods.
5 As for all the gods of the nations, they are but idols; *
but it is the Lord who made the heavens.
6 Oh, the majesty and magnificence of God’s presence! *
Oh, the power and the splendor of God’s sanctuary!
7 Ascribe to the Lord, you families of the peoples; *
ascribe to the Lord honor and power.
8 Ascribe to the Lord the honor due God’s Name; *
bring offerings and come into God’s courts.
9 Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; *
let the whole earth tremble before God.
10 Tell it out among the nations: "The Lord is King! *
God has made the world so firm that it cannot be moved;
God will judge the peoples with equity."
11 Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad;
let the sea thunder and all that is in it; *
let the field be joyful and all that is therein.
12 Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy
before the Lord when he comes, *
when God comes to judge the earth.
13 God will judge the world with righteousness *
and the peoples with God’s truth.

 

That’s a good Psalm.  It is encouraging.  With the world as it is, with our lives as they are, we need a word of encouragement.  St. Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica, the one we heard from this morning, is likely the first letter that he wrote.  It is the probably oldest part of the New Testament, written as early as 50 CE, only twenty years after the death of Jesus.  And what are Paul’s first words in his first letter?  Encouragement.  “Grace to you and peace.  We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction…”

We all need a word of encouragement.  The Thessalonians did because they felt all alone.  They were a fledgling community of religious dissenters in a city that was thriving in the Pax Romana.  That prosperity bred loyalty to Rome and to the Imperial cult.  Paul, Silvanus and Timothy came and taught them a new way, the way of Jesus Christ.  And while that way brought grace to them and peace, it was a soul peace, a peace in kairos, in God’s time that was offered.  In chronos, in our time, in day to day life, in their larger community, peace for these would be elusive for a very long time, as it so often is for any people outnumbered by their neighbors.  They needed encouragement.

The encouragement they got, however, was not the words of Paul.  His words bore the grace, but they were not the source of grace.  The source of grace was the Holy Spirit.

Do you take too much responsibility for things?  Successes or failures, do you ascribe praise or blame mostly on your own effort or lack there of?  I certainly do.  Particularly when something doesn’t work out very well, all I see are the places I would have/could have/should have done better or different, because obviously it was within my power to make it all go exactly as I envisioned.  That’s kind of arrogant, isn’t it?  Well that’s what my therapist would tell me.  And the same goes for when it does go well, does go as I wanted it to.  “I did a good job!” meaning that it was all me that made it so.  I don’t know.  I think there is a lot more than we can ask or imagine going on in the world around us that has very little to do with us.

Welcome Morning by Anne Sexton

There is joy
in all:
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
each morning,
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
each morning,
in the spoon and the chair
that cry “hello there, Anne”
each morning,
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
each morning.
 

All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
each morning
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.
 

So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.
 

The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard,
dies young.

 

Surely we have influence over the world around us, but it is so much more power of suggestion than control.  Like we can get a child to stop or start some specific behavior, but we can’t change them, not for good or ill.  That is not up to us.  All of that is the wisdom and work of the Holy Spirit.

So we look out into our lives and we face our children, or our careers, our friendships or marriages, the parts of our bodies that don’t work like they used to, or death that looms out there on the horizon somewhere…  yes we play our part but much of it, most of it, is not up to us.

In a way that is the most terrifying and discouraging news we could ever receive.  You are powerless!  Great.

But actually, it is great.  In the gospel Jesus is asked about what we should give to Caesar and what we should give to God.  Jesus was clear: give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. One of the titles the Roman Emperor took on was Kosmokrator, Creator of the Universe.  That’s fine.  The early Christians had fun with this and a title they used for God was Pantokrator, Creator of Everything.  Everything.

When we rest in the glory of God; when we let Jesus into our hearts; when we relax and surrender to the Holy Spirit holding and steering and turning our lives and the lives of those we love and have trouble loving, and we let that be and we know our place in the world, what a wonderful word it will be.

Nothing easy in resting into the Lord.  It is like relaxing right before the chiropractor snaps your neck wildly this way or that.  It is like letting that rip tide take you out past the breakers before you start swimming parallel to the shore.  It is like escaping from the old monkey trap.  Do you know about those?  It was a coconut shell tied to a stake with a hole big enough for a monkey’s hand.  Baited with rice, the monkey slips an open hand in and grabs a fistful of rice, but a fist can’t slip out of the hole, not while holding on to something and no monkey will let go of a fistful of rice.

It is hard to let go.  It is hard to let yourself be pulled from where you want to go and let yourself be taken where you are going, but that is the encouragement of Jesus Christ.  Yes, we are subject to the whims of this world.  But we are also the Subjects of the Kingdom of heaven, and the Holy Spirit has you if you’ll let Her.  And Jesus Has you if you’ll let Him.  And the Creator, the Pantokrator has you, and always has.  The trees will topple, the mountains will crumble to sea, all of this will go the way of the world, but Jesus is only in this world, not of this world, and in that state, “rescues us from the wrath that is coming.”  And that is an encouraging thought indeed.

Fishing in the Keep of Silence  by Linda Gregg

There is a hush now while the hills rise up
and God is going to sleep. He trusts the ship
of Heaven to take over and proceed beautifully
as he lies dreaming in the lap of the world.
He knows the owls will guard the sweetness
of the soul in their massive keep of silence,
looking out with eyes open or closed over
the length of Tomales Bay that the herons
conform to, whitely broad in flight, white
and slim in standing. God, who thinks about
poetry all the time, breathes happily as He
repeats to Himself: There are fish in the net,
lots of fish this time in the net of the heart.

AMEN

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oct. 15, 2017, 19th Sunday after Pentecost YR A

Year A, Proper 23
October 15, 2017
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”

Now that is a refreshing way to kick off a sermon!  Take a deep breath.  “Rejoice!”

Our problems, the problems of the world are real, but they will not have the final word.  “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  “Again I will say, Rejoice!”  But before we get carried away with too much rejoicing, let’s deal with the outer darkness and the gnashing of teeth.

Matthew’s Parable of the Wedding Banquet is hard. The first part of the story, the invitation to the wedding banquet, the rejection by the usual invitees and the acceptance by the people on the streets is a variation on the theme “the first will be last and the last will be first.” That’s a fine message.  The part about destroying those murders and burning their cities… Remember, Matthew’s community existed in the traumatic wake of the destruction of the Temple.  Everything was shattered; their government, economy, religion, all crushed under a Roman sandal.  They were trying to make meaning of the desolating sacrilege and the Evangelist places the wrath of God in General Titus and his Legions.  Fair enough.

But then it jumps to the guest found not wearing the appropriate wedding robe.  He was taken, bound and thrown into the outer darkness.  That doesn’t make a lot of sense.  He was pulled in off the street, right?  No one walks around with a wedding robe.  The punishment seems arbitrary and cruel.  Likely, though, this was a separate parable that somehow got folded into this one.  As a stand-alone parable it makes more sense, but it is still a pointed message: showing up is not enough; you need to be prepared, you need to be doing what you are supposed to be doing.  The doctrine of grace is that God’s invitation is offered to everyone, the deserving and the undeserving, or as it says here, “both good and bad.”  We are all invited, but God leaves it is up to us to RSVP, to change our hearts and minds, to put on the armor of light, the wedding rode, and partake of the feast.  Just getting the invitation is not enough, we need to respond.

Jesus tells us very clearly how to respond.  Just a few chapters on Jesus teaches, “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink…”  that is how we inherit the Kingdom.  Easy-peasy, right?  Just be utterly selfless, serving the least of these, friend and enemy, and the Kingdom of Heaven is yours!  Jesus is clear about all the “love-stuff” but how do we put ourselves in a posture to really do it, to love friend and enemy in the way we are expected to, especially when that is the last thing we want, or feel capable of doing?  St. Paul, in his letter to his friends in Philippi, lays out a path, “…stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.”

Paul is a churchman, first and foremost.  By that I mean that he sees “The Church”, the Body of Christ as primary to our relationship with God, or maybe more accurately, being part of the Church, being part of a Christ-centered community is a, if not the primary practice of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Everything Paul does and writes is about building that Body, enabling us, would-be disciples of Jesus, to participate in it, because holy community is the Way of and to Jesus. This short passage in the letter to the people in Philippi offers some deep wisdom on a primary Christian practice: living in community.

Community life is fabulous.  We’re doing it right now.  It is dynamic, exciting, fun.  Through it we find companionship, accountability, encouragement, security, friendship, love.  We find a sense of purpose.   We grow and learn.  Though we all need our solitude, we are not solitary creatures, we need connection to others.  How many of your fondest memories are about experiences you had in community?  So many of mine are all wrapped up with classmates, folks I’ve volunteered with, members of this church and others and in the communities of friends and home-schoolers I have been part of.  Families are a form of community.  Community is the stuff of life.

In times of joy, we gather.  Weddings, baptisms, birthdays, feasts and holidays of all sorts.  And we gather in times of loss and tragedy.  Funerals.  Commemorations.  Vigils for the slain.  I have two friends who pastor churches in Sonoma County.  In one of their churches, at least eleven families have been burnt out of their homes, and many more are evacuated.  Their Facebook pages are a litany of community life, of people gathering together because they need to gather together, a light in the darkness.  And all that gathering together is wicked easy, isn’t it?

Windy and I lived and worked at an Episcopal monastery for five years.  The monks’ lives were ordered by a rule of life which had its basis in the Rule of St. Benedict.   They had a pretty rigorous practice, most famously poverty, obedience and chastity.  But what we observed, right in line with St. Benedict in the 6th century, was that those big three were challenging to the brothers, but day in, day out, the biggest source of stress and conflict, and hence the biggest site of monastic practice, was simply living together.  Being poor, obedient and celibate is one thing; taking every meal, going to church four times a day, sharing a bathroom with Brother So-and-so is in an entirely different category of asceticism.  Living in community is hard.  There is a lot of bumping into each other, lots of opportunities for opposing ideas about how things should be done, from how to select a new superior to how nasty does a sponge need to be before it is thrown away.  Famously at the mother house in England there was a box on a shelf in the basement labeled “Bits of string too short to use.”  I can only imagine the fights that led to that box’s existence.  We remember Euodia and Syntyche two thousand years later because they were in some kind of conflict. We do pretty well here.  Resurrection is not a conflicted community, but still, community life is challenging.

So we need to practice a life in Christ by living in community.  Fair enough.  But how do we do that?  Paul has a few suggestions.

First off, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say Rejoice.”  For many, that’s a no- brainer.  Joy is the default.  There is a general cheerfulness about most people, and for good reason.  God is good and God’s creation, the world around us, we and those we share it with, is and are generally good.  Very good!  Look at the sun out there.  A week of rain and the sun is back and you can feel the grass rejoicing.  The ephemerals blanket the forest floor, basking in the life-giving moisture.  We have children in our lives, here or in our homes.  Meaningful work abounds.  Friends enrich us.  Beauty surrounds us.  Yes, there is lots of bad news, but human history is largely a history of small, unrecorded acts of decency and neighborliness.  Even in the meanest of situations, most of the time, most of us do, or probably could tend towards a joyous outlook.  Christmas and Easter are most folks’ favorite seasons for very good reason.

I love Advent and Lent.  I follow more in the footsteps of C.S. Lewis in being Surprised by Joy.  I tend towards thinking that joy is too often escapism.  In our wider culture, I think it often is.  It is a shallow, “don’t worry, be happy” sentimental joy.  Delusionally so.  We, as a people, are terrible at grieving.  We can’t admit defeat, or error, or failure.  We haven’t “won” a war since 1945, but how long would a politician last if they said that out loud?  We greedily cling to youthfulness and avoid death, deny death. Culturally approved joy can feel very escapist.  The joy Paul is describing here is not an escape.  Religious joy is not escapist, because it accounts for the dark.  Easter is so brilliant because it follows Good Friday.  It is a fundamental posture of engaging with the world.  It is not skipping Good Friday, but it is leading with the fact that that is not where the story ends.  Paul knows that honest joy, like prayer, or service or giving, as he lays it out here, is a practice.   And it is not a practice of being happy, though that is a likely consequence, but it is rejoicing in the Lord, in the actual, not the apparent.  The eternal, not the perishable.  The perfection that is the world, not the sin-distorted image we encounter.  Rejoice indeed.

Another practice Paul commends to us is the practice of forbearance.  In the version we read this morning, the NRSV, it is translated as gentleness.  “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.”  In the King James it is “moderation.”  In several commentaries I consulted, “forbearance” is either a better translation of the Greek or expresses a clearer connotation of the type of gentleness Paul writes of.  Forbearance.  It is like firmament, a good church word.  What does forbearance mean?  (And I am not talking about student loans). _____   Patient self-control.  Restraint and tolerance.  It means accepting those around you for who they are not who you would have them be.  (And not with resignation, “That’s just how they are,” but with, I don’t know, joy)!  Inevitably in living near or with other people, we are going to bump up into one another; there is going to be friction, we are going to get in each other’s way, there is always a Brother So-and-So.  Have forbearance.  Be patient, for, “The Lord is near.  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  What if we could really do that?  Like really not worry.  What would this look like:  you have a concern, but the final decision is not up to you, maybe there is some process, or there is a boss, or the group needs to decide.  So you give your opinion, then lay it at the feet of God, with prayer, with thankful supplication (that is begging), leave it at God’s feet.  It is not up to me!  Step one, I am powerless!  No matter how right you are, if it is not up to you, it is not up to you.  Can you imagine the peace that could come if you could really leave things there at God’s feet?  No, because it surpasses all understanding.  It is not up to you.  Can you imagine accepting that?  I dream of it sometimes.  That is the peace of wild things that Wendell Berry writes of.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

 

The Peace of Wild Things.  That’s a portrait of forbearance.  I guess if you think about it, it is what rejoicing in the Lord always could look like, too.  AMEN

 

 

October 8, 2017, 18th Sunday after Pentecost YR A

Year A, Proper 22
October 8, 2017
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“… this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.”

That is from our Gospel reading this morning.  It is Jesus quoting Psalm 118 to the chief priests and Pharisees.

And from the Prophet Isaiah, “…he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”  These are parallel stories, Jesus’ parable of the Wicked Tenants (sometimes called the Parable of the Absent Landlord) and the Song of the Vineyard from Isaiah.  Two stories of how good it can be and how bad it can be.

It is good to be here this morning.  The flu is rough.  I’m feeling much, much better.  Thank you for the thoughts and prayers and for the chicken noodle soup. And thank you to everyone who helped make last week so successful, the youth Sunday and Blessing of the animals.  Thanks!

One of the critiques I sometimes hear about my ministry is that I can come across a bit like chicken little.  “The sky is falling!  The sky is falling!”  One bit of feedback from the parish conversations that the Stewardship ministry held this summer was that sometimes things seem “too sorrowful.”  I can see that.  I call it solemn, that’s the Episcopal/Anglican way of describing it, but I hear you.  There was also a comment on the solemnity of my tone with a different take.  “It is mournful, but I feel mournful.”  Cause you see, I do think the sky is falling.   Every family, every person in this room has tragedy, suffering, brokenness in your life.  Everyone.  Our city is rife with poverty, addiction and violence.  And our nation?  the world?  I know the media generally only reports on the bad, but they do have a lot to report on, don’t they?

Being in bed for a week can color the world darkly, so when I woke up on Monday morning and read about Las Vegas, Lord have mercy, I had this cascade of feelings.  I distinctly thought, “The sky is falling!  This is it happening.”  A bit later I pulled out the lectionary to read for this week and something struck me.  The sky is falling, I stand by that assessment, but maybe the sky has always been falling.  It’s been falling since, I don’t know, the Fall!  The history of human kind is a history of the sky falling.  Wars, feudal lords, empires, slavery, famine.  Our salvation history, Christianity’s core narrative is a story of God’s constant and consistent love for the creation, for us; and, God’s constant and consistent call for us to return from the exile that sin has forced us in to.  It’s God’s call for us to stop pulling the sky down on top of ourselves.  That is Sin!  This world could be a paradise for everyone, “…a vineyard on a very fertile hill.” as Isaiah puts it.   A world where everyone took only what they need, where everyone was aware of their impact on others.  It could be that way.  Everyone could always be kind, could always be generous, and forgiving, and most usually are, but some are not, and all of us sometimes are not kind or generous or forgiving or any of the other virtues God desires in us.  That is just true.  Why?  Why aren’t we always as virtuous as we should be?  Because we have a choice not to be and the sinful path, the path away from God is too often the path of seemingly least resistance.  “Oh Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.”  The sins of the world…  That’s how Christians explain why things are not as good as they could be, why we are not.  The sky is falling.   But it has always been falling.  What do we do with that?  Lash out?  Fight back?  Crumble inward and give up?  Keep your head down and muddle through?  Ignore it and think about something else?  What do we do with the fact that the sky has always been falling?  Perhaps the Parable of the Wicked Tenants offers us a vision.

It is familiar, right?  The landlord leased the land to some tenants.  When it came time to collect rent, the tenants didn’t want to pay, so they beat one of the slaves who came to collect, killed one and stoned another.  The landlord sent another party to collect rent and it happens just the same as the first time.  “Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’”  But they don’t.  They seize him, throw him out of the vineyard and kill him.  Then Jesus asks, “What will he do to those tenants?”

So the traditional reading is that the landlord is God.  The Vineyard is Israel.  The tenants traditionally were the Jews, which was used as a proof text for much of the anti-Semitic sentiment fomented by the church.  The Nazi’s cited this text.  (The Isaiah one, too).  More true to the text, though, is that the tenants were the leaders of the Jews, the chief priests and Pharisees.  The slaves were the prophets and the son was Jesus.  God gives the vineyard to the leaders to tend, but when it was time for them to honor their responsibilities, they reject the prophets, then killed God’s son.  Pretty simple.  And then what would God do?  “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants…” Pretty clear, right?

Well, not exactly.  It is not Jesus who says anything about wretches and miserable deaths, which are in line with the destruction described in Isaiah. This was the Pharisee’s answer to Jesus’ question.  That’s what they thought God would do to the tenants.  Jesus quotes the Psalm about the rejected stone being the cornerstone, “the Lord’s doing, and it was amazing in our eyes” and all of that.  I’m not going to get into that part of the parable because today, a day when the sky continues to fall, we need to concern ourselves with the landlord, with how God deals with these wicked tenants.

The landlord sent the first slaves and they are beaten and killed.  Does fire rain down upon those tenants?  No.  Then more slaves are sent, who again, are beaten and killed.  Now does retribution come?  No.  That is what was expected, but that was not what happens, that is not what the landlord, God does.  The landlord’s/God’s response to this escalating violence was not violence, but what?  Vulnerability.  Two sets of debt collectors are killed… historical precedent, conventional wisdom, that feeling in our gut all say “Send in the cavalry!”  But the landlord’s/God’s response is not “Send in the cavalry!” but is, forgive me this pun, “Send Him to Calvary!”  God appeals to their humanity but sending them someone vulnerable.  God’s response to violence is not more violence, is not punishment, it’s this vulnerability.  You want to hit me on this side, here’s the other, too.  You want to take my coat?  Take my shirt, too.  You want to make me carry your bags for a mile?  I’ll carry them for 2.  You are going to steal from me and kill my slaves?  Here is my Son.

There is a story I ran into in preparing for this sermon; it might be true, it is a good story.  In the early 1980s, King Hussein of Jordan got word that some generals were meeting to plan a coup against him.  He learned where they were meeting, so he got into his helicopter and went there.  Arriving, he told his people that if they heard gunfire, to leave, and he went in, alone and unarmed.   The king met the generals and said “I hear you are planning a coup against me.  If you are, just kill me and get it over with.  Don’t kill any of our people or put them through the trauma of a coup.”  Not only did the generals not kill him, the story goes that they fell to their knees and kissed his feet, so blown away they were with the courage he showed in his vulnerability.  (It didn’t say what happened to those generals.  As the old joke goes, the lamb may lie down with lions, but the lamb never gets a good night sleep).

This is Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the scaffold.  The marchers on the Pettis Bridge in Selma. Archbishop Romero at the altar.  It is Christ on the Cross.  And it is meeting your nightmare of a mother-in-law or your scheming co-worker or alcoholic brother not with anger or disgust, as understandable as those responses might be, but with kindness, with vulnerability even.  Being vulnerable can remind people of their humanity.  It can engender empathy.  Being in the presence of vulnerability can help some people feel a bit of well-deserved shame for their behavior.

I had a conflict going on with some people very close to me that kept getting worse and worse.   I wanted to scream at them.  I wanted to cut them out of my life.  I wanted them to feel the pain that I have felt.  But for whatever reason, and against at least half of my will, that’s not what I did.  Praying on it, a lot, might have helped.  Instead I wrote a letter about how I was sorry for how I had hurt them, and that they had hurt me and that I was sorry about that, too.  I expressed that I have (gasp) needs of them, needs that I can’t satisfy without them.   I was vulnerable.  And that conflict, years of it, the bitterness, it just dissipated.  Mist lifting from the trees as the rains return.  Almost miraculous.

We all have tragedy in our lives.  We all suffer from one thing or another, or, for many of us, from many things. And we all live in this dog-eat-cat-eat-mouse world… it is hard, this living thing.  What Jesus is teaching us, in this parable, in the whole of His blessed life and sorrowful Passion, is that if we respond to the savage world we live in in kind, all we’ll get is more savagery.  And as many of you know a family dinner table can be a savage place.  We are called by God in Christ to meet evil not with evil, but with love, and one of the ways love can be shown is in admitting our own vulnerability.

Now that is not to say that if someone is hurting you that you respond with open arms, with more physical or psychological vulnerability.  No.  The kindest, most loving thing you can do is to take care of yourself and anyone else being hurt.  And a key step in taking care of yourself is being vulnerable enough to know that you need help, and getting it.  In doing that, you might not be the only one to be given a chance for salvation.

When the light fades, when the world bears down on you, when the sky seems to be, or actually is falling, as it maybe has been for a long, long time, we can meet it in kind, or we can take a different way, a way of vulnerability, which is the Way of Jesus Christ.  And yes, that does lead to the Cross.  And yes, it does lead to Resurrection.  All we have to lose is our lives, or at least our lives as they are.  AMEN

 

Sept. 29, 2017, The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi

The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi
September 29, 2017
The Rev. Anne Abdy
Jeremiah 22:13-16; Psalm 148:7-14; Galatians 6:14-18; Matthew 11:25-30

 

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11: 28)

What would be one word that would summarize St. Francis’ ministry? I think the word compassion would do. But other words like disciplined, eccentric, entitled, questioning, and seeking also come to mind.

Today we are being “liturgically naughty” and we are celebrating the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. The Feast Day is October 4th. Francis was born in 1182 and much of his youth and adulthood was spent in fruitless attempts to win military glory. At one point he was held captive in a neighboring city, and he is said to have “set himself apart from his companions, ceased complaining and began singing in French the songs he had learned  from his mother.”[1] In the midst of extreme desolation, disappointment, and embarrassment, Francis found hope. This cross which birthed death, destruction, and oppression through the ages, is the same symbol that gives Christians hope. Francis figured this out and he took to heart the real meaning of Christianity. “He was a man of evangelical principles called to a mission of radical renewal.”[2]

Part of his mission of radical renewal included various encounters with beggars and lepers. In the Early Middle Ages there was no support for outcast. These individuals were the untouchables. Much like in the early 1980’s at the onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic resulted in those with this disease being ostracized. I remember the fear generated towards this group was huge. No one touched them or held them unless wrapped in protective gear. There was no a hug or handshake. So much was miss-understood about HIV/AIDS. Likewise, so much was miss-understood about leprosy and for centuries lepers were banished to the outskirts of town to live in poverty begging for the simplest of things.

These interactions radically changed Francis. Not only did these interactions prompt him to embrace a life devoted to Christ, he also demonstrated extreme compassion towards the lepers. It is told that he gave one leper the clothes on his back in defiance against his wealthy father whose money was made in the textile industry. It was the ultimate insult. In the book, Francis: A Call to Conversion, his conversion is described in this fashion:

“Francis declared that he would soon be betrothed to a woman of great nobility. This women was not a girl of the city [of Assisi], not creature of flesh—blood. This woman was formed of mind and spirit. She reminds us of Wisdom in Scripture. Francis named her Lady Poverty. To Francis she brought the gifts of simplicity of life, clarity of purpose, and integrity of soul.”[3]

As a result, Francis renounced material things. His simply decided to serve the poor. By the end of the 20th Century, the Franciscan order that bears his name had 18,000 lay or ordained members world-wide.[4]

Francis is most widely known for being given “the marks of the Lord’s wounds, the stigmata, in his own hands and feet and side.”[5] He is probably most famous for writing the “Canticle of the Sun” which situates Francis as the saint of earthly creatures when he wrote, “Let creatures all give thanks to thee, And serve in great humility.”[6]

In a world where seemingly there are few demonstrations of compassion, Christians have the opportunity to take the lead. Criticisms of the government’s response to the disaster on the island of Puerto Rico are prominent in the news right now despite mounting logistical problems to overcome, yet, the Episcopal Relief and Development Fund continues to do good work around the world, including responding to recent hurricanes and earthquakes. What is unique about the ERD is that the funds and the support items go directly to the affected diocese and funneled directly to the affected parishes. A quote taken from the website by the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Puerto Rico reads: “These are distressing times and we ask for your prayers . . . We will continue to support our church partners in Puerto Rico as they respond to enormous needs.”[7] In real time, Episcopalians across the world are demonstrating compassion to a diocese in need.

Saint Francis is important to us because he called for the rich and famous of his time to meet the needs of the poor rather than squirrel away their wealth on stuff. He met humanity at their level. A little known fact is that he called for a in liturgy and spiritual practices years before the Reformation in the 16th century.

Francis died in 1226 and was canonized as a saint two years later. He is the patron saint for ecologists—honoring his boundless love for animals and nature. I like to think that people buy his statues because he was a man of the people. He loved God’s creation both the two-legged and four-legged. He was a rebel, and like Jesus, he preferred the company of the common man. I imagine that if he were alive today he would read the Gospel from The Message Bible. [The Message Bible is a recent modern translation of the Bible using contemporary language.] It reads:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Go away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—Watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”[8]

The Outline of Faith in the Book of Common Prayer addresses various topics important to our faith. One topic is the Human Nature of God. The response to the question: “How did God first help us?” is written in this manner: “God first helped us by revealing himself and his will, through nature and history, through many seers and saints, and especially through the prophets of Israel.”[9] So the question I pose to you is this: If God chose to help us learn about him through the saints, many of whom demonstrated extreme compassion, shouldn’t we demonstrate compassionate acts too?

The ministry of freedom and hope, of reconciliation and redemption are the corner stones to Saint Francis’ ministry, that are still needed today.[10] As Christians, we are the hands and feet of Jesus. Will you follow St. Francis’ example and be the selfless  giver and carer bringing hope to a broken world?

I want to end with these quotes which are attributed to St. Francis of Assisi and which echo our Christian duty today.[11]

  • “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
  • “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”
  • “For it is in giving that we receive.”

 

[1]           Duane W H. Arnold and C George Fry, Francis: A Call to Conversion (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Cantilever Books, 1988), 30.

[2]           Ibid, 17.

[3]           Ibid, 34.

[4]           Dictionary of American History, “Franciscans,” encyclopedia.com, 2003, accessed October 5, 2016, http://www.encyclopedia.com/philosophy-and-religion/christianity/roman-catholic-orders-and-missions/franciscans.

[5]           Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints (New York: Church Pub. Inc., 2010), 622.

[6]           Ibid.

[7]           “Responding to the Ongoing Crisis in Puerto Rico after the Storms”, September 27, 2017, Episcopal Relief and Development, accessed September 30, 2017, http://www.episcopalrelief.org/press-and-resources/press-releases/2017-press-releases/episcopal-relief-and-development-responds-to-hurricane-maria#september27

[8]              Matthew 11: 28-30, The Message Bible.

[9]              BCP, 845.

[10]         Arnold and Fry, 18.

[11]         “Francis of Assisi”, https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&rlz=1C1GGGE_enUS479US524&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=saint+francis+of+assisi