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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

 

September 24, 2017, 16th Sunday after Pentecost YR A

September 24, 2017
16th Sunday after Pentecost YR A
The Rev. Anne Abdy
Jonah 3:10-4:11; Psalm 145:1-8; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

On the ninth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attack and I was sitting on a green grassy slope overlooking the half-shell amphitheater in Brookings listening to the roll call of names. I remember thinking: “Why me? I have better things to do this evening. I guess I won’t get done what I need to get done tonight.” We’ve all been there, right? You know the feeling. You are being asked to do something and really don’t want to go but in your gut you know you have to do it. This is the call of the Holy Spirit. So I blurted out to my young colleague, “Sure. I’d love to go.” There I was sitting next to Jackie attending an ecumenical memorial service to honor the dead. But as I sat there, I also remember thinking of where I was when the planes dove into the World Trade Center Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and crashed onto a field in Pennsylvania. I remember the news reports and thinking there goes my night’s sleep after just coming off an all-nighter at work. But then I remembered Jackie sitting next to me. She was from NYC and I couldn’t imagine what she may have experienced.

This is the second parable that has the phrase: “the last will be first and the first will be last.” (v. 16) In the previous chapter this phrase is used in reference to those who will enter the gates of Heaven; while in this chapter, the phrase illustrates how God turns our attitudes upside down. Whose attitudes? The attitudes of the disciples as they consider themselves the privileged few—the gatekeepers of Jesus—shooing away children or asking Jesus to tell the crowds to disperse. But this parable is also directed toward the religious high and mighty of the day strategically planted in the crowds plotting and gathering evidence against this radical preacher.

In this parable, the workers who have worked a full day in the hot sun bent over picking grapes are griping that those who have only worked one hour are being paid the same wage. This is back-breaking work. Labor intensive work is hard work. And I know that we have all read newspaper articles describing the value of immigrants regardless of legal status provide in the fields across this country. This is work that I know not many Americans choose to do. I can totally sympathize with the workers. I might even want to complain too if I were in their shoes because this seems a simply unfair. When you witness something unfair at work, especially if persons are being favored over others, isn’t it natural to grumble about with your co-workers? So the laborers complain and the owner’s response is: “Do you think I am being overly generous?”

Tom Wright, a noted New Testament theologian, retells of a story where he witnessed a fox hunt in England. At the signal of the horn the pack race in the direction of the fox. The hounds scattered amongst the horses out front with horsemen and women dressed in red, white and black riding helmets. Bringing up the rear of the hunt are the ordinary. Those without uniforms. Those with ponies of various sizes, shapes, and ages. He describes this group as a “raggle-taggle group of riders.”[1] The cunning fox ducks under a hedgerow into a neighboring field and runs back towards the direction he came eventually standing proud at the crest of the hill behind the pack. Someone notices and blows the horn. In one full swoop the whole pack does an about turn racing to catch up to the fox. Leading the way is this raggle-taggle group of riders.

Jesus’ story of the workers in the vineyard is not a commentary on the social inequality of pay. Our God is a not a God of injustice, but rather a God of justice. The owner of the vineyard paid all the men the agreed upon wage. Rather this parable is a story of the call to engage in radical ministry. We are called to work with the raggle-taggle of society.

Another way to look at this parable is a modern story from the City of Albuquerque, New Mexico.[2] The mayor, Richard Berry, has taken to wandering the streets talking to the homeless about their circumstances. Many told him “they didn’t want to be on the streets begging for money, but they didn’t know where else to go.” Now a bus collects those who want to work on beautifying the city for a wage of $9 an hour and are supported with a night in a shelter as a reward. The City of Albuquerque brought work to these men. Like the mayor, the owner of the vineyard brought work—God’s holy work—to the laborers. He brought them a gift.

Unfortunately many times our attitudes get in the way of doing God’s holy work in the diverse, busy and chaotic marketplace of life. Think of the brother in the prodigal son parable who became bent out of shape but should be celebrating the return of his brother to the Kingdom. I begrudgingly agreed to sit on a hill side on a windy evening—I realized much later I was doing God’s work. The Mayor implemented a successful work-to-housing program with the help of non-profits in his city. He is doing holy work. Many times during a simple day, we get bogged down in daily laborious and arduous tasks not realizing how that task is God’s work in the lives of the raggle-taggle crowd leading the hunt.

The gift offered to the laborers is the opportunity to work in God’s vineyard. Working in the vineyard is not about how much I earn. It is about responding to the gift of God’s call. And with any call from God there is no discrimination. The call is the same. We are to walk alongside all of God’s children remembering that all of God’s children are equally deserving of the opportunity to work in God’s Kingdom, and as such, will be equally rewarded. The reward, in this case, is a covenant or a fulfilling of a promise between the vineyard owner or God and his laborers meaning us.

This last story is of a cab driver who is unsure whether he will take his last call after a long shift. He does and ends up driving a terminally ill older woman around New York City free of charge for two hours. She has no family so this is her final ride before entering a hospice facility. Here are his reflections in a Facebook post:

“What if the woman had gotten an angry driver or one who was impatient at the end of his shift. What if I had refused to take the run or had honked once and driven away? I did not do anything different as with anybody else. We’re conditioned to think our lives revolve around great moments. But great moments often catch us unaware—beautifully wrapped in what others consider a small one.”

In this story of the laborers in the vineyard, Jesus reminds us that he is generous and we are the beneficiaries of his generosity in small miraculous ways as we walk hand-in-hand with all of God’s children in the Kingdom here on earth.

So listen for the God’s call. Respond to God’s call. Be that joyful laborer in the vineyard. And know this: The Church of the Resurrection’s ministries are the generous gifts shared with each other and shared with the raggle-taggle of society.

 

[1]             N T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, 2nd ed., New Testament for Everyone (London: SPCK, 2004), 152.

[2]             Colby Itkowitz, “This Republican Mayor Has an Incredibly Simple Idea to Help the Homeless. and It Seems to Be Working.,” Washington Post, August 11, 2016, accessed September 19, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2016/08/11/this-republican-mayor-has-an-incredibly-simple-idea-to-help-the-homeless-and-it-seems-to-be-working/?utm_term=.fe754cc2239e.

 

Sept. 17, 2017, 15th Sunday after Pentecost YR A

Year A, Proper 19
September 17, 2017
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.”

I promised Romans.  Here we are…  Today’s lesson, the point St. Paul is making is very, very important, foundational of how we need to understand ourselves in relation to other people, but as in much of Paul, it is very subtle. You might even wonder if it matters at all, but that is Paul, deep work, deep whys.  It adds up.

So in today’s selection from Chapter 14, the issue is not whether Roman vegetarians are weak or not, but rather the issue is the inherent value of every human being, regardless of how deplorable their ideas might be, because we all begin and end in God.  It is about, as one commentator write, “… the radicality of grace, the radicality of life lived beyond judgment, beyond justice – life that loves real and enduring enemies.”  Now, does that not seem like a lesson ordered up for us, in this very moment in a nation so divided against itself?

One of the places we went in our travels in eastern Oregon was a ranch out near Steens Mountain in Harney County.  Beautiful country, and vast.  That’s where the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is.  Just the ranch we were on was over 25,000 acres.  There is so much space, there could not be a better setting for a guest ranch.

The ranch was run by Tim and Susan.  They were a devout Mormon family.  They were active in their Ward, their sons all went on their missions, there was a clear division of labor according to gender.  They were serious.  I think they sized us up pretty quickly, too.  We were coming from the Eugene area, and while we arrived in Windy’s pretty gnarly, dusty truck (that helped us blend), it did have a Bernie sticker on the bumper.  But we farmed, had a horse and were Christian, me a pastor, not things that jived with their image of Eugene.  But they were family first kind of folks and embraced us with genuine warmth and made us very welcome.

On the first morning there, we were going to go up the mountain on horseback, but that got delayed for some reason, so Tim and I saddled up and headed over to the indoor arena.  As we trotted, warming the horses up, we talked religion first.  I tensed a bit.  The Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints is similar to our church in some ways and it is quite different in others; the belief systems also.  We’re all just people trying to find our way.  After a while, galloping up and down the area, talking through the billowing dust, he said we should probably skip sex, and go right to politics.  His wife told him not to talk about politics, but he didn’t see the fun in that, and besides, he didn’t see many Bernie stickers in those parts.  Again, I tensed a bit.  “I voted for Trump,” he said, “who else were you going to vote for?  But I wasn’t happy about it.  I was a Carson man, myself.”  I tensed even more.  But I put on my pastor Stetson, trying to not judge, trying to stay with “I” statements, and what I understand to be right and wrong.  And we kept talking, maybe an hour riding around and around the arena.  We moved on to talk about family, about ranching and farming, about living in that arid spaciousness of Harney County and the lush crowds of the Willamette Valley.  My tension relaxed.  It perked up here and there, in particular about some gender role stuff that he seemed to take for granted, but I quickly grew very fond of him.  A good man.  A good man with some very, very different ideas from mine, who lived in a world very, very different from mine.

Our world, here in Eugene, is very anthropocentric.  It is very human centered.  Most of what defines our lives is not of the natural world.  Obviously the weather, the climate shapes us, but really, I live way out in Jasper and sometimes the only outside time I have is walking to and from my car; for some that is their only experience of outside.  Almost everything that dictates the course of our everyday lives is human made: streets and buildings, a wide variety of social interactions from one-on-one to 54,000 of your closest friends at a Duck game, consuming (we spend a lot of time buying things, like 99.somthing% of what we eat), all the media inputs, all that information and ideas.  Our world, here, is dominated by people and all the things people use and do. Our world here, like in all cities, is human-centric.

Tim’s world, like most of ours, starts and ends with family.  But once you stepped out of his front door and went outside, it wasn’t people or human things that dominated anything.  From their house, if you faced any direction but East, there were in fact no people.  No roads.  No power lines.  Nothing.  Not for dozens of miles. There were roads of course, but most were dirt and some he made himself.  His world, his daily existence was, in many ways, not defined by human things.  It was defined by the sun, the wind, the water (or lack there of); rattlesnakes and the Keiger mustangs on the next ridge; and, cattle, lots and lots of cattle.  He spent more time on a horse than in a truck (and even the saddles they used he made himself).  And most importantly, the dominant factor of life was the land itself.  It just spread out before you, as far as you can see, islands of juniper in an ocean of sage.  Distant mountains, broad valleys, rivers winding their way somewhere.  There is awe in being in the midst of such vastness, it is humbling.  You feel so small, so insignificant, but fully part of it.

I was getting a good feel for Tim so I decided to ask him, this Mormon cowboy from the northern end of the Great Basin about the Bundy brothers, those Mormon cowboys living on the southern end of the Great Basin whose last stand, as the crow flew, was thirty miles from the arena we were riding in.  And I’ll tell you what, I got a very different story than the one I read in the New York Times.  Not more true, but not less true, either.  If your world was primarily defined by the natural world, the land upon which you and maybe generations of your family had lived on and worked, how easy would it be for you to accept that some lawyer in Washington, D.C., who’d never stepped foot in your county, could possibly know better what was better for you and that land?   The US Government is seen, by some, as an absentee landlord, with local collaborators, folks not living off meat of the land but the fat skimmed off by that same government enforcing those laws written by people from Harvard or Yale on the other side of the continent.  I’m not making that case, but if I spent most of my time smelling sage from the back of a pony 200 miles from the nearest interstate, I might have a different perspective about some of those things than I do standing behind an Episcopal pulpit in South Eugene.

What goes through your mind when you see a “Make America Great Again” bumper sticker on a vehicle?  Or say it’s a great big American flag mounted in the bed of pick up truck.  We see more of that in Jasper than here in town.  Or a Confederate flag?  What goes through your mind?  Does it first go to the person behind the wheel?  Mine does.  What goes through your mind?  Are you judging in some way, or do you start by remembering that they are a child of God just like you?

This is what Paul is teaching us in this part of Romans.  The short hand is that you can’t actually hate the sin and love the sinner, because in our own broken, sinful selves, we can’t keep the hate straight, and in the end we will end up hating the sinner, too, no matter how good and right our intentions are.  And that, we cannot do.

When we face evil, the wrong, the hateful, the oppressive, when we oppose it, our opposition can become righteous.  That could be okay.  Righteous opposition, though, can morph into a species akin to hate, but more subtle, more pervasive, and most dangerously, more acceptable.  People who critiqued those observant of Jewish dietary laws in Paul’s day were not on some spectrum of anti-Semitism.  A modern analogy might be abortion rights, or the host of LGBTQ issues, or the gun control or immigration, or who you voted for in the primaries or the general election, and if they are on the wrong side they must be x, y and/or z: naïve, ignorant, hateful, bigoted, all of the above.  I have had all of those feelings.  Righteous opposition can be so intoxicating.   It invigorates us in the worst possible way, and the energy feeds us, and amplifies itself.  Look at our entire public discourse right now.  Righteous indignation leads to righteous opposition and that feeling, it is intoxicating, the disdain we feel can grab us, losing ourselves in what we perceive as opposition to sin.  “You can’t criticize me for opposing sin!  I love the sinner, it’s the sin I hate.”  But far, far too often, we are so engulfed in the shining goodness of one side and the foul stench of the other that the fact that someone doesn’t despise everything the opposition does means that they are an enemy to be cast into that special place in hell reserved for people just like them.

Paul’s point here is subtle. The subtlety is in the deep faith that Paul calls us to.  It is existential, it is about the very nature of our humanity.  Now this is challenging.  He is telling us that we cannot, we must not lose ourselves in opposition, in conflict, because it can be a slippery slope of judgement, condemnation and dehumanization.  He is asking us to surrender, to empty ourselves of ourselves, to let go and let God and let that, God be our starting point, not the rightness of our cause. No matter how right, how righteous and holy our cause is, no matter how wrong, how evil the other side is, we must not lose ourselves to opposition, to the conflict.  That means that we must not forget, truly, madly, deeply, we must not forget that we are all children of God.  Everyone of us, even…. Them.  “Turn the other cheek.”  “Pray for those who persecute you.”  “Take up your cross and follow me.”  Our base motivation, our starting point, Paul is saying, cannot be the common good, cannot be righteousness, cannot even be justice, but must be God.  Why?  Because we can never separate ourselves from our own motivations, our own opinions, no matter how right they might be.  Goodness and Justice are not relative, but our ability to perceive Goodness and Justice and then judge ourselves and others is relative, or is at least flawed, and can lead us down dangerous, dehumanizing paths.  We must start at the source of all humanity, we must start with Jesus Christ.

Paul is hard.  I’m learning how to read this stuff, so let me quote an expert.  “This is devastatingly subtle, because it can look, even to oneself, as if one is losing oneself to the just or the good, when really one is losing one’s self to one’s moral or doctrinal identity.  From this ‘spiritual’ posture, right actions are not righteous, defense of Christian ideals is not Christian, and attempts to build up the koinonia (communion, fellowship) are not labors of love.  The genius of the deception here lies in its perversion of even right action.”

“We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.  If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”  Truly, your being, your self is not defined by anything but God.  Not what you think, feel, do, hope, pray for.  No, existentially, we all exist only God.  Our ideas, our identities, race, gender, class, politics… we are not what we think or feel or do, we are not our identity, identity is a social construction, what we are is children of God and so is everyone else that was, and is and ever shall be.  And that is where everything starts, in the arms of God that are ever-loving and open to everyone, including Mormon cowboys who voted for Trump and Episcopal priests who maybe did not and every other possible manifestation of human being that has been or ever will be.

That does not mean that we tolerate injustice.  That does not mean that we tolerate the evils of violence and oppression, of racism, sexism and classism.  Absolutely not.  Jesus commands us to do those things, everyone, you need to find your own way to do it, but no one can do nothing and be a follower of Jesus Christ.  When we do strive for justice, and that includes the subtler day-to-day things like being kind to the cranky guy at the store, or trying to love the most unlovable member of your family or of this church, or just listening to the news without falling to pieces, we need to do these things not because we believe we should, not because those we follow say to, not even because we know in our heart that it is right and just so to do, but, again to quote someone more adept than me, “…but because we are moved by love and concern for every particular other, which is to say, because in life and death we belong to God.”  That’s how Dorothy Day made it through each poverty stricken day in the Bowery. That’s how Gandhi broke the back of the British Empire.  That’s how Dr. King didn’t hit back and kept marching on. That’s how Jesus forgave those who crucified Him and in that, saved us all. We are all star stuff, which was Carl Sagan’s way of saying that we are all Children of God. AMEN

Sept. 10, 2017, 14th Sunday after Pentecost YR A

September 10, 2017, Pentecost 14, RCL Year A
The Rev. Anne Abdy
Ezekiel 33:7-11; Psalm 119:33-40; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

 

“One of the unintended consequences of providing the Sunday liturgy in an easy-to-use leaflet or booklet form is that congregations become increasingly unfamiliar with the contents of the Book of Common Prayer. Taken as a whole, the prayer book is the ritual celebration of the seasons of our lives from birth to death in the light of the gospel and the daily, weekly, and annual cycles that shape and determine our existence.”[1]

The quote is from the former Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold taken from the Forward of the text: Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions by Julia Gatta and Martin L. Smith.

What the Presiding Bishop is suggesting is that there is so much wonderful “stuff” in the Book of Common Prayer. From collects to prayers to services. But he is also subtly saying that we don’t spend enough time flipping through it’s pages. Tucked in amongst it’s many pastoral services is the Rite of Reconciliation. Reconciliation is what keeps us in the right relationship with one another and with God.

The gospel theme today is about conflict resolution. Upon first reading the lessons one might wonder if this gospel is better suited for the Season of Lent. Why is it located on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost? Almost half way through the green season—and this year there are 29 Sundays in the Season of Ordinary Time.

It is placed in this season because Jesus is teaching forgiveness, repentance, and what it really means to love one another. That although there might be trepidation and anxiety about approaching some who has wronged you, the outcome of the act of reconciliation and resolving conflict is a release of joy—one could almost call it a new birth.

I remember working for a boss who was a micro-manager. It was difficult because I prefer some autonomy which in turn spurs my creativity. This interaction occurred soon after I was hired and was a foretaste of what was to come as we headed together down the path of disunity, lost respect, and anger [these are all my feelings by the way.] I was working at a computer. The group home had just opened and it was the first month of wading through weekly progress summaries as required by the state. They had to be written a certain way and it became long arduous task when I would have preferred to have been engaging with the clients. On this particular day, my boss swooped into my office flinging the door wide open and announced: “You’re fired!” Totally taken aback I calmly asked: “What did I do wrong?” “You’re sitting at the desk all the time and you are not with the clients.” Upon which I explained that I was concerned about not meeting the standards of care required by the state for the completion of our clinical documentation. Plus, I was completing another staff member’s clients paperwork because he was in scheduled meetings with her and unable to complete his paperwork in a timely manner. Needless-to-say she stumbled over her words and retreated out the door. Over the next five years, my duties expanded, my role multiplied, her micromanagement continued, and by the time I gave my notice, I was living in hatred. I loathed coming to work and the sight of my boss just ignited that smoldering flame deep in my heart.

In the letter to the Romans, Paul provides sage advice about financial responsibility. “Owe no one anything.” (Rom. 13:8) If you’re going to give someone money do not consider it a loan, but a gift. At the same agency about six months after our official opening, members of the state group home oversight board provided us with a friendly “just checking in to see how you’re doing and if there is anything we can help you” kinda visit. We did well but had to terminate one exceptional employee because she did not have a high school diploma or GED. I am not sure how this was overlooked but we offered to tutor her so that she could get her GED. For what ever reason, she chose the alternative option. This was a woman who did not have much, nor did she have much saved but she had a terrific rapport with our teenage girls. The staff were devastated as were the girls. After she left our employment, I provided her with some funds, not much, but enough that she could possible get by for a week or so. I learned from that experience exactly what Paul meant.  If I had loaned her the money, I may or may never have seen a penny returned, but I knew this was a gift—it was the gift of love that Paul writes about. It was that love your neighbor as yourself kind of love.

As much as these two stories seem oddly divergent and seemingly part from a common point like the “Y” in the road—they are related. They relate because Jesus gives us a road map on how to manage difficult relationships. We are not to ostracize our fellow man. Exclusion will just make life that much more difficult and painful for both parties. I am sad to say that the church has been that source of hurt for so many. From wars planned and implemented in the name of God to fostering a non-welcoming atmosphere at church. I learned just recently that there is a parish in this diocese where conversations cannot be had about our current political climate because one side does not feel welcome to share their thoughts. They feel that they will not be heard nor will they be given the time of day to speak their thoughts through civil interactions. As you know, I have always valued our denomination for being an open, welcoming church and where one felt they could share their inner most thoughts, so this was an eye opener for me.

In order to be part of this Jesus Movement, Jesus gives us the road map of what to do. Three phases. First, make an earnest attempt to engage in dialog with the individual. To do this you are to listen rather than count the number of sins or accusations leveled against you.

Then in the second attempt, you are to bring someone as a witness to the conversation. But bear in mind, that in some circumstances, both parties may have to humbly acknowledge the error of their ways.

The third attempt is an effort is to seek counsel of the church—the larger group of faithful. Take it to the family, if you will. If that fails, don’t show the person the door. Be responsible, like the your financial love gift given to another and take on the values of being Christian: the values of our Lord Jesus Christ. To paraphrase Paul: Put on the armor of Light. Put on the armor of Love.

Jesus never gave up on the sinners, the tax collectors, or the unclean. We are called to not give up on each other either.

I have a colleague who related this story about how he came to the Episcopal Church. He is gay and had experienced the harshness of the church. At that time his family was not supportive either so he wandered aimlessly through through his young adult life seeking refuge. Seeking acceptance. Seeking love. He lived in a big city and was drawn to the singing emitting from a large inner city church. One evening he opened the doors and sat in the back pew while the evensong continued up front with a small band of faithful. In time he was a regular attendee but only from the back pew. He never stepped forward. On this evening he took his regular “assigned seat” at the back of the church and settled in ready to listen to the heavenly sounds as he closed his eyes. A little while later, he heard footsteps that got louder and louder, and upon opening his eyes, he found himself surrounded by the faithful members attending this daily prayer. Although Aelred never verbally injured anyone in that group, the group did what Jesus commanded. They showered him with love by welcoming him into the fold. Jesus never gave up on my friend Aelred either. He is now an ordained Episcopal priest.

For me, while I never had the courage to confront my boss, but I did have the courage to engage in the Rite of Reconciliation. And it takes courage because through a thorough process of self examination you are squarely at all the evil thoughts and feelings carried in your heart. The Rite of Reconciliation allows you to engage the personal house-keeping and dusting of the heart and soul that needs to be done so that the vacant space left behind is filled with joy. I was reconciled that day with my God, but more importantly, I no longer harbored hate in my heart for my boss. Today we are great friends and she never knew how I felt.

In giving us the road map for conflict resolution that includes listening, truly listening, forgiveness, and reconciliation, we welcome our neighbor at our door. We are to love our enemy and shower then with love. For as Paul reminds us: “Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Rom.13:9)

 

[1]            Julia Gatta and Martin L. Smith, Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions (Harrisburg: Morehouse Pub., 2012), vii.

 

 

September 3, 2017, 17th Sunday after Pentecost YR A

Year A, Proper 17
September 3, 2017
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth.”

Discernment is a funny thing.  Do you know what I mean by “discernment,” in a religious context?  It means divining, or understanding the will of God.  It means hearing God’s call to you.  Discernment means figuring out what are you supposed to do.  God has something to do with that.  As Episcopalians, we speak of discernment often in the context of discerning vocation, meaning figuring out if you are called to Holy Orders, to the diaconate or the priesthood, or perhaps to a monastic vocation.

Discernment is tricky business.  Rarely is God’s will revealed in obvious ways: a burning bush or in being struck blind and hearing Jesus’ voice.  That would be nice, but God’s will is usually revealed in more subtle ways, surfacing in the words of those we love, those who challenge us or those little niggling feelings at the back of your mind that we can and so often do, ignore.  Sometimes it comes in a flash, an epiphonal moment of clarity and the whole world, or at least your understanding of it, changes.  Sometimes it is a slow unfolding, the leisurely opening of a rose bud, or a tomato taking its sweet time to go from green to that first blush before it takes on the deep hallelujah red that makes hot summer days worth dealing with.

I have been in the midst of one of those slow-burn discernment processes for some time now.  It is getting harder and harder to pretend that things are okay; harder to ignore inconvenient truths about capitalism and privilege, race and the climate, how thin the line is between civilization and chaos. How is authority exercised and how should it be?  What do we have/what should we have respect for?  What or who can we trust, and why?  Fundamental questions are right at the surface, including right here at Resurrection.  What is the purpose of a parish?  What is the role of the faithful Christian?  How does your knowledge and love of God, and God’s Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit inform you and guide you in the way of justice and truth?  How?

I was pretty flustered leaving in late April.  I had an inkling of how adrift I was, but as soon as I had some time and space in which to breath, I was startled by where I was, how thin I was spread, how confused about what was actually happening in our nation: Were we on the verge of tyranny?  Was it embittered partisan hysteria?  Both?  Neither? Somewhere in between?  Clarity is still elusive.  But I did what I was supposed to do.  I very consciously tried to put things aside and focus on just being.  I focused on the here and now, the things right in front of me:  Windy and the girls, a writing project, a piece of land, a garden and a home.  I tried to be quiet, and I left the farm as infrequently as humanly possible.  It is very quiet out there.  But inside, deep inside, behind the veil of consciousness… busy, busy, busy.

So now I am back, and that slow burn, the behind the scenes churning, the kneading of the subconscious, which is God’s preferred medium of revelation, that slow burn is starting to reveal some fruits.  Last week, I said that we are going to be spending some quality time with St. Paul the Apostle, because that is not something that we have done much of at least since I’ve been here.  (And we’ve got weeks [and weeks] of his letter to the Romans ahead of us).  And we’ll be doing that.  Paul’s legacy is central, but it is just one aspect of what I am figuring out that we need to do.

“Christ is made the sure foundation.”  That is one of our great hymns, and it points to what I am discerning a need for in this moment, or at least that is what I am feeling called to delve into in this moment and to offer.  What did our ancestors believe?  How did those beliefs, their understanding of the nature of reality, the nature of God and their relationship with God, how did that sustain them in their lives?  How did it feed them in times of trouble and in times of peace?  What are the “whats” and “so whats” that leads us to “now what?”  How have the big questions been answered?  There are big questions that have been asked time and time again over the ages in one form or another: Who are we?  Where are we?  What’s wrong?  What’s the solution? What time is it?  Fundamental questions.  Foundational questions.  And to make sense of world around us and our place and purpose in it, maybe what we need are some fundamental, foundational answers.  We need reference points outside of ourselves and the polemical world in which we live.  Post-modernity taught that no one is objective, objectivity is impossible… our public discourse has so embraced that notion that now even the most basic facts are subordinate to our opinions about those facts. It is so hard to tell what is true right now, and harder yet to know what to do about it or what to tell your children or how to look toward the future.  Do you feel adrift?  Untethered?  Flapping in the winds of your own life and in the lives we share together?  I do.

We need help.  All sorts of help, and the help that I am feeling most pressed by, that I am feeling most in need of, that I am discerning is sorely lacking in these tying and chaotic times is a sure foundation.  We need a rock, like Jesus declared the church would be built upon, on which to build our lives, our faith, our knowledge of the world and how to be in it. We need a foundation outside of ourselves, larger than ourselves and our worries, real and imagined, of this moment, in order to make sense of it all.  We need direction in which way to face. We need God’s help if we are going to be of any consequential help to anyone else.  As Christians, a great  starting place that we have is this: the Church, God’s holy catholic and apostolic Church.  The ever flawed vessel that the church is, still is the bearer of the Christian story.  It offers a vision of a sure foundation, a starting point rooted in scripture, held up by tradition, by generations of our ancestors, and subject to inquiry and to the lived experience in our own lives and those that have gone before.  It is not just the story of Jesus; not just the story of our ancestor Israel, it is the story of everything, answers to those big questions:  Who are we?  What is wrong?  What is the solution?  Well, the church is a bearer of that truth.  You also have a direct line to God in Christ with the Holy Spirit, but I think we give ourselves too much credit if we think we can make sense out these things completely on our own.

In my own piety, my own practice and study, and in what I am doing here with you all, I am, as I said last week, going to be going a little more radical then I have been, that is back to the roots, back to our traditions and some of the more traditional teachings of the church.  I don’t seek, nor will I try to offer definitive truths.  We are Anglican, after all.  Doctrine, teaching, that’s all fine and good but you can keep your Dogma, your definitive truth claims to yourself, thank you very much.  And things change.  Last week Peter was the “rock,” this week, “Satan.”  But I am going to try to take in the teachings of the church in a new way, in a way more respectful of our tradition and the generations who have wrestled with all of this before us.  I am going to try things on which I have dismissed in the past. Sometimes I have dismissed traditional teachings out of ignorance, just not knowing what the point was, not understanding the so what.  Or that I hadn’t/haven’t experienced some of the trials and hardships, the fears that some doctrine attempts to address.  Sometimes, more often than I like to admit, I have dismissed things because I didn’t want to deal with the consequences of accepting some of the teaching, the things I might have to give up or take on.  Existential or moral laziness.  When Jesus said to take up a cross and follow Him He can’t mean me?  Or that cross, whatever cross I am being called to bear in my life.  That’s hard.  Or give up everything I own???  He can’t be serious.  Well?

Sometimes I haven’t understood the teachings, not known what to do with them.  And sometimes I have dismissed some traditional teachings because we got it wrong, we have evolved as human beings as have our cultures and we know better about some things, like human beings aren’t property, men don’t always know best and human love manifests in incredible variety; things like that.

This will be an unfolding process.  We’ll try some things on, different ideas, different ways of understanding our world and our place in it.  We’ll test some different hermeneutics or lenses, ways to look at the world.  Some of it will make perfect sense, some less so, and some of it might seem irrelevant.  But like the old Chinese men in East of Eden who learned Hebrew so they could understand the context of a single word, timshel, “thou mayest” in Genesis 4, we might learn that those little bits, those theological motes might make all the difference in the world, like timshel.  That word teaches us that we have a choice, a choice between doing right and wrong.  It is one of God’s great gift to us, the freedom to choose, revealed, more like hidden in a word mistranslated from the Hebrew into the Kings English.

Now we didn’t spend any time with Paul this morning.  That’s okay.  The 12th chapter, verses 9-21 of his letter to the church in Rome is as clear and straight forward a list of ethical instructions as any in our or any other holy text.  It culminates in v. 21 with a rule to live by: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  You do have a choice.  All of this, what the generations have to offer, can help; if you choose to take it.  AMEN.

August 27, 2017, 12th Sunday after Pentecost YR A

Year A, Proper 16
August 27, 2017
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of yours minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God…”

Good morning, everyone.  It is still good to be back from sabbatical!  We have some really amazing people here who have taken real responsibility for this community.  Bless you all.

St. Paul’s epistle to the church in Rome is the first letter that we come to in the Bible. Actually, though, Romans is the last one he wrote, at least it is the last one that no one really disputes that he wrote.  This letter is a culmination of Paul’s thought, of what his faith in Jesus Christ and his ministry to spread that faith revealed to him over years of trials and tribulations.  This letter is taken by some to be Paul’s sort of theological last will and testament, it contains the core of his teachings.

We don’t, well, let me use “I” statements, I don’t spend enough time with St. Paul, either in my own practice or in my preaching ministry with you all.  I don’t and I apologize for that.  That has been a disservice.  Part of it is that Paul can be hard to read.  He can be anachronistic.  His world was a very different place than we ours in some important ways.  Some of his points can be offensive.  Sometimes he can be flat out wrong, certainly when read in our modern, Western/liberal context.  Based on experiences in my own life and on what I know of Jesus Christ, I can’t abide in some of what he writes so I sometimes throw out the Pauline baby with the bathwater.  That is just immature of me.  We had our 11th anniversary yesterday, and I know that if we (of course I mean her, Windy) threw people out because they have some major character flaw we’d all be alone!  Like we said last week, nothing is pure.  But Paul is challenging and he is wrong about some things and that can make him hard to read.

Another reason that I don’t spend as much time with Paul as I might is that Paul is hard to read.  He is hard to understand.  The sentences are long, the language can seem archaic and opaque.  His vocabulary is laden, just burdened with meaning.  It takes a lot of time to make sense of it, flipping through Biblical dictionaries and other resources, and then the reward for close reading can often be demands or exhortations that you might not really be looking for.  Maybe sin is not what you want to be thinking much about.  And Paul reveals the beating heart of Jesus Christ in ways that we must not ignore, as uncomfortable as some of it is.  Neither Paul nor Jesus promise us a rose garden.

I encountered a model for reading the Bible recently that has me really intrigued.  The idea is that you can look at it in terms of: What?  So What?  And Now What?  Hove you heard that before?  What? – What are you talking about.  What is the issue at hand.  So what? – Who cares?  Why does it matter?  And then Now What? – What do you do about it?  What should you do now?

Chapter 12 of St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans might be read as the Now What of Paul’s core teaching, that theological last will and testament.  It is about living the way of Jesus Christ.  This chapter is all about how we love God and love our neighbor… that’s the way of Jesus Christ, right?  The Great Commandment.  Verses 1-8, today’s reading, is about how we love God, how we actually do that, how we love God not just feel love for God.  “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice…”  “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  “…think with sober judgment each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”  These are all about how to live in relation to God.  Next week we have the second half of the chapter, the loving neighbor potion of Paul’s instruction on living the Way of Jesus.  This is the “what now.”  This is the ‘what are we supposed to do?’ the ‘how are we supposed to live?’ which is the most important thing.  Our faith en-fleshed, given hands and feet in the world, not just sentiment stuck in our hearts and minds.  “Faith without works is dead,” writes St. James.   And that is true and if you are going to err, err on practice not belief, on being kind not just thinking kindly thoughts.

That is not enough, though.  We also need to figure out, to discern, to learn, to be instructed in the Christian traditions of why we should be and do what we should be and do.  Why?  Why is big.  I reflected a lot during my sabbatical, and I am seeing that too often I skip over the why, the deep whys of the world.   I skip too many of the “What’s?” and the “So what’s?” and jump right to the practical moral theology of “now what?”  We might largely agree that x, y or z is wrong, by why is it wrong?  What holy writ is violated, what ethical standard is breached, what moral principle is corrupted?  Those questions are all very, very important if we are to understand our place in relation to God, to each other, and to the world.

For example, even that word “world” needs theological unpacking.   For most of us, “world” is the natural world, the creation, all the stuff we are engaged with.  But Paul, when he uses “world,” he usually means something very different.  He is referring to our corporate or collective being or self, and it is pejorative.  The world that we are not to conform to is our corporate false self.  It is not conforming to conventional wisdom that is in fact not wise at all.  It is what Dorothy Day called the “dirty, rotten system” or what John Paul II meant when he made the liberation theology idea of “structural sin” a teaching of the church.  Big difference there, no?

I am sorry that I have not spent enough time on why, on the “what” and the “so what” as I think we probably need to, particularly in confusing and tumultuous times such as these.  Coming off of sabbatical, my plan is to try to preach more radically, that is more back to the roots of our faith, exploring the traditional doctrine and teachings of the church and her prophets and apostles so that we, you, are better equipped to figure out the now what as an individual Christian and a member of a Christian community.  Sound OK?

So what is Paul’s deal?  What is the what that leads us to the now what Way of Jesus?  What is the starting point of Paul’s ministry?  Any guesses?  __  You have sinned.  We have sinned.  We are distant from God.  And we do things because we are distant from God and those wicked things we do keep us distant from God.  That’s the starting point of Paul, our fall.  For some reason, deep in our core, we are broken, fallen.  And because of that brokenness, that fallen-ness, we too often do things we know we should not do and we too often don’t do things that we know we should do.  All of us.  Your life experience is proof of that.  None of us are as good as we could be.  None of us are a kind as we should be. With very little provocation, we are capable of inflicting horrendous evil on our fellow human beings and on the creation.  It doesn’t mean that we are all bad all the time, not even the worst of us, but it does mean that we all have a tremendous amount of work to do to be the people God made us to be before something happened that distorted the reflection of the divine perfection in whose image we were created. That’s the what.

You’re a sinner and you need to repent, you need to change your ways.  And???  So what?  Thanks for pointing out the root of all of my personal failures as a spouse, a parent, a friend, a human being!  However, that’s not the end of the story, that’s what.  You are not alone in this, you are not the only one making bad decisions, being less than you should be, less than you could be.  That’s what.  And by grace alone, God offers us love and forgiveness and the gift of faith.  That’s Paul.  He points us towards the revelation of Jesus that we not defined only by our sinfulness and that we have done nothing to earn God’s grace.  In Romans it is tied up in the language of circumcision or un-circumcision.  That is all about whether you follow the law, religious law or not.  The point is, that following custom, doing the sacraments, the law, that’s not going to earn God’s favor.  It might change you, and hence your ability to accept God’s love, but it won’t make God do anything different, we can’t earn God’s favor.  We are justified by our faith, by the content of our heart and our character, not on how observant we might be.  That’s grace, and in that grace we are offered forgiveness and better yet, reconciliation with God.  Everyone.  And we are called to respond to God’s grace through a life lived with love, sanctified love, and joyfully so.  We should be filled with joy.  “May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing through the power of the Holy Spirit.”  Nothing can separate us from this love, from God, and these promises are forever and they are offered for all people.  That is some good news.  No matter how bad it seems, how badly you have failed, no matter what you have done, no matter how you are right now, no matter how far you have gone down any rabbit hole you can turn your life around, you can repent, you can change your ways.  You do not have to feel alienated, or alone, or powerless, worthless, addicted, stuck, mean, whatever terrible feelings you have.  There is another path.  That’s the so what.  That’s the first 11 chapters of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome.

That’s great news, but now what?  That brings us back to chapter 12.  Offer yourself as a living sacrifice.  Living?  That means being engaged, being active, being, umm, alive.  Sacrifice?  He means a gift to God.  Being a living sacrifice means living your life as the gift to God that you truly are.  The old sacrifices, yes, it was honoring God with the best you have, the first fruits, but it ended there.  A living sacrifice is a gift that keeps on giving, keeps on loving and serving as God desires us to do.  That kind of engaged life is our spiritual worship, says Paul.  That is not just an activity, a liturgy, it is a way of life.  It is praying ceaselessly. What we are doing right here, right now is a reminder, a refresher for the rest of our week lived in relationship with God and everything.  Does that make sense?

Then he goes on about not being conformed to the world, don’t be enamored or encumbered by the way things are, don’t conflate society’s values with the values of Jesus Christ.  We need to renew our minds, to practice, to pray, to empty ourselves, to learn ways to realign our souls, so that the will of God may be revealed and along with it our path forward.

And he gets very specific about how we value ourselves in relation to others.  “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to measure of faith that God has assigned.”  Why do we take it for granted that someone who makes investment decisions is valued exponentially higher in our society than someone who cares for children, or elderly folks, or who cleans up after us?  It takes a multiplicity of gifts to make the world work in the way God intends it to work.  We’d all be better off surrounded by kind or generous people than we would by simply smart or worldly successful ones. Who do you spend your time with?  How does their company make you feel?  Are you closer to God for their presence in your life?  There is so much there.

What?  So What? Our biblical inheritance, two thousand years of Christian tradition, your own personal piety and religious practice and experience… The resources we have available to lead us to the “now what” are vast and deep and powerful.  I look forward to plumbing those depths together.  Oh the places we’ll go!  AMEN

August 20, 2017, 11th Sunday after Pentecost YR A

Year A, Proper 15
August 20, 2017
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Good morning everyone!  It is good to be here.  It is good to see you.  It has been three and a half months.  That’s a goodly amount of time.  I’m back and I’m feeling very well.  Very well.

My sabbatical was great.  Thank you for that gift.  (And thank you to the Lily Foundation for making it much easier to do).  In a few weeks we’ll have a party, sort of a welcome back/kick off of the church year.  You’ll see some slides of where we went, what we did.  But briefly, it started with you all sent us off so beautifully to Eastern Oregon for a few weeks of vacation.  It was fabulous… what a gorgeous state we get to live in.  Then, after that wonderful and relaxing time for us to all be together as a family, we got back to Jasper and got to work.   Part of that work was my writing.  I got a good start on a novel I have been kicking around in my head for the past year.  It is set on the streets of Eugene, in the world of homelessness, the climax coming in the Occupy camp.  It is very far from being anything, but I got lot of work done on voice, on narrative structure and scope of the writing.  It was a challenging process that I got a lot out of it and the writing will continue.

When I wasn’t writing, I was working for Windy on the ranch.  And that was great, too.  The girls and I built a picnic table and we now have two years of firewood down (splitting and stacking comes this fall), and we came to some important conclusions about how we prioritize our time and how we allocate other family resources.  We have made some hard decisions and are moving ahead with some simplification of our lives.

And when I wasn’t doing that, I was enjoying my family.  Enjoying summer in Oregon on hikes and in swimming holes.  Enjoying going to some other churches.  St Mary’s Catholic was the most culturally and racial diverse place I’ve been in since I’ve lived in Oregon, that was wonderful to see, and the Faith Center, they have fun.  There was some positive energy there that I was not expecting.  And I spent time praying, saying the office.  Doing my Chi Kung.  Making some real progress on some family of origin challenges I have faced (and have created).  I read a lot.  Some very good stuff and some trashy spy novels.  And it was all capped by a really great trip back to Massachusetts to see our families.  The best we’ve had.  It is good to have headspace!  It is good to have room for your spirit to just be where it will be and not be confined by schedules, deadlines, needing to produce, to be or to do anything.  Thank you for letting me go!

And thank you for keeping it all running. Things here are just fine, better than fine, things are great.  I came back to no bungalow and no hole in the parking lot!  That is progress.  So many people did so much work, so much effort.  Thank you.  And thank you for not stopping all of that because I am back!  A lesson learned for me is that I was doing too much, holding on to too much control, doing too much of it myself, which is efficient, in ways, but not sustainable, and not good for me, and more importantly, not good for this community.  Leaders arose, and the top priority I come back with is tending that leadership.  You might know the old proverb, “It you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”  There’s an organizational goal.

My list of thank yous is very long and as I learn more about what has gone on here, it will grow.  I do want to really hold up Sandi, our senior warden and Patty, clerk of vestry and proto-chief of staff.  They did a lot of heavy lifting this summer.  We all owe them a debt of gratitude.  Also the folks of the Hospitality Village committee, Tina, Stevie, Sandi, Maggie, Kevin and Alex.  Running a Village is challenging, and they rose to the challenge.  Gay, she held it together, all the day to day bits.  And Mother Anne.  She was great, wasn’t she?  She is off for a couple of weeks, so don’t worry, she’ll be back, but I have just heard so many high praises.  Thank you for being there for her.  It is scary doing this for the first time and you all held her as she held you.  That is just fabulous, church being church.

Another thing I did a lot of work on was on me in relation to you, in particular when it comes to us in relation to the world.  How do we as a community address moral issues in our world and what is my role institutionally as rector of this parish and personally as your priest?  Where am I in this, what am I supposed be doing as opposed to encouraging others to be doing or discerning what they are supposed to be doing?  These are important questions, particularly in this moment in history because a Christian voice needs to be heard and Christian people need to be engaged, shining the healing light of Jesus Christ on a world that is increasingly obvious in its brokenness.  I have pushed you all a lot over the past few years.  Pushed you all to consider things that might be uncomfortable, to hear from perspectives that might be unfamiliar or out of the context of what you consider the purview of church.  I have pushed us into territory that some have even found offensive: we’ll take up the question how we pray for President Trump at another time, because goodness gracious, that man needs prayers to change his ways more than just about anyone in this world right now.

Now I did not come back with the idea that I am going to stop pushing us into territory that is uncomfortable; nothing about the Jesus Christ and His Cross is comfortable.  If you are not looking to learn and grow, deepen your understanding of Jesus and of Jesus’ call to you, His call to you directly and specifically to be and do the best that you can be and do, if you are not here for that, then I don’t know why you would come to church.  We are here to learn and grown in Jesus Christ.  To learn how we become more Christ-like.  And, I have been learning that I need to go easier.  The struggle between light and dark, good and evil is a long game, and one probably, now here is a spiritual revelation, one probably better faced with the brilliant light of God’s love than with the gloom of anger and cynicism that some of us, like me, can tend towards.  As righteous as it may be, that’s maybe not the path to the Kingdom of God.  And I promised myself that I am going to go easier, especially today, my first Sunday back, keep the sermon light, say hi, reflect on the scripture, “A house of prayer for all peoples.”  But then we had the spectacle of hate and violence in Charlottesville followed by a week of equivocations by our President about white supremacy, neo-Nazis and memorials honoring the confederacy.  God help us.  Automatically my go-easier meter pegged at outrage, and I immediately had a litany of reasons why this should not be surprising and that our incredulousness is another sign of our white privilege, and that our nation has been on this trajectory since wealthy slave owners wrote the constitution, on and on in the way that I usually go.  That is not the way.

Our scripture this week answers the rhetoric from the white nationalists quite directly.  Theirs is an argument of purity.  White purity.  I saw some images of white supremacist graffiti and signage found on the U of O campus recently, and so many were images of the model white person, pure, unsullied with otherness.  Awful. That is not God’s will.  Nothing is pure in that way, nor should it be nor is purity a Christian virtue.  God’s will is manifest in the creation, with overwhelming diversity not just in humanity, but in life itself, utterly interdependent in its variety.

And specifically, when it comes to human diversity and our purity, our scripture today is clear.  Isaiah is crystalline in saying that foreigners, ‘the other’, that “…their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be a house of prayer for all people.”  That’s the motto of my home parish, the St. Paul’s Cathedral in Boston, with Mecca lines on the floor for the couple of hundred Muslims who have Friday prayers there each week.  It is right on Boston Common where 15,000 – 20,000 showed up to protest the 100 or so white nationalists who rallied there.  I hope the Cathedral’s light shined bright.

St. Paul says the same thing in his very Pauline way.  He says that Israel, loyal Jews, they are not rejected by God, but receive God’s mercy like Christians do.  His reasoning is that we are all disobedient, so we are all recipients of mercy God’s mercy.  The military is known for being progressive about racial integration.  I don’t know if that’s actually true, it is debatable in many ways, but Paul’s statement, “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all”  reminds me of how we were taught about racial equality at Officer Candidates School.  Our Sergeant Instructor told us, “Black, brown, white, orange, polka dot… it don’t matter, you’re all equally worthless.”  I guess that is a positive lesson.  At least everyone’s equal.

Then we hear Jesus in St. Matthew’s gospel.  In the first part, He takes on conventional wisdom embodied in the Pharisees.  They took offense when he proposed the radical notion that it was not what you ate that made you unclean, but what you did.  That what you put in your mouth doesn’t defile you, but what comes out of it, the products of our hearts: evil intentions, murder, adultery and the rest of our shadow side, they are what defiles.  Purity, acceptability by God is not determined by what you eat or how clean your hands are, but in the quality of your inner life and how you express it and act upon it in the world.

That is all obvious.  It is a baseline value of liberal Christianity, acceptance, radical acceptance.  And sometimes we do it to a fault.  We are so accepting of the validity of other ideas and other ways of being that we sometimes don’t value our own ideas and own ways of being enough to have a firm foundation of faith.  But if you are going to err, err on the side of excessive acceptance.

What really struck me in our scripture in this moment, this confusing moment of public tension and unrest around race, of reckoning with our history and the reality of the present, what struck me was the second part from Matthew, 15:21-28, the story of the Canaanite woman.

She comes asking Jesus to heal her daughter who suffers with a demon.  “But he did not answer her at all.”  Jesus?  He ignores someone…  The disciples urge Him to send her away because, “…she keeps shouting after us.”  Jesus answered their request, saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  Jesus?  He’s not ignoring her, He’s full on rejecting her.  “I did not come for her or her kind” is what is being said.  But then Jesus, our humble Lord and Savior, teaches us.  What happens?  She asks Him directly for help, to which He responds “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  Meaning, what I have is not for you, you dogs (and being called a dog would be like being called a rat or pond scum, a really nasty thing to say).  But the woman persists.  “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  Yes, and I’m still here, unworthy perhaps, but here, waiting for your grace.

And this is our lesson, our lesson for today and for this moment in time.  Jesus learned.  He learned and He changed His mind and changed His course based on what He learned.  He learned that this woman, this Other, this foreigner like Isaiah held up, that she too had faith, that she too was worthy of His attention.  And He changed His ways “And her daughter was healed instantly.”

Right now, we need to learn as Jesus learned.  Jesus learned because He was open to learning.  He changed how He was and what He did in the world based upon this encounter.  He changed His mind, he allowed His mind to be changed by new truth that this woman in her faith revealed to Him.  And dramatically, instantly, He changed His course and included her in the reach of His loving embrace.

Over my sabbatical I met some people, read some things, had some inner stillness that challenged some of my presuppositions, that called me to question some of my opinions, oh my precious opinions, and is, I hope, leading me to be and do things differently than I have in the past.  Jesus offers each of us a way of grace to correct our course.

I have already had multiple inquiries about what are we supposed to be doing right now, how are we supposed to react as a community, what are we supposed to do as individuals, largely white, middle class Christian individuals in South Eugene seeking to make the world better than it is at the moment.  My answer is to be like Jesus.  Open your heart.  Expose yourself to things you might not usually be exposed to.  Try on ideas that are foreign, even offensive to your personal conventional wisdom, and give yourself permission to change your mind and your course, just like Jesus did.  You know what lies in the recesses of your heart, how much you have to give, what you are willing to risk.  And if you don’t, have faith and follow Jesus. He’ll tell you what to do.

It is good to be back.  AMEN.

 

August 13, 2017, 10th Sunday after Pentecost YR A

August 13, 2017, 10th Sunday after Pentecost YR  A
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33
The Rev. Anne Abdy

 

I love this story of Peter. Peter who always opens his mouth and inserts his foot. The Peter who Jesus rebukes. The Peter who denies Christ three times and was reminded of this fact when the cock crows.  The same Peter whose name is “the Rock” and upon whom the church was built. This is the same Peter who climbs out of the boat into the rough swells of the Sea of Galilee.

The basic theme for this scripture is obvious. It is about faith. The kind of faith that one can walk on water. Who in their right mind can do that! I know I cannot. I have tried. I never got off the bottom of the bunny slope after two days of private instruction at an Special Olympics Adaptive Skiing camp. I would have done better sitting in the tethered bullet racing down the slopes. I never was able to fully stand up when I attempted to water ski. I might be able to do paddle boarding but I never was able to stand up on a surfboard either. The likelihood that I will be able to walk on water is probably zilch.

I have yet to see the movie The Shack[1] and I know there is a wonderful scene where Jesus and Mack race against each other across the lake. In the book, this scene begins like this:

They are standing on the dock together looking over the lake.

“After you,” he said with a mock flourish and bow.

“You’re kidding, right?” sputtered Mack. “I thought we were going for a walk, not a swim.”

“We are. I just thought going across the lake would take less time than going around it.” . . . Mack walked to the edge of the dock and looked down. The water lapped only about a foot below where he stood but it might as well have been a hundred feet. The distance looked enormous. To dive in would have been easy, he had done that a thousand times, but how do you step off a dock onto water? . . .

“Only about a foot, it looks to me,” laughed Jesus, placing his hand on Mack’s shoulder. It was all he needed and Mack stepped off the dock.  . . . The Landing was softer than he had thought it would be. . . . .Walking on water with Jesus seemed the most natural way to cross a lake, and Mack was grinning from ear to ear just thinking about what he was doing.”

There are so many layers in that simple act of jumping off the edge onto the water. For Peter there is the safety of the boat, albeit the boat was probably taking on water and not safe anyway. He and the disciples probably would have died in the boat. The boat which was a place of safety versus walking on water in rough seas but was a real unsafe and sure death act.

Here Jesus teaches that discipleship is living life on the edge. By staying in the boat the disciples are not engaged in the high adventure of discipleship. They are passively engaged and are scared. The Catechism suggests that Christian hope is: “living in confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God’s purpose for the world.” (BCP, 861) It is that fullness of life that places disciples lives on the edge. Extreme discipleship is about getting your feet wet. It is messy at times, and yes, fear can paralyze us. But we are called to step out in faith. Faith is believing in something sight unseen. We are to answer that call.

I want to break down this story line by line starting with: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” The first thought that came to my mind was “You’d better be careful what you wish for.” But Peter rises to the occasion and responds to the call. Peter had to get out of the boat. If he didn’t, he would have egg on his face, and truly he is so impulsive that probably all he thought about was saving his own life believing that the boat was truly going to sink. When the Lord offers you a gift you have the choice to accept the gift.

“So he got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came to Jesus.” Peter was not filled with fear when he started walking. He was filled with faith. He kept his eyes on the prize. He looked at Jesus. The story never tells us that he touched Jesus like a kid playing tag, no, he just “came to Jesus.” Was he a foot away? Two feet? An inch? We will never know. Peter was obedient and he answered the call. We are called to be obedient in our life of discipleship.

“Lord, if it is you…” Here Peter demonstrates his faith. His believes and recognizes Jesus. Before this sentence everyone thought there was a ghost standing on the water. Kinda like a mirage in the desert. But a mirage is an ocular illusion caused by atmospheric conditions. Jesus is not an illusion.

In that moment, Jesus is very real to Peter. By engaging in acts of faith and as we walk into the unknown we get to know God.

“But, when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord help me.’” Peter got distracted. It just takes a second. He took his eyes off the prize. We are to keep looking at Jesus.

Jesus reaches down and caught him, then says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt.” Fear gripped him. Often we are held hostage by our own comfort zone and our own thoughts. Life is scary but in order to experience the fullness of life, we must confront the fear head on. Did you know that the statement “fear not” appears 366 times in the Bible so when fear is paralyzing know that Jesus is nearby everyday of the year, plus one. Jesus is always near even in the worst of times.

“When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.” Stepping out in faith does not mean we will not have fear or troubled waters, but instead we are accompanied by the re-assurance that Jesus is near and there to help. Jesus calms the storm. He can calm our storms too, if we will only let him.

I want to end with this story on faith and why this young man believes in Jesus.[2]

He is from Sri Lanka and when in college he challenged his friends and teachers about their Christian beliefs.

He writes: “I knew plenty of Christians. In fact, I read the Bible often, just so I could argue with Christians. I wanted to know what they believed so I could break down their reasons for believing.”

In time this young man life takes a turn for the worse and he sits in the library one night believing that the solution to his problems is suicide. He continues, “As I sat there thinking of the best way to kill myself, I heard a voice say, “Have you ever asked me for help?” I looked around and couldn’t see anyone. I thought I was going crazy. Then I heard the voice say, “I’m Jesus, and I’m right here next to you.”

“Suddenly I felt God urging me to go see my biophysics professor. That’s right, the same guy I’d been arguing with all year. I walked across campus to the science building and found him working in his office. As I walked in, he said, “I’m so glad you’re here. God has put you on my heart and I’ve been hoping you’d come and talk to me.” We talked a long time.”

“But after my conversion, I felt humbled by God’s power to change me. I wanted people to see Jesus in my life, not me or my accomplishments. I was almost grateful for my struggles, because I knew God was using them to keep me humble and focused on him. So why do I believe in Jesus? Because he’s real. It was Jesus who saved me.”

Jesus is real. He is not a ghost. So in the days and months ahead do the following: Accept Jesus’ gift. Be obedient and answer the call. Get to know God.

Don’t be distracted. Know that Jesus is always near. Jesus will calm our storms of life. Have faith and keep your eyes on the prize.

[1]              William P. Young, The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity (Newbury Park, CA: Windblown Media, 2007), 140, 141, 142, and 143.

 

[2]              Shamitha “Sam” Yaoa, “Why I Believe in Jesus: What Makes Jesus Different?,” Christianity Today, 1, accessed August 11, 2017, http://www.christianitytoday.com/iyf/truelifestories/interestingpeople/why-i-believe-in-jesus.html?