Sunday, August 22, 2004

Proper 16 C

Isaiah 28:14-22; Psalm 46; Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-29; Luke 13:22-30

Until a few months ago, I had absolutely no idea how easy it is to say, "Because I’m Mommy and I said so." At 3 ½, our son Charlie is a pretty good guy, but he’s finally figured out his mommy and daddy stay awake after he has gone to bed, and lately he’s been quite concerned that he might be missing out on some serious fun.

I remember getting out of bed at night when I was little, tiptoeing down the stairs, and peaking around the door into the living room where my parents were watching TV. They always knew I was there, which I thought must be magic, but now I know it's because they could see my reflection in the window beside the sofa. We catch Charlie that way now.

"But why do I have to go to bed?" he always asks as we walk back to his room. And at first we crafted imaginative replies about the sun going down and stars playing in the sky, about resting our bodies and dreaming happy dreams. But a few weeks into this pattern.... "But why...." our answers shrank with our patience, and we would simply tell him, "Charlie, because it’s night time and you need to sleep."

One night, after the fourth or fifth escort back to bed, he asked as always, "Why do I have to go to sleep?" And I couldn’t believe the words as they were coming out of my mouth.... "Because I’m Mommy and I said so...."

We’ve learned that the less we say when we tuck him back in, the less likely we are to catch his reflection in the window later on. So we save the stories about stars and dreams for before bed, and keep our late-night answers short and to the point.

When we read this morning’s gospel passage at senior high bible study this week, we agreed that it sure would be nice if Jesus could just give a straight answer once in a while. A simple yes or no, and get on with it.

Lord, will only a few be saved? If he could just say, "As a matter of fact, yes," or "I’ve got to say, no." Short and to the point. And if anyone asked why, he could say, "Because I’m God and I said so."

But it seems Jesus was more inclined to the stars and dreams approach, to long, winding answers filled with images, encoded in parables. His teachings often twist and turn, so that by the end of his answer, we are left with more questions than we started with.

Lord, will only a few be saved? And Jesus takes a deep breath and answers, "Strive to enter through the narrow door. Many will try but few will make it. When the door is shut it is shut, and you will not be able to get in no matter what you say. And you will watch all sorts of folks come from north and south and east and west to eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last."

Uh-huh. So, Jesus, is that a yes or a no? Will only a few be saved?

Jesus’ stars and dreams response, which I think begins with a yes but ends with a glorious no - no, not only a few people but people from north and south and east and west....his response is, I think, less an answer to the question and more a statement about the question itself.

You see, Little Charlie’s question makes some sense, at least the first few hundred times he asks it...."Why do I have to go to bed?" He’s only just discovered that it’s possible to stay awake later than he usually does. But the question in this morning’s gospel...well it doesn’t really make any sense. So many of the questions Jesus fields in the gospels don’t make any sense, not any more. It’s just that the folks asking them don’t realize that yet.

The folks asking Jesus questions, most of the time, were faithful Jews living under an increasingly rigid observance of Torah. Keeping God’s law was the only way they were able to preserve their identity as God’s people, the only way they were able to remember that their true covenant was with Yahweh, and not with the Roman governments and gods whose power was a constant threat to them.

And then here comes Jesus, healing on the Sabbath, touching unclean people, eating in the homes of sinners, taking tax collectors as disciples. He broke the law. I suppose Jesus didn’t make much sense to those who were trying the only way they knew how to be faithful to God. They didn’t yet realize that in Jesus, God was showing them a new way.

I have to trust that there is wisdom in the way our lectionary is put together, but I’m not sure I understand why we are reading this morning’s passage without having read the two parables that precede it. Jesus has been talking about the kingdom of God, comparing it first to a tiny mustard seed that, once planted in the garden, is filled with life and grows into an enormous tree that becomes a refuge for many birds of the air. Do you hear echoes of our tale of a tiny, narrow door becoming a table that seats many?

The second parable Jesus tells, just before today’s text begins, is that the kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened. It’s less familiar to us than the mustard seed, but Episcopal priest, theologian, and amateur baker Robert Farrar Capon suggests it is one of the most remarkable things Jesus ever said. Capon writes, "Just as yeast enters into the dough by being dissolved into the very liquid that makes the dough become dough at all - just as there is not a moment of the dough’s existence, from start to finish, in which it is unleavened dough - so this parable insists that the kingdom [of God] enters the world at its creation and that there is not, and has never been, an unkingdomed humanity anywhere in the world."

There is not, and has never been, an unkingdomed humanity anywhere in the world.

Lord, will only a few be saved? The question doesn’t make any sense, because we are, all of us - you, me, the people we like most and the people we like least - we are all of us already saved. Jesus has made certain of that - he gave his life to make certain of that.

Lord, will only a few be saved? CS Lewis wrote something to the effect of, "It’s like asking what color is the number three?" What kind of answer can you give to a question that doesn’t make any sense?

Jesus’ answer seems to suggest that the deeper question, the real question, the honest question is this: Who might I have to sit beside at the table?

Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. The door is not an image for salvation - we are all already saved. The door is our willingness to live like it, to live as though Jesus died for us and for all sinners everywhere, to love the world that much, to engage the world that deeply. The door is narrow because it squeezes out of us every ounce of how the world tells us to live, in judgement, in competition, in self-preservation, in fear. By the world’s standards it doesn’t make sense - when we try to walk through alone, believing we have earned access to the table and others have not, we cannot fit through the narrow opening. But when we walk through hand in hand, side by side, believing that God’s grace has set a place for everyone, there is somehow more than enough room.

Jesus asks us to live in the world right now as though we were all already eating together at that banquet table on the last day. If someone is hungry and needs a second helping of bread, by all means pass it. If someone is sick and weak and having trouble cutting their roast beef, by all means help them cut it. If someone is weary and fumbling with words to a prayer, by all means help them pray it.

One of our stars and dreams attempts to keep Little Charlie in bed at night was a story about the moon watching over him and keeping him safe. We thought it had done the trick, but he soon wandered back out to the living room, worried that the moon was going to get him. Our long-winded answer kept him up at night.

Jesus’ long-winded answer keep us up at night, too. It doesn’t make much sense. We are all already saved, and the door is wide open for us all to join him at the table. But we might not make it to the feast. Sarah Dylan Breuer writes, "Some may find themselves shut out from Jesus’ table in the only way one can make that happen: by refusing to share it with the others invited."

The answer is simple, but it is not easy. And so we are first nourished at this table, where we come together from just a little bit north, south, east, and west to feast on grace, to be filled with the One whose love saw beyond the boundaries we place between ourselves. May we go out from this place hand in hand and swing our doors wide open, and begin to reveal to the world the kingdom already in its midst. Amen.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Proper 14 C

Genesis 15:1-6; Psalm 33:12-15, 18-22; Hebrews 11:1-16; Luke 12:32-40

Happy new year!

No, the Florida sun during this week’s family vacation has not baked my head or distorted my sense of time, although the week went by far too fast.

It is actually hard to know anymore how to mark a year in the life of the church. Do we go from Advent to Advent, following our liturgical cycle? Do we celebrate on January 1, when the calendar announces a new year has arrived? Or do we look to Easter morning to tell us we’ve arrived again at the beginning?

All of these events mark time in our life together as a parish community. But I think a significant period of time has passed, whether or not it’s been quite a full year, when we come together on this day. Today. It’s the first day of Sunday School.

So, happy new year! We’re even having a party this afternoon to celebrate!

Many of us have been busy marking the new year for some weeks now, getting in last minute vacations, shopping for school clothes, registering for classes, preparing lesson plans....the first day of, as Little Charlie calls it, "School School" (as opposed to "Sunday School") has also arrived.

Of course, I want to encourage everyone to become part of our Christian formation programs that are beginning over the next few weeks - Sunday School, EYC, Bright Beginnings, Wednesday evening dinners and programs, and Stewardship. But it is even more important to encourage everyone, whether you come to Sunday School or not, whether you have children in school or not, to take advantage of this time when we do, for all intents and purposes, start a new year, when we are so focused on beginning new things.

This morning’s readings are all about beginning new things, and the measure that marks them all is faith. Our reading from Hebrews lists example after example - by faith the world was created, by faith Abel offered his sacrifice, by faith Enoch lived a life that pleased God, by faith Noah built an faith Abraham and Sarah, the favorite example, set out for a place they would never see with the promises of children they did not yet have and a blessing they had no reason to think they would ever receive.

Just a few weeks ago we heard about Abraham and Sarah’s faithfulness to the laws of hospitality, when they fed and sheltered three strangers who were later revealed to be divine guests. God told them then and there that the first of the starry host promised to them so long before would soon be born. Abraham was stunned speechless and Sarah laughed, so extravagant was the grace.

This morning’s Old Testament reading takes us back in time from that glorious day to one in which Abraham was filled with despair. He and Sarah were considering giving up a secure and stable life to become wanderers, all because God promised that from them would come a chosen people who would live in a chosen land and receive God’s most choice blessing. There was not one shred of evidence that God would deliver on any of it, but - was it faith yet, or boredom, or reckless whim? - Abraham and Sarah packed everything up and set out for Somewhere.

I don’t blame Abraham for being frustrated at first, for complaining that the one thing he and Sarah ought to be able to accomplish for themselves - having their own child - seemed impossible. What happened next changed Abraham and Sarah and the whole world forever. God brought Abraham outside and said, Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. Then God said to him, So shall your descendants be.

What did Abraham and Sarah see in the sky filled with stars that night? Certainly the limitless constellations spoke of abundance, of extravagance, of God’s joy in creating life and light. But sheer numbers aren’t enough to fire real faith, because faith is more than something we can grasp with our minds, especially if we have to do it with a symbol representing a number to which we could never count...

In the stars, Abraham and Sarah saw light in a dark place. Not enough to cast light on the end of their journey, the nature of their blessing, or the face of their child. Not enough to drive away the darkness, but enough to make the darkness dazzle, enough to help them see beyond the darkness filled with uncertainty and fear and frustration and doubt to a God for whom darkness is not dark and the night is as bright as the day.

They believed, and they put one foot in front of the other, and plunged into the deep and dazzling darkness of faith. This is faith, going forward when it would be easier to turn back, or at least stand still - going forward with God simply because God has invited us to. And God has invited us, as surely as God invited Abraham and Sarah, to go forward in faith, to leave behind security and stability as the world measures it and find our safety in God, who is our shield. Faith does not earn for us God’s promise, God’s blessing - faith is our response to God’s promise already given.

Isaac may have been the first new star in Abraham and Sarah’s night sky, but of course he would not be the last. Countless stars have appeared, women and men who, like Abraham and Sarah, went forward in faith simply because God invited them to. We read about them in Holy Scriptures. We read about them in historical documents of the Church. We read about them in newspapers. Most of them we’ll never read about, for their lives are as ordinary as ours. Of them all, we heard it read they died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.

It is the beginning of a new year in the life of our parish, the year by which we measure our intentional formation and education in what it means to be chosen by God, to be numbered among the stars. Through classes, bible studies, youth programs, shared meals, pledge cards, outreach activities, and worship we train our eyes on the heavens to guide us as our feet make their day-to-day journey through the world.

May we all be challenged this morning by Abraham and Sarah and all those others to begin something new, something really new, something that requires us to give up a piece of the stability and security we so fear giving up. It will probably look different for each of us - go to Sunday School for the first time, begin volunteering weekly at LOVE’s kitchen, start praying as a family every day, give more than feels comfortable. By faith, may we go forward with God simply because God has invited us to.

Saint Clare of Assisi, one of the starry host whose feast day we celebrate this week, would give us this blessing on our journey into the unknown: "Go forth in peace, for you follow the good road. Go forth without fear, for God who created you has sanctified you, has always protected you, and loves you as a mother." Amen.