Monday, August 13, 2007

For Education

St. Andrew's Episcopal School - Opening Faculty Eucharist

Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 20-25; Psalm 78:1-7; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Matthew 11:25-30

I recently heard the story of a 5th grade Sunday School teacher who was talking to her class about Jesus and his yoke. Does anyone know what a yoke is, the teacher asked. The first hand that went up thought she was talking about the yellow part of an egg (which makes for an interesting interpretation of “my yoke is easy and my burden is light”). The second hand, though, answered that a yoke was something goes around a horse’s neck. That’s right, the teacher replied. So what do you think the yoke of Christ is all about? The student thought for a moment and said, I guess that’s when God has you by the throat…

When God has you by the throat. That about sums up how many of those who came to hear Jesus’ stories were feeling, too – caught in the clutches of God’s law, of Torah, they were barely able to breathe beneath the weight it had become in the hands of religious leaders. The letter of the law wrapped its tendrils around their throats, and the burden of living as God’s people had become unbearable. Torah, intended by God as guidance for how to live in relationship as people loved and saved and called by God…Torah began to be likened to an oppressive and painful yoke that weighed heavily, that wore people down.

And so, Jesus is perhaps as much teaching them a lesson on the real definition and use of yokes as he is telling the real story of what it means to be God’s people. A yoke is intended to distribute weight, to lighten the load, to allow an animal to make full use of its strength. Yokes are uniquely-shaped to fit each animal so as not to rub or chaff or weight the animal down as it goes about its work. The proper use of yokes is to ease burdens, not create them; to harnass and enhance strengths, not wear at them.

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Jesus’ words teach what it means to be yoked to him and they tell a story, for they echo the words of our first reading this morning, words that are at the heart of what it means to be God’s people, words still spoken daily in Jewish prayers. Shema yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai ehad. Hear, Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord alone. In the ancient and timeless story of faith, we have always been yoked with God, loved with all God’s heart, chosen with all God’s soul, and saved over and over again with all God’s might, like our ancestors brought out of Egypt, the story goes, with mighty hand…he brought us out from there in order to bring us in.

This is the real story, the ancient and timeless story toward which the rest of Torah had always pointed – the story of love. And so in the very same breath that we are commanded to love God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our might, we are also commanded to teach others about love, to tell the story. Recite it to your children and talk about it when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind it as a sign on your hand, fix it as an emblem on your forehead, and write it on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. Tell the story…that the generations to come might know…that they might in turn tell it to their children…

It may sound like more responsibility than we care to add to our already over-burdened lives, our carefully crafted syllabi, our calendars rapidly filling with classes and meetings and schedules and students and deadlines and details. It may sound like God is trying to get us by the throat. But Jesus invites us to remember what it means to be yoked to Love. The yoke is easy, because it is made to fit us well – it fits each of our uniquely-shaped lives and our uniquely-shaped disciplines and the uniquely-shaped ways we are each gifted and skilled and called to love. The burden is light because it is shared – the weight of loving is not ours alone, because God loves us first. The work is…well, the work is hard. It is hard to be God’s people in the world when the world chooses hatred over love, fear over hope, violence over mercy, retaliation over forgiveness, self-preservation over generosity.

But you know us, and what’s written on our doorposts and on our gates – we will find a way or we will make one. We do have a uniquely-shaped way in Jesus, whose life, like ours, was devoted to teaching and telling stories, to celebrating and shaping unique and wonderful lives, to helping others understand how they in turn might be called to use their gifts and skills, how they might one day be, among many other things, storytellers…

Yoked with Christ, whether by faith or by a shared vocation of teaching and telling stories and shaping lives, yoked with Christ we are yoked with one another. We share the burden and the joy of imparting knowledge of the world with those who will one day know more about it than we have ever dreamed of. The work is hard, but we work together – yoked, it is somehow easier, the burden somehow lighter. The students will learn from us about quadratic equations and stage directions and team formations and word definitions and much more. May they also learn from us a story about not having to bear our burdens alone, a story about being at once uniquely-shaped and part of something ancient and timeless, a story about being loved and about loving in return. And so, all of us together this year, in the words of poet W.H. Auden, “Let us run to learn how to love and run, let us run to love.” Amen.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Proper 13C

Episcopal Church of the Advent, Sumner

Ecclesiastes 1:12-14; 2:1-23; Psalm 49:1-11; Colossians 3:5-17; Luke 12:13-21

I don’t know much about farming, but I suspect it goes without saying that there’s nothing wrong with having a really good season. A season with the perfect balance of sun and rain, warmth and chill. A season without parasites or disease threatening the fragile foliage. A season of enriched soil, expertly fertilized and fed. A season of hard work. And I suspect it goes without saying that there’s nothing wrong with storing a harvested crop in such a way as to preserve it, to keep it safe until it is needed.

Many in the crowd listening to Jesus that day were likely farmers, in from their fields to hear this man who seemed to know so much about God. Jesus often told stories, like this morning’s parable, that seeded side by side something about God and something about everyday life so that the roots below and the leaves above could grow intertwined. Perhaps some of those farmers thought back to a really good season. Perhaps some thought about the size of their barns. Perhaps the thoughts of some drifted despondently to parched plants or rotting roots. Even those in the crowds who were carpenters, shopkeepers, tax collectors, shepherds, mothers, teachers, soldiers, laborers, beggars – they all would have known that there’s nothing wrong with having an abundant harvest.

There is something wrong, though, with possessing an abundant harvest, with bigger than life barns filled to overflowing, with a satisfied soul that says only to itself, Self, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry. There is nothing wrong with a really good season. But there is everything wrong, Jesus says, with fools who believe they have harvested happiness with it, with fools who believe they have grown the elusive really good life, with fools who close their fingers around their fortune, who shut the barn doors tight. For one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions…The things you have prepared, whose will they be? So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.

Mark Twain claimed he didn’t know much about the Bible, but that it wasn’t the parts he didn’t understand that bothered him – it was the parts he did understand. This morning’s gospel reading is, I suspect, one of those parts we indeed do understand and that does indeed bother us, because all of us – farmers and everyone else – long for a really good season if for no other reason than that they can protect us against the really bad seasons, against the droughts, the freezes, the storms that strip us bare.

Because the truth is, most seasons are not perfectly balanced between sun and rain. Parasites and diseases threaten our crops, the soil sometimes gets thin, and sometimes there is no one there to help. Life is precarious. Whatever it is that we can grow, can earn, can produce, can build…whatever it is that we have to show for all our hard work is treasured, because it can all blow away in the next storm or dry up before there is another harvest or be taken from us by others less hardworking than we.

Of course we understand, because it is the way of parables, that Jesus is not really talking about grain and silos in this story. The seeds he plants for us in his cautionary tale of the poor rich foolish farmer are these: God alone can give us a life that is abundant, and we can only live that life by opening our clenched fists, opening wide our barn doors, and offering all that we are and all that we have.

For these seeds to take root and grow in those who listened to Jesus, for these seeds to grow in us, they must push up against soil that has been stamped down by fear, by the fear of anyone who has worried, as the writer of Ecclesiastes worried, that after all our hard work life is nothing but vanity and a chasing after wind. If only we could trample the dust from which we came and to which we know deep down we will return, if only our heavy feet and clenched fists could trample our fear of meaninglessness.

Once the tiny, tender, tenacious shoots break through this hard soil, they meet the air we breathe, the air that chokes us, the air that trains us to accumulate, filled as it is with the world’s whispers, “You are what you possess,” “You are what you build up,” “You do not have enough,” “You need only a little more,” “You will lose everything and be nothing if you let your grip slacken”…Out there the air itself is anxious, training us to worry about whatever it is that we store up, whatever it is that we treasure (our things, our possessions, our money, our successes – these are our crops) whatever it is that we hoard against the possibility that the air becomes wind and the wind becomes a gale and the gale becomes a storm and the storm – sometimes quite literally, as our sisters and brothers on the coast know – blows our lives away.

This morning’s gospel reading bothers us, because we understand it all too well. It is a familiar story because it is our story, whether we’ve ever had such a really good season as that old farmer or not. Our tender, tenacious souls need security, and the air we breathe out there says security comes when we have as much crammed into our fists as we can possibly carry. It is – sometimes quite literally – how we survive, what saves our lives

But then Jesus looks right at us and says, Friend, take care, be on your guard…for your life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions. God alone can give you a life that is abundant, and you can only live that life by opening your clenched fists, opening wide your barn doors, and offering all that you are and all that you have. Or have you forgotten in whose image you are made? You poor fool, have you forgotten how rich you are?

You fool. They are, perhaps, the words that bother us most, but in them are the key to unlocking the parable, to unlocking our fists, to unlocking our selves and our souls and our lives. The people who listened to Jesus that day didn’t know much about the kind of life Jesus offered, but I suspect it goes without saying they found the word ‘fool’ immediately familiar. They would have known very well the psalm in which it was sung, The fool says in his heart, there is no God. This was the condition of the man in the parable, who lived for himself, planned for himself, talked to himself; who locked up everything that he had, and locked out everyone else; who is in his own world and does not realize that world owns him. He has filled not only his barns but his soul, which he has locked away as if it belonged to him. His soul, created by God, stamped with God’s image, is filled with the merry life of a really good season, of possessions and money and abundance. There is no room in his barns, in his fists, in his soul or his life, for God.

Frederick Buechner writes, “A clenched fist can do many things. It can hammer a nail. It can grasp on and hold tight. A fist can be used as a weapon to lash out. But the one thing a clenched fist cannot do is reach out and receive.” When our lives become like that fist, clinging to what we have, what we have stamped with our image in the belief that it will tell the world who we are, when we fill our barns to overflowing with the harvest of all that we possess, there is no room for us to receive God. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul begs us to empty ourselves of greed and idolatry (for these are the difficult words that describe our attempt to fill our emptiness with anything other than God) and fill ourselves instead with Christ, who is all in all, who forgives our foolishness, in whom death is not the final word, and who teaches us to build not barns but a kingdom in which there is indeed an abundance of life.

The seeds of this life are what Jesus has planted within us, seeds soaked in the waters of our baptism when we were stamped and marked as Christ’s own forever. And as we grow in a consumer-driven, bigger-barn-building world, we are fed and watered at this table where we come with hands outstretched to be filled with the One who stretched out his hands in love and emptied himself for the sake of our souls. We can’t take our possessions with us when we go, but we can take our love, our compassion and kindness and humility and meekness and patience. We can take our love – indeed, when we go, that love will take us to its very Source, and we will be merry beyond measure.

What, then, do we do about our barns? What do we do with the treasure we have stored up? Jesus does not begrudge us our really good seasons – he does not condemn our possessions but, rather, our possessions’ possession of us. Some commentaries point this out by the titles they give to their reflections on this parable: “The Farmer Who Missed an Opportunity,” and “The Mismanagement of a Miracle.” In another parable, Jesus told about a Samaritan who became a good neighbor rather than a barn-builder by using his wealth to care for a stranger.

Of course it goes without saying that when we open our hands, we risk losing everything. But writer Clarissa Pinkola Estes offers these words of encouragement: “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts, or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take ‘everyone on Earth’ to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale…One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul.”

When we stand up, may our souls reveal the One in whose image they are made, in whom they are rooted, the One who is all in all, the only treasure that lasts always and brings out of the clutches of death into richness and abundance of life. Amen.