Wednesday, December 31, 2008

One Ninth

Look!  It's a knitting post!

Turns out that knitting and sermon writing have an inverse relationship, in terms of getting things accomplished... However, you can share one-ninth of a blanket and have something to talk about, whereas one-ninth of a sermon is just a bunch of words with barely a thread to hold them together yet.

These four squares are one-ninth of a log cabin blanket - thirty-two more squares to go!  It's taken me a month-ish to knit them, so we should have a blanket by about this time next year.  

How like writing, though, is this project!  You start with a center point and know that you have several different ideas with which you want to color your work, and you have to plan where the ideas will start and stop and how you'll move seamlessly from one to the other.  The piece grows around the center, at times lopsided in one direction or another, at times coming round full circle.  Then just when you think you're done, you turn it over and find all the loose ends that need to be woven in to prevent the whole thing from unraveling... 

Photo: Julie Owen

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


In Middle School chapel today we celebrated Saint Sergius...

Ecclesiasticus 39:1-9; Psalm 145:1-8; Matthew 13:47-52

At the Lower School this year, in our chapel classes, we are studying all about the saints of God. You know, Andrew, Mary, Paul, Francis, Nicholas… There are far more stories to tell, of course, than there will be chapel classes to tell them in – far more saints than there will be time to study. The Episcopal Church recognizes hundreds of women and men whose extraordinary faith has earned them the title of saint – not just folks who lived when Jesus did, like Andrew and Mary and Paul, but also folks who lived much later, like Francis and Nicholas, and even folks who lived not so long ago, like Martin Luther King, C.S. Lewis, and Florence Nightingale.

It seemed like the best way to talk about saints with our littlest students was to compare them to superheroes. They don’t know much yet about the story of Saint Peter, but they know a lot about the story of Peter Parker! So yesterday, we asked the kindergartners to tell us what their favorite superhero powers were, and then we were going to talk about how saints have a special power, too – the power of faith in God. They listed all your basic amazing superhero powers, like super strength and super speed and flying. Turning invisible, lightening power, ice power, and shooting lasers out of your eyes were also popular. One kindergartner said his favorite superhero power was blue. We never figured that one out.

Tomorrow is the feast day of Saint Sergius, who lived way back in the 14th century in Russia. In fact, he’s considered not only a saint but a national hero in Russia, although the nearest thing to a superhero power he had was, in the words of someone who knew him, the ability to smell like pine trees.

Actually, when Sergius was much younger, he had seemed like the least likely person to ever be a saint or a hero. His brothers were excellent students, but Sergius really struggled with reading and writing. One day, his father sent him on an errand. Along the way, Sergius came across a monk by the side of the road. The monk was deep in prayer. When the monk finished praying, he looked up at Sergius and said, “What is it that you are seeking?” “I want to be better at reading,” Sergius told him, “So that I can read the bible.”

The monk bowed his head in prayer again. This time, when he finished, he pulled a small piece of bread out of his pocket and offered it to Sergius. “This piece of bread is small, but it is very sweet. It represents the grace of God that is already working in you to give you what you seek.” Sergius ate the bread, which tasted like honey.

The monk walked young Sergius back home, where he asked Sergius to read from the book of psalms. “I can’t,” Sergius said, “remember? I don’t know how to read.” But the monk insisted, and when Sergius looked at the words, he realized that he could in fact read them, and from that moment on and for the rest of his life, Sergius loved reading and studying God’s holy word. When the monk stood up to leave, he got no further than the door before he disappeared, and Sergius realized that the monk had been an angel.

I suspect Sergius never forgot that day… Years later, when it came time for him to decide what to do with his life, Sergius chose to retreat deep into the Russian woods to build his own monastery there. He and his monks served the people who lived in nearby communities, especially reaching out to the poor and sick and lonely and sad. Sergius loved his work so much that when they tried to make him a bishop, he turned the job down, saying he’d much rather stay among the pine trees and the people.

Sergius, of course, had more than just his pine tree power. He had the power of God working in him to do extraordinary things his whole life. He is still remembered as a saint and a hero even though he never did become a bishop. He was like the person talked about in our reading from Ecclesiasticus this morning. The one who wants to know more about God seeks out wisdom and studies prophecies. He tries to understand the meaning of parables, and is comfortable with mystery. God will fill him with the spirit of understanding, and he will give thanks to God. Many will praise his understanding and his memory will not disappear. His name will live through all generations.

Everyone in this room is a far better student than Sergius ever was, and you will all do extraordinary things in the world. God’s power is working in and through you, and just like our favorite school song says, we are all of us saints of God, and I mean, God helping to be one, too. Sergius reminds us to pay attention to the work that all people do, to celebrate and remember and honor people and jobs that don’t seem as powerful as others. In fact, he reminds us that no matter how powerful we are, God still calls us to serve those who are poor or sick or lonely or sad.

Today, our Upper School students will have the opportunity to choose between different opportunities for service, and we will bless their work as servants. We call it “service learning”, because we recognize that when we serve others, we are filled with a spirit of understanding about how all people are connected. In the Middle School, you also do a tremendous amount of service work, and perhaps from your experience of helping others you can understand why Sergius wanted to stick with that kind of work even when he was given the choice of something that seemed more powerful.

We may not be superheroes, but we sure are saints. We may not smell like pine trees, but we do have the power of God working through us, giving us special gifts and abilities for learning and for helping others. If our names are going to live on through the generations, may it be because we, like Sergius, seek to know what God wants us to do, and then find the courage to go and do it. Amen.

Artwork: "In the Pine Forest", by Tibor Boromisza; Icon of Saint Sergius, by Robert Brewster

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Proper 20A

Another week at Christ Church in Vicksburg. The drive over this morning was foggy, softening the edges of the world. I was listening to a podcast of NPR's program Speaking of Faith in which physician and storyteller Rachel Naomi Remen spoke about the edges of life, when the difference between healing and curing an illness softens grief and secures hope. The stories we read and write have beginnings and endings, but our lives' stories continue in the lives of those who follow us.

Jonah 3:10-4:11; Psalm 145: 1-8; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out to hire laborers for his vineyard. The grapes must have been at their peak, bursting with juice and nearly falling off the vine. They needed to be harvested quickly before they became overripe and unsuitable for making into the fine wines for which he was known...

This morning we hear the second in a series of five parables, stories in which familiar characters and circumstances are poured into the press along with an unknown quantity of grace, that we might drink a draught of God's kingdom.

...The landowner went early to the marketplace, where those who were not so fortunate as he to own land waited in the darkness before dawn to be hired as manual laborers for the day. The routine was always the same – up before daybreak, home after sundown, another day's work done, another denarius earned. It was just enough to feed a family for a single day, and so the law demanded that laborers be paid on the same day they had worked. Not all landowners observed the law.

At the marketplace, the landowner picked the laborers who would pick his grapes, and he contracted with them for the usual daily wage. They followed the landowner back to his vineyard and took their places among the laden vines. There they worked for several hours before the landowner announced he had further business in the marketplace. When he returned, he brought with him additional laborers for which those who were first hired were grateful. The vineyard was large and the harvest was bountiful, and their arms were already aching from plucking so many grapes...

Parables are not like any other kind of story. Most things we think parables are it turns out they are not – allegories, metaphors, not even similes, although they often use the words like or as. The kingdom of heaven is like... The Greek word for parable means to lay beside. And so it is that, in his parables, Jesus lays such familiar images as vineyards and landowners and day laborers beside such unfamiliar images as the grace of God. Theologian Walter Wink wrote that parables are “lumps of coal squeezed into diamonds that catch the rays of something ultimate and glint it at our lives.”

...As the day wore on, and the sun baked the backs of the workers in the vineyard, the landowner returned three more times to the marketplace. Always there were more who were willing to come to his vineyard to help with the harvest, and the landowner promised each a fair wage.

At last the work was done, just as the last rays of sunlight cast their golden gleam over the vineyard, empty now of grapes and full of those waiting for their pay. The first hired walked wearily to where the landowner was carefully counting out coins. The last hired watched him wondering what portion would be left for them after all the others had been compensated. Everyone was counting their blessings that this landowner was going to pay them anything at all. Looking up from his ledger, the landowner motioned to the last hired, who came forward to receive their pay. They shrugged, thinking it strange that he would pay them first, and held out their hands for their pittance. In the near-dark, none could believe their eyes as they looked at the full denarius the landowner had given them...

Parables always start with the part that is familiar, so that as the story is told, we can easily add up the details and determine what the sum will be. Except, we know, parables always contain a twist at the end of the story, the entirely unfamiliar part, so that the total ends up being much different than the sum of its parts. That a landowner, for example, would be so generous as to pay someone a full denarius – a full day's wage – for an hour's worth of work was entirely unfamiliar. The parable could easily have stopped there and glinted a gilded ray of something ultimate at our lives – the generosity of God toward those who least expect it. But this parable twists again...

...The rest of the laborers wondered if they had misheard the landowner when they were hired. Perhaps they were being paid a denarius for every hour they had worked? The first hired were so busy adding up new and enormous sums in their heads that they hardly noticed as the workers hired throughout the day went forward to receive their fair wage as well. Finally, only the first hired were left, their muscles aching, their hands stained purple, their faces dirty with a mixture of sweat and dust, their minds rehearsing their gratitude for the landowner's generous reward. Into their palms the landowner pressed their pay – a single denarius, no more.

As their calculations crumbled, their anger rose. You have made them equal to us?!? they protested, in the same way a child stamps her feet and insists, It's not fair!! At this, the landowner, in whose eyes mingled both pity and patient amusement, in the same way a parent looks upon a child stamping her this the landowner said, I am doing you no wrong. I am not unfair. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?

Because, more often than not in scripture, and I daresay more often than not for us, it takes characters more than once to learn a lesson (just look at the disciples, who will follow this parable with an argument over who gets the best seat in heaven)...because it takes more than once to learn a lesson, those first hired to work in the vineyard most likely stamped and seethed all the way home. Over dinner they speculated loudly over the personal merits of those who had been hired later in the day, the ones who had not been so diligent as they to get up before daybreak. Surely they had slept late. Surely they had spent the morning spending the previous day's wage on booze. Surely they were out wasting the grace - I mean, the denarius, they had been so generously given in the landowner's vineyard...They didn't deserve it...

Parables invite us to glimpse what is ultimate through their many facets, not just one. And so it is that the Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor wonders why we have for so long gazed upon the facet in which we see our faces reflected in the faces of those first hired. Like them, we aren't really offended by the landowner's generosity toward those who came last (we can grant that much grace)...we aren't offended until we realize our hard work hasn't earned us even more generosity. We instantly understand the injustice of the situation. It's not fair!! We easily sympathize with their anger, sharing their conviction that they worked harder and therefore deserved a higher wage. It's not fair!! We readily recognize their fear of losing their identity, an identity wrapped up in measuring worth as merit, as something earned. It's not fair!!

If we turn the parable slightly, though, we find ourselves facing the facet in which are reflected the faces of those hired last. Can we admit that we recognize ourselves in those faces, too? In the faces of those who have not labored the longest or worked the hardest? Because, of course, this is a parable – it is not about grapes or vines or coins or marketplaces or laborers who arrive first or last. This is a parable. It is about grace. It is about the kingdom of God. The kingdom of heaven is like...

It seems that in the kingdom of God, grace is offered not as a wage but rather as a gift, and it is given in equal measure to all. Or can we even use the word “measure” when we speak of grace? For how can we measure fullness that cannot be exhausted? God is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness. I knew it! Jonah cried. I knew you would be gracious, that you would be generous toward Ninevah. And where does that leave me? It's not fair!!

The truth is, none of us deserve the grace we have been given by God in Jesus Christ. Not one of us. Thank goodness grace is by its very nature not fair, it does not play by the rules, it does not pay by the ledger book. It is given because God loves us, and desires that we receive daily what we need to live in the kingdom of heaven, to work at its harvest, to bring in its bounty.

God knows us, writes one of my favorite authors, Molly Wolf. God knows every smallest strand of who we are, and loves us with a stunning extravagance of love. God's grace is wider and higher and deeper than the firmament of heaven, richer than the Milky Way...God's great desire is for us to be all that we can be...and for us to take that bounty of love and wrap ourselves in it, rejoicing. Maybe not what we accept or deserve...But who said grace was in proportion to anything? Amen.
Artwork: Photograph from Wing Canyon Vineyard; "The Red Vineyard", by Vincent Van Gogh; Jan L. Richardson

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

International Day of Peace 2008

Today we observed the International Day of Peace, which will actually be this Sunday. On Friday, we will plant 600 "pinwheels for peace" in front of the Lower School for all to see. All we are saying is give peace a chance!

Micah 4:1-5; Psalm 37:7-12; Matthew 5:1-12

The animal I really dig above all others is the pig. Pigs are noble; pigs are clever; pigs are courteous. However… What for example would you say if strolling through the woods one day right there in front of you you saw a pig who’d built his house of straw? The wolf who saw it licked his lips and said… “Little pig, little pig, let me come in!” “No, no, by the hairs of my chinny chin chin!” “Then I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house in!” The little pig began to pray, but Wolfie blew his house away. He shouted, “Bacon, pork and ham! Oh, what a lucky wolf I am!”

So goes Roald Dahl’s version of The Three Little Pigs, found in his collection of poems entitled Revolting Rhymes. It’s a funny but gruesome story, with a surprising twist at the end involving Little Red Riding Hood and a concealed weapon. Even the original version of the story is pretty rough, though – the wolf huffs and puffs his way through houses of straw and sticks before meeting an untimely end down the chimney of the house of stone.

There was a lot of huffing and puffing going on in the world around Jesus when he climbed a hillside in order to get a better view of the crowds to whom he was preaching. Many who had come to hear him were desperately poor, desperately hungry, desperately sick, or desperately lonely, having long since been cast out of their homes and communities for one reason or another. Others in the crowd were shunned by society for the sins they had committed. All of them lived under the rule not only of their own leaders but also of the Roman government, which was often suspicious of and cruel toward the Hebrew people and their God. No amount of straw or sticks or even stone could protect the crowds from the huffing and puffing of those who were so much more powerful than they, who had blown them down and left them to fend for themselves in a blustery world.

They must have hoped that Jesus was going to huff and puff right back, or at least raise a fist and shout defiantly on their behalf, “No, no, not by the hairs of our chinny chin chins!” Instead, Jesus looked out over the crowd of outcasts and sinners and seekers and said, Blessed are you… Blessed are you who mourn; God will comfort you. Blessed are you who are humble; God will give you what has been promised. Blessed are you who work for peace; you will be called God’s children… Blessed are you… Blessed are you…

There is still a lot of huffing and puffing going on in the world – between nations, within faith traditions, among organizations and institutions, between friends, within families, within our own hearts. Houses are blown down all the time, and wolves are cooked in cauldrons, and the happily ever after at the end of the story sometimes seems a long way off. We may be blessed in many ways, but when we experience in ourselves or in others that hunger for power, that sense of superiority, that urge to let loose a gale force wind, how then are we or anyone in the path of such huffing and puffing, blessed? What is this message of blessedness, of peace?

Today in chapel on this campus, and at Friday’s chapel on the South Campus, we are observing the International Day of Peace, a day set aside by a United Nations resolution more than a quarter century ago on which the whole world is called to consider what it would mean to live in peace. I can tell you what it would not mean, from the United Nations materials about peace but also from the teaching of Jesus on the hillside that day. Peace is not about passivity, inaction, sitting still in the midst of a pack of wolves, or on a particularly windy day. This isn’t the blessed peace of an afternoon nap or a good book on a rainy day or a closed door between you and your younger brother or sister. We do need that kind of peace from time to time in order to remind ourselves how to breathe deeply, in order to prepare ourselves for what peace really is.

Blessed are those who work for peace, Jesus said. Peace is not a state of being but rather a course of action directed toward transforming the world into a place where there is nothing to fear – no huffing or puffing, no wolves, no traps laid in chimneys, no suspicion, no superiority, no outcasts, no divisions. Blessed are those who work for peace; they will be called children of God.

The International Day of Peace will be observed in many ways around the world this year – prayer, rallies, forums, concerts… There’s even a text messaging event. Our children at the Lower School will be planting pinwheels that they have made, spinning colors and words of peace. Now a breeze from a pinwheel is hardly a wind of change, and it isn’t going to blow any houses down. But the breeze from 600 pinwheels at the Lower School, and pinwheels planted by schools and faith communities and other organizations in Brandon and Pearl and Phildelphia, and across country and all around the world…half a million pinwheels were planted worldwide last year. It’s a mighty wind, a breath of fresh air, an offering of peace and words much stronger than sticks or stones.

Words spoken by men and women of every nation, every faith. Words like those spoken by Mahatma Gandhi: “It is possible to live in peace.” And Buddhist teacher Tich Nhat Hahn: “Peace is every step.” And Quaker sociologist Elise Boulding: “There is no time left for anything but to make peacework a dimension of our every waking activity.” And Martin Luther King: “One day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal.” And the words of Jewish master-musician Yehudi Menuhin: “Peace may sound simple – a beautiful word – but it requires everything we have, every quality, every strength, every dream, every high ideal.” And Jimmy Hendrix: “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.” And Mother Theresa: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to one another.”

Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord. Let us learn how to work for peace, one action, one breath, one step, one word at a time. Blessed are we, for we belong to one another and all of us to God. Amen.
Artwork: "The Beating of God's Heart", by Brie Dodson; photographs from the Pinwheels for Peace website.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Proper 19A

My friend "the Very" Chan is rector at Christ Church in Vicksburg, the oldest building for public assembly still standing in that town, her cornerstone laid in 1830. Chan's dear spirit fills the grounds there even when she is halfway across the country on vacation. There are lots of spirits in Vicksburg, I think, wandering the hills and walking along the river. It is a thin place. A churchman of an earlier generation once said, "When much the greater part of Vicksburg was a succession of wooded growths reaching down the sharp hill slope to the river, and clearing on the hilltops and in the valleys produced cotton and corn, Christ Church was built."

Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103:1-13; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-25

Sometimes I think if it weren't for Peter, none of us would know what it means to have faith in Jesus Christ. Not because Peter was the rock upon which the church was founded, not because of the words he preached on the day of Pentecost, adding three thousand to the number of baptized, not because of the miracles he performed in Jerusalem in Jesus' name. No, I think if it weren't for Peter's, well, persistence in missing the point...perhaps we would all still be sinking in his same sea of incomprehension.

Peter more than once stepped out of the boat in his eagerness to understand who Jesus was. And though his first few steps were always sure, he would then quickly find himself in waters deeper and more divine than he had guessed at. Jesus, never-failing in his patience with Peter, would be his life preserver every time.

So it is in our gospel reading this morning. Jesus has been talking with the disciples about God's desire for those on the edge of faith to be welcomed, for the lost to be found, for the estranged to be reconciled. He has watched the disciples long enough to know that even within a community such as theirs, centered on the good news of God's love, there would be disagreement and division over injuries both real and perceived. Despite all that they had seen and heard in his presence about a kingdom in which grace, not greatness, was the rule, the disciples could not see beyond the way they had always known kingdoms to work. They could only look forward, then, to the day when Jesus would reveal his greatness to the world, make wrongs right, and mete out justice upon wrong-doers.

The disciples must have nodded their heads in approval when Jesus spoke of how to address wrongs committed within the community of faith. Try to resolve it between the two of you, he said, and if that does not work, take one or two others along with you as witnesses. If that fails, take the matter before the whole community, and if you still cannot be reconciled, treat that person as a Gentile or a tax collector.

Such instructions would have been understood by the early church to mean that a person who cannot be reconciled within the community of faith must be cast out of that community, as Gentiles and tax collectors commonly were. But Peter and the rest, gathered around Jesus that day, would have understood things much differently. In fact, as soon as Jesus uttered the words, Treat that person as a Gentile or a tax collector, all eyes must have turned to look at Matthew, himself looking gratefully at the grin on Jesus' face. They knew, none as personally as Matthew who had once taken taxes from them all, that the way Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors was to welcome them, and embrace them, and forgive them, and invite them to follow him.

So Peter understood that Jesus was talking about a change of heart, a change of mind, that Jesus was calling them to practice extravagance in extending forgiveness, even beyond what the law allowed. But in the kingdom Peter knew, in the kingdom we know, there were only so many chances before you struck out. Rabbinic teaching at the time stated that there were three chances – three times you could be forgiven before you had exhausted all forgiveness available. Peter weighed this teaching against what he had just heard Jesus say, and stepped right out of the boat into the swells of his own sense of generosity as he asked, How many times should I forgive? As many as seven times? Seven, Peter thought, was not only greater than three – it was a number that in Hebrew represented fullness and completeness. To forgive someone seven times, to treat them seven times as Jesus would treat a Gentile or tax collector, was indeed a change of heart and mind.

Except that it wasn't really much different than not forgiving someone at all. Jesus, never-failing but ever-tested in his patience with Peter, who is once again sinking like a stone, says No, Peter, not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.

It is an exaggeration, of course, a number by Hebrew reckoning far exceeding any expectation of being able to count to it. But that doesn't mean it isn't true in its entirety. In our family, we have come by way of a collection of stuffed animals to say to one another, especially as it includes our seven year old son, “I love you more than bunnies.” That statement is typically followed by, “Well, I love you more than a hundred bunnies.” And then, “I love you more than a million bunnies.” Before long we've reached “a million gazillion bunnies”, and then “all the bunnies that were ever made” and finally, the unsurmountable “I love you more than infinity bunnies.” An exaggeration of which we mean every word.

Scripture is full of exaggeration, full of hyperbole, of unimaginable images and experiences that far exceed expectation in order to teach us something about God. Or is it exaggeration? For God's promises and pronouncements are seldom small. Abraham and Sarah are told their descendants will number not two or ten or seventy-seven but rather more than there are stars in the sky or grains of sand upon the seashore. Joseph's wit and wisdom, more brilliant even than his coat, propel him from prisoner to prince and preserve the lives of those who sought to end his. Our psalmist this morning says that God removes our sins from us as far as heaven is high above the earth, as far as the east is from the west. Even Jesus paints fantastic pictures, such as it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a person to bring their possessions with them into heaven. Or that one should not judge the speck of another's sin without coming to terms with the log-in-the-eye of their own need for forgiveness. Forgive not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.

Jesus might as well have instructed us to forgive a million gazillion times. It was an exaggeration meant to imply limitlessness. This was a change of heart and mind, a sea change, one that would require an inordinate amount of strength on the part of people accustomed to counting the number of times we have been wronged, to counting the cost of forgiveness before we offer it. In the kingdom that we know, forgiveness is considered perilously close to permissiveness. In this kingdom, forgiveness is meted out in carefully measured doses. In this kingdom, we consider ourselves to possess the power to forgive.

It is not so in the kingdom of God, Jesus would go on to tell his disciples that day in a parable so filled with exaggeration he must have laughed as he told it. The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. One slave, Jesus said, owed ten thousand talents. If you're measuring, that's the equivalent of 150 lifetime salaries. The king ordered him to repay the debt, although both he and the slave knew that was impossible. And so the slave fell to his knees and begged for mercy. The king, of whom it could surely be said that he was full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness, forgave him, released the slave from his debt, and thus at great cost to himself set the slave free.

The slave hurried out and found someone who owed him a hundred denarii. If you're measuring, that's the equivalent of a fancy latte at Starbucks. The debtor fell to his knees and begged for mercy, but the slave was too concerned with counting to care. For his mercilessness, he was brought back to the king. I forgave you all that debt, the king said, his patience tested. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you? And so the slave was ordered to repay his own impossible debt.

Peter and the rest perhaps struggled with this parable, as we still do today, for it seems to revoke forgiveness and thus place a limit where Jesus has said there is none. The hyperboles, however – the impossibly large and small debts, the incalculable mercy and mercilessness – suggest that the story has nothing at all to do with limits. The experiences are too exaggerated for that. What then, is Jesus teaching as he pulls Peter back into the boat?

We are a people who are at once forgiven and called to forgive by God, who is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness. Indeed, in the most unimaginable of all experiences, God came among us as one of us in order to release us from the burden of our sin. At the cost of his life, Jesus removed our sins as far as heaven is high above the earth, as far as the east is from the west. We did not have to ask. We are not expected to pay – it would be impossible to, anyway. Forgiveness is nothing more or less than a gift offered once upon the cross, offered daily in our earnest, wayward lives.

That the king would revoke this gift is not a punishment for the slave's unwillingness to forgive in turn – it is, instead, a statement of the reality of the slave's heart and mind, the reality of his experience of a kingdom in which there is only measurement of wrongs, only counting of costs, with no room for even a remainder of grace. Forgiveness truly received is forgiveness that transforms us, not simply by reducing our debt to nothing but by changing our hearts and minds. We cannot repay God for all that God has forgiven us. But we can be reconciled with God, and with others whom we have hurt. We can make restitution where possible. We can accept the consequences of our sins and vow to amend our lives, with God's help. These actions demonstrate our understanding of what it means to be forgiven, and yet they are responses, not precursors, to forgiveness, so extravagant is God's grace.

Where the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God meet, we can acknowledge that there are terrible wrongs people do to one another, deeply wounding lives and relationships. Forgiveness is not a denial of harm done. It is not a condoning of sin. It does not remove consequences, nor does it ask that the wrong be forgotten. Forgiveness simply, and impossibly, means inviting God to extend such grace as we cannot measure, to remove the burden of the sin even if the hurt from it remains for a time. Forgiveness is hard work that are not able to do alone, and so by the same grace we may ask God, who loves us more than a million gazillion bunnies, who is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness, in whose image we are the same grace we may ask God to help us forgive. Indeed, it is only by the power of God that we can forgive, for forgiveness is a matter of grace, not of conscience.

Peter, do you love me? Jesus asked three times, after Peter didn't just step but leaped out of the boat and half-swam, half-ran to the shore to meet him. Peter, do you love me? With those words, Jesus forgave Peter for every misplaced step, every misunderstanding, every limit Peter tried to measure. Follow me, Jesus said, both despite and because of who Peter was. Follow me, Jesus says, both despite and because of who we are, loved, forgiven and called to forgive. Amen.

Artwork: Photograph of Christ Episcopal Church during war time; "Christ Saving Peter", by Stefan Daniel Bell; "Invocation", by Suzanne Schleck.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Proper 18A... The next day...

Yesterday's sermon got revised to use for Middle and Upper School chapel services at St. Andrew's today. Charlie came to lead music - he sang "Show the Way" as a prelude, and then got everyone up to sing the opening and closing songs. Don't tell anyone, but some of the students actually sang and enjoyed it. There are even reports that during "We are walking in the light of God" two students were clapping as they sang.

Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 36:5-9; Romans 13:8-14

Summer is usually the season of blockbuster movies, of films filled with action and drama and heroes and dazzling special effects. Of course, when one of your movie buddies is a seven year old, those special effects have more to do with how real Wall-E looks than with how amazing Iron Man’s suit is (it is pretty amazing!). Still, the stories are epic and extraordinary. In something of the same way, according to the Episcopal calendar of reading through the bible, summer is the season of blockbuster stories, of scriptures filled with action and drama and heroes and yes, even special effects. The stories are epic and extraordinary.

It started on a Sunday back in May, when we watched Noah load the ark with two of every animal just as the first drops of forty days of rain were falling. We heard God promise Abraham and Sarah their descendents would number more than the stars. We held our breath when Isaac was nearly sacrificed, and again when he gave his final blessing to the wrong son. We fled with Jacob into the wilderness and dreamed there of angels and ladders. We arrived in Egypt with Joseph just in time to stop a famine in its tracks. We peered through the reeds as the baby Moses was set afloat in his basket, and found ourselves on holy ground when, years later, he stood before a burning bush.

More than one blockbuster movie has been made about what happened next. Nine plagues, each more terrible than the one before – flies and frogs and locusts and lice and sores covering the skin – incredible special effects designed to show Pharaoh the persistence and power of Israel’s God. But Pharaoh wasn’t impressed, and so a tenth plague, the most terrible, was pronounced.

That’s where we are as we begin today’s reading from Exodus. The action and drama have reached a frenzied state, and the ultimate effect is about to be unleashed… when suddenly everything starts happening in slow motion, and on the edge of our seats we shout out, “Come on!” But even the hero takes a step back, and we see God step onto the stage. With great deliberation, and with attention to every detail (I spared you most those details in our shorter version of the reading), God instructs the people on how they will remember the remarkable thing that is about to take place. It is the Passover of the Lord.

All of the action and drama and special effects, all of the heroes from Noah right through to Moses, all of the stories have led to this moment. For person by person, adventure by adventure, through rainbows and stars and dreams and burning bushes and lambs, God has been building a community. God has been strengthening a covenant, a promise of being in relationship. God has been creating a people who know that they are, before they are anything else, loved by God.

The blockbuster story will pick right back up again as Moses leads his people out of Egypt and through the waters of the Red Sea (a special effect that has baffled every film-maker who has tried to capture it). And just when we think it’s time for a happily-ever-after ride into the sunset, things get tough again. It will take forty years of wandering through the wilderness to find the Promised Land. The people will argue and complain and worry and doubt and rebel. Even Moses loses his temper once or twice.

It’s really been like that ever since, right? Following faithfully one minute, fighting fatigue the next. Being aware of God’s goodness one minute, being aware of hurt feelings the next. Trusting those with whom we travel one minute, suspecting them the next. Out there in the wilderness, we forget about the night when time stood still, the Passover of the Lord.

The Hebrew word is pesach, which we have come to translate as Passover, but it more closely means have compassion on or protect. And so it is as if God said on that night when time stood still, It is the Passover of the Lord…I will have compassion on you…I will protect you. And God did, through all those wilderness years, and God does, through all our wilderness years, and God always will.

And so we are called to be compassionate people, to love first and foremost, as we are first and foremost loved by God, even when we argue and complain and worry and doubt and rebel. Perhaps one day someone will make a blockbuster movie out of our lives. Perhaps not. There will be plenty of action and drama in our lives, and who knows what special effects that haven’t yet been imagined. Let us not forget, though, to slow down once in a while and with great deliberation and attention to every detail ask how God is passing over, how God is having compassion, how God is protecting. For, in the words of songwriter David Wilcox, It is Love who mixed the mortar, and it’s Love who stacked these stones, and it’s Love who made the stage here, although it looks like we’re alone. In this scene, set in shadow, like the night is here to stay, there is evil cast around us, but it’s Love who wrote the play. And in the darkness, Love will show the way. Amen.

Artwork: by Camilla Armstrong

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Proper 18A

This was my second trip to St. George's Episcopal Church in Clarksdale. On the first trip, about ten years ago, I was an adult on staff at a Happening weekend, and was too worried about making sure things were running smoothly to notice what a beautiful church it is. The church is filled with every color and shade of warmth and life - the building is, too.

Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Just as summer is the season of blockbuster movies, of films filled with action and drama and heroes and fabulous special effects, so has summer been (for those churches who follow a lectionary, as we do) a season of blockbuster stories, of scriptures filled with action and drama and heroes and even special effects. We've seen Noah build an ark and fill it with two of every living creature even as the first drops of forty days of rain begin to fall. We've heard God promise a future and a hope to Abraham and Sarah, and gazed with them upon a sky full of stars signifying certainty that God's promises are good. We've held our breath as Abraham nearly sacrifices his own son, Isaac, and again as Isaac, now grown and himself a father, nearly loses sight of his first-born, Esau. We've followed Isaac's second-born, Jacob, as he flees his brother's wrath, dreams of angels, marries two women, and fathers twelve sons. The drama continued with Jacob's son, Joseph, a dreamer in his own right, who brought his family to Egypt to save them from starvation. But Egypt's Pharaoh grew ravenous and threatened to devour the Hebrew people, and so we met Moses, and just last week we heard God speaking to him from a burning bush: You must go to Pharaoh and tell him to let my people go!

Of course, more than one blockbuster movie has been made out of this blockbuster story. Nine plagues, each more terrible than the one before, sent to show Pharaoh the persistence and power of Israel's God. Pharaoh's heart remained hardened, though, and so the tenth and most terrible plague was pronounced.

And so we arrive at this morning's reading from the book of Exodus. The action and drama and special effects of summer slow almost to a stop and even the hero takes a step back as God takes the stage. With great deliberation and attention to every detail, God instructs the people on how they will remember the remarkable thing that is about to take place. This month shall mark for you the beginning of months... It is the passover of the Lord.

All of the action and drama and special effects, all of the heroes from Noah down through Moses, all of the stories have led to this moment. For person by person, adventure by adventure, through rainbows and stars and dreams and burning bushes and lambs, God has been building a community of faith. God has been strengthening a covenant. God has been creating a people who understand themselves to be first and fore most God's people in the world, a congregation.
This month shall mark for you the beginning of months... It is the passover of the Lord.

Time must have remained still as the people of Israel sat huddled in their homes on that dark night, the smell of roast lamb lingering in the air even though all traces of the meal were gone. When I see the blood on the doorposts and on the lintel of the house, I will pass over you. The word in Hebrew is pesach, which we have come to translate as pass over. But it more closely means have compassion on or protect. It is the passover of the Lord. I will have compassion on you. I will protect you. And so it was that the people of Israel were freed from bondage to Pharaoh, and by the sharing of a meal bound themselves instead to God. The covenant once carried by heroes of faith would now be carried by an entire people of faith.

This shall be a day of remembrance for you...a festival to the Lord, God commanded. Year after year after year, they would tell the story of the night time stood still, the story of the night God saved them, the story of the night they became a congregation. And as they shared in the same meal of roasted lamb and unleavened bread and bitter herbs, their loins girded, their sandals on, their staffs in their hands as though they were preparing for a forty year journey through the they shared in the same meal, time again stood still, and the story would become at once a tale of the past, an experience of the present, and a hope for the future. God has compassion on, God protects, God passes over, God saves.

More than one blockbuster movie has been made out of the blockbuster story of the night Jesus and his disciples gathered at a table in an upper room to share their own passover meal, prepared with attention to every detail. That day, and every day since they had left their lives behind and bound themselves to Jesus, had been filled with action and drama and all kinds of special effects. But that night, at that table, as they once again entered into the story of salvation celebrated by the meal, the one who told the story began to become the story. The host of the meal began to become the passover lamb. This shall mark a new beginning for you, Jesus told them. This is my body, this is my blood. Do this for the remembrance of me. For God has compassion on, God protects, God passes over, God saves. Indeed, on that very night, the passover lamb would be taken away and on the next day killed, and three days later, would pass over from death to life and so save us all.

Very early in the life of the church, the story of the passover and the story of resurrection were bound together in the liturgy of the Great Vigil of Easter. The community of faith gathered in darkness, as their ancestors had for so many generations, to tell the story of God's saving deeds. On this most holy night, in which our Lord Jesus passed over from death to life, the priest would begin, This is the passover of the Lord. This is the night when God brought our fathers, the children of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt... This is the night when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin and are restored to grace and holiness of life...

And so, two thousand years later, we gather, in darkness as our ancestors in faith have done for so many generations, to tell the story of salvation. At the center of our liturgical year, where time is slowest and the story opens wide, is our Easter Vigil, when we recall stories of God's saving deeds through history, right up to the moment we were saved by the passover lamb of God. This shall mark for you the beginning... And we recall the mark each of us bear in baptism, when we put on Christ, and passed over with him. Finally, we share in the meal of bread and wine, taking into ourselves what we already are – the body and blood of Christ.

And so we share that meal every time we gather in this time outside the time of the action and drama of daily life. Out there, and even within the community of the church, heroes rise and fall. Relationships are formed and broken. Promises are made and forgotten. The details of how to live and love as God's people in the world are mingled and confused with the details of how to live and love for ourselves.

But this is the night, this is the time. This is the table. This is the community upon which God has compassion. We are the body of Christ. The story of the first passover meal, the pleadings of Paul to love, the instructions of Jesus concerning persistence at reconciliation (our readings this morning) all acknowledge that our relationship with God is inseparable from our relationship with others – from those with whom we gather at this table to those whom we literally simply pass over as we go about our daily lives. We are called to be vigilant as we move forward into God's future, a place as unknown as the promised land was to the people of Israel as they turned their backs on Egypt and set out on their journey. We are called to be prepared at all times to set out on our own journey through wilderness places and beyond. We are called to consider what we will carry with us as we go, and what we will leave behind because the burden of it is too much to bear.

Perhaps one day someone will make a blockbuster movie out of our lives. Perhaps not. There may or may not be much action in our lives; certainly, there is drama. But time stands still when we gather here, and we become part of a story so much larger than ourselves, so much larger even than our own community of faith. Do this for the remembrance of me, God commanded the people of Israel. Do this for the remembrance of me, Jesus commanded his disciples. The story we enter – the story we are always part of – is the story of God's intimate and loving participation on the human journey, through the darkest of nights and the brightest of days.

This is the night, the time of remembrance. This is the community upon which God has compassion. This is the table. This is the passover of the Lord. This is the body of Christ. Amen.
Artwork: "Passover Lamb", by Ruth Coleman.

Monday, August 11, 2008

St. Clare

Today our full faculty and staff at St. Andrew's School, where I am chaplain, gathered for the first time since last May. Endings and beginnings mingle in this place, weaving a tapestry of "life goes on".

Song of Solomon 2:10-13; Psalm 63:1-8; Luke 12:32-37

Once upon a time, many hundreds of years ago, there lived in the town of Assisi a young woman, beautiful and gracious, the daughter of nobility. From her devout mother she had learned kindness and faith. From her knighted father she had learned courage and fortitude. Betrothed to a young man carefully chosen to bring her family even greater honor, she might have looked forward to a long life of courtly comforts, lacking nothing a gentried heart might desire.

But the young woman’s heart was restless, desirous of a treasure she could not name. Until one day, deep in the somber season of Lent, she listened to the preaching of a mendicant monk, proclaiming the good news, celebrating the sister- and brotherhood of all people, and calling all people to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away… Moved by his words, young woman laid her silks and jewels on the altar and committed her long life to profound poverty, lacking nothing her Christ-filled heart ever desired. For your lovingkindness is better than life itself…

The woman’s name was Clare, and today is her feast day on our calendar of saints. Her once upon a time story of arising, of following, of discovering true worth, of finding her heart’s desire, of ending one chapter of a life in order to come away to where a new one begins… Clare’s story has lived on happily ever after, and many faithful on this day honor her as the patron saint of – sigh – well, not new beginnings or treasures of the heart or those who commit their lives to serving the poor. Clare is the patron saint of television.

Who says a 13th century saint can’t be relevant today?!

It seems that once when Clare was ill and unable to attend mass, she gazed at the wall from her bed and was able to see there images of the service, and to hear the priest at prayer. Episcopalians do not ordinarily invoke the saints to help us in our time of need, but next time the cable goes out, now you know where to turn!

As I began writing this reflection, my television at home was showing the grand opening ceremonies of the Olympics, marking the beginning of one of the most extraordinary things we do on this earth, when we celebrate all at once our diversity and our one-ness, our prowess and our graciousness, our courage and our faith. Commentators noted that China was celebrating a new chapter in its life, that women athletes were being recognized for the first time by some nations, and that some nations participating in the parade did not even exist four years ago. We heard throughout the evening the remarkable stories of once upon a time when a young woman broke the world record in her sport, when a young man bravely finished a race despite an injury, when a team against all odds went home with the gold. What once upon a time stories would be told of these Olympic games? the commentators wondered. We will have to turn on our televisions and watch and listen…

That is what Jesus urges his disciples to do in our gospel reading this morning – well, perhaps with the television off. Watch and listen, he says. Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit, be like those who are waiting… so that they may open the door for [the master] as soon as he comes and knocks. Surely Jesus told this little parable lightly, an expectant expression on his face, for he knew that if the disciples were watching and listening closely enough, they would realize that the master was already among them. Blessed are they, Jesus went on. Truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. When they would later gather around a table in an upper room, if the disciples were watching and listening closely enough, they would realize that it was indeed the master, the one through whom all things were made, the one who emptied himself to be born in our likeness, the one who came not to be served but to serve… If they were watching and listening closely enough, they would realize just who it was that served their meal of bread and wine that night, who served himself to them that they might become his Body in the world.

If they were watching and listening. If. Of course they, like we, were easily distracted by their doubts and fears, their worries and what-if’s, their ambition and their weariness. They…we…easily fill our days with more than we could ever hope to watch or listen to if we had a thousand eyes and a thousand ears.

Do not be afraid, little flock, Jesus assured his disciples, and so he assures us. Do not be afraid, for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. It is God’s good pleasure, God’s heart’s desire, to place among us and within us and all around us experiences of life lived out of love rather than fear, wonder rather than worry, courage rather than weariness. We do not have to look far. We do not have to listen hard. It’s just that the kingdom of God doesn’t look or sound like anything with which the world tries to entice us.

Clare and those who joined her order took among their vows a vow of absolute poverty, selling their possessions and the things that possessed them, sweeping away distinctions of class and privilege, embracing a life in which their only true possession was the gift of God’s good pleasure, a kingdom worth more than any dark or sparkly thing that might distract. “They say we are too poor,” Clare remarked, when the pope himself tried to lessen the severity of their vow. “They say we are too poor, but can a heart which possesses the infinite God be truly called poor?”

In this community, at St. Andrew’s, with our covered walkways and carefully-tended courtyards, we live something of a cloistered life, like Clare. We will soon return to our weekly (or, rather, alphabetical) rhythm of work and worship. We will experience at times the tensions of poverty and the blessings of abundance. We will welcome strangers and become friends. We will walk the wonder-filled way of being masters of our disciplines and yet servants who offer ourselves to others. We will look upon our community and our world and cherish both our diversity and our one-ness.

Will we sell the things that possess us, that distract us, that cover our eyes and ears? Will we look for and listen to the kingdom not just once upon a time but once and for all time in our midst? For where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also.

Clare is but one saint whose story is relevant today, if we watch and listen closely. For once upon a time, just this past year, there was at St. Andrew’s a young woman who rallied her friends to bring the prom to a classmate who was in the hospital. Once upon a time, just this past year, there was a close circle of young men who lost a friend and bravely stood together on a cold, sad day. Once upon a time, this year, there was a very young girl who was shy until a black and white rabbit made her smile. Once upon a time there was a faculty who over and again loved their students.

What once upon a time stories will be told of this year? I wonder. We will watch and listen, for God is calling, Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. And so, we will begin at a new beginning. Once upon a time…

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Proper 11A

St. Alban's is a beautiful little brick church in Bovina, MS, home also to a grocery store, a gas station with a Subway, a handful of churches and an exercise studio-turned-bar. It is also home to people whose warmth is as golden as the light that streams through the stained glass at the back of the church. They are in their sesquicentennial year, and so are preparing a written history of the parish, which has served as a church, a Civil War army headquarters, and if I understood correctly, a saloon. This theme continued through lunch at the Walnut House in Vicksburg, where nearly all the Episcopalians at the round table had Tipsy Pudding for dessert.

Genesis 28:10-19a; Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Where is home for you? the Most Reverend Katherine Jefferts Schori asked in her first sermon as our presiding bishop. Where is home for you? she asked in a church full of people from all over the world. Where is home? And what makes it home?

Home is, perhaps, the house in which we live now, where our responsibilities and obligations are. Home might be a different house, distant in miles and years, perhaps where we grew up. Or perhaps home is something without walls or windows – it may be a town, or a memory, or a gathering of people, or the smell of meatloaf, or the lines of a song someone used to sing.

Where is home for you? We come from many different homes, of course, but as people of faith, Bishop Katherine suggested, as people of faith, our true home is in God. Salvation history is filled with the stories of women and men who left their homes in order to go to the place where God was leading. Where is home? Home is where God is, which is to say, everywhere – at our houses, on the road, in the field, in our hearts, in our dreams, among the weeds…

Jacob, scripture’s slickest trickster, left his home in a hurry with nothing on his back but the birthright and blessing he had stolen from his brother, Esau. Now Esau hated Jacob, says the storyteller in Genesis, and Esau vowed to take revenge by taking Jacob’s life. Jacob weaseled one final blessing out of his father and then took off through the desert, covering his deceptions with his dust. Years later he would return home, this time fleeing his father-in-law, duped out of his daughters, but that’s another story and another dream…

He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night. Did Jacob know as he dug out a hollow in the dirt and situated a stone for his pillow that he was lying in the same place his father, Isaac, had lain so long ago, brought there by his father, Abraham, to be sacrificed? Legend holds it was the same very same place. Did Jacob even know the story? Had Isaac ever spoken of that terrible and wonderful day when the knife was raised to deliver the blow? An angel of God had stopped Abraham’s hand, and spoken God’s word: I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore…and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing…because you have obeyed my voice. Did Jacob, who had only ever obeyed his own voice, recall that story as he drifted into sleep on that pallet of sand beneath those stars of heaven?

He should have lain awake, wracked with guilt, or if he slept at all, he should have tossed and turned riding his nightmares of conscience. Instead, Jacob dreamed the sweetest of dreams, filled with angels and promises. I am with you…I will keep you…I will give you…I will not leave you. In the morning, Jacob named the place Bethel, which means House of God. How awesome is this place! he said. Surely God is in this place – and I did not know it!

It is difficult to say, when we read the rest of Jacob’s story, whether he really heard and understood what God had said to him in his dream. I am with you…and I will not leave you. Despite Jacob’s questionable character, God would dwell not only in the place where Jacob had slept that night, but in every place where Jacob would ever go. God would make a house in him and of him, and his home would be with God. He could flee all he wanted, but God would be right there with him.

The psalmist understood this when he or she wrote the words we read together a moment ago, God, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up;…you trace my journeys and my resting-places and are acquainted with all my ways. Where can I go then from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast.

Do we really hear and understand what God is saying to us, who number among the stars of Abraham’s heaven and the sands of his seashore? Do we really hear and understand what God is saying to us, who number, as Paul writes, among the children of God and the heirs not only of God’s covenant but also of God’s kingdom? How awesome is this place, not just this world or this community of faith or this ground on which we stand, but how awesome is this place, this life and this heart that are in me, that are in you, that are in all of us, where God dwells. Surely God is even in this place, and I did not know it!

Just as our story from Genesis is about Bethel, the house of God, so is our gospel reading about the kingdom of God. It is about our home. The kingdom of God may be compared to, Jesus begins. Now, volumes have been written about the nature and purpose of parables. It turns out that most things we think parables are – metaphors, illustrations, allegories, explanations, riddles – they’re really not. The Greek word for parable means something like to lay beside. In his parables, Jesus laid ordinary images and actions that his listeners would understand beside images and actions of God at work in and through creation in extraordinary ways they couldn’t even begin to imagine. Theologian Walter Wink writes, “Parables are tiny lumps of coal squeezed into diamonds…that catch the rays of something ultimate and glint it at our lives.” The light that shines through parables challenges us to see in new ways, to move in new directions, to leave what is comfortable and familiar, to discover home where we did not expect it to be.

And so this morning’s parable is not really about farming. It’s not about seeds. It’s not about fields. Truth is, everyone listening to Jesus in his day would have known that the farmer in his story was a fool. A real farmer would pull the weeds as soon as he saw them, so as not to rob the wheat of the soil’s nutrients or risk the weeds going to seed and so threatening next year’s crop as well. Granted, the Greek word for weeds that Jesus chooses specifically identifies them as a type that closely resembles wheat, so that it is nearly impossible to tell them apart until they have both born their fruit. An attempt to pull the weeds might pull up wheat as well. And so the farmer says to his servants, Let both of them grow together until the harvest.

Turning a parable’s words, like turning a diamond, allows light to dance through its many facets, and so with the help of the Reverend Robert Farrar Capon, we turn again to the Greek text of the story. He notes that the word in Greek for let that we hear in Let them grow together is also translated in scripture as permit, allow, or suffer, all of which are similar enough in meaning. Permit them to grow, allow them, suffer both of them, the wheat and the weeds, to grow together until the harvest. But when used in conjunction with the presence of evil, or sin – or perhaps with the word enemy, such as the enemy who has sown the weeds – the same word we hear today as let is often translated in scripture as forgive. Here indeed, then, is a ray of something ultimate. Listen: Let both of them grow together. Permit them, allow them, suffer them to grow side by side until the harvest. Forgive them…

I think it is what God would have said to anyone who challenged the choice of Jacob as a covenant-bearer. Others could not see in Jacob what God saw. They took him for a weed, but God wanted to see him grow. Let him carry my promise. Permit him, allow him, suffer him to grow. Forgive him…

On this side of the cross, with Resurrection light not just glinting at our lives but illuminating all of who we are, we know that forgiveness is not just restorative but transformative, making it possible for that which was in darkness to shine, for that which was dead to live, for that which was uninvited to be welcomed home, for that which was barren to bear fruit. Let both of them grow together...

In the fields that are our world, our communities, our families, our church, our lives, in our own hearts, there is good seed and there are weeds. There is joy and there is pain, there is wonder and there is cruelty, there is generosity and there is pettiness. Sometimes it is easy to identify those things that steal our nutrients, that sap our strength, that compete with our striving to grow. Sometimes it is easy (or so we amateur farmers think) to tell the weeds from the wheat. Sometimes the weeds look better, bigger, more colorful, more hearty. Sometimes the weeds and wheat look so much the same that we do not know whether we are choosing something that will bear fruit. The thing is, when we try to judge who or what is worthy and who or what is not, we risk uprooting that which is good along with that which is evil. Indeed, when we try to judge how anything is growing, we risk uprooting ourselves, for our fields, too, are mixed.

Remember, though, that this parable is not about farming, it is not about wheat, and it is least of all about us. It is about the kingdom of God, our home, and here is another glint of something we might not have imagined. God’s kingdom, sown throughout the entire world, is not a climate-controlled greenhouse growing prize-winning orchids. Instead it is a field filled with wheat and with weeds, sown side by side. Of the farmer in the parable, the Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “It seems [that he] is more interested in things that grow than he is in a pure or clean or uniformly tidy field.” So it is with God. It is not our task (though the church has throughout its history tried to make it so) to discern the wheat from the weeds. Our task is simply to grow. To bear fruit, which is to say, to practice unshielded, unconditional love, to be reconcilers of all things, to live as faithfully and obediently as possible, patiently accepting those who are growing with us and all around us, without regard for their "wheatiness" or their "weediness", to hope for what we cannot see.

For we cannot see what God sees, how abundant the harvest will be when that time comes around. The one who turned water into wine, the one who turned Jacob into a dreamer, may very well be able to love a weed into bearing fruit. Thank goodness – thank Goodness – that isn’t up to us. Among God’s promises in this parable is the promise that in the end, that which is good will be gathered to God, and that which is evil will be burned by fire. Whether the fire is designed to punish or purify, though…thank Goodness that isn’t up to us.

But we do not stand idly by. We grow. We love. We hope. We dream. And like Jacob before us, in whom mingled a weed and flower, a sinner and a saint, we find ourselves at home in the world because God is there and because God is in us, is with us, and keeps us wherever we go. How awesome is this place! This is none other than the kingdom of God, the field that God is willing to wait patiently for, watching to see what grows. Amen.

Artwork: "Jacob's Dream", by Alan Falk; "Wheatfield", by Vincent Van Gogh

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Proper 7A

These characters are so complicated and real, just like us. I preached this sermon at Holy Trinity, Crystal Springs, in the morning and at St. Matthew's, Forest, in the evening. Both churches served a juicy blueberry dessert following the service - Blueberry Crumble (we shall not speak of how much butter is involved here) and Blueberry Poundcake with Blueberry Sauce.

Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

I’m just waiting for the day archaeologists discover that the scriptural story of salvation began not in the ancient near east but, rather, in the American deep south, where one’s faith and one’s family are deep and personal matters. Where you go to church and who your people are can tell a fellow southerner a lot about you – sometimes even more than you know about yourself!

The same was true in bible times. Faith and family mattered more than fingerprints in figuring a person’s identity, and in fact were so intertwined that to belong to one was inherently to belong to the other; to reject one was to reject the other. This was the rub experienced by many in Matthew’s day, as more and more took up the cross and followed the way of Christ. Members of a household, from the eldest son to the youngest servant, were expected to embrace the faith of the household’s head; to abandon that faith for the fledgling church was to abandon the family. Becoming a Christian carried serious social, economic and political consequences that could rip a household apart. After all, Jesus’ followers included outcasts and sinners, not the sort of people usually welcome at the table; believers were apt to give away all their possessions; and the Christian movement, like its leader, aroused the suspicion of the occupying Roman government. Do not be afraid, Jesus said in Matthew’s gospel, and those whose families had already rejected them took comfort. I have come to set a man against his father…and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Jesus was not advocating alienation; he was, however, acknowledging that in choosing him many had become alienated. Jesus knew that his way – the way of forgiveness and grace – would be difficult for the world to accept, that his word – the word of love – would divide communities, friends, even families. I know. Jesus said. Do not be afraid.

It was a refrain repeated time and again throughout scripture. We heard it this morning in the reading from Genesis, when God said to Hagar, rejected by her family, I know. Do not be afraid. It had all started some fifteen years earlier, when her mistress, Sarah, had given up on the laughable notion that she might have a child in her old age. Sarah urged her husband, Abraham, to take Hagar as a wife and have a child with her, so that there might be an heir. When Hagar did become pregnant and, thus, the center of everyone’s attention, Sarah grew jealous of her Egyptian maidservant, and Hagar fled from her into the wilderness.

It was there in the wilderness, beside a spring of water, that an angel first spoke God’s words to Hagar. I know. Do not be afraid. Return to your family. I will so greatly number your children that they cannot be counted. It was the same promise God had made to Abraham and Sarah, the promise that had once made Sarah laugh and that now haunted her. The angel told Hagar that the son she bore to Abraham would be named Ishmael, which means God hears, because God heard Hagar’s cries. And then Hagar named God right back, El-roi, which means God sees, because she marveled that God had seen her and that she had seen God.

Ishmael was nearly fifteen when Sarah, beaming, finally did give birth to her own son, named Isaac, which means Child of laughter. But Sarah’s jealousy returned when she saw the two boys together, and she demanded that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away, this time for good. I know. Do not be afraid, God said to Abraham, who loved his first-born son, the first star in his sky. I know. And so Abraham, before daybreak so that his tears might not show, he gave Hagar a waterskin and some food and sent her, with Ishmael, into the wilderness.

When the water was gone and Ishmael, weak from hunger and thirst, was in a fitful sleep, Hagar sat nearby and wept for her son as only a mother can. And, the story goes, playing lightly with its words, God heard the voice of the one named God hears. And God who sees opened the eyes of Hagar, and she saw a well of water. I know. Do not be afraid. Life and hope and a promise and a future were restored as she took Ishmael by the hand and helped him drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up…

The American family is not the first, then, to be as fragile and fractured as it some fear it has become. Indeed, much of Hebrew scripture reads like a southern gothic novel filled with patriarchs and matriarchs and servants and siblings-at-odds over inheritances or land or the family business. The lines that are their families, like the lines that are so many of ours, twist and turn and intertwine and become a tangled mess, strained sometimes to the point of breaking.

Indeed, we know, and perhaps some of us have experienced, that no one can hurt someone else like a member of their family can. Families share such intimate knowledge of one another, such history, such deep memories. And just as the question, “Who are your people?”, can define us, so can we find ourselves defined by – even find our identities consumed by – any rifts or rejections that have occurred between us and our people. Still, despite our own experiences of how complicated families can be, still we find Jesus’ words about family unsettling. One’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

I know, Jesus said to his disciples, whom he called sometimes his children. I know, Jesus says to us. I know. I hear. I see. Do not be afraid. Most of us have not faced rejection by our families for choosing to follow Christ. But, like our sisters and brothers in the earliest churches, we do face rejection by others who see no need for forgiveness in their lives, by others who believe grace is for the weak, by others who insist salvation is earned, by others who would not welcome a sinner at their table. Like our sisters and brothers so long ago, we face rejection by others within the household of God, the church, by those who believe they walk the way, understand the truth, and live the life more faithfully than we do. The gospel continues to divide families, not because it embraces only some, but because it embraces all. I know. I hear. I see. Do not be afraid.

We have an identity deeper than our deepest shared memories, deeper than our DNA, more defining than our people or our hometowns or even where we go to church, deeper than any rift that might ever divide us. Our true identity lies not in any of those things but rather in God’s love for us, a love so deep that it finds us in the wilderness, that it knows the number of hairs on our heads. We are, all of us, first and foremost, members of God’s household. In God’s family, all of our lines converge and God is the thread that binds us, weaves us, pulls us together.

The Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor writes about this family, and urges us to acknowledge something like this: I am a daughter, a wife, a sister, an aunt, a mother. These define and shape my life, but not one of them contains me. I am Jennifer. I am a Christian. I am a child of God, a member of God’s household. This is my true identity, and all the others grow out of it, are informed by it, and strengthened by it. Being a child of God is not a role we play. It is who we most truly are. I know you, God says to each one of us, mother or father, daughter or son, rich or poor, old or young, Egyptian maidservant or star-gazing patriarch. I know you. I hear you. I see you. I will not abandon you in the wilderness. Do not be afraid.

Who are our people? Our people are right here in this place, where we are reminded of our long history as the household of God, where we are given food for our journey into the wilderness out there. Out there, with Jesus’ disciples in all times and places, we are called to hear and see know those whom the world has rejected, but whom God calls children. Do not be afraid, we will be able to tell them as we reach across the rift and welcome them home. Amen.

Artwork: "Hagar and Ishmael", by Jakob Steinhardt.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Proper 5A

There was going to be a parish picnic today at Episcopal Church of the Advent in Sumner, but instead the food was delivered to Betty's family. Betty died in her sleep a few days ago. She would have delivered a fresh Apple Cake if it had been someone else who had died. Everyone went home from church for lunch, then came back later in the day for her funeral.

Hosea 5:15-6:6; Psalm 50:7-15; Romans 4:13-18; Matthew 9:9-13

Of all the many words we read in Hebrew scriptures, none, I think, are as rich and multivalent as chesed. We heard it read this morning from Hosea, when God says through the prophet, I desire chesed, steadfast love, and not sacrifice. Elsewhere in scripture the same word is translated and read as lovingkindness, mercy, righteousness, faithfulness, and loyalty. Chesed means all these things, and more, for it also describes the very nature of God, who is Steadfast Love, or as Hosea writes, God’s appearing is as sure as the dawn. If we could read the scriptures in Hebrew, we would find the word chesed sprinkled generously as stars across summer’s night sky…

Long before Hosea wrote to a people who had lost their faith in God, Abraham found his faith as he gazed up at the stars sparkling with the light of a hope and a future. God had called him away from his home, from all he had ever known, and promised him more than he had ever imagined. Go to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. The very next line in the story, remarkably, is this: So Abram went, as God had told him…with Sarai, he set forth to go. Never mind that he did not know where he was going. Never mind that he and Sarai were too old to give birth to child, let alone a nation. Abram went, as God had told him. Hoping against hope, Paul writes, Abraham believed what God had promised, and a journey of faith, of which we are heirs, began.

Long before we became stars in Abraham’s sky, Matthew’s star appeared where many in his day would have supposed only darkness could be. Jesus had called Matthew away from his seat near the city gate where, on behalf of the occupying Roman government, he took up taxes and pocketed penalties and fees. The life Jesus offered, though, was worth more than any sum Matthew had ever collected. Follow me, Jesus said. Then the very next line in the story, remarkably, is this: And he got up and followed him. Never mind that Matthew had most likely been removed from the synagogue because of his dishonest profession. Never mind that the only other people he knew were sinners like himself. He got up and followed Jesus. Matthew believed – out of despair or hope, we don’t know – he believed that Jesus would change everything, and a journey of faith, of which we are heirs, began.

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name? asks the text of a song from the Iona Community in Scotland. Will you come and follow me if I but call your name? Will you go where you don’t know, and never be the same? Will you let my love be shown, will you let my name be known? Will you let my life be grown in you, and you in me?

Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name? Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same? Will you risk the hostile stare, should your life attract or scare? Will you let me answer prayer in you, and you in me?

No sooner had Matthew gotten up and followed Jesus than they both attracted the hostile stare of the Pharisees, who, one preacher has said, were appalled to see a rabbi eating dinner with people “who fell scandalously short of the exacting standards of religious respectability set by the professionally pious.” For the Pharisees, faith was a matter of maintaining one’s purity through strict observance of Torah, following all the right rules, offering all the right sacrifices, and avoiding those (like tax collectors and sinners) who didn’t measure up.

But there was Jesus at the table surrounded by Matthew and his friends, and indeed, for them the meal was an answered prayer. They lived on the margins of the community of faith, but now found themselves at the center of the kingdom of God. Their uncleanness did not contaminate Jesus; rather, his “gospel medicine,” says another preacher, would set before them a cure. Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. God and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, chesed, not sacrifice.’” I desire lovingkindess, not law. I desire righteousness, not right and wrong. I desire all of you, not just some.

It is important to understand that neither Hosea nor Jesus are condemning the offering of sacrifices before God, a practice by which the faithful in every age have both praised and petitioned God. They are, however, putting the practice in its place. Such sacrifices perhaps help the worshipper mark a vow or seal a commitment or repent of wrongdoing, but God doesn’t need the offerings that are constantly made in the temple courts, for all the beasts of the forest are mine, God says. I know every bird in the sky…the whole world is mine and all that is in it. Instead, urges the psalmist, offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Faithful Jews knew that a sacrifice of thanksgiving made in the temple was eaten and shared all around by those making the sacrifice, rather than by the “professionally pious” who literally thrived off the sinfulness of the people. Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and make good your vows to the Most High. God desires of us chesed, mercy, kindness, faithfulness, love that is active, not like our passive sacrifice. God desires of us chesed, love that engages life, that is shared all around.

Will you let the blinded see if I but call your name? Will you set the prisoner free and never be the same? Will you kiss the leper clean, and do such as this unseen? Will you admit to what I mean in you, and you in me?

Both Abraham and Matthew answered the call of God and set out to do what for each seemed impossible – Abraham to become a father of many nations despite his age and settle in a land far away despite the distance, Matthew to become a disciple of Jesus Christ despite his unworthiness and invite others to eat at Christ’s table despite their sins. Both Abraham and Matthew left behind all that they have known, sacrificed all that was familiar and comfortable and easy, and engaged the world for God, for love. Each was offered a new start, a new life, a new purpose, a new hope. And they responded to God’s call not by word but, remarkably, by enacting in their lives and in the lives of those around them the same love and acceptance and hope they had received from God.

A prayer from the Taize Community in France reads, “Jesus our joy, when we realize that you love us, something in us is soothed and even transformed. We ask you: what do you want from me? And by the Holy Spirit you reply: Let nothing trouble you. I am praying in you. Dare to give your life.” Abraham and Matthew dared to give their lives, though it seemed to each impossible God would want them. God, who is chesed, who is “pre-emptive, unilateral, and initiatory love,” who is mercy, who is faithfulness as certain as the dawn, called them, calls everyone who needs a physician, which is to say all of us. Or do we, like the Pharisees, not know that we are sick?

The world is full of sin-sick and soul-sick and heart-sick people, including ourselves. Daily we encounter, in our own lives, in the lives of friends or family, or in the lives of strangers, hunger, thirst, fear, grief, loneliness, pain, doubt, despair, pride, selfishness, hypocrisy, greed, and countless other sorrows or sins that infect our spirits and weaken our faith. And yet, at this table, Jesus gathers us together to share a meal, a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving shared all around that prepares us to go out into the world and enact the same love and acceptance and hope that we have received here.

For we are indeed called and have made our vows to the Most High, promising that we would proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ, that we would seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and that we would strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being. I will, with God’s help, we replied. Do we really dare to give our lives? Or are the vows we have made just words that fall over time like faded stars?

Will you love the you you hide if I but call your name? Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same? Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around through my sight and touch and sound in you, and you in me?

Even Abraham and Matthew faltered along the way, questioning how they could fulfill the missions to which they were called, wishing things were as easy as sacrificing this pigeon to atone for that sin. But God does not call and then abandon. I will establish a covenant between me and you, God said to Abraham. An everlasting covenant, to be God to you, and to your offspring after you. Remember, Jesus said to Matthew and the rest of the disciples, remember, Jesus says to us, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.

God is calling. What will the very next line in our stories be? Let us dare to give our lives. Lord, your summons echoes true when you but call my name. Let me turn and follow you and never be the same. In your company I’ll go where your love and footsteps show, then I’ll move and live and grow in you, and you in me. Amen.
Artwork: "Night Sky", by Roger Hutchison; "Energy of Unity", by Kristy K. Smith.