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.