Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Building the Kingdom of God (with everyone's help)

The Worship of Mammon by Evelyn de Morgan, 1909

A sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 17, 2010. The lectionary readings are Amos 8:4-7, Psalm 113, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, and Luke 16:1-13.

If you’re downtown and go by the intersection of 10th Street and G Street, in the same block as the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, you’ll see a new building going up. This new building is being built where in 1868, the First Congregational United Church of Christ began meeting. First Congregational UCC was founded in 1865 by abolitionists as the first racially integrated church in Washington, DC. In 1953, the building was condemned, torn down, and a new building built on the same spot. By 2004, this third building was showing its age and needed some extremely costly repairs. And then a developer knocked on the door.

I imagine that developer must have seemed a little like the devil who approached Jesus in the Gospels and promised Jesus all sorts of superpowers, capping the promise off with “all of this can be yours… all these things, I will give you…” After a couple of years of praying and bargaining, the church reached an agreement with the developer to sell its air rights for $17.4 million. The new building, now going up, will include a new space for the church on the ground floor, meeting spaces and program spaces, with condominiums overhead. The maintains ownership of the land but benefits from the sale of the air rights and profit-sharing from the sale of the condominiums. The church plans to devote a portion of the proceeds to further its social action mission including the Dinner Program for Homeless Women, local and international advocacy for peace and justice and housing for very low income people off site.

I imagine it was a difficult decision for the church to make a deal with the developer, even though, with hindsight, the deal looks pretty sweet. I don’t know what scripture might have guided the discussions, but the readings we have heard today would have given them a lot to think about.

The prophet Amos thunders forth from our first reading. “Hear this,” he says, “you that trample on the needy. You who cheat the poor and push around the defenseless. [God] will turn your feasts into mourning, and … your songs into lamentation.” The point to Amos’s preaching is not to criticize formal or elaborate worship. The point is that with all the resources at Israel’s disposal, with all the wealth in their temple, in their homes and in their hands, they are (at the end of the day) showing themselves to be a stingy, selfish people.

Amos points out the hypocrisy in Israel’s worship, in the ordering of their lives, in their culture. They have forgotten when they were poor. They have forgotten when they were aliens. They have forgotten when they were not the majority. But God never forgets. And God will bring justice. God holds God’s people accountable.

If the Old Testament reading reminds us about some of WHAT we should be doing, the Gospel suggests that our doing—our living out the Gospel, our working with God to bring about his kingdom, may involves some strange relationships. Our being faithful to God may sometimes mean our getting smart, shrewd and resourceful in the here-and-now.

In today’s Gospel, we hear about a rich man who has a dishonest manager. This manager is not only underperforming, but seems to be either skimming off the top or manipulating the funds in some other way. The accounts do not add up, and the rich man gives the manager notice. But the manager sees some of this coming. He knows his days are numbered, so he makes plans, and his plans involve building up “credit” with others. Before he leaves, the manager goes around to all of those who owe the rich man. He cuts his losses. He lowers each person’s total, collects what he can and tries to prepare for the future. He is a pragmatist and his quick thinking seems to get him back into the favor of his boss.
In this parable, Jesus is simply telling a story. He does not mean for his disciples or us to identify specifically with one character or another. He is not encouraging us to be cheats. He is not suggesting that the kingdom of God is achieved by dishonesty or duplicity. But there is the suggestion that the kingdom of God benefits from a shrewd mind and from a willingness to make use of all the resources at one’s disposal. The Christian faith is not helped by feeble-mindedness or by a kind of pious naïveté. Rather, in Jesus’ words, the “children of light” can learn a few things from the “children of this age.” That is to say that those who seek to follow Jesus can learn even from, and perhaps especially from some who are secular and even nonreligious. This idea is echoed in Matthew when Jesus sends out his disciples to be “as sheep in the midst of wolves, to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Today’s readings suggest that we have a role to play in the ongoing life of God and the unfolding of God’s kingdom. It matters what we do with what we have, whether we have just a tiny bit or whether we have a whole lot. Whatever we have can be used for God’s good will. What we have in terms of our energy, our mind, our faith, our compassion, our talent, our money--- all of this has a role to play in God’s unfolding kingdom.

Using what we have, for God, is the central message of today’s scripture. It is what Jesus is saying to his disciples—that even though the manager in the story is less-than-honest, perhaps he’s even a little shady and maybe even a little underhanded, the manager does everything he can to prepare for the future—he uses all of his resources in the most creative way he can, and it’s that creativity and resourcefulness that Jesus is lifts up for us.

Today in the undercroft we have various ministries represented. They look for volunteers. They look for new ideas. They look for new energy. As you look around you may not see the thing you are interested in doing, or it may be that God is whispering to you an idea that no one else has yet heard. Then, especially, I invite you to speak with someone about a way to use what you have in this little corner of God’s kingdom.

It may not be our calling to sell air rights and build a skyscraper. But who knows what God might call us to do?

Our Collect of the Day prays that even as we are surrounded by earthly things, that we would not be anxious about them, but hold on to what lasts, what endures, what helps others, and what furthers the community and love of our Lord Jesus Christ. May we learn to use all that we have and all that we are for God.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Nothing is Lost

A sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 12, 2010. The lectionary readings are Exodus 32:7-14, Psalm 51:1-11, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, and Luke 15:1-10.

As we all know, yesterday was the ninth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In one way or another, many in our country have paused to remember those who lost their lives that day in New York, Pennsylvania, and our own area. Each of us probably has our own particular memory of that day. We go on about our lives until something – usually some little thing—surprises us with a memory of that day. We remember where we were and what we felt.

For me, there is one thing in particular that sometimes jolts me and reminds me of September 11, 2001. It’s whenever I see a homemade sign on a post or a wall announcing that something has been lost. Maybe it’s a bicycle, or a dog or a cat. Sometimes the announcements are graver, and appear on milk cartons or on television, announcing the tragedy of a lost child. But wherever I see them, those little posters remind me of coming up out of the subway on 9/11 at the 14th Street Stop, the farthest downtown one could stop. There, near St. Vincent’s Hospital, and on just about every flat surface from there on southward, were quickly made (desperately made), homemade signs announcing that someone was lost. Someone was missing. Someone was unaccounted for.

Over the next few days, there were a few stories about people who were found; people who had simply not been able to communicate with loved ones. Some had been evacuated from downtown and sent over to Staten Island, unable to reach worried loved ones until later. I would imagine there were similar stories from this area, of people temporarily out of touch, temporarily lost, who happily, were later found to be shaken, but very much alive.

People become lost in different ways. Alzheimer’s or dementia takes a person to some far away place. Disease, drugs or addictions contribute to loss. And we lose people through death. But however the loss happens, whenever it feels like someone’s been lost, the question arises (the questions arises in a lot of us, anyway), “Where is God?” Where is God when someone can’t find their way out of addiction? Where is God when someone’s brain allows her no longer to recognize her family? Where is God when people die senseless deaths?

Our scriptures today tell us exactly where God is. God is there. God is here. God is wherever God needs to be, seeking the lost, doing whatever it takes, changing divine plans, changing the course of history if it takes that, just to save and find one lost person.

In the first lesson today, the people of Israel feel lost. They feel afraid and cut off from God. They feel so lost that they begin to substitute other things for God—stuff of silver and gold. They begin to worship pretty things, expensive things. Finally Moses returns and he gradually helps them find their way again. And God actually changes his mind—changes his plans, changes the course of history—just to make a way so that his children can find love again, can find God again.

Our Gospel also shows us a God who will go to desperate means for us. God will do whatever it takes to find someone, and to bring that person home.

Jesus tells the story about a shepherd who has 99 sheep. One wanders off and can’t be found, so the shepherd leaves the 99 and pursues the one.

Jesus also talks about a lost coin. A coin has fallen out of reach, or has gotten behind something, or has seemed to disappear altogether. So, the woman stops what she’s doing and basically turns her whole house upside-down to find the lost coin.

The point in all of these stories is that God goes out of his way to find what is lost, to re-claim what is lost, to recover and restore anything and anyone who is lost. God reaches out for us. God looks for us. God does not stop calling our name.

The past week was unusual in that we had two funerals, one on Monday and another on Friday. At both, we used Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” At each, we invited people to read it in unison. It’s always amazing to me that even when there are people who might not have been in church in a while, the words to Psalm 23 sound familiar.

God leads us into green pastures—not that we’re cows or sheep, but the green pastures become a symbol for whatever is for us a place of rest and refuge, a place of nurture and sustenance. God lead us beside still waters, stilling the rapids of our life, slowing us down, and collecting us in one place. God restores our soul. Even when we walk through the “valley of the shadow of death,” we have nothing to fear, because God is there. Even if we don’t see God, even if we don’t particularly feel God in that moment—God is there. Even when there are those who die all too suddenly, those whose lives are taken, God calls, God loves, and God welcomes by name.

Psalm 23 reminds us that God leads us into a place where there’s an enormous feast, a feast so big that it includes not only everyone we’ve ever loved, but even our enemies, transformed into friends. There in the full presence of God, in the fullness of love, God anoints us and calls us by name.

Throughout scripture, names are important. Sometimes a person’s name is changed when they encounter God in an important way, and that might even be the case for us. We carry many names, after all: names we have been called by our parents, names yelled on playgrounds, nicknames we might try on for a while until we grow out of them. Then there are names we might try to grow into, and find that they don’t quite fit us. We might go for a while under a pseudonym – for safety, or for fear. But throughout it all, if we listen, if our hearts are open, God is calling our true name. We may not even recognize it at first, but if we strain to listen, we’ll hear it.

No one and nothing stays lost from God. God seeks and searches and calls out by our truest name, and calls us into love, into laughter, and into life everlasting. As the church, it’s our job to help one another hear God’s calling. Whether we are the lost who are found, or whether we are among those who fling open the door and welcome those who return—we are, all of us, called to join in the celebration.

We gather in this place at one table, eating from one bread and drinking from one cup. What we do is variously called the Mass, the Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper. But throughout all, it is the Eucharist, that Greek word meaning “thanksgiving.” We give thanksgiving because we were lost but are found, perhaps because we were kept out or left out, but now are welcomed. We give thanks because through this meal we are invited to be more forgiving, more merciful and more welcoming. Thanks be to God for finding each one of us and for bringing us home.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Memorial Mass for Ellis R. Mottur (1930--2010)

"Come Unto Me," stained glass window at All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church, Washington, DC

A meditation offered at the memorial Mass for Ellis R. Mottur, held at All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church September 10, 2010. Mr. Mottur's book, A Poetic Journey: From Fear-- Through Love-- to Faith and Felicity was published by Dorrance Publishing Co, 2010.

Gerontologists, those who watch the aging process closely, and our own grandparents, all tell us that when it comes to growing older—there is bad news and there is good news.

The bad news is that as we age, we become more our true selves. And you have probably guessed the good news: as we age, we become more our true selves.

So this means that in growing older, those things that irritate us, that get under our skin-- prejudices and places of ignorance all can intensify. Someone who is grouchy at 35 will probably be even grouchier at 95.

But the good news is that we also become more our true selves, the older we get. Where there has been generosity, or wonder, or hope, or love at 35…. with age on our side (and I would add, with grace on our side) into our 60’s and 70’s and 80’s we can become even more generous, even more hopeful, and loving beyond imagination.

Ellis Mottur is proof of this good news. As he aged, he just got smarter. He got sharper. He was able to understand more. He had more friends. He offered more love. He had even more faith.

If you knew Ellis in later life, you might never have known that he had struggled in his younger years. As he has expressed in his poetry, there were times when he felt like he

slashed through swamps of stagnant black;
….rushed from black to black to black;
….kicked [his] feet to the accepted beat;
…. but …dared--- [he] dared not look. (from “Flight Through Fear”)

But he made it. Whether it was the appearance of a sparrow (as he writes), or whether that was a symbol of some person or several persons, Ellis was lifted out of the dark places.

Ellis loved music and he especially loved Beethoven. That’s why we’re using some of the Beethoven sonatas today and why we’ll end our celebration singing (loudly and lustily) “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee.” In that Ellis knew a lot about most things, I would not be surprised if he loved Beethoven in part because of Beethoven’s own struggles and his ability to write and play and pray through those struggles. At the age of 26, Beethoven began suffering from tinnitus and began to lose some of his hearing. Over time, his hearing loss became profound, and it affected the way he interacted with people. It is said that at the end of the premiere of his Ninth Symphony (The Ninth Symphony from which we get the tune, Ode to Joy) Beethoven had to be turned around to see the tumultuous applause of the audience; because he couldn’t hear it. Friends turned Beethoven around literally. Friends (and I think he might add, God, too, helped Ellis turn from doubt and depression, toward light and love.

The Gospel today is a familiar one to many. “In my Father’s house are many rooms.” I always recall the King James version that promises, “in my Father’s house are many mansions.” I can picture heaven as a sort of grand Kennedy-Warren, where each of us has a half-floor, every room has a view, and the ballroom downstairs is filled with music and laughter. It’s an ongoing party where everyone we’ve ever known and loved mingles and munches and dances. They dance on and on and on. I don’t think Ellis would have cared whether we end up with rooms or mansions. But I know one thing now--- he’s in heaven, and I be you that he’s leading the dancing.

Just before Communion, we will sing a hymn often called “Lord of the Dance.” It’s based on the Shaker tune, “Simple Gifts,” which was the basis for Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” I hope you will try to sing it with us. It’s not easy, but at least notice the words. And if you feel like moving around a little bit, feel free. (It would be fun if word reached the Bishop of Washington that they were dancing in the aisles at All Souls—and that it was Ellis Mottur’s fault!)

The Church believes in life after death. Not that the physical, earthly life isn’t important. Just the opposite, what we do here follows us there. We just become more ourselves, as God has made us. But heaven is a full place—filled not only with famous saints and martyrs (the kind pictured in stained glass windows like these). But heaven is also filled with the ordinary folks, the “household saints.” We use the word “saint” like the scriptures and the Early Church used it—a saint is any person of faith—living or dead. And so, as we go about our lives, we are guided by the saints and we are guarded by them.

I love St. George, and like to think of him reminding me of how to be and how to live, but right a long with him are my grandparents, and friends, people not-so-famous, and people famous. Ellis is with the saints. As Tommy and Caroline and Teddy grow up, I hope they’ll feel their grandfather’s presence. Since Ellis is now in heaven, he’s joined some good company, and so I imagine him there, feasting and dancing, but also talking with the people he loved who went before him. Who knows, if he and the Kennedys begin talking, and planning and plotting, maybe their prayers can put a good jolt back into our economy! Maybe even the OTA will be funded again!

Ellis loved his friends. He was a model of loyalty. He could be fierce when he had an idea or a cause. And yet, he might be the first one to get sentimental, to leave a crowded room so that he could get away to a quiet place and put his thoughts into the form of a poem.

Ellis’s poem entitled “America” works not only as a poem, but as a prayer for our country, and even as a kind of creed.

When everything’s blackest, we must act brightest;
When doubts assail us, we must chart a course in confidence;
When enemies berate us, we must bury our anger;
When friends mistake our motives, we must persist in patience;
When the very foundations of our faith quake beneath our feet,
We must stand firmest upon them;
and when the New World seems farthest away,
we must move farthest toward it. (from “Our America”)

We rejoice in the eternal life of the Communion of Saints. May the wisdom, the tenacity, the love, and the humor of Ellis Mottur continue to inspire us and shape us. Amen.


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