Sunday, October 24, 2010

No comparison

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

A sermon for the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, October 24, 2010. The lectionary readings are Sirach 35:12-17, Psalm 84:1-6, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, and Luke 18:9-14.

Most of you know that I’ve just returned from a mission trip in South Africa. Heidi and Marcia return later this week. I’m sure that the others and I will talk and write more about all that we saw and felt, but one aspect of my own experience helps me approach today’s Gospel.

In South Africa, from the moment our plane landed, I was aware of my tendency to make comparisons. My impulse was to see what was different and what was similar. It’s a kind of default for me. I guess I feel that if I can identify how things are in relation to what I’m used to, then whatever new place I’m in will begin to make better sense to me.

And so I notice: I notice they drive on the left side of the road like Europeans; we drive on the right. They speak of “robots” at intersections, whereas we call them “traffic lights.” They have eleven official languages. We (sort of) have one. And then, there are lots of similarities.

Both countries struggle to figure out how a particular group of people who have not always had a fair chance in the past might best be given equal opportunity for the present and future. Both countries struggle with immigrants who arrive from other countries and are willing to take the worst jobs. Both countries deal with diversity and difference. And churches in both places deal with many of the very same issues.

On and on, the comparisons went, until I began to realize that I was wasting a whole lot of energy playing this mental and sometimes verbal game of “notice what’s similar or different in this picture.” I began to realize that I was missing some of what was right in front of me.
Perhaps South Africa, and especially the people I was meeting, might better be enjoyed, might better be understood, by my simply receiving them as they were and not trying to fit them into my view of the world based on where I come from and what I perceive as the norm.

It was the diplomat and economist, Dag Hammarskj√∂ld, who wrote, “To be humble is not to make comparisons.”

He wrote, “Humility is just as much the opposite of self-abasement as it is of self-exaltation. To be humble is not to make comparisons. Secure in its reality, the self is neither better nor worse, bigger nor smaller, than anything else in the universe.” (Markings).

While I certainly don’t claim humility, I do think Hammarskjold’s words speak to my own experience in South Africa, and also speak to the point of today’s Gospel. If we were to take Hammarskjold’s advice, I think we would be very careful in our reading and hearing of the parable in today’s Gospel from Luke. Jesus is not calling us to compare ourselves with either the Pharisee or the tax-collector. Instead, he wants us to try to move beyond comparisons, and begin to depend upon the grace of God.

Perhaps the Pharisee seems familiar from what we’ve heard in church before. Since Sunday school—even in popular culture—the Pharisee is almost always typecast as the “bad guy.” It’s hard to imagine a good Pharisee, one who is kind or generous. It’s perhaps hard to imagine a female Pharisee. But the fact is that the majority of the Pharisees were probably good folks—hardworking, law-abiding, giving, praying, “doing” believers who tried as best they might to follow the ways of the God of Israel.

The Pharisee in today’s Gospel says as much in his prayer. I don’t think his prayer is as boastful as it is factual. He’s simply repeating what he’s done. He’s undertaking a kind of spiritual examen, reviewing his day, reviewing his week. Where did God show up? Where did God not show up? He has fasted twice a week, he has tithed (giving at least a tenth of all he has). He’s an upstanding member of the community.

In our day, the Pharisee would most likely be in church on Sunday morning, serve on community boards, attend PTSA meetings, maybe even coach soccer, and probably volunteer for a local charity or run in a money-raising marathon. If you can picture respectability, then you can picture a Pharisee. And it’s wrong for us to assume that this respectability is just a veneer. The Pharisee feels strongly about his beliefs, takes his commitments seriously, and lives out his values.

The tax collector, on the other hand, is a traitor. Palestine at this point is under Roman occupation. And so, the tax collector is a Jew who is collecting money from his own people to give to the Roman state. Tax collectors in the popular imagination were no good. They were thought to be liars and cheats, greedy and only interested in themselves.

In our Gospel, the Pharisee thanks God for the gifts God has given him. But the tax collector—strange even that we might have wandered into the temple—the tax collector asks for nothing but the mercy of God. There is no indication that the tax collector has quit his dirty-work. He hasn’t suddenly decided to take a new job or follow a different course. And it’s not even clear that the tax collector expects to be heard by God, much less answered by God.

The issue here is not that Pharisees are bad and tax collectors are good. It’s not about comparing the good, honest, upstanding folk who might be in church on Sunday with the folks who partied so hard last night that they’re still in bed this morning. The point of the Gospel come out in the prayers of the two characters.

The prayer offered by the Pharisee was very close to a common prayer offered by any faithful Jew in the temple, with one exception. There’s one little word that pops out, translated in the English as the word, “like.” The Pharisee gives thanks to God that he is not “like” other people, especially the tax collector. For the Pharisee, gratitude has crossed over into a sense of elitism—something that happens easily whenever we get into “we/them language.” The Pharisee’s prayer is false prayer as he compares himself with the tax collector. And had the tax collector in some way compared himself with the Pharisee, whether favorably or unfavorably, it would have been just as false. Neither person is any more deserving of God’s grace and mercy than the other.

Effective prayer reminds us of our complete dependence upon God. Faithful prayer is not a listing of what we’ve done right, or even what we’ve done wrong. The tax collector never loses sight of that. He knows that he really has nothing going for him but the grace of God, and so it’s for this reason that Jesus says the tax collector left the temple “justified,” or “in line with God.”

Those words of Hammarskj√∂ld come back to me: “to be humble is not to make comparisons.” Earlier I spoke of how my making so many comparisons in South Africa obscured what I might really see and what I might really experience.

And I think the same dynamic plays itself out in our relationship with God and with other people. Though we are created in community and God loves us as God’s children, each of us is unique. Each is incomparable. Each lives and dies by the breath of God.

As Paul writes, each of us is “rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue [us] from every evil attack and save [us] for the heavenly kingdom.”

May we resist the temptation of making comparisons. May we rest in the grace, mercy, and love of God that sustains us and keeps us alive.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Returning Thanks

The Grateful Leper

A sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, October 10, 2010. The lectionary readings are 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c, Psalm 111, 2 Timothy 2:8-15, and Luke 17:11-19.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in Canada, and in some ways our scripture readings help us to help them celebrate it. Ambrose of Milan said “No duty is so urgent as that of returning thanks.” I’ve always loved that phrase, “returning thanks,” as though thanks comes from somewhere else, moves through us or visits us for just a little while, and so we should be careful with it, hold it gently, and then, when it’s time, let it go back to the its source. But in reality, we sometimes don’t return the thanks. We might misplace it, or forget about it. Or we squander it and pretend it wasn’t a gift, but rather, something we deserved and earned and won. The thanks we get, the thanks for which we are grateful, the thanks we return (or don’t return) is like a blessing—a gift that comes.

In our first reading, it takes Naaman a while to return thanks, to return to give thanks, or to understand where his blessing has come from.

Naaman might be powerful and successful, but he also has leprosy. Lepers were called “unclean,” and the sense was that they were not only physically unclean (and perhaps that’s how they got the skin disease in the first place) but also spiritually unclean, as though they were being punished by God for some reason.

We can understand something of what the culture of fear and suspicion around leprosy might have been like, if we remember the early 1980’s when the outbreak of AIDS meant also an epidemic of fear and ignorance. Others here may remember what it was like in the early 20th century around polio. Philip Roth has written his latest novel, Nemesis about the “nemesis” of polio, and about especially about one man’s fear that he might get it. When two boys from the main character’s neighborhood contract polio, everyone begins to look for someone or something to blame. Imagine that culture of fear in the Bible when we hear about lepers.
Naaman probably tries not to show his fear, being a military man. But he certainly looks for healing. Naaman hears about a great prophet and healer in Israel, Elisha (the heir to the prophet Elijah). The king makes it possible for Naaman to go and visit Elisha, and he makes his way to the cave where Elisha is staying. Naaman gets to the opening of Elisha’s cave, and Elisha sends a servant out to talk to Naaman. The servant says, “Here’s what you need to do: Elisha says for you to go and wash in the River Jordan seven times. That should do the trick. You’ll be fine.”

Well! This great military commander Naaman is insulted. Did he travel all the way to Israel only to be told by a servant go and wash in the river? Does he not even get to see this supposedly great prophet?

Naaman is angry, he criticizes Elisha. He makes fun of Israel and its rivers, and on and on he goes, in an absolute rage. Had he continued to mouth off, had he continued to try to fit things into his own way of seeing, he would have completely missed the opportunity before him. He would have missed the presence of God, and the healing of God. Just before they leave Israel altogether, one of Naaman’s servants pulls him aside and begins to talk a little sense into him. It’s as though this servant understands the nature of grace, the nature of blessing—that when a blessing comes from God (whether it’s in the form of healing or some other blessing), it comes lightly, and so it should be grasped and grabbed, but received and allowed room. Naaman eventually goes down to the water, he bathes seven times, and he is healed. Not only is he healed of the leprosy, but it also sounds like he might have been healed from a little of his arrogance and pride. And then Naaman returns to Elisha and makes a big statement. It’s a statement of faith, but also a returning of thanks: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel. Your God is God.”

There is healing in our Gospel, as well. He is on the way to Jerusalem and is approached by not one, but ten lepers. They greet him with words that will echo on Palm Sunday, recognizing his power and his ability to forgive and cleanse: “Jesus, master, have mercy on us.” Their words are a desperate cry for help, they’re from the heart, and they seem to get his attention.
With these 10 lepers, Jesus does an astounding thing. He responds to them as though they’ve already been healed—he doesn’t send them to bathe in special waters, he doesn’t spit into the dirt and make a potion out of it for their healing—instead, he effects the healing in them even as they ask for it. Next, he follows the Jewish custom of encouraging them to go and show themselves to the Temple priests.

Jesus heals the disease, but he knows that it will take a little more for the fear and suspicion around the disease to heal, as well. It’s a little like when one of us has been healed, has gotten better, has been restored to health, and yet friends and family treat us as though we’re still fragile. Jesus knows that for the lepers to be received back into their families and villages, they needed the official approval of the Temple priest, the sort of cultural equivalent of a “clean bill of health.” And so the ten former lepers follow Jesus’ instructions and they go to the temple. All, except for one.
One comes returns, and returns thanks. The one cured leper happens to be the Samaritan, the foreigner, the half-breed, the one despised by both Jews and the Gentiles. This cured leper had been doubly cured. Not only was he cured of a disease, but he was healed of racial and cultural divides as well. Perhaps because of his living in-between, he understood the nature of blessing, the nature of a grace, the nature of thanks--- as something that visits us, and gains life as it is shared and returned.

In the Collect of the Day we have prayed that God’s grace might always precede and follow us, making us continually given to good works. It’s not our works that produce the grace. It’s not our works that even provide the setting or space for grace. But grace that allows us to do good and faithful work. It is grace that comes before, during, and after. But it is always and everywhere God’s grace, not our own. And so the Spirit helps us to live in this grace, thankfully.

We pray for God’s healing of disease and ailment. We pray for God’s healing of creation, where it is broken or wasted or in trouble. We pray for God’s healing of racial and ethnic and cultural divides. And we can pray for God’s Spirit to help us return thanks and live lightly with grateful hearts.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friday, October 08, 2010

The Marriage of Isaac Borocz and Jeffrey Shaumeyer

Saints Sergius and Bacchus

The scripture readings are Colossians 3:12-17, Psalm 133, and John 15:9-12. A homily preached at a marriage on October 8, 2010 at All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church, in celebration of Saints Sergius and Bacchus.

If anyone has been to my and Erwin’s apartment, they know that the long wall just inside the entrance is filled with pictures. We’ve been careful to keep everything in black-and-white, even it if was originally in color. That means that the whole wall looks like it’s of a piece. There is the amazing photograph of Erwin being baptized. (I still can’t get over the fact that there’s a photograph of his baptism!. The priest is wearing a nice chasuble; the ladies are wearing mantillas … it’s classic.) And then there’s the picture of my mother’s graduation from nursing training. Also a picture of Erwin’s father, my grandfather, a family portrait. As amazing as our wall might be—it’s not complete. For it to include a full family portrait, it would need to extend far and wide, including all sorts of people, some living, some dead.

Today, we celebrate a family—the family based upon Isaac and Jeff. What might their family portrait look like if we were to paint it or photograph it? It would surely include a lot of greyhounds. It would also have scientists and monastics. But who else? It might have a lot of Methodists, a huge number of Episcopalians, and a worthy number of atheists. [My own take on "atheism" can be discussed in another place. Preferably with good coffee or drinks. And it will help things if the "atheist" has done his or her homework. Don't blame me for stupid Christians and I won't blame you for stupid atheists . . . . But I digress.] What is sure, is that there would be all sorts and conditions of people. Every color. Every class. Every persuasion.

This day is special, as we celebrate a family portrait.

It in no way makes any less special the ordinary or extraordinary days of the last 18 years for Isaac and Jeff. But today is special. The family portrait continues. It includes those of us here, those unable to attend, and even those from ancient history.

Today is, incidentally, the feast day for Saints Sergius and Bacchus. We didn’t pick this day intentionally. It was chance, or it was God.

Sergius and Bacchus were third century soldiers who were promoted to a fairly high rank in the Roman army. When the emperor found out they were Christians, he demanded that they make a sacrifice to idols. They refused, and so were persecuted – among which punishments included their military medals being replaced with iron chains as they were paraded through the city, made to wear women’s clothing. [I will make no comment here.] They were sent off to eastern Syria, where the governor had Bacchus beaten, and killed while Sergius was tortured and beheaded.

A cult around the two sprang up almost immediately. Their friendship was admired and imitated. Over time, there sprang up rumors that their friendship had perhaps been MORE than friendship, and the scholar Jon Boswell argued that Sergius and Bacchus had been united in a “brother-making” ceremony by the church, a forerunner of what we might call a same-sex union.

Our family portraits include many people—some saints known, and some saints unknown. And some, saints-in-the-making.

There’s a great story of Nathan Baxter, the former dean of the National Cathedral, who officiated at an interfaith service at the Cathedral some years ago. The procession of various faiths came in, and then the Hare Krishnas came in dancing, playing tambourines, twirling around. The dean thought this might be his last day, that people would get angry with him for including so many different kinds of people and faiths. But just as the dean’s anxiety grew, he heard a whisper in his ear: “Nathan! Get used to this, Nathan. Heaven is going to be full of surprises.”

Heaven is full of surprises and life is also full of surprises.

Who would have thought, Isaac and Jeff, 18 years ago, that your lives would include being in this place, on this day, with these people. But here we are. And we are not only glad. We are made more by knowing you, by learning from you, and by sharing in your love.

Thanks be to God (and Life) for blessings, for laughter, and for family portraits that just keep getting bigger.


Sunday, October 03, 2010

Ruminating on a bad Gospel

St. Francis of Assisi from the Mary Chapel at All Souls

The lectionary readings are Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4, Psalm 37:1-10, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, and Luke 17:5-10.

We have just proclaimed the Gospel. Since at least the fourth century, people have stood for the reading, the proclamation of the Gospel. [The Gospel is, of course, the reading from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. It is called “gospel,” from the Old English, god spell ; Germanic gut speil , or "good news.”

At least from the seventh century, the deacon (or other priest or bishop) who was to read the Gospel, would move through the building with some ceremony. The person would move to the appointed place (perhaps the pulpit, or ambo) accompanied by acolytes, with the Gospel book, and the singing of alleluias.

From the ninth century onward, there is evidence that people have made the sign of the cross as the Gospel is announced, make the sign three times and saying to themselves the prayer, “Lord, may your word be on my mind ( + sign on your forehead) on my lips (+ sign on your lips) and in my heart (+ sign on your heart). From the eleventh century, incense has been used, the Gospel is sometimes chanted, and responses and acclamations are sung or said, before and afterwards. A recent recording of the Gospel I’ve heard from the Crossing, a community that worships in the Cathedral in Boston, has the gospel being chanted in a contemporary way, with soft drumming going on underneath. The simple proclamation of the Gospel can be a grand, smokey, glorious affair—a little like a parade; a little like a party.

This is appropriate-- the ceremony and celebrations are in order because the reading of the Gospel is a proclaiming that Christ is present. It’s like Easter morning. He is risen. He is in our midst. He is here for us, with us, helping us, encouraging us, taking us by the hand more deeply into the presence of God. Showing us how to love. Showing us how to live.

With all of this going for it, we can expect the Gospel to be filled with words of light and life, words that encourage and uplift, that enlarge us somehow, that make us more. But that doesn’t always happen.

What do we do with a Gospel like the one we just heard? The alleluias seem a little hasty. The incense perhaps better used to cover up some awkward words. Maybe we should have drumming underneath, just so we can celebrate the Good News, but ignore the uncomfortable parts. The first part of the Gospel is easy enough, it’s about having faith, even just a little bit. But perhaps we should have stopped there, before getting into the whole section about slaves and servants, obedience and blind servitude.

Some Christians would and do, stop with the nice words. Some Christians stop with the nice words. They skip over difficult texts, they ignore the violence in the psalms, they look the other way when Old Testament patriarchs abuse women and children. (It’s telling that many of these same Christians look the other way today, when preachers and patriarchs continue to abuse and misuse.)

My friend and former boss, Stephen Gerth, often says that the problem with biblical fundamentalists is not that they read scripture—it’s that they don’t read ENOUGH scripture. Because if one really reads scripture—if one follows the Daily Office at all, or listens to the psalms, or even pays attention the scriptures we read on Sunday—then one will be confronted with contradictions and dilemmas. One will be forced to use one’s mind and heart, to fall on one’s knees in the Spirit of God, asking and praying for truth, for revelation, for wisdom.

And yet…2 Timothy 3:16 suggests “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Scripture is inspired by God. It is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and for training in righteousness, but it is also given to us for rumination.

Do you know that word, “ruminate?” it comes from the Latin word for “chewing the cud.” Rumination is what ruminants do (ruminants like cows and sheep and goats and giraffes and others). Ruminants have to chew things a second time in order to get them digested. That’s the way the church also comes to understand scripture—especially the parts that are hard to digest, that seem like waste someone has mistakenly gotten mixed up with the good stuff. We ruminate over scripture, if we’re faithful.

That, after all, is what Jesus did.

Jesus ruminated over the scriptures as the Pharisees brought him a woman caught in adultery. He ruminated over the scriptures when he felt moved to heal on the Sabbath. He ruminated (even) over his own calling as he was confronted with a non-Jewish woman.

We are encouraged to ruminate by the Catechism (in the back of the Book of Common Prayer). It reminds us that we call scriptures the Word of God because “God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible.” The Catechism goes further, saying, “We understand the meaning of the Bible by the help of the Holy Spirit, who guides the Church in the true interpretation of the Scriptures.”

And so, we have proclaimed the Gospel, the God-spell, the Good News, and yet, in today’s reading we come face-to-face with an all-too human side of Jesus, one who appears to be speaking and preaching from within the social context of the first century. It seems unusually brutal, remote, and removed. It’s a story that doesn’t really transcend the ages very well. And in fact, it sort of falls flat. When he uses the issue of slavery as a “given” in a story, in a very matter-of-fact way, it’s difficult for us to hear, maybe even impossible for us to hear, when we live in a church that has understood the Holy Spirit to have moved us to a new place.

Some of this is perhaps Luke’s doing. The Gospel of Luke often underscores the difficulty of following Jesus. Luke points to the cost involved in discipleship—that it won’t come easy, and that grace isn’t cheap. That’s some of what’s going on in today’s reading. Luke is suggesting that the job of a servant is to serve—not to look for honors, or benefits, or rewards. Just to serve.

In the first part of the Gospel, the disciples ask for more faith. “Increase our faith,” they ask.

They want more faith, or stronger faith. Maybe they’re having a hard time following Jesus, or maybe they’re having a hard time understanding what God wants of them. Maybe they’re going through some bad times, or maybe they’re just noticing the places of pain and hurt in their friends and in the world around them.

At first, Jesus seems to suggest that their question is misguided. The quantity of faith is not so important. What matters is that there’s at least a little faith. Any faith will do—just a smidgen, just a tad, faith that would fit on a gnat’s hair. What matters is if it’s faith that is ready to moved, ready to respond, ready to be used by God for whatever God wants to do. Faith even the size of a mustard seed, is enough, Jesus says… it is enough, so that, as Jesus says in another version of this saying, “Nothing will be impossible for you.”

We just need faith for today—each day for itself, one day at a time. This theme rings true throughout the scriptures. When the people of Israel wandered in the desert and were hungry, God sent manna. But it was just enough food for that day, not for the next. It meant that each new day required a little bit of faith. But just a little.

This same daily reliance upon God is what is meant in the Lord’s Prayer, when we ask, “Give us today, our daily bread.” The prayer can also be translated in such a way as to suggest we ask for our bread for tomorrow, and even for the end of ages, but in English, the prayer especially reminds us of our daily need to rely upon God—for food, for wisdom, for faith, itself.

As difficult as today’s Gospel might be, it’s appropriate that we hear it on the eve of the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Francis, of course, REALLY went by faith. He left family and home and comfort, and moved with the Spirit of God. He served God in such a way that actually resulted in the kind of service mentioned in our Gospel, and yet, Francis did it with joy and excitement and what sounds like an almost infectious faith. He had faith for each day and didn’t worry too much about the next.

We celebrate the Word of God as it comes to us daily, in the proclamation, rumination and living out of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but also in the daily bread we bless, break, and share. Though we use just a little, just a hint of bread in the Communion Wafer, it is bread that sustains, it is bread-of-faith with power to move mountains, to change lives, and to bring us into the presence of God.

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


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