Sunday, September 25, 2011

Lives that follow lips

A sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 25, 2011. The lectionary readings are Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16, Philippians 2:1-13, and Matthew 21:23-32.

From time to time in the Gospels we hear about the Pharisees. The Pharisees were a particular group of religious people who were extremely concerned with following the laws of God as closely as possible. Many were good and faithful Jews. But some were all caught up in appearances. They worried about how they looked (what people thought when they saw them). They worried about how they sounded, as they spoke to one another and said their prayers. And they worried about how people regarded them, whether they were seen to be people of authority or not. And so, when Jesus comes on the scene—preaching, teaching and healing—the Pharisees are curious and they feel threatened.

They try to get Jesus into a conversation about authority—by what authority does he teach? Where did he go to school? Who did he study with? What are his credentials? But Jesus refuses to get bogged down by these people. Instead, he looks at them, and he looks at the people who are gathered, and Jesus sees a more important point to be made. Almost to prove to the Pharisees how out of place their question is, Jesus asks them the strange question about John the Baptist. Sure enough, it stumps the Pharisees, and when they can’t answer it, Jesus moves on to his larger point.

Jesus tells this story about two children. The first is asked to go into the vineyard and do some work. Evidently, this child has other things on his mind, so he tells his father, no. But after a little while, this first child feels bad about what he has said, and so, he goes to the father and apologizes.
He repents not only of his rudeness, but also, of his unwillingness to work. Presumably, the father accepts his repentance and then the child goes into the vineyard and does a fine job. There is also another child, a second son. And this one is very polite and initially tells the father, “Sure, of course I’ll go and work in the vineyard. But the second child doesn’t follow through.

The Pharisees are listening to this story, but they’re listening with a particular context and tradition. The Pharisees had a teaching that almost seemed to place intention above practice. They may have explained this by arguing that one needs first to have the “right intention” to act; and then, maybe with God’s grace, the right action might just follow the right intention. There is truth to that, but Jesus also sees the problem if one only stays at the level of intentions.

But when Jesus puts the question of faithfulness to them, the Pharisees answer correctly. They agree that the first son did the will of the father, since he repented, whereas the second child was all talk and no action.

And then Jesus sharpens his point. He tells the Pharisees that of all the people who will enter heaven, of all the people who will be received into God’s closest presence, the first will be those who have been honest with themselves and with God, who have shown true repentance, and who have then followed through with the living out of their faith. The last ones to enter will be those who say one thing with their lips and another with their lives.

In the parable that Jesus tells, the first child may sound brash or rude, but the second sounds so polite, doesn’t he? The second son sounds like the sort of person that could be called “a good egg.” But as CS Lewis points out, a person can’t just always be a good egg. An egg has to hatch at some point, or it rots. The polite son is like a good egg that never hatches. It doesn’t produce. It lives only for itself. It sits there and eventually begins to rot. (Darkness at Noon by CS Lewis)

If we were to use this story to think about our world, we could probably say that we all know people who are like the first child and the second child. I wonder if the first child—the one who initially told the father that he would not go into the vineyard—I wonder if this first child is a little like the folks we might know who, Sunday after Sunday, have no intention of coming to church. Maybe their talk is a little course, their lives pretty rough in places; but their hearts are pure in their dealings with other people. They’re blunt, but they’re honest and they don’t make any pretense.

We might know some like the second child, the one who seems so polite and well-intentioned. I sometimes fear that some who go to church every Sunday resemble the second, polite child. We fill pulpits and pews, we sound good enough, and we talk the talk. But do our lives show that the words and life of Jesus really mean anything to us? Do we ever become more than merely “good eggs?”

We have plenty of modern-day Pharisees who would suggest that appearances are everything. They suggest that how we look, how we sound, where we live, what we do for a living—that all of these things reveal who we really are. But the God of Jesus Christ says otherwise. Jesus tells the Pharisees that there are a whole lot of people who are ahead of them on the road to heaven, and chief among them are the prostitutes and the tax collectors. Leading us all into the heaven are some of the poor, the uneducated, the dirty, the foul-mouthed, the alcoholic and addicted, the out-of-shape and unfit, the sick and the dying--- Given such a procession, some might wonder if heaven is a place they really want to go? I can only say, that it sure is a place where I want to go, because it’s a place where there’s no makeup, no costume and there’s no pretense. There’s no “better than,” or “worse than” but a place where each one of us is received by God and made holy, made perfect, made beautiful.

May we be moved each day of faith bring to being a little more our most honest selves—where we speak the truth and live it, and where we don’t really have to even say very much because people can look at our lives and see the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

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

Building for All Souls

A sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 25, 2011. The lectionary readings are Exodus 16:2-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45, Philippians 1:21-30, and Matthew 20:1-16.

If you’ve read the church newsletters and have picked up on the theme of this day, you know that we’re thinking about building at All Souls. In particular, after the 11 a.m. Mass, Jim Clark from MTFA Architecture will be presenting a plan to add an elevator, a proper entrance from the parking lot, and handicapped accessible restrooms. This process has been hoped for and talked about for years, but has finally taken shape over the last year and a half. Representatives from the parish have dreamed, prayed, argued, and planned. The Vestry has approved the plan and is solidly behind it. Initial plans can be viewed here.

So let me say out loud what a lot of us have thought—that question we might have asked ourselves or someone else: How can we possibly think about building at All Souls?

At a time like this, how can we? The economy is bad. Unemployment hovers around 9.1 per cent. Too many we know either don’t have jobs or don’t have jobs that pay or satisfy. Some are retired and living on a fixed income or on investments, and things are unsure. Things are uncertain. Healthcare costs more. Home maintenance costs more. Rent costs more.

How can consider building with a congregation the size and strength of ours? Our active membership is around 350 persons, with an average Sunday attendance of about 150. We have about 162 financial pledges, with a promised pledged income of just under $500,000. But that’s a huge stretch. And this is a bare-bones budget.

Though some in our parish make good money, it takes a fortune to live in this area—keeping up homes, sending kids to school, taking care of aging parents, (or even visiting aging parents) and still trying to save for the future. Our parish grows, but often we grow with younger people, who (frankly) don’t make a lot of money. Or we grow with wonderful people who are just here for a couple of years before moving on (so their investment—spiritually and financially may be lower). Or we add to our number people who come from a background where they were never asked to connect the way they spend their money with their spiritual beliefs.

This question, “How can we possibly build now?” can be shortened to a simple, “How can we?” But that’s a theological question as much as it’s a practical one. And it’s a question that has been asked before.

In our Old Testament reading, the people of Israel are asking “how can we?” How can we move on? How can we move forward? But they feel stuck. They’ve heard about the Promised Land. They’ve been told about God’s love for them. Some remember being slaves in Egypt. But memory is a funny thing. There in the heat and boredom and fear and hunger and confusion of the desert—the old life back in Egypt begins to seem pretty good. “If only we had died there,” they say. But they look to Moses and toGod: “Now look what you’ve done. You’ve brought us ‘into this wilderness to kills us with hunger!’”

Moses understands complaining when he hears it, and so he refers it up to the Divine Complaint Department. “This is bigger than me, God,” Moses says. “You need to do something with these people of yours.” But God hears. And God answers. “You shall eat. And in the new morning, you shall have your fill. And you shall know that I am the Lord your God.”

The people have God’s promises. But before long the promises produce manna—Manna from heaven.

Biblical scholars still debate what manna might have been. Maybe a miracle: as bread comes down from heaven. Or maybe the manna was some kind of plant the Israelites stumble upon. Others suggest that manna is like the Feeding of the Thousands, in which the real miracle is more that people share the little they have with each other, so it seems like a miracle of amazing proportion.

However manna was made, wherever it might have come from, it brings a message as true that day as it is today. God says “I am with you. Have faith, do your part, and I will provide for you. I will provide.”

God provides in our Gospel story, as well. It’s an elaborate story that can help us think about the ways we measure ourselves against others and try to figure out who is more worthy of God’s blessing and provision. But the story has in it the same simple ending as the reading from Exodus: God provides. And the kingdom of God is a place of generosity. And that’s why we can think about building for All Souls.

With our history, with our faith, and with each other-- How can we NOT build?

In 1911, the little group of 15 men and women, along with Dr. Sterrett, began All Souls and they had their obstacles. But they were faithful. They were passionate. We can build on their faith and tenacity.

During the wars, All Souls fought. Some parishioners and friends of the parish died. Many returned to lead and serve and to build. We can build on the vision and strength of those veterans.

On June 1, 1923, Washington woke up to the awful news that the founding rector of All Souls, Dr. James McBride Sterrett, after suffering from depression, had taken his own life. The congregation mourned. But they came to church and they said their prayers. They supported their then rector, Dr. Sterrett’s son.
By the next year, they had built this larger addition of the church, and the Rev. Henry Hatch Dent Sterrett, after his father’s death, continued to pastor All Souls for another 25 years. We can build on their resilience.

All Souls as a parish almost died by the mid 1980s. But there were a few older ladies who kept the doors open, the flowers on the altar, and breakfast in the undercroft. We build on their faith.

In early 90s, too many young people were dying of AIDS. But the rector All Souls opened its arms and its doors. A lot of funerals were done here and from this parish. We build so that spirit of compassion and care.

This summer, a young transgender man was introduced to All Souls. Before he went back to school he asked to meet with me. When we got together, he thanked me for this place—for our welcome, for our acceptance, and for helping him feel the presence of God in a rare way. We can build on that acceptance and welcome.

And finally, in just a few moments we will baptize James Douglas McAllister. Every baptism is a celebration of faith in the goodness of God, in the generosity and care of God, and in the laughter of God. We can build for Jaime and his brother Will; we can build for their parents, and for all the families who look for a place to say a prayer, to help teach their children about Jesus, to make new friends, and to find God.

Given our history. Given our faith. Given God’s promise to be generous always— at a time like this, how can we NOT build?

May God continue to lead us and inspire us. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Weight of Forgiveness

Return of the Prodigal Son. Drawing by Rembrandt van Rijn, 17th century

A sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 11, 2011. The lectionary readings are Genesis 50:15-21, Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13, Romans 14:1-12, and Matthew 18:21-35.

There’s a story from the Desert Tradition that has to do with forgiveness. As many of you know, the Desert Tradition began in the 3rd century when women and men left cities to live in caves or small communities in the Egyptian desert, some looking for holiness, some trying to find themselves, and most trying to find God. Abba Moses was one of the most revered of these, and he was always being asked to stand judgment or as witness about some matter. One day a bunch of the brothers came to him. They wanted him to be a part of a council that would pass judgment on another brother who had committed some terrible sin. Abba Moses was not interested in being involved. But eventually, they convinced him to go to such and such a place on such and such a day and join them. He went. But he put on his back a jug of water. The jug of water leaked as he walked. It leaked in such as way as to drop a little water out with each few steps.

When he reached the gathering, the others saw him, but they were puzzled about the jug strapped to his back. When they looked at him for an explanation, Abba Moses said, “My sins pour out behind me wherever I go, and yet I have the audacity to come here and judge someone else’s errors?”

Simone Weil writes that when we say “forgive us our debts” in the Lord’s Prayer, we are asking God to “wipe out the evil in us.” But, she says, God doesn’t have the power to forgive the evil that is in us—while it still remains there. “God will have forgiven our debts,” she says, “when he has brought us to the state of perfection. Until then God forgives our debts partially in the same measure as we forgive our debtors.” (Waiting for God, “Concerning the Our Father,” p. 225)

Simone Weil hardly represents orthodox Christian teaching, but her words give me hope. They give me hope because they point to the difficulty of forgiveness. They point to the incompleteness of forgiveness in our lifetime. That gives me hope when I can’t bring myself to forgive (yet.) It gives me hope when I have to live with the fact that someone else may not be able to forgive me.

Our scriptures today have to do with forgiveness, and with the weightiness of sin. Sin, evil, wrongdoing—whatever you want to call it—weighs. It is heavy stuff. It’s like a full jug of water strapped to our back, only it doesn’t leak nearly quick enough. It slows us down, it encumbers us. Sometimes it is so heavy, it disables us.

Shakespeare’s Shylock (The Merchant of Venice) was on to something when he demanded a pound of flesh for the forgiveness of a debt. But Shylock himself learned that a pound presents difficulties. Even a pound cannot easily be exacted. Debts might more accurately be weighed in tons.

As Christians, we are to be on the side of lightening the load, of lifting the weight. But the really good news this day is that ultimately, that is not our work. Rather, it is the joyful, loving work of Jesus Christ.

The sermon today is not a simple one. Especially in the context of 9/11, I am not suggesting that the scriptures are calling us to an easy or quick forgiveness; if, in fact, they are calling us to forgiveness at all. (Forgiveness may almost entirely belong to Christ.)

But I am suggesting that ESPECIALLY today, the scriptures are calling us to notice the weight. Notice the weight of sin or resentment as it increases the longer we carry it. And remember and notice whenever that weight is lifted.

In the first reading, from Genesis, Joseph forgives his brothers. But a long story has brought us to this point. This is the same family in which the brothers have enough of Joseph being the favored son, and so they almost leave him for dead. But at the last minute they decide to sell him into slavery, instead. Later, the tables are turned. Joseph is in a position of power and his brothers approach him (not recognizing him), asking for help. Joseph gives them a little help, but begrudgingly. He tests them. In a way he even taunts them. He does not forgive easily or quickly. But eventually Joseph becomes aware of the weight he’s been carrying.

In chapter 45, Joseph “could not control himself before all who stood by him; and he cried.” He cries as he lets go. He cries as he forgives. In today’s reading Joseph and his brothers’ father, Jacob, has died. The brothers are afraid Joseph will now get revenge on them.

But Joseph has forgiven once and for all. The weight is gone. Why would he pick it up again? It’s for his brothers to trust and to feel the lightness they have received.

In the Gospel, Jesus continues a conversation about forgiveness that we’ve heard parts of on previous Sundays. Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” And then, as if to look for some kind of approval, some recognition for his efforts at forgiving, Peter adds, [Should I forgive them] “as many as seven times?” Jesus answers, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

And then Jesus tells this story about a person who has a debt forgiven. No sooner is this one’s debt forgiven, and he forgets. He sees someone who owes him and demands repayment immediately. The point of the story is not about the fickler forgetfulness of people. The point has to do with the source of the forgiveness, the place and person from whom the forgiveness begins. In the story, it’s the king who forgives. In the story of our faith, it’s God who forgives.

God forgives. We receive that forgiveness, that lightness, that removal of all that is heavy, and binding, and weighing us down. And it for us to help others lighten their loads. Sometimes we do this by forgiving, or as last week’s Gospel put it, “by loosening, or unbinding.” But sometimes, we begin the work of forgiveness (I think) by handing it all to God, for God to work on. There are times when the work of forgiveness is just too much for us, and so (it seems to me) the most faithful thing to do is to turn it over to God the Author of All Forgiveness.

Almost every Sunday at All Souls, whenever a prayer of confession is used, we hear words of absolution and forgiveness. And then we hear again, and again and again, what are referred to in the Prayer Book tradition as the “Comfortable Words.” They are words of comfort. They are words of assurance, refreshment, and promise. (from Matthew 11:28-30)

Come unto me all ye who travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.
Come to me all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens.
Come to me all you who are weary and burdened (NIV) . . .
all ye that labor and are heavy laden (NKJV) . . .
all who are tired from carrying heavy loads (Good News) . . .

or as Eugene Peterson’s translation The Message has Jesus say,

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.

Freely and lightly. Those are indeed comfortable words and words of refreshment. May we hear and know the forgiveness of God, so that even in this life, we might begin to be made holy, forgiving, and free.

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

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Binding and Loosening

Celtic Knot

A sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, September 4, 2011. The lectionary readings are Ezekiel 33:7-11, Psalm 119:33-40, Romans 13:8-14, and Matthew 18:15-20.

It’s Labor Day Weekend, a time when people head to the beach for one of the last times, or have a cookout, or spend some time doing whatever they do to rest, to relax, to “chill,” or to “loosen up.”

Our Gospel today invites us to “loosen up,” but in a way that can have enormous consequences for our relationships with other people, and our relationship with God. But this idea, this invitation, this command (at certain points) comes up a number of times in the Bible.

The word used is one of the first words one learns in Biblical Greek. You can find many a first-semester seminarian sounding like he or she is trying to remember the lyrics to the song, “Louie, Louie,” as she or he memorizes the conjugation of “luo, lueis, luei.” The word means “to loosen, to free up, to separate, to unbind.”

Whenever this word shows up, there is power. People become free. The power of God is let loose.

This happens when Jesus encounters a woman in a crowd. He sees this woman who is bent over from a disease, he heals her, and power goes out from him. (Luke 13:16) He helps this woman break loose. She breaks loose from her sickness, from her deformity, from her embarrassment, from her isolation, from all that is limiting her and holding her back.

This happens also with Lazarus. When Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus has died, he goes to see Martha and Mary. Jesus gets to the tomb. The entrance is cleared and Jesus prays to God. Then he says with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus comes. He gets up, he walks out, and then Jesus says, “Unbind him, (loose him) and let him go.” (John 11:1-46) Lazarus will die again, on another day, but for now, Jesus has shown the power of setting loose. He has foreshadowed his power of freeing us even from the bonds of death.

We heard of this power of holding tight or loosening up as it relates to the disciples a couple of weeks ago when we read of Saint Peter’s encounter with Jesus. You’ll remember that Peter is named as a rock on whom Jesus will build the church. Jesus gives Peter what he calls the “keys of the kingdom of heaven,” and then goes on to explain what these “keys” really are. “Whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven,” Jesus says. “And whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” In other words, this power of binding and loosing, is the power of having keys, of being able to keeps something locked up, or to unlock it and let it be loose, free and fully alive.

This power to bind and to loose is not just kept by Peter. He hands this power on to the early church community, made clear in today’s Gospel. The Gospel of Matthew is thought to have been written somewhere between 50 and 100 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The words we read show the early Christian community listening through the Holy Spirit for the word of Christ in their midst. Jesus didn’t talk about casting people out of the community. He didn’t equate difficult or sinful Christians with “Gentiles and tax collectors.” Remember, he went out of his way to include Gentiles and tax collectors and prostitutes and outcasts of all kinds. What we hear in Matthew is the early church struggling with itself, trying to understand how to maintain a community, how to live with each other, and how to confront each other and forgive each other.

What developed was a practice whereby the victim, the wronged person, was encouraged to speak to the person who had offended or done wrong. If that doesn’t work, then take a couple of others with you. If the person still does not address the wrong she or he has done, then you tell the whole church, and if the person still doesn’t repent, she or he is put out of the church.

We have power not only to turn toward the life of God ourselves. But we also have some say, some power in whether another is able to turn to God fully. It has to do with this power to loosen and unbind.

This power to loose, to set another person free from guilt, from worry, from fear—this power clearly does good for the person who is separated for feels cut off or left out. Perhaps some of us have known that feeling of welcome when we have found a church that truly accepts us as the child of God we were created to be. But that power of forgiveness and welcome also sets loose the one who is able to forgive, or accept, or welcome.

This can sound daunting, this idea of speaking to someone who has wronged us. And it may be impossible (because of distance, or death, or danger). It may be unwise for some other reason. But even in the best of circumstances, it is a frightening idea to pull someone aside, and speak honestly by explaining how the person has wronged you. While today’s Gospel gives an outline of how this happens, it doesn’t make explicit something that I think is assumed and this assumption makes all the difference.

The important thing to remember, it seems to me, is that one never enters into this conversation with the other (who has wronged me), or with the elders, or with the whole congregation alone. Christ is in our midst. Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, lives and moves among us. And so, when I try to gather my wits about me to speak honestly with another person, Christ is there with me.

When I’m alone, there are really two who are present. When I’m with one another person, there are three of us because Christ is there. When we’re together in a small group or a large group, the spirit and love and life of the Risen Christ is with us. And so, there’s no reason to fear. Words will come when we need them. Whether the other person is responsive to what we’re saying is out of our control, it’s really none of our business, but can be left in the hands of Christ who is our mediator, our holy go-between, our intercessor, and our Advocate. He is the power that connects us and binds us to one another.

We illustrate this “binding” liturgically whenever we have a marriage ceremony. After the couple has exchanged vows, there is a blessing of the new couple—the two, now become one. We follow the ancient custom of tying the couple’s hands together in a stole. Sometimes I’ve watched as a priest simply allows a stole to fall over the two hands and the prayers are said. I’m sure those prayers are just as effective, but as I learned to do it, the stole should be tied, good and tight. All four hands. Tied together. It should hurt a little bit. It should be slightly scary as the couple wonders, “Is this crazy priest going to untie us before the reception? Is this stole going to wrinkle the wedding clothes? Is the stole going to grind this new ring into my finger?” These are good questions because they have to do with the burden of being in relationship, in communion one with another. Even after the stole has been untied, I hope the couple remembers that feeling. I hope the congregation remembers that symbol, because it applies to all of us.

We are tied to one another. As living beings on this planet. As brothers and sisters with the whole human race. But especially, as people of faith, we are bound to one another by the blood of Jesus Christ. We are his body. As members of that body we can be in tension, anger, resentment, control. Or we can contribute toward loosening, easing up, allowing grace, making for peace, extending forgiveness.

Friends, let us live loosely this weekend and always, rejoicing in the forgiveness and joy of our God.

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


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