Wednesday, December 28, 2011

God pitches God's tent

Christmas Eve 2011
Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

“Occupy” seems to be the word of the year. Starting with the uprisings of the “Arab spring,” protests seemed to bubble up the world over – protests against dictators, against income inequality, against debt, against corporate greed and against leaders who seemed to do nothing about those things. It is hard to know what will come of this movement, or even it if is a movement. It is hard even to know what all these occupiers had in common – other than a determined and at times joyful hope that the world, as bad as it is, could be a better place.

Hannukah and Christmas have nothing to do with each other, in terms of the origins of each festival in our respective religions traditions. It’s not like Easter and Passover – Jesus was in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover when he went to face his death. Christmas, or the observance of Jesus’ birth, was not celebrated on any fixed day until the church came to inhabit the boundaries of the old Roman Empire. There was always some confusion between the return of the sun, the rise of the sun – “SUN” – god and the birth of the son – SON” – of God, and the church just kind of went with that confusion. As Christianity spread north it made sense to use the existing festivities around the solstice and the return of the sun, a powerful sign of hope in the dark and cold and want of winter. Christmas became a sign of resistance to an oppressive darkness in hopes of a brighter spring.
That is where we begin to see the theological connection between Hannukah and Christmas. Hannukah is a festival of resistance and of light. When Jewish militants finally overthrew the Hellenized occupiers of the Temple – who had defiled it with altars to pagan gods -- they cleansed the Temple and found enough oil to burn the candles for one day. God blessed the miracle of this new occupation, and these righteous Jewish occupiers, by giving them enough oil to burn the lights for eight days. As Judaism spread north throughout Europe, this Hannukah celebration of the triumph God’s righteous ones over their political and religious oppressors also became a sign of hope in a dark and cold world.

Enveloped as Christmas is by thousands of years of traditions, it is easy to forget its simple, yet revolutionary origins. God in all of God’s divine majesty chose to come to earth, to occupy, as it were, the body of one poor peasant woman long enough for her to give birth to a child. This little boy, this Jesus, is Emmanuel, God with us. God dwelling with us. God pitching God’s tent, as it were, in the Zuchotti Park of a barn in the back of an inn in Bethlehem. We forget that the reason that Mary and Joseph had to make this difficult journey in the first place was because of the political and military occupation of Palestine by the Roman Empire, and its arbitrary rules that all should be enrolled, so that all could be taxed.

Think about it: God could have chosen to be born in a much nicer place, where more people could have heard about him and taken care of him. But no: God chose to be born in a rough and vulnerable place, among people who were outsiders and rabble-rousers. Call to mind the words his young mother said, when she learned that she would bear this child: he will bring down the mighty from their thrones and exalt the humble and meek. He will fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich empty away.

God chose to be born not among those who would politely wait their turn for the privileges they knew were theirs. God chose to be born among those who were hungry, and impatient, among people who took risks because they had nothing to lose and everything to gain. God chose to be born in a makeshift tent in an occupied zone, and his birth made those people wild with hope and joy -- hope that God is moving once again with a mighty hand, and joy that the revolution has begun.

This occupy movement began small 2000 years ago – began among the poor and the humble, and among people who knew God intended better things for them and for the world. The 1% of those days cared not a fig for them. Depending on how you divide up today’s world, all of us here could be considered among the 1%. But we are here tonight because we have heard the angels sing. “Good news,” they say. “Good news for all.” We are here tonight because in our hearts we are among the 99%, hopeful indeed that the world can be the bright and shining place God created it to be. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Hold on. Things are beginning to turn around.

Advent 3-B -- December 11, 2011
Isaiah 65: 17-25; Psalm 126
1 Thess. 5: 12-28; John 1: 6-8, 19-28

Apparently, the Syracuse Stage production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe tries to downplay the fact that the author, C.S. Lewis, wrote these rollicking good children’s books – The Chronicles of Narnia -- as both adventure stories AND as Christian allegories.

If you haven’t seen the play or any number of film versions, or read the books, I don’t think I’ll be spoiling the story to say that Aslan, the lion who is a figure, or representation, of Christ, is willing to die at the hand of the White Witch so that the life of one of the other characters is spared. This is to fulfill what the White Witch and Aslan call “the deep magic,” a spell, or incantation, or promise, written in to the essence of Narnia at its beginning. But Aslan, killed on a great stone table, comes back to life. It turns out that the Witch does not know of a deeper magic still, an older magic, that turns everything around:
Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation.
The death of Aslan, the innocent, causes the table to crack, and “death itself starts working backward.”
The promise of new life comes from the depths of that Deep Magic, comes from the stillness and darkness before the dawn of time.

Lewis got that idea of the Deep Magic from the Gospel of John, from the verses which come before the passage we read today. The words are familiar, and we’ll read them again during the Christmas season: 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John …

In the words of Aslan, John the Baptist comes from that time of the Deeper Magic, from the time before the creation of the world, from the beginning of the Word itself.

One way to think of Advent is as the time we remember that we still have time. It’s the time we remember the way the world was created to be. Things may have gone awry since that first creation, but God is promising to renew it all: God will create a new heavens and a new earth. The ancient city of Jerusalem will be a joy, and its people a delight.

This passage from Isaiah was written after the people of Israel had returned to Jerusalem. For generations, they had been punished by God and exiled to Babylon. They were punished for not following God’s commandments to live righteously, to care for the poor and stranger, to worship God alone. Then God forgave them, gave them another chance, let them go back to Jerusalem. But here was the challenge: were they going back to “the good old days,” with the kind of life choices that took them down the path to the way of living God did NOT like? Or this time, living in this new Jerusalem, did they realize that to live the good life God wanted them to live meant doing things a different way?

The prophet Isaiah came to people like us. Listen, he said to the people of Jerusalem who still remembered the hard times in Babylon, but were hoping things could get back to the way they used to be. Listen, he said. Two things: it is only God who creates, and in God’s own time. And, you, people of God, have to hold up your half of the bargain. Remember the commandments: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.

The prophet John the Baptist came to people like us. Listen, he said to the people of Jerusalem who were living under the hard times and oppression of the Roman Empire, an economic, political and social system where the decisions made in faraway places wreaked havoc in their daily lives. People who needed hope. People who had forgotten some of those essential commandments, to love God and to love neighbor as oneself. People living in darkness, tripping down crooked paths. Repent. Turn from those ways, for the kingdom of heaven is about to get here. You know what God wants you to do. You know how God wants you to live. Do it. Now is the time.

Advent is for two kinds of people. It’s for people who need to realize that God’s commandments include social justice – who haven’t quite worked out that loving God and loving neighbor are inseparable. Advent reminds those people that it’s time to get going in the good works department.
And Advent is for people who care deeply about justice – who know the world can and should be a better place – who devote their time and resources to doing good works – who hear these promises for a new heaven and a new earth and then wake up day after day in the same spot. Advent reminds those people that God alone creates, and that the new heavens and the new earth are on their way.

It’s the message from the Deep Magic from before the beginning of time. Repent, and get ready. Hold on, and hope. Things are about to turn around.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A new heavens and a new earth

Today is December 6, the Feast of St. Nicholas, patron saint of, among many good causes, children. The Advent calendar many of us have urges us today to think, pray and care for children -- to do something to improve their welfare.

St. Nicholas performed many wondrous deeds, including the one illustrated at the right. He heard of a poor family, who would soon be forced to sell their daughters into slavery, and he would come by at night and throw sacks of gold coins into the house, enough so that the family debts were paid and the girls were free.

This story must raise alarms for all children, the fear of being sent into forced separation from one's family. We who are adults hear another horrifying dimension to this alarm. Would these girls be sent not only into servitude, but into sexual slavery? The steady drumbeat of reports of world-wide human trafficking -- a polite way to say that women and children are sold into sexual slavery -- makes us long for more brave Nicholases to intervene and prevent these daily horrors.

We in Syracuse read in today's newspaper that a local center that works with abused children noted that among the people they served last year, 143 were under age 6. A local basketball coach, a friend to many in the community, is accused of hurting boys. Head coach Jim Boeheim, after an initial, and understandable, response in defense of his friend, learned, painfully, that such abuse is all too common. Boeheim's candor in revealing not only his remorse, but a change in heart, is commendable.

As public opinion rushes to the side of the victims -- and it is a long overdue and frequently too late "rush" -- I remember that many of the perpetrators were themselves abused as children.

St. Nicholas, who rushed to the rescue of those girls who were to be sold into sexual slavery, pray for those to whom no one rushed, no one saved, no one heard. Pray for those who grew up to hurt and damage others, as they themselves were hurt. Help us, we pray, to hear their cries of anger and pain before they hurt others; and help us, we pray, to repent and ask God's forgiveness when we have not intervened but only salve the wounds of those who cry now. 

Advent 2-B; December 4, 2011
Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85
2 Peter 3: 8-15a,18; Mark 1:1-8

We wait for a new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

I’m going to take a risk here, to talk about something we all may not share: parenthood. I’m hoping, though, that even if you are not a mother or a father, that you can resonate with the hopes I had – that I think many parents have – at the birth of their children.

The hopes I had were hopes that the world my child would grow up in would be a wonderful place. I hoped my child would not be terrified by war, famine or disaster. I hoped my child could run and play in green fields and breathe clean air. I hoped for a world where there was enough of everything to go around. On a more mundane level, I hoped for a world free from junk food and commercial television. Whatever I hoped for – and I imagine you have a list of your own hopes, as well – it was a version of the new heavens and the new earth. And in a way, the experience of life now, in the world as it is, is the experience of the exile. With my hopes for that new heavens and that new earth, living in this earth seems kind of like a displacement. There is a loss, when life does not turn out the way I thought it would.

The prophet Isaiah was speaking to people in exile – the people of Israel living in captivity in Babylon. How could they worship God in that foreign land? How could they know who they were as God’s people when the Babylonian powers defined them as slaves, as captives, as homeless, as poor, as non-citizens, as “less than”? So look at what the prophet Isaiah says to these displaced, grieving persons. The prophet Isaiah speaks God’s words of comfort to them in the middle of their deep dis-comfort. In their current experience of wilderness, God reminds them of their first highway in the wilderness, when God led them out of Egypt into the Promised Land, the journey of God’s chosen people. God agrees with them that the reality of life may not change – “the people are grass, the grass withers, the flower fades” – but God brings something more: a herald of hope. The exiles are defined not by the Babylonians who bad-mouth them, but by God who stands up for them, God who rules with a mighty arm – but who then embraces them like a tender shepherd.

What can we learn from these people in their long-ago exile? We who may feel a little displaced and out of step in the world we live in?

We can know that this ragged space of our lives is where God meets us. Here. Now. The world may not make sense at times, but that craziness does not define us; God does.

Because we know we are God’s, we can resist the things that make us mad, things that we know are out of whack, things that are unjust and cruel and crazy.

Because we know we are God’s and we know that God meets us here, in this place, we know that whatever we do to make this world a better place, the place we know God would want it to be, will not be in vain. Jeremiah, the other prophet of Israel’s exile, put it this way: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile … for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Here. Now. In this world that does not live up to our expectations. In this place where we feel out of place. This is where God speaks to us, and this is where God expects us to flourish.

When Mark the gospeller told this story of John the Baptist, he knew these themes would resonate with his audience. He knew that they would understand what it meant to be called by God out of the wilderness. He knew they would be familiar with the strange messages prophets would bring. He knew they were people who felt out of place in their own world, people who knew the world was out of whack and unjust, people longing for a new heavens and a new earth. John the Baptist came out of the wilderness to people who felt exiled in their own countryside and said, like Isaiah, Here is your God!

What do we make of John the Baptist? Does that wilderness from which he hails make any sense to us today? I think John’s message, which is unsettling and disconcerting, may not make sense to people who are satisfied with the status quo of this world. It may not be a message of hope to people who like the world the way it is. But to those of us who have higher hopes, who seek a new heavens and a new earth, this stranger with his rough clothes and his peculiar diet, brings very good news indeed.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

You are not lacking in anything

Advent 1 B November 27, 2011 Isaiah 64:1-9; Ps. 80
1 Cor 1:3-9; Mark 1.3:24-37
There were people who had a wonderful time this Thanksgiving weekend. People who connected with loving family and friends, people who heard wonderful stories, people who greeted long-lost friends. There were people who heard difficult news this Thanksgiving weekend, heart-breaking news, earth-shaking news, people for whom family and friends were more important than ever. There were people who were lonely, people who were over-worked, people who did not have enough to eat. There were people who started arguments at the dinner table, and people who worked their best to prevent any discord. It was a Thanksgiving weekend of extraordinary weather, and ordinary grace.

There is a disconnect, isn’t there, between all that goes on over Thanksgiving weekend, and what scripture we read, and hymns we sing, on this first Sunday of Advent. We read lessons about the end of time, of God’s anger and human failing, of a darkened heaven and falling stars, and urgent messages to keep alert.

Amid all the extraordinary moments, and ordinary grace, the family tensions and the not-quite-fulfilled expectations, we get this message that puts us a bit on edge: keep alert. You do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey …

We are embarking on a year of reading how the Gospel of Mark interprets the life and ministry of Jesus. Mark is often described as a stark gospel – it is certainly the shortest one. Mark is not interested in how Jesus was born – no stories of angels or shepherds, no miraculous birth, no wise men from the east. Like today’s reading, there is a sense of urgency to all of Mark’s gospel. Mark urges all of us to take this journey, to keep awake and alert to what may be ahead.

Mark’s urgent concern for us has to do with following Jesus. We who follow Jesus are “on the way.” Today we are embarking on this journey, on the way, following Jesus, travelling through a sacred landscape where we will encounter signs and wonders, where we will run up against opposition and obstacles.

The advantage of a four-day holiday weekend is that it takes us out of our normal routine enough to have a minute, at least, to reflect. To stop and think. To give thanks for our lives when they are going well, for our blessings, for those who love us, and who let us love them. Are we “on the way,” however we have been able to understand the pull that Jesus exerts on our lives? Or are we off the path, distracted by things that are not important? Are we alert, or have we fallen asleep?

The master in today’s story, like the King in last week’s, would not be interested in the frenzy of shopping on “Black Friday,” but he would likely be interested the fear and tension that drives people to “shop ‘til they drop,” to open their stores at all hours of the day and night, to pronounce breathless reports on consumer spending like all of our lives depended on what happened this weekend at Toys’R’Us or Wal-Mart or Neiman-Marcus. The master in today’s story, like the King in last week’s, would be grateful for all the turkeys delivered to needy people this week, but wonder what we were doing with our money during those other 51 weeks, and why we put up with a society that distributes its resources in such a lop-sided fashion. Be awake, the master says. Keep alert. What is going on here? What are the signs of our times, that we can interpret as well as gardeners can interpret the coming spring from the shoots of the fig leaves? What do we see around us, that God wants us to pay attention to?

We are about to rush into the work-week, I know, as well as into the frenzy of our holiday season. But today, this afternoon, this evening, take stock, one more time. What has God called you to pay attention to during this weekend’s respite from everyday life? What moments of ordinary grace, or extraordinary clarity, lead you to know what it means to follow Jesus “on the way?” How can you keep alert to those signs, during these days ahead, to know what is distracting you, pulling you off from the path, away from the journey?

The season of Advent is the church’s ancient custom to remind us that all around us are the signs of God’s goodness, God’s reign, God’s intention for how we live our lives as individuals and as a whole society. The signs may be as small as the shoots of tiny leaves, or as large as a billboard along the highway. Those signs are in the blessings of our lives, as well as in the heartbreaks. Advent reminds us: you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you await the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.

You are not lacking in anything. The signs are all around us. Keep awake.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The King comes down off the throne

Proper 29 A; November 20, 2011
Ezekiel 34:11-17; Ps. 100 
Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

Spoiler alert: close your ears if you have NOT read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, because I’m going to tell you the ending. The king returns. The righteous ruler is placed up on the throne. Justice is restored. Power joins with mercy. The meek – or at least the beavers, nymphs, satyrs and other creatures, led by four sturdy, British children – inherit Narnia, the kingdom prepared for them by Aslan.

Spoiler alert again. C. S. Lewis’ friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, also writing in the terrible, war-torn years of the 20th century, ends The Lord of the Rings in the same way. The king returns. The righteous ruler is placed upon the throne. Justice is restored. Power joins with mercy. The meek – this time a Rainbow coalition of elves, dwarfs and swarthy men led by four sturdy, British hobbits – inherit Middle Earth, the kingdom prepared for them by Gandalf.

The British have built this longing for the return of the righteous king into their civic life. When the Tudors came to the throne in the late middle ages, they created a back story to give their ascent to the throne some legitimacy. The Tudors recreated the legend of Arthur, the true king of all the Britons, whose Round Table of equality and chivalry brought order to violent warlords. Even to this day the British monarchs vow to step aside if Arthur awakens from his slumber in Avalon and returns to rule England’s green and pleasant land.

We can chuckle at the quaint notion of “the return of the king.” After all, we Americans overthrew the king in 1776, dethroned in place of democracy. And yes, of course, Britain is a democracy, too – and in fact, democracies do a much better job than monarchies at maintaining order and distributing justice.

But when times are bad, social conditions unsettled and the way to a prosperous future unclear, do not these stories of a righteous king coming to settle account appeal to our deep longings? Maybe we can learn something from them, not to recreate a past that perhaps was not ideal, but how we can look to the future – how we can use our lessons from scripture – of Ezekiel’s description of the Good Shepherd-the Good Ruler, and of Matthew’s description of judgment day as righteous king coming to settle accounts.

How about another story? Ireland, at the turn of the 5th century, was a flourishing pagan culture. Patrick, who had lived there for some time as a slave, heard a call from God to evangelize the Irish. It was a culture governed by kings who were the representatives of the gods, who had to be appeased through blood sacrifice to bring about fertility and prosperity. Patrick did many things in his mission to the Irish, but this one point has relevance here: he replaced their warrior kings with “the high king of heaven,” their angry and fickle gods with a “God they could depend on.” Patrick used the image of the king bringing order to society not in a backward-looking, nostalgic way, but with a bright vision of a new society: a society of peacefulness, of new relationships, of a God who brought life from death.

Move ahead to the end of the 19th century, to Episcopal churches in cities like Chicago, New York, Boston, Philadelphia. It is the height of the industrial revolution, and suffering among the working classes is widespread, without any of the safeguards such as child labor laws, a 40-hour-work-week, health and safety standards. Many Christians are moved to alleviate this suffering, inspired by the reading of passages like today’s Gospel. Among the boldest leaders in this “social gospel” movement are Episcopal clergy and parishes. People at the time noted the paradox of the elite, aristocratic Episcopal Church at the forefront of movement of solidarity with the poor. Oddly enough, it is Episcopalians’ understanding of “kingship,” of a society guided and led by the church, that inspired their activism. The social gospel took what the righteous king would do and democratized it, advocated the spreading-out of power and privilege across society. They took this powerful image from the past – a righteous king restoring order during a time of social upheaval -- and adapted it for movement into the future.

Both lessons from Ezekiel and Matthew overthrow our traditional understanding of the regal monarch, the warrior, “the king.” Kings were to be the shepherds of Israel, feeding the hungry, binding the broken, gathering the lost. Ezekiel denounces those made themselves fat at the expense of the people they were there to serve. The king in Matthew comes down entirely from his throne, not just to help but to identify completely with the poorest and most desperate of society. By loving the stranger and the outcast, we indeed love the king; we love God.

The way these lessons take old images and turn them around for new, challenging times can be helpful to us Christians in this time of social dislocation. We may have to describe Christ the King in words from the past, using the old monarchical words and images that really don’t work anymore. But the reality they point us to is one very different indeed: it is the reality of God’s justice, where all the poor and neglected are welcomed, where their suffering is even part of God’s own self. This high king of heaven is indeed a God we can depend on -- not a benevolent despot who “knows what is good for us;” but a God who became one of us, and who took all of human nature into the divine.

We enter Advent next week with these “marching orders” of engagement, sacrificial giving, solidarity and hope. “The king shall come when morning dawns, and light triumphant breaks,” we will sing in the hymn at the end of the service. “and let the endless bliss begin, by weary saints foretold, when right shall triumph over wrong, and truth shall be extolled.”

How wonderful it is, even in these darks days, with no human king on the horizon, no Aslan getting ready to roar, no Gandalf on the ridge with armies of thousands behind him to slay the wicked orcs, no Arthur coming back from Avalon – how wonderful it is that we have been given the words to hope for something real.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Encourage each other, build each other up, wake up, and live in the light of God

Proper 28 A; November 13, 2011
Judges 4:1-7; Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

Times are bad.

Times are bad in ancient Israel, the Book of Judges tells us. The people are living in the Promised Land, delivered there by Moses and Joshua, brought there by God, but not living up to their side of the promise. They can’t get it together. Enemies are attacking. Leaders falter and fail. The people live in hardship and difficulty.
Times are bad these days, too, even for us living in our own nation blessed with abundant resources – our own “Promised Land.” In this global economy we fear that bad decisions in Greece and Italy will damage us, too. People are losing jobs, or are under-employed, or find themselves working more hours for less pay. Student loan debt is astronomical, accompanied by doubts that recent graduates will ever have those full-time, fulfilling careers that their parents imagined for them back in kindergarten days. Whose fault is all this mess? Alas, we can’t seem to get any consensus on that. Today’s psalm sounds like a chant – or is it a scream? -- from the Occupy Wall Street movement:

Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy, *
for we have had more than enough of contempt,
Too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, *
and of the derision of the proud.

Paul does not have to remind the people in Thessalonica that times are bad. “You do not need to have anything written to you,” he writes. The people in Thessalonica know the precariousness of existence, how they delude themselves that they live in peace and security, when the all-too-real fear is of sudden destruction, of a thief in the night, of no escape. The people of Thessalonica know that the world they live in is dark indeed.
So what do we make of this parable from the 25th chapter of Matthew? This strange and difficult parable where God seems to be playing the part of a cruel and capricious tyrant, seemingly as unforgiving of poor financial management as any banker coming down hard on someone who cannot pay her mortgage?
As we try to make sense of this complicated and weird story, let us remember that the gospels, although accounts of the life of Jesus, were written down by people some time after Jesus’ death and resurrection. They were written down by people living in the joy and knowledge and reality of Easter – they are people of the resurrection, for sure. But they were living in bad times. The community who put together the Gospel of Matthew were city dwellers, probably from Antioch, a densely populated city, full of poor people; a cosmopolitan and diverse city, full of people from across the known world of the Roman Empire – people of different cultures and languages, people crowded into a city where there is not enough good housing, nor enough good work to keep food on the table. The way the world works does NOT work for them. The economic and social rules ensure that they will be – always – losers. Why, then, do they still believe in Jesus? In the resurrection? In the Good News? Why do the people Paul writes to in Thessalonica, whom he rightly describes as knowing they have darkness all around them, believe him when he calls them children of the light, children of the day, people who are encouraged and hopeful and alert?

The Bible – which our opening prayer instructs us to hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest -- is written by and for people for whom times are as bad as can be imagined; why, then, are they people of hope?
The Bible is written by and for people who know that if they play the game by the rules the world sets down, they will lose, big time. That’s what this strange parable is about. The slaves do the bidding of the master; they are to invest his money and make a profit. Some of the slaves are better investors than others; one is extraordinarily prudent, and buries the money, keeping it just safe enough to return it to the master in tact. This cautious slave even has the courage to confront the master, to call out this cruel system for the harsh and fear-mongering system it is. Yet the prudent slave, the one we think did safe thing with the master’s money, the one who took no risks and lost nothing, is called worthless and thrown into the outer darkness. What did the prudent slave forget? What did the prudent slave do wrong?

The prudent slave believed the world. The prudent slave believed he had to hide the money, to hoard it in darkness. The prudent slave believed there was no risk worth taking with something as valuable as the master’s money, that the best he could do was come out even. The prudent slave followed the world’s assumptions of scarcity and fear. The prudent slave didn’t get the memo that God was the God of abundance, wild, profligate and overflowing abundance.
Sometimes I wonder if we do not understand the urgency of the 25th chapter of Matthew -- if we think we’ve gotten ahead because we’ve played by all the rules -- if we think we live comfortable lives because we’re lucky -- if we cannot hear the crisis in other people’s voices, or see the worry in other people’s eyes – sometimes I wonder if living lives of moderate comfort means that we will not “get” the resurrection. That we will think that all Advent is about is getting ready for Christmas, for the birth of a beloved baby.

Advent is about getting ourselves ready for a new way of living, a way of living that is not characterized by prudence, or fear, or worry, or one-upsmanship. Even St. Paul, living on the edge of the end of time, reminds us: It’s never too late -- to encourage each other, to build each other up, to wake up, and live in the light of God.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Two sermons: Seats and Saints

All Saints Sunday; Nov. 6, 2011
Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34
1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

All Saints is not about just ONE saint. It’s about all of them, all around us, the communion of saints.

All Saints is not just about the fancy ones, the ones with the BIG LETTER names. It’s about the ordinary ones, the ones who wiped brows, who cooked meals, who built houses, who fished and farmed, who followed Jesus, who prayed out loud, who prayed in silence.

All Saints is not just about those who died glorious deaths. It’s about people who died in terrible pain, and people who died in their sleep. It’s about people who died not knowing what hit them, about people we miss terribly, terribly, because they were such a part of our lives. It’s about people who died without thinking about themselves, because they were so focused on who they had to save, people who walked in front of bullets, people who ran into burning buildings to rescue others.

All Saints is not just about people who lived comfortable lives. It’s is about the people who were generous to a fault. It’s about people who gave money to feed the poor, to build homes for people who would otherwise have nowhere to live, to care for people with shattered lives and broken hearts. It’s about the people who gave money to every bum who asked for a handout, and it’s about the people who lived their whole lives disguised as bums, but underneath their messy exteriors, no one but God knew they were saints.

All Saints is not just about people who never took risks, who walked the straight and narrow. It’s about people who dared to climb mountains and sail seas, people who would never take no for an answer when it came to something they knew God was calling them to do. It’s about people who dared to tell the world that God loved them, and who went to far away places to do that.

All Saints is not just about those who were brave. It’s about those who endured terrible pain and loss, who had everything taken away from them by war or famine or flood or fire. It’s about those whose parents abandoned them, and whose children left them, but who came to know that God was with them through it all, until in the end, God welcomed them home.

All Saints is not just about them, the famous ones, the people we have heard about who did extraordinary things. All Saints is about people we know, who have been saints to us in our lives, who have shown us what it means when we say, “God loves us,” who have shown us what it means to love one’s neighbor, because we have been the neighbors who have been loved.
For these, and all the saints, we give thanks.

Proper 26-A     October 30, 2011
Joshua 3:7-17; Psalm 107:1-7,33-37
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12

Every church (I learned in confirmation class) contains a cathedra, the special chair for the bishop when he (in those days always a “he”) would visit the parish. Cathedral churches, especially the big ones, which are the bishops’ churches, have very grand and big chairs. If any of you have been to Canterbury Cathedral, you may remember, high up, beyond the choir, the Chair of St. Augustine, the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Like Moses’ seat, from these chairs our religious authorities pronounce on the law and dispense orders. An “authority” is an author, the one in whom a text – in this case, the law – originates. Whoever sat in Moses’ seat would acknowledge that it was the law handed down to Moses that he would pronounce. He sat there on Moses’ authority, just as the various archbishops who sit in Canterbury today do so following the authority of that first one, Augustine, who came to England in the year 597.

St. David’s, you will notice, has no permanent cathedra. A chair like this, or any other, is brought out when the bishop comes. This is a house of worship, then, without a Moses’ seat, a church in which the Word of God emanates from … where?

I imagine that within this congregation there are many different understandings of the authority that would be granted to someone who would sit in this seat, ranging from at least grudging obedience to outright skepticism. Like other Americans, we would demand that our authorities, religious and civic, are as good as their words – that they practice what they preach. Aren’t we furious when we find out someone has been saying one thing, but doing another? Do we not find something hollow in the phrase, “Do what I say; not what I do?”

There are times, however, when even the words of these authorities are out of joint, when our outrage is directed not at their two-faced hypocrisy, but at the very words they utter – when the injustice is in the words as well as the deeds.

This is the case with Jesus, and the charges he levels against the Pharisees in today’s gospel. Moses’s seat indeed contains all the authority God gave Moses, but the ones Jesus saw sitting in it had twisted that law so that it was impossible for the ordinary, faithful Jew to fulfill. Biblical scholars tell us that

… the Pharisees imposed on the people, "a myriad of rules, standards, and directives, and the whole process easily degenerated into moral bean counting. The procedures were so cumbersome that no human being could possibly accomplish them; no one could ever hope to keep the full weight of all these laws and carry the heavy freight of this ethical load, not even the scribes and the Pharisees themselves."[i]

Jesus is furious at the religious “fashion statements” these people wear, so obviously more concerned with their outward appearance than their inward righteousness. The garments and fringes and little torah scrolls attached to their heads were to remind them of the duty and joy of obedience to the law, to be aids to prayer and devotion. Jesus was outraged that these emblems of status and privilege were paid for by taxes which crippled the poor people who lived in the cities and in the countryside.

Where you sit, of course, determines where you stand. Other scholars remind us that the Pharisees viewed their special garments and special seat as “the focal point for the community. … Pharisees were visible for the faithful and the Roman rulers who needed a contact with their subjects.”[ii] That was an argument, I think, which would have carried no weight with Jesus. For Jesus, the measure was their following of the law, not their twisted pronouncing of it. Did they put God above all other rulers – above other gods, fashionable gods, even Roman rulers? Did they love their neighbors – especially the poor, the vulnerable, the hungry, the displaced – as much as they loved themselves?

Measuring the legitimacy of authorities is an age-old challenge, and, once again, where you sit determines where you stand. There are rulers we can hold accountable, who will remember, when prodded, the just law that put them in that seat in the first place. Think of the triumphs of the civil rights movement, the voting rights act, the laws guaranteeing fair housing and employment, equal protection under the law. Today we would all agree that is the law, but it took many years of prodding those who, from where they sat, “separate but equal” was doing them just fine.

The “Occupy Wall Street”ers seem to be finding our whole economic system lacking in justice and equity. Many explain what they are doing with Biblical language: religious leaders are to be “repairers of the breach,” one seminary president said, citing the prophet Isaiah. “… the question is how can we come together, Wall Street and Main Street, to come up with solutions that are going to work for all of us?”[iii] Another protester, more of a “man on the street” than a lofty theologian, said he and other protesters “would like to see a little more economic justice or social justice–Jesus stuff–as far as feeding the poor, health care for the sick.”[iv]

Where we sit determines where we stand. We are a parish church without a cathedra. Do we see the breaches which need repairing, and can we imagine some solutions to these larger social problems that are driving everyone mad? Do we do the “Jesus stuff,” the feeding, the caring, the housing, the welcoming? Surely we don’t need someone in a fancy chair just to tell us that.

[i] Thomas Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion, quoted in Kathryn Matthews Huey,
[iii] Katharine Henderson, president of Auburn Theological Seminary, quoted in
[iv] Bold Faith Type, the blog for the advocacy group “Faith in Public Life,”

Thursday, November 3, 2011

God, Mammon and the Archbishop of Canterbury

The “Occupy Wall Street” movement generates heat, light and more than a little anxiety in the financial capitals of the world. In some cities, the church is forced to be involved – by virtue of location, or by virtue of how much capital those churches themselves may own. Here in the U.S., Trinity Episcopal Church, at the head of Wall Street, has opened its community center, Charlotte’s Place, for rest, revitalization and hospitality for those involved in the occupation of Zuccotti Park. Here is a link to the statement of the Rec. Dr. James Cooper, Trinity’s Rector, on how that church deals with the movement on their doorsteps, and to sermons and statements from other clergy and staff of Trinity Church.
In London, one of Anglicanism’s other major houses of worship, St. Paul’s Cathedral, found it more difficult to decide to embrace or to reject the Occupy London movement. For some, the protestors came too close; for others, the church was not close enough. Two of St. Paul’s clergy, a canon and the dean, resigned over whether the cathedral should join with the City of London to take legal action to remove the occupiers.

This week, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote about this crisis at the confluence of the spiritual and financial center of London. Archbishop Williams’ theological writings have frequently addressed social and economic issues. In this case, he looked at both sides of the economic and political divide marked by the Occupy movement, and noted, as others have, that the movement strikes a chord with many. He mentioned “a widespread and deep exasperation with the financial establishment” and “a powerful sense around – fair or not – of a whole society paying for the errors and irresponsibility of bankers.”

If you read Rowan Williams essay in The Financial Times, you will see that he is well versed in economics, making the various options and challenges facing the U.K. and the world economy understandable. As he says, these “do not amount to a simplistic call for the end of capitalism, but they are far more than a general expression of discontent.” He mentions the Roman Catholic Church’s recent statement on the imperatives for Christians to engage in economic and social justice. He concludes that the Church Universal is indeed the proper place for these discussions to take place, that we “have a proper interest in the ethics of the financial world and in the question of whether our financial practices serve those who need to be served – or have simply become idols that themselves demand uncritical service.”

Trinity Church, Wall Street – St. Paul’s Cathedral, London – St. David’s, DeWitt: all of us, in churches everywhere, are closer than we think, or that maybe we want to be, from the challenges posed by the Occupy movement. And it is within each of these churches, equipped as we are with scripture as our basis, tradition as our guide, and reason as our tool, that we can come to grips with what God wants us to do with the abundance we have received.

Monday, October 24, 2011


Proper 25-A; October 23, 2011
Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

We baby boomers – born between 1946 and 1964 – are used to seeing ourselves at the center of the universe – well, of the marketing universe that caters to our desires. We are the great bulge, moving from babyhood to elementary school to fast times at Ridgemont High. We went to college in a tie-dyed, denim-clad group, entered the workforce in our Oxford button-downs at the same time – and are now, in our relaxed khakis and comfy sweaters, entering our 60s. We read a passage like this one, from Deuteronomy, with new eyes – eyes perhaps not as clear as those of Moses:

Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor was not abated.

That sounds good to me. I’m not even half-way there!

Moses is astounding, not only for his long-lived clarity of vision, but for his single-mindedness. Once he took on God’s plan to move the people of Israel out of Egypt and to the Promised Land, that was all he did. His eyes were on the prize, and he kept going, despite all the setbacks that whining people and wilderness roads put in his path.

Commendable as that is, the culture we live in seems to pull us in another direction – or rather, far too many directions at once. Have you seen that commercial about the man who has forgotten that it’s his wedding anniversary? His wife calls up, while he is focused on some project at his desk, and all of a sudden, through the magic of this particular cell phone, he can simultaneously reassure his wife that he has NOT forgotten their date, make a reservation at their favorite restaurant and have flowers delivered at their home, all at the same time. But we don’t see this couple at dinner. Is the husband frantically finishing his work project from the restaurant table, texting while his wife is looking at the menu, e-mailing a document while she goes to the ladies room, pretending to calculate the tip while he is really tweaking a spreadsheet?

I’m enough of a baby boomer to be shocked! shocked! that college students aren’t necessarily taking notes on their laptops connected to the internet in their lecture halls – but also to agree that it is kind of handy just to send that one more text from my phone while I am sitting at a red light on Genesee Street. Sitting in the driver’s seat, of course.

Multi-tasking and its discontents are in the air we breathe.

Today’s gospel is for us:

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"

That question cuts through all the noise, doesn’t it? In the face of all that is around us, Teacher, all the confusion and crashing that affects even us little people here, what does God want us to do?

The Gospels present us with the picture of a changing world. The old understanding of faith in God – follow all the many laws, listen to the authorities like scribes and Pharisees – the ones who symbolically sat in Moses’ seat – is being challenged by this one particular teacher, this Jesus, who seems to embody in his person all the hope and good news and promise of God, the God who has been made known through the law and the prophets. Whom do we follow? We can hear the concern in the voices of the people: if we follow Jesus, do we have to abandon everything we have known about God up to now?

From the midst of all these questions and confusions and options and interpretations, Jesus breaks through with remarkable simplicity:

"`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

What Jesus is saying is, Keep your faith where it has always been: with God. As he spars with those religious leaders trying to entrap him into making some big mistake, he makes it clear that his faith is with God, and with the essentials that God has always, always, always been trying to get across to us. This is the big thing that everything hangs from. This is the start, the first, the banner headline screaming across the top of the newspaper: Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. Everything starts with this. Anything else is distraction, multi-tasking with no result, mere interruptions that take us away from giving ourselves fully to the God who loves us and wants us to love back, and wants us to love all these other people whom God loves, too. In this ever-widening circle of care and concern lies our treasure, our heart, our true home.
Yesterday, when we were raking the yard and cleaning up the building, we found this: a robin’s nest, a work that took extraordinary focus, determination and clarity of purpose. It is an astounding creation, hard as concrete yet light as a feather. The bird knows just what nest works for those eggs and those babies. All the grass and twigs and paper and I don’t even know what in the world comes down to just this one, perfect nest.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. You, too, can learn the art of single-tasking.