Thursday, September 29, 2011

Is this a trick question?

Proper 21 A    Sept. 25, 2011
Exodus 17:1-7
Ps. 78:1-4, 12-16
Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

What do you think?

I think it would be kind of shocking to be in a group with Jesus and have him throw that question out. I would be so afraid he was trying to trick me! Wasn’t that the way that fictional law school professor did it in the old movie, The Paper Chase? A man had two sons; which did the will of the father? How can you win, answering a question like that?

In the peasant economy of Jesus’ day, this question would be nearly impossible to answer. Oh, we know how Matthew wants us to answer: the first son did the will of the father. Even though he snubbed the father and refused, he did then pitch in and do the work. The second was only a surface do-gooder; he really turned out to be a slacker, a mall rat, a fair-weather son.

In the peasant economy of Jesus’ day, neither son did the will of the father totally, but both sons came through with something. In that peasant economy, the survival of the family was, of course, important, but almost as important – almost impossible to separate from survival – was the honor of the family. And so, the first son shamed his father, by initially refusing to go work, although his later change of heart helped the family survive. And the second son honored the father by his words, but then of course, undermined the family’s survival by not getting the work done.
The question then is not which son would the father choose, but with which son would the father be less angry? This parable is a shock to the economy of honor and shame, for the one who appears to honor the family is really on the outside; the one who appears to shame the family is the one who does the work to support it.

The vineyard, is of course, the kingdom of God, and Jesus tells this parable to upset his hearers. The obviously righteous give lip service to what God wants – what God has always wanted – and the slightly seedy and disreputable are the ones who get it. It’s a hard lesson to hear.

Now Jesus does not say that that slick-tongued slacker son won’t get into the kingdom of heaven; he just says that the ones we least expect will get there first. There is plenty of work to do in this vineyard, and really, really, God has a job for all of us, even those of us who are kind of whiny and reluctant and maybe have to be hit over the head with a 2 by 4 before we get it that we, too, have a job to do. God calls all of us to work in the vineyard today.

This lesson makes it obvious, doesn’t it? It’s God’s vineyard, God’s world, and we are stewards of all the gifts God has given us. The post-communion prayer we’ll use for the next few weeks puts it, I think, very well. It starts out with thanking God, once again, for all God has given us. Then it reinforces our marching orders, spells out just what is involved in this work in the vineyard that God has called us to do:

Take us out to live as changed people,
because we have shared the living bread and cannot remain the same.

There is some cost, isn’t there, to this working in the vineyard. We are given bountiful gifts, but God expects something from us.

Ask much of us, expect much from us, enable much by us, encourage many through us.
So, Lord, may we live to your glory, as inhabitants of earth, and citizens of the commonwealth of heaven.

“Commonwealth” is a word out of the 17th century, a word that Puritans used to describe the world that God had put into their care. They understood that word quite literally: the world is the common wealth for all God’s people. We hold all this wealth, this well-being, this welfare, in common, which is what it means to be stewards. We steward this wealth, which is God’s, which we hold in trust, in common, for all of God’s people. For all of God’s creation.

Think of all the things of which we – you – are stewards: our church home, your family home, the town, village, city or county in which you live.

What does it mean, then, to do the will of God in all of these places? With these people, some of whom are slick-tongued slackers and some of whom look like they don’t belong? What does God ask us to do here? What do we give? How are we changed?

It doesn’t matter who gets in first. Only God decides that; there is really no dress code that we can figure out.

What matters is that we are all here.

What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” What would be your answer?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Shirkers get paid what they are worth

Proper 20-A; Sept. 18, 2011
Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105
Philippians 1:21-20; Matthew 20:1-16

Some of us here are old enough to remember when Jimmy Carter was president. Among the many things that Carter said that no one seemed to like was this comment about a woman on public assistance complaining that she was not getting something due her: “Life is not fair,” Carter said. The press went ballistic. Here was this Baptist, famous for being a born-again Christian, and he says to a poor woman, “Life is not fair.”

The Israelites, wandering in the wilderness, were convinced that life was not fair. Oh, they longed for the fleshpots of Egypt – captivity was better, thought some, than this wandering, lost and hungry, in the desert. They were beginning to doubt that Moses could come through on the promise from God, that he would lead these people to the Promised Land. If we had it bad before, we have it worse now; life is not fair.

So what does God do with these grumblers, these whiners who say life is not fair? God gives them bread – not just a fair portion of bread, but more bread than they can eat. More bread than they deserve. Manna from heaven. Bread upon bread upon bread; life is not fair.

That’s what Jesus is saying in this parable of the workers in the vineyard. Well, maybe he’s saying, Life is partly fair. The workers who labored all day get their full wages. That’s fair. The workers who only put in an hour get a full day’s wages, too. That’s not fair. Life is not fair, but sometimes you get more than you should.
There are a couple ways to look at this parable. The workers in the vineyard live on the bottom rung of the social ladder. Their daily wage was just enough to feed and shelter their families for one day. Jesus is not implying that the landowner is paying his workers extravagantly. He is, however, generous and merciful to all these poor workers, even those who have not put in a full day’s work. Even they will get enough to live on. In the kingdom of heaven, therefore, everyone will get enough. There are no distinctions based on how much you earn; everyone who hears the call to go to the vineyard gets what each deserves, which is, enough.

Now look at this parable in its original context. Many people – Jewish leaders, Pharisees – criticized Jesus for spending time and eating with disreputable sinners. Jesus is making a case for his behavior against the pious who condemned him. If God (the landowner) is merciful to the poor, then I am just doing what God would do. Are you envious because I – because God – is generous? You have enough to meet your needs; why should I not care about these poor?

Either way, we get to the same place. In the kingdom of heaven, a different economic system operates. There is always enough to go around. You can’t get ahead, not matter how hard you work or how skilled you are. Your degree or your skill or your work experience don’t matter; in the kingdom of heaven, life is not fair.

I find it hard to live by these far out kingdom of heaven rules. For several years now we have had a few little sayings, printed nicely, framed and posted around the house, in hopes of inspiring our children to more responsible behavior. “Boredom is a matter of choice, not circumstance.” And “Shirkers get paid what they are worth.” These moral messages did not sink in very deeply with my children, who continue to scatter candy wrappers around, not pick up their dirty dishes, slack off on their homework and expect me to fund their excursions to some place where they can have fun! It sounds like they think they’re already in the kingdom of heaven, and I don’t think they’ve earned it! Why, the next time they complain about being hungry, God might just drop down some manna from heaven, just when I was trying to teach them a lesson about duty and responsibility!
If the kingdom of heaven is not fair, it is just, at least as God defines justice. God’s justice is merciful, abundant, generous, with compassion especially for those who do not appear to deserve it. Those of us who have more than we need don’t always like to hear God’s version of who should get what and how much is “enough.”

On the other hand, perhaps the “work” that is needed in the vineyard of the Lord has nothing to do anyway with what we think is important. Perhaps we are not the good “do-bees” we think we are after all. Perhaps the work Jesus wants us to do mirrors his behavior – his compassion, his mercy, forgiveness. Perhaps those things we think are important just don’t matter to Jesus, and by those standards, we are the shirkers. We are those lazy workers who come in at the end of the day, the ones who really have not put in our time laboring in the fields of the Lord. If we look at it from that point of view, God is being very generous to us who have not done our part. God is not fair.

These parables of the kingdom turn the world upside down. They offer a counter-cultural standard to what our world says is important. Shirkers do get paid what they are worth, but in the kingdom, they are worth very much indeed.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Forgiveness releases us

Proper 19 A     Sept. 11, 2011
Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114
Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

It was very hard NOT to be in New York on September 11, ten years ago. That bright, blue morning, I was getting ready to welcome new students to Northwestern University. That day we were to train the new dormitory staff in how to deal with the diverse spectrum of religious backgrounds they would encounter among their students.

Like most everyone else that day, I gathered with close friends. We watched in stunned silence as smoke bellowed and the unthinkable happened as buildings collapsed. As close as I got to caring for someone worried if a loved one had died was with a business school student from Hong Kong, whose brother worked at the World Trade Center. She finally spoke to him on the phone. A church friend, I later learned, panicked until he heard that his brother, who worked in the Pentagon, was safe.

Over the next day or so, I talked with close friends whose apartment overlooks the Hudson River. Their New Jersey balcony provided a front row seat. Someone in their building didn’t leave his apartment for months. Our friends, both clergy, became emergency responders, bringing water and sandwiches to rescue workers who were even the next day beginning to gather at St. Paul’s Chapel for rest and respite. Months later, we also paid a pilgrimage to that place, on a warm, November evening when we could still smell the fires and watch the trucks carry away massive steel beams.

Everyone one of us has an association, a memory, a friend who was there. Some of you went to help, others know people who died.

How do we remember that traumatic time?

How do we reconcile those memories and feelings with the demands of today’s Gospel? A pointed and even harsh parable of the cost of NOT forgiving those who have done us harm? “How often should I forgive, Lord?” Peter asks Jesus. “As many as seven time?” “Not seven but seventy-seven,” Jesus replies. On the face of it, this is an impossible demand. Impossible.

After the trauma of September 11, came September 12, which many people are remembering this year, too – remembering the time when people all over the world came together in compassion and solidarity. President Bush embraced Muslims, people hung flags, prayed prayers, held strangers and loved ones tight. But the promised of a “new world compassion” was quickly overshadowed by the drumbeat of war. This year, I read, the speakers’ lists at the big memorial events are omitting clergy, or omitting someone’s version of the “right” clergy. “9/11 was this moment that we came together, and it lasted about three-and-a-half minutes,” said religion scholar Alan Wolfe. “The country went from a brief moment of something like unity, to complete Balkanization, and now we’re seeing it in religion and in politics, like in everything else.”[i]

How do we reconcile the horrible effects of global terrorism and war with today’s reading from Exodus, where God acts as the Israelites’ field marshal and the Egyptians are drowned in the sea?

Is the song of triumph over the death of enemies really the song God would have us sing? Centuries ago, the rabbis wrestled with this troubling thought, and told a story about angels watching as the Egyptians drowned. They “wished to utter song before the Holy One,” the rabbis write, “but He rebuked them, saying, ‘The works of My hands are downing in the sea, and you would utter song in My presence!’”

What a relief I felt when I read that story. The person who brought it to my attention put it this way:
How could God chastise the angels when God caused the drowning? The text was not erased, but a new word was spoken. The sages remembered other strands of Torah which called God’s people to care for strangers and foreigners, exiles and wanderers.[ii]

“A new word was spoken,” even as the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea. What new word comes to our minds today, ten years after an event which traumatized the world?

Maybe today is the time to rethink what we thought was impossible, to forgive those who have harmed us? To forgive not only seven times, but seventy-seven times?

Think about it. Something that has harmed us so deeply can never be forgotten. The pain is part of our history, part of what makes us who we are. But when we add resentment to that pain, angry that that past was not different than what it was, then we stay there. Something that was so horrible in our past is now determining how we lives our lives now, and into the future. If we only look at the history, we will walk backwards into the future. Who wants to live in a future determined by all the bad things of the past? Didn’t Jesus come to show us another way? To remind us that God had always told us there is another way?
Forgive, forgive, forgive: does that mean forgive and forget? Does that mean peace at any price? Does that mean you become buddy-buddy with those who have harmed you?

Forgiveness is not reconciliation. Forgiveness releases us from being trapped by the past, from keeping that past alive in the present. So we can forgive, and even put our hearts at rest, but we may never be reconciled with those who do not share our values. Among Jesus’ last words, as he hung dying on the cross, were “Father, forgive them.” He forgave his killers, but he never reconciled with them. He never agreed with their imperial mission or their death-dealing ways. We can never be reconciled to those who use terror or violence or fear to achieve their goals. But how often must we forgive? Seven times? Seventy-seven?

Reading these lessons on this day reminds us that we have so much work to do, if the human race is to survive on this planet, if this beautiful world that God has created is to continue to sustain life.

But being a person of faith is to know that our blessed future is not determined by our tragic past. In our blessed future, resurrection is a fact. In our blessed future, there are enough resources to go around. In our blessed future, we can live together, despite our vast differences in language and culture. In our blessed future, we can say we are sorry for the wrongs we have done, and the person we have wronged can forgive us, and together we figure out what it means to live in this new creation, to be repairers of the breach, the harm, the pain, that seems to be so inevitable a part of the human condition.

As we try to do all of that, truly, the angels will sing.

[i] From “Omitting Clergy at 9/11 Ceremony Prompts Protest”, by Laurie Goodstein, The New York Times, 9/8/2011;

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Getting ready for September 11

Memorials can be tricky things. As we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11, we are reminded of both the tragedy and heroism of those days in September. We can weep with those who mourn, and be inspired by the countless acts of compassion and embrace in the wake of that event.

But looking back is not the only thing we can do this weekend. We can look forward. We can honor the heroism of the first responders by celebrating the resilience and courage and commitment to duty of those who serve in those roles today. Our hearts can be strengthened when we hear stories of how people have put their lives together after enduring great loss. Even as we denounce those who plotted and carried out such acts of violence, we can recognize our common humanity with even our enemies. Working toward the just and peaceful world that God intends for all of us means we must use our memories and feelings as a foundation on which to build that future. It’s hard work, yes, and seems far, far off from these days of heightened security and daily reminders of violence, but as we remember the resiliency, the compassion, the courage, the commitment, of the past ten years, we know we have the tools to build that future.

Bishop Adams, of Central New York, wrote a thoughtful letter to all of us in the September diocesan E-Messenger, which I urge you to read. He closed with this prayer from Frank Griswold, our former Presiding Bishop, who walked through the dust and ashes which covered St. Paul’s Chapel on the morning of September 12, 2001:

God the compassionate one, whose loving care extends to all the world, we remember this day your children of many nations and many faiths whose lives were cut short by the fierce flames of anger and hatred. Console those who continue to suffer and grieve, and give them comfort and hope as they look to the future. Out of what we have endured, give us the grace to examine our relationships with those who perceive us as the enemy, and show our leaders the way to use our power to serve the good of all for the healing of the nations. This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord who, in reconciling love, was lifted up from the earth that he might draw all things to himself. Amen.

The bonds of love

Proper 18A September 4, 2011

Exodus 12:10-14; Psalm 149

Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Our Gospel lesson today is a little déjà vu from our lesson of two weeks ago. Both passages have a lot in common. In both passages we find the only time “the church” is mentioned in Gospels. In both passages, we hear Jesus talking about “binding” and “loosing.” So these passages are important. They say something about the character of Christian community, something about how Jesus wants his disciples to live.

Today, Jesus is talking about how to resolve conflicts. He lays out some rules, which some people and some churches take quite literally. If church members disagree in some churches, this is what they have to do, to the point of expelling the one who resists this “Christian” method of conflict resolution. But then Jesus says,

Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

Binding and loosing. For generations rabbis had debated about the law. All of the law is sacred, every jot and tittle, which means every comma and squiggle of punctuation. But in some circumstances, the strict application of the law can be loosened a bit, and Jesus was famous for that. Take, for example, the commandment to love your neighbor. Remember Jesus’ summary of the law: “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and to love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” When the question arose about, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus bound that law, strengthened it, tied it, to a universal understanding of neighbor that included even enemies. “‘You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Not an easy task. Neighbors: we see why we should get along with the people who live next door to us. But enemies? People we do not even know? What in the world have they do to with us? Exactly, Jesus would say. Loving even enemies means we acknowledge our bonds of a common humanity. God binds us together, even enemies, even people we would not otherwise choose to associate with.

But just as Jesus, the rabbi, binds the law, we find him loosening it, such as the law prohibiting work on the Sabbath. If people are hungry and it is the Sabbath and they have no food, or if someone is in need of healing, then they may loose the law and do those works. That does not break the law, for it is still forbidden to work on the Sabbath – but the demands of the circumstances – the time, the place, the burning need of the neighbor – demand that the observance of the law be stretched on this occasion.[i]

What to do? What to do? To bind, to loose – in Supreme Court terms, are we strict constructionists, or do we interpret the law by taking into account changing times and circumstances? Must Christians work out our conflicts openly, in the community, just as Jesus describes? This must have been something the early church struggled with, too. In our second reading, Paul must have been answering someone’s questions. He lays out some of the original 10 Commandments given to Moses as part of Exodus story: “You shall not commit adultery. You shall not commit murder. You shall not steal. You shall not covet.” But then Paul, himself a rabbi, loosens some requirements of the law, even as he binds the one that is most important: “’Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Conflicts are never easy. In conflicted situations, we feel vulnerable. There is often a lot at stake. Reputations, fortunes, even lives may be lost. Sometimes the actual object of the conflict is petty but the stakes become enormously high. “Rise above it!” I used to say to my children, when they were locked in a conflict to the death, over some small toy.

Alas, I think these passages from scripture we read here today mean that God wants us to do more than “rise above it.” God wants to us to engage, with the hard work of love, with our neighbors and even our enemies. God wants us to face into these difficult, conflicted situations directly and openly – to hear when we have done wrong, to speak to another person about the wrong we feel they have done to us. God wants us to face into these situations, knowing the risk that it may not always work out -- that there may be peace but perhaps not reconciliation.

So there we are, in the middle of that hard conversation that we have tried our best to avoid. It could be at home, it could be here in church, it could be with your neighborhood association, or the town zoning board, or the state legislature. It could be in Afghanistan, or between Israelis and Palestinians, or between the northern Muslim Sudanese and the southern Christian Sudanese. Conflict and disagreement, fear of shame and loss, have been part of human nature from the very beginning.

But as Jesus reminds us, something else is also there in our human nature, from before the very beginning: love. Whenever two or three are gathered, Jesus reminds us, God is there. Whenever two or three are gathered in happy times, yes, of course, that is easy to see God among us. But whenever two or three are gathered in conflict, in disagreement, in fear or shame or hardness of heart, God is there. God is on “our” side, and on “their” side. God has hopes, that the next time we engage in a conflict, however petty, however immense, our deeper, truer human nature, our nature of love, will prevail.

[i] Mark Allan Powell, “Binding and loosing: a paradigm for ethical discernment from the Gospel of Matthew;” Currents in Theology and Mission, 2003

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Holy flooding, holy fire, holy ground

Proper 17 A August 28, 2011

Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c

Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

“May you live in interesting times.” Is that a blessing, or a curse?

We certainly live in unsettled times. The earth is literally shaking under our feet, even here in Central New York, where geologists describe our bedrock as “old and cold.” How many of you felt the earthquake, or know people who did?

Yesterday on the Thruway there were hundreds of rescue vehicles headed east: cherry pickers to work on downed power lines, tree-cutting equipment, National Guard trucks loaded with supplies. Even we, here on the far edge of what is predicted to be a massively wide hurricane, felt the unsettled nature of the weather. Millions of people in its path have had to alter all of their plans for the weekend, batten down their hatches, stock up their shelves, fill their gas tanks.

Meanwhile, out in Wyoming, weren’t there some financial gurus speaking? Some meeting to plan the end of the current financial crisis or recession or slowdown or whatever describes our unsettled economic times? The snippet I heard from the head of the Federal Reserve went something like this: things will get better but slowly. Great.

Name your marker for unsettled times. Global warming. Disappearing farmland. Student loan debt. The foreclosure rate.

Or your own personal unsettled-ness, a marker for when your life changes for ever and you feel somewhat uneasy: dropping your child off for her first day in pre-school, or helping him move into his first college dorm room. Friends who move away, spouses who die, parents who become ill and dependent. Your life gets messed with by forces beyond your control. You know what it feels like when the earth begins to shake under your feet, when the barometric pressure drops and you feel the hurricane coming. You know those moments, great and small, when you don’t know what will happen next, when you are waiting for that next shoe to drop, a moment that seems to last forever.

Think about those moments this way: the place on which you are standing is holy ground. It might be shaking and blowing and all manner of bushes around you are bursting into fire, but as God says, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

What a curious thing to say to someone who is terrified out of his mind.

We last saw Moses when he was a baby, about to be coddled by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in Pharaoh’s household. He grows up as an Egyptian, but he begins to understand who he truly is when he sees an overseer beating a Hebrew slave. Moses leaps into the fight and kills the Egyptian, and then runs for his life. And so the Moses we meet at the beginning of today’s lesson is a Moses on the lam. An illegal alien, who is a criminal, to boot. He is hiding out from Pharaoh’s law, thinking the wilderness will protect him.

We meet Jesus and his disciples, too, out in the wilderness. Jesus, too, has told them something which makes their world shake. Peter has tried to soothe over what Jesus has predicted are terrible times ahead, and Jesus rebukes him in what seems to be a cruel and heartless way: Get behind me, Satan. You are tripping me up here. Before new life, comes death. In order to save your life, you must lose it. In order to gain your life, you must give everything away. The bush is burning. The earthquake is rumbling. The wind is blowing. The place on which you are standing his holy ground.

The divine presence in these two stories – God speaking to Moses, Jesus to the disciples – is profoundly de-stabilizing. God throws people off-balance, shakes them up. Does God throw random events our way, like some trickster? I think not. A trickster would not call such de-stabilization “holy ground.” Merely random events, however scary, would not result in gaining our lives.

When God gets into our lives, these two stories tell us, it is serious and scary stuff. I can’t really subscribe to the theory that God is testing us with such earth-shattering events, or that if we really believed all would be smooth sailing. I think God is letting us know that life is like this, with challenges and upheavals and temptations from all sides. God in these two stories is telling us that there are times when nothing is easy, times when everything feels upturned and chaotic and dangerous. When we take up the cross, when we face difficulty and death, when we stare, terrified, at a burning bush, then God is there. It is holy ground.

At times like this, when we feel the earth shaking under our feet, the words Paul wrote to the church in Rome fairly sing and leap for joy. If life was always clear sailing, would these words make any sense at all? His words about love, about how much affection and honor to show each other, about patience and perseverance? If we weren’t staring at certain death on the cross, would we need to be reminded with phrases that sing with beauty? If we did not know what it felt like to be persecuted or cursed or miserable or in conflict, would we need to be told to rejoice? If we were always generous and hospitable, if we committed all of our lives and our worldly belongings to the common good, would we need to hear that even saints and strangers need our love and care?

I know Paul can be difficult to read at times, but today he’s got it all right. He’s describing what life is like on the other side of the cross, the life we gain after we give it all away, the place on the other side of the burning bush, the land flowing with milk and honey, where enemies dwell in peace, where strangers are friends. Earthquake, wind and fire, cross, suffering and death – put your own name to these troubled times. God is here, and the place on which you are standing is holy ground.