Saturday, May 17, 2014

God is not God of our debt or our death, but a God who gives us a living hope.

Proper 27C
Nov. 10, 2013
Haggai 1:15b-2:9
Ps. 145  
2 Thess 2:1-5, 13-17
Luke 20:27-38

Years ago I knew people who claimed with pride to be on Richard Nixon’s enemies’ list. We could laugh about it, because, other than our beleaguered and slightly paranoid 37th President, such lists seemed far out of character with American life.

But it strikes me now, in these rather dark days after 9/11, that feeling beleaguered and paranoid has become part of the character of life, here in America and just about everywhere else. I’m not talking about partisan politics, nor the Bill of Rights, nor even about the NSA listening in on all of our phone calls. What I am talking about is the pervasiveness of the feeling – the world over – that we must be afraid – that we have got to ramp up our security – that the barbarians are not only at the gate but they seem to have snuck into our backyards while our heads were turned. Of course, bad things do happen, in random and terrifying ways, and this fear has seemed to seep into the very air we breathe, the water we drink, the conversations we have with friends and strangers. This really is not just about the US – this is a global phenomenon. What nation do you think has the most comprehensive system of surveillance? Of spying on everyone, friend and foe? It is Great Britain, which “is estimated to have more closed circuit tv cameras than any other country, including China. They are found in every store, railway station, school or bus – one for every 11 people[i]…” Security cameras seem to be, perversely, a bit like the saints of God: you can meet them in school or in lanes or at tea, in church or in trains or in shops or at tea … but, do they really make us feel any safer? Or does having them make us want more of them?

It’s the comprehensiveness of it all – the global character of it – that gives us a clue, I think, to the empire of fear and dominance we read about in the Gospel. The Roman Empire is not in the background of the story, but the foreground, as people who read the Bible closely point out to us. For example, Luke begins his story of the birth of Jesus by telling us, “In the days of Caesar Augustus a decree went out that all the world should be taxed.” Front and center. Caesar Augustus. The Empire and its demands reached into every corner of the known world, no matter how dusty, no matter how poor.

The Gospel of Luke is curious: at times, it seems to be eager to point out that this new religion of Christianity can co-habit accommodatingly within the Empire. Luke picks up on sayings of Jesus like “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” But if Luke reminds his readers, and us, that the people were under the thumb of the imperial domination system, it is really to shout from the rooftops that that kingdom of death did not, and would never, have the last word over their lives, over their communities, indeed, over the whole world. Our God, Luke remembers Jesus saying, is not of the dead but of the living, for to God, all children of the resurrection are alive.

In this story today, Jesus does seem to get into an obscure doctrinal debate among two “parties” of Judaism: the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees were out of the mainstream of the Judaism of Jesus’ day; they chose to follow only the Torah – the first five books of the Bible. The mainstream of Judaism included the psalms and the writings of the prophets as sacred as well – writings that took in a much larger view of the world and of God’s activity in it. Mainstream Judaism understood death and resurrection. They had lived through terrible times, through the exile in Babylon and the return to a destroyed Jerusalem. The prophets helped them understand God’s actions in history and their own, human failures with in God’s history. The psalms gave them songs to sing – songs of anguish and lament, but songs of praise for all of God’s generosity and mercy. Mainstream Judaism knew what it meant to break that old Torah covenant, to walk in the valley of the shadow of death, and yet, by God’s most gracious, loving and forgiving hand, to be brought back to life.

So Jesus gets into a debate with the Sadducees not about the legal points of marriage but about their understanding of the future, and of how God works in this world. If there is no resurrection, as the Sadducees say, then death wins. There is no justice, only vengeance. The Roman Empire wins. The surveillance cameras win. It is a tit-for-tat endless cycle. God’s justice supersedes what humans impose, out of fear or need for control. God’s justice takes every human hope, and exceeds them with mercy and abundance.

The story of this encounter between Jesus and the Sadducees, as written down by Luke near the end of the
first century, vividly reflects what was going on in those days. People living in Israel around the year 100 would remember Rome’s extraordinarily violent response to the Jewish Revolt about 30 years before. It was the war during which blood literally ran in the streets of Jerusalem and the Temple was destroyed. Even today you can see how proud the Romans were of their victory over these conquered people, in the Arch of Titus, depicting the legions carrying off the spoils of war from the looted Temple. For the thousands upon thousands of Jewish dead to remain dead, after such devastation, would mean that the Romans would indeed control the world, that their victory would proceed any imposition of what they would call “security” or “justice.”

But if Jesus and his followers understood whose world this really was, whose justice truly reigned, then death and its domination system would never win. If Jesus and his followers understood resurrection as the restoration of God’s justice, of God’s abundance, of God’s mercy, then that was what it meant to say that God was the God of the living.

It is very tempting to buy the world’s line: there is not enough to go around. You are not safe enough, you don’t have enough money, things will never work out, death is the end. There aren’t enough people in our pews, and we can’t pay our bills. But people who believe in the resurrection know better. We know that God is not God of our debt or our death, but a God who gives us, and the generations who come after us, a living hope.

To be a spectator of Reality is not enough

Proper 26C & All Saints
Nov. 3, 2013
Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 149
Ephesians 1:11-23
Luke 19:1-10

What if it doesn’t really matter to God how nice we are?

On the one hand, that would be a terrible thing. Being nice to each other smoothes over a lot of problems. Being nice greases the wheels of a squeaky society. It doesn’t cost us much to be nice to strangers, to be courteous while we wait in line for coffee, or behind some who has a seemingly bottomless grocery cart, or who cuts us off in traffic – in any number of places in everyday life it makes everyone’s existence so much better if we are nice.

On the other hand, I don’t think God chooses saints because they are nice. In today’s Gospel story, Zacchaeus was not nice, and no one (except Jesus) was nice to him. Zacchaeus was like someone else we know:

Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire, secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.[i]

These are popular characters in our imagination, these Scrooge-Zacchaeus types. Not nice at all, but dramatic, meaty, attention-getting.

Like being nice, there certainly is a lot to be said for spiritual discipline, for the practice of prayer, of meditation, of communion with God. But what if, like being nice, none of that was what counted in the clutch? What if God works through – soundrels? People with no discipline? People who can’t keep it together? People who are greedy, self-centered, and, as Dickens said, “solitary as an oyster?” In other words, people like us?

What if, on this All Saints Day, God reminded us that we did not need a finishing school education to get into heaven? What if God took us all – nice and not-so-nice, short-tempered and generous, poor and, even, rich?

The story of Zacchaeus is the story of conversion: dramatic, immediate, shocking and thorough-going. Zacchaeus’ only preparation for this conversion was his curiosity about Jesus, and for Jesus this was enough: salvation came to Zacchaeus. The one who was the furthest out, the biggest sinner, the least likely candidate, the most lost, was the one Jesus held up as the model of salvation. The one who had hoarded his wealth, who had stored up his many ill-gotten gains, is the one who now finds his true wealth in giving it all away. No longer is his game about preserving his own self, but about serving the redistributive justice of God.

What does it say about God that is it not the “nice” but the lost who matter? It says that we are back in the game. We don’t have anything to prove to God; we can’t possibly be good enough, and we can’t tell God anything that he doesn’t already know. But we can – wake up! The insistent demands of the kingdom of God are all around us, if we would but see. “To be a spectator of Reality is not enough,” wrote Evelyn Underhill, a 20th century writer about the spiritual life. What is demanded is participation: “… and for this, a drastic and costly life-changing is required.”[ii]

What does it say about God if people like Zacchaeus, like Scrooge, even, are the people God uses to bring about his reign? To help return to the world to the way God created it to be? What good news indeed that all of us could be saints, that all of us could be bearers of the Good News, that all of us could leap down from our sycamore trees, that we would divide up our store of hoarded goods, that Jesus would come to our house for dinner, and we would all have a very good time?

[i] Charles Dickens 1812-1870;  A Christmas Carol
[ii]Evelyn Underhill 1875-1941; Mysticism

Stewardship Sermon # 2: Help, Thanks, Wow

Proper 25-C 
Joel 2:23-32
Psalm 65
Luke 18-9-14

You might think that this would not be the best gospel to read during stewardship season. The Pharisee, who is good, who tithes, who prays, who does the right thing always, seems to be outshone, in Jesus’ estimation, by this grubby tax collector.

Remember that if you take literally the list of religious do’s and don’ts in Jesus’ day, tax collectors are by definition sinners: the work they do – like the work done by shepherds, fabric-dyers and other necessary members of first century Israel – automatically makes them sinners, no matter how nice or good or faithful or generous they are in and of themselves. So it really is kind of shocking to the first hearers of this parable – part of Jesus’ pattern of reversing expectations every chance he gets.

And despite its being read during stewardship season, this parable is only tangentially about money. It’s really about prayer, about how we pray, and why we pray.

In her dandy little book, Anne Lamott says prayer is about three things: Help. Thanks. Wow. Today, our lessons are about WOW.

First of all, there is nothing wrong with the Pharisee. The world would get along much better with more people like him – no doubt. But it seems like the critical point Jesus is making here is that the Pharisee follows the rules maybe a little too closely. He’s got it all together -- maybe to the point of being able to go it alone, maybe even to go it alone without God.

If we look at it this way, the contrast with the tax collector becomes clearer. If the tax collector has it “up” on the Pharisee, it’s in the way he realizes he is inextricably tied up with God. He knows that it is only by the grace of God that he can get by. The tax collector is on intimate terms with all of Anne Lamott’s prayers: He’s real big on “help,” and when things work out (even when he thinks they won’t ever), he’s got “thanks” all over. In fact, his life is one big “wow.” I get the sense he is just astounded to be alive – him in his wretched, inevitable outsider-ness.

In all of those prayers – Help, Thanks, and Wow – the tax collector knows he is completely dependent on the grace of God, and THAT is what the Pharisee can learn from this person he would never have the occasion to meet. In fact, the Pharisee would learn that his prayer is tied to the tax collector’s prayer in one great loop of interdependence – the grace of interdependence. Grace is always around, before and within us – and grace is always something that God wants us to respond to. The Pharisee’s tithe and righteous prayers are not things he can make on his own: they are responses to the grace and goodness of God. And if the Pharisee is under the illusion he can do this all on his own, then he needs the tax collector, who gives thanks to God for every breath he takes, to realize that all of our lives – indeed our common life – comes always and only from the grace of God.

Our two lessons from the Hebrew scriptures are indeed about the prayer that can only be “wow,” about the glory and grace of God we can see, if we only pay attention, if we respond with that awareness of our interdependence, and interconnectedness. It’s the “wow” that we would never believe could come true if we thought we had to do it all alone, by ourselves. It’s the “wow” we are aware of when we respond to the grace of God.

And so I guess this is a stewardship lesson, and one of the things we can consider when we praying about what financial contributions we will make to this parish, and how we will contribute our time and talent to our common life. Like “help, thanks and wow”, like the Pharisee and the tax collector, we are tied together in this grace of interdependence. What would it mean, if we did more than keep the status quo going, if we did more than just keep this parish together? If we lived into that “wow” factor a little more?

The Stewardship Sermon: What is God calling forth from us so that we can fully become this parish that we say we value?

Proper 24 C
Oct. 20, 2013
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 119:97-104
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

You do know the story of the man whose house was flooded. First he climbed on his furniture, then he climbed to the second floor of his house, then he climbed out a window on to the roof. All the while he was praying. I know God will save me, I know God will save me, he said over and over again. When he was still on the first floor of his house, his sister called: Get out, she said. The flood waters are rising. I’ll come by and pick you up. No, no, he said. I have been praying. God will save me. You’re nuts, she said, but have it your way.

When he was on the second floor of his house, the state troopers came by in a motor boat. They had a megaphone. Get out, they said to him. The flood waters are rising. We’ll pull over to the window here and help you into the boat. No, no, the man said. I have been praying. God will save me. Sir, the troopers said, sir. We urge you. Get into the boat. We can’t wait much longer here. The flood waters are rising. We’re risking the lives of other people we are saving. Go ahead, the man said. God will save me.

When he was on the roof, clinging tightly, as the wind whipped around him and the waters rose, a helicopter flew over heard, and a Coast Guard rescue worker was snapping on his harness and getting ready to drop to the roof and pick up the man. Hold on, the Coast Guard shouted, we’re sending our most experienced and strongest sailor down to pick you up. No, the man shouted back, and waved his arms energetically. I am fine. God will save me. What, the rescue workers in the helicopter shouted. We can’t hear you; the wind is picking up. Go on, the man signaled to them, go on. Finally, even the helicopter had to fly away, and there was the man, clinging to his roof, when the wind and the waves overcame him and he drowned.

The man gets to heaven, and he is not only dripping wet, but he is mad. He pushes through the pearly gates and demands to see God. He shakes his fist and shouts, So where were you? I waited, I prayed, I waited some more, and look where it got me!

What do you mean? God said. I sent your sister by, and you wouldn’t get in the car. The state troopers were right on it, and still you didn’t get in the boat. And the helicopter – oy. What have I told you? Pray always, and do not lose heart – but my child, also, do not lose your head.

For the two and a half years I have been here, we have been like the man in the house with the waters rising around him. Not in every aspect of our life, of course – we have had successes, we have appreciated each other, we have done some terrific things, we have served God and the community. But we have had a running deficit of $30,000 in our operating budget. Even though we have tried to manage this deficit, the bills have had to be paid, and the various reserve accounts, over the past decade or so, have run out. The only thing left are the funds from the sale of the most recent rectory – and spending them at the rate we are going means – well, it’s not good. One definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for different results. For the past several years, the vestry has budgeted this hefty deficit, told you all about it at the Annual Meeting, and expected the deficit miraculously to go away. It has not.

With much prayer and deliberation, with considerable time and attention, the vestry and I have come to the realization that this deficit is a spiritual problem. It blocks parish life. It makes it difficult to stand up here at stewardship time and ask you to give to mission – to give to things that make a difference in people’s lives -- when we are really desperate to get to you pay for the maintenance of this deficit. It makes it really difficult to invite new people into our community. It’s hard to preach about the abundance of God when we are not making ends meet.

Yesterday, the vestry met as the Finance Committee of the Whole. We spent three hours together listening to each other, sharing feelings and thoughts, digging into the reality that the budget we have been presenting to the congregation for several years at least is NOT the budget you want to pay for. We came to the consensus that we are going to reduce our parish budget in 2014 – perhaps by $30,000, perhaps by less, but certainly significantly. We are going to live within our means.

Let me stress that this is not negative “solution” to a “problem.” We cannot get to abundant life by doing less. Jesus did not come to earth just so we could have “less death.”

This (A) is where we are now. It doesn’t matter how we got here, or what might be to blame. What matters that we understand who we are right now, our assets, our abilities, the many things we have going for us, our considerable pledged income, our 65 generous pledging units, our building which is paid for, easy to maintain and for which we have a surplus of capital funds. We could go on and on about what a great parish this is. 
This is the reality of (A).

This (B) is where we want to go. This is the future we want to live in. This is our imagined life abundant. This is the parish that can live within its means. This is the parish that gives away twice as much money as it spends on its own maintenance. This is the parish that people join because here we do things that make a difference in God’s world. This is the parish that celebrates the beauty and wonder of God. This is the parish that is always stretching to reach those new places to which God is calling us, new ways to serve, new communities to transform.

What do we have to add to (A) to get to (B)? What do we have to do differently about our life and mission in order to make this parish sustainable into the future? For another generation?

Some of that arrow includes money, yes. But it also includes more information. Financial transparency. Accurate record-keeping. And an honest budget where we pledge not only to our common life, but to live within our means. Where we know we can respond generously when asked, when our time, talent and treasure can make a difference in this broken and needy world.

In our first reading, the prophet Jeremiah talks about the new covenant. There is always some controversy about that “new” covenant. Is God getting rid of the old Sinai covenant, the Torah, the ten commandments, all of Israel’s past? But look what happened to the Jews who came back from exile, whose return was promised by God. They were able to rebuild Jerusalem. They pulled together their old traditions and observances and customs and inhabited them in a new way. God was the one who called them back. God was the one who took the first step for forgive and forget. God was the one who wanted a relationship with them SO MUCH that he was willing to start over – to re-boot the whole kit and caboodle, to give these crazy people a new chance at a future.

The vestry might propose some drastic changes in how we spend our money as a parish community. We are not breaking with the past: we are building on where we are now, so we can take all these things that we love with us into the future.

This is the purpose statement of the parish as you wrote it in your parish profile in 2010. This is what you said you were about when you were looking for a new rector. I am going to hold you to this, to say that this says something important about who we are and what we value. This may not always be our purpose statement, but this is what we have. Does this statement describe (A) – where we are now – or (B) where we want to be in the future? Or is it some of both? What is God calling forth from us so that we can fully become this parish that we say we value?