Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Sunday, September 15, 2019

YEAR C 2019 pentecost 14

Pentecost 14, 2019
Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-11
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

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

I have to tell you:  I LOVE this set of readings we heard today!  It is not often in the summer that I can say this, but yeah, I love them.  The opening hymn today is suggested in the manuals based on that reading from 1st Timothy, where Paul writes, “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever.”  But the reason I went with the suggestion is because of the stark contrast to the first reading.

And here’s what I mean.  In the reading from Exodus, God has had it with these chosen people, and God says to Moses, “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.”  Remember that “let me alone” phrase, because we’ll come back to it.  But then Moses reminds God about all the promises of the past.  The promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.  Remember, God, how you promised to multiply their descendants and make a great nation of them.  And then as we heard, “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”

The Lord changed his mind.  That hymn I mentioned earlier includes phrases like, “We blossom and flourish like leaves on the tree, then wither and perish but nought changeth thee.”  Nought changeth thee.  God doesn’t change.  There are plenty of preachers who will insist to you that God is always solid, immovable, and unchanging.  But . . . after a conversation with Moses, the Lord changed his mind.  And we see these things quite often, especially in the Hebrew scriptures.  God’s mind is changed after the flood, most notably, and we get rainbows because of it.  And the reason that’s important is because of this: we do not have a real relationship with someone if we are not both changed by the relationship.  If having a conversation with another person doesn’t somehow change that other person, then you’re actually talking to a brick wall, not a living being.  But the Lord changed his mind.

And then that portion of Psalm 51 today.  It’s just beautiful in every way.  Confessing sin before God, in the quiet confidence that God can do something about it.  Wash it away, blot it out, cleanse us of it.  Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.  Indeed!

And, speaking of sin, then we heard from Paul’s first letter to Timothy, our patron saint.  Paul freely admits that he was unworthy to be of service to God.  And yet, God still finds a place for him, making Paul an example of the everlasting mercy of God.  And then that confident assertion: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  We sometimes forget that because we’re in the church already.  But we Episcopalians do not hold to an I-once-was-lost-but-now-am-found understanding of human nature.  We do not claim to be perfect, because we know we are not.  We are renewed daily by the power of God’s forgiveness, because we still need it!  We have a confession of sin in every service for this very reason:  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and I know that I am one, in thought, word, and deed.

And then there’s the gospel reading—Luke chapter 15.  Sometimes called the Lost And Found chapter of the Bible.  Sometimes known as the chapter of the Bible that a Christian band might name themselves after and spend 30 years writing songs about.  Maybe.  There are three stories of lost and found in this chapter of Luke, and we heard two of them from Jesus today: the lost sheep and the lost coin—the lost son (sometimes called the prodigal son) is the third parable, but it isn’t included in today’s lesson.

We tend to think of these stories the way I just described them: a lost sheep, a lost, coin, and a lost son.  But, quite clearly, these are stories about a faithful shepherd, a diligently seeking woman, and a waiting father.  And that distinction matters.  A lot!  Because, to be honest, the sheep coin and son are just sort of props to make the point that the parables make.  Since we already heard about the waiting father back on March 31st, let’s look at the two parables in front of us in this reading:  The shepherd and the woman.

First thing to notice is the setting.  This reading picks up right where last week’s reading stopped.  There is nothing mentioned about food, no one is described as eating anything, and out of nowhere the Pharisees and the scribes are grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  And let’s take note of this:  Just imagine a world where the chief complaint against the church is that we welcome sinners and eat with them.  Could be our new tag line:  St. Timothy’s Church, seeking to welcome sinners and eat with them.  I gotta say, I’d join that church!

So Jesus asks them a question:  “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”  The correct answer is, none of us!  Not one of us would leave the 99 and go find the one that was lost.  That’s not how we operate.  It’s a strange way to get this party started, but that’s because God has a strange way of throwing parties.  But anyway, this unusual shepherd goes and finds the lost sheep, and what does the shepherd do upon returning home?  He calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, `Rejoice with me.”  Gathers together the community and says, “Rejoice with me.”

And then the woman who has lost a coin.  Rather than waiting until daylight, she lights a lamp (which is expensive in those days, by the way), she sweeps the house, and looks carefully until she finds it.  And when she finds it, what does she do?  She calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me.”  Gathers together the community and says, “Rejoice with me.”  (As one commentator says, since she has already swept and cleaned the house, she might as well have people over.)  But in both cases, the one seeking the lost gathers together the community and says, “Rejoice with me!”

Contrast that with what God says to Moses back in that reading from Exodus: “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.”  But Moses sticks around, and God changes.  God and Moses have a relationship.  God and Moses form a community, in a sense.  And rather than being let alone to smite everyone, God and Moses can rejoice together, because what was lost will be found.  Community and rejoicing go hand in hand.

But wait!  Remember how this reading started?  Tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and making accusations against Jesus.  The Pharisees and scribes were also forming a community.  A community based on accusations, and grumbling, and driving fear into the hearts of those who were willing to pay attention to them.  It is not only rejoicing that forms communities; fear and hatred do as well.  No matter your political persuasion in these divided times, the e-mails always start the same:  Look at the scary things those people are doing!  Come and join our community.  (And also send us five bucks.)

Community can be formed around love and redemption, and community can also be formed around hatred and fear.  “Come rejoice with me” and “come grumble with me” both build community.  One brings life and salvation, and the other brings death and destruction.  And we can join either community any time we like, because they will always both be there.

And here’s the other thing about these two parables.  It is tempting to think of ourselves as the shepherd who seeks out the lost sheep.  Or to think of ourselves as the woman who diligently seeks out the coin.  Winning souls for Jesus!  Saving those who are on a highway to hell.  But look at the context of these parables.  The religious leaders are complaining that Jesus eats with sinners, and then he tells them these parables.  The shepherd who seeks and the woman who searches . . . these are explanations for why Jesus eats with sinners.  It is Jesus who seeks out the lost.  AND, it’s important to note:  The sheep was already in the shepherd’s fold.  The coin was already in the woman’s purse.

And when Jesus finds what was lost, or what has wandered off, he gathers the community together and says, “Rejoice with me!”  Some days, you and I are the sheep he tracks down.  And sometimes you and I are the coin that he finds.  But every day you and I are the friends and neighbors that Jesus calls together and says, “Rejoice with me!”  And then he spreads a meal before us on the altar.  And in that meal, we find once more that Jesus always welcomes sinners . . . and eats with us.  May God make us always grateful that Jesus never stops searching until every coin is found, and every sheep is returned to his heavenly fold, so that this rejoicing may go on through all eternity.


Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Burial of George M. Cazan

The Burial of George M. Cazan
September 14, 2019
Wisdom 3:1-5, 9
Psalm 121
Revelation 21:2-7
John 10:11-16

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

One of the challenges of being a priest in parish ministry is trying to figure out what people really think.  As you can probably guess, this was never a problem with George Cazan.  I never had any doubts as to what George Cazan thought about things, or where he stood.

Three years ago, St. Timothy’s held a “Meet the Rector” event the month before I officially started here.  Among the people who waited in line to greet me was George Cazan.  As he held my hand, he looked in my eyes and said, “These people need a shepherd.  And I believe you are that shepherd.”  Then he leaned in close and whispered loudly, “DON’T SCREW IT UP!”  And I guess I did okay, by George at least, because if he did think I screwed it up, he definitely would’ve told me.

And, speaking of shepherds, in the gospel reading we just heard, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  And he also tells us that the hired hand runs away because he does not care for the sheep.  And what happens to the sheep?  The wolf snatches them and scatters them.  Of course, these images are metaphors, but we easily understand what Jesus means.

I am quite certain there have been times in your life where you felt like a wolf was snatching you up.  Where things in life made you feel scattered and separated from your flock or family.  There are wolves in this world, and you and I face them all the time.  And one of the scariest of those wolves is the one we call “death.”  Death is the wolf that eventually comes for us all.  And every time we lose someone we love to that wolf, we gather the flock together, as we are gathered together right now.

And as a flock, we look to Jesus, the Good Shepherd, to help us.  We know we need a shepherd—someone to protect us from all the dangers of living in this world.  And sometimes we get so scared and worried, so fearful of the uncertain future, that we find ourselves leaning in and whispering loudly to Jesus, DON’T SCREW IT UP.

But that wolf of death does not have the last word.  Because as we heard from Revelation this morning, “God will wipe away every tear, and death will be no more.”  Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.  And we live our lives between those two points, beginning and end, all the while, living within the loving embrace of God.  And there’s more.  Because even in death, we continue where we have been all along: safely enfolded in the arms of the Good Shepherd.

I have been thinking these past days that maybe the reason George Cazan was so concerned about our parish having a shepherd is because he spent so much of his own life shepherding people.  Watching out for those who might be at risk of being attacked in schools and classrooms.  Shepherding singers to lift worthy praises to God in this space, and others.

George loved music and beauty so much that he dedicated his life to pulling it out of others.  Finding the places where people could be safe and could shine their light.  Nothing was too big, too high, or too dramatic for George.  And God deserves exactly that!  The widest, most glorious expressions of beauty and art, given back in thanksgiving to the Good Shepherd, who creates us, redeems us, and will pull each one of us out of the jaws of death.  That is truly something to sing about.  And I fully believe and trust that George Cazan now sings with choirs of angels around the throne of the Good Shepherd, with a clear, strong voice, no doubt all the while trying his best to steal the show.
Let us pray . . .

O God, whom saints and angels delight to worship in heaven: Be ever present with your servants who seek through art and music to perfect the praises offered by your people on earth; and grant to them even now glimpses of your beauty, and make them worthy at length to behold it unveiled for evermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

YEAR C 2019 pentecost 13

Pentecost 13, 2019
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 1
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

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

What a collection of readings we just heard!  Clearly, I was supposed to ask Mo to preach today.  On the surface, these seem like some scary, depressing readings.  All four of them can be confusing and dark in their own special way.  But at the same time, each of these readings needs a little explanation, just so we know what’s going on.  Some context, if you will.

So, let’s start with the reading from Deuteronomy.  For a couple chapters up to this, Moses has been giving his farewell speech to the Israelites.  He reminds them what God has done for them.  And then he warns them that if they don’t “keep the faith,” as it were, they will not survive in the promised land.  They can choose to follow other gods and die, or they can choose to follow the God of Israel and live.  Moses will not be crossing the Jordan river with them, so this is it, his final chance to tell them what is most important.  And what is most important is this: Choose life.  You can choose life or death: Choose life.

And then the Psalm we read together, Psalm 1.  As you can tell, it’s the first one.  It really sets the tone for the 149 other Psalms that will follow.  Come what may, those who follow God will be redeemed and live; those who do not will be forgotten.  And I find that last verse so powerful.  “For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked is doomed.”  You notice how that is worded?  God knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked is doomed?  Not to be known by God is to be doomed.  Or, to be doomed is not to be known by God.  Many people will tell you that you knowing God is the key to salvation; this verse suggests what counts is for God to know you.  To be known by God is to have life.  Choose life.

And then we come to Philemon.  We heard 21 verses of this letter, which means we only missed the final four verses, where Paul signs off.  It’s very short and to the point, but we need to know the background to get the point.  Essentially, a man named Philemon had a slave named Onesimus, who ended up traveling with Paul, for whatever reason.  And now Paul is sending him back to his “master” along with the letter we heard read just now.

Paul says, essentially, I could compel you to do the right thing and free this slave, but I will instead appeal to you in love to do so.  As Paul puts it, “in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.”  He asks Philemon to welcome Onesimus as he would welcome Paul, and then offers to repay any debt or wrong that is owed to him.  Paul is offering Philemon a choice; he can choose to go back to the way he was, owning another human being, or he can choose to go the way of freedom and life.  Again:  Choose life.

And then we come to this gospel reading we just heard.  Some advice for how to follow Jesus:  You should hate everybody you currently love, you should avoid half-finished home improvement projects, and you should negotiate with larger groups who want to kill you.  Amen.

Okay, but here’s the good news:  You only have to do those things if you want to be a disciple of Jesus.  All that stuff is in the context of Jesus’ saying to the crowds, “Those who do not pick up their crosses, and sell all their possessions, cannot be my disciples.”  Okay, I guess I left those two things off the list.  So there are now just five things:  Hate everyone, negotiate with bigger armies, don’t overbuild, pick up your cross, and sell everything you have.  THEN you can be Jesus’ disciple.  So, if that’s clear to all of you, there’s a sign-up sheet on the table in the parish hall, feel free to wait in line after the service today.

Okay, obviously we need more information here.  Because, on the surface, these requirements  are going to scare people away, turning us into the incredible shrinking St. Timothy’s Church.  Could Jesus really be saying, if you’re not ready to do all this stuff, then don’t bother showing up?  Is this gospel reading just a massive barrier to the front doors of the church? I mean, who would join a church with these membership requirements? 

Something doesn’t make sense here, I think you’ll agree.  And I think a crucial point to consider is that there’s a difference between a barrier and a cost.  Barriers keep people out.  Barriers tell people what they must do or be in order to come inside.  There are no barriers to being a disciple of Jesus.  There are no barriers to coming to this altar.  You are welcome here, just as you are. 

But there are costs to being a disciple.  There are risks in following Jesus.  There are things that will be different once you are following the path that leads to life.  But it is important to understand that these words from Jesus today are warnings, not barriers.

Jesus is saying, if you’re going to be my disciple, count the cost of what that means.  You might need to give up more than you bargained for in order to choose life.  It’s not a barrier to being his disciple; but it’s a cost of being his disciple.  God has been transforming us, and God is going to transform us even more, shaping us to be what we are meant to be, rather than what we are, or what we once were.  In church-speak, we call this process “sanctification.”  To you and me it means, when we choose life, God will make us into what we are meant to be.  However that may change us, and wherever that may lead us.

Of course, just because we choose life does not mean every day is butterflies and rainbows.  I’m not telling you a secret when I say that sometimes life is hard.  Yes, choose life, but know that there will be costs.  Following Jesus might mean selling all your possessions, sure.  But probably not.  It might mean hating your own family, sure.  But probably not.  God will shape each of us differently, and that means different things for different people.  However, what it definitely always means is picking up your cross with others, and following Jesus to Jerusalem.  Understanding that God is going to lead us exactly where we are meant to be.

Which leads us back to that tiny little epistle called “Philemon.”  One chapter.  Not much to look at.  Not much to see there.  Sometimes even used as a justification for slavery, over the centuries.   As Paul says, “I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.”  What is Philemon’s good deed?  Well it’s obvious to you and me.  Philemon needs to give up one of his possessions.  (Which, to our horror, is another human being.)  But Paul does not say, unless you give up your "possession" you cannot be a disciple of Jesus.

Instead, Paul relies on that process of sanctification.  That is, God is going to change Philemon’s heart; this slave-owner will choose life.  Paul could insist that Philemon free the slave, but Paul knows that the words of Jesus are true: being a disciple of Jesus means you will be willing to give up your possessions.  Not a barrier, but a statement of fact.  Being a disciple of Jesus means being willing to give up your possessions.  All of them.  Paul knows full well that Philemon IS a disciple of Jesus.  And that’s why Paul writes in confidence, knowing that a disciple of Jesus will be changed, molded, sanctified.

We have no record of what Philemon did with Onesimus his slave.  But I’m guessing as a disciple of Jesus he did in fact do what Paul knew he would.  Philemon certainly did the right thing, because he was already one of Jesus’ disciples.  And Jesus’ disciples give up their possessions, and carry their crosses.  It sounds crazy, but it’s true.

You are a disciple of Jesus, and God is leading you into being exactly who you are meant to be: one who chooses life, whose ways are known to God, who lives in community with other disciples.  Together we choose life, and trust that God will lead us into lives that make a difference in this world.  May God continue to guide us into always choosing life.


Sunday, September 1, 2019

YEAR C 2019 pentecost 12

Pentecost 12, 2019
Sirach 10:12-18
Psalm 112
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

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

In the early days of our republic, no one ever ran for President.  Showing that you were interested in the office was the surest way to make yourself unqualified for the presidency.  I know that’s nearly impossible to believe, given how things have turned out, but that was the way it was done, until Ohio’s own William Henry Harrison openly campaigned for the office in 1840.  He was the first one to publicly let people know he wanted to be the president.  Prior to that, in order to be president, the main thing you had to do was pretend that you did not want to be president.  That’s how you got elected.

And—I have to be honest with you—this is why I find today’s Gospel reading to be so terribly unsatisfying.  Jesus seems to be saying you should pretend you don’t want something, so that someone will give it to you.  It’s the kind of advice you expect to hear from Will Rogers, or Emily Post.

You know, like here’s a tip for how to save face at a fancy dinner party.  Sit in the lowest seat, and you will surely be recognized as more important than that, and then you will be elevated to a higher seat.  This is conniving and self-serving, because the actual goal is the higher seat.  And, if you take the highest seat, there’s a chance someone higher might show up, and how embarrassing would that be?  So, you should aim lower than you know you deserve, so that way the host can come over and move you up where you belong, and everyone at the party can see you being elected president against your will.  Since you know yourself to be better than others, pretend to be humble so you can be lifted up.  Check out how humble I am!

I’m sorry, but that’s not the kind of advice I expect from Jesus.  It just feels . . . dishonest.  And—even worse—it is selfish, using fake humility to advance yourself.  And not only that, why is this piece of Poor Richard’s Almanack style advice called a “parable,” anyway?  Normally, when Jesus tells a parable, it begins with “A certain man was invited to a banquet,” which is like saying “Once upon a time there was a banquet.”  But in today’s reading, Jesus begins his “parable” by speaking directly to his listeners: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet . . .”  I wouldn’t call that a parable.

But maybe calling this a parable is the key to understanding it.  Rather than looking at these words as a chapter from “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” maybe we really should approach it as a parable.  Because the first rule in trying to understand the parables of Jesus is to remember, they are not about you.  Parables are about Jesus, and the Kingdom of God.  They are not meant to be tips for how to get ahead in society.  And as soon as the words of Jesus start to sound like Benjamin Franklin, it’s a red flag that we need to slow down and look more carefully at what Jesus is trying to tell us.

We can divide this gospel text into two sections.  The first part (about taking the lower seat) seems to be addressed to the Pharisees, although it might be addressed to the guests; we can’t tell.  But the suggestion is, that by humbling yourself, you might end up exalted.  If we take that as a parable (rather than social-climbing advice), we see it as a metaphor or analogy.  The humble will be lifted up.  We might say, raised up.  True humility is laying down your life . . . dying to yourself.  The dead will be raised to new life, right?  The humbled will be exalted.  And you cannot be more humbled than being dead.  You cannot raise yourself up after being brought down to the grave; but God can.  God can come to you and say, “Friend move up higher.  Rise up from the grave to new life.”

But, at the end of that parable, Jesus adds a little conclusion, as he loves to do with parables.  He says, Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and the humble will be exalted.  This is classic Luke, by the way.  Remember the song Mary sings when her cousin Elizabeth visits?  We call it the Magnificat, and it only shows up in Luke.  “He has shown strength with his arm and has scattered the proud in their conceit, casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly.  He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”

Only in Luke do we get both the lifting up of the poor AND the casting down of the mighty.  Remember the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew?  Blessed are the poor and so forth?  When Luke tells that same story, he adds what are called The Woes.  Blessed are the poor, yes, but woe to the rich.  Woe to those who are well-fed and laughing.  Luke always adds that little flip after the positive.  The low will be brought up, and the high up will be brought low.

And then we have the second part of this reading, where we are told Jesus is addressing those who have invited him to the banquet.  He tells them to invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind.  It sounds at first like Jesus is just telling them how to be good people, and decent citizens.  Don’t invite your friends who can repay you by inviting you in return.  Instead, invite the people who can’t afford to invite you back.  That strikes us as really nice . . . really unrealistic, but really nice.

But here’s the thing: in the place and time where Jesus is speaking, no faithful person of God would ever invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind, because those people are ritually unclean.  This is not about bucking the social customs of the time; inviting those people would make the host ritually unclean, making them unfit to go to the Temple, among other things.  It’s one thing to say, “Invite people who cannot repay you.”  It is quite another to say, “Invite the people that you have spent your entire life completely avoiding for religious reasons.”

And just like last week, Jesus seems to be telling us that people are more important than rules.  The sabbath was made for people, not the other way around.  The poor, crippled, lame, and blind are meant to be invited in and fed, not ignored and shunned.  Look at your neighbors the way God looks at us.  God invites those who do not deserve to be invited.

And that is good news for you and me.  Because what Jesus is telling his hosts is that they should organize their guest list the way God’s guest list is organized.  God is holding a banquet, and at the top of the guest list you will find the poor, crippled, lame, and blind . . . me, and you.  God invites us to dinner not expecting to get invited to dinner in return.  This gospel reading is not a lesson in manners and dinner parties, but is a lesson about the hospitality of God.  A glimpse of how God views the world, where everyone is invited.  Jesus is not giving practical advice for how to plan or act at dinners.  He is telling us how God does these things.

God invites the unworthy and lifts them up.  God invites those who do not belong and spreads a table before them.  God invites the outcasts and makes them insiders.  God invites the unclean and declares us clean.  This gospel text is not advice for living; rather it is advice for dying.  Dying to yourself, so that you can be raised to new life.

Whoever we think of when we think of “the unclean,” in an ideal world, you and I would invite them to dinner.  And sometimes we do!  And, it is also true that sometimes we get invited to dinner by those who consider us unclean (as I well know).  But, more importantly, and in the same way, God has invited you and me to a banquet where no one is considered unclean: the heavenly meal that stretches on through eternity.  And at this banquet, no one is rejected, because all have been healed and redeemed.  We are all invited, and made clean and pure in every sense of the word.

And this morning, you are invited to a banquet, which is a foretaste of the feast to come.  God is inviting you to this banquet, knowing full well that you cannot offer an invitation in response.  God invites us (knowing we cannot repay the debt), because by inviting us, God is the one who will be repaid “at the resurrection of the righteous.”  The place where no one will be lost, nothing will be lost, all will be redeemed.  So, as Jesus says, come to the banquet, friend; come and be lifted up.


Sunday, August 25, 2019

YEAR C 2019 pentecost 11

Pentecost 11, 2019
Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17

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

I’m not going out on a limb when I say that we treat people differently based on outward appearances.  I’ll give you an easy example: I’m a straight, white, American-born, Christian male, and people treat me as such.  Switch out any of those descriptions for something else, and suddenly I’ve got extra challenges and difficulties and judgements to deal with.  And, as far as I can see, the judging only increases when coupled with the religious devotion of the ones doing the judging.   There has always been a whole lot of condemnation being done in the name of God.  Because, you know, truly good people don’t look or act like those people . . . But here comes Jesus . . .

In this morning’s Gospel reading from Luke, we have a pretty straightforward healing story.  There’s this woman who has been sick for 18 years.  Jesus heals her on the Sabbath.  The local religious leaders accuse him of breaking God’s law by working on the Sabbath.  Jesus notes their hypocrisy, they are chagrined, everyone praises God.  The end.  And, on that level the story works.  Except that there are all sorts of subtle things to notice if we want to get at what’s really going on here.

To begin with, we need to wrap our minds around a different cultural context.  In Jesus’ time, the connection between the physical and the moral and the spiritual was a given.  We get this from Plato if not even earlier: The beautiful and the good are the same.  Things are twisted and broken in appearance because they are twisted and broken inside.  No one is just born blind in that culture, which is why the disciples in John’s Gospel ask Jesus, “Whose sin caused this man to be born blind--his own or his parents’ sin?”  A person’s physical appearance was considered the manifestation of their inward state.  We like to pretend we are beyond that, but if we’re honest . . .

Anyway, the people in Jesus’ day were much more convinced of this connection between the outside and the inside, and it was simply part of the society, the way things work.    Beautiful meant good; ugly meant bad.

But on top of that outward appearance thing, there’s a huge difference between men and women in Jesus’ culture.  To cut to the chase: Men were considered valuable; women were not.  It’s no coincidence that the 10 Commandments list women (and not men) as possessions one must not covet.  Women were considered necessary as a group, but an individual woman . . . well . . . Let’s just say, she’d never go on to be Mayor of Chicago.

So, I hope by now you can see where this is going:  A diseased woman, a broken and twisted female, it just doesn’t get much worse than that in those days.  She has no status, since she’s a woman.  And she is obviously spiritually and morally deformed, given her outward appearance.  This woman doesn’t even deserve to be noticed, let alone healed.  And on the Sabbath?!?  That is just absurd!

But let’s review what we know about the Sabbath for a moment.  Well, we probably don’t know much at all, other than its Biblical origins and that it is, and was, very important to the Hebrew people.  You and I have the general sense that it is a day of rest, and that the definition of not resting (or of working) has grown over the years into a tangle of restrictions on activities.  People in Jesus’ day could be stoned to death for violating the Sabbath.  It was no small charge to be accused of working on the Sabbath.

And listen again to the objection of the leader of the synagogue:  “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day."  I hate to say it, but this is pretty progressive here.  You notice his spoken complaint is only about violating the Sabbath; he does not take issue with Jesus’ healing a woman, at least outwardly . . . which is stunning, when you consider it.  So he’s taking kind of a middle stance, having elevated her to the level of at least worthy of healing, but not worthy of being healed on the Sabbath.  You know, take a step back here, Jesus.  What’s the rush?  18 years plus one day?  You’ve got all next week to heal her.  The rules of God should not be broken lightly, right?

But do you remember what her actual ailment was?  The symptom was that she was bent over, yes.  But as Jesus declares, Satan has bound her for 18 years.  Satan is what prevents her from standing upright.  Her illness is caused by Satan.  And that means—if we follow it through—according to the leader of the synagogue, following the Law of God is more important than being freed from Satan.  Or, more frighteningly, God cares more about rules than people.  The leader of the synagogue seems to hold that view, right?  The Law is what matters here.  Let her remain in bondage, since the rules are more important than people.

Well thank God for Jesus!  Thank God that Jesus shows up to say it over and over again:  The Sabbath was made for people, not the other way around.  Given her bent-over stature, this woman would be a complete outcast for many reasons.  And Jesus heals, frees, and restores her to community ON THE SABBATH.  What could possibly be more fitting?  What better day than the Sabbath to declare God’s forgiveness and restoration?  It would seem wrong to wait, just for the poetic justice of the timing.  Woman, you are set free from your ailment on the Sabbath.  Yes!  Let’s go to brunch!

But then here’s the really interesting part of the whole story.  Jesus raises the obvious point of asking if they wouldn’t do a little work on the sabbath to give their ox or donkey water.  (And, no matter what some people might be saying on the news, people. are not. animals!)  And Jesus could have left it at that.  But, being Jesus, he has to go all the way: “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?"

Okay, first of all, women were not called “Daughters of Abraham.”  Not until Jesus calls her that in Luke’s Gospel.  You’ve heard the phrase “Sons of Abraham” many times I’m sure.  But the only other reference to a woman being a Daughter of Abraham is found in the book of Maccabees—which is exactly why you and I have never seen this before.  However, Jesus’ listeners would have got the reference.  I won’t go into the whole story here, but in Maccabees, a woman of extreme courage brings honor to Abraham through steadfast endurance and suffering.  And so, connecting the woman in today’s Gospel with the Jewish mother in Maccabees is what brings shame on Jesus’ audience.  They are hypocrites; they are acting, as Mo’s sermon last week helped us to see.

NOW they get the idea.  Or are getting the idea.  Because here’s the deeper reference being made in this statement.  Jesus doesn’t say, ought not this woman be freed from Satan to BECOME a daughter of Abraham.  Jesus is not saying, “Once I do my magic hands thing and tell her to stand up, THEN she will be a daughter of Abraham.”  He says “being a daughter of Abraham.”  Present tense.

She does not become a daughter of Abraham because Jesus heals her.  She IS a daughter of Abraham.  Her status is hidden by the binding, by the judgement of society, by the circumstances of her life, and Jesus sets her free to stand up straight, praising God.

The opponents of Jesus are put to shame when he says this.  Why?  Well, it’s hard to know, exactly.  But my guess is it’s best just to take this at face value:  They are put to shame because they would not see what seems obvious to an outside observer . . . particularly those of us with 20 hundred hindsight . . . Neither the binding of Satan, nor the opinion of religious society takes away the fact that this woman is a child of God, a daughter of Abraham.  The circumstances of life and birth, the opinions of the religious people judging her do not diminish her value in the eyes of God.  And anyone who says otherwise will be put to shame.

And that is exactly true for you and me as well.  God does not heal you to become a child of God.  You are a child of God.  Coming to this altar this morning does not make you a child of God . . . But because you are, you are welcome here.  Whatever binds you, whatever holds you down, whatever our society says makes you unworthy, Jesus sees past all of those.  Jesus tells you to stand upright and welcomes you into the kingdom.  And so on this, our sabbath day, it is especially appropriate to say:  Rise up!  You are set free from everything that binds you, because you are a daughter of Abraham; you are a beloved child of God, and anyone who says otherwise will be put to shame.


Saturday, August 17, 2019

The Burial of David M. Seffens

The Burial of David M. Seffens, 8/17/19
Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 23
Revelation 21:2-7
John 6:37-40

Jesus said, “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never turn away.”

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

This is a very difficult day, for all of us.  But let me start with this.  The first time I was arrested as a teenager, I spent the night in jail in Corning, NY.  My parents were devastated, and had to drive 3 hours to pick me up the next day.  It was humiliating for everyone.

And if, by chance, that was the last thing I did, well, that’s all anyone would ever say about me.  Oh, George Baum?  He was the guy who got caught with burglary tools in his pocket at a hospital in Corning, after a $2 door stop went missing.  That’s how I would be remembered, for my worst moment . . . up to that point.

We naturally look backwards to define ourselves and others.  We explain our identities by looking to the past.  Here’s my degree; here’s where I served in the military; here’s my Eagle Scout badge.  Obituaries and resume’s are by definition an accounting of the past.  They look backward.  We naturally look to the past to tell who someone was.  We ask, “Who were they?”

But God always looks forward, not backward.  The promises we make in church are always forward, never backward.  The priest asks a couple who is about to be married, Will you love, comfort, honor, and keep each other?  Before a person is Baptized, the priest asks Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons?  And the candidate says, I will, with God’s help.  We always ask “will you.”  We never ask “have you.”  It doesn’t matter how you got here.  It matters where you’re going.  Again, God always looks forward, not backward.

We have lost someone dear to us.  And the reason we lost him is connected to the reason he has been in the news these past few months.  And yet, David Seffens remains a child of God, just like you and me.  I would not want for my worst moment to be the reason I am remembered.  And neither would you.  But again, God always looks forward.

And so, today, I want us to focus on the future.  On what redeems all of us.  The most notorious sinner and the most grace-filled saint are all redeemed because of Jesus.  And whether we live good lives, bad lives, or—like most of us—lives with a healthy dose of each, our redemption and our hope is the same.  And hope is about the future, not the past.

And here is why we have hope:  Jesus said, “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never turn away.”  And, as we also heard, “this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” 

Whatever you have done in your life, whatever you will do, Jesus does not give up on you, just as Jesus has not given up on Dave Seffens.  In Jesus, nothing will be lost, no one will be lost, all will be raised up on the last day.  Jesus says so himself.  And you and I live our lives looking toward that future, where all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well, because God will have swallowed up death forever.


Sunday, August 11, 2019

YEAR C 2019 pentecost 9

Pentecost 9, 2019
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

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

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  That’s how today’s Gospel reading started.  Remember that?  You might not remember because of the confusing parade of sayings that followed it.  After that straightforward opening statement, the reading becomes a bit of a train wreck of metaphors, which no modern-day editor would allow into print.  But the opening sentence is this:  Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

After that happy beginning—spoken to a flock—we hear about purses and treasure, lamps lit by slaves awaiting a wedding guest, a meal served to slaves by their master, a thief breaking in at an unknown hour, and the return of the Son of Man—all within seven verses.  Like I said, a a lot of metaphors.  But don’t get me wrong: I’m not criticizing Jesus’ speaking skills here.

We have this collection of sayings grouped together as though they’re a sermon.  But for all we know, these were thoughts from Jesus spread out over a week, or month, or year.  Just because they appear back to back doesn’t mean that’s how Jesus presented them.  Of course, maybe he did.  We don’t know for certain either way.  Though many a PhD has been earned on arguing over just such a thing, I’m sure.

What you and I need to know is this:  Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  That’s the key.  That’s how today’s reading begins, and it is surely the most important part of the entire reading.  It sets the tone, but it also reveals something about the nature of God.  In fact, it reveals a whole lot about the nature of God, and I daresay what it reveals is contrary to how we generally think about God.

Have you ever heard someone use the phrase, “Wait till your father gets home”?  Perhaps you’ve said it yourself.  But even if you haven’t, you know what it means.  And, of course, it’s not just in the masculine: plenty of children live in fear of the parallel “Wait until your mother hears about this.”  One of the downsides of these phrases is that they put one parent in the role of disciplinarian, or Bad Cop.

How strange it is that we’re all familiar with this idea of making a child live in fear of one parent or the other.  And how horrible to be that parent, right?  Wait until your father gets home, meaning, you really do not want your father to come home.  Awful all around, right?  Bad for the parent who dodges, bad for the kid who spends hours in fear, and bad for the parent whose arrival is used as a threat.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be taken that way, does it?  Wait until your parent gets home could be seen as a positive thing.  When Mom gets home, we’re going to make pizza.  When Dad gets here, we’re leaving for Cedar Point.  Just wait until they get here; it’s going to be awesome!!!  But we don’t usually think of the phrase that way.  We view it as a threat.  As a way to make children nervous and afraid and willing to make all sorts of plea bargains in order to avoid the certain wrath that awaits them.

And THAT is exactly how I’m afraid we view the return of God, deep down.  Just wait until your God gets home, you disobedient child!  I think we’re mostly convinced that when God returns there will be some celestial taking of names and kicking of . . . things.  Or, as the familiar bumper sticker has it:  Jesus is coming, look busy.  Like when Jesus returns he will only be happy with the ones who are doing whatever it is he said we should be doing.

And there are hints of that in today’s reading, right?  Or wait.  Do we just assume they’re in there?  It’s interesting how there’s really no bad news in this reading, UNLESS we make the mistake of seeing it as a checklist of things we need to be doing.  If we don’t fight against the tendency when hearing Jesus speak, we risk viewing everything Jesus says as though he’s sitting in the middle Leviticus when he’s saying it.  As a friend of mine likes to say, the Law is our constant companion, but the Gospel is a stranger in our midst.  Our default God mode is the Zeus god of mythology, hurling thunder bolts, sporting a big beard.

But there’s nothing in this reading that suggests anyone is threatened, or in danger, or facing damnation.  Remember how the whole thing began?  Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  And from there Jesus goes on to say, do this, and be like this, and have this attitude . . . But nowhere does he say, “Or else!”

It is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.  Not, God's reluctant whim to give us the kingdom.  Not, God's grudging concession to give us the kingdom.  And certainly not, God’s good pleasure to see you burn in hell if it weren’t for that pesky Jesus fellow.  Jesus doesn’t walk among us in order to tie the hands of the bloodthirsty Father who wants nothing more than to dip you in vats of boiling oil from Dante’s Inferno.  Jesus IS God, remember?  Jesus doesn’t save us from the Father; God does not save us from God.

And so how do we hear all these words today?  What do we think when we hear Jesus say, Sell your possessions?  Be dressed with your lamps lit?  Be alert and ready for the unexpected return of the Son of Man?  To an outsider, these sound like requirements.  They sound like barriers or blockades to acceptance.  You know, after you have sold your possessions, and kept your lamp lit, and stayed up all night every night waiting by the door, then, if you’re lucky, you might just have an opportunity to be accepted into the kingdom.

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Jesus tells us to be ready.  We don’t know when Jesus is coming back, but it is a good day when he returns.  It is a day to celebrate, though we don’t know when it will be.  And that kind of implies a celebration every day, doesn’t it?  Since we don’t know the date?

In the 1840’s, an American Baptist preacher named William Miller began studying the book of Daniel from the Old Testament.  Over time, using complicated formulas, he decided that Jesus would return to earth in the year 1844.  Samuel Snow, a fellow preacher narrowed it down to a specific date: October 22nd, 1844.  Thousands of their followers prepared for the day.  Some gave away all their possessions.  They went into fields and on hilltops all over upstate New York.  As I’m sure you know, Jesus did not return on October 22nd, 1844.  And for the so-called Millerites, this day became known as The Great Disappointment.  Indeed.

When Jesus says in today’s gospel to sell your possessions and prepare for his return, he does not mean go stand in a field on a specific date and wait for him to return.  In fact, he specifically says over and over, nobody knows the date of his returning.  So whatever he means when he says to be alert and waiting at the door, he does not mean pick a date and stand on top of a mountain in upstate New York.

So, if Jesus’ return is a cause for celebration, and if we do not know the day or the hour, we wait with great expectation, not great disappointment.  We live with hope, not despair.  If we welcome Jesus’ return, then not knowing the day makes every day a celebration, see?  And if you find yourself edgy and nervous at the thought of the return of the Son of Man, it might be that you’ve forgotten how this reading began:

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom . . . The never-ending feast of healing and celebration.
And there’s a reason we call the Eucharistic meal the “foretaste of the feast to come.”  Because it is the place where everyone is welcome, everyone is encouraged, and everyone is strengthened for the journey ahead.

May God give us the confidence to trust that God wants what is best for us, and the strength carry out God’s will for our lives as we wait with hope, and the faith to trust that it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.