Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Sunday, November 19, 2017

YEAR A 2017 pentecost 24

Pentecost 24, 2017
Judges 4:1-7
Psalm 123
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

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

So, I’ve been dreading this Gospel text for over a month now.  I knew it was coming, and I was trying to find a way to transfer some feast day with a safe little text like Jesus welcoming the children or something.  But for better or worse (and I personally think for the better), we do not get to choose the texts on a given Sunday.  The Episcopal Church follows the Revised Common Lectionary, and so, these are the texts we have before us today, like it or not. 

I have always been afraid of this Gospel text, to be honest.  Because it seems like such an outlier.  It goes against all the other things we hear from Jesus when it comes to money.  The rich seem to become richer, and the poor are cast off into darkness.  I’m leery of a story that sounds like a pyramid scheme, where greed is good, and responsible care-taking of someone else’s things is punished.  And this parable has been used over the centuries to explain why poor people become poor in the first place:  They’re just bad at banking, you see?  They can’t be trusted to invest in the stock market.

Now, before we jump in here, I want to caution you that we should never assume that God or Jesus is necessarily the king or master in the parables.  Sometimes that seems to be the case, and sometimes it doesn’t.  So we always want to be looking for the point of the story, without assuming God is the king or master.  That said, let’s talk about talents.

In Jesus’ time, a talent was a measurement of gold.  It wasn’t a bag of cash; rather it was a chunk of gold, formed into a thing with a handle, so you could carry it.  One talent weighed 75 pounds, and was worth about 16 years of work, or 19 years if you rested on the Sabbath.  Using the current median income in the United States, this means a talent is worth something like $1.1 million dollars.  And again, weighs 75 pounds!

So, in today’s parable, one servant gets $5.5 million, one gets $2.2 million, and the last gets $1.1 million.  Intuitively, which servant would you expect to be the most cautious with the gold he’s been entrusted with?  The one with 5 and half million right?  Like, if I handed someone else a piece of clear glass, and I handed you our Tiffany Annunciation window here, and said “Take care of these while I’m gone,” you’d probably be very careful with that Tiffany window, right?  I don’t expect you’d bury it in the ground, but I can’t imagine you’d take it to the flea market and try to get two more Tiffany windows in exchange, right?  Point being, we would expect the one who was entrusted with more to be more careful with it.

But the way we hear things in the parable is also a very natural response that grows out of the fear of scarcity.  So much of our behavior is driven by that very thing.  When we’re afraid we won’t have enough, it is natural for us to hold tighter onto what we do have.  Give me a raise and I’m more apt to feel secure in donating to charity, right?  And this is related to what economists call a zero-sum game.  That is, the pie is only so big, and if you get a slice, then that means there’s one less slice for me.  And I won’t even get started on what this means when it comes to politics.  Suffice it to say, a scarcity mentality makes us fearful for the future, more careful with what we have, and less apt to share with others.

Now . . . let’s leave the land of money for a minute, and talk about love.  When parents have their first child, one kid gets all the attention.  Plenty of love to go around, and everybody’s good.  When the time comes to adopt a second child or give birth to one, the doubts can start to set in.  Parents wonder, will there be enough love to go around?  “I can’t imagine I could ever love a baby as much as I love this first child.”  And the first child often has similar thoughts, though not quite as refined.  Usually more like, “I want you to send that baby back where it came from!”  And along comes the second child and, voila, somehow there is indeed enough love to go around.  And why?  Because love is not a zero-sum game.

But let’s look at what I think is the crucial piece of this little parable from Jesus.  The third servant comes to the master with his talent, having dug it up and washed it off, and says, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”  Wait.  What?  When did anyone say that about the master?  There is no indication whatsoever that the master is harsh, or that the servant had any reason to be afraid.  He’s totally making this up!

And here’s why that is important.  The other two servants, the ones who went out and doubled what was entrusted to them, they don’t seem to be afraid of the master, do they?  They don’t say, “because you are a harsh man, I will go invest what you have given me.”  No it seems that having a negative, frightening view of the master is what leads the so-called “wicked and lazy” servant to do the wrong thing in this parable.  His fear is what leads him to bury his talent (a convenient phrase, if ever there was one).  He is so paralyzed by fear that he is afraid to do anything with what he is given.

Now, again, I want to remind us not to assume that the master in the story is God.  However, the parable hints at a distorted view of God that can lead us into being so afraid of doing the wrong thing that we do nothing at all.  Back in the 1500s, Martin Luther struggled with this very thing.  He lived in such fear of displeasing God that he was afraid to do anything.  Eventually, he came to the point where he could offer this advice:  let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger.  His point was, you will sin against God and your neighbor, and you should not pretend that you won’t.  However, you should trust that God’s forgiveness is more powerful than anything you can do.  You cannot make God love you, and you cannot make God stop loving you.

So back to our parable.  The third servant, the “wicked and lazy” one, I still think he did the responsible thing when entrusted with someone else’s money.  (Remember, the master is not necessarily God.)  But for purposes of the story, it is his failure to trust that leads him to disappoint.  He is so paralyzed by fear that he does nothing.  He has essentially created the master he was afraid of.  The other two servants went out and increased what they were given and they were able to do that because they lived without fear.  And, as a result, they were given more work and invited to “enter into the joy of your master.”

And the third servant?  Well, here is the hardest part about that.  He gets thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Well, that’s a fine how do you do, huh?  Again, if this were a true story, we’d all agree that he did the right thing, right?  I mean, people go to jail for gambling with other people’s money!  But this is not a newspaper story.  This is a parable.  And in parables we look for the point, not the facts.  And I think the point is this . . .

When we live in fear, whether out of perceived scarcity, or out of imaginary fear of punishment, we turn inward.  We circle the wagons and close the drapes and hide, as though some traveling salesman were heading for our door.  And a hyperbolic way to describe that fear is that we end up in darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Rather than coming into the master’s presence, we live in isolated fear.

“Fear not,” and “Do not be afraid.”  Those phrases appear over 100 times in the New Testament.  We could think of today’s parable as being an extended version of those two phrases.  Let’s go back for a moment and think of the parable using our current understanding of the word “talent” instead of the Biblical one.  Three people are given certain talents and abilities; two of them go out and develop more skills and use their talents to bring more joy to life.  The third one is afraid, and so he buries his talent and does nothing with it.

Or, perhaps more appropriately, think of  the three people as ones who have seen what God has done in their lives and in the world.  Two go out and share this good news, and the gospel spreads.  One lives in fear of sharing and buries this good news.

We don’t need for some traveling master to return and tell us what this means.  We have all been entrusted with gifts, mental, physical, financial—time, talents, treasure—and what we do with them is our gift to God.  I don’t expect God to swoop in and punish those of us who live in fear, because living in fear is its own punishment.  But in sharing what we have been given, we find true joy in life.  We need not be afraid, because we worship a generous God, who offers us more than we could ask or imagine.

Amen

Sunday, November 12, 2017

YEAR A 2017 pentecost 23

Pentecost 23, 2017
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Psalm 78:1-7
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

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

Man.  Sometimes being the preacher is hard!  I know it’s bad form to complain about your job, but that Gospel text we just heard.  And the next two Sundays are just as challenging.  When these readings come up again in three years, I’m taking a November vacation!  But, okay, enough complaining out of me.  On the upside, this is one of those Sundays where all the lessons fit nicely together, frightening though they may be.  And the main theme running through these readings is Community.  Let’s start with the First Reading we heard today, from the book of Joshua.

It starts with Joshua gathering together all the people of Israel with a message from God.  There’s a section that we skipped though, from verses 4 to 14, where we would’ve heard the long history of God’s faithfulness to the people, bringing them out of Egypt and giving them a homeland.  Then it picks up with Joshua asking the people to choose which god they will serve, and he delivers that famous declaration, “but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord,” which you may have seen on bumper stickers, or cross-stitched onto throw pillows.

Then there is some back and forth, with the people saying “us too,” and Joshua saying, “I don’t believe you,” until at last the people say, “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.” And Joshua makes a covenant with the people that day.  A covenant.  An agreement to live in a relationship with God and one another.  It’s the renewed promise of community rooted in following the God of Abraham.

And there’s the Psalm we read together.  “That which we have heard and known, and what our forefathers have told us, we will not hide from their children. . . . that the generations to come might know,
and the children yet unborn; that they in their turn might tell it to their children; So that they might put their trust in God, and not forget the deeds of God, but keep his commandments.”

Beautifully put.  Here we see the community promising to continue the story by telling their children what God has done.  They promise to pass down the stories of God’s mighty deeds, so that the “horizontal” community will also be a “vertical” community, and will continue throughout the ages, continuing in the same covenant made with Joshua on that mountain.  Like the Baptismal Covenant and promises we renewed last week when little Gideon was baptized in this font.

And then we have that section of Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica.  Now it’s important to know the background in order to get it right.  Scholars pretty much agree this letter (probably Paul’s first) was written in about 52 AD, which is only like 20 years after the Resurrection.  Most Christians at that time believed Jesus would return in their lifetime.  But some members of the church in Thessolonica had passed away, which caused church members to doubt . . . well, everything.  If Paul was wrong about this, maybe he was wrong about all of it.  So Paul writes this letter to assure them that their hope is not in vain.

But you can see why they were distraught.  They’re living together in this Greek city, converts to Christianity, evangelized by Paul.  They had the impression Jesus would be back any minute, before any of them died.  It makes sense for them to be worried: what happens to those who have died?  Do they miss out on the promises to the faithful?  So Paul writes to them, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”

And this is where I have to interrupt him.  (Sorry Paul.)  But it’s important to get what he’s saying here.   When Paul says, “so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope,” he is not saying that Christians aren’t supposed to grieve.  He is not saying that grief only belongs to people who have no hope.  No, Paul is talking about how they should grieve.  Don’t grieve the way others do.  It is entirely expected and appropriate that you and I should grieve for loved ones we have lost, but we are to grieve amid the hope of the Resurrection.  Our grief is different, because we know that death is not the end of the story.

And then we get the part where it’s about community:  “Therefore encourage one another with these words.”  Paul makes the case that those who have died are safely in God’s hands, and then he tells us to comfort one another with that good news.  The ones we love who precede us in death are not lost to God.  Jesus will call them out of death into life, just as we will each be called into new life.  Encourage one another with these words, because we are a community, called into covenant with God.

And then . . . the Gospel.  Where to even begin?  We often call this parable “The Foolish Virgins,” which from the start focuses on the negative.  Fortunately, our translation uses the word Bridesmaids instead of virgins because, well, we just don’t talk that way.  And it is so different from most of the other parables we hear in the scriptures.  Usually, we have some connection to these stories.  Like we know what a farmer is, and we know what a fishing net is.  But this parable is completely disconnected from our culture and customs.

We don’t have 10 bridesmaids accompany the groom to his own wedding; we don’t use oil lamps; we teach our children to share with those who don’t have enough.  Plus, the groom shows up late to his own wedding.  Half the wedding party is told he never knew them after being sent on a wild goose chase to the stores everyone knew were closed.  And the “Keep awake therefore” at the end of the parable doesn’t fit with what happened, since all 10 bridesmaids fell asleep.  There is no fairness here; there is no love; there is no Gospel in today’s Gospel.  This parable is confusing, archaic, and scary.  There.  I said it.

But what really got me off track this week was this:  Over my lifetime, I’ve unconsciously bought into the notion that this parable has to be about that One Big Day when Jesus returns.  And maybe you have too.  You know, the One Big Day that the people in Thessolonica were waiting for when their loved ones died unexpectedly.  And Jesus’ finishing the parable with, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour,” plays right into that idea.  And there are plenty of televangelists and preachers who will tell you all about how that One Big Day is coming, and even give you predictions about when it is going to take place, and give you a list of the people who will be “left behind.”

There are complicated theological names for these beliefs, such as Pretribulation Dispensational Premillennialism.  (So much easier to say, “Anglican,” I think you’ll agree.)  We see these teachings and viewpoints in our popular culture too, especially with Hal Lindsey’s “Late Great Planet Earth” in the 70’s, and Tim Lahaye’s “Left Behind” series more recently.   Basically, this approach to Christianity focuses on that One Big Day when Jesus will return, and then pulls in all sorts of verses from the Bible to explain how and when this One Big Day will occur.

For people who obsess over this stuff, today’s parable about the 10 Bridesmaids is one of the go-to stories from Jesus.  On the One Big Day, some people will be ready and welcomed into the kingdom of God, and some people—like bad Boy Scouts who were not prepared—will be told that Jesus never knew them.  “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him,” except those of you who weren’t ready.  And the only way to get any joy out of that reading of this parable is to work under the assumption that you are one of the oil-toting wise bridesmaids.  You know, one of the people who was always ready for Jesus to return.  Like the old joke, Jesus is coming . . . look busy.

But here’s what we lose by focusing on the One Big Day.  We miss out on today.  We miss out on right now.  To overemphasize the day when Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, is to forget that Jesus is already here among us.  Everywhere.  All the time.  So focused on being prepared for some day that we miss this day.  So getting ready for the return that we miss the right now.

Here’s a thought: just before we take Communion together, the Book of Common Prayer says the priest is to turn to the people, holding up the bread and wine and say, “The gifts of God for the people of God.”  But another way to say it would be, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.”  We don’t know the One Big Day when Jesus will return, but we do know that he is here today in our community, right where he has always promised to meet us, in the Bread of Heaven, and the Cup of Salvation.  Look!  Here too is the Bridegroom.  Come and meet him.

Amen

Sunday, November 5, 2017

YEAR A 2017 all saints

Year A, 2017
The Feast of All Saints
Revelation 7:9-17
Psalm 34:1-10, 22
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

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

Has anyone ever told you that you are blessed?  You know, like, “You are blessed to have such a great family.”  Or, “You are blessed to have such good health.”  Maybe you’ve said that kind of thing yourself.  “We are blessed to live in a good neighborhood.”  Or, “I am blessed to have such good parents.”  (Hashtag Blessed.)

Why do we say that?  What do we mean by it?  Well, for one thing, it always seems to happen after the fact, right?  It’s an observation—and often an obvious observation.  Instead of saying, “Hey, lady, nice house,” we might substitute “You have been blessed with a comfortable home.”  You know, it’s really sort of a religious spin on a compliment.  But it would feel awkward to use the kind of phrasing Jesus uses in today’s gospel lesson.  If I said, “Blessed are you who drives a car that gets good gas mileage,” you’d think I was a bit crazy.  If someone says, “Blessed are you because you got a raise at work,” you’d probably hope that was the end of the conversation, right?  I mean, we just don’t talk that way.

Basically, though, we would say people are blessed when they are rich, and popular, and successful, and employed.  The times we would say people are blessed seem to be the opposite of what Jesus is saying in today’s gospel.  What we call blessed does not enter into the list Jesus goes through.

Jesus isn’t saying, the rich in spirit and happy are blessed.  That fits with how we view the world, sure, but Jesus is saying the opposite.  We would say the rich and happy are blessed, just like we’d say Bill Gates is blessed.

Jesus says, Blessed are the poor in spirit; Blessed are those who mourn; Blessed are the meek; Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; Blessed are the merciful; Blessed are the pure in heart; Blessed are the peacemakers; Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake; Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 

That’s nice, yes.  But it’s definitely not our list, is it?  I mean, come on, those people are definitely not blessed!  What’s going on here?  You hate to think Jesus is out of touch.  The poor?  The sad?  The meek?  These are not “blessed.”  So, how do we explain this?

One possible answer is simply this:  Jesus is blessing them.

Think about that for a moment.  What if Jesus isn’t looking around the room like we would, making nice observations about who’s already blessed?  What if, instead, Jesus is looking out at people who need a blessing, and delivering one?  What if Jesus is blessing them . . . blessing us?  It changes things doesn’t it?  In fact, it changes everything about what it means to be blessed.

We spend our lives thinking, if I could just get that great house down the street I would be blessed.  If I could just find the right partner, get my kids (or parents) to understand me, get my boss to appreciate me, ah . . . THEN I would be truly blessed.  If I could be rich and popular and healthy and happy, I would be blessed.  We see blessing as a result of other things.  We see blessing as the congratulations.  If we could only get that thing, well . . . THEN we’d be blessed.  To us, blessed are the rich, and happy, and strong, and well-adjusted people with good teeth.  You work hard, play by the rules, and one day you will end up blessed . . . God willing.  That is how life works.

But that isn’t what Jesus is saying today, is it?  Jesus is putting the cart before the horse, to say the least.  Jesus is saying, blessed are the very people that we would call cursed.  He is not observing their blessedness: he is blessing them

Are you poor in spirit?  Jesus is blessing you.  Are you mourning?  Jesus is blessing you.  Those are people who need blessing today.  But then Jesus expands the blessing outward, and the list becomes ever more surprising.   The merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers . . . they don’t necessarily need blessing, do they?  Or, at least not in the same way as the poor in spirit and those who mourn.  And then, finally, the outlier . . .

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

It’s an odd way to wrap up.  And, one thing about blessing the ones being persecuted: it doesn’t so much apply to us, does it?  I mean, how often do people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on Jesus’ account?  I mean, honestly?  Probably not very often . . . You and I don’t really need to know that we are blessed when we are being persecuted for righteousness’ sake because . . . well, it doesn’t really happen to us.

But you know who does need to hear that message?  The people Jesus is actually talking to, that’s who.  To the people standing there in that field on that day, this is the primary blessing they need to hear.  That in spite of all that persecution they would soon face for being followers of Jesus, in spite of torture and horrible deaths for the sake of their faith, Jesus is blessing them.  This was a blessing for their future, a reminder that God would be with them.  Maybe they didn’t need the blessing that moment, but they would need it soon enough. 

And we heard John’s vision of maybe those same people in the reading from Revelation today: These are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  This “great ordeal” . . . despite what you may have heard from Tim LaHaye and Hal Lindsay . . . this great ordeal has already happened.  John is not writing about an event in our future.  No, John is writing about a persecution in Rome that has already come and gone.  Those who have come out of the great ordeal are the earliest saints of Christianity.  Those are people who lived and died for their faith.  They are some of the ones we mean when we say, the saints who have gone before.

But they are not the only saints who have gone before.  They’re a small—and rightly honored—group of the whole company of saints, in heaven and on earth.  Some of the blessed were persecuted for righteousness sake, yes.  But ALL of the saints mourned at one time or another.  ALL of the saints were poor in spirit, more than once, to be sure.  All of the saints were pure in heart sometimes, and merciful sometimes, and peacemakers sometimes, and meek sometimes too.  And in case it’s not obvious, that means ALL the saints are  just like you.  Sometimes one thing, and sometimes another.  But here’s the really good news about that:  Jesus ties promises to all these blessings, and that means there are promises for you and me as well.

Blessed are you, people of St. Timothy’s: for yours is the kingdom of heaven, and you will be comforted, and you will inherit the earth, and you will be filled, and you will receive mercy, and you will see God, and you will be called children of God.

And the best news of all is that this puts us in very good company.  Because when we come to this altar today, we celebrate with the saints of every time and every place, the saints we have known, and the saints we have only heard about.  And more than that, Jesus also blesses every medieval peasant farmer and 19th century factory worker, whose names will never be known, and they join us here as well . . . the poor, the meek, the peaceful, the persecuted, the living, and the dead.  All blessed by Jesus; all redeemed through his resurrection; all our robes washed and made clean, for we come out of the great ordeal, from death into life.  And that means that you are one of the “All Saints” we celebrate this day.  You are a saint in the Church of Jesus Christ.  Blessed are you.

Amen.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

YEAR A 2017 pentecost 21

Pentecost 25, 2017
Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

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

We use the word “love” a lot in our culture.  We say we love all sorts of things.  As C.S. Lewis points out, we use the same word for a huge list of different loves:  I love my new shoes; I love my cat; I love my family; I love my wife; I love my country; I love God.  One word covering everything from my shoes to God.

Now, of course, these are not all the same kind of love.  But we don’t have multiple names for love in English, do we?  We have to add modifiers about size or amount or something in order to make the distinction.  I love my new shoes, sure.  But I love my wife a whole lot more than my shoes.  (Because I am a hopeless romantic, right?)  And I love God more than I love my country.  And, if I had to choose, I would definitely pick my family over my cats, because I don’t think our cats really love us anyway.

And we also don’t have ways of distinguishing between different kinds of love.  I definitely love my wife in a completely different way than I love my country.  In fact, those two kinds of love have very little to do with each other.  But we’re stuck with just one word having to fill in for all these different kinds of love.

And what’s interesting is that you can see the difference between these loves based on how much they are rooted in emotion and effort.  On the one end, my love for my shoes is purely an emotional reaction; and on the other end, my love for God has very little to do with emotion.  And then if you follow through on that, the more my love is emotional (like my shoes), the less lasting it is.  I don’t make any kind of effort to love my shoes, and when it comes down to it, I could do without them.  And, if I’m honest, it takes some effort to love my country sometimes.  My love for my country isn’t based on emotions; it’s something deeper.  And, if I’m really honest, my love for God takes the most effort of all.

Because lots of times, I spend entire days being angry with God.  If I got angry with my shoes, I’d just get rid of them.  When I’m angry with my children, or with God, getting rid of them is not an option.  I have to “work” at those relationships.  My love for my family isn’t based on how I feel.  Same thing with my love for God.  Because my family and God are too important to me to be based on simple emotions.  Too important to love based on how I’m feeling on a given day.  Emotions are real, of course, but they come and go.  They change over time.  And thank God for that!

So why all this talk about the different types of love?  I mean, you already know that I don’t love my shoes the same way I love my family, right?  Well, the limits of our English language are exposed when we have a gospel text like this one today.  Jesus is talking about love, and we need to know what kind of love he’s talking about.  Does he want us to love God and our neighbor the way we love our new car?  Or that most-fleeting of loves, the way we love watching the Browns win?  Or some other kind of love?

The Gospels were written in Greek, as you probably know.  And the Greek language has many different words for “love.”  Four of them, in fact.  And the four kinds of love are very different.  There is philia, eros, agape, and then a fourth one that wasn’t around in Jesus’ day, so we’ll ignore it.  Philia is the kind of love you have for your friends and family.  Philadelphia is called the city of brotherly love because that’s what the name means.  Eros is passionate love, the kind of love you have for someone you’re dating, or hoping to.  And, most importantly to us, agape is unconditional love. 

Agape love is the kind of love God has for the world.  Remember that familiar John 3:16 verse?  You know, like the guy with the sign at the football games?  For God so loved the world?  That’s the agape love.  God’s love for the world is unconditional agape love.  A love that does not rely on emotion, or good behavior, or anything else.  Unconditional means unconditional. 

So . . . the point of all that explanation is so that we can look again at how Jesus answers the lawyer who is assigned to trap him.  The lawyer asks Jesus to name the most important of all the commandments.  The question is not about the 10 commandments; it’s about the Law of Moses, which is really plural, because there are 613 of those laws.  613 rules to guide one’s life at every single moment, and he asks Jesus to pick the most important one.  It’s yet another test designed to trap him, because he can’t possibly pick the right one out of 613, right?  I mean what are the odds of that?  Well, I guess 1 in 613.  But nevermind.

Jesus, however, knows the most important command.  It even has a name for faithful Jews.  It’s called, the shema, which is the first word of the sentence in Hebrew, meaning “Hear,” as in listen.  The shema is used at morning and evening prayer for the Jewish faithful, and the second verse is, “you shall love the lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength.”  Jesus picks that as most important, which also subtly connects his answer to the act of worship, since this verse is used at least twice a day in worship.  But then Jesus makes an astonishing further move . . .

He says, “And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself’.”  A second one is like it.  Huh?  Loving God with all your heart and soul and strength has nothing to do with people whatsoever.  God is one thing, and people are another thing.  Sure, these might be the greatest two commandments in the Law of Moses.  But where does he get off saying “And a second is like it?” 

Let’s just let that question sit for a second and go back to love.  The word Jesus uses here, as I mentioned is agape: unconditional love.  And, as you may remember, unconditional love is an act, not an emotion.  Unconditional love does not change because circumstances change, or because people do things we do not like.  As a matter of fact, you can have agape love for people you don’t even like.  People who drive you nuts, your enemies if you will, those are people you can still love.  Those are people you can still wish the best for.  Your enemies can still be loved with agape love, even if you would sooner move out of state than talk to them.

This agape love is the love that is commanded in the shema.  You are to love God unconditionally, with all your heart and soul and strength.  Some days you may be very angry with God, or disappointed in God, or disconnected from God; and that may make you feel like you don’t love God . . . if you make the mistake of thinking love is an emotion.  But agape love is not an emotion.  It is an action; it requires effort, or at least intentionality.  Loving God is a decision you make, not an emotion you feel.  And that is why it is a command:  You SHALL love the Lord your God.  Hear, oh Massillon: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”

And now you’re saying, but uh . . . how do I possibly do that?  How will I know when I am doing that?  How can I decide to love God with all my heart and soul and strength?  I don’t even know where to begin, let alone know that I am doing it . . . What if I don’t feel anything for God?  What if I’m angry at God?  What if I feel like I am just going through the motions?  How do I love God in this way?

Jesus said, “And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself’.”
I don’t want to overemphasize the word “like” there, but for a moment . . . let’s give it a shot.  What if loving your neighbor was like loving God?  What if loving your neighbor with all your heart and soul and strength was like loving God with all your heart and soul and strength?  Remember that John 3:16 verse I mentioned?  For God so loved the world?  As we heard last week, the people around you are the eikons of God.  Made in God’s image.  God loves the world.

Maybe this is all just a perfect circle . . . If God so loves the world that God is willing to die to redeem the world, and if God commands us to love God, then maybe loving people like God loves people is how we know we are loving God.  If God loves people that much, maybe trying to love people at least gets us on the path to loving God. 

Have you ever noticed that when you pray for other people you feel better than when you pray for yourself?  Like praying for someone else sometimes puts my own problems in perspective.  Or, sometimes, praying for someone else reminds me that God loves them, even when I may not necessarily even like that person.  The power of prayer isn’t in what it accomplishes elsewhere; the power of prayer is that it changes us, and molds us into the kind of people who are the hands and feet of God in this world.

Loving your neighbor IS loving God.  And loving God IS loving your neighbor.  A second command is like it . . .

But before you get concerned that you will be heading home with an insurmountable task of loving God and your neighbor, let me remind you of this . . .

Every time we make a promise to do what God says we should do, we always promise “with God’s help.”  If you look in the Prayer Book on the Baptismal Covenant, you’ll find a series of questions on page 305.  Here’s the second question:  Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?  And you answer . . . I will with God’s help.  I will with God’s help is the key to it.  God guides and directs us . . . we only need to be willing to be guided and directed.  And in making the promise (and adding, “with God’s help”), we have put things in the right order.  God says, love your neighbor, and we can say with confidence, I will . . . with God’s help.  With God’s help, we promise to love God and our neighbor.  With God’s help.  And I ask you, what could be better than that?

Amen.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Massillon Tigers Prayer Service

Massillon Tigers Prayer Service
October 28, 2017
Hebrews 12:1

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

What a week you all have had!  So much going on.  It makes me tired just reading the schedule, to be honest.  And all week long there have been people yelling for you and yelling at you.  I would guess it all feels pretty overwhelming, and might even make you ask yourself, “Wait.  Who’s the person who’s actually playing this game today?”  And . . . that’d be you.  No matter how much people encourage or discourage you from doing well, it’s still going to be you out there on that field.

And I’m guessing everyone you ran into this week had some piece of advice for you, from how to play the game, to what to eat this morning.  Just because some of all that noise is helpful, doesn’t stop it from being noise. And you all know that everything is going to get a lot louder this afternoon.   And that’s why I want to tell you this:  The annual service here at St. Timothy’s is a chance to just stop all the noise for a minute.  A chance to sit and rest in the presence of God and one another.  For this time here today, it’s okay to just be silent.  To give yourself time to think and reflect and just sit, without taking notes, or yelling back to me, or bracing yourself for somebody running into you at full speed from the side.

A few minutes ago, I read to you that verse from the letter to the Hebrews:  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”

You are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, in the faith and on the field.  Some who have played on this team before you, like our own John Muhlbach, who met you at the door.  And some who are destined to simply watch the game, like me.  But you are also surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, and who cheer you on from a different place.  Some cheer you on from another part of the country, and some cheer you on from another place entirely.

But there’s another part of that scripture verse that I want to be sure you notice.  The writer says, “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”  The race marked out for us.  Because, sure, all those other people are cheering you on, happy to tell you what this game meant for the team in their day.  But today’s game is not their game; it is your game.  Today is the race marked out for you.  No one else will play this game, on this day, against that particular team who shall not be named.

This game is yours alone.  But you are not alone.  That’s the thing that I hope you’ll remember today.  This game is yours alone.  But you are not alone.  Go Tigers!

Sunday, October 22, 2017

YEAR A 2017 pentecost 20

Pentecost 20, 2017
Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 96:1-13
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

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

“Render unto Caesar.”  We use that phrase a lot, right?  “Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar.”  And what we usually mean is, “Vote for the bond measure so our kids can have good schools.”  Or, actually, what we usually mean is, “You better pay your taxes, my friend.”  And like most cases when we borrow phrases from the Bible, we completely mess up the point of the story, and we render unto Jesus a disservice that does not belong to Jesus.

But first, let’s look at the people in the room in today’s gospel lesson. . . . “the room” meaning where they are standing, I suppose.  There are the people called “the crowds.”  These would be basic people of the city.  All walks of life and so on, but for the most part they would be Jews, living under the brutal occupation of the Romans.  If the crowds turn against Jesus, he can be executed without causing a big uprising.  If the crowds are with him, on his side, then it is too risky to have him taken away.  At this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has attracted quite a crowd wherever he goes.

And then there are the people who come to trick him in this scenario.  The Pharisees have cooked up the plan, and they send their disciples to do their dirty work for them.  But, what’s really shocking is that they also send the Herodians with them.  We only hear about the Herodians a few times in scripture, and we don’t know much about them.  What we do know is that they were big supporters of Herod (which is why they’re called, Herodians, of course), and Herod was the puppet governor for the Romans, so . . . sending them along is like sending spies for Rome.  The Pharisees hated the Romans, and also hated Herod, even though he was their ruler.  But on top of all that, the Herodians were followers of the Sadducees, and the Pharisees and the Sadducees hated each other.  (Hatred is complicated stuff!)  So the Pharisees are sending their disciples to meet with their own enemies in order to trap Jesus.  Which means, they hate Jesus even more than they hate their enemies.

Okay, so that’s who’s there when all this takes place.  And then they begin.  They start off by complimenting Jesus, saying what a fine teacher he is.  A man of God.  One who treats everyone equally.  And then they ask him The Question:  “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”  Clever, clever fellows.  But in a sense, their own ignorance is what gets them into trouble here.  If they’re just talking about money, then they totally have him trapped.  Because if Jesus says, “Yes, pay taxes,” the crowd will turn against him, since no one wanted to support the occupying Roman forces.  If Jesus says, “No, don’t pay taxes,” then the Herodians can easily have him arrested for treason against the Emperor.  It’s a good little trap they’ve set, and either answer gets Jesus killed.

But as I say, their own ignorance backfires here.  And we’re liable to get into the same trouble if we don’t look at Jesus’ actual response.  Because it’s tempting to think that this is a lesson in the separation of Church and State.  In fact, for many people, that’s the whole point of this text:

That Jesus wants us to maintain the separation of Church and State.  The first problem with that interpretation is that it’s off by about 1800 years.  There is no such thing as separation of Church and State until the U.S. Constitution talks about not establishing religion.  And even after that, it took a couple hundred years for us to start thinking of using the phrase, "separation of Church and State."  To the group of people standing around Jesus—first century pious Jews—the separation of Church and State is unthinkable.  Their ultimate goal is the union of Church and State, into a theocracy ruled over by The Messiah . . . which they are certain is not Jesus.

Point being, this is not the place in the Bible where Jesus teaches the crowd the importance of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  So if Jesus isn’t giving an American civics lesson, what is Jesus saying?  Well, as they say, follow the money . . .

The coins used to pay the tax to Rome were called denarii.  A single coin was called a denarius.  So, Jesus says, “Show me the coin used for the tax.”  And they bring him a denarius. Then he says to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?"  And they say, “the Emperor’s.”  Now, two things about this:  First, the word we get translated as “head” or “image” is the Greek word, eikon.  (You’ve probably heard that around.)  Second, the Emperor was always called, “son of God,” and it is likely the case that the coin Jesus held in his hand would bear the eikon of the Emperor, with the inscription “Son of God.”  For this reason, observant Jews of that time would not be carrying coins of the Roman Empire, because to carry these coins was blasphemy. 

And you’ll notice that when Jesus wants to show them one of these coins, he does not simply reach into his robe and pull out some change.  And why not?  Because Jesus was an observant Jew, right?  He is not carrying around idolatrous images of the occupying Roman force.

And when he asks for a coin, they bring him one.  I’m not going to judge anybody here, but it sure sounds like the Pharisees’ disciples ARE carrying around blasphemous images of the Emperor.  You know, just saying.

So Jesus holds up the eikon of the Emperor, son of God, and says, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's.”

And here’s where we really need to put on our thinking caps.  If Jesus is saying, “Give the government all your material goods, and give God all your spiritual offerings,” well . . . first of all, that would make for a very difficult Stewardship Campaign, wouldn’t it?  Jesus is not suggesting that God and money should be separated, any more than he was saying Church and State should be separated.  Plus, even a socialist government doesn’t ask for all your money.  He doesn’t say give to the government your entire paycheck and give your prayers to God, right?

It’s not about the value of the coin.  It’s about the eikon.  Whose image is on the money?  The money is identified by the eikon that is stamped on it.  The one in whose image it is made dictates where and what happens to it.  You cannot spend a coin that bears the image of the Emperor outside of his realm.  The coin bearing his image belongs in his realm.

Now, if you like, you can pick up your Prayer Books and turn to page 845.  Or, I can just read it to you.  This is way back in the section called, “Parts of the Prayer Book I’ve never seen before.”  Actually, this is a subsection called, “An Outline of the Faith.”  It’s laid out in question-and-answer format, which is why it’s also called “the Catechism.”  When we look at the very first question:  What are we by nature?  And the response is, “We are part of God’s creation, made in the image of God.”  Made in the what?  The image of God.

You are an eikon of God.  Made in the image of God.  Let’s imagine the challengers of Jesus ask a different question.  What if they ask, is it lawful for me to use and abuse another human being?  Is it lawful for me to mistreat my neighbor, or belittle them, or treat them as though they are worthless?  And Jesus says, "Whose image is this, and whose title?"  Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's.  A denarius is made in the image of Caesar.  And you are made in the image of God.  Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's.

This is not a story about paying taxes, or the separation of Church and State.  Those are paltry, insignificant arguments.  No, this is a story about you and me, being made in the image of God.  Your worth is not based on what society thinks, or how you are treated, or how much money you make.  Your worth is based on bearing the eikon of God, the creator of all that is, seen and unseen.  And the title you bear was given to you in baptism: claimed as God’s own, and living members of the Body of Christ, and heirs of God’s eternal kingdom.  Whose image and whose title?  The image of God, and the title of redeemed child of God, claimed for all time, living in the hope of the resurrection.

So, sure, give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, the taxes that are required.  But, give to God the things that belong to God: your self, your time, and your possessions.  Since you are made in the image of God, then all that you are belongs to God.  You live in the kingdom of God, you belong in the kingdom of God, and no one can take that away from you.

Is it lawful to pay taxes?  Yes,  (And it is required, in case you haven’t noticed.)  But you are not made in the image of the IRS.  You are made in the image of God.  And what is made in the image of God belongs to God.

Remember, you are God’s eikon, whether or not you believe it, and whether not others believe it, it is true.  You are God’s eikon, and no one can take that away from you.  You are welcome in God’s house because you belong to God, plain and simple.

Amen.

   

Sunday, October 15, 2017

YEAR A 2017 pentecost 19

Year A, 2017
Pentecost 19
Exodus 32:1-14
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

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

Such good readings we have today.  That first reading, about Moses convincing God not to kill everyone, there is so much to say about that.  But there isn’t time, because we really need to look at the Gospel lesson we just heard.  Because if you’re like me, you’re asking yourself, what in the world was that about?!?  So let’s start with a wedding.

Imagine an idealized President of the United States.  Not the current one, and not a previous one.  Not a President you agree with or disagree with.  Just, you know, “The President.”

Now, if that President had a child, and that child were getting married here in northeast Ohio, you could expect a pretty big party around here, right?  This would be a celebration on the level that you and I have never seen.  Food we’ve never heard of, from the best chefs in the country, if not the world.  Desserts that would make our children’s heads spin.  Wine from California, and seafood from Alaska, and roasted nuts from Heggy’s.  The works!  All the local sports stars would be there, all the local politicians, and anybody who’s anybody from across the country.  It would be the event of the year, in fact the event of the lifetime.

And now just imagine that you have received an invitation.  Sitting in your little mailbox in Massillon, or Canton, or wherever, you find the invitation on the most beautiful paper, the best ink, with extra postage to make sure it arrived.  You have been invited to the party of the century!  Your first thought is obviously, “What am I going wear?”  But then you see the invitation clearly says, “wedding clothes provided.”  Hmmmm . . . . And your second thought is, “What kind of gift should I bring?”  Then you see at the bottom that the invitation says, “Please do not bring gifts.”

So, now you’re at a crucial juncture on whether you should attend.  Do you trust that invitation and just show up empty-handed in your work clothes, expecting that the hosts really have something suitable to wear?  Or do you wear the best clothes you’ve got, and hope that’s good enough?  And what about the gift?  Can you really trust the claim that no gifts are expected?  I mean, people say that all the time, and we still bring something, right?

Now you’re stuck, thinking: If I do accept the invitation, I’ve got to bring something, and it can’t be cheap.  And that means I’d better get busy earning some extra cash so I can hold my head up high when I meet the living stars of the age.

The invitation clearly says, do not worry about affording any kind of gift . . . The President sends out his (secret) servants and says, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, trying to earn enough to bring a worthy gift.

And then, because this is a parable, and parables are stories on hyper-drive, the invitees seize his servants, mistreat them, and kill them.  The mail carrier brings you the invitation to the wedding banquet.  You think your options are just yes or no, but it seems there are more possibilities in this case.  You could say, “Yes I’ll come, but first I need to make a little extra money at my business or farm so that I don’t show up empty-handed because . . . well, I really don’t trust you when you say not to bring anything.”  But then, though it probably didn’t cross your mind, you could also react like those in the parable:  The mail carrier shows up at your house with the invitation, you swear at them loudly, you slap them around, and do them in.  (Remind me not to invite you to my daughter’s wedding.)

Understandably, the President is enraged at your actions.  He sends his troops into your town, destroys the murderers and burns down the city.  (Remember, a parable is a story on hyper-drive.)  So, since all the people who were supposed to be the guests are either working overtime or are dead, you’d think there would be no party right?  You’d think they’d just call off the wedding and have it somewhere else, wouldn’t you?  I mean how embarrassing for the President’s child to get married and have an empty reception hall.  Better to just donate the food to the poor and have a private wedding down at city hall or something.

And now, a complete change of scene.  Let’s say you were not on that first list of guests.  Let’s say that you’re not even aware the President had a child, let alone getting married right in your neck of the woods.  Let’s say you’re just struggling along trying to make ends meet, minding your own business, and only mistreating the mail carrier by avoiding her, because you know she’s bringing more bills you can’t pay.

The President says, “`The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.' So they went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”  Gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

One day you were struggling along, wondering how you could stretch those leftovers for a third night’s dinner, and the next thing you know you’re standing around with your friends at the most lavish party you will ever see in your lifetime!  You didn’t have to bring anything.  You didn’t have to buy anything.  You didn’t even have to get that suit or dress dry-cleaned because the host provided all the clothes you need.  You did nothing to deserve being here, and you couldn’t have afforded the cost by any stretch of the imagination.  The only thing that merits your being in the party is the fact that you didn’t say “no.”  You’re there, not because you said yes; you’re there because you didn’t say no.  And this is a very strange way to throw a party, don’t you think?  A guest list consisting of all the people who didn’t say “no?”  It’s ridiculous!

So there we all are, standing around in our beautiful expensive provided clothing, enjoying the food and the company and the string quartet and chocolate when all of a sudden, the music stops, and everyone turns toward the door to see the host saying “`Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?' And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, `Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' For many are called, but few are chosen."

What just happened?  Last we knew everyone was happy and chatty.  That one guy really put a damper on things, didn’t he?  But what happened?  He was obviously on the guest list, because he didn’t say no.  (Remember, that’s the qualification for being at the party: not saying no.)  So he wasn’t a party crasher, since being there means he was invited.  What was different about him?  And, more importantly, is there a chance we might get treated like that?  You know, bound hand and foot, and thrown into the outer darkness?

The answer is a question: “What are you wearing?”  If you’ll recall, when the servants came to round us all up for the party, we didn’t have clothes that were good enough for a party like this.  But we trusted that the host would provide everything we needed.  When we arrived, we put on the wedding garments, and partied on!  This poor fellow, the one who gets thrown out, he’s not wearing the wedding garment, you see?  No, he showed up at the party wearing his own clothes, thinking they would be good enough.  He came to the party dressed in his own righteousness.  He thought the fancy clothes he had worked so hard to get would make him worthy of the party.  He didn’t say no to the invitation, but he did say no to the gift of the wedding garment.

The man who is thrown out does not trust that being there is enough.  To give away the parable: He does not trust that God will do for him what he cannot do for himself.  He does not trust in God; he trusts in himself.  A self-made man, who relies on his own efforts to make himself worthy of the heavenly banquet.  And, thus, a fool who is bound to be thrown into utter darkness.

There is a banquet happening here today.  You were invited because you didn’t say no.  The clothing that is required is the baptismal gown, which was provided for you when God claimed you forever in Baptism.  You are called and chosen by God, and that is what makes you a guest at the banquet.  You will not be turned away.  And you are always welcome in this place, whether of not you eat the meal.

The servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.  You are on the guest list for this meal, and it is a foretaste of the Feast to come.

Amen.