Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Saturday, October 29, 2016

YEAR C 2016 pentecost 24

Year C, 2016
Pentecost 24
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Psalm 119:137-144
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Luke 19:1-10

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

Ah, the story of Zacchaeus.  The dearly beloved tale of a short guy who makes a turn around into being a good guy.  That’s the essence of the story, right?  If you ask most people what they know about Zacchaeus, they will tell you he was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.  Much like what they know about Little Rabbit Frufru is that he runs through the forrest bopping mice on the head.  What I mean is, we don’t usually look too carefully at the story of Zacchaeus because we know it from the song . . . or we think we know it . . . And besides, I bet we have a nagging sense that really looking at Zacchaeus would be like, you know, really looking at the Itsy Bitsy Spider.  Serious people have better things to do.  Like pay their taxes.  Which brings us back to Zacchaeus, quite naturally.

Part of what trips us up with the story of Zacchaeus I think is . . . Well, you know, good manners.  It’s impolite to make fun of someone who is vertically challenged.  We just don’t do that, right?  My wife is just under 5 feet tall, and one learns to be careful with the topic of height around her.  In the words of Shakespeare’s Helena, “Though she be but little, she is fierce!”  But mainly, we just don’t take kindly these days to pointing out someone as being “short in stature.”  Many scholars claim that Zacchaeus being “short in stature” is really a reference to his position in society rather than his physical height.  And others have noted that, because of the grammar, it’s possible that the short in stature refers to Jesus, not to Zacchaeus. 

While all that may be true, deflecting the light of Zacchaeus’ being short kind of short-circuits what Luke is doing in this story.  In order to see what is happening, or perhaps what is not happening, we need to turn back the clock to the Ancient World.  We need to put ourselves in the place of Luke’s contemporaries, the people who would have been reading and hearing this story for the first time.

In the Greek and Roman world, the physical and the spiritual state of a person are linked together.  In fact, physical maladies and deformities and irregularities were considered to be caused by inward spiritual dysfunction.  About six chapters earlier in Luke’s gospel, we hear of a woman who is bent over from illness and comes to Jesus for healing.  (It came up at the end of August, though you were probably on vacation.)  Same thing with her: She was considered unclean spiritually because she was misshapen physically.  Perhaps you remember Jesus’ disciples asking him whose sin caused a man to be blind, his own or his parents.  It was an understood fact of life in those days that spiritual brokenness causes physical distortions. 

But Luke the physician is always bucking against this crazy notion.  Luke over and over breaks down this myth, and in order to see him doing it, we have to set aside our manners and call Zacchaeus what Luke wants us to call him: A Short Greedy Empty Man.  No dignity, no morals, no height.  Nothing but a scoundrel in his little town.  AND, there’s a connection between the name Zacchaeus and the word “righteous.”  People in Luke’s day would have seen the irony in the name Zacchaeus.  The last thing this guy could be called is righteous.  He’s a short swindler.  And one thing people were sure of back then was that shortness caused greed in people.  A compensation sort of thing. 

So a short man essentially sells himself short at the career faire, and goes with what people expect of him.  He becomes a tax collector, swindling his neighbors in order to make himself rich and satisfy his insatiable greed, which, remember, is caused by his shortness and spiritual emptiness.  Luke’s audience has these assumptions hard-wired into them, and that is what will make it so powerful by the time it’s over.

So, a rejected and obviously sinful short man wants to see Jesus, and he runs--totally undignified--runs to climb up a tree.  Luke’s audience would find this highly entertaining, see?  Grown men did not run; grown men did not climb trees; but Zacchaeus is not grown, get it?  It’s like a whole package playing right into their expectations.  At best, Jesus would not notice someone like this.  What Luke’s audience is probably expecting is that Jesus will smite him or something for all his wickedness . . . Which is related to his being short. 

And Jesus gets to the spot, and everyone’s waiting to see what happens, and Jesus says, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today."  WHAT?!?  No no Jesus, you’ve obviously got the wrong guy here.  Zacchaeus is the ironically named short swindler.  You cannot possibly go to his house!  And all who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner."  So not only does the crowd dislike the little short sinner, now they’ve got a grudge against Jesus for going to his house.  It probably even makes some of them begin to doubt who Jesus is, since Jesus obviously doesn’t get who Zacchaeus is. 

And then we come to this tricky spot.  Because our translation has Zacchaeus making a future promise about how he’s going to behave.  But that’s not how it is in the original language.  In the Greek these verbs are past tense, or actually present tense.  Zacchaeus does not say “I will” do these things.  He says I am doing these things.  Half my possessions I have given to the poor, and when I have defrauded anyone I pay back four times as much.  And the reason this matters is because if we’re not careful, we can end up turning this into a story about salvation coming from good works.

If Zacchaeus is promising how he’ll act from now on, then it sounds like salvation comes on account of his change of heart.  Jesus comes to visit, Zacchaeus makes some promises to be a good guy, and then Jesus says “Salvation has come to this house.”  Before you know it, this becomes a story about how promising to be good is what saves us.  And if promising to be good actually made you good, well, the world would be a much better place, that’s for sure.

So, they’re standing in Zacchaeus’ house now, and Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house.”  This works on a couple levels, of course.  One is that Jesus is Salvation, right?  Jesus is the one who saves.  So, yes, salvation is literally standing in Zacchaeus’ house.  But it also works on the level that Zacchaeus is reminded of his true identity.  You may remember that Jesus does not say, “Today salvation has come to this house because Zacchaeus made some good promises.”  No, Jesus says this:  “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.”

This is the true identity of Zacchaeus.  He is a son of Abraham.  He may be short, but that is not his identity.  He may make his living as a tax collector, but that is not his identity.  He may be laughed at and rejected by his neighbors, but that is not his identity.  Jesus proclaims to the world who Zacchaeus really is:  A son of Abraham, a child of God, one to whose house Salvation has already come.

And that is why the story of Zacchaeus is so important to you and me.  Because we live in a world that is telling us we don’t measure up.  We live in a place that puts us in our place if we don’t look right, or don’t own the right things, or go to the right school, or get the right job.  Every society wants to have its Zacchaeuses to kick around.  And whether we are the ones doing the kicking or the ones being kicked, it does not change our identity.  Jesus has claimed you as his own in the waters of baptism.  Your identity is sealed by the Holy Spirit, and you are marked with the cross of Christ forever.

No matter what message you may hear throughout your life, that is not your identity.  Because salvation has come to your house as well.  Because you are a child of God.  You are a member of God’s household.  And no one can take that away from you.

And this morning you are welcome at this Altar for that very same reason.  Those who live in the house together share food together.  And the meal we share this morning brings life, and forgiveness, and joy.  And, no matter how tall you are, you are most certainly welcome to a seat at this table.

Amen.

Massillon Tigers Prayer Service, 2016

Massillon Tigers Prayer Service, 2016
Psalm 100
Ephesians 3:14-21

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

So, I know you have the big Rivalry Game today.  This annual match-up between the Tigers and . . . that other team, has a long history, going back to before anyone in this room was born.  In fact, before our grandparents were born, this annual contest has been being played, year after year.  And I’m guessing this rivalry game will continue to be played long after we’re all gone.  You are part of a great team, and a great tradition, and I’m honored to lead this service for you today.

Two things stand out to me about things that have a long history.  First, it makes you part of something much bigger than yourself.  Football is, by it’s nature that way as well.  You play as part of a team.  No one player can do it all, and the whole team rises together.  And, at the same time, you are part of a long history of teams from Massillon, and this season, you have each added your own little contribution to that respected heritage.

And the other thing about things that have a long history is, you don’t have to worry about breaking them.  I just started as the Rector at St. Timothy’s in August.  This church has been a part of Massillon for 180 years now.  One of the things I appreciate about being somewhere with so long a history is, I don’t have to worry about totally messing things up.  Like, it’s not going anywhere, and that helps me to relax and do what I’m supposed to do.

I hope you can see the connection in all that to being part of this team, in this town, on this day.  There are generations of Tigers fans and players cheering you on.  And you play for a team with enough history that you can play with confidence.

But mainly, I just want to remind you of this:  You are part of something much bigger than yourself.  And being part of something bigger than ourselves can carry us forward when we need support.  I am convinced that this is why church is still important in so many people’s lives.  Because the Church carries us along as part of something bigger than ourselves, something  we can believe in, something to support and be supported by.

God made some of us to play sports, and God made some of us to enjoy watching sports.   So give thanks to God for how you were created, and enjoy this amazing opportunity to play what is surely one of the best football games on the planet. And that includes enjoying the opportunity to give it your all, to respect your opponent, and to respect the game.   And let me close by telling you I hope you beat the snot out of them . . . with the love of Jesus, of course.

Amen

Saturday, October 22, 2016

YEAR C 2016 pentecost 23

Pentecost 23, 2016
Joel 2:23-32
Psalm 65
2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18
Luke 18:9-14

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

At last, we have a parable that makes sense!  The ironic twist at the end, that “this man went down to his home justified” is exactly how we want this story to end.  The proud man is humbled, and the humble man is lifted up.  And you and I can now walk right into the trap of thanking God that we are not like that Pharisee.  It’s only natural, right?  The Pharisee thanks God he’s not like the Tax Collector, and we thank God we’re not like the Pharisee, which makes us like the Pharisee.  Ugh!

But my aim this morning will be to help us step out of that trap, and see how this parable from Jesus might actually be helpful to us, rather than a stumbling block.  So first, let’s look at the men’s professions—if we can call them that.

Pharisees, in Jesus’ day, were the good guys.  You’ve heard me say that before, and you will hear me say that again.  The Pharisees were the good guys.  They spent their days trying to obey the Law of Moses so that they might protect the Law of Moses.  It was important to them to be as upstanding as possible, and a good Pharisee was therefore an upstanding citizen of the community.

On the seriously other hand, tax collectors were worse than you think.  They were more like tax farmers, who paid tax to the Romans, and then collected it from their neighbors.  So, imagine someone who pays your $1,000 in State taxes and then comes to you and says, “Your state taxes are $2,000; pay up.”  By definition, the only way a tax collector back then could make money was by overcharging his neighbors.  In case it isn’t obvious, people hated tax collectors.

Jesus starts the parable by saying, “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”  Anyone listening would jump to the short hand of, a Good Guy and a Bad Guy are going up to pray, got it.  So then what happens?  And then the Pharisee begins to pray . . . “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”  Now, we have to drill down a bit here, as they say.  Jews were required to fast once a year, on Yom Kippur.  This Pharisee fasts twice a week!  A hundred times the required amount.  And, tithing for faithful Jews consisted of tithing only on agricultural produce and reared livestock.  This Pharisee gives a tenth of ALL his income.  The Pharisee is a model of faith—not just a good guy, but a very good guy.

And the Tax Collector?  We don’t need to know what the Tax Collector did each week, because tax collectors were by definition bad people.  There is no such thing as a good tax collector.  This is not like “You’ve got to pick a pocket or two.”  Tax collectors cheated their own neighbors . . . for a living!  So, yeah, no need to explain how the Tax Collector is bad, because they all were.  Both these men are exactly as the listeners would expect.  A good guy and a bad guy are going up to pray.

And, of course, the key is how they pray, right?  You’ll notice that the Pharisee is announcing at God (and anyone who can hear) what a good guy he is.  He is letting God know that he deserves not only to be justified, but also to be patted on the back.  And, just to be sure it sounds exactly right, the whole prayer is framed as a thank you to God.  Dear God, I am grateful that you made me so super awesome!  Especially compared to the people who are not so awesome, like this tax collector right here.  The Pharisee is telling God all about himself.

Now, the Tax Collector tells God about himself as well.  He pleads, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  The end.  No details, no comparison to anyone else, no justification or explanations.  Just, “be merciful to me, a sinner.”  And anyone listening to this story would’ve said, “Duh.  We already knew that!”  So there’s nothing surprising to those listening to Jesus.  Except that maybe the good guy is even better than a regular good guy would be, and he’s even thanking God for making him such a good guy.  All sounds just like we’d expect.

And sitting here, 2,000 years later, even we can tell who is the better man, right?  If I asked, “Which man would you rather have as your neighbor?”  The answer is the Pharisee.  (Which is not the same as, which one would you rather have a beer with, probably.)  But when it comes to morality, the Pharisee wins this one hands down.  His actions are spot on.  And if good behavior is what justifies us, then move that man to the front of the line!  The obvious conclusion is that this man will go down to his home justified.

But nope.  Wrong answer.  Salvation does not come from good behavior, sorry.  Being good does not make you justified.  It is not what we do that saves us; it is what God does that saves.  Your good behavior is just your good behavior.  Now you’re thinking, “Is he telling us, ‘don’t behave’?”  No, I’m not.  I think behaving is good.  (I even wish that I could.)  I’m just saying that your morality (even a super-charged Pharisee morality) will not bring you to the point of going down to your home justified.

Following the law makes society better for everyone; but it is not what saves.  Living a moral life makes things better for both you and your neighbor; but it is not what justifies.  There are plenty of reasons to do the right thing; but thinking it brings salvation is not one of them.  You cannot save yourself, no matter how good you are.

So then what?  And what about prayer?  Is there no point in talking to God?  Good questions.  Let’s look at the purpose of prayer.

In a sentence, we could say that the purpose of prayer is to put us in right relation with God and our neighbor.  That is, praying to God reminds us that we are not God.  Prayer makes us mindful that we are reliant on the One in whose hands all creation is held.  Prayer humbles us before God.

And, as far as our neighbor . . . well, remember how Jesus says to pray for our enemies?  To pray for those we don’t like?  We don’t pray for them so that God will come around to loving them.  We pray for our enemies so that we will come around to loving them.  When we pray for our neighbor, we are acting in love toward them, even if we don’t like them.  We do not pray for our enemies by asking God to smite them; we instead pray for their needs, we pray for their well being, and that makes us start to want what is best for them.  So, yes, in a sentence, we could say that the purpose of prayer is to put us in right relation with God and our neighbor.

Now, with that in mind, let’s look at how these two prayed in the Temple.  The Good Guy “standing by himself,” thanks God for how awesome he himself is, and uses his neighbor as a foil to magnify just how awesome he himself is.  He lets God know how grateful he is that he is “not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers.”  He reminds God how he goes over and above what is required, that he is above reproach, and that he lacks nothing when it comes to righteousness.  It’s like an annual job performance review.

The Bad Guy, meanwhile, is “standing far off,” and “ would not even look up to heaven.”  His prayer?  Simply this: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”  That’s it.  And Jesus then tells us, “This man went down to his home justified rather than the other.”  This sinner, who cries out for mercy, is the one who goes home justified.  Dare I say, we should be like the sinner?  Yes.  I do so dare.

The morality of the Pharisee is good for society, to be sure.  Just as the immorality of the Tax Collector is bad for society.  Obviously, life would be better for everyone if we had more people tithing, and fewer people ripping people off.  So again, I’m not saying, “Don’t behave.”

But when it comes to prayer, we would be better off having more of us praying like the Tax Collector (“God, be merciful to me, a sinner”) and fewer of us praying like the Pharisee (“Oh, Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way.”).  And all the while, we must resist the temptation to say, “God, I thank you that I am not like that Pharisee,” since that makes us like that Pharisee.

The bottom line is this:  Stick to what you know and confess every week:  I am a sinner in need of God’s forgiveness—just like my neighbor—and trust that we are all redeemed by what God has done, in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And whether or not we succeed at living upstanding moral lives, we are all welcome at this altar.  Because we worship a God of second chances.  We worship a God who justifies tax collectors.  We worship a God of redemption.  And we all go down to our homes justified, because of Jesus.

Amen

Friday, October 21, 2016

Marriage of Lisa and Eric

October 22, 2016
Song of Solomon 2:10-13; 8:6-7
Colossians 3:12-17
Mark 10:6-9, 13-16

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

So, we’ve gathered here on this most happy occasion.  And I am well aware that you did not come here today to hear me preach.  Which is good, because I did not come here to preach at you either.  So, we’re all on the same page.  But it does fall to me to say something about the lessons we just heard, and the marriage we’re about to witness.

The first part of that gospel you just heard, the part about a man shall leave his parents and be joined to his wife, and two shall become one flesh . . . you’ve probably heard that before.  And if you’ve ever seen a wedding, even in a movie, then you’ve definitely heard the phrase, “What God has joined together, let no one separate.”

But what might have struck you as odd is how the reading then skipped ahead to the disciples of Jesus trying to keep him from blessing the children who were coming to him.  What’s up with that, right?  And how is that possibly tied to a woman and a man leaving home and being joined as one?  Well, the clue comes from what Jesus says after saying to let the children come to him.

Jesus tells the disciples, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”  In other words, he is telling them—and us—the importance of accepting blessings as they are.  Without overanalyzing and bringing our adult cynicism and doubt into the room.  He is telling them—and us—that despite what you may think, Jesus welcomes the children.  Jesus welcomes everybody.  He is telling them—and us—that a better world is possible.  A world where a couple decides to join hands and then promises to support one another, to love one another, to walk into the future together, for better or for worse.

Today, for Lisa and Eric, they are stepping into the unknown.  And since none of us can know what the future holds, they are stepping into life together just as a child steps into the unknown.  Jesus might now say to them, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not step into marriage like a little child will never enter it.”

And can you see why that is?  There are a thousand reasons to tell people not to get married.  Statistics, and personal stories, and societal “grown up” cynicism.  But there are plenty of better reasons to risk joining together . . . in hope, in love, and with God’s blessing.  Jesus might also say to us today:  “Let Eric and Lisa come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”  What God has joined together, let no one separate. 

Lisa and Eric, we wish you every happiness, and a long life together.

Amen.

Friday, October 14, 2016

YEAR C 2016 pentecost 22

Pentecost 22, 2016
Jeremiah 31:27-34
Psalm 121
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

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

Well, here we are once more back to looking at a morally ambiguous parable for our gospel text.  Special thank-you to the Lectionary Committee.  There are many reasons this text is troubling.  And a few reasons why this text often does more harm than good in the lives of Christians.  But my main goal this morning will be to get us to consider a different way of interpreting the parable we just heard from Jesus.

So first, beware the road of knee-jerk interpretation.  The typical way to read this parable is to see God as the judge, and see ourselves as the widow: and therefore, the obvious takeaway is that a life of persistent prayer wears God down into relenting.  That is, if we—like the widow in the story—will only pray without ceasing, then God will finally relent and grant us whatever it is we’ve been praying so hard for.

Two problems with that interpretation jump out, though.  First, and most obvious, it suggests that God’s response to us, and even God’s care for us, is dependent upon our efforts at convincing God to notice us.  If you are human, and I think most of you are, you have already experienced some devastating loss and tragedy in your life.  You have probably prayed to God that something would or would not happen.  Something like praying against the death of someone who means the world to you.  Or praying that the loss of a close friendship or marriage would not come to pass.  Or praying that the financial hardship you’ve been going through might finally come to an end.  To be human is to suffer, it seems, and a good amount of our prayers to God really come down to asking God to make things turn out okay.  We pray that we would find that the patient had recovered, the workplace didn’t close, the relationship didn’t end.

And then, despite our fervent prayers, things don’t turn out how we’d hoped.  Our prayers were not answered.  And we are faced with the horrible dilemma: has God abandoned me?  Or was it that I didn’t pray hard enough?  Or, to today’s point, should I have been more like the persistent widow in this parable?

Here’s the thing:  If we approach prayer in such a way that we imagine God sitting on a judge’s bench waiting to be convinced by our pleading to take some action . . . well, what kind of loving God is that?  That is how the ancient Greek gods act; it is not how the God who brought the people out of Egypt acts.  AND, it implies that when our prayers are not answered, it really was our fault.  We should’ve prayed more.  We should've prayed harder.  We should've enlisted more friends to help us pray.  As though God’s love for us were just some huge castle door we need to push open by brute force to gain access.  But I want to tell you this: when tragedy strikes, when things go wrong, it is not at all helpful to think that it is all up to you to pray harder.  In very plain terms: A God who truly loves you does not play hard to get.

The second problem with this parable takes us back to our constant refrain over the summer with these parables in Luke: When you read the parables, do not automatically assume that God is the one in authority, or the one in power.  We tend to reflexively assume that God is the judge in today’s parable, right?  That’s why we think badgering God will get us what we want and need in our lives.  You just have to convince God to help you, like the widow did.  But I need to remind you how this judge is described in today’s Gospel: “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.”  That’s not God.  And here’s another way you can tell the judge is not God . . .
Over and over in the Hebrew scriptures, God insists that the people pay special regard to the widows and orphans.  Widows and orphans were powerless in that society—as they mostly are in our society—and, if those who had some means to help them did not care for them, the widows and orphans had nothing.  God does not hold out against the pleas of a widow; on the contrary, God has a special regard for them.  This judge in the parable is trying to ignore the widow, and is trying to deny her justice.  This judge is not God.

Which brings up another thing about this parable.  It is easy to misunderstand the word “justice” when it shows up in the scriptures, because we have a completely different understanding of, and approach to, justice.  We have ended up with the Roman method of justice, which is—essentially—retribution justice.  We make the guilty pay, often without regard to helping the victims.  The ancient Jewish understanding of justice is restorative justice, which is more like making sure the victim gets a just compensation.  So, in our time, if I steal from you, the emphasis is on making sure I am punished for stealing.  In the Jewish culture of that time, if I stole from you, the focus would be on making sure you were compensated.  Very different goals.

Jewish justice sought restoration, justice for the oppressed.  A judge would be, by definition, on the side of the widow.  So, with that understanding of justice, the judge in our parable is a pretty lousy judge when you think about it.  A judge without regard for the widows and orphans should not be a judge in the first place.  The whole point in having a judge back then was to set things right for those who have no voice.  This judge is dis-ordered, and not worthy of being a judge.  This judge is not God.

There is a great little gem, which is hidden from us in our English translation of this parable, and which I just find so amusing.  The judge says, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”  The part of that statement that gets translated as the very mild “so that she will not wear me out” is actually something more literally like “so she will stop beating me black and blue,” or “stop giving me a black eye.”  Poor old meanie judge, afraid of a defenseless widow, right?  This judge is not God.

So now you’re saying, “Okay, okay, we get it.  The unjust judge is not God.  So now what?”  I’m glad you asked that.  I’m going to tell you what I think this parable means, and—I admit—it might be very far afield from what you might hear other people say about this parable.  But hear me out.

What if God is the widow in this parable?  What if the one who keeps coming back, pleading for attention is Jesus, seeking to set things right, and to get a fair hearing for a restoration of how things should be?  We like to think of God as all-powerful, all Zeus-like, throwing thunderbolts and taking names.  (But I remind you, this same God chose to come to us as a defenseless baby in feeding trough behind a sold-out hotel.)  God is not above appearing in whatever form it takes to get us to pay attention.  To notice that things are not right in the world.  Seeing God as a defenseless widow in that culture would be radical, yes, but we worship a radical God.

And as for the judge . . . what if you and I, deep down, are the unjust judge?  Maybe it is our hearts that have no fear of God and no respect for anyone.  When we truly examine ourselves, we can see that without God in our hearts, we might just find what the judge says describes us as well, and our innermost attitude about God and our neighbor.  We truly have no fear of God and no respect for anyone.  We, by nature, consider ourselves above others.  We, by nature, tell God that we can do it on our own.  We want to be in control of our lives, in a very uncontrollable world, and prefer to think that we are going to get along just fine.

And then along comes this widow, this Jesus, pleading for restoration.  Pleading for our attention so that he can change our hearts.  And, yes, we obviously can go about our business, having no fear of God and no respect for anyone, and get by just fine.  But, as we always find to be true, tragedy strikes.  Things happen.  We are, in a sense, beaten black and blue, and given a black eye.  And still, along comes this widow, this God in disguise, trying to get our attention.  This widow keeps coming back, day after day, giving us the black eye that marks us as people who need redemption.  People who need another way.  A better way.

And you and I reach the point where we say, “Enough!  I give up!”  And that is exactly when it all turns around.  Because in that moment, we are no longer the ones who have no fear of God and no respect for anyone.  Because you and I have passed through the waters of baptism.  And when we renew our baptismal covenant, we find ourselves promising to respect the dignity of every human being, with God’s help.  With.  God’s.  Help.

So, yes.  Left to our own devices, we are apt to have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, just like the unjust judge,  But with God’s help, we can do all things.  And now, we suddenly find ourselves somehow in the position of the widow in this parable: pleading for justice, to the One True Judge, asking God—the One Just Judge—to hear our cries, and joining together in the meal that assures us that God is on our side.

Today, God is meeting us in this place.  And God will restore us, and send us out into the world in peace, to love and serve the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

YEAR C 2016 pentecost 21

Year C
Pentecost 21, 2016
Jeremiah 29:1,4-7
Psalm 66:1-11
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

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

When I was a child, I was unfamiliar with the word "leper."  But I was quite familiar with the word "leopard."  The Jesus I learned about was an awesomely brave man who stared down leopards.  10 of them in this one story alone!  Everyone else was afraid of the leopards, but not Jesus.  No, he would reach his hand out, touch the leopards, and they would heel!  My father spent months trying to get our Brittany Spaniel to heel, and she never would.  Jesus could just reach out with his hand, and get TEN leopards to heal.  Just like that.  Leopards!

Of course, at some point, I learned that a leper is a person, and Jesus didn’t seem so tough anymore.  But then, eventually, I learned what leprosy was, and suddenly Jesus seemed even braver than he had, back when I thought he worked at the circus.

As you may know, leprosy is an awful disease, and was much scarier in Jesus’ time because there was no cure.  (Though, even then, leprosy didn’t make your limbs fall off.)  It was considered among the worst diseases, and also made you ritually unclean.  Anyone who touched a leper was considered unclean, and no God-fearing Jew would go anywhere near them, let alone touch them.  So, actually, for Jesus to be touching lepers and healing them was even braver than getting a leopard to heel.

And, as you heard, in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus encounters 10 lepers at one time.  They call to him from a distance (since lepers were forbidden to approach others, for fear of contaminating them with their unclean disease).  So, these lepers stand at a distance and call out “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  Ten unclean people, standing at a distance, pleading with Jesus for mercy.  Notice, that Jesus does not heal them then.  Instead, Jesus says “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”  And as they went they were made clean.

Several things are significant here.  First, to a pious Jew (like Jesus), there were things to be done when one is cured of leprosy.  At some point when you’re up to finding out, you can turn to the 14th chapter of Leviticus and read all about what a healed leper has to go through.  32 verses involving birds and yarn and hyssop and fresh water and shaved eyebrows and a lamb and grain and fire and blood and an earlobe and a thumb, a big toe, and a log.  Unless the person is poor; then there’s a different set of things.  But the first step of all this is to present yourself before the priest . . . AFTER being cured of leprosy.  And given what the priest has to do to make you ritually clean, all that stuff with animals and big toes and fire and stuff, I would imagine that a priest would not be too excited to see a former leper show up on his doorstep.  They didn’t get paid overtime.

You’ll notice that Jesus sends them to the priests before they are cured.  Before there is any evidence that they need to turn to Leviticus 14, the lepers do as he says, still covered with horrible sores, and head off toward the priests.  Jesus has not promised to heal them.  He has not done anything except to see them, and send them to the priests.  AND THEY GO!  Is this faith?  Is this stupidity?  I don’t know.  But they go.

And on the way, one of the lepers realizes he has been healed.  He praises God with a loud voice, and turns back to go to Jesus.  He falls at Jesus’ feet and thanks him.  It was his natural response of gratefulness for what God had done in his life.  When Martin Luther was asked to describe true worship, it is said that he pointed to this leper for his definition: Praising God, bowing down, and giving thanks to Jesus.  Our natural response to what God has done in our lives.  Praise, worship, and thanksgiving.

And as a little aside here, I want to point out that one leper returns to God.  One out of ten.  10%.  Does that remind you of anything?  Tithing perhaps?  Isn’t that interesting?  Though every good thing comes from God, 10% returns.  AND, though all ten are redeemed by the power of Jesus’ healing, 1 out of ten is dedicated to the worship of God.  Are the other nine any less healed?  Any less redeemed?  Any less loved by God?  Of course not.  But it is an interesting thought, as I say.  Though 100% belongs to God, only a small percentage returns to God.  Okay, but I know I’m kind of reading that into the story.  So, back to the story . . .

The one healed leper comes back to Jesus, and offers praise, worship, and thanksgiving.  The other nine we might say are being ungrateful.  Or rude.  They are showing what my grandmother might call, “bad breeding.”  The temptation is strong to turn this story into an object lesson on the importance of writing thank you notes.  And maybe you’ve heard that kind of lesson yourself.  You could read this gospel to your kids and say, “and the moral of the story is, always say thank you when someone heals you of leprosy,” or what have you.  Don’t be ungrateful.  Saying thank you is a sign of good breeding.  But the ONE person who returns to thank Jesus is a half-breed.  A Samaritan.  A mud-blood.  Samaritans do not have good breeding; they have wrong breeding.  Again I remind you that he returns because he can’t help it.  His worship of Jesus is a natural response to the joy he feels in being cleansed and redeemed.

This is not a lesson about good manners, writing thank you notes, or being kind to others.  If this kind of story were just a morality tale designed to remind us to say thank you . . . well, first of all, the 9 ingrates would not be healed, right?  I mean, you can’t make the point of the importance of being grateful if the people who aren’t grateful get the same reward, right?

So what do we make of this story then?  Jesus finishes by saying to the leper, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”  And the word used for “well” here could also mean  “whole,” or “healed”  Aha!  Maybe the point is that Jesus offers salvation to the people who are grateful.  Could that be the point?  Maybe Jesus only saves the people who are thankful that he saves them?  But not only is that kind of backward, it also doesn’t fit what the text says.  All ten lepers were healed on their way to see the priests.  One turned around because he could not help it.  The other 9 were doing as they were told.  But all ten were healed.  It is not the gratefulness that heals this one leper.  It is not the good deed of showing thankfulness that heals him either.  Jesus does not heal him because he is grateful.  Jesus heals him because of his faith.

And of course we WANT it to be his gratefulness that saves him, since we want our children to be grateful.  But it seems to me that his faith is shown in doing as Jesus says, despite all evidence to the contrary.  And, as I reminded you last Sunday, faith is a gift from God.  Jesus says go, and faith makes us go.  Jesus says to ten lepers, who still have leprosy, go and show yourselves to the priests.  All ten lepers head off to see the priests, apparently sure enough, or desperate enough, or filled-with-faith enough that they start toward the temple.  Still lepers.  Still unclean.  Still outcasts, whom the priest will not even speak to, let alone perform sacrifices for.  They go off, given the gift of faith, trusting that Jesus will heal them, make them well, make them whole.  And Jesus does.

All are healed.  All are made whole.  One in ten comes back to worship.  One in ten responds with gratefulness to God’s unmerited healing.  A small percentage sees what God has done, and they sing songs of praise, they proclaim God’s love, they profess their faith, they pray together, and they share God’s peace with one another.  And then in gratefulness they come to the altar, where God feeds them with a life-giving meal.  And then they hear the reassuring words, Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.

Jesus loves the lepers and he makes them whole because of their faith.  Jesus loves you, and does the same in your life.  Whatever it is that makes you feel unworthy, or unloved, or unclean, leave it behind as you go on your way, and come back to worship Jesus.  Together, we cry out “Lord Jesus, have mercy on us!” Together, we bow down in praise, worship, and thanksgiving.  Together, we come to the Altar of Jesus to be made whole.

Amen.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

St. Francis, 2016

St. Francis, 2016
Jeremiah 22:13–16
Psalm 148:7–14
Galatians 6:14–18
Matthew 11:25–30
Preached at Solemn Sung Eucharist, Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, OH

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

Jesus says, “you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.”  It almost feels a little offensive, doesn’t it?  Like your two choices are one, to be wise and therefore not understand, or two, to be a clueless infant and receive the revelation of God.  It seems kind of unfair.  Backwards even.  Because every message you get from the world is that it is important to become wise and intelligent, and from an early age people have been telling you to stop being such a baby.

And beyond that, the natural progression is to go from being an infant to becoming wise and intelligent.  It’s sort of one of the goals of a life well-lived: to become wise and intelligent.  You can’t go backwards on this one.  So it seems like whatever Jesus means by this, it must mean something different than how we are apt to take it.

Jesus also says, "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

It sounds nice, doesn’t it?  But what does it even mean?  With all due respect Jesus, people who work with their hands are carrying heavy burdens every day.  Not to mention the metaphorical yet real burdens the others are carrying.  And with the pace of life these days, we are all terribly weary.  We have come to Jesus, and many of us are not getting very much rest.  And since a yoke is what we put on oxen to plow a field, taking on the yoke of Jesus sounds like more work, no matter how easy it might be.  The burden of Jesus might just be the thing that breaks our backs.  The last thing we need is more work, even if it’s work done for Jesus.

But let’s back up a minute and ask the obvious questions that pop up from these statements.  Burdened by what?  And, if the burden of Jesus is light, who are the ones whose burden is not light?  And, come to think of it, What exactly is a yoke?  Good questions.  Glad you asked them.

So, Jesus’ disciples called him their Rabbi.  I’m sure you all have at least some idea of what a Rabbi is.  Essentially, a Jewish teacher, right?   And you know that the Torah is the first five books of the Old Testament; and you know that the Torah is the most sacred thing on earth for the Jewish people.  A Rabbi in Jesus’ time would interpret the Torah for his disciples.  Usually this interpretation meant adding things on, or carefully explaining to their disciples exactly what God meant by a particular rule or law.  Different Rabbi’s had different interpretations of the finer points of the Torah, sort of  like what we would call a “school of thought.” 

You might prefer the teachings of one Rabbi over another, and so you would approach that Rabbi and ask to become his disciple.  And if the Rabbi said yes, you would then be expected to adhere to the Rabbi’s interpretation of the Torah.  And—here’s the important thing—a  Rabbi’s interpretation of the Torah, his school of thought was called his yoke.  If you followed a particular Rabbi, you took his yoke upon you.

There were plenty of Rabbi’s around in Jesus’ day.  And any Jews who were serious about becoming disciples would choose a Rabbi and take his yoke upon themselves.  Jesus says, "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light."  The implication is, the easy yoke of Jesus is different from the alternatives.  In order for that statement to have any impact on those listening, it would mean that the yoke of the other Rabbi’s is difficult, and their burden is heavy. "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

We could say that the yoke of Jesus is just two things: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Just two things, perhaps coincidentally the same number of oxen that fit into a yoke when someone plows a field.  Coincidence?  Probably.

I am not going to go on and on about all the implications of this, but I do want to be sure to tell you one thing, in particular:  over the course of your life, many people will come to you claiming to be disciples of Jesus, but also trying to burden you with a heavy yoke.  A yoke with all sorts of preconditions, and legalisms, and laws, and rules, and barriers, and who knows what else.  But if the yoke someone is trying to present to you is heavy and burdensome, then it is not the yoke of Jesus.  Because the yoke of Jesus is easy and light.  They are trying to get you to take on someone else’s yoke, and you should follow Jesus, not whatever it is they are trying to get you to believe.

To follow Jesus means to rely on him.  To trust that God has done for you what you cannot do for yourself.  You don’t need to carry the heavy burden of trying to get God to love you.  You don’t need to take on a whole bunch of rules about behavior and good conduct to prove that you love God.  You do not need another yoke; you only need the yoke of Jesus: learn from him.  You will find rest for your soul, because his yoke is easy and his burden is light.  And taking on the yoke of Jesus changes everything, because Jesus changes everything.

And this evening, the yoke of Jesus leads us all to this Altar, where Jesus will meet us in the bread and the wine.  Trust him to meet you in the breaking of the bread, to carry your burdens, and to give you the strength you need to face tomorrow.  These are the things that are hidden from the wise and the intelligent, yet revealed to infants, like you and me.

Amen

The Aus (um) Lecture, 2016

The Aus Lecture on Evangelism
Delivered at The Craft of Preaching Conference, Luther Seminary, Oct. 3, 2016

Given that tonight’s event is described as a lecture, Michael and I figured there probably should be at least some small part of the evening that has the feel of being a lecture.  So, this will be that lecture part that you had coming to you.  So prepare yourselves to receive a talking to.

Now, I don’t mean to scare you, but I am going to say the word . . . EVANGELISM.  The Aus Lecture (in which you’re now sitting) is intended to cover some aspect of Evangelism, which is surprising because—in my experience, growing up Lutheran, and now an Episcopal priest—Evangelism is a word that makes the people I know very uncomfortable.  Combine the word Evangelism with the word Lecture, and boy oh boy, you’ve got a party!

Michael and I never made the claim to be evangelists.  We were just two guys who wrote songs about Jesus and played concerts for a living.  On the other hand, it is true that for 30 years we traveled around the country and the world, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ . . . which really does sound like evangelism, come to think of it.  We even made our first concert tour riding bicycles . . . which really sounds like Mormon evangelism, truth be told.

So, what I’m trying to say here is mainly this: We never set out to be evangelists.  But we did sort of back into it, in a way.  Or, more accurately, looking in our rearview mirror, it seems clear to us that we were in fact “doing evangelism,” and it didn’t seem scary or intimidating at all.  So maybe the first thing one has to do when considering taking on some of that evangelism stuff is to get rid of the images you have in your brain of people with angry signs and bullhorns, or people walking around the neighborhood with scary little tracts that have pictures of flames and screaming sinners in torment.

Set aside the images that come into your mind when you hear the word “evangelism,” and try replacing them with images that go with what the word means: The English word “evangelism” comes from the Greek word euaggelion. In the noun form, the word means: “gospel” or “good news.” In the verb form, it is to “announce” or “bring good news.”

If you remember nothing that we say or do tonight, I hope you will remember the definition of evangelism.  To announce good news.  And then, the next question might just be, “How do I do that?”  I’m glad you asked.  Though I don’t know how you do that, I can tell you how we did that, back when we were traveling around playing our little songs.  Or, more accurately, I can tell you what we’ve identified as the three main components of how we’ve done that . . . through the miracle of hindsight, of course.  The three important parts of what we did through music consisted of Content, Communication, and Community.  (Whenever you list three things in a lecture, they should all begin with the same letter.)

We’ll get to Content in a couple minutes when I tag-team over to my trusty assistant Michael D. Bridges, but I want to focus on the Community and Communication parts first.

First there is Community.  There’s an old saying, anything worth doing is worth doing in community.  Now, granted, that old saying might only be 10 seconds old because I just made it up, but if it isn’t an old saying then it should be.  (In memes, we should attribute it to Mark Twain or Winston Churchill.)  But it’s true: Anything worth doing is worth doing in community.

The importance of music in building community is sort of obvious when you think about it.  Church services have opening hymns; baseball games have national anthems and 7th inning stretches; blowing out candles is preceded by singing Happy Birthday.  Getting a group of people to sing together is a sure-fire way to get a community of individuals gathered into one.  (Whereas blasting rock music from overpowering speakers is not . . . just saying.)  When a bunch of separate individuals all sing together, a community forms.

And you can get a sense of what builds community by looking at the opposite.  Think of the things that keep people isolated from one another.  For instance, a band keeping listeners in the dark (could there be a more apt metaphor?)  In our experience, being able to see the people is just as important—if not more so—than having them see us.  I know that’s not the way it’s usually done (and the spotlight union would have something to say about this, I’m sure), but just imagine if you and I were having a conversation and I was shining klieg lights in your face like a film noir interrogation.  Or flip it around and ask yourself how valued you feel if I have spotlights on me while we're trying to have a conversation.

Plus, keeping the lights on in the room enables people to see each other (i.e. form a community).  We once played in an auditorium in Michigan that was v-shaped, meaning the people on one side of the room could not see the people on the other side.  (Think, “The Dating Game.”)  What this meant, in the moment, was that any interaction was lost to half the room.  “Hey, young person in the 20th row on the east side of the wall, cool hat.  Sure wish people on the west side could see it.”

And the main point of ALL of that about Community is this: A group of people who feel united and on the same page feel supported in that moment in time.  People who have arrived as strangers sometimes end up leaving as friends.  Sometimes they end up married, truth be told!  (The Lost And Found Matchmaking Service has been remarkably successful.)  We maintain that a Community gathered is more fertile ground for a message of hope and salvation, and more ready to receive . . . The Communication.

In our experience, Communication needs certain components to work.  Speaking for just ourselves, we’ve found those components to be something like music (duh), humor, transparency, and respect.

The first three (music, humor, transparency, which do not begin with the same letter unfortunately) are kind of obvious, if you’ve seen a Lost And Found concert.  Even someone who hated our music would recognize that we tell jokes, play songs, and act like ourselves during a concert.  Music, humor, transparency.  But the respect aspect is something that took us a long time to understand, because it never occurred to us that we were doing it.

Well, here’s what I mean by that.  At some point, after a concert, a pastor came up to us and said something like, “The reason I think our kids enjoy coming to your concerts is because you treat them all like they’re already in.”  He meant a combination of “already saved,” and “already a part of the group.”   We didn’t see that as even being a thing until he pointed it out.  Because . . . well . . . they are in.  We are in.  It’s like we all got an invitation to a party.  You came.  So did we.  How weird would it be if we talked to you—at the party—like you weren’t invited or didn’t come?  Weird, right?  When people feel included and respected, they are more apt to listen.

In the course of our travels and participation at various gatherings across denominations, we have seen lots of communicators communicating.  Some effectively, some not.  Ideally, you have a good communicator with good content.  Sometimes, you see a bad communicator with good content, which is just kind of sad, and you hope they get better because the content was so good.  Conversely, we have seen presentations where we say to one another, the best thing about that presentation was that they were unable to clearly communicate those awful ideas.  And, of course, the most frightening combination of all is an effective communicator with scary content.  That’s the kind of person who can convince an arena full of young people they are all going to hell, by using a series of humorous anecdotes and emotionally gripping narratives.

And speaking of an arena full of young people going to hell, approaching a group like they are out and you are in often leads to a little phenomenon we like to call The Prayer of Condescension.  When we’ve provided music at events that are Primarily Denominations Other Than Lutheran (or, PDOTLs), the leadership often gathers before the event begins in order to pray The Prayer of Condescension.  The crucial starting point for this prayer is the idea that the kids are not in.  The kids do not have what they need to be loved by God.  The kids are—quite bluntly—destined for hell.  UNLESS . . .

Exactly.  Unless the speaker is effective in delivering the message that will turn these kids around.  And so, the Prayer of Condescension goes something like this:  “Father God, we just come to you tonight asking for a clear pathway to save these precious kids from burning forever in hell . . .”  And then it’s a list of everything that could go wrong, lest God forget to anoint those things to work properly, like the sound system, and the worship band, and the temperature of the room.

The goal of the Prayer of Condescension is that impediments would be removed so that the kids out there will be able to receive OUR wisdom.  Because, the group of youth pastors and organizers have the thing these kids need, but the kids don’t know it.  We have the message of salvation, see, and the kids, the outsiders, just need to get what we’ve got, the tremendous wisdom that only we possess.  So, Father God, just let the sound system work, and the kids’ texting machines not work.  Just let my words be clear, and everything else just be silenced.  Let those outsiders become insiders like us, the wise ones gathered in this dark Convention Center concession stand, where popcorn butter and spilled soda soaking into our shoes are making our steps stick slightly to the cold cement as we walk to the brilliantly-lit stage where, Father God, your focus also will be.  Amen.  (Roll fog. Cue deafening worship band.)

And from that point, Michael I just pray that the speaker is a bad communicator, because—as we’ve seen—the content is definitely going to be harmful.  And this is why Lutherans, and others, have a hard time imagining doing evangelism.  The starting point for that kind of evangelism—the kind that assumes everyone is going to hell if we don’t get out there and stop them—is that some people are insiders, and some people are outsiders.  And if you think that way, then you are forced to develop a really effective and convincing argument to explain why someone needs to get saved.  Which we don’t have, because that is not how we think about people, or about God.

We were once playing at a small youth gathering in Michigan with a our friend Bart, who is—or who was—a Baptist speaker.  And being a Baptist speaker, Bart took every opportunity holding a microphone to do an altar call.  But his style was different from most that we’ve seen.  Because Bart always took an approach that was more an enticement than it was a threat.  Sort of more “come and be with the God of life” than “don’t go and burn in hell.”

So this little youth event was being held at a Lutheran church.  And on Sunday morning, during the worship service, Bart used the sermon time to try and, you know, get a few kids saved.  And, toward the end of his talk, he invited all the kids who wanted to get right with God and live a new life of joy and peace to come forward to the altar so he could pray for them.  Every single kid in the room got up and joined Bart at the altar.  Because every one of them considered themselves to be in need of God’s forgiveness.  And every one of them considered themselves to be IN.  What our friend Bart did not realize was that what he was really doing was what we all call Confession and Absolution.  (And we do it every Sunday morning, Bart.)

From what we have seen, the first thing to remember about evangelism is that everybody is already in.  You’re not trying to bring them something they don’t already have.  You’re just reminding them of what God has already done for them.  Evangelism is good news, right?  And if you’re telling someone a bunch of stuff that doesn’t sound like good news, then you are not doing evangelism.  The Good News is always good news.

Here endeth the lecture.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

YEAR C pentecost 20

Year C
Pentecost 20, 2016
Lamentations 1:1-6
Psalm 37:10
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10


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

Well, here we have yet another gospel text that leaves us scratching our heads saying, “Huh?”  The first part, we get.  You know, the mustard seed and all that.  That’s easy: Yes, Jesus, we get it.  A little bit of faith is a powerful thing that grows into a very big tree . . . or, in this case, is powerful enough to uproot the strongest tree and cast it into the ocean.

But then it’s almost like someone pushes Jesus out of the way and takes over speaking for him.  What’s all this about slaves and stuff?  And what does it possibly have to do with faith and mustard seeds?  And what’s with this closing bit about “we are worthless slaves; we have only done what we ought to have done?”  Where’s the Jesus who loves us?  Where’s the Jesus who encourages us?  Where’s the Jesus who invites us TO the table to sit WITH him?

Sometimes it helps to back up and look at how we got to today’s reading.  So let’s do that.  The gospel section we just heard begins at verse 5 of chapter 17.  In the 4 verses before this reading, we have Jesus warning the disciples not to be a stumbling block to anyone else.  It would be better for you to have a millstone tied around your neck and be thrown into the sea than to cause a little one to stumble.

Then Jesus tells them that if a fellow disciple sins against them seven times a day and each time asks for forgiveness, they must forgive him or her.  Seven times a day.  Every day.  49 times a week.  196 times a month.  17,885 times a year, the same person sins against you, asks for forgiveness, and you are required to forgive them.  Plus, if you’re lucky, all the while, someone stands nearby with a millstone and a rope looking into the sea, since that would be better than whatever else is in store for you.  And then we come to verse 5 . . . where the disciples say, “Increase our faith!”

Of COURSE the disciples beg him to increase their faith!  With an exclamation point and everything!  Jesus has just laid out an impossible collection of things they must do.  You can just imagine them looking around saying, “Um, we’re going to need a bigger boat!”  And they rightly equate that boat as being faith.  More faith.  God gives them faith, and faith allows them to accomplish great things, so therefore, they need more faith.  If a little bit of faith gets you a little ways, then it stands to reason that a lot of it will get you a lot of ways.  So, sure, the disciples are understandably a little greedy for more faith, after hearing all that.

But Jesus’ response to them is really weird, isn’t it?  I mean, they ask for more faith, and he makes it sound like the smallest amount of faith could move mountains, or at least really big trees.  It’s almost as if Jesus is saying, “What do you mean MORE faith?  You haven’t got ANY faith, silly!”  I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a mustard seed (they make mustard out of them), but they’re really, really small.  Like a grain of sand maybe.  Jesus is using the smallest thing that his disciples could imagine, and saying, “If you ONLY could have this much faith.”  The message seems loud and clear: the disciples do not have any faith at all.

And this is where we all say, “What?”  They’ve left everything to follow him.  Isn’t that faith?  They’ve risked their reputations, their families, their jobs . . . if that’s not faith . . . well, what is?

And that’s the real question for us today: What is faith?  Because whatever faith is, it seems like when the disciples ask for more of it, Jesus is saying you don’t even have it yet.  So, let’s start with trying to see what faith is . . .

First of all, faith is a gift.  We don’t acquire faith, or earn faith, or practice faith.  Faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit.  It is not something you earn or possess, and it comes to you as God gives it to you.  A lack of faith is a gift not yet given.  Faith is not a supernatural power that you store up and then request more of in dire situations.  When the disciples say, “Lord, increase our faith!” it’s kind of like saying, “Lord, increase our Jedi powers!”  Or, “Lord, make us invincible to kryptonite!”

Secondly, faith, at its most basic, is trust in God.  As Paul says, faith is the hope in things unseen.  Faith is trusting that God will empower you to do what you have to do, to endure what you face in life, to live out your own unique calling in the world during your own brief life-span.  Faith is trusting in God to make you able to do the things you could not otherwise do.  And, in a full circle kind of way, faith is trusting that faith itself is a gift.  Which means you do not have to panic about not having enough faith.  God will provide the faith you need, when you need it, to do the things God wants you to do.

And that leads us to the second part of today’s gospel reading—the really strange part.  After the mustard seed thing, Jesus goes off talking about how we treat our servants.  (I know the word used is “slave,” but servant and slave are the same word in Greek, and I don’t want us to get hung up on a completely different issue.)

The important question to ask here is, who is Jesus talking to?  His disciples, right?  These are working-class people.  These are fishermen, and tax collectors, and work-a-day Joes.  And Jesus says, “You know how it is when your servants come in from the field, right?”  And you can just imagine all the disciples nodding their heads saying, “Oh yeah, Jesus, when my servants come in from the field I never let them eat with me until they make my dinner.”  In case it’s not obvious, the disciples have no idea what it is like to have servants!  They do not know what Jesus is talking about.  Or, at least, they’ve never had the experience that Jesus is describing.  They can imagine it, sure, but the disciples are not the kind of people who have servants.

And it should come as no surprise to you that Jesus knows his disciples do not have servants.  They’ve never had servants, and they never will have servants.  This is like saying to them, “You know how it is when you’re buying a block of real estate in downtown Canton to put up your skyscraper, right?”  Jesus knows they don’t know what he’s talking about.  So why is he using this example?  I think the answer comes in the second part.  The harsh part.  The part that makes us really uncomfortable.

Jesus says to the disciples, “When you have done all you were ordered to do, say ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done’.”  Yikes!  But first off, let me help us with that word, “worthless.”  The word in Greek means something more like, “people who are not owed anything.”  Or, maybe, people who have no claim to something.  You know, people who need to rely on the kindness of strangers.  The disciples (and we) are not worthless in God’s eyes.  Far from it!  But we are people to whom nothing is owed.  And that’s an important balance to keep in mind.

Our society will tell you that you are what you accomplish.  That your worth is measured in what you achieve in life.  And the obvious implication of that thinking is that people who do more are somehow worth more.  People who succeed in life are somehow more worthy than those who struggle to get by.  And it’s a short drive down that road until we are saying that some people are less important than others, or that some people are not worthy of our time, or effort, or love.

Contrary to what you will hear all day, every day, life is not about what you can accomplish.  Your value is in being beloved of God.  Whether you are a servant at the table, or the king of Canton, your value is in God’s love for you.  And God loves you because of who you are, not what you do.  You are a baptized, redeemed child of God.  That is your identity.  That is your calling.  That is why God loves you.  You are precious in God’s sight, whether you one day die from cancer, or some day turn out to be the one who finds a cure for it.

And, you know, the blessing of animals is not far off from this whole thought.  We are something like our own pets are to us.  I love my cats because they are my cats.  They do not earn my love.  (I mean, come on, what cat ever did?)  But every night and every morning those cats get fed.  Whether they deserve it or not; all they have to do is show up and they will be fed.  Kind of like you and me.

We don’t come to this altar because of our accomplishments.  We don’t come to this altar because we deserve to come.  (Because that would rule some people out . . . like the person standing closest to the altar.)  No, we come to this altar because we are invited, and it’s as if we can hear the can of food being opened.  We can’t probably even explain why we come back to this place time after time.  But what we know for sure is that each time we return, God faithfully feeds us, with the gift of faith, the power to endure, and the knowledge that we are each the beloved child of God.

Amen.