Monday, September 20, 2010

17th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 20C

The 17th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 20C
September 19, 2010
Today's gospel reading includes one of Jesus's most challenging parables. It is both challenging to read and challening to preach. Why would Jesus make an example for godly living so unsavory as it is in the person of the dishonest manager? Also, the ending is completely unsatisfactory. We want to see the scoundrel get justice in the end. But that’s not what happens.
So beyond being completely confusing and unsatisfactory, what does this parable have to offer us today? After Jesus tells the story of the dishonest manager, how he tried to repair his swindling by reducing the debts of those indebted to the rich man, he makes a comparison between the “children of this age” who are represented by the dishonest manager and the “children of light” who are presumably the followers of Jesus, his disciples that he is telling the story to (and us). He commends the dishonest steward because he uses all the resources that he has at his disposal, all the things that have been entrusted to him, all his master’s treasures, to bring about a particular vision, that is to save his own skin. The dishonest manager has an understanding of his master, as well as of the people he is working with, and he uses all of that awareness to try to get himself out of trouble.
So one of the questions this parable raises for me is what does it mean to be the children of light? What are the treasures of God that are entrusted to us? How are we called to live into God’s vision for the kingdom?
I think being children of the light means being bearers of the good news. It means that we live within the world but do not live our lives according to the values of the world. It means that we live our lives centered in Christ and his teachings, not putting ourselves at the center but rather putting Jesus and other people at the center. It means using our resources and our energy to work with God to bring all of creation into God’s kingdom. The treasures of the children of light are those things that Jesus has taught us to hold dear. At the heart of it all is God’s love which is freely given to us and which we are called to share with others, above anything that we may gain for ourselves, above even our own lives. The vision of the kingdom of God which we are called to bear witness to is a kingdom where love and relationship with God and others is of greatest importance, where everything else works toward this vision. And the deepest treasure of this vision, the deepest treasure of both love and relationship is forgiveness. That’s what the dishonest manager understood and used to his advantage. How much more are we, the children of light, called to understand and to use this treasure in doing the work of God’s kingdom?
So I had made my peace with this difficult parable, and then God sprung another one on me. I was drinking my coffee and reading the paper on Friday morning, when I saw a picture of the man who I had met at the church a mere few days before the angel statue was stolen from the church grounds back in March. He had introduced himself as Joe, and he was the one I always suspected of being the perpetrator of the theft, and there he was pictured in the paper along with a story about a copper-theft ring that has just been busted in Jackson County. Well, I was quite excited and set the wheels of justice in motion, contacting our wardens, who then contacted the local authorities. Well, the wheels of justice are slowly turning, and nothing further has happened in this at this time, except that this story from real life then started bumping up against Jesus’s parable for me, and it started causing me some real discomfort, and it made me start asking questions.
What is the call of the children of light in this particular situation? Here we have a person who has hurt us tremendously, probably for his own selfish gain. He stole a piece of our history that was precious to us, precious because of who it represents and also because it symbolizes a piece of our church, a piece of our past that weathered the storm and was restored. And he made a complete fool of us and our hospitality, showing up in broad daylight and asking questions about the angel statue, even getting a tour of the church. Personally, I’m really angry at Joe, and I’d like to see them lock him away and throw away the key. But that is the way of the world, and it is the concern of our justice system. I fully support our justice system and trust that process, and I will do all in my power to support it. But, to borrow a phrase from our more Protestant brothers and sisters, I find myself, in this situation, to be “convicted by the gospel.” If we really believe that we are the children of light and we are called to live our lives according to the priorities of God and God’s kingdom, then how are we called to lift up the priorities of love and relationship in this particular situation with this particular individual ? What would forgiveness for this individual look like for us? How might we even begin to go about it?
Let me share with you something that happened to my family when I was growing up, because it is part of my challenge with this Joe situation. When I was a teenager, my family was the victim of multiple house burglaries. At first, they took money and all of our jewelry, mostly sentimental pieces like the gold locket that had been my great-aunt/godmother’s and my leather-bound, gold embossed Bible with my name on it. When they came back, they took the tv and VCR and other larger items, anything they could carry with them. We got the bigger items back after finding them at a local pawn shop, but we never recovered the sentimental items. Eventually, my dad was called down to the Canton Police department, and he looked into the faces of two teenage boys who were responsible for causing my family such hurt and fear. The boys were dealt with according to the law, and we went on with our lives.
Years later, my dad participated in a Kairos event. For those of you who don’t know, Karios is a weekend of spiritual renewal similar to Happening, or Cursillio, but it is held in prison, and the pilgrims are convicts. My dad and the others on the team had spent a lot of time praying before they put on the weekend, praying for themselves and for those they were going to encounter and when dad was there at the prison doing the Kairos weekend, he met one of those two teenage boys who had robbed our house. The young man remembered my dad, and he told my dad about how he had felt when he was handcuffed to the chair in the Canton Police Department and he had to look into the face of the man whose family he had robbed repeatedly. And then, in that prison, where he was doing time for a completely different crime, that man asked my father for forgiveness for what he had done to our family, and my dad, by the grace of God, was able to grant it.
So I don’t know where God is calling us in this thing with Joe, but I know that we need to begin somewhere.
And that somewhere is that we begin by praying. Paul’s first letter to Timothy says, “First of all, then I urge that supplications, prayer, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for everyone”. Don’t just pray for those you like, Paul says, or those who are sick. Pray for everyone, even those who hurt you. And then he challenges us to remember that Christ Jesus “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” and who, therefore, did not just give himself for the children of light but “as a ransom for all,” even someone so self-centered as would steal from a church. So we pray for Joe; and we pray for ourselves, that God may give us the grace and the power to act, not as children of this world, but as children of the light, who are working to help fulfill God’s vision for God’s kingdom.
Let us pray. Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Monday, September 13, 2010

16th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 19C

The 16th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 19C
September 12, 2010
Our gospel lesson for today is 2 out of a series of three parables that Jesus tells in Luke’s chapter 15. Luke starts off by setting the scene saying that “the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus.” As a result of this, the Scribes and Pharisees, the religious insiders, begin grumbling… “What kind of person is this Jesus of Nazareth who’s willing to consort with such a disreputable bunch?…”
When Jesus hears them, he tells the two parables that we heard today and then upon their heels, he tells the parable of the prodigal son, which we don’t get to hear today.
“Which one of you…” Jesus says, wouldn’t go after a lost sheep or search for a lost coin? So, I’m going to need a little help with this part from the kids… We have, somewhere in our nave, a little lost sheep and one lone lost coin, and I need you to walk around quietly and see if you can find them….
(Jeopardy music…)
(When they find it, have a bit of the Hallelujah chorus sung or get crowd to cheer)
Now in just a few moments, we will have a banquet of bread and wine to celebrate the recovery of the lost…
You know, the temptation of this parable for some of us may be to associate with God who searches out the lost, as we in the church are called to do—seek out the lost. (Or some of us may even associate with the lost that are found by God.)
But I bet few of us naturally associate with the Scribes and Pharisees who were grumbling about being included with such riff raff.
But listen to what Jesus says: “Which one of you” would leave 99 safe, healthy sheep to go into the wilderness to find one lost sheep, and then have a party when you found it? “And which one of you” would spend all this time and effort and energy turning your house inside out to find a lost coin and then spend money to throw a party to celebrate?
Not me! It doesn’t make any sense! It seems at the best extravagant and wasteful and at the worst, foolish.
In these parables, Jesus is very clearly telling us (and the Scribes and Pharisees): God’s economy and your economy are very different; God’s priorities and yours are not the same.
But I think the most important issue today is that God calls the righteous, the religious insiders, the older brothers who have never strayed, but who have always been where we were supposed to be and done what we were supposed to do, god calls us to come to the celebration, even though we may not approve of God’s ways, of God’s extravagance, of God’s mercy.
Because these parables are not just about the lengths to which God will go to save the lost. They are also about how the righteous, the religious, the faithful respond to God’s gift of mercy to other people.
Remember just a few moments ago when we were all so happy, so relieved that the children found a fake coin and a stuffed sheep?
How do we respond in real life, in our church, in the world when we see God finding the lost? When we see God’s mercy at work in the life of one whom we don’t judge to be worthy of God’s mercy? What will we say when God says to us: “Come to my feast and rejoice with me, for I have found my child who was lost?”

Sunday, September 5, 2010

13th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 18C sermon

The 15th Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 18C
September 5, 2010
When I was in seminary, I got to hear the former Stewardship officer for the Episcopal church, Terry Parsons speak. She told us, “People ask me all the time why they should tithe, or give 10% of their income back to God through the church. I always tell them, ‘well, the Old Testament tells us to give 10% to God; and Jesus tells us to give up everything, so I don’t know about you, but I’ll take the 10%.”
In today’s gospel, Jesus gives us no such loophole for following him. He tells the large crowds who are traveling along with him as he makes his way to Jerusalem that there are demands for being his disciples. They must hate their families; they must carry the cross and follow Jesus. The must count the cost of discipleship from the very beginning, and finally, if that weren’t enough, Jesus tells them “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” With the challenge set so high, I’m not sure many people could actually become one of Jesus’s disciples, nor am I sure that many would even want to. So where’s the good news in this gospel?
The other night, I watched a PBS documentary called Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio. It’s a documentary about Sambo Mockebee, a friend of my family’s in Canton and about how he created a program at Auburn University called the Rural Studio for which he was awarded a Macarthur Genius grant. The documentary shows footage of an interview with Sambo from before he died in which he is adamant that it is the duty of any professional to work to make the world a better place. His concept of the Rural Studio was his way of doing that through architecture; bringing Auburn students to live in rural Alabama to live in the midst of staggering poverty where they would use recycled materials, innovative architectural designs, and their own labor to build structures to improve the lives of individuals and the life of the community. They built (and continue to build) homes, a fire station, a church, a community center, a Boys’ and Girls’ Club and so much more; most of these structures cost between $8,000-10,000 to build.
In this process the students learn not only how to be architects but also how to make the world a better place, and Mockbee believed that once they were bitten by the bug of using their gifts to help people then they would return to that vocation at some point in their futures. He talked about how at the Rural Studio, the students and professors all worked, ate, and celebrated together, so that some of the normal hierarchies and divisions of academy have no place in that environment. He also talked about how in families, we have people who do ok for themselves and others who aren’t able to, and that as a family, we take care of those who need some extra help. This was foundational in his understanding of the mission of the Rural Studio: that these people who live in abject poverty in rural Alabama are a part of our family who need a little extra help from us.
One of the people that they built a house for was a man called “Music Man” who had lived in a decrepit trailer with no running water. He was known in the community for his love of music and his extensive stereo equipment, and in his interview for the documentary (which was provided with subtitles because his speech was so challenging to understand), Music Man told how he never really went to school but was self-educated through comic books.
At the end of the documentary, they showed the inside of Music Man’s new house, built by the students and faculty of the Rural Studio, and it was a thing of beauty, made from recycled wood with high lofty ceilings and lots of light, and it was absolutely filled to the brim with all of Music Man’s music equipment and with plastic grocery sacks filled with stuff covering every surface.
As I watched I was dismayed to see how this man had filled this beautiful open space with all that clutter, even as he spoke with great enthusiasm of how wonderful and life-changing it was to have access to his own well and running water and not to have to go to the spring to get water.
Then one of the former student architects offered this insight. He said that the goal of the project had never been to radically change the way that Music Man lived and maintained all his stuff, but it had been to make his life better, to take who he was and how he lived and to make it better by providing him a safe, secure place to live, running water, and (this is the part that really spoke to me) high vaulted ceilings to let in both light and air and to give his soul a place to soar above all the clutter and trappings of his life and his poverty.
Urban T. Holmes, who was an Episcopal priest and dean of the school of theology at Sewanee wrote in his book Spirituality for Ministry that there are two ways of looking at religion. Some people see religion as a way of escaping from the harsh facts of their existence, while others see religion as a means of living into the unpleasant actuality of our existence with reasonable hope.[1] That second option… is what Jesus’s call to discipleship today is about, and so in closing, I want to share with you what Sambo Mockbee’s story taught me about this call to discipleship this week.
Discipleship moves us beyond our comfortable ties to kinship to forge new relationships with others who walk this way of faith with us and even with others who may be separated across the radical divide of life circumstance and poverty. It challenges us to expand our understanding of who our family really is. It means sometimes swimming upstream against what culture tells us should be our loyalties, priorities and affections, and using the example of Jesus Christ to order the values of life and our priorities. Discipleship, like anything involves a cost. Cost is what we give up to acquire, accomplish, maintain or produce something. It involves a measure of sacrifice, effort and resources. So often we think nothing of paying the cost of the things, success, or status that the world tells us are important, but we balk at what we perceive to be the steep cost of discipleship.
Discipleship means evaluating our attachments and asking ourselves do we hold our attachments to people, places, things, money, power, success, or status above our attachment to God and our discipleship to Jesus Christ? Discipleship means “the ability to enjoy the world to the full because I am not anxious about losing a bit of it or acquiring a bit of it…[It] also consists of the recognition that I have within my own resources ample enough…to meet [life] creatively so that it builds me up into my own selfhood.”[2]
True discipleship or ministry or giving is not something that is justified in our minds on the basis of what we get from it—money, merit, friends, popularity, success, a good spiritual feeling, or even salvation. Following the Lord Jesus Christ as his disciple is something that we do for the sheer purpose of making the world a better place through the talents and skills and resources that we have to give, and it is an expression of faithful service to the God who created us and as a way of being in relationship with Jesus whom we know to be the way, the truth, and the life.
[1] Holmes, Urban T. Spirituality for Ministry. Morehouse: Harrisburg, 1982, p 67.
[2] Ibid. p 74. Quoting H.A. Williams on Poverty.