Sunday, September 25, 2011

15th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 21A

15th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 21
September 25, 2011
I want you to take a minute and imagine this scene. We are all sitting in here on an average Sunday, worshiping God in our usual custom, when a man enters Gulfport in a triumphant procession—a parade where crowds gather along the side of the roads and they proclaim him king as he comes into town. And then this man walks into our church and starts criticizing the ways that we make worship, conduct our business, help the poor, teach our children, and he starts tearing up the place, turning over tables, throwing prayer books and hymnals out of the backs of the pews and running people out of church. After he leaves, and we manage to recover ourselves, and we come back the next day to try to worship God, then he comes back. You can imagine that we would be somewhat wary and wanting to know why he is doing all of these things.
This is what has happened to the people in the temple in Jerusalem just prior to today’s gospel reading. Jesus has entered Jerusalem in a triumphant procession, with the people shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Jesus then proceeds directly to the temple where he turns over the tables of the money changers and drives out all who are buying and selling in the temple, and then he proceeds to heal the sick in the middle of the temple. Then he leaves and goes to the outskirts of town to spend the night, and he comes back to the temple the next morning. That’s where our reading for today picks up. When he shows back up in the temple, the chief priests and the elders know he is dangerous, and they know they do not want to provoke a similar scene as the day before. So they ask Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” It’s a reasonable question. Perhaps we would ask, “Why are you doing this?” So Jesus, like a good rabbi, answers their questions with a question, and when they do not answer, he tells them a parable, and he concludes the parable by telling them (us) that the tax collectors and the prostitutes, the drug dealers and the petty larcenists are going into the kingdom of heaven before them (us).
In our Wednesday night class this past week, we talked about authority, about what is authoritative for us as Anglicans and Episcopalians, what is authority for us as the people of St.Peter’s by-the-Sea and as individuals. John Westerhoff writes in his little book—A People Called Episcopalians: A Brief Introduction to our Peculiar Way of Life—that authority is the source of our life of faith that is grounded in God as revealed to us in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit; and he says that authority is essentially how we come to know the mind and the will of the triune God (6). Authority is how we come to know the mind and the will of God. So in our reading today, perhaps it might help us to look at the question the chief priests and elders ask Jesus as being—how do you know this that you are doing is a part of the mind and the will of God? And we see how Jesus answers that question.
So, how do we know the mind and the will of God? Paul has an interesting take on this in the portion of his letter to the Philippians that we read today. Paul is writing to the Philippians in this letter about a conflict that they are having between two women in the congregation—Euodia and Syntyche—and he is urging the two women and all of the people to “be of the same mind.” For Paul, this is what that “same mind” looks like: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself…” Paul is teaching them that to be of the same mind as Christ Jesus, they must be humble, they must be empty of their own selfish desires and ambitions and be filled with concern for the other. That is what it means to have the same mind as Christ Jesus. He ends this section by writing, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Get yourself out of the way and allow God to work in you and through your work.
So Paul is saying that we know the mind of God through humility. We find our authority in humility. How does that work?
When the chief priests and the elders refuse to answer Jesus about where John the Baptist’s authority came from, he tells them a parable saying, “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you…’”
What is the dynamic that is going on with the two sons to make the one answer no and then change his mind and go and the other answer yes but not follow through? I imagine that after the father comes to the first son, and he tells his father he won’t go work for him in the vineyard; the son goes back to whatever he is doing, but he can’t stop thinking about his father and his father’s request. He knows his father needs his help to bring in the harvest of the vineyard; he remembers all the love and the support and the goodness he receives from his father, and so he gets over himself and his own preoccupations; he lets go of whatever plans he had that would prevent him from working in the vineyard, and he changes his mind and goes to work. The second son tells the father he will go work, but maybe he gets busy. He’s caught up in the middle of a drama in his own household, he has a major crises he needs to tend to; he’s just gotten to the best part of this novel he’s reading and just can’t put it down. He doesn’t give any thought to the father and the father’s request of him after he answers yes, and he is so preoccupied with his own affairs.
We can only know the mind of God when we make room for God through humility and self-emptying. Humility and self-emptying can only occur when we are focusing on the needs of the other and on the priorities of God.
When writing about this concept of self-emptying in Philippians, theologian William Greenway writes, “One does not ‘self-empty’ by focusing upon oneself. One is emptied of self to the degree one is overcome by the needs, pains, hopes, and desires of others. When concern for others takes one utterly beyond self-interest, beyond obsession with achievements and self-obsessing guilt over failures, beyond self, then one receives the comfort of an Easter ‘yes’ so overwhelming, unconditional, undeniable, and absolute that it is experienced as unfailing and forever—a yes more potent and enduring than any imaginable no”(Feasting on the Word, Greenway,114).
Humility is not comfortable, nor is seeking the mind of God easy. In both, we come into contact with our own brokenness, with our own pain and suffering and with the pain and suffering of the whole world. It is not work for the faint of heart, but through it we will receive the yes of the resurrection.
In closing, I share with you the words from the end of the little book, Falling Upward: Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Franciscan priest Richard Rohr that get to the heart of this understanding of humility and God’s invitation to us to participate in the mind and the will of God. Rohr writes, “Pain is part of the deal. If you don’t walk into [growth and spiritual maturity and the kingdom of God], it is you who do not want it. God will always give you exactly what you truly want and desire. So make sure you desire, desire deeply, desire yourself, desire God, desire everything good, true, and beautiful. All the emptying out is only for the sake of a Great Outpouring. God, like nature, abhors all vacuums, and rushes to fill them” (Rohr 160).

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

13th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 19A (10th Anniversary of 9/11/01)

13th Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 19A
September 11, 2011
It was my second day of seminary at the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York City. I was just beginning to fathom what I had done—having left behind my Mississippi home and family and moved to NYC (with my faithful cat) to follow God’s call into the priesthood.
I was in a small group session on this second morning of classes with some of my classmates, and we were discussing our first book we were reading as seminarians. It was a book titled Resurrection by a man named Rowan Williams—whom none of us had really heard of but who was soon to be named the next Archbishop of Canterbury. And it was a fascinating book about how Jesus’s resurrection and the Christian interpretation of the Easter gospel is the foundation of the Christian life, and the book explored new ways of interpreting the resurrection in our daily lives.
In this little book, Williams talks about how all of creation is caught in this cycle of victims and oppressors and how, periodically, the victims rise up, overthrow the oppressors, and then change places-- with the oppressors becoming the victims and the victims becoming the oppressors.
Williams says that it is Jesus’s crucifixion and his resurrection that finally breaks this cycle—for Jesus the victim does not become the oppressor. Rather, through his resurrection he offers forgiveness to those who crucified him and to those faithful disciples who abandoned and betrayed him, and he offers to all reconciliation and salvation.
It is a provocative little book, as Williams peels back the layers that have built up around the notion of resurrection and invites us to see Christ in the face of all victims—even those who perpetrate great crimes.
Our small group was in the thick of our mid-morning discussion on these issues when the chapel bells started ringing incessantly. Now we’d only been in class two days, but we knew this was odd. The chapel bells rang, as scheduled, three times a day for worship, and it was currently class time and not time for worship. We continued our discussion somewhat distractedly as our tutor, Chris Keller, a seasoned parish priest and PhD student, went to find out what was going on. When he came back, his face was stark white and he said to us, in a breathless kind of voice, “Someone has bombed the World Trade Center! We all need to go to the chapel!”
Confused and alarmed we headed to the seminary chapel where the others students, faculty, and staff were already gathered and praying the Great Litany in the BCP while the 1st Tower burned and chaos erupted less than two miles away.
For weeks following that horrible day, as the ashes blew over NYC and the smell of burned metal hung heavy in the air, I struggled to hold onto hope in the face of so much hatred and so much suffering.
And 10 years later, I still struggle. How do we follow the way of Christ in the face of this? How do we hold on to the hope of the resurrection in the face of evil and suffering? How do we preach about forgiveness on today of all days? How do we hope for healing of these old, deep wounds that we all carry around with us and that don’t ever seem to get healed?
My brothers and sisters, there is good news on this day. There is hope of resurrection. First, there seems to be chaos and destruction for the enemies of Israel and Yahweh in today’s Old Testament reading. It seems to be good news for us because our ancestors in the faith, the Children of Israel are saved from slavery under the Egyptians in one divisive act by God, as they walk through the Red Sea unharmed and then all of Pharaoh’s army and their horses drown in the Red Sea. But it’s rather a grisly picture if we take a moment and think of all those dead bodies floating in the Red Sea, and it’s certainly not good news for the army of Egypt. How can something that is good for one people and so terribly bad for another be good news in the Kingdom of God?
There’s an old Hasidic tale that says that the angels were rejoicing over the deliverance of Israel at the Red Sea. They were playing their harps, blowing their horns, singing and dancing and laughing with joy. When one angel noticed something and said to the others, “Look! The Creator of the Universe is sitting there weeping.” When the angels approached God and asked “Why are you weeping when Israel has been saved and delivered by your power?” The Maker of the Universe answered, “I am weeping for the dead Egyptians washed up on the shore—somebody’s sons, somebody’s husbands, somebody’s fathers.”i
The story of the God weeping over the Egyptians is our story too—the story of God weeping for those who died in the attacks on September 11th, 2001; it is the story of God weeping for the families who lost loved ones, mothers, fathers, and children. It is the story of God weeping over the deaths of those who have died in combat since then, fighting for peace. It is the story of God weeping over the deaths of the terrorists who perpetrated such evil and those who still seek to do others harm.
It is the story of God weeping for us, who cannot lay aside our own wounded-ness and fragmentation; it is God weeping for us who continue to hold onto old wrongs, old grievances rather than relinquish them to God, asking forgiveness for our own hardness of heart and offering our own forgiveness. The Maker of the Universe weeps for all of creation in our wounds and in our suffering whether we are the good guys or the bad guys, the winners or the losers, the victims or the oppressors. God weeps for all and longs for reconciliation with and forgiveness for all.
In this week’s reading from the Letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” Anybody recognize this passage from a service in the Prayer Book? I’ll give you a hint. (sing portion here: “For none of us has life in himself/ and none becomes his own master when he dies. For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord,/ and if we die, we die in the Lord. So, then, whether we live or die/ we are the Lord’s possession. I am resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.”) It’s in the BCP on page 491--the opening anthem for our burial liturgy. It’s the liturgy of the church in which we find the most comfort, the most meaning in the Resurrection of our Lord; it is where we say that no matter what happens to each of us in this life, we find our hope in Christ’s resurrection which proves, once and for all, that God’s love is stronger than anything, even death. It is how we, as the Body of Christ, find hope and meaning in the midst of our sadness and suffering, by giving our hearts to the hope that the lives of those who are the Lord’s possession will always be the Lord’s possession.
In the gospel reading, Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if a brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Peter and the other disciples are embroiled in some minor dispute or offense among them stemming from their previous discussion of who is the greatest, and Jesus says to him, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Do not ever cease in offering forgiveness, Jesus tells them. It’s important to remember what happens in the rest of Peter’s story—how he denies Jesus, abandons him in his most difficult hour, and after the resurrection, Jesus appears to Peter alone, and he forgives him and restores the relationship with him.
Peter tastes the grace of God in Jesus’s forgiveness, and he is formed and shaped by it; he carries this taste of grace into all other conflict he encounters in spreading the gospel of our Lord.
Finally, it is important on this day, to remember that not just our little lives and our individual hurts and wounds will one day be healed and reconciled. All of creation which now groans and longs for fulfillment, for its hurts and its wounds to be healed, will one day become a new creation through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is not something that happened once long ago. It continues to happen, continues to break into our reality and Christ’s resurrection continues to restore not just individuals but the whole big story of all of humanity.
So while you might not be yet healed of your deep wound, your deep sadness, your deep grief, through the Lord’s resurrection, you will be. And while all of humanity may not be healed of our deep wounds, our deep sadness, our deep grief, we will be, through the Lord’s resurrection.
Did you know that every Sunday in the church is a feast day? It is a celebration of the Lord’s resurrection! A sort of mini-Easter, every Sunday. Every week, we are an Easter people, a resurrection community. So even as we wait for the fulfillment of the resurrection in our lives and in our world, we celebrate Easter, we celebrate resurrection.
And we wait. We hope. We pray for healing. We taste the graciousness of God, and we invite others to taste God’s grace. We forgive others, again and again and again. We ask for our own forgiveness. We allow ourselves to be forgiven. And we allow ourselves to be healed.
i. Referenced in 9/6/11 Christian Century article “Living by the Word” by Theodore J. Wardlaw (18). Originally from Albert C. Winn’s sermon ‘A Way Out of No Way: Exodus 14:5-31’ published in Journal for Preachers.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

12th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 18A

12th Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 18A
September 4, 2011

One of the blogs I occasionally read had a slight retelling of our gospel reading for this Sunday.
And Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you…just talk about them behind their back.”
“If another member of the church sins against you…just call a bunch of people in the church to complain about them. You may even want to start a letter-writing campaign against them.”
“If another member of the church sins against you…just send them a nasty email. Copy the clergy. And while you’re at it, cc the bishop…”
“If another member of the church sins against you…don’t say anything. Just avoid them. Unfriend them on Facebook. And if you can’t avoid them on Sundays, then just leave the church…” i
Hmmm. Maybe not…
Let’s go back and look at today’s gospel.
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” I don’t know. Seems like the first way might be easier. Let’s look at what’s going on in Matthew’s gospel in this section and in the surrounding sections.
Here is what scholars say about this passage. First, the NRSV does a disservice by translating the Greek to read “another member of the church.” And it is not certain that the words “sins against you” are in the original text either. A more accurate translation of this passage might be to say, “If a brother or sister sins, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone…” Second, we are reminded that sin in this text does not necessarily have all of the connotations that we put upon it. The word for sin in this text is an archery term which means “to miss the mark.” So now we have, “If a brother or sister misses the mark, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone…” Third, this section of Matthew’s gospel has been called the “Rule of Christ” “because [it] redefine[s] the goals of confrontation or intervention in seeking to rescue and forgive, to offer care in a spirit of humility.”ii Fourth, it is important to look at the context of this passage in Matthew’s gospel. This is only the second instance in the gospels where the term ‘church’ or ekklesia appears, and the first one, we heard two weeks ago, also in connection with the roles of binding and loosing. Fifth, this passage is nestled in between two other passages that shine light upon it, all within the context of the entirety of chapter 18, in which Jesus answers the disciples’ question about who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven by referencing a little child and in which Jesus speaks, again and again, about “little ones”. The passage just preceding today’s gospel is the parable of the lost sheep—in which Jesus tells of a shepherd who has 100 sheep and leaves the 99 to go chase down the one who has strayed. And this passage is followed by Peter’s question of how often we should forgive, and Jesus answers him that we should forgive in a radical abundance, over and over again.
So what do these points tell us about today’s gospel? They tell us that the writer of Matthew’s gospel is speaking to and about a family-the family that is the church universal and the family that is the local church. They tell us that the focus is not on punishment of the offenders but upon reconciliation. They tell us that “the Rule of Christ is to care for the offender or sinner and not necessarily to establish the rights of the offended”. They tell us that it is the “responsibility of the offended one to seek reconciliation.”iii They tell us that reconciliation is an important part of the work that the community of believers does together, and they tell us that one of the key elements in this process and in discipleship itself is humility.
If the church is to be a place of forgiveness, grace, and mercy (for which I believe we all long in our deepest heart of hearts), then we must treat one another with forgiveness, grace, and mercy. So much is at stake in this! We are not just individuals standing before God, we are the entire body of Christ, bound together by virtue of Christ’s love and saving work, bound together by our baptism, bound together by our need for forgiveness and reconciliation. We are in this together, and if we are not actively doing the work of reconciliation within, we are actively thwarting the kingdom of God which we try to proclaim. In his book, Forgiven and Forgiving, Bill Countryman writes, “So I can’t be the only forgiven one. God has forgiven everyone else in the same way and at the same moment as me. That’s a fundamental reality I have to live with. God’s forgiveness isn’t available to me as a separate, private arrangement. It’s available to me only as a part of this big package. This reality has consequences. If I want to withhold forgiveness from my neighbor, I’m effectively withholding it from myself, too. If I am willing for God to forgive my neighbor, I’m allowing God to forgive me, too. It’s all or nothing, everybody or nobody.”iv
The apostle Paul writes about this in today’s portion of his letter to the Romans, and he writes about our call to love, inviting us to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” inviting us to “live honorably” and equating quarreling and jealousy with the sins of reveling, drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness. Paul ends this passage by challenging the church to “Make no provision for the flesh.” For Paul, the flesh isn’t just our fleshly desires. The Flesh represents all the devices and desires by which we try to fortify ourselves—not with Jesus, but against Jesus and against our neighbor. ‘Make no provision for the flesh’ means ‘By God’s grace turn from your self-absorption.”v
It is hard and costly work, this work of reconciliation; this work of turning from our own self-absorption; this work of forgiveness; this work of growth in humility; this work of being in community; this work of loving our neighbor; this work of being the church. And yet, it is the way that we have chosen. It is why we are here, because we have been chosen by Christ, called out to follow him, and in response to his calling we choose to follow Christ; because we choose to follow a different way than the way of the world; because we choose the resurrection, we choose life, we choose the love of God above everything else.
May God give us the grace to do this work God has called us to. And may God help us to continue to choose the way of Jesus Christ, the way of forgiveness and reconciliation, above all else.
i From Rick Morley’s blog post “Before you Unfriend” at
iiFrom Estrella B. Horning, ‘The Rule of Christ.’ as quoted in Feasting on the Word p 45.
iii Andrews, Dale P. Feasting on the Word p 47.
iv Countryman, William. Forgiven and Forgiving (Harrisburg, Pa: Morehouse, 1998), p 42.
v Bartlett, David. Feasting on the Word p 43.