Sunday, November 20, 2011

Last Sunday after Pentecost--Christ the King Sunday

Last Sunday after Pentecost (Christ the King)Proper 29A
November 20, 2011
Today is the last Sunday after Pentecost, the day upon which we contemplate the reign of Christ, and much of our readings and music today depict our lord as Christ the King.
We Americans have a love/hate relationship with royalty that goes back to our very beginnings; we covet our independence from monarchs, even as we keep an eye upon what those glamorous royals in other parts of the world are up to.
Kingship is an ambiguous image for us. My friend Sylvia Czarnetsky tells the story of how she planned a children’s Sunday school in her church once on Christ the King Sunday and the craft for the lesson was that all the children and the grown up helpers got to make their own crowns (made out of Burger King crowns and lots of glitter); and then they all got to wear them around during the Sunday school hour. She says that experience taught her one of the core tenants of kingship that every child seems to know: that is that if a person is king, he (or she) gets to boss everyone else around!
We get a completely different image of kingship in our gospel reading for today. In today’s gospel from Matthew, we get the only depiction of the Last Judgment in the New Testament. It comes at the end of a series of exhortations and parables through which Jesus is teaching his followers about right behavior, right action until he comes again.
In today’s parable, Jesus tells us about the coming of the Son of Man. He says that on that day, all nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And the question that will determine which people are sheep and which people are goats will basically be the question, “What have you done for me lately?” The blessed, or the sheep, will be the ones who have, by feeding, clothing, sharing with and befriending the less fortunate, in fact have been serving the Son of Man. The goats will be the ones who haven’t done this.
So, I have three questions for you today. Now, I’m going to do something a little unorthodox and ask you to actually raise your hands. Who here has ever in your life done what Jesus has asked of us in the beginning of the passage and fed a hungry person, clothed a naked person or visited a person in prison? You have! That’s wonderful! You are the sheep. Now, who here has, even once in your life, walked past a hungry person, failed to clothe a naked person, or not visited someone in prison? Well, that’s too bad. You’re all goats. How many of you raised your hand both times? You know what that means? It means that we are a bunch of good goats.

That little exercise is from a book called Good Goats: Healing our Image of God. And in it, the authors explain more about this concept of what it means to be a good goat. “All of us who have felt alienated, unloved, overwhelmed by shame or helplessly caught in an addiction know what it’s like to be in hell. And all of us who have been welcomed home, who have seen our goodness reflected in the affirming eyes of another or who have been loved into recovery know what it’s like to be in heaven. We all have wheat and weeds within us, sheep and goats. The kingdom of God is within us, and we’re all good goats.”i
What Jesus is teaching his disciples and us in the passage, is that salvation is not something that we can achieve if we work hard enough. Salvation is, like the love of God, something that steals upon us. It is something that we discover, often in the places where we least expect it. Salvation is what we find in those moments when we can manage to glimpse the face of God in the face of the other. Jesus’s kingship is an invitation to us to live more fully into the best of our own humanity. We may not be able to end hunger, to visit all who are sick, to include every stranger. But when we open our hearts to the King’s compassion, then we can look at least one or two of the suffering in the eyes and see them as God sees them: beautiful and lovely and worthy of love. We may not be able to change the world, but we can offer comfort and solace to those who are trampled down by life, in whatever small ways we can, along the way.
So although we’d all like to live more fully into a kingship in which we are the boss and we get to boss everyone around and run the world according to our own way (because face it, we know we could do it…), we follow a king of a different sort. We follow a king who is not too proud or too lofty to dwell with people in their worst moments. We follow a king who does not flinch from touching people right where they are sickest, most broken. We follow a king who dwells in the darkest of places, in the hearts of all of us who are poor, sick, stranger, imprisoned, and naked. We follow a king who invites us to see his face in the face of the other and to find our salvation and the Kingdom of God there.

i. Linn, Dennis, Sheila Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn. Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God. Paulist: Mahwah, 1994, p49.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

22nd Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 28A

22nd Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 28A
November 13, 2011
This past week, I learned something that has disturbed me greatly. A behavioral psychologist in Jackson was sharing with a group of clergy that she had been doing research among people of faith as we approached the vote on the controversial personhood initiative. She said that her research group had gathered significant data that showed that many people of faith were afraid of what would happen to them if they voted no. The data showed that the people of faith believed that God would be watching them when they entered the poll booth, watching to see how they voted, and they feared divine retribution if they voted no. People of faith actually told this behavioral psychologist that they believed that if they voted no on ballot initiative 26 then God was going to get them.
At first I was incredulous. And then I was somewhat scornful. None of these people could possibly be Episcopalians, because surely our theology is much more sophisticated than that! And then I felt so very terribly sorry for those people, for whom that is their faith, those whom have chosen to live their lives in that kind of fear of God.
And then I read the gospel for today. In today’s parable, Jesus tells of a man who is preparing to go on a journey, and he entrusts to three of his slaves an enormous amount of his money. Two of the slaves take the money and use it to make more money, so when the master returns, they give him his money back and then some. The third slave takes the money the master gives him and he takes a shovel and digs a hole in the ground to bury the money and keep it safe until the master returns. But when he returns that money to the master and confesses his fear to him, the master severely chastises him and has him cast into the outer darkness.
We make a mistake if we read this parable to be about God and the nature of God’s kingdom. This parable is, instead, about us and about all the people of God. The chief problem of the third slave, especially in contrast to the other two slaves, is the failure of his imagination. It is the chief failure of all people of faith, this failure of imagination. We can see it all throughout the story of God and God’s people: God invites peoples’ trust; God invites peoples’ best hopes, their best dreams, and our imaginations fail us. We cannot get over thinking that God is just as small as we are. We cannot imagine God to be any bigger, better, different than ourselves. And in that way, we fail, again and again and again.
Think about the stories of our faith, how the Israelites turned away from God over and over again because their imaginations failed them, their trust failed them. Think about the Pharisees, the Scribes, even the disciples. How they could not see the glory of God who was right in front of them because of the failure of their imaginations. We see this failure of imagination at work in the faithful community at Thessolonika, to whom Paul is writing to invite them to expand their imaginations, to not be discouraged, to remember their hope. He writes to capture their imaginations once again with the real hope “that God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.”
If we are truthful, we see this failure of imagination at work in our own world, in our own church, in our own lives. Truly we are not so different from those people who thought that God was going to get them if they voted a certain way. We all share in this failure of imagination regarding the goodness and the abundance of God.
The theologian James Allison writes about the success of the imagination of the first two slaves in this parable. He writes, “The key feature of this parable is that it is the imagination of the servants as to what their master is like which is the determining factor of their conscience and thus the wellspring of their activity. The first two servants…trusted that their master was the sort of daring fellow who would do rash and crazy things for which there was no script, would dare, would experiment, would risk losing things and so would end up multiplying things greatly. In other words, they perceived their master’s regard for them as one of liking them enough to be daring them and encouraging them to be adventurous, and so, imagining and trusting that abundance would multiply, they indeed multiplied abundance.”i

Again and again, Jesus invites us to step beyond our fear; to allow ourselves to be inspired by hope; to leave behind the limits of our own imaginations; to give our hearts to God’s abundance; and to stake our lives on this radical abundance that is so far beyond anything our own imaginations can provide. If only we could do this, if only we could give our hearts and our imaginations to God’s abundance, what a different world we would dwell in! How different our own lives would be!

Here are the readings for today:

i Allison, James. On Being Liked. London: Darton, Longman, & Todd, 2003, p 109.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A letter to those being baptized on the Sunday after All Saints

Sunday after All Saint’s Day
November 6, 2011

Dear Avery and Gabe,

Today is a very special day. It is the day when we are gathered to baptize you both and to begin the life-long process for you of walking the way of faithfulness to God through following the path of Jesus Christ. It is the day when we gather together to promise to support you in your life of faith, even as we renew and reaffirm our own baptismal promises. It is the day when we remember all of the saints who have come before us, those who have walked this way with us, and even those who will come after us.

In the gospel reading for today (on this day of your baptism) we see Jesus giving his first sermon, and he is telling his disciples, the crowds and us two very important things in this sermon. Jesus is, first and foremost, telling us about the nature of God, and he is telling us how to follow him on the path of faithfulness to God.

In this sermon, Jesus is telling us that God’s kingdom is based on the values of God and not on the values of this world. God values mercy, humility, kindness, peace, righteousness. God values the weak, the powerless, the little children; all those who most often get trampled by the powerful. And to be faithful to God and the values of God’s kingdom, then we must give our hearts to things which would seem to profit us little: mercy, mourning, peace, and meekness.

Jesus tells us that way of discipleship that we begin at our baptism is the process of following this road to the Kingdom of God. And we are both already there in the moment of our baptism as well as traveling there until the day of our death.

As you each walk this road of faithfulness all the days of your lives, may you remember what Jesus is teaching on this first day of your life of faith:
You are on the right road when you are poor in spirit for only then can you truly possess the kingdom of heaven.
You are on the right road when you mourn, and you will be comforted.
You are on the right road when you are meek for you will inherit the earth.
You are on the right road when you hunger and thirst for righteousness for you will be filled.
You are on the right road when your heart is pure for then you are able to see the face of God.
You are on the right road when you make peace and God will claim you as God’s child as God does on this day.
You are on the right road when you are persecuted for upholding the values of the Kingdom of God and you will thus belong to that kingdom.
You are on the right road when people despise you and mistreat you for the good things for which you stand and in that, you share kinship with our Lord Jesus who has gone this way before you through death and into new life and resurrection.

There may be times in your life and in your faith, when you feel so lonely, so overwhelmed, so unfulfilled, you so long for something more and better and not so difficult that you do not know how you can bear to continue down this road. And on those days, I invite you to remember this day, when all the believers past, present, and future gather together to promise to uphold you on this way and who, from this day forward, shine the light of their lives and their faith ahead of you into the darkness toward Jesus who walks this road before all of us. You do not walk this road alone, but you walk with a whole host of companions, a great cloud of witnesses.

There will be times as you follow this way of faithfulness that you will be faced with impossible choices. There will be times on this way when parts of you will die. Sometimes they will be the sick, unhealthy parts of you that keep you from God: your pride, vainglory, and selfishness. But other times they will be your deepest hearts desires: your hopes, your dreams and your wishes for the future. In each of those deaths, God is present with you in your mourning, and God offers you new life, new hope on the way.

Finally, we gather together this day to celebrate. Because no matter what hardships we might face in this life and on this road of faithfulness, we know the end of the story. We live the end of the story. We baptize you this day into the end of the story: that no matter what happens, God’s love is stronger than absolutely anything, even death. On this day, we baptize you into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is the way that we follow for faithfulness in God and to live into God’s kingdom; we seal you in the Holy Spirit and mark you as Christ’s own forever. And we celebrate with you, because from this day forward, no matter what happens in your life or what hardships you endure, you belong to God. And God’s love always wins. We promise to help you remember, and to walk this way with you. We promise to help you remember joy, to know peace and to hold fast to hope.
Your sister in Christ, Melanie+