Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Nineteenth after Pentecost

Matthew 22: 1-14 (Proper 23A2):  Dress for Success!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Eighteenth after Pentecost

Proper 22A2 Matthew 21: 33-46

It’s Monday of Holy Week—that’s the setting of our New Testament reading, Matthew 21.  The time left is very short.  The storm is gathering.  Jesus at the Temple, the rabbi from backwater Galilee on center stage at last.  It doesn’t get any more prime time than this.  His last extended public teaching, in debate with the preeminent religious scholars and leaders of the nation and with a large crowd of Jewish pilgrims in attendance, as they have come from every corner of the world to observe the Passover in Jerusalem.   Jesus begins to speak with two parables, two short, symbolic, allegorical stories that share in common a concern for, a focus on, a Vineyard:  The  parable we had as our gospel reading last Sunday, the Parable of the Two Sons, who are called by their Father to work with him in the Vineyard,  and as we heard this morning the Parable of the Unruly Tenants , who abuse the privilege of their stewardship of the Vineyard.  Jesus is being poetic, I guess we could say, but not obscure.  Everybody listening understands, and our Old Testament reading of course reminds us, that the vineyard is a deep and rich Biblical symbol.  Israel as the Vineyard of the Lord.  God’s Nation, God’s Kingdom.

So a father calls his two sons to come work along with him in the Vineyard.  The first son seems to react impulsively in the negative:  he says “no, father, I’ve got better things to do,” but then comes to himself, reconsiders,  repents, rolls up his sleeves, and goes out to join his father.  A pattern that might remind us of the other “Parable of the Two Sons, that we usually call the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  The Son who gets lost, but who finds his way home.  The second Son this morning on the other hand gives a positive answer right off the bat, says all the right words, very enthusiastic, everything you’d expect from a “good son.”  Perhaps we remember the other Son in the Prodigal Son parable as well.  A similar profile.  But in any event, when the appointed hour comes, the Second Son flakes out, goes back on his word, decides he’d rather spend the day at the mall.  He never shows up as he promised, to work with his Father in the Vineyard. 

Jesus asks, “Now, which of these did the will of the Father?”  And the Priests and Pharisees there in the Temple hear how Jesus words the question and concede the obvious point:  “the First son, of course.”  The Second Son was the one who gave the right answer when the Father called, but that’s really beside the point.  Certainly better to say the wrong thing but then to change direction and do the right thing, than to go in the other direction.   What you do in fact matters more in the end than what you say you’re going to do.”  Lots of people know how to “talk a good game.”  But actions speak louder than words.  Kind of reminds me of that sad quotation, that “everybody talks a lot about Christianity; somebody should give it a try.”  The allegory of the parable isn’t hard for anybody in the crowd.  When you want to know who actually is working with the Father in the Vineyard, who is tending God’s people, you don’t go by who was talking a good game, or by superficial markers, like offices and titles and credentials. You don’t listen to promises and formal declarations.   We see politicians all the time after all, even here lately in Western Pennsylvania, who talk the talk and say they stand for something—but when the newspaper gets hold of text messages and e-mails show themselves to be living in another world altogether.   It’s sad to see always, but not really much of a surprise.  You get the feeling that people will say whatever they think they need to say to get ahead, no matter what they really think or intend to do in their real lives.  Which son does the will of the Father?  You look at what actually happens, who actually gets there, who rolls up his sleeves and comes alongside the Father in the heat of the day.  That’s what counts.

The second Vineyard parable follows, our reading this morning, and it pretty much traces  the same pattern, though it gets drawn out a little farther.   Not just about being all talk and no action-- but here about outright, wild, no-holds-barred, active, hostile rebellion.   This parable contrasts not two sons but two groups of tenants.  The first Tenants sign the lease and agree to all the terms of their relationship with the Owner of the Vineyard.  They enter into solemn covenant with him and move onto the property. But then (just like that second Son in the first parable) they break their word and ignore the terms of their agreement and promise—and  they go even further here, way further, and resist even in the most extreme and violent and murderous ways every urgent and sincere effort by the Owner to restore the covenanted relationship.   I love their traditional name, the “unruly” tenants.  Seems kind of an understated term.  Seizing the Landlord’s property.  Attacking and murdering the landlord’s servants when they come to collect the rent.  Even then killing his son.   I guess that’s “unruly.”  They cross every possible line of good relationship in absolute, resolute defiance.   Jesus asks, “What will the Owner of the Vineyard do?”  What are the inevitable consequences of this kind of willful disobedience and rebellion?  The priests and elders of the Temple fill in the rest of the story here also with the obvious reply.   “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their season.”    The Landlord will take the Vineyard from those who have abused his trust, and present it to new Tenants, good and faithful tenants, who will live in right relationship with him. 

Jesus isn’t exactly being subtle here, obviously.  What happens when those who are supposed to be God’s chosen ones, his stewards, caring for his Vineyard Israel—when they turn away from him, even become his enemies?  Thinking about this setting here in the Temple, really a breathtaking moment-- the language of the Vineyard, the verbal sparring with the religious authorities, the cheering of the crowds, who were probably pretty much the same folks who had welcomed Jesus the day before with palm branches and cries of “Hosanna to the Son of David.”  Crisis and confrontation.  And so, verse 45: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was talking about them.”    Who are the sons who go through the motions of obedience, who dress the part and mouth the words, but who in their heart choose to walk their own way rather than in the way of the Father?  Who are the Tenants,  betraying their covenant of stewardship and taking what was not theirs to serve their own desires?     If such people imagine in their profound denial of reality that they are going to be able to get away with this, if they think the Father is asleep, if they think he won’t act to set things right—well, they’d better think again.    “When the chief priests and the Pharisees head his parables, they perceive that he was talking about them.”

The scene hangs there in Holy Week, as the clouds gather, tensions rise.

To stand near Jesus is always and inevitably to enter a space where things that have been hidden are made plain.  Our prayer every time we come near him in the Holy Communion: “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, from whom no secrets are hid.”  It may be possible to skate along in denial for a season.  It may be possible to pretend that God doesn’t see us, doesn’t know what’s in our hearts.  But to stand in the presence of the Son, in the face of his Cross, is to come to a place of inevitable clarity. The lights come on.   A place where costumes and scripts and outward show are all stripped away, and where we are able to see for ourselves what is true.   About ourselves and about the world around us.  What is going to last, what is passing away. 

That was true on Monday in Holy Week, as it became pretty easy to tell who the friends of Jesus really were.   And who would stand with his enemies.   We know that story more or less by heart.  People were going to be showing their true colors.  A lot of the folks in the crowd here at the Temple are cheering Jesus, the great hero whom they greeted with Palm Branches and cries of “Hosanna” yesterday.  But by the end of the week they’re going to be shouting “Crucify him, crucify him.”  And in reality it is I suppose always true, in any time, in any generation, to figure out where we are in relationship to him.   

Back in the 15th chapter of Matthew, before this last journey had begun-- when some Scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem had journeyed out to the Galilee in an effort to discredit him—perhaps some of the same people who are at the Temple with him in this scene--Jesus challenged them by quoting Isaiah 29, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”   

And it is our heart that he cares about, first, last, and always.   First Century, or Twenty-first Century.  That really is the point of these two Holy Week parables.   And it’s what’s on the line this morning.  That makes us uncomfortable, but pretty much we knew what we were getting into when we came in through those doors on Hampton Street this morning.  In the 18th chapter of Luke Jesus asks, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”  The question Jesus is asking in these parables. It’s about the relationship—about seeing in, past the curated surface, the right words—about where our hearts are, whose our hearts are.  Where we are in our relationship to him. 

O God our Father, open our eyes and our ears, by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may hear you when you call us each by name, that we may hear your call and invitation to come beside you in your Vineyard, as your children, your sons and daughters, and that we may answer  with all our heart and mind and strength, not only with our lips but in our lives--and that we may as worthy tenants and good stewards of your bounty attend to your word and know and welcome with joy and love the One you send to us, your own son our savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Seventeenth after Pentecost

Dan Isadore, on Philippians 2: 1-13

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sixteenth after Pentecost

(Proper 20A2   Matthew 20: 1-16

Since the death of John the Baptist crowds and controversy have been pressing in on every side, and now Jesus and his disciples are heading straight into the storm--traveling from the Galilee toward Jerusalem to spend the Passover there with the thousands of Jewish pilgrims who will gather for the festival from around the known world.  Along the way Jesus seems quite clear in his teaching that his remaining time with his disciples is growing short—although they have a hard time understanding or accepting that.  As they pass Caesarea Philippi  after Peter’s Confession of faith Jesus promises his disciples that he will make something new out of them, that he will make them his church, a supernatural body of spiritual character and power so strong that even the Gates of Hell would fall before it. 

We recall in our readings from the last couple of weeks that Jesus spends a lot of this time talking with the disciples about their way of relating to each other, speaking to them about a new way of “life in community.”  That long section on dealing with differences and conflict resolution within the fellowship that we heard a couple of weeks ago.  And then last week the discussion about forgiveness.  About how the abundance of forgiveness, the sense of being a fellowship built on a spirit of humility, mutual deference, interdependence, overflowing mercy, was to be of the very essence of this church.  The Gospel of God’s Grace, the Good News of the Cross, forgiveness of sin, not “times 7” but “70 times 7,” the triumph over the powers of evil and death, to be presented not simply through theological concepts and words on a page, but most importantly through the visible culture and character of his Church.  How they live with each other. Repentance, forgiveness, amendment of life, mercy and peace and confidence in God’s victory to be so visible in how this new converted, redeemed, justified, sanctified people of God live together that the world will stand amazed.  There will be nobody like you anywhere!  You will be a  living sermon.  What difference does Jesus make in peoples’ lives?  Why should I listen to what these Christians are saying?  You don’t have to read a book to figure it out.  Just look at his church.  How they live together.  In their families.  In their congregations.  As they worship and pray and work and play together.  “See these Christians, how they live together, how they love one another.  These Christians, the gospel proclaimed not only with their lips, but in their lives.   Who wouldn’t want to be a part of their world?

To step back for a moment: I like to say that our daughter Linnea is not the only member of our family to have spent time in Mongolia.  She of course lived there for a couple of years, as many of you will remember.  But one Tuesday morning before she left on that adventure she and I took a long drive down to Washington D.C., parked the car in what would ordinarily have been an exceptionally expensive parking spot a block or two from Georgetown University, and stepped onto the grounds of the Mongolian embassy.  She had some paperwork to take care of related to her student visa and work permit.  I simply sat in the lobby, chatted with the Mongolian receptionist,  and enjoyed a little interval of rest in my global travel.  The embassy is of course just this very interesting concept.  At once here in the United States, just down the block from a great little Pizzaria Uno, where we would have lunch--but also at the same time in a legal and conceptual sense truly another country.  The reason the parking space would ordinarily have been exceptionally expensive, but was free for us on that particular day, was that it was October 11, and in Washington, D.C. -- Columbus Day.   A federal holiday.  But the visa office in the embassy was open, because Columbus Day isn’t a holiday in Mongolia . . . .  And that’s where we were.  Not Washington D.C., but Mongolia.

So something like this is what Jesus was talking about when he said he was building his church.  An analogy.  The frame for us to think about as we consider what it means to be members of the Church.  The Kingdom of God not yet realized in its fullness, for sure—but with an embassy here already, an outpost in this world dedicated as a real presence here and now and a foretaste of the life of the world to come.   Operating according to the Kingdom calendar, not the calendar of this world.  And that was going to be and continues to be the challenge for the church, for his disciples.  To be living supernaturally, as the Kingdom, even as we for a season continue in a world that was and would be foreign territory, even at times truly hostile territory.  A world that operates by different rules.   

So as they travel one of the things Jesus does is tell these stories, paint these pictures, the “Parables of the Kingdom.”  Which is to say, parables about what God is going to do in the future, and at the same time about what is already happening, we might say, on the grounds of his embassy.    Images, situations, to engage their thoughts, their imaginations, to guide his disciples in their thinking and their feeling, to stretch them in their assumptions, in their emerging and transforming identities and relationships, with ways to provoke questions about values and meanings, about how to get their heads around the idea that they are to be really and truly in Mongolia while still also in Washington D.C., about how to be God’s Kingdom and to communicate God’s kingdom message here and now-- in Jerusalem and Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

So here at Matthew 20, a Parable of the Kingdom.  The Householder has a lot of work to be done in his vineyard.  He hires a crew in the morning, adds new workers midmorning, more at noon, then again late in the afternoon, and finally just a few minutes before the end of the day.  And when the sun sets and the laborers gather to receive their pay envelopes they all receive the standard wage for a full day’s work.  Confusion follows.  We certainly might imagine that the workers who got hired on at 4:45 and then who collected their pay at 5 were surprised and delighted at the unexpected generosity of their employer.   A whole day’s wage!  And we see and we understand and sympathize, that those who actually put in the full day in the vineyard suddenly feel aggrieved.  While it’s true they are receiving the wage they agreed would be fair and appropriate at the beginning of the day, it somehow seems unfair now in light of the exceptional generosity that has been shown by the Householder to those who worked fewer hours.   What kind of a world is this, that this makes sense? 

Hard for us Bible readers not to connect back to the Book of Job here, the great Old Testament essay of wisdom on the topic of the contrast between our human ideas of how God should act and God’s free and supernatural sovereignty.   There God’s answer to Job’s question of “why bad things happen to good people” goes like this:  “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding.”  Or as the Householder of Matthew 20 says to the perplexed Laborers, simply, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”

The theme and message of God’s sovereignty is the persistent note of the Bible, of course, but we still take a breath and shake our heads in amazement.  The first and most important thing to remember when we think about the life in the Kingdom of God is that in the Kingdom of God, God is King, and we aren’t.  We have our priorities and plans, our agendas, our ways of making our way through life, but in the Kingdom of God, God is in charge, not us.  And when he is in charge, things are going to be different.   “My ways are not your ways, says the Lord, nor my thoughts your thoughts.” 

Yesterday at our annual Fall Vestry Day I was reminded of this again.  And in a good way.  Really a great way.  The agenda ahead of time looked pretty serious.  Conversations about parish culture, patterns of attendance and participation, which have been kind of a struggle for us lately on a number of fronts--the inevitable concern and conversation about how to gather and deploy financial resources to do everything or even most of what we have been doing around this place.  But I’m just going to say here without getting down into the weeds that I was surprised a little, and wonderfully surprised, that the spirit of the day shifted pretty quickly from questions about management and programs and administration to a really energetic and sincere time of sharing about discerning God’s hand, God’s will, God’s presence-- learning to listen for his voice, seeking together a space for growing faith and maturity and for affectionate and meaningful  Christian life together.   So not just business as usual, not just an effort to shore up the status quo for another year and then go home.  But I think the beginning of a conversation to cultivate openness and with humility to seeing what God may really and truly be doing in our lives here at St. Andrew’s.  No tidy answers at the end of the afternoon, which would actually be a bad sign:  but a commitment to having open eyes and open ears, to ask questions, and to expect the unexpected.  To take the word “should” out of our vocabularies for a while.  What we think “should happen,” how we think things “should be.”    God has his own ways, and if we think we know for sure from the start what that’s supposed to look like, we most of the time have another “think” coming.  “Am I not allowed to do what I choose to what belongs to me?”  So we just remember that he is.  He is.  And we remember that this place, and all of us, this is his place, and we are his.  It’s not about him getting on board with our program, but about our figuring out how to get board with his.  Take a look at the list of the vestry members on the back of the leaflet, if you want, and maybe over a cup of coffee ask them for their take on the day.  If you’re not sure about the names, their snapshots are on the bulletin board right inside the Parish House entrance.  One of the things we did take away from the table was to say that it would be good to open wide the conversation, to keep it going, to expand the circle, to listen to each other.  Informally, wherever coffee is served—but formally as well, as we invite over the next few months some opportunities to talk together, and more importantly to listen together.    Who knows what we might find?  Thinking about those workers who came late in the day, which is really all of us, and then to say with confidence, as they opened their pay envelopes,  that he has better things in mind for all of us than we can ask for or imagine.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Fourteenth after Pentecost

Proper 18A2  Matthew 18: 15-20
Scroll down for audio.

Good morning.  Wonderful to see you—always a fun day.  I’ve been enjoying your Facebook updates and Instagram snapshots all summer, from Maine to California, Canada to Florida, even England and Europe and beyond.   St. Andrew’s always kind of a “free-range” congregation, wandering hither and yon over the global landscape.  But especially so in summer.  Now that vacations are mostly past and the kids in school things seem to settle down a little, and the routine patterns of our more ordinary life give us a chance to settle in.  Time to “Round Up” the herd.   Len Wiegand gave me this hat to wear at my first “Round up” back in 1994, and every year when I put it on now there’s a very tender association of memory both with him and with all the St. Andreans we have known over the years who are joining us this morning on another shore, in the heavenly picnic grounds.  Our extended family, you might say. As I just said as well, our Vestry has also designated this Round Up Sunday as something of a “soft opening” kick-off for our 2018 stewardship Campaign, and with an invitation this year for us to respond with gratitude for all the ways this particular congregation and parish family has been and continues to be a blessing in our lives.  An overarching theme of gratitude, that’s the key word, and actually perfect for our gospel reading this morning.   In any  case I do hope it has been a good summer for you, whether you were galavanting around the world or simply sipping an iced tea and reading a novel on the porch.  And it’s great to be here today.

In this section of Matthew’s gospel, as Jesus and his disciples are drawing near to Jerusalem, Jesus is thinking about the future, talking to his disciples about his church-- how they are to live together in the new reality that is about to dawn upon them after Holy Week and Easter and Pentecost and in years and centuries to come.  A lot here to think about appropriately as we think about our own church family on a Stewardship Kick Off and Round Up Sunday .  How to be “the Church.”  “His Church.”  We remember just a couple of weeks ago at Caesarea Philippi with the Confession of Peter Jesus had declared, “on this rock I will build my church.”  That’s what Jesus is doing here.    Jesus  knows and has promised that through the gift of the Holy Spirit he would never be far away.  But even so he wants to plant seeds now, so that in the days to come they and we will find the resources to live faithfully and to await with a confident eagerness  his triumphant return.   Jesus with care and love accomplishing that work, to build a church of supernatural character and strength.  Beginning with as motley an assortment of unlikely characters as you’ll see anywhere.  Reminds me of what I like to say about St. Andrew’s.  If you’re trying to find your way here from across town for the first time, just follow the signs to the Zoo!

So the passage this morning has two connected parts.  First, some straightforward practical pastoral directions for how to manage conflict in the congregation.  How to deal with the kinds of stresses and strains that will inevitably arise and still maintain a wholesome common life capable of witnessing to the gospel.  And the second a reminder of the spiritual character and spiritual authority that is and will be truly present in the church that Jesus is building, to accomplish this--to bring about true communion and fellowship, securely rooted in the knowledge and love of Christ.  To know that this is no ordinary human society, but something more, something higher.

So to begin in verse 15 this morning, with the practical and pastoral note, (page 9 of the leaflet) --“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.  If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”  This seems to be the simplest thing, perhaps we even think it seems obvious, to go without saying--yet I think it shows actually extraordinary care both for the dignity of the individual and for the care of the larger community.  All too easy at times to think about occasions when an offense has been given, and when the first response of the person offended has been to broadcast the news far and wide.  Sometimes at high volume.  Or maybe the response, to whisper in a dark corner.  Either way.   “Do you know what she said to me?  Can you imagine anyone doing what he did to me?”  “I hate the way he did that.”  And on and on.   A kind of gossip.  Bellowing a grievance, or subversive backchannel murmuring.  What someone has called the “parking lot” conversation.  We don’t have a parking lot at St. Andrew’s, of course, so this sort of thing could never happen here.  But I’m sure at least hypothetically someone could figure out some alternative venue at one time or another for the after service or after meeting conclave.  And the fact that Jesus didn’t mention e-mail and Facebook here doesn’t mean they don’t fit in.  I’m not a psychologist, but I suppose when I do this it’s some kind of an effort to reward myself and ease my own pain by garnering sympathy, or perhaps to recruit an ally, create some spin, find somebody who will take my side, see things from my point of view, in whatever the difference or dispute may be.   An opportunity to build myself up at the expense of another.  Wherever that comes from.  And it also can be somewhere on the range of sociopathology:  to hit back, to hurt the other, to damage her reputation, to shame him in front of others.  To score points.  It raises the stakes anyway, insists that there will need to be both a winner and a loser.  A line in the sand: allies and enemies. “You’re on my side, right?”   And the point is, of course, that no matter who is in the right or who is in the wrong, however those would be measured, the result is a stain in the fabric of the common life of the community, the fellowship.   All this toxic business about “taking sides.”  When it gets to be something about winners and losers, ultimately everybody ends up losing, at least in the big picture.  Sometimes a stain that will take a long time to fade away, and sometimes an indelible mark.  

When a lot of this stuff goes on in a business office or a PTA meeting or for sure in church newcomers can usually pick it up about 30 seconds after they enter, even if nobody says anything to them about it.  Body language, maybe, or just a kind of shadowy atmosphere.  It will be in the air.  This is just what Jesus is talking about.  If you are offended, Jesus says, if you have a problem with someone in the fellowship, a disagreement, a grievance—don’t take it to Twitter or Facebook or the coffee klatch. Instead, first go quietly, privately, before saying anything to anybody else, and make every effort to see if you can’t work it out between just the two you.   To say that reconciliation is important, that it is of high importance that both of us continue to live and flourish in a good way in our relationship with each other, and that we both will be able to contribute together, together,  to the good life of the congregation.  Let’s not start off by forcing others to choose between us or have their focus and lives and ministries disrupted by our disagreement.  Even small cracks like that in the pavement over time can become huge and dangerous fissures of division. 

But then, Pastor Jesus says, if that initial one-to-one initiative doesn’t bring peace and reconciliation and a renewal of friendship, the next step is to bring in a small circle of respected fellow church members, and offer to submit yourself with the one who has offended you to their judgment and discipline.  Not to bring in your  allies to gang up on the other, but we might say to say in modern judicial terminology, to submit your concern to third party binding arbitration.  You can explain what has gone wrong, from your point of view, and the other then can explain in full his or her perspective.  And then, without reservation, you agree to accept whatever judgment these “arbitrators” provide.   No matter how certain I am that I am in the right, if these witnesses tell me that I am on the wrong track, I agree in advance to set the grievance aside forever.

And only then, finally, if your grievance is with one who will not settle things with you one-on-one, and who will not submit him or herself to the discernment of the neutral witnesses—then and only then open the issue to the congregation.  Jesus doesn’t give us a specific mechanism for this, but it is clearly to be the case that none of us are free to continue to hold a grievance privately or secretly, or to attempt some kind of “retaliation” of our own design.  We must find a way to speak it honestly and with clarity, transparently, and then to let it go freely into the church.  The church will decide in its common mind and common life, guided by the Holy Spirit, and then the consequences of the offense will be up to the church as a body to determine.  I don’t get to decide those consequences.  Maybe I’ll be happy with the result, or maybe not.  It’s not about me anymore.  Because at this point the offense has become one that is shared by the whole body, and now must be responded to by the whole body.

So theses first few verses, a specific set of instructions about conflict resolution and interpersonal relationships, framed by the overriding value of care for the well-being of the whole body.  If I win, but the congregation is harmed, then I really don’t win anything at all but instead bring dishonor and discord to everyone, dishonor to Christ himself. 

Then briefly, in the second part of this reading, Jesus steps back and reminds his disciples that as his living body, the church, the spiritual gift of discernment , the authority of divine justice and divine mercy, rests in them together.   The binding and loosing of sins.  We heard before in scripture that only God could forgive sins, but now in this miraculous new life, Jesus shares this sacred ministry of judgment and mercy and grace with those who are to be his new Body.  This church isn’t just a random collection of people who happen to share some common space for an hour or two a week.   You may have 100 people in a movie theater to see the latest Hollywood feature, or gathered at the Giant Eagle in the Waterworks to buy groceries, but that’s not what the church is like. A bunch of people in the same place at the same time.  The church instead  is a sacramental and supernatural and precious mystery, in which many different individuals, different sizes and shapes and ages and backgrounds, every breed of cat in the zoo,  are drawn together through the proclamation of the word and the sharing of the sacraments to be one Body, Christ’s body.  Even a little group like the first 12, even a little place like St. Andrew’s Highland Park:  a precious mystery.  Jesus cared enough for this Body the church, to go to the cross for it, for us.  To pay the highest price that could be paid for our redemption, that through his life we might have life. 

Be very careful with this church, Jesus is telling his disciples.   Take care of it.  That’s the Stewardship Sunday, Round Up Sunday take-away.  There’s nothing else that we have—not the porcelain vase grandfather brought back from China, not heirloom jewelry, not anything else in all creation that is more valuable than this precious Body.  Even a little place in an out of the way neighborhood like St. Andrew’s.  For all our eccentricities.  Treasure it.  Love it with all our heart.  Because in loving it, we are loving him.  And be thankful for it every day.  Overflowing gratitude.

So, again—Blessings on the day, friends here.  Something about the spirit of gratitude that our vestry is inviting us to reflect on in the fall campaign.  Whether this is our first Round Up, or whether we’ve been around so long we’ve begun to feel like somebody might post a historical plaque on the front of our shirt.  Just enjoy the service, the music, hear our choir now sing this wonderful Vaughan Williams setting of the 84th psalm,  reflecting together on the Word of life, and have fun watching the kids play out on the lawn at the picnic, and consider for a minute along the way how much Jesus loves this place, you and me and all of us together, so precious to him—each of us individually, all of us together, with his prayer, his prayer, that we would never for a minute take any of it for granted.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Eleventh after Pentecost (Proper 15A-2)

Matthew 15: 1-28

Good morning. Our long gospel reading is from Matthew 15 has three closely related sections--but for context I want to back up for a moment to remember even a bit more, that at the beginning of the 14th chapter Matthew  described the death of John the Baptist, his arrest, imprisonment, and beheading at the behest of Herodias, the controversial wife of King Herod, scandalously the former wife of Herod’s brother,  and Herodias’s famous daughter Salome, who danced so seductively at her step-father’s banquet.  The news of John’s death exploded like a bombshell across the world of Jerusalem and Judea.  John was a headline character in the social and religious and political world of Roman Palestine and beyond, with a large, passionately loyal following. 

One of the immediate consequences of John’s execution was that John’s followers began to turn to Jesus in great numbers.  Larger crowds began to gather around him, filled with the same kinds of anti-establishment, revolutionary expectations that had been stirred up by John, and as that was happening Jesus suddenly appeared as a bright flashing light on the radar of the authorities.  John had been a huge problem for them as he led this revivalist, “Back to the Bible” movement among the common people and attacked the Jewish leaders for their secularizing and accommodationist practices.  And now they have this Jesus to deal with.  No longer just a marginal, unschooled but charismatic rabbi from the hinterlands.  Someone who with all these new followers seems to pose at least potentially a new threat. 

So that’s context as we roll into chapter 15 (see page xx of your leaflet), and the first part of our reading.   Jesus has been preaching to these growing crowds and demonstrating spiritual power with healings and other miraculous works.  The wave is building. And now a party of religious officials, Scribes and Pharisees, priests and rabbis, representing the Jewish religious and we might say political establishment, travel with urgency from Jerusalem to the Galilee.  Their strategy is to confront Jesus in public about his reputation as someone who disregards traditional religious practice.  They hope to discredit him in front of these devout John the Baptist followers, to show that he’s not someone observant Jews should be tempted to follow.  But Jesus pushes right back, very much in John the Baptist fashion, quickly turning the tables, accusing them in turn of being not so much experts in the sacred Law, as their titles and offices would suggest, but as experts instead we might say in loopholes in the Law.  Calling them out in front of the crowd and shaming them just as they had tried to shame him, accusing them with the clear implication that they personally have abused their offices, their sacred responsibilities, and have enriched themselves and gained power and prestige while maintaining only a fa├žade of piety.  Jesus calls these officials “Hypocrites,” –a hot word, and that will certainly set the crowd buzzing and be perfect for the headline in the tomorrow’s newspaper-- and he turns the Bible right back on them as he says in verse 7, “well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.’”  If things were moving toward a crisis before, now even more.  And this word from Isaiah becomes the template for understanding what comes next. 

At that point, in verse 10 of chapter 15, Matthew shifts to a new paragraph, the second section of today’s reading. The Jerusalem officials hurry back to the city to plan their next move.  They had wanted to nip this Jesus thing in the bud, but their confrontation has had exactly the opposite result.  As they scuttle away Jesus addresses the crowd with this pointed line:  “It’s not what goes into the mouth of a man that defiles a man, but what comes out.”    Jesus isn’t arguing against faithful observance of the Law, in this case the Biblical dietary laws that his critics have just accused him of flagrantly disobeying, but his saying is certainly intended to contrast the outward observance of the kind of formal public show of obedience associated with these Scribes and Pharisees, with the wholesome and pure and truly sincere character of a holy life.  True and meaningful obedience, authentic faithfulness to God,  isn’t simply a matter of outward rule-keeping, but is instead what comes from within, from your heart, with all your heart, use the word Jesus quoted from Isaiah. Obedience to God’s Law is the language of love spoken by God’s chosen and redeemed people, as they learn to grow in grace, in a spirit of humility, and with a sincere desire to live life in a godly way.  It’s not about scoring “holiness points” in some kind of political contest.   “These so-called religious leaders and all their public posturing--they may make a big deal of declining even a taste of a meal if it hasn’t been prepared in a kosher kitchen--but when it comes to, say, and I love this list-- “evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” – well, you can read about the latest episode in the Jerusalem Inquirer any day of the week.   Look at how they rationalized Herod’s marriage to Herodias.  Look at how they remained silent when John was arrested.  They follow God’s Law when it suits their purposes, but when it doesn’t they’re nowhere to be found.  They stand up front and lead the prayers with loud voices in church on Sunday morning, but when Monday comes the costumes come off, and we see for ourselves who they really are.  Quite a moment.  John the Baptist and his followers would have been shouting “drain the swamp,” and here Jesus doesn’t seem to be too far behind . . . .  Just to get a hint of the gathering storm.

So we get the idea of this contrast of ideas, the establishment authorities with an emphasis on external conformity and rule-keeping, and Jesus on the other hand calling out the hypocrisy of this kind of formalism and lifting up a vision of a more authentic foundation for faithful life, an obedience that begins in the heart.  And the table is set for the third section of the reading today in verses 21-28 for this very familiar story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman.   A case study on what that true, heart-centered obedience looks like. 

Jesus and his disciples leave the Galilee and head out into the Gentile territory of the north.  They cross the modern border into Lebanon and pass by this out of the way village, and of all people, a foreigner, a Gentile woman, immediately rushes out to greet him.  That she is called a Canaanite is especially noteworthy—it really sticks out--the only time in the New Testament that the term is used.  Not just any old generic kind of gentile.  The Canaanites--the ancient people, worshippers of Ba’al the sky god and Astarte the goddess of fertility, in fact from the very beginning the entrenched enemies of Israel’s God, those Canaanites displaced by the Israelites back in the days of Joshua and the Conquest in a long war that evolved not just over years but generations, as God’s Chosen People came into possession of the Promised Land.   Just to say, in the greater story of Holy Scripture, this lady is as much of an outsider as you can get.   

This Canaanite woman has apparently heard something about this Jewish teacher and holy man and his remarkable powers to heal and to cast out demons--and so when she discovers that he’s passing through town she is herself we might say suddenly “possessed” with an unexpected urgency.  She leaves her home and rushes out to Jesus in the street with her appeal, an appeal from the heart, we would say, to echo the Isaiah language Jesus quoted earlier--that he would bring spiritual healing to her daughter, who has been possessed by an evil spirit and is being tormented to the point of death.  As his disciples look on, Jesus builds on what we might call a “teachable moment.”  Again, a case study, and what a contrast with those Scribes and Pharisees we just read about, who would hardly think of her as a human being.  He draws out with emphasis just how outside the world of those Scribes and Pharisees the woman is.  Not an observer of the Law, not a part of Israel’s chosen race.  She’s not “kosher.”  The complete opposite.  The daughter of an ancient enemy.  She can make no claim of any right even to speak to him, or certainly to receive the gift that she is asking for.  Jesus even tests her on the point: what makes you think you can speak with me?   What have you done that gives you that right?

In this moment of her greatest need, without an ounce of pride or sense of entitlement, this Canaanite woman, without hesitation or reservation, places herself entirely in the hands of Jesus.  She doesn’t tell Jesus that he should do what she asks because she has kept all the rules in the past or that she will in the future.  She doesn’t bargain with him.  She doesn’t renounce her heritage or promise to go through the formal rituals of conversion to Judaism, to go to synagogue every Saturday or to pay offerings to the Jerusalem Temple or to volunteer at the homeless shelter or to avoid shellfish, pork, and cheeseburgers from now on.  Those are the strategies of the Scribes and Pharisees.  She just kneels at his feet.  Lord, help me.  She lets go of the trapeze in full awareness that there is no net below.  Only Jesus.  She depends in this moment entirely on his mercy, on his generosity, on Jesus only.  He is her one hope.  And it is in that hope, in her faith, and not somehow in her reputation or her ancestry or her past life experience or her public worship or her good works, that the blessing and mercy and healing that Jesus has for her becomes a reality.  How does she know that?  How does she know to trust him?  How do any of us ever know that?  The Law of God written not simply in the pages of a book, but as the Holy Spirit has written in her heart.  And then the dramatic words of power: “O woman, great is your faith!  Be it done for you as you desire.”  And her daughter was healed instantly. 

Those establishment officials, who you might say from a religious point of view had everything going for them,  went back to Jerusalem turned in on themselves with that strange mix of arrogance and self-centered insecurity that would lead them before long directly to Holy Week--and to commit the greatest crime and offense against God and against humanity that the world has ever known.   

The Canaanite woman—we never hear her name, but we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that that name has been written for all eternity in the Book of Life.   And we know that every time she hears her daughter’s laughter as she plays with her friends out on the front porch—every time she passes that spot in the road just outside the village, where she met Jesus, she will remember him.  And there will be worship as true as any worship in the Temple in Jerusalem or in any soaring cathedral. 

Will she on any morning for the rest of her life wake up and see the first light and know anything but gratitude and love?   Her heart will be in it, without any hesitation.  All her life will be thanksgiving, all her life from now on, in the knowledge of the Lord.  Which is all he truly wants from any of us.  (That’s the personal application of this morning’s reading.  The word for us, all these centuries later.)  She’s the role model Jesus is pointing to.  She’s the key to the gospel message.  Her faith.  True, authentic, from the heart.  She, who at the critical moment of her life had no cards to play, had nothing to say for herself.  She, who was so far as any outward measure could determine as far beyond the frame of the sacred Covenant as you could get, a stranger to God’s people--she turned to Jesus and knelt at his feet and held on for dear life, knowing him as the one who had first known and called her, trusting in that moment only in him-- and for her there was and would be forever,  because of that, life and grace and joy and blessing. 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Seventh after Pentecost

Proper 11 A-2  Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43

If you were in church a little over a year ago,   on Sunday, June 26, 2016, you will certainly remember with crystal clarity the gospel reading and of course the rector’s  inspirational sermon that morning on the text from the ninth chapter of St. Luke’s gospel.  To refresh our memory:  after their experience on the Mount of the Transfiguration Jesus and his disciples began their great journey toward Jerusalem to observe the Passover.  In Luke’s story a long and increasingly dramatic procession to Holy Week.  The road from the Galilee to the Holy City passed first through the region of Samaria, the home of people of a mixed Jewish and non-Jewish ethnicity whose religious beliefs were different from those of orthodox Judaism.   Between Jews and Samaritans a kind of deep and persistent hostility over generations and centuries, and Jewish religious pilgrims would be to say the least unwelcome in Samaritan neighborhoods.  And  so as we heard on June 26th, 2016,  Luke chapter 9 verses 52-56: “And he [that is, Jesus]  sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him; but the people would not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.  [all the local hotels and motels and Air bnb proprietors see them coming and hang “no vacancy “ signs in the windows]  And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?’ But he turned and rebuked them.  And they went on to another village.”

The disciples must have wondered why Jesus was hesitant to act more decisively in response to this disrespectful opposition.  But in the depth of the mind and heart of Jesus there was a different knowledge.  And as you will recall from my sermon just a little over a year ago this episode in Samaria to what we will later hear in the eighth chapter of Acts, after the arrest and stoning of St. Stephen, when the little Church of Jerusalem is attacked and dispersed.  Beginning at Acts Chapter 8, verse 4: “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.  Philip went down to a city of Samaria, and proclaimed to them the Christ. Then the multitudes with one accord gave heed to what was said by Philip, and saw the signs which he did.  For unclean spirits came out of many who were possessed, crying with a loud voice; and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed.  So there was much joy in that city.”

For James and John in Luke 9, all they could see was what was right in front of them in the present, and they were ready to pull the trigger--but Jesus knew that among these Samaritans were those he came to save. We might say: the first rich foreign mission field.  These Samaritans who would soon, very soon, hear the gospel from Philip and respond with joy, when the time was right.  Just wait, James and John.  There is more going on than you can see or know in this moment.  Be patient.  Which is what I am thinking about as we approach the gospel reading this morning.  God’s patience.

I remember my friend our retired dean George Werner used to say that the challenge for Moses and Joshua was that they were to lead the whole people into the Promised Land, not just the Commandos.  The weak and the wayward, the very old, the very young.  Everybody.  Not just the strong.  And that takes time, and it’s a messy process.  The Good Shepherd is not going to allow even one of his sheep to be lost.  Not even the last and the least.  It may take a long while sometimes for the fruit to ripen on the vine, to shift this evolving metaphor.  The point is, not to be so quick to judge, to leap to conclusions.  Not to be in such a hurry.  Wait and see, give space for the full work of the Spirit to be made known in God’s way, in God’s own time.  My ways are not your ways, says the Lord.  Jesus already knew his own among these Samaritans.  He knew them long before they knew him.  He knew them already and loved them.   People of his pasture, sheep of his hand.   And in the generosity of his heart he was going to give them all the time they needed.
Anyhow, as I said, that was a year ago, Luke9.  But it came to mind for me as we would turn this morning to this gospel reading taken from Matthew 13, the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares.    The same concern and emphasis, on the patience of God.  His thoughts not our thoughts, nor his ways our ways.   Which we would hear this morning as good news, and something we can be and should be very thankful for.  For his patience with us.

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field.”   Once again as in the Parable of the Sower and the Five Kinds of Soil that we read last Sunday:  the sowing of  the good seed, which Jesus tells his disciples has to do with the proclamation of the kingdom, the preaching of the Good News.  In the first parable the issue was that the seed fell on all different kinds of soil.  Dry, or hard, places where the birds can get at it, or ground already covered with thistles.  Here in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares the seed is all sown in the one field, in good soil.  But even so, there are complications.  An enemy  comes in secretly, while the farmer and his servants are sleeping, and scatters another kind of seed in the same field.  Not the good seed of the kingdom, not the gospel, but something  that doesn’t belong.   When time passes the farmer and his servants see that as the good growth is taking place in the field, so also the weeds are growing.  The servants are upset and agitated and want to do something right away, to get in there and clean things up.  Don’t just stand there, do something!  Like James and John in the Samaritan village.  But the farmer  tells them to be patient.  When the growth is young it’s just not always possible to tell which sprout is of the good seed, and which is a weed.  They are just simply to be patient-- to let all grow together, the good plants and the bad.  Until the harvest, when the truth will be known.

A bit later in verses 36-40 Jesus explains the parable.  We see that the Sower is Christ himself, who is and who fulfills and who proclaims the Word.  The seed, Jesus says, stands for the “Sons of the Kingdom,” what grows from the Word, the harvest, the names inscribed in the Book of Life.  The enemy is the Evil One, God’s enemy, and the Weeds that grow alongside the good plants are his offspring.  The two live side by side in this world, they look very much alike, they occupy the same space, they grow together, flourish together.   They seem as near as anyone could tell by observation to share an equally bright future.  But this is simply on account of God’s patience.  In order to avoid even the slightest possibility of collateral damage, so that not one good plant is endangered, the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness are left to grow together for a season.  But on the Last Day, at the Harvest, the discernment is to be made with a thoroughgoing precision.  All the “causes of sin” and those whose lives are allied to evil are pulled out by the roots and cast into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  While the “righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

In part this parable directs us to recurring questions about why evil exists in the world and in our own lives and so often tragically in our own hearts and minds.  Why the eternal Son of the Father isn’t recognized by everyone right away, when he has come into the world.  Why bad things keep happening to good people, why even in us,  after we have put our faith in Christ alone, we feel resistance and temptation and disobedience both externally and internally, in the world, in our own hearts and minds—all the rest.  It doesn’t make any sense!  Why doesn’t God just act?   Let’s call down fire from heaven and destroy these Samaritans!  Pull up the weeds right now by the roots, to purify the field.  Let’s get the job done!

But then, catching a breath, perhaps we think of the story of our own lives.  How messy we all are.  Faithful and rebellious.  Brave and fearful.  So much of the time two steps forward and then one back.  Or even one step forward and then two back.  Seeking to hold onto Christ and trust in him alone, but so reluctant to let go of the gods and goddesses of this world.  So, gains and losses.  A lot of moments along the way when anybody looking at me would think, “now that’s a weed for sure.”   And maybe sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and see nothing but a weed myself.  We can be so swift to judge others and so swift to judge ourselves.  So again, a word about being thankful from the bottom of my heart that God is as patient as he is with me, as I do my best to sort things out.  And certainly as I seek to be one of his disciples and ministers, and we are here this morning all of us with those disciples, the ones Jesus sends on ahead of him to proclaim the news, to seek to find in my own mind and heart as well a space for patience. 

The Lord is patient.   That’s the key and the take-away.  And it is his will that those who would live in him would share that patience.   To say, “Those folks over at St. Andrew’s, my goodness: how patient they are with one another.  You don’t hear them praying God to send down “fire from heaven” whenever they find themselves in difficult situations.  They have their opinions, for sure, their personal preferences and inclination.  They have their goals and priorities, their hopes and dreams and programs and plans.  But they know also that it’s God’s timing that matters, that he rules over days and seasons and generations.  And so there is this sense of graciousness.  Forebearance.  Generosity.

To be clear, this doesn’t deny the reality of evil, and it doesn’t undermine the absolute righteousness of God’s justice.  In the words of the hymn, “God is working his purpose out.”  No question about that. The Scripture is clear that God hates sin, and that’s not too strong a word:  that he is unalterably opposed to every evil, and that his patience isn’t an everlasting patience.  But those are his judgments, and we can come to know what they are and what they will be as we read his Word and seek in our hearts and minds and lives to follow the direction of his word and the pattern of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.  For this hour we are to take a deep breath, and remember that he’s in charge, and we aren’t.  Trusting him to care for the whole field of the kingdom, even the weediest looking sprout in the garden, treating even the weediest weed as though it might eventually in this growing season show itself to be not to have been a weed at all, but good growth--trusting that in God’s own good time every last precious plant grown from the seed of the Gospel will be seen and known and brought safe to his storehouse.