Monday, October 24, 2016

Twenty-Third after Pentecost

Proper 25C-1  Luke 18: 9-13

It was a great pleasure on Sunday, October 23, 2016, to welcome the Men and Boys of the Choir of Hereford Cathedral, U.K., to sing a choral service of the Holy Communion at our regular 11 a.m. service and then to return in the afternoon to sing a service of Choral Evensong.

I invited the Canon Precentor of Hereford Cathedral, the Rev. Canon Andrew Piper, to preach at the 11 a.m. service.  His text, in reference to Proper 25C-1, was Luke 18: 9-13, the Pharisee and the Publican.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Twenty-Second after Pentecost

Year C, Proper 24, Track 1
The Rev. Daniel J. Isadore

So two weeks ago we took a look at the Kingdom of God through the lens of David Foster Wallace’s address, “This is Water”…

If you’ll remember, what water was to the two young fish in Wallace’s story, the Kingdom of God is to us…
- Like the water to the fish, God’s Kingdom is one of those realities that is so “obvious, ever-present, and important” that we often don’t realize that we’re in it all of the time…(pause)

I also mentioned what, exactly, was meant by God’s Kingdom…(slight pause)
- …that the foundations of the universe are not mechanical nor chaotic, but personal…
o …that Jesus called this personal reality at the core of our existence “God,”…
o …that this God was love…
o …and that Jesus was, somehow, someway, “one” with this God. (p)
- Furthermore, the “Kingdom” of this God is…
o …the sphere of existence where what God wants done is done…(p)
- …and we have been invited to participate with God as He works to heal and transform everything…(p)
o I hope to spend future sermons sermons more fully explaining these realities…

But this morning I want to address an email I received in response to that sermon from two weeks ago…
- It was from a theologian (someone who thinks and talks about God), a resident theologian, I might add, who gave me permission to share his thoughts…(slight pause)
- Dr. George Knight wrote this to me: "As a citizen of the Kingdom of God (as one who is “in the water” so to speak), are we just floating along, enjoying ourselves, or are we using the gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit to advance the Kingdom, inviting others to dive in, to swim, and make a splash? (p)
- “In all of Jesus’ instructions (and commands) to us He uses active verbs; go, preach, teach, feed, etc. Nowhere does it say, sit back, relax, float…” (p)
- “I don’t know why I feel this sense of urgency about being proactive…it may be personal since I am old and feel time is fleeting and there are so many who don’t know Jesus.  Oh, people know about Jesus, but for so many there is no personal, life-giving connection.  How do we motivate people to take an active role, to become empowered and enabled, and then go out to share the Good News? My constant struggle!" (p)
How indeed? (p)
- What a thought provoking question: What motivates people to "swim around and make a splash" in and for the Kingdom? (p)
Actually, I think Dr. Knight answers his own question…and according to Scripture, I believe we would do well to take note…
- Listen again to how he ends his email, paying careful attention to what motivates his plea…
- “I don’t know why I feel this sense of urgency about being proactive; it may be personal since I am old and feel time is fleeting and there are so many who don’t know Jesus.  Oh, people know about Jesus, but for so many there is no personal, life-giving connection.” (p)
- (9 am) I know why George feels that urgency: because he knows God. (p)
- (11am) George, I know why you feel the urgency: because you know God. (p)
o Our brother doesn’t just know about Jesus; He knows Him personally…
…not like we know movie stars or politicians or athletes…
…but like we know our family and friends. (p)
o He knows that the accounts we read, Sunday after Sunday, about the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, and the coming of the Holy Spirit, are not myths…
They’re not stories made up primarily to illustrate moral truths, or to provoke us to social or political action, or to get us to make a one-time decision for Jesus, or to get us to come to church, put money in the plate, and then go home…(p)
o No…these Scriptures were given to us to us by God, the living God, that we might come to “Know the LORD,” as the prophet Jeremiah put it…(p)
…the God of Abraham, Isacc, Jacob, Moses, David and Isaiah…
…the God made known in, through, and as the man, Jesus. (p)
o God gave us the Bible so that we might come to gain an intimate acquaintance with Himself …
…and then live our lives in cooperation with Him as He works the heal, restore, and transform the world. (p)
What motivates a person to make a splash in this Kingdom water in which we live? (p)
- An intimate, personal, living-giving connection to the God and Savior of the world, Jesus Christ. (p)
- Think about it…
o Why does Jesus tell the story we just read about the persistent widow? (p)
o He tells the story to communicate who our Father is…
He tells the story to fuel us with motivation for not giving up, for not losing hope, because God will indeed act to fulfill His promises to set everything right (to give “justice” as our text puts it)…(p)
o It is on the basis of who God is that Jesus appeals to us to persist, to keep on…
…to keep on praying, and acting, and living as if the Kingdom is real, as if we really are in water. (p)
- And if anyone lacks this motivation, then the fact of the matter is that person just does not know who it is that has loved them and invited them to participate in what God is doing in the world…(p)
- And if that is the case, then you’re missing out…(p)
o …you’re missing out on real, true, deep, life…
o …”the life that really is life,” as Paul puts it at the end of his first letter to Timothy…
(11am) Can I get an amen? (p)
But here’s the thing: No one has to miss out. (p)
- And I think that this is what Dr. Knight is at pains to communicate…
o Don’t get me wrong: you can opt out if you want…
…you can choose, instead, to orient your life around money or politics or fame or fashion…
…the list of replacements that will leave you ultimately wanting never ends…
o But no one has to miss out on knowing the One for whom they were made. (p)
God has made sure of that by giving us His very words…
Note 2 Timothy 3:16: “All scripture,” writes the apostle, “is inspired by God…”
- Literally, “All of Scripture is breathed out or spoken by God…”
“…and is useful for teaching…”
- (for communicating to us the truth about the nature of ultimate reality, the truth about who God is…)
“…for reproof…”
- (for pointing out what we’re getting wrong…and yes, we do get things wrong…or else we wouldn’t need God to come and die for us…)
“…for correcting…”
- (for setting what is wrong in us right)
“…and for training us in righteousness…”
- (for helping us to live in a cooperative, interactive relationship with God)…”

“…so that we might be proficient (or competent) in (doing) every good work that God calls us to do.” (p)
No one has to miss out on knowing God and all that that entails because the Scriptures are the means by which God has promised that we can get to sufficiently know Him…
- And by “sufficiently,” I mean that God, through the Bible, promises to equip us to know Him in a way that we know where we stand with Him and how to participate with Him in what He is up to in the world…(p)
- By giving us the Scriptures, God has given us access to a personal, live-giving friendship with Him. (p)
And so if it is, indeed, knowledge of God that motivates us to dive in, swim around, and make a splash in this Kingdom water in which we find ourselves, I say let’s go to the means by which God has promised to make Himself known…
- Let’s become people who read, mark, and inwardly digest Holy Scripture, as the collect puts it so well…
- And as we do so, let’s invite others to join in…
I sense Jesus asking us a question this morning…
- It’s coming through Dr. Knight’s email, and through the texts we’ve read…
- When Jesus returns to the creation bodily, as we confess in the Creed, each week, that He will…will He find faith on earth? (p)
- Will He find us, the people who identify with the institution we call “the church,” as people who know Him? (p)
o Will He find us swimming in this water of the Kingdom that He died to give us? (p)
o Will He find us getting to know Him through Scripture, and acting accordingly, “making a splash,” as George has put it? (p)
o Or will He find those who claim to be His people floating along…aimlessly drifting from one amusement to the next? (p)
The water of the Kingdom of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is all around us. (p)
- The means to knowing this God is readily accessible to us…(p)
- The life that really is life is within our grasp…(p)
“And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Twenty-First after Pentecost

Proper 23C-1 Luke 17: 11-19

It isn’t a parable, though it sure sounds like one. Luke has spent the last few chapters of his gospel presenting this extended scene—beginning with Jesus leaving the Sabbath Table of the prominent religious official to mingle with the crowds, to preach, teach, heal and bless.  And then when he is criticized for conduct unbecoming a rabbi—consorting with sinners and working on the Sabbath--he strikes back with a series of pointed parables: the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, the Prodigal Son, the Unjust Steward, Lazarus and Dives.  Each presenting a vivid contrast between the comfortable, materialistic, secure, compromising, fearful, and ultimately hypocritical values evident in the lives of the establishment religious officials, and a vision of God’s kingdom: a kingdom of extravagant mercy, generosity, joy, humility, hospitality, modesty, unselfish holiness and obedience.  A vivid contrast that certainly made the officials more and more intent on getting Jesus off stage, by any means necessary. 

Luke decides that this is the time to tell about something that happened maybe a few weeks earlier.  We will remember back in Luke chapter 9, as the journey from the Galilee to Jerusalem was just beginning, the first place Jesus and his disciples passed through was a village of Samaritans.  (I preached a sermon on this text when it was appointed back on June 26th, so I’m sure it’s still going to be fresh in your minds!)  Jesus had sent someone on ahead to see if they might find somewhere to spend the night, but the Samaritans, who were hostile to the Jews, shut the door in their faces.  (If the tables had been turned, of course, the residents of a Jewish village would for sure have refused a similar request from a group of traveling Samaritans.)  In any event, the disciples wanted to punish the Samaritan villagers by praying that God would send down a storm of fire to consume them, but Jesus rebuked the disciples, and had them continue traveling.  Now here in chapter 17 we have this flashback.

 It seems that soon after this event, while they were in the same region, they came across some lepers at the entrance to another small village.  (We’re reminded that the word “leprosy” in the gospels doesn’t necessarily refer to the specific condition modern medicine calls Hansen’s Disease.  It’s what they would call any kind of disfiguring skin condition, whether chronic or transient.   We would probably have a number of diagnostic categories.  But those who suffered from these conditions were all considered ritually unclean and socially untouchable.  They were not permitted to work, to pray in the synagogue, to live at home with their families, to participate in any aspect of community life.   They became outcasts and pariahs out on the farthest margins of the community.  Their wives and husbands and parents and children could have nothing to do with them.  In the deeply family-centered and communal near-eastern culture this was pretty much like a sentence of death.)

So now Jesus and his disciples come along.  The lepers call out, “have mercy on us.”  Spare change?   You don’t even have to come close.  Just toss us a few coins!  But Jesus responds dramatically.  He stops, approaches them, speaks directly to them.  Eye contact and physical proximity.  He says, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”  Which is what would need to happen for them before they could be restored to their families and community.  To get an official health department certificate to show that they are no longer suffering from their condition and can return to ordinary life.  And Luke says that that’s what they did, right away.  They heard Jesus, and immediately they got up and headed to the synagogue.   No questions asked.  The gospels sometimes comment Jesus spoke as one “with authority.”  In any event, the Ten Lepers don’t respond in a skeptical way.  “Thanks very much, but how about a couple of dollars instead?”  Even before they can see any evidence of change, they do what he says.  Hebrews 11 calls faith “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  And as they stepped out in faith, a miracle happened:  “As they went,” Luke says, “they were cleansed.”

So, another great work of power, as we have seen again and again in Luke and all the gospels.  Jesus exercising his authority over the powers and principalities of this world.   But then the further twist, which seems to be why Luke is telling the story.  He sees in what happens next in the story as another example of the moral and spiritual contrast that Jesus has been setting out in this series of parables.   The point isn’t only about the healing miracle. That just sets the table for what follows.  Which is that one of the lepers stops when he sees what has happened.  He turns, even before he gets to the synagogue for his certificate.  He returns to find Jesus, and to thank him, to fall at his feet in tearful appreciation--to thank him and to worship.  A perfect illustration of metanoia, repentance: a change of mind, a change of life-direction. And interestingly Luke tells us it turns out that of the ten in the group, this one happened to be a Samaritan.  Maybe originally from that village we heard about in chapter 9.  Maybe he himself or members of his family were some of the Samaritans who had turned Jesus away just a short while ago.  But now he is kneeling before him, overflowing with thanks.  And Jesus offers this grateful Samaritan a personal benediction, in verse 19: “Go your way; you faith has made you well.”

The key point of this story comes home when we notice the contrast between two words, and different translators try to communicate this in different ways.  In verse 14 we are told here in the RSV that as all 10 of the lepers were headed to the local priest to show themselves, they were “cleansed.”  But then in verse 19, again, Jesus tells the one thankful Samaritan leper, “your faith has made you well.”  In Greek the word Luke uses in verse 14 is katharizo, literally to purge, or scour, or clean, and certainly seems to refer to the evidence of disease, removing the presenting symptoms.  But then in verse 19, sozo, literally to save, rescue, restore.  To heal.  To make whole.  Your faith has saved you.

All ten obey.  All ten are cured.  But it is in the change of heart, metanoia, repentance,  in and through the response of thankfulness and worship, the heart overflowing with gratitude,  that this deeper wholeness and restoration and salvation comes to the one who returned to the source, to the giver of the gift.  Years ago Lloyd Ogilvie, the pastor of the Hollywood Presbyterian Church, had a famous sermon on the character of faithful Christian life called the “Attitude of Gratitude.” A life of Thanksgiving.  The Greek word for an expression of thanks is “eucharist.”  And the fact that the one who is saved here in this “eucharistic moment” is a Samaritan is a delicious irony.  “Who you are” obviously has nothing to do with it, because he’s a complete nobody. You can’t get farther outside the circle of Jewish life than by being a Samaritan leper.  You can’t get farther from the top of the ladder where those Scribes and Pharisees were living, among the Jerusalem elites. All ten obeyed Jesus, just as those Scribes and Pharisees are great at the details of external obedience.  Yet of the ten, only one is saved.  The one who stopped and returned to Jesus.  The Samaritan.

To make a pun, what Jesus the Great Diagnostician has been saying through this section of the gospel is that these Scribes and Pharisees suffer from a kind of “heart disease.” It’s not a question of their credentials or their outward observance, but of their character.  Not about who they are, but about whose they are.  And so Luke’s invitation in recalling this story for us.  Where are we in this story?  Who are we?  About stepping back, taking a deep breath, looking deeper, turning around.  We do have choices to make.  And one choice in particular.  We may think we’re doing just fine, as the Nine Lepers must have felt as they rushed to the priest for their documents and then returned to their old lives, their work, their families, their communities.  But for the one who comes back to Jesus, a conversion and transformation, his heart is full and changed his life is made new.  For him it wasn’t about going back to his old life, but about moving on forward to one that would be new and fresh in Jesus.  Where are we in this story?  Who are we?

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

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Twentieth after Pentecost

Proper 22C-1  Second Timothy 1: 1-14
The Rev. Daniel J. Isadore

“Join with me in suffering for the Gospel,” wrote the apostle. (pause)
-        Why? (Pause)
o  Isn’t that one of the questions we should be asking when someone calls on us to do anything, let alone to suffer for some cause? (pause)
o  Blind obedience to those who hold offices of authority may have been good enough decades ago…
§  …but not for us.
o  We’ve seen, far too often, the way authority has been abused…
§  …from politicians and school teachers, to police officers and business owners, to family members and clergy…
o  We know better than to blindly obey…(p)
o  So if this ancient letter is just another instance of some self-important authority figure, trying to impose his ideas upon us, then forget it. (p)
o  Tell us why.
-        Why should we join with Paul in suffering for the Gospel? (pause)

The question reminds me of the commencement address entitled This Is Water given by the late novelist David Foster Wallace in 2005 at Kenyon College…
-        Wallace began: "There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how's the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the he(ck) is water?” (pause)
-        Wallace continued: “If at this moment you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.” (pause)
-        Wallace concluded: “(This isn’t) about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. … It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”” (p)

The reason that Paul calls us to join in suffering for the Gospel is because the deepest, truest truth of reality is that our situation is very much like that of the two fish in Wallace’s address. (p)
-        We are immersed in an existence of which far too many of us are just simply unaware…(p)
o   …a reality that, when it is declared is referred to as “Gospel,” Good News…(p)
-        Recall the words of the great and wise Jesus: “The Kingdom of God is at hand!”
o  What was He talking about? (p)

To many today, Jesus was a lunatic, and understandably so, not only because He claimed that there was more going on than meets the eye, but because He claimed to be that more…(p)
-        Jesus not only prayed for the Kingdom of God to come to earth, but lived that Kingdom into our existence…(p)
-        He seemed to intend at least two things by this phrase…
o  First, Jesus was what some philosophers today would have called a “Personalist.”
§  He believed that ultimate reality was not mechanical, nor the product of random, chaotic forces…
§  Jesus claimed that ultimate reality was Personal…(p)
·      …that at the core of our existence was a Personal Being more basic than anything else…
·      …a Being He referred to as God. (brief pause)
§  Jesus, in fact, not only proclaimed that this personal Being was most basic to the world in which we live, but that He Himself was, in some inexplicable way, one with this personal God. (pause)
o  Second, Jesus spoke of this God as possessing a “kingdom”…
§  As the late philosopher-theologian Dallas Willard explained it, a kingdom is “the range of someone’s effective will.”
§  In other words, a kingdom is the sphere of existence where what a person wants done is done.
·      All of us have a kingdom…
o  For some, it goes no further than their own bodies.
o  For others it extends throughout a house, or a department or a corporation… (p)
·      No matter how large or small, one’s kingdom is the sphere in which what they want done is done.
§  God’s Kingdom, then, would be the sphere of existence where what God wants done is done. (p)
§  And Jesus claimed that at His coming, that which the prophets were waiting “quietly” for as Jeremiah put it, was finally let loose in the world…
·      …that God’s Kingdom was at last “at hand,” on earth as it was in heaven…
o  …right here, right now, in our midst. (p)
·      …that now, there was a new power on the move in this world…(p)

But it gets even better…
-        Not only did Jesus claim to be one with this personal God at the center of reality…
-        Not only did He insist that He was the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth…
-        He taught that we could actually take part in the stuff that God was up to in the world…(pause)
o  …that we, people from all sorts of backgrounds, in all sorts of contexts, with all kinds of talents and regrets and ideas and desires….
o  …that we could participate with this personal God at work in the world. (pause)

Which, to me, sounds awesome…as long as this God is someone who is up to good. (p)
-        And that is exactly what Jesus and His followers taught…
o  In fact, one of His closest apprentices (John was his name) said it this way: “God is love. And if you don’t love, then you are working against God.” (pause)
§  Implication: if you do love, then you are working with God. (pause)
-        Jesus’ whole life was devoted not only to bringing God’s Kingdom on earth as was in heaven, but also to communicating the nature of God’s rule: love.
o  …a love that does not quit, even when it is killed.
o  …a love that cracks even death itself in half, and endures forever. (pause)

This is why Paul pleads with us: “Join with me in suffering to make this Gospel, this Good News, known.” (pause)
-        The brother who wrote this ancient letter was not barking arbitrary orders at us. (pause)
-        He saw the water all around us.
-        He knew that the news was true…
o  …that the Kingdom of the God who is love, the Kingdom of Jesus, is now in our midst. (pause)
-        And he was saying, “Look. (pause) Don’t you see?
o  Don’t you see the possibility this opens up for you and for this world?
§  The power that is available to us ordinary joes and janes…? (pause)
§  God is inviting us to work with Him to restore everything that is twisted and broken…
§  …and He promises to actually meet us and help us as we go…
§  …this is what Paul thought was worth suffering for!
o  “Won’t you see?” he was saying…
o  … that “what is so real and essential, is hidden in plain sight all around us…”? (pause)

“Join with me in suffering for the Gospel,” pleads the apostle…
-        …simply because it’s true:
o  this (point all around) is water (pause).
o    We’re in water. (pause)
o  God’s Kingdom is here.

Father, give us eyes to see, we pray in the Name of your Son, “Amen.”

Monday, September 26, 2016

Nineteenth after Pentecost

Proper 21C-1  Luke 16: 16-31

Good morning.   Those of you who pay close attention to the lectionary will notice that I’ve expanded today’s appointed reading from Luke--chapter 16, verses 19-31--to include verses 16, 17, and 18 at the beginning, which form the transition or bridge connecting the reading we had last Sunday  to this morning’s reading, the Parable of Lazarus and Dives.  (Dives, from the Latin word for “Rich Man,” which in custom over time has been attributed to this particular rich man as his proper name.)  There may be a couple of reasons why the lectionary omitted these verses, but the more I read them the more I think they are really helpful and maybe even necessary to get the full impact of what Jesus is saying.

To set the stage, how we got here:  Jesus and his disciples have come near to Jerusalem, on the way to Holy Week.  Jesus is teaching and preaching and performing amazing acts of healing.  The crowds are excited and growing larger.   With pilgrims from all over the world beginning to arrive for the Passover, the religious authorities—the Scribes and Pharisees--are getting nervous that this Jesus-thing may bring unwelcome attention from the Romans.  So one of the Chief Rabbis invites Jesus home for a Sabbath dinner with some ecclesiastical colleagues.  His motive seems to be intimidation--to show that this untrained preacher from the Galilee can’t hold his own with a room full of seminary-trained theologians.  But before they even sit down Jesus is called outside to greet a crowd that had spontaneously gathered to see him.  He performs an act of power, healing a man with a serious illness.  The crowd cheers in exuberant wonder and joy, and the religious authorities are left fumbling.  Somewhat awkwardly they accuse Jesus of a technical violation of Jewish law related to work on the Sabbath.  But Jesus isn’t intimidated.  He notes that blessing and healing are not in fact forbidden on the Sabbath in scripture, and then he criticizes them for being so small and mean-spirited.  If it’s their role to be leaders and teachers of faith, they’re the ones who seem off track.  He tells three stories about the Kingdom of God, about what I called the “heavenly economy,” —the Parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son—to show  a Biblical view of God’s character: his extravagant love, his abundant generosity, his unfailing mercy and forgiveness.  Then we heard in the Parable of the Unjust Steward, how we can learn to be really successful in the economy of this world, or really successful in the economy of heaven, but that we can’t serve two Masters.  We need to choose--one or the other.  Luke points out in an aside that the Scribes and Pharisees were well-known by all to be great lovers of money.  So a confrontational moment.  Jesus saying that they seem to have made their choice about which master they are going to serve, no matter what their religious titles or offices may suggest.   Hard not to think in our own context about some popular preachers and their multi-million dollar homes and private jets.  When you see that happening, it’s hard not to ask questions, and Jesus is pretty straightforwardly inviting the crowds to look at their leaders and to ask exactly those questions.  And as we set out into this morning’s reading I want to underscore that point, which is that while there is a great deal for all Christians to reflect on and apply in this series of parables and sermons, Jesus is very much addressing issues about leadership, about the stewardship of authority.  The application we take from these readings about expectations and responsibilities-- and as we move into the second part of Luke 16 is related especially first to the Scribes and Pharisees in that setting moving toward Holy Week and then by extension to the leadership of the church, to pastors and preachers and teachers, bishops.  As Luke quoted Jesus back in Chapter 12, “from those to whom much has been given, much will be expected.” 
So on to these three prefatory verses, 16, 17, and 18.  (In this morning’s leaflet, page 9.)   “The Law and the Prophets were, until John,” Jesus begins.   He doesn’t mention his cousin John the Baptist often, but it’s a huge deal when he does.   Actually for anybody in prominent position to say the name in public like that is going to be a political bombshell.  And then thenext sentence that is actually about as awkward for the translators in Greek as it is for us in an English translation: “Since then the good news of the Kingdom of God is preached, and every one enters it violently.”   That’s a pretty literal version.  The sense of what Jesus is saying here may have sounded something like this: “you Scribes and Pharisees have had the Bible for a long time.  Moses and the Prophets.  You’re the experts!  You’ve studied it all your lives, certainly for a long time before John the Baptist came on the scene.  It’s not like God’s word is new information!  And it has been your job, long before John out there in the wilderness started to preach, to present God’s Word to God’s people and to lead them in living accordingly.  That’s always been your job!  But in fact that didn’t happen, did it?  We didn’t hear that call, until the Baptist came along.  In a society that has wandered far from its spiritual roots, you have been exceptionally silent.  “You have to go along to get along”--that seems to be your motto.  Fussing along with obscure tidbits of ceremonial regulation.  Estimating the number of angels on the head of a pin.  John on the other hand wasn’t a seminary graduate, not a Scribe or Pharisee, no fancy ecclesiastical title or position--but he knew what God says in scripture, and I guess you could say he did the job you were supposed to be doing.   And here we get to verse 18, the next sentence.  Jesus doesn’t have to spell it out.   They know what’s coming.  When Herod Antipas scandalously divorced his wife and sent her packing and then at the same time even more scandalously took the wife of his own brother to his bed--his own brother’s wife!-- and then ostentatiously married her in a mockery of a religious ceremony, you were silent.  You just didn’t dare rock that boat of yours. Fear.  Love of status, security.  The opportunity to mingle with the elites of the nobility.  John knew what the Bible said, and so did you.  He knew sin when he saw it, and so did you.  But he wasn’t afraid to call it what it was.  To stand up and be counted.  No matter what the consequences.  And we just didn’t hear from you.   He, of course ended up with his head on a platter, while you all apparently did pretty well in your silence--with promotions and raises and corner offices. 

But here’s the thing: you may just conveniently today skip over the parts of God’s word that make you uncomfortable, or that might make the people who sign your paycheck uncomfortable, or that might get you carted away to Herod’s dungeon.  But no matter how tightly you close your eyes or hold your hands over your ears, the fact of the matter is that God’s Word isn’t going anywhere.  Here, Verse 17.  “Easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one dot, one vowel of the law to become void.”   It may seem to you that John played the game and lost, and that you played the game and won.   But maybe, just maybe, the final score hasn’t yet been entered into the books . . . .    

Then this word that pronounces judgment on Herod and that cost John his life.  A bold reminder from Jesus now in his words of the moment when they had had a choice, and had chosen to keep their mouths shut.  If somebody is recording this on his cellphone now Jesus is going to get into some real hot water.  Verse 18.   At every marriage I’ve officiated I begin in the Address at the beginning of the service to say, “the covenant of marriage was established by God in creation . . . and holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people.”   From the Book of Common Prayer page 423.  To say those words to the king meant death for John.  And, again: not a peep from the established religious authorities. 

Which leads Jesus directly to the Parable of Lazarus and Dives.   If you want to know who played the game and won, you’ll need to wait to see what the score is when the game is really over.   So, the poor man languishing at the gate.  The rich man in his self-centered comfort and so completely out of synch with what the Bible has to say about the stewardship of wealth to reflect God’s own compassion and generosity and mercy.  A parable about the consequences of choosing the wrong master.  When they both die poor Lazarus is gathered into the bosom of Father Abraham, but Dives finds himself broiling for eternity in the fiery cauldron of hell--the chasm separating him from the heavenly Kingdom as absolute as the one that he had allowed to keep Lazarus separate from him in this world.  He makes his plea, that a messenger be sent to warn his brothers, so that they might avoid his fate.   Father Abraham’s reply circles back to echo the first sentence at verse 16.  “They have Moses and the Prophets.”  As of course do the Scribes and Pharisees.  And as we do, for that matter.  And we all have to make our own choices.  Jesus is pushing their buttons hard now, and you can almost feel the temperature rising, the intensifying hostility.  Standing there face to face, the crowds looking on: you’re the ones who are wearing the robes of religious office, after all, the appointed teachers of the Word, the stewards of the promise.  And yet when the Word is tested in the world, it never seems to be your heads that end up on a serving platter.  Never your arms stretched out on a cross.

The consequences.  As we read last Sunday, no servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  A challenge to the Scribes and Pharisees out there on the street corner with him, for sure—and continuing actually as a challenge for the church, for those in leadership, those who teach and preach.   For all of us.  A challenge sometimes in elections years, though not just in election years.  “Don’t rock the boat, baby.”  Certainly not to do something that would threaten your IRS tax-exempt status.  Not if you want a multi-million dollar house and a private jet, anyway.  Instead, just figure out what the people who write the checks want you to say, and give them twice what they ask for.  Remembering the old story about the minister who got a little too specific in one of his sermons.  An unhappy parishioner says to him later, “Pastor, you’ve gone from preaching to meddling.”  What Jesus is doing here with these parables—and maybe why we find them both attractive on one hand but also pretty scary when it occurs to us that he might just want us to take what he’s saying seriously.  Begin to feel like when he’s “meddling” with these Scribes and Pharisees, he’s “meddling” with us too.

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

Monday, September 19, 2016

Eighteenth after Pentecost

Proper 20C-1  Luke 16: 1-13

I don’t usually give titles to my sermons, but if I were going to do that this morning I would call this one, “The Two Economies.”  The Two Economies.  When I taught History and Government for a couple of years before seminary I had a 12-week unit for 10th graders, an Introduction to Economics.  A subject always interesting, and especially in an election year.   When we talk about “economics” what we’re talking about begins in the most basic way with an understanding of what is valued in any particular individual or society, what is of importance, and then of how individuals and communities organize their behavior--thoughts and feelings and interactions with one another--in reference to what they value.

 Jesus is talking about economics here in the Parable of the Unjust Steward, Luke 16, verses 1-9—as he was also in the three Parables that he has just told in Luke 15, as we looked at them last Sunday—the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Parable of the Lost Coin, and the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which is sometimes to keep the pattern going also called the Parable of the Lost Son.  The economies highlighted in the first three parables contrast with the world of the parable we’ve heard this morning, and we keep them all in mind as we move to the second part of this morning’s reading, in verses 10-15, as Jesus speaks to the question of whether it’s really possible to serve “two “Masters.”   

A few years ago I saw a bumper sticker that I thought captured something of the spirit of the roaring 1990’s, at least in certain high-visibility corners of our western culture.  It said, “He Who Dies with the Most Toys Wins.”  An implicit irony, intended to elicit a smile while still calling our attention to a system of value rigorously centered on consumerism.  Toys.  Fancy cars, fancy houses, wide-screen t.v.’s,  designer purses, shiny jewelry, exotic travel.   How do I know I have success in my life?  Check out what’s in my driveway . . . .

As a contrast, I remember sitting with my great friend and teacher, the late Ken Bailey, brilliant New Testament scholar, our Canon Theologian here in the diocese for many years.  He was talking about the passage in the 21st Chapter of the Revelation to John where John has his vision of the heavenly Jerusalem.  The city brilliant, shimmering, shining, its walls and gates dazzling with the glitter of the rarest gems and jewels, its streets paved with gold.   He read through the verses, paused just so we could take it all in, the daydream of a resort destination more extravagant than any ever seen in a full-page, full-color ad in the New York Times Magazine, and Dr. Bailey said, “here’s the point:  in God’s Kingdom, gold is just the same as asphalt and glittering jewels are just all dumped in together with gravel to be mortar for the bricks.   Everything that seems to us so precious—there, it’s just nothing.  Of no importance.  No value at all.”  Turns out it’s the presence of God that gives the city its glorious glow.  The rocks are just rocks.

So two contrasting economies.  Two Masters.  The economy of this world as it is, we might say,  and the economy of the Kingdom.  On the one hand.  The shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to seek after the one.  The woman who caters a dinner dance for half the county to celebrate her finding of a lost coin of only modest value.  The Father who puts aside pride and status and even the privilege of his righteous grievance, to bring about forgiveness and reconciliation in his family.

And then, on the other hand.  Jesus goes on to tell the story we heard this morning about a manager who hasn’t been very good at his job.   The owner of the business has finally had enough and one afternoon sends him an e-mail.  Come to my office first thing tomorrow morning.  As soon as he reads this the manager knows his goose is cooked.  The axe is about to fall.  And he goes into a panic.  He’s got a mortgage, two kids in college, a leased European sedan.  He and his wife already have their non-refundable tickets for a European spring vacation, and they’re up to their eyeballs in credit card debt.   Per the bumper sticker:  they’ve been financing a lot of toys.  What to do?  And then suddenly an idea hits him.  A brilliant stroke!  He pulls the Accounts Receivable file and calls a couple of his big customers and offers them major discounts on their outstanding invoices.  They’re delighted, of course, they thank him profusely, and he is meanwhile crossing his fingers that this newfound good will may open a few doors for him if he’s out pounding the pavement and looking for a new job in the next month or so.  The twist comes at the end of the story, when the owner of the business goes online and sees what the manager has done.  We expect him to be outraged—but quite the contrary!  The next morning comes, and the manager is welcomed into the owner’s office not with a pink slip, but with a smile and a handshake--and a promotion!  “That’s exactly the kind of outside-of-the-box thinking we need around here to take our business to the next level,” the owner exclaims.   “I’ve been looking to hire somebody who could be a real game-changer around here, somebody who could think on his feet--and here you are right under my nose.  Somebody not afraid to take risks, to push the edge of the envelope.  The world is full of paper-pushers, but you’ve really shown me something different.  You’re a guy with real potential, and I for sure don’t want you going out to work for my competitors!”

In any case, what Jesus says here.  You know, there are an awful lot of people around here who have become very successful  in the “he who dies with the most toys wins” economy.   Like the characters in the story.  They’ve got the game all figured out.  Experts.  We expect to read about them both soon in the cover story of Business Week or Barron’s.  They know with crystal clarity which Master they’re serving, and they’re good at it.  And Jesus looks at the crowd, at his disciples, at the Scribes and Pharisees.  “How about us?  What would it be like—just imagine!—if folks around here were to be as skillful in transactions of grace and mercy and love as these guys are with dollars and cents!  Turns out to be an uncomfortable moment yet again for the Scribes and the Pharisees, and we’re going to see that really come to a boil with next Sunday’s reading.  They’re supposed to be the ambassadors of God’s Kingdom in the midst of God’s people, but apparently they’re much better known right now at the local jewelry store’s Rolex desk  than they are, say,  in the local soup kitchen or food pantry.   Apparently they know more about how to make small talk at cocktail parties than they do about sitting and praying with their neighbors in times of need.  So they’re getting fidgety.

Looking at this question is actually the deeper spiritual and theological invitation of the ordinary year-to-year work of the parish “annual stewardship campaign.”  Or should be, anyway, when we do it right, which I’m not sure we always do either here at St. Andrew’s or most places in the wider church.  But what we would be doing, if we were doing it in a way that is shaped by Scripture.  Thinking about our lives in terms of Stewardship for the New Economy.  The economy of heaven.  And I think our Vestry is leading into a very substantive conversation this year.   I’m certainly looking forward to hearing my good friend and colleague Adam Trambley when he joins us as keynote speaker at the kickoff dinner on October 7.  The central point not about raising money to fund a church budget—although while we live in this world budgets will always need to be funded.  But the disciplines of tithing, of the offering of first fruits our time, our talent, and our treasure, are more importantly exercises to assist us in navigating the transition from one economy to the other--to build up our spiritual character, to help us become more and more acclimated to the economy of heaven.   

Jesus isn’t talking about just tweaking the present system.  You wouldn’t need a Cross for that.  Just write a book, have your TED talk go viral on social media.  He’s talking instead about something as old as the first hour of creation, yet for us now also so radically different as to seem entirely new: an economy of grace-- where the currency of compassion and forgiveness, humility and obedience, and joy and generosity will begin to replace the gold and jewels and glittering prizes of this world, a fragment of bread and a sip of wine a banquet far above any earthly feast--working a deep change in us, to prepare us in heart and mind to see and know and love and dwell forever the brightness and the beauty of the City God has prepared for us in himself, in Jesus.  Again the Collect for today:

“Grant us, O Lord, not to mind earthly things, but to love things heavenly.  And even now as we are placed among things that are passing away, to cleave to those that shall abide.”