Sunday, November 22, 2020

Christ the King, 20-A: Connection and relationship

 Lectionary: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 95:1-7a; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

In our Collect today we acknowledged that the people of the earth are divided and restricted by sin. We know that sin binds, isolates, and inhibits us. 

Sin disrupts the shalom of God. We have created a world where many of us wonder if we’ll ever feel safe or secure again as we cope with some pretty big issues: a resurging pandemic, rampant racism, melting ice caps, ever increasing food and job insecurity, and an uncertain economic future for our churches, our businesses, our nation, and the world.

When faced with problems as big as these it helps to remember that God is big enough, loving enough, and involved enough to help us. That’s why in our Collect we ask God for restoration and release from the sin that binds and restricts our freedom to love.

Contemplating our current situation in the world, it’s tempting to use today’s gospel as justification for praying to God to heal some and curse others, but that would be wrong. While it is right and good to tell God what we need, the true benefit of prayer is that it brings us into the presence of God where we are given a spirit of wisdom and the eyes of our hearts are enlightened. It is in prayer, both private and corporate, that our minds and hearts are realigned to God’s own, which is what righteousness is.

Then, no matter how desperately we enter into prayer, we remember that God, who created the whole universe and all that is in it, is the strength that covers our weakness and we comprehend that if our behavior is right and good it’s because we are living into the truth of who we are: Christ’s body, “the fulness of him who fills all in all.” Right behavior is not the way to faithfulness; it’s the fruit of it - which is the point of Jesus’s apocalyptic story in today’s gospel.

When the eyes of our hearts are enlightened and we know ourselves to be the actual bearers of the love of God into the world today, then we will notice the suffering of our sisters and brothers and act to tend to their needs because we are connected to God. Our seeing is motivated by the eyes of the divine who dwells in us, so we notice the one who is hungry, or naked, or lonely in our midst.

Here’s a true story that exemplifies that: once upon a time, there was a high school teacher named Keanon Lowe, who came upon a student at school armed with an automatic rifle. "I felt compassion for him,” Keanon said. "In a fraction of a second, I analyzed everything really fast. I saw the look in his face, [the] look in his eyes… [I] looked at the gun, realized it was a real gun and then my instincts just took over."

And his instinct was to hug the boy, (pause) During the embrace, the student cried out that he felt alone, that no one cared about him. “I care about you,” was Keanon’s immediate reply. Every story could be this way.

Every story. Wherever sin separates us Jesus, who is in us, is ready to act through us to reconcile and make us one, to hold us in the embrace of his love. This is the practice and protocol of the reign of Christ.

One last thing about Keanon Lowe: he believed he was placed there in that moment to save that young boy. I believe that too because I believe that about all of us. 

We are the means by which the redeeming love of God happens in the world. By our very presence and preparedness, we prepare the way for the Lord. We remind that world, by our words and actions, that we are all one, held together in an embrace of divine love.

It is because of our connection, our relationship to God that we can notice suffering and tend to it. God will act through us as instinctively as God acted through Keanon Lowe, who by the way, bore the kingdom of God into that school and into that boy that day.

In our gospel story, Matthew talks about eternal life and eternal punishment. Eternity, by its very definition has no beginning and no end, therefore it can’t be something that happens after we die. It’s now. It’s always.

Also, since God is eternal, our connection to God is connection to eternity. Disconnection from God feels like eternal punishment because it is disconnection from the only truth there is, the only life there is, and we don’t have to die to experience it. 

I’ve experienced hell more than once in my life. What made those experiences hell for me was that I’d lost my grip on my relationship with God. I felt disconnected, existentially alone, and eternally lost.

I wasn’t, of course, because Christ marked me as his own forever at my Baptism. So, while I may have felt disconnected from God, God was not disconnected from me. God was waiting like a shepherd to guide me back to the rich pasture Ezekiel describes, the richness of relationship with God.

While I was in hell, my entire focus was on myself. I was drowning in my own suffering. I felt alone and lost, scared, and angry about it. I was dying. There truly was no life within me. I had no idea how to go. I was stuck. I couldn’t have noticed anyone else’s suffering because my focus had turned inward. I could only think about me. I was in hell and each moment was an eternity. 

We are all God's sheep, imperfect vessels made perfect by God alone. We are imperfect church communities enlightened by the Christ who dwells in us.

When we believe that God dwells in us, we can step into any darkness, any suffering, and allow Jesus to do through us what he always does, what the prophets of old said he would do: set us free from all that separates us and guide our feet into the way of peace.

As a church we are called to be connected to God, to one another, and to our local community so that the least of those among us know they are not alone, they are not lost. As one of my favorite indy artists, Dar Williams, said in a song: “If you're lucky you'll find something that reflects you, helps you feel your life, protects you, cradles you, and connects you to everything.” (Dar Williams, “Hudson” Album: My Better Self)

That’s what church is. That’s what church does.

Today is our Stewardship in-gathering. We are collecting the pledges of financial support for our work as church in the coming year. It is my prayer, as we prepare for our new year together, that we break ourselves open and allow the grace and mercy of God to show us how to be the kind of church through which God can rescue the scattered sheep among and around us and restore them to us, where they can be healed by the presence of Jesus in us… so that God might continue to build us up with new family who are looking for a place where they can be loved, protected, cradled, and connected… so that we might have that many more hands, that many more hearts, that many more gifts to use to answer Christ’s call to serve the least, inside and outside our gates, who are members of our family - the family of God.

Then when we come to the end of our lives we can run joyfully into the arms of Christ our King who will say to us with a broad smile and open arms: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Amen.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

23 Pentecost, 20-A: Purity and purpose 

Lectionary: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13 

En el nombre del Dios que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

In our Collect today, we affirmed that Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil, then we asked God to grant us the hope to purify ourselves as he is pure. I wish we could talk together so I could ask you what you make of this prayer. There are two terms in it that stood out for me as a priest and pastor: the devil, and purity. My experience is they are often misunderstood and certainly misapplied, so let’s discuss them. 

The devil is a persona that has evolved over the centuries and the meaning today is radically different from the biblical understanding. Remember that Jesus said to Peter, get behind me satán. Satán, however, is not a proper noun but a descriptor - and it means tempter, distractor from the path of the will of God. By loving Jesus and wanting to protect him from the fate that awaited, Peter (the video mistakenly says, Jesus here - sorry!) became satán to Jesus. 

The lesson is, we all can - even when we are acting out of love. To purify ourselves then, we must return to the path of the will of God. That’s it. That’s what purity of heart is, biblically speaking, and this connects us to the gospel parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.

This is a hard parable to understand. As we know by now, parables are meant to wake us up, shake us up, and cast out our certainty like a rock thrown into a lake, leaving us standing there watching the ripples flow out into the still water wondering what just happened.

As I stood prayerfully on that proverbial lakeshore watching the ripples, I saw the church, the body of Christ in general, and Calvary in particular. Suddenly I understood that the wise bridesmaids are those who know their own divine purpose, the divine purpose of their vessel and how to use it, keeping them on the path of the will of God.

In the parable, the bridesmaids have a purpose - they are to serve the bridegroom who is coming by lighting his path using their lamps. The wise ones knew what they would need to take with them because they understood their own purpose and the purpose of the lamp.

The foolish ones brought their lamps, but no oil. You can almost see the meme for this: You had one job!

The lamp is an empty, useless vessel without the stewardship of the bridesmaids. This is a powerful wake-up, shake-up kind of moment for those of us who are the church. Our church buildings are our lamps - the means by which we shine the light of Christ in the world. They have a purpose, but without our stewardship, they are useless vessels.

Our stewardship, however, isn’t as simple as weekly attendance, participation in ministry, or annual pledging, although those are important. Our stewardship includes an understanding of our divine purpose as the body of Christ in this time and place and how God is calling us to serve. Our beautiful building is the vessel of our community. It is at once the repository of the many resources God has given us and the vessel from which we serve in our corner of God’s kingdom. It’s our home base but it is a useless vessel without our stewardship.

Another lesson we have been blessed to learn during this pandemic is that our buildings offer us support but are not the source of our identity or our worship. We have been set free from that certainty and our building can now reclaim its rightful spot as a tool, a vessel for the accomplishment of our service to God and God’s people. 

The source of our identity is Jesus Christ and he is not constrained by a pandemic or inhibited by an election. Therefore, neither are we.

On Wednesday morning, the day after the election, as I was praying, I heard the wisdom of God speak to me. I was praying out of habit and with a hope that I might not get caught up in the anger and contempt that is peddled in so much discourse right now.

I was brought to remember a Jewish midrash story I heard years ago in a religion class I took in undergrad at Rutgers about the parting of the Red Sea in the book of Exodus. According to the midrash, when Moses and the Israelites got to the other side and watched the sea crash in on the Egyptians, killing them, they rejoiced in their salvation at the hand of God. But God admonished them saying, ‘There is no reason to rejoice! Those now dead beneath the Red Sea waters are my children too.”

The church is not concerned with who sits at the Resolute Desk in the White House. We are concerned with the suffering of our neighbors, many of whom are truly and deeply suffering. Many were suffering before the election and many will suffer as a result of it. How do we serve them - all of them? 

The church is concerned with noticing evil, that is, whatever divides us or causes pain, sadness or undue burden or whenever someone is excluded or disrespected. Wherever we discern evil, the church’s mission is reconciliation.

As the Episcopalians, our identity is Via Media, the middle way, established by Elizabeth I in order to stop the killing of Protestants by Catholics, and Catholics by Protestants during the Reformation Era. We are all English, she said, and we must find a way to live together in peace.

To accomplish that, Elizabeth commissioned a team of theologians, writers, and poets, led by Thomas Cranmer to produce a book of worship that would spiritually feed the Catholics and Protestants among her people. Our Book of Common Prayer has its roots there and remains the symbol of our unity today. We do not seek uniformity of doctrine but unity in prayer.

Whatever differences our diversity raises up among us, we are made one body, one spirit when we pray and worship together. As priest and theologian Henri Nouwen says, “Every time we encounter one another we are offered an occasion to encounter the sacred.”

A bond of relationship builds over time enabling us to discern the path of the will of God in our time and live it together, in all our diversity, in the name of God and for the sake of God’s people and creation. One simple but stunning illustration of that is our habit of praying the Lord’s prayer together where we proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven. Whether we’re talking about the pandemic, the election, the persistent, destructive malignancy of racism, and the other -isms that divide us, we count on God delivering us from these evils. We repeat this prayer often to remind ourselves of God’s redeeming love so that we aren’t led into the temptation to despair or abandon hope while God acts to redeem - and God is always acting to redeem.

We, as Calvary Church and individually as members of it, are the means by which the light of Christ shines in the world, in downtown Columbia, today. We, in all of our diversity, frailty, and wisdom have a purpose: to radiate with the light and the truth that we all are beloved children of a loving God. All of us.

The church, our church, is a place where the truth of everyone’s belovedness is intentionally and counter-culturally lived out. When the world blames and excludes someone for being poor and hungry, we welcome them into our midst and feed them. When the world derides someone for whom they love, we celebrate that God is the author of all love. 

 Our church’s divine purpose is to shine the light of the truth of everyone’s belovedness until everyone believes it… and lives it… and glorifies God for it. 

I close with a prayer from Bishop Steven Charleston, retired bishop of Alaska, and a member of the Choctaw nation: “Give your heart to love today, not to old thoughts of who you were, but to the new idea that your kindness could change another life. Give your mind to hope today, not to the usual list of impossibilities, but to a single faith that goodness is the purpose of history. Give your spirit to peace today, not to the anger of the moment, but to the welcoming road of grace that leads to the home for which you have longed. Give your hands to the work of justice today, not in resignation but in certainty, knowing that what you do will make an enormous difference.” Amen.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

21 Pentecost, 20-A: Practitioners of covenant love

Lectionary: Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46 

Living in covenant relationship can be a challenge. So many things can divide us from within and without. That’s why we prayed in our Collect that God might increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity. As followers of Christ who are pushed beyond our comfort zones on a regular basis, we seek to hold fast to our faith that God is guiding us in every circumstance so that we might embody hope in the face of injustice and respond with charity to hatred or fear. 

About every week I have at least one conversation with someone who has hit their wall. The top five culprits in their dead-end experience are the helplessness they feel over how or when we might stem the destructive tide of the coronavirus, their heartbreak over revelations of a systemic racism they simply hadn’t noticed before and what to do about it, their anxiety over an increasing sense of economic instability for so many, the daily assault of our political divisions in the news, and relationships on the brink of rupture or already lost, either to illness or ideology.

We may not have solutions to the ills of the world - yet, but we can do two things; love God and neighbor as self. At least that’s what Jesus recommends. 

In today’s reading from the gospel of Matthew, another group of religious experts, lawyers this time, makes their attempt to publicly entrap and discredit Jesus. Feigning respect by calling him Teacher, they ask Jesus to teach them which commandment in the law is the greatest.

Without hesitation, Jesus answers them by holding up the divine command for covenant love - and it is two-fold. Quoting first from Deut 6:5, which is also the second line of the Shema, a prayer his listeners would have prayed every day, Jesus holds up what our part of covenant love with God looks like: we are to love God: totally – with all the strength of our hearts, minds, and souls.

He completes his answer by quoting from Leviticus, holding up what covenant love with one another looks like: we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. This love, agape love, is active and concerned with the welfare of the other. As one commentator says, “The person who loves with agapao love will want to do something positive for the beloved––to find a way to help.” On these two commands, which have equal weight, Jesus says, hang all the law and the prophets.

Then Jesus asks the Pharisees a question of his own and it seems he had two purposes in mind. The first was to confront the preconceived notion most people, including the religious leadership, had about the Messiah. Whose son is he? They answer David’s son but Jesus proves them wrong using Psalm 110, which says, “The Lord said to my lord…” How can the Messiah be David’s son and his Lord? He can't.

The second was, I think, to stop the useless intellectual battling and open the minds of his listeners, to reveal to them the shocking reality that their thinking and assumptions just might be inadequate in comparison to the abundant graciousness of God. His plan worked. The religious leadership was confounded and no one dared to ask Jesus any more questions. The challenge of letting go of preconceived notions and inadequate assumptions about how God might be acting to redeem, however, continues for us to this day. What do we think?

Are we called as Christians to win arguments? To what end? Does doing so keep the divine law of covenant love?

There is a symbol in the church called the Christus Rex. It’s a cross with the body of the triumphant risen Christ on it, robed in white, arms raised in prayer, and a crown on his head. This symbol visually forces us to go beyond our preconceived notions and inadequate assumptions about death and resurrection life. It connects us to the scriptural stories of the resurrected Jesus, who was unrecognizable to his closest companions - at least at first - doing something as spectacularly unexplainable as walking through locked doors, and something as mundane as eating fish with his friends on the beach.

Whenever we think we know something with certainty, all we need to do is look at a Christus Rex to remember that all we know is what we think we know, and our assumptions may be limiting God’s redeeming work in the world right now.

For the early Christians, God’s redeeming work was limited by their preconceived notion of inclusion. Did a person have to be a Jew, and therefore circumcised, in order to be a Christian? In the end, the answer was no.

Today, God’s redeeming work just might be being limited by our preconceived notions and our lack of discipline in keeping the divine command of covenant love. The evidence we have of that is that there are real divisions among us fomenting growing helplessness, hopelessness, and broken or lost relationships.

When we rely on our thinking to address these issues we rely on an inadequate tool. Jesus teaches us to focus instead on the divine command for covenant love and act from that. Our purpose is not to be right but to be loving.

And we discern how to do that, how to practice covenant love, by praying together, holding fast to our friendships instead of our biases. Then we can build our servant-listening muscle remembering that what may sound like anger is often fear, and what may seem like a big to-do over nothing is often a hurt that is inadequately expressed or understood.

Approaching someone with agape love is the only way we will hear what’s behind their words and perceive what’s behind their actions. Only then can we do something positive for the beloved one before us, and find a way to help. Then will the graciousness of God be upon us, prospering the work of our hands. (Ps 90 :17)

Let us pray. God of love and mercy, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity, that we may become disciplined practitioners of covenant love. Amen.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

20 Pentecost, 2020-A: Our sacred work

Lectionary: Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22 

En el nombre del Dios, ques es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

The line between religion and politics is always a popular discussion online and in the news. Should religion be involved in politics and vice versa…? 

In the gospel reading today, some Pharisees, that is, members of a religious sect who were kind of the religious alt-right of their time, joined up with some unlikely allies, Herodians, who were presumably members of a political party supporting the Roman occupiers. Their purpose of this unholy alliance was to entrap and discredit Jesus using the issue of paying the Roman poll tax.

Here’s some background information that is helpful to know: 

1) The Roman poll tax was an annual head tax. Basically, this was Caesar taking money on a per-person basis and in return, he didn’t hurt or kill them. It was rather like a mob payoff. 

2) It was required that the tax be paid with the denarius a Roman coin with a value akin to a day’s pay – not an exorbitant amount for each person, but cumulatively it generated a healthy haul for Caesar. 

3) Jews held the coin to be a graven image, and therefore, idolatrous. They also held the inscription on the coin to be blasphemous. Since it was also the currency of the land, many Jews used the denarius despite the religious law against it. A few, like the alt-right Pharisees, refused to use them at all, which put them in a bind: break the law of God and use the idolatrous coin or break the law of the land and get punished by the Roman occupiers. 

This is the conundrum they brought to Jesus. Would he advise his listeners to break God’s law or Caesar’s? Either way, he would be toast. That was their plan anyway. 

But this is Jesus. He knows what they’re up to and he tells them so.

Bring a coin, he says. Whose face is on it? The emperor’s, they reply. Then Jesus gives his answer and it’s theological and political genius: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

The political genius of this is: Know the truth of your moment in history. Give Caesar the coin with his image on it, Jesus says. He thinks it belongs to him anyway to do with as he pleases.

Here’s the theological genius: We know as we read this, that Jesus is the 2nd person of the Trinity, the one through whom all things are made. ALL THINGS. What things, then, are not God’s? All things, all people, all time, all activities, all of creation, all resources - including all coins – everything belongs to God. Genius!

Recognizing this and living faithfully into it, is the very definition of stewardship. If all people belong to God, then who can we allow to be hungry, or homeless, or un-shoed in winter? Whose physical and mental health needs can be overlooked or underfunded? If all people are God’s, who is our enemy?

We can only exclude today those whom Jesus excluded as he died on the cross. Oh right, he died once for ALL as St. Paul said (Ro 6.10). Likewise, we can exclude no one.

If all time belongs to God, then isn’t it important for us to establish a harmony of rhythms of our time at work, with family, and with God in prayer?

Do our activities speak love? Are they serving the welfare of God’s people, including ourselves, and thereby bringing God glory? Do we hold the precious gifts of our earth in trust for future generations?

What about our finances? Ah, that’s the sticky one, as we saw in our gospel today. Do we hold our wealth as a gift given to us for the accomplishment of God’s purposes or do we, like Caesar, think it belongs to us for our own purposes? Jesus made the answer pretty clear, I think.

The world is a difficult place and life is so hard for so many. As the pandemic continues, the numbers among us who are hungry, unwell physically or mentally, lonely, unemployed, or trapped in fear or anger, steadily increases.

But we have Good News to share and the responsibility to share it – by our words and our actions. The world is desperate for the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ. Just listen to the news (only a little – too much might make you crazy!)

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry once said Episcopalians need to get busy “committing to making a practical, tangible difference…helping the world look more like God’s dream and less like our nightmare… It’s sacred work” he said.

To do that, Bp. Curry recommends we make five things a priority: Formation, Evangelism, Witnessing, Relationship, and Structures that serve our mission. We have much of this happening right now at Calvary. For example, our formation currently includes Inquirers Class, Bible and book studies, and a plan for Christian formation for the upcoming seasons of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany adapted to the COVID restrictions. We’re also working on an Inquirers Class geared to children and youth.

Calvary’s evangelism has blossomed with online Daily Office services that enable people to deepen their relationships with God and one another through prayer everyday - something that wasn’t happening before the shutdown.

Our Interim Parish Summits, which begin today, will lay the groundwork for examining our institutional structures so that we can ensure our structures serve our current divine mission. It’s important, faithful work being done here at Calvary – sacred work.

The Church has traditionally supported its sacred work through an annual stewardship campaign calling on people to ‘give sacrificially’ like Jesus did for us. Over time, this has come to feel more like a Roman poll tax than a joyful offering, so let’s faithfully re-frame it.

Jesus said, “Give… to God the things that are God’s.” It’s pretty simple: everything is God’s - including us. Our bodies, our relationships, our activities, our finances, our resources, our church, our prayer – all belong to God.

So don’t give sacrificially – Jesus already did that – once for all! Instead, let’s give until it feels really good! Let’s give gratefully, generously, joyfully - knowing that each of us has been chosen by God to be here in this time and this place, to activate resources entrusted to us to make the world here in Columbia and Boone Co. more like the dream of God.

Annual campaigns are important. Financial resources are necessary for a church to fulfill its divine purpose. As you consider your 2021 pledge to Calvary, hear what St. Paul says about stewardship: “…For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable… I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need...” (2 Cor 8. 9, 11, 13-14)

We are called to participate in making a tangible difference in our world. We who have enough to eat are called to share food with those who are hungry. We who are accepted according to societal preferences of skin color, gender, sexual orientation, or economic standing are called to build bridges of friendship and inclusion with those who are marginalized in our time – modeling Jesus who served those judged to be unworthy in his time.

Those who have financial means are called to take up their responsibility and support the church’s mission and ministries so that Calvary can fulfill its divine purpose: being a living, activating vessel of the Jesus movement.

As St. Paul said in today's letter, “the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you…” When our church buildings were closed by the pandemic, Calvary let our community know that they matter, by immediately setting up a Blessing Box and adapting the Saturday Café to a To-Go format. The hungry were fed. The houseless were supplied with food and personal hygiene products. Our COVID Help Fund recently saved two families, furloughed from their jobs due to COVID, from eviction.

Calvary is living proof that there is no nightmare the dream of God isn’t already overcoming and the people in our area are seeing the truth of that proclaimed and lived in this parish. That’s why the theme for this year’s pledge campaign is: Serving Community with Gratitude and Generosity.

We are grateful for all God has given us and we want to continue to give generously to our community. I pray everyone will give to Calvary’s ministries during this fall campaign as generously as God has given to us, giving until it feels really good, remembering that all things, all people, all time, all activities, all of creation, all resources – all of it belongs to God. And that our work, serving our community in God’s name with gratitude and generosity, is sacred work. Amen.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

19 Pentecost, 2020: A moment of holy discomfort

Lectionary: Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9 Matthew 22:1-14 

“Many are called, but few are chosen.” That’s such an ominous ending to a pretty harsh sounding story, and I always get nervous when Jesus sounds ominous. So did the Pharisees and Scribes to whom Jesus was directing his remarks. 

The parable of the wedding banquet is only found in the gospel of Matthew, and it is in keeping with the author’s purpose to show that Jesus is the Messiah… that in Jesus, “God has begun to fulfill the promises to Israel.” It is also the last teaching Jesus does in the temple before his conflict with the Jewish leadership escalates. 

This parable was meant to sound ominous. Jesus was deliberately pointing to a present evil and calling attention to the disastrous consequences that would follow for those, specifically religious leaders, who remained complacent and self-focused rather than faithful.

From the beginning, God called the people of Israel into covenant relationship so that through them the good news of salvation might be brought to the whole world. Remember God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:3) And in Isaiah: “I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth.” (Isa 49:6)

In today’s parable, Jesus is announcing that this promise is being fulfilled. In Jesus, God’s plan of salvation is about to break out of the House of Israel and reach the ends of the earth - and the Jewish leadership doesn’t want to hear it.

They, like so many today, have grabbed hold of God’s grace as if it were theirs to own and give to those whom they choose. This is at the core of classism. A few hoard the resources meant for many, then justify and legitimate doing so. When we look at the disparity of resource distribution in our country and in the world today, it seems clear that the overwhelming graciousness of God’s generosity continues to elude us. 

Jesus’ listeners have become so accustomed to being ‘chosen,’ that they have become complacent, even hypocritical, about it ignoring the rest of what being in covenant relationship required of them. They were called to be “a light to the nations,” to be imitators of God in the world, to reveal God’s grace to the world by the example of their lives. (NISB commentary notes)

But the lives of the religious establishment Jesus is confronting were far from that description, and Jesus slams them for their lack of compassion, their lack of justice, and the arrogance of their self-satisfaction. It is a harsh confrontation, but as harsh as it is, Jesus is actually doing what God always does… making room for repentance… giving the Pharisees and Scribes the chance to make a new choice.

He does this using words that have deep meaning to his listeners. For example, they recognize that the ‘banquet’ symbolizes the kingdom of God, that the slaves represent the prophets of Israel, and that those receiving the invitation represent the chosen people of Israel. They know that the invitation is the call of Israel into a covenant relationship with God, but as the parable says, …they would not come.

So more prophets are sent, Jesus says, this time with the message: the king is still waiting, “everything is ready…come to the banquet” but they still refuse. When they finally did respond, they were insolent and violent, mistreating even killing the prophets.

Enraged by their insolence, the king (God) sends armies to destroy them and burn their city. Some commentators have suggested that this reaction by God seems a bit overdone. That was on purpose. Rabbis often used exaggeration to make a point; and Rabbi Jesus’ point was: they are living in a way that is unacceptable to God.

So finally, God sends out a third group of prophets. These are meant to be understood as the followers of Jesus who will soon go out telling everyone they meet about the new age being inaugurated in Jesus, the Messiah of God.

This third group is told to go out into the streets. The original Greek of this word translates as ‘thoroughfare’…which is a road that is open at both ends. Go out beyond the boundaries, Jesus says in the parable, and gather all you can find …the good (the Jews) and the bad (the Gentiles)… and invite them into the kingdom of God.

But then the parable takes a darker turn. The king comes upon one of the new guests, who, though he did respond to the invitation, is not wearing a wedding robe… The king commands that the guest be tied up and thrown out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Why was this poor soul cast out and punished? Well, he made two mistakes which Jesus’ listeners would have noticed.

First, he failed to honor the king by doing what was expected of him as an invited guest. In those days, guests at weddings were expected to wear wedding robes. Vesting, that is, putting on new clothing, represents putting on a new identity. Think about our Baptism and Ordination rites.

The wedding robe is the symbol of a new identity, a converted life. Refusing to wear the robe means being unwilling to be converted. That was the guest’s second mistake.

This part of the parable is a warning to the new guests at the banquet, the New Covenant guests - us. We are the Gentiles Jesus foretold would be invited to the banquet. As such, we are now included among those called to be a light to the nations and bearers of the good news in the world.

As chosen people, we are called to honor God… remembering that our salvation is God’s gift, freely given. We can’t earn it, and we don’t own it.

We have been invited by God to vest in the robes of our new identity and our lives must reflect that identity. The living out of our Baptismal vows must actually happen in our works, not just in our thoughts and prayers.

To be clear, putting on our ‘wedding robes’ and intentionally converting our lives doesn’t mean we weren’t good people serving God well before. It means, as St. Paul said last week, that we haven’t finished the race so we press on…

Vesting in a new identity given to us by God can be unsettling. See if this sounds familiar: “But we’ve always done it this way.” Well, right now, “this way” isn’t working. The video evidence of the suffering of members of our family in God cannot be denied anymore. Their cries cannot be ignored. This is a moment of holy discomfort meant to call us to conversion of our lives. 

By issuing a continual invitation to live a converted life, Jesus gives us the chance to convert in ourselves whatever still needs converting or needs converting again until the overwhelming graciousness of God’s generosity no longer eludes us or anyone else, but is an apparent reality for all to see. Only then will we live as one in justice and in peace.

I close today with an adaptation of the Collect for the Oppressed, which we shared in our diocesan clergy meeting this past week. Let us pray:

Notice the suffering, generous God, of the people in this land who live with injustice, terror, disease, and death as their constant companions. Have mercy upon us and help us to notice too. Then lead us to eliminate our cruelty to these our neighbors. Strengthen those who spend their lives establishing equal protection of the law and equal opportunities for all. And grant that every one of us may enjoy a fair portion of the riches of this land; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, 826)

Sunday, September 27, 2020

17 Pentecost, 2020-A: At the heart of our faith

 Lectionary: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32 

Our gospel story today starts with the religious authorities asking Jesus a question: “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?” We who read this today have to wonder what were the “things” Jesus was doing? 

It helps to look at what led up to this moment. This chapter of Matthew’s gospel begins with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey with people shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” This was a public reception of the Messiah by the people, and a grand show of the divine authority Jesus possessed. 

Then Jesus goes to the temple where he turns over the tables of the money changers in an angry application of this authority while quoting the voice of God in Scripture: “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.” 

It’s important to remember, as one commentator said, that it is the authority of the religious leaders that “Jesus defied when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers because moneychangers would require the approval of religious authorities to pursue their business in the temple.” Jesus’ usurped the authority of the religious leaders calling out their corruption: lining their own pockets by exploiting the poor who came to pray. 

People began to flock to Jesus, and he healed them, even the blind and the lame. This display of divine authority was quickly winning over the crowds and the religious leadership realized they couldn’t control it, which leads us to their question in today’s story. 

Jesus is in the temple teaching, as a rabbi would be. The religious authorities, who represent the holders of divine authority, confront Jesus, publicly asking him by what authority he had been doing all of these things.

Jesus answers like a quintessential rabbi: if you can answer my question, I’ll answer yours; and he asks them: by whose authority did John baptize people - was it divine or human?

They can’t answer ‘divine’ since they didn’t believe John or receive his baptism. Neither can they answer ‘human’ since most of the people believed that John was a prophet sent by God and if the religious authorities openly denied that, the people might revolt against them.

The only safe response they could make was, “We don’t know” but their answer only further undermined their authority. True to his word, Jesus replied to them with a victorious dismissal, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

While he had center stage and wore the crown of authority, Jesus publicly challenged the religious authorities to interpret his rabbinic teaching. “What do you think?” he asked, and he told the parable of the two sons: A father tells his sons to go work in the vineyard. The first son says, no” but ends up changing his mind later and going. The second son says, OK, but doesn’t go. Which son did the will of the father?

Caught in another spectacularly laid trap, the religious authorities had no choice but to answer, ‘the first son,’ after which Jesus springs the trap. Speaking directly to the religious authorities who refused to repent when John called them to it, Jesus says, know this: even the wretched tax collectors and prostitutes, who are like the first son, will enter the kingdom of heaven before you who, like the second son, refuse to repent.

That’s a pretty scathing rebuke of their authority, their morality, and maybe worst yet, their place in the hierarchy. Being used to being first, Jesus proclaims they will be last, behind even the worst of the worst sinners in their culture.

“So the last will be first and the first will be last.” (Mt 20:16) In case we missed that point in last week’s gospel, it’s repeated for us here.

Why is this such an important point? Because it is at the very heart of our faith and beautifully stated in our Collect today: “O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly by showing mercy and pity.” Think about it; God’s almighty power is declared primarily in God’s compassion for those who suffer and God’s willingness to act to relieve that suffering.

We who work in God’s vineyard today, are to declare this same truth and do this same work. I promise, we don’t have to look far to find people who are suffering and in need of compassion. With over 200,000 people dead from COVID, there are that many families grieving right now. Our isolation from in-person contact with friends and family is wearing us out.

Add to that the pain and frustration of African Americans who are denied justice from an unjust system that allows armed white supremacists to storm a government office undisturbed while using lethal force against a black child playing the park, or a black woman asleep in her bed, or an unarmed black man with and obvious mental disability.

We also don’t have to look far to find people who need to repent. In fact, we only have to look as far as the mirror. We all need to repent. We need to change direction collectively and walk in the way of righteousness, as John the Baptist did.

John was in right relationship with God and the people God sent him to serve. His oppositional relationship with the unjust, unmerciful rulers who killed him was right too - because he called out the truth about them, saying what everyone knew but was afraid to declare: that they were corrupt and needed to repent.

Like John, we need to be truth-tellers about our corrupt, unmerciful earthly powers - both historically and presently. We need to have compassion for those who suffer and be willing to act to relieve that suffering.

We can do that by amplifying the voice of the oppressed among us, people who have been systematically executed, impoverished, and tortured by our earthly authorities: African Americans executed today as horribly as they have been for generations; indigenous peoples who suffered near-complete genocide and who continue to suffer in the “third world conditions” of the reservations we exiled them to; Mexican children taken from their parents and put in cages at our borders, and now allegations of forced sterilizations of Mexican women in a detention center in GA. 

None of this is new in human history, but our response today can be. We can choose to repent.

We can choose to re-aligned ourselves in right relationship with God, whose almighty power is chiefly declared in showing mercy and pity. We can choose to get into right relationship with one another, respecting the dignity of every human being as our Baptism calls us to do.

We can choose to repent and bear the divine authority of God into our world today by letting down our guards and opening ourselves to feel and acknowledge the suffering of God’s people among us instead of denying it or dismissing it, or blaming them for it in order to maintain our comfort and advantage. 

We can choose to repent and bear the divine authority of God into our world by being truth-tellers, calling out corrupt powers and systems in our world, even when that might lead to our own discomfort. If we are to be of the same mind that was in Christ we must, as St. Paul says, look not to our own interests but to the interests of others. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, [Paul says] but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” Putting others ahead of ourselves is at the heart of our faith, for the last will be first and the first will be last.

I close with a prayer from our hymnal that sang in me as this sermon wrote through me. It’s hymn  #594: “God of grace and God of glory on your people pour your power. From the fears that long have bound us free our hearts to faith and praise. Cure your children's warring madness; bend our pride to your control; Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days, serving you whom we adore.” Amen. (1982 Hymnal, #594, CCLI # 11330380)

Thursday, September 17, 2020

16 Pentecost, 2020-A: Walking the talk

 Lectionary: Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105: 1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

En el nombre de Dios que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

There is a theme in our readings today - and it’s perfect for us after nearly 6 months of COVID-restricted living. Can you guess what it is? 

Grumbling! Right? 

The whole congregation, in the story from Exodus, is grumbling that they’re tired of living in the wilderness. They’re tired of having no meat or bread to eat. They’re tired of not being at their final destination. The promised land of milk and honey seems impossibly distant and the hard work of getting there isn’t worth it anymore. They’d rather die than live like this.

Then in our gospel story, the laborers who worked in the vineyard all day grumbled because they were paid the same as those who worked only the last hour.

Even Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, admits that he’s hard pressed between his preference to die and be done with his labors on earth and his call to live and press on for their sakes.

Walking the Christian talk is hard work. The unfairness in the parable makes a lot of sense to us, that’s because we’re looking at it from an earthly perspective. Jesus is teaching us, however, that what seems true and fair on earth isn’t necessarily what’s true and fair in heaven.

From an earthly perspective, fair payment for work is a justice issue we Christians would be called upon to seek for everyone here on earth. But this story isn’t about unfair labor practices. Nowhere in the parable are the laborers exploited.

The unfairness that grabs us and makes us grumble is the generosity of the landowner who treats the last who are hired equally to those hired first, paying them the same amount - not just the same rate. We can identify with the complaints of the first-hired who worked long hours in the scorching heat, partly because we cling to the values of the Protestant work ethic handed down to us by our ancestors: hard work, frugality, and a lingering sense of predestination, that is, that God creates some people of value and they will be blessed with wealth and riches on earth and in eternity, while others whom God created are of no value and they will be cursed here on earth and in eternity.

These values helped form our current society and economic structure where a few at the top of the hierarchy justify their wealth by their chosen-ness and dismiss, even scorn those at the bottom of the hierarchy, whose pitiable state of existence is their lot - determined by God.

The parable Jesus tells turns all of that upside down and convicts us to examine how we as Christians, are working to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth, the kingdom described in this parable, where everyone is chosen, everyone is valued, and everyone has a generous share of the bounty that belongs to God.

The parable presents a question for us to ponder: why is generosity unfair?

If we shift into the interpretation of this parable, the laborers are those whom the landowner, God, has chosen to work in the vineyard, which represents the world. The day represents the time we have on earth doing this work, and the payment for our labor is our eternal reward.

The work the laborers are doing is bringing the good news of salvation to the world. They are doing their part toward the reconciliation of the whole world to God, which, the last time I checked our Catechism (BCP, 855) is our ministry too.

We are the laborers in the vineyard today. We were chosen by God to do this work. and are sent into the world to do it. If we recoil at the apparent unfairness in the parable, then we must ask ourselves: do we resent doing the work we were chosen by God to do, and do we expect more reward than those whom God calls later in the day to work beside us?

Part of the Christian talk we must walk is taking up our cross and following Jesus. There is no ambiguity in that. We know the work is hard at times, that it will feel like we’re laboring in scorching heat.

We chose to answer God’s call to work in the vineyard. We choose it continually.

Let’s look more deeply at what the reward for our labor is. Many might say its heaven, by which they mean going to heaven at the end of our life and labors here on earth. But in the previous chapter of Matthew, Jesus says that “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.” (19:29) 

Somehow, we conflated reward with eternal life. They are different things. Our reward, which comes from receiving the abundance of God’s generosity and grace in our lives, happens now in our earthly lives and takes many forms: freedom from anger or oppression, abundant and diverse family, joy, meaning and purpose for our lives.

Eternal life is life in the eternal presence of God, and it is by definition without beginning or end, so it can’t begin at our death. It is our present, not our future state.

When we own that eternal life is our current reality, it changes how we view the present moment. It changes how we view every moment in our earthly lives.

This parable describes the extravagant, counter-cultural generosity of God, and the question it offers us to ponder is: why is generosity unfair?

Let’s pause for an earthly perspective on day laborers. First of all, they aren’t paid well. When a person is desperate for work, the employer can pretty much pay whatever they want. It’s generally an off-the-books cash transaction.

When they do find work, these day laborers will likely get paid just barely enough to eat, sleep, and return the next day to work again. They rarely, if ever, get ahead. They are also vulnerable to the employer who chooses them and many suffer indignities and injustices at the hands of these employers.

So, the parable Jesus tells is a story of amazing hope. The workers chosen last would be the ones no one wanted, no one valued. Their desperation would be so great that they might have reached the point of hopelessness.

Then the employer shows truly surprising generosity - paying them first and for a full days’ work. These last-chosen ones suddenly realize that they are wanted, valued, and have a share in the abundance of their Lord.

The first-chosen, who are us, should be celebrating this moment of reconciliation, joyfully watching as each last-chosen one is welcomed in and made whole by the generosity and abundance of God’s love. We should rejoice that God, who sought and found us, continually seeks and finds more laborers to join us in our reconciling work.

This parable offers us, who are mostly first-chosen in the world, the opportunity to check the structures we have built or accepted from our ancestors, structures that separate us, elevating some while subjugating others. As followers of Christ, we must all be as invested in the welfare of the least among us as we are in our own for that is what the kingdom of heaven is like.

Let us pray: Generous God, grant us the grace to dismantle the earthly structures that separate and restrict us that we may be free to receive the abundance you have ready to give to us, remembering that you created us all, you love us all, and you choose us all to be your beloved ones. Unite us into one body by your Holy Spirit, that we may rejoice to serve you, working to make life on earth more like life in the kingdom of heaven. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.