Sunday, September 29, 2013

Pentecost 19-C, 2013: Awareness. Benedicte.

Lectionary: Amos 6:1a, 4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31
Preacher: The Very Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

In her book, Illuminated Life, Benedictine nun, Sister Joan Chittister writes: “What is right in front of us we see least… As a result we run the risk of coming out of every situation with no more than when we went into it.” (22)
Our spiritual paths should include growth in awareness, the opening of our eyes to whatever blindness we have, because as Chittister says, awareness, “mines every relationship, unmasks every event, every moment for the meaning that is under the meaning of it.” (23) Awareness causes us to ask, “What do I see here of God that I could not see otherwise? What is God demanding of my heart as a result of [this] event, [this] situation, [this] person in my life?” (23)

This, I believe, is what Jesus is teaching in today’s parable. I had always considered this to be a parable about privilege. But privilege is step two, as it were. Step one is awareness.

Let’s start with step two. To be privileged is to have certain rights and immunities. The rich man is the icon of privilege, which includes not only all of his wealth and comfort but also his immunity from noticing or doing anything for the poor man, Lazarus, who starves to death right outside his door.

Most of us here have the privilege of knowing that we have a safe, dry, warm (but not hot) place to sleep tonight. We know we can bathe, use the toilet, or go to the sink and get a glass of water whenever we need it. We know we will eat lunch later today, dinner tonight, and breakfast in the morning.

Knowing that makes us privileged, and we are often unaware of the many privileges we have. Here’s how I learned this.

When Steve and I quit our jobs and went to seminary, we thought we’d be OK financially. We had money in our savings account. Our daughter was on a full-ride scholarship at a music conservatory in FL. We owned our home, which we planned to lease while we were at seminary, and we had two good cars.

Then it all changed. Four months before we moved to Sewanee, we learned that a man had begun stalking our daughter and we had to get her out of FL – quickly. She transferred to Boston University and suddenly we were faced with $38,000 of tuition for each of the two years she had left.

We also soon discovered that there was no meaningful employment to be found on the mountain where our seminary was beyond bar-tending and waiting tables, which is what Steve did. In addition, we had unexpected tuition costs for our boys who ended up attending the Episcopal school next to the seminary. Did they have to? No, but not doing so would have isolated them from the other seminary children.

So, before I attended my first seminary class, Steve and I had used all of our savings, began cashing in our stocks and were dipping into our retirement.

While we were already intentionally simplifying our lives, we had two growing boys with appetites to match. In order to ensure they had enough food to eat, Steve and I ate about every other day until our financial chaos settled a bit. By Middler year, we were still poor, but we were all eating everyday (mostly).

It was during this time that I learned what food insecurity was and how it affects those who have it. All of my life, I knew I could eat when I was hungry, so I rarely over-ate. When I first experienced food insecurity, I ate whenever food was available – whether or not I was hungry – and I ate lots of it, knowing I might not eat again for a couple of days.

My usual preference for eating healthy food fell by the wayside. Any food I could get was good food. Besides, healthy food was now too expensive. I had to buy food I could stretch to feed our family. I knew the food was filling us and not nourishing us, but I had no choice, so I prayed we would avoid the consequences of poor diet until we could eat well again.

Hoping we would eat well again revealed to me that eating well was a privilege I’d had but hadn’t noticed I had before. Even after years of serving the poor and homeless as a shelter director, I had not fully understood the true and far-reaching consequences of food insecurity until I experienced it myself.

Being hungry made me grumpy and resentful. It made it hard for me to concentrate on my studies. Since we had no money we couldn’t go out to eat or play with our friends. Poverty isolated us.

It was during this time that our boys grew out of boy’s clothes and shoes and into men’s – which cost way more. They were growing so fast, and my heart would break giving away clothes and shoes they barely wore but had already outgrown.

One day, I was struggling with the frustration and injustice of our situation (in other words, I was having a pity party). Steve and I had walked away from financial security and a life we loved to answer God’s call to me to serve, and now we couldn’t adequately feed and clothe our children.

There we were, at a college where most of the kids drove around in BMW’s and Mercedes. All around me, I could see the “plenty” but I couldn’t touch it. My heart broke. So did my spirit.

I cried out, asking God, ‘Why have you called me? Why have you called us - and then deserted us.’ I had expected (at least an interior) reward for the sacrifice we were making. Instead, we were suffering. It just didn’t seem fair.

But God hadn’t deserted us. God had led Steve and me to seminary and guided us through every difficult and wonderful moment of it. By staying prayerful and committed to one another, God was able to show us the redemption – the gifts our poverty was offering us. Gifts like: detachment from our possessions; an awareness of our many small excesses; a realization of our attachment to our reputation as people of plenty (which implied that we were good people); and freedom from our privileged notion that good people who are willing to work hard can obtain a sustainable living.

We had been like those who were at ease in Zion. We had always given generously to our church and to civic agencies that serve the poor and needy, but we had not done the one thing that God requires of all of us to do: to love our neighbor as we loved ourselves.

We had been loving ourselves first. When we gave our tithes, we gave from what was left over after we had taken all we needed and wanted. We had been practicing the ‘me-first’ ethic without even known it… until God awakened us.

I want to be clear – God did not make us poor. It happened. But God did redeem us as we experienced this poverty, and showed us what true treasure is: living in the Trinity of the love of God, neighbor, and self.

There was a news story last week about a ranch manager in south Texas near the Mexican border where immigrants were entering illegally are dying of dehydration. Risking his reputation and retaliation, the ranch manager put a “55-gallon blue plastic drum holding one-gallon water jugs… [on his land] [and topped it] with a 30-foot pole and a large blue flag… so it could be seen.

The rancher said he didn’t want to see people continue to die on his ranch... ‘If dead human beings don’t catch your attention, what the hell else is going to? We’re just trying to be human about it.’” (Source:

This guy gets it. This is what Jesus’ parable is about. What matters to followers of Christ is noticing that people are in agony, not judging why, and offering them comfort. We have to “be human about it.”

We have to love them as we love ourselves, and that means entering into a caring relationship with them. It means listening for the meaning under the meaning in their stories, then working to bring about the will of God for them.

And what is the will of God for them? Our psalmist offers the answer: God wills justice for the oppressed, food for the hungry, freedom for those imprisoned by anything. God wills that the bowed down be lifted up, that strangers be cared for, and that we build a community to sustain the lonely and helpless.

The church is that community.

We were asked to pray this week about our stewardship – the offering of our gifts and generosity to enable this community of faith to make manifest the love of God by our worship and service to the world. I call on us to begin today by saying “Benedicte” (Latin: “Thanks be to God”).

Benedicte – for opening our eyes to the many privileges we enjoy. Benedicte – for trusting us to work for your glory and the welfare of your people. Benedicte. Amen.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Pentecost 18, 2013: Acting faithfully with dishonest wealth

Lectionary: Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113:1; Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13.
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Our God is a God who “…takes up the weak out of the dust and lifts up the poor from the ashes.” (Ps 113:6) Thanks be to God. And God asks us to do the same. To be careful not to “trample on the needy” or “bring ruin to the poor.”

As he traveled on this final journey toward Jerusalem, Jesus spent a great deal of time teaching his followers how to be disciples – how to continue the work of reconciliation on their own after his impending departure from them. In his teaching, Jesus, like many Jewish rabbis, often used parables.

The word “parable” comes from the Greek word “parabole” which translates as “comparison.” When telling a parable, the teacher creates a setting in which an action occurs. The action leads to consequences which lead to the conclusion of the story and the fundamental truth being communicated.

Jesus’ parables always contained an element of surprise. They shocked the listener somehow. It seems to me that Jesus used this moment of surprise to shake loose the minds of his listeners and open them to a new way of thinking or understanding.

Today’s parable, known as the parable of the dishonest manager, is considered a particularly tough one, and it is, but not because the parable is hard to understand. I think what’s hard about this parable is the fundamental truth it communicates.

The setting is this: a rich man calls one of his managers into a meeting. Most people understand the rich man to represent God and the manager to represent us, Jesus’ disciples.

The rich man (God) informs the manager (us) that an accusation has been made against him that he was squandering the rich man’s property. To squander something is to waste it, to be reckless or foolish about caring for it… to let it be lost.

A little background: In those days, collectors earned their salary by adding on fees to the debt they were collecting – a practice called usury, which was strictly prohibited by Jewish law (Deut 23:19-20). This manager would have been hated because his wealth resulted from how successfully he could squeeze these fees out of the debtors from whom he was collecting.

“Give me an accounting of your management” the rich man commands “because you cannot be my manager anymore.” The manager begins to panic. ‘What will I do now? I’m not strong enough to do this work and I’m too proud to beg.’

Then he cooks up a plan to save himself. He decides that he needs to have a good relationship with the debtors so that when his termination date arrives, he’ll have people he can go to to help him.” So he goes out to see each of the debtors and does a surprising thing – he forgives their debt – at least some of it. For one he reduces the debt by half. For another, he cuts it by 20%.

Scholars say the actions of the manager can be interpreted in a few ways. First, the manager is cheating the rich man in order to ingratiate himself to the debtors. He is, after all, dishonest.

Second, the manager is simply cutting out his own commission. This will have a short-term financial impact on him (but a long-term benefit) and it probably won’t affect the rich man at all. He may not even know about it.

Third, the manager is repenting: re-aligning his life to the law of Moses by getting rid of the usury (interest) on the debt. (

What do you think? I think most of us tend to see the manager as totally self-serving, so probably not repenting (right?) Many would believe it more likely that we was cheating the rich man, or that if he was giving up his commission it was a self-serving action, not a benevolence toward his master.

Let’s go on… because then Jesus says a couple of very surprising things: the “… master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”

What? Hang on - it gets worse. Jesus says: “… I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

Again, what?

I imagine the disciples brains are nearly exploding by now but Jesus isn’t finished: “If then you have not been faithful with dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you true riches?” And then comes the big finale - the truth being communicated: “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Can you imagine being among the first hearers of this parable?

Let’s take look at the actions in the parable through the lens of our identity as disciples of Jesus. God calls us into a “come to Jesus” meeting and fires us for being careless and wasteful, and losing what belongs to God.

And what belongs to God? Everything! All of the resources in creation and all of the creatures of the earth, including people, belong to God. We are accused of acting foolishly with the gifts we’ve been given and letting them get lost.

Who makes this charge against us? Maybe it’s the thousands of seabirds, turtles, and seals who die from the 20 tons of plastic we throw into the ocean each year. (Center for Biological Diversity) It could have been one of the 22,000 children who dies each day due to poverty (UNICEF), or one of the 10.4 million refugees of war living in camps desperate for relief (UNCHF); or maybe it was one of the nearly 48 million Americans whose food assistance benefits have just been cut.

God hears their cries and fires us for squandering the abundance for which we are stewards, abundance we are supposed to use to take the weak up out of the dust and lift the poor from the ashes.

What will we do now… now that we’ve been fired?

Remember that line in that famous prayer that says: Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors? Well, that’s just what Jesus has the manager doing in this parable. And the ones who owe more are forgiven more. Sound familiar? Not only is their burden relieved, but relationships are built and the kingdom of God on earth is grown.

The parable teaches us that the wealth offered by the world is dishonest. It lies to us. It makes us believe that we have control of our lives and the right to decide how things should work in the world. It fools us into thinking that we deserve what we have, or that being born into it justifies our having it. It also makes us think it will last forever… but it won’t.

Wealth comes and goes. And as the saying goes, you can’t take it with you.

As disciples, however, we know that whatever gifts we’ve been given were meant to be shared with others as generously as God has shared them with us. And the gifts and resources of creation were given into our care, not for us to exploit for our own benefit but so that we can use them to take up the weak out of the dust and lift the poor from the ashes.

Jesus says we cannot serve God and wealth. He says we will either be disloyal (which is how the word "hate" translates from the Greek) to God and loyal to money; or we will devote ourselves to God and find a devotion to money incompatible with that.

This, I think, is why this parable is considered so tough. That’s our choice. And this is a rare “either-or” for a people who prefer “both-and.”

If we choose the second (which seems the obvious choice for Christians) then we alienate ourselves from the world and its priorities. We step out of a world where “greed is good” (as Gordon Gekko said in the movie Wall Street). We turn our backs on the ‘me-first’ ethics of this world and co-create a new world where mercy and community and interconnectedness reign.

This is how we act faithfully with the dishonest wealth of the world and in doing so we build relationships here on earth that are eternal and lead us all into the eternal presence of God.

It isn’t us and them. It’s just us.

As astrophysicist Neil deGrasse says: “We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.” [As for] “…me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You'd be surprised how far that gets you.” ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson

Maybe we wouldn’t be surprised. We are, after all, Anglican Christians, and that is our tradition. Those of you who are or have been in our Inquirer’s Class will recognize this, my favorite quote from Episcopal theologian Terry Holmes:

“We see ourselves as interconnected… this is fundamentally Anglican. …To love God is to relieve the burden of all who suffer. The rest is a question of tactics.” (Holmes, What is Anglicanism?, 95)


Sunday, September 15, 2013

Pentecost 17-C, 2013: All of heaven rejoices

Lectionary: Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 51:1-11; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
Preacher: The Very Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

One of my favorite friends in the communion of saints is Julian of Norwich. In her book, “Revelations of Love,” Julian describes a series of visions she has of Jesus. Her visions are exciting, surprising, joyful, dreadful, comforting, and challenging. Julian rejoices in the attention she, a humble sinner, was being paid by the Lord, saying, “For I wanted to thank our Lord, who is so reverent, so holy and apart, for being so homely (familiar) with a sinful creature.” (Revelation of Love, Julian of Norwich, 8.)

One commentator on Julian’s visions says, “Julian’s meditations do not pretend to take away the pain of today’s world, but they can inspire believers to rise up in the midst of the struggle and fix their eyes on God. They promote the virtues of self-acceptance and neighborly love and show how these qualities help [us] discover the face of God. This ability to recognize God in all things is crucial for [us] who are so prone to discouragement because [we] keep forgetting [we] are loved.” (Brendan Doyle, Meditations with Julian of Norwich, 8.)

It’s true. We often forget how powerfully and intimately God loves us and what that means for us and for the world. This, I believe, is what Jesus is teaching us in today’s gospel from Luke.

Luke begins by telling us that tax collectors and other sinners were coming to hear Jesus speak. That by itself is a bit shocking. Why would known sinners risk going to hear this itinerant rabbi?

The very presence of these ungodly people caused the godly people around them to complain: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” In response to their grumbling, Jesus tells three parables (Note: we hear only two of these parables today. We’ll hear the third one next Sunday).

The first parable is the iconic story of the shepherd who leaves the whole flock to seek and recover a single lost sheep. The image of that found sheep wrapped around the Good Shepherd’s shoulders being carried safely home is a tender, comforting image for us.

But it wasn’t for those first listeners. They were shocked because in Jesus’ time, shepherds were despised. They “were scorned as dishonest people who grazed their flocks on other [people’s] lands.” (New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (NIB), CD-Rom, Vol. IX, 65) They were unclean – ritually and actually – there were no showers out in those fields you know, so they stank.

The Scribes and Pharisees were scandalized and angered by this parable. God is NOT a shepherd.

Then Jesus goes on and tells the second parable. Can you see where this is going? In case they weren’t angry enough about Jesus casting God as a shepherd, now he’s casting God as (gasp) a woman! (O.M.G!)

Julian of Norwich was, no doubt, inspired by these parables. Jesus’ use of these “homely” images of God brought God “down to earth” as the saying goes. In fact, Jesus’ own life had the same purpose, didn’t it – to make God reachable, touchable, intimately present, so that we, who are sinners, could draw near and be reconciled?

But the Pharisees of Jesus’ time - and ours – wouldn’t want everyone reconciled. It’s unthinkable to them that certain kinds of sinners might be welcomed into heaven.

Now I’m not claiming to solve centuries of theological argument over universalism in this sermon. All I’m doing is pointing to the parables of Jesus in today’s gospel.

In these parables Jesus reveals that it is God who desires reconciliation with the lost. It is God who goes out in search of the lost; God who goes to great, sacrificial lengths to reclaim the lost – and God, by the way, who defines the lost.

The God Jesus reveals in these parables gets dirty and scratched up because He will chase after a single lost sheep. The God Jesus reveals finds no task too menial or undignified in Her search for a single lost treasure – which is another truth this parable reveals: we are God’s treasure.

Think about what for a minute… we are a treasure to God. God treasures each and every one of us.

How many of us truly feel like that? How many of us remember that the same is true for that person or group we choose to hate? They too are a treasure to God and we must approach them as such. To do otherwise is to sin – to separate ourselves from the love of God.

Some people challenge our Christian virtue, no doubt! Paul, when he was still Saul, comes to mind. But they are a gift to us because they enable us to make a choice to humble ourselves and build our love until it looks more like the love of God.

Many of you know that I had another son once. I didn’t give birth to him, but he was my son in my heart all the same. His name was Justin and he is with God now.

Justin had a rough life. His father committed suicide when he was a little boy and his mother suffered from her own demons.

I met Justin when he was in high school. He and his family went to the church I served in Cadillac, and he was in my younger son’s class. Justin had loving grandparents and extended family, but what he didn’t have was parents, so he sought to create parent-like relationships, as he understood those, with a few of us.

Steve and I were Justin’s college parents. I helped Justin apply for college, get financial aid, buy his books. I bought his dorm supplies and moved him in at the same time I was moving my own boys into their dorm rooms. Justin would come home with our boys for the holidays – they all even came here our first Christmas in Shelby.

But there was a problem: Justin didn’t know how to be a son. He didn’t know that as a son he could make demands on us as parents. He saw our boys doing it – we even talked about it. But he just couldn’t do it. He didn’t feel worthy and he certainly didn’t trust love enough to risk it.

No amount of assurance could convince Justin that our love for him had nothing to do with what he did. We loved him. End of story.

Justin knew he was a sinner, but his definition of that differed greatly from mine, so we talked about it - a lot. Justin looked at his behaviors and judged himself for the dark feelings that lingered in his heart from his childhood. He believed he must have been bad since so many bad things had happened to him, and he concluded that his severe juvenile diabetes was a punishment from God.

When I looked at Justin, I saw a gifted, beautiful, young man who needed to repent of his concept of a vengeful, punitive God and open himself to the God of love Jesus is describing in today’s gospel. I saw a young soul who needed to repent of his hateful feelings about himself and see how lovely he truly was.

In the end, Justin couldn’t believe that he was a treasure to us or to God – and he took his own life. The consolation I have is that I believe now he knows. I believe that Justin is reconciled with God and finally knows how much we love him, miss him, and long for our joyful reconciliation one day. I believe Justin now understands the truth that we are all sinners and we are all treasures, beloved of God, in whom all love begins and ends.

As Christians we believe that the fullness of God is revealed to us in Jesus, the Christ. If we have ears to hear Jesus’ revelation of God in today’s gospel, we must repent of whatever concept of God we learned and cling instead to the words of our Savior. To do otherwise is to be a stiff-necked people who worship an idol: a God of our own creation.

When Jesus says, “…I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents" he means it - but he isn’t talking about our behavior. He’s talking about our hearts. Our behavior is simply the manifestation of what’s going on in our hearts.

If we love God, we will live humbly, nurturing and using every gift God has given us for the glory of God and the welfare of God’s people. If we love others, as we have been commanded to do, we will live in peace and forgiveness. If we love ourselves, as we are also commanded to do, we will care for the bodies God crafted so marvelously for us to use.

We repent when we let go all that hinders God’s love from growing in and through us beyond what we can think or imagination. We repent when let ourselves receive the Love that chases after us, lifts us up, and carries us safely home.

And when we repent all of heaven rejoices!