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.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

14 Pentecost, 2020-A: Prophets of the way of love


 LectionaryExodus 12:1-14, Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Note: This sermon can also be found on my website.

I once had a bishop who used to tell our diocese that we are all called to be prophets. I always agreed with that. I still do… because a prophet is an inspired teacher, a person who proclaims the will of God, who speaks in a visionary way about a new idea, belief, or cause that God is revealing to the world.

So much of what is called Christian teaching isn’t Christian at all. As our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is wont to say, “If it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God.


So, a prophet teaches about love, proclaims the will of God, which is the reconciliation of the whole world to God who is love, and envisions a way to go that leads to love on earth as it is in heaven.

We are all prophets, and as Walter Brueggemann teaches, ‘the prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. For those who realize the need for change in society if justice, peace, and the Will of God for the world are ever to be achieved, the new vision that must be molded requires immersion in the mind of Jesus and time, time, time.’

I came across this quote at our clergy retreat this week and it got me thinking… We’ve been living within a disjointed experience of quick and sudden change together with slowing to a standstill. It’s been very disconcerting at times for me to be so rushed and so completely stopped at the same time.

Time has been transformed. For example, for Deacon Janet and me, most of our Sunday is now on Thursday, while part of our Sunday is still on Sunday. My internal rhythms have been so disrupted by this that I hardly know what day it is anymore.

Being off-balance in this way feels vulnerable, but the truth is, for a person of faith, it’s an opportunity for transformation - of ourselves and of the world we serve in God’s name. When we know for sure that we cannot rely on ourselves, on our intellect and our strength, we are reawakened to the reality that what we can, and already do rely on- is God.


This place of vulnerability is our stronghold. Everything we do - from how we understand what we see happening around us to how we respond to what’s happening around us - comes from this foundational reality that we rely on God, not ourselves, to see, understand, and respond.


It’s also the only answer to the problems of racism, classism, sexism, individualism, all the -isms that have risen up into our communal awareness in such a big way right now. How we understand what we’re seeing and how we respond, when they come from God’s inspiration and not our own intellect or strength, can be transforming to us and to the world.


Like many people, I’ve dedicated much of my personal reading time lately to books that help me break open from what I was taught and go more deeply into new ways of understanding race, class, history, and religion, and I’m participating in book studies and discussions that help me hear other perspectives. When we invite God to use our time of imbalance and vulnerability to awaken us to a new reality, we can own that the church, and we the members of it, have sinned.


This isn’t news to us. There isn’t much disagreement that the Crusades and the Inquisition are blights on our church’s history. We all know that our beloved Episcopal Church was complicit with the institution of slavery, segregating African Americans to the balconies in the back of the church, while rich white families sat in their gated pews up front.  


But did you know this about our history?  “In 1882, a Mississippi [Episcopal] priest launched a virulent attack on blacks, arguing that sparse black Episcopal growth was due to their intellectual, moral and leadership inferiority. The southern bishops then proposed the Sewanee plan to segregate blacks into a racial diocese…  In response, the Conference of Church Workers Among Colored People was formed.


This according to the UBE, the Union of Black Episcopalians which is the current iteration of this Conference. The Conference of Church Workers Among Colored People “met annually. Every third year, it met at the site of General Convention and appointed lobbyists to press for black goals… through protest and agitation, [the Conference] served as the conscience of the Church, recalling it to its catholic ideal.[As a result,] Segregation was never written into national policy or canon law [in the Episcopal Church].”

Today the Union of Black Episcopalians continues its tradition as the conscience of the church by its prophetic teaching, proclamation, and visioning the way of love. I encourage you to check out their website.

In every generation, we as a church and as individual members of it, fail to love one another as Jesus loved us. That’s why we have to be able to talk to one another about our sin. It isn’t about passing judgment, that isn’t ours to do. It’s about opening the doorway to freedom and walking together on the path of love toward wholeness.


Jesus knew this and showed us how to go here, and it’s really important in our world today to hear this good news. Jesus said, “If a member of the church sins…”


I need to point out here that the words “against you” were added later and weren’t in the earliest manuscripts. The sin Jesus was talking about wasn’t an individual offense, but a corporate one. It was about things like complicity in racism, trans and homophobic segregation, or covering up child abuse.


If a member of the church sins, go and speak to them alone first. Respect their dignity. Humiliation and confrontation are not part of the way of love. If they refuse to listen, take one or two others with you and try again. If they still won’t listen, tell it to the church.


Coming from the deep south, it is a common practice among some Christians who take this passage literally, to force a sinful member to confess their sin in front of the whole congregation. That is not only coercive and unloving, but it accomplishes little besides shaming. More importantly, it misses the point of this teaching.


Telling it to the church is what the UBE does so well, as we heard earlier: “through protest and agitation” they continue to serve as an inner guide, leading to Church back to the way of love, to its all-embracing ideal.


Telling it to the church is why we have required training programs like Safeguarding God’s People and Safeguarding God’s Children - because child abuse in the church was (and sadly still is) real. People didn’t want to believe that such things would happen in church, but they do happen, and the church was called upon to wake up from its collective sleep, be transformed in how we understand what’s happening around us, and respond from that transformed understanding.


The next part of Jesus’ teaching is critical. If, after telling the church, the offender still refuses to listen, Jesus says, “let that one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” I hear so many people interpret this as a direction to cast out the offender from the community - but that too misses the point.


All we have to do is look at how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors. He healed and forgave them, reconciling them back into love, even welcoming one of them - the writer of this gospel - to be his disciple.


There is a place for the separation of an offender from the one they have harmed. It’s in our Disciplinary rubrics (BCP, 409), but that’s a discussion for another time.


The point is, we have one direction to go - the way of love. Right now, the revelation of how far we as a church and a culture have strayed from that path of love is bright with the clarity of Christ’s light. Now is the moment for us to wake up from our collective sleep on the issues of racism, sexism, individualism, and the other -isms that plague our church and society.


Our response, our responsibility as Christians, is to refocus on God’s vision for us and for the world. That will mean shaking ourselves loose from our habitual and comfortable, yet sinful ways of understanding, and binding ourselves to God’s inspiration, that is, God’s breathing into us the divine way of love as it is being revealed to us in this moment.


It will mean listening to the prophetic voices among us, like the UBE, and joining with them as prophets who teach about love, proclaim the will of God, which is the reconciliation of the whole world to God who is love, and envision a way to go together that leads to love on earth as it is in heaven.


Let us pray... “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts” and guide us on your way of love. Amen.