the banquet of god - where our freedom to say "no" becomes an opportunity to say "yes"
Sermon for the 19th Sunday After Pentecost, October 15, 2017
In last week’s sermon I talked about how God invites each of us to find our “vineyard.” The “vineyard,” I said, is the place where we discover that God has given us opportunities to align our wills with God’s will by giving of ourselves sacrificially to others insome way through the sharing of our time, talent or financial resources. The important point about this invitation to find our “vineyard” is that we do this not out of duty or obligation, but by responding joyfully and passionately in response to God’s gift of love of grace in our lives.
At the end of the day, finding our “vineyard” is a choice…a choice made from the depths of our heart… a choice that we make because we desire to be in a right relationship with our God, whose love and grace can never be calculated or repaid.
Today’s gospel, like last Sunday’s, is an allegory. That means that each character in the story represents something or someone else. In this story a king gives a marriage feast for his son, and sends his servants to call those who were invited to the feast. But rather than gratefully accept the invitation, the people not only scorn the king’s offer, but they seize the king’s messengers and kill them. The king then decides not only to punish the ungrateful and murderous invites, but to throw the doors of the wedding feast open to anyone who wants to come. He fills the banquet hall with the whole gamut of society because the wedding must go on as planned.
If you haven’ already figured it out, in this allegory, the first guests stand for Israel. The first two sets of slaves who issue the invitation represent the prophets of the old covenant, which is why some of them are beaten up and killed, hardly the usual way of declining an invitation. The city that is destroyed represents Jerusalem.
In the second part of the allegory, the slaves who are sent into the main streets to invite just anybody are the apostles, the followers of Jesus after the resurrection, who brought the church together. And the church, Matthew knew all too well, was filled with both good and bad, righteous and unrighteous, deserving and undeserving. After all, “everyone” means everyone: good, bad, and indifferent. The second crowd is very different from the first group, just as the church was very different from the leaders of Israel.
In this allegory Matthew is expressing the early Christian belief that, in spite of the words of the prophets and of John the Baptist, Israel, especially Israel’s leaders, had repeatedly ignored God’s invitation to his great messianic banquet for his son Jesus. So they are rejected, and the church is formed by the apostles. And the apostles are told not to judge, but to invite.
So, in this gospel, we are invited to see into the heart of God. We see that God passionately wants us to come to his banquet….passionately wants us to come home. We see how passionately our God love us – all of us – all of the time. What remains hidden and unsaid, of course, is that God doesn’t force us to come into the party. It is we who do the choosing. And what we know, although, we often feel uncomfortable talking about, is that few of us choose to return to God because we are too busy with the cares of the world, or, as Paul describes in his epistle, we are too busy wasting time on inconsequential disputes about what is right and what is wrong.
At this point in the story, a lot of Biblical scholars become very interested in the poor guy who gets tossed out of the banquet. All sorts of things have been written about why he gets the boot, which mostly has to do with guessing what the reference to a “wedding robe” or a “wedding garment” meant back then. Since nobody really knows what a “wedding robe” means, the guesses have run amuck. They have included everything from ordinary clean clothes to a robe everybody supposedly had hanging in their house if they would only take a second to pick it up, to the white garments often given to newly baptized Christians.
But remember, what is happening here is not supposed to be a precise example of Palestinian social customs. Concern for accurate detail has gone out the window. This is a story about the final judgment!
Matthew is saying that, even though the church is filled with good and bad alike; and even though the apostles who call people to the church are not supposed to judge and are not supposed to exclude; and even though absolutely everyone is invited and absolutely everyone is handed all they need both to be properly dressed and to have a great time at the party; still, sooner or later, the King is going to arrive in person, and if you matter, if you are a real person, then – and here’s the part of the allegory that often confuses people - you have to be able to say ‘no’ to the invitation.
You have to be able to reject the invitation, to ignore the robe; otherwise, you aren’t really there. The guy who refuses to put on the garment becomes a symbol for everyone invited to the feast who, nevertheless, declines to participate. It’s about the freedom we human beings have to just say ‘no’ to God; it’s not about some weird overreaction to wearing the wrong outfit.
And it’s important that we have this choice, that we have the freedom to say ‘no,’ to refuse to put on the garment handed us at the door, and so, thereby, to take our chances outside. What today’s gospel is saying to us is, if we can’t do that, if we can’t say ‘no,’ then we can’t really say ‘yes’ either, and we’re just sheep rounded up into a gilded pen. And our God isn’t interested in herding sheep into theheavenly banquet hall.
And this makes sense in light of what I said last Sunday. If we are to enter into the Kingdom of God, the author of our gospel Matthew is saying….if we are to go into God’s banquet, unless we are prepared to celebrate God’s gift of love and grace, unless we are able to receive God’s grace and love as a gift that we did not earn and don’t deserve, then we will not be going into the banquet out of duty or obligation, but out of joyful, passionate gratitude. And this means that going into the banquet involves a choice. Our God won’t force us, or guilt us, or shame us or compel us to go in unless we choose of our own free will – because that’s the way God chooses to love us. Our God loves us so much that God is willing to take the risk that we will reject his love. That’s the love that Jesus showed us on the cross. That’s the love that, ultimately, will win us over when we are debating whether to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
Our humanity, our freedom, our very dignity demand that we have what the king gave that fool in the story, which is the opportunity to walk away from the greatest gift he could imagine, a gift he had, in fact, already been given.
And the poor guy had to really work at it; he was given all sorts of chances. But the King would not take away the man’s option to say no. The king would not treat him as someone whose actions didn’t matter and whose choices didn’t matter.
The question last week was “where is your vineyard – the place where we find opportunities to align our wills with God’s will.” Today, the question is “where is our banquet – the place where we find God giving us the opportunity and the freedom to say ‘no,’ but, because we feel so drawn to a God who loves us so much to give us the freedom to say ‘no,’ we feel compelled to say ‘yes’?”
At our Diocesan Convention this past weekend in Grand Junction, we heard stories about several people who, in the face of "no's" said "yes." We heard about the St. Francis Center which was founded by Fr. Bert Womack. In the first year of operation this day center for the homeless served 70 people per day. Today it serves over 700 people per day. We also heard about the opening of a new subsidized apartment complex which is a collaboration between the St. Francis Center and St. John's Cathedral - another "yes" by the people of St. John's in the face of many challenges. We heard about the Colorado Haiti Project, which was founded by Fr. Dale Casey, the Rector of the Chapel of Our Savior in Colorado Springs and our own Fr. Ed Morgan. And we celebrated the work of Fr. Aviade, the priest at St. Paul's in Petit Troup de Nipe, the town that has been transformed by this ministry in the face of many obstacles. We heard about four Episcopal Church around the country who have engaged with the work of refugee resettlement - a ministry that we all know faces many "no's" in our current political atmosphere. And we heard from a Congolese doctor who left a safe and comfortable medical practice in Belgium to return to his home to help improve medical services in the Congo.
Where is God calling you today to say "yes" even though God loves you so much that God is willing to take the risk that you will say "no?" Amen.
where is your vineyard?
Sermon for the 18th Sunday After Pentecost, October 8, 2017
This past week our thoughts and prayers have been focused on the victims of the mass shooting in Las Vegas. It’s probably been difficult for us to remember that it was only a short time ago that we were focusing our attention on the thousands of people whose lives have been devastated by the hurricanes in south Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. But I’d like to invite you to do that for a moment.
One of the results of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria is that they make us stop and think about what our world is like when everything breaks down. Unless we’ve lived in a third world country, it’s hard for us to imagine what it’s like to have no electricity, no running water, no telephone service….to have the world as we know it come to a complete halt.
But when we lose all of these basic services, it also makes us think about the systems that keep life humming by the natural action of cells, the energy of the sun, and the electricity of our brains and bodies. When our world breaks down we become aware of how, second by second, we are the recipients of energies, the elemental forces that keep life going….forces and energies that we did nothing to earn and for which we never receive a bill. No human power utility is this generous or this reliable from birth to death.
And when we realize that the power systems which sustain our creaturely being are a gift, something for which we can never adequately repay the Creator, then we overflow with gratitude. We ask ourselves, “how can we use the gift of breath, the gift of a pulse, the gift of the electrical circuitry of our brains, the gift of metabolism to thank God?” When we become aware that simply to exist is a gift of extravagant wealth, we find ourselves aching to return thanks, to act and speak and live in ways that honor the One from whom all blessings flow.
And this impulse to give thanks to the creator isn’t a burden or a social responsibility; it’s a joy, a desire and a passion that comes from the depths of our heart. We give because our existence has been given to us. We give because every moment of the day, we are receiving gift after gift. This recognition that everything we have is a gift from God and that we are compelled to respond in gratitude is at the heart of what we call Christian stewardship.
Although, at first, it might not seem like it, today’s gospel story can be seen as a story about stewardship. In this story, it’s clear that Jesus intends each character in the story to represent someone specific. A landowner plants and cares for his vineyard and then leases it out to some tenants. When the landowner sends his slaves to claim his rightful portion of the proceeds, the tenants abuse and kill them. Finally, the landowner sends his own son. When the tenants see the son coming, they falsely believe that the landlord is dead and that, if they kill the son, they will gain legal control over the property.
Jesus told this story as an allegory of how the Scribes and the Pharisees have rejected Jesus. But there’s a twist here. This story shouldn’t be seenas a story about vengeance directed at the evil tenants. We know that the outcome of this story – the punishment of the tenants - is in total contrast with what eventually happened to Jesus, and this is where we depart from the allegory. When Jesus was crucified, God didn’t seek revenge. When God’s love in Jesus was rejected, God didn’t bring down judgment. In the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, God overcame the world’s rejection of Jesus. Jesus’ death was not the last word. It was the beginning of a whole new kind of life.
The point of this allegory of the vineyard is that it is the nature of human beings to rebel against God and try to gain total control of their lives, yet God loves us so much that God is willing to take a risk. In sending us the gift of Jesus, God is willing to risk the fact that humans will reject the kind of love that Jesus brought into the world. And even when people do reject Jesus by crucifying him, this is not the last word…trying to wrest control of life by the use of power is not the last word.
That’s the way it is with our God. It is the way of the Cross. The landowner in Jesus’ story isn’t going to send in the police or go to court. He’s going to try again…because that’s the most powerful way.
“Of all powers,” well-known Presbyterian writer and preacher, Frederick Buechner once wrote, “love is the most powerful and the most powerless. It is the most powerful because it alone can conquer that final and most impregnable stronghold…the human heart. It is the most powerless, because it can do nothing except by consent.”
What does all this have to do with Christian stewardship? First, it reminds us that God’s gift of creation and God’s gift of love, which brings about the alignment of our will with God….these gifts come with a price….these gifts have a cost. And the amazing thing is that God is willing to risk everything in order to save us.
For the Jews of Jesus’ time, this would have been a scandal. It would have been outrageous to accept that the God of the law…the God of justice…would take such a risk. But what this means for us is that God wants us to respond to the gifts God has given us, not out of duty or obligation, but out of joy….the joy of knowing that when we give sacrificially in gratitude for God’s gifts…give freely and by our own consent….we are doing what God has done for us. We are aligning our wills with God’s will.
The joy of Christian stewardship is that – by offering our gifts of time, talent or financial resources - we are given the opportunity to learn how to align our wills with God’s will by giving sacrificially to others. But an even greater joy is to realize that God wants us to give of our own free will, not out of obligation or duty.
God wants us to find our own vineyard…to find the place where we believe God is calling us to give freely and joyfully. And God wants us to find our vineyards by ourselves….to find our vineyards by wrestling with all of the temptations to do the contrary.
Sometimes, we don’t choose our vineyards; they find us. And sometimes in the most horrific and terrible ways. The mass shooting in Las Vegas last Sunday night was, yet again, another moment in this nation’s history when, in the face of unexplainable violence and bloodshed, people voluntarily stepped forward, at great risk, to do whatever they could to save hundreds of people from danger. Some physically shielded others from gun fire and were killed themselves. Some risked their lives to carry injured people from the concert venue. Thousands stood in line for hours to donate blood for the victims.
Sadly, it often takes these kinds of events – not unlike what happened in the Houston area and in Florida in the aftermath of the hurricanes – for people to personally experience what it’s like to share their love and their lives with others…to experience what God’s love is like….to experience what it’s like to bring our wills in alignment with God’s will….to experience the power of Jesus’ sacrificial love let loose in the world.
Where is your vineyard? Where do you see God giving you opportunities – sometimes in ways you don’t intend or expect - to experience bringing your will in alignment with God’s will? Is it in the personal sacrifices you make to become the person God wants you to be? Is it in the commitments you make to provide a better quality of life for your family? Is it in your contributions of time and talent to make the Denver community a better place? Is it with your pledge to help Good Shepherd grow and so provide many people with opportunities to give sacrificially? I hope during our stewardship campaign over the next few weeks you will discover the joy and the freedom of working and serving others in God’s vineyard, wherever that may be. Amen.
being a disciple of jesus In a starbucks world
Sermon For the 17th Sunday After Pentecost, October 1, 2017
Bill Wilson, who founded Alcoholic’s Anonymous in the basement of an Episcopal Church many years ago came up with an idea that seemed novel at the time – that alcoholics needed to reach out to a “higher power” in their recovery from alcoholism. But Wilson said he didn’t particularly care which “higher power” we reach out to. The essential characteristic had to be that this “higher power” was something other than ourselves.
The great challenge, when it comes to faith and our worship is to do all we can to ensure that the God we worship is other than ourselves. As a preacher, I know that my greatest challenge is to speak about God in such a way that God is with us, related to us, but higher and more important than a mere projection of us.
This is the challenge that Jesus faces today when he tells this parable about the two brothers. He tells this story to a group of religious authorities. And when he does this he is holding up a mirror to them and comparing them to the brother who said he would obey his father’s request to go and work in the vineyard, but then failed to go. The priests and the Pharisees are the people one would expect to be open to welcoming Jesus and his new message about the kingdom of God. Instead, they resist his message. The brother who at first refuses to obey his father, changes his mind, and goes in a different direction. The priests and the Pharisees can’t do that.
Jesus rubs salt in the wound by saying to his critics, “I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God before you.” Can you imagine how this rebuke must’ve stung them? The religious authorities are at the center of the nation’s religious life. Yet, Jesus tells them that it’s the hated collaborators with the Romans and the women of ill repute who get to enter God’s kingdom before they do.
The hard part about this story is that, like last week’s gospel, Jesus seems to be reaching out all the way to the margins of society. He is determined to be Lord not just of me and my friends in the church, but for the whole world. Is that so hard to believe? There are probably some of us here today who would say that, at some point, you felt that you were on the margins…you were outside the scope of God’s love. Then, somehow, some way, God managed to reach you. God found you in your lostness and brought you home.
It’s strange isn’t it? Most of us in the church probably consider ourselves in the middle of things, spiritually speaking. After all, Richard Hooker, the 17th century English theologian, made history by calling our Episcopal/Anglican faith tradition a “middle way” between Protestantism and Catholicism?
But we now live in what we could call a “Starbucks” world. In this world, the comfortable, rather boring middle way is being forsaken for more distinctive positions on the margins. As the well-known church historian, Leonard Sweet, says in his book, The Gospel of Starbucks, a Starbucks world is not one that caters to the lowest common denominator or the big middle. Have you noticed that you can’t order a “medium” cup of coffee at Starbucks? In this new Starbucks world, nobody wants to be average or to have mass appeal. Today all middles are in trouble. What’s the worst thing that can happen to a passenger on an airplane? It’s having to sit in the dreaded middle seat. Today, no company in its right mind would name itself General Motors, or General Electric or General Foods. There is no general anything, no happy medium anymore.
The world I grew up in was a Maxwell House world - a world where there was one or two brands of coffee that everyone drank. Maxwell House and the rest of the world organized itself according to a hump-shaped bell curve in which everything clustered in the middle.
The challenge of being a Christian today is that the world around us is not drawn to the middle anymore. If the Christian faith is going to be vibrant and alive in today’s world, it can’t be just an intellectual exercise to define a faith that appeals to the lowest common denominator. More and more, people are looking for an authentic experience of God and that experience may just as often be found on the margins as in the middle. And many people are rediscovering something that Jesus would have admired: faith is a choice and it may involve changing the way we look at life and surrendering what we previously valued.
Jesus reached out to those on the margins because, unlike the religious authorities, they were open to making a change. For them, the message of the Kingdom of God was a priority. In contrast, the chief priests and the elders of Jesus’ day had quite a bit invested in the status quo. Leaving the past behind meant forfeiting their claims to power and position, which had become their identity.
What about us? As people of faith, how do we live with the tension between the certainty and comfort of our past and the uncertainty and discomfort of the future? Do we allow the comfort and security of the past to restrict our ability to take risks in order to live faithfully? Has our church become entrenched in the structures of the past where we do the same thing over and over again? And does this cut us off from new and life-giving possibilities.
The title of the video program we are using for our six-week small group series is “Hazardous Saints, Christians Risking All, Changing Everything.” The men and women portrayed in this program – St. Barnabas, St. Francis of Assisi, who we remember today on the Sunday closest to his saints day, the 16th century Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, the abolitionist and advocate for women’s rights, Sojourner Truth, Dorothy Day, the radical Roman Catholic lay woman who spoke out and defended poor working people, the Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero who was assassinated because he stood up for poor peasants who were being persecuted by a US supported dictatorship – all of these “hazardous saints” took risks because they envisioned a new world, a just world, where those who were considered “outsiders” were welcomed and respected.
Can we learn to do church in a “Starbucks world?” Are we interested in maintaining the status quo, or are we interested in finding new life with those who may be on the margins…those who are thirsty for change?
Many of you may not know this, but there is another community that meets here at Good Shepherd, and their attendance is equal if not greater than Good Shepherd’s Sunday attendance. It’s Alcoholics Anonymous. 30-45 people meet in our basement every day of the week except Sunday (that’s why you don’t see them) to talk about their experience of learning to surrender to a “higher power.” Because of their struggles with alcohol addiction most of these folks have often felt like outsiders, on the margins, not welcome. The one thing that unites them and gives them hope is their thirst for change and their commitment to lead changed lives by surrendering their compulsion to drink. They have learned the hard way that their intentions to change mean nothing without action, without changed behavior.
Does our faith and trust in the “higher power” we call God’s grace and love lead us to seek more than the security of what is comfortable and secure? Can we ourselves as the brother in the parable who changes his mind and makes a choice to do something different? Could we be that brother who turns around and decides to go work in God’s vineyard? Amen.
grace and the goldilocks effect
Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, September 24, 2017
A story is told about Fiorello LaGuardia, the colorful Mayor of New York City. One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. A tattered, old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. “It’s a bad neighborhood, your Honor,” the man told the mayor. “She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.”
Laguardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, “I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions – ten dollars or ten days in jail.” But then, as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous sombrero hat, saying, “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore, I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.”
So, the following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, fifty cents of that amount being contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.
What an amazing moment of grace for anyone present in that courtroom! What is grace? Grace is not just the awareness that God exists….the knowledge that there is a cosmic intelligence of some kind that keeps the stars shining in the sky and the earth on its axis. Grace is the experience of God in the thick of our day-to-day lives. Grace is what happens, for example, in our gospel story, when a landowner gives everyone the same pay whether they worked all day long or only a few minutes at the end of the day. When the 11th hour workers are handed their pay they taste what Jesus calls “the kingdom of Heaven.” They experience what God is like, just like what happened to the people in that courtroom, when Mayor LaGuardia paid that woman’s fine and more so. Heaven, Jesus implies, is being in the presence of the gracious goodness of God, who loves everyone alike.
“Wait a minute!” you say. I get the first part – that grace is being in the presence of God, but I don’t get the second part. It may be OK for some eccentric big city mayor to show mercy to a poor woman, but to say that it’s God’s nature not to make any distinctions between those who work and those who don’t, just doesn’t make sense!
Here’s our problem. We can readily admit that God is gracious and we may even hunger to experience what it’s like to be in God’s presence, but we struggle when Jesus gets so specific about the way that God’s grace is revealed. The problem is that, no matter how much we long to experience the presence of God in our lives, we like to believe that we are saved by how good we are and how hard we try. And if I work twelve hours in the hot sun and get a day’s pay, then the guy who put in only an hour at the cool end of the day should get only one-twelfth of what I get. It’s repugnant to think that the boss would give him the same as he gives me. It’s repugnant to believe that God is like that.
Several years ago, I read an article about the ground-breaking work being done by researchers at the University of Rochester’s “Baby Lab.” For the past 40 years, Dr. Richard Aslin has been studying how baby’s learn, and particularly, what babies see….what they choose to look at. One of the things that the Rochester researchers have discovered is what they call “The Goldilocks Effect.” Using newly developed eye-tracking data collected from infants in the lab, they have shown that the babies’ attentiveness to visual scenes was influenced by the level of surprise – due to new information – involved in the scenes. Like the nursery tale heroine, babies prefer something that feels “just right” – they give the greatest attention to scenes that are neither too predictable nor too surprising.
Jesus would have made a great “baby lab” researcher because he says that the root of the problem is the way we learn to look at things. At the end of today’s gospel, the landowner says to the grumbling workers, “are you envious because I am generous?” In Greek, the literal translation of this phrase is, “ Is your eye evil because I am good?” The expression “evil eye” refers to when we are distracted by the temptations of the world and, instead of feeling joyful for what God gives us, we feel anxious and envious, especially if someone else has received more than we have. The old-fashioned term for this is “covetousness.” I see the good fortune of someone else and what my eye sees leads my brain to begin calculating and keeping the books on myself and the other person….and that leads me to forget the grace that God has blessed me with.
Does this process begin when we are babies? Perhaps the “Goldilocks Effect” is hard-wired in us. On the one hand, maybe we are predisposed not to trust that God can do anything surprising in our lives….not to trust that God could forgive us for our failures, or accept us even when we can’t accept ourselves. And, like the other aspect of the “Goldilocks Effect,” maybe our “evil eye” also distracts us from recognizing God’s presence in the world and in our lives in more ordinary, unsurprising and often overlooked ways- in a gorgeous sunset, a majestic snow covered mountain peak, a touch of someone’s hand, or a spouse’s persistent efforts to tell us that we are loved just for who we are.
In his book, “The Ragamuffin Gospel,” Brennan Manning describes the life of grace as the “spirituality of wonder.” He says, “the spirituality of wonder knows that the world is charged with grace, that while sin and war, disease and death are terribly real, God’s loving presence and power in our midst are even more real.” But, in order to see this grace, we have to do two things. We have to be able to be aware of God’s presence in ordinary ways we often overlook, and also be willing to be surprised and astonished…..and let go of the idea that God only acts in ways that we expect or control.
In these kinds of moments, when we can let go of the “Goldilocks Effect”…let go of our need for everything to be “just right”….let go of our craving for tangible reassurances that God will do what we expect…..then we can enter into a new kind of world where God can change and transform us…a world where we can trust that God is more interested in making us what we ought to be than in giving us what we think we ought to have.
Today, I think Jesus is doing something similar to what he was doing in last week’s gospel. In this parable of the generous landowner, like last week’s parable of the unforgiving servant, there is little that makes sense in terms of what we would call the “real world.”
And that’s the point. God’s grace, Jesus suggests, is not a theory or an idea to be discussed. God’s grace is something we can understand only when we have been on the receiving end of it and when we surrender our preconceptions about the way God should act. And like forgiveness, grace is not something we deserve or possess. God’s grace, God’s generosity is a gift that is given to us so that we will be changed and transformed…..changed in order to be channels of grace to someone else.
The message of this strange, baffling parable is that you and I are created to love and to give, and Jesus invites us to move beyond our fixation on fairness and into boundless love. If our “evil eye,” if our covetousness makes us frustrated with grace of God as it applies to others, then we will never truly become the people God has created us to be.
In the six-week small group program that will begin next Sunday, we will be experiencing how the grace of God has worked in the lives of six men and women - six “disciples” of Jesus - down through ages, in the lives of people we will call “Hazardous Saints.” Why are these men and women “hazardous?” Because their experience of God’s grace radically changed them and, in turn, led them to take risks by trying to bring about change in the world around them.
Are you someone who is curious to experience God’s grace, or are you someone who, perhaps, has felt frustrated when the “Goldilocks Effect” keeps you from seeing God’s presence in your life or in the world around you? If so, consider joining one of our three small groups. And prepare to be surprised by how God’s amazing grace can change and transform you to be the person you were created to be. Amen.
forgiveness: the gift that keeps on giving
Sermon for the 15th Sunday After Pentecost, September 17, 2017
This has been a challenging month for our country. Millions of people are living or have been living without power and thousands of people’s lives have been devastated by hurricanes Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida and the Southeast. We just commemorated the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, which reminds us of the pain and suffering which continue to be inflicted by terrorists throughout the world. The nation is struggling to respond to the event in Charlottesville, Virginia a few weeks ago. And millions of Americans’ lives have been disrupted by the recent Equifax data breech.
Understandably, people are questioning what could have been done to better prepare for these powerful storms or what could have been done to defend against malicious internet hackers or terrorists or racist groups bent on inflicting harm on innocent people. At times like these, how are we to respond to today’s gospel where Jesus says to the disciples that there is to be no limit on forgiveness towards those who sin against us?
I think the place we have to start is to resist the temptation to try and make a philosophical or theological pitch for forgiveness. There is nothing abstract or theoretical about Jesus’ idea of forgiveness. In Jesus’ parable a servant is forgiven a debt to a king that is so large it can hardly be measured…about 1.5 billion dollars in today’s terms.
But the servant who is forgiven doesn’t understand that this act of forgiveness is intended, not just to free him from a debt, but to produce in him a profound change of heart. Being freed from his debt, the servant is supposed to, in turn, become an instrument of forgiveness to his own servant.
The servant probably thought that the king’s act of forgiveness was too good to be true. He thought that the king’s forgiveness was due to the servant’s sad story. But – surprise – the king forgives the servant his debt, not because of his earnest promise to repay, but because it is the nature of the king to be merciful.
The servant just can’t get his mind around the fact that his debt is simply and totally wiped clean…wiped clean, out of grace. He can’t understand the work of grace because he’s too busy trying to calculate what he has earned or what he is due.
Jesus tells this story to the disciples because, I think, he sees what’s coming down the road. He sees a community in which the concept of mercy remains just that – a nice idea to be talked about, preached about and written about – but not practiced. As C. S. Lewis once said, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have to forgive something.’
So the question Jesus is posing is totally practical. It’s not a question about whether or not forgiveness is a good idea. It’s a question about what kind of life we want to lead. Do we want to participate in God’s kingdom of grace or do we want to stand outside the door and keep score?
What are the obstacles to participating in this kingdom of grace that Jesus describes? In his classic book, No Man is An Island, Thomas Merton makes the profound observation that, “Some people are only virtuous enough to forget that they are sinners without being miserable enough to remember how much they need the forgiveness of God.” What Merton means is that we have a tremendous stake in being nice to each other. As long as we don’t offend anyone….don’t do anything that will look stupid…don’t stand out in any way …..in other words, as long as we look virtuous, we’re OK. Keeping up appearances is one effective way of locking ourselves out of the transforming life of grace that Jesus describes.
Another way we lock ourselves out of God’s kingdom of grace is by passing judgment on ourselves. In his book, How Good Do We Have to Be?, Rabbi Harold Kushner tells a story about going to see a dying member of his congregation. In the hospital, the man had begun to come to terms with years of passing judgment on himself. He said to Kushner, “When I was young, I thought I had to be perfect for people to love me. I thought that if I ever did something wrong, their love would be withdrawn. So every time I did something wrong, I would make excuses…I would lie… I would try to find someone else to blame. I didn’t realize what an unpleasant person I became when I acted that way. I thought it was my imperfection, not my defensiveness…. that turned people off. But lying here in the hospital…sick and cranky and dying, but feeling God’s presence in the doctors and nurses who try to help me, in the friends and family who come to visit me…
… I’ve finally learned that you don’t have to be perfect to be worth loving. I only wish I had known that sooner.”
We expect ourselves to be perfect and then, when we don’t live up to our own expectations, we wallow in shame and guilt. Whatever rejection or judgment we received as children from parents, teachers or authority figures somehow gets converted to self-rejection. The more self-rejection and guilt we have, the harder it is for us to believe that we are forgiven.
So we say to ourselves, “God must be wrong.” Like the servant in Jesus’ story, we can invent some reason why we should be forgiven, but we have a hard time believing that God isn’t interested in our excuses or our guilt or shame
Whether we misunderstand the meaning of God’s mercy because we are too busy appearing virtuous, or because we can’t get beyond our shame and guilt, what ties these two ways of living together is that we really don’t believe with our whole heart that God is more interested in restoring relationships then he is in keeping score. We are like the servant in our gospel. Because he can’t appreciate the fact that the King has restored what was a strained relationship, he’s unable to forgive someone else. We have been forgiven from the heart over and over again, through no merit of our own, but simply because God loves us very much and wants to love us some more.
The question Jesus leaves us with is this, “If you have ever had that happen to you, if you’ve ever received forgiveness, how could you not want to do the same to someone else?” God has given us a gift to transform the world and it’s called “forgiveness.” A world of broken and fragmented relationships exists….. there are lives waiting to be healed and transformed.
So, as we remember the victims of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, as we remember the victims of 9/11 and those recently killed by terrorists in Spain and other countries, and as we commiserate with anyone whose life has been disrupted by events such the recent Equifax data breach, we have to ask ourselves the question, “Do we want to be set free to serve those in need? Do we want to allow ourselves to be forgiven so that we can, in turn, witness to this new life of grace and forgiveness that God has given us? Or do we want to take out our calculators and keep score?
I think this is why, over the past three weeks, we have seen so many people doing such extraordinary acts of kindness both in the Houston area and in Florida and the Gulf Coast. Reaching out to others in times of national disasters, is one of the few times when we can experience something of what God experiences when God offers us unlimited forgiveness. It is the exhilaration of being a servant of God’s grace.
As we say goodbye to Alwen today, one of the things I will miss about her is her enormous heart for the people Jesus calls the “little ones”…..the vulnerable ones….those in our society who have experienced racism, bigotry, or been mistreated or excluded because of their sexual orientation. Over the past four years Alwen has been a voice for social justice and care for those our society often overlooks or ignores. She has been a tireless and compassionate pastor to our youth when they were troubled or confused. She has helped our Outreach team expand the scope of their service to the wider community. She has showed courage and candor in sharing some of her own struggles in her path to the priesthood. As someone who has experienced God’s forgiveness many times in her life, she freely shares the gift of forgiveness with others. She has shown us that, whatever we have experienced in life, God wants to use us in some way to bring about forgiveness, healing and reconciliation with those who are hurting or suffering.
Shortly after her arrival at Good Shepherd, Alwen dressed up as Wonder Woman as part of a youth group skit during church. The irony of her donning this costume is that Alwen knows well that church ministry is not about being a superhero or trying to appear strong in the face of life’s challenges. The life of discipleship is rooted in the awareness that God’s grace and love for us in the most difficult and vulnerable times in our lives frees and empowers us to serve others. A disciple of Jesus is someone who knows deep down that forgiveness is not a theory to be tried out; it is a gift and, if we receive it without conditions, it can transform us and enable us to change the lives of people around us. Thank you Alwen, for your witness to the power of forgiveness. We pray that, as you leave us, you will remember that you don’t have to be Wonder Woman. Just continue to be for others what you have been for us. Amen.
"wwjb: where would jesus be?"
Sermon for the 14th sunday after Pentecost
In her sermon last Sunday, Alwen talked about three women who transformed her understanding of what it means to follow Jesus Christ and to be the church in the world. Describing the work of these women with Honduran refugees in Arizona, Alwen said that, in them, she saw “the path of Christ where we lose our life and discover a larger more meaningful life.” In these three women, she saw the presence of Jesus and looking at their lives, she saw the church as a “living, breathing being, embodying God’s love and healing.”
It’s often these kinds of encounters that bring people to faith and motivate them to want to be part of a church community. Sadly, as a recent major study of decline in church attendance shows, a growing number of people in America are not being attracted to become part of a church community. We will never know exactly why this is the case, but I can’t help thinking that one of the reasons is that when many people look at the church they see an institution, a church hierarchy, an organization that is governed by abstract rules and laws. But what they may not always see is the church as a living, breathing being that is actively involved in changing lives.
This contrast between the church as an institution given authority by Jesus and the church as the living, breathing embodiment of Christ’s love is visible in our gospel for today. Jesus tells his disciples that what they bind on earth is also bound or loosed in heaven. But what does binding and loosing really mean?
Biblical scholars usually say that these terms have something to do with determining the boundaries of the community. They point to the church’s role in intervening in conflicts, settling disputes about church doctrine, and deciding who is in and who is out.
But underneath these responsibilities for maintaining church order is something much more important. Underneath the questions of authority, boundaries and the settling of doctrines is a whole web of assumptions, interests and power relations, all of which shape and preserve the stability and health of the community.
What do I mean? In Matthew 18, Jesus doesn’t seem very interested in abstract boundaries or doctrines, or in precise determinations of the lines that determine who is in and who is out. And Jesus’ words don’t seem to reflect much concern about church hierarchy and the authority of church leaders. Matthew’s Jesus is, rather, concerned about the “least ones,” the vulnerable, the ones at the bottom of the power pyramid. He says, “better to tie a millstone around your neck and jump in the ocean than cause a little one to stumble.” He says, “better to leave the 99 sheep on the mountains than lose one.”
The point of Matthew 18 is not that the church or its leaders possess special authority or insight when dealing with disputes, but that whenever it does exercise authority, it must pay ceaseless attention to the least powerful members of the community. Whenever and whatever we bind or loose, the Christian community is called to defend the interests of the least ones in our midst, as well as to create the space and conditions for forgiveness and restoration to flourish.
At a deeper level, underneath issues of authority, what we bind or loose has more to do with the underlying values of the community. What kind of a community does Good Shepherd or any church want to be? What are the kinds of attitudes, relationships, behaviors that we want to hold up and aspire to? Binding and loosing aren’t just about doctrines, but about where we shop, the neighborhoods where we buy houses, and our decisions to turn some people into friends and others into enemies, some into heroes and some into terrorists.
These underlying values, decisions and behaviors are at the heart of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Discipleship isn’t just about what we believe about God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit. It’s about what life looks like when we model our lives on Jesus’ life and ministry? If we believe that Jesus is more concerned with the “least ones” than he is with those in authority, than how does that shape our lives as part of the church community? Our decision to offer this morning’s program on refugees is a statement about what kind of community the people of Good Shepherd aspire to be. And we know that hosting this program and potentially becoming involved in supporting refugees in the Denver area is not without risks because, especially in this current time, any time we choose to support the vulnerable or those at the bottom of the power pyramid, we are doing something risky.
But we know that Jesus understood how risky it can be to place a priority on restoring people to wholeness. In our gospel reading Jesus also focuses on how members of the community are to deal with conflict. Again, Jesus doesn’t seem to be interested in abstract concepts about conflict resolution. He goes right to the heart of the matter. If we’re going to live together in community with others we need to avoid the temptation to withdraw or turn our back on those we disagree with. If we are going to be followers of Jesus and make his presence known in the community we have to take the risk of meeting people face to face and honestly confronting our differences. For Jesus, love requires action; love takes risks in order to restore wholeness to the community.
The question for us is whether or not we really want to deal with conflict as if Jesus was present in the room with us. Jesus says to us, “Wherever two or three are gathered I will be in their midst.” The important question may not be WWJD: “what would Jesus do?” but WWJB: “where would Jesus be?” In dealing with conflict do we want Jesus to be that close? Do we really want to experience the living, breathing presence of Jesus, especially when we are in conflict with others?
One of the goals of the small group program we are offering, starting in October, is to invite parishioners to explore their life with God by learning about the lives of several men and women who took risks to become followers of Jesus. These ancient and modern disciples of Jesus Christ lived lives committed to restoring dignity and wholeness to people dealing with conflict in their communities. They embodied the foundational values of unconditional love, forgiveness, reconciliation, and care for the most vulnerable. By looking at these “hazardous saints” we can discover what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
What does this kind of binding and loosing look like in our world? Elbert Parr Tuttle was a young lawyer based in Atlanta and a National Guard officer when he was sent to Elberton, Georgia in 1931 to organize effort to restrain a mob and restore order after a black man had been accused of rape by a white woman. Tuttle succeeded in helping the accused escape the lynch mob that day, but at the subsequent trial, twelve white men produced a guilty verdict after a two hour trial and six minutes of deliberation on largely contrived evidence, resulting in a death penalty.
Tuttle went on to organize legal resources to appeal the case, but was ultimately frustrated. The man was executed three years later. Tuttle’s experiences with this case changed his view of the world. Tuttle went on to become a highly successful lawyer and was eventually appointed to serve as the chief justice of the Fifth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals, with jurisdiction over southern states from Texas to Florida. Tuttle was on the bench during the years when Civil Rights legislation first began to challenge long-standing patterns of racism. He was responsible for making sure that decisions handed down by the Supreme Court actually became law in practice.
Elbert Tuttle, a white man who grew up in Hawaii, bound himself to the cause of a black man wrongly accused and sentenced to die. Although he lost the struggle for that man’s life, he nonetheless bound himself to the ongoing struggle to loose the shackles of racism that still plague our country. Tuttle became, arguably, the chief jurist of the Civil Rights revolution of the 1950’s and 60’s. This is binding and loosing at its best and most powerful. I don’t know what Tuttle’s church affiliation was, if any, but these are the qualities of Christian discipleship.
I hope you will stay for our refugee program this morning and I hope you’ll consider taking part in our six-week small group program starting in three weeks. These will be wonderful opportunities for us to learn what it means to be a loving community of disciples who practice “binding and loosing”….a community of Jesus’s disciples who are willing to take risks by acting on what we believe. Amen.
"FAITH: THE ACT OF DYING TO LIVE AGAIN"
SERMON FOR THE 13TH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
As I prepare to leave Good Shepherd in two weeks, I am reflecting on my journey to the priesthood, what it is to be a Christian, and the blessing and the challenge I want to leave with you before I go. I can’t fit it all into one sermon, and it comes in little flashes, not entirely coherent or completely formed yet. But incoherent or not, I want you to know my gratitude for the role you have played in making me into a priest, and I hope I can convey my love for you, God’s never-ending, incomprehensible love for us all, and the call for us to follow that love where it leads: onto the path of Christ where we lose one life and, in God, discover a larger more meaningful life that expands far outside of our narrow, individualistic selves and stories.
This week I’ve been thinking about three women who transformed my entire understanding of what it means to follow Christ and be the Church in the world. (Incidentally, they, a teenage refugee from Afghanistan, and the Bible’s constant insistence that we care for refugees and immigrants, are also the reason I care so much about events like the one we’ll have here next week to support local refugees. I hope you can come). Their names are Amy Schubitz, Marianne Nielson, and Wendy Jiminez.
I met them in graduate school when I was doing research on the original Sanctuary movement. In the 1980s two social workers, whose names I, unfortunately, don’t know and haven’t been able to track down, began to see something very alarming on the bodies of people coming across the U.S.-Mexico border. They saw fresh torture wounds: burns, lacerations, the marks of repeated shocks that had left men in constant pain and unable to father children, and they saw terrible cases of PTSD. These women discovered that these people were fleeing dictatorships and paramilitary groups throughout Latin America that were turning on their own citizens, killing and torturing thousands and thousands of them. And the U.S. was arming many of these dictatorships because we saw them as allies in the fight again Marxism. Because of our relationship with these dictatorships, we also were denying refugee and asylee status to the torture victims who came across our borders and were sending them back to their own deaths.
These social workers and several faith communities began a movement akin to a modern-day underground railroad, smuggling torture victims out of various countries throughout Latin America into the U.S. and sending them to host churches across the country. These “sanctuary” churches fed and sheltered these refugees, kept them from being deported, and asked them to tell their stories to raise awareness and change policies that were killing thousands and thousands of our neighbors across the border. Though it took many years, these faithful Christians and the incredibly brave refugees who told their stories were successful in winning the refugee and asylee status these survivors of torture were entitled to.
Wendy is one of them. She came to Tucson as a child after her parents were targeted by Guatemala’s government for the crime of teaching poor peasants to read and educating them about their rights to safe working conditions and to pay that would allow them to feed and clothe their families. For his work, Wendy’s father was kidnapped and tortured for six months before being released. And just before her family fled, Wendy saw a family friend gunned down in their house as she hid from the armed men who had stormed in.
I met her when she was in her 30s. She told me that Amy and Marianne, two former nuns, met her and her siblings at the border, wrapped them in blankets and gave them bags full of clothing and toys. Those two women were Wendy’s first memory of safety and welcome after trauma and a terrifying journey to the U.S.
I had never met people like Amy and Marianne. They were so immersed in their faiths that their love for God and God’s people animated their entire lives. For them, church wasn’t something they just did on Sunday mornings. Church was what they did every day of the week as they followed Christ and gave their lives for the good of others.
So these women didn’t just meet refugee children at the border and give them the physical things they needed to start life in the U.S., they and others teamed up with the Hopi nation to create an entire network to support these families physically, spiritually, and emotionally: therapists, doctors, lawyers, social workers, physical therapists, experts on the effects of torture and trauma, pastors and priests came together to help them heal and rebuild their lives. The organization is called the Hopi Foundation Center for the Prevention and Resolution of Violence, and today they continue their work with torture victims who have fled to the U.S.
Wendy told me that Marianne, Amy, and the Hopi Foundation had saved her and her family, not only in getting them out of Guatemala alive, but also in helping them to heal and rebuild their lives in the U.S. Her family opened a successful restaurant, and when I met her, Wendy was in nursing school, had traveled to testify before Congress on behalf of policies meant to eliminate torture, and was volunteering with refugee children and the children of torture survivors to help them heal as she had healed.
As I got to know Wendy, Amy, and Marianne, and learned more about the faith that beat at the heart of the Sanctuary Movement, I began to see the Church as a living, breathing, powerful being embodying God’s love and healing. And I wanted to be a part of it. So much so, in fact, that I decided to leave a career in academia to pursue the priesthood.
I’d spent my entire life in the church, but had never seen it alive and active enough to convince me that it housed an infinite God of infinite love. In fact, I had often seen it act so small and ugly and do so much damage to woman, GLBTQ people, and to other minorities that I had nearly lost my faith. But in Tucson I saw how faith can literally save lives. I suddenly understood that the whole point of being a church was not to insulate us from bad and hard things, or to enhance our own personal well-being, or to create a place where we can huddle together behind the Bible and doctrines as the “moral majority,” protecting ourselves from the world and making ourselves grandiose with self-righteousness and condemnation of others. The whole point is to lose our tiny selves, painful and risky as that is, as we take on the life of Christ to live for God, for others, and for causes that are greater than our individual lives could ever hope to be.
As Jesus says in our gospel reading today: “’If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?’”
Here’s what I hear in those words: Once we take on the name of Christ by proclaiming ourselves Christians, we are saying that our lives are no longer ours alone. We no longer get to live just for ourselves and for those in our inner circles. We are giving over our identities and purpose in life to a Christ crazy and wild enough to sacrifice heaven and His own life for the sake of building a whole new kingdom for us. In this kingdom, what Martin Luther King Jr. called the Beloved Community, those on the outside are welcomed in, the most despised and rejected are given places of honor, the rich give up their possessions so the poor can thrive, justice and peace replace violence and corrupt power, and our leader is not a power-hungry emperor like Jesus’ followers saw in Rome, but, instead, a poor man-God whose power comes from love, from serving others, and from standing with the marginalized.
The life Jesus promises us is not the life the world values—a life of comfort, riches, and success. Instead, it is a life that will sometimes hurt because, like Christ, we will choose to stand alongside those who hurt. It is a life that will challenge us to see others as children of God, and so to lose our preconceptions, our blinders, and our prejudices. It is a life that will push us to give up our privilege and to learn from and support those who are different from us. It is a life that invites discomfort as we loosen our grip on the reins and let our radical, wild Christ lead us in His footsteps. It is a life that will lead us to give up our own lives for the sake of being a part of a new life that God creates for all of us. But what we are promised in return are lives that matter, lives that put us in touch with the Divine itself, lives that can transform not just us but the world around us.
As I leave Good Shepherd, my prayer for me, for you, and for this church is that we will not be afraid of the cross—of dying to our small, limited lives, prejudices, goals and perceptions. It is that we will die so that we can rise again in Christ to a whole new kind of life. I believe Good Shepherd is moving toward becoming a place that is known for having a faith so vibrant that it saves lives, a place where the Church is not confined to a building, but is lived out in each of us every day as we follow Christ where He longs to lead us. I pray it may be so.
"When speaking up becomes an eclipse moment"
sermon for the 12th Sunday after pentecost
Did any of you get a chance to experience the total eclipse on Monday morning this week? For those who did, it turned out to be a life-changing, once-in-a-lifetime experience that they will never forget. Even though I didn’t get to experience the path of totality I understand why so many made the trek to Wyoming or parts of Nebraska. It’s one thing to watch the eclipse on TV or see pictures on the Internet, but it’s something else to personally experience such a huge, cosmic event. There are some things in life that we feel we need to witness first-hand – the birth or the wedding of our children, the funeral of a close friend. It’s why people feel called to climb a fourteener, or to stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon.
In our gospel for today we have such a “total eclipse” moment. This interaction between Jesus and his disciples takes place in Caesarea Philippi, a town on the border with Lebanon. Ann and I got a chance to visit it in 1986 and it’s a beautiful setting. Before being renamed Caesarea Philippi by the Romans, the place was called Paneas, which comes from the name of the Greek God Pan – whom we could call the god of “wine, women and song.” There was a shrine there to Pan carved out from a cliff and coming out of the cliff is a spring of water which becomes the headwaters of the Jordan River. Remains of the shrine are still there and you can close your eyes and imagine hordes of people coming to the shrine and enjoying the cool spring waters. The equivalent today would be a place like Hanging Lake, in the Colorado Rockies, which has become so popular that entry to the lake is now being limited.
When Jesus asks the disciples “who do people say that the Son of Man is” he is asking this question against the background of a place that honored different pagan gods and, not surprisingly, the disciples respond by saying that people have many different ideas about who Jesus is. The disciples’ response to Jesus is predictable and safe. They are simply repeating what they have heard from others.
But then Peter does something completely unexpected. When Jesus asks the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter blurts out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
What’s so surprising about Peter’s response? Peter takes a radical step from belief to action. Instead of relying on the witness of others, Peter speaks up for himself and states what he believes and what he’s willing to do. In that moment he understands what Jesus had told the disciples previously – that they would be given power to be witnesses; they would be given power to be Jesus’ hands and feet and heart in the world. This power is not the power to dominate or control others; it’s the power to give their lives for love. When Jesus says, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church,” he’s not rewarding Peter; this isn’t blessedness for a job well done but being a blessing to and for others. Peter spoke up and witnessed to what he believed. He put his life on the line and for that he would be leader of a new community, sharing the love of Christ.
The famous theologian Paul Tillich contends that Christianity was not born at Christmas; nor was it born in a stable to a peasant Jewish couple names Mary and Joseph; nor was it born when angels declared to shepherds that a Savior for all people had been sent. Nor was it born when astrologers from the East came by starlight bringing gifts for the one designated “King of the Jews.”
Tillich says that “Christianity” as we know it was not begun in Bethlehem – but there at Paneas, at the base of Mt. Hermon, when Jesus of Nazareth asked his followers a question that billions of people ever since have had to face, in dealing with Jesus. “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” and then, “But who do you say that I am?” After the disciples get it wrong and Peter gets it right – “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” – everything changes. This was an eclipse moment; a “once-in-a-lifetime” moment. Something happened that day that had never happened before. In that moment Peter was grasped and shaken by the Holy Spirit. He was also empowered, transformed to live a completely different kind of life.
So what about us? Has the Christian faith become so domesticated, so predictable, so safe that few of us ever feel called or empowered to speak up and speak out for what we believe about Jesus? Do we ever have the opportunity to feel like we are “rocks” for Jesus? Do we ever experience being part of him, extensions of his hands and feet and heart?
Or another way of putting it is to ask, “Do we really believe, as Peter seemed to believe that people’s lives are at stake when we are willing to speak up or speak out as Christians?” One commentator on this gospel imagines Jesus walking into the middle of the rally in Charlottesville or in the middle of Las Ramblas in Barcelona and asking the people gathered there, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” and “But who do you say that I am?” Can we imagine Jesus asking us these questions and then taking Jesus seriously enough with answers that actually articulate both what we hear and what we believe?
The Benedictine nun, author and well known speaker, Joan Chittister tells the following story. On a cold day on the banks of Lake Erie a group of nuns and volunteers were serving at a soup kitchen. A well-dressed man in a long black overcoat and a silk scarf, a familiar volunteer, had brought a box of hams and, seeing the size of the crowd, stayed to fill plates in the serving line. Just as he got ready to leave for the afternoon, the man, with his coat on and his scarf tight around his neck, noticed one of the guests at the end of the table, his legs pressed against the heating element, his summer sandals wet. He was wearing summer sandals with open toes and sling back heels over his bare feet on a cold winter day.
In a heartbeat, the man in the long black overcoat and silk scarf reached down, took off his shoes, handed them to the sister at the counter and walked out, in bare feet. “Wait,” the nun ran after him, “you can’t go like that without these. It’s cold out there.” The man kept moving down the street. “I know,” he called back, “that’s why I left them.”
Having witnessed this, Chittester says, “Suddenly, all the words in the gospel, all the vocabulary I could muster about poverty and generosity, vacuity and purpose came together in one astounding, shocking act. And one even more difficult question: Was I prepared to do the same kind of thing? Was I prepared to give something away that would have more meaning, more import, to someone else that it did to me – especially when it did still have meaning to me?”
In another of her books, Chittister says, “The function of prayer is not to obliterate the self. It is to become to the utmost what we are meant to be no matter what situation we are in. Prayer is the process that leads us to become what Jesus models for us to be.”
That day at Caesarea Philippi, I think Peter had a revelation that changed him forever and gave him a new perspective on life, like witnessing a total eclipse for the first time. He spoke up and he spoke out because he realized what it meant for him to become what Jesus wanted him to be. And from then on nothing looked or felt the same.
When does Christianity begin for you? And what does God want from you? Can we honestly say that lives are at stake because of what we say we believe? Amen.
"Gone to the Dogs"
Sermon for the 11th Sunday After Pentecost
Last Sunday I described prayer as the process of surrendering our expectations and expanding our awareness of God’s vision for us and for the world. Today, I’d like to talk about how our prayers lead to action – a specific kind of action.
In the gospel today, Jesus leaves his homeland and goes into what we now call Labanon. There was a long-standing feud between the people of the Holy Land and the people of Lebanon. Jesus is approached by a local woman who wants him to heal her daughter. The Israelites called such people “dogs.” And remember that dogs didn’t enjoy the privileged place in society then as they do for many of us now
It was obvious that the woman was desperate. She would have been brought up to despise Jews. She risked being rebuffed and insulted. There are moments of desperation in our lives when we are impelled to step out of our safety zone, our secure society. Our need overcomes fear and even prejudice.
Jesus tests the woman. He even uses the common racial slur, “We don’t give dogs human food.” Please note that Jesus is not merely saying that dogs shouldn’t beg at a table. He is using a terrible slur to test the faith of the woman. We may find that shocking. But please note; he is not being a racist. He is testing the boundaries that have been set. May they be crossed? The woman is desperate, but can she, is she able, to step through pride and prejudice, and reach the point of acceptance and healing?
Last week, we saw how Jesus reached out his hand to Peter when he stepped out of a boat. Jesus came to Peter when he was sinking under the waves. And Jesus comes to us. But we must also reach out and make a step of faith toward him and that’s what this woman did.
You’ve probably heard the famous poem, “Outwitted” by Edwin Markham,
He drew a circle that shut me out –
heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.
The disciples drew a circle that shut out the Canaanite woman: “Send her away, Jesus. She’s not one of us.” And, at first, Jesus agreed: “It’s not right to take the bread meant for the children and throw it to the dogs.”
But then the woman, with her desperate faith, challenges Jesus to expand the circle of God’s love and break through this boundary. In the face of the woman’s persistence something in Jesus snaps and something inside of him changes. Through this woman’s faith, Jesus comes to a new understanding of who he is and what we has been called to do. Jesus is no longer a Messiah called only to the lost sheep of Israel. He is God’s chosen redeemer of the whole world, Jews and gentiles alike, beginning with the Canaanite woman.
What does this story have to do with prayer? All too often our prayers are safe. They are prayers at a distance. They costs us little. They trip off the tongue at bedtime or even in church.
But this gospel story reminds us that true prayer moves us to action – a specific kind of action. Andthis action is in keeping with God’s saving actions throughout the Bible, the story of how God breaks through boundaries, gathers people within the shelter of God’s love, and brings them home to the glory of God’s house.
When Jesus says that if we are to follow him we must be cross-bearers, he invites us into uncomfortable, painful, and hurting places where those who need our prayers live. He invites us to be with those who may be called “dogs,” or think of themselves as “dogs,” people outside the circles we have drawn.
When I was a boy I was a big fan of the comic strip, “Peanuts.” One of the cartoons that I remember most was the one where Lucy says to Charlie Brown, “Charlie Brown, you’d make a great minister because you love mankind.” And Charlie Brown says, “I’d make a terrible minister. I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand.”
This gospel story reminds us that God’s love is never just a love for some general group such as “mankind” or “humankind.” Love in the Bible is always specific; it’s what we call incarnational love. It’s always particular, always about you and someone else, always a restoration of actual flesh and blood human beings to fellowship with each other and God. It’s like the love and mercy of Jesus drawing his circle to include the Canaanite woman. It is love for someone in particular whose lifestyle and culture you might not understand…someone you may rarely come in contact with….someone you have decided to mistrust or even hate because of their ideology or political beliefs.
This past week we have witnessed events that remind us just how powerful and destructive hate of the “other” can be – the person outside our circle, the person who we might say, “has gone to the dogs.” It’s been painful for us to realize that there is an undercurrent of racism and bigotry in our nation and how contrary this kind of hate is to the kind of incarnational love that Jesus calls us to in his encounter with the Canaanite woman - the kind of love that empowers us not to draw circles that keep people out, but to widen our circles to let people in, people whom we may not feel belong inside the circle.
Recently, I’ve been reading a biography of a famous Irishman named Thomas Meagher, pronounced “Maher” in the Celtic language. Meagher was a brilliant young leader of the Irish nationalist movement in the 1850’s and for his incendiary, anti-British speeches and his support of a group of people who wanted to force the British to leave Ireland, he was sentenced to death, but then exiled to Tasmania along with other young revolutionaries. He managed to escape and returned to New York, where he became a lawyer and highly respected spokesman for Irish independence. He also became a general in the Union Army and led a battalion of Irish soldiers in some of the bloodiest fighting in the Civil War.
One of the reasons why Meagher was motivated to fight in the war was because, as a refugee from British oppression and a witness to how the English had treated the Irish like slaves during the Irish potato famine, he was passionate about ending slavery in America. But the tragedy of Meagher’s new life in America is that many of his fellow Irish exiles chose to fight on the side of the South.
And, after the war was over, when he returned to New York City, he witnessed one of the bloodiest riots in American history, when his fellow Irish immigrants brutally attacked and lynched hundreds of African Americans. Having risked his life for the cause of emancipation he realized that racism and bigotry lay deep in the hearts of his countrymen – his fellow Irish who, themselves, had been rescued from slavery under the British.
And this has often been the tragedy of American history when it comes to race relations and the treatment of immigrants . Some of the most bigoted and racist Americans have been immigrants or descendants of immigrants who, once they had become incorporated into society, turned on others who threatened their security, people outside their circles.
Our prayers can’t just be safe. Our prayers need to lead us to action. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans, we are saved by grace through faith, by the mercy of God. But we are saved by grace for something. We are saved for the drawing of our circles God’s way. We are saved for the reconciling ministry of God. We are saved in order to restore relationships with each other in God’s name.
I hope the events of this past week in Charlottesville will once again challenge us to ask how each of us choose to live out our faith in the world, choose to open up our circles to the people we might consider as “dogs,” choose to act on our prayers to make the world a kinder, more loving, more inclusive place. Amen.