Monday, October 14, 2019

Sensing Healing as He Went

This morning’s healing story from the Gospel of Luke stands apart from others in at least two ways.  The first relates to when the healing occurs and the second relates to the story’s focus on what transpires afterward. 

How and when it occurs.  Jesus instructs a group of ten lepers to go and show themselves to the priests.  This directive, taken from Old Testament code, requires a leper to be inspected by a priest in order to be certified as clean – free of a horrible, painful, disfiguring, and isolating disease.  That the lepers leave Jesus and set out to find the priests indicates they must have some level of faith something will happen.

When you have been knocked down or when you don’t know what to do about a certain situation or when you are grieving the loss of someone or something dear, there is something to be said for standing up and simply putting one foot in front of the other.  Sure, sometimes a friend or family member enters into your hurting world, takes you by the hand, and walks with you until you can walk on your own again.  But most often most of life’s hurts and challenges are overcome by doing whatever it takes to move forward. 

Jesus tells the lepers to go and so they go.  Are they hopeful?  Joyful?  Expectant?  Merely going through motions?  The text does not say.  What it does say is telling: “As they went, they were made clean.”  They aren’t healed in Jesus’ presence.  It isn’t by his touch or as a result of his verbal command.  How it happens we do not know. 

When it happens we do.  It happens as they went.  And, in fact, the text tells us the lepers at first do not even realize it has happened.  It states one of the ten, “when he saw that he was healed,” praises God and returns to Jesus to thank him.  The leper is healed as he goes on his way – as he puts one foot in front of the other – and initially is unaware anything about his condition has changed.

I was in pretty bad shape when my marriage ended in 2002.  I went through a long, dark, and difficult period and I am not sure I can say when exactly it abated and became more manageable.  But I have a clear memory of a conversation with a parishioner a year down the road.  She called to tell me her marriage was ending and as I listened to her I knew exactly where she was and what she was going through.  She was in an awful place and in the midst of an awful time.  I knew it because I had been there myself.  But as I listened I realized I was not there any longer.  I had moved on from the initial place of loss and was making my way toward God’s new beginning.  I wasn’t there yet, but for the first time I had a sense I was making progress.  I was moving forward and, while I did not detect its slow, persistent process, healing was taking place as I went. 

This experience stays with me even today and explains in part why I warm so favorably to the image of the Christian life being like a path we walk.  As your pastor I try to encourage you as a fellow pilgrim; as one who can tell you the path, even though challenging at times, is well marked.  And I can remind you that you never walk along.  As you put your whole trust in Christ’s grace and love you find Jesus is with you as your guide – as someone who shows us the way.

So the first part of the story focuses our attention on the process of healing – that it happened “as they went”.  The second part (and the part with the most force in the narrative) focuses our attention on the aftermath – one (and only one) of the ten lepers turns back to thank Jesus.  For his part Jesus is puzzled.  “Were not ten made clean?  Where are the other nine?”  We wonder with Jesus what their story is.  Surely they are overjoyed.  Surely they are grateful.  So how can we account for their less than hearty response?  Let me suggest three possibilities: perhaps they were literalists, or oblivious, or just plain clueless. 

Literalists.  Why didn’t they return?  Because Jesus told them to show themselves to the priests.  In fact, if you want to be technical, the one who does not follow Jesus’ instruction is the one who returns.  The literalist’s go-to excuse in a situation like this is, “I did exactly what you told me to do” and it makes us want to bang our heads against a wall.  Literalists treat life as if it requires only that you check the box, but never actually engage it.  They do what they are obligated to do, but for Jesus it is not enough merely to do your duty.  Your actions must emanate from your heart.

Perhaps the nine are oblivious to their healing.  The text tells us the one who returns does so only after he sees he has been healed.  Perhaps the other nine never notice something has changed.  Think about how life channels us from one problem to another; how we go from one crisis only to face another in a never ending tide of troubles.  If this is how your life feels it is likely you never fully recognize and appreciate how many problems are solved and how many crises are defused. Or maybe you are so focused on your scars that you never appreciate how each one marks a place where a wound has healed.

Or maybe the nine are clueless… aware they are better but unaware of how it happens.  If they don’t attribute their healing to Jesus why would they return to thank him?  What one person sees as a blessing from heaven another understands to be a cosmic accident or good fortune or the by-product of healthy living.  You only pause to thank the person you believe to have done some special for you. 

Literalist, oblivious, or clueless.  Each possibility presents us with a cautionary tale.  Do you approach religion as being little more than a series of boxes to check off in order to be a moral person? – the literalist’s approach.  Or do you fail to discern the manifold blessing of your life, perhaps because your focus is drawn only to the challenges? – the oblivious approach.  Or do you sense your life is marked by abundance and good will, but have no idea why or what to do with it? – the clueless approach.  If you see yourself in any of these, what would it take for you to praise God and to give thanks to Jesus, as the one leper did?

Let me close by saying how I grateful I am for the many blessings I have experienced in just the last week alone.  I was surprised by the surprise birthday party you all had for me last Sunday and I am deeply appreciative of your incredibly generous response to contribute to a gift.  I told Cindy and Janice I will have to keep a closer eye on things around the office because those two slipped all of it past me with very little effort.  Even more than what you did for me, I am so grateful for the way you invited my twin sister Karen to be a part of kindness, even if it meant I had to share with her half of Nina’s chocolate chip cookies.  On Monday Bev made a pan of chocolate chip brownies for a Food Pantry volunteers celebration.  Miko brought me a triple chocolate cake (made with Hershey chocolate) on Thursday and I began to wonder if you all love me or are trying to kill me with sugary sweets.  Yesterday, Dan Jones, his nephew Wesley, and Jim Gordon spent their entire day rebuilding the 10x20 foot shed I had to demolish in August.  You all have been exceedingly good and kind to me ever since I came to serve as your priest in 2007, but this week I feel it even more deeply.  I thank God for each of you and for the gift of God’s care and keep that comes through you.  If I am not mistaken, October is Pastor Appreciation Month and believe me, I feel appreciated.

I pray each of you may be as blessed as I am and each of you, as you go on the way, will sense the manifold goodness of life in God and the loving care which surrounds you on every side. 

Monday, October 7, 2019

Increase Our Faith

A woman approaches her pastor before the Sunday service.  “My husband is crazy,” she says.  “He is threatening to kill me if I go to your church this week.”  “You must believe,” the minister tells her.  “God would never let harm come to a faithful person like you.”  Somewhat relieved, she decides to stay.  The next week she speaks again with the pastor: “My husband says he will burn all my possessions and kill me if I attend your church this week.”  Again he says to her, “You must have faith.  God will never let that happen to you.”  With this, she takes part in worship.  The next Sunday she runs up to the pastor and says, “Now my husband says if I attend today’s service he is going to kill me and burn all my possessions, then he is going burn down your church and kill you.”  The pastor, somewhat unnerved by this new development, reflects thoughtfully and then responds, “My dear child, have you ever considered going to the church down the street?”

We seek many things through our participation in the life of a church: an experience of the Holy One, connection to other people, guidance in matters of behavior, healing of the body, mind, and heart.  The list could go on and on.  Each of our lists undoubtedly has on it something to do with faith.  We want our faith to grow throughout our lives, to be strengthened when times are tough, and to give us some measure of insight so we can understand things that are difficult to accept. 

Jesus’ apostles approach him in today’s reading with a request: “Lord, increase our faith.”  I suspect each of us has uttered this petition as a prayer more than once in our lives.  Jesus famously responds, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed you can say to be mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea’, and it will happen.”  On a positive note, his teaching highlights the power of faith.  On a negative note, like the pastor whose easy counsel for another holds little sway in his own heart, it highlights how paltry most of us sense our faith really is. 

If you Google search the question “How can I increase me faith?” (as I did this week), one of the first suggested sights to appear offers three surefire steps:

Read the Word.
Heed the Word.
Test the Word.

And while this formula excels in memorability, it’s ease falls far short of our own experience.  We think to ourselves, “Anyone who has faced even the most basic challenges of life knows having, building, and sustaining faith is nowhere near as simple as this.”

When the apostles express a desire for increased faith, what exactly are they seeking?  Are they asking to grow in knowledge? – “I wish I knew more about the bible and what it says.”  Are they asking for more insight? – “I want to know why bad things happen to good people.”  Are they asking for a sense of certainty? – “I wish I had all the answers, like my fundamentalist friend.”  Are they asking for the strength to do the right thing? – “Lord, help me to be faithful.”  Or, are they hoping to find a deeper, more abiding trust and peace? – “I want to live with confidence is the face of life’s challenges.”  Faith has all of these facets and more. 

If we look closer at today’s reading, it is unclear which (if any) of these the apostles are thinking about when they ask Jesus to increase their faith.  In the verses just before Jesus instructs his followers to rebuke a brother who sins and then says you must forgive a person who repents, even up to seven times.  Well, speaking for myself, if faith is all it takes to do this, I’m going to need a lot more of it than I have!  Still, it is not apparent if the request for increased faith comes in response to this teaching or if it is independent of it. 

What is clear is the unclear way Jesus responds with the hyperbole of a tiny seed and expansive tree followed by the odd example of the exhausted servant who must keep on serving.  Based on his response, Jesus interprets the apostle’s request as a desire to have more confidence in their own abilities.  They want to believe they have what it takes to live something of the life they see in their master.   If you boil down his response, Jesus says of faith a little bit goes a long way and, like the old Nike campaign used to say, “Just do it!” – don’t over-think this, lace up your shoes and put them to use doing what you love. 

The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is fear and paralysis – an inability to move forward in the face of the opportunities and challenges facing you.  Jesus says “You have enough in you to do it.  Put one foot in front of the other and have faith.  I believe in you and I am with you.”  Faith, it seems to me, is not as much about confidence as it is about courage.  It is about trying to do what you know you must even when you do not know if you are able.  “It is not faith you are lacking,” Jesus says, “it is courage.”  You have all the faith you need.  What is holding you back from acting on it? 

Marianne Williamson, who is a far better life coach than presidential candidate, writes this in her book, A Return to Love  

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.  We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?”  Actually, who are you not to be?  You are a child of God.  Your playing small does not serve the world…  We are all meant to shine…  We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.  It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone

Accepting this to be true requires faith, but not much according to Jesus.  Acting on it… well, that is a different matter entirely.  Acting on it takes courage.

I have posed this question to you before, but it has been a while: If you were given the assurance you could not fail, what is one thing you would dare to do?  I want to hone in on this by magnifying the focus.  I suspect some of us here – perhaps most of us – have something weighing on our minds today.  What would you choose to do this afternoon if you could be assured you would not fail?  I am not talking about something as frivolous as buying a lottery ticket or curing cancer, unless you have a Ph.D. in Biology.  I am thinking about something that been an unaddressed concern, perhaps for a long time. 

Possibly it is something you have let slide because you don’t believe you have it within you take it on.  Maybe it is too complex for you to figure out on your own.  Who can you confide in for insight and guidance?  It is possible opening the door will lead to a host of other problems.  Still, pursing health and wholeness is far better than trying to manage sickness or holding together brokenness.  Or maybe you have an opportunity to do something that seems beyond you.  It requires you to take a risk, or to stretch yourself, or to make some sacrifices, but the reward could be wonderful. 

Is it faith you lack… or courage?  God has created you and you are special, gifted, and capable of so incredibly much.  Go ahead and ask Jesus for more faith and he will say, “You have all the faith you need.  Believe in yourself and just do it!”

Monday, September 30, 2019

A Sumptuous Life & an Unbridged Chasm

A number of golfers meet at the first tee.  They don’t know each other, but on this busy Saturday they are grouped into a foursome by the club.  They have an enjoyable round and afterward are changing in the crowded locker room.  A cellphone lying on a bench begins to ring and one of the four picks it up and answers.  “I’m fine dear, how are you”, he says?  “You are shopping.  Well, isn’t that wonderful!”  “You want to buy a $5,000 dress, with $2,500 matching shoes and a $1,500 coordinating pocketbook?  I think that is a marvelous idea.”  “You found a new style for decorating your SheShed and it’ll cost $50,000?  You certainly are worth it.” “And what was that sports car you have been dreaming about?  Right, the Alpha Romeo Spider convertible.  There will never be a better day than today to stop by the dealership and pick out one.”  “Sure, I think you should drive it off the lot.”  The other three golfers overhearing all of this are amazed.  How much money must a guy have to happily encourage his wife to spend so much so freely?  The man finishes the call and lays the device back down on the bench.  He looks at his stunned associates and says, “Any of you guys have an idea whose phone this is?”

Last Sunday we heard Jesus’ story of the Shrewd Manager, which we said was perhaps his most difficult parable to understand.  Nothing in its odd details seems to have any semblance of a redeeming message.  This morning we hear the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.  Unlike last week’s, this one is about as straight forward as it can be.  The details are crisp and clear and we don’t have to puzzle much about its message and meaning.  The two share at least one thing in common: each puts us on the defensive.  “It is not talking about me, is it?”

As a literary genre, parables have their place, but are not necessarily the best basis on which to build a foundation of doctrinal truths, which is to say, it would be unwise to use this story to construct a comprehensive understanding of the afterlife.  Still, it suggests a couple of themes worth pondering.

The first is judgment.  I don’t know what it will look like, but our lives and how we lived them will be assessed.  The bible uses human imagery in an attempt to approximate what this might look like: a manager giving an accounting, appearing before a judge, a fire consuming dross while purifying gold, standing before St. Peter, facing a day of reckoning.  Whatever this experience will be like, human imagery provides only a shadowy sense of what is to come.  Clearly, in Jesus’ story, the rich man is judged for being unaware and/or inattentive to Lazarus’ need and suffering.

A second theme is reversal.  It is one of Jesus’ favorite motifs: the first shall be last and the last shall be first in the kingdom of God.  Did you notice this detail in the story:  In our world, everyone knows the names of the well-to-do (we even have TV shows about them… Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous), while the poor remain anonymous.  In Jesus’ parable, the poor man has a name, while the other person is known only by his financial status.  The conditions each experiences are reversed: the one who suffers is comforted and the one with comfort suffers.

Again the parable raises in me the response, “Oh my, is this going to be my fate?”

As Jesus tells his story he creates a vivid contrast between the two lives.  It seems to me there is one word in the narrative describing the Rich Man’s life that hones in on the difference.  It is the Greek word lampros, which at its root means “splendid”.  Here is how a few different bible versions translate it:

· The Wycliffe Bible (one of the oldest translations): [The Rich man] ate every day shiningly.

· The Message (one of the most recent): wasting his days in conspicuous consumption.

· The American Standard Version: living in mirth and splendor every day.

· The New International Version: lived in luxury every day

· God’s Word Translation:  Every day was like a party to him

The King James Version appears to be the first to translate lampros as “sumptuous”: he fared sumptuously every day.  The New Revised Standard Version, which most Episcopal Churches read from every Sunday, follows suit: He feasted sumptuously every day. 

Sumptuous seems to imply more than well-off.  The Marrian-Webster Dictionary defines it as “extremely costly, rich, luxurious, or magnificent.”  Synonyms include extravagant, grandiose, ostentatious, pretentious, and showy  Take a long, critical look at yourself.  Be exceedingly harsh and then, as I suggested with last week’s parable, ask yourself, “Does this sound like me?”

Here is something I notice about the Rich Man as Jesus presents him: Throughout his life he neither looks up nor looks around.  He does not engage God and he is oblivious of the people nearby, especially Lazarus. 

When we look up we discover a God who loves us and blesses us.  We meet a Creator who has filled the world delight.  Rather than receiving it from God in due course and good measure, the Rich Man wallows in pleasure day and night.  Rather than sharing it in the joy of family, the fellowship of community, or the supply of those in need, he is myopic; seeing only the delectables, but never people.

As Jesus tells his story, he describes two chasms.  The first is in this world.  It is the divide between the Rich Man and Lazarus.  Why does it exist?  Common sense and experience tells us people are separated by social status, religious affiliation, racial origin, and host of any other factors.  It just seems to be the way the world is.  A part of the Christian mission is to help people create bridges across the things which divide us.  In Jesus’ parable, the only way to bridge the divide across the chasm between the Rich Man and Lazarus is if the Rich Man builds it.  He doesn’t and the chasm remains uncrossed.

The second chasm in Jesus’ parable is in the life to come.  There is no explanation for why it is exists, but (from how Jesus tells the story) this much is certain… there is no way to bridge it from either side.  The divide is permanently uncrossable.  At last the Rich Man looks up and he looks around, but the time for this to matter has passed.

My own theology of the life to come is unfinished at best, but I like something C.S. Lewis says his book The Great Divorce.  Just as we have the opportunity in this life to move towards God, so too we will have the opportunity in the next.  The dispositions we create and cultivate in this life influence who we will be and what we will desire in the next.  Just as in this life, the next life will have a path that ends in God.  The chasm between us and God has been bridged by Jesus Christ.  If you do not want to take a single step on it in this life, why would you you think you will want to walk it in the next?  

As I pondered today’s reading throughout the week, I kept remembering something I witnessed many years ago.  I was visiting with the rector of an Episcopal Church in downtown Lancaster, PA, who impressed me very a priest and person.  The time came for lunch and he suggested we walk around the corner to a local favorite (imagine Baron’s Pub!).  Out on the street we encountered a man whose apppearance suggested he relied on the charity of others to make it in life.  The rector greeted him by name and they began to engage in a warm, friendly, and familiar conversation.  Honestly, it was the first time I ever witnessed two people bridge the chasm created by such econimic disparity.  The memory has stayed with me all these years and it is no wonder it kept coming back to me this week.

Like many of you, I find myself living a life now a little bit like the life of the Lancaster priest.  I greet a variety people as they stroll past my house, as I walk down the street, and as I traverse the aisles of Wal-Mart.  I know them through our Food Pantry and other ministries here at St. Paul’s.  It gives me great joy to think I am living now something like what I saw in those two people some thirty years ago.

Of all the bible’s images of judgment, the one I warm to the most is the consuming fire (no pun intended).  I’d like to think everything about my life will be tested and that what is good and worthy and of God will remain while all that is not and all that holds me back will melt away.  One thing I am confident will endure are the joyful interactions I have with the various and varied people of our community.

Jesus said, “There was rich man who feasted sumptuously every day.”  He neither looked up nor looked around and then one day it was too late.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Serving Mammon

When I was first ordained I was part of a small group of clergy and each of us served as an Assistant to a Rector.  We met monthly to support one another and to grow in our understanding of the priesthood.  I remember one gathering when we discovered we all had been assigned by our bosses to preach on the upcoming Sunday.  The gospel reading that day is the gospel reading today.  I realized then no matter how disorganized a rector may be, if he or she has an assistant than he or she has enough on the ball to look ahead in the Lectionary in order to pass the miserable readings to the underling. 

The Parable of the Shrewd Manager is perhaps the most difficult of Jesus’ stories to understand.  There really seems to be little (if anything) worthy of applause in the lead character’s makeup and actions.  The details of the story appear to make its meaning and message devoid of redeeming values.  This week I read several commentaries on the passage to try to get a better sense of how scholars approach the parable.  Most of their explanations felt like an attempt to bring order to a bowl of spaghetti.

Jesus commends the manager because when push comes to shove, when the chips are down, and when his back is against the wall, he comes to his senses and in desperation reprioritizes his life around what he now realizes matters.  That Luke adds to the parable’s end several of Jesus’ teachings about wealth suggests he understands it in some form or fashion to be a commentary on materialism.  Remember how I said last Sunday’s gospel reading focused on rules verses relationships.  Today’s reading hones in on something similar in Jesus’ mind and central to his teaching: riches verses relationships.  Plain and simple, prior to his hitting bottom, we can say of the shrewd manager he loves things and uses people rather than he uses things to love people.  Jesus commends him because what he had backwards he gets straightened around.

The last of Jesus’ teachings on wealth included here by Luke is the most well known: “You cannot serve two masters… you cannot serve God and money.”  It is a teaching that puts us on the defensive, compelling us to make the case this is not me.  Being challenged to look at yourself is not necessarily a bad thing and it is something Jesus does often through his stories and sayings.  But do most of us suffer from priorities this far afield?

The King James Bible translates this verse famously as “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.”  Some subsequent versions follow its lead, but most now use the word ‘money’ because, well, no one today knows what mammon means.  When was the last time one of your children said, “Can I have some Mammon to go to the movies?”

Mammon does means money, but it means a lot more.  It actually takes a physical thing – money – and personifies it, making it a living thing… an idol.  It is a pejorative term meant to refer to the absolute worst and most corrupting aspects of money and wealth, how they can take over a person’s life.  4th Century writers such as Cyprian, Jerome, and John Chrysostom thought of Mammon as being an evil and enslaving master.  It became one of the names given to demons and even the Devil.  Thomas Aquinas metaphorically described the sin of Avarice as “Mammon being carried up from Hell by a wolf, coming to inflame the human heart with Greed.”

Ask yourself if this sounds like you? 

I once knew the owner of an expensive car sporting a bumper sticker stating, “The One with the Most Toys Wins!”  He is one of a small number of people I have known I would describe as enslaved by Mammon.  Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic candidate for President, states health insurance companies made 23 billion dollars in profit last year, and every penny came from saying “no” to a person’s request for medical treatment.  I am not saying her figures are accurate (I don’t know) or that I agree with her view of corporate profit, but from her perspective I think she would say health care insurers are serving Mammon.  She is not the only person who believes the corporate world is overrun with greed, and in some cases I am sure it is true.  “I’d do anything for money”, whether an individual’s motto or a corporate mission statement, is the banner slogan of those enslaved by Mammon.

Greed, as one of the Seven Deadly Sins, is an interesting temptation.  There are some for whom greed is pure.  They want things and/or money for its own sake.  But for most people enslaved by it, Mammon is just a means to an end.  They seek power or they desire pleasure and comfort or they want notoriety or prestige (a sense of self).  For them, Mammon is a means to one or more of these ends. 

If you have money you get to call the shots in a way those who don’t have it can’t.  There is one sure way to get the president of your college to take your call.  You have got to be a huge donor.  Money talks!  If you have money you can live it up – take it easy, travel, dine out, dress up, and feather your nest with the finest.  You may daydream about these possibilities from time to time, but some people are completely driven by it.  You may want to be known, admired, and respected – not only to be important in the eyes of others, but even more so to yourself.  Perhaps nothing else can do it for you.  Only wealth can validate who you are and what you have done with your life.

Is any of this descriptive of you?  If so, then Jesus says to you, “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.”

The alluring thing about idols is their promise to confer on you things God wants to give to you.  God promises power to those who open themselves to the movement of the Spirit.  It may not get a university president on the line, but I have seen faith move mountains – especially when people of faith pull together.  God promises to feed and clothe us, to lead us to green pastures and still waters.  God’s riches are at our fingertips.  God provides a comforting life no dollar amount can purchase.  And God created you to be you.  You are unique, special, and called to a glorious purpose.  God’s love for you is so deep and so sure God asked the Son to come into this world to make it known to all.  You are so important God’s Son gave his life to redeem you.  

Perhaps this sounds more like how you look at the world and yourself.  If so, Mammon does hold sway over you.

The truth is none of us lives at one end of the spectrum between Mammon’s lies and God’s promises.  In truth, each of us oscillates back and forth on the continuum, being pulled in the wrong direction at times while responding to God’s invitation at others.  This is why I appreciate Jesus’ challenging words.  They invite us to reexamine our lives, motivations, and actions.  They invite us to move toward God’s dream and away from the enslaving effects of Mammon’s charm.  Today I give thanks for the awkward Parable of the Shrew Manager and Jesus’ powerful and poignant reminder we cannot serve both God and Mammon.    

Monday, September 16, 2019

Rules vs. Relationships

A man leaves a local grocery store and notices two cub scouts, perhaps six or seven years old, selling candy bars to raise money for their pack.  Well, the man wants to support the youngsters, but, being a diabetic, doesn’t eat any sweets.  “I’ll buy a candy bar from you on one condition,” he tells them.  “You have to eat it for me.”  The boys’ eyes become as big as saucers: “Mister, you have deal.”  They hand him a candy bar and he hands them a dollar.  Then he gives it back to them.  One of the boys looks very apprehensive and whispers something privately to the other.  They agree on something, turn to the man, and announce they can’t take it from him.  “Why not,” the puzzled man asks?  “Because our mother taught us never to take candy from a stranger.”

Rules.  They matter.  Lee Iacocca was taking about business when he said, “Start with good people, lay out the rules, communicate with your employees, motivate them and reward them.  If you do all those things effectively, you can’t miss”.  He could have been talking about religion just as easily.  Religion and rules seem to go hand in hand. 

Think about how the 10 Commandments lay a foundation for a morality and civility.  Our society counts on religion to instill in its adherents the values necessary for common life and cohesion.  We expect our places of worship to teach its members not to lie, not to cheat, not to steal, and not to harm.  We expect them to teach the importance of respecting authority and doing one’s duty.  And we expect these places to castigate those who don’t.  We don’t expect the main point of the sermon to be “If it feels good, do it.”  It should be something like, “God is watching, so you better behave”, only perhaps a little more nuanced.  Again, religion and rules go hand in hand.

Jesus puzzles the religious leaders of his day because his actions are not oriented toward the accepted rules of his society.  Think about the times he lands in hot water with holy rollers.  He does things on the Sabbath he is not supposed to do.  He doesn’t require his protégées to observe accepted customs and traditions.  And, as we find in today’s reading from Luke, he associates with people who don’t obey to the rules – tax collectors, prostitutes, and other known sinners. 

How can someone who is supposed to uphold the rules be so comfortable with those who do not follow them?  Jesus’ actions and those who criticize him raise a fundamental question about religion: Which is more important… rules or relationships? 

The Pharisees and the Scribes answer this question unequivocally.  First and foremost, you have to follow the rules in order to be a good person.  If you follow the rules then you can be included in the group.  If you don’t, then you are excluded, shunned, and sometimes even stoned to death. 

By his words and actions Jesus demonstrates a belief relationships matter more than rules.  It’s not that he is against the rules per se, but he rejects the idea one’s goodness is determined by them.  For Jesus, each person has value, each person deserves respect, and each person is loved by God.  A person is not good because he or she follows the rules.  Each of us is good because God creates good. 

If this is true, you may ask why even bother following the rules?  Well, it is important to do so because they guide us toward healthy and whole relationships with ourselves, with others, with God, and with all of creation.  The function of rules is not to determine who is good and who is not.  They function to guide us on a path toward happiness.

Susan Hanyes, one of our candidates for bishop, impressed me when she shared her thoughts about the immigration challenge facing our nation.  She described how her ministry has led her to meet with immigrants as well as ICE workers.  She described learning first-hand the terrible plight of those desperate to flee horrible conditions in their own country and the tremendous challenges faced by officials tasked with overseeing the immigration process by maintaining our policies and procedures.  Rev. Hanyes said her experience has helped her to see the immigration crisis is a tremendously complicated problem not easily solved through solutions being proffered by folks on the extreme left and right. 

It is an example of how being in relationship with people – especially with those who differ most from you – has a way of opening your eyes and seeing the world in a whole new way.  Do this and you will find easy answers and “black and white” perspectives no longer seem so sure and solid.

Years ago I served as rector in a parish where a retired priest carried a great deal of influence.  Reared and trained in a different era, he was dead set against the ordination of women, which the Episcopal Church had been doing for about fifteen years by the time I met him.  He spoke freely in the parish about his objections and more than a few traditional-leaning folks followed his lead.  Then something unexpected happened.  Meg – a young woman who had grown up in the church – discerned a call to the ordained ministry.  I remember visiting with the retired priest one day when he said, “Well, I don’t believe woman should be ordained, but if ever there was one who should be, it is Meg.  She is a fine person.”

Relationships open us to new realities.  They help us see people in a whole new way.  They broaden and deepen our understanding, perspective, and positions.  Relationships challenge us and change us. 

I find it so interesting how Jesus explains why he befriends folks the religious leaders describe as rule-breaking sinners.  He shifts the imagery from good and bad to lost.  He sees tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners not as bad people, but as sheep who are lost.  They are not being guided toward wholeness and happiness by the rules set forth by God to serve as guide posts for the way. 

The only way to find people who are lost is to go out and search for them.  You find someone who is missing not by shouting “You are a bad person” but by being willing to look for them… going to where they are and being with them to lead to safety. 

And one thing I have learned over my years of interacting with people in the church.  Each of us is lost in some way at some time.  That retired priest against the ordination of women was lost in a way.  Me, I am lost in ways at times I don’t even see or understand.  Rev. Hanyes realized she was lost only when she began to meet people from all points of our immigration crisis.  None of us is a bad person because each of us is loved and valued by God.  We are just lost.  Jesus came to be in relationship with us.  The question is, do you want to be found?

Monday, September 9, 2019

God the Holy Potter

Let me tell you about a summer Sunday some years ago at the church I served in Richmond.  The choir was off and the music director asked one of our teenage acolytes to sing a solo at the Offertory.  I heard them rehearse and it was absolutely splendid.  During the service, however, things went south at the beginning of the solo and never quite recovered.  It was not awful, but neither was it good, and we all shared in the young singer’s sense of failure and pain. 

She and I stood next to each other as the congregation sang the Doxology at the Offering.  I leaned over and thanked her for her solo.  I don’t remember exactly how she responded, but it indicated she realized it had not gone well.  “Would you like to try again,” I asked?  “Could I,” she replied, surprised this was an option?  “Absolutely,” I said.  She did not hesitate in her response.  So I asked the congregation to be seated and announced the young lady wanted a second chance.  The director scrambled for her sheet music while the soloist took her spot.  Her second attempt was beautiful and flawless and her redemption and triumph radiated through the congregation.

In childhood games they call it a “do over”.  In golf it is called a “Mulligan.”  In football they replay the down.  It’s the reason every pencil has an eraser.  Sometimes in life some things don’t go the way you want them to go.  “Let me try again.”  “I want another crack at it.”  “Let’s take it from the top.”

Beyond the moments that get away from us, beyond the one juggled ball in ten we fumble, and beyond life’s unseen banana peels we slip on, there are times when we downright blow it on matters of consequence – intentionally, completely, perhaps even willfully.  And it may not be a one-time occurrence either.  It may be engrained in our personality.  It may be life-style choice.  It may be a part of yourself simply out of control.  Change, if it comes at all, comes only after hitting bottom – through a crisis in your job, your health, your relationships, or even your legal freedom.   Sometimes such an experience is described as being beaten down and having to start over.

In today’s reading from the Old Testament we hear God’s word to Jeremiah as the prophet watches a potter rework a lump of clay after the first attempt at fashioning it goes awry.  “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as the potter has done,” God asks?  “Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, says the Lord.”  It is a message aimed not at a person but to a people; containing both judgment and grace, condemnation of what is and hope for what can be. 

God’s refashioning of the people of Jeremiah’s day will begin with a military siege, result in merciless deaths and massive destruction, and grind into generations of exile.  It is no painless, antiseptic process.  It is a tremendously costly, both for the clay beaten back into a lump as well as for the Potter who has invested time and energy and creativity and hope in what turns out to be a flawed product.  But the good news is all is not lost is: God is the God of ‘do overs’, mulligans, and replayed downs.  Mistakes can be erased and we can try again.

When God looks at the clay that is our society and measures what we are becoming, what do you suppose the Holy Potter senses the need to do: reshape a little here and there or pound us down into a lump in order to start over? 

I have mentioned before a book by Jonathan Sacks (a British author and rabbi) called Faith in the Future in which he writes about a concept called ‘Moral Capital’.  It is not his idea, others have written about it as well.  It is the notion certain moral behaviors benefit not just the individual, but also society as a whole.  Moral values like justice (from which we derive truthfulness and trustworthiness), temperance (from which we derive moderation and self-restraint), and benefiance (from which we derive the values of self-sacrifice and giving) are a few of the virtues which have contributed to the moral capital of our society.  As people manifest them personally in our common life, the world becomes a more humane place to live.  And just as saving money builds up your financial reserves for a rainy day, a surplus of moral behavior has a way of carrying forward into the future and exerting its influence during dark times.

Rabbi Sacks, along with many others, contends we are living off of the moral capital of those who came before us.  The ethics and integrity that undergirded Western Civilization and made for conditions where humanity could flourish are eroding away.  We are like a cut flower whose beauty is diminishing due to its rootlessness.  The signs are everywhere: broken homes, spiraling debt, a growing dependency on substance abuse… you know the list.  According to Sacks, even faster than we are using up our natural resources, we are depleting our moral reserves.  He is saying something I think many of us sense: we are not leading good lives and the future does not look bright.

Though it manifests itself in new ways, our society’s need for moral reform itself is not new.  As clay, we are always being reshaped by the Holy Potter in order to more closely resemble God’s dream for the human family.  We now live in a Post-Christian era where for the first time since the fourth century the Church’s authority no longer holds sway over society.  Far from defeat, this puts us in a situation similar to the Pre-Christian era when the Church’s ability to live out the Gospel flattened into a lump the clay that was Roman and pagan society in order for something closer to God’s dream for all people to emerge.  We in the Church today are called again to this kind of work and this kind of witness. 

When God looks at the clay that is you and what you are becoming in this life, what does the Holy Potter sense the need to do – reshape or pound down? 

In today’s New Testament reading we hear about someone Paul says was “useless,” but becomes “useful.”  Onesimus is a runaway slave.  His name in Greek literally means “useful;” hence the play on words.  After fleeing from his owner, Philemon, Onesimus finds his way to Paul.  During his time with the apostle, the slave undergoes a dramatic transformation.  He becomes a very real source of comfort and support to Paul who is imprisoned. 

But, in Paul’s mind, the new pottery will not be complete until Onesimus returns to Philemon.  God’s work with Onesimus will not be finished until he and his former master are reconciled and standing on the same level as brothers in Christ.  For this to happen, not only does the clay that is Onesimus need to be reworked, but also the clay that is Philemon as well as the clay that is Paul.

It is a wonderful testimony to what the Potter can do.  God is about the work of molding us and shaping us into something useful.  You and I, we have our rough edges and our wobbly sides.  We are a work in progress to be sure.  And there are some aspects of our lives, our practices, our beliefs, our attitudes, our behavior, our priorities that simply need to be patted down flat by God – the adversary of all that is not holy – so that a right and new beginning can emerge.  You see, God who loves us as we are loves us too much to leave us as we are.  God the Potter wants to shape us into something beautiful; something according to the poet of the 139th Psalm God has dreamed for you from before you were born.

Each of us is a work in progress.  I take this to be good news.  God desires to work on you, and in you, and (hopefully) with you to make you more and more reflective who God has created you to be.  Do you believe this, that God has a dream for who you might become and how you might be useful in making the divine dream a reality?  Do you believe you are clay in the hands of a skillful and loving Potter?  Do you believe in the possibility of a mulligan for your foibles and failures in life?  Do you believe in do overs for shaky solos and for shattered souls?

Monday, August 26, 2019

A Good Day for Healing

While researching today’s gospel reading I happened upon a scholarly article published sometime after 1962 in The Evangelical Quarterly, written by Dr. James Wilkinson, a Scottish minister and medical missionary in Kenya for nearly 30 years.  In the article Dr. Wilkinson examines the details of the today’s passage to determine if the healing of the woman bent over should be considered an exorcism or not. 

Wilkinson directs the reader’s attention to when Jesus indicates the woman is “bound”; a verb he notes is in a tense denoting an action beginning at a specific point in time and continuing on through the present.  This leads him to consider whether the woman’s eighteen-year condition is the result of a progressive ailment or a traumatic injury.  Given that the text states the onset of woman’s suffering was the result of a “spirit” (and some texts translate this word as “spirit of weakness”) rather than an accident, Dr. Wilkinson holds her condition begins at a definable moment not caused by an accident and has continued to progress. 

He goes on to consider possible medical diagnosis that might explain a condition resulting in spinal rigidity; one path stemming from infectious diseases, the other from diseases that are degenerative.  After a lengthy evaluation, he concludes the woman most likely suffers from spondylitis ankylopoietica, an infectious disease closely related to rheumatoid arthritis involving the fusion of joints, beginning in early adulthood.

Once determining this, Wilkinson goes on to compare the elements of this story with other accounts of exorcism in the gospels; making the case the details of this story do not mesh with them:

· The woman is permitted in the Synagogue – something not likely if people thought her to be possessed.

· She is not described as being unclean.

· The word spirit does not necessarily imply demon.

· Jesus speaks directly to the woman, never to an evil spirit.

· Jesus heals her by laying his hands on her, rather than by commanding a demon to leave her.

Wilkinson concludes the text suggests “spirit of weakness” does not refer to a spiritual being such as a demon, but rather to a state of mind.  As such, her physical weakness is causing the woman’s spirit to suffer, a spirit is not the cause of her weakness.   Wilkinson states, “The result of a long period of physical weakness was a state of profound mental depression.”

Even if the woman’s suffering is not the direct result of possession, it is worth noting Jesus states she has been “bound by Satan” for eighteen years.  This express indicates that for Jesus any suffering, any affliction, anything diminishing the possibility of human flourishing stands apart from God’s desire for us.  What God desires for all people is health and wholeness and soundness of spirit.  Jesus’ life and ministry make the case for this as strongly as possible.

I like Wilkinson’s journal article, in part, because it spotlights the woman Jesus heals.  It is her story, or at least it should be.  Sadly, the focus and force of the account moves quickly from her plight and her deliverance to criticism of Jesus’ action and timing.  The report, which does not even include the name of the woman, is transformed into a tale of confrontation between men as local religious leaders contend Jesus should not have done on the Sabbath what he did.

I suppose to us this seems like an arcane squabble about religious taboos we can no longer imagine or take seriously.  After all, we are so far removed from the “Blue Laws” most of our younger members don’t even know what this term references.  The “Thou shalt not on Sundays” is a thing of the past.  But in Jesus’ day this cultural concern was every bit as energizing and contentious as burning the American flag in protest or kneeling for the National Anthem is in ours.  Through the public act of extending his hands and uttering a prayer of healing Jesus knowingly puts himself in the eye of a cultural storm.

We might want to ask why.  Why would Jesus do this?  Was he itching for a fight?  Did he come as a prophet to criticize unjust and inhumane structures?  Or is there something else behind his actions?

Howard Zinn’s book A People’s History of the United States challenged the way we look at the past.  Zinn contends we teach history by telling stories about leading figures – presidents and generals and the like – but he looks at the American story by gleaning first-hand accounts from the letters and journals of everyday people, such as foot soldiers and teachers.  Zinn’s point is valid.  While big, sweeping events and the leaders behind them merit attention, so too do the people and lives impacted by them.  So, for example, you can learn something of the Episcopal Church by examining the journals of the General Convention as well as by listening in on a table conversation at our Coffee Hour after the service.  One approach focuses on the big picture while the other values the individual’s experience.

This distinction helps us to understand what motivates Jesus.  Did he wake one Sabbath morning and say to himself, “Today, I think I will take on the powers that be” or did he encounter the plight of a particular person and decide in that moment to bring her eighteen years of suffering to an end? 

By throwing the emotional weight of the action behind the confrontation, today’s reading makes it so very tempting to think the former is the case.  The way the story is told tends to make the woman’s role incidental.  She could have been any person with any need just so long as it presented itself on the Sabbath in the presence of religious authorities.  The gospels, as they are written, seem to be concerned with the bigger question of who exactly is Lord of the Sabbath – Jesus or tradition.

But I believe in the moment, at that time, on that particular Sabbath, in a synagogue of an unnamed town, for Jesus it was all about one particular person who had suffered much in her life.  It was about her need and his desire to express something dwelling deep in the heart of God.  It was about her agony and God’s empathy.  It was about her weakness and God’s strength.  More than anything else, Jesus wanted to bring together this woman’s condition and God’s compassion.  Everything that boils over after this is ancillary.

It strikes me as worth noting the woman does not present herself to Jesus, as is the case with many of the gospels’ healing stories.  Rather, Jesus notices her and calls her to come to him.  She has suffered for so long it appears she no longer has hope for healing.  Jesus notices her and is filled with pity and kindness.  He does something for her she neither asks nor expects.  For Jesus, every opportunity is a time for healing and every day is a good day for healing, especially the Sabbath.

St. Paul’s is truly blessed to have several people who are dedicated to the ministry of healing.  Practically every Sunday one of them is available to pray with you during the administration of communion.  They do so not because they possess magical powers, but because each senses a call from God to this ministry of compassion and care.

And I am pleased the Vestry, at its January retreat, identified enhancing our Ministry of Healing as a goal for the year.  We have taken several steps, most notably adding A Service of Public Healing in the Chapel after the late service on the last Sunday of each month.  The liturgy is powerful, but not off-putting.  It looks and feels nothing like you may have seen from some evangelists on TV.  The liturgy remembers that God cares and hears and knows our need.  It is a reminder that those gathered care too.  And somehow, through God’s grace, something happens to make the experience beneficial. 

Each of our lives is marked by tremendous need.  No one is immune.  Imagine if I invited every person here to stand if you carry in your heart some kind of special burden for yourself.  Imagine if I then asked to stand those who carry a burden for a member of their immediate family.  How many people would be left sitting?  None, I dare say, if I broadened the circle to include extended family and close friends bearing a burden. 

There is not a person here this morning who does not carry personal concerns or the needs of another in his or her heart.  You may think you are alone in this, but you are not.  I trust through today’s service you will sense Jesus notices you and, as he did with the woman bent over, calls you to come near.  Today is the Sabbath, is a good day for healing.