Monday, August 15, 2022

The Times

 

Luke 12:49-56

Proper 15 / Year C

Jesus said, “You know how to interpret the weather, but do not understand the present time.”  He is drawing ever nearer to Jerusalem and despite what he has been telling his followers, they do not understand it will lead to his arrest and crucifixion.  The signs are there, but they don’t see it.  These words of Jesus will take on a new and profound meaning when St. Luke writes his gospel some forty years later.  The Roman army has sacked Jerusalem and burned the Temple.  Judaism is in ruins as a result of its attempted rebellion.  Jesus’ words reverberate across two generations.  Those who led the Hebrews to rise up are fools and hypocrites who did not know how to interpret the times.

President Reagan began a tradition which most have followed since.  From time to time, he invited small groups of historians to the White House to reflect with him on the state of the country and the world.  Presidents, by nature of the job, tend to work day-to-day, but Reagan desired to step back in order to see the bigger picture.

President Biden understands the value of this and recently met with a handful of historians who, for lack of a better phrase, wanted to help him interpret the times.  According to one newspaper article, they focused almost exclusively on the rise of totalitarianism around the world and threats to American democracy.  These scholars compared our times to the era preceding the Civil War and the pre-World War II years in which fascist movements emerged.  They believe we are in perilous times because the systems set in place to prevent the abuse of power are not working and as a result our democracy is in a dangerous position. 

I am glad our president is working to “interpret the present times.”  Seeing what is happening and knowing how to respond to it are not the same thing however. 

Let me suggest a step forward each of us can take.  I offer it from our own Bishop Susan who wrote this on Facebook while attending Lambeth Conference in England this past week.  Lambeth, of course, is a once a decade gathering of Anglican bishops from all over the world: 

The Bishops considered two Lambeth Calls -- one on Reconciliation and one on Human Dignity.  As we considered our call and obligation as a church to work for reconciliation of the world to God, one idea that resonated with me more than anything was this: Even though we are a church that disagrees deeply on some things, our brothers (and sisters) are NOT our enemies.  The bonds of affection unite us.  Even if at times we seem to be walking on different paths, we walk together.  I value this unity more than anything. Even when I am angry with a brother or sister, I cannot disconnect myself from that person.


As we considered the call on Human Dignity, we realized that the Church is in two different places.  Many provinces (in fact, as Archbishop Justin pointed out several times, the majority) recognize marriage as being only between a man and a woman, there are some provinces that recognize same-sex marriage also as being life-giving.  


This is the reality of our Communion.


We were exhorted to hold this reality in tension and allow the Holy Spirit to work a new truth.  And while no formal vote was taken, we all left our discussions with a new sense of hope and with a sense of being in love and charity with our neighbor.  


We now turn our attention to becoming curious about this question: what do those who disagree with us need from us in order to flourish?  How can we pour ourselves out so that the other will live?  I daresay, in our own country, instead of beating the drum of division, if we could only wonder about what it would take for those who differ from us to flourish.  Would we find life in that?

Those with whom we disagree are not our enemies.  What do those who disagree with us need from us in order to flourish?  Are not these what need to affirm and to ask in the context of our present time? 

In four weeks our Suffolk Episcopal congregations will gather for Sunday morning worship here at St. Paul’s with Bishop Susan here to preach and celebrate.  We will be “Remembering Together” the 21st anniversary of the September 11 attack on our country.  It was an event none of us saw coming.  I remember very clearly the two biggest stories in August 2001 were shark attacks at Florida beaches and President Bush hosting Little League baseball games on the White House lawn.  Never did it dawn on us something so nefarious and world-changing was being put into play.  We did not interpret the times.  Had any one of us known what was being planned we would have shouted from the rooftops in order to prevent it.

I don’t know what the future holds.  When I was ordained they didn’t give me a crystal ball, only a pulpit.  So I will use what I have been given to say “Look around.”  What do you see happening?  How is God calling you as a follower of Jesus and us as a church to respond?  I sense we are in perilous times.  We need to learn how to listen to one another in this place… and then, as our godly gift to the world to share our common life as a witness to our community and to the world. 

 


Monday, August 1, 2022

"I Never Saw this Coming!"

 


Luke 12:13-21

Proper 13/Year C

Someone in the crowd shouts out a request: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  Not the type of thing one should broach in a public setting, it may just be the oddest and most awkward thing anyone ever asks of Jesus.  For his part, Jesus’ reaction is swift and visceral: “Who appointed me to be a judge over you?” 

And then he turns to those gathered and says, “Be on guard against all kinds of greed.  There is so much more to life than having a lot of stuff.”  To underscore his point, Jesus then tells a parable about a rich man.

Turns out, the person Jesus describes is the epitome of the American dream.  His business thrives.  He is able to upscale his living arrangements while at the same time saving enough for his retirement.  To borrow the language from last Sunday’s collect, he has mastered things temporal.  All well and good, but in the process he has disregarded the things eternal.

Evidence of this is found in the phrases “he thought to himself,” “I will do this,” “I will do that,” “I will say to my soul…”  His life is a monologue.  No other voice is considered.  No other perspective is pondered.  He is not concerned with what his family might need.  He does not contemplate how he might be of benefit to the wider community.  And most certainly, he never asks what God might be calling him to do.

This week I came across a painting of today’s parable by James B. Janknegt.  You can see it in your bulletin.  The rich man, balding and slightly overweight, is alone in his house feasting on a meal when death comes calling.  In the tiny house next door, a family of eight sits around a table with few provisions, but they are happy.  Framing the scene, the artist depicts the rich man’s house when it was the size of his neighbors, shows it being bulldozed, and then rebuilt as a two-story mansion, compete with a living room and master bedroom.  Also in the frame are renderings of the rich man’s many possessions; things like household appliances, a cellphone, a laptop, and a treadmill.  If you look closely in the living room, you will see a piece of artwork.  It is a statue of a person who, tellingly, does not have a heart.  Notice in the frame’s bottom left-hand corner the rich man’s house is for sale.  He has died and all his possessions will soon belong to someone else. 

Mastering the temporal while losing the eternal.  Jesus puts it this way: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”  If only someone in the audience had asked a follow-up question: “How does one go about becoming rich toward God?”

That you are here this morning tells me neither the Chinese rocket part falling from the sky landed on you nor did you win the Mega Lottery drawing over the weekend.  Even if you didn’t buy a ticket, my guess is you spent at least a little bit of time fantasizing about what you would do if you won all that much money.  I know I did.  The occasional daydream about money is one thing, obsessing about it is another.

Kathleen Vohs holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and has a specific interest in the psychological effects of money.  It began for her when she noticed subtle changes in herself once she was out a grad school and earning a living.  For example, she stopped asking friends for rides to the airport and began to take a taxi.  “It was really weird,” she told a reporter.  [Having money] “ends up changing the way you live your life in ways that are not totally expected.  You don’t make a ton of money, you’re not on yachts or other things, but you start making different choices.”  She summed up the changes in her life in this way, “I became more independent and less interdependent.”

Through various experiments involving thousands of subjects, Vohs has concluded people with money on their minds are self-sufficient, self-focused, and anything but selfless.  She states, “In all of our experiments, people who are focused of money are really good at pursuing goals, but they’re not that interpersonally kind or warm.  They’re kind of standoffish, keeping in their own head, not interested in being friends with anyone.”  It is not that they are completely antisocial, actively pushing people away.  She says they are “siloed”, insolated.  “What you get,” she says, “are highly motivated people who are not very socially sensitive.”

Vohs points out she is not talking about wealthy people per se, but about those who are chasing wealth to the near exclusion of everything else in life.  Some wealthy people, she notes, don’t think about money much at all.  They may have money – and lots of it – but it is not their focus.  Sure, it enriches their lives, but it is not what makes them rich.  They would be just as content sitting in Janknegt’s home with the table of eight as in a mansion.  On the other hand, Vohs says there are people of low or modest means who are impoverished, not because of what they lack, but because of their incessant, relentless focus on getting ahead.  Money, and making it, is all they have on their mind.     

Vohs’ research serves to highlight Jesus’ exquisite understanding of human nature.  His character in today’s parable exhibits all of what Vohs has learned through her work.  He is rich in things, but not enriched.  In a world crafted by God to be a dialogue – with one another and with the Divine – his life, as I said, is a monologue. 

There is an ancient saying which holds this: “Everything you have seen, every flower, every bird, every rock will pass away and turn to dust, but that you have seen them will not pass away.”  Something in this holds a partial clue of what it means to be “rich toward God.” 

It bids us to ponder two questions.  First, what do you see… truly see?  And second, what blinds you… occupies your vision to the exclusion of everything else?  Or, it may be you are not blinded, but wrestling with distraction.  It might be greed.  It may be something else.  The rich man never saw anything other than his possessions.  Far be it for me to suggest a better ending to any of Jesus’ parables, but I humbly offer this: After death comes to him, the rich man says to himself, “Well, I never saw this coming!” 

What do you see?

 


Monday, July 18, 2022

Mind before Matter

 

Colossians 1:15-28

Proper 11 / Year C

Have you seen any of the first pictures from the James Webb Telescope?  Looking back in time as much as 13.5 billion years, they are truly amazing.  60 times more powerful than any previous telescope, the clarity of the images and what they capture are stunning.  The telescope itself is a wonder.  Work began on it in 2004.  Thousands of technicians and engineers from 14 different countries invested more than 40 million hours in its development.  The mirror, which consists of 18 hexagonal, gold-coated sections, extends over 21 feet.  It will be able to collect images and data never before available to humankind and I, for one, can’t wait for what it will reveal.

I mentioned last Sunday I took a couple of philosophy classes in college.  One of the more interesting questions debated down through the ages will be fueled anew by what the Webb discovers:  which came first… mind or matter? 

On one side of the question are the materialists who hold at the beginning there was only matter and energy.  Over billions of years, some of this matter developed a consciousness leading eventually (and, up till now, in its highest form) our brains.  On the other side are the idealists who hold before anything was, at the first there was absolute intelligence, pure consciousness.  From this mind all things have come forth.  Those of us who subscribe to the Christian faith are idealists, but not all idealists are Christians (if that makes sense).

Materialism’s greatest challenge is coming to terms with things which cannot be measured and observed through the scientific method, such as aesthetic qualities and moral values.  Pushed to an extreme, a materialist has to admit all these things are subjective, thus leaving us with little more to guide human behavior than relativism – you do what you want to do and I’ll do what I want to do.

Idealism, on the other hand, can lead to dogmatism, where deeply held tenents do not conform to what we know of the visible world.  Someone who states, “Well, the bible says it, so that is good enough for me!”, is making a dogmatic confession.

Generally speaking, there is a third option, which is pragmatism, which holds mind and matter developed together, but by this point in the sermon you are probably wishing I never took a philosophy class, so I’ll move on...

...on to my theology classes.  [Insert groan]  As I said, we Christians are idealists.  Before there was anything, we contend God was.  And, at the beginning, there was with God the Word.  Paul puts it so well in today’s New Testament reading:

Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-- all things have been created through him and for him.  He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 

Think about what today’s collect asserts when it refers to as God “the fountain of all wisdom.”  It invites us to affirm mind before matter.  And it invites to view the material world as being infused with a design whose architect is God.

If I were to paraphrase the first verse of the bible it might be this: “In the beginning God had a dream…”  God’s dream was a dream of communion with all of creation, but specifically with us, who are created in God’s own image.  All of creation has been called forth with the intentional purpose of being in relationship with God.   And for being in relationship with one another.  God’s dream is for all relationships to mirror what is at the very heart of God’s being as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  For us Christians, it is God’s own self-relationship and God’s dream for us to mirror it which sets our moral compass and fuels our sense of beauty.

The materialistic perspective holds there is no intentionality to the universe.  Matter simply comes to be and developes as it does in accordance with the physical laws of the universe and natural selection, which themselves emerge as guiding principles through no discernable method or meaning.  Not all Christians, but most Episcopalians, would say these laws and principles are tools in the hands of God used to translate dream into reality.

We Christians also hold God’s dream has not unfolded as God hopes.  This morning’s Eucharistic prayer puts it succinctly:  

From the primal elements you brought for the human race, and blessed us with memory, reason, and skill.  You made us the rulers of creation.  But we turned against you, and betrayed your trust; and we turned against one another.

God’s response to this is self-giving.  Paul writes,

For in Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Paul sees it as a one-time event accomplished by Christ’s death on the Cross.  I add to this it is an ongoing reality.  The Cross is God’s definitive demonstration of a willingness to reach out to us for relationship and to remain in communion with us, no matter how much we fail to live into God’s dream.  God is both a dreamer and a realist.  But above all, God loves us with a love that can never be broken.

This is our faith.  It is the story we hold dear.  It is the good news we proclaim.  But we are not dogmatic about it.  The more we learn about God’s creation, the more we learn about God’s dream.  Which brings me back to the Webb Telescope and why I find it to be so thrilling.  If you hold to the bible and only the bible, you will (for example), be forced to believe the sun resides in a chamber in the nighttime from which it emerges in the morning to transverse our sky. 

We Episcopalians follow a path firmly rooted in God as Creator, but loosely holding what we know about God’s magnificent creation and how it has come to be.  A collect on page 827 of the prayer book articulates this well:

Almighty and everlasting God, you made the universe with all its marvelous order, its atoms, worlds, and galaxies, and the infinite complexity of living creatures: Grant that, as we probe the mysteries of your creation, we may come to know you more truly, and more surely fulfill our role in your eternal purpose; in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

I love the notion of every new discovery being an opportunity for us to discern with great clarity how to fulfill our role in God’s eternal purpose.  Unlike some Christians who feel their faith threatened by discovery and the advancement of knowledge, we find it to be an opportunity to ponder how better to understand God’s dream. 

I know our children and grandchildren struggle to navigate the seemingly completing claims of science and faith.  Perhaps you do as well.  I invite you to lift up to them the perspective I have shared with you this morning.  Creation reveals intention.  Creation is the result of God’s dream to share relationship.

 


Monday, July 11, 2022

The Challenge of Being a 'Neighbor'

 

Luke 10:25-37

Proper 10 / Year C

Gay Jennings, who this weekend concludes her ten years of service as the President of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church, tells the story of a time she witnessed a car drive off the highway and skid down an embankment.  She pulled over, rushed to vehicle, which was billowing smoke, and helped the driver get out and get to safety.  Once home, she told her family about her harrowing experience.  Her grade school aged daughter said excitedly, “Let’s turn on the news.  I want to see the video of it.”  Gay explained it all happened so fast and there was not a news crew there to film it.  “Well, isn’t that just like life,” the child said with disdain in her voice.  “You save a person’s life and no one notices, but if you pick your nose the whole world sees it!”

What is the most heroic thing you have ever done?  Some professions absolutely require heroism: police officers, fire fighters, and emergency room workers come to mind.  These folks, whether on duty or off, instinctively run toward a person in need.  I think of two parishioners I have known over the years whose lives literally were saved by a person who tended to them in an emergency situation: a bicycle accident and cardiac arrest.  I suspect most of us here this morning would do whatever we could to help a person in desperate need.

That being said, I find Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan to be troubling.  We may be capable of heroism, but what about compassion?  Like many of you, I fret about how to respond to the person holding up a sign asking for money at a traffic light.  I know what it is to be like the priest and the Levite in today’s parable because I typically turn my head, look away, and drive on past when the light changes.  I can think of at least a dozen reasons to justify my not helping them, but I never seem to be able to let myself off the hook. 

I had an interesting experience when I visited Portland, Oregon a couple of years ago.  There are high-end retail stores in the downtown area of the city.  There is also a huge homeless population.  From what I could tell it is a diverse group running the gambit from runaway teenagers to the more traditional winos and bums.  Even though the shoppers and the homeless occupied the same space, the two groups never interacted.  No one asked me for a handout.  No shopper asked a street person for directions.  Physically, we were only a few feet apart, but in reality we were worlds away from one another.

I think what frustrates me about this parable is how it sets an impossibly high standard to meet on a consistent basis.  Had Jesus told the story of a motorist who pulled over to help the victim of an accident, I would feel so much better about myself.  Sure, if and when I see a car crash, I will stop to help.  Then I would be able to check my “good neighbor” box and know I had done my Christian duty.  But, as I said, Jesus’ story is not about heroism, it is about compassion and indifference and it sets the bar very high.

Here are a couple of things to notice about the story.  Jesus offers no reason why the priest and the Levite do not stop to help the wounded victim.  Perhaps they thought he was already dead and didn’t want to make themselves ritually unclean by touching him.  Maybe they feared the robbers were still in the area.  Jesus offers no insight as to why they pass by.  They just do.

The Samaritan is the least likely person to stop and help.  There was such enmity between Jews and Samaritans you would expect one to walk past the other and ignore the need.  It would be like a Ukrainian stopping to help a wounded Russian soldier. 

And finally, the Samaritan did not offer a handout, but rather a hand up.  He did what was necessary to get the victim back on his feet again: bandaging his wounds, transporting him to shelter, paying for his care, and promising to return to check on his condition.  Jesus could have had the priest say a prayer and the Levite give a shekel, but the Samaritan still would have been the true neighbor of the story.   

I took a philosophy class in college and one day we were assigned to go the library, select an article from one of several philosophy journals, read it, and write a paper on it.  I picked an article about world hunger and moral responsibility.  It seems someone had written a scholarly piece holding if you have food and someone anywhere in the world dies of hunger, you are morally responsible for that death – all deaths.  The author of the article I read argued we have limited moral responsibility.  Yes, we have to make a serious effort to help, but as individuals we can’t possibly prevent all starvation.  This was the perspective I embraced, which turned out to be a good thing because the article, I came to discover, was written by none other than the professor of my class. 

The back-and-forth scholarly debate highlighted for me a dilemma I have never been able fully to resolve for myself: when and where does my obligation as a Christian to be a good neighbor begin and when and where does it end?  I suspect many of you wrestle with this as I do.  I also suspect our struggling is a good sign because it indicates we are trying to discern God’s will and God’s call.  That we don’t always get it right is why in a few moments we will ask for forgiveness for things “done and left undone.”  Then we will have a chance to make a fresh start of this neighbor thing and perhaps do a little better at it.

 


Tuesday, July 5, 2022

How Far Can a Little Kindness Go?

 

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Proper 9 / Year C

There are few things in life I enjoy more than travelling, especially to places I have not been before.  Paradoxically, there are few things I enjoy less than packing in order to go away, especially if it involves a suitcase and an airplane. 

My friend Dale, in his sermon at a service to bless our backpacks prior to walking the Camino, described how he approaches packing and how it differs from his wife’s.  She, at least a month or two before a trip, converts the guest room into a staging area.  The bed becomes a platform for various items to be laid out, folded, arranged, and rearranged.  There are several trial packings to see if everything fits, to determine what might have to be left behind, and/or what might be added if there is extra room.  With our Camino trip, even the dining room became a staging area because the guest room ran out of space.  Dale, on the other hand, throws things together at the last minute without much forethought and certainly without a plan.  In today’s gospel reading, we learn, at least for this particular trip, Jesus instructs his followers to pack like Dale… no purse, no bag, no sandals.  Just hit the road and get going.

Do you remember last week’s gospel reading?  It provides context for this week.  Jesus “sets his face toward Jerusalem.”  He and his followers are planning to be there for the Passover.  No doubt Jesus suspects it will not go well for him.  He knows this will be the final time he passes through the various towns and villages along the way as he travels.  It will be the last opportunity he has to teach and to heal and to bring the Kingdom of God to the people he encounters.  We can surmise he wants to maximize his impact as he moves grimly toward the holy city.

And do you remember how, in last week’s reading, a Samaritan village would not welcome Jesus?  He doesn’t want a repeat of that wasted opportunity.  So, Jesus sends his disciples in groups of two ahead of him to prepare folks along the way for his visit.  This is what we today would call a “short-term mission trip” and there is a real sense of urgency about it.

Masses of people made their way to Jerusalem for major festivals and unlike our world, there are no large and lavish hotels along the way.  Bethlehem famously had an inn in which there was no room for Mary and Joseph.  Most likely, it was more like a small hostel than what we think of as an inn.  And there are no restaurants along the way either.  Pilgrims depend on the hospitality of locals for food and lodging on their journey.  No doubt, the teams of disciples are sent to scout out the road ahead for people and places who will welcome Jesus and his followers.

I don’t know, but suspect, if you make the journey to Jerusalem at least once a year and if you only take one or two different routes to get there, chances are good you meet various locals you come to expect will host you whenever you are passing through.  Jesus staying at the home of Mary and Martha in Bethany is an example of this.  Perhaps two of his missionaries make their way to the sisters’ home to let them know Jesus is coming.

I am sure these visits, like the hosting we did last week, are joyous occasions when people get to connect or reconnect with folks from different places.  News is shared, opinions offered, insights gained, stories told.  In a sleepy little village, visits like these must bring welcome relief to everyday drudgery.  Jesus tells his followers to bless each home they enter by saying “Peace to this house.”  Those of us who hosted Chanco staffers last weekend experienced first-hand how God’s Spirit falls afresh upon a place through the presence of guests.  And we sensed for ourselves what Jesus instructs his followers to say upon their departure, “The Kingdom of God has come near to you.”

I wish we had more opportunities to do something like this – short-term mission which opens our world to a world beyond our own and invites God’s presence to be with us. 

There is a dark side to Jesus’ instruction, specifically how to respond when you are not welcomed.  “Go out into the street and wipe the dust off your feet.”  In other words, leave behind the bad experiences.  Forget about it and move on.  Life is too short and the opportunities ahead are too plentiful for you to linger on a negative encounter.  This is really sound, healthy advice, but often it is easier to offer than to do.

When Jesus says, “Whenever you enter a town and the people do not welcome you…”, the verb he uses is typically rendered as “reject.”  It can also be translated as “to disregard,” “to set aside”, “to nullify,” “to refuse”, or “to slight” with the potential of doing hard.  If you have ever been rejected, disregarded, set aside, nullified, refused, or slighted you know how deeply it can cut.  It hurts if it comes from a person you value.  It hurts if it happens because of some trait you bear; your gender, your ethnicity, your societal position, your sexual orientation, and your political persuasion being common targets.  And it hurts if it impedes your right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It may surprise you to learn I am not a huge fan of what is known as the “woke” movement.  I am, however committed with all my mind, body, heart, and soul to our church’s Baptismal Covenant.  Oftentimes, the objectives of the two are much the same.  The difference is our covenant is grounded in God’s dream for all people.  The “woke” movement lacks this essential understanding.  The same difference can be said of the movement led by Martin Luther King verses what we see emanating out of the Black Lives Matter effort.  Grounded in God, a movement can change hearts and change the world.  Ungrounded in God, a crusade only seeks to shift power from the ones who hold it to the ones who don’t. 

Henri Nouwen wrote this:

Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.  Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them a space where change can take place.  It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.

I think this is the kind of dust Jesus hopes will dirty the feet of his emissaries.  He hopes to create opportunities for peace to visit and for the Kingdom of God to come near.  

Let me finish by sharing this simple, but alarming thought offered by Rachel Joy Scott:

I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion, then it will start a chain reaction of the same.  People will never know how far a little kindness can go.  

People will never know how far a little kindness can go!  You may not know Rachel, but, tragically, you know her story, which provides incredible inspiration to her ideals.  Rachel was the first student to be killed in the Columbine school shotting.  I wonder, what for her, if she could share with us, does it look like to welcome a stranger and to shake off the dust of those who reject you.  I, for one, am willing to put her theory to the test.  How far can a little kindness go?


Monday, June 27, 2022

Fire or Fruit?

 


Luke 9:51-62

Proper 8 / Year C

“Do you want us to call down fire?”

The people of a Samaritan village will not welcome Jesus because “he has his face set toward Jerusalem” – in other words, he is in a somber, serious, and perhaps surly mood as he begins the grim task of journeying toward his crucifixion.  James and John, brothers with the nickname “the Sons of Thunder”, are indignant and want to smoke the entire region.  “Let’s just keep walking,” Jesus says to them.  “There is no time to waste being sore.”

Righteous indignation is what we suppose to be God’s anger manifested in and through us.  And there is plenty in our world that makes God angry, to be sure.  Simon Longstaff, the Executive Director of The Ethics Centre, observes how people who act out of righteous indignation often begin with a virtuous response to an injustice, but drift into excessive behavior.  He states it can lead good people with good motives in the service of a good cause to abominable things. 

C.S. Lewis was even more skeptical of those who rail from an ethical high ground:

“It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.  The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.  They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth.”

There have been a handful of times in my life when I have called down fire.  Some of you witnessed one of them several years ago right in very this room.    Two of our Food Pantry clients, waiting at a table, erupted in a loud, profanity-laced verbal argument.  Without even thinking, I moved toward them.  “What is going on here!  You,” I thundered at one person, “Sit down and be quiet.”  My voice boomed throughout the Parish Hall.  “You,” I said to the other, “Grab your things and come with me.  We are going to get you your food and then you are going to leave.”  Everyone in the room was stunned by my display, especially our volunteers.  But it worked.  Order was restored and from that point forward people knew not to act out for fear of eliciting what became known as the “The Godman Voice.”

The other times I called down fire did not go as well.  Two times I lost it over how a person was treating my daughters.  Once, when I lived in a community of townhouses, the person in the unit next to mine lit into my girls for having their play spill over into what he deemed to be his yard, but was in fact common property.  I told him in no uncertain terms he was not to speak to my daughters again and if he had a problem with something they were doing he should knock on my front door, talk to me, and I would handle it.  A heated exchange ensued and our relationship was irrevocably damaged.  This, in my experience at least, is the most likely outcome of calling down fire, even if your indignation is justified. 

In today’s New Testament reading, St. Paul offers a different approach.  Rather than calling down fire, he suggests we manifest fruit; the byproduct of allowing God’s Spirit to dwell within us.  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  These virtues, these qualities are to reign in us rather than what we think to be God’s wrath. 

Fire or fruit?  I sometimes ponder the instances when I called down fire and wonder what might have happened if I had allowed God’s fruit to reign in me rather than reacted out of what I thought to be God’s wrath.  One thing I know for sure, God’s fruit will never take us by force.  Always we must cultivate it in order for it to grow and flourish.

Fire or fruit?  Certainly, one of the most consequential things to happen this past week (and for some time) is the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe vs. Wade.  Even though we have had some time to prepare ourselves for it, the decision handed down was joyous for some and jarring for others.  I image some of you are unhappy enough with it to call down fire.  If so, I invite you to pray over what it might look like to respond with the fruit of God’s presence in your life instead.

You may have noticed when Paul lists the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control – there is not an “and” between gentleness and self-control; something you typically find at the end of a list such at this.  I once heard sermon where the preacher explained the reason is because each the fruits of the Spirit are to be present in each of us.  When Paul describes the gifts of the Spirit – things like teaching, evangelism, healing, and speaking in tongues, he includes an “and” before the last gift.  Here, he expects each of us will manifest only one or two or perhaps three of the gifts, but not all.  But with the fruit it is different.

This being said, I think for those of us unhappy with the Supreme Court’s decision, as well as how it has signaled an intention to revisit other rights we have come to expect, I think it is critical for us to cultivate the Spirit’s fruit in our lives, especially patience, gentleness, and self-control.  As I understand it, the rights communicated through Roe vs. Wade are not banished from our land.  They now fall to individual states to impart or to deny.  Those who have worked to overturn Roe have exhibited incredible faithfulness to their convictions.  I never thought we would see this day, but they have worked for it for five decades. 

If you are unhappy with the result of their effort you have two choices.  Either you can rant and rave and essentially call down fire.  Or, you can a nurture the Spirit’s presence and thus it’s fruit in your life.  I invite you to mull this over because conversations with family members, with friends, and with associates are going to happen.  I would hate for them to create irrevocable damage when God’s Spirit within us attempts to provide a way forward into mutual understanding, respect, and unity in the midst of diversity. 

As I said, I have spent a great deal of time considering how I might have reacted differently when I acted out of what I thought to be righteous indignation and, as a result, ruptured forever a precious relationship.  What will it be for you?  Fire or fruit?

 


Monday, June 20, 2022

Legion

 

Luke 8:26-39

Proper 7 / Year C

Allow me to set today’s gospel reading in context.  Jesus has been travelling on foot with a small entourage, going from town to town and village to village teaching and healing.  He is ready for a respite and suggests they get into a boat and set sail for the other side of the lake – gentile territory where they can be alone for a while.  Once under way, Jesus falls into a deep sleep while a storm is brewing.  His disciples, some of whom are skilled mariners, grow into a panic as the vessel takes on more water than they can bail.  They wake Jesus.  To their amazement, he commands the storm to be still and it abates.  His leisurely vacation is not off to a good start and it is about to get worse.

The moment Jesus sets foot on land he encounters the most bizarre figure in the entire New Testament – a man possessed by a multitude… a legion… of demons.  This dude is violent, tormented, and a danger to himself and others.  The folks from the nearby town are so disturbed by him they take him to a cemetery and chain him to a tomb.  But even this cannot contain him.  He breaks free of his restraints and haunts his creepy domain.  Here, naked, crazed, bruised, bloodied, and covered in his own filth, he and his demons confront Jesus. 

Think about this poor soul.  Mentally, he literally is out of his mind.  Spiritually, he is possessed and tormented.  Physically, he is beaten and battered.  Socially, he is a complete outcast.  If you or I were to encounter such a person not only would we cross the street in order to avoid him, most likely we would take off running in the opposite direction.  But not Jesus.  Even though he is seeking relief from the rigors of his ministry, Jesus is able to look deep into is person, to perceive his humanity, to affirm his dignity, and to restore him to health and fullness of life.  The conversation Jesus has with his demons is brief, but intense.  He orders them to leave the man and Legion is made whole.

Now, once the villagers learn Jesus has healed the demonic, you might expect them to bring all their sick and infirmed to him.  This is what happens almost everywhere else Jesus goes.  But Legion’s healing comes at a great expense to the local economy.  Jesus gives permission for the demons to possess a herd of swine and as a result the creatures drive off a cliff and drown in the sea.  Their herders suffer a severe financial loss and it likely creates food insecurity for the entire village.  At the very least, the cost of bacon is going to skyrocket and there is no doubt who is responsible. 

So, far from being overjoyed, the townsfolk continue to reject the man.  They want nothing to do with him and they want nothing to do with Jesus, who they unceremoniously invite to leave the region.  It is at this point the man makes a request of Jesus, “Let me follow you, let me get away from this place and these people as quickly as possible.”  The ‘follow you’ is code language in the gospels.  It means the man wants to become a disciple.  This story unique in that it is the only time Jesus tells a person who wants to follow him to stay put.  “I want you here, in this place, to do the work of ministry among your people.”

Why do you suppose Jesus wants him to stay with the very people who have treated him so badly?  I think the answer is fairly straightforward.  Jesus wants the man’s presence (his face, his body, his very being) to confront the community’s prejudices and to challenge its conventions.  Everything about how the man will go about living out the Good News is going to grate against the fabric of his society.  Jesus knows it and Jesus wants it to happen.  Legion’s very being will witness to the dignity of every human being.  He will be an embodiment of God’s kingdom breaking forth in our world. 

I think about the people I have known whose life fits into this ministry niche.  They are recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, cancer survivors, people who have managed to find their way forward after a devasting loss, and people who have found the strength and courage to live with, embrace, and (in some cases) find a way to thrive in the midst of a personal or family challenges which will never go away.  I think of people who have risen above rejection, humiliation, blaming, and shaming.  Each demonstrates for us what today’s psalmist means when he or she writes, “O, God of my strength.”  Some of you who have inspired me are right here in this place this morning.   

And I think about the countless people I have been blessed to know and serve who, like Jesus, have the ability to look past what on the surface, apparent to all, in order to see what God sees… a beloved creation worthy of respect, dignity, and love.  Again, some of you who do this are here with me now.

One final thought.  When Hollywood delivers a blockbuster, it loves nothing more than a sequel.  Very little frustrates me more about the gospels than how they provide little or no follow up on the lives of the people whom Jesus touches.  Case in point… Legion.  What happens to him?  Is he ever welcomed and embraced by his townsfolk?  Does his witness open them to receive the post-resurrection preaching of the early church?  Heck, does his name “Legion”, which was a reference to his many demons, revert back to his birth name (perhaps Herald)?  While in this life we will never know for sure, I am confident his witness – like the witness of so many of you – deeply affected many people.

Thanks be to God for seeing in each of us, given our many challenges and weaknesses, something which the world does not and cannot see.  Oh, if we could be blessed with the eyes of Jesus to see in each person we meet what God sees.