Sunday, December 25, 2011

Altdorfer’s Nativity: God-with-Us in the Ruins

When you picture the Nativity in your mind’s eye, what do you see? Beyond the basic characters of Mary, Joseph, angles, shepherds, and a baby, and beyond the setting of stable and crèche, what feeling or feelings are expressed through what you imagine?

I did a google search on “greeting cards of the Nativity.” Some of the cards featured great works of art from past centuries. A few had a photograph of a stained glass window. Contemporary cards ran the gamete from cartoon characters to abstract renderings of the holy family and everything in between. But while the styles, appearances, and depictions vary widely, almost all connect at a similar emotional level. They share a sense of sentimentality. They convey peace and tranquility. Even if placed in a dark and lowly setting, most contemporary renderings have a feeling of warmth that speaks of a deep sense of hope and joy.

All of this being said, it is doubtful anyone today would create a painting of the Nativity that comes close to a work done by Albrecht Altdorfer in 1513. Altdorfer was a member of what is known as the Danube school of artists and he is considered to be the first person to focus on painting landscapes. Altdorfer places the Holy Family in the brick carcass of a house or building. As they huddle together under a shoddy roof, the entire structure looks as if it is about to collapse on Mary, Joseph, and their baby. The sky is dark and ghostly, more like what we associate with Halloween than Christmas. Three angels (who look like toddlers with wings) cling to the edge of the manger looking at the baby with rapt curiosity. Three other angels hover in the sky above, studying some kind of scroll-like document. Perhaps it is the song of Gloria they are to sing, or it might be the message of glad tidings they are to proclaim. Either way, the look on their faces says the angels are absolutely puzzled as to why the Lord of all creation would be born in such a setting. Mary is at peace as she gives thanks for the birth of her son. Joseph, standing behind her, cups his hand around a candle in an attempt to shield it from the elements.

Altdorfer’s Nativity has spoken to people at various points in history. Dietrich Bonhoeffer meditated on it during Advent in 1943. At the time, he was imprisoned by the Nazis and awaiting execution for his role in a plot to overthrow Hitler. Given his bleak future and the way war was ravaging his country, you can imagine how the painting might have conveyed to him something about God’s presence in the midst of a societal collapse and the mystery of God’s love in the wreckage of life. He wrote this to his parents:

The Altdorfer Nativity, which portrays the Holy Family at the manger amidst the ruins of a dilapidated house – whatever made him do that 400 years ago, against all tradition? – is especially on my mind these days. Perhaps Altdorfer meant to tell us, “Christmas can, and should, be celebrated in this way too.”

Deborah Smith Douglas, a writer and laywoman in the Episcopal Church, was drawn to this work in Advent, 2001 – only a handful of weeks after the events of September 11. She wrote this about what it said to her:

Altdorfer’s painting “speaks of the presence of God in the midst of the worst we know about helplessness, vulnerability, alienation, exile… [It] bears profound witness to the nature of God-with-us, the breathtaking presence of divine love, at home in the ruins, amid the fragility and brokenness of the human condition.”

No single work of art truly captures the magnitude of that moment in Bethlehem. Each is a best a single frame of a much larger motion picture reel. Certainly Jesus was not born in the shell of a 16th century German home and you can argue with the accuracy of other features in his painting if you like. Still, Altdorfer says something very important to us on Christmas Eve 398 years later. He points out that our warm, sentimental images of the Nativity are nothing more than another frame or two of the movie. The more frames we see, the greater sense we have of what the film is about.

Our theology holds that all of creation came into being through God the Son. In my mind’s eye, I picture it being something like The Scorcher’s Apprentice, where Mickey Mouse unleashes new-found powers to create incredible displays of beauty, awe, and wonder. Angels, archangels, and all the heavenly host watch in rapture as each new day and each new dawn brings another glorious manifestation of divine love and power. And when it is finished the Father and Son sit side by side and the heavenly chorus offers unceasing praise. But creation turns dark, infested by sin. In a move unthinkable, the Creator becomes a creature in an attempt to draw the whole world back to himself. It is a decision with celestial consequences. The song of angels goes silent for the throne is now empty and the person they sing to is no longer there.

Whatever the hosts of heaven thought of this plan we do not know. We can imagine they envisioned God the Son being born into a powerful royal family. Perhaps they steeled themselves for battle with the forces of evil. Surely none of them expected the baby to born in the kind of ruins Altdorfer depicted and surely none thought the only protection afforded God the Son would be the flickering candle cusped in Joseph’s trembling hands. This is not a “our cheeks are nice and rosy, and comfy, cozy are we” depiction of Christmas, is it. Surely Altdorfer got it right when he painted the angels hovering above the crèche checking over their marching orders in astonished disbelief.

This Advent I have heard several people say that this Christmas won’t seem like Christmas at all. The reasons vary: children have grown older and the magic of opening presents just is not what it used to be; young adults have left home and won’t be here this Christmas; unemployment, underemployment, or retirement have curtailed normal celebrations; the marriage is on the rocks; health concerns have changed and challenged our lives; a parent or sibling or spouse has died and Christmas is dominated more by absence than presence. Lurking in the background of our personal lives are ominous world events and troubling news at home. The peace and warmth and joy of Christmas seem to get briefer with each passing year. The Christmas we remember, which is the Christmas we want, does not seem to be the Christmas we get.

If you could take all of this, break it down to its colors, put those colors on a pallet, take brush and put it to canvass to make something that expresses how it all feels, you might just come up with Altdorfer’s Nativity. If you were a person of deep faith, you might just come up with a painting that shows the Holy Family huddling in all the darkness and sadness and uncertainty of our lives. Christmas is celebrated not just in living rooms with happy children and perfect families. God is with us even more so in the midst of life’s brokenness and heartache and loss.

Christmas is about traditions, but there is only one tradition that really matters… God loves us enough to be with us no matter where we find ourselves in life. Christmas is about gathering with family and friends, but the friend that matters most is the one who was born in a manger and says, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Christmas is about giving and receiving gifts, but the most important gift we need is the gift in the crèche on that first Christmas night… the gift of God-with-us.

Perhaps your life is in a good place on this night. Perhaps you find yourself getting the Christmas you always wanted. If that is where you are, I could not be more happy for you. There are hundreds of thousands of depictions of the Nativity out there to speak to you and where you are in life. But for some of us, I imagine this night is a night of mixed emotions. Yes, we know we are blessed and there is much to celebrate in our lives. But it is also a night that brings into shape focus the pain and heartache and brokenness and absences and losses in our lives. For us, the ruins in Altdorfer’s Nativity paint a picture of where we are. And there, in the very center of it all is God-with-us. Meditate on that image and allow it to speak to you, as it spoke to Bonhoeffer and Douglas and countless others. May you come to know in a new and renewing way the presence of God in your life.

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Psalm Searching for God's Faithfulness

Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26

Your love, O Lord, for ever will I sing; *
from age to age my mouth will proclaim your faithfulness.

For I am persuaded that your love is established for ever; *
you have set your faithfulness firmly in the heavens.

“I have made a covenant with my chosen one; *
I have sworn an oath to David my servant:

‘I will establish your line for ever, *
and preserve your throne for all generations.’”

You spoke once in a vision and said to your faithful people: *
“I have set the crown upon a warrior and have exalted one chosen out of the people.

I have found David my servant; *
with my holy oil have I anointed him.

My hand will hold him fast *
and my arm will make him strong.

No enemy shall deceive him, *
nor any wicked man bring him down.

I will crush his foes before him *
and strike down those who hate him.

My faithfulness and love shall be with him, *
and he shall be victorious through my Name.

I shall make his dominion extend *
from the Great Sea to the River.
He will say to me, ‘You are my Father, *
my God, and the rock of my salvation.’

Perhaps you have heard that Time Magazine has named the Protestor as the Person of the Year. Around the world and in our own country, this has been twelve months unlike any other. Disenfranchised people taking advantage of new social media have gathered in ways never before seen to demand a better, more just world; one where each individual’s voice matters. Change has come; sometimes slowly and other times with breath-taking speed.

Here in America, citizens are exercising their constitutional right to gather and to speak out. Folks in other countries, who do not have these rights, risk injury and death to affect change. Listen to one account of a Christian minister who felt called to participate in a protest:

Utterly terrified, I made my way to the line between the [protestors] and the police, held my arms out, and began shouting to my… brothers and sisters: “Peaceful Protest Everyone,” “Keep the Peace,” “Do not respond with violence.” My brothers and sisters on the police force began advancing behind a wall of horses and heavy bicycles. I linked arms with a young man in dark clothing on my left and a gnarled grandfather on my right. We stood still until the officers approached us and began throwing their bikes into our bodies, shoving us toward the sidewalk. I stared into the eyes of the most aggressive officer, who was seething, and shouted above the noise, “Why are you causing violence to peaceful people? Think about your actions! Think about your humanity!” With an open hand he rammed my throat. The old man to my left was attacked similarly and reached back with a cocked fist, but I yanked him back.

A minute later, an officer threw me to the ground and punched me numerous times. With hands cuffed behind my back, I was led into a police van and caged alone for a half hour. In the dim light and cramped space, I sang “This Little Light of Mine” and recited Psalm 23 to stave off a gnawing fear. Eventually, a few more [protestors] joined me and we were transported to a holding facility where they split us into pairs and left us in tiny concrete rooms for several hours.

The rooms were voids in every way: windowless, empty (no facilities, no benches), lit with glaring fluorescent bulbs, gray and white. My void-mate was a terrified kid who had gotten in over his head. He gave me heart by singing protest songs while I shared some meditation techniques for maintaining self-possession in trying moments.

Eventually we were hauled off to the [local] jail and had our handcuffs removed after four long hours of immobility. As I walked through the metal detector at the jail, a fellow [protestor] I hadn’t spoken with yet looked at me in my collar and said, “You’ve just been baptized.” They outfitted us in thin cotton jail uniforms, and proceeded to move us from cell to freezing cold cell for the next eight hours without any clear purpose or explanation.

During that time, the adrenaline wore off and my bruises and lacerations began aching intensely. I asked officers and staff at least six times to see a nurse and was consistently denied that, as well as water and food. During the final hour a nurse took pity on me and found an ice pack for my face. Not all the staff, it seemed, had contempt for their charges. Finally, at 5:00am we were released to the street after obligating ourselves to appear before a judge at a future date.

This treatment could describe an incident in Athens, Cairo, Damascus, or any other number of hotspots around the world where basic human rights and basic human dignity are not afforded to average citizens. Amazingly, the event described took place in Seattle, Washington where the Occupy Movement was trying to win certain rights for truckers who drive shipping containers in and out of the port. What kind of rights? Well, one demand is that the truckers be allowed to use restrooms at the port facility; something so basic it is hard to imagine they don’t have it already.

This morning we recited portions of the 89th Psalm, the fourth and final psalm we encounter in Advent. It begins by proclaiming the magnitude of God’s love and faithfulness, then describes one manifestation of it – the reestablishment of David’s throne. The poem was written by a person who scholars call a ‘monarchist’ – a person who believes God rules the world through the actions of the king. It is an assumption challenged by others in scripture and it became a problematic viewpoint as time went on and no one of royal linage was raised up to take the throne.

Eventually the psalm came to speak of a messianic hope; describing a historical figure sent from God to embody God’s love and God’s faithfulness. We Christians proclaim Jesus to be this person and from his life we know that the messiah will not be a ruling power who achieves military victories and never knows defeat. We know that his kingdom will not be of this world and yet this world can and should look like his kingdom. His enemies will not be people, but attitudes and behaviors: violence, injustice, and hatred. He will succumb to each before rising from the dead. And now, reigning in glory, it is Jesus who leads us – his devoted followers – to be incarnations of his faithfulness and love in the world.

The yearning for a monarchy established by God is still strong in some. Most of us, however, become suspicious when a political figure tries to ram down our throats a specific version Christianity, as Rick Perry did in his recent ad called “Strong” – the most disliked video ever on YouTube. We do not want one person in power attempting to use that power to force one brand of religion on all people. At the other end of the spectrum, there is something unnerving about a minister standing in solidarity with protestors and getting arrested. It is unnerving to me because it clearly demonstrates a person living out his faith to a degree that I am not. I suspect that he embodies the image of the 89th Psalm in a way I do not.

As I said at the beginning of the sermon, we only read a portion of the psalm, which is fifty-two verses long. In its entirety, it fondly remembers God’s promise to reign through David’s line forever and it describes David’s rule in glowing terms. But the setting in which the psalm was written was a time after the fall of the kingdom, which resulted in the end of the royal line. For the poet, all the ills of society can be attributed directly to the lack of a king. The final verses of the poem interrogate God; asking why previous promises have not been kept. One commentary gives the following title to the psalm: “Lord, where is your steadfast love of old?”

For Christians, the answer to this question is right here living within each one of us. God’s love and God’s faithful are proclaimed and lived out through our attitudes and our actions. They are known when we stand up to and against violence, injustice, and hatred. They are known as we offer peace, reconciliation, and blessing to all. In a world so hostile to God’s love and faithfulness, it is no wonder Jesus described our call as picking up a cross every day and following him. He, who brought God’s hope to the world, now gives hope through your life and through mine as we allow Christ to reign in our hearts and in our lives.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Psalm for When You Are Down in the Dumps

This morning we recited the 126th Psalm. It is a very helpful reading when you or a friend is down in the dumps. It looks backward to a time when things were really bad, remembers what God did to make things better, and then, in an act of hope and faith, asserts (to use a contemporary expression) this too shall pass.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, *
then were we like those who dream.

Once again we read a psalm based in and around the Babylonian exile. “Restored” – past tense – places its composition sometime after the exiles had returned to Jerusalem. The dreaming it refers to is not like what we experience when we sleep nor is it the idleness of day-dreaming - like imagining what you would do if you won the lottery. This dreaming is rooted in reality and possibility.

Several years ago a friend gave me a $50 bill as a birthday present; not a check, which I would have had to process through the bank, and not a gift card, but cold, hard cash. It did not have to be factored in to the monthly budget, nor was it subject to the I.R.S. The gift came with one and only one stipulation: I was to use to buy something for me. The real blessing of that unexpected present was that it allowed me to dream. I considered several possibilities, none of which would have been guilt-free had I charged it or written a check.

Each of us has experienced the connection between restored fortunes and this kind of dreaming. We know it when we have recovered from illness or injury. We know it when we finally find a job after months of unemployment. We know it when the last final has been taken and the final paper has been turned in. We have all had many experiences like this: some minor, others major, and a few life-changing.

My birthday present fits in to the minor category, but it was still a blessing. Any guesses what bought with it? Several high-end cigars and I really did enjoy them, like the next verse of the psalm says,

Then was our mouth filled with laughter, *
and our tongue with shouts of joy.

Laughter… Did you know that children laugh more than adults? Before they can even speak, babies laugh on average 300 times a day, while the typical adult laughs around 20 times. Laughter is universal and while there are thousands of different languages and dialects spoken around the world, we all laugh pretty much the same way. Even children born deaf and blind retain the ability to laugh.

We do it to express joy, at humor, when tickled, and to cope with adversity. It is good for our body and our health because it releases endorphins in the brain and lowers blood pressure. Other primates laugh, especially when tickled. Dogs laugh too. They do it with a different cadence in their panting, which when recorded and played in an animal shelter promotes calmness, play, and pro-social behavior among kenneled dogs.

Shouts of joy… I suspect that watching sports is when most people today shout for joy with the most reckless abandon. This fall, before the final play in the Miami vs. Virginia Tech game (a game which was very tense, very close, and very dramatic), Hokie fans were in a state of joyous, raucous hysteria that reached a crescendo as they sensed improbably victory was within reach. The TV announcer said, “I have never seen a setting like this. These fans are losing their minds.”

We shout for joy when a couple is pronounced husband and wife, at a baby’s birth, and at graduation ceremonies. Etched in our national consciousness are images of people pouring into Times Square on VE and VJ days; kissing and hugging complete strangers and shouting at the tops of their lungs. These moments of relief and celebration invite reflection:

The Lord has done great things for us, *
and we are glad indeed.

Up to this point, everything in the psalm is a memory of the traumatic event of the exile and its blessed ending. With that recollection firmly rooted at the heart of faith, it turns its focuses to the present; to what it is like being down in the dumps:

Restore our fortunes, O Lord, *
like the watercourses of the Negev.

Even those with a minimal knowledge of the region’s weather and landscape understand the meaning of this prayer. We know what it is like to be down on our luck, under attack, and hanging on by a thread. We know what it is like to be spiritually dry, personally isolated, and bound tight by shackles others have made for us or by chains of our own making. And we know what it is to long for deliverance, refreshment, and relief.

We begin each Sunday in the four-week season of Advent singing verses from the hymn “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” Like the psalms we have been reading, it is a hymn cast in the experience of exile:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

To be alive is to know periods of exile, of dryness, of being down in the dumps, but it is also to know the laughter and joy of being restored. I suspect that as we grow older the dumps get a little easier to manage because we have a built many memories of being restored. When we are younger, even the slightest time in the thinnest of dumps is filled with drama. With benefit of age and experience we come to expect that the dumps will pass.

The psalmist expresses this faith derived from experience so beautifully:

Those who sowed with tears *
will reap with songs of joy.

Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, *
will come again with joy,
shouldering their sheaves.

Tears… There are different kinds of tears. We cry for joy, when something gets in our eyes, and when we are profoundly sad. Each of these experiences produces a different kind of reaction in the body so the chemical composition of one kind of tear is different from other kinds of tears. Infants cry in three distinct ways. There is a basic cry, usually indicating hunger, there is an angry cry, and there is a cry of pain. Every parent knows the difference. There seems to be a link between crying and the experience of perceived helplessness. That sense of helplessness may come from receiving unexpected good news or it may come from being in a situation where we are powerless to affect its outcome.

The psalmist is describing tears of sadness; tears of mourning. Often times these tears are shed only in our hearts and the secrete recesses of our soul. It is not uncommon for these tears to go undetected by others and even for us not to recognize that we ourselves are crying. Sadness and grieving have a way of numbing us to our own reality and experience.

To my eye, the psalmist demonstrates his or her maturity by using the metaphor of planting to describe this difficult and challenging experience. In an agricultural society, the planting season was a lean time. Yes, the winter was past, but it was still way too early for any new crops to appear. Of the little grain that was left to eat, much had to be sowed back into the fields. This was a time of hunger, want, and uncertainty. And then came the waiting, waiting, waiting, and waiting for that new grain to mature; signaling restoration and triggering shouts of joy.

It is a wonderful image for when we are down in the dumps because it suggests that even though there are many things beyond our control, there are some things we can do to help restore our fortunes. What are one or two or three things I can do to get myself going again? Figuring that out somehow always factors in to the miracle of the restoration which comes from beyond our efforts. What “sowing” is for you depends on who you are, what you need, and why you are down in the dumps.

Let me suggest one thing suggested by the psalm that is universal. The 126th Psalm is part of thirteen grouped together because they were said or sung by pilgrims on their way toward Jerusalem. They are known as the “Psalms of the Ascent” because Jerusalem is built on high ground. These works supported the travelers in their physical journey to the Temple, but also in their spiritual journey through life. As such, its place in the canon of scripture suggests that one seed we should sow especially when we are down in the dumps is a seed which is spiritual, which connects us to God.

“The Lord is my help,” one psalm proclaims, “my light” says another, “my salvation.” Worship, prayer, acts of devotion and charity, talking with a priest or spiritual friend, intentionally seeking beauty and solitude, focusing in on the basics of life – each of these has a profound way of opening us to God’s presence. And being attune to God’s presence has a way of buoying us through the time of waiting until one day we find ourselves bringing in the sheaves.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Psalm of Gratitude & Expectation

The Hebrews who returned to Jerusalem after two generations of forced exile in Babylon faced many unknowns. In what condition would they find their city? Who would be living there? Could they somehow recreate the fabric of a society? And, perhaps most urgent, would there be food to eat and water to drink? This was not a question of whether or not the Wal-Mart would be open. The grain and produce the people grew was all the food they had. Period!

As they entered Jerusalem, the exiles found its walls breached and its gates broken. In those days, the condition of the wall was critically linked to a city’s well-being, so this was a significant problem. From the outset, their community was riddled with challenges related to safety, transportation, and public services. The exiles discovered that the Temple was little more than a pile of rubble. Given that there was no communal place to gather, religious devotion and practice became more private and personal, lacking the benefits and vitality derived from worshipping and praying together. Their situation has some striking similarities to our own time, doesn’t it.

But of the most urgent issue – food to eat – there was good news. Land for planting was available and crops grew up. The initial harvest, and that of subsequent years, was sufficient enough to sustain the community.

It was in this setting and at this time that a poet/musician set out to write what we now know as the 85th Psalm, which we read moments ago. It is a psalm of both gratitude and expectation; gratitude for what is, while at the same time articulating a hopeful yearning for something even better.

It is a prayer embedded in the poem’s very structure. Look at the first verse:

You have been gracious to your land, O Lord.

“Have been” – it has already happened. There was a harvest.

You have restored the good fortune of Jacob.

Do you remember last week’s psalm reading with its petition, “restore our fortunes, O Lord”? Notice how the 85th Psalm says that this has happened. The shift from plea to praise serves as the strongest clue that the psalm was written early in the post-exile period.

In the second verse, the poem makes a quick shift from the tangible, physical material concern for food to the spiritual:

You have forgiven the iniquity of your people,
and blotted out all their sins.

Again the author writes as if this has already happened, but why the jump from harvest to forgiveness? Well, the prevailing theology of the time held that God blessed the people when they were obedient and punished them when they were not. When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem early in the 6th century BC and forced its people into exile, it was understood to be a divine judgment meted out for profound unfaithfulness. We still see this kind of thinking in operation today when people claim that a natural disaster, such as the Haiti earthquake, is God’s punishment. As a theological perspective, subsequent generations after the exile challenged it in many different ways – most convincingly in the Book of Job, whose lead character never offends God, yet suffers mightily – far beyond anything he could have deserved.

Still, given his or her theological position, you can understand why the poem’s author shifts from harvest to forgiveness. The return from exile was understood to be a sign that God’s wrath and punishment had abated. The harvest added further confirmation. God had indeed forgiven the people. The proof was in the grain of the field, the figs on the tree, and the grapes on the vine. The poet expresses it beautifully,

Mercy and truth have met together,
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

Mercy and truth – the idea that we always fall short of who God calls us to be linked with God’s deep desire to remain in relationship with us. Righteousness and peace – the notion that a holy God cannot look upon sin joined with the ongoing work of God to draw us to God’s self. The poet states that we are who we are, and yet God loves us still.

It is at this point that the psalm turns from gratitude to expectation.

Truth shall spring up from the earth
and righteousness shall look down from heaven.

The Lord will indeed grant prosperity,
and our land will yield its increase.

Righteousness shall go before him,
and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.

It is a subtle, but interesting twist. The poet is longing for something that he or she says has already happened. It is easy to see why if you remember the setting. Yes, the first harvest has come in and it will suffice, but there is a huge difference between surviving and thriving. And yes, the community has come together, and while this is an occasion for thanksgiving there is so much more that needs to happen to create a vital society. And while God has reached out to restore the fortunes of the people, the people are just now beginning to respond to God’s gracious offer of relationship.

For the psalmist, ‘good’ is good a start, but it is not good enough. We might say that this is a psalm for those who won’t stand pat. It is for those of us who are grateful for God’s blessings, while at the same time yearn for more. The psalmist knows that people need to eat and is truly grateful for the basic necessities of life. But the poet yearns for something more, something he or she describes as God’s “glory dwelling in our land.” “Salvation is very near,” the poet says. “We are closer now than at anytime for a generation or more. But we cannot be satisfied just with having our needs met. Life – real life – involves something more, something higher.”

Every Sunday we pray together the Lord’s Prayer. Every week we say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This is a yearning, isn’t it. It is our deep desire that the world will be a better place than it already is. Most of us have all that we need. We are not praying for more abundance. We are praying for those who do not have enough even to survive. We are praying for peace, for truth, for mercy, and for righteousness to be lived out in concrete ways in our lives and around our planet. We are praying for a world we know by faith can and will exist.

William Law, the 18th century English priest expressed in beautifully in his book, The Spirit of Love:

“Nothing wills or works with God but the spirit of love, because nothing else works in God himself. The almighty brought forth all nature for this end only, that boundless love might have its affinity of height and depth to dwell and work in, and all striving and working properties of nature are only to give essence and substance, life and strength, to the invisible hidden spirit of love, that it may come forth into outward activity and manifest its blessed powers, that creatures born in strength, and out of powers of nature, might communicate the spirit of love and goodness, give and receive mutual delight and joy to and from one another. All below this state of love is a fall from the one life of God and the only life in which the God of love can dwell.”

We live below this lofty state of love, don’t we, but our prayer and our hope is that we will live more fully into the life for which we were created.

Advent is a season of gratitude for what is and of yearning for what will be. We sense that God is near, that salvation is closer now than ever before. We await our Messiah who will come down from heaven only to be crucified and then rise up from the earth that the whole world might be drawn to him. We await his coming and we pray for the reign of his Kingdom. We give thanks for the good in our lives, but know that good is not good enough. We will not stop praying or working until the glory of God fills the land.

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Psalm for the Dissatisfied

Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance,
and we shall be saved.

Perhaps when historians look back on 2011 they will tag this as the year people got fed up with the way things are. From the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement, there is a cry rising around the world that something in this world has got to change. It is not a new complaint to be sure. The Tea Party Movement got a jumpstart on it a couple years ago and while its solution may be very different from the Occupiers’, both groups – and most of us – agree that something is wrong. If you could choose only one word to describe the mood of our community, our commonwealth, our nation, and our planet, a strong contender would be “dissatisfied.”

There is a psalm for those of us who feel this way. Biblical scholars cannot identify the author of the 80th Psalm, which we read moments ago, nor can they pinpoint the particular context in which it was written. The strongest possibility places its origin in the period of the Exile. If it is not from this era then it harkens back to it in the face of a similar situation. You can imagine how dissatisfied a people living in exile would be. Torn from their homeland, having the fabric of their culture ripped apart, staring at the reality of losing what it means to be a people, their cry goes out, “Restore us” – make us what we used to be.

The reformer John Calvin called this “a sorrowful prayer.” We might want to note that it is also a shepherd psalm. While not nearly as well known or comforting as “The Lord is my shepherd,” none-the-less it is a prayer directed to the “Shepherd of Israel.” Readers recite its refrain three times:

Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance,
and we shall be saved.

Its first imperative is translated in our prayer book with the word “restore,” but is more accurately understood as “cause us to return.” Addressed to a shepherd, it pleas for a regathering of the flock and presumes this can happen only if the shepherd gets to work. “Show us the light of your countenance” is a prayer that God will be present to God’s people.

The idea of God’s presence is central to this psalm because its author complains that God is in fact absent; a notion reinforced by the image of bread. God was said to dwell in the Holy of holies - the central place in the Temple. It was here that God sat on the image of cherubim, which were crafted upon the top of the ark that contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments. A wooden table was placed in front of this throne and on its top there was always bread; bread known as “the bread of the Presence” – God’s presence. From the author’s perspective, rather than being fed with this bread, the Shepherd of Israel had given the people only the “bread of tears” by the bowlful. It is a powerful and evocative image of God’s perceived failure as the Shepherd of Israel.

The power of the 80th Psalm lies in its proclamation that while God is at the root of the problem God is also at the heart of the solution. The psalmist contends that if God will only arise and shine forth then all will be well.

But what might God’s shining forth look like? The psalmist envisioned it as the restoration of statehood and the Davidic monarchy:

Let your hand be upon the man
of your right hand, *
the son of man
you have made so strong for yourself.

Even before the advent of Christ, this verse was always understood as a plea for a messiah, one who would be anointed by God to make things right. The psalmist hopes for a warrior king, but for Christians who for centuries have been reading this scripture in Advent, the Man of God’s right hand is anything but. As the church year unfolds we will trace again our Messiah’s steps toward the Cross, where in death and defeat Jesus reigns in glory.

If the 80th Psalm is a Psalm for the Dissatisfied, what does it say to us in 2011… we who are so unhappy with the political, economic, social, moral, and spiritual circumstances of our time?

The second thing it tells us is to beware of false messiahs, of putting our hope in the wrong things. A few years ago I was driving on I95 into Richmond. As I crossed over the James River I encountered three objects lighting up in the night sky. The first was a giant billboard announcing the lottery had topped $300 million dollars. The second was a search light from under the bridge designed to attract travelers to a “gentlemen’s club.” And the third, rising up larger than any cathedral in the world, was the sprawling complex of the Medical College of Virginia Hospital. There, in a stretch of a quarter mile, were the most important things in our society – money, entertainment, and health.

Notice how all of these are aimed at the individual… How can I have all the money I need? How can I never be bored? How can I live forever? Its like we have abandoned any thought of the common good and converted the plea of “restore us” to “restore me.” We who are so dissatisfied have given up on a messiah for the world and sold out for personal trinkets. How else can you explain the public fascination with the newest technology, miracle sex pills, and Black Friday shopping?

Restore me, O iPhone; *
Give me the speed of 4G,
and I will be happy.

Well, if turning from false messiahs is the second thing we can take away from this psalm, the first is this: God is God and no other is God. God may or may not be the cause of our dissatisfaction, but God is certainly the answer. The only question is are we ready for God’s answer? Are we ready to move from “restore me” to “restore us?” Are we ready to pursue justice more than self-satisfaction, compassion more than self-interest, self-sacrifice more than self-promotion?

I am not looking forward to the 2012 election season because more and more these events de-evolve into messianic campaigns where candidates proclaim themselves to be the answer to all of society’s woes and their opponents to be hell spawns bent on our destruction. The truth is this: it does not matter whose hand God is upon if we of the flock don’t want to be restored by anything beyond what I consider to be my own good.
God’s ultimate act of restoration is seen in the giving of God’s self through the Incarnation. It is seen through Jesus’ acts of service – teaching, healing, feeding, forgiving, blessing – acts aimed at benefiting others, not himself. It is seen through Jesus’ prophetic critiques of corrupt social structures – the state and the church being his most consistent targets. And it is seen most clearly on the Cross, where Jesus completely rejected any and every sense of “restore me” in order that “restore us” might be possible.

So here is ultimate question… if this Messiah is our Shepherd then what kind of sheep are we to be? If the flock is dissatisfied and if this is who our Shepherd is, how will we ever be restored if being restored means for us little more than give me what I want for me?

Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance,
and we shall be saved.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Kingdom of Doers

Decades ago, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr drew a distinction between all of the world’s great religions. Some, mostly in the eastern tradition, believe that time is cyclical; that we keep repeating events over and over again. Others, especially religions that trace their lineage back to Abraham, believe that time is linear; that is has a beginning and is moving toward an end. Within the movement of time certainly there are events that seem to reoccur, as pointed out by the saying, “those who don’t know history are bound to repeat it.” But we Christians believe in a beginning - “And God said, ‘Let there be light’” - and we believe in an end when Christ “fills all in all” (as St. Paul put it in today’s second reading).

On this last Sunday of the Church year we celebrate the end of time by recognizing the eventual reign of Christ the King; a reign which we now know in part, but one day will experience in complete fullness. That day is not without its troubles. Our Old Testament and Gospel readings connect Christ’s Kingship with judgment; a judgment which Ezekiel proclaims will be between the fat sheep who used their power to dominate and the lean sheep who have been beaten down, broken, and scattered. If there is going to be a weighing of the haves and the have-nots, I am pretty confident my weight will tip the scales decisively toward have. The reality is this: if you have a roof over your head, a bed to sleep on at night, and one meal a day, then you are better off than 75% of the world’s population. You are a have.

But don’t worry, affluent Christians long ago took the faith down a path to help us put this out of mind. Rather than focusing on a judgment based on what one does with what one has, a second option emerged. This is a judgment based not on what one does, but on what one believes. At this kind of judgment you and I will be OK because we profess Jesus as Lord (whether we act like it or not), but those of other faiths will be in trouble because they don’t subscribe to the right ideas about God.
At a very early age I picked up in Sunday School that God used to love the Jews but, because they rejected Jesus, God rejected them. I was taught that now God loves Christians because Christians believe in Jesus. The fancy word for this kind of thinking is “Supersessionism” or “Displacement Theology.” It is the notion that Christianity has taken the place of Judaism as God’s chosen, covenant people.

It is a theology not limited to Sunday School classrooms being led by poorly trained volunteers. The historian Grover Zinn points out that several of Europe’s great cathedrals have stone carvings portraying the church and the synagogue as two paired female figures. One – the church – stands erect, often holding a chalice, with a crown firmly placed on her head. The synagogue figure is slumped over, blindfolded, with a fallen crown lying at her feet. It is a notion replayed over and over and over again in art and in literature, as well as in the teachings of the church at the highest levels. And it is a teaching limited not just to Judaism. The official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church continues to maintain that other faith traditions are inferior to Christianity, and that the Christian traditions not in communion with Rome are heretical.

We have come a long way from the simple truth put forward by James:

My friends, what use is it for a person to say he has faith when he does nothing to show it? Can that faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is in rags with not enough food for the day, and one of you says, “Good luck to you, keep yourselves warm, and have plenty to eat,” but does nothing to supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So with faith; if it does not lead to action, it is in itself a lifeless thing.

But one may object: “Here is one who claims to have faith and another who points to his deeds.” To which I reply, “Prove to me that this faith you speak of is real though not accompanied by deeds, and by my deeds I will prove to you my faith.”
(James 2:14-19)

So time marches on toward a time when Christ will be all in all. Jesus’ own parable tells us that of those drawn to Him there will be some who never recognized Him, yet never-the-less served Him by serving others. This suggests that our response to a world of many faiths is not to force orthodox conformity on others, but to encourage signs of love and compassion for all, especially toward the lean, the lost, the lonely, and the unloved.

As Christians, we acknowledge the Kingship of Christ in several ways; first, as witnesses. We can speak of the truth as we have received it, but more important, by living into the truth as we know it. Isn’t this what James encouraged us to do. In a dark world we are called to be the light of Christ in our own generation.

The second way we acknowledge the Kingship of Christ flows directly from this. We are called to be servants – feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, extending hospitality to strangers, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned. There are as many ways to serve as need, pain, and brokenness are manifested in this world.
Another way we live into the Kingship of Christ is by partnering with people of other faith traditions as they seek to be servants also. In a global world so closely interconnected it is more important than ever that the Ecumenical Faith Community find tangible ways to bind us together in one human family working to meet the needs and challenges of the entire human family. Jesus did not say in today’s parable that when the Son of Man comes He will reward those people of faith who zealously protected their creedal turf. He will reward those who showed compassion to others.

Here is one final way we honor the Kingship of Christ: by seeking Christ in the traditions of faiths outside of Christianity. Does that sound odd to you? It shouldn’t. Episcopalians hold that the bible “contains all things necessary for salvation.” What does this mean? It means just what it says. If you want to be saved then everything you need to know about that can be found in the scriptures. Here is what it does not say… that EVERYTHING there is to know about God and God’s will is found in the bible and no where else. We can learn something of God’s reign of love from the thoughts and actions of non-Christian groups and faiths.

Here, at the end of the Church year, we prepare again to start anew next Sunday as we enter into Advent. We stand a year wiser and a year closer to God’s dream for the world and God’s desire for St. Paul’s Church. We launch into this new beginning as witnesses, as servants, as partners, and as seekers – as people who desire to be faithful so that one day Christ may fill all in all of us.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The "And Still, and Still" Campaign

We are closing in on the conclusion of another Church Year – just one more Sunday to go. On Friday, I sat at my desk looking out the window as gusty winds created a cascading blizzard of red and gold leaves. It evoked in me a feeling we sang about in this morning’s Processional Hymn:

Signs of endings all around us –
Darkness, death, and winter days –
Shroud our lives in fear and sadness,
Numbing mouths that long to praise.

For several weeks now I have felt it in my bones: a need to finish up things, especially outdoor projects. It is, I suspect, that ancient stirring to hunker down for a long, cold, dark, winter. I find myself thinking about what I still need to get done while there is still time to do it.

Today’s Gospel reading encourages us to explore this very question. As the Church year draws to a close, the reading invites us to take stock of all God has given to us and to make a reckoning of what we have done with it. It is a question you might ponder at length as you rake leaves or take a walk around the neighborhood. Think back to last Advent and recount all that has come your way. What has God given to you in the past year? What has life done to you? Where did the road take a surprising turn? Where did it take an unwanted detour? And through it all, how did you handle it, what have you done, and what have you accomplished?

The Parable of the Talents is one we know. Three people receive varying amounts of wealth to steward while the owner is away. Each is asked to give an accounting upon the owner’s return. Two have doubled what was entrusted to them. One did nothing and is subject to harsh judgment.

Jorge Luis Borges was one of the literary giants of the past century. One of his more ambitious works was to come up with a translation of the Gospel dealing not so much with the actual text, but more with its meaning. Let me read for you a part of what he crafted from today’s parable. He begins by saying an Infinite Voice spoke to him these words:

Stars, bread, libraries of East and West,
Playing cards, chessboards, galleries, skylights, cellars,
A human body to walk with on the earth,
Fingernails, growing at nighttime and in death,
Shadows forgetting, mirrors busily multiplying,
Cascades in music, gentlest of all shapes,
Borders of Brazil, Uruguay, horses and mornings,
A broze weight, a copy of Grettir Saga,
Algebra and fire, the charge of Junín in your blood,
Days more crowded than Balzac, scent of honeysuckle,
Love and the imminence of love and intolerable remembering,
Dreams like buried treasure, generous luck,
And memory itself, where a glance can make men dizzy –
All this was given to you and with it
The ancient nourishment of heroes –
Treachery, defeat, humiliation.
In Vain have oceans been squandered on you, in vain
The sun, wonderfully seen through Whitman’s eyes.
You have used up the years and they have used up you,
And still, and still, you have not written the poem.

You don’t have to be a poet to appreciate what Borges is getting at. I used to think that there were some people who were super talented and others who where very talented and then there were folk like me with one talent, but that is not how I see it anymore. Now I realize that each of us has some super talents – the things for which we are exceptional. Each of us has some good talents – the things in life we do pretty well. And each of us has buried talents – the things we can do, but don’t… for what ever reason. It is these buried talents that connect us to Borges’ “and still, and still, you have not written the poem.”

From where I stand in this pulpit I can see a very talented group of people; people who have put their talents to use. St. Paul’s membership has a lot of educators. Since last Advent, our teachers have graduated one group of students and taken on another. Our lawyers have adjudicated legal matters. Our administrators have handled diverse tasks. Our retirees have volunteered their time. At home we have made our meals, washed our clothes, and cared for the yard. Children have been wakened and driven and tucked into bed. Here at church we have sung and read and served in countless ways. From where I stand I can see your talents on full display. There is not a person here who has not earned a “well done, good and faithful servant.”

But I know life and I know myself and I know that I am pretty much like every one of you. And this is what I know about myself and thus suspect about you: I have buried some of my talents. Beyond the movement that is required for me to go from one day to the next, week in and week out, over the course of months, there are things that I could do – should do – might do – that I don’t. I’m not talking about mundane things, like dropping some change in the Salvation Army bucket (although that is important) nor am I talking about not losing as much weight over the summer as I had hoped (and that is important too). I am talking about buried talent; those gifts given to me, those opportunities at hand, those things that can change my life or enrich the lives of others “and still, and still” I do not do them.

Why do we bury our talents? It has always puzzled me that the servant in Jesus’ parable buried his out of fear. He was afraid of the master and did not want to lose what had been entrusted to him. Now, I suppose there are a few of us who might be so afraid of God that we would forgo using the gifts God has given to us rather than mess up things, but in my experience that is not what inhibits most of us.

The master calls the servant “wicked and lazy.” I bury some of my talents because I am too selfish to share them and others because I am too lazy to use them. Some talents stay buried because I am too busy to bring them out. But more than anything, I think my talents stay buried because of a failure of imagination. I just don’t see them as gifts nor do I recognize how they might bring life to me and to others. The routine of the daily round becomes all I know and anything beyond it remains buried in the ground.

As we come to the end of the Church Year, we are invited to consider what we sang:

Can it be that from our endings,
New beginnings you create?
Life from death, and from our rendings,
Realms of wholeness generate?
Take our fears, then, Lord,
And turn them into hopes for life anew.

Who here this morning doesn’t hope, doesn’t thirst, for life anew? The startling message of today’s Gospel reading is that the life for which you long has already been given to you, but you buried it in the ground.

St. Paul’s is wrapping up its yearly Pledge Drive (and I am very thankful for your generosity). A lot of work goes into making sure each one of you responds to our request. Now I am wondering if we shouldn’t have a “Buried Talent” Campaign where each member of the parish has to write on a slip of paper one thing that you have always wanted to try or to do, but have never launched out. Or maybe it would be something you used to do all the time, but some how lost or let go. Perhaps it would be just an inkling, a stirring in you, that suggests life would be very different if you just… just what?

Let’s call it “The ‘And still, and still…’ Campaign.” Spend some time in thought and prayer. Maybe something comes to you right away. Maybe it is something you need to ponder for a while. When your buried treasure comes to you, send me a note telling me what it is and pledging to get it out of the ground and get it going.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Thin Places

Celtic Christianity flourished in Ireland, Scotland, and certain parts of England from the fifth through the twelfth centuries. Much of our Western focus in Christian thinking has centered around the theological and administrative heritage we have received through the church in Rome, but over the course of the last several decades interest in Celtic history and spirituality has increased greatly.

Of particular interest to us on All Saints’ Sunday is the Celtic understanding of time. They believed that time was sacred and precious and they disregarded our sense of time as having a chronological order where one historical event follows another. For Celts, the preset contains within itself past events, which continue to live on, as well as the seeds of future events waiting to be born.

Without clear demarcations between past, present, and future, Celtic Christians interpreted history differently than we do. For instance, they made contemporaries of those who, historically speaking, never could have been together at the same place and time. In one early legend, the Celtic saints Brigit and Ita are portrayed as midwives to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Another legend describes Brigit and Patrick as being intimate friends, when in fact they never met. These details did not matter to the Celts because they believed that Brigit and Ita would have helped Mary had they been there and that Brigit and Patrick would have been friends had they been together at any particular chronological moment in time.

The early Celts also believed in what they called “thin places” – geographical locations scattered throughout the British Isles where a person can experience only a thin divide between past, present, and future times. In one legend, Maedoc climbs a golden ladder which reached from earth to heaven. Upon his return Maedoc tells a student who witnessed all of this that a friend had died and he went to meet him heaven to pay his respects.

While the Celtic legends may not be “historical,” they certainly give voice to a longing and a hope and an intuitive sense that we all have: namely, that which divides the living and the dead is very thin indeed. Many of us sense that we remain connected with our loved ones who have gone on before us. That connection, though mysterious and unexplainable, is unmistakable none the less. Celtic thought, which is woven into the tradition we have received from the Church, gives us permission to explore this relationship with a kind of freedom and imagination that articulates what we believe and what we sense.

I believe that heaven is a glorious place. It is a place where there is no pain, neither sighing, but life everlasting. It is a place of perfect freedom and perfect relationships where no one misuses their freedom in a way that dishonors God, demeans the image of God in us, or hurts another person. All of this is part of the biblical witness for the life to come.

But I believe more than this, specifically that those who are in heaven can choose to be with those of us who still walk this earth. Now, I do not believe that they are with us every minute of the day, just as no two people in life exist together without ever being apart. I believe that they join us at certain times for their own enjoyment and at other times at our request.

Who amongst us has not felt the presence of a long-lost loved one at a family baptism, wedding, or thanksgiving dinner table? A heaven where that is not possible would be no heaven at all! The living and the dead are not divided by distance, but by existence and that divide is a thin one indeed.

We might want to say that All Saints’ Day is a “thin day” – a day when the past and future do not seem to be quite as removed from the present. By remembering our loved ones we look backward to what has been. Through the act of baptism we look forward to what might be. Both past and future are with us in this present moment in a way that is powerful and clear.

And as we gather to worship and to celebrate the Great Thanksgiving, we come to a “thin moment;” the Lord’s Table being the thinnest place of all. This is the moment when the living and dead join their voices in glorious chorus:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.

Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

The Sanctus is for me a thin moment. I close my eyes and feel myself lifted to that place beyond time and space where all persons, those before my day, those of my day, and those after my day, are present with Christ and are united in His one true sacrifice.

One professor of mine called it “Liturgical Time.” In liturgical time we can say that God brought us through the waters of the Red Sea. In liturgical time we can answer, “Yes, I was there when they crucified my Lord.” In liturgical time, the bread and the wine that we offer to God are united with the Body and Blood of Jesus and they become one in the same. And in liturgical time, the divide between the living and the dead is no divide at all. Liturgical time is not chronological time, but I know by faith that it exists and that it is real.

As I stand at the Altar and say or sing the Sanctus with my eyes closed, I visualize in my mind the angels and the archangels and all the hosts of heaven who are gathered with us. And I intentionally invite those people I have loved but see no longer to be with me, to be with us. Today my prayer is that you will sense the presence of those you love and miss. They are not far from us. I invite you to search for thin places and thin moments when you can be with them.

In closing, I ask you to turn to the Catechism on page 862 of the Book of Common Prayer. I would like to rehearse with you in its final three questions and answers:

Q. What is the communion of saints?
A. The communion of saints is the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise.

Q. What do we mean by everlasting life?
A. By everlasting life, we mean a new existence, in which we are united with all the people of God, in the joy of fully knowing and loving God and each other.

Q. What, then, is our assurance as Christians?
A. Our assurance as Christians is that nothing, not even death shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Situational Forces & Inner Voices

After weeks of gospel readings where authorities ask questions of Jesus to trap or trick him, today Jesus finally has had enough. Speaking to his followers, Jesus says of the scribes and the Pharisees that they do not practice what they teach; they do not live the standards to which they expect others to adhere. It is a rant reminiscent of our own dissatisfaction with today’s political and economic leaders, who also seem to have a knack for making life more and more difficult for us while making their own lives more and more cushy.

Only two Pharisees are named in the Gospels - Nicodemus (the person who approached Jesus under cover of night and landed in a conversation about being born again) and Joseph of Arimathea (who buried Jesus’ body in his own tomb). No scribe is named. Jesus places into his stories characters from both backgrounds and always in a poor light. From all of this we might take that these two orders and occupations were inhabited with anonymous men who, while perhaps being good and godly individuals, fell under the influence of a corrupt and (at times) evil system. To use today’s language, they were influenced by the culture of the organization; a culture that took even the good and influenced them for ill.

We have always known that this kind of thing happens, but it wasn’t until 1963 a study demonstrated how profoundly human behavior is influenced by environmental factors. That is when researcher Stanley Milgram devised a series of experiments to test how ordinary people can be influenced by authority figures.

His best known experiment asked a volunteer to administer electrical shocks as a penalty that another person – the victim - received for giving wrong answers. The volunteer believed the study was about memory and learning, but all the others involved were there to test the volunteer. When “wrong answers” were given, a clinician in a white coat instructed the volunteer to deliver an electrical shock to the victim. While the victim was not really shocked, never-the-less he acted as if he was in increasing pain. Milgram discovered that, at the direction of an authority figure, two-thirds of the volunteers were willing to dole out painful shocks even when the victim screamed out and begged for the experiment to stop. It was stunning to see how ordinary people could be transformed into sadistic tortures simply by placing them in a situation where they felt such behavior was demanded of them by the person in charge.

When I hear today’s Gospel reading it is so tempting simply to condemn the Pharisees and the scribes; to think if it weren’t for those guys or the politicians or the bankers or the bishops or any of the other bogymen running things so poorly, then life would be rosy for all of us. No doubt there are some really bad people walking in the halls of power, but lets take a step back and acknowledge that the halls themselves are part of the problem. Just as Lord Acton famously observed about absolute power corrupting absolutely, we need to admit that all human behavior – including our own - is much more influenced by situational forces than most of us recognize or want to acknowledge. Yes, who we want to be is an important factor in determining how we will act, but so too is the kind of situation in which we find ourselves. We all know this is true. We know that there are jokes we will tell over beers with a buddy that we won’t tell in the Parish Hall after the service.

And if you think the outside world, with its conflicting demands and opportunities plays havoc on us, think about the chaos that is our inner world. A psychologist named Roberto Assagioli summed it up pretty well this way:

As persons, “we are not unified. We often feel we are because we do not have many bodies and many limbs, and because one hand doesn’t usually hit the other. But, metaphorically, that is exactly what does happen within us. Several sub-personalities are continually scuffling: impulses, desires, principles, aspirations are engaged in an unceasing struggle.”

Rita Carter, in her book Multiplicity, adds this:

“Personalities, or selves, do not come one to a person, but are created by that person in as many forms and as great and small a number as is required. Multiplicity of mind is not some stranger aberration but the natural state of a human being.”

So, within each of us there may be a stern parent, a playful child, a fearful worrier, an adventurer, a bad-boy or girl, a thoughtful saint, a willful sinner, and host of other personalities that all weigh in from time to time. A few dominate our interior conversation, while others play a minor role, only occasionally having a moment in the sun. Somehow we order all these different personalities to engage a wide variety of situations in a way that is coherent, producing a characteristic way of seeing, thinking, feeling, and behaving know as ‘me’ and known as ‘you.’

So this is what I hear Jesus saying in today’s reading: the culture and climate around the occupations of scribe and Pharisee brought out the worst aspects of the personalities of the people in those positions. And I might add, it would do the same to me or to you if that were our station in life.

I said earlier that only two Pharisees were named in the gospels. The Book of Acts gives us two more names. One is Gamaliel who was a highly respected leader. The other is Paul, who initially hunted down Christians for imprisonment, torture, and execution. His life was famously changed on the road to Damascus when the Risen Christ spoke to him from a blinding, heavenly light. You know how Paul went from there to become the great missionary Apostle of the Early Church, founding faith communities around the northeastern Mediterranean region.

Listen again to the reading we heard this morning from a letter Paul wrote to one of those churches and as you listen, hold in mind how Paul the Christian Pharisee differs from the description Jesus offers of typical scribes and Pharisees:

“You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was towards you believers. As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you should lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”

The pre-Christian Paul would have slide easily into the way Jesus characterized the Pharisees, but not the Christian Paul. He still found himself in positions of power and authority but he operated in a manner different from the Pharisees. He still had the same competing personalities seeking to dominate his behavior, but the old ways were gone. It might sound corny or cliché to say that he got Jesus in his life, but that is exactly what happened. His inner dialogue, with its competing voices and ideas, received a new Voice to direct the discussion. And that Voice carried Paul into all those previously corrupting situations and enabled him to stand up to a culture that before held claim on him.

Through baptism we are asked if we will turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as our Lord. I find it very helpful to think of this vow using the image of Jesus as the Voice that directs the inner conversation of my various selves and each self, while having a place is the discussion, ultimately yields to the will of Christ, who is Lord of all. Well, it doesn’t always happen like that, but it should. And it is the Voice of Christ that guides my inner world as I make my way through the various changes and chances of the outer world. It is this Voice that helps me to act in situations and cultural climates in a way that is consistent with the teachings of Christ. And, guess what, it doesn’t always happen that way, but it can more and more.

Jesus said that his followers have him as a teacher and as instructor. At some level Christianity is about the simple decision of giving Jesus control of your life. It is about allowing his voice to be the Voice which directs the discussion of our inner life in such a way that our actions in the outer life are consistent with the covenant we make with God beginning at Baptism.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Spiritual Weightlifting or the Quiet Inner Light

I am a channel surfer, and what guy isn’t! Commercials signal me that it is time to check the score of the other game, catch a glimpse of the modern marvel that is the world’s biggest bubble gum manufacturer, or take in a two minute scene from The Godfather. There are only a few commercials that can hold my attention. I used to love “Does a former drill sergeant make a terrible therapist,” but it is no longer being aired. My current favorite is “Apparently, riding the dog like it is a horse is frowned upon in this establishment.”

Another commercial that always takes me into its world is the one where a bystander observes someone do something thoughtful for another person; something like holding the door for a blind person. That bystander, moved and motivated by what she has witnessed, is somehow changed and becomes more attuned to the people around her. She then does something small, but thoughtful for a stranger. This act is observed by another bystander who is affected by seeing it, and the process repeats itself again and again and again.

I like that commercial because it builds on the belief that beneath all that is dark and dreary and damaged in this world a fundamental goodness holds sway. Listen to this insight in John O’Donohue’s book, To Bless the Space between Us:

There is a kindness that dwells deep down in the structure of things; it presides everywhere, often in places we least expect. The world can be harsh and negative, but if we remain generous and patient, kindness inevitably reveals itself. Something deep in the human soul seems to depend on the presence of kindness; something instinctive in us expects it, and once we sense it we are able to trust and open ourselves.

I hear O’Donohue’s words as being a faint echo of Jesus’ thundering proclamation that the greatest commandment is to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself; one implication, one manifestation of how we live into God’s highest intention for all God’s human creation.

As I meditated on today’s Gospel reading began to see how I have always imagined the idea of loving God with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my mind, and (as Luke records it) with all my strength as being something akin to spiritual weightlifting; in other words, if I can bench press 200 spiritual pounds today, then tomorrow I should try to press 205. The day after that I need to go for 210. The process is never ending because the ultimate goal of perfect love toward God and neighbor can never be achieved. All - as in all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength - all is a very daunting word, isn’t it. It suggests that observing this command involves effort and rigor and determination and dedication and... failure.

I began to wonder what if fulfilling the command to love involves not trying harder and harder, but rather letting go and listening and allowing yourself to be carried away in God’s goodness that undergirds all things?

O’Donohue begins his book by writing this:

There is a quiet light that shines in every heart. It draws no attention to itself, though it is always secretly there. It is what illuminates our minds to see beauty, our desire to seek possibility, and our hearts to love life. Without this subtle quickening our days would be empty and wearisome, and no horizon would ever awaken longing. Our passion for life is quietly sustained from somewhere in us that is wedded to the energy and excitement of life. This shy inner light is what enables us to recognize our very presence here as blessing.

Something in his words resonates with me and it hints that loving God heart, soul, mind, and strength has more to do with the shy, inner light than it does with spiritual weightlifting. If the creation is God’s work, and if God called it good, and if God is omnipresent (found in all times, all places, and all things), then being attentive to our quiet, inner light - that part of our heart which allows us to connect with the richness of life - is at the heart of what it means to love God. It suggests that reveling in the beauty of a gorgeous fall day is an act of loving God more significant than something like, say, memorizing the books of the bible in order.

And it suggests that loving our neighbor as ourselves is not so much an act of effort on our part, but something more akin to becoming open to the possibilities for kindness that exist all around us. In a passage reminiscent of how Paul describes the gift of love, O’Donohue writes about the nature of kindness:

[It] has gracious eyes; it is not small-minded or competitive; it wants nothing back for itself. Kindness strikes a resonance with the depths of your own heart; it also suggests that your vulnerability, though somehow exposed, is not taken advantage of; rather, it has become an occasion for dignity and empathy. Kindness casts a different light, an evening light that has the depth of color and patience to illuminate what is complex and rich in difference.

As that commercial suggests, kindness begets kindness and the blessing we offer to another has a way of returning back to us as blessing.

We use the word ‘kind’ to signify two different things. It can mean “doing good rather than harm” or it can mean “a class, sort, or variety,” as in “my kind of people.” It is closely related to the word “kin” and “kindness” itself is derived from the word “kinship.” To be kind is to see another as kin and to show kindness is to treat a person like family. When Jesus commands us to love our neighbor he is asking us to do more than to be kind to our kind. He is, as O’Donohue puts it, directing us to “illuminate what is complex and rich in difference.”

Those of us who have been able to stop by St. Paul’s on Monday evenings in October have been deeply affected by the ministry of our Food Pantry and the various distributions of shoes, sweaters, and coats of the past few weeks. It is the clients themselves who have touched us with their joy, their gratitude, and their words of kindness. “Bless you” is perhaps the most common phrase uttered in the Parish Hall from 5:00 to 6:30 on Monday nights.

It would be a mistake to think of these give always as being simple acts of charity. They are far more complex than doing a good deed or ‘helping our fellow man.’ There is something richer and deeper at work; something that taps into God’s intention for life. The kindness goes both ways. Blessings offered become blessings extended. No one is lifting 205 spiritual pounds, rather we are tapping into something that exists beyond us and yet is all around us. We are discovering anew, if even in a small and limited way, God’s love which permeates all things.

During the week clergy friends will often post on facebook thoughts and questions about the upcoming readings. “Is anyone else having trouble figuring out how to preach these lessons” is not uncommon. This week a priest responded to such an inquiry by saying he was going to preach how the gospel directs us to love our enemies. I believe this is a legitimate implication of the greatest commandment, but it struck me as awfully daunting weight to press. Let’s start somewhere else. Let’s start with the belief that there is something inside us, something O’Donohue describes as a quiet inner light, that always responds to something God is doing in this world. It responds to beauty, to desire, and to possibility. It offers kindness and blessing. Nurture that light and you will be well on your way to living into love for God and love for your neighbor.

Monday, October 17, 2011


“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” Even those of us with a nominal working knowledge of the Bible recognize this saying of Jesus. But while the expression is widely known the context is not. Jesus was not approached by a group of local pastors and asked to give a quote or two for Stewardship Sunday. His enemies were plotting to bring Him down. Their efforts began with a rumor campaign, extended to trick questions, broadened to legal entrapment, and found their culmination in the lies that led to the Crucifixion.

In today’s lesson two groups come together to trap Jesus. The Pharisees were religious leaders who set out rule after rule for those who desired to live a holy life. The Herodians, a less familiar group to us, supported the kingship of Herod as the best means for Israel to maintain security and wellbeing. Both groups were highly invested in the status quo, either of the church or of the government, and each felt Jesus was a threat to its best interests.

So together they come up with a question: is it lawful for a good Jew to pay taxes to the emperor? This is no theological exercise for them. They are not interested in resolving a spiritual dilemma that keeps them awake at night. Plain and simple they frame a question that gives Jesus no easy way out. If he says that it is permissible to pay taxes then the devout Jews, led by the Pharisees, will be up in arms. If he says that the faithful should refuse to pay taxes then the Herodians will have all the ammunition they need to arrest Him for insurrection. It is important that we think about Jesus’ response in light of this context.

That Jesus has to ask for someone to produce a coin hints at how poor he was… that he did not have any money on his person. “Whose face is on the coin?” he asks. “The emperor’s,” they respond. “Well, give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor and to God the things that belong to God.” It is an answer that does two things. First, it gets Jesus off the hot seat and, second, it places the burden of interpretation squarely in the laps of the listeners.

And more than being a clever answer that extricates him from the trap, Jesus speaks to the heart of all Christian stewardship. He offers no detailed, strict set of rules and regulations to follow, as the Pharisees so often did. He simply says that each one of us will have to find our own way to resolve the inherent tension between being residents of this world and citizens of the next. Each of us will have to make our own way in the challenge that is meeting our tax burden, paying bills, putting food on the table, saving for the future, and contributing to God’s work in the world. No one can or should make this decision for us. It is ours and ours alone to make.

At its heart, Christian stewardship is about the desire to be in relationship with God. When a small child draws a picture and then gives it to a grandparent that child is expressing a desire to be in relationship with the recipient of the gift. In a very real sense the gift is an offering… given out of a sense of joy, love, and thanksgiving for all that the grandparent means to the child. Often the meaning of that relationship is beyond words, so the offering becomes a tangible expression of what the relationship means to the child. What we offer to God holds the same meaning. It is a tangible expression of our desire to be in relationship with God… an offering that often says more than we are able to put into words.

We might also acknowledge that the child’s drawing for the grandparent expresses a desire to be a part of the family; to be in relationship with all who are a part of the valued social unit. In the same way what we offer to God often connects us to those who make an offering similar to ours. Our common act of giving is a part of what binds us together as a community of faith.

The first recorded act of offering is found in the fourth chapter of Genesis. Cain, a farmer, brings an offering of grain to God while his brother Able, a herdsman, brings an offering from his flock. The narrative describes Cain’s offering as being “some of the grain” from his field while Able’s is described as being “the fattest portions of the firstborn of the flock.” Perhaps you remember how the narrative goes. God looks with favor on what Able offers, but not on what Cain gives. Cain offers some of what he has (and possibly this portion comes after all his other needs and obligations have been met) while Able offers from the first and the best.

Imagine two children, one who puts a great deal of time, effort, and creativity into making a card for grandma, and the other who at the last minute scratches out a note so as not to be empty-handed. Grandma will receive both cards with joy, but will know in her heart whose offering means more. She will know that both children want to be in relationship with her, but for one it is a high priority while for the other it is an obligation. One child makes an offering that is truly representative of all she is because it is the best she has to offer. The other child has not offered much of herself and, frankly, will expect grandma to make more of the card than it is really worth.

There are many ways that we can make an offering to God. Money is one of them. It is not the amount of money that you give that matters, it is the meaning behind it. Remember how Jesus pointed out the widow who gave a small coin, saying that she had put more into the offering than everyone else had. Here at St. Paul’s stewardship means much more than giving money to support an operating budget, although in practical terms that is one of the things our collective stewardship does. But stewardship is also about serving in the Food Pantry, teaching a class, singing in the choir, bringing a dish to a common meal, tending to the property and buildings, participating in the liturgy with vigor, and on and on and on.

Each of us must figure out for ourselves how we want to be in relationship with God. Each of us must determine what we will offer to God to signify our desire. We will have to ponder how we want our offering to connect us with others. And, perhaps most important, we will have to decide the degree to which our offerings will reflect our best efforts.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Defiant Individualism & Biking with Dan

Once more Jesus spoke to the people in parables, saying:

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen”
- Matthew 22:1-14

In the summer on 1990, back when I was young and in decent shape, I led a youth group of thirty-five teenagers on a week-long bicycle ride. We covered 110 miles the first two days, staying in churches at night. We spent the third day at Cedar Point, one of the best amusement parks in the world. From there we took a ferry across Lake Erie to Canada and spent the remainder of the trip riding to Niagara Falls. All in all, we bicycled over 350 miles! That was no small accomplishment and twenty-one years later I think I am still a little sore.

Let me tell you about Dan, a teenager I did not know when he became a last-minute addition to the trip. From the very beginning of the first day of riding it was obvious he was going to be a challenge. He was always testing the rules, always flirting with the boundaries, always pushing others’ emotional buttons. Incidents began to mount. Things like riding on the wrong side of the road, getting ahead of the group, and bumping tires with the bike in front of him. The final straw came at the amusement park. Dan failed to show up at our meeting location when the park closed. It was ten at night and we had a ferry to catch at 7:30 the next morning. The group searched and it waited. We knew only two things: Dan had told his friends that he had no intention of leaving at closing time and he had met some girls who were staying overnight at a local motel.

At 11:00, the other adult supervisors drove the group back to the church where we were spending the night. I stayed behind, continued to look for Dan, and went to the security headquarters. They radioed every checkpoint in the park, but there was no sign of him anywhere. At 12:30 one of the adults drove back to the park to get me. Keep in mind that in 1990 there were no cell phones so we searched for a payphone, found one near the church, and called Dan’s parents. It was 1:15 in the morning. I had hoped that maybe Dan had gotten lost, didn’t know how to find us, and had called home. No such luck. Dan’s parents were no so much concerned about their son’s safety as they were intent on defending him. They assured me that whatever had happened was not his fault. It occurred to me then that this kind of thing must have happened before. I told them I would call again when I knew something more. The teenagers and other adult leaders were very worried.

At 2:00 I went back to the park to see if security had found Dan. They had. He “claimed” that he had been waiting on a park bench no more than a hundred yards from where the group met at 10:00. Somehow, he never saw us, nor we him. “What are you going to do,” he asked me? “I don’t know,” I said. “I think you are going to have to go home.” “You don’t believe me,” he protested. “I swear I am not lying.” “It is not whether I believe you or not that is important,” I responded. “What matters is I don’t think I am able to be responsible for your safety.”

By the time I called Dan’s parents to let them know he was alright it was 3:00 AM. They too wanted to know what I was going to do. By then it was clear to me – Dan needed to go home. His parents begged me to change my mind. I thought of the 34 other teenagers on the trip who had been left with two adults while I and another leader were out all night searching. I told the parents, “Be here at 7:00 before the ferry leaves for Canada.” I didn’t sleep at all that night.

A four-hour boat trip followed by fifty miles of biking gave the rest of the group plenty of time to digest what had happened. Most were angry at Dan, some at me. A few felt he should have been given another chance. We had an open and honest discussion about the situation that night. After listening for some time, I challenged the teenagers with these words:

“Think about where we are. We are in a tiny church in another country. We are hundreds of miles from our homes. Think of the fun we have had so far; the challenges; the rewards. Think about our goal to ride to Niagara Falls. Could any of you have done this on your own? Would you have the resources? The strength? Would your parents have let you go on your own?

Each of us is here only because we came as a group. We could not have done this without each other. That means if you want to ride faster and farther than the rest of the group, you can’t. It means that if we haven’t reached our destination and you want to quit, you can’t. You can’t pull over and eat lunch whenever you want because we have to do it as a group. You must sacrifice what you want for the good of everyone else. Dan was not able to do this. He wanted to take the trip on his own terms and we all suffered for it.

On our own none of us is capable of accomplishing what we can do together.”

Today’s gospel reading of the parable about the poor man who did not wear the wedding garment always reminds me of Dan. The gentleman in Jesus’ story responded to a last minute wedding invitation, but did so on his own terms. He came to the wedding feast but, for whatever reason, would not put on the customary clothing required for the event. At a gut level I want to feel sorry for the guy. Doesn’t it seem a bit unreasonable for the king to expect anyone invited on short notice to be properly attired? Yet everyone else who made hastily arrangements found a way to wear the appropriate garment. If they could do it, so could he. It would seem that his act was deliberate and defiant.

I believe one of the most important steps in our spiritual lives is a move from a “me-orientation” to an “us-orientation.” It is an important step in one’s family life, in one’s professional life, in one’s civic life, and in one’s religious life. The simple truth is that on our own we can only go so far, but working together we can accomplish much more than would be possible for an individual. If you are going to have a healthy marriage, happy family, sustained job, make contributions in the community where you live and in the church where you worship, you are going to have to do two things. First, you have to discover what you can contribute to a common good and second, you must discern which of your personal desires and aspirations will need to be laid aside.

The man without the garment is judged rather harshly for his defiant individualism. He is cast out of the wedding celebration where the community has gathered. For Dan, the judgment was much the same. But beyond the shame and humiliation of being sent home, I believe the greatest punishment he experienced was being cut off from his friends, missing out on the rest of the trip, and not experiencing the joy of achieving our goals. And it was all so unnecessary. Thirty-four other teenagers managed to fit in even though not everything was to their individual liking. Dan could not do this and ultimately his punishment, just like the man in the parable, was self-inflicted.

The same judgment is there for anyone who presses on others a defiant sense of individualism; be it in a family, a neighborhood, our community, or a church. Such persons limit the world, their existence, and their spirit, to their own finite vision of life; never once thinking they could find something greater if they just looked beyond themselves. Martin Luther talked about sin as being “incurvatus in se” – a state of being turned in one’s self to such a degree that the no one else matters. In the final analysis, unwillingness to let go of self in order to join with others blocks a person’s path to fuller life in God’s kingdom.

In this parable, Jesus Christ calls for each of us to put on the garment of his selfless humility and to join with a community of faithful believers in order to experience the richness and joy of God’s kingdom on earth. How are you going to respond to this invitation? What of yourself do you need to lay aside in order to accept it?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Living in a Way that does not Make Sense

Today we hear the last of Jesus’ “vineyard parables.” The vineyard was a common Old Testament metaphor used to describe the people of Israel, so it is not surprising that Jesus drew on this imagery. If you recall, two weeks ago we heard the parable of the workers called to the vineyard at various hours of the day who all get paid the same amount, regardless of the time they spent laboring. Last Sunday we heard the parable of the father who directs each of his two sons to work in the family vineyard. One refuses, but later changes his mind. The other agrees, but then does nothing. And today we hear the parable of the tenants’ revolt against the absentee landowner.

All three parables share some common themes that are worth noting:

• First, each proclaims there is a God. It may seem like an obvious point, but it is foundational and should not be overlooked.

• Equally as obvious, but still important, is the shared notion that the Owner – God – owns the vineyard.

• The next common premise is that Owner holds a rightful claim on the people associated with the vineyard. We see allusions of this claim in the relationship of an employer who hires workers, a father who has sons, and a landowner who rents out his property.

• Another common theme is that something is always going wrong in the vineyard: workers complain, sons misbehave, tenants revolt. These are good stories in that they always have a dramatic tension – a point of conflict – which renders them true to our experience of life. Far from being a tranquil, pastoral setting, the vineyard of life is a challenging place where things often unfold in ways that are troubling; and in the vineyard stories that trouble is of our own making.

• And finally, just as fairy tales always seem to end with “and they lived happily ever after,” each of these stories shares a common ending. It is surprising, even startling - jarring to some, hopeful to others, and it always seems to turn the world upside down on itself.

So the vineyard parables share these common story elements, but each is also distinctive. Today’s parable is the only one where the landowner places others in charge while he leaves the region. As the story unfolds the tenants decide to assert their authority by rising up and rebelling against the claim the landowner has over them. In short, they want to act as if there is no landowner, as if they are the ones in charge.

This week marked the birthday of Martin Heidegger, the German-born philosopher who died in 1976. He has been described as a nearly unreadable author, a racist and a bigot who never fully disavowed his support of Nazism, and one of the most important thinkers of the 21st century. Now how is that for a résumé!

Heidegger wrote a great deal about nihilism; the philosophical belief that our modern life lacks a shared meaning and direction. Those who write about nihilism point to society’s desire not to be under any authority beyond the individual, to have nothing and no one able to make a claim on us, and no commitments required of us. It is precisely what the tenants in Jesus’ parable were after.

A professor named Hubert Dreyfus sums up our times by pointing out that “the things that once evoked commitment – gods, heroes…, the acts of great statesmen, the words of great thinkers – have lost their authority.” He is saying that, like the tenants who shed the rightful claim of the landowner, our society has dispensed with any such notion of an objective norm or value or moral good that exists beyond ourselves.

In our Old Testament reading we heard the story of the Ten Commandments. Given by God as objective realities beyond human existence and human approval – to be received as something as unalterable as, say, the law of gravity – we now take them (if we take them at all) as being a helpful resource; an ingredient we tenants may want to mix into the stew of meaning we cook up for ourselves – if we even feel like taking the time to think through what a personal sense of meaning might look like.

To Heidegger’s way of thinking, life in an ownerless vineyard has some serious consequences. We become isolated in our existence, alienated from one another, and suffocated in a life devoid of meaning. Dreyfus puts it this way:

“When there are no shared examples of greatness that focus public concerns and elicit social commitment, people become spectators of fads and public lives, just for the excitement. When there are no religious practices that call forth sacrifice, terror, and awe, people consume everything from drugs to meditation practices to give themselves some kind of peak experience. The peak experience takes the place of what was once a relation to something outside the self that defined the real and was therefore holy.”

To the degree that I understand Heidegger I am intrigued by his thinking regarding how technology fosters nihilism. In a nutshell, he says that we have reduced creation to efficiency and adaptability, with little or no thought to its intended, greater purpose. He says that we have see the environment as being “a gigantic gasoline station, an energy source for modern technology and industry.” Most of us also see nature as something spiritual, particularly when, for example, we are moved by a beautiful sunset. But for us, both endeavors – industry and inspiration - share the common understanding that creation exists solely for our benefit and use.

Think of where we are today in relation to those basic premises of the vineyard parables.

• First, there is a God who exists independently of us. Today, haven’t we shifted this to say God exists for us; that it is God’s job to meet our needs?

• The second premise: God owns the vineyard. Today, we see creation as God’s gift to us that we can use any way we see fit. Its resources are ours. Its beauty is for us. The only analogy I can think comparable is what it would be like for a person to tour the White House and then decide to move in and take over the place as if was his. Isn’t that is what we have done to the vineyard?

• Next premise: God has a rightful claim on us. Today I think we have reversed this; believing we are the ones who have a claim on God. God is there to fix our problems, cure our ills, and bless our wars. Did anyone come this morning looking forward to hearing what God demands of you?

• Another common theme: something is always going wrong in the vineyard. Not only have we tenants risen up and rejected the Owner, but the end result is not at all what we wanted. Being free to do what has left us feeling lost, lonely, and confused. Nihilism – to use that fancy word –suffocates to the human spirit.

And then there is the parable’s ending, the startling surprise. Let me suggest that you are to be the surprise. Cardinal Celestin Suhard, who served as Archbishop of Paris in the 1940’s, famously said, “to be a witness [is to be] a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.” And while the world wants to live like there is no God, just as the tenants wanted to live as if there was no owner, we are the opposite - people who, in the absence of the vineyard Owner live in such a way that makes sense only because there is a vineyard Owner. We live in such a way that our lives are a mystery in a nihilistic world. We adhere to a meaning and direction from beyond us. We accept Jesus as our Lord and seek to live out his word and example; forgiving when forgiveness is a challenge, giving generously even when we have very little to offer, extending hospitality to all – especially to those people on the margins of society, picking up our cross and daily dying to self.

In a world that has either dispensed itself of God – or perhaps just tamed God to suit its own purposes – our lives should not make sense at all. But our witness does make sense because there is a God who owns the vineyard and has a rightful claim on each one of us.