Saturday, January 3, 2009

December 21, 2008Advent 4 Year B (RCL)

Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year B

Luke 1:26-38

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Here we are. It’s the Fourth Sunday in Advent already. Time flies in Advent—it’s not your imagination. Except for Christmas, it’s the shortest season in the church calendar. And, we’re shopping and baking and wrapping, and trying to carve out some time to prepare the way of the Lord, to welcome the Christ child, and to make room--a “mansion,” the collect says--to make room in our hearts and souls for the Christ who will return in glory. It’s a tall order for sure.
And today, finally, after some of the uncomfortable readings of the past few Sundays—the warning to keep awake, the voice crying out in the wilderness—today we hear a Gospel lesson we all know and love. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know Luke’s account of the coming of the baby Jesus. I heard it at home, and acted out some part of it every year in Sunday school. You don’t even have to ever have gone to church to know Luke’s account. You’ve seen pictures of it in museums and you’ve seen it on Christmas cards. If you’ve seen the Christmas story on television, odds are you saw Luke’s version of it. That’s the version that’s used in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
So it’s easy to think we can sit back and relax today. After all, we know this story. At least we think we do. But the trouble is, when we hear a story that we’ve heard before, it’s easy to stop listening to it when we hear it again. I know I’ve caught my mind wandering when I listen to a reading I think I know really well. I don’t think I really need to pay attention. It’s easy to let this happen with today’s lesson from Luke.
The other problem with this lesson can be the tendency to get so fixated on the part about Jesus’ conception that the rest of it just slides by us. Some say that Luke’s account of how Jesus is conceived is absolutely true exactly as written. They might want to say, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” On the other hand, there’s a whole other group of folks who totally dismiss this part of the story. “It’s never happened that way yet,” they say. As you might guess, both of these approaches don’t get close to the heart of the matter here, and end up just dividing people.
So, we need to find another way into our passage from Luke. We need to find a way that will help us hear what God is saying to us. So, let’s look at our reading a little more closely.
Let’s think for a moment about just who it is that the angel Gabriel visits. Mary is a very young woman, maybe in her mid-teens. In her world, even more than in ours, her youth and gender didn’t give her status. In fact, the exact opposite was true. It’s notable that Luke doesn’t name Mary’s parents or say anything about them. Apparently Mary’s family connections aren’t worth mentioning. The Mary we’re meeting today isn’t the richly dressed woman you’ve seen in Renaissance paintings. The Mary we’re meeting today isn’t Mary the queen of heaven. Not yet, anyway. All we know about Mary is that she’s from Nazareth, a very insignificant town indeed. When Nazareth deserves a mention in John’s Gospel, it’s in the form of the question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” If you think of Durham’s struggle for respect among the cities of the Triangle, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what it meant to be from Nazareth.
Luke also doesn’t tell us anything about Mary’s personal qualities. He doesn’t say that Mary was particularly good or kind, and he doesn’t say that she was outstanding in any way. Her status as a virgin says more about her youth than her virtuousness. Nevertheless, it was Mary whom the angel of the Lord came to visit. It was Mary, a nobody from nowhere, whom the angel Gabriel came to tell that in due time she would become the mother of the Son of the Most High.
Though Mary’s status is soon to change, at the moment she receives the angel’s visit she is nobody from nowhere in the world’s eyes. But if we look at other figures in the Bible, we’ll see that it’s nothing new for God to choose an apparently insignificant person for an important role in salvation history. David is mentioned in our Old Testament lesson today. David started out his career as a lowly shepherd. In First Samuel, God chooses David to be king instead of David’s more impressive older brothers. At the time David is chosen, Samuel says, “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Apparently God saw something in David and in Mary that wasn’t obvious to most of the world.
What is special about Mary is that she’s willing to do what God asks of her. This willingness is no small thing. Mary could well have said, “Thanks anyway, but I have other plans for my life. I’m engaged to Joseph. Why don’t you ask somebody else?” Mary could have said no, but she didn’t. Instead, Mary made the faithful soul’s response to God’s call: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
So Mary, the girl who’s no one in particular from a place no one thinks much of, agrees to be the mother of the Son of the Most High. She puts her own life plans at risk to obey God’s call. Matthew’s account tells us that when Joseph learns that Mary is expecting a child by the Holy Spirit, his first idea is to “dismiss her quietly,” though he doesn’t actually do so. We can only speculate what the reactions of the other members of Mary’s community might have been.
Mary is indeed the model of faithful obedience to God. In the eyes of the world what she does is pretty crazy. This is a strange story indeed. But wait—we haven’t gotten to the really amazing part yet.
Just what is God up to? It’s odd enough that God has asked a humble girl to have God’s child. It’s odd enough that this girl, Mary, said yes. What’s really astounding here, though, is that God has chosen to be humble. God certainly doesn’t have to, but God has chosen to take on flesh, to experience life as we know it, not only with its joys but with all its poverty, pain, and sorrow as well. God has chosen to take on life with all its limitations, even the ultimate limitation that is death.
God has chosen to enter this world as a baby. In first century Palestine, there could hardly have been anyone more humble than a baby. At that time, the birth of a baby would have been greeted with somewhat more reserve than we celebrate births today. Before modern medicine, infancy was a perilous time and the mortality rate was high, as it still is in some places. And God entered the world as a very poor infant indeed. There wasn’t anything charming about being born in a stable with animals. It would be as undesirable as being born in a bus station bathroom would be today.
There we have it: Jesus was born homeless. It’s a truth so uncomfortable that it often gets glossed over. I remember feeling shocked when I heard the Reverend Jesse Jackson refer to Jesus as homeless baby many years ago. Jesus’s birth wasn’t the end of his homelessness. He conducted much of his ministry as a homeless person. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says, “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
So what, then, does Jesus’ homelessness mean for us on this Fourth Sunday of Advent? In a few short days it will be Christmas, and we will welcome the Christ child whether we are ready or not. Christmas will come whether or not our shopping and baking are done. The real question is, have we made room in our hearts? It’s not easy for you and me to make room. We live in the most affluent society the world has ever known, and most of us here today share in that affluence to some extent. Our busyness and our possessions tend to fill up our hearts and minds. But just outside our door live people whom prosperity has passed by. Our neighbors are pitied and even despised by those who don’t share in their poverty. But our neighbors may be more ready and more able and more willing to receive Jesus than we are. They may well have more room in their hearts than we do. It’s hard for us, in our culture that promotes self-sufficiency, to acknowledge our need for God.
The archbishop and martyr Oscar Romero said the following:
“No one can celebrate
a genuine Christmas
without being truly poor.
The self-sufficient, the proud,
those who, because they have
everything, look down on others,
those who have no need
even of God—for them there
will be no Christmas.
Only the poor, the hungry,
those who need someone
to come on their behalf
will have that someone.
That someone is God,
Emmanuel. God-with-us.
Without poverty of spirit
there can be no abundance of God.”
If anyone experienced the abundance of God, surely it was Mary. My prayer for all of us here today is that you and I may make room in our hearts for Jesus, so that like Mary, we are able to make our answer to God’s call to us, “Here am I, a servant of the Lord.” Amen.

Christ the King Sunday Year A (RCL)

Christ the King
November 23, 2008

Matthew 25: 31-46

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Maybe you’ve been wondering just what it is that I do as a deacon. In church, as you may have seen, I read the gospel, make the call to confession, set the altar for communion, and dismiss the congregation at the end of the service. Outside of the church I have a ministry to the poor and homeless As part of my ministry, on most Tuesdays and Thursdays I conduct intake interviews at Urban Ministries’ food pantry and clothing closet. The purpose of these interviews is to determine eligibility for services. Everyone who comes and puts his or her name on the sign-up sheet is eligible to receive clothing. Eligibility for food is somewhat more complicated. A person must have children in the home, be over age 62, or be disabled. The person must be able to document custody of children, their own age, or official disability status. The system works, if somewhat imperfectly. Usually the truly needy get served. But I have a feeling that some hungry folks go away empty handed. Sometimes I’ll let the documentation go until next time if my gut tells me that the person is telling the truth but just doesn’t have the necessary paperwork. I find making these judgment calls unsettling at times. I feel like I’m in a position of more power than I’d like. I feel uneasy separating the sheep from the goats, in a manner of speaking.
Separating the sheep from the goats isn’t our job, if we heed today’s Gospel lesson. Separating the sheep from the goats is God’s job. And however much doing the separating may make me uneasy at the food pantry, if I’m being honest I have to admit that I fall into doing just that quite often. I certainly found myself doing it during the period leading up to the presidential election, and maybe you did, too. There’s something about dividing people into categories, such as liberal or conservative, so-called real Americans or suspect urban-dwellers, residents of red states or blue states—that can be deceptively satisfying. It’s seductive to think that we can organize the world into categories, and it’s seductive to think that we can make sure we’re on the right side of the divisions that we may deny making but that we secretly cherish.
What we learn in today’s parable from Matthew is that judging our sisters and brothers won’t get us to heaven. The righteous and the unrighteous alike in our reading ask the question, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” The righteous and the unrighteous are alike in that neither of them is able to discern who is an ordinary poor person and who is their savior. The righteous and the unrighteous differ, though, in their actions. The righteous, that is, those who will inherit the kingdom prepared for them at the foundation of the world, those righteous folk don’t even try to discern who is who when they are helping those in need. Those who are righteous respond to people in need regardless of who that person is or whether they “deserve” to be helped.
In sharp contrast to the righteous, those who are accursed are sent to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. What’s implied in our parable is that if the unrighteous had only known that it was their lord and savior who appeared needy before them, they would have extended a helping hand. But they didn’t. We can imagine that the unrighteous in our parable were in the business of passing judgments on those who asked for help. The unrighteous took it upon themselves to sit in God’s place and to separate the deserving from the undeserving, to separate the sheep from the goats.
But it’s so tempting to try to separate the sheep and the goats of our world, the so-called deserving and undeserving of help. The intention is completely laudable given the assumptions of conventional wisdom. Our usual assumption is that resources are scarce—there is only so much food, so much money, so much time, and maybe even so much love—to go around. Given this assumption it only makes sense to try to conserve resources so that those who truly need them get them. This kind of thinking has shaped the procedures at Urban Ministries’ food pantry, and while the procedures are slowly being revisited, the assumptions behind them can be hard to give up.
Sara Miles encountered this kind of thinking when she set up a food pantry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Sara was a new Christian. She’d been raised with no religious tradition and came to St. Gregory’s in middle age. She tells her story in her book called Take this Bread. Sara was struck to her core by the radical welcome she felt at the Eucharist. When she came to the altar she received the bread and the wine, the body and blood of Christ, without question or qualification. While none of the worshippers “deserved” communion, they still received it every week. Sara Miles wanted to extend that same welcome and hospitality at the food pantry, which she set up around the altar at St. Gregory’s. There would be no intake forms at St. Gregory’s food pantry, no assessment of need or worthiness to receive service. Sara embarked on her project filled with the Spirit and filled with enthusiasm. She expected that others would feel as she did.
Sara Miles had a great surprise in store for her. Though she eventually got the pantry going, she was told that at a parish staff meeting, the first reactions ranged from “over my dead body” to “when hell freezes over.” She was warned by the food pantry director at the San Francisco Food Bank that “very few people trust poor people enough to just give away food without conditions.” Still, Sara Miles persisted in her vision of a food pantry where all were welcome and all were served. A street-wise volunteer warned her that her system of no questions and no accounting resulted in double-dipping by some patrons. She protested, saying “[Jesus said] ‘feed my sheep.’ He didn’t say, ‘Feed my sheep after you check their ID.” Still, there were others who supported her. A former food pantry patron turned volunteer told her, “ I don’t care if we give food to folks who don’t look needy. I didn’t always look like I needed help either.”
Sara continued to meet resistance as her food pantry became established and began to have more patrons than it could handle. Some church members complained that the food pantry patrons dirtied their sanctuary and littered the church grounds with cigarette butts. Other church members insisted that the pantry didn’t make any sense because the needs would never be filled. Some church members protested against the food pantry on the grounds that its patrons might be dangerous. Early on, though, Sara Miles understood that sense, in the meaning of “common sense” or conventional wisdom didn’t apply in this situation. Right around the time she started the food pantry, Sara was baptized. She observed that by being baptized she was doing something that on the face of it didn’t make much sense either. Sara said that in some ways it was crazy. After all, in her own words, she said she was “signing up … for a religion with a tortured man at its center.”
A religion with a tortured man at its center. For us, God took on human form and suffered death on a cross, scorned and mocked as the “king of the Jews.” Today is the last Sunday after Pentecost, also called Christ the King Sunday. Today is a day when we feel the contrast between the royal imagery we’ve learned to associate with Christ and the imagery of the Jesus who talked of sheep and goats, the Jesus who was the unlikely king who reigned from a tree. Two thousand years after Jesus’ death on the cross, in our churches made of stone where worshippers sit in polished wood pews and our clergy wear expensive vestments, our vision of Christ tends to be of the “Crown him with many crowns” and “Jesus shall reign where e’er the sun” variety. It’s hard to envision the Jesus whose feet got dirty. It’s hard to imagine that Jesus didn’t always know exactly where his next meal was coming from. For us today it’s all but unthinkable that Jesus was greeted with jeers and stones and worse in some of the places he went during his ministry. Of course, if Jesus showed up here at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church on West Main Street in Durham, we would welcome him. Of course we would. Or would we?
I hope we would. I think we would welcome Jesus here at St. Joseph’s. We do our best to welcome the homeless, the hungry, and the lost in our neighborhood. We don’t ask too many questions as we offer a meal, as we offer a place to sleep that’s at least slightly shielded from the elements, and as we offer an encouraging word. In the eyes of most of the world, our practice doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Our homeless neighbors may well be homeless because of bad choices they’ve made as well as bad luck. But we don’t minister with our homeless neighbors because it makes sense. We don’t minister with our homeless neighbors because we’re any more virtuous than other people in our neighborhood. We don’t minister to our homeless neighbors because we’ve judged them to be worthy of our help. We minister with our homeless neighbors because Jesus has told us that by feeding the least of his family when they are hungry, clothing them when they are naked, and visiting them when they are in prison, we are feeding and clothing and visiting him, too. We’re not to judge. We’re not to assume that we can figure out who’s worthy and who’s not, that we can figure out who’s a sheep and who’s a goat. Things aren’t necessarily what they seem. Remember, we’re baptized into a religion that has a tortured man at its center. Christ is an odd sort of king indeed. And what did he tell us? “Feed my sheep.” So we just feed them, and we don’t bother checking ID. Amen.

September 14, 2008 Proper 19 Year A (RCL)

Proper 19, Year A, RCL
Matthew 18:21-35

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It’s easy to forget when you live in the Triangle area, but we live in a state that’s sometimes referred to as the buckle of the Bible belt. In this part of Durham, it might seem that brunch trumps church as a Sunday morning activity. We’re reminded of our location, though, when we get out on the interstate and see the cars with various and assorted religious bumper stickers. “My God is an awesome God,” proclaims one. Another popular bumper sticker says “Honk if you love Jesus.” I don’t know how you feel about this one, but if I hear someone honk while I’m driving, the idea that they love Jesus isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. As a former New Yorker I associate a honking horn with the message, “Hurry up, stupid, before the light changes again.”
The bumper sticker that I find most intriguing says, “Christians aren’t perfect—they’re just forgiven.” I kind of like this one, though I think I’d like to amend it to say, “We’re all not perfect, but we’re all forgiven.” Exactly why I’d like to make that change is a topic for a whole other sermon. What I’d like to talk about today is that we’ve all received God’s free gift of forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is ours. We may accept it, or we may reject it; the choice is for you and me to make. God’s forgiveness is a done deal, from God’s point of view, at least. The question for us is what do we do with that forgiveness. This question is at the heart of our Gospel lesson for today.
Peter asks Jesus a seemingly simple question: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” How many times should I forgive, Peter wants to know. Seven? More than seven? It’s a question we ourselves might ask. Those of us who have to deal with difficult people in our lives—and that’s all of us—have asked ourselves that question seemingly endlessly. How many? Asking “how many” means that we’re counting, wondering what the magic number is that means we have done enough and can go back to being mad.
Jesus’ answer puts Peter’s question into another perspective altogether: “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” If you’re thinking that seventy-seven times means that you just have to keep on forgiving forever, that’s exactly the point that Jesus is making here. What he’s doing is telling Peter to forget about counting, to forget about keeping track. If we’re counting how many times we’ve forgiven, we’ve actually not forgiven at all. Counting means we’re just waiting until we can say we’ve had enough and can exact whatever penalty we’ve been planning all along. What Jesus is telling us when he says seventy-seven times rather than seven is that calculation has no place in forgiveness.
After this exchange between Peter and Jesus, Jesus tells the disciples a parable. Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. The first slave in the parable owed the king ten thousand talents. How much, exactly, was ten thousand talents? A talent was the largest monetary unit in Jesus’ time, and one talent was equal to the amount a manual laborer would earn in fifteen years. Ten thousand talents was an impossibly large number to owe. The annual tax income for all of Herod the Great’s territories was 900 talents per year. There is no possible way for this slave to ever be able to repay ten thousand talents, so the slave begs for compassion. The king forgives the slave’s debt and lets him go.
No sooner is the slave released from his debt to the king than he demands that a fellow slave pay him back the hundred denarii that this slave owes him. A hundred denarii wasn’t a trifling amount of money—it was equal to about 100 days’ wages for an ordinary laborer. But a hundred denarii was a trivial sum compared to ten thousand talents. The slave who had been forgiven his enormous debt wasn’t willing to extend the same forgiveness to his fellow slave that the king had extended to him.
In the parable, the consequence for the first slave’s failure to forgive is that the king withdraws his own forgiveness. Instead of being freed, the first slave is sentenced to torture. As Matthew tells the story, Jesus seems to be saying that those who fail to forgive others as God has forgiven them will suffer a similar fate.
Now this sort of judgment may seem harsh to you. It certainly seems harsh to me. At this time we might want to remember something about the divine inspiration of scripture. I’m not questioning that scripture is divinely inspired. The vows I made at ordination involved affirming that the Holy Scripture is indeed the word of God. But unfortunately divine inspiration doesn’t mean that the word of God came directly from God’s mouth to our ears or to the printed page. The mediator of God’s word, the person who wrote down the Gospel of Matthew, was a human being much like you or me. He was earnest and he was reverent, and he was probably something of a scholar in his time, but the man we know as Matthew was human and fallible. Because he was human and fallible he couldn’t resist adding a bit of Matthew to the story Jesus told. Matthew allegorized this parable. This means that he intended us to understand “king” to mean God and “slave” to mean human. In this understanding of the parable, God is as harsh as an earthly king might be.
I’m going to suggest a somewhat different reading of this text. From my own study of the scripture and from studying the best commentaries I can find, I don’t think that God withdraws God’s gifts. The God I know, love, and worship doesn’t act vindictively; my experience of God is that God’s way of operating in the world is through love, not wrath. Our tradition tells us that God is ultimately merciful. When we recite the Nicene Creed we say, “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven.” For us, not against us. God came down from heaven incarnate in Jesus for us and for our salvation, not to straighten us out. In the Prayer of Humble Access in Rite One, we affirm that God is “the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.”
What I’m going to suggest to you this morning is that God won’t stop forgiving you and me if we fail to forgive our brothers and sisters. Not at all. But, and this is a major but, if our hearts are so hard that we fail to forgive, God may just as well have not forgiven us for all the difference it makes to us. If our hearts and minds aren’t in a state where we can forgive others, neither will we be able to appreciate and experience the forgiveness that God has freely offered to us.
If we don’t forgive those who’ve wronged us or those who we feel owe us something, we might think we’re hurting them. We might feel that we’re giving them what they deserve. But if that’s what we’re doing, we deceive ourselves. Forgive seventy-seven times, Jesus tells us; get out of the accounting business. And by not forgiving, we’re ultimately hurting ourselves as much or maybe more than the one we won’t forgive. I love Anne Lamott’s words on this subject. She has said that not forgiving is like eating rat poison oneself and waiting for the rat to die. Not forgiving is worse than a pointless exercise. It hurts the other, it hurts us, and worst of all, not forgiving closes our hearts and minds to the possibility of God’s forgiveness.
But what if I’ve really been wronged? What if someone owes me a huge debt? That debt, by the way, may be monetary or it may not. When we say that something is the least someone could do for us, we feel like we’re owed something every bit as real as money and maybe even more important. Forgiveness isn’t easy, and it’s important to remember that forgiveness doesn’t mean we give someone the chance to wrong us again. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we pretend the wrong never happened. Forgiveness isn’t easy—this can’t be said too many times—and it might even seem downright unreasonable in certain circumstances.
What may help with the difficult or even seemingly impossible task of forgiving is remembering that we don’t have to do it alone. Our collect for today begins with the words, “O God, because without you we are not able to please you…” Also, do you remember what response we make to the things that are asked of us when we make and when we renew our Baptismal covenant? The answer we make is, “We will, with God’s help.” With God’s help. We don’t have to do it alone. God knows it’s not easy for us to forgive. God knows that we can’t do it alone, and God doesn’t expect us to. At times forgiveness requires a miracle, and where there is a miracle, there is God.
When I began to look at our lessons for today I was struck by the lessons that were chosen. It’s easy to connect the Epistle for today to the Gospel, but what about the Old Testament lesson? What could the parting of the waters of the Red Sea possibly have to do with forgiveness? I see a couple of connections. The first is that God was constantly with the Israelites in their journey; the Israelites were never alone at any point. Neither are we in our attempts to do anything. We are certainly not alone in our efforts to forgive.
The other connection between the Gospel lesson and the Old Testament lesson today is that the parting of the waters in Exodus is one of the great miracles that God works in the Bible. Forgiveness is another great miracle, and if you’ve ever struggled to forgive, and most of us have struggled mightily, you know what a great miracle reaching a place of forgiveness can be. Notice that in the Exodus story Moses stretched out his hand, but it was God who actually parted the waters. There is human and divine cooperation here. So too with forgiveness. We make the attempt to forgive and God makes the forgiveness possible. By God’s parting of the waters God liberated the Israelites from Pharoah’s oppression. By God’s making it possible for us to forgive, God liberates us from the tyranny of our own hardened hearts. Amen.