Monday, September 29, 2008

"And while he was still at a distance..."

For years, I have read and loved the Parable of the Prodigal Son. You can't help but love it. I have always been moved by the moment when the Father sees the Son and runs out to meet him. When Jesus was on the earth men did not run, it was considered inappropriate for an adult male to run unless absolutely necessary. So the context and the drama of the story are weighted on that reunion.

Today, I walked home for lunch, and Peter was playing the front yard with Momma Bear. He had just picked up a little branch, and was carrying it back to the house when his mother pointed down the street. "Look! It's Daddy!"

"And while I was still at a distance," the son took off running to meet the father...and it almost undid me. When a little boy of 2.75 years starts running toward you in that herky-jerky, still kind of a toddler way, giggling, smiling, waving the triumphant branch...wow. There is no way you can feel worthy of the excitement in a little boy's eyes. It is a look that will convict you of every past misdeed, every trace of sin, every bad word you ever uttered, every impure thought you've ever entertained.

So when we met up I said, "I have sinned against heaven and before you, and am no longer worthy to be called your father." And the son embraced the father, and the father embraced the son. And we walked home together.

We're having a fatted calf for dinner tonight. Would you like to join us? It's going to be a party.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Proper 21A. 28 September 2008.

         

          As you may have realized, each Sunday we've been reading a portion of Matthew's Gospel.  One of the blessings of the lectionary is that it gives us a very methodical way of reading through the Bible, but the downside is that we lose some of the coherence of the text. 

 

          You know when you're reading the newspaper and the story is continued on another page and you flip to the page, but don't pay much attention, and you go from reading about the Justice Department to why they had to shut down the swimming hole and you don't even notice the jump?  Maybe it only happens to me, but I sometimes lose things that way, and since news stories sound alike, you might be reading a couple paragraphs before you realize, "Wait a minute, this is another story. We've moved on."

 

          Well, the same thing can happen when you're reading down the lectionary.  Last Sunday we were reading Matthew 20:1-16, and then today we begin reading at Matthew 21: 23, which means we skipped over something.  Actually we skipped over quite a lot.  We skipped over the last half of chapter 20, and the first 22 verses of chapter 21. 

 

          Now, I like to count my change, so I went to see what the lectionary writers skipped.  They skipped the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, you know, the story we read on Palm Sunday, just before the Procession. 

          And they skipped the famous scene of Jesus Cleansing the Temple. You remember when Jesus fashions a whip of cords and drives the money changers out of the Temple—the words ringing in our ears "My house shall be a house of prayer, and you have made it a den of thieves."

 

          And then comes the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree.  You remember when Jesus is hungry and he goes over to a fig tree, and there's nothing on the fig tree but leaves, and Jesus curses the tree and it withers before their eyes.  The story is meant to be a metaphor for the destruction that will come to Jerusalem.  There are some really good stories we skipped over.  Stories that give context to where we are in the flow of Matthew's narrative. 

 

          So let me just tell you where we are.  We are reading the Final Week in Jerusalem.  It's the week before the Crucifixion.  From today until Advent we'll be reading stories from Matthew's Gospel about what took place during that last week.

 

          That's very important to remember, because the whole tone of Matthew's Gospel has shifted.  We're no longer out in the wilderness, walking though the villages, and wading in the pools, and listening to Sunday school stories.  We've entered Jerusalem, and today, we've entered the Temple. 

 

          So walk into that Temple with me.  You'll have to use your imagination, because the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD by the Roman Empire.  We've managed to climb the stairs.  You can see the colonnades on all sides. 

          You might feel a bit warm from the sun on your back, but now we've walked through the Great Gate.  You can feel the damp chill of the stone structure.  It's kind of intimidating at first, isn't it?   Feel free to put on a sweater if the chill gets to you.  We're standing where the money changers had their tables.  Over there you can see the pigeon cages where they sell pigeons for sacrifices. 

 

          I'm sorry, did you ask a question?  Oh, the smell?  That's incense…yeah, and the smell of the animal sacrifices.  You'll get used to it in a minute.

 

          Okay, shall we just step over here for a minute?  This is likely the place where Jesus taught.  And my guess is that there was probably some nostalgia to it.  You remember when he was a boy, he left his parents and came here to debate with the elders?  So, this wasn't his first time here, but my guess is that he was feeling some trepidation when he walked in here as an adult.  I mean, he's not just talking with the elders as a precocious little boy anymore.  He's all grown up.  He's got a following.  He's actually being watched very carefully by the authorities, both in the Roman government and by the Temple watchdogs. 

  

          So Jesus is teaching, and the chief priests and the elders of the people come over to him, and they ask, "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?"  It's a very learned question, isn't it?  It's not a direct assault on what Jesus is teaching.  In fact, the question is just shy of a much simpler one, which might be, "Who gave you permission to speak here?"  I mean, that's pretty innocuous really.  It's like asking to see a permit. 

 

          Jesus responds, "I'll tell you what.  You answer my question, and I'll answer yours.  When John was baptizing people—was that an act of God or just a wacky guy in the wilderness?"  See, they knew that John was highly regarded, and that the people there would be very upset if they said anything bad about John.  So they say, "We don't know."  And Jesus then responds, "So, if you can't answer my question, I'm not going to answer yours."

 

          And then, Jesus rather audaciously tells them a story.  Now, see, telling stories was meant to be the job of the rabbi or the chief priest.  You don't say to an elder, "Let me teach you something about life…" It comes across as disrespectful.  Jesus is not behaving like a nice young man here.

 

          He says, "What do you think?  A man had two sons.  He told them both to go work in the vineyard.  The first one said, "I won't go," but later he changed his mind and went.  The second said, "I'll go work," but he didn't go.  Which one of them did what his father asked?  The chief priests replied, "The one who changed his mind and went." 

          And Jesus replied, "Guess what, guess what…the prostitutes and the tax collectors are going to heaven ahead of you, because, you see, they listened to John and repented, but you didn't." 

 

          You wonder what it was like for the people who saw this.  The disciples were probably there, even though they're not mentioned.  I'm guessing some people were just there, and maybe others had followed Jesus into the Temple.  We have no idea what kind of crowd we're talking about here, but it's enough to arouse the curiosity and anger of the chief priests.  And Jesus has just told them that they've missed the boat on what God is doing in their midst.  That theme will be repeated, as a I've said, in the coming weeks.  Until Advent, each week, we're going to be reading these stories of Jesus butting heads with the authorities.  The tension will be mounting.

 

          Can you feel the tension in the air?  It's not just the chill of the stones, it's real tension.  Remember, we're not out in the wilderness where it's nice and safe—we're in the Temple itself, the focal point of the Hebrew faith, the place where God and humanity are meant to intersect, and where authority and power and pecking order are all very, very important.

 

          The Temple is not just a couple of rooms.  It is somewhat elaborate.  See over there?  That's the Women's Court.  You ladies would never have been allowed to set foot inside the actual Temple.  We came in through Nicanor Gate to the Court of the Israelites.  My guess is that we're standing in the Court of the Israelites, right on the border of the Court of the Priests. 

          Beyond that you can see the Altar and slaughter house, and then up into the Temple proper where the twelve tables sit, the Altar of incense, and if you strain your eyes, you can almost make out the veil that covers the Holy of Holies.[1]

         

          The Temple is an amazing place, isn't it?  You look around and it seems like there is a place for everything.  A chamber for oil, a place for the Nazarites, a chamber for wood, a chamber for the lepers to present themselves.  You've got the water gate, the kindling gate, the rinsing chamber.  Lots of significance, lots of people. 

 

          The first Temple, Solomon's Temple, was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar around 597 BC, and then it was rebuilt by the people who returned from the Babylonian exile in 516 BC.  The temple was renovated and expanded by Herod around 1 BC. 

 

          There's an interesting juxtaposition here.  You see, here's this great big Temple, a monument to the faith of the Hebrew people.  And here is this one man, Jesus.  Despite the fact that we're surrounded by this massive, beautiful temple where you would think everyone would be gentle and sweet to each other, Jesus is going to be fussing with devout people about what real worship and real faith means.  

 

         

 

          It's very dramatic when you think about it.  Look at this place!  It's gorgeous.  You would think that just the very nature of the structure would shake off any of Jesus' words.  You would think that people would listen more to the temple functionaries than to Jesus.  You would think that Jesus might just keep a civil tongue in his mouth, and not tell all these parables about how the Pharisees just don't understand God.

 

          On top of everything, he really believes—he'll say it himself later on chapter 24—that this beautiful, holy place is going to be torn down, and that no stone will be left on top of the other.  Can you imagine that?

 

          I mean, this is the Temple.  The Temple!  And here is this one man, Jesus.  Now, let's be honest.  Which one is where God and humanity intersect?  The Temple?  Or Jesus?  Which one is the place where the presence of God brings life, and hope, and salvation?  Which one do the people cry out for?  Which one fulfills the prophecy of God's favor and goodness, and brings healing and hope for all the nations of the world? 

 

          The Temple?  Or Jesus? 


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Scheduling fun, continued

A couple weeks ago I gave a posting about scheduling fun.  It was about the need to put fun stuff on one's calendar along with responsibilities.  The Rev. Mrs. MacPhail saw my calendar recently.  I had scheduled "Eat an apple" for Monday the 15th at 3:00pm.  She saw that entry and said, "What is this about?"  I said, "It's a fun event...you know, just for fun."  She said, "If that's your idea of fun, we need to talk." 
 
I have been looking more critically at my calendar, and I came to a minor epiphany.  I realized that virtually every event I have scheduled is fun in some way or another.  Church is fun.  Regional meeting is fun; clergy text study group is a kick and half; even the little stuff has a measure of fun involved, even changing the furnace filter.
 
So, I'm not going to retract my posting, but rather clarify that the calendar is not a weary grid of boxes.  It is actually a chart by which we might see the mystery of God's life with us unfolding and spilling out in gatherings, celebrations, and sometimes simple routine maintenance.  In all these things God shows his love for us.  Even in Vestry meetings?  Well...  Let's just say more often than not.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

It isn't easy to just be

and do nothing.  I have this notion that eventually I'll be comfortable again sitting quietly.
 
When I was in college, and before, I was much more comfortable sitting quietly, and meditating on the goodness of God.  I used to go sit in Wildwood Park in Bridgewater and stare into the North River, or up along the banks.  Occaionsionally the river would giggle when a fish came up for a passing fly.  The trees would wave gently in the breeze.  I'm not trying to be poetic, but was absolutely ideal.
 
I could stay out there, just silently meditating, breathing deeper and deeper, for literally hours at a time.  It was a guilty pleasure, even though there was nothing to it but time and space and God.  I look back on it knowing that I was falling more and more deeply in love with God, and it was an emotional time--like two young people going off to find a cozy place to be alone. 
 
I keep thinking of going back to that, but there is never a moment that feels right.  I am married, with children, with parish duties, sermons to be written, people to telephone.  I am surrounded by the most beautiful scenery, a gorgeous view from my own home, and yet, I can't bring myself to meditate anymore.  It probably sounds silly, but I feel like it would be cheating on my other responsibilities.  Anyone else feel like that?
 
And I console myself by thinking, this is now, this is not forever.  One day the children will be able to entertain themselves, and I will probably miss their constant needs. There will be time for sneaking off to find God in the trees, and holding hands, and being alone, and breathing deeper and deeper.  This is not forever.  This is now.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Proper 20A. 21 September 2008.

    

          Eventually, and it really won't be long, but eventually, Peter first, and then Maggie, will begin to notice the little differences between the ways they are treated.  Karin and I will probably take great pains to make sure that they're meals are proportioned evenly, that they both get roughly the same kinds of treats for their respective interests.  But see all of this is new to me, because I grew up as an only child.  And by the way, it was wonderful.  I highly recommend it.  If you get a chance to go back, being an only child is the only way to go. 

 

          But this whole new world of who gets what and how much, and then the arguments and the noise and the doors slamming…  It's probably going to push me over the edge.  One day, Karin will find me hiding in the attic like a frightened squirrel.  I'll be quivering in the corner under a piece of insulation with a flashlight, reading Psalm 23.  I'm scared of it.  I'll be honest.  I have no frame of reference here.  Sibling stuff scares me, because I didn't have to fight anyone growing up. There was no question about fairness. (Pause.)

         

          I'm going to ask you to imagine something.  Imagine that your best friend, Bill, asks you to come over to his house, and he says, "Tell you what, I need help to haul away some of my yard waste.  Can you give me a hand?  We'll use my truck.  It shouldn't take us more than a couple hours, and at the end of it, the pizza and beer is on me." 

          So you start to work, and before long you've got a blister going.  The truck fills up quickly.  You've been down to the landfill and back a couple times, and the little job that was supposed to take "just a couple hours," is going to take a second shift after lunch. 

 

          Finally, it's the end of the day, and you're tired.  You took some Advil at lunch, but your back still hurts.  Somehow you got poison ivy on your leg.  You're just about to get into the truck for the last haul of the day, and one of Bill's friends, Larry, has shown up.  Larry says, "Let me give you a hand with the last load," and off you go. 

 

          So the job is now done.  You're all seated at the kitchen table, hats are off, you're wiping the sweat off your faces with paper towels, and Larry looks like he has just showered.  He is asking you how your day went.  And then the pizza and beer comes out.  And Larry gets just as much of it as you do, as you sit around the table with him and Bill.

         

          And the whole time you're thinking, Larry didn't do that much.  I didn't see Larry out there when we were getting stuck by those old rose bushes.  Larry was no where to be found when we were sitting under the carport eating soggy Cold Cut trios and drinking warm Coca-Cola from a two liter bottle.  Larry was probably sitting in the air conditioning, watching TV while I was putting calamine lotion on my leg.  And here he is: fresh as a Georgia peach, laughing, eating the same number of pizza slices, and drinking the same amount of beer as Bill and I am.  It's not fair.  It's just not fair. 

         

          You think maybe later on Bill will pull you aside and say, "Come on back here tomorrow, I've got something special for you for all your hard work."  But he doesn't do it.  It's just pizza and beer.  That's what he said, and that's what you got.  But it really doesn't feel right, because Larry gets the same deal, and he wasn't at it from the beginning.

 

          It doesn't feel right for the same reasons we talked about last week.  Remember that little voice in your head that talks about justice?  Well, he's back, and he's saying to you, "It's not fair, because it's not equal pay for equal work."

 

          That's the same feeling we get about this Gospel lesson about landowner and the vineyard workers.  Except there is a little more suspense to this story, because the context of the parable is the workplace, so money is involved.  And whenever money is involved, things get more interesting.

 

          The landowner picks up some day laborers early in the morning, then mid-morning, then noon, then afternoon, then late in the day.  The laborers are out working in the field, sweat pouring off their necks, hands getting worn by the rough vines, and every once in awhile they look up and see the boss driving his still shiny two-year-old GMC truck through the gates with another load of men hanging off the back.

 

          The men in the field are thinking, well, it's nice to get some help, but they're not going to get paid the same.  We've been out here since 7 o'clock.  Nothing but a bucket and a ladle for water.  No lunch. 

          The new men work their way into the vines.  The men who had been there awhile show them the ropes.  "Don't trim it back too far."  "Keep your knife at an angle.  You could lose a thumb if you go too fast." 

 

          And they talk about pay. 

          "What did he say you'd get paid when you started at 7 this morning." 

          "Oh, he told us he'd pay us the usual daily wage; what did he tell you you'd get?"

          "He said he'd pay us `whatever is right'"

          "Well, what do you think that means?"

          "I don't know, but if you've been working since 7, and that guy since noon, and me since 5, I can't imagine we're getting the same thing.  It wouldn't be right.

          "No, it wouldn't be right."

          "And he said that he'd pay whatever is right, so I'm guessing you'll get a hundred bucks, and he'll get around fifty, and I'll get about twenty, maybe twenty-five."

         

          So the day winds down.  Everyone's tired.  And the landowner calls over to the manager, "Call the men, and give them their pay beginning with the last and going to the first." 

 

  

          Now, we know Jesus too well to think that there won't be a surprise here.  We've heard other parables.  The moral of the story will show us that God's ways are so much better, so much fairer, than ours.  That is…until he concludes this parable.  Because he makes us watch as the first workers get paid exactly the same amount.  They talk amongst themselves:

 

          "Did you see that?  The men from five o'clock got the same thing the men from three o'clock were given." 

          "Well, now, hold on there.  That's just a two hour difference.  Let's see what the noon guys will be given."       

          "They're getting the same thing!" 

         

          And finally the line gets down to the early morning guys.  And they just about come unglued when they get exactly what everyone else received. 

 

          They say to the landowner, "These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us.  We've been out there under the scorching hot sun, cutting our fingers on vines, back pain from our necks all the way down to our ankles, and this is the thanks we get?"  And the landowner replies, "Didn't you agree to the usual daily wage?  Well, that's what you got."  (Pause.) And then Jesus says, "So the last will be first, and the first will be last."  If you're one of those guys who has been working since o'dark-hundred, you don't care about first and last, you just feel cheated. 

 

          If you don't like this text, you're in good company.  Mark, Luke and John didn't put this in their Gospels.  I wonder if that was deliberate, or if they had never heard this parable.

          The story is frustrating, because it's told from the perspective of the longest serving workers.  It would be totally different, if the same pay was given, but the longest serving received their pay first, and then we came down the row.  Something about the longest men getting paid first, and heading back to their families, allows us to write them off.  And as the line goes down to the least serving, it would seem like a rosy little parable about Grace.  Oh, how gracious God is that the ones who worked the least, got the same.  Oh, isn't God so good!  No, no.  We have to watch those men seethe.  We have to confront our own envy, and question why God would treat anyone this way.  (Pause.)

 

          Every year, the Diocese of Virginia gets together in what is called the Annual Council.  It's like a two day vestry meeting, but because many of the people have been going for years, it's also very much like a family reunion.  People walk around looking a church supplies at the booths, and talking.  Meetings are going on all the time, some fun, some not.    Each year, it's interesting, because each year you hear stories about what people are doing in various places.  When you're going to the same church each week, it can be easy to forget that others are finding new ways to minister to the needs of their communities. 

 

          You hear from missionaries—people who have gone to remote places to do dangerous work, the kind of work most of us would never in a million years want to do. 

 

 

 

          I've been going to Council now for about ten or eleven years, and each year, as I hear the stories of ministry in dangerous places—whether in tricky parishes, or in far flung lands—it forces me to consider my own relatively meager contribution to the Kingdom of God, compared to these people. 

 

          I delivered some sermons, but I didn't have to give them to a group of people who didn't want to listen.  I presided over vestry meetings, but the biggest things on the agenda were things most of us agreed we needed to do.  I did pastoral care for the sick, but they all had medical treatment to soothe the pain.  None of them cried out in agony hundreds—if not thousands—of miles from the nearest doctor.

 

          In the midst of Council, every year, we put aside our papers and agendas.  We come away from all our meetings.  The coffee cups and water pitchers and snacks and cellophane wrappers are all cleaned up, and the head table where Bishop Lee presides over the Council is cleared, and out come the hangings and candlesticks, and cruets and wine and water, boxes and boxes of bread, and a hymn starts to play on the sound system, and we celebrate the Holy Eucharist, right there.

 

          I watch that Eucharist very carefully, because I know many of the people who go each year, and some of them—not that many—but some of them are barely giving to their church.  Some of them don't really even seem to care about spiritual things.  And some of them—and I know I shouldn't be judgmental—but some of them are only there because someone from their parish has to go. 

 

          And I look to see if the bishop is going to give them just half a piece bread, and maybe just a tiny sip of wine.  I look for that.  It's what they deserve.

         

          And I look at the men and women who went to Sudan, and the priests who are working in tricky parishes, and the venerable ladies of the church who quietly work their fingers to the bone at food pantries and soup kitchens…I look for them to get a bigger piece of bread, and a bigger sip of wine.  Because, you see, they deserve it, don't they?  They've been living by their faith much, much more.

 

          I watched very carefully, and—you won't believe this—but everyone got the exact same thing.  And when I went up to receive, despite my judgmentalism, despite my relatively meager contributions to the Church, I got the exact same amount of bread and wine.  And you, when you come up to receive the Holy Communion, you will get the same amount, too.  It's not fair, is it?  No.

 

          What I'm trying to say is: thanks be to God; it's not fair.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The channels of adulthood

Years ago I read that you shouldn't praise children generally, that you should be specific in what they've done well, because (and I'll put this in quotation marks because it really stuck with me) "the channels of adulthood are deep, and can feel confining if you've been led to believe since childhood that you are gifted at all things."


Those words "channels of adulthood" have run through my head quite a bit in the last six years, especially the last three, since we've had Peter and Maggie. The standard expression, which is hopelessly flawed, is "settle down and have a family." There is nothing settling about having a family. If anything it is a strange form of boot camp, sans twenty mile hikes.


But the channels of adulthood really are very deep. I was thinking about that while trudging through Lowe's in search of something. I never thought I'd become the kind of guy who enjoys looking at tools and dreaming about next year's flower beds. I never thought that just being alone and away from home would be a guilty pleasure. I never thought that I'd look forward to sleep more than a good meal, or that the silence of the office would be so wonderful and so unnerving at the same time.


Marriage, mortgage, children, sleeping, eating, cleaning, dishes go in, dishes come out, clothes are sorted, laundered, folded and put away. Shave, shower, clothes on, clothes off, check in the mail, taxes, Costco, gas, office, calendar. Goodnight, wake up, coffee, breakfast...diapers, diapers, diapers...


The channels of adulthood are deep and can feel confining...but there really isn't an alternative. And even if there was an alternative, who would take it? Maybe for a day, but you'd miss it. You don't think you'd miss it, but you're wrong.


I mean, can you actually think that..oh, look! Those pliers are on sale!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Proper 19A. 14 September 2008.

 

          Sometimes I think about the basic tenants of Christianity, and I try to look at them from the outside in.  It isn't easy, because I've always been a Christian.  There has never a time in my life when I didn't go to church.  Even in college, my parents would pull up the car on Sunday morning, and off we'd go. 

 

          But when I look at the Faith critically—not as a true outsider, and not without affection—there are certain aspects of it that I must admit are very challenging.  There is of course the intellectual, scientific oddities in the life of Jesus: the Virgin birth, the Resurrection, the Ascension into heaven.  There are the miracles of wine into water, restoration of sight to the blind, walking on water, the feeding of the five thousand. 

 

          Now, let me be clear in saying that I absolutely believe all of those things happened, but let's face it, if you were going to begin a religion, would you include these things in your book?  Probably not.  You'd worry about credibility, wouldn't you? 

 

 

          Every once in awhile you'll hear someone who is not a Christian speaking about our Faith, and they want to point to the miracles as the difficult part.  They want to argue that it's impossible for them to be a Christian because they just can't accept the virgin birth, the Resurrection, or what have you.  But put the miracles aside for a moment.  Do you know what poses a much greater difficulty to holding the Christian Faith?  I'll give it to you in one word: Forgiveness.  Forgiveness is something that Christ not only gives, but demands that we give to others.  And that's not easy.

 

          Forgiveness is hard to give, and it's hard to receive.  There are of course many levels to it.  Bumping someone's cart at Food Lion?  "Sorry."  "No problem."  That's not much of an infraction, and not much of a gift to be forgiven. 

 

          But when we do things that deliberately damage our relationship with someone else?  Or when someone hurts us?  That makes forgiveness a bit tricky, because it brings justice into play.  The little voice in our head says, "There must be some kind of reckoning here, some level of accountability.  It takes more than a simple apology, it takes a heart level change."

 

          It is so frustrating when someone transgresses, and then rattles off a trite little "sorry," with no thought whatsoever to what they've done, and no indication that they'll take steps not to do it again.  The voice in the brain says, "You can't forgive them until they show that they mean it." 

 

          And that's the frustrating thing about it, because very few people, it seems, are emotionally mature enough to allow themselves to become that vulnerable.   They can't apologize, because their pride will not allow them to reveal their brokenness.  So even though you'd like to have a genuine moment of reconciliation, there are some mixed feelings about giving genuine forgiveness to someone who really doesn't seem to be genuinely sorry.

 

          I think that's what was in Peter's mind when he asked Jesus, "Lord if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?"  It's an excellent question.  Notice that the question is not just about anyone sinning against us.  It's about someone "in the church."  That's how the New Revised Standard translates it.  Interestingly enough, in the Greek it's, "how many times should I forgive my brother…"  But either way, this brings some specificity to the table.  Peter doesn't ask what do if a Roman soldier beats him up.  This is personal.  "How often should I forgive my brother?"
 

          Peter then follows up with a possible answer to the question, "Seven times?"  Seven is a number that implied completeness, but it also reverses the verse in Genesis about sevenfold vengeance.  Peter's actually offering Jesus a chance to change the reading of that scripture.[1]

 

          But no, Jesus says, "Not seven times, but seventy-seven times."  And the meaning is quite clear—the number is immaterial—Jesus is saying you forgive your brother again and again and again.

 

          This is when the little voice in our heads starts to talk about justice.  "But Jesus," we want to say, "what about true repentance?  What about contrition?  What if he does the same thing over and over and over?  Do I have to keep forgiving again and again and again?" 

 

          See, that's the problem.  It seems like a double standard.  God expects repentance from us, and yet here Jesus seems to say that we're supposed to extend grace without boundaries.  That can't be right.  And to make matters worse, God doesn't pull out the truly grievous sins, and say, "Don't worry, you don't have forgive anyone for those." 
 

          I'm sure we'd all like to negotiate around some of them.  Do we really have to forgive the murderers?  The people who commit violent actions towards children and teenagers?  Really, God?  At least give us a free pass on the telemarketers.

 

          But Jesus doesn't entertain questions here.  He launches into a parable.  He says that there was this king who was settling his accounts with a slave.  The slave couldn't pay his debts so the king forgave him.  And you'd think that the forgiveness would soften the slave's heart, but instead he runs down someone who owed him some money, and throws the other guy into jail until he pays up.  The king hears about this and does the same thing to the slave he had forgiven.  And Jesus ends this parable saying, "So my heavenly Father will also do to everyone of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

 

          He's talking to that little voice in your head about justice.  He's saying that forgiveness is not predicated on justice—forgiveness predicated on the forgiveness you have received from God.  If God extends heart level grace to you, you've got to extend the same heart level grace to others. 

 

          Well, that sounds nice.  It sounds holy, and wonderful, but when you're dealing with your own anger at knowing that your kindness has been abused yet again, this teaching becomes awfully challenging. 

 

          You can come to Church your whole life, sing the songs, pray the prayers, receive Holy Communion, and still have trouble forgiving because, as I said before, it's not the miracles that make Christianity hard, it's the forgiveness. (Pause.)

 

          I wish I knew what happens when the heart and brain finally begin to forgive.  I can imagine it in terms of seeds—as if the wound in our hearts finally swells up with enough love to where it breaks open and forgiveness sprouts out.  But I don't know actually happens.  They say "time heals all wounds," but I've heard it said that time also "wounds all heels."  Some people mellow and forgive, some get bitter instead of better.

 

          Forgiveness is a tricky subject.  No one does it perfectly.  You don't have to experience much of life to know that sometimes people are just plain selfish—we are just plain selfish. 
 

          You don't have to be married for very long before you realize that the trade off for the wonderful intimacy of marriage is the overwhelming capacity to hurt your spouse at their weakest. 

 

          Extending forgiveness seems the most tricky when it's someone in your family, or your church, whom you would have expected to care about you a little more than they did.  And that's one of the many reasons that people pull away, and insulate themselves for fear that they'll be hurt again.

 

          I'd love to know what happens in the brain, wouldn't you?  What does it take?  A nice meal with a glass of wine?  A drive down the back roads one day when the leaves are just changing?  You're looking at new placemats at Wal-Mart, debating whether to go with the flowers or the stripes.  What flips that switch?  Is it just the passage of time? 

 

          You roll out of bed in the morning after a good night's sleep.  The steam rises from the coffee.  You step outside, eyes focusing on the tall grass in the mid-distance, and then off to bank of fog covering the base of the mountain, nuzzling up against trees and tall shrubs. 
 

          And then your eyes look up to where there is a slight, wispy patch of fog that hangs in the air like a ghost.  It will burn off as soon as the sun makes it way up over the mountain. 

 

          You breathe in and out.  Rich, heavy air—a pleasure to breathe in and out.  It's not so much breathing as it is drinking it in.  Oxygen fills your lungs; you take another sip of coffee.  Something's different.  A switch somewhere has been flipped.  You don't know why, you don't know how…but today you can forgive him.  Yesterday you couldn't.  But today you can. 

 

          Not much else is different.  The world has not resolved itself into a tidy bundle that you can suddenly understand.  There are other places of unresolved conflict, other painful memories, other people that have risen up to become thorns in your side. 

 

          It doesn't make much sense at all.  It defies your rational thought.  But see, a little piece of you…finally….died.  And by the gift of God—that was not work of your own—that little piece of you was brought back to life.  And now, somehow, unbelievably, you can forgive. 

 

          Amazing, isn't it? 



[1] Genesis 4:15


Thursday, September 11, 2008

A story told goes on for ever

I've been thinking a lot about stories. Not particular stories, just the nature of stories. I have come to a deep appreciation for them, especially when they're not extraordinary, and when they don't end perfectly. I like stories that you can see happening to yourself. The point of the story is almost secondary to the narrative itself.

I like the story that, when it ends, seems meaningless. It drops off of someone's lips or slinks off the page of a book or magazine, and like a seed, it grows into its own significance, or simply dies.

Proust suggested that everything was a story, and the more of it you told, the better it was. I don't necessarily agree, but I applaud his willingness to see good things in the mundane.

Much has been said about the end of time. Yesterday I was in a conversation about an ecumenical Communion service, a hymn sing, and other such events, and one local pastor said that he felt that an ecumenical Communion service he attended was like what he thought heaven would be. I've heard this a lot. After a family reunion a devout person will muse wistfully, "Maybe this is what heaven will be like?"

I think I have a different take on it. We'll all be together..that's not even in doubt. But I think a huge part of heaven will be the telling of our stories.

I once heard a church growth expert say that people who visit a church and stay feel in their gut that their stories are welcome. That was an eye-opener. And the corollary to that insight was that everyday stories told from the pulpit encourage people to tell their stories in other contexts within the Church. That even if they don't tell them, they can believe that if they did tell them, it would be heard. Lovely. I like that very much.

But getting back to heaven, I think it will be a place where stories get shared. There are simply far too many interesting events that have happened in the course of our history not to have them told in eternity. They already ripple into the future. A story told goes on for ever.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Working hard on Proper 20

I have been working very hard on my sermon for September 21st, Matthew 20:1-16.  It's a difficult text.  It's the story of the Laborers in the Vineyard. 
Jesus said, "The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, `You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, `Why are you standing here idle all day?' They said to him, `Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, `You also go into the vineyard.' When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, `Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.' When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, `These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' But he replied to one of them, `Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' So the last will be first, and the first will be last."
 
It's a good text, isn't it?  The parable teases the brain with all sorts of questions and visions, much like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan.  But unlike those other parables of Grace, this one can sting you.  You think it'll sting you to find out that the longest serving get the same reward, but then you realize...no, that's not it.  And then it hits you...
 
Unless you figure it out on your own, you'll have to wait till September 21st to find out how.  (Stay tuned!)

Monday, September 8, 2008

Proper 18A. 7 September 2008.

                  

          I think it was mid-way through August, during my vacation, that I happened to glance at the Gospel lesson for today.  I was curious to see what text I might be working on next, and when I saw this lesson pop up—just like last Sunday's—there was a moment of panic.  Well, "panic" is a bit strong.  But the feeling is difficult to describe. 

 

          Ask anyone who preaches and they'll tell you that sometimes preaching is like playing with fire.  You can handle a text with a pair of tongs, and still get burned.  Usually those texts are tricky because they address an area of our lives that we can't run away from.  This is one of those texts.

 

          This teaching doesn't seem that way at first, because it reads like Canon Law.  We find it hiding in the eighteenth chapter of Matthew's Gospel.  It seems very innocent.  There's nothing there to introduce the text.  Our lectionary writers have set it off by saying, "Jesus said to his disciples," but that's not actually in the Bible.  The section just starts off, casually, and without fanfare…as if this text was just an afterthought. 

 

 

           "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.  If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector."

 

          See, it reads like a set of instructions on how to handle conflict within the Church.  I'm sure that when Jesus laid all this out to the disciples, they probably nodded their heads and thought, "Well, sure…how else would you handle it?" 

 

          It's a very pragmatic teaching.  There is plenty of grace.  If the offending party of the first part doesn't listen to the party of the second part, then more people get involved, and then more people get involved, until finally, if they don't see the light, they're out.  It makes sense.

 

          In fact, you kind of wonder why Jesus bothered mentioning it; or rather, you wonder why Matthew bothered including it in his Gospel.  It seems like the kind of thing he could leave out.  But I thought about it some more, and then I realized that even though this text reads like a Church Canon, there's more to it below the surface.  And that's when I started to realize that this was going to be one of those sermons where I needed a good set of tongs.  The text could get a little hot. 

 

          I can't say that I have managed much conflict in ministry.  I have had plenty of conflict, but, at no point to date has someone arranged a meeting with me to work out some conflict between them and someone else. 

 

          People tend to work things out one on one, and if they don't, sometimes a family member will arrange something.  Usually it stays at that level, but very rarely does anyone ever say, "We should go meet with the priest and sort it out with him." 

 

          And you typically don't find parishioners willing to live very long with conflict.  If the church has two services, and the two people don't want to make up, usually they decide to worship at the different services, and just avoid each other.  It's not healthy, mind you, but it happens.  And usually, people can spot the avoidance, and when they do, there's a little anxiety that goes with it, because people don't like having to take sides—especially in church.  Especially in church where we're supposed to get along with each other. 

 

          I think the most painful conflict is in families.  There is so much emotion there.  When things are good, they're really good.  When things are bad, they're really bad.  When I was a boy I remember vividly that everyday when my father came home from work, he and my mother kissed.  It wasn't just an idle peck, and it wasn't on the opposite side of the scale either, but it was a very definite moment of affection.  Somewhere along the line I heard that parents should do that sort of thing in front of their children, because seeing parents express affection confirms in them that the family is strong—that the love is real.
 

          Likewise, it's a very painful thing for children to see parents fight.  Parents don't often realize how their friction can be felt in the little tummies of their children.  And then suddenly, little Bobby is biting his nails, or little Kathy tears up her coloring book.  And the parents think, "Well, they're just going through a phase."  But, no.  They don't know how to get those crummy feelings out, you see?

 

          It's hard, sometimes, for people to see that their relationships are not just one to one, especially in a family.  In a family and in a church, when two people don't get along, it puts a strain on the whole group—and usually the last people to recognize that are the two people who are fighting.

 

          I know of a family—you don't know them—but I know a family where the mother and daughter used to be as close as a mother and daughter could get.  The father died many years ago, and the mother moved to be close to her daughter.  The daughter got together with her mother for dinner several times a week; movies, trips, you name it.  They were close.

 

          And then one day, the mother met a man. And they began to see each other.  And the daughter didn't like it.  The mother insisted that she was in love and that she was going to see this man anyway, and after awhile, in this family, it was decided that we just don't talk about this. 

 

          So the word came through the extended family, "We don't talk about this."  So family members had to choose sides, and even if you didn't say anything there was this anxiety within the family—just a little buzz that something wasn't right. 
 

          They're members of the same church, too, and I wouldn't be surprised if the anxiety has seeped into the general consciousness of the parish.  I can imagine that the mother looks over to see the daughter talking with someone and wonders what she's saying.  I can see the daughter looking over at the mother getting a hug from someone, and wondering whose side she's on.

 

          And so the mother and daughter started sharing less of themselves with each other, until, eventually they started communicating through other people, and sometimes not at all.  (Pause.) That's where they are to this day.  And no one wants to bring them together, even though everyone knows that—despite their pride—they love each other deeply.  Because, you see, it's like playing with fire. 

 

          This is how family squabbles used to be handled for many years.  You don't talk about it.  You have an uncle who's a little nuts?  It's embarrassing, so, "we just don't talk about it."  He's beating his children; she's cheating on her husband."  You just don't talk about it.   And what ends up happening is that everyone talks about it, except the people who really need to talk about it.

 

          There are no "good old days" when wives and husbands and children grew up in peace and harmony.  On The Andy Griffith Show they work things out just in time to get a slice of pie from Aunt Bee, and that's how many people think life really was, and how it could be if we'd just get back to "family values."  Wrong.  It was never that easy.

 

          Ever since Cain and Abel people have been fussing with each other, and "not talking about it," and pretending that it will all go away.  And whenever people dig in like that, they are sacrificing the emotional health of their loved ones for their own pride—and the pain and anxiety gets felt within the whole community.  (Pause.)

 

          And maybe that's why Matthew decided to include this teaching from Jesus in his Gospel.  The text looks somewhat innocent on the page, doesn't it?  But when you start adding real people and real situations to the text, it becomes much more tricky.  The text doesn't let you "not talk about it." 

 

          And look at the dominant word in the text: the word "listen." "If the member listens to you…"  "If you are not listened to…"  ""If the member refuses to listen to them..."  "If the offender refuses to listen even to the church…" You'd think that the dominant word would be understand.  It's not.  It's listen.  That means that words are being spoken…talking and listening.  You can't just not talk about it…you have to talk about it.  (Pause.)

 

          You know, I don't think God really cares about a lot of things that we think he cares about.  I don't think he cares very much if we forget to say table grace.  I don't think he minds very much if we occasionally let a four letter word slip through our lips, or even if we maybe spend a little too much time in front of the television. 

  

          But I think God cares deeply about relationships.  I think God cares very deeply when he sees wives and husbands, mothers and daughters, brothers in Christ, sisters in the Faith, not getting along, and not talking about it. 

 

          I have not brought this up today because I think that this church, or any specific family needs to hear it—so please don't think that I'm "aiming" this sermon at anyone.  (I don't do that anyway.) My guess is that we all have a relationship somewhere that needs to be reconciled—I know I do.

         

          There is someone out there who deserves to hear an apology from our lips.  And we surely deserve some apologies from others as well.  My guess is that if we took a moment to put our pride on one side of the scale and our love for that person on the other side, I think we'd see pretty quickly which one means more to us.

 

          We were created to live in relationships.  Sometimes those relationships are messy.  Sometimes they don't make much sense, but that's the way it goes.   I think it's helpful to realize that God cares about our relationships; and that fundamentally, the quality of our lives is the quality of those relationships—within our families, within our church, and with our God.