Sunday, July 25, 2010

Proper 12C. 25 July 2010.

          I am about to leave for vacation.  As a matter of fact, tomorrow, Peter, Maggie, Karin, and I will be piling into our heavily loaded mini-van to drive to Texas.  I will miss you all for the next four weeks, but I know that your Sundays will be filled with blessing while I am away. 

 

          I am always grateful to celebrate the Holy Eucharist with you, and to preach, and I was hoping—for the last Sunday before I take some time away—I was hoping that the Gospel lesson would be easy.  As I read over the text for today, I noticed that it contained the prayer Jesus taught us.  I thought my wish had been granted.  After all, the Lord’s Prayer is familiar to us.  In every liturgy in The Book of Common Prayer, the Lord’s Prayer is used.  I had visions of a nice little sermon about how Jesus changes our language from the quivering invocations of the Old Testament—“O Lord my God”—to the simple, familiar, “Our Father…”  Daddy. 

 

          I could even segue into a mildly interesting discussion on the trickiness of the part that says, “Lead us not into temptation,” asking the question if, without praying those words, God might lead us into temptation.  I remember evenings after dinner at seminary when such questions came up.  You talk…and drink too much coffee and wind up spending a sleepless night wondering what you really believe about this and that.

 

          I felt sure that I could round out that discussion and have a sermon that would sit easily on our minds, and I could just get in the car and see in you in four weeks.  But then I realized that the lesson is so much more than just the Lord’s Prayer.  And I started thinking more about what Jesus says in this lesson, and I found myself unable to shake my difficulties aside.

 

          Luke begins this text by saying that one of the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, and it seems that what follows is not really one thought, but several of Jesus’ teachings on prayer.  Luke does this.  Luke tends to collect sayings and teachings and compile them into one place and treat them like they all happened at the same time.  He brings things together—he’s very orderly.  So, I could be forgiven for, say, taking the Lord’s Prayer and preaching on it in isolation, but what caught my eye was the parable that Luke places immediately after it.

 

          Jesus says that prayer is like needing something in the middle of the night and going to your friend next door and saying, “A friend of mine has just arrived.  It’s a surprise visit.  He’s up from Florida with his family, they’re on their way to New York, and I’ve run out of food.  They’re hungry.  Can you give us some food.”  And the friend says, “It’s late, I’m tired, I’ve already started the dishwasher, I have to get up early tomorrow…”  And Jesus says, “Even though he won’t get up for friendship’s sake, if the man is persistent, he will eventually give him whatever he asks.”

 

 

          So, says Jesus, the moral of the story is, “Ask, and it will be given.  Seek and you will find.  Knock and door will be opened.”  And that is very good news.  If you are not in any particular need for anything at the moment, it sounds fine.  But if you consider the analogy for a moment, what it is saying is that God is reluctant to hear our requests!

 

          And if you consider the analogy further, it puts the burden of getting a response from God on us.  We have to be persistent.  And then our persistence is rewarded, not by the loving kindness of God’s gracious, overflowing generosity—but as a sleepy-eyed neighbor who grudgingly gives us what we need.  Doesn’t that make both us and God seem a little immature?  And it raises all kinds of questions.  If God really needs our persistence to act, what is persistence, really, in the spiritual world?  Does annoyance really have power?!  Is God just so annoyed with his creation that he gives it what it needs?  

 

          If you look in Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, Matthew has Jesus introducing the Lord’s Prayer with the words, (Matt 6) “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”  And then Jesus says, “Pray then, this way, Our Father…” and so on.

 

          So Matthew surrounds the Lord’s Prayer with a teaching from Jesus that God already knows what you need.  You don’t have to heap up a lot of words.  It’s easy. 
 

          But then you flip back to Luke and here’s Jesus saying, “God needs to be asked again and again…and then he may…if he can get around to it…you know…a little something.”

 

          Can the Good News really be that you have to be gutsy with God?  It just doesn’t sit right with me.  How many times have I read the words in Isaiah (55), “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways may ways.”  I mean, it’s right there.  We can’t know that we are praying for the right thing. 

 

          There is nothing more like beating your head against a wall as praying for something that just isn’t going to happen.  And the words of Jesus “Ask, seek, knock, you’ll get it, just keep asking,” don’t really help.

 

          I can’t believe that the key to the kingdom is mere persistence.  I have known far too many people who have prayed for healing or a job or a dramatic reversal of some major problem and though they have asked again and again…nothing.  

 

          And being devout Christians, when this kind of situation unfolds and the writing is on the wall, we set about the task of explaining God out of the corner.  We say…”Well, there are bigger fish to fry, and God is working out his plans, we don’t know everything there is to know.”  And though those concepts are true, it still feels that we are trying to reconcile our theology of a loving God to a careless—often heartless—world.  And within that exercise there is a loss of hope, and a loss of trust. 

 

          Most often, in these instances, I have heard devout Christian say, “God always answers prayer, but sometimes the answer is no.”  It sounds weary and wise, but God save us all from cold comfort.  If you have ever been on the receiving end of it, you manage a smile, and a brave face, but it’s not very helpful.

 

          Let me ask you something.  If anyone other than Jesus had given this teaching, would you believe it?  If someone you knew told you a story about a persistent neighbor who gets his way… and that this was an analogy for how persistence with God means answered prayer…would you believe it? 

 

          It seems to me like this is another one of those stories that needs to be changed.  Let’s do that.  Let’s make the parable say that you have a friend who comes to town and your next door neighbor sees the car pulling into the driveway, and notices that you’ve got company late at night, and the neighbor—considerate, thoughtful neighbor that he is—brings over some bread—fresh from the oven, and says, “Here you go!  Fresh bread.  Enjoy your time with each other!  Glad you two could get reacquainted.  Well…I’ll get out of your hair, it’s late…Good night!”  That’s how the story should go, because “Your Father knows your needs before you ask him.” Matthew chapter 6 verse 8.

 

          Does that sound good to you?  Would someone second the motion that we accept the amendment?  Those in favor, please say “aye.”

 

 

          As I kept going over this text in my mind, it’s that word persistence that keeps pinching.  I had to look it up in the Greek.  The phrase there is την αναίδειαν αυτου, which means “the shamelessness of him.”  The New Revised Standard Version chose “persistence,” the New International went with “boldness,” and the King James, back in 1611, went with “importunity.”  We don’t really use the word importunity anymore.  It means an insistent or pressing demand.  And the word only appears once in the King James Bible… and it’s this verse.

 

          A pressing demand, αναίδειαν –but that translation is still a little lacking, it really is closer to shamelessness.  Shamelessness.  And if you want to hear something crazy, the Greek is a little unclear as to whether it was the shamelessness of the person asking, or the shamelessness of the one who is asked.   Could it mean that it’s because the person asking creates an awkward situation that the need is met?  I don’t know.  Parables are intended to tease the mind…I suppose it could be. 

 

          And I suppose it could be the shamelessness of the person who is asked.  In other words, the neighbor feels bad about turning down his friend, so he gives the favor because he feels bad that he wasn’t helpful the first time.

 

          But none of this really alleviates the problem.  We’re still stuck somewhere between needing to be persistent, even shameless, and “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”  Which one is right?  I don’t know. 

 

          I do know that prayer is the means of communication between humanity and God, and has been since “Let there be light.”  Every prophet, priest and teacher, every man or woman of God, including Christ himself, prayed.  And I believe with all my heart that God listens to everyone—even to people who don’t believe that God exists.

 

          See, I think I understand this lesson a little bit more when we expand the meaning of prayer a little bit further.  If I think of prayer as a sentence or paragraph that has been compiled into a grammatical unit of intention, then the persistence and shamelessness of the neighbor who asks for bread seems silly.  We need those grammatical prayers when we gather together as we do on Sundays.  Our Anglican piety is very deliberate about the commonness of prayer.  But the prayers that are deepest within us, the shameless prayers, are rarely put into words.

 

          When I get in my car and drive somewhere, I can feel the stirrings within my soul of intentions far too deep to come out.  St. Paul spoke them as “groanings” στεναγμός.  He writes, “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us with στεναγμός, groanings, that words cannot express.” (Romans 8:26)

 

          These are, I think, the most authentic prayers we pray.  Groanings.  Desires and intentions that can be hard to form into coherent words.  Or sometimes, they form the context of emotion that swells up behind the words.  “Lord, please heal me.”  “Lord, please heal her.”  Simple words.  A simple prayer.  But oh, so many shameless groanings behind those simple words.

 

          I do not know much about prayer.  What it is… How it works… Just when I think I learn something definitive about it, the Holy Spirit whispers the words of Shakespeare in the back of my mind, “There are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” 

 

          There is great power in prayers we understand and in prayers we do not understand, but the prayers I believe God really hears and takes to heart are the most authentic ones.  The prayers that are shameless groanings.  Prayers that come from deep below the surface, I believe, rise like sweet incense.

 

           God does know our needs and desires.  But still pray them.  Pray your life.  Pray your happy, and your sad.  As long as they are shameless, as long as they are real prayers, I think we can be very confident that God is truly listening.  What he chooses to do with them is, of course, a mystery.

 

 

-o0o-

 

 

 

If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.

 

The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.

 

           

 

Thursday, July 22, 2010

"I think they laugh in Heaven.

 ...I know last night
I dreamed I saw into the garden of God,
Where women walked whose painted images
I have seen with candles round them in the church.
They bent this way and that, one to another,
Playing: and over the long golden hair
Of each there floated like a ring of fire
Which when she stooped stooped with her, and when she rose
Rose with her. Then a breeze flew in among them,
As if a window had been opened in heaven
For God to give His blessing from, before
This world of ours should set; (for in my dream
I thought our world was setting, and the sun
Flared, a spent taper; ) and beneath that gust
The rings of light quivered like forest-leaves.
Then all the blessed maidens who were there
Stood up together, as it were a voice
That called them; and they threw their tresses back,
And smote their palms, and all laughed up at once,
For the strong heavenly joy they had in them
To hear God bless the world."

 

 

From A Last Confession

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

 

Monday, July 19, 2010

Proper 11C. 18 July 2010.

 

 

          There are stories about Jesus that don't really sit comfortably.  Today we read one of them.  The story of Martha and her sister Mary is short.  It's only five verses.  No one is really rude to anyone in the text.

 

          I don't know whom to blame.  It's not Luke's fault.  It's not Mary or Martha or Jesus' fault.   I suppose it is situationally awkward.  Maybe we should blame people like me who preach on this story.  Maybe we should point the guilty finger at clergy who have used this text to wag their fingers at women who work their fingers to the bone at church and at home. 

 

          I know of plenty of women—good, strong, smart women—who would probably, if able, erase this story from the Bible, because its meaning has hurt them.  It's a gotcha text.  Here they go working at church on the Altar Guild, cleaning up after coffee hour, saying things like "It's no trouble at all," when we all know that it's trouble no matter how you slice it.  And back at home, they do the laundry, prepare lunch.  And these poor women stand up for the Gospel reading and hear Jesus tell them that all their hard work—with no help at all—is not as good as if they were to just attend to the spiritual life. 

 

 

 

          I can imagine Martha in this text wanting to say to Jesus, "Oh, I'd love to just sit down.  I'd love to just sit around all the time.  The new Real Simple magazine came in the mail.  Wouldn't it be nice to just sit here and talk.  But if you want lunch a little later on…"  It's what you do when you're a host.  I can imagine Martha saying… "You came to me, remember?  Someone has to put out the coasters and make the iced tea."

 

          She doesn't say that, of course.  Is it because she's too nice?  Nice women don't say things like that, especially to Jesus.  But I would guess that some of you ladies, and perhaps some of you men as well, have been punctured by this text at one point or another, and have struggled to be free of it.  It hurts. 

 

          I have been hurt by this text.  It sort of rattles around the back of my mind with a handful of other lessons, and just when I least expect it, it will bring itself to my attention.  And it will say things like, "How long has it been since you simply sat at the feet of Jesus?  Father, Reverend, Preacher…working for the Lord, making calls, writing sermons, visiting the sick.  Doing, doing, doing…  Why can't you just sit down for a little while and pray, and meditate?  Not every Bible study has to be about the sermon."  (Pause.)  I have been hurt by this text.

 

          It's kind of out there with the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  "Could you not wait with me for one hour?  Here you are sleeping and taking your rest.  Could you not wait with me for one hour?" 

 

          Maundy Thursday rolls around and we read that lesson and we go home in silence, and I think to myself, "You should stay up and pray tonight.  You should stay up and pray like the disciples were supposed to.  If this means anything at all to you, you should be in prayer."

 

          "But, Lord," I say, "I have two services tomorrow, and then two the next day, and then three on Sunday, I need my rest," and the text says, "One hour.  That's all I'm asking.  Can you do it for Our Lord?"  And it cuts into me a little bit.

 

          At the last two churches I served, they had a Gethsemane watch.  At the Maundy Thursday Eucharist—as the rubrics in The Book of Common Prayer say—the priest is supposed to consecrate extra bread and wine to be reserved so that Communion may be given on Good Friday.  And it's a tradition in some parishes to organize a schedule of people to keep watch with the reserved Sacrament for one hour or more throughout the night.  Quite often, the ladies of the church—maybe one or two of the men—would be part of it.  The schedule always filled up from 8 to midnight, but then it got a little harder to get folks to come in at 1, 2, 3 o'clock in the morning.

 

          At my first parish, I thought, I should go ahead and take that 1am to 2am slot.  It would look good that I was willing to suffer a bit.  But then, I thought, no.  I'd have to wake up and drive over.  It would be different if I lived in a rectory next door to the church.  And then, sure enough, at my next church, the rectory was right across the street, and I thought, surely this year I could take the late spots.  And I didn't.  I consoled myself that I was saving my energies for the liturgies of Holy Week, but, I didn't get rid of the guilt. 

          As Anglicans, we believe that the consecrated bread and wine is the real presence of Christ, and here I was, a priest of the Church, unwilling to come in and wait with Our Lord for one hour.

 

          It's like that with the story of Martha and Mary.  You want to be Mary, but you know that no matter how pious you are—or want to be— things need to get done.  You can let your holy imagination run wild with possibilities for time to meditate and pray.  Maybe you even succeed in sitting down to it.  And you start to clear you mind and be open to God… But then you remember that that bill needs to be paid.  Can't forget that.  Write a note.  But you might as well just pull out the checkbook and do it.  Let's see, where are the stamps?   Pen?  No, not that one.  Did I move the laundry to the drier?  I did.  I can hear it going.  No.  It's stopped.  Or was it ever started?  

 

          You begin to wish that there was some way to unplug the clock and stop the sun in the sky and really pray without having to miss anything.  Meditation sounds wonderful, but the mind rapidly fills with shoulds and oughts and musts.  And the minute we give in to taking care of those things, which—in the final analysis—will be noticed if not accomplished, pious aspirations aside, it's just not going to work out today.  Maybe tomorrow, maybe. 

 

          And then this text comes rattling around and stings you in the place of vulnerability—the very moment you are about to excuse yourself with your To Do list.

 

 

          I think part of the problem is that Martha and Mary have become archetypes.  They've become categories of Christian behavior.  You're either one or the other.  Either you're the one who helps, and does, and makes possible, or you're the pious one, the ascetic, whom Jesus seems to think is better.  And that's not fair.

 

          But there are always going to be Marys.  I have good friends who would readily say, "I did my stint on the Altar Guild, but I'm a contemplative and I will serve the church offering Quiet Days, leading spiritual seminars and retreats…but…you can just skip me with the dishes and the vestry and the…you know…the non-spiritual stuff."

 

          And then I've got good friends who will say, "I love the spiritual stuff, but I don't know how to talk about all that.  It's important to me, but I'm really a Martha, and I will happily do anything, but I don't want to talk about it.

 

          So there's this one-or-the-other problem that has perhaps become a culture around the text.  You're either a Martha or a Mary.  It's like all the other cut-and-dried categories of male or female, conservative or liberal, from here or not from here.  And whenever you have those cut-and-dried categories, you are going to have a wedge.  Something that makes sure that there is a complete separation with a winner and loser.  And it seems like Jesus performs that function.  The spiritual one wins, the doer loses. 

 

 

          But that's just in Jesus's world, right?  In the real world, Martha wins.   Martha is on top of it, and Mary drops the ball—Jesus is scolding the wrong one.  Mary should get up and serve.  It was meet and right so to do.  She was a woman.  It's a man's activity in first century Palestine to be a disciple.  She is a sister, probably the younger one, but we don't know that, and as a sister she should help out.  Of course Jesus rewards the spiritual one, he's a spiritual man.  If he were a regular feller, he'd say "Mary, get up and get your apron on." 

 

          The story is wrong.  Let me fix it.  Jesus comes to the house and a woman named Martha welcomes him.  She has a sister named Mary, and the two women give Jesus a nice lunch at which time Jesus compliments them on their linens, while teaching the good news of God's love.  After lunch, Jesus offered to do the dishes.  Martha said, "Heavens no."  Mary said, "Heavens no."  Jesus said, "It won't be any trouble.  I'll wash, you dry, we'll keep the conversation going, and then I simply must be on my way." 

 

          How does that sound to you?  I move we change it.  Is there a second?  Those in favor..?

 

          What are we going to do with this text?  The only way I know to make it better, really, is to focus in a little bit closer on just one word.  It's the word "better."  It's the word that forms that wedge between the two.  If Jesus had simply said, "Mary chosen the other part…" but we've got it in the translation as better.  The word in the Greek is actually άγαθην, which is closer to "the good" part.  Now, I know that sounds like splitting hairs a bit, but stay with me.

 

          Jesus says, "Martha you are worried and distracted."  We have, so often translated that to mean, "you are busy getting things done."   "You are doing what needs to be done." But look at what Jesus focuses on.  Not that she is busy, but that she is worried, anxious, distracted.  Jesus does not scold her for that, really.  Instead he lifts up the opposite behavior of the less anxious Mary.  Mary has chosen—not the better—but the good.  The good is to choose not to be wound up. 

 

          I think Jesus is trying to cultivate something radically different from the way the text has often spoken to us.  (Pause.)  I have so often talked about these things and had people respond, "Oh, yeah, that's that `Let Go and Let God' stuff."  And I can understand why people think that, but the problem with that is that it makes a deep idea very shallow.  `Let Go and Let God' seems to be a hopeless kind of response.  As if nothing has worked, so let's try God. 

 

          When folks "try God" they seem to use the word hope.  "Well, let's hope to God it all works out."  There's a hopelessness to that hope.  Hope—in that context—is such a weak word.  Let's trade the word hope for trust.  Instead of "I hope God takes care of it," let's try, "I trust God will be with us in this."  Do you feel how different that is?  It's not just semantics.  You start substituting trust for hope, and it will be like baptismal water being poured over your life. 

 

          "I trust that God will be there for me."  "I trust that God is present, even when I cannot feel it, or even when I have trouble believing it."  You start using the word "trust" and it will enlarge your faith. 

 

          I think what Jesus celebrates is that Mary chooses to trust—she chooses the good, the less anxious path.  She was not perfect.  The Mary in this story is not a perfect disciple.  We see her really only in contrast with Martha.  It would be naïve to think that Mary doesn't have moments of distraction.  This is one little story from their lives.  You didn't see Mary when she was getting herself ready for a date.  She had to re-do her hair five times.  You didn't see Martha when we she was praying earlier in the day; she was at perfect peace.  But in the context of this story, Mary chooses well.  She chooses to be less anxious, and Martha doesn't.  Jesus says, "Martha, choose to trust.  You can still do what you need to do, but you don't have to make yourself crazy."

 

          I would like to believe that this was a turning point for Martha.  I would like to believe that if Luke had had the time and interest, he would have given us more of Martha's story, and perhaps many other stories from Jesus like this one, because this was a major part of Jesus' ministry.  You don't see Jesus bringing anxiety.  You don't see him running around distracted and nervous.  He was constantly imparting peace.  Calm down, trust, God is with you, peace be with you.  It is a choice.  It's a way of living.

 

          I really think this was a turning point for Martha.  I say that, because I think that making that choice could be a turning point for anyone. 

-o0o-

 

If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.

 

The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.

 

Monday, July 12, 2010

Proper 10C. 11 July 2010.

 

          It happens quite a lot.  Not all the time, thankfully, but often enough to be troubling, that a text will come up for preaching that is not met with great interest.  Normally, the lessons appointed contain a parable or a narrative that is familiar enough to be comforting, and at the same time strange enough to be interesting.  Without too much effort half a dozen topics for a sermon spring quickly to mind.  But then, there are times, like today, when the text is so familiar that the preacher feels constrained by the meaning that most people know.  Such is the case with the parable of the Good Samaritan.

 

          The parable is so well known that I would guess many people—none of you, of course—but many, could probably be persuaded that the events of the story actually happened.  And they may have, but not in the Bible.  This is a parable. C. H. Dodd said that: "At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its application to tease it into active thought."

 

          And though the parable was offered by Jesus, and written down by Luke, to tease the mind into active thought, you would not have thought so when I gathered with my clergy buddies to discuss the text for today.        

          In fact, after the topic for discussion was announced, eyes began to roll, and one cleric, heaving a sigh, said, "What can you say that hasn't already been said?"

 

          Have we reached a point of familiarity with this text where I could simply read it, and sit down?  I thought about that.  But then I realized that to do so would set a very dangerous precedent.  If we begin to ignore the familiar texts, then what shall we do when Christmas comes and the second chapter of Luke is read, and the Church gathers at the nursery window with its nose pressed up against the glass, and the pulpit is asked to show us the baby?  

 

          What happens when Easter arrives and the story is read, and just after the women run away in fear the Church sits in the bleachers of the stadium built around the open tomb, waiting for the pulpit to announce that Christ has risen. 

 

          So, here is the Good Samaritan.  "Thank you, Father, thank you Reverend, thank you preacher, you can sit down.  We've heard this one."  Well, wait a minute.

 

          I was looking at the guide on the television and saw that a program was coming on that was about Pope John Paul II and his thoughts on suffering.  I decided to watch some of it, and in the first few minutes the Pope began speaking of the Good Samaritan.  He said that we should all have that "Samaritan nature"—which we are meant to understand as the nature of offering one's self in service to those who suffer. 

          He was speaking biblically.  He was using the parable, but his sermon—like most sermons—deflected the listener from the scandal of this text. 

 

          You see, when one is trying to decide how to approach this parable for preaching, you can approach it from the perspective of the person who can help someone in trouble.  The parable then becomes a challenging, but oddly comfortable lesson in morality—an almost impossible standard of grace and love in the midst of human misery.  We can sit comfortably, watching the scene unfold, while smugly sneering at the priest and Levite who walk by. 

 

          From this approach—which is the most common reading—when we say "Good Samaritan," we actually allow the two words to write themselves into the text.  Samaritan has come to mean good.  But Jesus doesn't call the Samaritan good—he simply describes the actions of the Samaritan, and from those actions the Church has called him good. 

 

          "Good Samaritan" has a very set meaning, but the surprise of the parable when Jesus first told it, is that anything good could be said of any Samaritan.  The Samaritans and the Jews worshiped separately.  They had much of the same history, but they had their own scriptures, their own temple, their own religious practices.  I suppose you could say that they were the Protestants, and the Jews were the Catholics.  But, erase that analogy from your mind, because it doesn't really hold up.

 

 

          The division between the two is hard to clarify. I'm not sure there is a general contemporary analogy.  I have read some commentaries that suggest an equivalent would be to recast the characters as an American traveler who is tended to by a member of al-Qaeda.  But I cannot agree with that, because though it is very rhetorically powerful, the meaning of the parable would then be to shock the congregation—to ask you to stretch your mind to encompass the possibility that good things can come from people who have treated us so violently.  And while that is indeed possible, it is not the way Jesus tells the story.

 

          It's not that someone is ministered to by people who previously have been hostile or abusive.  Because if it is, then the point of the parable would be "you never know, someone who might want to kill you, might want to help you" and there is no helpful meaning to that at all.  To preach that message would be to ask you to embrace the dangerous uncertainty of life, always naively optimistic that the burglar at the window may wish to bring you a plate of cookies. 

 

          Who would be a modern day Samaritan?  It is a difficult question to ask.  The lines of race and social position are the lowest hanging fruits in the tree of analogies.  But if the point is as simple as racial awareness and acceptance, or that people of other cultures can be good people, too, then it is a good message, but it's not really central to the parable.

 

          You see how a parable really does—as Dodd said—arrest "the hearer by its vividness or strangeness…leaving the mind in sufficient doubt…to tease it into active thought"?

          If we stay with the comfortable idea of the morality lesson, then I can simply scold us for our indifference to those in need—say that we should do more and care more—and we can hang our heads, promise to do better, drink some coffee and go home.  But the parable refuses to be that simple.

 

          It's not that Samaritans were terrorists, or complete foreigners—though they were foreigners.  They were their own ethnic group, so there is a racial element to the story, but the heart of the lesson, to my mind, is the discomfort of the man Jesus is talking to.  The man who has come to Jesus wants eternal life, and he explained to Jesus that he has loved God with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength, and his neighbor as himself. Jesus has responded that he's on the right track, but the man wants to justify himself.  He wants a final benediction on everything he is doing.  He wants to show himself perfect or maybe even "worthy."  So he says, "And who is my neighbor?"

 

          It's a loaded question, really.  Neighbor should mean the people like you, the people you live beside.  But then Jesus tells this parable.  He doesn't define neighbor, which would give the man the easy list of whom he should care for, and whom he could dismiss.  Jesus describes what a neighbor does, and by making those acts of compassion come from someone who is different, Jesus suspends the social system and defines "neighbor" by how someone behaves.

 

 

 

          The parable itself is a morality lesson, but watching this story told to the lawyer confronts us with the possibility that God's own standards of grace and mercy can come through the hands of someone we do not like.  And you might say that's an easier lesson.  Someone we don't like is easier to handle than the shocking rhetorical power of the person being a Muslim or a terrorist.  But wait a second.

 

          You don't have to worry much about being cared for by someone you're scared of.  The chances of that happening are very, very slim.  But the idea of compassion coming from someone you just…don't…like…

 

          I don't want to admit this, and I'm sure you don't, either, but there are people we do not like.  It's not that they are bad people.  It's not that they have aggressively meant us harm or anything like that.  But there are people, you know who they are, who we simply do not wish to be around.  I don't want to be one of those people to you, and you don't want to be one of those people to me.  No one wants to be someone someone else does not like.  And none of us likes to think that there is anyone we really don't like, but there we are.

 

          And if you look at those folks, it wouldn't take long to identify the aspects of their manner or personality that annoy us.  The idea of making an itemized list is repulsive because we don't want to be small-minded or egotistical.   We would never treat them shamefully to their face.  We would never wish them harm; but they will never be invited to dinner.  And there you have the Samaritans.

 

 

          The person you might never admit to anyone you do not like is the Samaritan, who—says Jesus—if you were to get in a car wreck, or fall down the stairs, or need a shoulder to cry on, might be the only person who would help you. 

 

          Standing between you and death with wine and oil and bandages in his hands is that man, that woman.  If he could see the distain in our hearts, he would shrivel up and die.  If he could hear the inner voice in our heads as we've sized him up time and again…would he still be carrying us on his own donkey to the nearest inn?  Paying two day's worth of wages to make sure we have a bed to sleep on tonight?  Promising the inn-keeper that anything we need he will gladly repay..?

 

          You would think that such an act of compassion would simply melt us into a puddle on the floor, but that's not exactly what would happen.  No, if we are to welcome such overwhelming grace, then the hatred we have borne for the Samaritan must die within us.  And it is not the simple, easy, painless death of an idea that passes into obscurity.  No, no.  It is nothing less than a crucifixion.  Physical pain can never touch the pain of realizing that for all our highest prayers, and noblest actions, we are still fallible humans, very much in need of redemption.

 

 

 

 

          The Good Samaritan is not a cozy moral parable at all.  It can cut right down to the bone.  God says,  "I do not merely like the people you like.  I will come to all people.  I will work through all people—even those, perhaps especially those you would rather cast aside.  Do you really think that heaven will just be you and your friends?"  (Pause.)

 

          As the parable ended, Jesus said to the man, "Which one—the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan—which one was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?"  And look how the man responds.  He's supposed to say "the Samaritan," right?  But the man cannot even say it.  He says instead, "The one who showed him mercy."  "The one."  "That one."  "That guy."  The mistrust is so deep, he can't even say the word "Samaritan."

 

          Who is the neighbor?  Who are you willing to let stand between you and God?  "That guy…over there…" says the man.  And Jesus says, "Go and do likewise."  Go learn that heaven will be more than just you and your friends.  In other words, "Buddy…you've got some work to do." 

 

          When you read it like that, we've all got some work to do, don't you think?

 

-o0o-

 

If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.

 

The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.

 

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Do not look forward in fear

to the changes of life;

 

Rather, look to them with full hope that as they arise, God, whose very own you are, will lead you safely through all things, and when you cannot stand it, God will carry you in his arms. 

 

Do not fear what may happen tomorrow. 

 

The same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you today and every day. 

 

He will either sheild you from suffering or will give you unfailing strength to bear it. 

 

Be at peace and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations. 

 

 

St. Francis de Sales

Monday, July 5, 2010

Proper 9C. 4 July 2010.

          As I step into the pulpit this morning, I am very much aware that this is one of our country's defining holidays.  On this day in 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed, declaring that this country was no longer a group of British colonies, but a country in its own right—free to do as we pleased.  And as we celebrate that event, we can marvel at the ability of our American ancestors to avoid many of the pitfalls of other countries.  While we were in our infancy as a nation, decisions were made that became part of the DNA of our culture.

 

          America began as an idea, and from the idea became a movement.  If you look at every business, church, country, any and all organization devised by human beings, they all started the same way.  A person or people had an idea of something better, something different, and that idea won followers, and from those followers, a movement emerged.  I say "movement" for lack of a better word.  But there is a point in the development of an organization where there are people who have adopted an idea and are all moving in roughly the same direction.

 

          Movements are fun.  There are people who like being part of movements, but not organizations.  They like the excitement—other people are working together closely, battling adversity together, to bring about something new. 

          It could be anything at all—a new country, a new 7/11.  But inevitably, movements end.  They either fizzle out and die, or they succeed and become organizations. 

 

          The fire in those people, when the idea is brand new, cannot easily be passed along to another generation.  Part of the joy of that fire is that it is new, and the original team was the original team.  The people who come after—even if they were the sons and daughters of the original team do not have the same vision to carry on.  Their vision is going to be at least slightly different.  They don't want to "re-invent the wheel."  They don't want to fight the same battles. 

 

          This is something the Church is always facing.  Like all organizations, parish churches began with a handful of devout people who wished to worship together and to bring about the Great Commission of Jesus to spread the Gospel.  That's a movement.  And the movement succeeded.  Our church, along with many other churches dotting the landscape of this and many other countries, is proof of that success. 

 

          Most churches are small churches, like ours, because authentic Christianity is an intimate religion.  Christ's teachings draw people together.  The Sacraments draw people together.  When Christians wish to offer themselves to a church, they want to know the people around them.  They want to know that they share a common story.  They want to be sure they can trust their faith in an organization.

 

          We take for granted that Christianity is a commonly acceptable faith.  In America, all religions are welcome, at least in principle, but let's face it, Christianity is the norm.  So, even though some places are hostile to the Church, we are welcome to worship as our denomination prefers.

 

          I am trying to work my way around to saying is that the Church is generally accepted as an organization—because organizations have made it through the movement phase to the place of being innocuous.  People see the steeple and the stained-glass and they register "church."  And that category can mean things that you and I would never dream of.  It can mean things that simply aren't true.

 

          Some years ago I remember going to a church function with my wife at St. Paul's Memorial Church in Charlottesville.  Karin was then one of the associate rectors of the parish.  I was there in coat and tie, happy to be just a spouse.  It was a wine and cheese reception, and I was enjoying myself, and a man came up to me and said, "I am so glad I found this church."  I said, "That's great, why do you like it so much?"  He said, "Because it's a big church and it's liberal here."  He said, "I have been through every red door in this area"—he meant he'd visited every Episcopal Church—"and," he said, "they're all just a bunch of closed-minded snobs.  What do you do?"  I said, "I'm the rector of a bunch of closed-minded snobs."  I didn't say that, but let's just say the conversation didn't last very long.

 

 

 

 

          But see, in his mind, that's what little churches meant: closed-minded snobs.  You and I know better, but we also know that there are people who have come to church and been made to feel that this is not for them.  So "church" means something very different for them.  The organization is socially acceptable, but you only go for weddings and funerals.

 

          I will never forget a woman who visited my last church.  We were part of the Garden Club tour.  And a woman was walking through the buildings like this was a museum of some extinct animals called Christians who once roamed freely.  And she saw me in my collar and said, "And who might you be?"  I said, "I'm the parish priest."  She said, "Oh, this is an active church."   I said, "Yes, this is an active church."  "People come here."  "Yes, ma'am, people come here.  You are welcome to come here, too."  "I may do that, young man."  I never saw her again.

 

          The organization is fine—even venerable.  There are many churches, here is one of them.  What does the organization stand for?  What is Christianity about?  Well, you and I know the answer to that.  It's about the reconciling love of Christ, who stretched out his arms on the cross and rose again.  It's about being part of God, and being known by God, and God knowing us and loving us.  But I don't think that's what most people who don't come to church think.

 

          The organization has been around a long time, you see.  And being humans, churches are fallible places.  Churches have not always kept to the Gospel, or they've been places of turmoil and scandal.  Some churches have decided not to be known for what they are for, but what they are against. 

          And the result of this is that you've essentially got two different things.  You've got Christianity.  And you've got the Church.  But for many people who don't really know, the two can get lumped together.  So if you don't like what the Church is doing, then you might sour on Christianity. 

 

          The problem is that people have heard, but they haven't heard. 

 

          In our Gospel lesson, Jesus appoints seventy people to go ahead of him into the towns and villages where he intended to go.  He gives the seventy a lot of instructions about what they are to carry and how they are to carry themselves.  But he only gives them one thing to say, beyond a greeting.  Just one sentence.  You won't believe what it is.  When I read it, in preparation for this sermon, I tried to pretend it was the first time I ever read this text, and I couldn't believe it.  See, I thought the sentence would be, "Come hear Jesus preach when he comes to your town."   But that's not it.  The sentence is, "The kingdom of God has come near to you."

 

          Now, doesn't that seem strange?  And if the seventy are rejected, they are still to say, "The kingdom of God has come near to you."  It's crazy.

 

          "The kingdom of God has come near to you."  To you.  Those are words of movement.  They are not words of organization.  "The kingdom of God has come near to you."  What do you say about those words?  It's a statement.  It just stands there.  It doesn't ask you anything.  It doesn't invite you to do anything, or to go anywhere.  It just stands there looking at you.  "The kingdom of God has come near to you." 

 

          That was the message of the first evangelistic mission.  One person saying to another person, "The kingdom of God has come near to you."  I am not sure that I have ever heard someone say those words directly to me.  They are implicit in the organization of the church, but I have never heard of a church using that message in any meaningful way.

 

          What I gather from those words is that the nature of the kingdom of God is to come near to people—and specifically to you, whomever you are.  This is personal.  "The kingdom of God has come near to you."  What can you say back?  The sentence is not offensive, but it's not static, either.  I suppose with a little thought it prompts one to ask, "How can I come near to the kingdom?"  But not necessarily. 

 

          Everyone has heard of the church.  They may even have heard of Jesus.  I don't think you can live in America and not bump into the overt aspects of Christianity.  There are churches everywhere.  There are bibles in the nightstands of every motel.   Everyone has heard, but not everyone has heard. 

 

          The Gospel is aided mightily by the organizational church, but only to the extent that those of us who inhabit these sacred buildings never forget that we are a movement.  And that movement is a movement of the Holy Spirit, bringing God to people who "sit in darkness and in the shadow of death."

 

 

          There has never been a time in the history of the Church when it was easy to do evangelism.  People have always nodded their heads and said, "Oh, yeah…that's that Jesus stuff."  And many Christians have shied away from evangelism, because they don't want to get labeled a fanatic, or some such thing.  I wonder however if we've been going about it the wrong way.

 

          I wonder if the problem is that we've been deflecting the original message with an invitation to church—that is, to an organization.  The Gospel is that "The kingdom of God has come near to you."  The person who says it, has followed.  And if the person to whom that sentence is said is willing to follow, then they might.  They might.

 

          You don't really have to preach.  You don't have to "share Jesus," whatever that means.  You just have to say, "The kingdom of God has come near to you."  And like a little seed, it will either grow, or it won't.  If they come to church, they come to church, but the movement will continue, you see?

 

          Everyone has heard, but not everyone has heard.  I think God is hoping that we will tell them, "The kingdom of God has come near to you."

 

-o0o-