Monday, September 19, 2011

Proper 20A. 18 September 2011.

For the audio version, click here and select 14th Sunday after Pentecost.


          As you know, I don't really like to bring the latest news into the pulpit.  Part of that is because I believe that the preacher should not be reactive to the turmoil of the world.  Too often social commentary sounds like politics; and I am not a politician, nor am I qualified to speak meaningfully about such things. 


          Jesus did not speak about the Roman Empire in grand, sweeping critique—he spoke about basic human interactions.  He saw the behavior of an entire society in the Pharisees' hypocrisy, in plight of widows, and outcastes.  I suppose that is also part of why I don't tackle the news of the day.  It is too easy to over-generalize, and then hold everyone hostage to my own prejudices—leaving you to either agree or disagree with me—which in turn places us all in a very awkward position to receive the Holy Communion together. 


          Imagine for a moment going to someone's house for dinner, and before the meal is served, you have to have to listen to your host say things you disagree with.  Eating the meal almost seems like saying you agree with them. 




          If I were to speak generally about our society—in a way that is as non-political as I would like—I would say that we consistently struggle with inequality—which is nothing new, of course.  In many parts of our world inequality is as accepted as the air we breathe, but in this country—in the United States—inequality seems much more appalling because we believe that we are all created equal by God.  That fundamentally, we are all equal.  And I think as democracy has spread to much of the world, it has continued to reveal inequality.


          I was having a conversation recently with a man who was working on our house.  He took out his hammer and drew imaginary lines on the floor to indicate where people lived in Winchester.  He was trying to say that there were people who thought too highly of themselves and they lived over here.  And there are people who are just regular people—and he was surely speaking of himself—who lived over here. 


          There was tone to his voice that indicated sadness at general inequality, but of course, when you feel yourself to be on the lesser side, there is an edge to it.  I was uncomfortable by the conversation, because, despite the ways that the Episcopal Church has, in many ways come a long way from its past snobbery, when I say "Episcopal priest" I am sometimes considered to be in the category of "the people who live over here."  And that bothers me, quite honestly. 




          But my sense of our current struggle is the disparity in our access to power—whether that be jobs and money, or politics, or a sense of place in our country.  And with that perceived lack of power come reactions of anger and depression.  We see it all over the world, especially in the Middle East over the last several months.   People who feel like they don't have a say may become so angry that they and become indiscriminately violent toward strangers. 


          We hear from the media that our own political system has become so ineffective and rancorous that the government no longer works.  Yet, money keeps getting thrown at whomever people feel should win the fight—which only encourages more fighting. 


          The inequality of access to money and goods is very much on people's minds.  The new numbers on poverty just came out a week or so ago.  There are a lot of people who are out of work, who want to work.  A lot of people in our area are hungry, and needing help—but may be too proud to ask for it.  It is not so much that we are blind to the need as the need is not always conspicuous—but it's there.


          If there is work, and money, and commerce, questions of fairness will always arise.  And there will be anger whenever it seems that someone isn't getting a fair shake.  Jesus knew this.  And at first glance it seems like the parable in today's Gospel lesson is about inequality in the ways people are paid.  It very much seems like Jesus is saying inequality is okay.



          He talks about the man who owns a vineyard, and needs workers.  The man hires workers throughout the day, telling them that he will pay them the usual daily wage.  And when we hear this parable we start the time clock on the first workers.  Daily means all day.  It is simply not possible that workers hired later in the day would receive a daily wage.  For pay to be fair, you have to take the daily wage, divide it by eight, count the hours they work, and there's your paycheck.  Take out a little for Uncle Sam, and there you go.  That's what's "right"!


          At the end of the day, it's time to pay the men.  So the landowner tells his manager to line the men up in the opposite order they started.  And they all get paid the same amount. The johnny-come-latelies are paid first, all the way down to the men who clocked in at 7am.  And that's when you know something is up, because that is not how you would pay them if you wanted to be nice.  If you wanted to avoid conflict, you would pay the men who worked the longest first.  They would get in their trucks, and off they'd go.  If they thought about it, they would believe that the other men would be getting paid less and less.  But so what?  They've got their money.  They've clocked out. 


          But see Jesus makes us watch as those men have to watch the others get paid first, and get paid the full day's wage, so that by the time we come to the men who—you might say—earned every penny, we see that they are steaming mad. 



          The climax of the story is this interaction between the long-working men and the landowner.  We learn that the landowner had decided that everyone gets paid the same amount because he wants to be generous.  The time clock means nothing.


          It doesn't seem right at all.  It just doesn't.  And like many of Jesus' parables, even though it is a story, it still so vivid that we're tempted to believe that it really happened—like the Prodigal Son, or the Good Samaritan.  If it did really happen, I seriously doubt that those men would ever work for that landowner again. 


          But as a parable, as a teaching story, something to tease the mind into active thought, this one teases rather more than I like.  Almost every time Jesus is recorded as giving a parable he starts it by saying, "The kingdom of God is like…" or "The kingdom of heaven is like…"  By implication, Jesus is saying "this is not how it is now…this is how it will be…or how it should be…"  And most of the time I can go along with him.  Yes, prodigal sons should be welcomed home.  Strangers who are beaten up and left for dead should get care and concern.  Have you noticed how many of the parables are about equality and fairness—and who gets what?  Most of them, it seems. 


          What do we do with this one?  Do you like it?  Matthew liked it.  Mark, Luke and John didn't.  You will only find this parable in Matthew.  I have heard it said that this was one of those stories that was just part of the culture of first century Palestine, almost like a nursery rhyme—like Johnny Appleseed, or some other thing, but I don't think that's it. 


          See, in the previous chapter in Matthew, Jesus has a conversation with the rich young man who wanted to know what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus tells him to go and sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and then come and follow him.  The rich young man is thinking "eternal life to come"—"one day..some day when I die" and Jesus is thinking "eternal life begins now, young man, if you follow me."   


          And you remember what happens, right?  The man walks away sorrowful, because he had many possessions.  He wasn't ready to sacrifice this life for the life to come—the life that would begin now and continue beyond his death.


          The disciples overhear all this, and they begin to wonder.  "The rich young man isn't giving up his stuff, but here we've given up everything—just like Jesus said—we gave up everything in this life.  What happens to us?"  Again…it's the equality/inequality question, isn't it?


          And Jesus responds, "Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, you will sit on  twelve thrones judging the people of God..and anyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life." And then he launches right in to this parable, if you read it from the Bible, "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner…" 


          If you just read it from the bulletin insert, it starts, "The kingdom of heaven is like…"  But the lectionary writers have done us a disservice here.  This parable is linked to the conversation that came before it. 


          That for is the clamp that binds this parable to the question of what the followers of Jesus receive.  And we need this parable, because otherwise we would believe that—just like the workplace—those who work in the kingdom of God longer get paid more.  But the kingdom of God isn't about money. 


          Payment is life.  Payment is being able to stand face to face with God and look into each other's eyes and have peace.  Peace in knowing that you are loved.  Peace in knowing that you are forgiven and absolved from your sins.  Everlasting life is everlasting relationship with the one who created, redeemed, and sustains you. 


          And you either get all of it, or none of it.   It's the daily wage.  God can't give more of it to some people and less of it to others, because you can't divide it.  It is just "what's right"—for God's children.  (Pause.)


          If you try to lift this parable out of its context and make it a teaching about how God wants everyone to get paid the same about of money, then it's not going to work.  I am sure that Jesus never meant this to be a teaching about the workplace.  (Pause.)



          Almost every Sunday, we celebrate the Holy Eucharist, and every Sunday we have a reception in the parish hall.  At coffee hour, you grab a plate and you eat what you want.  You grab a cup, and you get some coffee, or some juice.   How much you get doesn't really matter.  Some of us make up a plate, some of us just take one thing, some of us don't have any of it. 


          No one really thinks about how much—it's a reception.  There is no meaning attached to it.  But now, when you come up to the Altar, you are coming to receive the food that is not just food, and the drink that is not just drink.  And the portions are the same: one piece of bread, and one sip of wine. 


          What did you do for the kingdom of God this past week?  Have you fed the hungry?  Have you tended to this sick?  Have you tried to bring hope and healing and care and support?  You get one piece of bread, and one sip of wine.  What if you started on Wednesday?  Well, I've got good news for you.  You get one piece of bread, and one sip of wine.  What if you started on Friday?  One piece of bread; one sip of wine.


          What if you did nothing at all?  What if it never occurred to you that you had the power to do those things?  That God had poured his Holy Spirit upon you and made you capable of doing and being and giving more than you first thought…  And now you want to get out there and go to work for the one who owns the vineyard…  Well, I have good news for you!  You get one piece of bread, and one sip of wine.  And that's the Kingdom of God. 





If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving 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, September 12, 2011

Remembrance of September 11th 2001. 11 September 2011.

For the audio version, click here and select 13th Sunday after Pentecost.

Remembrance of September 11th 2001.  11 September 2011. [1]


          As we gather as the Church today, we cannot help but remember the lives lost on September 11, 2001.  We remember as well the disruption of our lives on that otherwise beautiful day. 


          W.F. Deedes, a British journalist for the international newspaper, The Weekly Telegraph, wrote at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom that the weather in England seemed poignantly beautiful while British and American forces were bombing Baghdad. 


As a man of advanced years, Deedes recalled the conflicts of the past century, noting that at their beginnings the weather in England seemed so maddeningly beautiful.  Song birds were singing in his garden, while newly sprouted leaves offered silent signs that destruction and bloodshed can coexist in the same world of new beginnings.


          The beauty of the weather on September 11, 2001 clashed with the horror of annihilated lives, relationships suddenly and tragically ended, valiant rescue workers fallen in the line of duty, proud buildings made rubble, and the headquarters of the American military violated.  If you weren't watching the television, or weren't directly affected by the attacks, you might have noticed that it was a warm, Indian summer day.  The temperature was about 75 degrees, low humidity, and a light, occasional wind blew through trees, which had not yet turned color.

The beauty of that day was the height the summer season.  Autumn truly began when the airplanes hit the buildings, and when the emotions of being violated hit us.  From that day forward, the wind got cooler and leaves started changing—like our feelings toward the people we knew so little about, except that they hated us.


          "Who were these people, and why do they hate us?" we asked ourselves.  Some folks bought copies of the Koran in hopes of understanding how the Islamic scriptures were used to incite such violence.  "Why do they hate us," we asked ourselves, as we exchanged our short-sleeved shirts for long ones, and began wearing light jackets. 


          Weeks followed weeks, and the bombs fell on Afghanistan as we then exchanged our jackets for heavy winter coats.  Autumn turned into winter, and we bundled up, lest another attack should make us colder.


          September 11th 2001 was ten years ago.  We have seen so much since then.  Military action in Afghanistan, and Iraq, a series of hurricanes in this country, and natural disaster throughout the world, an uncertain economy, and unrest everywhere—especially, in recent months, in the Middle East. 


          We have been through a lot since September 11th, in a way that makes that eerily beautiful day seem more and more poignant as time goes on.  For some, perhaps, the death of Osama bin Laden has brought closure.  I don't know. 




Chapter three of the book of the prophet Habakkuk contains some of our loveliest biblical prayers in poetry.  The prayer begins with a remembrance of better times, "O Lord, I have heard of your renown, and I stand in awe, O Lord, of your work."  But then Habakkuk prays, "In our own time revive it; in our own time make it known; in wrath may you remember mercy."


          We may find ourselves with feelings of resentment—wondering why God did not override the abilities of the men and women who committed those acts of terrorism.  "Lord," we pray, "we have heard of your power and seen your work."  In our time renew your favor, O God; make your works known to us.  In your wrath, remember to be merciful with us.


          One of the most vexing questions in all of theology is: If God is good and all-powerful, why does God allow bad things to happen?  September 11th will always confront us with that question.  One answer may be that it is that because God is good, God allows us to experience the totality of human life—and that includes tragedy.  If we could only know happiness, we would never be truly happy.  If there were no night, there would never be day. 


          In the cross of Jesus Christ we see that if there were no death, we would never treasure and make use of our lives.




          So we are left with the question: when that beautiful Indian summer day ended in tragedy, how are we to persevere in the cold winter that follows?  Habakkuk answers that question with the determination of true faith.


          He writes, "Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.  God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights."


          In the newspaper, just this past week, a daughter of one of the 9/11 victims expressed frustration that it seems like every year's remembrance is like another funeral for her mother.  Her mother was a psychologist, and the daughter suggested that her mother would have not wanted her death to be rehearsed in this way every year.  That perhaps the better remembrance would be to express a deeper compassion for others year `round.  Perhaps it is only then that we can find some measure of forgiveness and closure.  That certainly is something to think about. 


          If forgiveness is something you feel you can offer, God bless you,  you have received a rare and powerful gift.  For most of us, I would imagine, there are still mingled feelings of anger and sadness, which are very understandable.   


          So let us commend ourselves and one another, and all our life to God, who is able to bring life from death.  Who is able to implant forgiveness in hardened hearts.  Who is able to do more than we can ask or imagine.


          May the souls of all those who died ten years ago, and all the faithful departed, rest in peace, and rise in glory.  May we all find the compassion, healing, and courage to live new and nobler lives.






If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving 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.





[1] Updated from my sermon of  11 September 2005.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Proper 18A. 4 September 2011.

For the audio version, click here and select 12th Sunday after Pentecost.


          There are some Sundays when the lessons presented for preaching do not seem to come bearing gifts.  This is not always the case.  Usually a nice parable will come, bringing along a full three course meal.  Subtleties of meaning; paradox, symbolism—interesting vagaries in the original Greek or Hebrew.  And with a little time and thought, something interesting will emerge.  I have even known a short Psalm—not longer than eight verses—will ask me to go get a cup of coffee and sit outside and tell me things about the glory of God and the majesty of nature.


          But then there are Sundays like today, when none of the lessons seem particularly intriguing.  Of course, it might not be the lessons; it might be the preacher.  Coming back from vacation and settling back in to the disciplines of study is a lot like going back to school; and what student has been able to sit at the classroom desk without staring out the window and remembering those carefree days of vacation? 


          I remember thinking it was so cruel that school started before it got cold outside.  If grown-ups had even an ounce of memory about how hard it is to be a child, they would wait for the leaves to fall, and the air to become crisp with just the tiniest bite of frost before calling us to our textbooks.  As it was, we would come home after school in those early September days, grab a snack, and then try to squeeze a day's worth of play into those painfully short hours before dinner. 


          Peter is about to learn this.  He starts kindergarten on Tuesday, and my mind has been replaying scenes and moments from my childhood when I was his age and starting school.


          Childhood is such a profound time of learning—unlike any other time in our lives.  Children are constantly absorbing and retaining bits of information about how to manage their lives in ways that then become habits of behavior we adopt, and rarely examine.  It scares me sometimes to think about it, because those little eyes see everything, and they want to know why some people do things differently.


          Peter and Maggie think that everyone goes to church.  They understand that there are many churches in the same way that there are many Cracker Barrel restaurants,  but what happens when they learn the painful truth that many people don't even believe in God? 


          And do you realize that that simple—well, okay, it's not that simple—but that simple belief that God exists forms the backbone of so much about how we live our lives?  A belief that God loves us and supports us becomes, in time, the context of how we learn to treat other people.  When we offend others, we not only seek their forgiveness, but God's forgiveness as well, because God is the creator and maker of humankind.  We are God's children.  You cannot beat up on a child of God without expecting God to be upset. 

          Our normative patterns of politeness and civility have their foundation in a belief that what we do matters beyond the other person and ourselves—but that God cares about that. 


          This was something that Paul dealt with continually as he founded churches outside the Hebrew culture.  The task would have been, it seems to me, much easier for the churches being started in Palestine—but as the Apostles made their way into Asia Minor and throughout the Roman Empire there were issues of culture and behavior that they needed to address and adapt to—or preach against.


          So much of Paul's letter to the Romans is attempting to cast a moral vision for living life in relationship with God and others, because you cannot really talk about who Jesus is without talking about his radical obedience to God and love of humanity.  A line dividing the two simply cannot be drawn; they are inseparable.


          He writes, "Love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, `You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet'; and any other commandment, are summed up in this, `Love your neighbor as yourself.'  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law."


          By law, of course, Paul means the Torah—the teachings of God about how we are to live in relationship.  Paul is a Jew writing to Gentiles—but trying to bring the morality of his background and the radical morality of Jesus to people who were not raised with that understanding.  The Roman culture was not without morality, but it wasn't a morality rooted in an everlasting relationship with one God—and that makes a difference.


          If it's just between you and someone else—then it's pretty simple.  But Jesus taught that it's never really just between two people.  In fact, nothing we do can ever be so simply contained, because our relationships are never just one to one.  Something happens to you, and you will share that with others, and those others will be affected by how you have either been helped or hurt. 


          I remember hearing someone on television say, "You had better not be rude to the cashier at the grocery store."  He said, "She will be hurt, and she may be so upset that she's mean to boy in the back.  He might be so upset that he cuts someone off on the highway.  The trucker will be so upset that he misses his exit, and the delivery is late.  Which will make the contractor angry, who will mess up the house of the senator, who was going to vote in favor of the president's bill, but was too angry, so the bill failed, which made the president angry, who said something on TV, which made the terrorists angry..."  Well…the point is made. That's an absurd chain of events, but it's not too far from reality.


          I'm not trying to say that our little slip ups, and moments of raw humanity are to blame for the instability of the world, but—let's face it—they don't help. 


          "Love your neighbor as yourself."  That is a tricky one.  The word love is our old friend agape—love that is willing to suffer.  Love that does not draw lines around who is in and out.  Love that may look like a tiny little stream in a meadow, but traces its source to the ocean. 


          Love your neighbor as yourself.  One of the benefits of being married is that I can always ask for help.  Karin was working on her own sermon on this and she mentioned that when she was a teenager, hanging out with her friends, one of the things they would do, when they wanted to say something about someone, was to say, "I love her because I'm a Christian, but…!" 


          It reminds me of the old southern expression, "Bless her heart."  You can get away with all sorts of things when you say, "Bless her heart!" 


          I have heard so many Christians say that that you can love someone without liking them; and every time I hear that, it just doesn't sit well.  It makes sense if you translate love as "care," but I'm not sure we're meant to do that.


           I would not want to be loved "as a Christian," if that meant not being liked, too.  I am sure you would feel the same way.  Let me just pause for a moment to say, quite personally, that I love you all, and that does also mean like.  When one of you gets sick, or when one of your loved ones gets sick—I may have trouble keeping all the medical histories straight, and I may fumble for the right names—but I care.  I am not perfect at loving everyone—only Jesus is—but I certainly aspire to it.   We all aspire to actual, genuine love.  Yet, it's exhausting to think about all that that entails, or how we would ever be able to check the box that we had done enough.



          I think we are meant to be a little uncomfortable with "love your neighbor as yourself."  Agape is such a rich word that you can taste the difference when it's watered down.  You can tell when it is applied too lightly, or too casually.


          I remember telling a parishioner in my last parish that I loved her.  She is the longest standing member of that parish, and she was in and out of hospitals the entire time I was her priest.  She had seen clergy come and go.  To her I was just the latest one, but I love my parishioners—and I have never met a Christian I didn't also like—at least a little bit.  She said, "You keep coming to visit me.  Why?"  And I said, "Because I love you." 


          And she paused.  It seemed me like she didn't speak for five minutes, but it was only about ten seconds.  You know what I mean, right?  You put yourself out there for real, and you don't know what could happen.  It's even harder when the person is in her 80s.  I could see her wheels spinning, and the divide between our generations seemed as far apart as from here to the moon. 


          I remembered my grandfather who grew up in the Great Depression, and who probably never heard his daddy say "I love you."  I remembered crawling up into his lap when I was Peter's age and kissing his ear and saying, "I love you," and this rough workman's hand—both gentle and firm—would pat the side of my head, and mumble something I couldn't make out.  It wasn't "I love you, too," but it was as close to that as he could get. 


          I would ask my mother why he didn't say it, and she would "draw her breath in pain," as Shakespeare said, to tell me that he wasn't comfortable with that.  But everything about him was soft and loving, and with many little gifts and pats on the arm and cheek, he would say it, and not say it.


          My parishioner was from that era.  Love was not a word you said out loud—especially not to people outside the family.  You don't show affection in public.  Men shake hands and smile.  They tell the truth.  They stand around at the barn or the gas station talking.  It's the length of time that says I like you, or I love you.  It's the peace you feel when you are around them that says I care about you.


          With women…well…I don't know about woman to woman.  But it seemed to me that it was the offer of food.  The kitchen was open.  There was candy in the jar.  There was the smile, the gift, the gentleness of their being—the way they sat in a chair.  Something about them said it.


          I watched my parishioner cycle through a series of possible responses; and at first I regretted using the word "love" in a way that might seem to be diluted to her—from her generation.  I meant it sincerely, but she may have thought otherwise.  This was awkward.  I almost took it back, but I realized that her discomfort was not my discomfort.  You are going to have deal with me, lady.  You are going to have to deal with love that visits you in the hospital and visits you at home and won't let go of you.  I am the one who may one day have the honor of laying you to rest in the churchyard.  I am your priest.


          Finally, the silence was broken.  She said, "Well…I think very highly of you, too." 


          And I smiled and accepted that remark.  I was not offended in the slightest bit.  I would have been inauthentic for her to say, "I love you, too."  And I probably shouldn't have said it, even if it had been in my heart—because sometimes what is most real is the inability to gauge how deep love runs.


          Love is far too precious a word to be used unless you really mean it.  Love cannot just go out for coffee with "regard" and "care" and "like."  You can stop in at the Spring House and have a beer with "regard" and "care" and "like," but you might not find agape sitting that the table.  Love, in it's most authentic form, shows up in the most interesting places—usually where it is needed the most:  in the hospital, in the nursing home, in the preschool, in the break room at work—and of course, in any healthy church.


          I have seen it wherever the pretence of invincibility is gone, and the soul of a man or woman is laid bare.  Whenever I see it—and I'm sure you feel this way, too—its holiness changes me, and makes me want to a better man and a better Christian.  It makes me want to love my neighbor as myself. 






If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving 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.