Sunday, October 30, 2011

Show v. Service

Sermon preached 10/30/11.

Jesus is in a mood this morning.  That’s all I can think of.  He’s come to Jerusalem and he’s not holding back.  Makes me think of the Cardinals’ pitcher who let loose a couple of choice words after inducing a long fly ball out to end the inning in game 5 of the series.  What a series.  No sound, of course, but you didn’t need it.  Lips were easy to read.  Was that really called for? Bek asked.  And we have the same reaction of Jesus, maybe.  Relax, Jesus, they’re on your side; they’re the religious establishment, it’s all good.  But it’s not all good.  It’s not all good at all.  Jesus is calling out the Pharisees and scribes for behavior he sees as nothing less than destructive to the souls of those who would inherit the Kingdom of God.

What’s going on?

It is especially confusing to see Jesus reacting so strongly because I have grown up in an age that preaches tolerance as the ultimate expression of love.  Tolerance: live and let live.  Not rocking the boat.   The opposite of Jesus in the gospel this morning.  By confronting the Pharisees so harshly, Jesus challenges what I thought I knew about love.  Says one theologian:

“It is often assumed that Jesus’s judgmental tone and his unforgiving judgments are incompatible with the great commandment (love the Lord your God, love your neighbor as yourself), (and) even more at odds with his admonition that we should love our enemies.  Yet...the love that Jesus preaches is not incompatible with judgment and, in particular, judgment on hypocrisy.  Faithful love, if faithful, is judgment” (Hauerwas 2006, p195)

Specifically, and plainly, Jesus makes clear that the love of Jesus has not erased the Law, God’s standard for God’s people.  And this should not surprise us.  Jesus himself said that he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.  That for all its direction, order, and structure, there are things that the Law couldn’t reach, like the inmost motivations of the human heart. 

It is possible, after all, Jesus says, to simply go through the motions or, worse, to attempt to turn relationship with God into a position of power over others.  The attempt to turn relationship with God into a position of power over others is what has Jesus so upset this morning.

His frustration is that love of God and love of neighbor are being commandeered for personal gain.  By crying out against this, Jesus is intentionally locating himself in Israel’s long tradition of prophets: prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah (whom we hear this morning) who called the people again and again to worship of sincerity and truth: justice, and compassion for the least, last, and lost in the People of God.

So Jesus starts talking today, and his original hearers have the bells and whistles of the prophets going off in their heads.  We might be less familiar with some of these prophets, but no worries, I have us covered.  Jon Foreman, of Switchfoot fame, has written a song, Instead of a Show, which aside from being a pretty good song, is also a pretty good paraphrase of Isaiah 1:11-18.  In it, we see something of the beginning of the complaint Jesus picks up for God in the 23rd chapter of Matthew’s gospel.

[Play music]

Instead Of A Show, by Jon Foreman 

I hate all your show and pretense
The hypocrisy of your praise
The hypocrisy of your festivals
I hate all your show
Away with your noisy worship
Away with your noisy hymns
I stomp on my ears when you're singing 'em
I hate all your show

Instead let there be a flood of justice
An endless procession of righteous living, living
Instead let there be a flood of justice
Instead of a show

Your eyes are closed when you're praying
You sing right along with the band
You shine up your shoes for services
There's blood on your hands
You turned your back on the homeless
And the ones that don't fit in your plan
Quit playing religion games
There's blood on your hands

Instead let there be a flood of justice
An endless procession of righteous living, living
Instead let there be a flood of justice
Instead of a show
I hate all your show

Let's argue this out
If your sins are blood red
Let's argue this out
You'll be one of the clouds
Let's argue this out
Quit fooling around
Give love to the ones who can't love at all
Give hope to the ones who got no hope at all
Stand up for the ones who can't stand at all, all
I hate all your show
I hate all your show
I hate all your show
I hate all your show

Instead let there be a flood of justice
An endless procession of righteous living, living
Instead let there be a flood of justice
Instead of a show
I hate all your show

I want to suggest this morning that the prophetic tradition of Isaiah, and Jesus, too, puts before us the question of Show versus Service.  Show, the putting on of a religious costume for the sake of respect.  Service, the endless procession of righteous living, seeking and serving Christ in all persons.  The question of Show versus Service has the potential to be uncomfortable for us as Episcopalians because we wear vestments similar to the ones the Pharisees get called out for wearing.  Because some of us call priests and parents “Father,” even though Jesus thinks this confuses some people as to who their true Father is.  Even so, I think we should be encouraged when we remember that what we do here on the Lord’s Day is not called “The Show,” but the “service.”  After all, as one author says, “The externals are not the problem, but they become a problem when they no longer shape the life of prayer.”  The life of prayer.  This may be an obvious point, but here, our life of prayer is called the Sunday service because, in our Sunday services, we Christians learn what it means to serve.  Not a show, but our service.

Here, in the Eucharist, we learn the proper place of power in our lives because we worship a king who climbed on a cross for his people.  We learn what it means to serve when Jesus washes our feet. 

This understanding of power’s proper place in our lives orders our worship.  So, for example, the one we call the priest, the presider over the Assembly shows off his power by what?  Bussing the table.  By service.  And the ones with great wealth, great monetary power, come here and...share their plenty with those people in need.  And the ones who have been wronged, and so find themselves in positions of power over others, come here to pour out forgiveness, exchange God’s peace, even with one-time enemies.  It is here, at this Table, that we learn to serve one another.  Here, that we learn that power is not for privileging ourselves, but for raising up the powerless.  That love is not first for the lovely, but for the loveless and unloving.  That hope is not first for the hopeful, but for the hopeless and despairing.  We learn this here, and only here, because while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Here that we learn that there is no gift under heaven but those that might make us servants one to another.  Because he came as our servant.

If this moment and this encounter with God mean to teach you anything for Monday through Saturday, it is how to serve.  Go in peace, we say, to love and serve the Lord.

An obvious thing, maybe.  But that’s why we’re here.  You know, instead of a show.

Amen.

"Happy Are They Who Have Not..."
a meditation on psalm 1

Sermon preached 10/23/11.

This morning begins our new series on the psalms.  One psalm each week.  For the next 150 weeks, ending about this time in 2014 (a little more if we do 119 any justice)…just kidding.  But today's psalm IS number one.  And this past week has been for me the rekindling of an old love with the first of the psalms.  Psalm number one.  The psalm whose quasi-repetition moves from images of walking to images of lingering to images of sitting and invites the hearer to slow down, pay attention, describing the lives of those who walk apart from God, maybe those who have given up, sat down, and also those who remain standing, who dare to move, to keep step, who brave the pilgrim walk with God. These words speak a prophetic healing that my soul knows it needs.  To be planted by streams of water. 

Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful.

Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on his law both day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper.

It is not so with the wicked; they are like chaff which the wind blows away.

Therefore, the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes, nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.

For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked is doomed.

To be planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither.  With leaves that do not wither.  South Texans know something about withering leaves, I think.  And what are the streams, but the living water of Christ, and what is the fruit but the produce of the Spirit, and what are the leaves but the leaves of Revelation; where the leaves of the tree are for the healing of nations. 

To be planted by streams of water.
Their delight is in the law of the Lord.

Does your soul also long for these things?

The promise of being planted by the waters of Christ.  The prospect of walking with God in the cool of the shade.  The psalmist in consciously alluding to pictures of paradise, images of Eden, illustrations that begin the story in Scripture and images that find their perfection in the Scripture’s last book.  The story for beginning to end all the way through of the healing, the reconciling, of all things and everything to God.

The psalmist seems to hold all of these things together, lifts up this hope like strong branches on a wide trunk whose roots quench their thirst with the water of life, running clear as crystal.

So like a lost, treasured gem, I turn these verses over and over again in my hand.  Like a choice cut of meat, I savor the hope of this psalm.    And like a good book I don’t tire of rereading, revisiting, I discover something new, alive, and fresh each time in the familiarity of the words.

This past week, for example, familiarity allowed a kind of playful irreverence which uncovered in turn an unexpected newness:  I started the first verse and stopped half-way through, knowing full well that no self-respecting grammar teacher would approve of separating a helping verb from the verb it helped.  So instead of saying ‘Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful,’ I simply said, “Happy are they who have not…”  Tried it on, to see how it fit.

Happy are they who have not.  Huh.  And it’s ridiculous, of course, not in keeping with the full context of the psalm.  But I wondered if the psalm still spoke its truth, even with one hand tied behind its back like that.

Happy are they who have not.  Of course, I thought, poverty should not be romanticized.  And yet, stopping there, the words of Matthew’s gospel seemed to audibly echo from the pages of Scripture: Jesus, telling his disciples, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.”

Happy are they who have not.  Maybe there’s something there after all.

And I thought of the fear that drives so much of the American existence.  The fear that I might, in my life, miss out on something.  Anything.  All manner of even unappealing things that somehow become justifiable - indeed, indispensable! - because, like they say, “you only live once.”  Like fried Oreos.  Fried Oreos, in a picture someone shared with me from their recent trip to the State Fair of Texas in my beloved hometown.  Under normal circumstances, no way, she said.  “But then,” she paused. “I got to thinking...why not?  At least once?” 

In this way, ours has become the day and age of the bucket list.  That list of things we’d want to do at least once before we die, even if it’s not something we’d ever do twice, because, for better or worse, who wants to miss out?  Because questions of better or worse are no match for the bottom-line threat - the existential dread - of not having had the experience at all.

So a short-run billboard in New York played this fear to its logical extreme; it said: “Life is short, have an affair.”  Again, the overwhelming fear of missing out, this time placed squarely within the anxiety of our own mortality, used to justify behavior in opposition to the purposes for our lives that most of us would say we value.

Happy are they who have not.

Maybe so.  Even so, the human preoccupation with being left behind, of being left out, of fearing not having, is perhaps nearing a peak unequalled in the history of civilization.  So we strap ourselves to networks and text works, the so-called crack-berry that sends us notifications when we are emailed, text messaged, mentioned, tagged, photographed or noticed.  We hesitate to commit to social engagements too far ahead because, in a world as connected as this one, what if something better comes along?

But what when the crack-berry’s not ringing?  Who are we then?

Along the way, relatively simple decisions like where we will rest our heads and how we will use our hands become opportunities to obsess on our own sense of self-importance and whether or not we are maximizing our opportunities fully.  The grass is always greener.  That’s not a new notion for humanity.  But rarely in human history have we had the luxury of coveting so many distant hills.  So many possibilities by which to second-guess our present standing.

Happy are they who have not.

Ironically, some of the distant hills that we covet belong to the ones who have not. 

Like the couple who died this past week, married for seventy-two years; they died within an hour of each other, holding the other’s hand.  Or the strength of the man who, rising at three-in-the-morning has done 1,000 curls each day for the past fifty years.  Or the wisdom of the elder who spends an hour in prayer each morning and radiates holiness, and you figure that you don’t have enough years left in your life to equal her lifelong dedication.  Each one a brilliant 'yes' representing a thousand 'no's along the way.

But jealousy of this kind, the coveting of the committed, is a false jealousy because their possession of the thing does not prevent my having it.  If I am honest, I may only like the idea of fitness or wisdom, because the way of the thing itself is open to me, too.  Happy are they who have not walked on other paths.  Happy are they who have not.  Can I believe this?

I encountered a woman recently who faulted her daughter for not having fallen into drugs.  That her daughter had not fallen into drug use kept her, the mother said, from being able to empathize with her drug using sister.  While there may be some truth in the ability of shared experiences to produce empathy between people, I believe the mother’s anger was misdirected insofar as she found herself indirectly wishing that the one daughter had also encountered the hell of drug use. 

Happy are they who have not.

No, we will not live forever in this life, but death does not make every experience beneficial, an experience to seek out.  We’re not called disciples for nothing.

Disciples, baptized in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Planted by steams of water.  Bearing fruit in due season.  With leaves that do not wither. 

And if we are planted by the waters that connects both shores of paradise, then the threat of not having loses all of its power.  If when we die life is not ended but changed, as the Prayer Book teaches, and as the Risen Christ stands even now as the witness, missing out is not a fear that needs to or ought to determine my next move.  Rather, as baptized members of a resurrection people, I have been given both a new criterion and the freedom to pursue it.  My questions are clear: Does it bring me closer to the Kingdom?  Does it bring me nearer to Jesus?  Can I see the cross of Christ from where I’m standing?

And can you think of a difficult relationship, encounter, decision, or purchase in the next week for which those questions would not give you direction, instruction, and peace?

Finally, because the freedom to ask these questions comes from my walking with the risen Jesus, I believe these questions are more than mere moralism.  That is, they do not become hopeless words for when we inevitably mess up.  They are hopeful words because the same God who gives us all the time we need to love God and each other walks with us, forgives us, restores in us the new and unending life of his Son.  To learn to be content with this Son is the fullness of joy.

So ends my love song with the first of the psalms.  The psalm whose quasi-repetition moves from images of walking to images of lingering to images of sitting and invites the hearer to slow down, pay attention, describing the lives of those who walk apart from God, maybe those who have given up, sat down, and also those who remain standing, who dare to move, to keep step, who brave the pilgrim walk with God. These words that speak a prophetic healing my soul knows that it needs.  To be planted by streams of water. 

Amen.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Money, Sex, and Gossip

Money, Sex, and Gossip
(Things that Belong to the Kingdom of God)

Preached October 16, 2011

On the surface, it’s an enticing, exciting, maybe even subversive question:

Do disciples of Jesus have to pay taxes?


The gist of what the leaders are onto when they ask him, "Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor...or not?"

Huh, we think.  I hadn’t thought about that.  Truthfully, I don't think of these lessons as being that concretely tangible.  But now that you mention it, it’s about time this life of faith thing had a material perk.  And it makes sense: we’re familiar with conscientious objectors in times of war, people who refrain from a certain military services on the grounds of religious belief.  Why not with taxes?

In 1961, the Amish, objecting on religious principle to the concept of commercial insurance, successfully appealed their participation in Social Security, which had been first introduced in 1935.  It took twenty-six years to sort out, but the IRS formally recognized the Amish exception in 1961.  The Amish stated their religious situation thusly: "We do not want to be burdensome, but we do not want to lose our birthright to everlasting glory, therefore we must do all we can to live our faith!"

And American Christians, we lean in, intrigued, listening for the answer, the tax implications of the Kingdom of God.  Are we off the hook?  Did I just loophole my way into an extra ten grand a year?  Can it be as simple as a self-exemption, a religiously minded civil disobedience that stands to help my cash flow situation?

Unfortunately, the answer is ‘no,’ even the Amish pay taxes.  Their exemption is only for Social Security.  I know, maybe that still sounds like a deal you want.  But the other taxes, they pay - they insist on it - based in part on this morning’s gospel: Jesus’s answer to the question about tax evasion.

Still, the Amish instinct to see in the question put before Jesus this morning a pull between kingdoms - the government of the day on the one hand and the Kingdom of God on the other - is spot on.  The tension between the kingdom of the day and the Kingdom of God is woven into the original context, the Herodians talking to Jesus.

Full disclosure: these Herodians are Pharisees who have pledged allegiance to Herod, the puppet-king of the Roman empire.  They were testing Jesus because to not pay taxes would be treason against the occupying government, Rome.  But to pay taxes might been seen as subordinating the Kingdom of God under the kingdom of Rome, which no self-respecting Messiah would ever do.  Their question for Jesus has a kind of “put-up or shut-up” design, intended to force Jesus to declare his hand, and, either way, to end his ministry.

Instead, he asks for the coin used for the tax.

And nothing he says after this is as crucial to our understanding his response as his asking for the coin.  We cannot miss this.  He asks them for the coin used to pay the tax.  And they have one to give.

Big deal, you say.  And truthfully, not a big deal, maybe, for you or for me, except that no one these days carries coins in our pockets, but he asks them for the coin, and it is a big deal.  Because they have one to give.  Because for all their unsavory relationships with Rome, they’re still Jewish, and a metal coin with a graven image is still distasteful to them.  Because the 2nd of the 10 commandments is one they take seriously, the one about other gods, idols, and their not having them.  Because the Jewish understanding of that commandment dramatically shaped the limits of Jewish art clear through the 18th century - we're talking thousands of years.  Because the coin in their hand convicts them of the compromise of their faith and signals in them their own participation in idolatry, even if it had started reluctantly.

He asks for the coin, and they have one to give.  They're not proud of that.

The Pharisees try to trap Jesus.  To peg him as a radical.  To push him to the margins.  To expose him.  But they give Jesus the coin and the old quote is proved true: “...the line separating good and evil passes not through states, not between classes, nor between political parties, but through every human heart.”

The coin is in their pockets.  Jesus doesn’t blame them; but he exposes their blaming.  Another quote from my favorite movie - free points if you can name it after the service - "The world is made for people who aren't cursed with self-awareness."  They aren't such a people.  They are aware.  Like us, they find themselves caught between kingdoms - more than they know because Jesus is breaking the true Kingdom in - and the only proper response to their knowledge of their selves is grief and repentance.

Their grief and repentance, their sadness, if it should come, isn’t all bad - it’s different from shame - because it names somewhere deep in them their buried longing for their birthright.  This is the effect of Jesus’s coming as Kingdom.  "We do not want to be burdensome,” the Amish had said, “but we do not want to lose our birthright to everlasting glory, therefore we must do all we can to live our faith!"

So the question for us this morning is one of birthright and idolatry.  Birthright, the Kingdom we were made for; idolatry, all the others that we fall for.  More often than not, we’re not looking to trap Jesus, I think, (I'm not that clever) only to excuse ourselves from those parts of the life of faith we find unappealing.  To justify our small flirtations in other kingdoms. 

Like stewardship.  Where the competition of the kingdoms is raw.  Don’t worry, we’ve hit stewardship pretty hard the last two weeks, I won’t hit it the same way today.  A week off.  But if we’re talking parts of the life of faith that we’d rather excuse ourselves from, stewardship is up there on the list for most Christians, if we're honest.  And not just stewardship, of course.  Our worlds are built such that the so-called private realm might keep God's claims on portions of our lives at bay.  Sex and gossip come to mind.  (Side note: you should have seen the heads pop up just now!)  Anything for which our first instinct is the words, "none of your business" - whether to each other or to God.

Another example.

A clergy friend of mine was sharing with me that his church unanimously agreed at a recent meeting that the standard for their congregation’s participation in Sunday worship should be 75%.  100% of them coming 75% of the time.  Three out of four Sundays.  That’s the goal they would like for themselves.  A subsequent study of the church revealed that 17% of their congregation is living into that goal.

My friend did not point any fingers.  Like Jesus before the Herodians, he didn’t have to.  The fact that the congregation could name a common goal he counted as a good thing.  A part of them still remembered their birthright, what they were made for.

So if birthright is what we were made for and idolatry is those things that we fall for, the question that marks the difference between where you hope to be and where you are is not unlike Jesus’s question to the Pharisees: (But instead of asking for the coin - because no one carries coins these days -) We might paraphrase it like this: “What’s in your wallet?”  Have you heard that before?  In your best Capital One Viking voice, turn to your neighbor and ask her, “What’s in your wallet?” 

And I hope it’s clear at this point, but we’re not just talking money, though it may involve money.  Our spiritual pockets are a bit like Mary Poppins’ fabled handbag, remarkably able to carry lots of big things.  So many things that compete as would-be kingdoms against the Kingdom.

And this is the best of what Christian accountability can mean, I think: when we can turn to our neighbor and ask each other about God’s dreams for us and where we are now and what the difference between them is; when we can help one another empty our pockets of any and all idols we carry. 

If you have trouble along the way identifying anything in your pockets that would lighten your load significantly, consider one author who says that all idolatry is the quest for certainty.  That seems to fit.  When one knows one carries the birthright of the Kingdom, the best distractions are often false appeals to certainty.  Because the road is long and we walk by faith, certainty is the first temptation.  Like Esau, Jacob's brother, in his hunger, selling his birthright to his brother for the certainty of a hot meal.  But does that mean - does it follow - then that the Kingdom of God is uncertain, unpredictable, unstable, unexpected?

God, I hope so. 

C.S. Lewis wrote of Aslan the lion in the Chronicles of Narnia - who was for Lewis a symbol for God: “He’s not a tame lion.” 

And so with visions of the empty tomb, and soldiers made like dead men, and women running wildly with fear and great, great joy, I close my eyes in sleep at night, breathe out, and say a prayer, that I would be held in waking and sleeping, in living and dying, in rising, in serving, in the life of the Kingdom by nothing and no one else but the uncertain, unpredictable, unstable, unexpected God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. 

Amen.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Fastball Jesus

Two songs, in their own ways beautiful, that have been taking turns in my head the past day and a half.  The first was blaring at HEB just past Baldwin on 286, where I stopped to pick up some goat milk for Annie.  The second was one I woke up with on Sunday, a nudge of the Spirit, albeit out of liturgical season.  Anyway, I have been struck especially by the first song's recurring line: "...but where were they going without even knowing the way?"  It strikes me as an apt descriptor for 90% of what we do as church, sometimes (myself, of course, included).  And of course, as church, we know that Jesus is the way for which we're groping.  That's where the gentleness of the second song comes in.  The longing is strong, for sure, but the posture of a strong longing made patient and met by a coming Savior stands in stark contrast to the mindless drive of the first song's pursuit.  Like I said, the two songs have been taking turns in my head all week.  And probably in other parts of me for much much longer than that.



PS Form is content: I love the setting for the 2nd video.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Six Word Follow-Up

A while back, in a sermon I can't find, I asked members of the congregation if they could shorthand their hopes for the life of faith in just six-words, a kind of uber-tweet.  The idea was that these six words could aid in a kind of personal spiritual check-in throughout the day.  Six words.  Am I on them?  Yes, good.  No, OK.  The following is my own brainstorm for six-words that might shape the life of a congregation like ours.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Garment is Christ

The blog's 100th post!  Preached at St Christopher's, October 9, 2011.

When was the last time you attended a party for which you had to decipher the dress code printed in small, black, italic letters on the invitation?

If you're like me, it's been a while.  I have to look up the different definitions.

Dress casual.  Party casual.  Black tie.  Ladies, do you keep a formal dress ready at home?  Men, let me ask you: do you keep a tux handy?

This morning’s gospel is about just such a party, and invitations go out to the people who should expect to be invited to nice parties like this one.  The frat house princes.  The queens and the debutantes.  Their parents.  The rich and well to do.  The preppies.  The politicians.  The players.  The ones that, if it were your party, you wouldn’t want to leave out.  The ones who maybe stand to reward you in terms of social capital, if you are a person in the market for that sort of thing.  In middle school we called them the cool kids.  The top of the popular pyramid.  The main attractions. 

So there’s a big party out, a really big party, a who’s who of coolness, but the cool kids say no.  They don’t come.  And you can say no when you’re cool because everyone knows that you could go to the party if you really wanted to.  If it was cool enough for you.  Sometimes it makes you cooler not to go.  Not only are you in the in-crowd, you are the in-crowd, you define it.  You put the so-called in-crowd on your wait-list.  Leave them wanting more.  It’s enough to know that you could go if you wanted to go.  Because you’re somebody. 

And the king in Jesus’s story this morning is disgusted.  He gets word that the cool kids have disrespected the ones who delivered the invitations.  Put them on hold.  Even hurt them.  Rumor that one hazing incident has gotten out of hand.  Said somebody died.  That they literally killed the messenger. 

The king says forget ‘em. 

The king says he’s got a party to throw, a Son to celebrate, and he doesn’t have any patience for the folks who think that if they’re good enough to be invited then they’re certainly good enough not to come if they’re busy.  No, he doesn’t have patience.  This isn’t about their being cool, their flaunting their stuff, what they did to deserve the invitation.  This is about his Son.  And the party he wants to have.  With as many people as will come.

So he does the unthinkable.  He invites the riffraff.  The losers.  The outcasts.  Says, ‘bring ‘em in, let’s go!’  And because he’s inviting the riffraff, at least one Anglican commentary suggests that it's reasonable to imagine that he pulls out his own clothes and hands them out at the door: ‘Here, put this on, it’s on me, just for fun.’  Let’s live it up.  Tonight will be special.  And over there, try the wine, it’s vintage.  The very best.

The cool kids said no.  The story, for them was about them; no room for a party.  If they thought of coming at all, it was only as a favor to the king.  The cool kids imagined themselves as gifts to the One who wanted to give them the world.  Gracing grace with their presence.

So the riffraff show up and most put on the clothes.  They put on the good garments per the king’s request.  But one scrub gets caught.  He likes his own clothes.  His style isn’t fancy, but it is his style, he wants to leave his own distinctive mark on the gala.    It’s the same reason the schools these days are leaning toward the uniforms.  Drawing attention to one’s self can make a distraction.  So like the folks who didn’t come, this man's first concern is himself, not primarily the celebrating of the Son the king adores.

It's a tragic comedy or comic tragedy, depending on how you come at it.  The king has a party that he wants everyone to attend.  The only qualifier for entrance is that no one is qualified.  It’s the king who gives the invitation and hands out his own clothes.  It’s only a problem for the ones who make an appeal of themselves.  The ones who make idols out of things like their status, their busyness, their wealth, their power, and their individual preferences.

Jesus says that distinctions like these are not the basis for this party, for this Kingdom.  And trying to make them so is to miss everything.  It’s a gift.

So when the king gets fed up and finally tells them they can all go to hell, it’s clear that it’s not because that’s the desire of the king, but because the presumption of their hearts prevents their accepting the invitation to the feast for which they were made.  The feast for which he alone can make them worthy.  And he promises that he will.

A story:

When I was Assistant to the Rector at St Helena’s, Boerne, Father David and I hosted a four week October series on Wednesday nights, covering the basics of the Bible: eighty-five of us, coming together, each Wednesday night, discussing holy Scripture and how to approach it.  A kind of Bible for beginners.  We had skits and everything.  It was fun.   At the end of one session, after folks had broken up to go home, a member of the church confronted the two of us over what the man said was Father David’s bad habit of not preaching the “whole gospel.”  “There is such a thing as hell,” the man said.  “It’s real.  You should preach it.” 

I remember Father David’s answer, something more pastoral, but generally to the effect of, “Yes, there is such a thing as hell; and Jesus promises it most regularly, if not exclusively, to the folks who try to justify themselves, hold up their achievements, their fine clothes, and impress the living God apart from accepting the mercies of Jesus."  A pause before he summarized: "Yes, there is a hell in Scripture, and it's mostly for the religious.”

Yikes.  If it doesn’t, it should sting.  It stung the Pharisees, too.  They didn’t kill Jesus for being polite.

The Gospel is a party, and the party is grace - the free gift of God - and grace means letting go of all the cool points we thought we were saving for God.  Get over yourself, come on in.

So, it’s still stewardship season, week two - remember, I won’t glaze over if you won’t glaze over, hang with me here - and let me say a quick thing about what I think I’m about to say: my job as preacher during stewardship season isn’t to trot out old statistics or talk about the financial needs of the parish or lock the doors behind you.  You’ve got a Vestry for that.  (Only kidding, Larry!)  When the preacher stands before you in stewardship season, his or her job is to speak the Word that we gather around, even and especially when that Word makes the compelling case that generous giving increases your awareness and responsiveness to the love of God in your life.

So it’s the season of financial stewardship - you and me, gathering, listening around the Word he would have us proclaim, you and me remembering that stewardship is about more than just money, but never less than money, that God has an interest in all that we do with all that we have and all that we are.  We’re talking financial stewardship when we encounter this gospel about self-justifying one’s existence, one’s entrance, into the Kingdom of God - you know, the cool points - and we’d be remiss not to observe at this point that money can be a fast track to cool points in lots of places:

In local and national politics, in social clubs, even prisons, bars, casinos, even dinner at the in-laws.

But not here.

Not the Church.  Because we don’t sell tickets.  Because you can’t buy the only grounds for your being here: here, where the only qualifier for you is receiving Jesus, putting on the garment of Christ. 

You know this already: you’re not giving to get.  You’re giving because he’s already invited you in, you said yes.  You’ve found your place at the table.  You’re giving because he’s already given you all that you need to enjoy the party of his Son forever.

At the early service, we remind ourselves of the overwhelming generosity of God at the Offertory.  Instead of singing the Doxology, we say: All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.

And because the thee can be confusing, we might say instead: “Lord, you give everything to us; even what we give to you comes from what you’ve given us.”

We’re not winning cool points; we’re becoming honest about ourselves, the world, and who we are.  So we empty ourselves of all the things we’re not in order to receive the most important thing we are: we are children gifted by God, even with our lives, and most especially in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. 

We give back to God what is already God’s so that we might speak truthfully about who and whose we are, how it is we came to have things to give in the first place, and to empty ourselves of the rest.  All things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee.

And so when Rebekah and I talk about giving each year, we don’t talk about what others give or about our having given enough.  It’s all his.  The question for us is always how we can give in ways that make our lives more truthful: in ways that name that we are not self-made, but are utterly at the mercy of the living God who loves us with his whole self.  In ways that make it easier to remember to forgive.  In ways that can echo, feebly, the generosity of God.

In a sense, stewardship for Rebekah and me is a kind of spiritual house-cleaning: when we toss out the trash, the light comes in in ways that leave us wondering why we didn’t do it so much sooner.

So give.  But not because it makes you cooler or more important.  Give because it stands to make you more truthful about yourself.  Give because it stands to let the light of the Gospel in all the way.  Give because you need the reminding, and the party is now.  Give because as much as you liked your old clothes, the garment before you is Christ.

The table is ready; the feast is for you.  Come receive Jesus, and receiving him, put him on.

Amen.

Defining Institution in Church: a 1 Question Survey

After an instructive phone convo with a friend about this post on institutions, he and I agreed that understanding what was meant my institutions might help the Church recognize what it means to be institutional, and most especially to better keep institutions in service to the Gospel imperative ("Go!  Tell my disciples that I'm risen from the dead!"), as opposed to something else.

Thus this quick survey:


 When you think of the church as institution, are you MOST referring to the:

a) structure, order, and protocol of your home church congregation
b) larger, diocesan network of which your home church is a part
c) membership of your local church in a national/international communion
d) financial obligations of your church (local, diocesan, national, or otherwise)
e) other (please explain)


Thanks for your help!


Jonathan+

When Kingdoms Collide

Came across this stewardship sermon (on this Sunday's Propers) preached a few years ago at St. Helena's, Boerne.  My first sermon during a stewardship season.  Now in season #4, it's fun and instructive to look back.

+++

Some IRS agents come looking for Jesus: “Teacher,” they say, “Mmm, we don’t know quite how to put this, this may come out awkward, so we’ll just put it out there: are your boys gonna pay taxes come April or not?”

“Excuse me?”

But with a tax book in one hand, they hold out the Scriptures, “Tell us,” they say, “just point out the relevant verses, but what are the fiscal implications, exactly, as you understand them, of your being Messiah and the Kingdom you preach?”

Their questions are real, but they aren’t sincere.  The questioners, predictably, are Pharisees, but also Herodians, and Herodians are the ones who pledge allegiance to Herod, the puppet king aligned with Rome and the emperor.  Put another away, they talk nice and all, but these aren’t the folks looking to turn in their pledge cards, to give for God’s Kingdom.  These folks are federal.  These folks are fishing for treason.  “Just say it, rabbi--we dare you to say it: tell us your Kingdom can disregard Caesar.”

But that’s just one side of well, the coin, the other side says that if Jesus doesn’t bite at the bait, if he doesn’t even hint that the Kingdom of God might mean the end of Caesar as king and the subsequent oppression of Jews at the hands of the Romans, then the questioners will have exposed Jesus for the same impotent man in an occupied land that they know themselves too well to be.  Messiah, indeed.

Meanwhile, the crowds hear the question, come in close, gather around.  Perched on their seats and in pin-drop silence, their eyes plead with their Savior: they hang on his word.  How will he answer?

The Herodians grow impatient: “C’mon, God’s King, we can’t wait long.  We need to know just what your intentions are.  Is it lawful to pay tax to the emperor--or not?”

Jesus asks for the coin, the denar, used for the tax. 

At this point, it may or may not be assuring, to you, to know that the coin he received looked a lot like our own.  Pull one out if you have it.  Go ahead, I don’t mind, fish for a coin.  Share with a friend.  Hold it up when you’ve got it.  What does it look like?  How does it feel?

“Forgive me,” Jesus says, “I don’t have a coin on me.  Maybe you can show me yours.  Thanks,” he says.

“Now,” he goes on, “whose face, whose head, whose graven image, is inscribed on your coin?”  Look at them close.

Like our own coins, the Roman coin used for the tax had the face of a ruler inscribed on it.  This was a serious problem for Jews, who believed that the depiction of any face on coin, in rock, or otherwise was strictly prohibited by the third of the ten commandments.  So when Jesus asks for the coin, he’s intentionally and painfully making his questioners squirm.  For a good Jew, and a Pharisee no less, it is not without embarrassment--perhaps some shame--that they pull out and hand to Jesus the newly minted idols that they carry.  The very presence of the Roman coin in their very Jewish hands, in their purses, it is an acquiescence to an unwanted, a foreign, power that occupies and oppresses them, even on and up to the level of their faith, and its compromise.   In an instant, the question once intended to trap Jesus has become the conviction of the ones who asked it.  Because they held the coin.

Jesus takes the coin. 

Now, what happens next is interesting.  Jesus doesn’t read them the coin; the folks around him undoubtedly know the words by heart; and so I wonder, without looking at your coin, without peeking, what are the words on it?  Do you know them by heart?  If you do, what are they?  Call them out!

The words around the money held in Jesus’ hand were equally well known, but in case your familiarity with 1st century Roman coins is even half as bad as mine, let me read it for you: written around the head inscribed on the coin handed to Jesus were these words: “Son of God...high priest”; not words of faith in Israel’s God, mind you, but words announcing the title of the emperor and the authority of another would-be god.  It seems their idol has a name.

Now before we go on, let us be clear: in the gospel this morning, Jesus addressing the Jews, the point for both sides is not money--this is far more than financial.  No, but balanced on the face of the coin in their hands is a social and political, religious, philosophical, Law of God tug-of-war for the worshipping heart of the Jew.  So Jesus’ message isn’t anti-capitalist; the admonition is not to tax evasion.  But only fools can hold the coins and not see the claims their idols make upon them.

But back to your coin.  I wonder: when we read, “In God we trust,” like “Son of God,” are we proclaiming the God of our faith, or are we announcing as god-like the authority of the one whose silver image stares at you from one side of the coin?  Does the coin you hold symbolize for you or call to mind the presence of a ruling power, one that occupies, consumes, even oppresses you--to the level of your faith, and its comprise? 

You would like me to believe, no doubt, that, in your life, the power is yours, that you are in control, that your debts are your own to choose; but the coin in your hand, it betrays you--you are not the all-powerful, even in your own life.  But who is?  Whose image lies on your coin?

“Jonathan!  Hold up!  Time out.  You’re going too far--I’m stoppin’ you short.  Rambling on about idols and coins, all the while our holding coins in our hand; did you really think we wouldn’t have the indignant courage to be insulted?  To call your slight of hand?  But look here, not one of us would say that George Bush--or George Washington for that matter--is the Son of God.  I hate to disappoint you, but belief in Roman deities died a long time ago indeed.  Images and idols and enemies of God--good Lord, it’s just spare change.  And just where did you hope this connection might lead us? 

Fair enough.  But before you write off this morning’s Gospel as out of touch, as not worth your hearing, as beneath your new coins, let me paraphrase a modern question all too commonplace this time of year:

“Good priests of the church, godly teachers, we understand that stewardship is important--did I mention I really liked last Sunday’s sermon on that very topic?  Really, David, you outdid yourself.  No, we understand stewardship, that God asks us to give, but still, we’re a little confused; when God asks for ten percent of what we earn, tell me, is that net or gross--you know, before or after taxes?”

Mmm.  Nevermind that the ones who ask the question seldom give ten percent off net OR gross, but do you see the competition of the gods? 

Do you feel the echo of Jesus’ words: “You cannot serve both God and Mammon”?

Sitting where you are, in your pew, on this Sunday, where does your worshipping heart finds its place in the tug of war of gods and idols?

When Jesus says, “Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s; give to God that which is God’s,” you begin to get the feeling that Jesus isn’t talking equal shares and dual loyalties; but that he’s pushing us to a nearly impossible choice: to choose his Kingdom above all the others.

But does this renegade King understand what he’s asking?  It’s a more than fair question.
To choose his Kingdom over our political allegiances, personal privileges, and financial gains, surely, this choosing will cost us;

to choose the one Kingdom that will not bring us more than what we have, but that demands we share our lives with others, this kind of choosing will utterly undo us.

but to choose the only Kingdom whose blessing is gift, this choosing alone will redeem and transform us.

Make no mistake, to choose this strange Kingdom will cost you the life you would have otherwise had.  Let no one be fooled: to give to this God will be a lousy investment; there are no returns, because there is no greater call; or to what would you turn after beholding the King?  The whole world made yours, God’s life opened to you, what prize would you covet still?

And sisters and brothers, the Good News of His Kingdom is that you are an heir--not later, but now--that you and I are living heirs made one with the risen Christ.  His Kingdom is our calling.

So when giving to God the things that are God’s, we invoke a treason of sorts; we hold out for that which is our gift born of God; in a world of too many idols to count, we pray for their ending, we cry out, “Thy Kingdom come”; and so giving to God the things that are God’s we give like we can nowhere else: without expectation; without manipulation; without pride or self-absorbed satisfaction.  In short, we can give with a naked thanksgiving: you and I found alive in God’s Kingdom, lost to the abundance of Christ’s love for us.

Amen.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Institutions: the Church's Cutting Edge

If you've got a little time, check out Chris Yaw's fascinating interview with Jorge Acevedo on multi-campus churches.  If you don't have as much time, click the same link and just read the synopsis.  Two big thoughts come out of this for me:

1) The content itself is good, and worth digesting.

2) The interview is an example of 1 of 2 trends shaping the form of mainline evangelical churches today: a move toward institutionalization.  Or as one clergy friend said when I shared the story, "They're making old-school dioceses."

Incidentally, the other half of the trend is a move toward the ancient rhythms of the liturgy.  Both trends are interesting, and essential, I think, for Episcopalians to consider.  Vibrant, growing churches are availing themselves of aspects of the Christian tradition that have long been central to Episcopal life and worship.

With so many Episcopalians feeling the need to apologize for the institution and liturgy, what would it mean in our current contexts to play to our strengths?  How can these aspects of the Episcopal character be re-imagined to bring out the best of these strengths for God's Church?


God is Generous

I remember landing my first job after high school.  Money.  Freedom.  Just me and myself and my Subaru wagon, no more attachments, but true independence, well, and Mom and Dad to cover the insurance and, you know, the occasional tank of gas.  It was only reasonable to expect.  No, I wasn’t independent at all, but a step in that direction.  And I remember my dad being proud of me in an “it’s about time” kind of way.  But I do think he was proud.  Minimum wage, maybe more if I did well, working at the neighborhood True Value Hardware store.  My buddy worked there, too; he was the one who told me about the job opening. 

I applied, interviewed, got the job.  I think I was a little surprised to get it.  Maybe a part of me was disappointed, wasn’t ready to move on.  But I would have never said that then. 

No more summer misadventures.  I got up one morning, and it was the working world now: eight or nine hour days.  Wearing the blue knit polo with the red letters in script, assembling propane gas grills, moving palates of mulch on the fork-lift, in time, graduating to the rental department where I checked in paint sprayers and rototillers and drove a huge truck downtown a couple of times.  Even started doing on-site work with overwhelmed husbands who meant well but rented equipment they didn’t quite know how to use. 

Not bad for a boy who not two months before still took an the extra second and a half to tell a flat head from a Philips with any confidence. 

I remember telling Dad about the job, his being glad, and the silent pause as he thought it over for a second.  Then he gave me advice that I remembered for its strangeness at the time.  He said, “Don’t talk about the money with the guys you’re working with; I know some of them are real good friends.  Don’t ask how much they make.”

Not a big deal, I thought.  Sure.  And it wasn’t a big deal.  I never asked.  Never thought to ask.  Left it alone.  And so I still don’t remember how one day I found out that my best friend was making fifteen cents an hour better than me, but I did. 

And it made sense: he had worked there for over a year and a half, I was just starting.  He was more knowledgeable than me: they let him ‘work the floor.’  And more than that, he was getting what the boss had hired him for.  So was I.  Permanent worker versus summer help.  It made perfect sense.  Perfect sense.  So why couldn’t I not care?

Adding insult to injury, gospels like this morning's read the injustice of my situation backwards, imagining my story about me and my friend from my friend’s perspective: him, discovering that I’m making only fifteen cents an hour less than him.  The indignity!  The clowns who showed up late get paid the same as the long-time loyalists.  What’s with that?  Like the kid who couldn’t tell the flat head from the Philips is even in my league?  Outrage.  Suddenly this one-time happy situation has become unacceptable to us both.

So when the vineyard owner asks us: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?...are you envious because I am generous?” his anger fits me and my friend equally well.  Ironically, that we are both envious only proves that God has been generous with us both.  But sometimes it’s easier to see the richness in the other person’s hands.

This past week I discovered that this dynamic, the trade-off between envy and generosity, is not just true of first time job holders fresh out of high school at the local True Value.  I read an article the other day with this headline: "Facebook Makes Us All Sad Because Everyone is Happy But Us."

The article tells about a study out of Stanford that observed that people who used Facebook “noticed that they seemed to feel particularly crummy about themselves after logging onto the site and scrolling through others' attractive photos, accomplished bios, and chipper status updates. ‘They were convinced that everyone else was leading a perfect life.’”

This would have been bad enough by itself, but as it turns out envy has implications.  Says the article: “...believing that others are happier with their choices than they actually are is likely to increase your own sense of inadequacy.”

What to do.  The answer isn’t simply getting off Facebook, either.  The article quotes Montesquieu - from the 16 and 1700s - who says, "If we only wanted to be happy it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, which is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are."

Grumbling about my circumstance.  The grass is always greener...  And God, somewhere in the mess of it all.

All of this got me thinking.  If you set your mind to it, if you really wanted to, you could become richer than others are.  Maybe have more friends.  Nicer cars.  Better homes and gardens.  Better jobs or education.  But you can never be more loved by God than others are.  You just can’t do it.  And if being loved by God is the most important thing that is true about you (and I happen to believe that it is), then this means that Stephen Colbert was right when he told a bunch of college graduates:

“You cannot win your life.”

You can’t win it.  Because unlike cars and jobs and cash, love is not a commodity to be collected, hoarded, or valued at the expense of another.  It’s not a zero-sum game.  Love doesn’t play by the standard economic rules that say that the less of something there is the more that it’s worth.  No, love’s value derives from the one who gives it: from God himself; the love that made the heavens and the earth, moved the mountains, sent his Son, and smiled a beautiful one smile one day and knit you in your mother’s womb.  God is generous and love abounds.

So the first rule of God, and also of love, is that there is always enough.  More than enough.  If you’re looking to win it, forget it.  But you can still join God in the game of loving others as much as God loves you.  There’s more than enough for that. 

But suppose you don’t like that game.  You don’t want to join it.  Fair is fair and hard work will get you where hard work will get you.  I hear you.  And you have some company this morning.  Jonah.  Look out for the fish!

When Jonah explains why he ran away from the people God wanted Jonah to warn, Jonah quotes the Good News as if it is very, very bad news.  He says that he knew that if he warned the people, and the people asked God’s forgiveness, God would forgive, because “the Lord is gracious and full of compassion...”  The same verse that’s the crown jewel of the Psalm this morning gets quoted with a repulsion on Jonah’s lips, as if the smell of it all makes him sick.  The promise of God become a revulsion.  Envy turns blessing into ugly words.  Or tries to.  It makes me wonder how many of my own ugly words stand to be turned over by love, restored to the praises of God, like gemstones mistook for ordinary gravel? 

But thank God for Jonah.  Would we otherwise have the courage to say how badly we wanted to win this life in the first place and how disappointing the goodness of God can be? 

What if, like Israel, I was supposed to be God’s favorite?  But what if, like Israel, the favor of God means becoming a blessing for the rest of the other people God loves?  What, when I remember that at least once upon a time, I was “just” one of the other people God loves?

Who am I to presume on the goodness of God?   

So forgive us, Lord, when we make idols out of how long we’ve worked the fields, or how long we’ve been here, or how much we give, or that we started that ministry, or God knows what else.  And forgive us, especially, when our idols make us love one another less. 

Let’s end with prayer.  This prayer is based on an optional prayer of the Rite I liturgy, prayed at the moment just before the Assembly approaches the altar to receive the sacramental body and blood of Jesus.  Let us pray.

O merciful Lord, we do not presume to come to this thy Table, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.

Amen.

Pointing the Presence of God

[Sermon I didn't preach on September 25, because my wife was in labor.  My deep thanks to the lay readers who stepped in and preached this sermon for me.]

My dad used had a sign out front of his old church in South Bend, Indiana.  The sign wasn’t particularly special: the name - St Michael and All Angels’ Episcopal Church - and service times, but then - this is what excited my dad - three blank lines that he could fill in with whatever he thought a passerby driving down Ironwood Road at fifty-plus miles an hour on her way to somewhere else might find interesting or uplifting or even mildly distracting, such that the next time said woman was firing down that direction, she might think for a second about pulling off for a pit stop with Jesus. 

It was a challenge he relished.  A fun game on the side.  One week, though, in the winter, it was too cold with a couple of feet of snow piled up outside, so Dad sent my brother and me to put the white letters trapped in their clear plastic squares up on the sign.  We tromped off in the snow.  Problem.  The squares already on the sign, the ones we needed to take down, were frozen on good, so we had to put some elbow into it, and when they finally came loose, they had some momentum, if you know what I mean, and they shot off like rockets, a good fifteen yards, and cut through the snow like a hot knife through butter.  And more snow falling fast.  We didn’t find those letters again until spring.

You’ve seen these signs.  You can even generate your own online for kicks.  Three lines.  And I’ve seen folks go for broke in any and all directions: the crass, the corny, the well-intentioned.  Some feel like gimmicks.  But a good process to take because for better or worse, signs make you think about what it is you have to share. 

And once the car has pulled off Ironwood, that is, the interested or distracted individual is now on your campus, church signs don’t become less important.  A kind of essential hospitality, pointing you to where the action is.  I once circled a church building twice on foot before I found an unlocked door with any kind of indication as to where it went or what I’d find there.  I felt a little bit like Joshua at Jericho.  Let’s just circle ‘round a few more times, I thought, and blow some trumpets.  Just get on with it.

And while these signs, hospitality signs, don’t bear the creative pressure of the roadside street signs - they’re just pointers, arrows - they still make you think about what it is you have to share. 

For this reason, the most memorable signs I’ve seen in churches aren’t for the new folks.  They are reminders to the folks who already attended.  Not because anyone was forgetting where the restrooms were, but these were signs that kept the people thinking about, kept calling the people back to, what it was they had to share.

So one church I visited had a sign as you left the parking lot.  Not for the ones coming in, but for the people going out.  “You are now entering the mission field.”  A reminder that on Sunday they received food for the journey, and that Monday through Saturday was the journey.  The wandering, the purposing, the serving, the loving, the being, the growing, the real task of discipleship. 

Another church had a reminder sign placed just about the doorway as you entered the worship space: “Expect a miracle,” it said.  Expect a miracle.  And I knew a priest who inherited that sign.  He was tempted to change it: “Lower your expectations,” he wanted to say.  But he knew that the sign wasn’t about him.

Expect a miracle.  Not of your pastor.  Not of yourself.  But of God.  I like the sign because signs are reminders of what you think you have to share.  And this sign was a pointer to God.

It may sound too simple, but I think that sometimes the best way to point to God is simply to expect him.  Expect a miracle.  Expect God’s presence.  To behave in ways that only make sense if God has shown up, too. 

Like bowing as you come up to the altar.  A simple example.  A good thing to do, reverencing the presence of God.  But only if God is present.  Otherwise it’s a superstitious twitch.  Other things that only make sense if God is present, I think: mercy and generosity.  That is, giving and forgiving.  These are actions that allude to a deeper story, the story of Christ crucified and risen; lives that have felt and received the immeasurable goodness of God.

Sometimes the best way to point to God is simply to expect him.  To behave in ways that only make sense if God has shown up, too. 

I like to imagine our lives as little signs on the edge of the street whose actions point to the mystery and reality of the living God at work in our lives and in the world.

Of course, if my life can be a sign that points to God, it goes without saying that the sign becomes secondary to the thing it points to, the presence of God.  In business they have a saying, “Don’t love your product, love what your product does.”  So what I love about bowing is not the angle of my head relative to the altar, but the presence of the One my bowing acknowledges.  What I love about forgiveness is that it points to the presence of the God who has forgiven me. 

Anyway...

In the gospel this morning, the religious leaders get stumped by Jesus when Jesus asks them about John the Baptist.  Who sent him? Jesus asks.  John.  If the leaders say, “eh, he’s just another guy,” the people who mob them in their anger.  If the leaders say, “God sent him,” they know that Jesus will ask why they didn’t follow him.  Jesus exposes them: the religious leaders don’t actually believe that God is sending anyone these days.  They’ve gotten so good at waiting, they’ve stopped ever looking for God to show up.  They are signs without a point.

And Jesus comes singing, “The Kingdom of God is come near,” and this is Good News for the folks who don’t know better, who are expecting a miracle, who are reaching out for the Kingdom, but the ones who do know better are left with the sheer duty of it all, trying to keep the promises that it seems God won’t, or maybe can’t, keep.

It’s a kind of unholy religion the religious folks in the gospel are maintaining: trying to cover for the God who appears to be shirking his responsibilities.  With no expectation that things will change.  Keeping a polished front, without connecting, like the tax collectors and the prostitutes, to the one who now says he is the Messiah.  Like the spouse of the alcoholic parent, the chief priests keep the house clean and make excuses for God - he’s probably working late, I don’t know why he missed your game - covering, protecting, enabling an absentee god that’s really an idol of their own making.  Nobody is expecting a miracle.  Nobody thinks God will show up.  They don’t have eyes to see or ears to hear. 

And I wonder if that ever still happens. 

If keeping the signs ever becomes more important than the One the signs were made to point to. 

Cursillo groupies ask a question of each other each time they get together: when, in the past week, did you feel closest to Christ?

That’s their way of trying to keep the signs of their lives oriented to the One they were made to point to.

But even with questions like this, we sometimes get turned around.

Like the child who came to church every single Sunday - a streak of more than two years - with a determination that would rival Cal Ripken Jr.’s, and every time he thought about how this made him better than the ones who didn’t come quite as often.  Or the man who didn’t come as often because he was convinced that this showed how he wasn’t caught up in the self-righteous games of the uber-religious.  He’s not an institutional sell-out like the rest of ‘em.   Or the acolyte who studied the way to light the candles without messing it up but didn’t even try to forgive his younger brother for his pounding him last weekend.  Or the member whose tithe had become a badge of honor such that she could keep herself certain that no one was as invested in the life of her church or the Kingdom of God as she was.  Or the priest who had decided that self-help psychology was probably of more use than the Gospel because, while psychology was of less long-term benefit, at least it didn’t always require his embarrassing God to show up.

All of them, in their strange ways, keeping the signs, but not pointing in clear ways to anything of lasting value.

So here’s the question for us, for you: what in your life is of lasting value?  What in your life is of lasting value that does not depend on your self and your relative accomplishments - that is, your being better than others at something - and your needing to keep up a good front?  This is the place of forgiveness and mercy, receiving the kindness of God. 

Rebekah shared with me that a Catholic friend once said to his Episcopal friend that he thought it was interesting that Episcopalians take Communion while Catholics receive it.  I hope not, but that’s the question:

In what ways are you pointing to God, not by your merit, not polished, not fixed, but broken, simply by expecting to meet him?  Receiving the gift that is God.

We religious folks are the quickest to miss it - that’s what Jesus tells us.  But it’s not too late.  He’s still here.  Not going anywhere.  Ours is an open invitation to join the tax collectors and prostitutes - if they’ll have us - the ones who are enjoying their inside joke with Jesus: that sins are forgiven, that lives are made new, that fear and control are being replaced by God’s kindness and grace, the joy of the Kingdom.  That in the Kingdom of God, all signs point to ‘yes!’ 

That’s the best thing about signs.  Signs call you back to the thing you have to share.  O! to be made a pointer to the presence, the Kingdom, of God.

Amen.

A Seed Worth Planting

Preached on Sept 24, 2011, on the occasion of Jessica Flores' Quinceanera.

Happy birthday, young lady.  Today we’re celebrating the birthday of a gifted, intelligent, musical, beautiful, funny, and spiritually committed young lady. 
 
Jessica Flores, who in addition to all of these things also happens to be a world-class duct-tape fashionista.  

 
Speaking of, Jessica, I have an early present for you.  (pull out tape with pictures of Jesus on it - ask David Read) It’s Jesus tape!  From a friend of a friend.
I’m not going to talk long, but I do hope a little bit of what I stay will, well, stick.  
When I sat down with Jessica, the image from Scripture that she gave to me for this day was the gospel we just heard, and it’s about growing.  (It’s also this year’s diocesan theme, but I don’t think you were brown-nosing, Jessica.)  The sower scatters seeds and Jessica told me that most days she feels a little bit like a seed, and sometimes the ground is thorny.  It’s not always comfortable.  
Sometimes thorns mean you don’t get to determine the pace or the shape of your growing.  But Jessica remembers the One who planted her, and as much as any of us here, she has a strong desire to plant roots in rich soul and continue to flourish.  
Jessica, when I asked you for three words that got at what spiritual maturity means for you, you told me strength, trust, and love.  You spoke about knowing your strong foundation; in yours words, knowing what he’s there for.  You spoke of maturity in Christ Jesus as returning his love with your heart.

 
You’re a good seed, Jessica.  And your prayer to return his love with your heart is our prayer for you tonight, too.

 
Seeds become plants.  They mature and they grow.  Of course, ‘plant’ is a noun and also a verb, and even the nouns get to do the verb, that is, good plants plant.  Scripture will talk about this in terms of bearing good fruit.  It’s an image as simple as an oak tree raining acorns on your lawn.  Good plants grow for sure, and one of the things that it means to grow is that they also drop seeds.  Good plants plant.

 
When he was talking to us churches at diocesan council, Bishop Reed told us something about planting that I think applies here: 

 

The seeds we’ve been given to scatter are “the word of the Kingdom.” We may fling the seeds of service and personality and hospitality. We might scatter seeds of relevance, of market branding, of that perfect blend of traditional and contemporary, of that perfect blend of coffee... but after awhile, after we’ve thrown everything else we can think of, we will reach in our seed bags, and find one little seed caught in the lining, and it’s the word that says, “We preach Christ, and him crucified...” And unless we can throw that out into the field, too, everything else we do becomes nothing more than, “We preach ourselves, a little bit improved.” To tell of Christ crucified is bold talk, maybe, in a distracted, disinterested world, but it’s the word that’s planted in us to offer others.
Jessica, the bishop was talking to churches, but I think he wouldn’t mind being counted as talking to you.  You have so many gifts, and stand to bless even more of us than you already have with your life and witness.  
 
Remember, hold onto, that one, small seed caught in the lining  - we preach Christ, and him crucified.  It’s a seed for every season and every day of your journey.  It’s the seed that doesn’t ask you to keep it all together.  It’s the seed that’s still there when it feels like nothing else is.  It’s a seed you can scatter even on thorny days.  God knows he knows something about thorns.  It’s the seed that says you serve because Christ first served you, you love because he first loves you, you forgive because he has forgiven you.

 
Jessica, plant this seed as often as you think to.  And let it be the seed that flowers in your heart.

 
Amen.