Saturday, September 27, 2008

20 Pentecost Yr A

We have been hearing about forgiveness and reconciliation in the gospel of Matthew, as well as in the Old Testament Exodus stories for quite a few weeks now. Today’s story from Matthew turns a bit however. What we hear today follows the movement in Matthew of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time, and he asks the disciples to get him a donkey. He rides into Jerusalem on that donkey, and Jerusalem is in turmoil. The question being asked is who is this? And they were saying this is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee. Jesus then entered the temple, he tossed out all who were selling and buying and he overturned the tables of the moneychangers. He healed the lame and the blind, and the chief priests and scribes became angry, they said to him “Do you hear what these people are saying?” and Jesus replied yes, he knew what they were saying. Then Jesus went out to be by himself, but he came back to the temple, and there were the chief priests and elders again. Then comes the question, this all-important question. By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority? The chief priests and elders end up arguing with each other, and nothing really gets solved right here.

By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority? Even the tax collectors and the prostitutes know something about this authority. Following this question, comes a series of parables, parables, we know, are about describing the inbreaking kingdom of God; they are about showing people what this inbreaking kingdom looks like. We don’t know much, but what we do know is that it looks nothing like what anyone is used to. It is something absolutely new, something no one has any experience with, that’s why there are parables, they make us and the original hearers think in ways not before imagined. This new kingdom is nothing like what had come before.

The chief priests and elders were concerned, understandably so, because if they went along with Jesus, who is doing something – they’re not quite sure what - with an authority they can’t identify, the chief priests and elders also may be brought up on charges of sedition. They too may be tried for misaligned loyalty. They could be held liable for the damage Jesus has done in the temple throwing things around and turning the tables over.

By whose authority? By God’s authority, but this authority is new, it is not the same old story, it’s a new story, a new thing that God is doing in the life of God’s people. It is formed and shaped by the Exodus, by wandering in the wilderness, by the freedom that grows from wandering, but it is still a new thing, nothing anyone has seen, heard, smelled, previously. This new thing is the inbreaking kingdom, and we get a description of it in the gospels, we get a glimpse of it in our community of faith, and we are nourished by it in communion. We are made new ourselves by it in baptism. Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom before you, because they get it. They understand this kingdom, they understand it to be something they had never experienced, because they were never included at the table previously, and now they are, they are brought from the margins into community. Something entirely new is happening. What does that have to do with us?

The Great Emergence is the title of the lectures I was just at at the Seminary of the Southwest. And the Great Emergence describes what we are feeling right now, in this time and place, the feeling of unease for many, the brink of a new age of virtual living, of artificial intelligence. But the question being asked is the same question asked about every 500 years or so, by whose authority? And where does this authority come from?

Five hundred years ago, in the Great Reformation, that question was answered with Sola Scriptura, or as our Lutheran brothers and sisters learned, scripture alone. All authority rests in scripture, and up until the enlightenment, that was a commonly held belief. Then science and reason began to answer questions, which called into question, where is the authority? The Anglicans answered it with scripture, reason and tradition. Some continue to answer with sola scriptura, but as our world changes, and these are changes that are happening at warp speed, the question of authority is being asked again. The Great Emergence raises the question of authority, it is the same question that is asked in Matthew, and with it who are we, whose are we, and to whom are we related?

This is not just an academic question; it is not just the stuff of classrooms and theological debates. It is the stuff that you and I are immersed in every day. In a world where you can go to your computer and find whole other worlds, where you can create yourself anew, where you can make up anything you want, where you can interact on a screen with others who have created an alternative persona, avatars that are not connected to a physical place, how then do we continue to make sense of corporeal community? How do we continue to be in relationship that is all about the experience of body and blood, bread and wine, people that you can touch and feel, and in whom we profess lives the very divinity of our Lord? How do we continue to make sense of authority?

The question of authority is the fundamental question when we talk about the issues that are in front of us every day. I think it is why we sometimes feel so overwhelmed and confused, it is why some seem to be so absolutely sure, it is why others don’t seem to care, and why some seem perfectly happy living in the grey area with the questions. The question of authority is the question that forms and informs the abortion debate. It is the question that forms and informs our talk about homosexuality and what we say we believe about marriage. It is why we Christians find ourselves so divided over so much.

And in this particular place in which we find ourselves in human history, the question of authority is open for debate. I believe we Anglicans are postured in a good place for addressing the question of authority; we have something to say that is helpful and fruitful to the discussion. And what we have to say changes lives.

What we have to say is that transformation is found in the truth of the story that God comes into our world to live and love, to suffer and die as one of us. The truth is in the story of creation, of blessing, of sin, of our creator God loving us so much that God is willing to live this life as one of us, of forgiveness and reconciliation. The truth is found in the story of death and resurrection, your story of death and resurrection. We know this story is true, because each and every one of us attests to it; each and every one of us lives death and resurrection all the time. The truth is found in the story that reminds us that we are God’s beloved, the delight of God’s life.

We gather together to experience the awesomeness of this God in the bread and the wine, the mystery that makes us whole. We gather together to experience the awesomeness of this God in the midst of our humanity; in the forgiveness of the hurt we’ve caused ourselves and others.

By whose authority? By the author’s authority. The one whose love calls us into being and blesses us. The one whose Word lives among us, in us, and through us. The one whose love forgives us when we are greedy and full of ourselves. The one whose story reminds us that we are all related, and we are related to the earth from which we are born and to which we shall return.

Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: Come let us adore him.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

19 Pentecost Yr A

So your teenager walks into the house after school, or after football practice, or band rehearsal, or just takes a break from homework, or even about an hour after dinner, and looks through the cupboards, opens the refrigerator door, and says, "Mom! There's nothin to eat." Just like the Israelites in this part of the Exodus. Whining, whining, whining, "God, we have nothing to eat, and what’s more, we don't like what you’ve given us to eat." But I do think that if I were wandering in the wilderness with Moses and Aaron for 40 years, I might be a little whinny too. “God, we’re tired, we’re hungry, we may as well have stayed in Egypt for all this gets us.” And they are reminded that in Egypt they were slaves, at least in the desert they are free.

This is a great story. In the verses that follow these we just heard God instructs them to gather up what they need for themselves and their families. Each family got just what they needed, no more, no less. Then Moses instructed them not to save any of it, don’t leave any until morning he told them. Well, some didn’t listen to Moses, and hoarded the food that God had provided for them, and it got wormy and smelled bad. So not only do they not seem to want what God has provided for them, they go ahead and eat it anyway, and then save some up for later, only for it to go bad on them.

Lord, lord, lord, give us something to eat, give us something better to eat, we don’t like what you’ve given us, but even though we don’t like it we’ll save it for later and risk losing what is right here in front of us.

God provides, God provides enough. Even when it doesn’t look good. It’s all God’s anyway.

Matthew’s gospel is paired with this story from Exodus and it carries the theme even farther. Matthew’s story always seems so topsy-turvy. The day laborers that show up at the end of the day get paid the same as those who showed up early to work, and work or no work, everyone gets paid the same. The kingdom is not business as usual. Remember, kingdom parables serve to show us that God is doing this absolutely new thing, there is no business as usual. In this kingdom everything is re-ordered. It’s not even as simple as the last will be first, and the first shall be last. God coming into our midst, living, loving, suffering, dieing, and being raised from the dead makes this absolutely new.

So this kingdom parable didn’t sit well with those who heard it centuries ago, and it doesn’t sit well with us.

We are trained to believe there is a reward. The simplest statement of that is if we live a good life, we’ll get our reward in heaven. That’s not biblical. This parable refutes that conventional wisdom. Our wages are paid at the baptismal font, not at the grave. The new life that God has affected is available from the beginning. We live our whole lives loved by God, the delight of God’s life. The Christian life is not about earning our wage, our reward in heaven. The Christian life is about responding to God’s amazing and abundant love, about receiving God’s grace, right here, right now.

The Christian life is about the fruit of our baptism; the Christian life is about responding to the joys and challenges of our lives in ways that show forth the grace that God has given us. The Christian life is not easy nor is it clear, it is not about finding Jesus, it’s about being found by God’s love. The Christian life is about grace and forgiveness, the grace and forgiveness that God offers us, and the grace and forgiveness that we offer one another as we love our neighbors as ourselves.

So when did we get so greedy? When did we begin to hoard what we have? These stories we hear today remind or maybe even teach us that we’ve got all we need, and there’s enough for everyone.

This past week when we had our pastor’s bible study, we had the executive director from Habitat for Humanity come and study with us. He also told us about the possibility of an Apostles build, twelve churches getting together to build a house, I hope we are one of those churches by the way. We were reflecting on these readings, and on the reality of the mortgage problems, and we learned an amazing piece of information. Habitat for Humanity is one of the top mortgage lenders in the world, and now possibly one of the top five, and Habitat for Humanity does not charge interest. Habitat for Humanity is about providing the opportunity for people to have what they need, no more, no less.

Yesterday we had the first of our Sonshine Saturdays. It was fabulous. Dave told the story of Moses, and we got as far as the ten commandments, but not all the way to the promised land. Moses relayed those ten commandments to the Hebrews as they wandered in the wilderness. “God spoke all these words: I am God, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of a life of slavery. No other gods, only me.” No other gods, only me, the Hebrew people, like us, had so much trouble accepting God’s gift of enough. God asks us for our undivided attention, and God gives us all we need. The Hebrew people couldn’t accept God’s gift of enough, and instead made their own god out of the gold they had and found. They got greedy.

We get greedy, and we are encouraged in our greediness by a culture that constantly encourages us to buy more, and bigger, regardless of our ability to do so, regardless of need.

Now, as much as the Hebrew people needed to hear “no other gods, only me,” and as much as the Jews of the first century needed to hear the inbreaking of God’s kingdom re-orders all that they knew to be true, we, in the 21st century need to hear this message that we are sought and we are found. Our wages are paid at the baptismal font, we are new creations.

This is good news indeed. Good news in a world that needs good news. Good news that this life isn’t just about you, but it is about how you, and me, and every one of us is loved, and how you in turn love one another. It is about how you are the delight of God’s life, and about how you pay that forward. It is about how God transformed the world with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and how God continues to transform us and the world as each of us goes out into the world to do the work we are called to do, to love and serve God as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.

Alleluia! The mercy of the Lord is everlasting: Come let us adore him. Alleluia!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

18 Pentecost Yr A

I imagine Peter having an argument with one of the other disciples. Who knows over what, where they should sit at the table, what they should eat for dinner, who they should invite over for dinner, whether they should get circumcised or just tattooed or pierced. Anyway, my very good friend Peter once again shows his true colors. He’s thinking about all this, and he says, Jesus, how many times do I have to forgive? Obviously figuring there’s got to be an end to forgiveness, Peter is astounded by Jesus’ response. There’s never an end to forgiveness, never, ever. Not seven times but seventy times seven. And since Peter is a good Jew, he knows what Jesus means. Seventy times seven represents infinity, it is limitless, and unfathomable. That’s how many times Peter must forgive, that’s how many times we must forgive.

Forgiveness and reconciliation have been the themes of the gospel reading from Matthew for the last few weeks. But this one stretches us further than any other. You must continue to forgive until you think you have forgiven all, and then you must forgive some more. It seems impossible.

This is our life in Christ. The fruit of forgiveness is joy, the fruit of forgiveness is freedom. The other is a tortured, bitter and resentful heart. Why do we choose not to forgive? We do so because we believe it is more important to be right than to forgive. It seems so simple, and yet so impossible. Needing to be right has resulted in loping off heads and burning at the stake. At least we don’t do that anymore. Now we just throw out insults, call each other names, leave churches and families and stop talking to one another.

In our families we hold on to resentment and bitterness until it eats us up, and then our brother or sister, mother or father dies, and we never were reconciled. Not forgiving holds us captive, forgiving sets us free. I often wonder why we do this, why we hold on so tightly to not forgiving, why we hold on so tightly to our bitterness and resentment.

I just finished a book, The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd. It’s a story about a young girl who must learn to forgive. As the young girl gets up the courage to tell her story and let herself be loved, she thinks, “In a weird way I must have loved my little collection of hurts and wounds. They provided me with some real nice sympathy, with the feeling I was exceptional.”

I wonder if that’s why we hang on to our bitterness and resentment, and even anger, and not even know that we are doing it. Because we come to believe that we’re exceptional, that we’re somehow different from others, or better than others, or right, because everyone else most definitely must be wrong. Maybe we come to believe that our personal pain is unique, a pain unlike any other. A pain that no one can understand, a pain that causes our heart to turn to stone. Our personal pain may be ours, but it is not exceptional, and it is not isolated. Our personal pain is not an excuse to not forgive, and it is not an excuse not to ask for forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a gift that we have been given, it is the grace that goes with not being perfect. It is the grace that goes with being human. It is the grace that goes with this God who loves us so much and who is willing to be in our midst to feel the same pain that you and I feel. It is the grace that goes with being chosen and marked by God’s love, being the delight of God’s life.

The reality of forgiveness is that we don’t do it just once and then are done with it. The young girl in the story as she thinks about her mother says, “I guess I have forgiven us both, although sometimes in the night my dreams will take me back to the sadness, and I have to wake up and forgive us again.”

Sometimes I wonder what all this really has to do with our lives as we live out there in the world, out at our jobs, and in our schools, in the grocery line, or while waiting to fill our tanks with gas. What does God in Jesus Christ have to do with all that? Forgiveness is at the heart of who we are as we go about the minute to minute living of our lives. Forgiveness is the quintessential not about me thing. It is about my pain, or your pain not being exceptional. Forgiveness I think is impossible without the reality of God coming into our lives. Why would I forgive otherwise? Why would I not just hold on to the hardness of heart, the bitterness, the resentment, and let that power take hold of me. Why would I admit my own imperfection, my own shortcomings, if I didn’t think there was some greater love that enfolds me. It is God’s love that transforms me, that melts my heart, that bears my bitterness and resentment and imperfection no matter what.

It is God’s love that holds us when we cry, that never rejects or abandons us, and that gives us another chance. It is when we feel like the end is near, when we are in the midst of suffering and death, loneliness and alienation, like there is no hope, like we could lay down and die, that God transforms our life into something absolutely new.

Alleluia! The mercy of the Lord is everlasting: Come let us adore him. Alleluia!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

17 Pentecost Yr A

Just about every other year since I was in junior high, the Monson family has gathered together to renew our bonds and tell our stories. I heard over and over the story of my ancestors coming to America. I know the story well.
My family lived in a valley on the inland point of the Nordfjord, in a place called Stryn. Once upon a time in the Nesdahl valley there was a great avalanche that collapsed the sod hut in which the family lived. Marta died in that avalanche, and later, Jacob, my great great grandfather, decided to come to America. He came and settled in Adams, North Dakota. He married Anna, and they had 11 children, Nelbert, my grandfather was the oldest.
Nelbert married Inga, and eventually they settled near Glenwood, Minnesota. Nelbert and Inga had five children, including my father, Juel. One of those children died in an accident as a teenager, and Inga died when my father was a small child. Nelbert married again, and he and Lucille had three daughters together, and Nelbert was killed in a farm accident. Lucille married Guy, and together they had one daughter. This all resulted in many children that I call cousins.

When I was 23 years old, I went on an European adventure, part of that adventure was to visit my Norwegian relatives. I arrived in Stryn, Norway, after having taken a ship across the North Sea from England, a steamer up the shoreline of Norway, and a bus inland along the Nordfjord, to Stryn.
I arrived on a very rainy day, without exact directions or even contact phone numbers. Unsure of what to do next, after getting off the bus, I went into the business that was right there, it was like a AAA, some sort of travel store. I must have looked like something the cat dragged in, and I asked the young woman across the counter for help, in English of course, as far as I had gotten with my Norwegian was “tussen tak.” She answered me, in beautiful English of course, and I told her my story. She just happened to be neighbors to the relatives I was looking for, so we got in her car and went straight to the family farm. She ended up being my interpreter for the time I spent with my uncle and aunt.

My uncle took me on an excursion through the countryside, and in the best English he could muster, he told me the very same story I had heard over and over at each of our family reunions for all those years.

The point of all this is that this story, of course there are many more details I’ve skipped over in this telling, contitutues us as a family, it tells us who we are. Over the years it has been added to as we have learned more about our grandfather Nelbert, and as all these cousins have had families of our own. It is a story of heartache, of survival, and of tragedy, and it is our story. And yet it is not unlike many stories of Scandinavian immigrants.

The story of the Exodus that we have been hearing, and that we will continue to hear is like my story. It is a story that contitutes Israel as a people, and it is a story that remembers who they are. Today’s portion of the story almost reads like a recipe, and yet it is a call to remembrance. It says this is who we are and what we do together, and who we worship. It calls Israel to remember. It too is a story of survival, of tragedy, of heartache, and of hope. It says, if we can hang together, we can make it. In the gospel of Matthew today our family story tells us about how we are to be Christians together. The writer of this gospel couldn’t have known that a church would be founded around his rabbi, Jesus, so we can’t say that these are instructions for the church. But what we do have is some very practical advice on forgiveness and reconciliation.

You see, as Christians we believe Christ is reconciling the whole world and each of us in it to God and to one another. In the teachings in our prayer book, on page 855, it says that the mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. Reconciliation is all about making whole what is broken. Reconciliation is about being transformed by God’s amazing and abundant love.

When Christians take conflict as an opportunity to practice reconciliation, what they do can stand as a visible sign for the whole world of what we believe Christ is doing in the world. An outward and visible sign of a grace that we believe is happening in a broader and more mysterious way in the world. And that is the definition of sacrament, handling conflict well can be sacramental, the way we handle conflict can be a sign to the world that Christ is in fact working in our world.

Conflict is a reality in our lives and in our church and in our families. In fact, when we meet someone who is really difficult, inside and outside our families, we can rejoice and be glad in that day, because we get to love them, and in the process we get a sense of how much God loves each and every one of us. When folks look at you and see that you handle conflict in this sacramental way, they’ll see that you mean what you say.

But we are witnesses to the rhetoric of revenge often on our nightly news and in our newspapers. The news reports about folks whose loved one has been terribly hurt or died at the hands of a monster. The family member calls for revenge, for more blood. Reconciliation, unity with Christ, and forgiveness are not at all what any one of them wants to hear. But maybe it is what is called for.

We are at a place in our politics that calls for reconciliation. The divisiveness of our political parties, the hatefulness in our language when we address one another, the lack of civility in our public conversation result only in a breakdown of public discourse. If we were to approach one another like Matthew exhorts us to approach one another, if we can point to ways in which our own behavior has contributed negatively to the situation, if we approach one another with the goal of reconciliation, real conversation can take place.

And we are at a place in the greater church that calls for reconciliation, a place where the family story must be remembered and told again, to remind us who we are and who we are related to. What we really have to do is stand as a visible sign for the whole world of what we believe Christ is doing in the world. We need to be that outward and visible sign of grace that we believe is happening in a broader and more mysterious way in the world.

As we enact forgiveness and reconciliation we are the agents of new life and resurrection that God calls us to be. We become the carriers of grace and God’s abundant and amazing love. We remember who and whose we are, we tell the story of God’s activity in the life’s of God’s people, we tell the story of God who loves us so much that God came and continues to come into this world, we tell the story of how that love suffered and died, and rose again, and hope is made real.

Alleluia! The mercy of the Lord is everlasting:
Come let us adore him. Alleluia!