Saturday, October 30, 2010

23 Pentecost Yr C

Imagine, It was a day like many other days in Jericho.
Hot. The kind of hot where just standing makes you sweat.
Dry. The kind of dry where your throat feels two pieces of sandpaper.
Dusty. The kind of dusty that when the sweat drips off your brow
you get muddy rivers in the cracks of your face.

It was a day unlike many other days in Jericho. There was a murmur swelling into a roar about the prophet Jesus who was traveling through town on his way to Jerusalem. All the men were shuffling in the heat of the day into the village square, near the well, to catch a glimpse of Jesus. The women and children remained near the back of the growing crowd, and Zacchaeus tried to blend in with them.

Zacchaeus was a tax collector. Zacchaeus accepted the fact that people in his village shunned him. Zacchaeus himself thought he was doing only what his job asked of him. He called on the townspeople and collected the Roman tax, well, plus a little bit for himself and a little bit more for his employer. But Zacchaeus also gave half of all of that to the poor, and, if he did get caught cheating, he did what the Hebrew law asked of him, he paid back four times as much. In addition to his sleazy profession, he was also admittedly diminutive, short in stature as some might say. People seemed to look right through him, sometimes right over him; he often had the feeling that he was invisible.

But on this day, he decided to run ahead of the hot and sweaty crowd to the village square, and knowing that he could not see through their backs, he decided to find a better vantage point for viewing the commotion. There was a sycamore tree that gave some shade to the well, and Zacchaeus climbed into it. He made himself comfortable, and from there was able to observe the commotion quite well.

People gathered and buzzed about Jesus, the one who is coming. Zacchaeus had heard about this Jesus. They said he was a prophet, they said he was a teacher, a rabbi; they said he was a healer. He had just healed a blind man, he had healed lepers.
But they also said he was radical, that he once told a rich man that in order to follow him he would have to sell all that he owned and give his money to the poor. Imagine that, thought Zacchaeus, why would you even want to follow this guy, he surely didn’t have any power. And the story about that other tax collector, the one who asked for mercy, mercy for what? Doing his job, and making money?

Zacchaeus sat in the sycamore tree, pondering these stories that he’d been told about Jesus, when he heard someone yelling up at him. “Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus, come down here, I’m coming over to your house to eat and stay awhile.” The others were calling out to Jesus, “Jesus, Jesus, come to my house to eat, but it was Zacchaeus that Jesus was talking to. Zacchaeus felt a thrill of excitement that this man whom everyone wanted to come to their house, had just invited himself over to Zacchaeus’ house. For a moment Zacchaeus worried about what his wife was going to do when he brought Jesus home with him, but decided this was about his good luck and his wife would understand.

Besides, Zacchaeus noticed that everyone else was indignant and annoyed that Jesus was coming to his house, and Zacchaeus liked the attention he received. They all were grumbling that Jesus had no business with this crook, but Zacchaeus had for so long listened to the condemning comments that the townspeople made toward him, and had so long been treated like scum, that he was overjoyed to have this man at his house.

In the middle of that crowd of people Jesus looked right up at Zacchaeus. At that moment, Zacchaeus felt as if Jesus knew exactly who he was. Zacchaeus had spent his life hiding from people. The only way he could do his work was to keep people at a distance, to steer clear of relationships with his neighbors. If he ever developed relationships with people, there’s no way he ever would have made any money, how do you extort money from people if you actually like them, and you let them like you?

Zacchaeus had spent his life being overlooked by people too. Alienation and isolation were the result of being looked at like he was less than a man. Most folks dismissed him before ever finding out about him. Who knew that he gave so much of his wealth away? Who knew that he took only his due, that he didn’t intend to cheat, and if he did, he paid it back fourfold. Who knew that he had a wife and kids? Who knew that he had been climbing trees his whole life. Who really knew Zacchaeus? Sometimes, he thought his wife didn’t even really know him. But the minute Jesus looked into his eyes, he knew, and Zacchaeus was changed. Zacchaeus was called away from himself, when Jesus calls you can’t stay in the same place.

Zacchaeus climbed like a monkey, and he quickly alighted on the ground under the tree, so as not to give this man any time to change his mind. Together they made their way to Zacchaeus’ home, through the crowd, with everyone looking at Zacchaeus with disbelief, how could Jesus even consider going to the home with that tax collector?

Upon entering Zacchaeus’ home, Zacchaeus, being the good Jew that he was, washed Jesus’ feet, and offered him something cool to drink and good to eat. Zacchaeus and Jesus talked, just like they’d been old friends, meeting again after a long time apart, (Zacchaeus had to chuckle, since he had no old friends) but not missing a beat.

It was almost as if Jesus had looked into his soul and knew him for his entire lifetime, and for who he was. A good man, a good Jew, but a man nonetheless, whose tendency toward sin pulled him hard and away from what he knew was right.

The meal they shared together that day was a meal he would not soon forget. After Jesus left, every time Zacchaeus came back to his table to eat, he remembered Jesus sitting there. He remembered what it was like to be known by Jesus, to be completely and absolutely himself, not puffing himself up like he usually did with others to try to pretend he was taller or bigger.

Every time Zacchaeus came back to that table he remembered what it was like to no longer feel alienated and isolated. Every time Zacchaeus came back to that table he remembered what it was like to have a friend like Jesus. Every time Zacchaeus came back to the table he remembered that salvation had come to his house, because he too was a son of Abraham. No longer was he lost, no longer was he afraid, no longer was he alone.

Amen.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

22 Pentecost Yr C

I have such a hard time with this Luke passage and others like it. It just feels to me like we’re caught between the rock and the hard place. If you humble yourself you will be exalted, if you exalt yourself you’ll be humbled. Well, I have news for Luke; it just doesn’t work that way in this world, and surely it isn’t that clear and easy.

You all know as well as I that in this world, those who exalt themselves get the rewards. They get paid the big money, they get all the attention, they get face time on the news. It doesn’t matter what their motivation is, whether it’s altruistic, beneficent, or whether it’s completely self-serving, or somewhere in between. Doesn’t matter. Those who look good, those who make a lot of money, those who have a particular skill that we value, or even a skill that we don’t value, make it into our headlines. Even those who call attention to themselves by not calling attention to themselves make it into the news. Even the ones who are so deserving, they do good work for their families or others; they are so humble that they get a home makeover, or showered with gifts and attention. How do you keep from feeling like you deserve it too, like you do good work and you should get the attention too. It just doesn’t seem fair.

This passage is a parable, and as we have learned, parables are like a treasure, a gift, but they have a lid that makes it hard to get inside. This parable from Luke not only has a lid that makes it hard to get inside, it also seems like one of those Chinese finger torture deals, the one you stick a finger in at either end, and when you try to get your fingers out again you can’t, it just pulls tighter.

This parable is like that. On your first pass at it, it seems simple. It seems like there’s a good way to be and a bad way to be. The Pharisee prays and is thankful that he is not like the others, the thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even the tax collector. He does what he’s supposed to do, he prays, he fasts and he tithes. But then we see the tax collector, who in the opinion of the Pharisee is an extortionist, a man who takes more than he should so that he can pocket some for himself before he turns the rest over to his boss. But it is the tax collector who is down on his knees asking for mercy.

But Pharisees are the men that Jesus is always chastising; it’s the Pharisees who Jesus calls on the carpet because they tend toward obeying the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law. Tax collectors are the ones that Jesus invites to table fellowship, the ones that Jesus eats with while telling the Pharisees off.

With this one, the harder you pull, the tighter it gets. Who’s good and who’s bad in this story? Who’s right and who’s wrong? Who has the higher moral ground? Who should we be like? Who is really humble and who is not? The Pharisee or the tax collector? Us or them? Sometimes I think that lid is on mighty tight.

I think this story is about all of us, I think every one of us can find ourselves in it as we move away from an interpretation that paints an either/or picture. I think this is a story about spiritual pride, a sin that each and every one of us has committed and most likely will continue to commit.

Spiritual pride is among the most insidious of sins. Fight it successfully for a moment, and it’s tempting to start thinking or saying to yourself, “Hey-I’m being really humble! I’m way more humble than that guy over there. Maybe I should teach a class on humility at church.”

Or how about this. “I can’t stand those liberals, if you’re conservative, or I can’t stand those conservatives, if you’re liberal. They think they’re so much holier/better informed than everyone else. Well, that’s pride for you. If only they’d be like me, the world would be a much better place.”

So, it would be easy to say that we should all be humble and penitent like the tax collector, and less prideful like the Pharisee. But this turns into a game of competitive virtue. Point to the Pharisee and identify with the tax collector and talk about how much you hate those proud and hypocritical Pharisees; or point to the tax collector and identify with the Pharisees and talk about how much you hate those people who take advantage of the less fortunate. Either way, we identify with one side and hate the Other Side of whatever issue is hottest. You see, that Chinese finger torture just keeps getting tighter.

When we read Jesus’ parables, there is one way to know that we’re on the right track, if it doesn’t surprise, shock, and challenge us, we should probably begin again. The truth about this parable and all parables, being what they are, is that there is no cut and dried, black and white, easy or hard, interpretation of them.

And that is the way with Spiritual pride. As soon as we think that we are the humble one, in fact, the focus then is on us, not on the work of God. Spiritual pride is one of those sins that is “done or left undone.” When what we are doing becomes all about us, and no longer about the work that God calls us to; that is spiritual pride. It is a slippery slope, the example of the Chinese finger torture works as an example, because when we think we have it right; when we think we have it all figured out; is exactly the time to think again.

The truth is that we can’t avoid spiritual pride. It is our nature. But we can name it, call it what it is, ask forgiveness, and try again. This is the relationship that God calls us to. This is the transformation that is offered to us when we accept the gift of unconditional, amazing, and abundant love that God gives. The relationship Jesus has with us does not require perfection, it requires love and forgiveness, mercy and compassion, and it requires giving up being the center of attention.

Frederick Buechner, a prolific theologian, defines humility as thinking of yourself as neither better nor worse than you are. He says the one who is a person of humility is the person whose energy is so occupied with serving others, with exercising the kind of spiritual leadership that calls everyone they’re with into deeper maturity, with seeking God’s will and enjoying God’s fellowship, and with enjoying all of God’s good gifts that that person doesn’t have all that much left over to devote to assessing whether she or he is more or less virtuous than others.

Paul’s writing in second Timothy is at a time nearing the end of Paul’s life. Paul writes from prison, how can one be prideful from prison? I think Paul is the exemplar here of what is not spiritual pride. We attribute these famous words to Paul, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Paul’s example shows us that love and forgiveness, mercy and compassion, are not occasional virtues, love and forgiveness, mercy and compassion, are lifelong attitudes that create in us the ability to be humble, to be transformed by our encounter with Jesus and with others. The love and forgiveness that God shows us, that transforms us, is the very love and forgiveness that is a part of us every time we encounter those who challenge us, who disagree with us. It is love and forgiveness, mercy and compassion, which make us humble, not humility that makes us good.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

21 Pentecost Yr C

Many around the world spent intense hours this past week waiting with one another for the amazing rescue of the trapped workers in the bowels of a Chilean mine. We cheered and wept as one by one the miners and their rescuers were brought to safety. And yet, we can only wonder at the toll those hours, days, weeks, and months have taken on their bodies, their hearts, and their souls. We can’t imagine what life was like in the darkness of the mine; we can’t imagine the ebb and flow of hope and despair. We just can’t imagine.

And yet before us today is a similar story, a story of a people in exile. A story filled with the ebb and flow of hope and despair, a story of crying out to God for rescue, a story that speaks our truth into this so very real world. The power in the scriptures we hear today is that they reveal to us the truth. The truth of our lives, the truth of your life and my life, the truth of the lives of our parents and grandparents, the truth of the lives of our children and grandchildren. All of that truth is contained in what we have before us.

This is a story that not only speaks the truth of a people who came before us; it also speaks the truth of each and every one of us today. It speaks truth collectively and individually. That story may go something like this. Once upon a time there was a young woman, or a young man. This young man worked hard to go to school and get good grades. This young woman graduated from college and got busy working at her job. She was a business major; he caught on with a successful law firm. She worked her way into the management of her company. She fell in love and got married, they had two children. The bottom fell out of the market, they lost their house, they lost their income, they almost lost each other.

Nothing in their lives had prepared them for the difficulty of feeding and clothing their children, caring for each other, rising each morning in a world of lost dreams and despair. Nothing in our lives prepares us for the reality of suffering and loss. Nothing prepares us for the reality of the cruelty of others, whether that is epic like war, or personal, like violence and bullying. Nothing prepares us for the reality of the cruelty of nature, whether that is catastrophic like earthquakes and hurricanes, or the wind bringing a tree down on our house or car.

What gets us through pain and suffering, catastrophe and heartache? What gets me through is that I am formed by this story. I remember this story. I can find myself in this story. A story of a people who had a claim on God. Who believed that God chose them. These people, Israelites they were called, had pursued wealth and power. They were divided into two kingdoms under two different Kings, until they were finally exiled to a foreign place. The chosen people lived in the foreign place, Babylonia, for hundreds of years, until there began to be no memory of live as it had been, life in the promised land. And yet there was a glimmer of the story, a glimmer of hope. Those people didn’t think life could get any worse, the suffering and the shame was immense.

But the wise ones among them kept reminding them of the God who promised to always be with them. They cried out to God, where are you? And they turned to the God who had given them life, who had created them, and who had blessed them.

The story of Israel and Judah that reaches a hopeful place in Jeremiah today is our story. Each one of us asks the question in the midst of our suffering, sadness, grief, where are you God? Why did you leave me, right when I need you? There is so much darkness around me, I can’t feel you, you don’t answer my prayer, you don’t do what I want you to do. What am I supposed to do? Who am I supposed to be?

The people for whom the letter of Timothy was written, the people who originally heard the story of Jesus in Luke, all knew the story of their people, the story of exodus and exile. The story of pain and suffering, of heartache and chaos. They internalized the word of God as we too internalize the word of God. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, it says in Timothy today, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. Internalizing scripture, knowing these stories, is what gives us hope and joy in troubled times. It is what carries us and accompanies us always, in the good times and the hard times. We must know who we are so that we may act accordingly, and scripture helps us know that.

And lastly in Luke we hear, pray always, do not loose heart. I trust these words because of the truth of the story. Do not loose heart, pray always. Do not loose heart, those are words that surely are hard to hear in the midst of our darkness, under ground in a mine, or underground in my soul. They speak of persistence in prayer. Pray always, how do we do that? My favorite author, Madeleine L’engle is the one from whom I learned that there is no excuse for not praying, and there is no excuse for not praying morning prayer. She says you can pray morning prayer anywhere, even in the bathroom while you’re getting ready for your day. Unceasing prayer is like that. And when you begin to pray at all times and in all places, your prayer begins to change you. When we persistently pray, what happens is that our prayer turns us outward, it may begin with our own wants and needs, but unceasing prayer by its very nature turns outward, it turns us toward justice.

Let’s just see. Let’s say I’m praying while I’m going for my morning walk. It’s a very good time for me to pray. Another good time for me to pray is while I’m doing the dishes, or driving the car, or waiting in line at Walmart, you get the idea. So I’m going for my morning walk, and often I begin with the Anglican rosary prayers that I like, and then I begin praying for people who have asked for my prayers, and then for people whom I need to pray for whether they’ve asked me to or not, and interspersed in all of that is prayers for me and what is going on in my own life are the many blessings and thanksgivings. By the time I’ve finished walking, I’ve come across a new idea, or someone who I need to contact has popped into my mind, or a problem has been solved, and my problems and needs, the perceived inconveniences and hardships of my life creep into the background as I become aware of the work of justice and reconciliation that God calls me to.

And that is what I think Luke is saying with this widow’s story today. Justice and reconciliation arise out of persistent, unceasing prayer that is grounded in scripture. Prayer changes us. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard for folks to pray. Prayer changes us. We begin to hear and see more clearly the injustice and suffering of our world. But we believe in a God who loves us, a God who came to be on this earth as one of us, who lived, loved, suffered and died just like we do, and so we are not disheartened by our prayer, instead we build this supportive community where people can sustain the crying day and night and not lose heart, where we do not tune out, but live in hope and with a sense of trust that does not make us feel like we have to carry the whole world on our shoulders. For facing the pain of the world, facing the pain of our own heartache is, indeed, a crushing experience which most of us cannot bear and which, without support and acceptance we will inevitably either deny or ourselves become part of the hopelessness.

Unceasing prayer helps us also to know that we are not God and do not have to be God, and that we are not alone. Unceasing prayer helps us to know that faith and hope are possible. The widow shows us that justice arises from unceasing prayer, and that together we have all we need to change ourselves and to change the world.

Amen.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

19 Pentecost Yr C

My mom has some beautiful Noritake china she got when she and my dad were married. There is a gold edge around a flower pattern. That beautiful china has spent most of its life in the cabinet, behind closed doors. It has been joined by my grandmother’s china, also Noritake of a very similar pattern. I realize that there is some care involved in using china, it is supposed to be washed by hand so as not to destroy the gold or chip the edges. But it seems to me such a waste to keep it in the cabinet and not to use it. Someday I will get all that china, and if you come to my house for dinner, you will eat off of it, we will exclaim at its beauty, and I very well might put it in the dishwasher. Such a gift of beauty, such a gift of history, such a gift should be unwrapped and opened and used, even if it doesn’t always get washed by hand, I would rather have used it for it’s intended purpose and break some, than have it perfect. Perfect, for what? Perfect to gaze upon it? What is a gift if it isn’t unwrapped and enjoyed; it’s just a box with pretty paper.

As we approach Luke’s gospel it seems difficult. But today I want for us to hear the gift in it; the gift that should be unwrapped and enjoyed, and used for its right purpose. I have said before and I say it again, the gospel is not about behaving well for a reward at the end of life. The gospel is about living as God’s new creation right here, right now. This good news today is not about a reward. It is not about serving in order to gain something, or to have some sort of claim of God. We don’t get credit for doing what we’re supposed to do. We do what we are supposed to do because it’s the right thing to do.

I want to read the passage for you from Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message. Suppose one of you has a servant who comes in from plowing the field or tending the sheep. Would you take his coat, set the table, and say, 'Sit down and eat'? Wouldn't you be more likely to say, 'Prepare dinner; change your clothes and wait table for me until I've finished my coffee; then go to the kitchen and have your supper'? Does the servant get special thanks for doing what's expected of him? It's the same with you. When you've done everything expected of you, be matter-of-fact and say, 'The work is done. What we were told to do, we did.
Friends, it’s not about you, what you do, who you are, the words you say. And it’s not about rewards, it’s not about getting what you deserve, if it was, most of us would get very little. And it’s not about anyone’s judgment of others or of themselves. It is about God and God’s amazing and abundant love and grace. That is what Luke is saying in this passage. God has given us, and continues to give us a gift, there is nothing that we do to deserve it, to possess it, to own it, it just is. So all that we do, all that we are, is in response to that gift. And as my mother’s beautiful china shows us, our response, our work, is to unwrap that gift and to enjoy it, and to use it rightly.

The startling juxtaposition of this passage with the plea of the disciples right before it, Lord, increase our faith, exemplifies what is wonderful about Jesus and his method of training us and developing our discipleship, our response to the amazing and abundant love. Hear what he says. Jesus says you do not need to increase your faith; you just need the tiniest bit of faith imaginable. A grain of mustard seed’s worth of faith can empower you to do great things. Which is to say, you already have enough. You have enough! What you have is sufficient, use it rightly.

As it says in our catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, we are to bear witness to Christ wherever we may be, and “according to the gifts given us, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world.” This is our baptized ministry. This acknowledges that we have all been given gifts. We do not all have the same gifts, but we all have the gifts necessary, and the gifts to do the right thing. Open your gift, Trust what you have – what you have been given. Trust what you have to give. It is more than enough. You can uproot trees. You can move mountains. The lame will walk, the blind will see. Loaves multiply so there’s enough to feed everyone. As you sow, you shall receive. As you follow Christ, you will begin to lead. If only you have faith as small as a mustard seed.

You see, this is good news. God has given a great gift, there is nothing you need to do to receive it but trust that it has been given. Your job, your ministry, is to use it out there, in here, at school, at work. We are sent out to do the work we have been given to do, to love and serve as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord. You have enough.

What an amazingly radical message is here. Your gift is enough. It is sufficient. It is everything you need. What if we heard that over and over again, instead of what’s in your wallet, we hear you have everything you need in your heart. Instead of buy more, bigger, and better, we hear give your coat and maybe even your gloves. Instead of live for yourself, we hear live die to self and live for others, all for the sake of the kingdom that is at hand. The kingdom of God is at hand. We can reach out and touch it, feel its nearness, participate in its fullness. If only we have the tiniest bit of faith, God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

This is so very important to remember, especially in light of Lamentations, and what we have been hearing from the prophet Jeremiah for a number of weeks now. The pain and grief of Israel is palpable. When everything goes wrong, even in the deepest depths, you are still in relationship with God. In these passages we hear that anger and grief are as welcome as joy. We are not to wallow in anger and grief, but we can be at home there for a while. We are not to get stuck in nostalgia, some romantic version of the past, nor are we to fall in love with our fantasies of the future, but we are to embrace what is set before us, we are to embrace the gift of new life God has given us.

This mustard seed of faith is enough. It is a gift that is to opened, embraced, celebrated, and yes even chipped and broken sometimes. Chipped and broken does indeed mean that we are fully alive.

Amen.