Sunday, August 29, 2010

Who is More Distinguished?

Proper 17 Year C
Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16, Luke 14:1,7-14
Fr. Robert P. Travis
Sermon Text:
How many of you know the name Karl Barth?
You may have heard of him, or you may not have,
as he is one of the most famous theologians of the 20th
Century.
He was a pastor, preacher and teacher from
Switzerland, who also taught at
the most highly regarded German Universities.
He lectured in this country at Princeton,
and the University of Chicago.

The majority of Barth’s life
was spent teaching and writing,
with some public lecturing and preaching.
His major writings include the commentary on Romans,
[and] Church Dogmatics (a multi–volume systematic theology of nearly seventy–five hundred pages...”
(Douglas, J. D., Comfort, P. W., & Mitchell, D. (1997, c1992). Who's who in Christian history. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House.)

But in the last decade before he retired,
he also spent time preaching in his local prison.
I guess you could say he wanted a captive audience.

I'm going to tell you a story about Barth,
that was created for a blog post by Ben Myers.
But first I want to point out why
today's scriptures made me think of this story.

The parable Jesus tells at the dinner party
he attends, is not like the other parables.
It strikes me that he is levying a pretty direct criticism,
of his hosts.
The practice he describes was very common in his time.
People had assigned seats at social functions.
We have vestiges of this today, with the head table
at banquets and such,
but in those days, every seat was supposed to be occupied
in proper order.
Those who were more distinguished,
of greater wealth, more power, or prominence
in the community
sat in the more important seats
while those less distinguished, sat down
at the lower places.
People would regularly come into a place,
and sit as high up as they could,
so they would be more highly regarded by others.
But it was the responsibility of the host,
to order his guests appropriately before the occasion could begin, so if someone more important came in late,
then someone would be asked to move.
This was common practice,
and so Jesus' advice seems to be good etiquette advice,
for social behavior.
But of course, Jesus is talking about more than just
party politics.
And Luke highlights that, by putting this saying together with one about who to invite to the party.
For me, the focus is on the word
“more distinguished,”
I discovered that while doing Lectio Divina
on this passage at our Thursday afternoon
Centering Prayer Group.
Others were drawn to the words,
“those who humble themselves,”
and “Invite the poor.”
Those also helped me to see what the Spirit,
was pointing out to us in this Gospel.

For God, those who are more distinguished
are not like the ones we would think of
as more distinguished.
We know this to be the case from all the other sayings,
where Jesus highlights the great reversal
of the Kingdom of Heaven,
where the last shall be first and the first last.
Some say that is even the scandal of the gospel.
That we will be shocked when we get to heaven,
and those we thought the least of have a higher place.
But as usual, I think Jesus is talking about the
'distinguishedness' of certain people right now.
(I know that's not a word, but it fit here.)

So here's the story about Karl Barth:
“Beneath the blue skies of Switzerland,
in the cheerful bustling town of Basel,
there once lived a great theologian.
Each week he taught a seminar at the university,
ruminating and chewing his pipe happily,
while students crowded the floor,
pressed hard against those ancient walls,
laughing at his jokes
and responding to his questions with nervous sincerity.
He spent his evenings drinking wine and going to concerts and entertaining visitors from faraway places
who asked him questions shyly in halting German.
On weekends he tossed bread to the ducks at the river
or rode horses or went to see the animals at the zoo.
On Sunday mornings he went to prison
and preached in the dimly lit whitewashed chapel;
he spoke like a young man (though he was old,
with a heart full of old men’s stories)
and after the service
he exchanged cigars and jokes with the inmates,
assuring them that God was, after all, a very jolly God.

But more than anything,
the theologian loved to return each day to his study
and to sit writing at his desk. . .”

“Volume upon volume tumbled brick-like from his pen, solemn great tomes
as big and hard and sturdy
as workmen’s boots.

And so, while he sat thus writing...,
the fame of those books spread far and wide.
Throughout Europe and in remote exotic places—
South Africa, Scotland, America—
people mentioned his books at dinner parties,
taught them in seminaries,
wrote books and then entire libraries about them.
The Holy Father sought an audience with him.
Martin Luther King asked him questions
and leaned close to listen.
The Japanese formed a school around his name.
The Catholics held a council and invited him.
The Americans splashed his frowning face
across the cover of Time magazine. . .
His followers proclaimed his heavy tomes
to be the dawning of a new era. . .”

“The theologian was bemused by these attentions,
but he enjoyed all this in his own self-deprecating way.
And though he travelled and shook hands
and talked solemnly and accepted honorary degrees,
always he returned before long
to that stark little desk with its pipe and pen
and tantalisingly clean sheets of paper—
empty slates shimmering with promise,
like that formless materia prima in the beginning
beneath those vast and brooding wings.

Then one December night,
while the snow slept on the ground
and all the city’s children lay dreaming of Christmas,
the theologian died.

Quite suddenly he awoke
and found himself standing at the gates of heaven.
An angel took him by the elbow and led him in,
explaining in hushed tones that everyone was waiting.
Inside the gate, the city was bustling with sound and colour, like Basel’s Market Square in the summertime.
The theologian looked around.
He tried to take it all in.
Then somewhere in the crowd a voice announced his name, and there followed a tumultuous cheer.
Women and men pressed in close,
clasping his hands and shoulders
and pounding his back warmly.
Children laughed and clapped their hands.
Angels blushed and fluttered their wings in the sunlight.

The theologian felt quite overwhelmed by the crush of bodies, the vigorous handshakes,
the beaming faces.
He tried to smile and nod politely,
as he had always done when receiving a foreign dignitary
or an honorary doctorate.
He was relieved when again the angel took him by the elbow and steered him through the crowd,
out to a side-street off the busy square.

They walked on a little way,
and the theologian,
still trying to regain his composure,
confessed that he hadn’t expected quite so warm a reception. The angel seemed surprised,
and assured him that indeed everyone in the city
knew his name.
They had all been expecting him.

“For are you not Karl Barth?” the angel declaimed
with a theatrical flourish.
“Of course we have heard of the great Karl Barth!”
The theologian nodded modestly,
and the angel continued:
“Aren’t you the one
who visited the prisoners on Sunday mornings?
Didn’t you eat and drink with them?
Didn’t you tell them jokes to make their hearts glad?
Didn’t you put fat cigars in their mouths,
and strike a match for them?
Didn’t you go to see them
when even their own families had forgotten them?
Why my dear fellow,
there is not a person in this city
who doesn’t know your name!”

The theologian had stopped in the street.
He looked at the angel.
“The prison?
Well yes, I suppose...
But I thought perhaps…
my theology.
My books…”

“Ah!” the smiling angel said,
and touched his arm reassuringly.
“There’s no need to worry about all that!
That’s all forgiven now.”

“F—forgiven?”

“But of course!
All those books are forgiven—every last word of it!”
The angel took his hand fondly.
“No need to dwell on all that now—
everything is forgiven here.
Come now, my dear,
there are still so many people waiting to meet you.
And the prisoners you visited—
they live down there by the river, in the best part of town—they’ve prepared a feast to welcome you.
Come, come along now…”

And so, hand in hand beneath a summer sky,
the angel and the theologian
made their way together down the city street.”
Posted by Ben Myers at 8:00 PM
http://faith-theology.blogspot.com/2009/05/great-theologian-parable-based-on-true.html


What are we to do with this story?
What do we do with the understanding that Jesus gives us,
that those more distinguished than we are,
are not those people we would expect?

You see, those we think of in this world
as more distinguished, are those who have
earned, or otherwise deserve more honor than we do.
In spite of thousands of years of following Christ,
those same people are still more distinguished
than the ones Jesus thought deserved greater attention.
Those who are more distinguished
in the Kingdom of God,
are the poor, the sick, the suffering,
the meek, the imprisoned.
It doesn't have to do with whether they were good or bad,
but how much they suffered in this life.
That suffering distinguishes them from the rest of us,
and as I mentioned previously,
makes them opportunities for us to participate
in God's love for them,
by reaching out and loving them as ourselves.

The reading from Hebrews gives us some pretty
clear guidance on that question.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,
for by doing it some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison,
as though you were in prison with them;
those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves
were being tortured.”

We have many opportunities to show hospitality to strangers here, especially strangers
who are distinguished in the Kingdom,
such as when we welcome homeless families,
into our church with Family Promise.
We even have opportunities to minister to prisoners,
through a ministry that Bob Wadley can tell you more about.
These prisoners are probably in different situations,
than those mentioned in Hebrews,
because they are not being persecuted for their faith.
But they are distinguished in the way
that love and faith can transform their lives
in a much more dramatic way than for others.
You can mentor formerly homeless men and women,
through the Circles of Support Program
Ascension takes part in.
Or regularly feed the hungry through Fish.

You could teach Sunday School to children,
or minister to the youth.
You know, one of the people who received
the highest distinction in our world,
still teaches Sunday School at his home church,
in Plains GA.
President Carter, who was in the news this week,
for going to North Korea to help free an American
imprisoned there, may have done a lot of great
deeds in his life, but imagine when he meets
those children in Heaven, who he has taught
the Gospel too all these years.

There are myriad ways you can do these things,
but first you have to make time for them,
in the midst of demands that seem so much more worthy.
You will probably be paid for those worthy endeavors,
or at least receive esteem for them.
But Jesus challenges us to work for those who cannot pay us
back, because those efforts will be rewarded for eternity.

There are all kinds of ways
that you can “be blessed, by those who cannot repay you.”
Remember as Jesus says,
“you will be repaid, at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Monday, August 23, 2010

True Sabbath

Proper 16 Year C Luke 13:10-17
True Sabbath
The Rev. Brett P. Backus

“And the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.”

Today's message is about true sabbath. It is about both our ability and necessity
as Christians to successfully encounter God in and through God's work. Sabbath.
So, in the Backus family, church participation was not really a choice. I was so used to this idea in fact, that when my bedroom door would open, at what seemed to a teenager to be some ungodly hour, and my mother would tell me plainly that it was time to get up for church, I didn't even try to argue or fuss because I already knew that this battle in particular was a complete and utter waste of time. Though it seemed unpleasant at the time, as I reflect on this family discipline, I am now very thankful. I am thankful for the respect for and value of the sabbath day that has been instilled in me over the course of my life by my parents. However, I must admit that I did not actually get a lot out of church as a teenager, or at least I did not think so then.
Sure, I was certainly fed by participating in the Eucharist, as I assume anyone who grows up receiving communion is. Yet, at that time, I was much more comfortable calling the mountains my church. After all, that was where I truly felt the presence of God. For me, to honor the sabbath day, the Lord's day, was to commune with nature and with friends. It was about relaxation and enjoyment, and about not working. It was definitely not about dragging my lazy tail out of bed, putting on uncomfortable clothes, singing old hymns that I really didn't like, shaking a hundred hands with a forced smile, and listening to some clergy person drone on about greek translations. Please take note, I hardly ever make mention of Greek translations! For me truly honoring the Sabbath did not necessarily mean going to church.
I share this with you all today, because this morning's Gospel lesson made me reflect on my view of the Sabbath throughout my life and now. It made me question anew whether or not I truly honored the Lord's day then, or for that matter, whether or not any of us truly honor the Lord's day now. You see, Jesus' actions in this morning's Gospel had an awful lot to say to the Pharisees and religious elite about the sabbath. As I thought about this Gospel reading and prepared for this sermon, I also began to realize, somewhat unexpectedly, that Jesus' message to the Pharisees, just may not be all that different for each of us today. Jesus has a lot to say to us this morning about true sabbath.
Already a suspicious character in the eyes of the Pharisees, Jesus shows up at the synagogue to teach on the Sabbath. As if that were not enough to already raise eyebrows, He then decides to perform a healing on a crippled woman in front of everyone, an illegal action that would be considered “work” and a violation of the Sabbath under Jewish law, and an action that would unfortunately typically be punishable by death. But Jesus did not do this to simply stir up trouble, and this is what I want us all to realize today. I want us to see that Jesus was doing much, much more through the healing he performed than we might think at first, and that we all today, as a Christian community, have something important to learn from His actions.
You see, the truth is that through His actions in today's Gospel, Jesus brought back the Sabbath. He did not break the Sabbath, He resurrected it; brought it back from the dead. The reality is that the observance of the sabbath day in Jesus' time was already broken. It had gotten so weighed down, and had so many legal attachments and amendments made to its original decree, that any spiritual component or benefit of the practice seems to have been almost completely snuffed out by the time Jesus came along. So Jesus' actions, though seemingly radical and contrary, were more like a fulfillment of the law and authentic observance of the Sabbath. They served as a kind of loud cry for God's chosen people to return to their roots where the intention of Sabbath observance would be to honor, celebrate, and glorify God, not to blindly adhere to man made restrictions and additions to what was once a purely spiritual practice.
When Jesus laid His hands on that woman and healed her of her affliction, He not only smashed the man made tradition of non action on the Sabbath day, but He also simultaneously lifted up the reality that true Sabbath was about doing God's work. He highlighted the fact that true Sabbath is about freedom, not restrictions. What better way to honor God on God's day than to liberate an oppressed child of God? What better way to do the work of God on God's day than to choose to Love? To love the other, to love the lower, to set one's self aside in order to serve another and celebrate our freedom from the bondage of sin through the ultimate act or work of Love in Jesus. Those who witnessed Jesus' actions and heard His words could not possibly ignore. To them, like it or not, Jesus' message about Sabbath was clear, and today His message about Sabbath should be clear to us as well.
So what then is the message for us this morning? What are we taking home with us today?
Jesus' actions in this morning's Gospel not only brought those around Him on that day back to the very core and true intention of Sabbath observance, but they also call each of us back to the heart of true Sabbath as well. You see this morning, Jesus' actions make me realize that some of my past views of Sabbath observance were wrong. Not that there is no good to be found in seeking God in nature or spending quality time with friends as I once did in honor of the Sabbath, but Jesus reminds us that this day just simply is not about us.
It is not about how much or how little we do. It is not about providing us with a good excuse to relax and enjoy ourselves. What Jesus teaches us today is that if the Sabbath is about us at all, it is only in the sense that we have to learn to put ourselves aside. We have to learn to put ourselves aside in order to love one another, in celebration, and enabling the work of God to be done.
Now, as I see it, the good news is that, in a very real sense, we already do this. The bad news, however, is that we too often forget that this is what it is all about. Though it somewhat pains me to admit, only because it happens so often, it would seem as though my parents were right yet again. They just might have had the right idea in not making my church participation optional, because it turns out that today's Gospel has made me realize that this is the best way to observe the sabbath day. This, what we are gathered together to do today, what we are doing right now, the liturgy, literally meaning the work of the people, and I would dare to add the spiritual work of the people. This, at its best, and when enacted with pure intentions, is how I believe God desires to be honored on the Sabbath day. We just sometimes need to be reminded.
Could it be that all too often we, like the Pharisees, forget what sabbath is really all about because we find ourselves too preoccupied with earthly and shallow things? Could it be that we all too often miss the true point of sabbath because we have made it more about ourselves than about God? At our worst, I think that the answer is yes. How easily we seem to forget that what we are doing here and what this day is really about is our celebrating and giving thanks for our freedom, and taking that message of Love through word and action out into the world. How easily we seem to forget that the tools we need to steer us in the right direction are already here, in our possession; our history, our tradition, our liturgy, the very words on our lips and in our hearts as we pray and sing each Sunday morning. The Eucharist we participate in is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, and just as the title of the person who leads us suggests, it is a powerful act which is intended to be a celebration! How easily we forget indeed.
This morning, Jesus speaks to us all in a powerful way. He shows us that in reality, we are each that person who was healed in today's Gospel. We are all that child of God who Jesus, setting Himself aside and acting out of love, has set free. However, Jesus' message also reveals to us the sad truth that somehow we all too often end up finding ourselves looking much more like the Pharisees from today's lesson, too centered on ourselves to notice anything else, and too worried about the things of this world to remember what this day is really about. The truly Good News though, is that Jesus' voice can be heard in this morning's Gospel calling us to return. It calls us back to the place we truly ought to be, and gives us a chance to return. Just as Christ called for the return and restoration of the Sabbath day, He calls its restoration in our lives now, and for the return of each of us as well.
It may sound a bit strange at first, but through Jesus' words and actions, today's Gospel calls us all to be part of the crowd. To be a part of the crowd that rejoices with Jesus because of the work of God that He has already done. To be a part of the crowd that rejoices with Jesus because of the work of God that He is doing. To be a part of the crowd that rejoices with Jesus because of the work of God that we will help Him do now. You see for us, Brothers and Sisters in Christ, this is observing true Sabbath. This is how we each truly honor God on God's day, by coming here and whole heartedly participating together in the life altering and infinite celebration of God's Love.
“And the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.”
Amen.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Wild Grapes in the Fields of the Lord

The Rev. Amy Morehous
Proper 15, Year C
Church of the Ascension
August 16, 2010


What words we have before us in the scripture readings today, the ‘love-song about a vineyard’, according to Isaiah. Trampled. Ravaged. Burned. Rebuked. Tortured. Flogged. Stoned. Killed. What on earth could we find of meaning in these accounts of desolation, and violence and rebuke? However could we reconcile a loving God with these words of warning, and judgement, and violence? Particularly knowing that Paul means for some of those horrific words to be reassuring. You think you have it bad now, you Hebrews ! Just remember what your predecessors went through, and be reassured! I don’t know about you, but that is sometimes the kind of comforting I can do without.

Like most families, today I’m focused on new beginnings - new classes, new teachers. In fact, in a few moments, we will bless all the children headed back to school, to face all those shiny new pencils, shiny new friends, and shiny new anxieties that each year brings. But our lectionary this morning is insistent that the readings we heard today have something to say to us, that these harsh words that disturb us still have meaning in our lives...even though we would rather not hear them. So, this is our ‘love-song’ to contemplate this morning. One of hurt, and pain, and brokenness before God.

I don’t know Heather Moffitt at all, but I wish I did. She’s the daughter of a pastor, and a parent. Like most of us, when she became a parent, she had a whole houseful of expectations of what her parenting experience would be like. While she “didn’t expect her children automatically to exhibit angelic behaviour in church,” she did expect them to “learn how to comport themselves,” and she looked forward eagerly to having her children “worship with the people of God, and learn the Bible stories that had shaped her.” However, like most of us, she soon found that reality and expectations soon part company, where our children are concerned.

She writes of the time when she and and her husband joined a new church. Their son was only 14 months old. Just weeks later, their son “began to exhibit debilitating behavioral challenges. He had violent and unpredictable outbursts, making it difficult to take him anywhere, much less church.” She and her husband spent most of their time in church pacing the halls, “trying to find a place where our son’s screams couldn’t be heard in the sanctuary.” Their son was diagnosed with what she calls “a virtual alphabet soup of conditions: ADHD, ODD, ASD, and more.” They would “pull into the parking lot of the church, and (she) would be in a state of prayer - praying they could get through an entire service before they had to leave, praying that he wouldn’t have an epic tantrum in the pews, praying that he wouldn’t attack other children, and praying that people would be nice to them.” It is no surprise that most of her feelings about going to church “ranged from embarrassed to humiliated.”

From the church she received lots of well-meaning advice. Her child needed more discipline. He needed less. He was with her too much. He didn’t have enough time with her. But, overall, she says that people were kind. “We were never shunned because of our challenging child. Instead, people prayed over him, with love. Our pastor would get down on his knees to meet him at eye level every week and talk to him. One lovely couple even offered to keep our son some Sunday afternoons so we could have a break.”

What she slowly realized was “that this church was a manifestation of God’s grace to us, for it was not a church where everyone arrives with a Sunday-morning mask of perfection over the heartbreaks of life. A challenging child in church forces everyone - parents and other parishioners - to confront whether we value compliance over compassion.”

She points out that while she always knew “how to behave in church”, what she had to learn to accept was “how to be broken in church.” While she wanted to be “praised for her parenting, and admired for her control of her child, what she really needed was to healed from her hurt”. She thought she was seeking spiritual formation for her son, but what she discovered was that she needed it for her own soul.

We don’t always allow for brokenness - in church, in our own lives. We sometimes pass that perception on to our children, even without meaning to. When I was about 12, my parents finally divorced after years of separation and turmoil. Afterwards, my mother stopped going to church events for over a year. She would drop my younger sister and me off for Sunday school, or youth group, and then go back home. When I complained about her absence, she said, “Church is only a place for families, and we aren’t a family anymore.”

Because that’s what we’re talking about in all these readings. Brokenness. Division. “We aren’t a family anymore.” While they aren’t pretty, those issues and griefs are part of many people’s reality. We live in a society that values self-reliance. Keeping it “all together”. Being well-adjusted. I don’t know about you, but I desperately want my child to be “well-adjusted”. I don’t even know exactly what that means, but it sure sounds really good. We all suffer from the sin of sufficiency - we’re “good enough, smart enough” In fact, we’re all just fine, thanks for asking. We’re Americans - we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and we don’t need anyone’s help. We put on our smiles, and we come to church on our good days, but not on our bad ones. Our children come to learn that we only come to church when we have time, or when we’re feeling okay. But we don’t come to God’s house on the bad days - the broken days, the angry days, the ‘bad hair’ days, the “I don’t love my neighbor days,” the sinful days. In doing so, we can pass on the message that church is only for perfect people, who do all the right things, think all the right things, say all the right things - wear all the right things.

We believe in a God who is a loving parent. Isaiah talks of the tender care of the Lord for his vineyard, for his people. He also describes how the people responded - with selfishness, and injustice. He says that our loving God “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!’ What did the people do to feel God’s wrath? Why is Isaiah so upset? If you keep reading just one more verse, Isaiah says, “Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no room for anyone but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land.” (5:8) Isaiah points out that thinking only of our own selves, only of our own needs will yield its own punishment: “The Lord of Hosts has sworn in my hearing: surely many houses shall be left desolate, large and beautiful houses without inhabitants.” Large and beautiful houses....

There’s a reason for the difficult passages of the Bible. They aren’t there just to make us uncomfortable on Sunday mornings, when we’d rather hear something else. They’re there to make us uncomfortable all the time. Why? Not because our God is a vengeful, angry judgemental God, but because the Christian faith is one of redemption, and of healing. But if we don’t acknowledge our slavery, and our brokenness, and our wounds, then we can’t see the redemption and the healing that follows. It is in the times we are most broken when we are the closest to God. Don’t misunderstand me - God does not wish brokenness on any of us. Our God is not a God of punishment and retribution, who breaks us in order for us to learn to love. But our God is a parent - a parent who loves us enough to let us make mistakes. A parent who understands that our first reaction is not always the charitable one. That our choices are not always good. That we do things to ourselves, and our environment and to others that cause suffering. Jesus didn’t come for perfect people, with no problems. Perfect people have no need of a Saviour. Jesus didn’t come to promise that our lives would be rosy, that we would spend all our time tiptoeing through the tulips of life. Jesus came for a people that suffered, for a people that didn’t always make the right choices, for a people that weren’t always good to their neighbors. People just like us.

Festo Kivengore said that “Resurrection is not for upright people. It’s for brokenhearted people, the defeated and shattered....Before Christ died and rose again, suffering was meaningless, empty, a shattering experience which made life bitter. Then Jesus died in suffering and in pain, and he covered suffering with love - victorious, holy love. This kind of love will never be conquered!" Festo Kivengore was an Anglican Bishop from Uganda in the late 1970s. He spoke those words on Easter Sunday of 1977, just months after the Anglican Archbishop Janani Luwam was murdered for opposing Idi Amin’s regime. Festo Kivengore was a man who had seen division, and oppression, and bloodshed. He knew how very wild those wild grapes could grow...but he still found hope in Christ’s victory over bitterness, over suffering.

As for me, I believe that church is a place of redemption and healing. It is a place for families. It’s a place for all kinds of families, with all kinds of children - even the broken and imperfect ones. Especially the broken and imperfect ones. Why? Because we are people of redemption and healing - a resurrection people. We believe in a Christ who was beaten, who suffered, and who died. There’s nothing pretty or comforting about that picture - Jesus himself is honest about the suffering he will undergo. “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” His blunt honesty about difficulties and divisions is shocking to us, because today we like to put pretty faces on top of unpleasant truths. Jesus is unwilling to sweep those under the rug. But to stop with this reading, to pull it out of context as we have done today, is not to follow it through to the end. The end of the story is not in strife and division, but in resurrection.

And our deep need for being sufficient, for being “good enough?” Our need for keeping up appearances, and being ‘well-adjusted’...those will lead us down the path of loneliness, and fear, and inadequacy, and want. We will be left desolate ourselves, like large and beautiful houses without inhabitants. And expecting our children to be perfectly well-behanved, ‘well-adjusted’ members of society carries it’s own dangers. Martin Luther King once said that “Everyone passionately seeks to be well adjusted. ...But there are some things in our world to which (people) of goodwill must be maladjusted.” He argues that it is the call of every Christian to be “creatively maladjusted.” I hope our children never become “adjusted” to injustice, or prejudice, or hatred. I hope my daughter never measures another’s self-worth by their net worth. I hope she never lets the bully tower over the smaller kid on the playground - even if it gets her in trouble.

My prayer for my daughter - indeed, for all our children, is that we are not raising them to expect that they must be perfect. To not expect that life will be perfect. Not papering over the broken pieces of our lives with well-meaning platitudes. Not solving all their problems for them. Not pressuring them to fit in, to be like everyone else, to not to ever stick out, or question authority. I hope we are honest about our own limitations, and difficulties. I hope we value compassion, and not just simple compliance. Not throwing “a Sunday-morning mask of perfection over the heartbreaks of life”.

We will bring our children forward today, as one people, and bless them and send them forth in faith, and with hope. And we will come to the Eucharistic table today, in unity, as one people, despite our divisions, our pains, or our private griefs. While our human story may be one of “pain and tears and brokenness..,” we affirm that it also is“a story of love, joy, and hope that ends in wholeness, in the world coming to know just how high and broad and deep God's love and blessings for Creation are.” (Sarah Dylan Brewer) Because despite division, and deep grief, and the destruction that we manage to visit on each other, God does intend good for all God’s people. The Good News of Christ today is that while death and suffering and separation are realities in our lives, they can never be the last words. The resurrection is the last word, God’s eternal ‘Amen’ to the brokenness in each of our lives. “Restore us, Lord God,” and heal us; “show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” Together, we proclaim our own brokenness - we lay it at the altar, and we name it, and it will have no power over us, because we are a resurrection people.

Amen, and amen.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Living without your Possessions Owning You

Fr. Robert P. Travis
August 1, 2010

The last time August began with this Gospel
was on a Sunday morning in 2004.
What if you had made plans in 2004,
about what you would do with your treasure then,
to enjoy it comfortably for the rest of your life?
Would you have found that things had changed by 2010?

But in spite of these financial challenges,
The Psalmist tells us this morning
“Consider well the mercies of the Lord.”
And from Paul we hear,
“Set your minds on things that are above,
not on things that are on earth,
for you have died and your life his hidden
with Christ in God.”

By being baptized into the death of Jesus,
we are invited into a new life,
that is different from all those around us.

Because seem very much like the people living
a merely human life around us,
It is hard to consider the mercies of God,
and to set our minds on things that are above,
especially in the place we live in the world today.
It is hard to set our minds on things that are above,
when the things on earth, our things, are so loud,
and obnoxious as they vie for our attention.

Jesus is confronted,
on his way to Jerusalem, and his own death,
by a man who can't get his mind off of worldly things,
how to split up the family inheritance.

This seemed particularly poignant to me,
since this year, because of that gap year
in the estate tax,
some billionaires are dying,
and their families are getting their entire estate,
instead of the 50% that they would normally get.
And also because the great wealth transfer
from the baby boom is beginning to take place.
So I think we are probably seeing more disputes
about inheritance than ever before.
And that is what confronted Jesus,
when he was in the midst of teaching the crowds.

But rather than dealing with that all too common dispute, Jesus tells us a parable, that helps put it into perspective.
And while this parable seems to be very obvious,
and mostly is, about greed,
there is one key part that we may miss,
that I missed the first few times I read this.
Many have missed this point,
because the translation can mislead us
about what actually is happening in the story.
I'm going to share that insight with you this morning,
because it is good news.

Jesus starts the parable with a teaching,
warning everyone to be on guard against all kinds of greed.
Clarifying that one's life does not consist
in the abundance of possessions.
That is a hint of what's to come.
The words “one's life.”

If we don't pay attention to the fine details,
we may miss the bigger point.
Because what Jesus said there is not new,
and it wasn't new then,
everyone knew that Greed is a vice.
But they did not know how pervasive it was,
and we often don't realize how common it is today.

Jesus tells a story which includes a pretty innocent man.
His land produced abundantly.
He did not gain his wealth dishonestly,
but according to what we might call
the American Dream.
He worked hard, and he accumulated land,
and was blessed with a bumper crop.

He realized his barns could not hold it all,
and he thought... “I have no place to store my crops.”
That kind of reminds me of people
who spend their whole time
looking for the right mutual fund,
to invest their wealth and make it grow.
Or of those who look in their full closets,
and say, “I don't have anything to wear.”

The expectations of the society make us think,
that all of this abundance is ours.
The man says “my crops.”
And never once thinks about them belonging to God.

So he goes on to say,
“I will pull down my barns,
and build larger ones,
and there I will store all my grain, and my goods.”
Three more times he uses the word my,
“my barns, my grain, my goods.”
Imagine the three year old, “Mine, Mine, Mine!”

When I was traveling with my family
recently I passed major installations of
two of the largest food companies in the world.
One was a container port center for Cargill,
the other a grain elevator for Monsanto.
I have a friend who owns a major soybean refinery
in Egypt, and in his experience working with those
companies, he told me,
there is no business more corrupt,
no industry more greedy
than the American Agriculture Business.
They believe all this abundance in food we produce,
belongs to them,
and to their shareholders.
For example, did you know,
When we give food aid to the world
from the taxpayers through USAID,
We don't receive that food aid at a discount from ADM,
Monsanto, Cargill, and the like.
We buy it at full price, even though they have a surplus.
Ok, but now I'm getting off my soapbox,
because as you can tell this is one of those
things that gets me riled up.

Back to our wealthy farmer.
The big switch comes right after he says
“Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years.”
He believes his soul is content with his goods,
and his stores of grain.
But God reminds him, of what the psalmist writes,
in psalm 63,
“My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,*
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;”
The psalmist's soul is satisfied
when he meditates on God,
not when he thinks about all his stuff.
This is where greed becomes idolatry,
when our desire for stuff, overtakes our desire for God.

The big switch in the fine detail,
comes when God says, “this very night
your life is being demanded of you.
And the things you have prepared,
whose will they be?”
When it is translated just that way,
it seems that Jesus is just reminding us
that we can't take it with us when we die.
Everyone knows that,

Ok, well most people know that.
Those who drive around with the bumper sticker
“He who dies with the most toys wins!”
and I've seen that in Knoxville,
don't seem to get it.

But most of us know that.
So it's not news.

God is saying “you fool”
to the man, not out of spite,
and he is not a God who wants to prevent us
from enjoying life.
Look at the way the prophet Hosea describes
God's love for us.
God leads us “with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.”
He is to us “like those who lift infants to their cheeks.”

I do that a lot these days,
and I can tell you it is a sweet kind of love.

God bends down to us and feeds us.
God wants us to know that our life is in Him,
not in our possessions.

And, Jesus is making a much deeper point
than “we can't take it with us when we die.”
I found a couple of scholars,
who argue that the verb translated here as being demanded,
is not passive, nor without a subject.
The Greek should be translated
“they are demanding your life from you.”
Why does that make a difference?
Well who is “they” in that sentence?
They refers to the man's grain and goods, and barns,
all his stuff.
The kicker is that the man has not died here,
God is telling him that his stuff has taken his life away,
because he believed it was all his.
When God says, whose will they be?
He is showing the man that he belongs to his things,
They don't belong to him.
Had the man thought,
“this abundance belongs to God,
how can I be a good steward of it,”
things would have been different.
“The rich man was owned
by what he thought he owned:
"my crops," "my barns," "my grain," "my goods,"
"my soul."
His fate was that he was enslaved
to the very things which he thought he owned
and in which he had his life and his security.
It is materialism that is
destructive, not the material itself.” (Stagg, Frank. "Luke's Theological Use of Parables." Review & Expositor 94.2 (1997): 215-229. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. EBSCO. Web. 29 July 2010)

That's what Jesus is teaching us differently.
On the macro level, our corporations are being lead astray
by believing that the abundance they enjoy,
is truly theirs,
and therefore they become owned by their balance sheets,
slaves to the bottom line,
and not the owners they think they are.
On the micro level we see this all around us,
and all of us take part in it to some degree.

Many of us have so much stuff
we can't fit it into our houses anymore.
On the extreme end, there are those whom
we have come to call “hoarders.”
They are examples of this in the extreme.
If you have seen any of the shows on the locally run Scripps
networks, you know what I mean.
They have the disease of accumulation
so that their stuff owns them,
and it has taken their lives away.
But on a much more common angle,
the boom in the personal storage businesses,
shines this light in our faces.
Why do we need to have a personal storage unit,
when our houses get so full of stuff?
Certainly, if we thought about it,
that stuff could be better used by someone else,
and the money we spend on storage units,
could much better go to fighting injustice,
feeding the hungry,
or healing the sick
or any number of better purposes,
than storing stuff we don't even use.

You know, this has personal significance for me,
because my grandfather died
when my dad was only 10 years old.
He had been a banker,
and one of the most successful people in his family,
They lived in a coal mining town in West Virginia,
and my grandfather for whom I'm named,
invested in a mine with a friend.
He probably thought he was doing well,
by owning so much,
by owning his own mine,
in this town where so many worked in the mines of others.
It was 1950, so he probably believed
that a man is defined by the magnitude of his net worth.

But his mine collapsed,
and in the rubble lay all of my grandfather's security.
He died of a heart attack in the midst of that crisis,
at a very young age.
To this day, I wonder if he had focussed less
on accumulation of wealth, if he would have
lived so that I could have met him,
so that my dad could have had a dad
to help him grow into adulthood.
He learned the hard way, that your possessions
demand your life from you, and you become theirs.

As Christians we already have died,
and our life is hidden with Christ in God.
So rather than storing up possessions for ourselves,
we are asked to be rich towards God.
I'm pleased to say that many in this parish
are getting very good at that.
Today we have with us as a guest
Father Beli and his wife,
the pastor of the church we have helped in Bolivia,
and we have good news to share about our efforts
to provide water and electricity to the Gathering Place
for the Diocese of Toliara in Madagascar.
Our last stewardship campaign was incredibly successful,
and we have in evidence a newly repaired roof,
and a newly hired excellent minister for our youth.
You have been rich towards God,
and you can be sure,
the opportunities to be rich towards God will continue.

The world tells us that our net worth is measured
in houses, stocks, bonds or cold cash.
But Jesus negates that equation,
and describes our worth in the amount that God loves us,
and the amount that we love him back,
by using what we have been given,
to enrich the lives of those around us,
and strengthening the bonds of love that God has given us.

Be rich towards God,
and “set your minds on things that are above,
not on things that are on earth,”
for we are but stewards of the bounty given to us,

One of the verses guiding my life has been “from those to whom much has been given,
much is also required.”

But even more than a requirement to give,we learn today,
that life is found when we refuse to let
our stuff own us,
by remembering that it was never ours in the first place.

There's no problem with being rich,
the man in the story was not criticized for that,
it's your attitude towards your possessions,
and what you do with it that counts.