Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost - Proper 21

Matthew 21:23-32

Still Time to Change

And even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

I don’t know if this will be a shared experience or not, but one of the most anticipated and important events for everyone during my high school years was not the prom, or the senior prank, but it was the opportunity to select a quotation that would go under each person’s name in their senior year book. It was choosing the quote that would be eternally tied to your name in the high school year book which would of course undoubtedly sit as a permanent and unmovable fixture on the book shelves of every member of your graduating class forever. Well, ok, so probably not, but still, you get the idea. It was a big deal. For some reason, as I was preparing for this sermon, the quotation that I selected my Senior year was brought back to mind when I read this morning's Gospel.

“Yes, there are two paths that you can go by, but in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on.”

Now, before I continue, let me just pause and say that yes, that is a quote from the greatest band in history, Led Zeppelin, and if you recognized that, well then you are forever considered cool in my book! For our youth in attendance this morning, if you didn’t recognize that quote, well shame on you, and google it!

You see, at that time in my life that quote meant a lot to me, because at that time I found myself in a similar situation. I too, was in the middle of choosing between two paths. The path that I had been on had resulted in my becoming distant from God, developing potentially bad habits, and becoming consumed with myself. While the path that I was contemplating taking, though I didn’t really know where it led, offered the chance to change. As it turns out, I chose the path that provided change. Though it took a long time, that path eventually led me here. It led me back to a working relationship with God, it led me to change, to repentance, to seek the mercy and grace of God, and to all of you. As I look back on that now, it is impossible for me to miss the unending love and incredible forgiveness that God offered me in that time, the unending love and incredible forgiveness that God offers each of us always. That is what I hear Jesus saying to us in this morning’s Gospel, and that is what reminded me of my Senior high quote. It’s ok. You can still change.

We find Jesus this morning, as we often do, artfully transcending the challenges of the Pharisees and shifting the conversation to focus on their own faith or lack thereof. Jesus aptly points out to the Pharisees that though they are recognized by members of their society as the religious elite, they are not doing the work that God has sent them out to do. In other words, the Pharisees were extremely good at following the law, they were good at fulfilling God's requirements, at checking certain tasks off the list, but they had somehow managed to close their hearts to God's love and true message. Typically, I think that this is what most of us hear when we read this piece of Scripture as well. This morning, at least in part, Jesus is reminding and warning both the Pharisees and each of us of the constant temptation we face of letting ourselves become merely casual believers.

It seems to me that this is an important reminder or warning for us to hear occasionally as Christians. I mean if we are honest, how often do we look much more like the Pharisees in the Gospels than the disciples or followers of Christ? How easily do we become so spoiled by the overflowing love and grace of God that we too fail to recognize its constant presence all around us? When was the last time we came to church out of a true desire to thank and worship God, and not simply to check it off our list like a an errand of mid-level importance? It occurs to me then, that all of a sudden the growing anti-Christian movement and our greatest critics may actually have some valid points against us these days.

Could it be, that at our worst, we are nothing more than a social club? Is there truth in the accusation that we do not practice the very challenging and difficult life that we preach? Just like the Pharisees of His day, this is the very thing, the very attitude that Jesus warns us against in this morning's Gospel. Today, Jesus puts us in check, and reminds us not to be like that second son, to not be the one who takes promises, who enters into a covenant with God, and then never even tries to follow through. So, this being a Baptism Sunday, part of what I want to do this morning is to encourage us all to be intentional today and pay special attention to the vows that we will each renew in just a few moments as we welcome and support two individuals who will enter into that same sacred covenant with God for the first time. Let us use Jesus' message today to truly take a good look at the promises we have made, and the promises we have made on behalf of our children, and reevaluate where we do or perhaps do not honor those promises.

Let us confront our failures, because, though perhaps ironic, I believe that that is precisely where we find our good news this morning. Therein lies what I feel is the so often missed or unheard good news in Christ's words to us today. It's ok. There is still time to change the road you are on. You see, Jesus is in a sense putting us in check along with the Pharisees in this Gospel today, but just as He did for me as I stood at those crossroads, He is also telling each of us this morning that it is never too late to change, that He has not given up on us. Jesus is assuring us that it really is ok. I mean look, for as arrogant and smug as they may have been portrayed, Jesus did not condemn the Pharisees. He simply told them that all the people who they thought were below them were actually favored by God. Jesus didn't condemn the first son in his story today for initially failing or disobeying. He lifted him up as an example of one who had been welcomed home when he found his way, as one who changed the road he was on. That is the Good News that we can all take home with us.

So if you are sitting out there this morning and know you are on the wrong path, or you are standing at a crossroads wondering which way to go, hear Jesus' words to you today. It is ok. You can change. Or if you are at a point in your spiritual life where you feel numb, or empty, and you realize that you have just simply been going through the motions as a Christian and haven't really been living into your faith covenant with God, hear Jesus' words to you today. It really is ok. You can still change. This, Brothers and Sisters, is the Good News of Christ, not only today but always. This is precisely what the current critics of Christianity just don't get. Everything they say about us is pretty much true and we already know it, and not only do we know it, but that is actually the whole point. We are fallen, broken. We do mess up. We fall short of the mark, over, and over, and over again. We are forever having to pick ourselves back up and find ourselves standing at a crossroads, faced with two paths, faced with change, and wondering which way to go. And yet, it is there, in that crucial and oddly familiar moment, where we find Jesus, patiently waiting, constantly watching for each of us with arms wide open, as if to say, it really is ok, there is still time to change.

And even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”


Sunday, September 18, 2011

It's Not Fair! . . . or is it?

The Rev. Robert P. Travis

Pentecost 20A Sunday Sermon

8 and 10:30am Service, Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN 9/18/2011

Scripture Text:

Jonah 3:10-4:11,

Psalm 145:1-8,

Philippians 1:21-30,

Matthew 20:1-16

Sermon Text:

As you may know,

I have two daughters,

one in First Grade and one in Kindergarten.

Do you know how they would respond to this gospel passage?

That's not fair!”

We hear that phrase more than other phrases in our home.

In fact, we hear it every day, that's how I know.

It is hard to be the arbiter of fairness,

as any parent will know.

But it is certainly not just children who deal with this.

I was going grocery shopping at 9pm,

just to pick up a few things.

Usually I shop over near where we live,

by Pelissippi and Northshore.

But this time I was in Bearden,

so I went to the Bearden Kroger.

Apparently 9pm is the hopping time at that store,

I was kind of surprised when I went in and it was mobbed.

I wanted to get home after a long day,

I picked up the milk, juice, bread,

and ice cream and made my way to the front.

The express lane was packed,

in fact every line was packed.

I chose what I thought was the shortest line.

A few minutes later I heard over the PA system,

all available hands to the front of the store!”

Apparently this busyness was an anomaly.

A lane two lines down was opened.

I was in the middle of my line.

The people behind me went to that lane.

So now I was at the back of my line.

I wouldn't have been next in my line,

if 4 people in front of me went to the new line.

Was I happy for those people who suddenly

got to check out while I had to wait?

No, of course not!

I was angry, but I tried to keep my cool,

it is after all, just the grocery store line.

When I mentioned this experience,

in this week's Bible study,

one of the women pointed out

that sometimes the clerk will instruct

the people who move from the back of the line to the front,

that those others who were next in line should be first.

Sometimes you get lucky and the clerk knows

their moral responsibility to be fair (sarcasm).

I heard that another preacher who talked about this passage,

said that how you feel about it

depends on where you feel you are in the line.

I saw that happen this week,

as one person I heard respond to the passage

stated just as my girls would,

It's not fair!”

While another said, “Oh, I love that passage!”

I suppose our own view on where we are in line,

probably depends on the day of the week,

and changes at least that often.

What God is telling us here,

is that our place in the line doesn't matter,

And comparing our rewards to others

is harmful to our spiritual and emotional well-being.

I heard a story on the news a couple weeks ago,

about a new study from Princeton

that deals with a sociological phenomenon

called “Last Place Aversion.”1

I love it when modern science lends a scientific fact

to biblical truth.

This study showed that people

near the bottom of the economic ladder

will even oppose economic policies that will help themselves,

for fear that it might help those below them too,

maybe even more than they would benefit,

and then they might have have slightly less

than those who previously were below them.

The researcher said,

"It's the basic human need to avoid feeling

like we ourselves are in last place," she says.

"Or maybe, put a bit more negatively,

it's our need to feel like there's at least one person

we can feel superior to or look down on."2

Fairness is also a basic human need,

which I believe is apparent by the prevalence

and complexity with which children understand it.

It's based on our need for Justice,

And the basic need we have for justice is something theologians use to show

the evidence of a just God.

Unjust situations cause us concern, and should do so.

The need for justice is part of how we were created to feel,

But justice can be perverted,

and so can our sense of it.

I heard this week about a ministry that is related

to the specific situation in today's Gospel.

It's called Interfaith Worker Justice,

and it deals with cases of justice against workers,

who have no recourse.

There is apparently a problem with wage theft,

In this country, even in our own state,

with day laborers in various industries.

Like those in the story,

the workers will be picked up at the beginning of the day,

and agree then on a wage for the day's work.

Their employment documents are often not checked,

indeed many of them do not have documents proving their legal ability to work here.

But that is not discussed.

At the end of their work they receive cash for their labor.

When someone finds that the cash

is much less than promised,

and the worker has the courage to go to the supervisor,

they are told “You're undocumented,

I don't have to pay you what I pay these other workers,

too bad for you.”

That is injustice, and as part of our call to seek justice,

Christians need to be working on these issues.

But like all good things,

we tend to pervert fairness,

as it applies to our relationships to those around us.

The people in the parable that we heard from Jesus today,

were concerned not because they had not received,

what was the agreed upon wage,

which would have been unjust,

but because when they saw the others receiving

more than they thought they deserved.

So the original workers thought they would receive more.

We see the similar spiritual concern

in the story of Jonah we read this morning.

It probably would be overdoing it,

if our readers did this,

but if I were reading,

I would put Jonah's words in this whiney sort of voice.

That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning;

for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful,

slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

and later, when God asks “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Jonah says, “Yes, angry enough to die!”

Jonah was a prophet,

a righteous man in many ways,

a man who had special communion with the Lord,

a man whose life God had saved.

But he couldn't deal with the fact that these evil people

in Ninevah, would be forgiven all their unrighteousness,

just because they repented.

Even though his message was what caused them to repent.

He was hoping they wouldn't repent,

so they would get what was coming to them,

even though his life was saved when he repented

and returned to the Lord.

How quickly does our gratitude to God,

turn to resentment, when we see others getting

more than we think they deserve!

This is what is at the heart of the Gospel today.

What we're dealing with in the Gospel

is the Kingdom of Heaven.

We're not talking about a day of work,

but everlasting blessedness,

eternal life.

What Paul tells us, is we're to work out our own salvation,

with fear and trembling,

not worry about whether others deserve to be saved or not.

There's a current sort of pop-religion

which is described in a book by Kenda Creasy Dean,

that generally describes what average people believe.

And one of the tenents of this belief system,

which she calls “moralistic therapeautic deism.”

Is that “good people go to heaven when they die.”3

That's a nice thought, but it's not Christian.

Here's the problem with that thought,

who determines what is good?”

When we are the arbiters of goodness,

many of us would probably say we're good,

or the people we love are good,

whether or not they do bad things,

or think bad things, or have any belief in God.

But those people we don't like,

or who we think are pulling everyone down,

or who we think are unfairly getting ahead of us,

they are not good.

The Christian standard is not goodness as determined by us.

The Bible tells us, “all have sinned,

and fall short of the glory of God.”

The standard is the glory of God.

We were created in the image of God,

so whenever we fall short of that image,

we disqualified from eternity in his presence.

But God doesn't leave us there.

He loves us so much, that he sent Jesus

to bring us into God’s presence,

to redeem us, from all of our shortcomings.

We're all getting way more than we deserve,

for our labors and our failures to work here on earth.

And we're all about the same distance away from it,

when the scale is as great as that comparing us to God.

But it is God's generosity,

his grace, and mercy,

which accomplishes that welcome

into the joyous divine presence,

that payment if you will, of eternity.

Fairness and justice are based on an objective goodness,

and in the eternal scheme of things

they totally rest on God's decision.

When we pervert eternal fairness,

or any fairness for that matter,

it is no longer based on an objective standard,

But it becomes all about me.

Fairness often becomes all about what I want,

and what I think is fair.

I’ve certainly seen my girls struggling to learn that lesson about fairness.

When kids want something,

it’s unfair when others have it and they don’t.

Today God is challenging us to adjust our attitudes,

but not because our attitudes will keep us

any closer or further from heaven than our works will.

We need to adjust our attitudes

for our own benefit,

to more fully enjoy the

blessings we have been given,

and to please the Lord.

For in the end, the degree to which we accept

the judgment of God,

and his mercy towards those

we may or may not feel deserve it,

is the degree to which

we worship Him who blesses us all.

In eternal matters our place in the line doesn't matter,

And comparing our rewards to others

is harmful to our spiritual and emotional well-being.

I’ve heard it said that it will be a great scandal to many,

When we get to heaven

and see the kind of people who are there.

The question today’s scripture asks us

is will we be pleased for them,

And worship the Lord for his great mercy,

Or will we be angry and resentful

like Jonah was at the redemption of Ninevah?

How will the knowledge of God’s mercy

affect the way you respond to others in this life,

When they get something good they may not have earned?

Will you rejoice when they rejoice?

God’s mercy is a given, how you respond is up to you.


2Ibid. Ilyana Kuziemko, one of the authors of the paper and an economics professor at Princeton University.

3Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian, pg. 14.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

"I'm fine. You?"

The Rev. Amy Hodges Morehous
Proper 18, Year A
Church of the Ascension
September 4, 2011

Ezekiel 33:1-11
Psalm 119:33-40
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” So, I have a list, and I’d like to see the following people after church....”

We laugh, but that’s one of our worst fears, isn’t it? That someone is going to point at us, to point out our shortcomings, and laugh. I think, most of the time, we’re all too aware these days of the places where we fall short. We’re constantly surrounded by advertising that makes sure that we spend a large part of our lives feeling inadequate. We’re judging by external appearances, and according to what I see on TV, we’re not pretty enough, not young enough, not skinny enough. Our teeth always could be whiter, our stomach flatter, our clothes more stylish. Thanks to magazines and television, we know our houses don’t quite measure up, either. So, we are surrounded by things that tell us that appearance is everything, that we don’t look quite right, our homes don’t look quite right. We probably left home this morning with some sense that we just don’t measure up. Now we’ve come to church, only to hear that someone should call us out on our bad behavior. Swell.

There’s plenty not to like in this passage from Matthew. On the face of it, it appears harsh and judgemental - a lot of the things that have driven people away from Christianity. I don’t know about you, but I've known way too many Christians who are more than eager to "go and point out the fault" of someone who has sinned.

When I get over myself and my own sense of inadequacy and read the passage carefully, what I hear is Matthew's deep concern for community -- honest, authentic Christian community. The community Matthew is speaking to, largely Jewish, had a very deep sense of how much they were loved and valued and chosen by God. I would argue that we’ve lost that today. I think we’ve developed such a deeply ingrained sense of our own inadequacies that we find it hard to believe that we can be loved unconditionally, as Matthew’s audience knew to the depths of their bones. We’ve held onto the ideas of God’s harsh judgement and our own sense of shortcoming and sin, but without balancing that with belonging and love and grace.

So how do we form community, today? And why should we? Community, after all, can be one of those feel-good words. It pulls us into the ideal -- we imagine something out of Cheers, or Friends - a place where you're accepted for who you are, where you're never lonely, and where everyone knows your name. But you know what the problem with community is? It’s made up of people. And people -- not you and me, of course, but most people -- can be difficult, challenging, selfish, and unreliable. When we're daydreaming about community, it’s usually because we don't particularly like the actual community already surrounding us.

Jesus speaks forthrightly to us today, and reminds us that we are not always kind to ourselves, or to our neighbors. Our communities are made up of all kinds of people. People sin against one another. Jesus instructs us, when that happens and you're involved, it’s important to do something about it; to go talk to the other person directly, like a mature adult, rather than behind his or her back. If that doesn't work, involve a few members of the community. If that doesn't work, then you may need to be honest with everyone, because the whole community may be at risk. I'm not totally sure what treating the offender "as a Gentile and tax collector" means. Church tradition tells us that Matthew himself was...a tax collector. And what did Jesus do with Gentiles and tax collectors? He sat with them. He taught them. He had dinner with them. He certainly didn’t ostracize them. He chose them to be his disciples. He intentionally reached out to them, and invited them into the community.

Along with that call to being accountable to one another in community, we are reminded by Paul that honest community doesn’t happen in a vacuum. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” For there to be a Christian community, there must be love - enough love that there is respect and honesty. Honesty without love can sound harsh - judgemental - holier than thou. It sounds great to say that we should be honest with one another, doesn’t it? But in all reality, almost nothing is harder. Loving honesty is difficult. I’ll give you an example. What’s one of the largest lies you’ll ever hear in church? I know I’ve even said it myself. I’ll give you a hint - it’s two words - “I’m fine.”

In a loving, Christian community, we should be able to be daring enough to be honest. To be not fine, when that’s the honest truth. I’m not suggesting that we aren’t all fine, but I do assert that we aren’t fine at all times, and in all places, and with all people. The world around us certainly spends a lot of time and money trying to convince us that we aren’t fine. In the midst of a loving community, that we are healthier people if we are honest people. Honest with ourselves, and with each other.

So we’ve established that authentic community is hard to come by. It's work. It’s risky. But it's worth it. God did not intend for us to go through life without holy community. And I’ll tell you, when you find it, it's like discovering a little bit of heaven on earth; it is the reality of God's communal fellowship right here, in our midst. Jesus promises, when we gather in this way -- with honesty and integrity, even when it's hard -- that amazing things can happen because Jesus is with us, right there, in our very midst.

We may belong to lots of different groups -- our neighborhoods, our kids' play groups, or a book club, or the folks we eat lunch with at work. All of these communities are different, with different characteristics. So what kind of community do we want here from Church of the Ascension. Are we a superficial social club? Because that’s a lot safer. No chance of real honesty or relationship there, but on the other hand, no risk either. We aren’t making fools of ourselves by being honest. Or are we looking for something more meaningful?

Do we want a place that can both encourage us and hold us accountable? Are we looking for a place where we can be honest about our hopes and fears, dreams and anxieties? Are we looking for a place we can really make a difference? Because we get to decide what kind of community this is together. We’re the ones who do the work, who have the conversations, who open our hearts to Christ and to one another. We are Christ’s church, here. The church is not the building - as beautiful as it is - the church is the community, the people. All the people.

As we struggle to be together here in Christ, to be a community of loving honesty, remember that it is Christ who has called us here together around his message and cross. We are more than two or three gathered together, today, and Jesus Christ is here, is right there, in the midst of us, always, calling us into honest, loving community with one another. All we have to do is to answer that call, to take that step forward, and to risk speaking the truth in love to one another. When we do that, God will always meet us there with His all-encompassing love and grace.