Christ the King (A) – 2014

November 23, 2014

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100 of Psalm 95:1-7a; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

There is something terribly sad in today’s gospel reading, something so easy to miss that it had completely eluded me until not very long ago. That’s probably because this is such a tempting story. It is one of the most straightforward of all the New Testament’s accounts of judgment; and one of the most fun.

Here, judgment is connected to actively reaching out to those in need, specifically to “the least of these,” to those who are at the bottom, those who are the most helpless and who have no other champions – to those with no one else to care for them. These are God’s favorites, the ones God sees in a special way.

And it’s really clear that those who are condemned are not condemned for doing bad things, or for acting unjustly or cruelly. Instead, they are condemned for the good they did not do. You can’t sit out the Christian moral life. There’s just no way, by avoiding engagement, to thereby avoid judgment. “Well, I never intentionally hurt anybody” cuts no mustard at the Great Throne Judgment.

All of which can tempt just about any preacher to shout, “So get out there and serve Jesus in your neighbor. Do good and save your soul from the judgment of eternal fire all at the same time.” Which can make a heck of a sermon, and one most church leaders aren’t opposed to preaching from time to time. Good stuff. Can’t hurt.

But today let’s talk about what’s so sad in this story.

Notice that those who have been gathered up at the right hand of the Lord – those who are called blessed of the father, the ones we want to be – have only one thing to say to Jesus. They say, “Lord, when?”

“When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?”

“When?” That’s it; that’s all they have to say.

This is dreadfully sad because of all the loss, and all the struggle and all the pain that question implies. These folks, the sheep, the saved, the good guys, they were right, they did all of the correct things, but they missed the greatest joy of it. They missed seeing the Lord. They overlooked the hidden presence of God in the faces of those they served.

One of the reasons we have this parable may be to help us avoid that loss, to remind us what reaching out and caring and serving can be about at the level of greatest depth. Because it’s very clear: No matter how right you are, no matter how much you serve the presence of Christ in others, if you don’t pay special attention, if you simply don’t look for the Lord Jesus in those you serve, then, like the saved people in the parable, you won’t see him. And most of the joy is lost. Most of the joy of doing good and being right and saving your soul from the judgment of eternal fire all at the same time, most of that joy, is lost.

After all, reaching out in love to the presence of Christ in others, especially in both “the least of these” and in those closest to us, this is quite often a great big pain. It takes a lot of time, and there’s almost never any indication that anything of lasting benefit has happened.

What’s more, “the least of these” are usually at least partially responsible for whatever problems and needs make them the least. And most of the time they don’t look or act or smell the way we imagine Jesus should.

Frequently, they aren’t very nice, and worse yet, they seldom seem to appreciate whatever good we do try to do for them. So, doing good, reaching out to feed, clothe, visit, heal and otherwise minister to “the least of these” tends to frustrate us, and we tend to get burned, and to get burned out.

And much the same sort of thing can happen when the ones we reach out to are not some distant “them,” but are, instead, the people we live with and around, the people closest to us.

One would think that actually serving Christ shouldn’t be as hard, and as disheartening, as it often is. But there we are. After all, just because we’re doing something for religious reasons doesn’t mean that, all by itself, whatever we’re doing will look or feel religious or that it will effect us in a particularly religious way.

Cleaning the kitchen in the church, or anywhere else for that matter, is still cleaning a kitchen. Being nice to a difficult person because you are convinced that Jesus wants you to, is still being nice to a difficult person. Spending time or money or energy out of Christian conviction still means that you no longer have that time or that money or that energy.

The Lord calls us to serve him, in our neighbors, in our brothers and sisters, in the least of these, and – often the most challenging – in those closest to us. That call is real; there are no excuses. But the Lord also calls us to see him in the face of our neighbors, and of our brother and sister, and – we can’t forget – in the least of these. This is a spiritual call, a call to discernment as much as it is a call to action and to service.

There’s not a secret or mysterious way to do this. Here are two quick ideas: First of all, in order to see the Lord, we have to look. At the people around us. Deliberately. All of the time. We need constantly to look as we remember what we are doing, why we are doing it, and what we hope to come from it. We need look on purpose.

Second, if we want Jesus to show himself to us, it can really help if we ask him to. Sometimes we have to ask him a lot. That’s one reason why reaching out to others in a way that is not wrapped in prayer, any act of ministry that is not consciously and deliberately offered to God with the request to be shown how the Lord is in it, while certainly not wasted effort, is terribly incomplete.

If our prayers during the day and about the day do not beg the Lord for a look at his face, or a glimpse at his Kingdom in all that is going on around us, then we are cheating ourselves, and living barely on the surface of a much deeper reality.

To try to live the life Christ calls us to live without placing all of that in the middle of some disciplined reflection, prayer and study, this is to risk missing the best part of it all. It is to risk missing the presence and Word of Jesus that can transform a mundane task into an opportunity for insight and for joy – that can make doing the things we are called to do a path deeper into the mystery of God’s life, and of our own.

This story of judgment is more than a call to serve. It’s more than a call to be good, and to do the right thing. Sure, it’s that, but it’s much more.

It’s also a call to look, to notice, to devote our days and our lives in the search for the face of God in all that we do. It’s a call, above all, to see.

 

– The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma.

23 Pentecost, Proper 28 (A) – 2014

Trust, not fear

November 16, 2014

Judges 4:1-7 and Psalm 123 [or Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 and Psalm 90:1-8 (9-11), 12]; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

Today we should remember something that all of us sometimes forget – that what God requires of us is not success, but faithfulness.

The gospel we just heard is known as “The Parable of the Talents.” That word “talent” has a double meaning. Its original meaning in the Greek of the New Testament refers to a huge sum of money. In the ancient world, a talent was worth what an ordinary laborer earned over the course of 15 years. Thus, giving each of his servants one or more talents, the master in this story is entrusting them with a fortune.

The second meaning of the word “talent” results from one interpretation of this very story. As the master entrusts his servants with talents, so God entrusts each of us with abilities. “Talent” has thus come to mean ability or skill. We say that someone has a talent for music or cooking or business.

But “The Parable of the Talents” isn’t really about money or ability. It’s about something even more important. “The Parable of the Talents” is about trust.

The story opens with an act of trust. The master is about to leave town on a journey. He entrusts his wealth to three servants. Each is given a different sum of money. Yet each is given a big amount – one talent or two or five. It’s clear that the master trusts each of his servants. He even hands over the money without any instructions.

After a long time, the master returns and calls in his three servants. Two of them have doubled their money. The third has made nothing at all; he returns to his master exactly what he received. It turns out that this servant has simply buried the money in the ground, a common security measure in ancient times. He reveals the reason for his action: fear of the master.

His trust in his master was zero, so he reduced his financial risk to zero. Yet he reduced the possibility of profit so that it, too, was zero.

The story as we have it leaves us with an unanswered question. How would the master have responded to the first two servants if they had not brought in a profit? What if they had put the money at risk and come back empty handed?

I think the master would have accepted them. After all, in the parable what he commends is not their profits, but their faithfulness. He does not commend the servant who produced five talents more than the one who produced two. Each receives the same commendation: “Well done, good and trustworthy servant.” Each receives the same invitation: “You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

And in responding to the third servant, the master makes it clear that he would have accepted anything – even rock-bottom, savings-account interest – that was motivated by faith rather than fear.

Moreover, it’s notable that the servant who is given five talents makes five talents more, and the one who receives two makes two more. This doubling in each case suggests that the growth is automatic. It’s not the cleverness of the servants that produces results so much as their willingness to act out of trust.

The parable is not about money or ability so much as it is about trust. The master trusts his servants and acts on this trust. Two of the servants return the favor by acting out of trust rather than fear, and they come back to their master with one fortune stacked on top of another.

The third servant paints an ugly picture of a grasping master who demands success. What this servant gets for his trouble is exactly the rejection he fears. He’s a small-minded man who insists that his master is just as small minded.

The other two servants, however, recognize generosity when they see it. The piles of money thrust their way reveal a man who’s generous, who takes a risk, who accepts them, even honors them. Finding themselves at the receiving end of such outrageous trust, they feel empowered, and are willing to take risks of their own. The love their master has shown them overcomes their fear of failure. They realize that any master who treats his money managers in this open-handed way is more interested in them than in turning a profit.

This brief story about a master and his three servants turns upside down the standards of the world. It announces that the worst thing that can happen to us is not failure. The worst thing that can happen to us is that we make God out to be a horrible old grouch who rejects us when we fail.

The story tells us that the worst thing is not losing out. The worst thing is never risking. In the eyes of God, the fear that keeps a treasure in the ground is an act of atheism. The freedom that puts that treasure at risk – and may even result in its loss – that is an act of faith.

We can learn from our failures, and often it is failure that provides the most indelible lessons. But fear teaches us nothing – until we leave it behind.

The gospel stage is crowded with people who are there to shock us into the recognition that it is stupid and ugly not to trust God. There’s the snide elder brother who refuses to welcome home the prodigal son. The all-day workers who demand that late arrivals receive less than the daily wage. The Pharisee who tries to talk God into accepting him because he’s kept the rules, not because God is merciful. All these live in a gray, fearful world, where grace is absent and slackers get thrown to the wolves.

We understand these pathetic people because we, too, are given to burying our talent out of fear. We’re made anxious by the ogre idol of our imagination. We know what it’s like to misperceive and mistrust God.

What if the true, living and only God has no interest in keeping score? What if God’s concern is simply that we all get up and take a turn at bat?

The Good News of Jesus gives new meaning to success and security. Success is found not in accumulating more than we can ever use, but in our willingness to risk in response to God’s invitation. Security is found not in keeping pace with our rising paranoia, but in the utterly reliable God who trusts us before we trust ourselves, who risks, and asks that we risk also.

The French scientist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin sums it up nicely in his book “The Divine Milieu.” He writes:

“God obviously has no need of the products of your busy activity since he could give himself everything without you. The only thing that concerns him, the only thing he desires intensely, is your faithful use of your freedom and the preference you accord him over the things around you. Try to grasp this: the things that are given to you on earth are given to you purely as an exercise, a ‘blank sheet’ on which you make your own mind and heart. You are on a testing ground where God can judge whether you are capable of being translated to heaven and into his presence. You are on trial so that it matters very little what becomes of the fruits of the earth, or what they are worth. The whole question is whether you have learned how to obey and how to love.”

“The Parable of the Talents” is not really about money or abilities. It’s a story about trust, a story about risk. Life is the same way. What turns out to be important is not money or abilities in themselves, but our decision to use them in ways that show our willingness to risk and to trust. The central question about life is not “What did we accomplish?” but whether we learned to obey, whether we learned to love.

 

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is rector of St. Paul’s Parish, Baden, Md., in the Diocese of Washington and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2003).

22 Pentecost, Proper 27 (A) – 2014

Awakening to God’s presence

November 9, 2014

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 and Psalm 78:1-7 (or Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16 or Amos 5:18-24 and Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20 or Psalm 70); 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Archbishop William Temple said, “The source of humility is the habit of realizing the presence of God.”

We may as well face it, none of us likes to wait. Modern culture demands immediacy. Whatever we want, we want it now. If that’s not enough, we want the newest and the best, we want the latest and greatest, and we want it all right now.

Yet, recent research on economic success suggests that delayed gratification may lead to more sustainable innovation and success. The study is based on parking habits: Do you park head-in to a parking space, or do you back in, making it easier to pull out when you leave? Brain research has long concluded that hard work and persistent effort helps to “grow the brain.” That is, we can make ourselves smarter and more successful through hard work. It is called neuroplasticity – the brain’s capacity to always, throughout life, make new connections, new neural pathways, to make us smarter and more aware.

So someone researched national parking habits in countries around the world, correlated with economic innovation and success, and concluded that since backing in to a parking space tends to take more work and persistence, countries in which that is the predominant parking method tend to be more productive and successful.

What does all this have to do with bridesmaids, Jesus and keeping awake? Anthony De Mello, a Jesuit priest, psychologist and retreat leader made a career out of teaching us that the main task of the spiritual life is to wake up. Despite our over-stimulation with electronic devices, addictions to the Internet and social media, and our endless quest for the newest, the best and the most, we tend to make our way through life sleepwalking. We remain somehow unaware of the spiritual dimension of our lives. Like all of the bridesmaids, we let that part of our life wait. There will be time for that later, we say to ourselves.

Or worse still, we see the life of the spirit as something we need to acquire or earn. We buy and consume books, DVDs, we watch TV shows, read blogs and whatever we can get our hands on. But none of these activities quench our desire and need for an awareness of our spiritual self. In the midst of all this working on our spiritual life, we are still distracting ourselves from experiencing it. De Mello and Jesus both knew this and call us to wake up! And once awake to stay awake!

Since we know that we can grow our brains to develop new habits and awareness, what will be the spiritual equivalent of filling our lamps with oil and trimming our wicks?

Let’s first address wick trimming, since lamps and candles burn slower when we regularly trim the wick. It is similar with fruit trees – they produce more fruit when we do the work of pruning. Just as it is easier to get out of our parking spaces head first, Jesus is always extolling the value of doing the upfront work so that we can reap the dividends more easily when the fruit comes in. So trimming and pruning our lives, reducing the amount of distractions, would seem to be the No. 1 lesson for those of us who aspire to be bridesmaids for Christ when he comes. The paradox is that doing less can also help us to awaken to the presence of the Spirit in every breath we take. Doing less can help us to wake up and stay awake for the presence of Christ here and now.

As to filling our lamps with oil, doing less points us in the right direction. For it turns out that another way to encourage and promote neuroplasticity is to do nothing – not just less, but nothing. All religious traditions have some form of mindfulness meditation, centering prayer and contemplation as a religious or spiritual practice. Sadly, it is rarely found in church, where we tend to relentlessly work our way through the liturgy without pause so we can get to the end. And then what? Go to coffee hour, “the 8th sacrament”? Or go watch the ball game?

Contemplative prayer or mindfulness meditation helps us to create an empty space within. This has two immediate benefits.

It gives God and the Spirit a point of entry into our otherwise busy and sleepwalking lives. Once we prepare a place within for the God to dwell within us, we become more aware and awake to the fact that God has been and is always with us. We recognize that the work of spiritual growth is, in fact, no work at all.

Also, as it turns out, letting the brain rest promotes neuroplasticity. When we emerge from our prayer or meditation, we are made new, re-wired and more aware of not only who we are but whose we are. The German theologian Meister Eckhart is quoted as saying, “God is at home. It is we who have gone out for a walk.”

So what are we waiting for? Are we to spend our time like the bridesmaids, waiting for Christ to come? Or are we to heed our Lord’s final imperative in the story: Keep awake!

These parables are tricky. We tend to treat them as doctrinal treatises or allegories, assigning parts to each character in the story. But what if Jesus meant to simply shock us with details such as closing the door on the foolish ones only to deliver the real message: Keep awake! One suspects Jesus really did not want us spending hours of Bible study dithering over questions such as “How could Jesus do that? Why would he close the door on anyone?” when we already know the answer is that he closed the door on no one. Not prostitute, not tax collector, not sinner. His door is always open. The disciples to whom this little tale is told know that and have witnessed it every day. And like them, we ought to be those who recognize that what seems like his coming again is simply our awakening to the very real Good News of Jesus, that he is with us always to the end of the age. No waiting required. He is here. Forever and always. We might even say forever and all ways.

What is Jesus calling us to do? Wake up and keep awake!

The time and effort put into doing less and doing nothing will awaken us to the clever truth buried deep within this tale of lamps and oil and bridesmaids: He is here. His door is open to all at all times of day and night.

When we wake up to this truth all things are made new – including most importantly we ourselves.

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek has served as rector and assistant in a broad variety of parishes over the past 28 years. He is currently chaplain and teaches at St. Timothy’s School for girls, the Diocese of Maryland girls’ boarding school, where he teaches World Religions and American History. His sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com.

All Saints’ Day (A) – 2014

The saints beside you

November 2, 2014

Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

“Glory to God and praise and love / be now and ever given / by saints below and saints above, / the Church in earth and heaven.”

So concludes Charles Wesley’s venerable hymn, “O for a thousand tongues to sing.” The hallowed vision of saints robed in white, genuflecting and joining together in a chorus of praise around a resplendent heavenly throne is as powerful as it is alluring.

Although many, if not most Christians shy away from reading and studying Revelation, the apocalyptic vision of the enigmatic John of Patmos helps develop our vision of what that “glorious company of the Saints in light” might look like. We’re told that angels are gathered around the throne with four living creatures, falling on their faces worshipping God day and night, singing a song of praise. We’re told that they hunger and thirst no more, and that sun and heat will not strike them because the Lamb is their shepherd, guiding them to the springs of the water of life, as God wipes away every tear from their eyes.

And yet, as idyllic and unspoiled as this image is, it’s incomplete.

John’s description doesn’t stop there. He goes on to write that the “great multitude” gathered around the throne are those “who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Although literal readings of Revelation that condone violence are theologically problematic at best and downright dangerous at worst, we cannot deny that those who enjoy the place of honor in John’s apocalyptic vision have undergone suffering, and given the tone of apocalyptic literature in general and Revelation in particular, we can surmise that some have even endured physical violence.

What might this mean for a church that commits itself to striving for justice, freedom and peace? Or perhaps a more pressing question as we celebrate All Saints’ Day is, what might it mean for John’s “great multitude,” complete with their blood-stained robes, to be identified in the storied history of the church as saints?

The quick, albeit half-hearted answer is to do as countless others have done, and re-shelve Revelation as an indecipherable apocalyptic dream sequence written by an unknown disciple of the fledgling first-century Jesus movement.

But as wars rage on with ever-increasing frequency, as diseases and disasters continue to strike with indiscriminate and unrelenting cruelty, and as the unreliability of the global economy continues to provoke fear and anxiety, we may know more than we think about these “great ordeals” and blood-stained robes that John identifies so provocatively. And on this day in particular, perhaps the Spirit is calling the church to reconsider John’s apocalyptic witness – complete with all its harshness and unanswered questions.

In the midst of the violent imagery and occluded visions lays this powerful word of hope: After all is said and done, after the plagues of war and famine and disaster have done their worst, salvation belongs, not to the generals and the dictators and the power mongers of this world, but to God alone.

This is the great and enduring truth of the gospel, and it comes alive on this All Saints’ Day, reminding the faithful that the powers and principalities of this world will not have the last word. In fact, not only is this Good News, we hear from the lips of Jesus himself that it is a blessing.

In a dramatic reversal of the customs of this world, Jesus foretells the truth of the Kingdom of God:

Unsure of your direction in life? You’re blessed.

Caught under the weight of grief and loss? Joy comes in the morning.

Undervalued and not heard by those around you? God hears you.

Groaning with hunger pangs and longing for a moment of respite? The comforter has come.

Sojourning for peace and righteousness, only to be trampled down by war and revilement, and those spreading lies to discredit you? God is travailing right alongside you.

The saints, Jesus reminds us, aren’t simply those who seem to have it all figured out, whose prayer life is perfect, whose service to church and community alike are irreproachable, and who have left a legacy that the rest of us will spend a lifetime aspiring to realize for ourselves.

On the contrary: The saints, Jesus tells us and John reminds us, are those who have suffered greatly – and some who suffer still, even in our midst – and yet praise God all the more. The saints are those who have known the pain of grief and the sting of death, and still manage to find a way to sing, “Alleluia!” The saints are those who have been excluded and ignored by every corner of society and yet still find ways to seek and serve Christ, loving their neighbor as themselves.

And so when we celebrate all saints, we commemorate those worshipping in our pews who are suffering silently. We work to include those in our community who love God and neighbor, and yet find themselves on the margins. And we remember those whose worship of God is unceasing, even now that they have passed into light perpetual.

Our worship on this day, then, bears both the potential for difficult news that is hard to hear as well as the great and powerful news of a gospel that continually confounds even our best efforts to contain it. For if we approach this day, looking to the saints as nothing more than long-gone exemplars of moral and theological perfection, the witness of Jesus in the Matthew’s gospel and of John’s Revelation falls flat and bears little possibility for transformation.

But if we allow the Spirit to move in our midst, then we might be surprised by what we see when we look across the aisle of the church or down the street or into the parts of town that have a checkered reputation. We might be surprised to find saints there who, even in the most unimaginable circumstances, find ways to lift up their hearts in prayer and praise to God.

And when we hear those soft, but faithful notes of “Alleluia!” emanating from deep within the souls of the saints among us, we will know that salvation does indeed belong to our God, who is seated upon the throne, now and for evermore.

 

— The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is priest-in-charge of Grace Episcopal Church in Florence, Ky. He earned a B.A. in American Studies from Transylvania University and a Master’s of Divinity and certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

20 Pentecost, Proper 25 (A) – 2014

The Benedictine tradition of community

October 26, 2014

Deuteronomy 34:1-12 and Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 (or Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 and Psalm 1); 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Thus begins the last of Jesus’ interrogations by the religious authorities in Matthew’s Holy Week narrative.

Jesus’ response was both typical and not. He begins his response in a rather predictable way: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.” Here, Jesus is quoting the Shema from Deuteronomy 6: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

Jesus then goes on to say there is a second commandment – to love your neighbor as you love yourself. Here, Jesus paraphrases Leviticus 19: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”

Jesus then tells the Pharisees that all the “law and the prophets,” the two major bodies of text that make up the Hebrew Scriptures, are dependent upon these two commandments.

Jesus’ juxtaposition of Leviticus 19 and the Shema is profound. The Pharisees who heard the Leviticus portion in that moment would have known the entire passage, not just the portion Jesus quoted. In the Episcopal Church, our Rite 1 liturgy includes the Summary of the Law, yet most of us fail to realize what precedes “love your neighbor as you love yourself,” which is, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people.” Jesus’ teaching on prayer echoes this: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

In Sister Joan Chittister’s book “The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century,” she offers a daily reading of the Rule of St. Benedict and her commentary on it. Benedict of Nursia lived in the late 5th century in Italy and set down a rule for living in community in the last days of the Roman Empire. We Anglicans have a close connection with Benedict, as monastic communities of Benedictines were very influential in pre-Reformation England. Benedict was very clear that our spiritual life was to be lived out in community – we were not to flee to the desert or hole up somewhere. We are to live in community and to worship God through communal prayer, scripture recitation (most people could not read back then) and the sacramental life.

Part of Benedict’s rule was the idea that the monastery you entered would be the monastery in which you died, and to always keep death before you as a solemn reminder of the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation. Benedict knew that living in community is hard – disagreements are bound to happen, other people will annoy you and you will annoy other people. Benedict, in his wisdom, knew that if you had a disagreement with another monk or nun, our human tendency is to “cut and run” – to leave the community or relationship and find another one. Benedict, with no modern knowledge of family systems or psychology, knew that if you left the monastery without having resolved your issues with your fellow monks or nuns, invariably you would go to another monastery and – lo and behold! – have another disagreement with a monk or nun there, usually over similar issues that drove you from the prior monastery.

When this happens, history repeats itself, behavior replicates itself and there is no reconciliation or opportunity for spiritual growth. This does not produce spiritual depth – it keeps you spiritually stunted and immature. We can act pious and holy all we want, but unless we do the hard work of forgiveness and reconciliation, then our faith is a sham. As Sister Joan writes: “It is so comforting to multiply the practices of the church in our life and so inconvenient to have to meet the responsibilities of the communities in which we live.”

Living in community with other people is hard. Recall Leviticus 19: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”

Neither the author of Leviticus, Jesus nor Benedict said this would be easy – simple perhaps, but not easy.

It’s easy to say we love our neighbors in the abstract – it is much harder to put it into practice. In fact, Jesus’ command to love our enemies is often easier. We tend to push enemies away and keep them out of our lives. It’s easy to love in the abstract, at arm’s length. It is much harder to love up close where things get messy: loving our next-door neighbor, whose dog barks incessantly and who won’t do anything about it; or members of our congregation who don’t see things our way or just bug us; or community leaders who don’t listen to our concerns; or the priest who just doesn’t get it. Well, it’s hard, isn’t it?

In each case, what makes it hard is the pride of our own petty egos that seek the self rather than the good of the other. Letting go of the ego is the way of the cross.

As Episcopalians, we inherit this Anglican/Benedictine way of being in community. Being in community means loving God and neighbor – which, by extension, means letting go of the need for fighting, vengeance and holding grudges. It is a way of spiritual transformation that calls us into becoming more Christ-like – into becoming spiritual adults.

As Sister Joan writes:

“Adulthood is not a matter of becoming completely independent of the people who lay claim to our lives. Adulthood is a matter of being completely open to the insights that come to us from our superiors and our spouses, our children and our friends, so that we can become more than we can even begin to imagine for ourselves.”

This is the transforming power of God – and it comes to us through our neighbors who are up close and in our face.

But are there neighbors with whom being in a relationship is not possible? What about those who threaten or abuse us? What about those who threaten the community?

Well, neither Jesus nor Benedict would have condoned that behavior for the sake of loving your neighbor. Loving your neighbor is not the same as indulging your neighbor. There are behaviors people inflict on us as individuals and the community that go beyond annoyances and simple grievances. Abuse, violence and threats are behaviors that cannot be tolerated for the sake of maintaining relationship. While we can reject specific behaviors and call those who threaten and abuse to repentance, they may not respond to that call. This does not mean we cannot love them – but we may need to do so from a safe distance unless and until they can do the hard work of amending their lives and actively seeking reconciliation with us.

Yes, life in community is hard work. Holding and bearing grudges prevents us from being the loving people God has shaped us to be. We cannot love God and harbor hatred for the people God loves. We cannot presume that our dislike or even hatred of another person is how God feels about that person. Loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength only comes with the spiritual gift of humility to love the very people God loves too. Remember, while there are people you know who seem unlovable, there are people who feel the same way about you. None of us is lovable all the time.

It is into this reality that grace enters. When we are at our worst and most unlovable, God comes to us. That radical, undeserved, unmerited love has the power to move our hearts to love our neighbors – even the ones hardest to love. This isn’t easy work – Jesus knew that, Benedict knew that and you know it too. But we undertake it, quite imperfectly to be sure, because in doing so we experience grace, mercy and healing in action, not abstraction.

Laying down our egos, our long-nurtured grudges and resentments, and seeking the way of love is the way of the cross through which we find fullness of life in Christ.

 

— The Rev. Anjel Scarborough is priest-in-charge at Grace Episcopal Church in Brunswick, Md. She and her husband are the parents of two teenage daughters. She can be followed on Twitter @ReverendMom and blogs at innumerablebenefits.blogspot.com.

19 Pentecost, Proper 24 (A) – 2014

Render unto God what is God’s

October 19, 2014

Exodus 33:12-23 and Psalm 99 [or Isaiah 45:1-7 and Psalm 96:1-9 (10-13)]; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

“Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.” These words of Jesus have become a sort of proverb, and those who know little of scripture may still have heard “Render unto Caesar.” Yet, digging beneath the surface of this short encounter helps uncover some of the deeper currents in the exchange.

First, the combination of people approaching Jesus is intriguing. Matthew tells us that the Pharisees come together with the Herodians. The Pharisees did not want to give money to their pagan oppressors and so were opposed to paying taxes to Rome. On the other hand, King Herod’s position of power came courtesy of the Romans, so even though the taxes were widely considered to be oppressive, the Herodians had a vested interest in keeping the Roman taxes paid. Therefore, the Pharisees and the Herodians each reflected one of the horns of the dilemma.

Then came the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?” This reference is obviously to Jewish Law, also called the Law of Moses. Clearly, it was lawful to pay the tax by Rome’s standards; the question was whether it was proper for a Jew to do so.

It would seem that they have presented Jesus with no way out. He can’t speak against the tax, for that would anger the Herodians and lead to a charge of treason against Rome. He could not speak in favor of the tax without alienating most of the crowds that followed him.

Jesus asks for one of the coins used in paying the tax. This is Jesus’ own trap, for it proves at least one among the questioners to be a hypocrite. For the coin used for the tax was a silver Denarius with the image of Caesar on one side, and on the reverse, the image of a woman named Pax or personified peace. The coins were against Jewish Law, which prohibited graven images.

You will recall the incident when Jesus chased moneychangers from the outer courts of the Temple. These moneychangers had a business because one was required to exchange pagan currency for Temple coins before going to do business in the Temple. Carrying the image of Caesar into the Temple was considered sinful. But note that when Jesus asks for a Denarius, one is quickly located and handed to Jesus.

Jesus then asks the question that everyone in Israel could have answered without a coin in hand. In our reading for this morning, we used the New Revised Standard Version, which said, “Whose head is this and whose title?” That translation misses the point of his argument. The word they translate as “head” is “icon,” a Greek word better translated as “image.” The word “title” is better translated as “likeness.” When they answer Jesus’ question, saying that the image and likeness are “Caesar’s,” Jesus replies that they are to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Again, the translation covers something better revealed. It could also be translated as “give back” rather than “give” or “render.” Give Caesar back those things that are Caesar’s. It is his coin anyway, who cares if you give Caesar back his coin for the tax?

Then Jesus gives the most amazing line of the short encounter when he continues by saying that we are to “give back to God the things that are God’s.” It leaves everyone calculating what exactly is God’s that we are supposed to give back. And in case you were wondering, the clue was the word “icon” or “image” and the word “likeness.”

Jesus’ answer came from Genesis 1:26-27, which says, “And God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness,’” and goes on to state “God created humankind in his Image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

The principle is this: Just as the coin has Caesar’s icon on it, so it is Caesar’s, we were made in the image and likeness of God, so we are God’s. Jesus affirmed the tax while making it all but irrelevant. Jesus implies that, though we do owe the state, there are limits to what we owe. Yet, Jesus places no limits regarding what we owe to God.

This text is often used to talk about stewardship in terms of what you give to the church. But this is no passage on the tithe. For if giving 10 percent of our income is all we do, we would fall well more than 90 percent shy of the mark. Jesus says that everything you have and everything you are is God’s already.

While this would certainly apply to the money you make, the formula is not that you give 100 percent of your income to God, for God knows you need the money for the necessities of life. The teaching is that once you have given God some of the money you earn, don’t feel that you have bought off an obligation. God wants to share in some of your time and energy, so the 100 percent formula relates to your calendar as well as your wallet.

What God wants is nothing less than to come and abide in your heart. The point is that you have been made in the image and likeness of God. God loves you. God keeps your picture in the divine wallet and on the heavenly refrigerator. Jesus did not care about the tax, for his real concern was that you live into the image and likeness of the God who lovingly created you.

You begin to live into the image and likeness of God by conforming your life to be more like Jesus’ life. Giving back to God through the church does matter, but merely giving money to the government, to this church or anywhere else is only part of the picture.

To live more fully into that image and likeness of God that is in you, give back your heart to God – for it is God’s anyway. When the time comes for communion in just a little while, I would encourage everyone, no matter what your denominational background, to come forward to receive the bread and wine of communion. And if you have not yet been baptized, then come forward for a blessing. For at this altar, we can meet Jesus anew every time we worship. For in answer to the question, “What are the things that are God’s which we are to give back to God?” the answer is, “You.”

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He blogs at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

18 Pentecost, Proper 23 (A) – 2014

Dress codes or radical welcome?

October 12, 2014

Exodus 32:1-14 and Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 (or Isaiah 25:1-9 and Psalm 23); Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

Today’s gospel passage probably requires a bit of translation. There’s a big difference between the cultural expectations of first-century Palestine and 21st-century America. Not only about marriage, of course – but marriage is what today’s gospel highlights.

Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a marriage feast given by a slave-owning king. Now, slave-owning kings were quite common back then. Fortunately, neither human bondage nor absolute monarchy is part of our day-to-day experience now. This isn’t to say we have wiped out oppression or tyranny on the face of the earth – far from it. But at least in this nation, we call it a crime when one person claims to own another, and we do not permit anyone to have absolute power. They weren’t quite ready for “checks and balances” in Jesus’ time.

So – in and of itself – the progress of 2,000 years will require us to make a kind of adjustment in order to hear and understanding this parable.

So, too, will the whole idea of marriage. There are those who insist that our modern-day, state-sanctioned unions are a sacred institution, implying that this phenomenon is of ancient provenance. One president even called marriage “one of the most fundamental, enduring institutions of our civilization.” Of course, that is not the case.

Now, marriage is a fine thing. But what do we really know about the history of marriage? What are the facts?

Scholar Kenneth Stevenson, who was Bishop of Portsmouth, in England, summarized marriage in the patriarchal tradition of ancient Judaism in his book “To Join Together”: first, negotiation of contract, then betrothal, followed by consummation.

What may be hard for us to imagine is that the contract negotiated was no Philadelphia lawyer’s prenup agreement; it was a financial contract between two men, the bride’s father and the groom. In the time of Jesus, women were exchanged like plots of land and herds of cattle – just so much property. The men owned them.

The period of betrothal, then, was not so much a time in which two persons got to know each other better and grew closer in love – but a kind of “grace period” in which the groom could cancel the contract – for some justifiable cause, but without penalty.

Remember that Joseph, when betrothed to Mary, chose not to exercise his option to wiggle out of his marriage contract. He could have, because she was pregnant, but he didn’t. And it’s a good thing, too. Had he done so, none of us Christians would exist.

And in the first century, before anything so technological as birth control, women were like human childbirth machines. They would marry at age 11 or 12 or 13, and immediately begin to have children. Typically, a child every year or so for maybe 10 years. Lots of these children died in infancy. And most of these women died by the age of 30.

So the men would remarry – another teenage bride – again and again. It was not at all uncommon for a man of 40 or 50 or even 60 to marry again: each time a child bride, bought from her father.

This, of course, is not a fundamental, enduring institution of our civilization, is it? It’s more of an oppressive mess and a muddle, out of which we humans have managed to climb. And thanks be to God for that!

Now, what of the actual church liturgy for marriage? Although there is mention of marriage celebrations here and there in ancient texts, the formal, standard, official liturgy of the church dates only to about the 12th century.

What appears to have happened is that the tradition of holding a marriage feast was appropriated into the church’s liturgy. The cultural observance became, over time, a religious one.

To say that more clearly: there is no evidence of an official religious rite for marriage in Jesus’ time. Marriage was entirely a domestic and civil affair. If you were very wealthy, you might invite a rabbi or Pharisee or even High Priest of the Temple to attend, maybe even lead some prayers – but this was unusual, not the standard. This is why there are accounts of Jesus performing miracles at wedding feasts, but no record of him preaching a wedding homily. There was no such thing.

So, a man works out a deal with a woman’s father, and she is ordered to go and live with that man – someone she may not even have met. After a period of a year or more, the man decides that this is working out, and he and his contractual partner (not his bride, her father) lays on a feast.

Remember, this was long before clocks and calendars were common household items. You didn’t send out engraved invitations in the mail, or an e-vite to your fellow bloggers. You sent out messengers – slaves, if you were fortunate to own them – to invite everyone to the marriage feast. Come to the feast; it’s happening right now, today.

And pretty much everyone would come. In those days, ordinary people owned two changes of clothing: your regular, everyday work clothes; and a festive garment, a wedding robe – something usually white, that you kept clean and unwrinkled. And most people did not own much more. When the messengers came to invite you to a marriage, or you heard that bell ring – you would just pen up your sheep, drop your weaving, whatever; run home and put on your wedding garment; and go to the party.

And what feasts these were! Not the luxurious, self-indulgent and obscenely expensive extravaganzas we know today, but festive gatherings nonetheless, frequently lasting for days on end.

Same kind of thing, for instance, as when the Prodigal Son returned: roasted fatted calf, music and merriment, giving of gifts, and lots of wine. No evidence of cake, or throwing garters or rice, or making toasts, or even an exchange of vows. And no mortgaging of the homestead to borrow money; the party simply lasted until you slaughtered your last calf and drank the last of the wine.

Much has changed in the sacred institution of marriage, and thanks be to God for that! And much will continue to change. Thanks be to God for that, too.

So, what relevance does this gospel passage hold for us, if marriage is so radically different in our culture and in our church?

This, too, may be hard for us to grasp, as we no longer live in a culture with a lot of clear implicit expectations.

This may have been true in the United States of the 1950s, and it certainly was true in the Palestine of Jesus’ time: Everybody just sort of understood what the standards were – at least with regard to the wedding garment.

If you live in Galilee or Bethlehem, you knew that to come to a wedding feast was to wear a wedding garment.

So this parable, which seems harsh – after all, someone is thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth for wearing the wrong clothes. But perhaps this parable is about participation, or the lack of doing it fully.

There is the first group, who simply decline the invitation. And then there is the guy without the wedding robe, who refused to participate completely.

If you were you the king, you would feel snubbed and insulted by these people, right? If you had the power, you might send those folks who offended you to the outer darkness, right? Or at least, you’d be tempted to. Come on, admit it. When someone offends you, you are tempted to retaliate. We all are.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. This is a parable, remember. An analogy of the Kingdom of Heaven, a story of the way God acts in the world.

God has invited us to be partners in the building up of that kingdom, on earth as in heaven. We are invited to the greatest feast ever imagined. And how many of us fully participate all of the time? Precious few.

And this omnipotent God, who could reign down fire from heaven and smite us where we sit – this God does not act like the king in today’s story, although he could. God does not enforce the dress code or punish us for not participating fully.

Instead, our God invites us again and again, over and over. We are called to that feast of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. The feast at which the disgrace of the people will be taken away from the earth, when God will wipe away the tears from all faces.

You, me and every person on this planet are welcome at this table.

When God is the host, everyone is invited. Sadly, as in today’s parable, not everyone comes – but everyone is invited.

When God is the host, the food is rich beyond our imagination or understanding. Sometimes it appears to be quite simple – like bread and wine – yet we can be profoundly moved and transformed by this feast. When God is the host, we are nourished not just for the morning, but for the journey. For most of us, this sustenance lasts as long as week, for others it lasts a lifetime. And when God is the host, everyone gets the same gift: the amazingly abundant, undeserved, and inexhaustible gift of love.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Barrie Bates is serving in interim ministry in the metropolitan New York area and as editor of church reviews for the journal Anglican and Episcopal History.

17 Pentecost, Proper 22 (A) – 2014

Tenants in God's Kingdom

October 5, 2014

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 and Psalm 19 (or Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 80: 7-14); Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Any halfway decent real-estate agent or commercial property manager could probably explain today’s gospel parable from Matthew in two seconds flat. It is all about landlords and tenants after all. And there is an entire body of business law devoted to them and their all-too-numerous disputes.

In Jesus’ telling, a vineyard owner contracts with tenants for the use of his land – and then promptly leaves town for another country. At harvest time, the same landowner sends his slaves or agents back to the vineyard to collect the rent – his share of the harvest in this case – from the tenants. But the tenants decide to take matters into their own hands. Apparently hoping to secure the property for themselves, they beat the first slave, kill a second and stone the third. Then they do it all over again, finally even killing off the landowner’s son in the hope of somehow gaining his inheritance.

What are we to make of this graphic tale of greed and mayhem, violence and murder?

At the very least, the landowner in question, we might be tempted to think, ought to have done a more thorough background check before renting out his vineyard – the very source of his livelihood – to those scoundrels who end up murdering his slaves and son. Surely even in the ancient world people knew who was trustworthy or not. Word got around, after all, even before the Internet.

And then the obvious question arises. Why did they do it? The tenants had to have been fairly bright guys. Or they would not have gone into agribusiness in the first place – then as now not an easy way to make a living. Did they really think they could get away with it – get away with murder? Well, apparently they did. Their greed got in the way of their common sense and reason. No doubt not the first time such a thing has ever happened – and not likely to be the last either.

The point of the story seems so obvious to Jesus’ hearers that they leap to it without a moment’s hesitation. The landowner, they declare in moral outrage, “will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants.” The story must have also resonated with the early church community, for it is one of only a very few of Jesus’ parables recounted in all three of the so-called Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Alas, the news these days is sadly still full of just such parables of greed and corruption. We know them too well. We are even now just exiting one of the worse financial crises in our history – by fairly common consensus the result in large measure of rampant materialism and greed. And millions of people have suffered the consequences. So, yes, some people clearly do still think they can get away with it. And some indeed do. The world has not changed all that much in the time since Jesus told his parable.

We might conclude that it simply does not pay to be an absentee landlord. Better to stay home, lock the back door and mind the store. After all, there is no place like home. Surely, that is where one can feel safe and secure. Maybe so, but try telling that to someone whose mortgage is still upside-down or under water and is likely to remain so for some time to come. Let’s face it. Even security at home is sometimes an illusion.

The parable, of course, is about us as much as it is about thieves – about us as much as it is about the “chief priests and the Pharisees” who come to recognize themselves in Jesus’ words. The priests and Pharisees at least deserve begrudging credit, if not for their actions then for their insight into their own motivations. They want to arrest Jesus for his words and be rid of him. They knowingly seek to neutralize his potent message of God’s righteousness and Kingdom. What they do not know – and what we sometimes forget – is that it cannot be done.

No matter where we live or what we have, we are all no more than tenants in God’s Kingdom. Nothing ever truly belongs to us. In the final analysis, everything we have has been lent to us. Everything is borrowed for a time. As the old saying has it, we are living on borrowed time – quite literally. Like the priests and Pharisees of this narrative, we too might wish the world were different, that tenants were owners and servants, masters. But it is not so.

“They will respect my son,” the landowner erroneously concludes as he decides to send his child as emissary after his slaves are beaten and killed. To paraphrase Doctor Phil, television’s favorite pop psychologist, “What was he thinking?” If only the landowner had gone to his parish priest, he might have been set right. “Do not send your son,” he would have been told in no uncertain terms. “Call the police and report the incident. Begin eviction proceedings. Get back home.”

All good advice to be sure, but it is doubtful the landowner would have followed even his beloved pastor’s counsel. For the landowner’s economy is not that of this world. And perhaps it is just as well. He knows something we tend to overlook, that in the end it is not a matter of land, property rights, wealth, possessions or ownership. For a follower of Christ, it is ultimately not even a question of life and death. It is only the Kingdom that matters, a kingdom most decidedly not of this world.

“The Kingdom of God,” Jesus says in explanation of the story, “will be … given to a people that produces the fruits of the Kingdom.” And the fruits of the kingdom of which Jesus speaks have nothing to do with grain or grapes, much less dollars and cents. If we miss that, we miss the point of Jesus’ parable entirely. We miss the Kingdom at work in our lives. For, the Kingdom is, in fact, ours – but only to the extent that we give in turn to others of all that has been so generously given to us. In God’s Kingdom, finally, that is the only way tenants become landlords.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus, a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, is currently chaplain and area dean at Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary – a ministry of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. Please visit and “like” Saint Margaret’s Facebook page. Isten hozott!

16 Pentecost, Proper 21 (A) – 2014

Walking the walk

September 28, 2014

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

Imagine you are watching television and a commercial comes on. The camera pans out over a tranquil beach scene where a family is enjoying the sun and the water. One parent is helping a smiling child build a sandcastle, while the other child runs in the surf, throwing a stick for a bounding, energetic golden retriever. The other parent is sitting in a beach chair under an umbrella with a picnic basket and a drink, waving to the rest of the family. Finally, at the end, the product is advertised. But that’s not all, right? What was really advertised was not just a drink or an item of clothing or sunscreen or life insurance – the marketers were cleverer than that. They were advertising salvation – buy our product and it will save you from your harried, over-scheduled existence and lead you to this “perfect” life.

Sometimes, we are so harried, we are so tired, we are so over-scheduled, and perhaps are so short-sighted and feel so self-centered in our every day existence that we buy into this false salvation. We grumble at our church leaders, “Is the Lord among us or not? We aren’t getting what we want. God’s not leading us to salvation as we imagined it, so maybe we need to look elsewhere.”

Like the Israelites in Exodus, we are wandering through the wilderness of Sin – both a geographical place and a play on words that reminds us of our imperfection and unfaithfulness.

Yet, God remains faithful. God is still at work in our lives, no matter what we believe, no matter what we do as we move through the wilderness. We made promises to God during our Baptismal Covenant:

“Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

Always, the answer is, “I will, with God’s help.”

We cannot separate our belief in God from the action it demands. We cannot immerse ourselves in “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers” without being stirred to embodying this knowledge and love of God through our actions in the world. Together, they create faith. We can do a whole lot of prayer or a whole lot of serving in a soup kitchen, but an imbalance of one or the other does not exemplify what Jesus is asking. God is faithful in word and deed, and that is the faith that we are called to.

Take this modern parable for example:

There once was a man who came to know Jesus and wanted to be baptized. The whole community supported him and he was baptized along with several others on a Sunday morning. Things seemed to be going smoothly with his newly minted faith. Prayer flowed easily from his lips and heart, he never went by the homeless person who was on the corner of the street where he worked without speaking to him and giving change when he could. He came to church every Sunday, sang in the choir, and went to adult formation classes.

After a while, things started to feel, well, like a suit that was becoming too small, too tight. What he once did with joy was now starting to feel like an obligation. He didn’t know what to do. When someone asked him to pray for them, he said, “Of course!” with enthusiasm and then forgot to. He began to avoid the homeless person by his work by going through another entrance. He attended church and church events less frequently. He considered his life outside of church as separate from his faith, and it was getting busy. He got a promotion at work, started dating someone seriously, and was getting involved in some philanthropic activities through his workplace. He still believed in God and felt love for God, but didn’t know how to integrate these pieces into the rest of his life. It all seemed like it was too hard, too much. Eventually, his church community who witnessed his baptism and vowed to do all in their power to support him in his life in Christ never saw him again.

How many of us have told someone we would pray for him or her and then got distracted and didn’t? How many of us have thought or talked a lot about helping the marginalized in our neighborhood, but haven’t? How many of us have been puzzled when people who were once zealous about their faith faded away, and we intended to contact them but never have?

We all have good intentions. But as Jesus teaches us in our gospel reading today, our intentions don’t really matter. It’s our actions that are grounded in and flow from our relationship with God that count – individually and as a community.

The man in the parable was not the only one who fell short of his promises – the community did, too. All these everyday actions are outward and visible signs of our inward and spiritual grace. These are all acts of love – love that God has for us and that we have for God. They are sacraments with a small “s.”

Jesus preached and taught and touched and healed people. Jesus was doing all this non-stop for a few years and then was crucified, died and was resurrected. But it doesn’t stop there. Over and over again, God’s actions prove God’s love for us. We were given an advocate, the Holy Spirit to come and assist us in continuing God’s work in the world. We get to become part of God’s action.

If we take an honest examination of how God has touched each of our lives, we can be surprised by joy. Think back on your life, the ways that the tapestry of threads have been woven to get you to where you are today. Those times where just the right thing happened, those unexpected moments that changed your life, and the spaces in between, all where God was caring for you. How do we respond to this?

Jesus gives a telling example of response to God’s love in his parable today about the two sons being asked to work in the vineyard. The first son tells his father outright that he won’t do it, but then has a change of heart and goes and does it anyway. Whereas the second son tells his father he will and then never does. It’s a pretty extreme example, but it gets the point across. Jesus tells this to the chief priests and elders – who rejected John the Baptist and were rejecting Jesus – in order for them to be caught in their own web of deceit. Jesus asks them, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” and they know they are trapped because the answer, of course, is the first son. He ended up living his life faithfully; he didn’t just talk about it or say things to appease his father.

We often do similar things in our own lives. We say we are Christians, but how do we know? How do others know? God has given us the gift of our lives and we are called to respond. We are to be good stewards of our lives, spreading the love of God that we have received, to others.

We aren’t perfect, but we are definitely called to be different. As political comedian Stephen Colbert put it, “Either we’ve got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition; and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”

If we choose not to walk the walk, then we are just as bad as the chief priests and elders Jesus encountered.

But there is hope for us! We can be like the first son and have a change of heart. We can choose to be obedient to God and live in a wide, loving margin of grace.

As we grow deeper in our relationship with Jesus and each other, may there by clarity and fire in God’s call to us, and may we receive the courage to do something about it.

 

– The Rev. Danáe Ashley is the associate priest at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Seattle, and is completing a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from Adler Graduate School.

15 Pentecost, Proper 20 (A) – 2014

An undeserved gift

September 21, 2014

Exodus 16:2-15 and Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 (or Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Psalm 145:1-8); Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

How long have you been a member of this church? Or are you a first-timer? Look around. How long do you think those sitting near you have been members of this church? Somewhere in the crowd is someone who has been here the longest. And somewhere is someone who has been a member for the shortest amount of time. Those of you in small churches know these people almost instinctively.

Do you think those who have been members longer should have more benefits? More access to pastoral care? More influence with the vestry? Be first in line for pot-luck suppers?

Of course these are absurd questions. But what if they were not? Wouldn’t that cause us to understand better the sense of outrage expressed by the longer-serving laborers in today’s gospel story who saw their treatment as a matter of unfairness?

Can we fail to feel sympathy for those who worked the longest? These hired hands labored harder and longer and got the same pay. How can we not feel a painful sense of injustice?

Living in community, we inevitably have experiences that allow us to identify with the workers in today’s gospel story, even if the situations were not as serious as economic and social injustice. We may well remember parents who gave up a great deal of time and energy coaching youth sports leagues or teaching Sunday School or leading scout troops, helping children of other able parents who did not volunteer to do their fair share.

How many of us with siblings recall growing up feelings we had to do more than others in the family? How many first-borns eventually complain that their parents let younger brothers and sisters have more liberty than they had at the same age? Isn’t it true that one of the first things we learn in life is to develop a view of what seems fair and what does not?

But as mature Christians, one of the first things we learn from today’s gospel reading is that Jesus didn’t care much about fairness or unfairness in the way we tend to think about it. He was not concerned about the ethics of business or labor management relations or who got to what place first. Through the story in today’s gospel, Jesus turns our normal views upside down, shaking them out, so we can more clearly see the truth of God’s values. He challenges our religious assumptions, affirming a radical understanding of God and our relationship with God that upsets our conventional theological views and the tenets of popular psychology.

Jesus succeeds in shocking us out of our common misunderstandings of God, by affirming a deeper insight into the character and purposes of God. He wants to shake us out of our usual self-understanding by opening us to a deeper awareness of ourselves, and to transform us more into the image of God.

Jesus wants us to experience this parable as a way to learn what lies beyond viewing the events as simply unfair or fair and to catch a glimpse of the utter limitless generosity of God. He wants us to understand that the worth of human beings is not measured by how much we earn in pay or how well we perform or by any of our usual measures – status, popularity, social achievement, productivity, wealth, physical appearance.

Jesus wants us to know that our worth as human beings is absolutely affirmed by God, who guarantees our value as human beings – not because of anything we have done or can do – but because of God’s creative and life-affirming love for us. Jesus wants us to know that in the face of our limited, worldly understanding of what is fair and what is unfair, God works with a different reality, in a different direction, and by different standards.

God gives us chances to realize our potential – each in our unique way, restricted, of course, by our own limitations, but empowered by our individual talents and gifts.

Jesus wants us to know the overwhelming reality of God’s love in this world. Jesus especially wants us to recognize the power and presence of God in the life of each and every one of us. Jesus wants us to know that God calls us to respond positively to what he has given us. He wants us to work in his vineyard with happy hearts and willing bodies.

Jesus wants us to know that working and serving in God’s world is a great privilege and opportunity. The reward for our service is the joy of knowing that we are part of a great adventure that gives meaning to our lives. The reward for serving others is found in knowing that we are part of a Christian process of laboring to leave the world a little better than when we entered it.

In telling this parable of the laborers in the vineyard – the ones who worked different amounts for the same pay – Jesus wants us to know that God would have us concentrate on our own spiritual condition, not spending time and energy considering everybody else’s spiritual condition, and to accept our ultimate worth and our ultimate purpose without comparing our contributions to those of others.

Today we have heard Jesus turn one of our normal, worldly views upside down. In so doing, according to our faith, he actually places those values right-side up. Today’s parable teaches that life is from God’s point of view, not a matter of fairness or unfairness. It is not a matter of deserving or undeserving.

Through today’s parable, Jesus reminds us that whatever we have is, after all, a gift from God. Whatever we have is more than we deserve. God is overwhelmingly generous. It is enough that we have the profound privilege of laboring and serving in God’s vineyard.

 

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of ”John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.