Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

It is my great pleasure to be with the people of All Saints, Worcester today, the largest congregation in our diocese. All Saints is entering into a time of transition as both the rector and associate rector have recently accepted calls to serve in other places. Part of my job as canon to the ordinary is to help congregations walk through times of transition, so I'll be spending time with the people of of All Saints as they begin this process of looking for their next rector. The sermon is on one of my favorite passages from one of my favorite prophets, the 32nd chapter of the prophet, Jeremiah. Below is the manuscript for this nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost.
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It has been said that the prophetic task of ministry is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted. I don’t imagine this has ever been an easy thing to do. Certainly the first part—trying to speak uncomfortable truths to people who may be living in denial—cannot be fun. As Flannery O’Connor once put it, to the hard of hearing you must sometimes shout and that can get old fast. But I’m not sure the other half of that prophetic task is any easier because, when people are really in pain, if you cheerily tell them “don’t worry, be happy” or even “consider the lilies of the field” they may want to kill you, even if in the long run you are right. So it’s a difficult task.

The prophet Jeremiah had a particularly challenging ministry. He lived and worked in the years leading up to the Babylonian exile and was mostly called to speak a Word of the Lord to people who were on the brink of everything falling apart; but no one wanted to hear it. His words sound harsh out of context, but then again, I suspect they sounded pretty harsh in context as well. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that the prophets are not just mouthpieces for God. They feel, and then try to articulate, what God feels. In last week’s reading from Jeremiah we heard it in a nutshell:

For the hurt of my poor people, I am hurt;
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.

Is that Jeremiah or God speaking? Yes! Jeremiah discerns that underneath God’s anger and disappointment with God’s people, there is hurt. Isn’t that usually the case with anger? People get angry because they have been hurt. Jeremiah struggles to find the right metaphor: God is like a spouse who has been cheated on. Or like a parent who sees her child making the same bad choices again and again but doesn’t know what “tough love” should look like.

And then today—seemingly out of nowhere—Jeremiah does a 180. As the holy city is being besieged, we get this strange real estate transaction: Jeremiah purchases a plot of land that belonged to his family at Anathoth. Jeremiah is, himself, in prison. And what he said would happen is starting to happen: the world is coming apart at the seams. Yet he buys a piece of property. Why?

The answer is that Jeremiah trusts that beyond exile there will be homecoming. This real estate transaction is an act of hope. Almost a defiant hope that is about more than this little plot of land at Anathoth.  For a contract to be binding, you need laws and a stable government. After a military takeover, it is quite possible that the deed to a piece of land may no longer be worth the paper it’s printed on. Think Cuba in the 1950s or El Salvador in the 80s or pick any unstable government in the Middle East today. Anyone here interested in buying property in Egypt or Syria? To spend your money in that way you’d have to be reasonably confident that there will be a stable government to honor the deed.  The point is that this real estate deal is beyond risky; it’s almost crazy. The government is about to collapse and Jeremiah is buying land. But in so doing that, he is making a statement. He is putting his money where his mouth is. While he knows the times are tough and are about to get much worse, he has shifted gears. He becomes a prophet of hope inviting others to trust with him that eventually God will bring God’s people home. Eventually they will re-build their homes and live in them and plant fields and vineyards and drink wine from them.

Jeremiah is making a faith claim that God has not abandoned Israel. So this real estate deal is almost a kind of sacramental act: an outward and visible sign that the future belongs to God. That is why, as we heard, in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah (which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar) the Word of the Lord came to Jeremiah. And that is why he buys a piece of land from his cousin, Hanamel, and signs the deed, and seals it, and gets witnesses, and pays the money. (Listen to all that legal language; music in the ears of all the attorneys here today!) And then, finally, these words: for thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land. Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land. He was right again you know. It would take a long time, but his hope was not misplaced.

My favorite movie of all time is The Shawshank Redemption, a movie that is all about hope. Hope is not the same thing as wishful thinking. Hope is not a denial of reality, or of the challenges that people face every day. It’s not about closing your eyes clicking your heels three times and imagining you are someplace else. Hope in that film and I think in real life is about taking a little rock hammer and bit by bit creating a tunnel that goes through the sewer and toward the waters of new life. It is about dying to the old in order to embrace new and abundant life. “Get busy living, or get busy dying” Andy Dufrasne tells his friend Red. Or as the writer of today’s epistle puts it: “take hold of the life that really is life.” (I Timothy 6:19) When Jeremiah buys that piece of land at Anathoth that is exactly what he is doing.  

Well I’m not here today as a film critic, although if there is a person here who has not ever seen that film, then I urge you to do so. Why am I here? First and foremost I am here as a priest of the Church who is called to preach the gospel and to listen with you to these ancient texts for a Word of the Lord. The word from Anathoth that I hear is a word of good news, a word of hope that dares to entrust God with the future. Because the past is past and because the future belongs to God, this frees us to be a people who take hold of the life that really is life.

Hope unleashes missional energy. Hope makes us better stewards of God’s abundant gifts. Hope trusts that God has not abandoned us and in fact has even greater things in store for us. Jeremiah buys a piece of land at Anathoth and he seals up the deed in his version of a fireproof safety-deposit box because even as Jerusalem is being destroyed he is able to imagine that the good old days are not behind them, but ahead of them: people will build houses and live in them and plant vineyards and drink their wine.

So I am here today as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, but I am also here on behalf of Bishop Fisher, as one of his two canons to the ordinary. It’s a strange title,  I admit, although perhaps no stranger than that of rector. All that it means is that I work for the bishop: he is the “ordinary” – a word that comes to us from the Latin for “overseer.” I’m here today on behalf of our bishop to help oversee the transition work that lies ahead for All Saints Church. Ultimately, at least as we Episcopalians understand this, it is work that God has given you to do. But you have our prayers, our support, our guidance, our affection every step of the way. Today I am here to remind you that God isn’t finished with you yet and that even though one chapter of your history has come to an end, the good old days are not behind you but ahead of you. Now is the time to take hold of the life that really is life. Now is the time to get busy living.

There is loss here and that must be acknowledged, and maybe a whole array of emotions that accompany loss and that get “kicked up” when a rector or associate rector leave. Some may feel numb or angry or hurt or confused—probably the same array of emotions that Jeremiah felt way back when. We may as well put all that on the table. But there is also an invitation and an opportunity for all of you saints here to live more fully into your name and to truly be “all saints.” Now as Martin Luther once noted that isn’t about perfection; we are always simultaneously sinners and saints. But you are all saints! Ultimately the name of this parish rightly suggests that the ministers here are all the people, not just the ordained. I see before me a great cloud of witnesses who have been claimed and marked and sealed by the Holy Spirit in love and claimed as Christ’s own, forever. Today we will renew those promises made in Holy Baptism so that as you remember who you are we can all hope together.  

It is tempting to get fearful and then to allow our fear to paralyze us. It’s tempting to sit on the sidelines in this time of transition and let Charlie and Bruce and the vestry figure it all out; to sit back and wait and see. I urge you not to do that. Take your cues from Jeremiah and risk that kind of faith by rolling up your sleeves and doing your part. Now is the time to go “all in.” Now is the time to get busy living.  
There will be a temptation to “get this done” as quickly as possible, to fill the position, because that’s human nature.  I urge you against that, however, not because I don’t like things done (trust me I do!) but because God is present in the midst of all of this and this time of transition is not merely a time to tread water, but an invitation to go deeper. It is a time to imagine God’s preferred future for this place and then to engage one another about that until a new shared vision emerges.

Transitions are a process and they take time. Changes have happened: Lindsay has left and Kevin has left and we’ll get to an interim time and eventually a new rector will be called. But transition is bigger than change and more emotional, and it takes longer. The Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness of Sinai. I promise that we will do this faster than that. But I also want to suggest that that metaphor is a good one for All Saints right now. It will be tempting to want to get to the Promised Land as quickly as possible. But we do well to remember that some really important things happened in the Sinai Desert for God’s people. That forty years was not a waste of time, in spite of that old joke that because Moses was a man and therefore wouldn’t ask for directions.  In the wilderness, the Israelites learned (just as we remember each year during the forty days of Lent) that God is God and we are not. It is a place and a time to focus on what really matters, on who we are, and who God is, and why we need each other. You don’t survive in the desert alone. You need each other. And if you go back and re-read the Book of Exodus you’ll discover there are many gifts along the way: in the form of daily manna, water from the flinty rock, and the gift of Torah—sweeter than honey. Most of all was the process of letting go of the old in order to take hold of the life that really was life. You, too, will discover gifts in this wilderness time.

This is not to suggest that it will be easy; it won’t be. It will be difficult, so let’s just put that on the table. But nothing worthwhile in this life comes easy. And we Christians especially know that in baptism even as we are claimed as God’s beloved we are also called to take up our cross and follow. The cross is about focus and dedication and commitment. The work that lies before you, I think, is to dive deeper and listen, listen, listen.

Listen to God. Listen to each other. Listen to the people in your neighborhood and beyond. Listen to the other congregations in the city of Worcester (both Episcopal and ecumenical) who are partners with you in ministry. What is All Saints called to become? Not what was All Saints back in the days of Bean or Beckwith or Cox or Huntington: but in the days to come, where is God leading you? All of that will unfold in due time. But in the meantime, there is a lot of work to be done. That work begins with trust, and a reminder to take hold of the life that really is life. 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Lancelot Andrewes

Almighty God, you gave your servant Lancelot Andrewes the gift of your Holy Spirit and made him a man of prayer and a faithful pastor of your people: Perfect in us what is lacking in your gifts, of faith, to increase it, of hope, to establish it, of love, to kindle it, that we may live in the life of your grace and glory; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the same Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

I Timothy 2:1-7a; Psalm 63:1-8; Luke 11:1-4               

Today is the Feast of Lancelot Andrewes, who died on this day in 1626. What follows is a manuscript for the homily I preached today at a "Fresh Start" gathering of new clergy in our diocese, at the Cathedral chapel. 
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Lancelot Andrewes was the favorite preacher of King James I. Or at least that is the first line of his bio in Holy Women, Holy Men – so it must be true, right?

Now let me just say this before I get myself in trouble, I was an English major and I am a huge fan of that great "plagiarist" T.S. Eliot, and so by extension (knowing that he stole some of his best lines from Lancelot Andrews in “The Journey of the Magi”) I too am a big fan of his preaching.  

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a Journey, and such a long journey:
The way deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.

Brilliant. I would love to listen to preaching like that every week. So it is not my goal to diss this great divine of the Church. I know, as HWHM goes on to say that Andrewes was “a distinguished biblical scholar, proficient in Hebrew and Greek, and was one of the translators of the Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible.” And I know that as we prayed, he was a “man of prayer and a faithful pastor.”  

Even so: I got myself stuck on that opening line: the favorite preacher of King James I. I don’t know about all of you but I loved when people would meet me at the door after worship and say, “loved that sermon…” And, conversely, I carried it all week when someone would say, more or less, “are you out of your mind?”

Over time, though, here is something I learned: I became a better preacher because of the people whom I challenged, and who challenged me back, than from trying to meet the expectations of the Rich Simpson Fan Club who would sometimes prop me up six feet above contradiction.

So I got to wondering what old Lancelot would have said to his peers in a Fresh Start group about having the king as a fan of his preaching. Was it a joy or a concern? I wonder if it made him hesitate to preach boldly, to preach those really tough texts. What did he do with the prophets? What did he do with Elijah when was railing against Ahab? Choose to ignore those texts and preach I Timothy?

Walter Brueggemann says, in effect, that as pastors and preachers we don’t have to be prophets. But we do have to be scribes. That is, we don’t need to rail against “the man” but we do have to be faithful to the breadth and depth of the Christian tradition. We are required to give voice to the prophets, not just the easy words of I First Timothy about praying for our leaders. That’s what we promised to do in our ordination vows.

We don’t need to be Jeremiahs—one of those was enough. So we can even say to our congregations, “you know, I’m no Jeremiah, but let me introduce you to him because Jeremiah would want us to consider this…” I think that is what Brueggemann means when he says we preachers are in the business of standing with the people among whom we serve to offer an alternative script. It’s a delicate hermeneutical task, one I’m pretty certain will still, on occasion, get us into trouble with even the most devout of the rulers of this age.

Today’s gospel reading—so familiar to us—would, I imagine, make any of the rulers of this world squirm in their pews if preached boldly: asking for God’s kingdom to come on earth as in heaven and in so doing getting clear who it is we serve. To pray this prayer, and really mean it, is to be living toward an eschatological reality that challenges all of our ideologies.

I wonder how it is we preachers can keep all this in mind, and not let either our fans or our detractors dictate the message that has been entrusted to us: a message that still is meant to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, a message that is not meant to gain us fans, but make disciples by helping the invitation of Jesus to be heard across the centuries: take up your cross to follow Jesus.  

We prayed today as we remembered this “holy man” that God might perfect in us what is lacking in the gift of faith, to increase it, and of hope, to establish it, and of love, to kindle it, that we may live in the life of God’s grace and glory…

May it be so!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

This morning it was an honor for me to be with the people of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Worcester as their preacher. The rector at St. Luke's is the Rev. Warren Hicks. It's a great parish, doing faithful work in the city of Worcester. Thanks be to God!

Below is the manuscript for my sermon.
There is a time and season for everything under the sun, including a time for extemporaneous prayer. Sometimes our hearts groan in travail or leap for joy and we need to put the book down and pray the words that flow from the bottom of our hearts. As one writer[i] has recently put it, the three essential prayers are “Help!” “Thanks!” “Wow!” Those three cover a whole range of emotions and experiences and we don’t need any book to pray them.  

But written prayers consistently offer us something else: a depth that holds us together as a community: progressives and traditionalists, rich and poor, young and old, gay and straight, people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. There is a reason we call it common prayer. This, I think, is the great gift of Anglicanism to the wider Church, our particular charism if you will. The late Krister Stendahl used to say that we ought to cultivate something like a “holy envy” in the ecumenical Church where instead of tearing the other down we find the unique gift they bring and celebrate it and even try to imitate it. I know Baptist ministers whose congregations might be surprised to learn that they have a Book of Common Prayer at their bedside tables, but that’s what I mean. They find something there that we in TEC often take it for granted.

Anglicanism was born of great conflict. But out of that experience, which remains a part of our DNA, the Elizabethan Settlement and the “middle way” that emerged—not for the sake of compromise but for a deeper comprehension of the truth—we found common prayer (rather than dogmatic certitude) as a way to discover and uncover the unity that is already ours in Jesus Christ.

All of this by way of an intro:  I love the collects, which I used to tell the children at St. Francis, Holden (and their parents if they were listening in) are there to help us all to collect ourselves as the Body of Christ. I also told the teenagers a little trick: that they are kind of like the Cliff Notes version of the theme of the day, so even if they did not listen to a word of the sermon, if their parents asked them what the sermon was about they would be right about 80% of the time if they looked to the collect of the day.

But sometimes we pray these prayers too hastily. In Holden, where I served for more than fifteen years, it seemed like half the congregation would arrive behind the procession, and they were still sneaking in as the readings were beginning and sometimes even ending. And even those present were often not yet really situated and centered and “present” for the opening collect. Now we aren’t too far, geographically from that parish so let me assume that is the case for at least some of you here today as well. And let me invite us to slow down and hit reset. Breathe in and out, and know that where two or three are gathered in his name the risen Christ is present. Trust that he will be revealed today in the breaking of the bread. Let us all collect not just our thoughts, but our emotions—the whole range from anxiety to hope, from loss and betrayal to joy and renewal. Wherever you are today, there Christ is: before you and behind you, beneath you and above you. Breathe in and out, and then let us pray again:
Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
There is a way that this prayer might be heard as escapist. If we are not careful, it could make us so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. We come to Church then to close the doors on the world, to block it all out so we can focus on heaven alone. The restlessness of a child, then, becomes something in worship that distracts us—an earthly thing that keeps us from heaven—and we may feel tempted to turn and glare.(Don't!) 

Because that would take us far from the roots of our heritage and from the breadth and depth of the one holy catholic and apostolic faith. At the heart of our tradition is a rejection of the notion that this world is bad and that spirit is good. A Gnostic might hear this prayer as an attempt to leave behind all these earthly things, these things that keep us from God, in order to soar above them and escape to some heavenly realm where all is lovely and true and ethereal, a world of Platonic ideals.

But that is not the way of Jesus, and it would take us from that noisy and smelly stable in Bethlehem where the Word that became flesh to dwell among us. All due respect to a great preacher, if there was calm and bright it came only late in the night, after the child had nursed and had his diaper changed. That escapist theology would take us far from the One who died on a tree outside of the city gates because God so loved the world.

For the Christian faith, matter matters. Our lives matter, not generically but particularly: these lives, these bodies here today, some of them starting to fail us—our vision or our hearing or a shoulder that has caused too much pain for too long. These pews and the hymns we sing well or not so well, with voices that sometimes hit the right notes and sometimes make new harmonies that even God had not previously imagined were possible. Today’s collect gathers us here in this place at this time—not in some bygone era of the glory days of the Christian faith or of St. Luke’s parish nor in distant future when every tear is wiped away and pain is no more but right here where salty tears are still being shed and pain very much is—at the death of a relationship or a friend from the Naval Shipyard to the roads of Damascus.

The earthy spirituality that undergirds this prayer is a kind of thread that is found in all of our readings today. Who can hear these words on the lips of the prophet Jeremiah without some deep sense of pathos and compassion? God's heart breaks for the hurt of God's people. We sometimes sing that old spiritual that there is a balm in Gilead that heals the sin-sick soul, but that is a response that comes a couple of millennia after Jeremiah poses a far more haunting question. Is there no balm in Gilead?, Jeremiah asks on the brink of the Babylonian exile. Is there no physician there? Have you ever prayed that kind of prayer? HELP! 

The Psalmist, if it is possible, cries out with even more pain, surrounded by the ravages of war and by signs of death and destruction: they have made Jerusalem a heap of rubble.

The writer of the pastoral epistle we call First Timothy asks us to pray for our leaders, reminding us that there is one God of us all. Radical monotheism – one God—one mediator—means that we are one people on one planet. It means that I can’t claim my God is better than your God. Jesus died for the sins of the whole world; not just the sins of Christians or for a pure remnant of Christians who believe rightly. We are all in the same boat. We all stand in need of prayer and of God’s amazing grace.

You all have seen, I’m sure, those bumper stickers on both sides that say things like, “don’t blame me, I didn’t vote for him, and he’s not my president.”  No Christian who takes today’s epistle seriously can ever say that. We do not only pray for the leaders we voted for but the ones we mistrust and even fear; not for them to fail but for them to succeed for the welfare of all. We prayed for eight years for George, OUR president and we have been praying now for five years for Barack, OUR president.

I hope you pray daily (and not just on Sunday morning) in the very same way for our bishop and your rector. Only you can know your own heart in these matters. There are ways of praying for people like that Pharisee in the temple – Oh Lord, please God, help Warren to see the light and be the kind of rector I want him to be!? But that is not the kind of prayer I am talking about. Do you pray for Doug and Warren as fragile but gifted human beings who have been called to serve God’s people, and who like all of us are relying on God’s mercy and grace one day at a time? I hope so.

And then there is this Gospel reading today, about property and money. Jesus talked about money more than anything else in his preaching ministry except the Kingdom of God and a lot of the time he brought the two together. Again and again he says, “you cannot serve God and money” as we heard once more today—
it feels like this about the fourth or fifth time over the past two months.

While this is no doubt a complicated gospel reading that leave many, including a lot of preachers today across the country, scratching their heads, I think the way into it is once again by way of that collect we prayed. Jesus liked it when he offered parables that left people scratching their heads, so that’s all good. But we get most confused when we think money is the root of all evil. That money is dirty. That’s not what the Bible says. It says the LOVE of money is the root of all evil. It is forgetting that money is a means, not an end. Only God is an end, the source of all that is.

When we seek God first, then all the rest begins to fall into place. It is only when we try to control things that we raise the anxiety level for ourselves and usually for everyone around us. I’m not suggesting a theology of don’t worry, be happy. I’m suggesting a theology that admits we are powerless and then turns to the One who can restore us to sanity. I am suggesting that to love things heavenly is not to escape this world; but is rather about putting things into perspective one day at a time.

In the end, moths and rust will consume all the things we believed were permanent: our things, our ideas, our bodies, our theologies, this building, our diocese, the Episcopal Church. All of them are passing away. In the end all that will be left is God, and God’s people—from every tribe and people and nation. 

But we live in the meantime, here, and now.

So in the meantime, hold fast to the things that endure.

[i] Anne Lamott

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Last Sunday, September 15, I was with the good people of Trinity Church in Milford, Massachusetts and their rector, the Rev. Mac Murray. I was invited to preach at 8 and 10 and then met with their vestry (lay leadership) after coffee hour. 

In all of the excitement of being there I forgot to take pictures, but I stole the one of the left from their website. And as I have been doing in my travels, I wanted to post my sermon manuscript as well, which I am only now getting to.

O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Let me begin this morning by conveying to you the greetings of our Bishop, Doug Fisher and the staff at 37 Chestnut Street. I also need to add that everyone I talked to who found out this was where I would be today said, “what a great parish that is! So much life and vitality.” At 150 years young, I am truly grateful to hear about that and I look forward to learning more not just today, but in the years ahead. We are also grateful for the work your rector does not only here in Milford but as a member of Diocesan Council and as a leader in our diocese. When a priest is ordained it is not only to serve a parish but those larger “councils of the church.” So thank you, Mac.

Now, regarding this epistle reading we heard a few minutes ago: starting today and for the next seven weeks the Epistle Reading will come from two pastoral epistles, First and Second Timothy. Let’s set aside the debate about who wrote these two epistles; although you should know that the vast majority of scholars agree that it wasn’t St. Paul, but rather a “next-generation” student of his. For our purposes today, however, it’s pretty clear that these words we heard in today’s epistle reading sound a lot like Paul and are meant to recall to us Paul’s familiar story on the Road to Damascus, even if he didn’t actually write them.
I do want to quibble with one word, however, in the verses we heard today. I’m not saying Scripture ought to be changed to fit my understanding, so don’t worry about that. But I hope you will hear me out. If I was able to sit down with whoever wrote these words over a cup of coffee, I would totally give some “amens” along the way to what is a very powerful witness of faith.

First of all, I love it that the writer begins with gratitude: I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord…amen! Meister Eckhart once said that if the only prayer you ever said was “thank you” it would be enough. He knew, as this writer knew, that gratitude takes us near to the heart of God. And, of course, I would give a full-throated amen also to the conclusion that the writer draws from reflecting on such life-changing experiences.

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.

Whether our own conversion stories have been as dramatic as Paul’s on the Damascus Road or happened drip by drip over many years, we are all sinners. We all fall short of the glory of God. But that isn’t the last word. God’s grace is bigger than our failings. Nothing in all of creation can separate us from that love of God in Jesus Christ, who keeps coming into our world and our lives to find us when we are lost and feeling unworthy. Our God is a God of second and third chances. Thank God for God’s mercy and God’s patience with all of us, which is sufficient—which is enough. That is good news!  Or as one beloved hymn puts it:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
was blind but now I see. 

So that’s all great. Here is where I would push back: in between, in trying to explain why mercy was needed, the writer says “because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief…”

Wait, what? Because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief? Wasn’t the problem with Saul that he was acting ignorantly out of belief? He believed that anyone who said that Jesus was messiah was a heretic. He believed that to do so was to use the Lord’s name in vain—to claim messiah had come when Jesus was most definitely not the messiah! He believed that he was guarding the faith from unbelievers, false teachers. It was his belief—in fact his certitude—that caused him and to persecute the earliest followers of Jesus, right? Not his unbelief!

Now I suspect that if I do ever get to sit with this writer in the age to come, and if I pushed on this issue, the response would be something like this: “yeah, well I know now that it was wrong belief. That’s why I said ‘unbelief.’ Whatever.” But I am not sure I’d let him get away with the “whatever.” Because it matters for us—the saints who are still here trying to work this stuff out. It matters for people of faith, people with beliefs. How do we know at the time when we are acting from unbelief and when we are acting from wrong belief and when we are acting from right belief?

I raise this question because I think it goes to the very heart of what it means to be a Christian community like this one living into the next 150 years, and what it means for all of us to be people of faith in this early part of the twenty-first century. So if you can hold that thought for a moment, I want to move on to the Gospel reading for today and then I promise that I will find my way back…

Because today’s Gospel reading, interestingly enough, begins with an assumption that the world is very neatly divided between believers and unbelievers. All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. Those are thee “unbelievers,” right? And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." Those are the “believers.” The religious folk.
Have you ever noticed that sometimes religious people do grumbling better than we do gratitude? It’s not a Jewish-Christian thing, nor is it a first-century versus twenty-first century thing. It’s a parking lot after worship thing. But the great challenge of Jesus, then and now, is that he seems to like hanging out with the sinners. I know: someone will say he loves the sinners and hates the sins. But still; he really does seem to enjoy their company. Maybe because they are more real and less guarded; more humble and less self-righteous; more humble and less sure. I think about that parable Jesus offers about prayer: the religious guy looks over at some “sinner” and says to God: “O Lord, thank you that I am not like him!” And what does the other guy pray? “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.” Who would you rather hang out with?

In any event the religious people are grumbling, and so Jesus tells three stories. I know the lectionary committee only gave us two of them today, but I know that you all know the third one and since next week’s reading skips over it and picks up at chapter sixteen I’ll very briefly remind you of it as well.

First story: which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he finds it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices and then comes home and says to his friends: lamb chops for everyone! Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost. Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

Second story: what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not get out a flashlight and go through every room in the house and search until she finds it? And when she does, she too calls her friends and neighbors and throws a party: `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.' Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
See the pattern? Remember, Jesus is talking with the grumbling religious people, the believers. So story three: two brothers. One makes some bad decisions and gets himself lost, the other stays home to take care of the family business. Until one day the prodigal comes home and the old man welcomes him with open arms and throws a big party. Why? For the same reason that shepherd with the lost sheep and that woman with the lost $100 bill does: because this son was lost and is now found and the only right thing to do is to celebrate with wine and dancing and veal piccata for everyone.

But do you remember how the story ends? The older brother, the religious brother, the righteous brother, the good boy Gallant chooses to pout and grumble because life isn’t fair. After all he’s done…
The one, two, three punch of these stories is pretty clear: Jesus is telling the believers to get over themselves. He says, “you should be singing “Amazing Grace” and instead you are complaining that life isn’t fair. He’s telling them to stop grumbling and start partying, not only because something or someone who was lost has been found, but because if you really stop and think about it, the truth is that we are all a little bit lost. So maybe as the Reign of God draws near we need to stop insisting on how right we are and acknowledge that we too might be lost and we too might be in need of grace and healing and forgiveness.  Even that older brother; maybe especially that older brother. Even those scribes and Pharisees and maybe even some of us who can get lost in our resentments and self-righteousness and our belief that we are superior to our brother or our sister or our neighbor. Even us.

So back to that epistle and my imaginary cup of coffee with Paul, or whomever. What if when I pushed about the use of that word, they said something like this:

Listen, I really did think of myself as a believer back in my Pharisee days, and everyone else thought I was a believer too. I did all the right things and I checked all the right boxes. But you are right: it did lead me to this feeling of superiority and self-righteousness. I liked being an insider. But that meant somebody else had to be outside. I liked being “good,” but that meant I had to define somebody else as “bad.” It turns out that what I learned on the Road to Damascus was that I had it all wrong. I was blinded in order to see that religious faith is not about simply being “good” and it is most definitely not about getting to define who is bad. Religious faith is about trusting God. It is about God’s amazing grace. It is about realizing God’s mercy is sufficient, for all of us: this saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.

And I’d concede in the end that the writer got it right: what he thought was belief was not; it was unbelief even if he was so certain. That is the thing about Jesus: he messes up our tidy boxes. To be his follower, to be a faithful parish like this one, is to be learning daily to let go of the grumbling and to pray: Lord, open our lips / and our mouths shall proclaim your praise. Truly faithful communities –like this one—are the ones that are learning that when we do sing “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me” we aren’t singing on behalf of the poor slob three pews away. We are singing it for ourselves and praying that God will keep on finding us again and again and again, in our belief and in our unbelief.  

Sunday, September 1, 2013

A Labor Day Sermon

This weekend I was again privileged to spend Sunday morning with the people of St. Michael's-on-the-Heights in Worcester. I asked them to switch the readings for the day, from the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost to the propers for Labor Day. My sermon was focused on I Corinthians 3:10-14

Corinth, for anyone who may be wondering, is located on an isthmus about 85 kilometers west of Athens. I Google-mapped it this week! Since my internal metric-converter isn’t very good, I also found a website where I could convert kilometers to miles. All of this under the category of sermon prep time! So, in American English – Corinth—what the locals call Korinthos—is just about 50 miles west of Athens. You can drive it in 56 minutes.

I read once, somewhere, that one in five Americans can’t find the United States on a map of the world, so maybe this information doesn’t mean very much. But this being a particularly astute congregation, I’m sure at least 4 out of 5 here today could pick out Europe on a world map, and from there it’s not too hard to find Italy (the boot) - then you just go to the right of that and you’re in Greece. Athens is more or less in the middle.  

There are no direct flights from Logan Airport to Athens, but there is a flight from Logan to JFK leaving at 11:30 this morning, and then a direct flight at 4:30 p.m. on Delta to Athens. Yes, today. If we could get to JFK this afternoon, then we could all be in Athens at 9:40 a.m. local time tomorrow - where we could rent a car at the airport and start driving west. If everything went smoothly we could be eating souvlaki for lunch in Korinthos, followed by little nap by the pool.

The travel advice comes free of charge today. I begin here, though, because I think that sometimes when we open the Bible - especially when we are sitting in church – and then we hear someone say “the Word of the Lord” (and we say “thanks be to God”)—there is some part of us that can forget that that Word was first written to real people in a particular place at a particular time. Sometimes we imagine “Bible-land” as a kind of fairy tale land where people wore long-flowing robes and talk with bad Elizabethan accents.  

But while the Scriptures no doubt carry a timeless and transcendent meaning, they also have a real-world context. Before they made it into the Bible, Paul’s letters were just that: letters written in Greek, to his friends in Corinth and other equally real places like Rome and Galatia and Ephesus. He wrote to real people serving on the vestry and on the mission committee. He wrote to real people who were trying to live out their faith as best they could in a changing world, people who had real struggles and real conflicts. While it has no doubt changed a lot in two thousand years in all of the ways you would expect things to change, I think just being in Korinthos and breathing in that sea air and feeling that awareness of our own foreignness would significantly change the way we hear Paul’s letters.

So even if we can’t all get on that plane from JFK this afternoon, maybe we can try to imagine Paul – before he was ever called a “saint”—coming into that port city to proclaim the gospel and trying to build a congregation.  Corinth was not some out-of-the-way backwater - but right in the middle of a major commercial hub, a port city where diverse cultures from north, south, east, and west converged. Then, as today, diversity provided both an opportunity and a challenge. The congregation reflects the diverse make-up of the city: there were Jews there who believed messiah had come and his name was Jesus. But there were even more Gentiles, goyim, which is to say all sorts of people from diverse religious backgrounds who were also coming to see the way of Jesus as the Way to full and abundant life. They come to the community, however, with different perspectives and different values and different backgrounds.  They didn’t always get each other’s jokes. And here is the thing: while they all agreed that Jesus was the Christ, their differences had become a source of deep tension and conflict for the community.

So Paul’s reason for writing not one but two letters to them is that they were fighting – a lot. In fact the key theological question underlying both First and Second Corinthians is this: how do you hold together a community that includes people of such different perspectives and beliefs? Obviously you try to keep Christ at the center, but that is often easier said than done.

For St. Paul, the key to Christian community is love. Faith, hope, and love are all important—the big three. And Paul loves to argue theology as much as the next guy. But make no mistake, even this great theologian of the church who inspired many who followed him to embrace faith rather than works as the path to salvation recognized that you can have all the faith in the world—enough to move mountains even—but if you don’t have love you gain nothing. You are nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. You remember that? We hear that part of the letter a lot at weddings - that thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians. And we get all goose-bumpy when we look at this young couple and the reader says they will need to be patient and kind and gentle and not arrogant or rude. But the truth is that Paul wasn’t writing to a couple on their wedding day—even if that does turn out to be good advice for making a relationship work. Paul is writing to the vestry and the altar guild and the property committee in a congregation not so different than this one –in Korinthos in the middle of the first century. And the fact is that he is writing to people who have been behaving badly. They have been arrogant and rude and boastful and impatient with each other.  

So I’ve jumped ahead like ten chapters from the text we heard today but it’s important to know where it’s going: I Corinthians 13 – that love chapter – takes us to the heart of what Paul wants to say to that congregation and maybe what he says to those other congregations in Rome and Galatia and Ephesus too. You could distill both letters and maybe even all of Paul’s writings down to that single chapter. And maybe that’s what every preacher needs to say in every generation to every congregation – the very same thing Jesus said (and did) on the last night of his life when he took a towel and washed his friends’ feet and gave them their final instructions: love one another. That’s all I ask. I give you a new commandment to love one another.

Preachers need metaphors, though. The most famous metaphor that St. Paul offers to that community of Christians in Corinth is of the human body. What does love-in-action look like, Paul asks? Well, everybody is not supposed to be the same. That would just be silly. If every part of the Body was an eye, the Body would see extremely well, but hearing and digestion would be a problem. The human body needs eyes and ears and a nose and fingers and toes and all the rest. Moreover, an eye that wishes it could hear is of little use to the body since the ears pretty much have that job covered. Paul wants that congregation to figure out how to embody the love of Christ through cooperation rather than competition. He wants them to learn to value and honor one another’s gifts—their own and others—rather than envying the gifts that others possess. He wants them to celebrate their unity in the midst of their diversity, rather than striving for uniformity.  

Now I realize I have taken a little detour today. We have this very short epistle reading today—just these four verses from the third chapter of First Corinthians. And here I am talking about first-century Greece, and a conflicted congregation there, and why it is love that binds Christians together. And we’ve not even gotten to today’s epistle reading and I’m pushing my time limit and I know that some of you are wondering, “how much longer, Lord, until we eat?”

Fear not. The good people in Holden got used to that over fifteen years, but they also learned to trust that eventually I would find my way back.

…like a skilled master builder, Paul writes to that congregation, I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. 

Paul turns to the world of architecture to remind those first-century Christians in Korinthos and us who have gathered here today to listen for a Word of the Lord that there is only one foundation. As one of the great hymns of the Church puts it in borrowing this same metaphor: “the Church’s one foundation, is Jesus Christ her Lord.”  

This is good news! As St. Michael’s continues to move through a season of transition, it brings with it both an increase of anxiety, but also a host of new possibilities. Even when it may feel like the foundations are shaking, it is good to be reminded that just as the foundation in Corinth was not Paul or Apollos, so here at St. Mike’s it is not Don or Frank or Warren or whoever may be called here next: the foundation was and is and will be Jesus Christ.

Our work—the shared work of both the ordained and laity—is to build on that foundation. And that work is unfolding here even now, even in this season of waiting. The great gift of this time is that it has within it the potential to draw you back to those foundational values, back to the risen Christ upon Whom everything else will be built.  

This is not just a time of passively waiting for what comes next. It’s a time for a deepening awareness and for prayer and for asking the really big questions like “what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus in Worcester County in the twenty-first century?” When we look back to a place like first-century Corinth they won’t give us all the answers, but they will remind us of what it takes. Faith, hope and love, for starters. But above all, love. A Body that works together rather than at cross-purposes. A community that is building something together, not from scratch but on the sure foundation of what began in the hills of Galilee two millennia ago. Transitions invite congregations back to the basics.  

Labor Day weekend is as good a time as any to stop and ask: what role will you play going forward in the life of this congregation? What gifts do you possess to help this congregation move from good to great, and how will you share those in love? Ultimately as each person begins to take hold of that and pitch in with what they can do, the new St. Michael’s will begin to emerge. It won’t look the same as the St. Michael’s of the 1950s or the 1980s. It will be a new creation. Each of you must choose with care how to build on that sure foundation that has already been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.