Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Today, I'm at The Church of the Nativity in Northborough. I was there thirteen months ago right after they said goodbye to a longtime rector - and there today a week before they welcome their new rector. I love my job! And I love how the Spirit moves through seasons of transition. The readings for today can be found here.

There is a version of the “American Dream” that suggests that the meaning of life is found in accumulating more and more stuff. Now I realize we are deep into the political season, but what I’m talking about here isn’t political and trust me I am not that interested in getting political today. But what I’m talking about is cultural, and it’s in the air we breathe – and it’s something with which our politics on both right and left must contend.  

The “preacher” of Ecclesiastes lived during a time of incredible economic volatility. That’s what all that talk about “vanity” is really about – although a better word for the Hebrew would be “mist” or “vapor.” Essentially, he says that you can’t control mist. And you can’t control life. Life is ephemeral. It’s ungraspable. Even more famously than this talk about vanity of vanities, in the next chapter beyond the one we read today, the preacher says that there is a time and a season for everything under the sun.

I think in our heart of hearts we know this is right. Wisdom is about navigating our way through the ups and downs of life, not only economic cycles of richer and poorer, but sickness and health, better and worse – joys and heartaches that come in life. It is vanity to pretend it is otherwise. Sometimes we must walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Not even the spiritual life is one big mountaintop.

There is an even more crass distortion of the American Dream that utilizes the language of the Wild West and individualism and the “self-made man.” It’s the imagery from which we begin to talk about things like “boot-straps” by which we lift ourselves up. And like a two-year old, we don’t need anyone’s help to do it. So it’s not only about more and more stuff; it’s all about me. Every one for himself, or herself.

Now this is, of course, a distortion of the real American Dream. The story of this great nation is about way more than individuals accumulating wealth: it’s a story filled with images of sacrifice and bravery and community. It is not primarily a story about self-reliance, but about the neighborhood. It’s about ordinary people praying and marching and singing and doing their jobs: soldiers and teachers and first responders and others who instill hope and mutual respect and remind us that what makes a community and a nation truly great is its people. It’s about churches and synagogues and mosques (and storefronts too) that call us toward our better selves and toward neighborly love and the practice of hospitality and mercy and of kindness.

But the contrast remains great between that richer story and the truncated version of the story that gets distorted into something one-dimensional, self-centered., and materialistic. If we are not careful about it – if we don’t regularly take time to question it – we can lose our very souls in a dog-eat-dog world. I believe it is the work of the Church to hold up a bigger story of the beloved community – what Jesus called the Kingdom of God; what our bishop likes to call “Jesus’ mission of mercy, compassion, and hope.” In the next 100 days or so, I invite you not to shy away from the political but to bear witness to something bigger. To be light that shines in the darkness and leaven that makes the whole loaf rise. Or at least to be salt and light and yeast in this part of Worcester County.

As Christians, we turn to Jesus for guidance. As Christians, we turn to our Baptismal Covenant and to Holy Scripture as the authorities that lead us to more abundant life. Because we do believe that Jesus is Lord, yes? And we do believe that he is worthy of our trust, yes? All of us know what makes for real community. But if we are not careful with our lives, we will get caught up in the pursuit of stuff, rather than in the pursuit of abundant life. It happens in small, insidious, and seemingly insignificant ways; but the choices we make over time can destroy life or create it. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus says: “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” And then he tells a story…

As always, Jesus, puts the matter simply, but directly. He doesn’t mince words. We face a choice between generosity or greed. The story is perhaps somewhat jarring to us, because the man in this story is perhaps familiar to us. I assume he is, at least as I read this story, a good man and a hard-worker. He’s a faithful person who simply wants not only to get ahead and have a little more than his parents did, but a better life for his children. He isn’t like “those sinners” that Paul is talking about in his letter to the Colossians, which we also read today: those sinners guilty of fornication, or impurity, or passion, or evil desires, or…

…but wait a second. There it is, even if we missed it the first time around. Or greed. Paul puts “greed” right there with fornication and impurity and passion and evil desires! Who would have thunk it! And he says it is in fact a form of idolatry, that is, of worshiping a false god. It is making a “thing” into God. It’s about misplacing our trust.

My brothers and sisters, “greed is not good.” Both Jesus and Paul (and quite frankly you can go back to Moses and the prophets too) are aware that we can so easily lose our souls in the pursuit of more and more stuff. This rich man in the story that Jesus tells has a lot of stuff. So much stuff he needs to add onto his house and even put some things into storage. So much stuff! But what doesn’t seem to occur to him is that he has a choice. He doesn’t have to keep it all! It is all merely entrusted to him anyway. It’s not his, in spite of what the culture says. It’s all on loan and he could choose to give all of it away like St. Francis did. Or at least he could choose to give some of it away. He could choose generosity over greed.

Now let me just say that as a preacher I try hard not to point fingers and most of my sermons are best delivered not from a pulpit, but in front of a mirror. When we moved from Holden to Worcester three years ago, after living fifteen years in the St. Francis Church rectory, we were seriously trying to purge and we barely made a dent. There were boxes everywhere of stuff – including, I am embarrassed to admit – a few boxes that had come to Holden from Westport in 1998 that never were even unpacked.

But I will say this – as empty nesters, as a couple who have been married over thirty years now, Hathy and I are trying to be more and more aware of how much stuff we really need and trying to travel a bit lighter. Yard sales – what I call “other people’s junk” – don’t interest me in the least! We are trying to be more intentional about our stuff. But I still live among the haves, in a have neighborhood in a have state in a have nation. In a have-not world. So I need this story and I bet you need it too, to remind you that as followers of Jesus we are called not to greed but to gratitude, which leads to generosity.

Jesus tells this story to every generation anew, suggesting that it is foolish to spend so much time accumulating stuff because we do not know when our time will be up. And perhaps the saddest thing in the world is to spend your whole life thinking “someday I’ll relax, someday I’ll enjoy life, once I’m all secure and settled…” only to drop dead of a heart attack before “someday” ever comes. And I bet as soon as I say it that way, you all know someone to whom that happened. That’s the thing about Jesus; he has this way of hitting us where we live.

This man in Jesus’ story is likeable enough. But he has forgotten how to live. He has forgotten how to share. He has forgotten how to be bold and generous so that at his funeral there might be more to be said about him as neighbor than “that was a pretty amazing estate sale.” He still has that bumper sticker on his car that says “whoever has the most toys when he dies wins” when what he really needs to do is trade it in for the one that says, “live simply, that others may simply live.” I think what I love about Jesus more than anything else is that he rarely calls people out.  His preferred mode of operation is to tell stories that hold up a mirror to our lives, for anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. It’s up to us whether or not we will listen and look. He says things to us like “be careful out there in this world. Keep alert. Be on your guard. Be wise and discerning in your choices, the big ones you make about college or a new job, but also the little ones you make every day. And remember in the making of those choices what really matters.

So there was this wealthy guy, and everything he touched seemed to turn to gold. And he thought to himself: “What should I do, I have no place to store all my stuff?” And then he said, “I know, I will add on to my house and put some of it into storage, and say to my     soul, ‘Soul, you finally have enough! So retire, relax, eat, drink, and be merry.’” But God said to that man, “you fool! This night your life is demanded of you. And all you have accumulated, whose will it be?” So it is, for all who store up for themselves, but are not rich toward God.

Now that’s all I’m going to say about that because I want to spend a couple of minutes that I have left reflecting on what it means to make space for a new rector. Space in this congregation and in the rectory – but mostly space in your hearts. Chad will arrive here with gifts to share. And you all have some gifts to share with him. But he will come here as a rookie rector. He’s been learning how to be a priest, but he’s been doing that as part of a clergy team – as the junior partner. So I guarantee you this: he won’t come here with the experience that Len had in his final years or that Eletha had as your interim. Chad isn’t Len or Michael or Eletha.

But Chad will come with his own gifts. His job isn’t just to fill the space left by those others or walk in anyone’s shoes but his own. It’s going to take a little while to sort all that out. You will be tempted to think, “hey, we’ve been in transition for a while, and now we aren’t. But give it time. You are still in transition for the foreseeable future.” And the Church can be a very difficult employer. You do all know this, yes? If we aren’t careful, the Church can too quickly mirror the culture and perhaps here is the connection to the things we’ve been talking about today. The Church is not a mini-corporate American business. We are the Body of Christ. Chad’s ministry here won’t be judged on whether or not he can single handedly increase the budget or the average Sunday attendance. If those things happen, great. We like it at Diocesan House when they do. But if they do they will happen because you are all more faithfully living into the Baptismal Covenant together.

Your work is to follow Jesus. And the work of your new rector is to help you all follow Jesus more dearly, more clearly, and more nearly. It’s to help you to be salt, and light, and yeast in Northborough and the surrounding towns. That work requires faithfulness and it does not always lead to “success.” 

Pray for your new rector and his family and together seek first the Kingdom of God, one day at a time. And may God bless you in doing it, for the sake of a world that so desperately needs that. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Today I was at Christ Church, Rochdale. The readings for the day can be found here.

The Book of Common Prayer says that prayer “is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.” (BCP 856)

Take that in for just a moment, especially if it challenges the way you have been taught to think about prayer. Prayer is not just about words. Sometimes we don’t have the words. It’s not just what's in our head or on our lips. Sometimes a prayer is showing up for a friend in their hour of need – it’s an action. It’s not just something we do inside of a church building or in the privacy of our own homes. It’s a way of life. We are invited to pray our lives.

Responding to God. By thought and by deeds. With or without words.

But we are prone to forget. One antidote to our tendency toward amnesia is to pray the Lord’s Prayer on a daily basis. It is at the heart of our life as followers of Jesus, and of our life together, as the Body of Christ. It is not an easy prayer to live, but our familiarity with it can prevent us from hearing just how radical a prayer it is. The goal is to pray it not just on our lips, but with our lives; to do so is to be invited to a life of transformation and to become more fully alive in Christ.

Whatever else it means, the prayer our Lord taught us is about being open to the reality of God’s presence here and now. Most of us are more familiar with the way Matthew remembered it, but today we get Luke's recollection which is even more succinct. It begins by recognizing God’s otherness; God’s holiness. We are beloved creatures of God, but we are not God. Only God is God. So we begin by praying that God’s name be hallowed (made holy.)

And then we pray for the Kingdom of God to come into our midst: here and now. And for us to have eyes to see when it does. Wherever there is mercy, compassion, and hope there are seeds of God's Reign among us - and our work begins by noticing. 

We pray for daily bread. Not for security, but for sustenance. For enough to live this day because that’s really all we get is “one day at a time.”

And we pray that forgiveness might become a healing circle in our lives that brings together love of God and of neighbor, and with it new Easter life. It’s not a one-way thing. As forgiven people, we are empowered to forgive others. And as people who forgive others we are able (by the grace of God) to more fully accept God’s forgiveness of us. The forgiven are called to become forgivers. The forgivers are called to recognize that God’s love includes us too. That opens us up to be agents of reconciliation in a world where that is a desperate need.

There are two images that we heard in today’s gospel reading that go along with the Lord’s Prayer. One is about a person who goes to his friend’s house at midnight. His friend is in bed already but he is there because the cupboard is bare and another friend, a guest has arrived. The word companion comes from two Latin words that literally mean “to bread with.” A friend is one with whom we break bread; or share pizza and a beer with, or coffee and a donut, or cake and ice-cream. We break bread with those we care for and if we have nothing in the fridge then we need to knock on our neighbor’s door and borrow something so we can set the table. 

But as followers of Jesus we also look for opportunities “for strangers to become friends” – as Brian Wren’s great Eucharistic hymn puts it. When we sit down to share a meal with someone, even someone who has hurt us or whom we have hurt, or someone who has misunderstood us or whom we have misunderstood – there is potential for new life, by the grace of God, when we companion with them. If there is someone in your life that you need to reconnect with in this way, perhaps the prayerful response to this sermon today will be to be in touch with them and make a lunch date.

The other image Jesus uses is of parent-child. The vast majority of parents want what is best for their kids.. So if the kid asks for fish we give them a fish, not a snake. If they want scrambled eggs we don’t give them liver and onions. Now what is not said here, but is clearly implied for anyone who has been a parent is that sometimes the answer is no. Candy apples and cotton candy and ice cream all need to be consumed in smaller doses than healthy foods. But underlying this image is the fundamental point: that God cares for us like a loving mom or dad. God desires our well-being. God gives when we ask.

Prayer is not about negotiating with God or trying to manipulate or bribe God. Nor is it about claiming God for our partisan, narrow points of view. I heard a "prayer" at the Republican National Convention this week that appalled and shocked me. Now don’t worry, While I have plenty of opinions about what I heard this week in Cleveland I know this isn't the time or place to go into all of that. But a prayer from a person who purports to be a Christian that says that the other major party in this nation are “the enemy” is very dangerous, and my argument with it is not partisan; it's theological. To claim that we are one conservative nation under God and that Democrats are "the enemy" has nothing to do with Jesus, and is in fact a good example of idolatry. And I'd say the very same thing of a prayer that reversed the pronouns if one comes out of Philadelphia this week. (See also this post.)

God is not on “our side” – the side of "liberals" or "conservatives." God is not on our side as Americans, because we worship a God of all the nations. God is not even on the side of Christians; our own Scriptures tell us that God created of one blood all the peoples of the earth and that Jews and Christians and Muslims are "cousins" who all call Abraham our "Father." All the way to the end of the Bible this holds true. There, in the Book of Revelation the seer on Patmos imagines people from every tribe and language and people and nation singing Holy Holy Holy. 

We are one. God is always bigger than our divisions and prayer is meant to lead us toward that truth, not shrink God down to our own biases. And so we pray that we might be open and humble enough to see God in those we differ from, not condemn those we don’t like as “God’s enemies.”

In addition to today’s gospel reading, I want to call your attention today to the sixth verse of the second chapter of Colossians, which may be just as important a teaching on prayer as today’s gospel. It goes like this:

“As therefore you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”

These words encapsulate the whole of the Christian life and the heart of what prayer is about as a response to God’s goodness and grace. The right response to such a gift is gratitude – thanksgiving. As the thirteenth-century German mystic, Meister Eckhart, once put it, “if the only prayer you ever say is thank you, it would be enough.”

We are so accustomed to consumerism that we are tempted to treat this gift as a commodity. So we receive Jesus as we might a new car or a winning lottery ticket. And then we may want to try to sell him to others. Or hold onto him as our own. But on our best days we know that this gift of Jesus is different. The gift of love—love divine, all loves excelling—is not a commodity. It’s not to be parsed out.

I had a parishioner when I was a young priest in Holden who used to say this in my early days in Holden – that to love the new rector (in that case, me!) wasn’t a betrayal of the former rector. That love didn’t work like that. That there was enough. Anyone who has been a parent and had more than one child knows precisely how this works. You have that first child and you think you could not possibly love anyone or anything more. And then a second comes along and you love that child fully as well, without conditions. We get that, even if we live it imperfectly. But God’s love overflows for each and every one of us – liberal and moderate and conservative, young and adult, black and white and all the shades in between.

There is enough love.

The word “Eucharist” means thanksgiving in Greek. It is at the core of our life in Christ. So we gather here each week to say “thanks be to God”—for our lives, for these lives, and this bread, and for this cup, and for this moment, and for this day. Faith like that requires intentionality. We gather here not because of guilt or to satisfy an obligation but so that we can bear with one another and support one another and love one another. That is the faith we have been given. We enter into that process of transformation by opening ourselves to God and neighbor and the heart of that is what we call prayer: with or without words, on our knees or standing tall, in our thoughts and in our actions.

When we abound in thanksgiving we cultivate generosity, until we ourselves become givers, as God is a Giver. We give of our time, talents, and treasure. We don’t say with false humility, “I have nothing to give, I am worthless.” That is to deny what God has done and desires to do through us. If we trust the God who has made us in God’s own image, then we know that God doesn’t make junk. So we give thanks for the gifts we do have and try to discern how best to share them with the world. I think all of us know this in our bones because it is how we are made. And yet most (if not all) of us suffer from various degrees of amnesia from time to time. And so we gather here week after week to remember.

Preaching about prayer is perhaps the theological equivalent of apple pie or motherhood: everyone is for it, even when we aren’t always sure what it is. But my hope today is that you will continue to pray as you welcome a new priest into your midst. She’s a great person. But she’s a human being. There will be challenges as there are in every human relationship. But let this relationship be undergirded by prayer. I encourage you to pray for your new priest and her family every day and start with gratitude. Begin with thanksgiving.

But also be prepared along the way to move through this relationship one day at a time, and to forgive, and to love. In so doing I think you will be drawn closer to the love of God and then more faithfully able to share it with one another, and beyond these walls. To be a good neighbor in this neighborhood. To let the light shine from this hill for the neighbors to see.  

Notice in today’s gospel reading that the disciples assume that praying is something that needs to be learned. It is not automatic. It is not an innate skill we are born with. The disciples see Jesus praying and they ask him to teach them how to pray. We too, need teachers along the way, and over time our prayer lives will develop and change. Aileen will have some things to teach you but like all good teachers she’ll also have some things to learn from you. What a great gift!  

It has been my joy to share a little bit of the journey with all of you – through the time of saying goodbye to Molly and into this new time of getting ready to welcome Aileen. This is a great congregation and I trust that you will continue to grow in grace and love, to grow more and  more into the full stature of Christ. Remember to pray, by thought and by deeds, with or without words. Remember it is all done, with God’s help, and one day at a time.


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Nothing New Under the Sun

"What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; 
there is nothing new under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Lately I've been hearing a lot of people say how bad the world is; I've probably even said it myself. And things are bad, for sure. But without any sense of history, we can make it almost apocalyptic- bad. Like we are living in the end times. Like human beings have never before faced the kind of challenges we now face.

And my sense is that not only is this not true, but it paralyzes us. We don't look to history to learn anything - what do they know, anyway? The world was Ozzy and Harriet until now and now it's all coming unglued. Everybody panic!

As soon as we say it this way, however, I think most of us realize that isn't so. And that is why my prayers keep bringing me back to that old line from Ecclesiastes, a too-often neglected Biblical text in which I find much wisdom. There is nothing new under the sun. 

If that's right, then it changes the work that we are given to do at this unique moment in time. It invites us to look for patterns and lessons; good decisions and bad ones. To learn from our past failures and successes. To look for moments when leadership was exerted and when leaders failed. It puts us in touch with memory and imagination - into our collective neo-cortex where we can discuss what is possible, rather than retreating in fear.

Our nation is just about 240 years old. Civilization(s) are a lot older than that and the planet is older still. We do well, I think, to take the long view. Even in western civilization, we might reflect on the decline of the Roman empire. Or the dark ages. Again, note that I'm not in denial about the fact that the world is a mess. Only that we might learn something from times when it was a mess before...

But sticking with our own North American context, I think of two times in our history that may be a bit like what we are experiencing now.

One is the Civil War. As divided as we are today - and we definitely are divided - we may not be quite as divided as we were in the middle of the nineteenth century. Again, don't misunderstand me - my point is NOT to minimize the challenges we face right now. We may yet end up in another civil war; I don't know. But the point is that the nation has not been singing Kumbaya for 240 years and then all of a sudden we find ourselves a mess. So what can we learn from Lincoln, and from those who followed him in the aftermath of that terrible war?

In truth it seems to me that this nation's original sin is indeed racism and by choosing to not deal with that question fully at the founding of this nation, things came to a head in the middle of the nineteenth century and a country divided almost did not remain standing. In the aftermath of that war I'm sure there was just a desire to "get on with things." But of course the Emancipation Proclamation didn't bring about racial reconciliation.

And so the other time that I think is similar to the one we are living in is 1968. Also an election year. Humphrey and Nixon and Wallace all had different visions for the future, in the aftermath of the assassinations of John and Martin and Bobby. Opposition to the Vietnam War was growing. It was not a simple time in America. I was only five; while I was technically there, I have no first-hand memory. But Google it. The world was a mess!

America has always been a work-in-progress. America has been an experiment. I don't yet know if Cleveland (or Philadelphia) in 2016 will resemble Chicago in 1968. And I don't know if this post has a point - or a conclusion - which is why it may be the first in a series and/or is definitely a "rumination." But I guess what I think is that if we can see some patterns then we can better understand what it is we need to deal with. Moreover, for people in my line of work and many readers of this blog, we can also ask "what is the work of the Christian community given these challenges that we face?"

For me it helps to let go of a kind of innocent nostalgia and/or idealism to focus on the challenges of our day. It also leads me to pray with those who have gone before us and fought the good fight, all the way to November and beyond:
Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges: Guide the people of the United State in the election of officials and representatives, that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen. (BCP 822)

Monday, July 11, 2016

Look for the Helpers

I'm sure that many readers of this blog have seen the video clip above before, or read it somewhere. Fred Rogers invited us, in the aftermath of tragedies, to "look for the helpers."  I've taken that to heart this week, after the tragedies last week in Baton Rouge, and in Falcon Heights, and in Dallas. I'm sure there are lots of helpers out there but I want to call attention to three of them who have captured my heart and imagination, and who are in my prayers this week.

First is Dallas Police Chief, David Brown. His compelling story, his courage, his leadership this week have inspired me. I am also reminded that leadership at a national level is so very difficult, especially in polarizing times. So is local leadership. But in cities and towns like Dallas and Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights and Worcester, people can come face-to-face. Pastors and police chiefs and mayors can make a difference. A police department cannot become "color blind" in this nation that has inherited so much racism. But a police department can work at becoming better. Would that we could find and raise up more of them like David Brown. If we can, then we will be alright as a nation.

Second is Bishop T.D. Jakes, Pastor of The Potter's House Mega-Church in Dallas. Now I'm not a big megachurch guy and I really don't know much about Jakes' theology. But I admire him for turning Sunday worship into a forum on race. I admire him for using his position to create space for conversation. In the Episcopal Church that I love, most of the clergy I know (including me) preached in one way or another this weekend about the events of the past week. And we prayed for the victims. But we preachers need to do more than talk and pray. We especially need to listen. But we also need to act. We need to find creative ways to use the authority we do have - inside and outside of our church buildings - to bring people together. So I see Jakes as one of the helpers this week.

And third, Dr. Brian Williams, a trauma surgeon at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. Watch his interview on the link above - very powerful. He spoke with passion about his care for the police officers who came into his unit and his frustration at not being able to save them. But he also spoke poignantly about his own experience as a black man in America, and how he is often afraid of police when he's not in his own uniform at work. He spoke as a peacemaker - as a truth-teller - as a helper.

I am going to keep looking for the helpers and encourage readers of this blog to do the same - and to share your stories as you come across them. And then, by God's grace, to find ways to be helpers wherever you may find yourself, to be agents of healing and reconciliation in a broken world.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Compassionate Samaritan

This weekend I am serving at Grace Church in Oxford. The gospel reading is Luke 10:25-37.
Normally I post sermon manuscripts after I've preached the sermon, because preaching them always changes them a bit (and also helps me catch typos!) But today I'm making an exception to that practice and posting these "ruminations" before the services tonight and tomorrow morning at Grace.

As many of you here at Grace already know, my name is Rich Simpson and I serve as a member of Bishop Fisher’s staff. I’ve had a chance to be with you on numerous occasions in the past few years including, most recently, Father Al’s retirement service. One of my areas of responsibility in this diocese includes working with congregations facing clergy transitions. So that is why I’m here with you today.

Among other things, I’m here to tell you that we are about to embark on a journey and to ask you to not to be afraid. To ask you to pray hard and to put your trust in God. To ask you to be the Church. I know that you’ve not had much experience with transitions here over the past fifty years or so. So there may be lots of questions – which I’ll be happy to respond to when we meet after the liturgy today.

I was planning to give you my standard sermon today: to remind you that God is God and that God is not finished with you yet, and that with all due respect to Father Al, God was God before and still and forever. And Grace Church was here before Fr. Al and so far, at least, you are still here. So it is now time to write a new chapter. And that work is not the bishop’s work and it’s not my work as canon and it’s not the work of the priests who may be here along the way, or the wardens or the vestry. It’s work for all of you as the people of God. It’s work that requires all hands on deck, not a time to play “wait and see.”

Usually that sermon takes me about twelve to fifteen minutes to deliver. But in a nutshell that’s it. And that’s all I’m going to say about that, for now, because we can talk more after worship about this congregation’s transition.

But today I don’t think that’s the most important thing for us to talk about in this part of the liturgy – this time when we reflect on God’s word and the world around us and ask “what does the Lord require of us?” It’s important for us to remember today what has happened this week to Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on Tuesday and to Philandro Castille in Falcon Heights, Minnesota on Wednesday night and to the five police officers killed on Thursday night in Dallas, Texas: Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens.

It’s been a really rough week in this nation, and this on the heels of terror attacks around the globe, including Orlando, Florida. We feel numb, and angry, and confused, and sad, and polarized as a nation. Our hope is threatened and we are in danger of losing our faith in a brighter tomorrow. But for right now, I just want to remind you to focus on Alton and Philandro and Brent and Patrick and Michael and Michael and Lorne. All of their friends and family grieve and all of us here grieve for all of them. Michael Krol graduated from Longmeadow High School, minutes from our cathedral. But all of them went to high schools where they had classmates who loved them. Regardless of the color of their skin, whether they wore a blue uniform to work or a white one to cook for little kids, we grieve their deaths here, and now. They are all our brothers. And of them have been taken from us too soon, because of the violence of this world. We pray for the repose of their souls. But we must also ask ourselves, as the Body of Christ, an age-old question: who is my neighbor?

Today’s gospel reading is very familiar, but it really does bear a closer look today. Because context matters. It’s a radical, dangerous, hopeful story – the kind of story that will eventually get the story-teller killed. But even death cannot silence the man, or the stories he told.

This is Jesus of Nazareth’s story, told to Jewish people like himself, Jewish people for whom the term “good Samaritan” would have been an oxymoron. Because the Samaritans were feared and mistrusted and the feelings went in both directions. To hear the parable properly, then, we need to try to put ourselves in the place of those who first heard it, people who would have scratched their heads at the idea of a “good Samaritan.”  

So if we want to truly understand the story in today’s world, then we might imagine Jesus speaking in his native land to Jewish settlers on the West Bank, and the hero of the story he is about to tell is a Palestinian Muslim who shows mercy and compassion. And the beauty of the story is that it can just as easily be reversed: he could be talking with Palestinian Christians in East Jerusalem, and tell the story in such a way that it’s an Israeli soldier who shows mercy and compassion.

Notice that the lawyer who is testing Jesus is asking a question perhaps some of you have asked. How far does love have to go? How far must it extend for me to consider myself a good person? Does it have to include my ex-spouse? My gay or lesbian or transgender grandchild? The Mexican family that just moved next door? How far? Muslim immigrants?

But Jesus has a knack of turning tables on us. He does this a lot and he does it here, to this lawyer. And to us. He asks the lawyer not to try to imagine how good he can be – how far he is willing to extend neighborly love—but rather, how vulnerable he can imagine himself and to picture himself lying in a ditch on the side of the road, nearly dead, and in need of a good neighbor. And to ask how he would be changed if the person who showed him compassion and mercy was someone he feared and mistrusted and even despised. To ask how that experience of love would rock his world.

So let’s make this real and move from preaching to meddling. You are on Route 395 and it's 2 am and your car is run off the road by a truck in the pouring rain, and you sustain some injuries, and your cell phone is dead. You are in trouble. And you are in and out of consciousness. But you do see one or two cars with The Episcopal Church Welcomes You bumper stickers on them and you pray that they will stop. Your own people. Maybe even someone from Grace Church. But it’s dark and it’s raining and they don’t even slow down. And you see a few cars that say things like Jesus Saves, your own people, even if not your own tribe – even if they worship at one of those non-denominational-we-never-use-the-word-mass congregations. But it doesn’t matter where they worship, or what their theology is. They keep on going. And then an immigrant from Africa, someone who works at one of the Worcester Nursing Homes as an aide and speaks little English, stops to help. And as she comes closer to you, you notice she is wearing a hijab. She acts like a neighbor to you.

Or since it seems to be the season, let’s imagine you have a Hillary bumper sticker on your car – or a Bernie sticker. And the guy who comes walking up to your car to help has a red hat on that says, “Make America Great Again.” He stops to help. And to be very clear, the story works equally well in the reverse, which is why it is so beautiful, and so dangerous, and so full of potential to change our hearts if we let it. Because if you are a Trump supporter the way I just told the story just makes you feel right and justified and the point of the story is to make us feel mercy and compassion, so you have to reverse the story to get it: then it is you, with the Make America Great bumper sticker on your car, and the person who stops and helps you has a tee-shirt on that says “I’m with Hillary” and speaks with a foreign accent.

It works in both directions because it’s about challenging our fears and inviting us to imagine a more merciful and compassionate neighborhood. So the guy in the car could be an off-duty cop, third generation Irish guy and the “good Samaritan” is a Black Lives Matter guy. Or. The. Reverse.

You know your own prejudices. I’m just a guest here so I don’t. But I served a parish for fifteen years where I knew people’s politics, I saw their Facebook posts during the week and I saw the bumper stickers on their cars on Sunday mornings. People had strong opinions in Holden, on the right and on the left. In one sense I would say we leave that at the door when we come to church. But in another sense when we do that we domesticate this and other parables and Jesus. We pretend these things don’t matter or that we are color-blind or that we don’t have any prejudices. And that’s just not true.

So to allow this story to go to the heart, we have to insert our own “un-neighbor” for the word “Samaritan.” And then you begin to see that it is a story that challenges us all in our pain and our fear and our desire to build enclaves of people like us – even sometimes congregations like that. Jesus will have none of that, however.

The sign outside of this Church says that all are welcome here, and I believe you. But it’s really hard to live that in these polarized times. Only time will tell if that was really Father Al’s thing or if it is something you all own as your own core value. But if you do own it, then you must find ways to not only speak these words on your lips but to live them in your lives, in a world that desperately needs signs of Grace.

Our grief can tear us apart – and an eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind. We seem to be living in an endless cycle of violence. Jesus shows us the way to end that cycle – by imagining the one we fear as neighbor. And by insisting you can love both black people and cops; you don’t have to choose one side. We are one. We are not the same, but we are one. And we get to carry each other.

Jesus says that the whole of Biblical faith is about just two things: love of God and love of neighbor. But it is always those two things, not just one. Because you can’t say you love God whom you do not see, and then speak ill of your neighbor.

Yeah, but who is my neighbor? The answer is, "the one who shows compassion and mercy." Go, then, and do likewise. Let us pray:
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.