Thursday, September 29, 2022

The Moral of the Story: A Sermon for the 16th Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 21C

 I always find it helpful when I encounter a passage in Scripture for which I know I have already done exegetical research. And it was a joy to re-read that exegesis paper that I labored over in my junior year in seminary. I found some pretty good bits of information! 

And here I am... four years later... preaching on Lazarus and the "certain rich man." 

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Texts: 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16: 19-31

Prayer: May the One who makes peace in the High Heavens make peace for us on Earth. Amen. (Mishkan T’Filah, 219)


Last week… I couldn’t wrap my mind around the Gospel with the parable about the dishonest manager.

This week… we have a Gospel lesson that has a very direct and powerful message.

Our Epistle that hammers home the main point of the Gospel.

Did you hear Paul say, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains”? (1 Timothy 6:10)

We even have a song that Avery and our musicians will be playing a little later in the service just in case you missed the memo from Jesus.

And in case you DID miss the message… it was previewed in that difficult Gospel message of last week when Jesus said, “You cannot serve God AND wealth” (16:13c).

And if we choose wealth over God… a great chasm will be fixed between us and God and there is no crossing back.

That’s a harsh message for those with privilege and power to hear.

It is a balm…like that balm in Gilead… to those who are the “have-nots.”

There are… in fact… several chasms fixed in this Gospel reading that have resonance with us today.

The obvious one is between this “certain rich man” and Lazarus.

The distance between them begins with the rich man lacking a name.

Now in some quarters he is called “Dives” (DIE-vess). Scholars picked that up from the Latin Vulgate of the Bible… but it is doubtful that was his name.

Jesus does give the poor man a name: Lazarus, which translates to “God helps.”

Neither of these two men are real; they’re characters in the morality play that Jesus is presenting in Luke’s Gospel.

Morality plays… especially ones like this were very common in the First Century. The original hearers of this gospel would’ve been used to these stories.

Ancient Rome was a highly stratified society. Biblical scholar Luke Johnson notes that these weren’t closed ranks, and there was always the possibility of upward and downward mobility. But there was classism, nonetheless.

And much like our late-night comics of today… the Greco-Roman satirists would go to town writing plays that made fun of the people with newly acquired wealth who would have lavish banquets for themselves and flaunt their riches for all the world to see.

So that’s what we have happening in this drama with the certain rich man and Lazarus.

There’s the great chasm of wealth… as illustrated through the rich man’s sumptuous eating… and his purple clothing… which likely comes with matching silk stockings.

Meanwhile…Lazarus has oozing sores all over his body…and probably little clothing to cover them. He eats whatever scraps he can get from the rich man’s table… not much better than the dogs who lick his broken skin.

There’s the physical barrier between them: the rich man lived in a gated community. People kept bringing poor Lazarus to the edge of this man’s property… but there was a gate fixed between them….probably for safety concerns… doncha know.

Gates and fences help to keep the riff raff out.

Even when they die…there was an ever-widening gulf between them. The rich man received a proper Jewish burial.

Lazarus wasted away by that closed gate.

And now the chasm expands as the roles reverse.

The angels whisk Lazarus off to be in the bosom of Abraham… while the rich man lands on the hot seat in Hades… enduring a perpetual South Georgia in late July existence.

I’m pretty sure they have gnats in Hell. And no shade.

We can almost hear Mother Mary lifting her voice in the words of the Magnificat:

“He has cast down the mighty from their thrones

And has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things

And the rich he has sent away empty.”

 

There’s no mistaking the moral of the story… at least to this point: those with plenty have a special obligation to look out for the people at the gate who have nothing. Abraham has noted the great distance between where Lazarus sits and where the rich man will spend eternity. And if the play stopped there… it would be a sufficient ending to this drama.

But sadly… it doesn’t end there.

Even in death… the rich man dares to call upon Abraham.

“I’m so thirsty… make Lazarus give me a drink. Tell him to go talk to my brothers!”

This is the tragic turn in this drama.

The other day, Isabelle and I were talking about the state of affairs in the country.

The level of cynicism infecting our political leaders is astounding.

And that led us to talk about the story of the Exodus and how each time Moses went to Pharaoh to ask for better treatment of the Israelites… Pharaoh hardened his heart… until finally at the end it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart.

When Pharaoh was doing the hardening, there was still a possibility for the Egyptian leader to change his mind… see the disasters happening to his people… have a little compassion for the Israelites.

Once God did the hardening… the chasm had been fixed between Egypt and Israel.

And the Israelites… despite all their fears… and kvetching and complaining to Moses… had to get out of Egypt.

They couldn’t trust Pharaoh would help them.

They had to place their trust that God was leading them out of there.

Israel gets deliverance from oppression… and Pharoah’s army drowns.

All because Pharaoh’s heart is hardened so many times to the point of being impenetrable.

It’s clear from our drama of the rich man and Lazarus that the heart of a certain rich man has also become so hard that not even death and an eternal life sentence in Hades has turned him around.

What a sad story that is.

I think that beyond a simple morality play about the how rich should behave toward the poor… this unrepentant and extremely hard heartedness is an even more pressing lesson for us as individuals and as a nation.

If we allow our hearts to harden… and our eyes to see only our own image…if we isolate and gate ourselves off from others… we’re creating a chasm not only between ourselves and other people… but ourselves and God.

If anyone has caught the latest Ken Burns documentary series on PBS about the Holocaust… we can see the ways in which when our nation hardens its heart… the results are disastrous and can leave scars that last for generations.

I’ve only seen one of the three episodes. But episode one showed how our country once welcomed immigrants.

But then we followed the pseudo-science of eugenics.

We created categories of people based upon their skin color… national origin… their languages.

Our hearts hardened through punitive immigration policies that not only hurt the Jewish people attempting to escape the terror being unleashed on them in Europe in the 1930s… it fed the Nazi narrative that nobody wanted the Jews…emboldening Hitler in his extermination plan.

We still struggle today with who we are going to be as a country.

We say we welcome people.

So many around the world see us and know us as the land of the free…the ones who give shelter to those fleeing repressive governments.

But then what happens when they arrive?

The last lines of the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty… written by another Lazarus… Emma Lazarus…

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

 

Those words could very easily have been written by Jesus.

Or an expansion on the words of Father Abraham looking down at the rich man with his stone-cold heart sitting in Hades.

We have the choice now to act and live now into the mission of Jesus:

Bring good news to the poor.

Proclaim release to the captives.

Recover the sight of the blind.

Let the oppressed go free. (4:18)

This is the task Jesus has laid before us: keep working for and pursuing those ways to close the gaps between us so everyone is able to breathe free.

In the name of God… F/S/HS.

 

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Stop. Listen. Pray. Seek: A Sermon for 15C Sunday After Pentecost

 This past Sunday, September 18th, we celebrated the 40th Anniversary of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. In that time, the church has seen many members come and go. And there have been more than ten priests in that time. We planned a celebration at our outside altar, and we were blessed with a sunny albeit very warm day. I was pleased to get to meet one of the original founders of the church. 

That was the communal life. 

On a personal level, I was deeply saddened by the death of a young friend's boyfriend in a sudden and terrible way. An undetected tumor in the brain took Brandon's life before he was 30. This at the same time that Queen Elizabeth II of England died. I am not a big Royal watcher, but there was something about the way QE II comported herself that made her one of the few world leaders who seemed to remain steady even if everything was chaos around her. 

The Sunday readings lent themselves better to mourning than celebrating. And yet I know that part of my role as a preacher is to not just talk to or about myself. And I needed to give something hopeful especially if we were going to have a party afterward. 

And so... here is where I went...

Text: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

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Have you ever played a game of cards—any card game—and looked down at your hand and thought, “Ugh!”?

No pairs, no aces, or face cards. Even if you get to discard one or two the likelihood of getting a winning hand is pretty slim.

That’s a little bit how I felt when I looked at our lectionary readings for today.

On this day… this day of joy and celebration of our parish… the hand dealt to us from the lectionary doesn’t make me wanna yell, “Joy!” but “Oy!”

Jeremiah is weeping.

The psalmist is decrying heathens in the temple.

Timothy urges us to pray—that’s a good thing.

And our Gospel is the confounding parable of the dishonest manager.

Now…normally…I’d work hard to unpack the Gospel.

But honestly of all these readings…

I found myself returning to the sadness and sorrow of Jeremiah’s poem.

Even on such a day as this anniversary… it’s as if Jeremiah is tugging at us and saying… “Yes, and…what about me?’

These words of our First Lesson seem to have Jeremiah standing in that awkward space occupied by the prophets.

They speak to and for the people as well as speaking to and for God.

It’s hard to know exactly which side Jeremiah is representing in this passage.

That’s typical of the whole book of Jeremiah. It’s the story of a traumatized people. And trauma… like grief… is not a linear experience.

What we do know about this reading is that there is deep lament.

This is a poem for anyone who has ever felt deserted… that God has exited the building… gone off on a coffee break… and left them comfortless. 

Death seems to be everywhere. The trap door has opened under their feet, and no one is there to stop the free fall.

This is also a poem reflecting upon a God who is in deep sorrow.

It might be hard for us to imagine God expressing such a human emotion.

But the God of Jeremiah is one who is as intimately involved with humanity. 

This is the God who knew the prophet “even before he was in the womb” (1:5). As the Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel notes:

“God does not stand aloof from our cries; God (lifted up in the Bible) is…a power and a life in response (to us), not a soliloquy.” (Heschel, God in Search of Man, 238.)

 

While the people may think God has abandoned them, God is pouring out fountains of tears and wondering, “What has happened? Why do you not search for me?”

And then both parties have that same rhetorical question for each other:

Is there a balm in Gilead?

Is there that balm that can heal the brokenness, this fracture that exists causing one to feel abandoned and the other to weep at being forgotten?

This seems an especially important question for the times we are living in now.

I can’t imagine the trauma of escaping oppression and violence in my home country…traveling hundreds of miles on the promises of asylum…and instead of getting help…I get shipped off to a tiny island off the New England coast.

I cry when I look at Ukraine and think about what it must be to live in a sovereign country which suddenly finds itself invaded and lured into an unprovoked war.

I was watching the evening news the other night and there was an interview with a Ukrainian woman. She was relieved to have her city reclaimed by the Ukrainian military after the Russian occupation for the past several months. She said her ex-husband had been part of the fighting… as a Ukrainian supporter of Russia. And the translator relayed that she said this man is now “dead to her.”

Now clearly…their relationship was already on the rocks. But that level of betrayal and distrust—“he’s dead to me”-- reminded me so many friends that I have heard about in the past year… even from some members of this congregation.

I’ve heard the heartache about families splitting apart and not talking to each other because of politics or mask mandates…or what gets taught in public schools. In the same way that churches can be sources of deep wounds… family feuds are extremely painful.

Our differences of opinions have become walls that we erect between “us” and “them”…whoever “them” is at the moment.

It’s what drives us into media silos where we only listen to the repeated echoes of what we want to hear and believe.

The onslaught of misinformation has led otherwise reasonable people to harden their hearts…sometimes to the point of taking unreasonable... and even violent…actions.

It’s interesting to note that a few verses later in this Jeremiah reading, we hear God wailing:

“They bend their tongues like bows,

They have grown strong in the land for falsehood, and not for truth.”

Is there a balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?

Sometimes, I have to wonder how do we answer that rhetorical question?

Maybe the best way is to stop.

Listen.

Pray.

Seek.

Stop thrashing about…running an endless loop of scenarios in our heads.

Listen closely for that still small voice that has been speaking to each of us before we were in the womb.

Hear it speak your name on the breeze… through a song… or in a moment of silence.

Pray for guidance… for the courage to listen closely… and for the strength it takes to be vulnerable… and not allow the ego to assert itself to be “in control.”

Seek that wisdom… that “perfect Love that casts out fear” (1 John 4:18)…and open ourselves to that understanding which leads to life and the liberation of the spirit…and helps us to see clearly and respond to what is happening around us.

I think then we are more able to do these things we can begin to experience what it is to made whole.

For us… wholeness comes through the love of Jesus…a man who kept pointing us back to God.

The consistent and constant messages we’ve been hearing in our Gospels:

“Don’t serve wealth. Serve God.”

“Don’t act as if you’ve got it all together; lean on God for help.”

“Seek God and find life!”

This is the love which binds up wounds and brings us into relationship with God and each other.

This is the love we connect to each time we come to this table and receive the Eucharist.

In the receiving…we bring that love into our bodies for the renewal we need to be the church… or to look back at this Jeremiah reading… it prepares us to be “the physicians”… before we go back out into the clinics of our jobs and our communities.

The ministries we are fostering here at St. Barnabas…whether it is feeding the hungry… creating intercessions that reflect more specific intentions of this community in our prayers…or doing book studies of difficult questions… those are all the makings of the balm that we offer to our friends and neighbors.

Our collect for today… which also serves as a daily prayer for this week… reminds us not to remain anxious about earthly things that are passing away… and to remember the things that endure.

If we stop, listen, pray, seek, we will have the resources to stay calm amidst the chaos of the world.

Maybe then we can say, “Yes. There is a balm in Gilead that heals the sin-sick soul.”

In the name of God… F/S/HS.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

Monday, September 12, 2022

Listen and Learn: A Sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost

 

Sometimes, what you think you'll be preaching about ends up not coming to fruition. I had brought 
the parable of the lost sheep to our vestry meeting for Bible study a few weeks ago. I figured that discussion would help me to shape my sermon. But as I sat down to read commentaries and think through the passage, I became interested in the start of Luke 15 and who had responded to Jesus' command, "Those with ears to hear listen!" Based on some other conversations I'd been having with people both inside and outside of St. Barnabas, this seemed to be the thing that the Spirit was telling me: "Preach!" 

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Text: Luke 15:1-10

My dad had a lot of sayings.

He had been in the Navy during World War II so some of his words of wisdom came peppered with some colorful language.
But I remember one that he would use on me and my brothers when our mouths would get to moving a mile a minute… sometimes without thinking through what we were saying.
My dad would look over the top of his glasses at us and say, “Listen and you might learn something!”
Jesus has a variation on that one: “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” 
In fact… that’s exactly what Jesus has said right before the reading we just heard this morning.
“Let anyone with ears listen!”
As it turns out… we can see from the Gospel that there were some who responded to that command…
” Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near and listening to him.”
Hmmmm….
This is the start of another round of Jesus making what the late John Lewis would call “good trouble.”
The people who are coming closer to listen to Jesus are the undesirables. These tax collectors are Jews who’ve taken this job with the Roman Empire and have the task of going to their fellow Jews to get money for the Emperor.
And that’s who got the money: the Emperor to enrich the occupiers and oppressors of the Jewish people. This wasn’t like our modern tax system where what we pay helps keep the state and the country running.
Tax collectors were notorious for charging more to skim a profit off the top, so they made their wealth off the backs of their own people.
Needless to say…these weren’t the most beloved members of the Jewish community.
Another group is also listening…albeit from a distance…and not with the same…hmmm…enthusiasm.
Off in the corner… there are the Pharisees and the scribes grumbling and shaking their heads.
“Would you just LOOK at who he’s with now? This fellow… this Jesus… embraces sinners and eats with them.” (15:2).
The verb in our translation is that Jesus “welcomes” sinners but scholars note that the Greek indicates that it was an even stronger word…one which means “warmly embraces” them… making this even more scandalous scene.
In Psalm 1, the psalmist opens with:
“Happy are they who have NOT walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful.” (Ps.1:1).
Jesus is breaking the rules… and the Pharisees and scribes know what’s what in the rulebook.
They’re angry, irritated, and passing judgment.
And they’re listening.
So now that Jesus has everybody’s attention… he decides to present them some stories to get them… and us… thinking.
He actually gives three different “lost story” scenarios, but our lectionary diviners have kept us with the lost sheep and the lost coin parables. The third one in this section of the Gospel is the story of the Prodigal Son…which we already heard earlier this summer.
One thing to pick up on in this passage is how Jesus moves us away from seeing a strictly “male” God.
In the first story… God is a man… a shepherd with 100 sheep…so a pretty well-off shepherd.
In the second story… God is a woman… a housewife with ten silver coins.
To our ears… this may not sound like anything. But neither women nor shepherds were particularly powerful people in First Century Palestine.
Shepherds were outcasts. They were stinky men who weren’t allowed to testify in legal proceedings and such. We can probably see this shepherd as being like the despised tax collectors sitting beside Jesus.
Jesus tells the whole crowd a story of how God is like this wealthy shepherd who abandons 99 sheep in the wilderness to go find that one careless… good-for-nothing… A-D-H-D sheep that has gone off somewhere.
In the second instance… Jesus describes God as being like this housewife… who lost part of her two weeks’ worth of wages in between the floorboards or in the seat cushion in her house and stops doing all her work for her family to search for the blasted thing.
In both cases… God is extremely concerned about the one… and makes extraordinary efforts to find that one so it can be restored. Once found…there’s so much rejoicing…that God is running around to the neighbors’ homes and calling everyone out into the street to party and dance and rejoice because God found this one little lamb or one silver coin.
I can imagine these two sets of people listening to Jesus’ stories. And he’s looking at everyone and saying, “Isn’t that great?”
Well….hmmm…
When I was in massage school… I lived on a goat farm. Now goats and sheep are not the same… but they’re both animals. And while goats have an independent streak in them… sheep will tend to move in a flock.
In this scenario Jesus is presenting… God is so interested and cares so deeply for each one of us… that God will leave this flock of 99 sheep in the wilderness… unprotected… unsupervised… on their own… to go look for that one.
And—miracle of miracles—all those sheep are going to stay put?
No wolf is going to come and devour them?
This seems highly suspicious.
With ninety-nine of them… there would bound to have been a few that would have figured out that they’re unsupervised. After eating everything in front of them… they’d have likely  wandered away to find greener pastures.
One commentator… a Lutheran professor named Richard Swanson… says his uncle had a sheep farm. The uncle gets furious when he hears stories about God as the shepherd looking for the one lost sheep.
It’s so foolish and absurd for a shepherd to think that 99 sheep in the wilderness are just going to hang out and wait for the shepherd to come back… let alone be excited to see ol’ fickle Flopsy returned to the flock!
In that same vain… the housewife tearing up her house to look for one silver coin is outrageous. Nothing else is getting done while she peers under every piece of furniture and those depending on her are left wanting and waiting.
This disrupts the order of the household… and breaks the rules of good housekeeping.
And here’s Jesus saying:
Yes! This is the way of God. Rejoice!
This is the God who is crazy enough to put aside everything… go on a tear… bust through every obstacle to take the risk of searching for us.
It doesn’t matter what we’ve done…or where we’ve been… or who we’ve been hanging out with… God will keep searching for one of us.
And there is much rejoicing in the finding.
And how good it is to be found!
When we listen to God’s call, and feel ourselves immersed in the depth of God’s love for us, we can take that back out into the world.
It’s when we’ve listened and learned this way of God’s love that we’re ready to take on what ails our communities.
I think too many times we miss that call.
Too often…I think the tendency is to be more like the Pharisees and the scribes.
We know the rules. We know right practices.
We set up barriers.…
We keep telling ourselves that we must pass some sort of worthiness test… to be OK enough to receive that love of God.
We listen to the judgmental voices of those who are the self-appointed culture warriors deciding who gets to be part of the “clique of Christ.”
Somehow… we can’t see that in all these practices…we’re only pushing ourselves and others further away from Jesus.
It’s interesting that it’s those in the Gospel being the most judgmental and so sure of their own righteousness who are really the new lost ones so in need of being found.
If only they’d listen to Jesus calling to them.
Jesus’ mission was to keep bringing more and more people in closer… and embracing some of the least loveable characters. Showing them this God willing to up end order just to find them. That includes you and me.
The love of Jesus is life-giving and liberating. All those with ears to hear, listen!
In the name of God…F/S/HS.
 

 

 


Monday, September 5, 2022

Freedom from Possessing People: A Sermon for the 13th Sunday After Pentecost



How fun to have Philemon appear in the lectionary! While I do reference a sentence from the Gospel lesson, I enjoyed tackling something other than the Gospel to talk about in a sermon.  

Text: Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

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There’s a story that my mom and dad used to tell about my maternal grandmother.

It seems that whenever my parents were with her at her apartment, my Nana would inevitably have something that she would want my father do to for her. And she would always preface the request with, “Bud, if you would be a nice boy…” and then the ask… get something down from a top shelf, carry something from one room to the next.

And, of course, my dad would be “a nice boy” and do whatever it was that she wanted.

In a way, this letter from Paul to the wealthy, Hellenistic Christian named Philemon has a little bit of that, “if you would be a nice boy” tone to it.

I can hear in this letter…”Philemon, if you would be a nice boy, you’d release Onesimus… and allow the young man to live into his namesake… which means ‘useful’.”

There are some scholars who speculate that Paul is fawning over this slave owner, suggesting that he’s not “commanding” him to do the right thing, but rather “appealing to him in love.” I suppose fawning is one way to look at this letter, but I think Paul really is making a more sincere argument to this powerful and influential member of the Colossae (koh-LOSS-ee) society.

Let’s step back a second here and give some background on this letter.

First of all… fun fact: this is Paul’s shortest letter included in the Bible…roughly 335 words in Greek. We heard almost all of it this morning. The lectionary left off the last three verses where Paul asks Philemon to prepare a room for him upon his release… though it’s doubtful Paul ever made it to Philemon’s house.

And scholars believe Paul DID write this one.  

(Really… he wrote it, not a scribe.)

Other things that we DO know:

Paul is in prison… again… although it’s not clear which one.

The letter is addressed primarily to Philemon… and a couple of others. It appears that Philemon’s house was large enough to be one of the churches in Colossae, which was a city in what is today modern Turkey. So he was probably writing  to Philemon and the leaders of Philemon’s church.

And we know Philemon owned a slave named Onesimus (oh-NEE-see-mus).

It appears Onesimus has run away and taken some of Philemon’s property with him.

Somehow, Onesimus has ended up with Paul in whatever prison he's in… and Paul has converted him to Christianity.

Now the apostle is appealing to Philemon on Onesimus’ account.

This letter is by far… the most personal and heartfelt of all of Paul’s writings.

He’s attempting to broker a reconciliation and relationship between these two men…and he’s doing it as he himself sits in a prison cell.

Paul recognizes the delicate nature of this relationship… and he knows there is a high cost involved.

In the world of the First Century, for a man of such wealth and privilege as Philemon to grant freedom to a run away slave and forgive Onesimus the debt he owed his master would bring ridicule and shame on Philemon in his social circles. Forgiveness to such a bad actor?

Unthinkable!

Heck, even in our own society of the here and now… we argue over whether it’s right to forgive people their debts!

Onesimus also faces a cost.

There’s a risk in going back to Philemon…even with this letter from Paul in his hand.

Will Philemon listen to the appeal and see Onesimus not as a slave, but as a beloved brother in Christ… an actual kinfolk and not a stranger?

Will Philemon trust that Onesimus’ conversion to Christianity is real?

I can almost see these two being like the person in the Gospel story… weighing out the cost of their decisions the same way the builder of a tower does the calculations of the cost before starting construction.

That thought of “What do I have to gain or lose in this transaction?” weighs heavily on both of them, but most especially on Philemon.

If there’s going to be a peaceable resolution to their conflict, he’s the one who must give up the privilege and the need to possess Onesimus…and suffer whatever economic loss and social humiliation that might come his way.

And what I hear Paul saying to Philemon … in the most pastoral way possible is…

Yes…there’s a cost. That’s what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

And yet whatever price you think you’re paying among your friend circle, Philemon,  there’s a greater gain: a freedom and a liberty that is like nothing one can get from family or “things.”

It’s interesting that this letter…which seldom ever shows up in the lectionary… was one that got used by both sides during the heated debates over slavery in this country in the 19th century. Slave owners seemed to stay fixated on the idea that Paul never condemned the institution of slavery. And he did encourage Onesimus to return to his master Philemon.

What the slave owners failed to see was Paul’s emphasis on treating Onesimus as a beloved brother… a point not lost on abolitionists and freedom fighters.

So while Paul doesn’t outright slam the institution of slavery… I think we can see in this letter that he does have an unexpressed opinion when he talks so sweetly and kindly of Onesimus as a “brother” and that this brother represents “my own heart.”

This is a window into Paul’s ethics that are the same Jesus’ view on possessions.

When Jesus says at the end of our Gospel lesson, “None of you can be my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions,” (14:33) he’s not strictly speaking of your clothes or your books. He’s talking about those other possessions, those things we cling to in order to justify ourselves: our jealousies, our need to measure ourselves against another person, or put other people beneath us in order to feel important.

He’s talking about our ego.

The ego… that small self… which worries about the cost of losing privilege and status.

Maybe it’s because Paul is sitting in a prison cell and has lost his privilege that he’s now seeing a crack in a system where one person gets to possess another human being.

Maybe he’s spent some time listening to Onesimus’ story… and has come to recognize him as a brother and an equal in Christ… and wants Philemon to see that, too.

Paul challenges Philemon to see the light shining through that crack… trust the Holy Spirit… even if it means he loses face in the respectable society of Colossae.

That would seem to be the lesson we can take away from this for our own times.

To live out our lives as followers of Jesus means looking for those cracks in the systems in our society that create inequities…levels heavy debt and burdens.. and turn people into possessions.

Our job is to call attention to those things… and like Paul… encourage forgiveness and a remedy to the situation.

We are doing such good works when we address the needs of the hungry.

At the same time… we should step back… and ask ourselves what is keeping people in that place of need?

Are there food deserts in our city?

What are the obstacles that get in the way of people having enough food?

These are the questions that get back to what I said last week about “What is breaking God’s heart in our area and what can we do about it?”

Sometimes… it takes the willingness to accept the costs of the cross that comes with speaking up to those in places of power and privilege… and asking those questions.

Be bold enough to appeal to a leader’s duty to serve all people… and not just the people who can repay them with the nicest seat at the banquet table.

Encourage them to see the light shining through the cracks in the systems as a chance to make a change that lifts all people up.

To truly live into the prayer,“Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is heaven” may not make us popular and it does come with a cost. But it’s well worth the effort if it means we can all live free.

In the name of God… F/S/HS.

 


Monday, August 29, 2022

Who's First? A Sermon for 12th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17

 

I've tried to vary the way I start my sermons in the hope that people will listen more and respond. Today, I told a story on myself which was the flattering tale of when I did something unusual in an effort to make things in elementary school gym class fairer. 

Texts: Jeremiah 2:4-13; Luke 14: 1, 7-14

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Do y’all remember in elementary school… in gym class… when the activity of the day was some game involving two teams? 

The first thing that would happen is two kids would get picked by the teacher to be the team captains.

Next… the captains would stand in front of their classmates to select their team members.

This was always awkward.

The games were competitive.

They required the players to have skills or some kind of hand-eye co-ordination.

Possibly jump or throw a ball far.  

There were always those kids in the class who were natural jocks.

And then there were the kids who were not.

Of course… the captains wanted to craft a team that could crush the competition.

So the jocks were always the first ones picked… and once they’d been claimed for one team or another… the captains would hem and haw over which of the remaining ones they’d settle to have on their team.

Those last-to-be picked kids were always the same ones… just like the first-to-be picked were always the same ones.

No matter what scheme a teacher might use… such as needing to alternate your picks based on gender or whatever… things always fell out the same way.

The jocks always knew they’d be the first to go. They were so used to the pecking order and it was really just a case of which of them would be picked first.

They’d puff themselves up… look all tough and strong… and high five each other as they sized up the athletes on the opposing team.

They didn’t even bother to look at the weaker ones. They knew they weren’t going to be a problem.

Well…one day… at my school… this script got flipped.

I was selected to be a team captain.

I was one of those athletic kids… and so I was one who never had to worry about when I was going to be picked.

I was a girl who could throw and catch and dribble a basketball… do all the things that made me the first girl selected in one of these scenarios.

I stood in front of my classmates.

I carefully eyed the group.

And I called out the name of one of the other capable players in the class.

My opposing captain selected a similar well-coordinated competitor.

I picked my next capable teammate.

The tension was rising.

Which jock would go next?

My opponent selected a regular ringer from the group.

I looked at the kids still in front of us. The remaining athletic ones struck unconscious poses of cockiness.

The ones who were the always last-to-go’s didn’t make eye contact.

Something came over me.

 I called out a name:

“Wendy!”

Her head jerked up.

The look of shock was like a deer caught in the headlights. There were audible gasps from my teammates.

I smiled at her and she smiled back in disbelief as she excitedly and confidently walked over to my side of the gym.

My opposing captain took advantage of this clear blunder on my part and picked another of the stronger kids.

My teammates were anxiously telling me who to pick next.

There were still a couple of good athletes in the group.

“Scotty”

….a kid in thick glasses who couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn door even if you stood him right there in front of it.

Just like Wendy… when Scotty heard me call his name… he had the biggest grin on his face as he strutted past the athletes still waiting to be picked.

For the first time in their gym class experience… these “last to go” classmates didn’t have to wait until the end to be picked.

They had received the honor normally reserved for the stronger, faster, more coordinated ones.

I don’t remember what the game was or even if my team won or lost.

What I do remember is that for at least one time in my life… I broke the unwritten proper social order of gym class… and followed my deeper sense of what kindness and justice look like. 

And it gave some other kids a chance to feel what it was like to get picked early in the process instead of at the end.

Now… I don’t tell this story to say “Oh, what a good person I am.”

But it does speak to the underpinnings I hear in our Gospel lesson this morning.

As the Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes notes, we shouldn’t look at this story of Jesus at a Sabbath dinner talking about where to sit and who a host should invite to the table as Jesus giving some sort of a Miss Manners lesson.

What Jesus is doing is highlighting the ways in which God establishes the social and spiritual order of things….unlike our own.

Who gets picked first…who gets honored…is out of our control and there’s nothing we can do to influence it.

Dr. Townes says our self-centered desires to presume what our place is in that pecking order “is unwise and perhaps unfaithful.”

In the Gospel… Jesus observes the way that guests at this Sabbath dinner had presumed to know which was their seat at the table.

He uses a parable of a wedding banquet because… in First Century Palestine…at such occasions… there was an established order to the seating.

The male guest of honor… usually a man of great personal wealth…got to recline on the comfortable couch in the middle… and others took their places in accordance to their social status.

But as we’ve seen repeatedly with Jesus… the material wealth of the world means nothing to him.

What matters more to Jesus… our God incarnate… is how people treat one another and how we live and move and have our being in our day-to-day interactions.

We know from our reading from Jeremiah that this self-interest and wanting to be first… or just a little further ahead of somebody else… will trip us up… and can lead us into a ditch of disaster.

Even centuries before Jesus… the people of God keep looking over the fence at the greener grass on the other side.

They wanted to have status… be important… get picked first. They saw what was around them…and wanted to be like someone else.

The prophets such as Jeremiah continuously cautioned against all of this.

“Be yourselves! Be the people of God you’re God what’s you to be!”

But the ego… that fragile little self… can’t stand to not be first… at the front and center of all things.

Our egos tend to pull us away from staying in relationship with God and each other.

I was really struck by the line in the Jeremiah reading, “a nation has changed its gods even though they are no gods.”

There’s such a pull in human nature to seek satisfaction in possessions and power.

The better car… a bigger house… a job promotion.

Sure, they bring us happiness… and give us all the good feels in the moment.

But it’s fleeting.

The car will always need a new muffler… or (worse) the alternator goes bad.

Turns out that house with more square footage…and a  nicer lot… has a leak in the plumbing… or a hole in the roof when a tree limb falls.

The new job comes with more demands… or a supervisor who undermines your efforts.

The bump in pay… sadly… didn’t come with the aspirin needed to endure the new headaches.

The material things are just that: things.

They are the things that don’t endure… which is counter to God’s continual promise to be with us through thick or thin whether we know it… or not.

The pursuit of gaining status… without remaining grounded in Love… thinking that our possessions or our importance is the “true religion” that will somehow earn us some special recognition in the eyes of God… is just foolishness.

Gaining wealth and status at the expense of other people and the planet is not the way of God’s love.

That’s what Jeremiah was railing about on God’s behalf to the people of Israel.

I think that’s what Jesus was getting at in our Gospel story.

I hear Jesus telling us that we shouldn’t worry about keeping up with the Jones’; we should be worried about whether the Jones’ are doing OK today.

This is why something as simple as our monthly collection of non-perishable foods has been such a blessing to watch flourish and grow.

The Rev. Becky Rowell over in Frederica likes to ask the question, “What’s breaking God’s heart in our area and what can we do about it?”

I see these offerings of canned goods… soon to be bundled with other items… as our visible answer to that question.

Again… this community exhibits generosity in a time when the need for that is so great.

This may seem small… but even a little kindness can have a huge impact on the life of another person.

May we never lose sight of that.

In the name of God… F/S/HS.