Friday, September 22, 2017

One Perfect Moment

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew the 20th Chapter

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went
out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

My Master’s thesis was titled “Optimization of a Sherry Baking Process for Muscadine Grapes and a Feasibility Study for Sherry Baking Utilizing High-Temperature, Short-Time Technology.”  Basically I tried to see if you could make Sherry wine from native, North Carolina grapes.  It turns out it’s possible… technically.  Taste wise though, there’s a reason nobody does.  On the up side I learned a few things about wine making and that makes me wonder about today’s parable.  

You see, winemakers are generally an obsessed lot.  So, when it gets close to harvest time they go out in the vineyard almost every hour and take a sample, eat a few grapes and test them for sugar and acidity.  As the sun moves across the sky, as the dew dries, as the rain falls, as the day warms up or cools down, the grapes on the vine constantly change and then there is that ONE… PERFECT… MOMENT where everything is just right.  The trick to making great wine is to pick ALL your grapes in that ONE… PERFECT… MOMENT.  And, since the grapes keep changing as long as they are on the vine, when that moment comes, you’ve got to move FAST!  The land owner keeps going out to get more workers because THIS is that ONE… PERFECT… MOMENT.

He gets everyone he could find to start at 6 a.m.  They agree on one denarius for a 12 hour day, which was a living wage, but there aren’t enough workers.  So he goes out and grabs a second bunch and promises them whatever’s “right.”  Still, there aren’t enough people to so he sends others.  The grapes are still changing on the vine, you know!  There’s no time to talk about pay, THE ONE… PERFECT… MOMENT is slipping away!  He needs EVERYONE picking… even people hired at “the eleventh hour” could make all the difference if, with that last hour’s push, all those grapes can get into the crusher! 

And then the day’s done, the grapes are in the crusher and it’s time to dole out the cash!  Everyone gets a denarius.  The one hour workers open their pay envelopes, their eyes widen, but shockingly they don’t say, “Hey, you paid us too much!”  The twelve hour guys though, look in their envelope, and their eyes widen and they shout, HEY!  THAT’S NOT FAIR!  

The landowner however, they all soon learn, doesn’t care about “fair” and if they had been paying attention, he gave away his M.O. when he told the second group what he would do for them.  He said, “I’ll do for you what is RIGHT”… this landowner does what’s “right” not what’s “fair.”  So THAT’s what this parable teaches, right?  God is passionate about justice!  God cares about doing what’s RIGHT… generously giving us what we need, regardless of what the world says is “fair” or how things have always been done.  That’s a whole sermon right there and if life was “fair” I’d say “Amen” and we’d all sit down and get to coffee hour all that more quickly.  But life’s not fair and as good as justice is (and it’s REALLY GOOD), justice is only the tip of the iceberg in this parable.  You see, I think we miss something really important when we forget that this is a winemaker, and winemakers are an obsessed lot.  

So, take a minute and imagine what happens in the scene that follows in this little wine making town.  On the way home, the workers start talking in the car.  It was so bizarre that in the drive through at McHummus they tell the guy in the window what happened.  They sit down and eat and can't stop talking about it.  And what are they saying?  “Do you believe what that guy just did!?  He paid everyone the SAME!”  “Yeah, EVEN the ones who only worked ONE HOUR!  Can you believe it?”  And soon, all around the table, all around the town, all around the COUNTY, the story of this obsessed, wack-a-doodle winemaker goes viral.  Their conclusion?  This guy’s crazy!  They also think, next year this guy is going to be sorry because EVERY SINGLE PERSON in this whole town… heck this whole COUNTY is going to show up at this guy’s vineyard at the eleventh hour, work for an hour and expect a whole day’s pay!  

So it looks like this winemaker’s made a horrible mistake, right?  He’s done something completely crazy and next year at the harvest he’s going to pay through the nose!  But is this winemaker crazy like a crazy person or maybe… just maybe is he crazy like a fox?  Because what’s the one thing this obsessed winemaker cares about most?  It’s not his reputation.  It's clear he doesn’t care what other people think about him.  It’s not holding onto cash.  He seems fine throwing that around.  You might want to say “doing what’s right”, and that’s in there somehow, but I’m wondering if the thing this obsessed winemaker values most isn’t simply MAKING GREAT WINE.  

He’s a winemaker!  Could it be that what he wants, more than money, more than a good reputation, more even than doing what’s fair is to get his grapes harvested in that ONE PERFECT MOMENT… in the ONE HOUR when every grape is absolutely perfect?  SO, did this winemaker just sneakily, craftily, brilliantly create a situation where next year, every single person in the WHOLE county will show up for one hour of work and because EVERYONE is there at once, did he just fix it so his entire harvest will get to the crusher, not just on the one perfect day but in the one perfect HOUR?

If THAT’S what’s going on here, could Jesus be telling us that we have a God who doesn’t care what people think, doesn’t care about playing fair and doesn’t care about the cost?  Because if THAT’S what Jesus is telling us, then it looks like we have a God who will do literally ANYTHING, spend ANY amount, disregard what ANYBODY thinks, just to make sure EVERY SINGLE PERSON from every single corner of creation piles into God’s Divine vineyard in that perfect hour… on that perfect day, so that by hook or by crook, by faith or even by flimflam God makes sure EVERY SINGLE ONE in all of creation ends up in the front yard of the Divine Winemaker’s Kingdom.  Is that what Jesus is saying?  Or is it just that we have a God who loves really good wine?  You know, I think it's probably both!  Amen.  

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Funny Money

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the 18th Chapter

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Twenty five years ago this week I asked Kelly to marry me on top of the city hall tower in Stockholm.  Spoiler alert... she said yes!  One of the things we did to get ready for that trip was go to the bank for our Swedish Kronor.  I remember handing over our normal, green, American money and getting back all this crazy colored stuff and thinking “How in the heck will I know what it’s worth?”  

Figuring out funny money is important in today’s parable as well.  The guy in the parable owed the King 10,000 Talents but what’s a Talent?  Is it like Swedish Kronor?  10,000 Kronor is about 1200 bucks.  Is it like that?  Well, a Denarius is a day’s wages for a field worker, so in round numbers… about 80 bucks.  6000 Denarii makes a Talent.  So, in US dollars, the guy in this story owed the king... 4.8 B-B-B-BILLION dollars!  He owed the GDP of Albania!  He had country level debt!  Jesus is telling us that if we ever had to “pay up” to get right with God, it would be impossible!  The Good News is that we've been made right without having to pay up!

That's not the usual way things work in our world, but there’s even more strangeness in this story than that.  Did you notice... the king never asks what this guy bought with the equivalent of the entire economy of Somalia?  If someone borrowed twenty bucks from me and told me they couldn’t pay it back, the first thing I’d ask is “what did you do with it?” but the king didn’t care.  Jesus did that to show EXACTLY how God is with you and with me.  What we’ve done or what we haven’t done… our King doesn’t care!  It never comes up.  Jesus tells this story about a King with unfathomable compassion… the story of a King whose love for the person is stronger than his love of balanced books, getting even or even getting back the equivalent cost of an aircraft carrier… Jesus tells this story so we would know that we have a God who makes us right, IN SPITE, of what we’ve done or not done… in spite of what we “owe”… no questions asked.  

Jesus ALSO told this story because he knew we’d like receiving God’s unlimited, unconditional, 4.8 billion dollars worth of forgiveness, love and compassion BUT we’d also have trouble passing it on to others in that same, generous and unconditional way.  He knew we’d be compassionate, but with conditions.  We’d forgive, but with footnotes.  We’d give abundantly, but with an asterisk.  

Jesus knew that and he knew we’d justify it by saying its “good stewardship” or “they need to learn their lesson.”  But what Jesus is telling us here is that when we pass on only PART of the forgiveness we've first been given or give compassion with conditions, the truth is, WE are the ones who will not be free.  Jesus is again super melodramatic to make his point.  We’re not meant to think God is going to literally send us to be tortured when we fail to pass on fully the love God’s first given us, BUT his point is clear… the more we forgive and let go of the wrongs that have been done to us… the more we strive to be generous with others, even when others have not been so generous with us… the more we will experience the freedom, fullness and abundance of life God created us to live.  On the other hand, the tighter we hold those hurts, the longer we hold those grudges, the more we hold back the compassion, generosity and love we have first been given by God, the more our lives will feel tortured.  Not because God sends us to be tortured but because holding on leaves us stewing in those old resentments and burning with the fear of scarcity.  Really letting go and living generously, Jesus tells us, leads to an abundant life.  

A quick side note here.  Some preachers have really done a number on this “abundant life” thing over the years.  They preach that when you are generous and buy them a private jet, God will pay you back with an abundance of MATERIAL wealth.  As much as I think having a private jet would be really, really cool, I have to tell you that’s not what Jesus meant.  What Jesus meant is that when we are generous with every aspect of our lives, we experience an abundant life… ABUNDANT in that it's a life filled with meaning, purpose and peace.  While it’s possible for that to happen with every sort of bank balance, other parables Jesus tells warn that the bigger your bank balance, the harder it is to live fully and genuinely with generosity and that makes it harder to experience a life of meaning, purpose and peace.  But that’s for another sermon.

For now we’ve got this parable to deal with and it’s not an easy one to live into.  Heck, I don't seem to be able to live into this truth very well and I’m preaching it!  I struggle with being generous because I fear that the bad-old-days might return when I didn’t think I had enough to take care of my family.  I also hold onto those times I was deeply wronged and stewing on those wrongs in the past tortures me… and yet I continue to hold on anyway!  I’m guessing, I’m not alone.  

This is another reason we can’t do life alone.  We all need help living toward giving generously without an asterisk and being compassionate without conditions.  We all need help dying to our past hurts and our persistent fears and rising toward being even a bit more generous, a little more compassionate and holding a little less tightly onto the things that hurt us in the past every single day.

Jesus told this parable, not to threaten us with torture, but so that we might have life and have it abundantly!  He told us this parable so we would understand what God has first done for us, so we would then have the courage ourselves to pass on fully what we’ve first been given.  May we take one another by the hand, and together take one small step, and then another, and then another in that direction… dying to our past hurts and resentments… dying to our torturing fears about not having enough and rising each day to the new and abundant life God has already so generously given us to live.  Amen.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Bridge Out

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the 18th Chapter

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 

If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

“Oh wicked ones, you shall surely die!”  That seems harsh.  Let’s try the second lesson.  Let’s see… “reveling, drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness…”  OK, not much better.  How’s the Gospel?  “If another member of the church sins against you…”  Alright, Alright, Alright already!  I get it.  We need to talk about sin.    

In our day and age when people talk about sin they usually mean a particular naughty act.  In the 80’s Jimmy Swaggart illustrated this in the most dramatic way when on TV he said through tears, “I have sinned” after he got caught… let’s say “eating pizza” in a hotel with someone who wasn't his wife.  For him, and for our culture, the really bad part was the act of “eating pizza.”  But for Ezekiel, Paul and Jesus, the “act” itself isn’t nearly as bad as the rift… the separation the act creates between you and the other person, between you and your community or between you and God.  For Bible folks, the separation is the worse part.  

That’s because, “eating pizza” doesn’t usually lead directly to death.  There are no lightning bolts or hell fire rained from above, even when we think there should be!  It’s more what happens AFTER you “eat pizza.”  It’s the broken relationships and the physical separation which leads to death.  In Bible times that was simply a practical truth.  Living apart from others, you just didn’t have the food, shelter, clothing or the protection you needed to survive.  In Bible times we needed each other to just stay alive! 

In our day and age though we look back at Bible times and think, “Yeah, they HAD to lean on one another back then, but me, I’m a modern day rugged individual.  I’m not like them.  I can do everything for myself!  I don’t need anything from anyone to live!  In fact, I’m stronger and better when I DON’T need anyone else!  That’s a pretty popular notion these days, but there’s a problem with it.  It’s not true.  Folks say it very loudly and try to insist that forcing people to live without the help of others will make them strong, but it’s still not true.  These lessons and all of Scripture witness to the fact that “alone” is not how God created us to live.  It’s unfortunate that it takes disaster and horrible tragedy to remind us we really aren’t made to go it alone.  We’ve always been and still remain today, deeply dependent on one another for life.    

I was thinking about this earlier this week as I got ready to start my day.  I thought, “is there even one thing I can do all by myself, without anyone’s help?  I thought, well, I can dress myself!”  But can I really?  Sure, I can pull on my pants and almost always do it without falling over with one foot stuck half way down a pants leg, but I could never have made the pants myself.  Even if I could sew, I couldn’t have woven the cloth, spun the yarn, ginned the cotton, or grown it.  I couldn’t even get to the place my pants were made without the roads, planes and ships other people made!  The more I thought about it, the more I wondered how many people, all around the world, really did help me get dressed that morning?  I found an NPR piece where they followed a t-shirt from the cotton seed to the person who finally bought the shirt and put it on.  Only counting the people who physically touched the cotton, yarn, fabric and finished shirt, there were scores and scores of people.  If you include the people who designed and made the equipment the number increases exponentially!  Here’s the link to that story…

So, yeah, most of the time I can put on my own pants and even get the zipper in the front, but the truth is, even for something as simple as putting on our pants, we are deeply, deeply dependent upon one another.  That’s not a flaw, by the way.  That’s not a human shortcoming.  That’s the way God created us to be.  We have been designed and loved into being to be interdependent… to live in relationship… in community… together and not to live apart.  

That's why in the first lesson, the psalm, the second lesson and the gospel tell us how to do that… how to live together and how to address sin and fix the rifts that inevitably happen which separate us from one another, our community and the One who loved us into being.  The key, it turns out, is love.  Not a Valentine’s Day passionate love and not a bowling buddy kind of love, but the kind of love that drives us to do the hard and sacrificial work of doing whatever is in the other’s best interest.  

This is the kind of love that understands that forgiveness is not forgetting someone "ate pizza" on you, but being very honest about it and working relentlessly to find a way to come back together in spite of it!  This is the kind of love that speaks hard truths… sets clear, firm boundaries… and offers healthy, mutually respectful ways back, and not ways where one walks back over the other. 

We live in a world that seems every day to be more and more intent upon creating division, widening rifts and digging the chasms that separate us from one another deeper and deeper.  Those divisions, rifts and chasms themselves are the deeper, more tragic meaning of sin.  As Christians, we're called to show the world that the way to abundant life is not pointing and shaming the people who “eat pizza,” pushing them farther away.  As Christians we’re called to treat them the same way Jesus treated tax collectors and gentiles and find a way in love to see them, sit with them, talk to them, eat with them and heal the rifts and restore the community to wholeness so there will be life for all.  

These days I know that seems like an insurmountable task.  How can little Christ Trinity Church possibly bring together a world that seems bent on constantly ripping itself apart?  But our call isn't to start at the "fixing the world" end of the problem.  Our call is to gather two or three together in the love of Christ and trust that right there among us in the presence of Christ, God will guide us in ways we can bring life out of death and healing to the world in ways we could never begin to imagine on our own.  God’s done it before you know, and God's ongoing promise to us an all of creation is that light is more powerful than darkness and life is stronger than death.  Amen. 

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Start Walking

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the 16th Chapter

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Last week, Jesus and the disciples pulled into Caesarea Philippi.  It’s in the far North of Israel.  It’s closer to Damascus and Beruit than it is to Jerusalem.  It was a crossroads where trade, cultures and religions all came together.  Outside of town there was a spot in a cliff face where everyone carved a niche for their god.  You can almost imagine Jesus and the disciples pulling up to this cliff face and looking at all the gods and Jesus, with a wave of his hand at all the possible god-options, asking, “Who do ya’ll say that I am?”  This is when Peter, the spokesmodel for the group, chimed in and said, “You are the Son of the Living God, the Messiah!”  As they say on Family Feud… Good Answer!  Good Answer!

As right as Peter was last week, that’s exactly the amount of wrong he is week!  Together that averages him out to be a regular human being.  The trouble was Peter’s idea of how the Messiah ought to act didn’t fit with what Jesus had in mind.  Peter had imagined all his life that the Messiah would raise an army, go to Jerusalem, kick out the Romans and start a 1000 year rule of peace and prosperity.  That wasn’t just Peter’s idea either.  That was the go-to Messiah model of the time.  A conquering hero was exactly what everyone was taught to expect.  God was supposed to send a hero to kick butt and take names, not send someone to suffer and die!  

When Jesus told them he planned to take a path to death with a side trip through suffering, Peter lost it.  He’d been looking for that conquering hero Messiah since he was a kid!  Jesus, he figured, just needed to be straightened out.  The problem with that was when Peter went to straighten Jesus out, he was no longer following Jesus.  He was trying to lead.

You see, you and me and Peter… we’re all called to follow.  We often think we’re smart enough to tell the Son of the Living God how to be the Messiah but it turns out we’re not God.  Unlike God we have exactly what it takes to lead boldly… right off the edge of a cliff.  FOLLOWING Jesus, on the other hand, turns out to be the Way, the Truth and the Life and and not a path that leads off the edge of a cliff.  

There’s a catch though… following Jesus on his path… it’s hard!  Lots of steep grades, hot feet and aching legs on that Jesus path.  And what makes it even harder is that following Jesus actually means “following”… real life moving, doing and going… You can’t watch a live feed and virtually follow from a pew… you’ve got to actually get off your sitter, put one foot in front of the other and do your life the Jesus Way… out there!  

Eventually Peter and the disciples did just that.  They remembered God was God and as God, God was allowed to do a new thing.  They stepped out on the Jesus path and followed him on down to Jerusalem.  They walked faithfully some of the way and wandered off here and there too.  Sometimes 100% right… sometimes 100% wrong, mostly averaging out to 100% human just like you and me.  In our Baptisms we too have been set on this path that follows Jesus.  Our path doesn’t literally walk the same geography… down hill to Jerusalem, but it’s a path that all of us Baptized Christians are called to not just think about, study and discern, but to actually walk… one foot in front of the other every day of our lives.    

In the second lesson Paul outlines what walking that path looks like for us.  Talking about it, theologizing about it, debating it, studying it and discerning it is good, but it’s not enough.  It means in every step of our day, letting love be genuine with everyone we encounter.  It means hating what is evil, holding fast to what is good.  Loving one another with mutual affection and outdoing one another in showing honor.  

It means taking the risk and actively working for the things that are good and actively opposing the things that are evil.  It means more than just sending a couple of bucks to for flood relief in Houston.  It means insisting that when what used to be called 500 year storms happen multiple times in a single decade we face the truth of why that is and do something about it.  It means more than simply thinking racism is wrong.  It means standing and speaking and acting in ways that change hearts and minds and privileged systems.  Walking the Jesus path means doing charity… and then taking another step and doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly on the Jesus Way.

You may have caught on, this ain’t no afternoon stroll!  It’s a hike!  Easier paths that focus on yourself, your comfort and your success are out there, sold by preachers in expensive suits and perfect teeth.  Those paths just don’t look very much to me like the path Jesus walked.  We walk the Jesus Way.  As Luther said, every day we wash our face, we remember our Baptisms.  We remember we’ve been sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever and because we’ve been given that, we have what we need to step out on the Jesus Way, put one foot in front of the other and walk.  No short cuts.  Mostly long-cuts to be honest.  But as we walk that path we’ll begin to realize that we are alive… really alive... abundantly alive and it’s a path we walk together as the Body of Christ.  So, what are you waiting for?  Let’s start walking!  Amen. 

Saturday, August 26, 2017

From Rocks to Gems

Isaiah 51: 1-6

Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many. For the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.

Listen to me, my people, and give heed to me, my nation; for a teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples. I will bring near my deliverance swiftly, my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope. Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and those who live on it will die like gnats; but my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.

Look to the rock from which you were hewn and to the quarry where you were dug.  The prophet Isaiah reminds us this week of our common background.  No matter who we are, no matter how far we have traveled, no matter what we look like, who we love, or what path we take in life, we’ve all been cut from the same quarry.  We’ve all been formed by a God who has loved each one of us into being.  How well we embrace that truth takes a lifetime of work.  

There are those who learn early how everyone has been formed in love and others (perhaps those of us with heads taken from the harder, denser rocks in the quarry) who take longer to understand God’s all including love and some who fight that truth every step of the way.  Even those who learn this early, take a lifetime to wrap their minds around the fullness of God’s love for us and for all of creation.  Some of us come from a church background that helps us learn that from the very beginning.  Some have been hurt deeply by church and need to let go of that before they can discover something different they could call their own.  For more and more people there just isn’t any church background and for others church growing up wasn’t harmful, but it also never seemed to make it’s way in at the time.

There is not a better way or a worse way to grow into the understanding that all of humanity has been equally and lovingly quarried into being.  There’s not a better time or a worse time to begin figuring that bit out and there is never a time that we will ever completely wrap your minds around the infinite love of God.  It’s infinite after all, and none of our arms can reach quite that far.

The Psalm today reminds us that as we walk that journey, the God who has created us promises never to leave us.  The Psalm talks of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.  “Steadfast love” is the best English translation of a Hebrew word that means way more.  It implies a deep, never ending passion for us; an unbreakable commitment to be with us always… a love that will never be shaken, no matter what we do or don’t do in our lives.  

The God that cut us from this same rock cares more deeply, even for us with granite-hard-noggins, than we could ever imagine.  This is not a God that blasts us out of a quarry and sends us off in the dump truck of life.  This is a God that cuts each of us with a sculptor’s eye… A God who cradles each of us in loving arms lifting us with care out of the quarry.  The Psalm writer ends by praying:  Do not forsake the work of your hands.  That’s the promise we receive from God.

The lesson from Romans also tells us a little more about this never ending journey of faith.  The rock that was cut from the one stone; the rock that was lovingly lifted out of the quarry; it isn’t just any old rock.  Each piece of stone was cut with deep intention, in love and for a purpose.  Figuring out what that purpose is in our lives is the third most difficult thing we do here on this planet.  The second most difficult thing is to actually live into that thing God has called us to do and the first hardest thing is to decide what’s for dinner.

So no human being is just some old rock.  Each human being is a specially selected stone, quarried with love for a purpose.  Each human being is lifted from the quarry in the arms of a loving God and each human being is sculpted by God into something of great beauty.  Each of us are shaped like a priceless work of art.  Each of us are cut like a diamond, with intricate facets, unique, and precious.   To the One who cuts us from the quarry and shapes us like diamonds, each and every one of us are the most beautiful gems in all of creation.  

As we grow in understanding the breadth and depth of God’s love for us we begin to see ourselves, our neighbors and the world around us through the eyes of the Sculptor… we see more and more like the Divine gem cutter.  We slowly begin to see the people around us as more than just a bunch of rocks.  We even begin to see those who seem to have rock hard heads and stone like hearts… they too were really created to be  gems, cut along side us from a common rock and shaped for a purpose in the world. 

Our faith is a journey which begins by being hewn from the same rock, lifted in love from the same quarry, held and shaped by a loving God for a purpose.  It is a journey of forever wrapping our minds around the fullness of that truth.  It’s a journey which strives to see the hardest hearts through God’s eyes, as unpolished gems still being cut, as unfinished sculpture still being carved.  Our challenge is to see God’s hand in those who are polished stones and in those who are still very much in the rough.

This is one of the many reasons we need one another… why we need the Church.  Here we are fed by that loving God who cuts us from the rock, lifts us from the quarry and forms us for a purpose.  Here there are eyes who can help us see God at work in us and others.   Here we are reminded that we and all of creation is a treasure of gems, crafted in stedfast love!  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Who Let the Dogs In?

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the 15th Chapter

Then Jesus called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

What was Jesus thinking?  What was Jesus doing calling this poor woman with a demon tormented daughter, a dog?  This was one of the most vile, nasty, insults you could use in that culture.  What was Jesus thinking?

Was Jesus NOT thinking and then after talking with this woman for a bit, the light bulb suddenly lit up and he realized that God’s love and grace and healing was for everybody?  Or was it that Jesus knew exactly what he was doing from the very beginning?  Was he using the shock value to get the people’s attention so he could hammer home a point?  

None of us can crawl inside Jesus’ head, but reading the scripture around this story, that might just be what he was doing.  In the beginning of this chapter Jesus had an argument with the Pharisees about hand washing.  It was an argument about more than just soap and water, it was an argument about who God draws inside God’s circle and who is drawn out.  

The Pharisees were certain that only people like them… born to Jewish parents and perfect followers of the Law could be drawn in God’s circle.  That Canaanite woman was not one of God’s people simply because she had the wrong parents.  Nothing she did or didn’t do in life could change that.  She was drawn out before she drew her first breath!  Jesus and the disciples might have had the right sort of parents but they failed miserably at the rest, so they too were drawn out of God’s circle.  Jesus had tried to reason with the Pharisees but that didn’t work.  It’s what comes out of you that God really cares about, he told them.  It's how you love God and one another that really matters.  But when that didn’t work, perhaps Jesus tried a different, more shocking method.

By treating that woman like the Pharisees would, Jesus got their attention.  “Oh, look Jesus is coming around to our way of thinking.”  But then Jesus did what Jesus did all the time.  After pulling them along in a way that made them comfortable…when they least expected it…he took a hard left turn.  “Woman, you're a dog"!  Then the turn and, "Woman great is your faith!”  The Pharisees needed a neck brace after that turn!

Growing in faith, from drawing the circle of God’s love only around just a few who look, sound, behave and believe just like us, to the point where we can draw a circle that embraces all of humanity in God’s love… That’s a giant transformation!  When we think about drawing a circle that big… which includes so many… we often fear there won’t be enough.  Will there really be enough of God’s love for so many?  Will I still have what I had before if ALL of THEM are included too?  The fear of scarcity is a powerful fear.    

But as Christians we believe there IS enough of God’s love for ALL, even to overflowing.  Personally, I like ALL because when God draws a circle that embraces ALL, it must be a circle large enough to even include the likes of me.  Some people though, have trouble with a circle that includes ALL.  The Pharisees had trouble with ALL.  With the recent emboldening of white supremacists, nazis and racists, it's clear they too have trouble with ALL.  This trouble with ALL grows out of fear.  Will there be enough power, privilege, influence, jobs, housing… will there be enough left for me if we include ALL of THEM?  These are today’s sinful Pharisees who insist on purity and proper parents.  They wave torches, throw Coke cans filled with concrete, shout slogans, injure and kill, use hate and violence, lies and fear, all to keep everyone they would label as dogs out of a circle that includes ALL.  

The Good News is that it doesn't matter what they think or what they do or what they fear.  Jesus has ALREADY drawn the circle of God's love so it already includes ALL!  Jesus let the dogs in!  All us dogs!  His death and resurrection has torn a hole in the fence and even the mangiest of us dogs are now included at the feast at God's Table.  ALL are drawn in God's circle.  ALL are included in the grace, love, healing and wholeness that God intends for all of creation.  

ALL's still hard though.  Even for those of us who would never march with torches or shout nazi slogans.  It’s hard because we all know someone, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’d like to draw out of our circle.  We all know someone who’s not exactly the sort of dog we’d like inside our fence.  So, knowing we shouldn’t DIRECTLY exclude anyone, we say things like "hate the sin and love the sinner" or “they just won’t be comfortable in our neighborhood or church” and suddenly, even without the shouting or the bloodshed, we too have drawn a circle that includes less than ALL.  

The truth of this lesson is that ALL are welcome in God’s Kingdom and God sent his Son, not just to suggest it, but to make it happen with his life, death and resurrection.  Now, you and I, as followers of the One who has drawn a circle so large it includes all of creation... WE are called to do the same.  So together let us draw ever larger circles.  Let us get to know the people who hateful people call dogs.  Let the world around us see us Standing for Love with them, shielding them, advocating with them, singing, eating, laughing and crying with them until the circles WE draw look more and more like the circle GOD has already drawn.  And as we do that… as we draw wider and wider circles... it is through those widening circles we will see more and more of the Kingdom of God.  Amen.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat!

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the 14th Chapter
Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 
And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 
And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Here’s a joke a friend’s six year old grandson told her recently.  Actually, it’s just the punchline.  Here goes… “The seaweed.”  Hilarious, right?  Actually… not that funny.  BUT if you add the SET UP that goes with that punchline… “Why is beach sand wet?”  “The sea weed!”  NOW it’s funny… well, it’s funny to six year old boys… and 50 year old boys, anyway!  

The setup is really important and that’s true in today’s Gospel too.  It’s super tempting to just race down to the punchline… where Peter, God love him, steps out of the boat, but when you do that, you end up missing some really important stuff.  So, let’s take a minute to look at the setup for this story before we get to the punchline.  

The first thing to notice is that it’s JESUS who puts all the disciples into the boat and pushes them off from the shore.  AND, importantly, Jesus puts them into the boat TOGETHER!  This isn't an accident.  Discipleship is meant to be done TOGETHER, with EVERYONE in the boat.  In our Baptisms, you and I were all put into the same boat to be disciples... TOGETHER!  In many churches a ship hangs in the nave, the part of a church where people sit.  There’s one in the cathedral in Stockholm.  The ship is there to remind us that we’re in this boat, called “Church” TOGETHER, and it’s TOGETHER that we’re called to be disciples.  It’s TOGETHER that we’re called to hear and wrestle with God’s Word, TOGETHER we’re called to discern God’s Spirit and it’s TOGETHER that we are called to reach out in service to the world.  

The second part of the setup is the setting.  It’s a dark and stormy night!  In Jesus’ day the sea and the dark were symbols that represented chaos, evil, uncertainty, monsters and everything nasty that goes bump in the night… you know, life.  It was into that chaos, uncertainty and just plain danger that Jesus shoved the disciples off from the safety and security of solid ground and out into the place where the Wild Things are... into a completely unpredictable future.

The last bit of the setup is that we need to see is that even though it was a dark and stormy night and the boat was battered and the wind was against them, the disciples weren’t in trouble.  It wasn’t a sunny, summer sail, but this was largely a group of very seasoned fishermen.  They weren’t sinking.  

Working TOGETHER in the boat they were doing alright.  They might have been sore, tired and maybe even frustrated BUT, they weren’t sinking.  When we’re in the boat TOGETHER supporting one another... each taking a part, with someone bailing and someone rowing and someone wrestling the tiller and someone trimming the sails, it’s ALWAYS better than being out in the chaos and in the darkness of life alone.  Jesus put the disciples in a boat TOGETHER on purpose.  Jesus knew that for you and me to live the abundant life God created us to live in the middle of a world filled with wind and waves and chaos, our best bet would be to sit down and work TOGETHER with our fellow disciples!  TOGETHER we give each other strength in the darkness, TOGETHER we sail over the chaos of life, TOGETHER we get through the storms. 

So, now we’re finally ready to talk about the punchline!  It was over those waves and through that darkness that Jesus came to the disciples, walking on the water, trampling the chaos of the world under his feet.  Into their darkest, farthest-from-shore, most frustrating time, Jesus came and was with them.  That’s not just part of this story.  That’s a promise!  God is with us, ALWAYS, reminding us to take heart and to not be afraid.  

And now we come to Peter.  Peter’s name in Greek is a play on the word for “Stone” or “Rock”.  Basically Peter’s English name would be Rocky!  I love Peter, because Peter always does everything 100%.  Sometimes 100% right… and sometimes it’s 100% wrong, but ol’ Rocky is the poster boy for Martin Luther’s famous advice to us to “sin boldly.”  Peter calls out to Jesus.  “Jesus, I wanna walk on water like you’re doin’.”  Jesus, knowing exactly what will happen and ready to deliver the punchline for this whole story says, “Come on Rock!”  And out of the boat he steps… looks around and sinks just like… well, a Rock!

NOW, here’s the important question of the day.  Why did Peter sink?  Some say he didn’t have enough faith.  But lack of faith wasn’t the reason!  He had faith.  Jesus said so.  Granted, it was “little” faith, but faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains!  So, faith wasn’t the problem.  The real reason Peter sank was that HE WAS HUMAN!  HE GOT OUT OF THE BOAT, TRIED TO GO IT ALONE AND TRIED TO WALK ON WATER!  He tried to walk on water like God and he sank because he wasn’t!   

This story is here to remind us… we’re human!  We’re not God!  So when WE head out into the chaos and darkness of the world… we really, really NEED one other.  This crazy idea that rugged individualism is the way to get through life... that's a lie!  You might be able to skip yourself over the chaos for a couple skips but you’ll eventually end up on the bottom of the lake… sunk… like a rock.  We humans… we need community… that's how God made us.  We only make it through the storms and over the chaos when we do it TOGETHER!  Together, with each of us doing our part inside the same boat, working together steering, rowing and sailing toward the place Jesus is leading us to go, we can move over the chaos and through the storms and darkness of this life and live the abundant life… a life filled with meaning and purpose and joy... that God created us to live. 

God has put us in the boat together in our Baptisms.  Jesus has pushed us out into the world to love God and love neighbor... Out into world that all too often looks dark and stormy, but remember Jesus knows that TOGETHER we can do this and when we get frustrated and battered by the storm, Jesus will come to us again, no matter how far out we might be, and he will trample to peace our biggest worries and our greatest fears and when we start to sink, he’ll pull us back up into abundant life.  Amen.