Wednesday, October 18, 2017

That Face!

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew the 22nd Chapter

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 

Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

There are at least two places to mess this one up.  The first is to see this as a story about Jesus making politicians look like idiots.  That one’s VERY tempting.  The second is more serious… and that’s to see this as a story telling us there is part of the world where God works and another, different part of the world, where God does not.

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  At first glance it might look like Jesus is saying there are two circles of influence in the world.  One here.  One over here.  One controlled by Caesar.  The other controlled by God.  A political circle and a spiritual circle… both completely separate.  But really, what Jesus did here is to remind us that Caesar’s political circle is completely inside God’s circle which surrounds ALL of creation.  On the surface, Jesus asked “whose face is on that coin”, but the REAL question Jesus asked was “who do you think gave the emperor that face!?”  

EVERYTHING… the good AND the bad… people, war, peace, disease, sickness, health, food, water, disasters, triumphs, love, death, flags, anthems, presidents, emperors… EVERYTHING… EVERY-THING belongs to God.  If I was Bishop Curry, this is where I’d probably start singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands!”  The BIG temptation of this story is to read it the way the Pharisees and the Herodians HEARD it, and miss the way Jesus TOLD it.  

BOTH the Pharisees and the Herodians believed there were places in the world the other couldn’t touch.  Two separate circles.  Over here… political, business, and worldly things that “belong to Caesar”… apart from God.  Over there… the religious, church, and spiritual things that “belong to God” apart from Caesar and n’er the twain shall meet.  God’s laws, the prophets warnings and Jesus’s teachings are all fine and dandy inside church walls or in our hearts, but out there… those shouldn’t mix with how we do government, address violence, or think about poverty, hunger, healthcare and justice.  

What Jesus was SAYING… not what the Herodians and Pharisees HEARD now, but what Jesus was SAYING… is that God not only has something to SAY about every aspect of every single moment of our lives, but that God has every aspect of every moment of our lives... every face in all of creation, wrapped up in the infinite, unconditional, loving, ever-transforming and redeeming circle of God’s embrace!  

The faith stuff isn’t at all separate from the world stuff.  Because ALL the stuff is God’s STUFF.  All those crazy notions Jesus held up, like unconditional and sacrificial love, looking out for the LEAST, LAST and LOST before you look out for yourself… ALL that stuff… stuff like real justice, radical forgiveness, unhindered generosity, perpetual peace and uncompromising compassion… ALL of it… it’s not just how Sunday morning’s supposed to work.  THAT’S the way God is transforming the WHOLE WORLD to work and that’s what all the fruit talk’s been about the last few weeks.  WE’RE supposed to bear fruit!  As Christians, WE’RE called to be part of God’s transformational work! 

Now, you know why all this fruit talk sounds so hard, don’t you?  It’s because it’s hard!  But this gospel makes it harder!  Because as we go out there and do that hard work, Jesus wants us to remember that it is God’s hand that formed every face we encounter along the way.  In this story, Jesus told them, God made every Jewish face… AND every Roman face.  Every face.  God made Caesar’s face and God’s hand still forms EVERY face.  Now, think about that… EVERY face.  Then and now… EVERY… FACE… I’ll give you a second to let that sink in… EVERY…FACE… Yup, even THAT face!  You see where this is going, don’t you?  That means God made the faces on both sides of the aisle, both sides of the gun, both sides of the prison bars, both sides of the ocean.  God’s hand formed the faces that endure the hate and the faces that spew it.  God’s hand formed faces that kneel and faces that stand.  God’s hand formed every face, and along with the faces, the hearts and souls of all of creation!

You see where this is going, don’t you?  As we do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God… as we work in the vineyard for racial justice, an end to violence, and for enough, good, food and clean water for all… What this means is that as we do that work we need to look for God’s fingerprints in EVERY face we encounter along the way.  EVERY FACE.  In the hurting faces AND in the faces of those who do the hurting.  It’s so much easier to divide and conquer though, isnt’ it?  Divide the world into:  us OR them, in OR out, good OR bad, up OR down, heaven OR hell. 

But that’s not the Jesus way… because it isn’t the truth and doesn’t lead to life.  The truth is in that song:  “He’s got the whole world in his hands!”  So, when we work for justice, kindness, inclusivity, peace, and compassion… not just in church on Sunday, but in every part of our lives… As we do that work, Jesus challenges us to see God’s fingerprints in EVERY face.  That person who’s working against love, compassion and justice… THAT broken, hurting, person trying to get rid of their pain by passing it on to someone else… That person… THAT person, hides behind a face which also bears the fingerprints of God.  

Now, that doesn’t mean we give up the fight and let that face roll over the world.  We MUST continue to work toward the transformation of the world.  Remember, God has a clear opinion about how the world should work… There ARE the blessed ARE's after all... the peacemakers, the meek, the ones who hunger and thirst for what is right…  But as we strive, little by little to do God’s work, we must always remember that God’s fingerprints are everywhere and on every face.  On the faces of those easiest to love and on the faces of those who make loving them nearly impossible...  and even on the face where God’s fingerprints are sometimes the very, very hardest for us to see… God’s fingerprints are even on the face we see in our mirror.  Amen.  

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Thoughts and Prayers

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew the 21st Chapter
 ‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’ 

Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures:
“The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
   and it is amazing in our eyes”?
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’ 
 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet. 
Jesus told this parable, and the two we've heard in the last two weeks, in the last week of his life.  First he told of the Divine winemaker who wanted grapes at any cost.  Next he told of a father who sent his sons into the vineyard to work.  One did.  The other didn’t.  And now, once again Jesus tells the story of the Divine winemaker who is looking for grapes!  No excuses.  No “right” words.  No tricks.  Just, “SHOW ME THE FRUIT!”  This isn’t a new theme.  This is THE theme!  The theme of Matthew’s whole Gospel!  Way back in Chapter 3, John the Baptist appeared with a camel’s hair coat, leather belt and eating bugs with honey to help them go down!  John started this fruit talk saying, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance!”  The Gospel began with, “SHOW ME THE FRUIT!”  

Monday was 275th day of 2017.  Monday was the 273rd mass shooting of 2017.  The litany began right away.  “Bad people will always be able to get guns, so there’s nothing we can do but offer our thoughts and prayers.”  Interesting.  Two weeks ago, the Divine Winemaker didn’t just think and pray about his harvest problem.  He went out at 6, 9, noon, 3 and even 5 and grabbed anyone he could find, tried a crazy new pay scheme and by hook or by crook, got the grapes to the crusher.  So isn’t there a new idea we might try for this problem, a crazy scheme to test out?  “No, none of that will stop every gun, so all we can do is offer thoughts and prayers.”  Interesting.  

This week the mayor of San Juan waded through water laced with raw sewage begging for help for her people.  “Well, you live on an island.  In the middle of the ocean.  Hurricanes happen.  There’s nothing we can do to stop hurricanes but we’re sending our thoughts and prayers.”  Interesting.  Last week a father asked his two sons to go to work in the vineyard.  One said he would, but didn’t.  The other said he wouldn’t go, but did.  The father in that story preferred the son who in the end tried, rather than the son who lied.  So, don't you think we ought to at least try something?  “No, nothing we would try would stop hurricanes, all we can offer is our thoughts and prayers.”  Interesting.   

But just like the landowner in this week’s parable the world has caught on!  They hear about sending “thoughts and prayers” and how do they react?  “We don’t want your “thoughts and prayers!” We need food, water, and electricity!  We don’t want your “thoughts and prayers” we want our husbands, wives, friends and children to not be shot in our homes, schools, theaters and streets.  We don’t want your “thoughts and prayers!”  We want you to SHOW US THE FRUIT!     

The caption on a picture looking into the back of an empty semi trailer reads, “The first shipment of your thoughts and prayers has arrived!”  Yesterday’s parable has become today's internet meme.  Both parable and meme shouting the EXACT same message.  The message we’ve been hearing from the third chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, all the way to the twenty first!  And the message is:  Do Something!  SHOW US SOME FRUIT!  

I relate to the anger.  I'm tempted too to throw “thoughts and prayers” away as useless garbage too.  But that’s not what John the Baptist preached and that’s not what Jesus taught.  Because here’s the thing.  Everything we do, begins with a thought.  Getting out of bed requires a thought.  Seeing someone in pain requires a thought.  Thoughts are the beginning.  Thoughts arn't garbage.  They allow us to do more than simply react to the world like a lizard.  Thoughts are part of what makes us human.

Prayers too are far from garbage.  It is in prayer that we calm our anxious, reactive, minds so that we can access the big, creative, compassionate human brains God put between our ears.  In prayer we find clarity and creativity to do more than just "eat it or run from it".  In prayer with others we discover our collective resolve, remind one another that we are not alone, remember that God works unexpected wonders and remember that God has promised there are more of those wonders yet to come!  Thoughts and prayers are not trash.  Thoughts and prayers wind the spring, charge the batteries and draw the bow.  

What John the Baptist began with… what Jesus continued with and what we, as Christians insist upon today, is NOT that “thoughts and prayers” are useless, but that “thoughts and prayers” must only be the beginning!  Thoughts and prayers, after all, are what led the people of Israel to leave Egypt, but it was the walking that got them to the Promised Land!  Thoughts and prayers gathered the civil rights movement together, built courage, commitment and resolve, but it was walking into diners to sit at lunch counters, refusing to move to the back of the bus, walking across the Edmund Pettis bridge and even becoming martyrs, that still marches us toward a dream.  

In this parable.  In the last two parables.  In the entire Gospel of Matthew… the message is not that words don’t matter or we should throw out our thoughts and give up on prayer.  Rather, the message is WE MUSTN’T STOP WITH ONLY THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS!  We MUST have thoughts!  Thoughts of empathy, compassion, generosity and love.  We MUST have prayers!  Prayers for clarity, focus, peace, inspiration and a non-anxious spirit.  But we can’t stop there!  Notice the cries of the world around you with your thoughts.  Gather yourself in body, mind, spirit and community in prayer.  BUT THEN GO!  Go into the vineyard, pick some grapes, and make some wine!  None of us will ever harvest every grape.  That's never been our task!  Our task is to pick one grape and put it in the bucket and pick one more and then another and then another.  You and I may not finish the harvest oursleves, but as the Talmud says, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

May we offer the world our thoughts… thoughts of the vision of our world working like the Kingdom of God.  May we together offer the world our prayers… prayers for a non-anxious presence, peace, clarity, generosity and creativity.  And then, may we together, take one step and then another toward making the vision of our thoughts and the peace of our prayers a little more real and a little more amazing in the world’s eyes each and every day.  Amen.