SERMON 10/13/19 Pentecost 18C Proper 23 St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

trading places2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c; Psalm 111; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

Trading Places

Trading Places is a 1983 American comedy film about an upper-crust executive Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) and down-and-out street dweller Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) who are the subjects of a bet by successful brokers Mortimer and Randolph Duke.  An employee of the Dukes Winthorpe is framed by the brothers for a crime he didn’t commit, and the Dukes installed the street-smart Valentine in his position.

The rich man became poor, and the poor man became rich, and in the process of a shared tragic experience, they discovered that what divided them was not their wealth, their wits, nor their good fortune, but their indifference, self-absorption, and blindness to the plight of the others.  Winthorpe lived in a prison of being under the thumb of the Dukes who provided him with wealth, comfort, and even a future spouse, but the tragedy was that they controlled his life.  Alternatively, Valentine lived in a prison too; a prison where he had to beg for sustenance, eek out a place to lay his head, and face the tragic circumstances of poverty that controlled his life.  Eventually the two men uncover the Duke’s unethical social experiment, and Winthorpe and Valentine work together to recover and rediscover their lives.

When these two men shared their mutual circumstance, they realized that they had more in common than not, because “misery does indeed love company, and necessity does make for strange bedfellows.” (2)  The two unlikely characters discovered the very essence of community; mutual interdependence.  When they literally traded places; or rather, when they traded the conditions of the other’s existence, the walls that separated them began to crumble and a newfound path of brotherhood opened up for them, despite the societal maladies under which they both suffered.

Healing Deep Wounds

The gospel today is a story about the social illnesses and cultural divides that existed in first century Palestine. First, there was a widespread confusion about the sources, causes, and spread of diseases, which resulted in the separation from community, those people suffering from skin ailments (commonly called leprosy).  The sick and afflicted were treated with disdain and were reviled.  “Instead of intervening to help, people turned the other way and cut off all contact. The patient died a social death much sooner and far worse than physical death.” (c)  Additionally, racial and ethnic differences separated people into different classes as well.  Israelites and Samaritans shared a common ancestry and lineage, however because of the Samaritan religious ideologies and forbidden intermarrying with Gentiles, these two groups treated one another as “less than.”  “Jews considered all Samaritans ritually unclean, and would travel miles out of their way to avoid having any contact with them.” (1)

Today’s gospel is not only a tale of the miraculous physical healing of ten lepers and their resultant full restoration to community.  The story warns us about how we today still stigmatize people because of their differences (real or perceived).  In Luke’s story, an unfortunate skin affliction brought ten people (one from a different ethnic group) together into a community of common suffering, where former divisions faded away. However, when they were all healed together and their skin affliction was restored, some of the group’s hearts remained untouched by their own healing.  The nine Israelites grouped together and traveled to the Temple priests, so they might be restored to the former community they enjoyed, but what about that Samaritan cousin they embraced a few days before?

Scripture tells us, “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.” Could the Samaritan have gone to the temple with his Jewish cousins and experienced full restoration to community?  Probably not, because society still afflicted him with the social illness, whereas Samaritans and Israelites would never share common connections under the sovereignty of God.

All were healed, and yet a deeper wound remained and “he was, once again, one of those estranged and marginalized others — a Samaritan.” (2) So, the Samaritan returned to the Jewish Rabbi that healed him and praised him.  In so doing, the Samaritan participated in not only the healing the deeper wound, but really became well.  Jesus’ own kindred went on their way, but the Samaritan approached his cousin Israelite rabbi, healed the social divide between their ethnic groups, and broke down the walls of the social malady of indifference.  The Samaritan crossed the boundary of separation between Samaritan and Israelite and traded places with Jesus, and experienced a moment of common healing, dignity, peace, and restoration.   When healed, we must be a part of the bigger picture of healing Jesus has in mind.  We who are healed and restored, must take our place in the process of healing and restoration all of creation, which began with Jesus, and demonstrated by the Samaritan leper.

Social Maladies

The healing story we hear speaks to our social illnesses today, and as Maggie Dawn writes in her article, The Untouchables, she asserts, “Maybe (Jesus) meant that deep-seated human divisions are a much more serious malady than even leprosy—that our souls can be far sicker than our bodies and yet most of us do nothing to heal the breach. Maybe (Jesus) wasn’t commenting on the attitude of the nine who didn’t return as much as on the system that would accept them and reject the Samaritan.
(1)”

In America today, more and more people are being divided up and pigeon holed into social tribes, political cliques, anthropological divisions, and discordant associations based on a misconstrued criteria of worth.  We assign worth to God’s people based on social class, educational opportunity, religious affiliation, race, immigrant status, sexual orientation, and by economic fortune or misfortune, and then we decide who is in our clique and who is not.  We are blind to the reality that we are all God’s children and all part of the family of God, because we are blinded by our differences. We still use labels,  maybe not “clean and unclean,” but some far worse, to describe our own indifference to others who are not in our clique.

Cliques can be pervasive in churches too.  Webster defines a clique as “a small group of people, with shared interests or other features in common, who spend time together and do not readily allow others to join them.”  Even churches participate in dividing people into who is in and who is out.   “Others” can be the newcomer who shows up to a community of faith hoping to find a family that will readily welcome them, appreciate their gifts, and work to engage them in the ministry already taking place.  “Others” can be sisters and brothers in our midst whom we call “different” because of life’s struggles and yet, we fail to welcome them in as equals.  “Others” can be anyone whom we are, for whatever reason, unable to call a sister or brother in Christ.  These divisions have the potential to thwart our witness of the Gospel as ambassadors of Christ.  These divisions will never be overcome, until we can discover shared community, purpose, and common family under the sovereignty of God.  If we can change how we the church treat each other, then we can serve as a witness to the world about how the Kingdom of God can become a reality in the world today.  We all need to be healed from the social malady of divisive existence, which thwarts the Kingdom of God.

Healed for a Purpose

Jesus told his Samaritan cousin who was healed, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”   In other words, “faith in action” is trusting the promises and commandments of God about loving neighbor as yourself, and then leading a life of healing beyond self.    We all need a little faith that God heals our hearts, so we might abandon our indifference to the plight of others.  We all need a little faith that God heals our hearts, so we might be drawn into the tragic circumstances of our sisters and brothers’ lives and become the healers that first healed us, but what is spiritual healing?

“Spiritual healing compels us to search for and acknowledge the Healer, and to discern the vast cosmic scope of the reclamation initiative of which our restoration is but a small part. Having found and discerned, we are to make common cause with that saving enterprise.” (2) In other words, we all need more opportunities to “Trade Places” with each other for a few moments each day, walk in the shoes of the other for a few moments, and share the common experience of life with the other, so we can see things from the other’s perspective.  The Kingdom of God into which we all are called to live today can only be possible when we all (not just those who look like, act like, dress like, or live like the so called insiders) are able to experience mutual wholeness, dignity, justice, and peace.

Jesus said, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” We who are healed are called to go and do something with that healing we have received.  Maggie Dawn asserts, “We are healed not to stay the same, but to live differently, breaking down divisions in society that exclude people because of their nationality, gender, religion or education.” (1)  Sisters and brothers, we need to “Get up, get on our way, because our faith has made us well.  We need to get on our way and take up our ministry of healing, by embracing the common humanity we share with one another, and with everyone outside these four walls.  We need to get on our way and be willing to live a life of “Trading Places” with the least, lost, and lonely, and with everyone whom we come in contact each and every day.

REFERENCES

(1) Dawn, Maggi. “The Untouchables.” The Christian Century, vol. 124, no. 20, Oct. 2007, p. 18.

(2) Nickle, Keith Fullerton. “Ten Lepers Cleansed.” Journal for Preachers, vol. 23, no. 3, Easter 2000, pp. 48–51.

SERMON 10/6/19 Pentecost 17C Proper 22 St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

faithHabakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Psalm 37:1-10; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

Doubt and Faith

It should not surprise you that I am a liturgical traditionalist and that I love the hymnody and traditions of the Episcopal Church.  I have a little secret to share with you. I do love Christian music that you may not hear played on Sunday mornings, and at one time, I played guitar and drums in a band at the parish that sent us to seminary.  Specifically, I have loved the music by a band called Third Day, and their songs strike a spiritual chord in me, which I cannot explain.

Maybe it is the strong voice of the lead singer, who has been influenced by artists like Rich Mullins, or groups like U2 and Lynyrd Skynyrd.  Maybe it is the way the band weaves into their southern rock genre, deeply stirring, spiritually passionate, and emotionally striking lyrics.  Several years ago, I was struggling with my faith, and one night I heard the band’s song “Cry Out to Jesus” for the first time.  It touched emotions in me that I could not explain.  The chorus of the song is:

There is hope for the helpless
Rest for the weary
And love for the broken heart
And there is grace and forgiveness
Mercy and healing

He’ll meet you wherever you are

Cry out to Jesus.

Yes, in my desperate state that night I cried out to Jesus, and every time I hear that song today, it brings tears to my eyes.  Like me, I bet many of you in this journey of faith have wanted to just walk away and go back to the way life was before.  I bet there have been times that you have wanted to cry out to Jesus, but the answers you hoped for did not come.  Look at us though, here we are today still coming to the church, still seeking answers, still looking for hope, rest, love, grace, and forgiveness.

God has been faithful to us in the dark times, always providing us with just enough faith, to keep us on the path and not allow us to stray too far away.  Nonetheless, we still think having faith is based on NOT having any doubts, about never straying from the path, and never thinking of quitting.  We forget that doubt and uncertainty is at the core of this journey of faith.

Those early disciples had doubts and they struggled to believe Jesus.  Many of them abandoned him when he was arrested.  Only a few were with him at the crucifixion, and even after they saw him raised from the dead, they did not fully believe.  Thanks be to God, something happened in their lives, the power of the Holy Spirit touched them deeply and they let go of what held them back from being vulnerable to the overwhelming power of God’s grace.  We are here today because a rag-tag band of followers decided to have faith even when they felt they only had a speck of faith.

Faith and Trust

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”   Many of us are like them and say, “I sure wish I had more faith,”  but I think we may be confused about what faith really is, and what it is not.  Some think faith is a list of doctrines, practices, or they even believe faith is an affiliation with a religious organization. Webster defines faith as “complete trust or confidence in someone or something.”  Faith is really trusting in God.

Webster defines trust as a “firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.”  Faith is trusting and having confidence in God.  The Apostle Paul understood what faith really is.  He encouraged young Timothy to live in faith as he did, when he wrote these words, “I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.”   Thinking of faith as trust, we hear the apostles ask for Jesus’ help this way, “Increase our trust in you.”    So, were they asking Jesus to prove himself, because they really did not fully trust him yet?

I wonder what we all need from Jesus in order for him to increase our trust in him.  Maybe we hope for a miraculous sign to prove his identity.  Maybe we hope he would overthrow the afflictions in our lives to demonstrate what is really possible.  Maybe we trust in ourselves too much, and rely on what we are able to accomplish all alone.  If we must trust in our own abilities then, there is no room to trust the One, in whom all things are possible.  We need to ask ourselves daily, “Do we really trust Jesus all the time, even when doubt creeps in, and when all around us is falling apart?”

Faith in Bad Times; Faith in Good Times

A verse from the song “Cry Out to Jesus” goes like this, “And to all of the people with burdens and pains, keeping you back from your life, you believe that there’s nothing and there is no one, who can make it right.”  It is easy to trust Jesus when all around us is going our way, when we are filled with happiness, and when we are on top of the world, but what about when everything falls apart.  Trusting Jesus is not so easy “for the marriage that’s struggling just to hang on, for the ones who can’t break the addictions and chains, for the widow who struggles with being alone, when you’re lonely and it feels like the whole world is falling on you.”  Trusting Jesus is not easy when unexpected circumstances make careers fade away, when money gets tight and income disappears, when the doctor shares news we did not expect, when we are betrayed by friends or colleagues, when we are ready to give up, when we feel like failures, or when past hurts that we have experienced keep raising their ugly heads.  We need to trust Jesus both in good times and in the bad.  Trust does not come easy, but trust is possible if we decide to break down the walls and barriers that block our hearts to the grace and mercy of Christ.  In our despair, we need to humble ourselves and cry out to the one who is faithful in all things, whose presence will change every circumstance into opportunities for healing and mercy.

The key to trusting Jesus in the bad times is to release our need for control, and to reject the idea that we really are the ones in charge of our lives.  We must seek God’s help in earnest.  In the words of the song I love, “When you’re lonely and it feels like the whole world is falling on you, you just reach out, you just cry out to Jesus.”  In our desperation, in our loss, in our fear, in our hopelessness, we must turn our hearts to the one who is the only one to bring us comfort, because no matter where we find ourselves in this life, “He’ll meet you wherever you are.” Jesus shows up even if the only trust we can muster up is a speck as small as that tiny mustard seed you received on your way into church (tonight) this morning.

Faith of a Mustard Seed

Jesus said, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”  Jesus’ metaphor for the low bar of trust we need is described by the tiniest of seeds.  The mustard seed when planted grows into a wild and wooly bush that overtakes all the ground around it.  That is all we need folks to follow Jesus; just a little trust. We need mustard seed faith because as the Third Day song tells us, when we begin to trust Jesus even through our tears and doubts:

There is hope for the helpless
Rest for the weary
And love for the broken heart
And there is grace and forgiveness
Mercy and healing

He’ll meet you wherever you are.

I would be lying to you if I were to tell you that I never have doubts, that I never want to give up, and that I stand before you with absolute certainty every day.  The truth is that we all struggle with faith, but our faith is not all up to just us. We need to forget the myth that in order to be a faithful follower of Jesus, we have to accomplish grand acts of service doing everything of which, others expect from us to do.  Remember, there is no holy tally sheet somewhere keeping track of what you do for Jesus.

We need to forget the myth that faith is a life of having no doubts at all and the measure of your discipleship is based on absolute certainty.  Remember, there is no penalty for living in doubt sometimes, especially when everything around you is falling apart. If we really want to be faithful Christians, then we must start somewhere and that somewhere is only trusting Jesus just a little bit.

Each of you received a tiny mustard seed when you came into the sanctuary today.  Some of you may have lost it in the hustle and bustle of the service.  Sometimes we lose our mustard seed faith in the hustle and bustle of life and troubles of life.  Please remember that when you come together with sisters and brothers in the faith, there is always an ample supply of mustard seed faith right here.  So, when we you feel like walking away, when life overwhelms you, when faith seems allusive and far away, just open your heart, grab that little mustard seed of trust, which you should carry with you each day.  In other words, when you have just a mustard seed faith in those dark times of life, you will discover God’s grace, God’s solace and peace that is, when you are allow yourself to “Cry out to Jesus.”

SERMON 9-29-19 Pentecost 16C Proper 21 St. Monica’s

the poorAmos 6:1a,4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

Dives and Lazarus/Heaven and Hell

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus told a parable about a rich man and poor man whose paths in this life never crossed, but they should have.  The poor man Lazarus lived outside the opulent mansion of Dives and daily begged for the basics of life; the scraps from the rich man’s table.  Dives lived comfortably, worked hard with all his needs met, but was blind and deaf to the condition of the child of God who suffered just outside his gates.

After they both died Dives lived eternity tortured by his earthly indifference to others and his disconnection from the plight of others.  Lazarus lived eternity finally comforted from his sores, relieved of his hunger, and set free from his oppression caused by the disconnection from the abundance of others.  A great chasm of indifference and self-fulfillment separated Dives from Lazarus in the earthly life, and that same chasm remained in the after life.  The idea of heaven and hades is something with which many of us struggle.

Some may think in this parable Jesus is teaching us about God’s justice in the afterlife.  We think he is explaining that we may face punishment for our bad deeds, and reward for our good deeds, but I am not sure that is what he is teaching us.    It is comforting to believe in a harmonious promise of pearly gates, streets of gold, and mansions in the next life, but we are quick to dismiss even the possibility of ongoing sanctification and remorse in that same realm.  We ask, “How could a loving God of grace punish his creatures?”  Like Dives, is there a future condition in our progress toward sanctification, where we deal with our failures and poor choices, where remorse and regret exist. Scripture alludes to such a place, but I think Jesus is talking more about how we should live in this life, without the fear of the future.

Jesus was not dangling over us the promise of bliss for our good deeds and the pain of eternal suffering for the bad deeds we do.  He is not enticing us like a puppy with a treat for the good tricks or with the discipline of a newspaper for the bad, all in order to make us live our lives as he lives, love as he loves, or to care for the least and lonely.  Jesus is reminding us that as sisters and brothers under the grace of God, we are supposed to break down the chasms of indifference that separate us in this life.  Jesus calls us to bring the reality of the Kingdom of God (where equality and justice exist) into this life right here and right now.

Harris wrote, “The rich man doesn’t get it: it is not that he screwed up by not helping Lazarus while they were both alive; rather it is that he could not hear, or did not listen to, Moses and the prophets, who had a lot to say about justice, the poor and those in need.” (2) All around us there are people suffering everyday and some of our neighbors do not have the basics of life, and some lack the opportunities for a better life.  Some of us have a better life and yet, we struggle with depression, loneliness, fear, and uncertainty.  In our own self-focus, we may find ourselves just like Dives with eyes that are blind to other’s plight, and ears that are deaf to their cries.

Poverty Today

“According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 46.2 million Americans are considered impoverished, with 16.4 million American children younger than eighteen years old and 28 million people 65 and older living in poverty every day.   Geography can exasperate poverty.  For instance, the cost of housing, food, and other basics is much higher in Naples than in Arcadia, Labelle, or Immokalee, so right here in our own backyards there are people working, struggling, and trying to eek out a living, and they struggle to meet the basics needs of life.

On the cover of your bulletin is a modern depiction of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, which we hear about in today’s gospel reading.  In the picture, people are busied in their daily lives working, moving about, and feasting and yet, they are oblivious to the plight of the poor woman who is begging for the scraps they have left.          The kneeling woman in the picture could be the homeless man at the corner of I-75 and Immokalee whom we see each day.  She could be the maintenance tech in our community working 40+ hours each week in the hot sun but barely makes enough to buy shoes for her daughter for school.  She also may be the Christian sister or brother sitting beside you right now, whom you may never think is suffering in poverty, a scarcity of life that takes many forms.  Some of us have never known economic poverty, but some of us suffer from another kind of poverty, a poverty of the soul, from which we all need to be saved.

Poverty of the soul exists when the work for our needs (not our wants) and the grace to relieve the suffering of others is disproportional.  For some neighbors who cannot satisfy the basics of life, they become so pre-occupied with survival that they cannot attend to their own spiritual or higher needs.  Alternatively, for some neighbors who abundantly satisfy their own basic needs of life, the abundance becomes the preoccupation and they too become distracted from their own spiritual needs. Poverty of the soul happens when God and other is left by the roadside, for the pursuit of the material needs of life.  Now how would we treat one another if those basic needs were satisfied, and we all were able to attend to the higher needs of: belonging, esteem, self-actualization, and transcendence.  Scholars call this concept “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” Jesus calls it loving our neighbor as ourselves.

Poverty and the Soul

The Prophet Amos shows how the poverty of soul pervades society.  He wrote, Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, feel secure on Mount Samaria, lie on beds of ivory, lounge on their couches, eat lambs from the flock calves from the stall; sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, improvise on instruments of music; drink wine from bowls, anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!  Joseph was a righteous servant of God, but he experienced ruin and destruction at the hands of his indifferent brothers who turned their backs on him in his time of need.   

            The prophet reminds us that we must not only open our eyes to the poverty around us, but we must allow God to change hearts, so we might work to bring justice and grace to the plight of those around us, to change their circumstances, to bring mercy in the midst of scarcity, love in the midst of pain, and grace into the midst of loss.  We are called to close the chasm between us.

The tragic flaw in (the gospel story today) is not the rich man’s wealth, but the fact that “he suffers from a deep spiritual deafness, an inability to hear and listen to the call for mercy and justice, or even the practical plea for just plain bread and some salve for the sores the dogs lick. His heart is hardened.” (2)

If we are we listening, why are we not responding?

Dives lived in torment of the poverty of the soul both in his earthly life and in the next.  Theologian Frank Honeycutt writes, Dives “was indifferent to the needs of the poor, and that in it becomes a certain sort of hell for those who drown in their own possessions.”(4) In other words, our storehouses often become the idols that place a chasm between us and God, and between each other.

So, when our heart are free to share the abundance God has given us to manage for a time, then as Frank Honeycutt asserts, “We open wide our hands once closed in fear, mistrust, and perhaps indifference—a hellish way to live. And perhaps, for the first time, we see a sister or brother, Lazarus at our gate. Or, as a certain prophet once put it: Jesus at our gate.” (4)

 Resurrection from Poverty

Whether we live with economic or spiritual poverty, we all need to be saved from the destitution of our isolated humanity, and we have hope that God is the God of abundance and not scarcity because we are a resurrection people.   We believe that this life is not the end and so, we must believe the circumstances of scarcity and injustice are not the end.  Mark Harris writes, “Too often we think the resurrection is proof that we Christians are on the right track—that believing in the resurrection is going to make everything come out all right. But don’t be too sure. If our hearts are closed to hearing the cry for justice, mercy and bread, the words of the resurrected One will not be convincing, but convicting. (2)

Paul convicts his young apprentice Timothy to teach believers a new way of life.  He wrote, “Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.”

The reality of “True Life” Sisters and brothers is found we realize we need one another, when we realize what it means to be human. Dives “needed Lazarus as much as Lazarus needed (him). The need of Lazarus was for food and clothing and medicine; he needed to be treated as a human being in a human way. The need of (Dives) was not for anything that money could buy; he also needed to know what it means to be human.”(5)   Being human means we commit to follow not the cliché or suggestion,  but the law Christ commands us to live, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

REFERENCES

(1) http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/109074/chapters/Understanding-the-Nature-of-Poverty.aspx

(2) Harris, Mark. “No Way Out.” The Christian Century, vol. 118, no. 25, Sept. 2001, p. 18.

(3) Luti, J.Mary. “Send Lazarus.” The Christian Century, vol. 115, no. 24, Sept. 1998, p. 819

(4) Honeycutt, Frank G. “Hellish Indifference.” Journal for Preachers, vol. 28, no. 4, Pentecost 2005, pp. 40–42.

(5) Huie, Wade P. “Poverty Of Abundance.” Interpretation 22.4 (1968): 403-420.

 

SERMON 9/18/19 Pentecost 15C Proper 20, Naples FL

6108-05874795Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

Time and the Shrewd Manager

For nearly 28 years, I have volunteered as a member of CAP (USAF Auxiliary) first as a Cadet at age 15, and now as an adult.  The discipline, organization training, emergency services, aerospace education, and other missions have formed and shaped me, and I received much more from CAP, than I ever gave it.  I am a volunteer Airman and I am amazed at the dedication of the people who serve alongside me. I am a volunteer, but what I do in that blue uniform is not my ministry. I love doing that kind of volunteering, and I always tried to give some time to the organization that is, when my schedule allows it.  Sometimes I wish I could give more time, but it is in my ministry where I find my greatest joy.  My volunteering is very different from ministry, and that is where God calls me to invest the gift of time.

Time is something none of us can gather or save because is not like monetary wealth. It is a gift from God and how we spend our time does matter.  An article in Psychology Today states, “Time is much more valuable than money because you can use your time to make money, but you can’t use money to purchase more time.” (1) The article goes on to say that “Time is the great equalizer… Each day has only 24 hours – nobody has any more than anyone else.” (1)  Time is a gift, and we only have so much, because we all have an expiration date, and time seems to be running out.

Although today’s gospel reading’s theme sounds like it is addressing monetary wealth and how we spend and manage it, if we listen closely, we may glean some wisdom about the wealth of time, and how God expects us to spend and manage it.  Although the parable we hear can be a little confusing, there are some nuggets of truth to be found for we Christians today.

Confused?

A “shrewd manager” was caught mis-appropriating his boss’s wealth.  Rather than fighting the accusations, he spent decided to go spend some time with the boss’s accounts payable clients, working on those relationships for his own future benefit.  The manager invested in those relationships and to sweeten the deal, he wrote off half of each debtor’s debt.   Then there is this the confusing part of the story, which is the master hears about what the manager did, and praises him for undermining his own finances.  “How could the master praise the dishonest manager,” most of us would ask.”  “Is Jesus advocating for dishonesty with our wealth,” we may inquire.

David Mathewson asserts, “Scholars have postulated on socioeconomic grounds that the steward’s actions were not really unjust at all and that he was merely releasing his commission.” (2) In other words, the manager was not stealing from the boss, just lowering his commission rates to garner favor with the debtors.  Other scholars argue, the“steward has acted dishonestly in releasing debts but shrewdly in preparing for his future. “ (2)  “But most interpreters admit, the parable as it stands in its present … context concerns the wise use of possessions.” (2)

           Jesus’ parable did not advocate for deceitful practices in the use of our resources (talent, treasure, and time), but it shows us that we must use the gifts God gives us wisely, and the wise use of God’s gift of time is investing in relationships.

“Triple T” and Relationships

In a Christian Century article, Christine Pohl writes, “Jesus does not commend the managers practices, but rather praises his insight into the connection between resources and relationships.” (3) The shrewd manager did just that, he used his valuable time to cultivate relationships with the debtors.  We can learn something from him (less the embezzlement part).

In other words, we like him, should spend our time in ministry, which is the cultivation of relationships (both with God and each other), and our gift of time is the best investment we can make.   We can buy those we love all the flowers, cards, and trinkets we want, but the best gift we can give others is our time.

I think the shrewd manager in today’s parable actually taught his master something that we Christians need to internalize today.  We need to make spiritually sound choices about how we invest our precious time.   If we divide up that time in such a way that God gets merely the last few minutes before we go to bed, we may be trying to serve the two masters.

Jesus said, “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” Time is limited and  how we use the gift of time is an indicator of our life’s priorities.  We are not serving God with our time, if God is not get raised up in the distribution list of the minutes, hours, and days of our lives.  We need to ask ourselves this question, “When it comes to the time I spend serving a God in what I do at church or what I do through the church’s mission, am I only a Volunteer or am I a Minister?”

Volunteer or Minister            

Webster defines “volunteer” as a person who (without valuable consideration or legal obligation) undertakes or expresses the willingness to a service.  Sometimes when we volunteer, we choose to use our time in whatever way suits us and other priorities make take precedence.  When we volunteer we can do incredible things like build houses for habitat, fly airplanes to support disaster missions, tutor children, distribute food, or any other work for charity.  Being a volunteer is admirable and it is a fine way to spend our time, but for most of us, volunteering happens only if we can fit it into our busy calendars.  What I am suggesting is that volunteering, and what we do as   members of The Body of Christ, the baptized given spiritual gifts for service (ministry) may be two very different things.  The key may be, for whom are we doing these things.

Writer and theologian Fredrick Buechner offers this definition of ministry (or the place God calls you to).  He says, our ministry “is the place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”. Another way to look at it is, “where your spiritual gifts and the worlds needs intersect, that is ministry.”

Ministers are motivated to serve because of and in response to the love of Christ, and the work is for Christ.  Ministers are equipped by, empowered by, and called by God to serve in a particular way, based on their unique spiritual gifts.  Ministers make serving a time priority in their lives, and never look at the clock.  Being a minister is a calling from God!

So, I want to challenge us to think differently about the time we give to God in service to God’s mission through the church (internally and externally).  I have been working on encouraging our staff and other ministers to think about church work differently. This past week, I asked our Parish Administrator to change the cover on the Front Office Volunteer binder, and we now call it the, “Office Minister” binder.  A subtle change, but I think it speaks volumes. Let me explain.

I can ask someone to volunteer each week to answer the phone and watch the front desk, or I can ask someone to serve as the first kind voice a caller hears on the phone, and to serve as the face of Christ when someone comes to visit the office and to provide the kind of hospitality Jesus practiced. Do you see the difference? As ministers our focus is grounded in a relationship, our relationship with Christ and with each other serving Christ and each other.

The shrewd manager taught his master a great lesson about what is truly important in this life, and he teaches us as well; our relationships and the time we devote to cultivating them.  So where and how are we going to focus our time investments as ministers of God’s Kingdom?  What will motivate us to answer God’s call on our lives to take our place on Jesus’ mission team as ministers?

So, when you consider God’s gift of time given to you, shift the balance of the spiritual clock and save time, or will you spend it as a minister in God’s kingdom work.  Also, when we refer to the work we do in service to Christ, let’s stop using the word volunteer.  When we speak of what we do as the Body of Christ for God’s glory, and when we answer God’s call let’s make sure we call ourselves what God sees us as, ministers. So, which are you, a volunteer or minister?  My friends, only time will tell.

REFERENCES

(1) https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/creativityrulz/200909/time-is-more-valuable-money

(2) Mathewson, David. “The Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-13): A Reexamination of the Traditional View in Light of Recent Challenges.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, vol. 38, no. 1, Mar. 1995, pp. 29–39.

(3) Pohl, Christine D. “Profit and Loss.” The Christian Century, vol. 118, no. 24, Aug. 2001, p. 13

(4) Wells, Samuel. “It’s the Economy, Stupid.” Journal for Preachers, vol. 30, no. 4, Pentecost 2007, pp. 58–60

 

 

SERMON 9-15-19 Pentecost 14C Proper 19 St. Monica’s Naples, FL

Lost sheepExodus 32:7-14; Psalm 51:1-11; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

Being Lost

September 11, 2001 at 8:46 am, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into floors 93-99 of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.  We try to bury the memories and emotions of that tragic day, only to have them resurface.   It all SEEMS like a dream and a distant memory, but under the charade of our busy lives a wound remains, and a call to respond waits to be answered.

Those events shook us to the very core of who we are as a people, and changed us in ways we do not yet understand. We seem so disoriented as a people, like little lost sheep.  For instance, racism is on the rise in our nation, old world power struggles are re-emerging, poverty and the disparity of income is growing and thus, we are divided now more than ever. We live in fear, panic, and terror and we avoid vulnerability, because we have been attacked. That wound has squelched our creativity, our openness to diversity and change, and we are truly lost, but even in our disorientation there is great hope.

Jesus Searches for Us

In Luke’s gospel reading, the writer tells us that Jesus was eating with sinners and tax collectors. Luke tells us that, “the Pharisees and scribes, (the religious insiders) were grumbling about Jesus’ dinner guests saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” The so called “good folk” were appalled that Jesus would reach out to those on the margins versus coming to the aid of the cream of the crop.  Jesus had compassion even for the insiders and told them a parable about lost sheep and lost coins, both things of immense value. The hearers of the parable heard from Jesus that “God always seeks us out and reaches out in love for those of us who are marginalized, those who are suffering, those who are lost, and those who need a rescue of the heart and soul.”

A shepherd left the flock and went after one solitary sheep in order to bring her back, then celebrated when she was found.  A woman had nine other coins, but she searched the whole house until she found it, and then threw a big party to celebrate.  These sound like quaint little stories, but they tell us that in God’s eyes those who have strayed away, those who have lost their way, those who are marginalized, those who are wrestling in tragedy are of immense value to God.

God wants us in right relationship with God and each other and so, when we stray from grace, God does not seek to punish us, but like the woman and shepherd, he frantically goes out searching for us.  God does not merely seek out the good and faithful churchgoers either.  Remember, Jesus ate a meal with the outcasts (tax collectors and sinners), and shared grace and mercy and compassion through his presence, even when the “insiders” turned their back on them.  However, listen closely to the story, because Jesus was trying to liberate the lost outcasts, but he was also trying to liberate the “insiders” as well; the Pharisees and scribes.

The religious ones complained, but Jesus wanted to liberate them from their bigotry and divisiveness toward the least, lost, and lonely by teaching them how to love and live using coins and sheep as the example. Here is my point, whether you are an insider or outsider, Jesus is the ultimate seeker of the lost, the boundary-crossing rescuer of the soul, and the “no one is left out.” Jesus is the ultimate first responder of heart and soul.  We saw glimpses of that kind of love in the rescue work of those brave women and men, firefighters, first responders, and police officers, who nearly 19 years ago faced death to save others.

Tragedy then and now

Maybe some of you were there in the heat of the city that day and witnessed first-hand the bravery and courage of those who served.  Compassion and mercy and love compelled folks to face death in order to rescue the injured and the lost, all powered by the grace that comes only from God.  We live in gratitude that we survived that tragic day, but we must never forget, never forget, that there are equally devastating attacks being heaped on people’s dignity nearly 20 years later in our nation, in our local communities, and in our families today.

Read the headlines and watch the news, or better yet, look around you.  There are so many people whose lives exist in the crumbling walls, fiery heat, and unimaginable devastation of bigotry and racism.  Equally, every day people are suffering from the unfair loss of a job, the death of a loved one, a terrible illness, the brokenness of a relationship, clinical depression, or the drudgery of unfulfilling work. All of these are real tragedies and the pain and anguish can often be as bad as the destruction we saw on September 11, 2001.

For some of us, we may either deny this reality, and reject that we have a part in turning things around, or we may just be afraid to take action.  I thank God there are folks who strap on their mercy backpacks and go out seeking the brokenhearted.  I thank God there are folks who enter into the dark places of life and take with them basic provisions of the heart, blankets of restoration and reconciliation, dry clothes of compassion, and the refreshing waters of healing and solace. I thank God there are folks who take off into the burning buildings of pain to seek out those who have found themselves in the midst of loss.

I thank God there are rescuers, but the truth of the matter is this, the first responder ranks of the heart and soul are few, and many of the first responders themselves are in need of rescue.  However, there is great hope and so, let me explain.  I read an article that stated that St. Paul’s Episcopal Church New York became the focal point of a remarkable effort to support the workers at nearby Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Hundreds of volunteers ministered to firefighters, construction workers and others working in what they called “the pit.”  Think about it, even the rescuers needed saving that day.  Even those who brave the fire and destruction at times lost coins and lost sheep, and the prophet Isaiah reminds, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way.”

Lost Sheep become Rescuers

When I think of lost sheep, I imagine cute little lost lambs that seem so unaware of the dangers that await them. I was a like that at one time, a lamb who left the safety of a faith community thinking I could do it all on my own without the church, or so I thought.  I left the flock choosing to manage faith all on my own. However, I learned that beyond the bounds of Christian community awaits the potential for confusion at best, and self-destruction at worst.  I bet all of us have at some point have become disoriented, disillusioned, and disappointed with church and felt like we were covered in the heap and ashes of life.  Then, at other times in our lives, the Spirit called us to step up and serve as brave, courageous, and compassionate ones who serve to rescue the lost, just like Jesus does.  Like our Great Shepherd, we are invited to strap on a backpack filled with compassion, trudge through the dark places of life, and relentlessly seek those who are outside the community.

Our Mission

On September 11, 2001, first responders left the safety of St. Paul’s, and went back into burning buildings over and over again to rescue those who could not find their way.  They never gave up.  I find it ironic that sometimes the church, the recipients of grace who have been found and returned are satisfied with the solace and rest of community, satisfied with our good fortune, and yet there are others out there who need rescue as well. We need to again strap on our rescue equipment filled with the provisions of compassion, love, restoration, and kindness, and go out into the darkness of the world, to seek out the lost. We come here each week to fill our backpacks with the basic provisions of the heart: the blankets of restoration and reconciliation, dry clothes of compassion, flashlights of healing and solace.  So filled to the brim with grace, we must head back into the dark places of broken relationships, loneliness, fear, doubt, and tragedy and join the mission.

Sitting here today, you may be a lost sheep or lost coin, and you may in silence sit under ash and dust covered in some unimaginable hurt, alienation, or you may be facing self-destruction.  Sitting here today, you likewise may be a first responder of the heart and soul, and yet you need healing as well.

In late 2001, after the tragedy of 9/11 struck, Terri and I finally decided to return to church after we had taken a long hiatus from Sunday morning ritual.  By chance, when we arrived at a quirky parish, a Christian first responder showed up at the Welcome Desk and simply introduced himself.  He then pulled from his grace-filled backpack an invitation for us sit with he and his wife that day.  Through his small gesture of kindness, one person’s simple act of love, we were forever liberated from the destruction that this little lost sheep could have surely encountered.  Sometimes being a first responder of the soul is much easier than you think.

Whether you are rescuer or rescued, God tirelessly serves to bring us back to the safety and security of his presence, but we have to take our part in the liberation we seek.   I encourage all of us (including me) to take time this week to remember 9/11 and how those events deeply wounded us as a nation. This week, spend some time in prayer my sisters and brothers and as you remember the first responders back then, ask for God’s guidance about your call to ministry in this place and beyond.

Ask God to guide you and direct you about becoming a first responder of the heart and soul.  I promise you I will pray with you, and I offer you this prayer, “Dear Lord, when someone needs to see your abundant grace enacted in my life, please give me the courage to report for duty and to show up. Lord, teach me how to draw from your abundant provisions of grace through which, you lovingly rescued me.  Lord, please help me to go back into the dark and dusty tragedies of others’ lives so through me, you might rescue your little lost lambs and lost coins that are of great value, and of which, I am one. Amen.”

SERMON 9/8/19 Pentecost 13C Proper 18 St. Monica’s Naples, FL

Pokemon-Go-And-MakeDeuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

Making Disciples

After the resurrection and before the ascension, Jesus told his followers to “Go and make disciples of all nations.”  In our postmodern times, we may think that means merely attending Sunday worship, going to Sunday school, confirmation prep classes, mission trips, and eventually full membership into the church, but Jesus has something else in mind.  In today’s gospel reading, some of us are shocked by the criteria Jesus has set for his followers.  He tells us that in order to follow him, we must hate our families, take up and bear a first century torture device, and then if not enough, divest ourselves of all our possessions.  Honestly, those membership requirements are more than most of us are willing to accept in order to claim the title “Jesus Follower.”

That kind of commitment does not seem real or even possible today. Jesus’ demands of his followers sound more like he was living in some kind of first century fantasy-world and of course, none of this applies to we sophisticated, educated, and savvy Christians today.  Are we confused by these discipleship standards and do we wonder, how we 21stcentury folks even follow Jesus today.  What of his demands are real and what is mere fantasy?  We all need a little clarity from Jesus about what he expects of us, especially in a world where truth and reality seem so elusive in our culture today.

Pokemon Go Discipleship

Alternative facts, incongruent news headlines, and even Smart Phone technology blurs reality and fantasy.  What is real and what is fake these days?  We even have something called Augmented Reality (AR), as if the real world we live in were not challenging enough.  AR is an interactive experience of a real-world environment.  Objects that reside in the real-world are enhanced by computer-generated perceptual information across our five sensory modalities.  For example, there is a game out there called “Pokemon Go,” a free smartphone app that combines gaming with the real world.  It uses location tracking and mapping technology to create an ‘augmented reality’ where players interact with and train imaginary Pokémon characters in real locations. Pokemon Go allows players to play in the real world, but without any real commitments, with no real life-changing experiences, no costs at all (the app is free) and all in the arena of escapism and make-believe.

When we hear Jesus’ demands of discipleship, do we think it is mere fantasy?  Most of us deep down would rather seek a commitment to Jesus that lets us dabble in his teachings, but with no risks or costs.   To really follow him though we need to seek the real life-altering, fully participative, ultimate reality way of life he offers us. We cannot merely put on ear buds, fire up our Apple phones, and play “’Pokemon Go’ be a Christian.”  To study his life, to really live like he lived, and to allow God’s spirit to transform us is hard, difficult, and demanding. Following the one who loved beyond our capabilities, healed those who also crucified him, and never once retaliated against his betrayers is not something we see as normal, amongst our friends and others we meet in our local Publix or Walgreens or local restaurant.

Many of us would rather be in an augmented reality discipleship program where we merely play the game, or intellectually dabble in his teachings, or make gentle infrequent excursions into fellowship with his followers, all the while afraid to jump into full the reality of God’s grace and mission call.   So, what does it meant to really follow Jesus, especially when he sets out the criteria he gives us today.  Which is it, this mission call we have, “Go and make disciples,” or do we merely play “Pokemon Go and make disciples.”

Criteria of Discipleship

Jesus said,“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. That may seem like fantasy, but most scholars say he was NOT telling us literally to hate our families. Dr. Leslie Holmes asserts, “The Aramaic word for “hate” that Jesus uses … actually means to, “love much less than.” It is a word that tells us that the love we have for our closest family members, compared to the love Jesus demands from us, looks almost like hatred.”(4) What Jesus tells us is that to be like him, we need to make sure God is at the top of our relationship list, and thus all our relationships will be transformed by that reality.  Putting God first, and allowing that new reality to change how we cultivate and care for our other relationships, makes following Jesus seem possible doesn’t it?

Next Jesus said,“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”  We do not really have to experience crucifixion to be a disciple, but what Jesus is telling us that to be like him, we need to be willing to go the distance with him, all the way to a life of self-giving love, in which others are above self, and the pouring out ourselves in service to others is the new reality.   Jesus said, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  Jesus is telling us  that to be like him nothing material, nor nothing of this world should get in the way of our doing as he does, loving as he loves, and being as he is. Holmes states, “‘If you are looking for a cheap ticket to glory, you are not going to find it with (Jesus). The life of disciples is a life of suffering and difficulty. If you come expecting a free trip along easy street, you will soon go away disappointed.’” (4)  We all know that nothing of value, nor anything worth doing in this life (in the reality of this life) is easy or comes without real sacrifice, nor does our journey with Christ.

Stanley Hauerwas writes, “If Jesus is the Messiah, it is surely absurd to think we can follow Jesus while clinging to the attachments of the old age. Rather, to be his disciple means that all our past … are now put in a new context.” (3) In other words, if we are really willing to travel the rough journey that leads to self-sacrifice (the cross), and are we willing to put Jesus above everyone and everything else, then following him is not as difficult as it seems.   Although Jesus’ criteria to be followers seem outrageous at first, in reality they are very easy to do, especially if we allow the Spirit to transform us, to be more like Jesus each and every day.

Imitating Christ  

“So Eric,” you may say, “let’s put the augmented reality discipleship metaphor aside, and just tell me what I need to do to follow Jesus.”   Simply, we must first decide to make the commitment to live our lives imitating Christ. Next, we must commit to learning more about Jesus and the life and ministry he led and the life he wants us to lead.  Finally, we must live that life in reality every single day, accepting that we will not get it right, and that we will fail.  We must be at peace with the fact that it is only by the grace of God that we can become and remain a disciple of Jesus, because we cannot do it alone.

James Samra explains, “Discipleship involves both becoming a dis­ciple and being a disciple. At times the focus is on the entrance into the process (evangelism), but most often the focus is on growing in the process (maturity); it includes both teaching and life transfor­mation.”(1) In other words, the title disciple that each of us claims really means we are striving to be “Christ like,” and that means we have to work at it.  Here is how we do that.

Be a Disciple!

First, simply read, mark, and inwardly digest scripture, so you might understand how Jesus lived and what he taught, and studying with others is one of the best ways possible. If you think you are going to learn enough to be a Jesus follower from hearing me ramble on for 15 minutes once per week, you are mistaken.  Join one of our small study groups, or come to my study each week.  If you were going to learn to be a pilot, you surely would need to do more than just go watch airplanes takeoff and land at the airport once a week.   You would need to read, study, and yes, get into the airplane and take the controls and practice.

Yes, to become a disciple, you need to practice what you have learned.  Through local mission service, or serving on a ministry team in the church, or gathering with other Christians to do something for God’s Kingdom, you are practicing the faith.  Gather together with other Christians, so you can experience how others follow Jesus, and you can begin (as Samra asserts) “imitating those who manifest the nature of Christ in their lives and are living out the truths of Christianity.” (1)

The truth of the matter is that following Jesus is really our acts of love in response to the abundant grace God pours out on us. When we commit to the reality of following Jesus, we do it not because “God is the cosmic bully who demands our compliance with the divine directives . . . or else. Rather, (we follow him because) he risks condition-less love in perfect freedom, knowing it might not be returned.” (2) God risks rejection from us, but loves us beyond our ability to comprehend it.

So remember, following Jesus is not something you can do alone in some augmented reality game.  There is no “Pokemon Go Make Disciples” App you can download for free. Honestly sisters and brothers, being a disciple is not something you can do with merely a once-a-week, well meaning but limited liturgical engagement.  We have to choose to follow Jesus, and if we do, we will experience joy, peace, and love that is real, love that will last our whole lifetimes, and surely a love that will last into the next.

To become a disciple takes commitment, dedication, and real sweat and determination on our part.  Today’s Old Testament reading advises, “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live.”  So, forget “Pokemon Go be a disciple”, go out there in the real world and live, love, study, serve.  “Go and be a disciple.”

REFERENCES

(1) Samra, James G. “A Biblical View of Discipleship.” Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 160, no. 638, Apr. 2003, pp. 219–234.

(2) Wollenberg, Bruce. “Summoned.” The Christian Century, vol. 121, no. 17, Aug. 2004, p. 17.

(3) Hauerwas, Stanley. “Hating Mothers as the Way to Peace.” Journal for Preachers, vol. 11, no. 4, Pentecost 1988, pp. 17–21.

(4) http://day1.org/1059-discipleship_is_demandingDiscipleship is Demanding! The Rev. Dr. Leslie Holmes

SERMON 9/1/19 Pentecost 12C Proper 17 St. Monica’s Episcopal Church

HumilitySirach 10:12-18; Psalm 112 ; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16’ Luke 14:1, 7-14

Downton Abbey and Table Manners

When we first moved to Naples and we lived in temporary housing, Terri and I bing-watched the entire six seasons of Downton Abbey.  This PBS drama is a tale set in a fictional Yorkshire country estate between 1912 and 1926, which depicts the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their domestic servants.  The character development is incredible, the drama intriguing, and the settings for the filming impeccable.  Many of the scenes of the series centered around the dining table and shared meals. Whether it was informal breakfast, cucumber sandwiches at teatime, or the major formal dining affair in the evening, meals were the central event where the characters of Downton Abbey enacted their relationships and social standing.

These meals were much different from those we share with friends, family, and at church potlucks we share today.  “Considerable thought and planning went into the seating protocol at the table to show respect to positions and titles and to promote conversation.” (3) Where one sat at the Crawley table spoke volumes about one’s place in the family, and one’s relationship to the Earl himself; the head of the household. Downton Abbey gives we modern folks a glimpse into the hierarchy of society in the early 20thcentury, and a foreshadowing of 21stcentury hierarchy today.

It was not that much different in first century Palestine and in Mediterranean culture, which we hear about in Jesus’ encounter at dinner in today’s gospel. “Greco-Roman meals often were set around a U-shaped arrangement of couches, where the closest seating to the host was reserved for those with the greatest status or honor, while those with less honor sat on the outside.” (1) Seating arrangements, dining protocols, and party guest lists have always indicated the imbalance of human social structure, the non-God’s Kingdom heirarchy, which Jesus teaches us about in today’s gospel reading.

Abundant Feast; Scarcity Mentality

Imagine for a moment you were at the dinner party Jesus attended, and you were there watching, standing beside him, as the jockeying for seating positions took place. Listen closely as he taught that table rituals practiced were a direct reflection of the social structures and relational dynamics found in society in the street.  Listen closely as Jesus contrasted the dining table hierarchy to the radical nature of God’s Kingdom hierarchy.  Listen to how Jesus turned the whole concept of human competitiveness and the “haves” and have nots” on its head.

Jesus made it simple and claimed that we create guest lists of people, to whom we invite into the experience of the perceived limited hospitality of our lives.  Jesus taught alternatively that God’s Kingdom party invitations are not just sent out to a select few, to the uber faithful alone, to the holiest ones in the bunch. God sends invitations to all people, so we might come to God’s table of grace-filled hospitality, regardless of social status or the “what have I done for God lately” crew. God’s abundant grace has no bounds, requirements, or protocols, because grace is so abundant in God’s Kingdom.

If God’s Kingdom is so abundant and there is enough for all, why then do we live with a scarcity mentality?  We still today, with animalistic “survival of the fittest” temperament, still jockeying for the best seats at God’s table of abundance.  For instance, a small percentage of the people in the world hold a disproportionate amount of wealth, and even the richest country in the world cannot provide housing for homeless people on the street, or healthcare for the most vulnerable, or a decent wage for those who physically work the hardest.

God’s earth produces 2.2 billion metric tons of grain each year, and the total population consumes much less than that in order to sustain life. We do not have a supply problem in the world; we have a dispersal problem.   In other words, in our pursuit of being first, the best, and attaining the right social status, some folks win and some lose.  However, when it comes to God’s grace and the abundance of his table (the Kingdom of God) there is no supply problem but rather, a distribution problem and here is the key my sisters and brothers; as receivers of God’s grace, we are God’s grace distributors.

“Jesus’ table stories describe a revolutionary, redemptive kingdom that confronts the norms of upwardly mobile networking and competition. He eschews the expectations of polite society for a story of revolution. This is the nature of the kingdom.” (1) There is enough grace for all, there are enough resources for all, but we still want the best seats of honor at the table, and thus there is an inequality in the world that stands in opposition to God’s Kingdom. Honestly, we all are in the same boat together in this world.

Fear of Losing Our Place

We all show up to the party of God’s grace equally. We all have backpacks filled with spiritual and emotional junk, hidden sin, and the things we don’t wish others to know about.  Even the socialite, royals of Downton Abbey, despite such sophisticated ways, show up to God’s grace-filled dinner party with their fears and uncertainties of where their place at God’s table stood.  For instance, The Earl of Grantham had an emotional affair with a house maiden, and his wife Lady Grantham, a wealthy American, also had an emotional fling with another man.  Daughter Lady Mary had a premarital tryst with a weekend visitor to the estate. Daughter Lady Edith gave birth to a child out of wedlock. Daughter Lady Sibil married a commoner Irishman Tom Branson.

Despite the outer appearances, the fine upstanding Crawley’s had their own issues, family secrets, and sin-filled lives and yet, they shared a common table where God’s grace flowed abundantly and equally upon all, despite the inequitable lives they led.  We, like the Crawleys, put on masks that hide the broken lives that we each lead, and maybe that is why we think we have to jockey for positions of honor. Could it be that we are afraid of losing our place at the table of grace? I wonder if the reason we strive for social status, economic acquisition, honorable accolades, and power-wielding influence is because somewhere in the recesses of our hearts, those areas of fear, none of us are willing to let other see, we find that we are truly afraid of loss.  We are afraid of being stripped bare of what hides the reality of our own weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

Humility: Secure in God

We live in fear and we create structures of imbalance to protect our place and yet, God promises, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.  What can anyone do to me?”  If we recognize that in our vulnerability and humanity that we are able to discover our true place of honor at God’s table, what then do we have to fear.

“When our security and identity rest in God, it is LESSdifficult to choose the way of humility.” (2) Our identity in the Kingdom of God is not reliant on a title:  Earl, Duke, professor, priest, doctor, business executive, wealthy entrepreneur, teacher, etc. etc.   Our identity and place at God’s table is based on the only title that matters, “Child of God.”  As written in Sirach, “The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord.”  We must abandon pride and choose humility, so we can find confidence in our place at God’s table.

Nothing else matters, not bank account, the car we drive, the designer clothes we wear, the brand of wine we drink, nor the status we carry in the community.  We can be secure in our place at God’s abundant table of grace, when we can accept God’s place and the place of our neighbor at the table of hospitality of our very lives.  When we find our relationship to God and each other on the right footing, we find security in our place at the table.
Our Table/Your Table/God’s Table

            When Terri and I worked with the homeless in Fort Myers years ago, we shared a life changing experience of sitting at the table and sharing a meal with people, who really were no different from us and yet, they lived each day in absolute poverty.  Somehow over that meal the walls of division fall and you discover a sister or brother there with you.  You begin to see that we all are on the same level of God’s Kingdom, and all that stands between those at the table together are mere fleshly economic, circumstantial, and social imbalances of culture.

Do not get me wrong I am not putting out there a radical economic system change where there is no reward for hard work.  What I am saying is that God’s Kingdom is so abundant, God’s creation produces so abundantly, and the grace each of us carries is so abundant, that we Christians must in our daily lives, strive to tilt the scales in favor of those who are without, who are forgotten, and who live each day in fear, destitution, and injustice.  I bet God’s Kingdom tilts the scales that way.

Jesus said, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”  I believe Jesus is teaching us about a whole lot more than just our little social dinner parties.  He is instructing his followers to remember that every moment of our lives is an opportunity for us to show radical hospitality Jesus style.   We are called to serve the least, lost, and lonely with a grace that has been poured out to us so freely and abundantly.

When our security is found in God, in Jesus who is “the same yesterday and today and forever,” we can deal with the unpredictability and the risks of seeking righteousness. We can show hospitality to needy strangers, spend time with prisoners and share our resources with the poor because God has promised never to forsake us.” (2)   We must remove our Downton Abbey titles, our fear induced masks of false identity, and stop “worrying about position and recognition, which will keep us susceptible to the latest version of status-seeking and a fear of losing our place.”(2)  The place of honor set aside for each of us awaits, and at this table all gather on the same level. So come, leave behind those things that bring about fear, set aside those things you want to hide, take off those masks that you no longer want to wear.  Come and join the great feast of our Lord where the “first shall be last, and the last, shall be first.”

 

REFERENCES

(1) Conder, Tim. “Table Manners.” The Christian Century, vol. 124, no. 17, Aug. 2007, p. 18.

(2) Pohl, Christine D. “Risky Business.” The Christian Century, vol. 118, no. 23, Aug. 2001, p. 16

(3) https://www.etiquettetrainer.com/downton-abbey-dining-etiquette-for-today/

SERMON 8-25-19 Pentecost 11C Proper 16 St. Monica’s Naples, FL

bentIsaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

Bound and Bent Over

A recent Forbes magazine article stated, “We spend as much as 12 hours a day in front of our screens.” Further, the report asserts, “Our time on social media shows measurable, causal differences in our mental health.” (6)  As we Americans make the choice to remain “stooped over” distracted by our smart phone screens for over half of a day, our relationships and connections to one another are suffering, and so is our health.

I was at Coconut Point Mall the other day, and I noticed this phenomenon in real time. Nearly everyone who was supposed to be enjoying some time of leisure and fun were either texting or reading something on the their smart phones.  There was no interaction between people, no relationships being cultivated, and no sharing of one’s life with another.  Folks are imprisoned by that electronic leash that perpetually keeps us in a stooped position unable to see others in front of us, distracted from the lives of others (and our own lives), detached from God’s grace and peace, and imprisoned in a false reality not of our making or of God’s making.  We need to silence our cell phones, the electronic prisons we inhabit, and start embracing and enjoying the movie of grace playing all around us.

Smart Phones and television screens are not the only prisons we live in today. Our culture pushes us to excel vocationally, financially, socially, and relationally, and yet there are high costs for that kind of pressure.  Long work hours, anxiety filled schedules, over extended finances, and unfulfilled relationships are some of the pressures with which, many of us contend.  It seems that life might be more joyful, we lived in a deeper spiritual peace, if we lived a little more simply, a little more balanced, and if we could shrug off the heavy burden of success drive, turn off the screens, and get back to basics.

Healed and Set Free

Jesus was teaching on the Sabbath in the synagogue. A woman comes in, all stooped over and bound up by her body’s infirmity, and Jesus stops and takes note.  It is a good thing he was not texting or playing “Pokemon Go”, or he would have overlooked the woman’s pain, and the opportunity to bring healing. This poor woman’s life perspective, bent over by pain or spinal disease, meant she could not look others in the eye.  She could not engage in relationship from the same level as everyone else.  She was permanently seeing the world from a low place in society.  She was literally spiritually, emotionally, socially and relationally dead.

Luckily, Jesus did not walk around with head down focused on himself.  He was engaged in what is going on around him, with eyes wide open.  He broke the norms of culture that day, and touched a woman in public and restored her to full health, on a day set aside for only holy rest.  In an awkward twist to the story, the leader of the synagogue accused Jesus of breaking the law and accused him of heresy.  Jesus responded with an indignant, but clear rebuttal.  He told the religious leader (and us) that we all need to set aside the distractions and the legalistic barriers we create, which keep us from holy relationships with each other.

Jesus teaches that relationships are of greater importance than the law, cultural norms, political legislation, and yes even our electronic leashes. We are so distracted today that we cannot see what is really important and sometimes, we let the law get in the way of justice.  Even back then the religious folk were blinded to the need for justice, dignity, and restoration.  For instance, the law back then, allowed on the Sabbath an animal owner to unleash their ox or mule to go and get water, thus restoring them and keeping them fully alive, but what about the woman, a child of God?  “Jesus insisted that the synagogue and the Sabbath are not the only things that are holy—so was this woman’s life.” (1) Are we like the leader of the synagogue, hell bent on following law above following the call to love our neighbor?  Failing to love your neighbor is sin, and we must remember that sin is not about breaking law, but it is about breaking relationships.  Sin is certainly rampant today.

Look at how we treat people today: the homeless, the immigrant, or the neighbor we do not like, and even the friend with whom we disagree.  We often want to bind them up and place them in the chains of our own making.   What about the children of God bound up in this world by tragedy, unjust laws, and unholy motivations that none of us really want to discuss.   These are God’s people whether they are a part of our tribe or not.  Ironically, many of us watch the Humane Society advertisements about dogs and cats suffering in cages, shivering, afraid and bound up, and these images break our hearts, and we hold our tiny pups and kittens close to our chest hoping they never experience that fate.

However, we are so distracted in this world by the frenzies of our individual lives that we forget, we imprison people both physically, economically, socially, and spiritually every day.  We are so focused on improving our own place on the economic and social food chain that we forget what is most important in this life; loving God and loving our neighbor.  There are people of God who are truly imprisoned by injustice, indignity, broken relationships, hardships, and even the simplest burdens of life, and we are so preoccupied that we do not see it.  We all need a rest ,so we can be of service in God’s Kingdom.

Sabbath, Balance, and Ready for Service

We all need a break from these distractions, so like Jesus we can see the bent over, burden carrying neighbor who needs our tender touch of grace from God. We Christians need to find some balance in our lives, so we can be refreshed for active service.  We all need to love God, so we can be filled up, strengthened, and equipped to love others. We all need a Sabbath.

Sabbath is supposed to be a “day set aside for us to rest, but it does not mean that we should take a break from bringing to the world a glimpse of the goodness of God.”(2)  Sabbath is a break from the chaos, a respite to refresh, a moment spent in creation, a time for prayer, contemplation, and rejuvenation.  Sabbath is a time for praising and worshipping God. “When Jesus touched the woman, she stood up straight and tall for the first time in 18 years, and she began to praise God. She knew the source of her healing. So on the Sabbath she praised God for this unexpected, wonderful, unbelievable gift of life.” (4)

You may say, Fr. Eric, “How in this chaotic, draining, demanding, success fueled life can I find time to pray, to sit at the beach with God, to even stop for 10 minutes and put down my cell phone?”  You have to do it.  We clergy have to do it.  “But I am so busy, how can I respond to the needs of others, when I am so focused on what is challenging, distracting, and keeping me occupied 24/7,” you may ask.  The question you need to ask is not how can I take a Sabbath, but the critical question with which you must wrestle is, “what happens to your spiritual health, if you do not?”

You cannot pour from an empty cup, you cannot run the engine of your ministry on an empty tank, and you cannot love God and others, when your spirit does not have an opportunity to refuel on grace.  If we continue at the frenzied pace on which we all race, we will miss God’s dream.  If we do not stop, put the cell phone down, and open our eyes to others around us and take some time for refreshment, we are going to miss God’s dream for us.

Rest, Freedom, and Rejoicing

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry once preached these words, “God has a dream for this world and a dream for every man, woman, and child who walks upon the face of this earth. That’s what Jesus is all about. That’s what he’s trying to get us to see. God has a dream.”(5)  God has a dream for that poor bent over woman in the synagogue.  God has a dream for the homeless man or woman on the street.  God has a dream for the refugee seeking a safer life.  God has a dream for the prisoner.  God has a dream for you!

Some of you are held in spiritual bondage right here today, but God invites you to drop your baggage and take a rest.  God invites you to experience healing, just like that experienced by the impaired woman that Sabbath day in the synagogue.  However, we are hard pressed to experience that kind of healing, because we will not stop, in order to receive it.  Jesus’ mission is “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” As his followers, we are also called to partner with him “to bring all people into unity with God and each other in Christ.”   We are commissioned to experience healing and then, to go and be healers for others.  In order to do that, we who have been bent over and bound by the troubles of life, must purposefully set aside time to sit at the Master’s feet and let him touch our hearts and heal our souls.

If we are truly called to be sent out to meet the least, lost and lonely at their level, and to see them fully in the blessedness that Christ sees them, and then love them and lift them up to new life, we need holy Sabbaths every week.  We need opportunities for balance, rest, and refreshment.  Now we are not commanded to abandon the mission and just be on spiritual vacation all the time, because we will risk losing sight of what is going on around us.  We already have God’s blessing to be grace bearers in our lives anew every day, and I know Jesus believes we can do it.  He even showed us how, because on a day of rest, he set aside the law, and with outstretched arms of love, touched a poor stooped over woman, who could not even look him in the eye.  He raised her to new life and then she went out praising God and giving thanks.

You see, serving and resting are not opposites. You can rest and pray, and love and serve all at the same time, but you have to set aside that overwhelming desire to stay in the business of life all the time.  You have to stand up straight and see the grace opportunities happening all around you.  I encourage each of us, including me your priest, to stop and rest.  I encourage each of us, including me to spend time each week seeking joy in Christ, living a little more simply and balanced, shrugging off the heavy burden of success drive, and just get back to basics.  Oh, and when the movie of grace is playing play in front of your very eyes, please do not forget to silence your cell phones.

REFERENCES

(1) Berger, Teresa. “Off the Record.” The Christian Century, vol. 121, no. 16, Aug. 2004, p. 19

(2)Moore, Joy J. “Bearing Witness.” The Christian Century, vol. 124, no. 16, Aug. 2007, p. 17.

(3) Phelps, Stephen H. “Luke 13:10-17.” Interpretation, vol. 55, no. 1, Jan. 2001, pp. 64–66.

(4) Ruth Hamilton: Keeping the Sabbath Holy  http://day1.org/7404-keeping_the_sabbath_holy

(5) The Most Rev. Michael Curry, PB http://day1.org/5105-god_has_a_dream

(6) https://www.forbes.com/sites/nicolefisher/2019/01/24/how-much-time-americans-spend-in-front-of-screens-will-terrify-you/#192ee631c67a