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Sunday, October 20, 2019

Prayer changes nothing - and everything

Pentecost XIX - Proper 24 - October 20, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, De

Everything I learned about praying always and not losing heart, I learned from two very different people at two very different stages in my life.

You are not going to be surprised to hear this, but the first person to teach me about prayer was my Grandmother. You think the persistent widow in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 18:1-8) is persistent? Ha! She had nothing on my Grandmother! In fact, I’m told that the best translation of the phrase, “she will wear me out etc." is actually a boxing term in Greek for giving someone a black eye. 

Yup, that would be my Grandmother.

When you walked into my Grandmother’s house, you couldn’t help but see the two pictures of the two men my Grandmother considered “The World’s Greatest Roman Catholics.” 

The first was Jesus. I know, right? Who knew Jesus was Roman Catholic? I thought he was Jewish. The picture was what we kids called his “High School Graduation” picture. You know, the one of him in profile, with his long hair beautifully combed, and the perfect back-lighting? 

The other picture of the other great Catholic? Oh, that would have been John F. Kennedy, Jr. Of course.  Yes, she did have a picture of the Pope. It was in the bathroom. I never dared asked why.

Walking into my Grandmother’s bedroom was like walking into a shrine – we kids used to call it “Disney World for Roman Catholics”. If you didn’t grow up Roman Catholic, you might not understand, but let me try to describe it to you, anyway.

Oh, and, just in case there’s any question or doubt: I cherish my Roman Catholic upbringing as I do my Portuguese heritage and I mean absolutely no disrespect to either. This is part of what makes me uniquely me – warts and all – and I am deeply grateful for it all.

So, to my grandmother’s house. The tops of all of her bureaus were filled with statues of saints, all of which had small, flickering votive or novena candles in front of them. If you lifted up each statue, underneath them, written in Portuguese, was a slip of paper with her particular prayer petitions to that particular saint.

In my Grandmother’s world of prayer, one prayed to particular saints for particular things. St. Jude, of course, was the saint of Lost Causes. You prayed to him if you needed a Big Phat M.I.R.A.C.L.E. Maybe someone was gravely ill? In the hospital? Maybe he or she had (said in a whisper, lest on one else should get it…. shhhh . . . .) cancer? Better petition St. Jude.

St. Joseph was patron saint of Workers. Joe was your guy if your husband or sons or brothers were out of work or there was a strike at the factory. Joe would get them back to work, right quick.  The BVM (Blessed Virgin Mary) was the one you turned to if your novena prayers had not yet been answered. My Grandmother figured that Mary had the ear of both God AND Jesus, so if you prayed to her, you knew one of the two guys were going to hear about it, big time.

There were lots and lots of others – St. Martin de Porres, St. Theresa of Avila, St. Lucy, St. Elizabeth of Portugal (+ my patron saint), Mother Elizabeth Seaton, to name just a few, but the busiest saint was always St. Gerard, the patron saint of families. He was also the one in the most trouble for not answering my Grandmother’s prayers.

If you were a saint, and my Grandmother prayed to you – hwever many prescribed decades on her rosary for the prescribed amount of days or weeks or months – and you didn’t answer her prayer, you were in BIG trouble.

My grandmother would first yell at the statue. Then, she would blow out the candle. Then, with a great flourish, she would turn the statue to face the wall, saying to him or her in broken English, “And, you gonna stay there until you gonna answer my prayer.”

So, I learned three important lessons about prayer from my Grandmother

First lesson: God is always watching. Never let God catch you not praying.

Second lesson: Don’t put all your prayers in one basket. Spread them around.

Third lesson: If your prayers aren’t answered, pray harder. Louder. Like you mean it.

And then, I grew up.  I learned stuff about the world. I learned that the world I lived in was very different from my grandmother’s world. It was a world she couldn’t have even imagined much less live in, so she kept more and more to herself, speaking only Portuguese. As my world expanded, her world grew smaller and smaller. It was safer for her that way.

Even as my Grandmother retreated from the world, I ran straight to it and found myself moving farther and farther away from the images of God of my childhood. Those images simply didn’t have any relevance to the world in which I was living. 

I discovered that God was not a puppet master, pulling every one and every thing on a string. I learned that God didn’t cause tornadoes and hurricanes and tidal waves – the shifting earth did that. Smokey the Bear taught me that only I could prevent forest fires – not the wrath of God. 

I learned that people had heart attacks and strokes and diabetes and even ‘cancer’ because of hereditary and environmental and nutritional considerations, and not because God punished them for sin. I learned that left-handed people were not sinister, that people with seizure disorder (epilepsy) were not possessed by demons, that women with normal menstrual cycles were not ‘unclean’, and that children born blind or deaf or with a deformity were not evidence that their ancestors had sinned.

For a very long time, all of that knowledge put me in a tailspin crisis of faith. Now that I knew all this stuff about the world, what was I supposed to believe about God?

Well, I learned that my faith didn’t have to stay in a childhood fantasy box. I learned that my faith could grow and adapt and change in order to meet the challenges of the world. I learned to take the lessons I needed to learn from the faith my grandmother in order to live my own life, in my own time, in the world where God had placed me. 

It wasn’t until I met a second person in my adult life that I was able to articulate what I knew about prayer and bring it to yet another level.  That person was Bishop Jack Spong.

I had been working for Jack as Canon Missioner for about three years when I discovered a lump in my right breast. The doctor thought it was probably benign but, as he said, “You and I will both sleep better once that lump is out.” 

So, two days before my surgery, I went to my bishop to tell him and to ask him for his prayers.
Jack listened very carefully, as he is wont to do, and then, pastor that he is, he assured me of his prayers. 

Scholar that he is, he also could not resist asking me a question. 

“Elizabeth," he said, “of course I will pray for you, but, you know, people come to me – as I’m sure they come to you – as if your prayers were some sort of magic. I want you to know that, if it were in my power to cure you of any cancer, of course I would. But you know, and I know, that neither you nor I are that powerful. So, when you ask me to pray for you, what are you asking, really?”

Well, it was the first time I had ever really thought about that. Jack has been called a heretic and an atheist. I can assure you that he is not an atheist. He's more of a modern mystic. And, I’ve come to learn that the people I trust most in the church – people who believe in God and love Jesus and trust the Holy Spirit – are often what many in the church consider heretics. I’ve discovered that that says more about them than what is true about Jack or any heretic. 

Jack has a way of challenging what you say you believe – not so you believe like him – but so that you can better articulate what you believe. He respects differences and won't hesitate to tell you why he thinks you're wrong. Always a good bishop, he just wants to make sure you can articulate why you believe what you say you believe.

I heard myself say to him that when I am anxious or afraid, I often feel much worse because I think I’m all alone in whatever situation or crisis I’ve found myself. I imagine that, in this world, we are all standing on an interconnected web, and each one of us has his or her own thread. 

When I’m anxious or afraid, it gets very dark which makes me feel even more afraid and alone. When I know someone is praying for me or with me, it’s like a light is turned on, and I can see others around me, lifting me up, holding me up in their prayer, and I’m less afraid.

Jack listened very carefully, nodded his head and smiling, said, “What I’ve discovered is that prayer is a paradox - something that contains two opposite statements, both of which are true.”

“Prayer,” he said, “doesn’t change anything. And, prayer changes everything.”

“Mostly, prayer changes everything, because prayer changes me. It changes my focus. It makes me less self-centered. It makes me care more about others. And, it makes me aware that I am part of a vast, interconnected network and I’m not alone. People who have come before, people who are here, now, and people who are yet to come are all standing with me. That Jesus is with me because I am with others and they are with me.”

"So,” he said, “Why don’t we pray together, right now?”

And, we did. We held hands. We prayed. Right then. Right there. In his office. No vestments. No saints. No votive lights. No little slips of paper with petitions on them. No prayer beads. And, it was holy. And, it was right. And, it was good. And, I did not lose heart. 

Well, I came through the surgery with flying colors and a benign pathology report. I also came through with a deeper appreciation for the lessons my grandmother taught me about prayer, which I have adapted to suit the world I live in. In my life. In my time. I share them with you as a present.

First lesson: Pray always and without ceasing. Make everything you do be a prayer. If you are mowing the lawn or raking leaves or making applesauce or starting your day of work, dedicate whatever you are doing. Make it a prayer to God.
Second lesson: Pray through a variety of sources and means, without judgment. Whether you use prayer beads or candles or chant, all of it is prayer. When I am on pilgrimage in Palestine this January, I will carry each one of you with every step I take because, for me, I pray best with my boots on and my sleeves rolled up. If someone tells you that they are sitting Zazen for you, or they lay hands on you and speak in tongues, accept it as prayer without judgment. Everyone prays in his or her own way. It's all prayer. It's all good. I mean that: It’s all good.
            Third lesson: Pray expectantly, hopefully, persistently, and never lose heart.  Know that we are all interconnected in an amazing network of relationships. And, we are all connected to a great mystery that scripture calls “a great cloud of witnesses.” People who have gone before us and people who are waiting to be with us along with the people you love who are near or far from you are also in that cloud. The church calls it “the mystic sweet communion” which we call upon when we make Eucharist together. We are never alone.

Pray always and do not lose heart because prayer is a paradox. Prayer changes nothing. And, prayer changes absolutely everything. Prayer changes the question, often from “Why me? Why now?” to “Okay, me. What now?”

And, most importantly, prayer changes the one who prays. I’ve learned that courage is just fear that you walk through, anyway.

Pray always and do no lose heart because prayer changes me and prayer changes you, so that, no matter what life throws at us, our faith is strengthened and our relationship with God is deeper.

Amen.

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Sunday, October 13, 2019

There is a field. I'll meet you there.


St. Philip's Episcopal Church,  Laurel, DE
October 13, 2019

Tonight at sunset, observant Jews here in Delaware and all over the world will begin the celebration of Sukkot, which commemorates the years that the Jews spent in the desert on their way to the Promised Land, and celebrates the way in which God protected them under difficult desert conditions. (Leviticus 23:42)

Sukkot is also known as the Feast of Tabernacles, or the Feast of Booths. The word sukkot means huts (some translations of the bible use the word booths), and building a hut is the most obvious way in which Jews celebrate the festival.

Every Jewish family will build an open-air structure in which to live during the holiday. The essential thing about the hut is that it should have a roof of branches and leaves, through which those inside can see the sky, and that it should be a temporary and flimsy thing.

The Sukkot ritual is to take four types of plant material: an etrog (a citron fruit), a palm branch, a myrtle branch, and a willow branch, and rejoice with them. (Leviticus 23: 39-40.) People rejoice with them by waving them or shaking them about.

Rabbi Mordechai Dixler, Program Director, Project Genesis, explains that when a family lives in a Sukkot for 7 days, they learn not only to appreciate not just their history as a people, but they gain deeper appreciation for the simpler things in life – time with family, meals together, talking together instead of typing a text or email, time away from the TV and reading a book. 

There is also time to appreciate the beauty of God’s creation, the vast expanse of the sky and the multitude of stars, the crisp smell and the chill in the autumn air. 

The operating theory, of course, is that by doing without, we will better appreciate what we have. 

That has been the basis of some forms of parental discipline for generations upon generation, everything from “time out” to “you’re grounded” to “no TV for you, young man” to “hand over the car keys, young lady.” 

Sukkot is not a punishment, it’s a spiritual discipline. 

Jesus, our Rabbi, turns that teaching on its head in this morning’s Gospel lesson from Luke (17:11-19). The gratitude expected comes not from having to do without but from having been given something or having something restored. 

Jesus was traveling with his disciples between Samaria and Galilee. Now, let me set that in context for you. Samaria is a city in ancient Palestine, now called The West Bank. Samaria lies in between Galilee to the north and Judea to the south.  Galilee, of course, is known for Nazareth, where Jesus and his family lived. Judea is home to the great city of Jerusalem. 

Samaria and Galilee were both considered inferior by Judean Jews. Galileans were known to speak with a distinct accent which disqualified them from reading Torah in the Temple during public services of worship. Samaritans were known to intermarry, leading them to be considered the ‘mongrels’ or the ‘half breeds’ of the Hebrew people and therefore, inferior. 

Indeed, as distasteful as the Judeans found the Samaritans, the hierarchy of prejudice and bigotry found the Galileans to at least be above the Samaritans. No one expected anything good to come from a Samaritan – a foreigner! – not even a Galilean like Jesus. 

We are told that Jesus encountered ten lepers as he was walking in the region between Galilee and Samaria. We do not know their identity. Perhaps there were some Galilean and some Samaritan. 

We don’t know. 

We only know that they were ten men (but, who knows, there might have been some women) and that Jesus had mercy on them as they called to him and healed them all, sight unseen, identities unknown. 

What we do know from Luke’s account of this story is that of the ten who were healed only one returned to give thanks. 

And, he was a Samaritan.

It is twice in this story that Jesus turns our expectations upside down and right side up. Not only was the one who showed gratitude a mongrel, half-breed Samaritan, he was grateful not because something had been taken from him; rather, he was grateful for what he had been given. 

Today’s gospel asks us to consider the gratitude of the lepers. I have no doubt that all ten lepers were deeply grateful for the healing they experienced. Only one had an “Attitude of Gratitude”. 

And, he was a Samaritan. 

Now, it’s easy to see this gospel only in that light. Ah, yes, we think. This is about being grateful. Check. 

Thanksgiving will be here in less than two months, providing another opportunity to be grateful. Check. 

And then we’ll no doubt be hearing about Stewardship and how we need to be grateful for all we have been given and return a portion to God as our tithe or our pledge. Check. 

I want to suggest that, while important, all of that is low-lying gospel fruit – it’s easy pickins. 

I want us to stretch a little – go up a bit higher where the sweeter gospel fruit is waiting for us. I want us to spend a little time with Jesus in that land in “the region between Samaria and Galilee”. 

Jesus has grown up being carefully taught about the Samaritans. He knows they are considered inferior. Indeed, although they had the same scriptures and purity codes, Samaritans rarely went to Jerusalem during the High Holy Days, which was considered heretical. 

And yet, Jesus seems to place himself intentionally in this area between what he has been carefully taught is right and amidst a people who do things all wrong. In this place, he is most certain to encounter not only Galileans but those unlike him, people considered unclean and inferior. 

If any of you have watched Star Trek, you know that there is always a Neutral Zone, a place to create distance between warring factions. It’s a place where you’re really not supposed to be, and, if you do go there, you’d better not have your photon torpedoes armed.

Many mystics have written about this Neutral Zone. The Celts call it “a thin place” – a place close to the veil between heaven and earth. Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, a thirteenth century Sufi mystic theologian and poet, writes about this Neutral Zone as a “field”. He writes:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, 
there is a field. 
I’ll meet you there. 
When the soul lies down in that grass, 
the world is too full to talk about 
Ideas, language, 
even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make sense.
For Rumi, that field, that thin place that is too full to talk about is a place where those with opposing ideas might discover that they have something in common. 

Indeed, they may discover that their differences aren’t really all that important in the presence of the Divine.

Actually, I’m not sure that expressing gratitude is all that important to Jesus. It’s clearly important to Luke who is telling the story, but I’m not absolutely certain that it’s important to Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t condemn the nine or take away their healing or punish or curse them. What he does do is to lift up the one who does return to him. Which makes me curious to know more.

There is no one that Jesus could have hated or feared more than this 10th leper - hated because of his beliefs and feared because of his disease. And yet, Jesus meets this leper in this Neutral Zone, this thin place, in this field beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing and heals him and then greets him when he returns to give thanks and praise. 

“Get up,” Jesus says to him, “and go on your way. Your faith has made you well.” The word Luke uses for ‘well’ here is the same word that’s used for ‘salvation’

Do you hear that? Let’s reach a little higher and pick this higher gospel fruit that this leper – this unworthy, unclean, wrongdoing, wrong-thinking, sick, Samaritan leper – is not only healed of his disease, but he is also made whole and transformed in the presence of God. 

Saying thank you is a nice, social pleasantry. It's important to be polite. But what Jesus is talking about is not just being polite. Jesus is talking about the spiritual disciple of gratitude.  

Being polite makes you nice. Being grateful makes you spiritual. 

It's a little more difficult. You have to reach higher. You can be polite just by habit. Being grateful means your heart and soul are moved.

Which also makes me wonder if the thing Jesus is asking me to reach for – this higher gospel fruit – is to consider who it is I am avoiding meeting in that field. 

Let me explain it this way. There’s a theologian who has written a book on conflict mediation whose name is David Augsberger. I don’t know if the Sr. Warden who has a degree in conflict mediation has read this particular book but I’m sure the theory won’t be strange to him. 

Augsberger suggests that, “Conflict arises from the competition of same and other.” 

Those who are the same, those who see themselves on the side of right-doing, seek to control, subordinate, exclude and destroy those they see as other – those who are seen on the side of wrongdoing. 

It’s easy to spot that exclusion and subordination and destruction of ‘the other’ in the Bible. Scripture is filled with stories of tribal warfare and those who think God is on their side or take defeat as having disappointed or disobeyed God in some way. 

We see it, too, in our own day and time. Open the newspaper or turn on the TV or radio and you’ll hear the heartbreaking stories of the Israelis and Palestinians and the heartbreaking wall in modern day Samaria. 

Or, the Kurds and the Turks doing battle in Syria as the threat of Isis rises once again. There’s a lot more, even in our own country, but you get the picture.

Augsberger goes on to ask some very difficult questions, “What if the other is necessary to us, part of us, completing us, redefining us, capable of transforming us? What if the other we fear is the bearer of our healing, our hope, and our health as a human race?”

Let me bring those questions to this Gospel lesson: What if the Samaritan leper, the person I most hate and fear, is the bearer of my own healing? What if meeting that person in the field is the key to the healing of humanity and the transformation of the world?

That makes me think that picking the gospel fruit of gratitude is a far simpler task than picking the higher gospel fruit of healing and transformation in the Open Field of Possibility.

It also makes me think that we could all benefit from spending some time apart in our own Sukkot or hut, with an open roof so we could look out and contemplate the vastness of God’s creation. 

Speaking for myself, it just might move me not only to feel gratitude, but to see just how small and insignificant I am in relation to the enormous variety of all of God’s creatures and creation.

Perhaps we all need some time apart, to live more simply and reflect on our place in the world and role in the family of God before we find the courage to enter that Neutral Zone, that thin place. There, we might discover what Vendantan Hindu sage, Ramana Maharishi taught.

When asked, “How are we supposed to treat others?” the Maharishi answered, “There are no others.”

So, I will leave you to ponder these questions: Who is the Samaritan for you? Who is the outcast, the one you fear and hate? Jesus invites us to meet that person in that region between Samaria and Galilee – that space between wrongdoing and right-doing, between them and us – and bids us to find our healing and salvation – and theirs.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.

Out in the area between Samaria and Galilee, there is a village. Let’s meet there. 

We’ll build a booth - a small hut - in that thin place, and stay a while. In the fullness of silence, we’ll learn to appreciate each other – where even ‘each other’ doesn’t make sense because, in the sight of God, there are no others – and be grateful for all we have been given. 

And then, we shall return, each to our homes, to give thanks and praise.

And in that act we shall be changed and transformed and never again be the same, for we shall find the path to our salvation and be made whole.

Amen.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

A Mustard Seed of Faith

October 6, 2019 - Pentecost XVII - Proper 22 C
St. Philip's Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE


Let’s start by putting this into perspective. As we heard that old country lawyer and prophet, Habakkuk, say this morning,
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
Sometimes, you know, you have to see it to believe it. So, I went to my local health food store and got some mustard seeds. I have them here in this jar which I want to pass around so you can see what it is Jesus means when he talks about the size of a mustard seed.

Mustard seeds are beyond small, right? They’re not even “tiny” Mustard seeds are flat-out “teeny-weeny-tiny”. And yet, Jesus says this is all the faith you need in order to move a mulberry tree.  Just that teeny-weeny tiny amount. 

My grandmother always had a jar of mustard seeds in her seasoning cabinet. She used them for cooking but mostly for pickling. She'd always put some mustard seeds in the pickle jar. 

And, if you had a bad cold and were very congested, she would grind them into a paste and smear some on one of my grandfather or uncle's old flannel shirts. She called it a "Mustard Plaster." 

I'm not sure how it worked, exactly. All I know is that after 24 hours of wearing that Mustard Plaster, you'd be breathing freely again. Well, that and sitting at the table hunched over a steaming hot bowl of water into which my grandmother would float a big glob of Vicks Vapo Rub, sitting under a 'tent' of a thick terry cloth towel or a flannel shirt. 

Come to think of it, maybe it was the flannel that had medicinal properties.

Anyway, the other thing to know is that that teeny-weeny tiny mustard seed produced one of the largest trees in the plant kingdom. I'm talking HUGE. Ask the kids in the Church School. I just showed them a picture. 

So, Jesus is saying that we need a teeny-weeny tiny mustard seed that will grow into a huge tree that will be no match for the mulberry tree. 

So, let’s talk about that mulberry tree. 

I have a friend who lives in Paterson, NJ who tells me that there are lots of mulberry trees in that city. Apparently, they were all planted in the 19th century.  

Back when Paterson was the "Silk City" and producing more silk than any other American city they decided to raise their own silkworms rather than purchase them from Europe or Asia. He tells me that the ONLY food silkworms will eat is mulberry leaves. 

Alas. the climate in NJ was too extreme for silk works and the experiment failed, but the trees continued to grow and flourish, much to the consternation of many. Mulberry trees are VERY messy trees (the mulberries drop all over or are picked up by birds and the berries and bird droppings stain wherever they fall).  

The roots of the mulberry tree go deep and if you cut it down, the remaining trunk will grow another tree so if you want to get rid of it you have to pull it up from the roots and dig around to make sure all the roots are gone.  

It’s also true that if you attempt to cut down a tree it will only spring up again; and they grow quickly!

So, what Jesus is saying to us is that a teeny-weeny tiny seed of faith like a mustard seed is all the faith you need to move a hardy, stubborn, messy tree like the mulberry. When you think about that for half a minute, that’s pretty amazing.

St. Paul, in his second letter to Timothy, (2 Timothy 1:1-14) writes,  
I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you. . . .”. 
We often sell ourselves short but we all - every single last one of us -  have this gift of at least a mustard seed of faith within us. There are ordinary people – just like you and me – who do extraordinary things.

The news is always all bad - it's what sells paper and airtime - so we may not pay it much attention, but, just this week, there were several stories about ordinary people who put their mustard seed of faith into action, with some pretty amazing results.

There was an incredible story in the news this week about Mr. Jim Freeman, who is a teacher in Kentucky. One of the classes in his school was taking a field trip to explore a fossil bed in nearby Indiana. Unfortunately, Ryan Kelly, a 10 year old girl in that class had a birth defect which confined her to a wheelchair, which prevented her from this class adventure.

Except, the teacher, Mr. Freeman, was moved by her story. So, he put his faith to work with his intelligence and creativity and figured out a way to make that class field trip possible for her.

Mr. Freeman made a carrier for Ryan - sort of like the ones parents use for little kids - and carried her around on his back all day. That made  it possible for her to explore the fossil bed in the riverbank alongside the other teachers and her fellow students and classmates.
 
As if that weren't enough for one week, there was also an incredible scene in a courtroom in Dallas, TX. It came during the victim impact portion of the murder trial of Amber Guyger who had been found guilty of murdering Botham Jean whom she had mistaken as someone who had broken into her apartment.

What we witnessed was nothing short of amazing. Botham’s, 18-year old brother, Brandt, took the stand and said, “If you are truly sorry, I know I can speak for myself, I forgive you.”

And then, he told her that if she “gave her life to Christ, that would be the best thing Botham would want for you.” And then he asked if could give her a hug. 

To the amazement of everyone in the room, he did just that.

But, it didn’t end there. After she pronounced her sentence, Tammy Kemp, the State District Judge, gave the prisoner a bible. She said two words, “Read this.” And then, the judge gave the woman she had just sentenced for the murder of an innocent man, a hug.
 
Now, I know there has been some controversy around that and her sentence which is no doubt warranted, but for purposes of this sermon, I want us to focus on what this young man and that judge felt called to do even in the face of what they knew would be controversial. 

I'm quite certain that they knew that their embrace of a murderer would bring them criticism. They knew what they were doing was controversial. And yet, they did it anyway. 

It reminds me of the story many of us heard this week on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi who came upon a leper as he rode around the countryside. According to the story, Francis got off his horse and met the leper. He embraced him and gave him a kiss of peace - some say, he kissed him on the mouth - and then the leper embraced him in return. 

I don't know whether or not that story is true, but I do know that the three stories I saw unfold on my television set were true.
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How is it that these three people, three ordinary people – a teacher, an 18 year old boy who was grieving the loss of his brother, and a judge – all found the strength to put their faith into action?

Jesus tells us that all they needed – all we need – is faith the size of a mustard seed. 

That was enough to allow a teacher to move a handicapped student to be with the rest of her classmates to explore fossil beds – but more importantly, to feel normal. 

Just a teeny-weeny tiny mustard seed of faith allowed a young man to be moved to hug the woman who killed his brother and, even though she had just sentenced her to prison, allowed her to feel the unconditional love of God. 

And, it only took that much faith for a judge to be moved to give a convicted killer a bible – and a hug and allowed her to feel like a child of God.

And, here’s the thing: These extraordinary accomplishments were achieved by ordinary people like you and me. St. Paul reminds Timothy and he reminds us, . . .to rekindle the gift of God that is within you. . . .”.

If a teacher, a young 18 year old man and a judge can move the modern equivalent of a mulberry tree with just a mustard seed of faith, what is possible for you – individually as children of God and together as a Body of Christ?

Amen.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Is it ever too late to repent?


Pentecost XVI - Proper 21 - Year C
September 27, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE

Last week, Chic Donovan said to me on the way out of church, referring to the parable of the Crooked/Shrewd Merchant, “That’s not the worst parable ever!” “Oh yeah?” said I, “you try preaching on it!”

Well, I think this morning’s parable about Lazarus and the Rich Man  (Luke 16:19-31) is probably one of the more controversial of the parables of Jesus. There are lots of different interpretations, depending on your perspective. Which is just a parable is supposed to do.

As you can imagine, it’s not a favorite of the folks who believe in Calvin’s understanding of ‘the elect’ and what happens to them after they die. Or, those fundamentalists who think if you follow purity codes, you’ll get a seat right by Father Abraham. 

Some see it as a deliciously political statement about the evils of income inequality. Liberation theologians like Leonardo Boff and Jürgen Moltmann see this as evidence of what is known as ‘God’s preferential option for the poor’.

One of the ways to tell who has favor in scripture is whether or not the characters have names. The rich man is just a rich man who is “dressed in purple and feasts sumptuously every day.” The poor man is not only described in painful detail, right down to the sores that even the dogs had mercy on and came to lick them, but also he has a name. Lazarus.

After he dies, when the rich man looks up from his torment in Hades, he sees Lazarus at the side of Father Abraham (one assumes Mother Sarah was somewhere nearby). 

Still unrepentant and revealing why he is in Hades, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to tend to him with some cool water. Abraham reminds him of how he hoarded his riches while on earth, not caring for the plight of those like Lazarus and sharing some of his wealth. So now, the tables are turned and worse, Abraham says that the chasm between heaven and hell is fixed.

The rich man suddenly understands his fate and his heart is moved to save his five brothers, to send Lazarus to warn them so that they might repent and change their ways. 

But Abraham reminds him of the warnings of Moses and the prophets and says, well, "if they won’t listen to them, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead."

Just a subltle hint there, about the expectation Jesus has about the effectiveness of people believing his own prophecies after his death and resurrection.

Well . . . that certainly doesn’t sound like good news, does it? Not for the rich man, anyway. Actually, it doesn’t sound like good news for the poor. Not to my ears. 

I remember hearing this story as a kid and thinking, “Wait! What? I have to suffer and struggle in this life and be content knowing that I’ll have everything in the next? That’s hardly fair. I’ve got this one life. I don’t want to waste it thinking about how much better it will be when I’m dead. That makes no sense.”

I remember having long conversations with my grandmother about this. She thought the purpose in life was for us to be more loving and giving, to share what we had with others, so that there would be fewer hideously filthy rich people as well as fewer horribly, painfully poor people. But, she said, sometimes, Jesus had to tell stories like this to get people to wake up and do what’s right.

Over the years, as I’ve reflected on this parable, I hear other, deeper questions. I’m struck by the rich man’s – oh, let’s give him a name; how about Winston? Winston Richman, that’s what we’ll call him– I’m struck by Winston Richman’s own unique form of repentance and concern for his five brothers. 

I’m touched by Winston's desire, even in the midst of his own suffering amidst the flames of Hades, to save his brothers, to give them the opportunity to repent of their sins of gluttony and greed and share with others before its too late.

Which raises the question: Is it ever too late to repent?

Winston Richman repented from Hades. Father Abraham didn’t hear his plea, but did God? That’s not part of the story Jesus told. Does it mean that it didn’t happen? Isn't it God's job, ultimately, to forgive and not Abraham? Or, did Jesus leave off the last part to make a point – to wake us up?

I don’t know about Father Abraham, but certainly Mother Sarah knows about being given another chance. She was an old woman, we are told, when she finally conceived a son, Isaac. She squandered that blessing when she convinced Abraham to cast out Hagar and Ishmael into the desert to die. 

But God heard the cry of the child and saved them, promising that Ismael would also have as many descendants as there were stars in the sky. 

Some Rabbis teach that there is evidence to suggest that, having survived an attempt on his life by his own father, Abraham, Isaac sought refuge from what could only have been PTSD by staying in the wilderness with his stepmother Hagar and half-brother Ishmael – and never saw either his mother or his father again.

The bible is filled with stories like this: a fall from grace, a shot at redemption, followed by a fall from grace and yet another shot at redemption. When we have the opportunity to look back over our lives, if we’re honest, we might see the same patterns emerging.

In my work as a priest, I am often privileged to have conversations with people about their own stories of their redemption. I have found that people are eager to share their redemption stories with me. You would be amazed at the people in this very church this morning, people you may have known for years, who look for all the world like they not only have it all together but they have it wrapped up in shiny paper all tied up with beautiful ribbon with a bow on top.

I’ll tell you what they know: they didn’t get here by chauffeured limousine. Actually, some of them have travelled hundreds of miles of pretty rough roads and count themselves lucky to be alive. If you look them in the eye when you talk to them, you’ll see flickers of the evidence of those stories. 

There are real heroes in this community of faith, people who have fought incredible battles of adversity. They have not necessarily won every battle but they did win the war. You’ll know them because they are some of the most quietly generous, kind people you’ll ever meet.

When I was living in Baltimore in the 80s, the AIDS epidemic was raging. In those days, we walked among spiritual giants who lived lives of redemption. People who knew they had AIDS – and at that time, it was a death sentence – but they were determined to make whatever time they had left with their lives worth something. People who said to me, “You know, I may have lived most of my life as a junkie or a prostitute but I’m not going to die like that.”

I can still remember their names and their stories. 

Lisa, who discovered she and the baby she was carrying (whom she would name Anastasia), were HIV positive only after she lost her husband and her two sons to AIDS, all within four months of each other. 

Bertie Johnson, who lived on the rough streets of Baltimore and soothed the pain of her existence with booze and drugs that she bought with the money she earned through prostitution. 

Avon Johnson, a humble and kind hustler and a drug addict who often confounded his nurse but also made her laugh out loud – no small feat, to be sure.

And, my man, Tall Paul Wallace, a musician who was also magic on the basketball courts and would draw a crowd to see him play the midnight games at the hoops in the vacant parking lot on St. Paul Street as well as when he played a wailing saxophone at the Jazz Café on Calvert Street. 

As I call out their names, I can see Ms. Conroy smile in recognition of their stories. She was their nurse. 

I had the privilege of being their chaplain and their colleague in our work together on the Interfaith AIDS Task force – especially the Faith Community Education Committee.

They were, to a person, amazing, articulate educators. God only knows what contributions they could have made before they got caught in the web of poverty and inopportunity, violence and crime; if only those who had more might have shared a bit more with those who had less.

I learned so much from them. They were my teachers, my professors in pastoral care and counseling. The best among them was my man, Tall Paul Wallace. Everybody called him Tall Paul because he was 6’7” of a lean, lanky product of the projects around Hopkins University Hospital with athletic abilities and musical talent that should have gotten him a scholarship. Instead, he got AIDS and became a modern leaper.

Paul was one of my best professors. He and his momma taught me how to eat collard greens and corn bread – and his momma’s recipe for macaroni and cheese remains my family’s favorite. They also taught me how to pray extemporaneously. As a newly ordained priest in The Episcopal Church, I excelled at reading prayers from the BCP but they taught me how to center myself in my soul, open a channel to the divine and speak from my heart.

As any newbie to her profession, I was pretty bound up by rubrics and order. Don’t get me wrong. I still love the BCP and our own unique brand of disorganized organized religion, but back then, well, let’s just say that I took great umbrage when things were, shall we say, not in good order. Which meant, of course, they weren’t done the way The Episcopal Church said was good order.

Paul’s funeral was on the evening of All Saint’s Day. I’ll never forget it. It was scheduled at the exact same hour as the liturgy at the Cathedral that I had fully intended to attend. The choir, which was excellent, would be there. There would be smoke and bells and chanting and, no doubt some real solid preaching by the Dean or the Bishop on the importance of the resurrection.

Instead, I would be attending a small, inner city storefront church known as Deliverance Baptist Church. I feared surely there must be a special place in hell for priests who don’t attend a proper Episcopal liturgy on All Saint’s Day – perhaps right next to the room in hell for Episcopalians who can’t tell a salad fork from a dessert fork.

I walked into the church packed with people. Clearly everybody loved Tall Paul Wallace. The women in white nurses uniforms bustled about in their white orthopedic shoes, fanning those who were overcome with grief. The organist was playing familiar tunes softly as some folks quietly hummed along while their bodies gently rocked in sorrow.

And then, I saw it. The casket. To my horror, the casket was open. Now, every good Episcopalian worth her salt, not to mention anyone who has ever worked the Altar Guild knows that the casket is closed. 

We focus on the resurrection of the body – not the body. An embroidered pall covers the closed casket because, whether you are a rich man or Lazarus, a saint or a scoundrel, buried in a gold casket or one made of unfinished pine, you get the same funeral, the same grand, soaring language, the same availability of beautiful hymns because now you are with Jesus in heaven.

Well . . . . it was almost too much for my carefully taught and trained Episcopal sensibilities, so I had to sit down and compose myself. 

Just then, one of the women of the church got up to read the sympathy cards. She read each and every one of them, and the notes inside. One was from the Mayor of Baltimore and a few were from a few clergy of the churches where Paul and I had done our AIDS presentations, which were received with rounds of applause from the congregations.

People then got up, one by one, to give their testimonies. Each one was simple and real – no one glossed over his mistakes or denied his talents and good deeds, much less their grief at his loss –  which made them very powerful. 

And everyone, to a person, proclaimed their belief in the resurrection and their Christ-the-solid-rock hope in seeing Paul again in that great by and by.

And then, the organ started to play and Paul’s young daughter began to sing a hymn that isn’t in our hymnal but should be. It’s a hymn about redemption and release. It’s a hymn about the glory of heaven. It’s a hymn Paul had asked me to sing many times while I sat at this bedside – a bluesyversion of which he always played on his sax as the last song of the night. 

His daughter began to sing her father’s favorite gospel hymn:

Some bright morning when this life is over / I'll fly away
To that home on God's celestial shore / I'll fly away  
I'll fly away, oh glory / I'll fly away in the morning
When I die, Hallelujah by and by / I'll fly away.

I’ve listened to hundreds of sermons before and since, at funerals and on All Saints’ Day and on a Sunday when this gospel parable has been read, but nothing really sums it up quite like the experience I had at the funeral of Tall Paul Wallace at Deliverance Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland, singing I’ll fly away.

So, here’s the thing. Here’s what this gospel passage teaches me about life that I want to preach to you this morning: It’s never too late to repent. It’s never too late to turn your life around and make things right. 

There’s always a shot at redemption, even if someone else doesn’t think it’s good enough. 

There’s always a chance to be the hero in your own story, even if no one else knows it but you and God. But, the pencil is in your hand. You get to chose how your story is written. Or, at least, you’ve got the choice to give it your best shot and tell the truth, even if just to yourself.

Because, despite how others may judge us, or what you may think, I believe we’re all going to heaven – saint and scoundrel, king and pauper, ne’er do well and over-achiever, church-goer and church gossip, whether your name is Winston Richman or Lazarus Poorman – we’re all going to meet together again in heaven. 

That was another song we sang that night at Deliverance Baptist Church, that helped me to know that resurrection is not just a theological doctrine.

Resurrection, redemption and salvation are not something to be grasped or easily explained. These are things to know not just in your head, but in every fiber of your being.


When we all get to heaven
What a day of rejoicing there will be
When we all see Jesus 
We'll sing and shout the victory.
                                     
Amen.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Worst Parable Ever

Artwork: Marinus van Reymerswaele, Parable of the Unfaithful Steward, 1540.

A Sermon preached for Pentecost XV - Proper 20 C - September 22, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE

Trying to prepare a sermon on what has to be The Worst Parable Ever is either a fool's errand or something I apparently need for my soul but didn't know it. 

Just to put this all in context, and in case the links don't work, here's the passage: 
The Parable of the Shrewd (Crooked) Manager

16 Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’
“The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’
“So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
“‘Nine hundred gallons[a] of olive oil,’ he replied.
“The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’
“Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’
“‘A thousand bushels[b] of wheat,’ he replied.
“He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’
“The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
10 “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?
13 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
This is one of those passages from scripture that leave us scratching our heads. At least on the surface, this is a wildly ambiguous text. What in the world is going on here? What is Jesus trying to say? Or, perhaps more cogently, why did Luke include this in his recounting of the Good News? What message is he trying to give us about how to live our lives of faith?

Well, the first thing to know about this parable is what every preacher eventually figures out.

First, it’s important to put this story in context. For this, you'll need to go to Luke 15, the chapter just before this morning's Gospel passage.

It is there we learn that Jesus is preaching and his audience includes not only his disciples but, as Eugene Peterson says in his translation of this passage, “a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religious scholars were  . . . not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends. Their grumbling triggered this story.

Put a pin in that because we’ll be coming back to that in a bit.

This story of the shrewd (or crooked) manager comes right after the story of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost (or Prodigal) son. 

Each of these stories ends with an unexpected twist. The shepherd and the woman put aside everything to find the sheep or the coin that was lost. Turns out, it was the father not the son who was prodigal – lavishly and wastefully having a grand celebration for the return of his wayward son, even to the chagrin of his elder, obedient son.

What becomes even more clear in this story of the crooked (or shrewd) manager is that Jesus is talking to three different audiences: his disciples, and the “men and women of doubtful reputation” as well as Pharisees and religious scholars who were “not at all pleased”.

I once saw an interview with Oprah in which the comedian Chris Rock compared stand up comedians with athletes. He talked about how you can't fake being and athlete and you can't fake comedy, either.

As I thought about this, I realized that there are also striking similarities between the role of comedians and preachers. You only become a better comedian by, well, speaking in public and, not faking it. You only become a better preacher by preaching from the pulpit.

And, if the preacher doesn't tell the truth, the congregation can sniff it out in half a heartbeat. They may disagree, but if they sense it's coming from a place of integrity and truth, it will at least be more palatable. Telling the truth in public also helps the preacher to develop a thick skin – a very important asset, I’ve learned over the years. I suspect the same is true with comedians or any public speaker.

The last thing Chris Rock said in the interview made me think about Jesus. My colleague Julian DeShazier (who also performs as hip-hop artist J. Kwest) paraphrases it well (and omits the obscenities): The best comics can work multiple audiences in the same room. Sometimes you tell a joke and half the crowd won’t get it, but you didn’t do it for them.  
 
Preachers often face the same fate. Sometimes, being in the pulpit can feel like that scene from the Monty Python movie, “Life of Brian”

Jesus is delivering his famous Sermon on the Mount and says, “Blessed are the peacemakers”. 

Someone in the crowd doesn’t hear clearly and asks, “What was that?” 

A man - clearly visiting from England, responds, “I think it was 'Blessed are the cheesemakers.’” 

A woman - also apparently from England - asks, “Ahh, what's so special about the cheesemakers?” 

Her husband answers with great authority, “Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”

I don’t know a seasoned preacher who can’t relate to that scene. Which is why a seasoned preacher figures out that in this passage, Jesus is preaching to multiple audiences and has something for each one – his disciples, the tax collectors and sinners and the Pharisees and other religious leaders – to hear.  Especially the Pharisees who are "not at all pleased" either at what Jesus is saying or the fact that he is saying it in front of tax collectors and sinners.

I suspect he wants his disciples to hear all of the different perspectives, which may be why Luke obliges and includes everything Jesus says, even though it may leave us scratching our heads in confusion.

I want to imagine ourselves hearing these words from the perspective of the “men and women of doubtful reputation” who were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. I want us to hear Jesus suggest that we should be shrewd in using our resources to gain friends. 
It sounds a bit disingenuous, doesn’t it? Except, I imagine everyone in his ancient audience can relate to that.
Modern audiences of Christians might resist acknowledging this, but we all know the truth of the saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” 
We also know the saying, “It takes money to make money.” Those sayings are not lost on the poor, much less “men and women of doubtful reputation”. I would be a hypocrite if I did not admit that those sayings are also not lost on the Pharisees and religious scholars of both ancient and modern day.
It’s Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message which helps us through the ethical and, yes, political questions raised by Luke’s passage of the teachings of Jesus: 
8-9 “Now here’s a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.”
To help that particular translation and understanding sink in, I think It's time for a story. A different, modern parable of sorts about being shrewd.

Ordained less than five years, I found myself Vicar of St. Barnabas Church, a small, struggling congregation in the inner city of Newark where I was also Executive Director of the AIDS Resource Center which operated out of St. Barnabas Church Parish Hall. The church and their agency decided to pool resources and provide Thanksgiving Baskets to those in our neighborhood and those who were our clients. 

St. Barnabas, Newark, NJ
Actually, I was pretty shrewd, if I do say so myself, in convincing my brothers and sisters who were rectors of affluent congregations to contribute money and frozen turkeys and fixings for Thanksgiving Day. We got lots of both, which allowed us, in turn, to be generous.

By some small miracle of Loaves and Fishes we came to the Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving Day having distributed 250 baskets filled with frozen turkey, stuffing, fresh and canned vegetables and fruits, and even an apple pie for each basket. 

We were exhausted but thrilled, feeling we could go home to our families and truly give thanks for God’s bounty.

Until SHE came in. 

At exactly 3:55 PM.   

Just five minutes before I was to head out the door, stop by the grocery store for a few last minute items, and then home to prepare for my own family. She was out of breath and waved a slip of paper in her hand as she announced, “Wait. Don’t leave. I’m here for my turkey basket.”

My heart sank. I had nothing. No turkey. No stuffing. Not even a can of string beans. 

I put my coat over the chair and said, “I’m so very sorry. We have given out our last turkey.” 

She was enraged! “But, I’m homeless! I don’t have anything. I need that turkey. I have a slip from my social worker and everything. You’re a priest. You HAVE to find me a turkey.” 

I flushed with frustration and shame because I didn’t have anything to give her.

I took the slip of paper while she went on and on about her homeless plight, thinking of various alternatives, when she encouraged me to call her social worker to verify her claims. Hoping that he has already left for the day, I was surprised to find him still at his desk. 

When I told him the situation, he also started to berate me, “But, she’s homeless! What kind of priest are you, anyway? How can you be so heartless? It’s Thanksgiving! And she’s homeless.”

As I was deliberating whether or not to take my last $20 bill and give it to her, or to take her shopping and let her buy $20 worth of food in my sight, I suddenly heard something. Something obvious I had completely overlooked.  

Perhaps you’ve already figured it out and you are silently snickering at me in your pew. Go ahead. All these years later, I’m looking back on that well-intentioned, passionate young priest and snickering at my own naivety.

Homeless. 

“Homeless,” I said out loud. 

“Homeless,” I said, looking at her while talking into the phone. 

“Yes, “ her social worker said sarcastically, as if he were talking to a moron, “she’s homeless. As in SHE HAS NO HOME.”  

 “Well,” said I, clearing my throat, "if she doesn't have a home, then she doesn't have an oven in which to cook the turkey. Or a stove on which to warm up the vegetables and rolls. Or, even a table on which to serve the Thanksgiving Dinner."

There was stunned silence on the other end of the phone. 

The woman stood in front of me, slack-jawed. 

I don’t blame the woman. Hunger and poverty can make you crazy – or make you think there’s something wrong with you that you don’t have at least the very basics of what everyone else in America has on Thanksgiving Day.
  
Her social worker and I were so focused on filling voids and solving problems that we had forgotten that before you can do that effectively, you have to sit and listen to a person’s story. 

Before whatever help you are offering can be effective, you have to understand the context. 

Context is as important as content. Sometimes, even more so in the holy stories of our lives than in sacred writ. 

So, I assured the social worker I was on it. I brought the woman into the parish hall kitchen and we talked while I fixed her a cup of tea. We sat and talked for a while. She told me her story. How she had lost her job and apartment. How she now had a job as a waitress but couldn’t afford her apartment and medication so she chose to keep her car to get her to work. How she was mortified and embarrassed. How she hadn’t told anyone in her family – especially not her adult kids. How she had promised to bring a turkey to her sister’s house where she would spend the holiday weekend. 

Please note: This can happen to anyone. It happens to more people than you or I know or can possibly imagine.

After we finished our tea, I took her in my car to the supermarket where I spoke with the store manager – the guy from whom I and my parishioners had bought all those turkeys with the money I had cajoled our sister suburban congregations to donate. He quickly put together another couple of bags of Thanksgiving stuff, including a 10 pound frozen turkey. 

I tried to pay him with the $20 bill I had in my wallet and promised the balance on the Monday after Thanksgiving, but he just waved me away. Bless him. 

Was I, in my shrewd handling of suburban congregations and local markets, just as guilty, at least in principle, as the Crooked/Shrewd Manager? Was I being a corrupt Pharisee or scribe? 

Was I wrong to collude in the woman’s ruse so her family would believe that everything was fine and she had enough money to buy Thanksgiving Dinner to feed everyone? 

I’ll leave that for God to judge. 

My dear friend and colleague, Margaret Watson, who serves the churches of the Cheyenne River Episcopal Mission on the Indian Reservation in Eagle Butte, South Dakota where she lives, often says of the gospel, “Sometimes, ya just gotta leave it lay where Jesus flang it.”

Glenn Jordan, a member of the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland writes: 
Jesus’s parables (step outside the social codes of the day to do the unexpected) all the time. A Samaritan acts in a caring way. A father acknowledges his failures and humbles himself before his sons. A wealthy man throwing a party by which he will ensure the indebtedness of his guests ends up inviting a whole host of people who could never repay him.”

“The Gospel consistently refuses to match our expectations of social and cultural norms. In fact Jesus keeps breaking the social taboos of his day, making space for those who are on the outside and unseating those in power.”
If I were to give this parable a headline in a local newspaper, I think it would be “God Sees Behind Appearances.” 

And, I hasten to add, that works both ways – our good intentions, our shrewdness as well as our indifference to those who have less and those who are different, those who those are poor and those who are listening intently for even the possibility of hope. 

As evidence of that truth – that God knows the human heart – I want to offer this final prayer by Glenn Jordan, of Northern Ireland. 

After hearing The Worst Parable Ever, may this prayer remind us, in the often confusing enterprise of being human, that in the midst of it all, Jesus is there, ready to inspire and lead us into the way of Truth and Life and Love.
Lord Jesus,
You are the great storyteller
Of unexpected twists
And surprising endings.
Forgive me when I seek
To control the narrative,
To order the characters
And keep the drama from their lives.
Open my life to more unpredictable storylines
To more bewildering turns
To more exciting encounters
And more unforeseen outcomes.
And teach me to look there for you,
Popping up in unpredictable places
In dazzling dress
And with confounding figures.
Amen.