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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.

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,” 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.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

The heart expands

A sermon for the community of faith at
Pentecost XIV - Proper 19 C
September 15, 2019

I confess that I’ve been puzzling over Luke’s gospel passage about lost sheep and lost coins for years.  I suppose part of it is that I’m a pragmatist. 

Actually, make that a fairly comfortable middle class, fairly spoiled American pragmatist. Add to that one who has been raised in a culture of disposable stuff. 

Although, I’m not too proud to admit that wasn’t always the case. 

I confess that I am old enough to remember when milk was delivered to our doorstep in glass bottles which were placed in an aluminum-lined container with a block of ice. 

And, as the oldest in a family of four, I remember helping my mother wash diapers in hot, hot water and Octagon soap (which we also used to wash the dishes, our bodies and our hair), and hanging them on the line to dry. 

And, I also remember, back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth, that we used handkerchiefs to blow our noses and/or wipe the sweat off our brows. 

Today, of course, milk comes in disposable cartons. We have different soap to wash laundry, dishes, our bodies and our hair and they each come in their own disposable plastic bottles. 

Diapers are disposable and tissues are meant to be used for one good honk on the nose and then it’s to be immediately thrown away, preferably in a disposable plastic lined trash can which someone empties while wearing disposable plastic gloves.

And, if it's cold or flu season, you are to immediately douse your hands with disenfectant lotion which appropriately comes in plastic bottle with a plastic plunger. 

So, maybe you’d search for a lost sheep, but why, in heaven's name, would you search the house for a lost coin - especially if you had nine more? I don’t know about you, but I probably have at least a dollar in spare change under my sofa cushions – along with some pieces of candy wrapped in plastic. 

James Jacques Joseph Tissot. Lost Drachma, 1896
All that having been said, I read something this week that made me rethink this passage. 

It began with an insight that I might just have gotten myself so tangled up in the weeds of Luke’s gospel story that I missed the point Jesus was trying to make. 

I don’t know where you were on 9/11/01, but I was at the Seamen’s Church Institute in NYC, about 2 crosstown blocks from Ground Zero. 

It’s been eighteen years, but my memories of the events of that day are still vivid.  I try to spend at least part of the anniversary of that horrific event in quiet meditation and prayer.

I came across a reflection written by a colleague who lived in Hoboken, NJ, where many people live and catch the ferry across the Hudson River to work in lower Manhattan. 

My friend Laurie was in Hoboken when some of her friends and neighbors didn’t come home from work that day. For five years or so after that almost unbelievable day of tragedy, she ran a support group for survivors in the parish hall. 

About three years into the group, people were still struggling with the whole range of the emotions of grief that follows a tragic and horrific loss like that, when one of their members came in looking noticeably different. She was standing tall. She was smiling. She was wearing bright colors. She was sporting an engagement ring. 

The other members of the group stared at her in a mixture of disbelief and envy. What happened, they asked her. How did it happen? And, my colleague said that her answer stunned her and everyone into the group into a new, deeper level of awareness and understanding. 

She said, simply, “The heart expands.”

The heart expands.

I think, sometimes, we don’t understand that about ourselves. Sometimes, in the busyness and frenetic pace of our modern lives, we place a higher priority on that which catches our immediate attention. 

Immediacy becomes a higher value. Expediency becomes its own idol. “You snooze, you loose,” becomes our creed. 

If it has outlived its purpose, purge it. If it breaks, toss it and get another one. If it’s lost, replace it – there’s probably a newer, improved model now. 

Slowly, slowly, slowly but surely, we become numb to the fact that our hearts have begun to shrink. It becomes easy to apply the principle of disposable things to disposable people.

We’ve not become The Grinch with a heart two sizes too small, but our hearts have definitely lost the capacity to respond as they once did when we were young and the sight of a flower could delight us and unexpectedly coming upon the glory of a sunset at the end of a busy day could take our breath away. 

I was telling your Sr. Warden before the service that I was almost late today. I live in Long Neck and my closest year-round neighbors include Canada geese,  white and blue heron, and, of course, seagulls. When I came out of the house on my way to the car, I looked up at the roof of one of my neighbor's house and noticed that the seagulls were all lined up on the very top of her roof. 

That always makes me smile but then I noticed something I don't often see. There, perched on her chimney, was a big blue heron, looking prehistoric and regal. And then, off to the left, on the roof of the sunroom, was not one but two young blue heron. 

I think my mouth opened and I gasped a bit as I watched the 'mamma' heron squak and then fly off, the two younger heron following her. They swooped round a bit and then came back to their positions, she on the chimney, the two younger ones on the roof of the sunroom. 

I snapped to thinking, "OMG, I'd better get a move on or I'm going to be late for church."

But, I thought to myself, "Well, at least your heart hasn't shrunk too badly. At least you can still appreciate and admire the gift of nature. That's not a bad reason to be late for church. I don't think God would mind at all. Unfortunately, it's not God who signs the payroll check, right?"

Sometimes, I think that we forget that we are made in the image of God and, like God’s own heart, so is our heart capable of expanding.   

This passage from St. Luke’s gospel is a reminder of that. God believes that every single one of God’s creatures has value and worth. 

Like a shepherd leaving the 99 sheep to go searching for that one sheep that is lost, God will leave the rest to go search for us. 

Like a woman of ancient Palestine, living in poverty, God will turn over the house, even in the darkness, checking under the sofa pillows, looking for one of us who has been lost, even though there are nine more coins left. 

Luke’s gospel story is a story of God’s love for us, but it is important to remember that it is Jesus who is telling us the story. It is even more important to remember that Jesus uses examples of the acts of human love and dedication as revealed in the lowly shepherd and the woman whose status was pretty insignificant in that culture and time. 

Jesus is telling us of the love that is in God’s heart and the potential we have to have the same love in our hearts because there is Jesus, standing before us, fully human and fully divine, with that same love in his heart for us.  

Because of Jesus, we know we have the same capacity to expand our hearts in love for one another. 

There are two phrases in the Bible that we see over and over again. The first is, “Be not afraid.” It’s something angels or messengers of God say just before something really important or really scary is about to happen. 

The other is something Jesus and his evangelists who wrote the Epistles say over and over again. It is this, “Love one another.” 

Pablo Neruda
I think the two are not unrelated. 

Jesus comes to us this morning to say no matter how lost you are – even if you have strayed so far you don’t even know how lost you are – I will come to you. I will find you. 

Jesus comes to us this morning to say that no matter how numb you have become to your own needs and those of others – I will come to you. I will find you. 

I will send someone to you. 

I will send you to others.

We are here for each other, to help each other along in our journey toward salvation and renewal of life.

Jesus comes to us this morning to say that no matter how numb you have become to the needs of others, not to worry. You can repent. You can turn yourself around. You can go in a different direction. 

And, when you do that - when you turn yourself around till you come 'round right - there is such joy in heaven that all the hearts of all angels and archangels and all the company of heaven overflow with joy to know that you, too, have learned the truth that is in the middle of the middle of every human being:

The heart expands.    


Thursday, September 12, 2019

Into the Woods of Parish Ministry

St. David's Episcopal Church, Kinnelon, NJ

A Sermon preached for the Celebration of New Ministry
the Rev'd Jon Mark Richardson, rector
St. David's Episcopal Church, Kinnelon, NJ
September 12, 2019

Please pray with me: (sung) Into the woods / It's time to go, / I hate to leave, / I have to, though. Into the woods / It's time, and so / I must begin my journey. In the Name of the Triune God, who is Love, who is Beloved, whose Love who never leaves us alone. Amen.

Well, and now some of you are wondering, “What in the name of all that is holy is this all about? What’s going to happen? Where are we going?”

And those, my friends, are exactly the right questions to ask as together – bishop, deacons, priests and people of God – begin this new part of your spiritual journey.  I don’t have the answers to your questions, but I know where to find them.  

When your almost-brand-new rector asked me to preach today, I thought, “Now why on earth would he do that?” I mean, I’ve loved being part of his priestly formation and I love even more that in spite of that, he considers me his mentor. 

And, I want you to know that I gave him an out and told him he could ask anyone else to preach and it would not hurt my feelings. Nevertheless, he persisted. And, here I am.

So, like a lot of other things in parish ministry, if you don’t like this sermon, blame the rector. Rectors get blamed for lots of other things, so we might as well start off right now.

As I thought about it, it does seem that incongruity is one of the hallmarks of vocation. I could give lots of examples of that but I must say that it always makes me giggle when Jon or Michael posts something on their FB page about spotting a bear in the yard. Or, the amount of snow plowing that needs to be done on these long, winding, country roads.

While most clergy who work in urban areas dream of coming out to the country on their day off, we all know where Jon goes to unwind, right? The City. And Michael. Oy, Michael! If a tree grows in Brooklyn can a boy from Brooklyn grow in the woods?

And, you may have noticed but allow me to point out that both Jon and Michael are “Broadway Babies. Walkin’ off their tired feet. Poundin’ 42nd Street to (get to) a show.” 

And then, the way my mind works in the word association process which is part of sermon prep (greatly assisted by sipping a glass of wine on my waterfront deck), it was just a short hop, skip, and a jump from Broadway… to The Woods of Kinnelon…. down the slippery slope of the White Knuckle Cliffs of Anxiety … and, behold! A sermon was born.

So, off we go then! Into the woods! 

(Sung) The way is clear / The light is good / I have no fear / Nor no one should / The woods are just trees / The trees are just wood / No need to be afraid there— (there’s something in the glade, there). / Into the woods / Without delay / But careful not / To lose the way / Into the woods / Who knows what may / Be lurking on the journey?

Let’s start our journey by checking in with Jesus – always a good way to start any journey.  (Mt 28)

Mary Magdalene and, well, “the other Mary,” Matthew reports, “went to look at the tomb.” 

Right. They probably went to tend to the corpse, as ritual of the day warranted that women do, but Matthew doesn’t even know the name of “the other Mary” so how could he possibly know about “women’s work”?
Never mind. Suddenly, there came a great rumbling from the earth, which became an earthquake. And, from the midst of the rubble of dust and rock, an angel appeared saying to the women, “Do not be afraid.” And then the angel directed them to go and tell his disciples that Jesus was resurrected.

But, lo and behold! The women ran into Jesus himself. (Who know what may be lurking on the journey, indeed!) The women greeted him with joy – can you just imagine! – and he told them to tell the brothers to meet him in Galilee. And then, another miracle: The Eleven actually believed the women and went to Galilee to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.

There, on that mountain, the Resurrected Christ tells them to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” 

And then Jesus says a most remarkable thing which also ends Matthew’s Gospel, “Remember,” he says, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

And, there it is, my friends – the essence of a journey in ministry. It’s a blueprint for the life cycle of parochial ministry. Something dies – or at least, something ends. We mourn. We tend to that which was lost. And then, in the midst of our grief, something happens to shake everything at its foundation. Things shift. We are scared. Confused. Light flashes. The dust clears. There is surprise. Insight. Delight. Joy. Reunion. And then, the commission is given to begin new life, new ministry.

Finally, the promise that makes it all possible: We are not alone. Not never. Not no way. Not no how. Which makes it bearable when the cycle repeats itself. It always does. Always will.

And so, once again, tonight we begin the journey into the life cycle of parish ministry, which has been described as an “impossible vocation”. 

It has also been described as the very essence of sacrificial love – a continuous cycle of dying to self in order to seek and serve the Christ in others and be the Christ for others which will bring about new life. See also: impossible vocation.

See also: Into the woods.

When Steven Sondheim and James Lapine wrote this great Broadway play in 1987, they did so based on the work of psychologist Bruno Bettelheim's classic Freudian analysis, “The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales”. 

"Into the Woods" weaves together the stories of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel, and adds one invented by Lapine, about a baker and his wife. There’s also a cow and a child, a prince or two, some evil stepsisters and mean stepmother, a wolf, a giant and, of course, a witch.

The play is, in its essence, a parable about growing up and finding your place in the community, and about learning to live with uncertainty and ambivalence, and learning to love even more deeply in spite of all of that. In the end, doesn’t that pretty much sum up life in a congregation, a community of faith? At its best, church is a place where we can grow and mature not only spiritually but emotionally and psychologically, too. 

That “we” includes priest, deacon, people and yes, bishop.

As with all parables, all of the characters are archetypes; they exaggerate and illuminate all of the qualities of our anxieties and fears and the lessons we learn as we grow and mature. Little Red Riding Hood sums that up well for us. This is the song she sings for us after she is cut from the belly of the wolf. We would do well to pay attention:

(Sung) And I know things now, many valuable things / That I hadn't known before. / Do not put your faith in a cape and a hood / They will not protect you the way that they should. / And take extra care with strangers, / even flowers have their dangers, / And though scary is exciting, /Nice is different than good. / Now I know, don't be scared. / Granny is right, just be prepared. / Isn't it nice to know a lot? / And a little bit. . . not.

But the journey leads us back, as it always does, “into the woods and out of the woods and home before dark”. Except, darkness does come, especially in the woods. In the play, the reality principle comes to the fairytale woods in the second act, in the form of death. In this case, it is a physical death, but there are many forms of death in the community of a life of faith.  It is then when the archetypes of our fairytale characters begin to take on depth and gravity. 

The song "No One Is Alone" is a summation of the journey through the woods, and it's one of Sondheim's most beautiful melodies. The song is a call to adulthood, and it makes the case for shouldering life's troubles: that's where the rewards are. Cinderella sings to Little Red Riding Hood, 

"Sometimes people leave you / halfway through the wood. / Others may deceive you. / You decide what's good.  People make mistakes / Holding to their own, /Thinking they're alone: Honor their mistakes /Everybody makes /One another's terrible mistakes. /Witches can be right/ Giants can be good. /You decide what's right, you decide what's good/
(Sung) Just remember: Someone is on your side (OUR side)/Someone else is not / While we're seeing our side (OUR side) / Maybe we forgot: they are not alone (Truly) No one is alone. 

And so, the journey that begins with Jesus, returns to Jesus, and to the promise of the mystery that makes all ministry possible. Jesus assures us today even as he did to The Eleven so many centuries ago, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

It’s so important – as people of God, as priests, laity, deacons and bishops in God’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic church to remember that we are not alone. We do not do this miracle we call ministry alone. We are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses – the mystical sweet communion of the saints past, present and yet to come. 

We are each baptized into the Royal Priesthood of All Believers and I firmly believe that all things work together for the good for all who love Christ Jesus. 

Even giants and witches, and unfaithful princes and damsels in distress, and little ones in hooded riding cloaks who stray from the path, and grown men and women who choose the magic of a glass slipper instead of the miracle of love that rests in the human heart.

So I have one last image for that – one that has to do with this new, much longed for title of rector. I discovered this years ago when I was writing a sermon like this for a dear friend, a woman colleague, who was being properly installed – like a stained glass window - as rector.

Troubled by having been told that the root of the word ‘rector’ came from ‘rex’ meaning ‘king’ or ‘sovereign’ I decided to look it up in the OED (Old English Dictionary). Yes, it does mean “to guide or lead straight” and therefore, “to rule or govern”. 

And, yes, it is still used in some UK and Western European countries to describe the headmaster of the university. And yes, the term is sometimes applied to the Queen Bee of the Hive – as an unfortunate association, in my view, as a king or sovereign.

What I discovered buried deep in the teeny-tiny little print of the tissue paper of the OED is that the word ‘rector’ is actually an ancient nautical term. Every sail boat has a rudder which is an underwater blade that is positioned at the stern (back) of a boat and controlled by its tiller, which helps to direct the boat in the desired direction.

However, I learned that there was a small piece of wood which connected the rudder to the tiller. And that small, seemingly insignificant piece of wood? The one which helps to keep the rudder going in the direction set forth for it by the captain who is at the tiller?   

Yes THAT insignificant but very important piece of wood is none other than the rector.

Great image, right? I’ll leave the specific interpretations of all the various parts of the boat as they apply to the various parts of the Body of Christ and file it under “Games Church Geeks Play”. I like to remember Romans 8: All things working together for the good for those who love the Lord.

So then, three wishes for you on this new journey:

+ I wish that your journey together may last just as long as needs be, to do that which you have been called together to accomplish, which couldn’t be done any other way by any other group of people. (Sprinkle 'fairy dust')

+ I wish that your journey together may lead to your growth and maturity as individual children of God, as a Priesthood of all Believers and as the Body of Christ.  (Sprinkle 'fairy dust')

+ I wish that your journey deeper into the mystery of our life in Christ may be marked by creativity and imagination, happiness and joy, as you grow into the full stature of Christ. (Sprinkle 'fairy dust')

Just remember, you are not alone. Jesus is with you always, to the end of the age.

And so, off we go, then,

Into the woods/ Where nothing's clear / Where witches, ghosts / And wolves appear.
 Into the woods / And through the fear / You have to take the journey.

  Into the woods / And down the dell, / In vain perhaps / But who can tell?
  Into the woods to lift the spell . . . .
  Into the woods to lose the longing.. . . .

Into the woods to have the child,
       To wed the Prince / To get the money / To save the house, / To kill the wolf,
       To find the father / To conquer the kingdom / To have, to wed / To get, to save,
       To kill, to keep, / To go to the Festival!

  Into the woods,
  Into the woods,
  Into the woods,
  Then out of the woods--

And happy ever after! 

(I wish).