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Sunday, October 25, 2020

Prophets of a Future Not Our Own


                                            Prophets of a Future Not Our Own

A sermon preached on FB Live Broadcast

Sirach 26:10 The Headstrong Daughter

Pentecost XXII - Proper 25 A -  October 25, 2020


I do here confess it, here and now: I like to fold towels. And, iron clothes.


Every now and again, I wonder about the ordinary, daily life of the great prophets of our faith. I wonder about Moses and Jesus and what they did when Moses wasn’t parting the Red Sea or Jesus was turning water into wine.


What did Moses do while they were wandering 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness? Did he help Mariam prepare the vegetables for supper? Did he make sure the tablets that contained The Ten Commandments were clean and free of road dust and had a coat of polish?


Did Jesus like making things out of wood? Did he derive a sense of satisfaction from stacking the wood or oiling or polishing it? Maybe he helped his mother prepare the vegetables for supper? Or, ground some wheat for the bread?


This last image of Moses from Deuteronomy always provokes such nostalgia and melancholy in me, which then gives rise to my questions. Let me explain.


The writers of the Book of Deuteronomy paint an amazing picture of the culmination and reward of the work of the life of Moses as to inspire awe. There they are – God and Moses – on the plains of Moab, up on Mount Nebo, to the top of the top of the peak (which is called Pisgah), which is opposite Jericho.


From this vantage point, Moses can see the entire vista of the land which God had promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – The Promised Land – which, in turn, held the promise of freedom and prosperity for the Israelites. It was the entire valley of Jericho as far as Zoar – an impressive and beautiful sight for eyes that had seen the horrors of slavery and bondage.


This! This is was the reward for the sacrifice. This was the reparation for the centuries of slavery. This land, this promise, this opportunity, was the culmination of the work of freedom and the commencement of the journey – the ending of the time of uncertainty, the beginning of a new way of life and the certainty of God’s favor.


And yet . . . and yet . . . God says to Moses, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.”


I don’t know about you, but those words take my breath away. It feels cruel, in a way, doesn’t it? After all he has gone through, after all he has sacrificed and given, Moses gets to see the reward but never enjoy it himself. He gets to see it but never live in it. That will be for another leader, Joshua, son of Nun.


Are we surprised that the next thing we are to learn is that Moses died? Right there? In the land of Moab?


I remember clearly the day I spoke with my father after he had had his first heart attack and “minor stroke”. Our family doctor – a kind, gentle, generous man, a faithful Quaker named Dr. Kirkaldy – told my father that he had to cut back on strenuous activity which, among other things, meant that he could no longer have a vegetable garden.


My father loved his garden. Few things in life gave him more pleasure than to have his hands in the dirt, planting seeds, tending to them, watering them, watching them grow and then feeding them to his family and friends and neighbors for their nourishment.


It was about this time of year – the end of October, beginning of November. When I came to the house, he was standing in front of the sink, looking out the window at the bare patch that had been his garden. He didn’t turn to greet me. He just continued to look at his garden as he said, “Doc Kirkaldy says I can’t have a garden anymore.”


“I know, Dad,” I said, softly, “Mom told me.”


“Well,” he sighed, “what’s the point, then? If I can’t get my hands in the dirt and grow things, what’s the point?”


Three months later – in February of the next year and shortly after his 82nd birthday – he was dead.


The story of Moses helps me understand. I am my father’s daughter. I also need to see things in my life – to see the fruits of my labor – as a way to make sense of what this life, this ministry I have chosen, requires of me.


Which is probably why I like to fold clothes. Towels, especially. Folding towels and stacking them in the linen closet can be medicine sometimes for me. There have been days when I have simply opened the linen closet and looked in to see the towels all neatly folded and stacked, one on top of another, just to know that there’s order somewhere in my world and that I helped to create it.


I also like to iron clothing. Blouses and shirts, especially. I love the whole process. There is an order to it, as my mother – the Mill Girl – taught me. First, you start with the collar. Then, the yolk (if it has one); then, the cuffs and then the sleeves. You move onto the front shirt panel - careful around the buttons – to the back panel and then round again to the other front panel.


As you work, your mind focuses on the wrinkle there – and there – pressing the button on the steam to chase it off the face of the fabric. The sound of the iron hissing and the sound of the weight of the iron on the ironing board, begin to sound like a prayerful chant; the whiffs of the smell of laundry detergent and fabric softener reaching your nose begins to feel like incense rising from a thurible.


And then, lo and behold! It is finished. You hang the shirt on a hanger and put it in your closet and there is evidence, prima-fascia, hard core, cold, irrefutable evidence that work has been done. Something has been accomplished.


Which is unlike many areas of ministry in life. So much of ministry is scattering seed, hoping it falls on fertile soil. So much more is planting seeds, watering them, tending to them, nourishing them, sometimes to see them grow and bear fruit.


Sometimes, if you’re very lucky, you even get to live into the promise and live in the Promised Land.  Other times, like Moses, you only get to glimpse at what is possible but never taste the fruit yourself.


Early on in my ministry, I was frustrated by what I called “The Moses Effect”. I was young and spiritually immature and, besides, patience has never been my strong suit. I wanted to see results. And, who could blame me, really? So do congregational members. And vestries. And wardens. And, truth be told, bishops.


We measure “success” by productivity. We have our own metrics of measuring success. It’s mostly contained in the Parochial Report. What is your ASA (Average Sunday Attendance)? How many baptisms did you perform? How many confirmations? How many new members? Transfers? How many in church school? How many attended the ‘high holy days’ of Christmas and Easter?


The pandemic has obliterated all of our usual metrics. Our 2020 parochial reports will certainly provide an interesting read in 2021. How will we measure ASA? How will it skew our numbers when we can’t do baptisms or funerals or weddings? We weren’t able to celebrate Easter in 2020 and it looks like we won’t be celebrating Christmas in 2020 the way we did in 2019. Indeed, Easer 2021 looks iffy.


How will we know that we are doing the work of the gospel without columns of numbers to add and final yearly totals to compare? I suspect, when we start delving into the stories of our experiences with various forms of online worship and hybrid forms of online and in person services, we will discover things about ourselves that we didn’t know. Important things. Things which measure faith in new ways that will reveal something about our identity in deeper more meaningful ways.


I suspect we’ll learn adaptive ways to measure the work of ministry – and none of it will require us to stare into the linen closet to find some shred of affirmation in the way the towels are stacked up or how neatly our shirts hang in the close closet. I think we just may discover that numbers were never the point of the gospel, anyway.


Which brings me to Jesus and this rather confusing Gospel. It’s important to know that the Sadducees where a group of religious scholars who flatly denied the possibility of resurrection. That’s important because that’s the whole point of the life and ministry of Jesus, right?


Just as Moses came to redeem the promise God made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Jesus has come to redeem the promise of Life Eternal given in the Garden. Jesus is going to do that through his own death and resurrection and here he is, face to face with and being tested by these Sadducees, these religious scholars who deny even the possibility of resurrection.


When the Pharisees learned how Jesus had handled the Sadducees, they gathered to test him with a more pragmatic question about the greatest commandment. Well, truth be told, I don’t think this is so much about the religious leaders testing Jesus as it is Jesus doing a Jedi-knight trick and luring them into thinking that they can trick him so he can expose their ignorance and hypocrisy and corruption. 


The problem, of course, is that the Pharisees take the scripture literally. Jesus is saying that, when David was talking about the Christ, he wasn’t talking about a concept bound by time. Jesus was saying that the Christ, the Messiah, is timeless and universal; Christ has existed before time and in time and beyond time. Christ was with God in the beginning of time. Christ is the Alpha and the Omega. And, as such, can’t be treated like an object bound by time and space.


Here’s the thing: Jesus is not just planting seeds. Jesus IS the seed.


And, we who follow Jesus would do well to understand that, when we take on his ministry, we are seeds as well. I think this is why Moses was free to die after he saw The Promised Land. He understood that he was but the seed and that in order for the promise to take root and grow, he, like the seed, must be planted and die and be born into newly resurrected life in a new form.


It is fitting, somehow, that there is no actual burial place for Moses, just as there is but an empty tomb for Jesus. Moses exists in the land and in the air, somewhere on the plains of the Moab. And, he lives on everywhere in the midst of the heart of the story of his life and prophetic ministry. He lives every time his story is told.


Most days, I am comforted by all of this. Knowing that I am but a seed of Christ’s ministry provides me with enormous and deep satisfaction. I hope it helps you to think of the work you do in this way, as well.  


Oh, I still love to fold towels and iron clothes, but these days, less out of frustration and more out of an old, faithful habit that helped me through more frustrating times. I think this prayer by Cardinal Dearden in memory of Oscar Romero says it best:


In memory of Oscar Romero (1917–1980)

A Future Not Our Own

It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of
saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession
brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives include everything.

This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one
day will grow. We water the seeds already planted
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects
far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of
liberation in realizing this.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's
grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the
difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not
messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.


We are the seeds of Christ’s ministry.


This prayer was first presented by Cardinal Dearden in 1979 and quoted by Pope Francis in 2015. This reflection is an excerpt from a homily written for Cardinal Dearden by then-Fr. Ken Untener on the occasion of the Mass for Deceased Priests, October 25, 1979. Pope Francis quoted Cardinal Dearden in his remarks to the Roman Curia on December 21, 2015. Fr. Untener was named bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, in 1980.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

The Leaf Scar


A Sermon preached on Facebook Live Broadcast

Sirach 26:10 The Headstrong Daughter

Pentecost XXI - Proper 24 A - October 18, 2020

It seems as if every essay I read about this passage from Matthew’s gospel works very hard to make the Religious Leaders look like the bad guys. It’s almost cartoonish and makes me giggle a little. 


One commenter wrote: This time it’s the Herodias and disciples of the Pharisees who conspire to trap him.” Well, for goodness sake! Jesus has only been goading them into an adversarial relationship. He turns over the tables of the money changes, brings out the whips and insults their integrity and then tells a couple of parables that cast them in a very bad light.


Not that they don’t deserve it, mind you. They have seriously compromised their integrity. But, you know, you don’t go poking the beehive with a stick unless you expect at least one bee to get annoyed and try to sting you.


They ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?” Jesus (“aware of their malice,” Matthew adds) rejects that question and reframes it by answering, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”


The Herodias are agents of Rome – they’re the “G-men”, the “suits” – and favor a tax to the emperor. No one would be surprised to learn that they are lining their own pockets before the revenue gets shipped out of the province. The Pharisees, however, like other Jewish people of their day, resent the tax, not to mention the idolatrous image of Caesar on the face of the coins required to pay it.


Jesus stumped them cold in their tracks. It almost feels too easy, doesn’t it? The Herodias and Pharisees set out to “trick” Jesus but he spins the trick right back on them, without even seeming to break a sweat. Or, is it just that, by now, many of us are very familiar with the story?


Honestly? I don’t know who is tricking whom in this story. Matthew would like us to believe that the religious leaders are setting up Jesus into an adversarial, contentious relationship. I submit that it is Jesus who sets the trap for them, revealing to them and his disciples and anyone else who might be paying attention at the time - and for all time - the corruption and deceit and hypocrisy inherent in the institutional religion.


Which, I think, is the point, the reason for his ‘re-formation’ of religion – about being freed from the “letter” of the law to live more freely into the “spirit” of the law.


Jesus is building his case. He’s taking on the establishment, religious group by religious group, theo-political position by theo-political position. He’s got his face set toward Jerusalem and we know what will happen there. So does he. When you know how the story ends – when you know it’s not the end – you can take risks like this.


The beginning of his earthly ministry is to set up the ending of his earthly ministry so that the salvific ministry of eternal life can begin and we can return to The Garden.


Jesus is living out a natural force in nature. We see it all around us, especially this time of year. Those who are familiar with my sermons know of my deep affection for my grandmother. You know that some of my fondest childhood memories are being with her - especially in the kitchen, yes.


When we weren’t in her kitchen, I loved being on long walks with her, especially our daily walks to church for early morning mass. She also loved to take long rides on Sunday in the car. She would sit in the back seat and I would sprawl out on the “back ledge” behind her seat in my father’s Studebaker.


My grandmother especially loved the Autumn of the year. She loved all the wild, beautiful colors and the way the whole round earth seemed to be celebrating life in a vivid, flashy display of life at this point in the year.


It was she who first taught me of the great ironies in life, this one chief among them – that the outrageous burst of color and life were actually a sign of death. 

It’s a chemical process, of course. The mixture of red, purple, orange and yellow is the result of the tree changing the composition of the food-making process it was sending to the leaves in preparation for the change from summer to winter, so that life would continue from one season to the next within the tree.


My grandmother said that life on this earth ends in a blaze of glory. She pointed out that Jesus was called to this earth by a great star of wonder and light in the sky and that he was called back home to heaven in that same great light of the resurrection.  So, she said, we should not be surprised with the earth mimicked the divine which had created them and did the same.

You will recall Paul saying to the church in Thessalonia to be "imitators" of him so they can be an example to others. And, Moses says to God, "Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight." 

It's about knowing and imitating God's ways - even as all of nature imitates God's ways and thus, finds favor in God's sight.

I remember one time on one of our walks to church, she stopped to watch a leaf fall from its branch. She then picked up the leaf from the ground and showed me the spot on the tree branch from which the leaf had fallen.


At the point where the stem of the leaf is attached to the tree, a special layer of cells develops and gradually severs the tissues that support the leaf. If you put your finger on the end of it, you can feel its sticky sap. At the same time, the tree seals the cut, so that when the leaf is finally blown off by the wind or falls from its own weight, it leaves behind a leaf scar.


“And this,” she said rolling the sap between her fingers, “is why we cry when someone dies. It’s okay to be sad. Even trees are sad a bit and weep. But, their tears become a protective coating for the tree sealing it off from any damage.”


“The important thing is this,” she added, “Every leaf that falls leaves behind a ‘leaf scar’. The tree knows every leaf that has ever grown on its branches, and every branch that has ever grown from its body.”


“Like leaves on a tree, we change our home from inside the tree, to outside the tree. Then, we fall off the tree and rest at its base, providing food and nourishment for the roots of the tree.  But, there is something stronger than the tree. It is Life. That life lasts forever and, even in death, we are all a part of that Life that goes on, even when we’re not here.”


“We may not return in the Spring – no one knows where we go after we die – but we know this to be true: Life will return.”


It seemed a great puzzle to me. I confess that, from time to time, it still does. Along with millions and billions of generations of other people who have wondered about The Meaning of Life, I wondered about the reason. I mean, why are we here if only to fall and die at the end?


asked my grandmother, of course. She smiled kindly and said, “It’s always been about Grandmother Moon and Grandfather Sun. It’s been about the times in between, when the sun rises and sets and the moon rises high in the sky, only to fall again for the sun to rise. It’s about falling and rising. It’s about the times we’ve been happy and sad. It’s been about the sun and the shade, the rain and the wind, and the old people and the children. It’s been about the way life takes us on a ride through the seasons and changes of life. It’s about learning, finally, to just enjoy the ride, the way a leaf changes colors and then glides into the wind to finally  settle on the ground.” 


“Some of us, like the leaf, depart in a blaze of glory. Some of us are just blown off by the wind. But, after all is said and done,” she said, holding up the leaf and matching its end to the ‘scar’ that was already forming on the branch from which it had fallen, “no matter how we leave, we all leave our mark, child. No matter how small or seemingly insignificant, we leave our mark. We all leave our mark. And, that – and the ride – have to be enough.”


Jesus is getting ready to leave in a blaze of glory. Does he seem to be goading his adversaries into an argument? Well, that’s because he is. They don’t yet know it, but they are kindling for the great blaze of glory he is building.


He’s doing so to make a point about remembering the importance of the Tree of Life from which we are all leaves, and not the structures we have built around the Tree. Jesus is calling us to remember The Tree in the center of the Garden.


He is going to Jerusalem where he will be made to carry the remains of a tree on his back; the tree felled and fashioned for him; the tree to which his body will be nailed but the tree on which he will not – can not, shall not – stay.

The marks he will carry on his body will be marks that stay. Those marks will be outward and visible signs that Life has been here and, through those very marks, Life will return. 


I think somewhere deep in the places of our knowing, we know the wisdom of my grandmother to be true. Some of us do, anyway. We know somewhere deep in our souls that all these things – the trials and the troubles, the arguments and conflicts, the chaos and confusion the anxiety and fear, are all part of this particular season in our lives. This too, shall pass. And, The Tree will remain.


Some of it is out of our control. Some of it is as directly caused as the “tricks” pulled on Jesus into which he tricked the leaders of his time into participating. Some of us will misplace our loyalties and disorder our priorities. Some of us will fall gently. Others will be violently blown off by a sudden, unexpected strong wind. It’s all part of the rhythm and the dance of life.


So when you see the leaves begin to change their color, and watch them fall to the ground to dry and turn brown and gather into brittle clusters tossed by the wind on the ground to nourish the earth with its remains, remember the branch and The Tree from which those leaves fell.


Remember, then, that just like Jesus, we, too, will leave our mark. So, give to God that which is of God, and that which is of the earth to the earth to be gathered up and used by God for God’s mysterious purposes. And, bidden or unbidden, God is there, in the midst of us, blessing it all, like the Tree in the middle of the Garden from which we come and to which we will return. 



Sunday, October 11, 2020

No, THIS is the worst parable ever

A Sermon preached via Facebook Live Broadcast

Sirach 26:10: The Headstrong Daughter

Pentecost XIV - Proper 23 A

October 10, 2020


Last year – in September, 2019 – I preached a sermon I titled, “The Worst Parable Ever.” It was The Parable of the Shrewd (or, Crooked) Manager from Luke’s gospel.


I was wrong. That was not the worst parable ever. It was only one of the worst parables ever. 


Actually, THIS is the worst parable ever. This one right here: Matthew’s parable of the Wedding Banquet. (Matthew 22:1-14)


If you wrestle with this parable through the night, I can assure you that you’ll wake up in the morning limping, just like Jacob who wrestled with the angel. You may even have a headache from banging your head against the rock that was your pillow.


Seriously. Well, I tried to warn you two weeks ago about the upcoming gospels from here to the Feast of Christ the King just six weeks from now. 


Unfortunately, our minds are on the pandemic and whether the COVID will rob us of a full NFL season, and, perhaps, how to celebrate a safely distanced Oktoberfest, or whether or not Halloween masks this year will provide adequate prevention from COVID transmission and infection. 


Oh, and then there’s the matter of the presidential election. Indeed. 


So, who wants to wrestle with a contentious piece of scripture while we have so many other things over which to gnash our teeth and rend our garments and growl? 


The temptation, of course, is to take this scripture literally. I love the saying about us, that Episcopalians “take scripture too seriously to take it literally”. That posture really saves us, especially in this parable, from dangerous conclusions that defy the image of God as a God of unconditional love, a God who is capable of a change of mind as well as heart, which we saw in the first lesson from Genesis.  


I am assured by my Lutheran friends that Martin Luther did not like preaching on this parable. As Paul writes to the church in Philippi, how are we supposed to “rejoice in the Lord” who throws uninvited guests into the outer darkness?


The great theologian of the Reformation, John Calvin and others of his orthodox Protestant theological persuasion, have preached that the one ejected from the banquet represented the one who did not "put on the Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 13:14 and Gal. 3:27).

Calvin preached that we are all invited to the kingdom, but we are all under obligation to be clothed with Christ and to live lives of righteousness.  


Taken to its logical conclusion, that would mean that the message of this parable is that only practicing Christians are saved—everybody else is toast. 


I simply don’t believe that people like Gandhi aren’t in heaven right alongside Mother Theresa. Or that faithful Jew, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is still not respectfully dissenting from the opinions of devout Roman Catholic Antonin Scalia. Or that Jesus and Buddha, Mohammed and Brahma don’t walk and talk and discuss theology together on the same path in the Celestial City. 


Lutheran pastor, Mary Anderson reinterprets this parable with a modern one of her own – which, as you know, are my favorite kinds of parable. 


Imagine that an active member in a congregation has just heard a sermon on that gospel from an orthodox follower of Calvin theology – that the only ones going to heaven are devout Christians. She has tears in her eyes. She hears the judgment loud and clear. 


Her son-in-law is a self-proclaimed atheist and her granddaughter is unbaptized at age six. She has a wonderful neighbor who is Jewish; her longtime doctor is the best listener in the world—and a practicing Hindu. 


It turns out that she loves a lot of people who are going to hell. How can she be happy in heaven without them? She was told once that heaven will be so incredible that she won't miss these people, but she can't imagine rejoicing in the Lord under these conditions. She can't imagine her sweet grandchild in hell.


But the grandmother has accepted the invitation; she's put on Christ and considers herself clothed with righteousness. She has recommitted herself on many occasions to imitating Christ. So what would Jesus do, she wonders. 


The congregation rises to sing a hymn rejoicing in salvation, and worshipers dutifully recite the Apostles' Creed. The grandmother's voice catches on the words of faith, "he descended into hell." She's never had a satisfactory explanation of what Jesus was doing in hell between his death and resurrection. 


For her at that moment, after suffering through a sermon that sent her loved ones to outer darkness, she knew what the creed meant for her. Before he was raised from the dead, Jesus went to retrieve those who had not heard the gospel through no fault of their own. Jesus went to get those cast into outer darkness and bring them into the kingdom with him. 


If she was clothed with Christ, she reasoned, she was called to be like him.


By the time of the final hymn she decided that to really be like Christ, she would pass up heaven in order to comfort her grandbaby in hell. She would offer her eternal life for her grandchild's eternal life. 


She would descend into hell as Jesus did. She left church convinced that day that if we truly live a transformed life, we can't stand by and feast while others starve and burn. That just isn't the Jesus way!


Now, to tell you the God’s honest truth, I don’t know the right interpretation of this Gospel parable – much less if this woman (let’s give her a name – let’s call her Ethel – got it right –  but I do love what happened to the woman in this modern parable.   


Let me explain: When I was in seminary, studying scripture with the Jesuits, one of my favorite professors was Dan Harrington. 


He was an absolutely brilliant theologian and wonderful pastor but, honestly? What I love most about him? Well, he looked and talked like a truck driver. And yet, he had more scholarly articles published in the Jerome Biblical Commentary than any other professor at Weston School of Theology at the time.  


He was a big, burly Irishman whose face was covered in fading freckles, and the hair on his head had that wonderful tone Irish-red becomes after it turns grey. He had a thick Irish-Bawston lilt which made the occasional pearls of wisdom he would drop even more memorable. 


I’ll never forget his advice: Parables work best, he said, when we stop working so hard to interpret them and instead allow them to interpret us. 


Just let that sink in for a moment: Parables work best when we stop working so hard to interpret them and instead allow them to interpret us. 


Ethel, the woman in that story took the parable not literally but seriously (I suspect she may have been an Episcopalian). She took it as a challenge to take seriously her clothing in Christ. 


Indeed, Ethel took it so seriously that she was transformed from one who understood herself as saved and going to heaven to one who gave up heaven in order to save and protect those she loved. 


Isn't this what Jesus did and what Jesus would do? 


The parable interpreted her life. 


I don’t know about you, but when I grow up I want to be more like Ethel. 


Like Ethel, I want to take even the worst of the parables, no matter how grumpy and frustrated or conflicted or sad they make me feel or whether or not they come at a particularly bad season of the year, and have them better interpret my life. 


I suspect if more of us took scripture less literally and more seriously, we may find ourselves leaving worship, perhaps with a slight limp but still rejoicing in the transformative power of Christ to work through our worst parts of our stories to bring us closer to walk the path of the teachings of Christ.


May we all be less interested in changing God’s mind and more deeply committed to following the Spirit and changing our lives in Christ. 


Then we might be able to join St. Paul whose hymn of praise still sings to us throughout time and space: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say,Rejoice.


Amen? Amen.

Sunday, October 04, 2020

New Rules


New Rules: A Sermon on Live FB Broadcast

Sirach 26:10: The Headstrong Daughter FB Page 

Pentecost XVIII - Proper 22A - October 4, 2020

Rules. Rules are important. Rules provide calm in times of anxiety. Rules provide focus when there is a crisis. Rules provide order in the midst of chaos.


The liberation of the Israelites from 400 years of bondage in Egypt was a miracle. Their crossing the Red Sea onto dry land was a miracle. The manna that came down from heaven and fed them when they were hungry and the water that flowed from the rock and gave them drink when they were thirsty were straight-up miracles.


In today’s reading from Hebrew scripture, God gives another miracle to the people of Israel. They are known as The 10 Commandments. They are ten rules, 10 ways to organize themselves as a newly liberated people so that order may be brought out of the immediate headiness of their newly gained freedom.


Once the Israelites reached the Promised Land, their priests began writing down more rules; they were called Purity Codes and gathered into a book called Leviticus. The dynamic which gave rise to these rules was the belief that the only reason God punished them with 400 years of bondage in a foreign land was due to the fact that they displeased God.


God forbid that should ever happen again! So, they would discern what God wanted of them – how to order their lives in every detail – so that God would not punish them again with slavery. Indeed, these rules would shape and form their identity as Jews.


Rules are important. Religious rules, especially those formulated in reaction to a traumatic event in the lives of a people, become central to individual and community life as the way to work out their salvation.


Over the centuries after the Exodus, the Levitical codes and rules and their interpretation and enforcement, were studied and revered and treasured and kept by the religious leaders of the Temple and taught by the Rabbis.


So, I’m going to ask you to do something this morning that you may not have considered before. I’m going to ask you to stand in the shoes – or, more accurately no doubt, the sandals – of the temple leaders.


This is the second parable Jesus has told them since he turned over the tables in the temples and took out the whips and told the money changers and temple leaders that they had turned his father’s house into a den of thieves.


When the religious leaders challenged his authority to have criticized their financial system, he told them the parable we heard last week, about the father and two sons in the vineyard. Now he tells them yet another parable, this one even more pointed and clear that he is criticizing them.


They are son who promised to work but didn’t. They are the tenants who steal from the landowner’s vineyard and kill his servants and even his son. That made the religious leaders so angry they wanted him arrested and thrown into jail.


Now, remember what I told you about rules and how especially important the religious rules are to the people of Israel, about how a whole group of people came together to write rules that they thought would not only be pleasing to God, but would give them their identity as a people and a nation. Indeed, the rules formed the pathway to their salvation.


Now, imagine being one of a group of people whose whole job it was to study the law and interpret the law and enforce the law and here comes this upstart young Rabbi – a Galilean, no less – and he not only ridicules them with parables but actually has the hutzpah to say to them, “Have you never read the scriptures!”???


Imagine! No wonder they wanted to lock him in jail and throw away the key.


But, what they don’t understand, what his disciples then and in every generation that has followed him for thousands of years, is that Jesus comes to offer us yet another layer, a deeper meaning of freedom.


I think St. Paul explains it best when he writes to the ancient church in Corinth that Jesus “has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2Corinthians 3:6).


Jesus wants us to be obedient to the spirit of the law and that spirit is the love of God. Not the judgment of God. Not a God with an arbitrarily punitive nature.


No! Jesus wants us to know that God is a God of love – that God IS love – and the only way he can see to help us to know about the essence of the nature of God is to challenge and attempt to disassemble the religious structures that have, themselves, become oppressive and corrupt.


I want to tell you another parable – a modern one – about rules and our obedience to the spirit of the law.


It was 1986 and I was newly ordained and working in Boston, MA. I had been appointed by Bishop Johnson to the newly convened Interfaith AIDS Task Force. The AIDS pandemic had just reached Boston and ignorance and fear proved to be a deadly combination.


If you think people are behaving badly in this COVID epidemic, you wouldn’t believe how perfectly awful it was in the late 80s. The virus that causes AIDS – known as HIV – is a very different virus than COVID. HIV is transmitted through body fluid during intimate contact. COVID is transmitted by droplet which can be inhaled through the nose or mouth or transmitted through the eyes or skin.

Wearing masks prevent transmission of COVID. On the other hand HIV suppresses the auto immune system. In those days we had no real treatment for AIDS. A diagnosis of AIDS was a death sentence. Masks are worn by non-infected people to keep protect people with AIDS because even a common cold could mean their death.


In those days, my first partner on the Interfaith AIDS Task Force was a young man named Jimmy Mac. He was a 26-year old gay man – at the time that made him 7 years younger than I was. He could have been my kid brother. He was a very popular DJ on a local Boston radio station.  He and I would go to schools, churches, businesses – anywhere we could get our foot in the door, to raise awareness and teach what we knew about prevention and early intervention.


Working with Jimmy was amazing. His energy seemed unbounded and enthusiasm and spirit of generosity were inspiring. He knew he was going to die but he wanted to prevent as many deaths as he could before his time on this earth came to an end. I was utterly charmed and I came to love him dearly.


The last time I saw Jimmy, he was at Boston City Hospital, in strict isolation on the AIDS unit. He had called me and asked me to come visit saying that he had so few T-cells left in his immune system he had named them.


His good spirit on the phone did not prepare me for what I was about to see when I walked into his hospital room. He was thin – painfully, wafer thin – and there were angry, purple Karposi sarcoma all over his handsome but now emaciated face.


I had to dress in a white paper gown, manila colored plastic gloves, and green paper mask, hair and shoe coverings. As soon as Jimmy saw me, a smile crossed his face. He said, “Girl, you are a hot mess. Look at you,” he coughed as he laughed, “I’m calling the fashion police. Shame on you! Your gloves don’t match your shoes.”


I fussed around his sheets, straightening his pillow, when he suddenly grabbed my arm with surprising strength. “Elizabeth,” he said, “I know I don’t have much time left, so please, hear me out.”


“I’ve been here for two weeks. I haven’t seen a human face for two weeks. In all that time, I haven’t seen a human smile or felt the touch of human skin.” He coughed some more and it took him a few minutes to catch his breath.


“So, I have something to ask you, Elizabeth. Please don’t say no. I trust you. I’m counting on you,” he said, “Please, take off your mask and let me see your face. And, take off your gloves and let me feel your skin.”


“Besides,” he said, “that whole get up is supposed to protect me from you. But, you know, the people in this hospital act as if they have to protect themselves from me. You would think here, in the hospital of all places, they’d know that.”


“Will you take off that mask, Elizabeth?” he asked. “And, your gloves? Please?” 


And, even though I knew the rules, even though I knew the cost of breaking the rules, I listened to the spirit in the voice of Jimmy Mac calling me to a deeper obedience of the Law of Love. And, I took off my mask, and I took off my gloves, and I crawled into bed with him and held his skin-and-bone body in my arms.”


Soon, I heard him singing softly, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so.  . . . . . ”


I stroked his hair and his forehead as I sang with him, “Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.”


The next day, I got the call that Jimmy Mac had died. And even as the tears of grief fell I rejoiced that he was now free from his suffering. But I also rejoiced to know that I had also been set free from the letter of the law to a deeper obedience to the spirit of the law of Love.


I do believe this is what Jesus came to teach us. I believe the Christ in Jimmy Mac came to help me to learn that. I believe that sometimes you have to break a few rules in order to be obedient to the spirit of Love incarnate in Jesus.


The life of faith we are called to is not about blind obedience to Ten Rules carved in stone. A life of faith is about breaking open our hearts of stone to find ways to more deeply love in the name of The One who gave us a new Rule: Love One Another as Jesus has loved us.