Entering into the Joy of God: A Sermon for Proper 28, Year A, Annual Meeting

Today after the 10:00 service is our Annual Meeting. We will be doing the regular business of the parish, business any church, any non-profit, has to do—voting on changes to our By-Laws and Constitution, electing officers for the coming year and new vestry members, discussing the draft budget that will be presented, and other matters. It’s all routine, uninspiring stuff, and in an age when our distrust of institutions and our disengagement from common life is at an all-time high, it’s difficult for many of us to see the point of it all.

But Annual Meetings are also opportunities to take stock, to remember what we have done over the last year and to begin to set a course for the future, for next year and beyond. And that’s what can raise Annual Meetings from the humdrum, the ordinary. Because our structure, our budget, are not only about maintenance, making sure we do things right, cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s, that we keep the lights on and the building dry. All of that is for another, more important purpose, the mission of Grace Church to share Christ’s love in our neighborhood and in the world.

Today’s gospel reading, the familiar parable of the talents, is the perfect gospel to read at a time like this, as we reflect on the past year and begin to imagine what the future might look like.

The Parable of the Talents is the second of three parables—we heard the first last Sunday—that bring to the end Jesus’ public ministry. They are parables of judgment and warning. In the traditional interpretation of this parable, Jesus’ words become an admonition for us to make shrewd and creative use of the gifts we’ve been given. In fact, so dominant is that interpretation, that the English word “talent” which means gifts, or skills, has its origins in this very story.

Even as we hear this story and internalize its rather unremarkable message, I’m sure that many of you responded negatively to the last words of the parable as the Lord commands his servants, “throw him out into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” For all its familiarity, there are also elements of the story that are profoundly alienating, especially if we take the master in the story to be a stand-in for Jesus or God. Both its familiarity and this problematic image for God encourage us not to delve more deeply into the story and what it might mean.

In fact, that negative image of God is driven, not necessarily by details in the story itself, but rather by the third slave’s statement: “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” Now, as the parable stands on the page, the master seems to accept the slave’s judgment of him, but what if read the master’s response with a different tone of voice, with sarcasm?

After all, up to this point, what do we know about the master? He is fabulously wealthy; he leaves his wealth and property behind to take a long trip, putting unimaginable sums of wealth in the hands of his servants. A talent, by some estimations, was the equivalent of 75 yrs of a day laborer’s wages, or to put it in our terms, around a million dollars. He gave them no instructions. Presumably, they were to be custodians of it, to make sure it was there upon his return. And the third servant did just that. Digging a hole and putting it there for safe keeping was a perfectly reasonable response to the task he was given (in fact the rabbis would commend such behavior).

I want to focus on two aspects of the master’s behavior—his generosity, and his departure. First, generosity. It’s obvious that this is a parable of the Last Judgment, that we are to see in the master, God, or Jesus Christ. If that is the case, then it is stunning to consider the sheer generosity of the master’s behavior. He gave to three servants a total of something like 8 million dollars, no strings attached, to take care of until his return. There was no one watching what they might do with it, no detailed instructions, no warning involved.

In that sense, the Master is very like the God we know—who created the world and us in it to care for it, to tend. Out of God’s sheer generosity, and imaginative creativity, God created us, to be God’s stewards, to share in that creativity and generosity.

And so the first two servants did just that. They responded to God’s generosity and creativity with creativity of their own. From the gifts God gave them, they created more and were rewarded, with the invitation, “Enter into the joy of your master.”

The second thing the Master did was depart from the scene. It’s one thing to be given an opportunity to showcase your creativity. It’s a completely different thing to be given free rein to express that creativity, not to have to worry about the watchful and disapproving eye of your boss or Master. To create in freedom and joy, to be able to explore the possibilities that present themselves with the gifts from God, a wonderful feeling and experience.

Contrast that with the third slave, whose behavior was dominated by fear. He knew that his master was a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow, gathering where he did not sow seed, and his imagination was imprisoned by that fear. For him, the master never left, his judgment loomed over him all of this years as he asked himself the question, “What happens if I lose that talent?”

His fear froze him, and in the end, his fear made his prediction come to life—he was cast out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

We have been blessed with incredible resources at Grace—a beautiful building and grounds on one of the prime locations in all of Madison; we are stewards of financial resources bestowed upon us by generations of Grace members over the years, we have a gifted and committed membership.

At this moment in our common life, as we contemplate the future and survey a rapidly changing landscape, as our downtown grows and as traditional Christianity collapses around the country, we are at a decisive moment. We can act like the third slave out of fear and husband all of those resources to make sure they are available for future generations (even if it is quite uncertain whether those future generations will exist) or we can venture forward, in creativity, imagination, and generosity, responding to God’s love and grace with love and grace of our own, and use our resources to reach it in new ways, with new energy and imagination, to connect with our neighors and the wider world. If we do that, we will certainly enter into “the joy of our Father.” Thanks be to God.

 

Advertisements

A Cloud of Witnesses: A Homily for All Saints’ Sunday, 2017

Today is All Saints’ Sunday. It’s a Sunday that is jam-packed liturgically as we will baptize an infant and an adult and commemorate those from our parish and our loved ones who have died, especially in the past year. We will also recognize new members today and we’ve set this day as our ingathering of pledges for our annual stewardship campaign. This evening we will gather again for Choral Evensong. Continue reading

A Sermon for Proper 25, Year A, 2017

Our readings from the Hebrew Bible this season after Pentecost have been dominated by a promise. When God called Abram and Sarai to follow him, God promised them that he would give them the land that God would show them, and that God would make of their descendants a mighty nation. As we have read the story this summer and fall, we have seen that the fulfillment of those promises has been deferred. At Abraham’s death, he had two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, and the only land he legally owned was the burial plot he had purchased for his wife Sarai.

The promises remained just that, promises, for generations. Jacob and his sons and families ended their lives in Egypt, having fled famine and found refuge in that foreign land. Later, the Israelites fled Egypt, making their way to Sinai, where the received the 10 Commandments. But the hopes of that generation to enter and possess the promised land, the land flowing with milk and honey were also dashed, as they were condemned, because of their unfaithfulness, what the text likes to call their “stiff-necked-ness” to die in the desert.

Now forty years have past and the Israelites are camped on the banks of the Jordan River, all that separates them from receiving the promise God had made them. Of that first generation only Moses, their leader since Egypt, survives. Even the words God uses here remind us of God’s words to Abram in Genesis 12—“Go from your country to the land that I will show you,” God said to Abram. Now, God shows Moses the whole land and tells him that this is the land that had been promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Still, just as the book of Genesis ended with Jacob and his descendants in Egypt, not in the promised land, so Deuteronomy, the Pentateuch, the first five books of Hebrew Scripture, ends with the Israelites still awaiting the fulfillment of the promise.

For us as Americans, this story evokes another prophet, another promise unfulfilled. For it was this story that Martin Luther King Jr referenced in his last speech, given the night before he was assassinated. We will commemorate that speech, we will remember the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination in a little over five months. He may have been to the mountaintop, he may have seen the promised land, but it seems we are no closer to reaching it now than we were fifty years ago, and perhaps further away now than ever from that hope of a nation where racism no longer reigns, where African-Americans can find the same level of success and achievement as whites.

That’s an important, perhaps the most important way this story connects with our lives and world. But it’s not the only one. I would like to draw your attention to another theme in the story and that is the relationship between Moses and God. Here, we are told that God knew Moses face to face. We have seen details of the intimate relationship the two shared. We have seen Moses appeal to God on behalf of the Israelites, we have seen him ask to see God’s glory, and instead to be seen God’s backside from the cleft of a rock, while his face was shielded by God’s hand. We have seen his face transformed by his encounter with God, shining.

Now we see something else, although it is obscured by the translation we use. In the report of Moses’ death, our text reads, “He was buried in a valley in the Land of Moab…” The Hebrew actually reads, “he buried him” that is, God buried him. That tender, intimate act, the image of God taking up a shovel and burying God’s beloved and devoted servant is evidence of the intimacy the two shared. It points to God’s care and concern for God’s people.

It also calls to mind other stories. At the very beginning of the Pentateuch, in Genesis, we are shown God’s tender actions in creating human beings, the man out of the dust of the earth, and the woman from the man’s rib. We also see God’s tenderness, care, and protection of the first humans, when after they sinned, God made clothes for them out of animal skins.

We might be turned off by the intimacy and earthiness of this imagery, of the notion that God might create out of the dust of the earth, that God might take up needle and thread, or that God might bury Moses. Such language might seem overly mythological or anthropomorphic, a far cry from the God of the philosophers or of contemporary theology.

But such language can offer us comfort and strengthen our faith. To imagine a God so intimately involved in the lives of those God loves, a God whose concern and care extends to the clothes on our back or the disposition of our final remains, a God who knows us face to face, can be a source of strength when we struggle or stumble.

And it also, I think, helps us reflect in a new way on the story from the gospel, in which a lawyer asks Jesus to prioritize the commandments. Jesus’ response is hardly revolutionary. His words are quotations from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, straight out of Moses’ law. Moreover a contemporary of his, Rabbi Hillel, is remembered to have said in response to a similar question, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor; that is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary; go and learn it.”

We have compartmentalized so much of ourselves, so much of our lives. We place our faith in God in one small sphere of our lives, for Sunday mornings, for example, or for those quiet moments of prayer and meditation. We think of love as an emotion, we talk of falling in or out of love, or we say, we love this or that food, or activity. We are commanded, in Deuteronomy, here in Jesus’ words, to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, and mind—we might say “with all of our selves, with our whole being.” I’m not sure I can even fathom what that might look like for me, what that would be like to love God with all of myself. And then, on top of that, we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourself. Is that even possible?

Here’s where I think the earthy, intimate image of God burying Moses might be of help. For in that very human, incredibly intimate action—I bet most of us are turned off by it, by the idea of the transcendent, immortal, invisible, omniscient, omnipotent, being though of performing that very intimate even offensive act, who of us could imagine, in this day and age, actually burying a loved one with our own hands—in that incredibly intimate action, we see a parable of God’s love for us. Imagine God lowering Godself to care for us so intimately. Imagine that love. If God can love us so powerfully and intimately, how can we not love God with the same intensity, with our whole selves, hearts, minds, and souls. And if God can love us, how can we not love our selves? And how can we not love our neighbors, and the stranger with our whole being, loved, as it is, by God?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bearing God’s Image and Likeness: A Sermon for Proper 24, Year A

Picture the scene. It’s the week before Passover in Jerusalem. Tensions are running high, as they always do in this season. It’s Roman practice to bring additional troops down to Jerusalem to help with crowd control and to be close at hand in case the usual disturbances break into open revolt. Continue reading

Rejoice in the Lord–In spite of it all: A Sermon for Proper 23, Year A, 2017

It’s all so overwhelming, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I’ve had to limit my exposure to the news and to social media. I started that practice last fall, but over the last few weeks, I’ve noticed that my avoidance of the news has become even more pronounced. The hurricanes, the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, the wildfires in Northern California, the mass shooting in Las Vegas, and the blathering of politicians about these things. When I do turn to the news or my facebook or twitter feed, I feel my blood pressure, anxiety, fear, anger, and sadness mount second by second. And traditional distractions like NFL football no longer provide a respite. It’s not just the rancor over the anthem protests. I can’t watch human beings do things to each other that cause the brain damage we know will result.

As I said, it’s overwhelming. It’s easy to lose hope. And I know that on top of all of this, a number of you have shared with me personal situations that are overwhelming, of great concern. We wonder about our personal futures, the future of the nation, the future of the planet. We aren’t sure whether our faith in God can sustain us through these dark times, and we doubt whether my words, or our coming together in worship can drive away our doubts and fears, even for an hour on Sunday morning.

I’m with you in all of this. I share your fears, your doubts, the emotional roller coaster we all seem to be on these days, although on this ride, there seem to be no highs, only a series of breathtaking descents that never seem to end.

This week I had a couple of experiences that gave me new insight into where I’m at and reminded me that in spite of everything, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, God is present with us and our faith in God can sustain us and give us hope.

The first was yesterday—diocesan convention. Now, I’ll make a confession to you. There is nowhere I would less likely choose to spend an October Saturday than in diocesan convention. This year’s promised to be particularly boring, little more than an exercise in going through the motions of taking counsel with lay people and clergy throughout the diocese. But something happened. It may have been the opening Eucharist—transformed by lovely and moving music. It may have been the stories that were shared of God at work in ministries and people across the diocese, and through us across the world, in the Diocese of Newala in Tanzania, and the Haiti Project. It may have been conversations I had with others around our table or across the convention hall. Whatever it was, and it was likely a combination of these things, I came away inspired and full of hope.

The other, even more dramatic experience came as I attended the ribbon cutting for the Beacon, Madison’s new daytime resource center on E. Wash. I had the opportunity to tour the facility a few weeks ago and was overwhelmed by the care that had been taken in design and buildout. It’s an amazing facility, attractive, inviting. It will provide basic services like laundry and showers but will also provide space for a whole range of services that will help homeless people improve their lives. I’m looking forward to spending Tuesday afternoon there, to see first hand, on the second day of its operation, how it’s going, and in my own small way to offer pastoral care to those who might be interested.

But as I listened to the speakers at the ribbon cutting, and looked around the room, I thought back to the long, difficult, and frustrating process that had concluded successfully. I had first mentioned the need for such a facility in a sermon almost exactly six years ago, and for several years, I was actively involved in efforts to make this dream a reality—only to give up in exhaustion and frustration several years ago when efforts to find a suitable location collapsed.

It’s been a lesson to me that God continues to work, even when I lose hope, strength, and give up. It’s also been a lesson that our wildest dreams can become reality, that in the midst of difficult and despairing situations, it’s ok to continue to hope.

Paul is writing the letter to the Philippians from a prison cell. He’s in a difficult situation, facing an uncertain future but even so he writes a letter that is full of hope. He expresses his deep affection for this congregation; he is full of encouragement. And the last words of our reading seem to elevate us to another level—away from the mundane concerns of our lives and world to the presence of God where we can be at peace.

But he doesn’t begin there. Even as he writes these words of encouragement, even as he appeals to his readers to stand firm, to rejoice, he takes time to mention a conflict in the midst of the community—Euodia and Syntoche seem to be at odds over something and he urges the whole community to work on resolving the conflict and making peace between the two.

Paul writes these words at a time of difficult in his own life, and in a time of difficulty for the congregation to whom he is writing. In that context, these words, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again, I say rejoice.” We may think that Paul means this for us as individuals but he is writing to a community, not to individuals. The verbs here are in the plural, not the singular. Joy is incomplete unless it is shared. Perhaps joy only reaches its fullness when it is shared. But joy is not the point of it; it’s not the reason we gather to worship, joy is a sign of the presence of the risen Christ among us. Joy is comes from our experience of the risen Christ.

And it’s not just worship. We have so much for which we should rejoice, so many signs of the risen Christ among us—we will be blessing and commissioning to of our members as the depart on a mission trip to Haiti. Next week, we will dedicate a Little Free Library, the Creating More Just Community is moving forward with plans to engage our neighbors in the legislature. We are blessed with children running joyfully through Vilas Hall during coffee hour, and there’s so much more.

So I encourage you in these dark times, to look for signs of God at work, to look for signs of the presence of the risen Christ in the world around us and in your lives. Paul said it so much better than I ever could:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

 

 

 

 

Generous stewards of God’s vineyard: A Sermon for Proper 22, Year A

What comes to mind when you hear the word vineyard used in scripture? Do you think of those beautiful ads in glossy magazines with rolling vineyards in Napa or France, shot in the golden light of autumn? Do you think of those wine harvest scenes with extended gathered table set in the vineyards, tables laden with wine, cheese, olives, salami, baguettes? Those images are meant to evoke simpler times, deeper community, and a profound relationship between the winegrower, their products, the land, and their consumers. Most of those ads are produced for huge conglomerates that own thousands of acres of grape vines across the world. The wines they make are designed for the tastes of the consumers, and the workers who toil away in these vineyards work long hours in substandard conditions for low pay. Continue reading

Humility, Obedience, Self-Emptying, the mind of Christ, and puppies

Today at the 10:00 service we will be blessing animals, beloved pets, digital photos, even, I’m sure, some beloved stuffed pets. We do this every year on a Sunday near October 4, which is the Feast of St. Francis, the anniversary of his death in 1226. Some years, we turn the entire service into a focus and reflection on St. Francis. Other years, like today, we insert the blessing of the animals into our regular Sunday Eucharistic celebration, using the readings appointed for the Sunday. That’s what we’re doing today but after I made that decision and began working more closely on today’s worship, I found my reflections returning again and again to the poverello, the little poor one, St. Francis. Continue reading