Sunday, December 7, 2014

Comfort, O Comfort My People (Advent 2B)

Here we are again for another week – in the parish hall – another police action has been deemed not worthy of examination in the death of another black man – more people are out protesting in more cities - do you ever feel as though you are on the endless hamster wheel? Wash – rinse – repeat.

“Comfort, O Comfort my people” says your God – that’s what I hear as that still small voice in my head as I prepared for today. “What shall I cry out” this week? What can I say – what can I do? What can we do as a group? 

“Prepare the way of the Lord – make his paths straight” – that’s seems to have been John’s job. John the Baptizer. John the wild man, based on the archetype of Elijah, eating locusts – also a favorite of Daniel’s – we know from this alone that Mark is signaling to us that John is a great prophet. We know from other sources that John and Jesus were cousins – John 6 moths older, only son of Zechariah and Elizabeth.  Mark’s Gospel is minimalist though – did you catch all of the details of that manger scene? Mark is written for those who had not been Jewish, those who knew nothing. Everything in Mark happens quickly with very little context and very few details.

It’s interesting to note that in this succinct passage we get two different ideas of baptism – did you catch that? With Mark, no words are spared – you’ve gotta be AWAKE to see it all. John’s baptism signifies repentance of sin. There are other churches that hold that idea of baptism – in that tradition you could be baptized many times over your lifespan as a symbolic cleansing of sin. John tells us about Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit – which is the one we as a denomination preach – one baptism – God’s action – infusing us with the Holy Spirit.

John’s job is to point to everyone to Christ – in fact, you can decode works of art and icons by watching for this – John is usually depicted pointing to something off screen. On the cover of the Joyful this week, John is casually pointing off to the side.

If we are to emulate saints, I’m sure I do not want to emulate John by wearing camel hair with a leather belt and eating locusts – how about you?  What about pointing though? Not in a rude way, but in an enlightening way – look over there – God is at work there, see?  What do we point at right now?

In the police/race conflict protests – can we as a group point to where God is at work? Can we say that in our belief about what happens at Baptism, we promise to honor the dignity of every human being – and invite others to even explore that option? Can we have a voice in our own local police forces to see what work they may already be doing and walk that journey with them, not as combatants, but as people who care and are curious about their strains and stresses? Apparently San Antonio has been at work on some of these race disparities – what can we learn from them and maybe help implement here if it’s needed?

“Comfort, O comfort my people,” says your God. Let it be so. Amen.

Audio of this sermon will be in the Podbean player on the right sidebar - sometimes it takes a bit to populate.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Love Your Neighbor as Yourself

Let’s play a game – raise you hand when you hear a phrase you have heard before:

  • Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting tomato in a fruit salad
  • Penny wise, pound foolish
  • An apple a day keeps the doctor away
  • A stitch in time saves nine
  • Early to bed and early to rise makes a person healthy, wealthy, and wise
  • Let go or be dragged
  • No good deed goes unpunished
  • An early bird gets the worm but the second mouse gets the cheese
  • Never let your hair be brushed by a woman who is mad at your father
  • Don't squat with your spurs on!
  • Nothing cuts so deep as the lash of guilt
  • The devil makes use of idle hands
When I first looked at the Gospel for this morning, I was so excited!!  In my first glance, I thought “Wow – the Golden Rule!  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Then I looked closer at the reading & realized that this is not the Golden Rule – that’s actually Matthew 7:12  - Oh well, at least I was I the right book!  But it got me thinking about these phrases we hear so often that they might be too familiar to us to actually hear; phrases that may have lost some "oomph" in the familiarity.

Over the month of October, we’ve been looking at the ways the Chief Priests, Pharisees, and the Herodians have tried to trip up Jesus – they’ve been asking tricky questions left & right, trying to get him to misstep so they can trip him up on his own words.  Today’s Reading continues in that same vein.  The Pharisees send a lawyer in to do the dirty work this time.  The first thing to know as we explore this passage is that the lawyers in this time period were experts in Jewish Torah Law – they debated the question, probably daily, about which commandments were the greatest.  I imagine that this particular lawyer was probably the best & the brightest that they could find at debating the importance of the commandments – so that no matter how Jesus answered, the lawyer could jump in & argue against it.  You also have to realize that the Ten Commandments were not the only ones on the table – by their count, there were 613 commandments – so Jesus had a lot of ways to go with this question.  The lawyer starts by addressing Jesus as “Teacher” – sounds respectful, but we know he’s only putting on a good face for the onlookers – he’s out to embarrass & discredit Jesus.  So he asks the question “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” I imagine that Jesus sits back a little & looks at him intently before quoting two commandments out of the Old Testament.  First He quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 – except that He changes one word.  The original scripture in Deuteronomy reads “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.”  The commandment goes on to say that we should keep those words always in our hearts, talk about them when we are at home & away, when we lie down & when we get up, teach them to our children, bind them as a sign on our hand, fix them as an emblem on our forehead, and write them on our doorposts & gates.  Our devout Jewish friends say this every day in their prayers even now.  No one was going to argue that one with Jesus that this was the first & greatest commandment – he was pretty safe there.  BTW – the word he changed was “might” to “mind” – there has been lots of debate over the wording change which we won’t get into today, I like to think that in all of His work with the crippled & infirm & forgotten people, He knew that sometimes those with the smallest amounts of might (strength), had the largest amounts of faith.  I personally like the translation in the Message: Love the Lord your God with all your passions, imagination, muscle and intelligence.

Then Jesus went out on a limb & quoted another commandment from Leviticus 19:18 “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  He weights it the same by saying it is “like” the first.  Then He continues by stating that on these two commandments hang the Law & the Prophets.  Who can argue with that?  If you follow these two commandments every second of every day, you’re in good with God – all of the other commandments fall into place then.  If you are practicing these, then you don’t have to worry about all of the “Thou Shalt Nots…”  Our own Book of Common Prayer calls this the Summary of the Law – that’s a great description – it is the Law in a nutshell. It is also quoted in the Rite 1 Penitential Order – you hear it every Sunday during Lent.  “Love our neighbors as ourselves” – that sounds easy, right?

Here’s the part I want you to think about this next week as you go about your daily business – Love your neighbor as YOURSELF. I see so many people who do not love themselves – and it turns them into very bitter, judgmental people. I know that in my life, I have learned that when one person drives me absolutely nuts, it is because there is something about them that reminds me about something about me that I do not like. It calls me into deeper self-reflection. How can I love that person if I cannot love myself? Try it. Look around. People who are mean-spirited and petty are not people who are peaceful in their hearts. They do not love themselves and therefore they cannot love others fully.

Because here’s the thing: once you love yourself, you see how we are all connected, how we are all children of God, trying to do the best we can, trying to sleep well at the end of the day. Once you love yourself, you realize that hurting the other person, or group of people, only hurts you too. Love yourself – Love your neighbor – and you will find yourself loving and serving God with all your passion, and intelligence, and muscle and imagination.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Being the Eikon of God

AND we’re still in the questioning period – it’s been a few days since our last Gospel, but this is still the Pharisees and other religious officials trying to get Jesus to make a mis-step. They either want him to lose the people’s respect or to get into trouble with Rome. In the few days since last week’s gospel, they have gone away and tried to devise the VERY BEST question, the one that will discredit Jesus one way or another so that they can be rid of him once and for all.

They start with flattery – which is all true of course – and then they ask a yes or no question. If Jesus answers Yes, the people will not like him much because they hated the tax of the Emperor.  In fact, in 70 AD the people would refuse to pay that tax and then their rebellion would be squashed by the Romans who would also destroy the very Temple Jesus is teaching in. If Jesus answers No, he’s in big trouble with the Roman government and those same religious officials would be quick to rat him out.

SO that was then, and this is now. We may grump a bit about having to pay our taxes, but not many of us believe it is unchristian to pay them.  We understand that in order to live in a civil society with all the protections and advantages we enjoy, we have to obey the laws of the land and pay our share of the taxes that maintain roads, provide clean water, and all the other stuff we take for granted on a day-to-day basis. So this might seem to be a blow-off sort of a week – what Jesus is saying is not really applicable to us today.

But not so fast – some people would use this Gospel to emphasize the separation of church and state. I have heard this preached this way, but I tend to push back against that idea. I usually always prefer a both…and approach instead of an either…or.  So here’s my take: I believe the Emperor’s realm is only a very small part of God’s realm. In fact, there are many Emperor’s realms that you move through every day right? You have the rules of the federal govt, the state govt, the city govt, your homeowner’s assn, your workplace, etc, etc, etc. All of these usually work together, sometimes they don’t, but you are a rational adult who can navigate that.

All of those things are of the Emperor – they bear that image. YOU however, are the image-bearer of God – you are the eikon of God. Let that sink in for just a minute. You are stamped and imprinted with God’s image. HOW you move and live within these realms has everything to do with remembering that you are God’s image-bearer. It matters.

Now imagine every person on this planet – all of those Imperial realms out there – every different government and society. Then think of all of God’s image-bearers living within those systems. It excites me to think about what could be possible if we all remembered this all the time.

We have an obligation to the State, but we have a larger obligation to God.  We must allow all the choices we make within the system to be driven by our belief, by what we believe God holds dear. We try to protect the least, the lost and the last because Jesus said. We love our neighbors as ourselves – the greatest commandment. Speaking of neighbors – look around. Look at someone around you – they are also the image of God.  When you go out from here today, go out and act as though you are God’s image-bearer and treat others as though they are too.  Then you will be giving to God what belongs to God. Amen.

There is audio that will go up over next weekend. It will be on the PodBean Player.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Showing Up, Suiting Up and Stewardship

Really? Do we really have to say “Glory to you, Lord Christ” after that reading?  This is a terrible week to be preaching the lectionary! Some weeks are great – some not so much. This is a Gospel lesson I have been wrestling with all week. I offered to let Owanah preach on it when we met on Wednesday, but she turned me down. She’s a smart on who had been reading ahead!

Let me remind you of where we are in the bigger story. These are the 3rd and probably 4th parables in a string Jesus is telling to the chief priests and elders who asked him where he got his authority.  The first one parable was about the disobedient brothers, the second was about the wicked tenants. Then we get the Wedding Banquet and the Underdressed Guest. We have to remember that Matthew is writing this Gospel after the destruction of Jerusalem that happened in 70AD.  Over and over again in Matthew’s Gospel, we see those who look religious but whose lives have not been changed, being held to account. Matthew has no problem naming Gentiles in Jesus’ lineage, telling us about the Magi, and quoting the Great Commission from Jesus as “Go and Make Disciples of All Nations.” Matthew seems impatient with those who would get mired down in the status quo – those who would be able to quote Scripture from heart, but who would never take it to heart. Matthew is concerned for those who will not clothe themselves in Jesus and be changed.

If we look at the bigger picture – at what Jesus may have been trying to teach us over these last few weeks, I have broken this down in my mind that this is all about Jesus teaching us about disciplines: how to be faithful, how to show or prove our faith in God. Two weeks ago, neither brother was completely obedient, but one did what he was asked after all. Last week, all the Owner of the vineyard wanted was his share of the fruit – his share of the profits – as was owed to him. It seems to me that Jesus was teaching us about the importance of obedience two weeks ago. Then last week, Jesus was teaching us about sharing the first fruits of the profit. This week, Jesus seems to be teaching us the importance of showing up and suiting up.

All of these are very important lessons as we start into Stewardship Season. This week, probably on Tuesday, you are going to get a letter from me in the mail. It will contain information about our Stewardship campaign. It also contains a pledge card that I hope you will pray over for the next five weeks. Every week, there will be a special bulleting insert that has discussion questions to ponder as you pray about what God is calling you to in Stewardship. On November 9th, at the Offertory, I am going to ask you al to turn in your pledge cards completed. We will pray over them and thank God for your obedience. We will thank God for your sharing of your labor. We will thank God that you have been suiting up and showing up – and that you are a valuable, beloved member of this community.  This is a brand new community that needs your obedience, your stewardship, and you – we need everyone suiting up and showing up with all of their God-given talents. Amen.

The audio may be found on the right sidebar PodBean Player.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants

I once heard one of favorite priests refer to Jesus as a “Wily Fox” – that image didn’t quite mesh with my image of Jesus: a loving, mild-mannered man with warm brown eyes – always ready to heal those hurt, tell an intriguing story, or reprimand someone gently as he traveled about doing his ministry.  “Wily Fox” – that one took some getting used to.  Over the time since then, I’ve discovered that I like that reference to Jesus:  it is very accurate in the parables when the Temple authorities are trying to trap Jesus into saying something incriminating that they could use against him.  Today’s story is no exception!  The Gospel today falls right in the middle of three parables Jesus is telling: last week we had the Two Disobedient Sons, and next week we will visit a wedding banquet.
The image of the vineyard was one that everyone sitting and learning from Jesus would understand readily – the vineyard represents Israel.  Israel thought of itself as the vineyard of God and there are several Biblical references to confirm that, especially in Isaiah.  This vineyard/Israel connection was so inherent that the Temple where Jesus was telling this story had a beautiful, golden, richly carved grapevine sculpted around the door that led in from the porch.  Herod had commissioned the golden vine & wealthy Jews had embellished it with jeweled grapes, golden leaves and other precious materials. 
Being that wily fox, Jesus had everyone’s attention as he began his parable.  He began the story with the same words used in the beginning of the story in Isaiah.  BUT the story in Isaiah speaks of the failure of the grapes & God’s sadness.  Jesus’ story instead focuses on the failure of the farmers of the vineyard.  This is one of the easiest of the parables to follow because Jesus so thinly disguised the connections:  The man, the owner is God.  The vineyard of course is Israel.  The tenants are the leaders of Israel.  The servants are the prophets, and the Son, as we all know & believe in our hearts, is Jesus.  It is an allegory.
Jesus sets the stage by telling us that the leaders (the chief priests and the Pharisees here) had begun to think of Israel as “theirs” – they felt ownership of the vineyard and it had festered to the point of leading to violence.  The people listening then & we listening now can easily remember some of the prophets who had been “beaten & tossed out”: Stephen, Zechariah, and most recent to Jesus’ time, John the Baptist.  These prophets had been so threatening to the status quo, to their sense of ownership, that the leaders had disposed of them. 
Finally, the violence comes to a head – the owner asks “What shall I do?  I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.”  Jesus, that wily fox, certainly knew that his followers knew him to be the Beloved Son – God had said so at his Baptism.  He is prophesying that the leaders are so entrenched in their ideas of leadership that they will kill him also.  He also sets up the hierarchy of the situation: the prophets were servants, but he is the son.  The leaders were tenants, but he is the heir – the joint owner with the Father.  Their ultimate crime would be murder – homicide - deicide. 
This entire story is under girded with God’s love for us – he sent prophet after prophet, then his own son, God Incarnate, to bring us into relationship with him.  Jesus then asks: “what will the owner of the vineyard do to them?”  The killing of tenants and the giving of the vineyard to others could be interpreted as the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple only 40 years later. 
So do you think the Leaders got the message?  The end of the Gospel states that the scribes & chief priests realized the Jesus had told this story against them and that they wanted to lay hands on him right then.  They knew that Jesus was threatening their ownership of the vineyard!  They got it – but obviously they didn’t believe it.  They stood in the temple with the great golden vine gleaming in the sunlight, the Lord of the temple right in front of them, and the vineyard-clad slopes of Israel surrounding the temple and they rejected him. 
As we continue to march through Ordinary Time – our own time of growth and harvest, let us examine the fruits of our lives. What are we to harvest and tithe back to the owner of the vineyard? Individually, we can look back to our Hebrew Testament reading today to see the Commandments spelled out there. We can also think about the Fruits of the Spirit described in Galatians. I love that passage so much, I have the bracelet to remind me. How about as the tenants of the vineyard of Wichita Falls? Showing our fruits here might be as simple and as tough as teaching the Story – teaching God’s Word to the least, the lost and the last, by visiting the sick and imprisoned, feeding the hungry and offering a cool drink to those who thirst. Everytime we are led to reach out, we are showing our faithfulness.
I am not the Owner of this vineyard – I was never meant to be - & neither are you.  By being the tenants, we can be grateful for the vineyard we’re allowed to lease – more land certainly than we could afford on our own.  We can be grateful for a generous owner who only asks for fruits – and asks us to respect his beloved son whom he has sent to us.  We are but guests in the vineyard.  Although we can see the end of the growing season, the harvest is not in yet – what fruits will we have to give over to Jesus?

Audio will be found in the PodBean Player on the right sidebar, usually by Sunday evening.