Monday, April 14, 2014

Episcopal Diocese of Alabama

Work in Progress

I have loved my time in the diocese over the last three decades. So, many friends, so many generations, and simply being amazing together. I have both loved and perhaps more importantly liked my fellow travelers along the Way.

The community of St. Francis and beginning with Martin Bell, where I found my way back into the heart of the church.

Cursillo which encouraged and equipped my leadership in the parish and beyond. So many teams and weekends where I've served variously as music director, lay rector, and spiritual director.

Kairos where I've spent considerable time in prison and been fortunate that they've let me out each time. Bathed in grace as I spent those many weekends and following months on the inside with the men in white. Equally blessed to serve women in white on their weekends through cooking and praying.

Saturday, April 05, 2014


Farewell Sunday Sermon at Holy Cross

4th Sunday in Lent, Year A, March 30, 2014
1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

Beloved Sisters and Brothers, let us look to the Lord.
May only God’s word be spoken,
May God’s word be heard.
In the name of Jesus, I pray. Amen.

A friend who teaches religious studies in Chicago, once observed that Samuel was essentially the Billy Graham of his day; and he was adviser to the political leader Saul, who was pretty much the Pete Rose of ancient Israel.

So, Samuel anointed Saul to be the first king of Israel. But soon, to quote James Thurber, “confusion got its foot in the door” and then went through the entire “system.” Samuel observed Saul disobeying the explicit word of God, and it became Samuel’s job to inform Saul that God had rejected him as king.
In today’s reading we hear that Samuel “grieved” over Saul. But then Yahweh told Samuel that the time for grieving was over, and that it was time to appoint a new king.
The time of grieving was over, and it was time to move on.
It’s always been interesting to me that the Amish resist certain aspects of “moving on.” I can appreciate their resistance to the inhumane features of “progress,” and their call to simplicity and faithfulness to ancient traditions.
But if they are going to pick a point along the timeline of progress, why stop with the 19th century? Why not go to an earlier period prior to buggies, ovens, cupboards, and battery-operated adding machines?
The operative word here seems to be, as Donald Kraybill so well describes, is the German word Gelassenheit, or “yieldedness” – yieldedness to God’s loving, providing, and guiding will. But sometimes what we see as Gelassenheit is actually just a stubborn resistance to the inevitability of change.
The gospel proclaims an alarming fact about historical movement – that it is in fact what God is all about. The entire Bible hinges on one undeniable reality: that reality is God’s workshop. God doesn’t give Abraham a set of beliefs but an event – a smoking fire pot – and a rite – circumcision. And God gives the Christian church a son – a child born of a woman whose reputation was stained, and reared by a father who surrendered his status as a tsadiq (suh-deek’) or “righteous man.” Yet, this son does not just teach the gospel: he embodies it.
In acting this way, God sanctifies history, making it something to embrace, instead of resist. When Samuel resists, he hears the voice of God directing him to a future that will be better. That future will include David the shepherd boy, and like all shepherds, he is often on the move.
As the author of Psalm 23, David, the shepherd, lies down, is led beside still waters, walks through the valley of the shadow of death, and sits in the presence of his enemies.
David will do whatever it takes to guide his sheep, even as he remembers that Yahweh is his shepherd, guiding him.
Then, another shepherd will arrive. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, will be the Light of the World, removing darkness and literally, as we hear in today’s reading from the Gospel of John, removing the darkness of the man born blind. Like Samuel, the disciples and others will “get stuck” because they’ll wonder whose sins have made the man blind.
But Jesus, pushing them into the “Shepherd’s era,” will lead them to see that simplistic correlations from the past – sin leads to curse, obedience leads to blessing – don’t always work.
He will guide them with his light, and when that light is turned on, a few things will happen. First, those who live in that light “try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.”
Samuel was stuck for some time in wanting Saul’s era to be the kingdom era, but God gave him a horn of oil to search for the Shepherd’s era. It does no good to apply more and more oil to the old era, God said. It is gone; it is history. We please God by moving on.
We do this too by taking no part in the “unfruitful works of darkness,” but instead by exposing them. Like many, I am deeply saddened by our cultures tendency to gloat triumphally in its victories. I am also saddened by Christians who, instead of lamenting current world affairs; have picked up a new sword of Constantine, a wicked instrument of triumphalism.
We need what John Howard Yoder calls the “politics of Jesus” and what Stanley Hauerwas calls the “peaceable kingdom.” I think that former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says it well: “From now on, all that can be said of God’s action in the past or the present must pass under the judgment of [the cross].”
He also says, “God is known in and by the exercise of crucifying compassion; if we are like him in that, we know him.”
These theologians are calling us out of the old era of warfare, the Saul era, into the Shepherd’s era of justice, peace, and love.
This future kingdom is marked by “justice”, a word that seems to have lost some of what had been once been a healthier Christian understanding. It has, as Flannery O’Connor said of another word, “a private meaning and public odor.” Some use the term in the sense of “retribution” – bring them to justice, and some in the sense of “rectification” – give the victims and the marginalized an equal opportunity.
Neither of these senses is adequately Christian. The Christian sense of “justice” is “what is right before God and others.” And, according to Jesus’ own creed, what is “right” is to love God and to love others. In the Christian sense, justice means providing our world an opportunity to love God and to love others.
I think that it’s helpful to hear the words of the apostle Paul, who said, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.” I think that we might benefit from a renewed commitment to listen to Jesus Christ, to let him be the good shepherd who can dispel the darknesses of war, and bring in the Shepherd’s era.
Peace and justice embrace one another because they will be empowered by love on a day when, to quote Samuel Johnson, “we shall not borrow all our happiness from hope.”
And now I think that I will take a point of personal privilege… for those of you who know, and for those of you who are hearing for the first time, today, I begin to conclude my ministry here at Holy Cross, and in this is my final Sunday sermon. I know that I stand in a long line of former clergy who have been blessed to serve the good people of both Holy Cross and St. Michael’s.
One of the things that I’ve learned during my life’s travels is that it is important to leave a place well, so that you can enter the next place well. I hope that I'll be able to say goodbye to Holy Cross well so that I can arrive in Richmond, ready to hit the ground running, in a few short weeks.
Starting to say goodbye’s has been harder than I expected, and I hope to get a chance to say goodbye to all of you personally.
In the tradition I learned how to be a deacon in, we say prayers as we put on each part of our vestments. As I am putting on my stole, I remember Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Matthew "Take my yoke upon you… for my yoke is easy and my burden is light." My burden serving here, as your deacon, has indeed been light and for that you have truly blessed me.
May you continue to shine with the light of God’s love, to bear witness to God’s healing power, and to welcome every single soul who walks through these doors. With every fiber of my being, I say, “Thank you.”
Be assured of my prayers and love for you, my Brothers and Sisters in Christ.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

Monday, February 24, 2014


Pathways to Prayer: A Lenten Series 
Holy Cross Episcopal Church, Trussville, Alabama
by Dn. Steve

Two people are walking along a pathway together. As we watch, we can see the changing relationship between them. Sometimes they talk animatedly together, but at other times they travel in silence. Sometimes they seem to be arguing. At other times they seem close and as in love as any two people. Sometimes they appear to lose contact altogether... but then they are reunited and travel on together.  

Our Christian life is a journey, but it's not a journey that we make alone. As we journey, we have God as our companion. Everything that passes between us and God as we travel our path is what we call prayer. Prayer is the road we travel on, and it is our occupation on the journey.  

However, our prayer can take many forms. Christian spirituality offers not one but many pathways by which to come to God. Each pathway has been formed in Christian communities through the centuries, and each has depth, wisdom, and experience to offer in approaching God through prayer.   

For five Wednesdays in Lent we will explore the why, what, and how of various disciplines of prayer. Each evening there will be child care provided and we will begin with a common meal that will be available between 6:00pm - 6:30pm. The night's program will follow and we will be done by no later than 7:30pm. The facilitators and topics are: 

Wednesday, March 12, Dn. Steve, Prayer 101 & The Daily Examen - will provide an overview of the Lenten series, and then learn about and practice the Prayer of Examen. This a technique described by St. Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises and is a prayerful reflection on the events of the day in order to detect Gods presence and discern his direction for us.  The Examen is an ancient practice in the Church that can help us see Gods hand at work in our whole experience.  

Wednesday, March 19th, Justin Finch (organist & choirmaster) & Dn. Steve, Taizé - a style of worship with prayer and song that has grown out of this ecumenical community in France where thousands of youth and young adults gather together each summer to live, work, and worship together. Justin has lived in community at Taizé, and is an experienced worship leader. 

Wednesday, March 26th, Elaine Tindill-Rohr & Dn. Steve, Labyrinth - Elaine's gift to our community this Lent is the temporary installation of a Labyrinth. Prayer through walking the labyrinth is a sacred pattern that leads us on a prescribed path to its center and back out again. Walking the labyrinth is a way of praying with the body that invites the divine presence into an active conversation with the heart and soul. By engaging in this walking meditation, we are fully engaging our minds, bodies, and spirits at the same time. 

Wednesday, April 2nd, Amanda Griesdorn & Dn. Steve, Lectio Divina & Centering Prayer - Lectio Divina is a traditional Benedictine practice of scriptural reading, meditation, and prayer intended to promote communion with God and to increase the knowledge of God's Word by treating Scripture as the Living Word. Centering Prayer is a method of silent prayer that is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship. Amanda facilitates the Centering Prayer group here at Holy Cross.  

Wednesday, April 9th, Fr. Aaron & Dn. Steve, Community Prayer - exploring and practicing prayer forms from the Book of Common Prayer including The Daily Offices.  

We are all different, and each of us finds some types of prayer more helpful than others. The aim of this Lenten series is to offer participants insights into five types of prayer - five journeys - five pathways.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, Sunday, February 23, 2014

Beloved sisters and brothers, let us look to the Lord.
May only God’s word be spoken,
May God’s word be heard.
In the name of Jesus, I pray. Amen.

Jayber Crow is a novel by Wendell Berry – a Christian who, in his own words, "takes the Gospel seriously” – and it’s told from the point of view of the main character, Jayber Crow, who is a barber in Port William, Kentucky. The setting is the late 1960’s, and as a barber he interacts with a lot of different folks during the course of a day.

One of those folks is a fellow named Troy Chatham that Jayber just struggles to get along with. Don’t know about you, but I’ve run across folks like that every now and then myself.

Now, Troy is an “agriculture as big business” kind of guy, buying up farms and always more concerned with profit than the farmers, and whom Jayber thinks is destroying the land in their county. To make matters worse, Troy has married Mattie, the woman whom Jayber had secretly “admired” for a long time.

So, here we are in the late 1960’s, and as in most of the rest of the country at that time, there are disagreements over Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. Troy is a fierce supporter of the U.S. government’s policies, including the war. One evening in the barbershop, Troy starts talking about how much he hates the war protesters… and hope you don’t mind but I cleaned up the language a little.

“They ought to round up every one of them sons of (guns) and put them right in front of the (darned) communists, and then whoever killed who, it would be all to the good.”

There was a little pause after that. Nobody wanted to try to top it…

It was hard to do, but Jayber quit cutting hair and looked right at Troy. Then he said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”

Troy jerked his head up and widened his eyes at Jayber. “Where did you get that crap?”

Jayber says, “Jesus Christ.”

Troy responds simply with, “Oh.”

For Jayber, it would have been a great moment in the history of Christianity, except that he didn’t love Troy.

This morning we hear Jesus telling the disciples to turn the other cheek, forgo revenge, give more than what’s required in a lawsuit, go the extra mile, give to all who beg, lend without limits, love the enemy, pray for persecutors, and greet the stranger.

Jesus highlights the surprises that characterize life in God’s kingdom; he challenges the disciples to do the opposite of what seems normal and reasonable.

These are important words for us to hear, some have called them the by-laws of the church, and they were also guiding words for Mahatma Gandhi…

… when writer Louis Fischer visited Gandhi's ashram in 1942 (an ashram is the home of a small religious community), he noticed a picture of Jesus on the wall – the only wall decoration around – with the caption, "He is our peace."

"But you are not a Christian," he said to Gandhi.

"I am a Christian and a Hindu and a Muslim and a Jew," Gandhi answered.

"Then you are a better Christian than most Christians," Fischer thought to himself.

Gandhi is said to have spent two hours in meditation every day – one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening – for the last 40 years of his life. This became the foundation for all his daily work for justice, independence, and service. Most of his meditation time was in silence, but the one of the things that he always read from was the Sermon on the Mount.

Gandhi was probably the greatest modern Christian "fundamentalist" because he took Jesus' word seriously and strictly adhered to his fundamental teachings of love, nonviolence, and compassion.

Gandhi lived his life according to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, and returned to that handbook on nonviolence every morning and every evening. In his private letters, he was puzzled why other Christians didn't do the same.

Gandhi considered these texts the greatest writings on nonviolence in the history of the world. Since he wanted to become a person of nonviolence, he treated these teachings as a basic primer, as the catechism of nonviolence.

“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

These questions from the Sermon on the Mount get right to the heart of the spiritual life. Why don't we love everyone, everywhere unconditionally? Why not love our enemies, as Jesus said? Why go along with a culture of war? Why not practice "agape" like Jesus and his greatest followers, saints like Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Archbishop Oscar Romero, and Dr. King?

Jesus is adamant. He wants us to practice universal, unconditional, sacrificial, all-inclusive, nonviolent love. Be like God, he tells us; love everyone on the whole planet. He exceeds the ancient biblical commandment, "Thou shall not kill." He even surpasses Isaiah's call to "beat swords into plowshares."

He leads us beyond anger, despair, greed, fear, anxiety, selfishness, violence, murder, and war, to God's own universal, compassionate love.

With these challenges, Jesus throws down the gauntlet and compares our limited love to tax collectors and gentiles. Tax collectors did the dirty work of the Roman Empire by robbing the impoverished masses and collaborating with military domination. They profited from the sufferings of the poor. This comparison must have shocked and horrified his listeners.

He calls us not to be like them, not to hurt anyone, not to live off the sufferings of the poor, and not to limit ourselves to the narrow expectations of our culture.

He's trying to push us beyond our limits, to the heights of divine love, the highest ideal, the fullest potential of our humanity.

Jesus probably already assumes that we are trying to love our neighbors as ourselves, to love our parents, children, relatives, friends, and colleagues. But he wants us to go further, to love those around the world, especially those who are marginalized and disenfranchised .

Jesus expects his followers to show active, creative love to the marginalized, the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the lonely, the immigrant, the imprisoned, the condemned, the sick, the elderly, the dying, and the enemy.

He's looking for something new and unusual, ultimately the love that nonviolently lays down one's life for those in need.

This call to practice a love that transcends boundaries has always haunted, challenged, and energized me. Even if few can fully live into such love, the call to us to work towards Jesus’ command remains right there in the Sermon on the Mount.

I think it means traveling to places we normally wouldn’t go – soup kitchens, homeless shelters, prisons, death rows, refugee camps, hospitals, conflict zones – and once there, to befriend, love, and serve everyone in need.

I think it means living with a heart as wide as the world. Jesus certainly demonstrates such extraordinary love by serving the poor and marginalized, breaking through his culture, resisting injustice, and laying down his life nonviolently for a new world of love.

This call is worth praying and reflecting on every day. It invites us to examine how well we love others and our enemies, how well we show compassion, how wide we might permit our hearts to grow. What is more beautiful than a life spent offering unconditional, compassionate love toward every living being on the planet? What could be more fulfilling, rewarding, or holy?

… Life is precious. We have only so much time here on earth. I hope more and more of us can begin anew to try to practice this unusual, universal love, this perfect compassion. I think it's our vocation, the reason we were created: to love Christ in every human being, especially in the poor and in the enemy.

If we dare practice this unusual, universal love, I think we will enter the paschal mystery of nonviolence, the divine mystery of love, and be filled with light, hope, and peace. Who knows, we might even learn to love Troy.

Thanks be to God!
Amen! Alleluia!

Sunday, October 27, 2013


Sermon for Proper 25 Year C
at Holy Cross Trussville 27-Oct-2013

 

Beloved sisters and brothers, let us look to the Lord.
May only God’s word be spoken,
May God’s word be heard.
In the name of Jesus, I pray. Amen.

So, who are you, a Pharisee or a tax collector? I think that it is hard to hear this parable proclaimed without wanting to put ourselves in one role or the other, or maybe we want to put ourselves a little bit in both.

Which of us hasn’t at one time or another felt a little satisfied with ourselves on a Sunday morning? “Oh Lord, I give thanks that I’m not like other people: my neighbor who is enjoying a round of golf instead of being in church; my friend in the other political party who doesn’t understand your will for the nation; or even that scruffy looking guy sitting two pews over. I am here, every Sunday morning; I pledge faithfully; I do what needs to be done whenever I’m asked.”

For some of us, it is only when we mess up big time, hitting rock bottom, that we can find the humility of the tax collector. It’s those big mistakes that can help us see our need for God’s grace and forgiveness. Only in those moments do the words of the tax collector become ours “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” How seductive it can be to trust in ourselves that we are righteous, we are in control, and to regard others with contempt.

Reminds me of the story about two pastors who are at church and fall to their knees around the altar, crying out to God, saying, “I have sinned. I am unworthy, I am unworthy.” Just then the janitor walks in, and, observing their display of piety, is inspired to join their cry: “I have sinned. I am not worthy, I am not worthy.” The first pastor turns to the second and snarks, “Now look who thinks he’s unworthy!”

This parable seems to be a simple story that encourages our humility and warns us about spiritual pride. Of course, the challenge is how do we practice humility without risking succumbing to spiritual pride? Pretty tricky little spiritual paradox, this work of cultivating humility.  

Practicing humility, knowing the basic truth that God is present with us at all times and knows all that we think, feel, desire, speak, and do, is an important step in the habit of remembering God in every part of our life. The reason, is so that we can remember who we are, and to whom we belong; to live always in the presence of God, wherever we are, whatever we are doing. This includes a responsible stewardship of all the gifts that God has given us. And yes, that includes what we do with our, what I do with my, money.

So, this may be as good a time as any to admit that, I am a tither. Considering the ‘season,’ I thought that I’d share a bit of my journey with you, and humbly so as to not succumb to spiritual pride … :)

A lot can get projected onto that word ‘tithe’ so, for me, tithing means to give away at least 10 percent of my income. As a stewardship story, mine is one that I grew into. One of my mentors has been Bill Yon, a retired priest of the diocese, who over 20 years ago invited me to consider proportional giving, moving towards tithing, as part of my faith journey. I guess I must like doing it, or I probably would have stopped during the inevitable bumps along the way, including the challenges of the last five years in this economy.

I think that it would be an understatement to suggest that our culture has become very much a “consumer economy.” It is has become a civic virtue to spend money; to spend more money, in fact, than we actually have since “for everything else, there is MasterCard.” We are regularly enticed to need more, to need more, as the Bank of America commercials tempt us to “think what we can do for you”, even as American Express assures us that using their card can “make life more rewarding.”

Tithing keeps me a little less connected to the consumer economy and more connected to a world that is bigger than myself. For me, tithing is giving away 10 percent of my income to do what God wants done in the world outside my own life. So for me, it includes giving to Holy Cross, and to Old Firehouse Shelter, and to Greater Birmingham Ministries, and to a few other groups that attempt to help those who have a lot less than I do.

The Book of Deuteronomy spells out the law of the tithe, calling for 1 part out of 10 of each harvest to be set aside to offer at the temple. The tithe offering was to be used three ways: to maintain the community of faith, to support those who ministered to the community of faith, and to provide for the needs of those who have little — the widows, and the orphans, and the sojourners. That’s pretty much my idea of how a tithe is still to be used.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that in talking about tithing, I have mentioned it as a humble response to God in our lives, but what I’ve not said is that “your church needs more money.”

I don’t know that I have ever run into a church that didn’t need more money. But my stewardship decisions are not about that. My stewardship decisions are about what I have, not about what the church needs. I say, “Here is my 10 percent, or a large chunk of it. Do what you can with it.”

So, this is when I cheerfully invite you to consider joining me, with a humble and happy heart. If you are interested in pursuing the idea a bit further, the first step, is figuring out what percentage of your income you are currently giving away. If you figure out that you are giving away 2 percent, the prospect of jumping to 10 percent all at once will probably seem, as it did to me all those years ago, as being a bit “financially, fiscally, unrealistic.”

But if you decide that giving away 2 percent is not enough to make you happy, you may want to consider increasing that percentage year by year in the direction of the tithe. I know a lot of people, including myself, who have become tithers in just this way.

God always starts with us where we are, so we begin by figuring out where we are now. Can’t think about where you want to go unless you know where y’at.

In sharing with you about part of my stewardship journey, you might have noticed that I have not once used the words “should, ought, or must.” You may expect to hear “should, ought, and must” from persons in authority, but you won’t hear that from me. No, I won’t do that…

But what you will hear from me are the words of St. Paul (2 Corinthians9:7): “Let each person give as he has decided for himself, without reluctance or compulsion. For God loves a cheerful giver.” Each of us decides for him or herself. That’s a fact. Or is it? Are some of us just giving from habit? (“Put me down for the same as last year.”) Or have you given it new thought? Where are you going with your giving? What goals have you set for your giving? Have you made a real decision after prayerful and careful consideration? Paul’s words invite us to be more intentional as each of us decides for himself or herself.

“Let each person give as he has decided for himself, without reluctance...”

Just go on and do it.

Don’t hold back.

“Let each person give as he has decided for himself, without compulsion...”

You don’t have to.

Nobody is making you do this.

That’s one of the fastest one-two punches in the scripture:
     just go ahead and do it... you don’t have to.

How are we remembering God in our lives, and in our work of cultivating grateful and humble hearts? What does it mean for us to follow the Way to the point that we are able to be a cheerful giver?

So, just so we’re clear, if you’re frowning when you write down that number on your pledge card, maybe you are writing down the wrong number.

Maybe you are experiencing some reluctance to turn loose of what you have. 

Maybe something is trying to interfere with your ability to choose.

When our giving stems from the increasingly
     humble and generous heart
          that God is growing within us,

that’s when our giving gets cheerful.

Thanks be to God!
Amen! Alleluia!

 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sermon for Proper 21, Year C, Sunday, September 29, 2013


Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15, Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31

Beloved sisters and brothers, let us look to the Lord.
May only God’s word be spoken,
May God’s word be heard.
In the name of Jesus, I pray. Amen.

As I was reflecting on this week’s gospel, a particular song showed up and took up residence in my head. And while I don’t know about you when you’re working on something, for me there’s almost always music in the background and sometimes a particular song can just kind of show up with its bags packed ready to go along on the ride.

For me this week, it’s a wonderful traditional African American spiritual that is based on Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus. In the song the rich man is called “Dives” (dee’-vays) which comes from an even older tradition, and is the result of a misreading of the Latin in verse 19. The name Dives is actually nothing more than the transliteration of the adjective “rich”, which in the Latin is dives. Anyway, from a portion of the spiritual (sung) ...
Rich man Dives he lived so well,
Dip your finger in the water,
come and cool my tongue,
cause I’m tormented in the flame
And when he died he went straight to hell,
Dip your finger in the water,
come and cool my tongue,
cause I’m tormented in the flame
The rich man lived so well, yet from across the chasm, now he is the one begging, looking up and wanting a handout, desperate for a drop of water to ease his miserable torment in hell. Hearing that melody in my head seems to only enhance the sense of divine reckoning that is so abundantly portrayed in this parable.
Dip your finger in the water,
come and cool my tongue,
cause I’m tormented in the flame
There’s nothing about this parable that’s difficult to understand, but maybe it’s difficult to hear simply because its meaning is so clear: not only that riches can’t save us, but also that it ends in deafening silence.

We’re also faced this week with a Jeremiah who does not seem to be acting very wisely; he’s investing in an enemy occupied field at the very moment that their armies are besieging Jerusalem. At that moment, it would probably seem unlikely that Israel will ever own that land again. Not very wise, Jeremiah. This kinda looks like blind hope flying the face of reason.

But in making this purchase, Jeremiah is obeying his God. A God who commands an optimistic kind of action at a pessimistic kind of time to show God’s people that God has a stake in Israel and that “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” Jeremiah is investing in a future that can only come from God.

With nearly 870 million hungry and chronically undernourished people in our world, with 1 in 5 children hungry every day right here in our own backyard, this can seem like a pretty pessimistic time. It can be easy to wonder just what can we do in the face of such overwhelming need? But, it is God’s own command that even in the face of daunting odds, we are to invest ourselves in their future. We may not always know the best way to do this, but we do this because God calls us to help our neighbor in need.

Not very wise, some might say. Better to invest in ourselves and our own future. But we as Christians, by God’s own command, are to be so bold as to stake our resources on the hope of a better day for those who are the least among us.

And then the text from 1st Timothy warns us about how we invest ourselves. Paul reminds us that when we reach the end of our life, any temporary privileges that we enjoy because of wealth, are removed.

Paul tells us that a better path is to be content with tending to more modest personal needs, and then investing ourselves in a life of faith.

Instead of storing up as much wealth or retirement security as we can, which can lead to the exploitation of vulnerable people, we are called to invest ourselves in righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness that positively impacts on the lives of those in need.

And then we are back to the rich man in Luke’s story who invests in purple and fine linen and feasts sumptuously each day. He is unconcerned for the poor man with sores (lacking health care?) who lay at his gate (homeless?) wishing to eat the crumbs beneath the rich man’s table (hungry!). The rich man isn’t thinking about the inequality between their conditions.

Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” wrestles with the irony of neighbors who long to have clear boundaries on their neighborliness. At one point, Frost wonders aloud why we divide ourselves, “On a day we meet to walk the line and set the wall between us once again.” There seems to be something about us as human beings that likes those clearly defined boundaries of what’s my place and what’s yours. Growing up in South Texas, the point that Frost also makes, was taken for granted that good fences make (pause and invite response) good neighbors.

Clearly, all of the investments that the rich man is making in his life are related to immediate, pragmatic, and egocentric needs. I don’t think that this parable is interested in speculating about the rich man’s moral character, but I think that it does offer a critique of the rich man’s investment of his attention, resources, and affection in himself.

And the result for the rich man is fatal, finding himself on the wrong side of a great chasm where he is being tormented in the low place, left only to gaze hungrily.
Dip your finger in the water,
come and cool my tongue,
cause I’m tormented in the flame
But, at least in this moment, it’s too late. The rich man has had his day. And then, Abraham responds compassionately towards this selfish man, that Abraham calls his child. We can tell that it is with sadness that Abraham indicates this gulf, this chasm, between them. For now, it’s too late for this man, and Abraham takes no delight in that knowing, since the rich man's heart is still hardened.

Then the rich man, finally, shows a bit of compassion but of course it’s tinged with manipulation as he orders Abraham to order Lazarus to serve him. “If you cannot help me, help my family. Send Lazarus!” Then, Abraham responds that they have been given what guidance they need, and if they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, why would they listen to a voice from the dead.

“Break through!” shouts the rich man. The reality, of course, is that God has already broken through with his word through the prophets, and his Word in his Christ. We have been given what we need to live faithful lives. We will listen, or we will not. We will respond, or we will not. That’s the original blessing, the ability to decide to choose for ourselves.

Perhaps the boundaries and walls we have drawn are not so much between us and others, as between us and our God… and, on this Feast Day of St. Michael and All Angels, I’m reminded of the mixture of invitation and warning that the angel in the Book of Revelation says to the church in Laodicea (lay·ohd’·i·see’·uh), “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Rev 3:20)
Robert Frost winds down his poem with these thoughts, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know, what I was walling in or walling out.”

So, let’s think a bit about who’s on the other side of that door, that wall. Who is this Christ? In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us he is Lazarus: He is that one lying at our door hungry and thirsty. He is that one imprisoned and cut off from “decent” society. He is the marginalized one that you or I can just as easily walk by. That is God’s Christ who stands at our door, at our wall, knocking. When we answer, we may not find someone who looks like us, but if we are paying attention, we may very well find someone who looks like our God, who looks like Jesus.
Thanks be to God!
Amen! Alleluia!

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Sermon for Proper 13, Year C, Sunday, August 4, 2013

Hosea 11:1-11, Psalm 107:1-9, 43, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21
Beloved sisters and brothers, let us look to the Lord.
May only God’s word be spoken,
May God’s word be heard.
In the name of Jesus, I pray. Amen.

While many of us are enjoying our midsummer by perhaps taking a family vacation or doing some backyard grilling or maybe even going to the lake or beach or just lazing around a bit, in our nation’s capital this past week Congress was winding down to their summer vacation. This can be a miserable time to be in the district, with the oppressive heat and humidity that comes from living in a tidal basin, and add to that the throngs of tourists trying to make their way through the city.
Some of that seems to have been taking its toll in the Senate last week. This past Thursday, Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin was presiding over the Senate, and Senators Murray and Collins were attempting to make some final statements in the “well” of the Senate.  Attempting because apparently their colleagues were in a chatty mood and speaking loud enough that it made it difficult to hear the two senators at their podiums.
As presiding Senator Baldwin was gaveling the senate to order, and just as she was about to say “The Senate will be in order,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid got up from his seat and told the chatty senators to “sit down and shut up.” The Washington Post then reported that most senators took their seats and listened, some left the chamber to keep talking, while others sat in seats and continued whispering to each other.
I guess I couldn’t help but hear echoes of this as I was thinking of the strong language that Jesus uses in this parable from Luke… “You Fool!” … this kind of language is usually saved for the hurling of an insult against someone with whom all hope of a reasonable conversation has broken down, kinda like, “sit down and shut up.” And in this context, these words from Jesus sound even more dismissive. He’s saying that there’s no alternative to the best practices that this rich man has put in place as part of his business plan, instead he’s bankrupted his soul and he’s as good as dead.
Unlike other stories from Luke about a Good Samaritan, a Lost Sheep, and a Prodigal Son; this parable doesn’t have a last-minute rescue resulting in a “happy ever after.” There’s no maneuvering room here to perform any course corrections as a result of wrong turns along the way…
Anyone here familiar with Clarence Jordan, or Koinonia Farms, down in southwest Georgia near Americus? … Clarence is one of my personal heroes and one of the people who has inspired and nurtured me over the years. His commitment to the gospel led him to establish an interracial farm and community in rural Georgia, in 1942, long before the civil rights movement even began. Though Clarence died in 1969, Koinonia Farms continues with folks living in intentional Christian community and active in both farming and many vital ministries.
Clarence was not only quite a farmer but also a powerful biblical scholar and teacher. He translated the New Testament from the Koine Greek into what he called his Cotton Patch version which has, let’s say, a U.S. Southern context. Clarence was fond of saying that the parables of Jesus lead us into the kingdom of God, so would like to share with you his retelling of this gospel, a translation with a bit of midrash, some details added to help interpret and flesh out the story a bit more.
(... story time! ... :) ... reading from pages 60-62, “Cotton Patch Parables of Liberation” by Clarence Jordan and edited by Bill Lane Doulos, ©1976 by Koinonia Partners, Wipf and Stock Publishers)
So, this parable of the Rich Fool makes the point that this farmer’s riches are crying out for his soul. The traditional interpretation is that the man is going to die. Fate or God or some unnamed force is demanding his soul, saying that his time is up. But the Greek text does not say, “This night your soul is being demanded of you.” What it says is, “This night they require your soul of you.” “They” refers to the “many good things” that the farmer thought he owned.
These things are telling the farmer what to do so that he can’t do what is desired by God, to whom his “soul” rightfully belongs. This parable warns about becoming a slave of money – for who do we serve God or money? – which is perhaps something that our credit card culture needs to hear. What we supposedly possess, often on credit, pretty much dictates what we must do to secure and maintain it.
Of course, this parable sounds a different note in a different context. This would include the more than 1 in 6 Alabamians, including 1 in 4 of our children, who are living in this state where the gap between Alabama’s richest and poorest is the second largest in the nation. If someone is living in utter poverty like these neighbors of ours, perhaps without access to even the basic necessities of life, the promise of wealth is not cast aside lightly. However, this parable calls on each of us, rich and poor alike, to carefully reflect about what it is that we want and why we want it.
So, when all is said and done, we are invited to place our trust in something more durable than the volatile fluctuations of our local, national, and global economies. Instead of banking on more and larger storage barns, God invites us all into the eternal economy of Christ’s grace and mercy. What would our lives look like if we really believed that "it is for freedom that Christ has set us free"?
Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. We are free now to live as God's people are called to live – in the wideness and the wildness of God's mercy.
Thanks be to God!
Amen! Alleluia!