Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Washing away the Ambridge black of our lives . . .

     When I was in seminary, Karen and I and all those who moved with loved ones to attend seminary discovered a new color on the color chart. We called it “Ambridge Black.” Ambridge Black was not a loved color; it was not even a tolerated color. It was a despised color. Like any black, it was dark as could be. Unlike other blacks, though, Ambridge Black was contagious. By that I mean it spread and spread and spread, much like a virus. Karen and I had a bedtime ritual in those days. Before we put the kids to bed, and before we went to bed, we would have a ceremonial foot washing. Like others, we learned quickly that the black on our kids' feet and our own feet would get all over our bedsheets and ruin them. No matter how many times we washed the sheets, no matter how much bleach, no matter how much vinegar, Ambridge Black could never be washed away.
     What caused Ambridge Black? Coal. Ambridge, which was located downstream on the Ohio River from Pittsburgh, built bridges. At one point, I was told, more than 40% of our nation's bridges were built by the American Bridge Company. To build bridges, one needs steel. To smelt steel, one needs coal. True, natural gas would probably work, but coal is cheap and plentiful in SW Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The mills were shut down long before Karen and the kids and I moved to Ambridge. Long before. But the damage had been done. Long time residents of Ambridge, and former employees, told stories how every day was a cloudy day because of the smoke and smog from the mills. The thick black smoke would hang in the valley, dulling the light of the sun.
     The coal dust and ash would also seep into everything: buildings, cars, lungs, and anything else of which you can name. Karen and I took on a house that had nearly two decades of no one living in it. It was a house with beautiful bones, but, boy, it's skin was filthy. Karen mopped and swiffered the floors dozens and dozens of times. I lost track of how many gallons of Kilz I used to try and trap the coal dust in the walls. Yet night after night, our kids' and our own feet were black. Night after night we had to have the foot washing or risk ruining the sheets.
     Why do I share that story? I was put in mind of Ambridge Black again this week as I cleaned the carpets. A couple events conspired to have me cleaning carpets this past week. Julie and the lady from TOPS had come to ask if I could get the carpet cleaned before the Bazaar and State Rally respectively. Bubbles had offered for AA to pay for the cleaning as much of the stains was from AA, the Freedom Group in particular. Bubbles took bids and picked a guy. Naturally, the guy never showed up. At the same time, my laptop had gone into the shop for some repairs before I head overseas. So, I was stuck in terms of what I could do, and I was somewhat fearful of disappointing Julie! I started cleaning the carpets using the cleaner my grandmother gave me when Sarah was born.
     My method was pretty simple. I used Resolve Carpet cleaner and OxyClean. For the really bad stains, I used Shout Carpet Stain Remover. I began in the Nave. It was in that first tank of water that I was reminded of the Ambridge Black. The water that I sucked out of the carpet was that familiar nasty, disgusting black. One of my big fears was that I would trip and dump the water all over the kitchen floor, making a wonderful mess for the ladies to try and fix. I dumped it safely into the sink and cleaned the Nave carpet again. Hmmm. No discernable change in the blackness of the water. I came in Tuesday and repeated the process two more times. Again, the water was not getting any less dark. Four times cleaned, and the carpet was still Ambridge Black, though I have to admit it sure smelled good in here! Better still, some of the stains were gone, and those that remained were much fainter than when I started. I used the OxyClean to really scrub the coffee stains. I would scrub the carpet hard and then use the carpet cleaner to suck up the filth. But there was no change in the color of the discharge. It was still Ambridge Black.
On Wednesday, I started in the Parish Hall. The Nave had taken up enough of my time at the beginning of the week. The vendors were going to located in there. That meant that most of the visitors would be in there. So, over Wednesday and Thursday, I cleaned the Parish Hall carpet four times. I scrubbed stains with Oxyclean. I Resolved the carpet fibers. I even Shouted the really bad stains. And the water was still Ambridge Black. So I got to thinking . . .
     Each week, about 60-70 of us come through these doors, walk on this carpet, seeking to worship God as members of this parish. Each week, some 160 members of three different groups come through those doors to attend a portion of sixteen different meetings. Each week one to two dozen individuals come through those doors to attend a TOPS meeting where they work on weight issues. Each month, two to three dozen individuals come through those doors seeking to stretch their grocery dollar through the SmartChoice ministry. Once a year we host a bazaar where hundreds of people come through the doors. Four times a year we host five to nine dozen people who come through those doors to play Trivia. Toss in the youth group, the water wars, the Nerf wars, the picnic, the ice cream social, and we have a lot of people coming through those doors. A lot of people, many of whom are seeking desperately to know they are loved by God in spite of all their sins, in spite of all the dirt and filth that covers them, in spite of the Ambridge Black that covers them.
     Our story from Matthew is well known and takes place during Holy Week. Jesus uses the story to describe the coming of the kingdom of God. The king has announced that his son is to be married. There will be a great marriage feast to celebrate the blessed event. Apparently, the aristocracy and other leaders have forgotten that the feast is taking place.   They have decided no to put the event on their calendars.  Such an event would have been unforgettable in the eyes and ears of those who heard Jesus tell this story. Anyone who was anyone would have killed to have been invited to this feast. Forgetting would have seemed impossible. And dangerous. Everyone who forgot about the feast ran the risk of infuriating the king. Such an act would be an affront to his honor, an act punishable by death!
     Luckily for them, the king is in a forgiving mood. He sends slaves to invite the guests to the feast. His subjects beg off. Some have to go to work. Some have to go home. The tone of the excuse is rendered fairly well in the translation today. We can almost hear the “I'm busy watching the grass grow or paint dry” excuse tone in their dismissal of the invitation. The king, we are told, is determined to celebrate. He sends more slaves to describe the feast. The oxen and fatted calves are prepared. The champaign is on ice. This time, those invited choose the route of direct insult. They kill and beat the slaves and refuse to go.
The king responds as Jesus' audience would expect. He sends in his army to kill those who rejected his invitation and killed his slaves. Then, in a surprising twist, the king sends slaves to invite any that they find, both good and bad. They find enough people, we are told, to fill the banquet hall. Then, the king enters the hall, presumably to celebrate with the lucky guests.
      One guest, we are told, attracts the attention of the king. Weddings in the ANE are not too dissimilar from today. They were a party to which one was expect to dress appropriately, not unlike the funerals and weddings of today or maybe the church services of yesteryear. Maybe a better example would be how we would dress if invited to a party at the White House. Even if we disagreed with the politics of the President, all of us would wear our best attire. Showing up in ripped jeans or shorts or some other leisure attire would be beyond the pale of good taste. The king saddles up to the man and, in an incredible show of grace, asks where his robe is. The man, we are told, gives no answer. Presumably, the man has the appropriate clothes and chose not to wear them. Had he any excuse, the king who just addressed him as friend, might respond graciously. “I'm sorry, my lord, but I would never have made it home, changed, and returned in time” or “I'm sorry, my lord, but I have no wedding attire” would have been a much better answer than the silence he gives. His silence confirms for Jesus' audience and for us that he knows he has worn the wrong clothes to the feast.
     As with all parables of Jesus, there are a number of levels at which the story can be read. We know the slaves that do the inviting and reminding are the prophets if God. We know that those who reject the invitation and treat the slaves badly are the rulers of Israel. We know that the good and bad people invited are the commoners of Israel and the Gentiles. We know that the friend addressed in the story might be an allusion to the plight of Judas. Given my work and reflection this week, though, I am more interested in the robe.
     We speak in the Church a great deal about being washed in the blood of Christ. We speak of how Christ's sacrifice covers all our sins. Absent His blood, our sins are unforgiven before God. To lots of people, especially Midwesterners, such a claim offends sensibilities. I should make up for my mistakes. I should atone for my sins. I should earn my salvation. God should want to have me in His kingdom. As I was noticing the Ambridge Black water this past week, I thought of how many people think they are responsible for the own salvation, how many people think they are not in need of grace. Those new to AA will congratulate themselves and think themselves worthy of sobriety because, by force of will only in their own minds, they have stayed sober a few days, weeks, or months. Those who are fighting their weight are often the same. They look at their ability to resist eating or to exercise more as evidence of their innate ability to lose weight. Those getting started brag about their success. Like those in AA, it's only when the magnitude of the lifestyle change that is necessary, a transformation, that they begin to understand the scope of their undertaking. It is only when they are confronted with their own deficiencies in willpower or strength that they begin to understand the true help they need. It is only when they begin to see themselves for who they truly are that they begin to be able to seek God's grace and experience true healing. The same is true for all those groups who enter here and use the church. The same is even true for us. How many of us secretly think that Christ died for all those really bad people out there or around us? I mean, if I haven't killed anyone or stolen too much, He really didn't need to die for me, right? I mean, I'm basically a good person.
     One of the challenges of the Gospel is that we have to learn to see ourselves through God's eyes. We may think ourselves basically good, but God knows better. We fail as parents, we fail as children, we fail as friends, we fail as husbands, we fails as wives, and we fail as His people. All the time. We may try to do good, but how many of us resist temptation and do not sin? None. None of us go a big length of time without sinning. Part of the reason we confess our sins to God, pass the Peace, and then hustle to receive the Eucharist is so that we may do so at love and charity with our neighbor and as penitent before God. We may understand what sin is, we may desire to do what God wants, but what we want is not enough. It takes the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to begin to transform us, and that indwelling is made possible only through the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and His Resurrection. Just as the man in our story, we know this. We have been taught this. This is, in a way, a distilled version of the Gospel. Unless we are washed in His blood, we are not adopted into His family. Unless our sins are cleansed by His work, we are not allowed into the Wedding Feast. Sin is very much like the Ambridge Black that I described. It dirties us and it spreads. We might try to fix our mistakes, we might try to atone for our sins ourselves, but we always fail. How do we cause our sins not to be remembered by those against whom we have sinned? If I sin against my children, how do I cause them not to be affected by that sin even if I am truly repentant? How do I make sure that they do not continue the cycle? If I sin against you, how do I atone in such a way that you will not be affected by my sin against you? Doesn't the memory of the sin always linger, even when we forgive?
     Yet, it is precisely that process of unremembering that Jesus' sacrifice offers to all who claim Him as Lord. Jesus' atonement removes our sin from us in God's eyes as far away as the East is from the West? Jesus' sacrifice on our behalf washes us clean in God's eyes. Jesus' sacrifice on our behalf gives us the robe to wear at that Great Wedding Feast, where the King hosts a feast in honor of His Son's marriage to His Bride! Nothing else cleans our robes! Nothing else satisfies His justice and His righteousness! Nothing else washes the Ambridge Black that we have smeared all over ourselves through our sins, the sins of others, and our effort to clean them up. Nothing else causes God to see Jesus in us!  Nothing.
     Now, I have spent some time this morning reminding you of your Ambridge Black, your sin.  Some might still complain that their sins are not nearly as nasty, that a little OxyClean or a little Resolve, rightly applied, will clean you.  If you find yourself agreeing with that statement, reconsider the anguish of the “friend” in our story, the pain and hurt of Judas.  Both the “friend” and the Apostle know the robe that is necessary.  Both have the appropriate attire available for their respective feasts.  Both choose other than the appropriate attire.  And their end is tragic.  They were this close to the feast, they saw the party, they saw the food, they heard the joy, and they were removed.  That’s why there is wailing; that’s why there is gnashing of teeth.
     Brothers and sisters, we have no reason to fear our sins.  We have no reason to worry about our sins.  We have no reason to feel frustrated that our Ambridge Black spreads and spreads, no matter much we scrub, no matter how many times we wash.  We have each been offered the most amazing gift.  We have been offered a robe that guarantees us admittance to the Wedding Feast.  It covers all our sins.  It covers all our faults.  It covers all our failings.  It causes the King to see His Son in us and us in His Son.  It allows us to go to party without fear of rejection, without fear of being forced to stand like a wallflower.  It is the most amazing of all the gifts of His grace!  And He has no shortage of such robes.  He has robes equal to the number of all those who want to come to His feast  And, though it is white of the most amazing purity, it does not mean that this life will not have shadows, that this life will not have pain, that this life will not have suffering, that this life will be little more than a big party.  The white robe that we wear to the Feast is the same that clothes the martyrs as they cry how long.  It is the same robe that the prophets have, even though the leaders, as Jesus reminds us in His parable, rejected them, ridiculed them, and even killed them.  It is that same robe that is given us when we pick up our cross to follow Him, even to death.
     Each of us, bad and good, has received an invitation from the King.  What will you wear?  Attire of your own fashioning and your own cleaning?  Or will you don the robe He has purchased for you and made you worthy to wear.  One leads to wailing and darkness.  Choose the one that grants you admittance to the Feast, the one that garbs you in life eternally.


Tuesday, October 7, 2014

His patience for miserable wretches . . .

     As you all might imagine, a number of visitors and drop-in's were desperate for our magic formulae or words this week.  I can't get my loved one to listen to the Gospel, how do you all say it around here so that your pope takes notice?  I reminded them, as I do you all all the time that there is no magic formula, there are no magic words, that there is no Anglican pope, and that there is only witness and testimony.  Far better than any sermon I might give is the testimony of your lives.  How you live your lives the 166 hours or so each week that you are not in church is the real sermon in the lives of those around you.  I can encourage you to evangelize better, I can exhort you to trust God faithfully, I can even beg you to give of your time, talent, and treasures more sacrificially, but I cannot live your lives for you.  How you live your faith in front of your children, how you live your faith in front of your co-workers, how you live your faith in front of strangers in a large part determines your effectiveness in kingdom building.  The ones in your life are the ones who see you struggle with the vicissitudes of life.  The ones in your life are the ones who see whether you face death with determined hope, whether you face privation with an expectant hope, whether you seek reconciliation with others with whom you are estranged.  How we handle those situations, brothers and sisters, tells others whether we are, indeed, a resurrected people.  Yes, we may feed the hungry, we may work to free or care for slaves or abused people in our midst, we may collect underwear for those who have none, we may engage in any number of activities that are "Christian," but unless we do so cognizant of what He has done for and promised to us, even our good works are vain.  Besides, as I reminded you all last week, it is our service of and ministry to the individuals that causes other people within the Church to notice our work.
     I share that reminder, number one, to keep us focused.  In some ways, the events last week were like a great win in a college football game.  As good as Iowa State's victory over the Hawkeyes may have seemed to them and their fans a couple weeks ago, it is rather meaningless in light of their inability to follow that win up with another and another.  Mississippi may be basking in its first defeat of Alabama in my lifetime, but it will be meaningless if they drop one to Vandy or Kentucky or someone like that down the road.  Yes, the Archbishop of Canterbury has taken notice of your ministry.  Yes, a group of Anglicans and Roman Catholics will hear of the dedicated work of the Intercessors, those in the Ministry of Presence, our Pervert Patrol, of those whose OCD has been baptized even as it was being alphabetized.  But we are not done.  Our Lord has not returned, and we have not been called home.
     Our parable from Matthew this morning comes from Holy Week.  We are close to that event where mercy and grace find their fullest expression in the earthly ministry of our Lord.  Today, of course, He is teaching in the Temple.  He draws upon the image of Isaiah 5 and the vineyard.  We may not study the Scriptures as much as we should, but you can bet that a number of the Pharisees and chief priests did.  Jesus describes a wonderful vineyard and a decent landlord.  The landlord rents his vineyard out to tenants, but he has protected the vineyard with a wall and a watchtower.  To help with the production of wine, he has built a press in the very center.  There are no bad locations in this setting.  There are no ghettos!
     As was not uncommon, the owner of the vineyard went away to other lands to conduct his business.  Not unexpectedly, he would expect a portion of the wine as payment for leasing the land to his tenants.  The landlord sends some slaves at harvest time to collect his rents.  Unexpectedly, as far as the listeners to Jesus' tale would be concerned, the renters plot to beat and kill the slaves.  Such an act would be stupid in the eyes of those who heard the story.  A wealthy landowner versus rebellious tenants never ends well.  Now, the tenants have insulted the landowner by beating and killing the slaves that he sent.  Unexpectedly, of course, Jesus tells them that the landowner sent more slaves to collect the rents owed.  Again, some of the slaves are beaten, and some are killed.  Then, the landowner decides to send his son because the tenants will surely respect his son.  The tenants are so misguided and so short-sighted that they plot to kill the son so that they might inherit the vineyard.  Jesus asks what will now happen.  The chief priests and the Pharisees are the “they” that answer Him.  The landowner, they announce firmly, will bring those wretches to a miserable end.  In so answering Jesus, of course, the Pharisees and chief priests condemn themselves.
     In real life, the owner of the vineyard is unmistakably the Lord God.  The slaves that He has sent to Israel, the tenants in His vineyard, are the prophets.  The leaders of Israel have not treated the bulk of the prophets well.  Most have been harassed.  Many have been humiliated and mocked.  Some have had their lives threatened.  Nearly all have found themselves preaching to the leaders of a people that did not want to hear the Word of God.  So it is with the Pharisees and chief priests this day of Holy Week.  The parable is being lived out in their lives before their very eyes.  John the Baptizer has come calling for a baptism of repentance.  The prostitutes and tax collectors have heard the message, but those in power have resisted.  Now the Son has come.  His miracles confirm His identity, were they willing to pay attention.    Like us and the others hearing the parable of Jesus, they recognize that the owner of the vineyard will bring those wretches to a miserable end.  With their own words, they condemn themselves and acknowledge, however begrudgingly, the end that they face for their own culpability in rejecting God's Son.  Like the renters in the story, we are told, they plot how they might have Jesus killed.  We know they will succeed in a few days' time.  Yet it is a path that Jesus will walk, fully conscious of the cost, that you and I might be restored to God as first born sons and first born daughters.
     It is a wonderful story, of course.  We know that the tomb that has His body on Friday and Saturday will be empty by Sunday.  God the Father will demonstrate the truth of all that Jesus taught, as well as His power over life and death.  But for those of us or those among us struggling with trying to reach loved ones with the message of the Gospel, those of us who are desperate to share His love with others in our lives, there is another important lesson in today's readings.  Have you ever considered the patience of the landowner?  If you had sent servants to collect your rents, and your servants were mistreated or killed, what would be your response?  I daresay few of us would “try again.”  I doubt many of us would take the chance of sending more servants expecting a different result.  Fewer still, I think, would send an unarmed son, expecting the recalcitrant and murderous tenants to “respect” him because of his position to inherit.  That would be foolish in our eyes.  No, I am pretty sure we would respond with violence.  Maybe we would simply call the cops and have the tenants expelled.  None of us, though, would take the risk that the landowner takes.
     As important as our consideration of the mercy and grace of God is an understanding of His patience.  It is true that many take His patience for granted.  Jesus counsels us that His return will be like a thief in the night.  Many in our lives put off making a decision today, not realizing that such an act is a rejection of our Lord.  The more “not today's” or “later's” that we hear, the more frustrated and disappointed we can become.  It is important to remember, however, the patience of God.  When time is up, either at death or at His return, time us up.  But up to and until those times, we serve a Lord who exhibits incredible patience.  As we were reminded in last week's readings, we serve a Lord who offers the same reward to those who worked all day and to those who barely spent any time working for Him.  And, as difficult as it seems sometimes, you and I are called to mirror that patience.  While we were yet not choosing Him, He was waiting on us.  When He could have treated us like we would treat those who would beat and stone our servants, He chose again and again to call us to Him, to withhold the punishment we earned, to show us mercy.
     And make no mistake, laboring under and mirroring His patience can be trying.  We live in a country that tells us it is expected that we can have it our way in only a matter of minutes.  The idea of perseverance and struggle is almost an anathema to us.  The last I saw, the average American family carries north of $20,000 is consumer credit because they want what they want now.  It's that lack of patience, I think, that sometimes causes us to feel frustrated in our Kingdom-building efforts.  We understand and accept the Gospel, we share it, and we expect people to gravitate to it immediately.  We want that despite the testimony of Scripture and the reminder we find in Jesus' story this morning.  Over and over God calls Israel back to Him.  Over and over Israel rejects His prophets and, by extension, Him.  Even when He sent His Son, they refused to listen.  But for far too often, so did many of us.  Still He keeps calling all back to Him.  Lovingly.  Patiently.
     Brothers and sisters, I know that some of you share the pain and frustration of a loved one's rejection of God.  Many of you have shared stories about loved ones who have, despite your best winsome efforts and even the best efforts of others in your families, are waiting, wandering, choosing things other than God to follow.  You are right to worry.  You are right to feel a sense of urgency.  Time might well come to an end at any moment.  But until that time there is always hope.  Always.  Until our Lord calls them home or returns, there is always the possibility that they, like us, will repent.  There is always hope that they will choose life eternal over death.  Like Israel, like us, even like some of those Pharisees and chief priests from today's story after the Resurrection, they can still choose to follow Him.  Prayer, faithful witness, and patience—modelling the behavior He first showed us—trusting that, in the end, His grace and mercy will draw them into His saving embrace.