Friday, September 30, 2011

Circumcized hearts can conquer inertia and open eyes

After Tuesday's phone calls and e-mails, I started trying to get the word out that the anti-human slavery act, known in Congress as the William Wilberforce Trafficked Victims Protection Re-authorization Act (S.1301 & H.R.2830), was languishing in Congress.  Thanks to some quick responses from people in parts of the Episcopal Church (Julianne, Ellen, Rebecca, Lynette) and from those in other churches (Bryan, Kris, and a couple I never got their names in the SE) and other organizations, the word is getting out.  Better still, the phone calls and e-mails are having an impact in the US House.  This week alone, 11 members of the House have signed on as co-sponsors of the TVPRA!  Thank you Keith Ellison, Barney Frank, Randy Hultgren, Carolyn Maloney, Jim McDermott, Mike McIntyre, Mike Pence, Jean Schmidt, James Sensenbrenner, Jr., Louise McIntosh Slaughter, and Nydia Velazquez for joining us in this important fight and more than doubling the number of sponsors in one day.
Unfortunately, neither the House nor the Senate has brought the measure to a vote, so the Act will expire tonight at midnight Eastern.  For those of us in Iowa, especially, still no elected member of Congress has chose to lend their name as a co-sponsor of the anti-slavery effort.  Please continue to tell your friends and co-workers about this issue and that they, too, can help make a difference.
He has sent us to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed. . .

Christ Peace,

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

so, who are these people that have a good opinion about Congress?

     I must confess, I don't pay as close attention to some things as I used to.  Time was many years ago, I would exhaust a subject.  I mention it because I am having a hard time today understanding how anyone could highly value our Congress.  I know from headlines and pundits on the background television that Congress is setting record low approval ratings almost weekly.  The last I heard, Congress' approval ranking was somewhere near 18%.  After today, I think the survey must be flawed.  How could the rating be that high?  And before some political science pundits or sociologists jump into the fray too much about how people hate Congress but love their own Senators and Representatives, I am going to have to call bs.  Ask those same people if they have ever spoken to a Representative or Senator and got a common sense response.  I am betting the yesses, and those who approve of Congress, are in the single digits.  Why so glum?

     Tuesday was shaping up to be a normal day.  Orders of Worship and Prayers of the People were in my future.  Then the phone rang, and it rang again, and my wife sent me a quick link.  It seems that our beloved Congress has not been inspired to take up the question of Human Trafficking.  As I Facebooked and included in my church Bulletin for the past five or six weeks, the William Wilberforce Trafficked Victims Protection Reauthorization Act is set to expire September 30.  The TVPRA contains some of our best support in the fight to eliminate human slavery in the United States and around the world.  As I printed and FB'd those notes over the last month, I had no doubt the bills (S.1301) and (H.R.2830) would pass.  After all, who wants to be perceived as a supporter of human slavery during an election cycle when approval ratings are so low?  Now I was being asked if I could help spur some movement on the part of politicians to get a no-brainer passed.

     I won't throw specific Senators and Representatives under the bus, yet.  After all, I have only spoken to staffers so far.  I am willing to give the Senators and Representatives the chance to come around on this issue.  Thus far, only 16 out of 100 Senators are sponsoring their version of the bill, and only 10 of 435 members of the House are sponsoring theirs.  I have some patience, but it is likely to expire somewhere around midnight this Friday.  But I do have a few observations I would like to share which might improve the image of Congress.

     #1  You work for me and all your constituents.  When your staffers speak to us with condescending voices reminding us just how valuable your time is, we begin to wonder whether you are the right person to represent us.  If I am taking the time to reach out to you on an issue, your staffer better pretend to care.  I am sure our time is at least equally valuable.  For constituents to waste the time working through your labyrinth of gatekeepers is a pretty good indication that the issue is important to them.  I would suggest hearing them out because in this day and age, social networking media gives them the ability to share with tons of people the wonderful attitude of your office and, by extension, you.

     #2  Consider carefully the competing principles of the proposed bill and your party politics.  While I can appreciate that there is a difference of opinion regarding immigration policy in this country, I am wondering if anyone outside of Congress believes that immigration principles trump human enslavement?  Just to remind you, in case you have forgotten your American History, we fought a war about human slavery.  More of our sons' blood was shed in that war than in any war we've fought.  That fight was so bitter that it is still talked about today in some parts of the country.  And you want me to think that there are important principles competing with a moral imperative?  Most Americans think human slavery is bad.  Most Americans are never going to believe that people are seeking to be enslaved so that they can claim amnesty and permanent residency status later under the TVPRA.  Quit toeing the party line for politics' sake and get to work representing us.

     #3  When your staffer promises to get back to constituents in a set amount of time (particularly when they are researching the bill we brought up because they and you know absolutely nothing about it), they really should follow through.  I know.  Courtesy in DC is dead.  Important things can come up.  Foreign powers might attack us, the economy might crash again, there might be an unexpected family emergency -- I get it.  But when those things do not happen and your staffer does not return our call, we begin to think that they and you value your time far more than you value ours.  After all, you set the tone for the office.

     #4 Try hard not to BS us.  The cliches and rambling answers work well with the press when they love you, but not so much with us.  "The __________ has been too busy to add his/her name as a sponsor the past 6 weeks, but you can rest assured they will when they get the time" is a stupid answer, particularly regarding moral imperatives like human slavery.  Yes, I know, the recess was so hectic.  So much golf.  So many trips.  And the time spent in the air!  Thanks to your staffer, you are now on record  as saying that you are too busy to worry about those enslaved in our midst.  You are too busy to fight the second or third largest illegal activity (guns and drugs being the other two).  Unless the economic mess gets solved in the next few days or peace is restored to the Middle East, I'm not buying it.

     #5  Your staffers should really pay attention to whom they are speaking.  Anyone can tweet or fb or whatever, but some people have additional access to the press.  Some of us get interviewed by the local press, you know, the ones that your constituents read, watch or listen to.  Where before someone might count you and your staff an ally and a leader in the fight against human slavery, someone might now need to lament your seeming support of slavers or your seeming lack of interest in the fight to free slaves.  Repeated over and over and it can become an unnecessary election issue for you.

     It is late and I'll quit berating members of Congress for now.  Who know, maybe the efforts to day went vial and their boxes were flooded with requests to join the fight?  Maybe those staffers were exhausted and did not represent the mind of those Representatives and Senators to whom we reached out today.  Maybe those Senators and Representatives will decide to put aside politics for a brief time and help us remind ourselves that we are the land of the free.  But seriously, who are these people that think this way of doing business is good?


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Are you like the first or the second?

     Our reading from Matthew this week once again gives spiritual wedgies to those who think that Jesus was “a good guy” or “a hippie before His time.” Stories such as this week’s appear just enough to make us uncomfortable, sometimes, about His behavior. As we noted at Wednesday’s class, Jesus often has a seriousness or edge to His teaching. More often than not, He is demanding that people make a decision about His identity and where they will place their faith. Today’s readings illustrate that “edge” quite well.

     To place the story in the timeline, this is the second day of Holy Week. Yes, that Holy Week. Yesterday, in Matthew’s narrative, Jesus has entered the city of Jerusalem in triumph riding the donkey and colt. The crowd went wild. Could He be the messiah? Was He coming to claim the throne and deliver them? Upon entering the city, Jesus went immediately to the temple. Matthew records that it was at this time that Jesus overturned the money changers tables and the benches of those selling doves. His pronounced judgment is that God’s house of prayer has been turned into a den of robbers. Then, just when we and the temple leaders are no doubt certain that He has lost all control of Himself, He heals the blind and the lame, all of them, who come to Him. Rather than rejoicing at the healings, we are told, the Temple leaders become indignant. Imagine, they are indignant despite the miracles which occur in their presence!

     This morning, Jesus has gotten up and headed out to the Temple. On the way, He has cursed the fig tree for not bearing fruit. And He gets to the Temple and begins His routine of teaching those interested in what He has to say. All that sets the background for today’s reading.

     The same Temple leaders who were indignant yesterday come to Him with a question: by what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority? Whether the leaders were trying to re-establish their pre-eminence after yesterday’s actions or they are trying to trap Jesus as part of their conspiracy, we do not know. Perhaps they intended to shame Him for not having the right degree to teach in the Temple. Maybe they are still questioning how He heals. Certainly, Jesus knew where they intended to go in their line of questioning. He tells them He will answer their questions but only on the condition that they answer His first. “Was John’s baptism of heaven or from men?”

     Jesus’ question has placed these religious leaders on the horns of a dilemma. If they proclaim that John’s baptism was from heaven, then they have to admit that Jesus is the One for whom John paved the way. Naturally, they cannot accept this. For starters, He claims to be the Son of God. He often rebukes them in public, “knowing full well that they are supposed to play nice in the sandbox.” Heck, yesterday He dared to throw out the vendors and money changers – doesn’t He know that the Temple needs money? No, they cannot accept that this carpenter’s son from Nazareth is at all significant, let alone God’s Anointed.

     Of course, if they say that John’s baptism comes from men, the crowd is not going to be very happy with them. In fact, they fear that if they give this answer, the people may revolt because they all held that John was the first prophet since the passing of Micah. For the centuries between Micah and John, God had been silent. Naturally, the people feared that God had abandoned them. But John’s voice in the wilderness gave them hope! Woe to the Temple leaders that want to fight that battle! Plus, if they admit John’s baptism was from heaven, the people might remember that they were not baptized in John’s repentance. That will not do, either.

     So, in an effort to be clever, the leaders say that they do not know from where John’s authority came. Like those in our midst who keep putting off until another day whether they believe or not, they have already given their answer. In fact, just as He accused them earlier in Chapter 12, He judges that they have hardened their hearts to God.

     In football terms, the temple leaders have been forced to punt. They have come in with the intention of restoring things the way they were only to find themselves now on the defensive. Rather than walking away from them, Jesus chooses to teach them His judgment of them through the parable of the two sons. When finished with His narrative, Jesus asks them which of the two sons was the obedient son? The leaders quickly answer that the first, the son who refuses to work but then goes into the vineyard, is the obedient son. And Jesus then explains how the parable applies to them and to the tax collectors and prostitutes. The leaders are like the second son who says the right thing but does nothing. He claims to honor the father, but in reality he rejects the father. Similarly, the temple leaders ignore the spirit of the torah when possible and use the letter of the torah to create burdens on the people they are supposed to be shepherding. The tax collectors and prostitutes, on the other hand, are like the first son who, at first, dishonors the father, but then repents and goes to work. The fruits of his repentance, as it were, are his dirty hands from the vineyard. The tax collectors and prostitutes gathered around Jesus did ignore their Father for a while. But when they were confronted by John’s call to repentance or Jesus own ministry, they repent. The ones who should have recognized Jesus are blind, and the ones who should have missed Him see! The leaders fight Him tooth and claw and reject His authority even to the point of His death, while the tax collectors and prostitutes submit to His teaching and His authority.

     Brothers and sisters, for all its uncomfortable teaching this is an easy parable with which to get comfortable, if we think we are one of the good guys. No doubt we would all like to think of ourselves standing behind Jesus, on His side – as it were, watching Him hold the Temple leaders accountable for their hardness of heart. Like little kids, we can imagine ourselves blowing raspberries at the bad guys in the story. Yet think of the tragedy in these lines. The very people who should have best recognized Jesus as He was among them were so hardened in their hearts that they missed Him. Their agendas and ambitions, their worries and fears, caused them to reject Jesus and His Gospel and to put Him to death! Rather than pointing all Israel to Him, as did John, they conspired against Him, even after His death and Resurrection.

     Are we, in the end, really any better? How many of us reject Him for a time? How many of us would ignore prayer, ignore worship, ignore every single call that God has on our lives as our Lord and Savior, because we have our own agendas? How many times in our lives are we the bad guys in this story? I’m too tired. I’m too busy. The house needs cleaning. I want to play golf. I want to sleep in. I did my time on the Vestry once. I got 50 yard line tickets. I want splurge on me. On and on we display our own hardnesses of heart. Time and time again we fight against what He wants to accomplish through us. Like the temple leaders, He forces us repeatedly to answer who we think He is.

     In the end, brothers and sisters, it really is a question of authority. From whence do you think it comes? If it is a good story, a nice moral tale with a tragic end, then we are, as Paul says, most of all to be pitied. If Jesus’ authority was His own creation, He is no different than any cultish or charismatic leader who came before or after and we are stupid to be anything other than the second sons of His parable. But if His authority is of God, look out! If the story from that holy week is true, why do we chafe so hard against His authority? Thankfully and mercifully, brothers and sisters, all He requires of us is repentance and an effort at obedience, if we believe He is the messiah. And in that repentance and in that willingness to obey, even if we fail and subsequently find ourselves repeating the process, we find ourselves gifted with the very privileges and responsibilities He first offered those leaders, privileges and responsibilities and love which impel us to carry forth into the world around us the opportunities for others to become first sons and daughters of their Father in heaven.


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A visit to the eye doctor . . .

     The parable of the workers in the vineyard is another of those parables well known both within and outside the church. For some, it is a stumbling block to accepting Christ as Savior and Lord; for others, it is a lesson in humility. I must confess I have heard a number of sermons on the parable which reminded listeners that we all get the same reward, no matter how we serve God and His Church. Truthfully, I think those sermons that concentrate on the reward, the denarius, miss one of the focal points of the parable. As with the last couple weeks, Jesus is teaching His disciples. While the parable may have been heard by outsiders, it is clearly intended for those who already follow Him. Jesus uses a part of everyday life to explain to His disciples what it means to take up their cross and follow Him.

     Peter has just asked Jesus to remember that they (the disciples) have given up everything and followed Him. What then will be their reward? Understand, all those who have chosen to follow Jesus have truly stepped out in faith. All have left livelihoods. Some have left families. All have even given up a bit of anonymity with respect to the Temple leaders and are now known to follow the rabble-rouser Jesus. Peter’s question about their reward is understandable. Should not the first followers get a pretty good reward in comparison to others? And if they don’t get material rewards in this life, as some of the rich young men whom they encounter do, what do they get? It is that same self-centeredness which plagues the Older Brother in the story of the Prodigal Son. Our sense of justice, as well-meaning as it may be, is simply wrong. Like the Older Brother and the “Friend” in this parable, those who do more think they deserve more. It sounds reasonable, but is it Gospel-living?

     Families in the ANE, just as today, often lived hand to mouth. These gatherings of day-laborers thus became important in the provisions of daily life. Workers would gather to be hired, the hope being that they would make money to support themselves and their families. As with us, some were more motivated than others. Additionally, there was a perception among those that hired that some were more motivated, and therefore better, than others. The real “go-getters” gathered at dawn. Those a little slower or maybe distracted would have been in the second group. You know those who would not make it out until 12 noon or 3pm. Those would be the ones we labeled as lazy. They slept in or they were distracted. Maybe they drank too much the night before at the local bar. But in this marketplace, there is real need. Workers are still gathered at 5pm hoping against hope for the chance to provide for some of their daily needs. If you have ever been one of the last picked in gym class, you can well imagine who these fellows were. To other hirers, they no doubt looked incapable or unwilling to do the work. Yet, they stood in the marketplace at the eleventh hour hoping for just 1/12 of the daily wage.

     When the spokesman for those who have worked the longest grumbles, the landowner gently confronts him. What’s your problem? You are being given precisely what we contracted. Is your eye evil? Understand, the landowner is asking the laborer what his eye is focused upon, just as Jesus is asking you and me what our eyes are focused upon. If he or we are focused on the idea that material treasure equals our value or our security, then we are allowing evil to creep into our lives through our eyes. Our focus is misplaced.

     One of the uncomfortable truths in Scripture is that you and I are of both profound importance to God and of no significance. He valued us enough that He died for us, but we have nothing worthwhile to offer Him, apart from a thankful and joyful heart. When we begin to think that our gifts of time, of talents, and of treasures in any way cause us to merit reward from Him, we have, in truth, eviscerated whatever good we have done. God has called us because He is gracious. We should have a grateful heart for our own salvation and a joyful heart for what He has done both in the calling of ourselves and in the calling of those gathered around us. Far too often, though, we are like the grumbling worker. We compare ourselves to others forgetting that before Him, we have all fallen short, all of us. Comparing ourselves to other Christians, just as the worker did to other workers, will cause us to forget the true wisdom and fairness of God, and to become envious of one another. A church that allows such comparisons to take root will quickly become a body focused on evil and not upon God. A group of “believers” focused upon such comparisons can have no unity or fellowship, nor can it demonstrate in any way how kingdom-living can affect those in the world around us.

     Just as Jesus was secure in His loving relationship with His Father in Heaven and was able to drink from the cup prepared for Him, certain that His Father would never forsake Him, even to the point of death on a cross, so should you and I be assured of our Lord’s love of us. That He hung on that cross two thousand years ago demonstrates His incontrovertible love of us and all others in our daily lives. His glorious Resurrection, similarly, reminds us all of His unassailable power to accomplish what ever He has purposed in our lives. Armed with those two certainties, and with the joyful and thankful heart that comes with them, you and I are sent out into His fields not to grumble, but to show others how His kingdom has already and is changing the world. That, brothers and sisters, is the only reward that does not pass away, as our opening collect reminded us this morning. That, brothers and sisters, is a call worthy of any son or daughter of our Father in Heaven. So, upon what is your eye focused? Your calling? Or your desires?


Monday, September 12, 2011

More discipline . . .

     Our passage from Matthew this week continues with that four-letter word we like to call discipline.  Recall last week, after the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus gives us clear instructions about how we should deal with one another when one of us sins against another.  This week, the focus shifts a bit.  Last week, we were instructed how to correct our brothers and sisters who have wandered astray, even to the point of excluding them from the Eucharist.  In light of all that, Peter’s question probably seems reasonable to you.  “Well, Lord, how many times do I have to forgive someone?”

     Peter, of course, understood his question to be generous beyond any reasonable expectation.  Most Jews believed that they only had an obligation to forgive someone three times or fewer, depending on the school of thought and the “cliff notes” version of the Scriptures which informed their study.  The thought was that once a person had been forgiven once, twice, or three times (depending upon the teaching), their willingness to recommit the same sin was evidence of the fact that their prior repentance was not really repentance.  In other words, they said they were sorry, but they really did not mean it, as evidenced by their continued behavior.  Can you imagine how hostile some marriages must have been?  How hard must it have been to keep a true friend?  So, when Peter asks the question of Jesus, he is more than doubling the cultural expectation he has been taught.  Peter’s offer, “as many 7 times,” seems very merciful.

     Jesus, of course, knows our hearts.  He knows our proclivity to recommit the same sins over and over and over again.  Perhaps, sitting here, you have a sin or two that plagues you.  No matter how hard you try not to do that particular sin, it comes back.  You fall prey to temptation and hurt someone else and dishonor God.  Sometimes, like an addiction, it is unintentional.  We do the sin because, quite simply, it feels good.  Sometimes, we do a particular sin because we fall prey to the mindset that we want to get even.  Occasionally, though, we sin entirely unintentionally.  We are sometimes just blind to our actions and our consequences.  Does this make us bad people?  Sure, before we meet Christ on our road to salvation.  All sin separates us from the love of God and leads to death.  But what about afterwards?  What about the sin that plagues us for years and years after our baptism, our confirmation, our renewal of vows, or our simple determination not to commit a particular sin?  What happens to us who claim to be Christian and yet still sin?

     In this passage, Jesus reminds us that, as His body here on earth, we have two obligations.  First of all, whenever we sin, the solution is easy.  We are called to repent of our behavior and to ask God for the grace to avoid that particular temptation.  That’s pretty much it.  No matter how “bad” the sin, we are called simply to repent.  He finished His work on the cross knowing that we would commit whatever sins which plague us.  Secondly, and more properly the focus of this pericope, we are called to accept the repentance and show mercy.  What makes it harder is that we are not called to forgive another a mere 7 times, as Peter suggests, but rather all the time.  You and I are called to be people who incarnate the message of mercy from our God.  Yes, I know some translations say 77 times and others say 7 times 70 times—the Greek could mean either.  But the number 7 holds a special place in God’s economy.  It is the number of completion.  On the seventh day, He rested.  The Resurrection of our Lord occurred on the seventh day, which is why we see groups such as 8th day reminding us that creation is being perfected in Christ.  We are called to forgive all those who repent until their sanctification is complete.  All those who truly repent, including ourselves.

     Forgiveness is not easy, to be sure.  We have far too many opportunities to be hurt in this world.  Yet Jesus commands forgiveness on the part of His disciples, He does not suggest it.  Harder still, He insists that forgiveness must come from the heart, not just the mouth.  Just as all the evil acts come from the heart, so too do those virtues which He values.  Such mercy and graciousness, of course, flows from a knowledge of our own behavior and from what Jesus did that Maundy Thursday through Holy Saturday.  How many times do you and I sin (we think in private), repent, and then expect or hope for Him to forgive us, all the while clinging to His cross or His blood?  That same hope must be provided to others!  As disciples who follow Him, we recognize that any hurt against us is a hurt against Him. Any embarrassment we suffer, He suffers.  Any pain that is inflicted upon us, He feels.  Why do you think His passion was so graphic?  He took all the punishment you and I would love to give when lashing out against those who sinned against us when He went to the cross to die for us?  You think the scourging felt good? You think He liked the spittle?  The mocking?  The punching?  The death?  When Scripture claims that He took the punishment for our sins, it means that He took the punishment for all our sins, both those we commit and those committed against us.  How we deal with sin, for Him, is a matter of eternal consequence.

     We are called to show forth forgiveness from our heart because we have been forgiven much?  Each and every one of us gathered here today is a recipient of that mercy.  Better still, those not here can be a recipient, too.  Even those who have harmed us greatly.  Brothers and sisters, what grudges are you holding? What hardness of heart prevents you from forgiving someone or many someone's who sinned against you?  Take this time, this day when we celebrate Healing Sunday and we remember all those who died in an act that many in our country would consider unforgiveable, and begin the work of forgiveness from your heart.  If it is not yet within you to forgive from the heart, pray the Lord to give you that grace to forgive.  Help me, Lord, to forgive that person for the hurt, the pain, and the embarrassment.  Help me to see them as You see them, just as You see me.  Pray that He open your eyes and ears to see and hear how often you have sinned against Him, and ask that He begin the process of circumcising your heart, that His mercy, His forgiveness might shine forth in your life!