Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Oh, Lord, it's hard to be humble . . .

     Oh, Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way. . . To know me is to love me.  I must be a hell of a man.  Oh, Lord, it’s hard to be humble, but I’m doing the best that I can! -- I’m not quite sure why, but every time this reading comes up, I hear Mac Davis playing the role of the Pharisee.  In answer to your questions: yes, I am old enough to know who Mac Davis was; yes, my parents were abusers who sometimes introduced me to what they considered “music;” and yes, God does have a lot of sanctifying work yet to do on me.  I know some of you are laughing, but think back to the song.  Yes, I know all of you were Beatles’ fans, and James Taylor and Jim Croce and other “classic” artists.  None of you really ever had to listen to Mac.  But this song became a fairly good hit in the mid 1980’s.  Yes, even twenty-five years ago, humility was an issue for humanity.

     Jesus begins this story, we are told, to instruct those who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.  Our translators try hard to convey the sense of those to whom Jesus was teaching, but we lack some of the meaning in English.  The literal translation of “confident in their own righteousness” is more along the lines of “relied upon themselves to stand before God”;  for “looked down on everyone else,” we should think “always despising or loathing” or “always thought of others as ‘those people.’”

     Although not my emphasis today, the attitude that best captures what Jesus is preaching against can be found and heard in our farm bill / SNAP debates and the discussions regarding immigration reform.  While I am certain there are crooks and people who game the food stamp system and that some of those wastes can be identified and removed, the whole discourse has lumped everyone into a group.  One party sees “those people” as someone to cater to for a vote; the other seems to want to lump “those people” together as lazy or thieves in order to win votes from their constituents.  

     Similarly, the immigration reform debates excels at creating “those people.”  “Those people” are either criminals with no respect for the law, and so a politician deserves your vote for always speaking and voting with that attitude, or desperate people who needed a chance like our immigrating forbears, and so a politician deserves your vote for always speaking and voting with that attitude in mind.

     As with many debates in this country, I wonder if the debates would not change in tenor if we made our politicians spend time getting to know “those people” who will be impacted by their decisions.  It is easy to condemn “those people” when one does not know the story of what got them there.  Similarly, it is easy to put down those people and treat them like children in need of one’s largesse and mentoring when one does not spend the time to learn what happened in their lives.  I have spent too many hours in conversations with those seeking help from the parish since late 2007 to know better.  And I get that our resources are not unlimited.  Unlike the Church, who receives her provision from God, the state is dependent upon the tax payer.  God can create out of nothing; the state can only take from what is there.

     In any event, Jesus today is speaking against pride.  Pride, as we know, is one of the big stumbling blocks to being a good disciple of Jesus.  One of the warnings that Jesus repeats to His disciples is to avoid being like the Pharisees and the Romans.  Jesus will mention repeatedly that the Pharisees like to be thought of as holy.  In reality, they sit at Moses’ seat looking good but inwardly ugly.  Similarly, the Romans place great stock in hierarchy.  They like to have those beneath them wait upon them.  As His disciples, you and I are called to be servants.  Just a couple weeks ago in Luke we read that our attitude ought to be that we have only done what we should have done.  We cannot bargain with God because we really have nothing He needs.  One person in prayer in His parable today understands that lesson; one would be better served to be a disciple of Mac Davis.

     Jesus begins His story with the Pharisee.  Not surprisingly, Jesus is critical of the Pharisee’s attitude.  Five times in the prayer, the Pharisee focuses on himself, even though he begins the prayer like a psalm of praise, “I thank you, God.”  I am so much better than “those people.”  I pray a lot.  I fast a lot.  I tithe from what I get.  The attitude conveyed by his prayers is that God should be breathing a sigh of relief that the pharisee has chosen to worship Him.  This guy has gone beyond the duty of obligation, and God should be fawning all over him.  Hey, it could be worse.  God might have to depend on “those people” to worship Him, like the tax collector and the prostitutes, and what good would that do Him?

     Set against the Pharisee is the tax collector.  Tax collectors, as you know, were despised by the people of Israel.  They were Benedict Arnold’s and Johnny Taliban’s and IRS agents all rolled into one person.  They collected taxes with a squad of Roman soldiers ready to defend them, no matter the tax.  Many in Israel considered them to have abandoned their covenant relationship with Yahweh in order to serve Rome, as if the reason Israel had not been exiled earlier or conquered by Rome for the same abandonment.  All pretty much universally despised them.

     Notice the prayer of this tax collector.  There is no beautiful opening formula like that of the Pharisee.  He hasn’t learned the so called “right words.”  The Pharisee’s mockery of him would be a well known attitude.  The tax collector, Jesus points out, refuses even to look up to heaven.  The tax collector knows there is a tremendous chasm between God and himself.  He realizes that there is nothing he can say or do to justify himself.  And so he asks God to be merciful to him, identifying himself as a sinner.  That’s it.  He does not bargain with God; he does not tell God that He is lucky to have him as a worshipper.  He simply begs for God’s grace.

     We can well imagine the attitudes and understandings of those in Jesus’ audience.  if we rightly understand the attitude with which people held tax collectors, we can almost hear the mocking laughter of the others “who trusted in themselves” hearing the prayer of the tax collector.  Clearly, God will have been impressed with the one who did extra stuff and not so much with the one who does not even know the right words.  On the other side, there are people like the tax collector who know they have nothing to offer God.  God may have inspired the prophets and Moses to write that He loves the widow and orphan, but few widows and orphans will be able to demonstrate that the people of Israel live as if they believe that of Him.  Jesus may be willing to sit down with prostitutes and other notorious sinners, but He certainly is not God, is He?

     Imagine the shock and surprise when Jesus tells His audience that the tax collector went away justified before God.  To one side, such a statement would have caused outrage; to another side, the statement would have engendered hope.  The side that trusted in itself would be convinced that the man from Nazareth was off his rocker, that God clearly loves those who are like them.  The side that understood themselves to be unworthy of God’s love, though, would hear the beginnings of the Gospel, “For God so loved the world . . .”.  Could it be true?  Does God love me despite me?

     Jesus’ teaching today reminds us, brothers and sisters, that except for His grace, we are all “those people.”  Even those of us who think we deserve special treatment and love by God are “those people;” they simply do not want to recognize that about themselves.  We talk often around here of the two axis of the cross.  We remind ourselves of the vertical chasm which exists between us and God, absent the work and person of Christ, and we remind ourselves that His hands were stretched out on the crossbeam axis embracing all who would come to Him.  All of us are equal before God when we depend on our own selves because we are all sinners.  We all exist on the side of that great chasm.  And when we begin to understand that teaching, when we begin to realize who we are outside of Christ, that is when He really begins to work in us.

     As His disciples, we begin to understand that our only standard of comparison is God.  We measure our holiness against His, our righteousness against His, our justice against His, our love against His.  True humility understands that, like the tax collector in today’s story, we are not deserving of His grace.  Nothing we do “earns” His love.  He freely gives it to all who come to Him through the Cross and Resurrection of His Son!  All.  When we compare our qualities to those of others, we are demonstrating the pride exhibited by the Pharisee in today’s story.  Well, God, I’m not as bad as that guy in jail.  Well, God, I’m more special than that person because I give a bigger percentage of my income.  Well, God, I’m more deserving of your love because I come to church more frequently than that person.  We all have our “those people” in our lives; the key, according to Jesus is to remember that, before God, we are all “those people” and to die to self.

     How important is this teaching on humility?  Humility is a theme which runs throughout the Gospels and even Scripture.  It is hard to teach because one cannot raise their hand and say “Hey, look at me.  Humility is my best quality.”  A humble disciple cannot call upon others to serve himself or herself.  A humble disciple simply does whatever serving needs doing.  A humble disciple cannot claim special privilege.  He or she simply strives to do what is right in the sight of God and repents whenever he or she fails.  A humble disciple cannot call attention to himself or herself.  A humble disciple directs the attention of all those around him or her to our Lord--you know, the One who came down from heaven, was born in a manger, raised by a carpenter, and died on a cross despite being God!  Like Jesus when He walked the earth, the disciple expressing His humility might pass among us unseen, unheard, and unvalued.  But, like our Lord, the disciple knows that, in the end, the Lord who judges all and knows all will act to exalt those who were loved Him truly and to put down those who rejected Him.  “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

     Mac Davis was right.  It really is hard to be humble.  Thankfully and mercifully, God works even with our kernels of humility when we approach Him in faith.  Thankfully and mercifully, He got it right so that our salvation need not depend on ourselves.  That is a good news for all, be they widows or orphans or addicts or prostitutes or pimps or even ourselves!



Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Widows, widowers, unjust judges, and parish finances . . .

     I found myself this week engaged in quite the discussion about this passage in Luke.  Thanks to Robin’s work in the office, I can get out and do different work during the week, rather than wrestling with that possessed computer that gave us this reading a couple weeks ago.  This week, I was invited to a local assisted living facility to lead worship services.  As it was a Lutheran home and I am an Episcopal priest, I decided rather easily to hold a Eucharist.  As it turns out, a few residents had not had Communion since Easter.  Not all those who attended worship were raised in a liturgical church, but for those who were, the Eucharist “hit the spot.”  What hit the spot for the non-liturgical members was the priest’s  willingness to engage them after the service about the homily.  You all would have been proud.  Heck, many of you would be envious.  I gave a short three minute homily reminding them that the passage is about the persevering faith of the widow, that Jesus realized such a persevering faith was not easy, and that they all still had work to do loving their neighbors into the kingdom.  After the service, of course, was where the discussions got good.
     Apparently, it has been the custom of some preachers to preach this passage, or at least for their congregations to hear, that we should nag God for the things we want.  For some present, that was clearly the take away from this Gospel passage in Luke.  We can wear God down with prayer, much in the way a child can wear a parent down with constant pestering.  It might not surprise you too much to learn that there were a dozen widows and 1 widower in that group this past week.  I really expected pushback about the work to do loving people into God’s kingdom, but no one said anything about that other than it was nice for someone to acknowledge that God clearly had a use for them.  No, what concerned them was the idea that we could not nag God into doing what we want.
     Is that the kind of God we think we worship?  Is that the kind of God we think we want?  Is that what prayer really is, nagging?  If pastors are teaching that we can nag God into doing what we want, think of the implications.  Scripture reveals that God is a loving Father who wants what is best for us.  If we could nag God into changing His mind, would we always get what is best for us?  Or would we, instead, merely get what we think is best for us?
     Nearly all of us present have been parents or children at some point in our lives.  I wonder whether all of us were really kids once, but we have all found ourselves on one side or another of the “nagging equation.”  I daresay more than one of us convinced a parent to give us what we wanted when we were younger.  I am probably safe in assuming that many of us have given in to our children’s nagging on one or two occasions, just as did the unjust judge in our reading today.  Do we really want God to be like our parents?  Do we really want God to make decisions for us in the way we do for our own children?  Sobering thought, isn’t it?  Yet that is precisely why this passage had nagged so many for so long.  The “take away” of the passage for them had been that we had to nag God to get what we want.
     I am a bit ashamed to confess to you all this morning that I used myself as an example.  You all know I do not do that very often, as I want the focus to be on God and not me.  I found myself, however, trying to forge a new relationship with some very elderly folks.  As one lady put it during my apology for using this example, “Pastor, we are all old.  We might meet God any minute.  Why don’t you explain why the nagging is bad as best you can.  Then we’ll worry about repenting.”  So I took her advice.
     As most of you all know, I used to pray a lot for that winning lottery ticket.  My thought was good.  I’d put away some money for the kids, give my extended family a bit of a cushion, and I’d spend the rest on the church or church-related activities.  Back then, I only had five kids, and I worried how St. Alban’s would ever be able to afford supporting my family.  I may not know who pledges what, but Rex and Rick and Annette did a good job of keeping me in the loop as to what bills were getting paid and what bills were not.  I used to think a winning lottery ticket would really free us up, as a community, to do some incredible work.  Now, keep in mind this Lutheran home group had never met me or heard of us before this week.  I laughed at myself over that last statement, and they asked why I was laughing.  I asked if they had heard of Angel Food or now SmartChoice.  Crickets.  I asked if they had heard anything about our work in Human Trafficking.  Blank stares.  I asked if they had heard of the Underwear Because We Care effort.  One voice said she’d read about it in the Dispatch last week.  Worker House / Community Meal?  A few hands or verbal acknowledgements.  Winnie’s Place and Winnie’s Wishes?  Silence again.  AA?  Finally, I hit on something they all knew.  Anybody had volunteers drive them for cancer treatment?
     As my list of questions built, one of the ladies asked me what kind of work did I think my church needed to be doing to need a winning lottery ticket.  I gave her a couple more answers that seemed, at least at the time, to be constrained by finances.  So she asked how long it took me to figure out we were busy enough and that that was why God was not giving me a winning lottery ticket.  I admitted it was too long as we chuckled.  I also told her I had realized something else along the way.  My financial worries made me a better pastor to those whom God had placed in my cure.  I shared with them that we are a strange Episcopal parish.  We are very blue collar and have no accountants, lawyers, doctors, politicians or any other “white collar” types attending our parish.  After some back and forth, I went on to explain how many of us are just one medical emergency away from losing everything this world claims is important.  I told them it took me a couple years, but I eventually realized that very few in my cure were worried about death.  Most were certain where they were headed.  What frightened them more was the question of living, things like provision and health and other important needs.  If I am in here too long, I’ll get fired.  If I miss to many days because of this lingering illness, the boss will find someone to replace me.  How am I going to ever pay for my care?  The company cut my hours back, and I can’t afford healthcare.  I shared with that congregation that dying was not nearly as frightening to many of us here as living.
      Brothers and sisters, I am here to tell you the floodgates were opened!  Stories that took you years to share, they began telling me right then and there!  One lady managed a business until her health declined.  Thirty-eight years!  I gave them thirty-eight years.  What did I get for my loyalty, for never calling in sick, for covering whenever they needed covering?  Downsized.  I got downsized because I ended up in the hospital for a week and needed a few more days to recover.  There were, as you might imagine, murmurs of agreement.  For five or ten minutes, those present shared their stories.  Like  many of us gathered here today, they found living a bit more challenging than dying.  Some of their fears are shared here.  A couple worried that body parts were just going to start falling off.  A couple shared their fears that they would lose their minds.  A few were afraid they would die alone, that their families would tire of visiting them.  One, who would fit in here well, was worried she was never going to get to be the oldest resident there because a couple of them seem like they might live for forever!  In the midst of that discussion, some rueful and some sincere, one lady asked me why I thought I was a better pastor for my financial worries.
     I told her I was in the exact same boat as my parishioners.  Just as they were one illness or accident away from losing everything the world values, so was I.  I knew precisely what it was like to know that I could not control so many things that impact my life.  I might do everything “right” like the lady with thirty-eight years of loyalty, but I was an inattentive driver away from losing some of those whom I love or just a minivan.  My support is based on your support of the parish.  When you put other bills ahead of the church, it impacts me and mine.  And when bosses fire loyal workers after thirty-eight years over an extended illness, I know what it does to parish finances.  We value every penny of support we get.  Our treasurer has to make the call as to what gets paid and what does not.  Sometimes it’s the utility; sometimes it’s the priest.  That’s the reality we live in at St. Alban's.
     The lady who initiated the conversation got it.  Wow.  How many times do you think you nagged God for a winning lottery ticket, Pastor?  Who knew (besides God)?  What if He’d given in?  How would it have impacted your church and you?  And I shared.  I told them that had the money come in that way, we might have gotten a bit self-righteous.  We might have thought we deserved the riches because we were special.  As it was, we were driven to our knees each and every day to ask for provision and to discern His will.    It also probably would have created a chasm between us and those whom we try to serve.  Whether we are helping a struggling battered woman and her children or preparing a sit-down meal for the homeless and struggling, many of us recognize we are just a bad break from their situation.  We are better ministers to them because we see them as a possible outcome of us.  To mingle the readings from a couple readings ago, we know that we are Lazarus, too!
     So, by not giving you that winning lottery ticket, He gave you what you needed?  Being a good Lutheran, she wanted to explore the end of the homily and this sharing.  I told her I was absolutely convinced that was correct.  How has it changed your prayer life?  I shared with her my prayers are simpler.  I pray for provision for all my flock.  I pray for strength; I pray for vision; I pray for faith.  And I pray that when we are praying for something for a while and His answer seems “no,” that we would be given the eyes, ears, or heart to understand what He wants--and then to pray for that.  Let tomorrow worry about tomorrow?  Exactly.  I just need to get through today.  The baptists and non-denoms led the Amens.
     Brothers and sisters, this passage is all about how hard it is to live a life faithfully.  Our heroine in the story, a widow, stands in accusation of the society around her.  Whenever the Lord mentions His character in Scripture, He often mentions He loves the widow and the orphan.  Israel was supposed to care for widows and orphans as part of their devotion to God.  That someone would seek to take advantage of her is evidence of their collective need for a new heart.  For all their special relationship with God, for all the lessons of the exile, they still have not yet learned how God cares for the widow and the orphan.  Though the stories of Naomi and Tamar and even the widow of Zeraphath have been included in their history, their hearts have not yet been circumcised.  Even the judge, the one who is supposed to know and arbitrate the torah, tells us that he grants her justice only because she is nagging him, not out of a sense of thankfulness or duty to God.
     Imagine how she felt.  She had lost her husband.  She seems to have had no son.  She has no man to advocate for her, to protect her, to provide for her.  And her neighbors seem indifferent to her plight.  Still, day in and day out, she nags the judge.  Each day she sees him and begs him for justice.  Day after day he walks by, ignoring her complaint.  Nobody else took up her plea.  Love your neighbor?  Who has time for that?  Still, she seeks justice each and every day until even the unjust judge is moved to give her justice.  
     Where in your life do you relate to the widow?  Where do you feel like God, and the world, is ignoring your needs?  Brothers and sisters, we claim to serve a God who wants us to think of Him as a loving Father.  We might inadvertently give scorpions instead of eggs to our children, but He makes no such mistakes with His gifts or His children.  What prayer of yours seems to go unanswered?  Where have you become more of a nag and less of a disciple?
     Prayer is supposed to be a holy conversation with God.  If we are constantly nagging, we are not really in conversation.  We need to be listening from time to time.  Actually, as your mom taught you years and years ago, we have two ears and one mouth.  We need always to be paying attention and listening.  If you are praying for something that you know God wants you to have, like the widow and justice, keep it up.  But if, upon reflection and discernment, you realize that what you are praying for might not be what you truly need, ask God for what you should be praying.  Then listen.  You might discover that all along you have been asking for something which would harm you or damage your witness to those in your life.  Miracle cures are often cool; but sometimes it is the patient suffering that really reaches into the lives of others.  Winning lottery tickets are great stories; but sometimes it is the daily trust in the Lord’s provision which brings the Gospel to life in those whom you might be called to serve.  Put differently, faithful struggles often have a bigger impact on those around us than the flashy miracle.
     Discipleship requires both patience and perseverance.  We are called to live a life expecting our Lord to return any moment, but hopeful that He will give us more time to reach others.  It is a struggle to maintain our faith when the world so testifies against it.  Jesus realizes this.  In fact, that prompts Him to ask if He will find faith when He returns.  But remember this section comes at the end of a teaching about faith and the sign of the end times.  The Apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith, and he teaches them that faith the size of a mustard seed is enough.  The Pharisees ask for those momentous signs of the coming kingdom of God, and Jesus tells them they will not see them.  The momentous signs for which they look will not be there.  Instead, there will be individual responses to His Gospel.  Some will hear and repent; others will hear and reject.  But we are called always to remember that our Father in heaven loves us and wants only good things for us.  Nothing that happens to us is beyond His power to redeem.  Nothing.  No matter our immediate need, He has promised to redeem all things to His honor and glory.  And so we can trust, as did our Lord when He walked on the earth, that our sufferings, our trials, even our injustices will one day be redeemed.  In the end, justice and mercy have kissed in Christ.  He died that we might be reconciled to our Father and to one another.  All that we have done to dishonor Him has been borne by our Lord, just as all that has been do to us.  Pray that when He does return, He finds that kernel of faith in you and all of us gathered here today--that kernel of faith which falls to the earth in His death and bursts forth in amazing life with Him, bearing much fruit for His kingdom!


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Kernels bearing fruit . . .

     What can really be accomplished with just a kernel of faith?  -- Apparently, the Holy Spirit struck a bit of a nerve last week.  I cannot tell you the number of times that people told me how that Gospel passage from Luke had been used as a bludgeon.  It is clear that some blame their inability to effect miracles in their lives on a lack of faith, that their faith is too low on the sliding scale to deserve any response from God.  As I talked about the passage with members of the parish this week, I heard over and over again that the passage had been used by parents or pastors or others in authority to prove to people that they lacked faith.  A few even asked if I had ever heard it preached in the way that they described.  Thankfully, if I had, I had forgotten it.  Better still, sermons on that part of Luke were not so bad that I remembered them only for mocking purposes.  But one question hung over all those discussion.  How can you be so sure that your interpretation is the right one?  Scripture does not exist in a vacuum.  Our passage from last week does not exist on its own.  In fact, this week are the next nine verses.  Consider the faith expressed by the lepers.

     Lepers, as you all know, had a tough existence in the ANE, not that it is easy today.  It is important to note that any skin disease or rash could be considered leprosy.  Once one was determined by a priest in Israel to be infected by leprosy, life changed dramatically for the one with the disease.  Most social relations were immediately severed.  That, of course, makes sense.  Were someone to come into contact with a leper, they had to undergo a rite of purification in order to go to worship.  That is correct, one of the consequences of leprosy was that the diseased was forbidden to come to worship.  For anyone else to come into contact with a leper, the consequence was the same!  Not surprisingly, lepers ended up grouped in villages together.  Those of us familiar with Hansen’s disease might not be too surprised.  Colonies of lepers have existed for some time.

     What makes this village a bit unique is its location.  The village exists on the border between Galilee and Samaria.  Samaria, if you will remember, are the half-breeds.  Their great, great, great grandparents had married pagans, an express violation of the torah.  It also did not help things that Samaritans rejected Jerusalem as the high place for worship.  And, if we want to get down to it, their rejection of the prophets did not win them many supporters in Israel.  They were distrusted.  They were un-liked.  They were outcasts.  It’s that attitude that would have made the parable of the Good Samaritan so shocking to Jesus’ listeners.

      Jesus, as we know from Luke, is on His way to Jerusalem.  He is nearing the end of His earthly ministry, and He knows it!  He will not be surprised how this journey will end because He has prophesied its ending.  Nevertheless, Jesus and His companions find themselves in a village between Galilee and Samaria with lepers.  These would have been the outcasts of outcasts, among the most hopeless of the hopeless.  The ten lepers, we are told, keep their distance from Jesus.  Jesus, Lord, have mercy on us!  Can you imagine their hurt?  Have you ever felt their pain?  Have you ever felt so ostracized, so forgotten, so marginalized?  Imagine the desperation which drives them.  The Prophet is passing through our village.  Do you think he will consent to help us?  And so they call out.

     Jesus, of course, is compassionate.  He tells the men to go and show themselves to the priests.  There is no complex ritual; there is no hocus-pocus.  Jesus does not put on a show, in the PT Barnum sense of the word.  He tells them to go.  And they do.  We are reminded of a particular lesson about God’s power here.  God does not depend on us in any way to work miracles successfully.  God is not sitting up in heaven this Healing Sunday saying, “Man, I really want to heal this person or that person, but I cannot unless Brian gets the healing prayer absolutely correct.”  He is not restricted by my failures, nor yours.  Nor is He in any way restricted by our faith.  God can work miracles without any faith.  Faith gives us the eyes to see His handiwork in the world around us, which leads us to the Samaritan leper.

     As the ten are heading to the priests, one leper realizes he has been healed.  Notice the physical action.  He is heading that way, toward the synagogue, realizes the healing that has been given him, and he physically turns and heads back to Jesus.  We talk about repentance being an action word of turning back to God, and here is a wonderful example for us!  Certainly, the Samaritan exhibits something different than the other nine.  The Samaritan realizes that Jesus is the source of his healing.  He prostrates himself at Jesus’ feet and thanks Him.  And what is Jesus’ response?  Jesus asks rhetorically what happened to the other nine.  He points out that only the foreigner thanked God.  Then He says to the Samaritan, “Rise and go, your faith has made you well.”

     How do I know that faith does not work on a sliding scale?  How do I know that Peter is not standing up there waiting on us with some kind of percentage grade determining whether our faith was “enough” to get us into heaven?  Look at this example which follows immediately the teaching which so challenged many of us.  What kind of faith do you think this Samaritan had?  Culturally, he would have rejected Jerusalem, the very destination of Jesus.  Heck, culturally, he should have rejected Jesus!  Unlike the Jewish lepers, who had been taught by the prophets that a messiah would come, the Samaritan leper was taught that only the torah was inspired by God.  Everything else, from their mindset, would have been a heretical add-on to the Word of God.  The added those prophetic books to keep us down.  They added those prophetic books to preserve their power, to keep the Temple on the wrong mount.  Life had also taught him a bitter lesson.  Likely, he had been forced to leave family behind.  In addition to being a Samaritan, he was now a Samaritan leper.  And for those crimes he had been relocated to a village between Samaria and Galilee--not exactly the gated community of Bettendorf!  Do you think it likely that his faith was amazingly confident?  Do you think it likely that those outside the lepers’ home really admired his faith? Do you think it likely that his faith was “big enough” to warrant an “A” from God?

     There was present, however, the ability to see God at work.  The leper realizes the gift of healing and turns toward Christ.  The other nine, Jewish by birth, continue on their way even after they have been healed.  Something, however, prompts the Samaritan leper to return to Jesus and fall down in front of Him.  Faith and salvation are intertwined.  Jesus commends the man for looking beyond the blessing of the healing.  The other nine experienced the same blessing; yet they were oblivious to its significance.  Only the foreigner grasps what has occurred and what it truly means.  The One who can heal such a disease must be sent from God, truly.  Having experienced that blessing for himself, the man realizes the significance of the reports they have heard.  The dead rise, the lame walk, the deaf hear, and the mute speak!  Food is provided, and God’s voice thunders from the heaven.  Like the other nine, he knew enough to think that Jesus could heal him.  Unlike the other nine, he realizes that the power to heal him signifies something far more significant.  And it is in that recognition that he returns and falls at Jesus’ feet.  He might not have a well-developed soteriology or Christology; but he sure knows who the Healer is!

     Brothers and sisters, it is often difficult to read such passages and then head into the Healing liturgy, especially knowing that some will blame the lack of God’s response on their own lack of faith.  I am here to remind you this day, this day when we anoint with oil and lay on hands, that we are praying for far more than blessing.  Yes, I know there are diseases and pains and broken relationships and countless other parts of our lives that we all want restored and blessed.  We will pray for those evidences of God’s power in our lives in just a moment.  What we should be far more concerned with, however, is the salvation that He offers.

     You see, God’s power does not depend on our faith.  The Lord gives; the Lord takes away.  Blessed is the name of the Lord.  Our faith, however, informs our relationship with God through Christ.  Do you believe He was and is who He said He was and is?  Do you believe that He rose from the dead, as a first fruit of those who will join Him for all eternity?  Our baptismal rite does not depend upon some magical number of faith.  All He asks is “Do you believe?”  Even if our answer is “Yes, Lord, I believe.  Help my unbelief.”  He is satisfied.  I know it defies logic.  I know it makes no sense.  I know we want it to be so much harder.  But the Gospel news is that He has done the harder part for us.  All He asks is whether we believe.  And once we are baptized into His suffering and death, we know we have a share in His resurrection and His glory!

     From that small kernel of faith can grow the most incredible of relationships.  Yes, sometimes He will act in miraculous ways.  But He does that for those who believe and those who don’t.  Faith gives us the eyes to see, the ears to hear, and the heart to understand when He is working through the mundane as well as the miraculous.  The nine lacked faith and missed the obvious lesson of their blessing.  How could they ever hope to see God in the ordinary, in the day to day?  And it is that faith in the Samaritan leper, which Jesus commends.  It is that faith which causes us to trust the Lord.  It is that faith that allows us to accept that our suffering might be for the benefit of others.  It is that faith that allows us to see that God cares every bit as much for us and our problems as He does for the sparrow or the flowers in the field.  It is that faith that causes us to claim Him as Lord and trust that He intends great things for us.  Where else can we go, Lord?  Only You have the words of eternal life.  It is even that faith which causes us to approach the throne of mercy, like a nagging widow before an unjust judge, hopeful and expectant that He will redeem all our suffering to His glory!

     So, brothers and sisters, once again I invite you to come.  Come to the rail.  We will anoint and lay hands and pray.  We will pray that diseases are miraculously healed.  We will pray that broken relationships are miraculously restored.  We will pray that we all get a share in that next gigantic Powerball so we are all well-provided.  We will pray that those emotionally or spiritually drained will be miraculously restored.  More importantly, however, we will pray that He will nurture our faith.  We will pray that He will give us eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to understand His work in the world around us.  We will pray for the realization that our suffering, and our faithful response to suffering, may serve as the invitation to others in our lives to come and see and meet this GodMan from Nazareth.  We will pray that our faith will inspire others to follow Him and cause all kinds of rejoicing in heaven!


Thursday, October 10, 2013

Kernels of faith . . .

     Our passage from Luke this week chops a pericope in half.  Were we reading the entire teaching unit together, we would have started with Jesus instructing His disciples not cause another to sin.  The famous passage includes the millstone teaching--it would be better to have a millstone around our neck and to be cast into the sea than to cause another to sin.  The passage also includes the requirement that we forgive our brothers and sisters every time they repent of their sins.  They are certainly two challenging teachings.  And it is in light of those teachings that the Apostles ask the Lord to increase their faith.
     Think of that for just a second: The Apostles, the Twelve, ask Jesus to increase their faith.  After seven plus years here among you, it is a perceived need that is often repeated among us.  I cannot tell you the number of times that our pastoral conversations have started with self-blame.  If I only had enough faith, Father, I would not complain so much.  If I only had enough faith, Father, I would not be so scared.  If I only had enough faith, Father, then I would know I really am one of His disciples.  Like the Apostles, we seem to view faith on some kind of sliding scale.  Maybe we think Jesus is grading our faith like a teacher grades a student?  Sorry, John, but you only got a 63 on faith; that’s an “F,” and you won’t be joining me this eternal season.  Sorry, Mary, you only scored 42.  Congratulations, Linda, you squeaked in with a 74.  Way to go, Fred!  I am really proud of you.  You got a 95!  Enter into the kingdom prepared for you.  Some of us are laughing, but we understand it is a rueful laugh.  Tell me you have not worried whether your faith is sufficient.  Fortunately, you are very good company.
     One of the teachings of this passage is that He will work with whatever faith we have!  We only need the littlest bit of faith to accomplish what He purposes.  When people come in worried about their quantity of faith, as if it could be measured, I always ask them to think back on that time when their faith became real to them.  Maybe it was around confirmation.  Maybe it was around the time you were baptized.  Maybe there was a crisis of faith in your life, and you realized, through the consolation of the Holy Spirit that God was real.  Think back from that moment to this point in your life’s journey.  If someone had said, “Oh, by the way, once you pledge your heart and mind and soul and strength to Him, here will be the valleys in your life.  You will lose jobs.  You will have to battle cancer.  Relationships will sour or even turn.  You will witness this evil or that evil.  You will be forced to recognize your own impotence in the face of such incredible needs and hurts around you.  And, let’s not forget, you are still going to die.”  Who here would embrace that decision?  Be honest with yourself.  If God gave you the vision to see all the hardships and evils that you would face between that day and now, who here would have been excited to become a disciple?  And, unless the thought sends someone to the hospital right now, most of us probably have even more valleys through which we must pass.  It is for that reason, I remind people, that God does not let us see the valleys until we are upon them.  Most of us would chicken out of living our lives, if we saw them ahead of time.
     Jesus understands this, far better than we.  Again, remember, He is addressing the Apostles.  You and I know that they would be bishops in our day and age.  Men like our bishops are asking Him to increase their faith.  And Jesus’ answer is that they and we only need faith the size of a mustard seed.  With the teeniest amount of faith, He can work with us and through us.  A small amount of faith can accomplish incredible, miraculous things to His honor and His glory!  A small amount of faith can accomplish incredible tasks, tasks which might seem to the world wasted effort or impossible to overcome.
      As I look around the sanctuary this morning, I see incredible kernels of faith in our life together.  How long did Larry fight the system planting a church in the Scott County Jail?  How long have many of you labored to feed the hungry at the Community Meal with a sit-down, well-cooked dinner.  Bev tackles hospice care in the face of death.  Vern faces his past in the cancer drives he does for those without family in our area.  By your giving and tithing, you make it possible for people in the surrounding community to be able to look for God in their lives.  When they come in asking whether He loves them, the doors are open and people are here to remind them of the emphatic “yes!”  We have all been stretched a bit in trying to open our doors a bit wider for those in the community who are suffering from addictions.  George and Annette had an idea for a fundraiser for the church.  Who would want trivia questions on the Bible?  Heck, who would show up at a church for a fundraising game like that?  Connie, with the help of Sue and Michelle and Robin and a few others, leads the Perv Patrol.  Some of us work to end the evil of spouse abuse.  Some of us work to stretch grocery budgets.  Grant and others are in the midst of an effort to make sure all the needy in the QCA have underwear and socks.  And many of us are in the middle of relationships with others outside the Church, the Body of Christ, trying to witness our love of God in situations that none of us could have expected when we first committed our lives, demonstrated that smallest seed of faith, in Christ.
     The second teaching warns the Apostles (and disciples) against hubris.  As a parish that is committed to ending slavery in our time, this passage might offend us a bit.  What Jesus is teaching, though, is that we have already been freed from the real chains which bound us, the chains of sin and death.  Jesus does this by asking the Apostles if they would let their slaves eat first at the meal.  The thought would have been ludicrous to pretty much everyone in the ANE.  Yes, the Jews were expected to treat their slaves humanely.  In fact, faithful Jews were commanded to free their slaves every seventh year, unless the slave desired to remain so permanently.  But Jesus is reminding us of the chasm which existed between master and slave and between God and us.
      If we truly recognize what God has done for us, we realize there is nothing inherently worthy in us.  God does not lack for anything if you or I or someone else chooses not to serve Him.  It is not as if God is completed by our acceptance of Him.  Rather, the situation is reversed; we are completed by God when we accept Him!  Like taking the red pill in the Matrix, placing the smallest amount of faith in Christ begins to change us.  We begin to be transformed into those who can see with His eyes, hear with His ears, and love with His heart.  We can begin to minister effectively because we begin to sin the pain and sin in others better which separates them from their Father’s love.  And, if our humility is proper, we understand that this is all possible through His grace.  Nothing inherent in us earns us such a relationship with God.  Only Christ’s atoning work and our faith in Him makes it possible.
     That is why Jesus teaches us to be careful when attempting to bargain with Him.  Bargaining suggests that we have something of value to offer, that we are equal footing with Him.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Instead, He calls us to recognize the truth that we have been freed from the life we lived to sin.  Such an understanding, a true humility, causes us to recognize that the amazing works we do are really Him working through us.  We really are just servants.  We really do not deserve any reward.  We have, in Episcopal speak, only done the work He has given us to do.
     Of course, the wonderful news of the Gospel is that such small faith, such humility, is actually rewarded by God.  Although we cannot bargain with Him, and although our efforts are successful only because of Him, we are promised one last incredible blessing.  Though Jesus reminds us to have the attitude of a slave, He is not done with just freeing us from death.  No, indeed, He promises that one day we who claim Him as Lord will be raised to new life for all eternity, life as first born sons and first born daughters of our Father in heaven.  Though we are not to expect rewards, He promises an incredible reward for all those who step out with the smallest kernel of faith and do the tasks He has given us to do faithfully, and with humility.  Such is His grace and love towards us that He promises to elevate servants and slaves to the status of first born!  We who were slaves to sin are promised an eternal inheritance and glory in the heavens, in a place prepared by His hands and will.  From the smallest seed of faith in us, and from a true understanding of what He has done for us, you and I are given a gift beyond all expectation and all imagination.  Now that is a Gospel worth believing and a Lord worth serving!

A visceral look at the chasm between justice and love of neighbor . . .

     Psalm 137 is considered by many commentators to be the single, most difficult example of hate in the Bible.  The idea of bashing a baby against a rock is rightfully repulsive to those who read the Scriptures.  And while the verses specified might pose a horrific image, it is by no means the only verse in Scripture which ought to make us uncomfortable.  The question, of course, is what to make of such passages.  Are they simply cathartic, meaning that the psalmist is blowing off steam and does not really want the events to occur?  Are they simply beneath Christian understanding and ought to be ignored or skipped?
     Simply put, Psalm 137 is a psalm of imprecation.  That is a way of saying that the psalmist wants to see punishment meted out upon those who have worked evil on Israel.  In this case, the psalmist is speaking of the period around the Exile, when Babylon carried Israel off into slavery.  Presumably, Israel experienced the very evil being described upon its tormentors.  One can certainly how the atrocities of war stick in the cultural mind of those conquered.  In Israel’s case, the defeat was even more bitter.  Israel knew they had been chosen by God.  All that was required was they they love the Lord and do as He instructed.  Their turning away from Him and His ways had led to the unimaginable, the conquering of His chosen people.  The psalm recounts the mockery that Israel faced at the hands of their conquerers as well as what you and I would call war crimes.  Part of what makes this psalm terrible to read and, yet, disgusts us at the same time, is the struggle we have between loving our enemies and hating sin.
     If mothers had been forced to experience the act describe by the psalmist, one can well imagine their visceral need to see the act returned on the mothers of Babylon.  I suffered this, so must you!  Of course, such a need can lead to a spiral in which each side is always committing atrocities on the other, all in the name of justice.  What can be done?  And how should we understand the psalm?
     First, the psalm ought to comfort us in the sense that we can approach the throne of God with raw emotions.  If we suffer evil, it is acceptable to God that we approach His throne full of a desire for vengeance.  How do we know?  He gave us the psalm.  If Scripture is God-breathed, as the Church maintains, and if all Scripture is useful for us, it seems a small leap to conclude that God wanted us to understand that He understands our emotional responses.  In fact, He understands our emotional responses far better than we.  As human beings, we might be tempted to hide such thoughts.  We might be able to hide them from our fellow human beings; we cannot, however, hide the thoughts of our hearts from God, who sees and knows all things.  It should be an amazing comfort to us to know that we can approach God with the emotional rawness of a tragedy in our lives and not be rejected for expressing that rawness.  Whether we are dealing with a national tragedy such as 9-11 or the personal tragedies of disease or failed relationship or job loss, we can approach God confidently in our anger and our hurt.
     Of course, the psalm also needs to be read in the context of the whole psalter and the rest of Scripture.  God accepts that we are viscerally wounded by tragedies and does not condemn us for our emotional outbursts; yet He also reminds us throughout the entirety of Scripture that vengeance is His.  As much as you and I might like to think we understand justice, we are woefully ill equipped to enforce it.  We lack understanding and we lack power.  God, of course, lacks neither.  Israel’s Exile was a just act.  God has offered them a reward if they kept His commandments and a punishment if they deserted Him.  He would not be much of a God were He to fail to keep His promises.  As much as the psalmist is angry at Babylon for mocking Israel in her defeat, he should be mad at his or her countrymen for bringing this experience upon them.    Put differently, Babylon was simply an instrument of God’s justice, and it fulfilled His prophesy.
     In the same vein, how do we serve justice in the names of those killed in 9-11?  Invade a country?  Nuke it?  What of the recent use of chemical weapons on civilians in Syria.  What action will serve justice and deter other leaders from using such horrible weapons?  Was our job loss due to economic forces?  Corporate greed?  A dying industry?  How do we know?  That is why, for the psalmist and the Christian alike, we must trust that God will, one day, judge.  Otherwise, we are left with the likelihood that someone who deserves justice will fail to see it realized.
     Did God want babies killed?  Of course not!  In the execution of His judgment, some in the Babylonian army committed horrible injustices against His people.  And this is, naturally, where Christ stands athwart the seeming unbridgeable chasm that exists between injustice and loving our enemies.  Ultimately, Christ stands as the hope for justice (He who knew no sin became sin) and the inspiration for loving our enemies (forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do).  Just as Abraham’s descendants were called to be a blessing to the Gentiles, you and I are called to be a blessing to our enemies.  Part of the way that we do that is by trusting that God will repay evil for evil (and good for good).  In the meantime, it is our job to try and love even our enemies into the Kingdom.  if our enemies accept Christ as Lord, then He bore the punishment for their evils on the Cross, just as He bore our punishments for us.  Our sense of justice must then be satisfied, as much as we might not want it to be.
     What, if in the end, they reject our efforts?  What if, in the end, those who commit evil  seem to go unpunished?  If an enemy ultimate rejects God, then the threat of punishment still looms for them.  As we well understand, death is no barrier to God.  Vengeance is His, and He will repay evil for evil.  At some point, those who reject God will face the consequence of their decision.  Our job, our callings, is to remind as many as possible of His love for them and of the life which was poured out for them, and to trust that He will, yet once again, keep His promise.  And, who knows, maybe in serving our enemies we will get to know and understand them, and their motivations, hurts, and fears better, making us even more effective heralds of His grace in their lives!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The birdhouse Gospel . . .

      His name is Jamie Brown.  He runs the Thurgood Marshall Learning Center over in Rock Island, IL.  I met Jamie at the Farmers’ Market at the Freight House a few weeks ago.  In truth, the timing had to be of God, as I later reflected.  As I was in the midst of getting to hear a new round of survivor stories and some police reflections regarding a federal sting against slavers around the country, Jamie boldly introduced himself.  Like any vendor, he was a salesman.  But he noticed my cross and asked me about it.  I shared the story of how I came to possess Frank’s cross, and he certainly listened intently.  When I asked why he had asked, he told me he was a Christian and likes to talk to other Christians just to remind himself that we are out there.  We chuckled a bit and commiserated about the invisibility of many Christians.  I told him I would love to buy a birdhouse, but I had no money for the birds.  Plus, there was an appalling lack of Steeler birdhouses!  But I asked him about his business.  It turns out it was his ministry.
     Jamie began to notice that some kids in his school were falling through the cracks.  Their home lives, their lack of focus, and to a lesser degree, the attitudes of some in the administration or staffs, made it likely that certain boys would find their way into gangs or drugs or other dead ends.  As a custodian, it dawned on him that he could do something small to make a difference.  So, he went to his school administration and asked for permission to open the old wood shop classroom after school.  Reflecting later, I assume that shop is no longer offered, as are so many home economic classes, but that the school still had the equipment.  In only what could be described a God thing, the administration consented.  I say it is a God thing because of all the risk they took.  Problem kids and power tools, all supervised by a custodian, are not the best combination in the eyes of most school officials.  But Jamie’s bosses took a chance.
     Jamie began inviting some of those boys and young men whom he felt were at risk of falling through the cracks or dropping out to stay after school and learn to work with wood.  Surprisingly a number of kids thought it “cool.”  As word leaked out among the kids, the program grew.  More and more began to stay.  Jamie’s shop class became a club of sort.  Mostly young men and boys would stay after school for about ninety minutes making all kinds of art with wood.  The problem, of course, is that wood costs money.  The more kids that joined, the more wood he needed.  The more wood he needed, the more money it cost school administrators.  Eventually, the wood shop got too big.  It needed to end of no one could be found to provide wood.  That’s when the enterprising side of Jamie came to the fore.
     One of the first “big projects” that Jamie had his students work on was a bird house.  It is a deceptively challenging project.  A floor, four walls, and two pieces for the roof have to be fit together.  The house required that wood be cut at different angles and fitted together.  A hole for the birds had to be cut out for the entrance.  And the whole thing needed to be sanded.  It was a great project and took his new students some time.  Jamie, though, wondered of they might be able to sell them.  He had the idea to paint them in team colors with sports logos.  Certainly, he thought, black & yellow and blue & orange would sell well.
     Thus began a new business at the Farmers’ Market.  You can meet Jamie there most Saturdays inside the freight house.  His tables are full of birdhouses painted with all kinds of logos and in a wide array of colors.  College teams, professional teams, and even local high school teams were available on the table.  He makes enough off the sale of the houses to keep his youth group in wood.  Be careful, though.  He is a shrewd businessman.  After our first discussion, I arrived the next week to find he had four Steeler birdhouses on his table.  He even told me he had painted them just for me.  I laughed and reminded him I was still on clergy income.  He laughed and said I didn’t need to buy all, just one.
     I said above that my meeting Jamie and hearing about his ministry was divinely ordered.  We met at the end of a tough week for me.  As the federal raid had gone down, I had heard a few too many horrible stories of enslavement.  As one trusted adviser had called it, I had taken in some serious spiritual poison.  Jamie’s tale was a sweet tasting antidote.  I thanked Jamie for his wonderful ministry.  He gave me the “aww, shucks, this isn’t a ministry” response.  From his perspective, pastors do ministry as work.  He enjoyed what he was doing, so he couldn’t be a pastor.  Given my week, I knew what he meant.  Besides, he’d always liked working with wood, and he liked passing on his knowledge about it with any kids who would listen.  I reminded him that other conversations probably occur in shop class.  The wood working was just the conversation starter; the real ministry was likely in those other conversations that were held once those boys figured out he really cared for them.  He wasn’t sure, but I reminded him that we both knew this other Carpenter who would probably agree with my assessment.  He laughed a great belly laugh and gave me a good hug.
     This year, the Thursday morning Bible Study group decided to tackle Holy Men and Holy Women as a break from their routine of reading the following Sunday’s lectionary.  It has been a real blessing to them as they have gotten to hear the stories of “normal men and normal women” who made a difference in lives of others through ministries of God.  I can’t help but think of St. Jamie in those terms, and I am sure that there are some young adults out there who would agree with my discernment.  Jamie has taken forgotten equipment, trained some boys who are at risk of falling through the cracks, and built up a small business that keeps the entire effort funded.  He starts out with rough pieces of wood that end up as pretty cool pieces of art that sports fans can proudly display.  Similarly, he takes some rough young men, and a few girls that are interested, and helps teach them about wood working, about life and, most importantly, about God’s incredible love for each one of them.  If that is not a ministry of God in our midst, I don’t know what is.  God bless all the Jamie’s in our midst and give us grace to see their work with our eyes!
     If you find yourself in the Freight House in the coming weeks in Davenport, and you notice a table with a bunch of birdhouses on it, make sure to say hello to Jamie.  Thank him for his work.  Be careful though, you might walk away inspired, if a little weighed down by a couple new birdhouses!