Tuesday, October 28, 2014

What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?

     As everyone knows, I just spent the last couple days at convention and at Clergy conference.  Our featured speakers at both was Jack Jezreel, the founder of Just Faith, so I have to admit that I enjoyed the last three days.  In fact, I know people here are not thrilled about going to diocesan convention, but those of you who have been before should give it another try.  The last couple years we have tried to do away with resolutions that have no measurable action point and have tried to do a better job of telling our stories.  Many of you know that Mike Wagner and Lydia and probably Lacy did yeoman’s duty trying to get the parish ministry “commercials” finished in time for convention.  Those of us gathered around the table for Indaba remarked how fun it was to learn what other parishes were doing.  There was the orange clad “Bucket Brigade” that fights hunger, several churches engaged in gardening, a FreeStore for battered women, jail ministries, healing ministries, and other ministries and their impact described at length.  Some crazy church had a choir that went commando!  We worshipped and we told stories.  There was not much not to commend to you regarding the gathering.  In fact, next year, if you have time and finances, you really should consider giving convention another try.  That’s right.  The one who hates pointless meetings the most among us commends a meeting to you!
     As with all change, there are invariably vestiges of the past.  We had one resolution this year.  It was a resolution which asked the national church to re-translate Scripture, take another look at our Holy Week liturgies, and to create resources that would help us to be better at interfaith relations.  The impetus for the resolution seemed to come from the belief that there are people in our pews preaching hate against Jews, Hindus, Muslims and others.  I found it a rather ironic process, truth be told, that this was the primary resolution in the midst of a convention in which members of the diocese were committing themselves to the commands of Jesus in Matthew 25.  As a diocese, we were affirming our call to feed the hungry, to clothe the poor, to heal the sick, to visit those imprisoned, to free slaves, and to do any number of other ministries in the effort to make disciples of Jesus Christ.  Make no mistake, nobody was speaking against the resolution.  For my money, I wish it had asked the national church to create resources which would make us more effective missionaries to those of Jewish, Muslim, and other faith backgrounds.  Then again, I cannot imagine an Episcopal priest preaching specifically against the Jews.
     Yes, as we will look in a couple minutes, the Jewish leaders were determined to bring Jesus down in the eyes of the people.  Yes, the Jewish leaders eventually plotted to kill Jesus.  Yes, the Jewish leaders tried their best to silence Peter and John after Pentecost.  Yes, leaders of the Freedmen synagogue scattered many in the early Church after the stoning of Stephen.  But, lest we forget, Jesus was a Jew.  Yes, that is correct, salvation comes from the Jews through the seed of Abraham.  The early Apostles and the vast majority of disciples were, of course, Jews.  The author of the book that we are reading was, that’s right, a Jew.  Even Paul, who held the coats while the Freedmen synagogue leaders stoned Stephen was Jew.  It is hard to be faithful to Scripture and be anti-Semitic.  Jews and Gentiles do horrible things; and Jews and Gentiles also do some amazing things which honor our Lord.
     That being said, the idea that we do not have an obligation to make disciples of Jews and Hindus and atheists and Muslims is simply misplaced.  If Jesus is Lord, all owe allegiance to Him.  If Jesus was raised from the dead as so many witnessed, then He alone is worthy of praise.  It is a difficult question.  It is a question which has not gotten easier to answer with the passage of time.
     Our story in Matthew today picks up on Tuesday of Holy Week.  The Pharisees, the Herodians, and the Sadducees have all had their turn to take the Galilean yokel down in the eyes of those visiting the Temple in preparation of the Passover.  Now, a teacher of the law takes his turn by asking Jesus which law is the most important in the torah.  Human beings being human beings, there had been an effort over the centuries to determine which laws were more important than others.  We should not be too surprised by this effort to pronounce some sins not so bad and others unforgivable.  In some traditions, we have mortal and venial sins.  In our own, we tend to have our sins and those committed by others, right?  Our sins are ok; it is the sins of the others that necessitated His death on the Cross, isn’t it?  I know, I know, the mote and log are another reading.
     In any event, the expert in the law asks Jesus which law is the most important.  Jesus answers quickly with the Shema.  The Shema, taken from Deuteronomy 6:5 was supposed to be prayed twice-daily as a reminder of the obligation of each Jew to Yahweh and to His commandments.  Such would not have been too surprising as a number of the lawyers listening; nor would have Jesus’ continuing statement which brought in Leviticus 19:18.  Since at least the time of Rabbi Akiba (not to be confused with the Rebel Alliance general in Star Wars), some lawyers had considered Leviticus 19:18 to be among the most important principles in the torah.  Given that Jesus has already given an answer like this in chapter 7, most who heard the statement were likely not too surprised, though those who were hearing it for the first time might have wondered at the commitment He was demanding when loving God and loving our neighbor.  Whether the lawyer had a rejoinder for this answer, we will never know, as Jesus follows up His answer with His own question.
     Jesus asks those experts assembled to identify the Messiah.  Predictably, the experts answer that the messiah is the offspring of David who will lead them.  As we have discussed repeatedly around here, the leaders of the Jewish people often expected a political or military leader who would lead them to freedom.  Naturally, the messiah would come from the lineage of David.  Certainly, Scripture seemed to support this view.  Prophets such as Samuel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah pointed to such a figure, so the answer would have seemed obvious.
     Jesus, of course, understands the paucity of their messiah when compared to Him.  So, He asks a follow up question.  If the messiah comes after David, why does David call Him Lord in Psalm 110?  Perhaps only Pauline understands this among us, since she is from the blessed land of England.  Can you ever think of a time where a king or a queen calls a child, “Lord”?  I’ll save you some frustration.  You won’t.  Authority passes down in lineage.  Princes and princesses call their mothers and fathers by such an appellation, but never does the king or queen make obeisance to their children.  What David is saying in Psalm 110 makes no sense from a human understanding.  What did Solomon call his father?  At official functions, it was probably Lord.  What would Solomon’s children have called David?  Lord.  At no time would a descendant have outranked king David.  Yet Psalm 110, which the Jews knew to be made in the Spirit of Yahweh, has David talking about a descendent as one who outranks him.  And, lest you think it is a problem of translation, the Greek version of the Psalm uses kyrios for both lords in the Psalm, while the Hebrew uses Yahweh (The Lord) and Adonai (my Lord) to express the lords.  Experts in the torah would see the difficulty immediately.  It would not make sense to the way the world works.
     Those who really study the Scriptures, or perhaps returned to them after Jesus’ question, would note the remarkable relationship that David describes of his Lord to The Lord.  Adonai bears a special relationship to Yahweh.  He is not just related to David; He is somehow related to God.  He is unique.  He is special.  He is messiah, the Anointed One.  Those of use who have studied Jesus’ titles or the book of Daniel would be hard-pressed not to identify the Son of Man with the Son of God.  In Daniel’s prophesy, God sits His Son at the right hand and declares that all the world will obey Him.  In short, Jesus is teaching the teachers of the torah that the Son of Man and the Son of God are unique and special.  Better still, they are combined in Him!  The messiah is not just a human descendant of David come among them to free them of Roman or Assyrian or Babylonian rule.  The messiah is not just some figure who rides at the heads of armies or sweeps aside all political foes.  The messiah is a human descendant of the House of David who bears a special relationship to God.  In essence, Jesus is asking how they can trap Him, how they can judge Him, if they cannot even understand the Scriptures they have been given.
     Not unsurprisingly, the lawyers have no response to Jesus’ question.  Matthew records that His question and its implication so unnerves them that they cannot think of anything to say in answer to His question, nor did they have the courage from that point forward to ask Him any question in public.  Who would in their shoes?  They understand the implication of Jesus, probably better than many of us today, yet they are unwilling to voice the truth He has just revealed.
     Matthew’s narrative has been building to this point with respect to Jesus’ identity.  Jesus has performed various miracles which testify to His unique relationship to God.  His feeding of the people with fish and bread, His casting out of demons, His healing of the cripples and the blind, and His raising of the dead should now make sense to all who heard this question.  If no one has ever done such as this, what does it say about Him?  Peter grasps it in His confession back in 16:16, but he lacked the training of those who are confronting Him in the Temple.  In His questioning of the lawyers, Jesus has merged the identity of the Son of Man with the Son of God, and He has used the Scriptures to demonstrate such was the plan of God.  How do they respond?
     As we all know, Jesus will be dead before three more days pass.  Those who fear a loss of power or prestige, those who fear that the Romans will come down hard on the people of Judea, and those who cannot accept His identity as being unique with God will combine to have Jesus killed.  Yet even that is not unforeseen by God.  Jesus, in a striking rebuke of the knowledge they have rejected Him, will pronounce His woes on all those who reject Him as the Messiah, the Lord.  Better still for us, He will allow Himself to be handed over to them and to die for our sins.  By that Sunday morning, we know that His identity will be proven true.  By that Sunday morning, we will know that their understanding of messiah will pale behind the reality of His glory.  By that Sunday morning, we will be free not of worldly powers and rule like Romans and Babylonians and kings and emperors, but of the consequences of our sins.  By that Sunday morning, we who call upon Him as Lord will know true freedom!  By the end of this Holy Week, we will know the true meaning of love!
     Who is Jesus?  Your answer to that question will singularly determine how you live your life.  If He is just a good man, a wise teacher, a gifted rabbi, your life should look little different from those of other faith traditions.  Each of those traditions offers ways of life that can be admired.  If, however, you take Jesus at His word and identify Him as God’s Messiah, as the fullness of David’s prophesy in Psalm 110 and of Daniel’s prophesy of 7:14, then His commands on your life, on all our lives, is inescapable.  The words of Matthew 25 become less a suggestion for good living and moral uprightness and more evidence of a Resurrected life, a transformed life, a cross-bearing life that glorifies our Lord!
     Make no mistake, our answer to that singular question has repercussions which transcend our lives.  Loving God and loving neighbor as ourselves means there is a cost.  Those who accept Jesus’ claim as messiah must commit everything to Him.  Love, in this context, is not just an emotional assent, and intellectual agreement; it is a commitment, reminiscent of God’s commitment to Israel and our Lord’s work on Calvary, that works hard to draw others into His saving embrace.  Loving God means that we value our relationship to Him above all things.  Loving God means that we we value His relationship to those around us above all things.  All that we do, all that we say, all that we hold dear is to bring the world into right relationship with Him.  That ability only comes through our commitment to Him and through our relationship in Christ.  We feed the hungry not to assuage their stomach pains, but to remind them that God and we love them.  We visit them in prison not to assuage their loneliness or isolation but to remind them that God is with them and we have not forgotten them.  We clothe them not to cover their nakedness but to remind them they are of more value to God and, thereby to us, than the lilies of the field.  We work to free them not because we find captivity abhorrent but because we recognize we were created to be free, free from walls, free from chains, free from sin!  All that we do, all that we are, honors Him and draws them into relationship with Him through our Lord Christ.  Anything less dishonors Him.  Anything less runs the risk of allowing them to face eternity apart from Him.
     Yes, it is difficult to understand that God would become human.  Yes, it is difficult to accept that God loves us to the point of dying for us even when we do not accept Him or even fight against Him.  Yes, in this world of lots of little “truths” and political correctness, it is difficult to proclaim His Truth and His authority.  But is no more difficult today than two thousand years ago nor, I suspect, any time in between.  If Jesus is who He claims to be in this passage, then you and I have a unique message, a Gospel, to proclaim.  That we might understand the truth of His claim to our Lord, He was raised that amazing morning so long ago!  And now, just as He did to those who sought to trap Him 2000 years ago, He puts the question to us and to all whom we encounter in our daily life and work.  What do you think about the Messiah?  Whose son is he?  If He is merely of human origin, then He is no different than any moralist who has ever lived.  He is worthy of admiration; He is worthy of respect.  But if He is the Son of God, then all authority does, indeed, belong to Him.  He deserves our worship and our service as befitting the fulfillment of the Great Commandment!  Almost as importantly, the claims of the Second Commandment means that our lives ought to be dedicated to introducing the world around us to Him, that all might be saved!


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Lord who lets us argue and who brings us home in peace . . .

     Our story from Exodus provides a couple lessons for us, one negative and one positive. It has been on my mind this week, in particular, as many of you have dropped in to express your opinions about what will happen at or to St. Alban's, even as you sought to understand why Karen and I were convinced God was calling us to Nashville. The story takes place after Moses' famous intercession on behalf of Israel. To refresh your memories, God freed Israel from Egypt. He led them through the Red Sea. When they hungered for bread, He gave them mana. When they hungered for meat, He gave them quail until they got sick of it. When they thirsted in the desert, He caused water to flow from the rock. Just before this scene, He has brought Israel to His mountain. He called Moses up the mountain to give Him the torah to give to Israel. While Moses was gone that forty days, Israel got impatient. Rather than waiting for Moses to return, Israel sculpted a molten calf and began to worship it. God was, understandably, furious. In fact, He is so angry with Israel that He tells Moses He is going to destroy them all and make a nation out of Moses.
     Is God's anger understandable? Absolutely. Could He make a new nation out of Moses without violating the covenant He made with Abraham and Jacob and Isaac? Of course. Moses is a descendant of the family. Were God to destroy everyone and start all over with Moses, He would still be keeping His promise to Abraham and the other patriarchs and matriarchs. Moses, though, wants nothing to do with starting over in the scene right before this. In that scene, Moses appeals to God's desire to glorify Himself in the world to convince God to turn aside from His plan. Were God to destroy the Israelites, Moses argues, neither the Egyptians nor any of the “ites” would think God worthy of praise. God relents, but He tells Moses He is going to punish Israel for its unfaithfulness.  The problem is how God is going to keep His covenant with such a stiff-necked, hard-hearted people.
     As you might imagine, Moses does not relish the idea of the people being punished. Every time something goes wrong, they blame him. All he gets to do is listen to is whining and griping and complaining. And when they are not grumbling, they are sometimes plotting to stone him for leading them into this mess. Did you lead here because there were not enough graves in Egypt? At least in Egypt, we got to eat meat occasionally. We need water, and you lead us to a desert? Moses knows what the future holds for him, and he wants no part of it if God is not “all-in.”  Moses has learned all too well that Israel needs God, that Israel cannot be saved if God is not shepherding them.
     Moses reminds God that He has told him to lead these people, but not who will go with him. He asks God to teach him His ways, if He has found favor with His servant.  God assures Moses that His presence will  go with him and that He will give him rest.  But Moses complains that it is not enough.  If your presence will not go with us, do not lead us from here.  Moses appeals to God’s selection of Israel to begin with.  How will we and how will people of the earth know we are distinct?  Again, God promises that He will give Moses the very thing for which he asks.  But Moses wants a sign!  The man who saw the burning bush, the man whose staff invoked the ten plagues on Egypt, the man who parted and then closed the waters of the Red Sea, the man who arranged for the manna, the man who got his people quail, the man who struck the rock in the desert so that the waters flowed, the man who went up the top of the holy mountain to get God’s instruction for the people requires a sign.  He asks to see God’s glory so that he will know he has found favor and that God will keep His promise.
     God tells Moses that what he asks is impossible.  In the movie Dogma, there is a seen where the angel tells Bethany that he has to speak for God because the awesome voice of God causes the heads of mere mortals to explode.  “It took us four Adams before we figure that one out.”  Imagine what the glory of God would be like.  God’s voice terrified Israel; His glory reflected in Moses’ face caused them to ask Moses to hide his face.  Yet, here is Moses asking to see God’s glory and to see Him face to face.  God tells Moses He will proclaim His glory while protecting Moses, but that Moses will be allowed to see only His back.  It will be enough for Moses.
     Our lesson today contains several lessons, but two of which are appropriate to us as we come to this point in our journey together.  One is a negative example; the other is a positive lesson.  By negative, I mean that it gives us an example of what not to do or be.  My conversations with those outside our denomination the last couple weeks have brought up this story repeatedly as to why they think it is ok to stone certain groups, to ridicule certain groups, to support those who kill “evil” people such as abortion doctors, and the like.  The argument goes something along the lines of “God takes sin seriously and sometimes uses us to execute His judgment.”  They are absolutely right that God takes sin seriously.  He takes sin so seriously that He cannot allow Moses to see His face in Moses’ current state.  Just as you and I breathe or blink without thinking, God destroys sin.  What He is protecting Moses from in this part of the narrative is Himself and His unwillingness to countenance any sin.  We might say, though, we need to understand that we are grasping to define the undefinable, that it is in God’s nature to destroy all sin, that it is an autonomic response of who He is.  It is such a part of Him that He does so involuntary.  God understands this and acts to protect His servant Moses.
     But look at where the story occurs in the timeline of salvation history.  Has Israel been taught that sin requires a blood sacrifice?  No.  They do not yet know about the torah.  They do not yet realize that it will take blood to wash their sins.  Naturally, if they do not yet understand the Temple system, they have no idea that God’s Son will come in ultimate fulfillment of that requirement, that all who claim Him as Lord will be washed clean in His blood.  The Cross is not even a wild idea in their heads, even if it is already accomplished in God’s mind as He speaks with Moses.
     When we or other Christians look back on the story of the molten calf and use it as justification for “executing God’s judgment,” we are guilty of misusing God’s Word and of dishonoring Him in the world around us.  Does God take sin seriously?  Absolutely!  Does God sometimes execute judgment?  Of course.  Could He use human beings to execute His judgment?  He can, and I think sometimes He does.  I wonder, however, how many of those whom He uses in such instances know they are fulfilling His purposes ahead of time?  By that I mean that Jesus, whenever He is describing Judgement Day, always teaches that it is He and His angels who will do the culling, who will do the separating, and who will do the judging.  Yes, you and I are called to take sin seriously.  Yes, we are called to call our brothers and sisters into repentance when they sin and to call the world back into relationship with Him.  But the effectiveness of that call to repentance and the power of that call are not determined by us.  Christ’s offer on the Cross made repentance acceptable before God; Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross made it possible that all humanity could see God’s glory without being destroyed.  When God teaches that He who knew no sin became sin, this is what He meant.  Jesus has paid the price!  In full!  Jesus has made it possible for us to get back into right relationship with God.  Jesus has made us worthy to stand before our Lord.  None of it, absolutely none of it, depended upon us.  All we can do is share the wonderful story.
     When we hear people in our daily life and work claiming that we are called to mock certain groups because of their sin, that some lives are not as important as others because of their sins, or that it is ok for us to take an active point in their punishment and death, we need to be the voices that are saying “no!”  We need to be the voices that are reminding others that our efforts cannot atone for our sins, that our judgements can be wrong, that we are just fishers of men and women, that He is the one who decides punishment.  Might such a reminder upset our friends?  Naturally.  But when we remain silent in the face of such comments, that this group deserves to die or that group deserves to suffer, we are closer to the Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  Worse, our silence carries a cost.  By remaining silent, we allow our Lord to be dishonored among those who do not yet know Him!  And make no mistake, when people ask what we think of this behavior or that behavior, we are called to tell them.  But never are we to ridicule them, never are we to called harass them, never are we called to execute His judgment on them.  They, like us, are cross-bearers who follow the Lord.  They, like us, sometimes stumble, sometimes tire.  More amazingly, He died for them, even if they ultimately reject Him.  He, not us, decides when their time and their chance to repent is up.
     Now, I said at the beginning that there is a negative lesson and a positive lesson.  We focused on Matthew and so missed the reminder of the power in a faithful Intercessor.  But as I reminded you of the story, I told you that Moses convinced God to turn aside from His wrath and the new plan He was going to execute.  Have you thought about the audacity demonstrated by Moses?  Moses has the temerity to argue with God!  Argue.  And Moses is not alone.  I have joked in the past that I should be serving at a St. Jacob church because I fight with God constantly.  I fuss, I fume, I tell Him how things would be better if He did them my way.  And, while He has not had to resort to dislocating my hip, He has, from time to time, had to take that holy 2 X 4 and crack it over my head!  How many of you are the same?  How many of you argue with God and His plan?
     We speak on occasion around here of being called into His family.  We talk in the language of the perfect adoption.  Because of our faith in Christ and His faithful obedience, you and I are seen by God as first born sons and first born daughters.  We are entitled to a double share of the inheritance because of Christ’s work on our behalf.  The sins which would cause us to be destroyed by His glory like Moses in today’s are so covered by Christ that He sees Him in us!  He longs for that wonderful parent-child relationship with us that all humanity craves.  He wants nothing more than for us to think of Him as abba, daddy.
     Perhaps you have been a child.  Maybe you have been a parent.  Ever had cause to argue with a child or your parents?  Family relationships at their best are such that we can love each other and argue with each other.  God, by virtue of our faith in His Son, allows us to be in that kind of close relationship with Him.  He expects us to argue with Him.  He allows us to argue with Him.  Every now and then, He even allows His mind to be changed by our arguments, so long as our arguments are in keeping with His character.  Moses caused Him to change His mind because He appealed to His honor among the nations.  What would the nations think if You destroyed Your people?  Would they know it was Your judgment?  Or would they presume You were weak?  Think of that for just a second, God allows us to argue with Him.  Now, most of the time we will lose, but we lose because we do not see and hear and understand clearly.  We may be like Jonah and prefer that God zap our Nineveh’s, but God shows mercy to our enemies just as He showed mercy to us.  We may think a winning lottery ticket will meet our provision needs better, but God knows the pull money has on our lives.  Many of us are better off getting our bread daily.  And unlike us as parents or our parents, God makes no mistakes.  Better still, even when we screw up, even when we ignore His plans for us, no matter how badly, He can still redeem our messes and our mistakes!  That, brothers and sisters, is the relationship He offers and to which He calls each one of us!
     Why do I mention all this fighting and arguing and provision?  The elephant in the room today, the pastoral problem, is my announcement this past Tuesday that we are leaving.  Starting Wednesday, I had a steady parade of parishioners and others in orbit of the parish who wanted to express their concerns.  Thankfully, many of you were supportive and recognize that this call was not our doing but His.  Some of us, however, forgot that the Lord who calls me also calls you.  In the midst of this week, there has been a natural angst.  What will happen to us?  Will we ever attract another priest?  Will the bishop close our doors and sell our church?  By Friday, I had grown a bit short in my answers.  Were the church to die when I left, it would be an indictment of my time among you and of your ministry in the community around us.  As a group, we were seeking to do God’s will for St. Alban’s and not our own plan.  The ministries that we do around here, I believe, we do in accordance with His call on our lives and on this parish.  Better still, we do them to God’s glory, hopeful that our service of them in His name will cause them to ask us why or even draw them in themselves.  As Moses’ argument with God reminds us this weekend, He will glory Himself in us and give us peace.
     Will the future look like what we hope or expect?  Most likely not.  Most of you know my call story.  I wanted to wait until I had banked money and the kids had grown to go through discernment.  In my mind, churches could not support a priest with four kids.  I know His plan so far for my life and that of my family is more amazing than I could have ever dreamed.  And, in case you weren’t paying close attention, Karen and I have seven children!  I daresay His plans for St. Alban’s is more amazing than any parishioner’s wildest dreams.  Do you really think St. Thelma thought her dream of feeding the homeless would continue for forty-seven years, let alone get picked up by national radio to encourage others to go and do likewise?  Do you think St. Grant ever thought in his wildest dreams that a returned underwear ministry would produce between 5 and 10 thousand pairs of underwear for the homeless and needy in the QCA, let alone get copied by other communities?  Do you think St. Julie herds the ECW through the Bazaar because she likes stress?  And, let’s face it, did you ever think you would hear someone refer to Vern or Julie or others as “saint?”  Do you believe that St. Michelle runs SmartChoice for our parish, cleaning up after St. Robin’s and my mistakes, because she has nothing better to do during the weeks or on Saturdays?  Did you even in a million years believe that slavery existed in our midst or that your priest would be tapped by the Archbishop of Canterbury to help craft the response by our Communion and the wider Church?  Do you think St. Robin and St. Larry just like hanging out in prison because their evenings are boring?  Do you think St. George and St. Annette just like the challenge of making questions for Trivia hard, but not too hard?  Do you honestly believe that St. Nicole likes her ministry with the choir because she relishes the challenges of herding cats, that it makes being the mother of teenage twin boys seem like a piece of cake?  Looking around the room today, each you present has a ministry or more that you do in joyful obedience to God.  Our Lord knows that every bit as well as He knows each one of you and me.  He knows and loves each one of you well enough to give you the freedom to argue with Him, to share your ideas and dreams with Him, and to ask that He show you  His glory in your life.  Best of all, though, He is a loving Father who will not allow you to settle for your dreams and for your hopes.  He has even greater plans in store for each one of us than we can ever ask or imagine.  It is that Lord, that God, who will see us each through this transition and however many more we will face in our lifetimes, and who promises to bring us home in peace!


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.