Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Patterns of holy living and victorious dying . . . On Constance and her Companions (an Advent story)

     If you are a long-time attender, today’s celebration may be a bit of a surprise.  If you are new to Advent, you may find it a bit weird that we are focusing on the martyrdom of Constance and her companions today, so it is worth a bit of “how we got here” before I share the story.  The diocesan convention in January adopted a resolution that asked the bishop to recommend to parishes that they renew their focus on the story of Constance and her companions.  Why this was debated remains a bit of a mystery to me.  It’s not as if bishop John would ever be mad that we are celebrating the life and witnesses of our faith, especially the life and witness of Episcopalians who served in our diocese.  Maybe it is the division in the diocese now that makes Constance and her companions seeming members of the Diocese of West Tennessee?  Maybe it is simple that both clergy and laity forgot the story over the years?  In truth, your guess is as good as mine.  Bishop John, of course, commended the substance of the resolution to the diocese, and he even gave us permission to celebrate the feast a day early—at primary worship!  By the way, when I asked Bishop John why the worry about his acceptance of the resolution, he was as confused as me.  At no time, does he think, has he ever given any signals to folks discouraging them to remember the saints in our history.  Good, y’all are chuckling at that observation.  For those of you who do not know our bishop, he is just a tad more high Anglo-catholic than me, so the idea he would actively discourage these stories is preposterous.
     Anyway, after the convention, Liturgy & Worship gathered.  Our only real discussion about whether to adopt the resolution was whether to celebrate it today or on its appointed day tomorrow.  Given attendance at worship services outside Lent, we went with today.  Obviously!
     As priest and rector, of course, I was a bit more enthusiastic that many of the supporters of the resolution.  As most here know, I had “discovered” Bishop Quintard during Wednesday services my second year at Advent.  I had that jolting realization as I read about him in preparation for a “saint of the day” service.  Near the beginning, I learned that Quintard was the second rector of the Episcopal Church of the Advent in Nashville, Tennessee.  I was probably a couple sentences further down the biography before it dawned on me that that was us!  So, I started digging around in the archives looking for our inside information on Quintard and the role of Adventers, at least from Adventers’ perspective, in his glorious work in the Episcopal church and the wider Church!
     Now, as shocking as it may be to realize that one has a direct tie to a saint in our recommended observed feast days, Bishop Quintard was not the only one!  Like many folks in the church outside of Tennessee, I had heard a number of stories about Constance and her Companions.  Elsewhere around the country, they are known as the Memphis Martyrs, but the stories are the same.  A bishop summoned the sisters to tend the dying during an outbreak of plague.  While obeying the bishop, they contracted the plague and died.  It turns out, of course, that the story is far more complex and heroic than the cliff notes’ version AND that it has a direct tie to Advent!  Those of you who have come to know me these last almost five years know just how I was excited I was to be instructed by the diocese and given permission by the bishop to focus on the story of Constance with each of you!  I mean, I am willing to bet big money that few of you have ever heard a sermon on them.  Good, I see the laughing nods.
     Our direct tie to the story is one of residence and training.  If y’all think back to the story of the election of Rector Quintard to be the second bishop of the diocese, which in those days was also the entire state, you might remember Advent’s gift toward the rebuilding of the bishopric on the holy mountain of Sewanee.  For those of you a bit newer to the story, Quintard was elected bishop of Tennessee after the Civil War.  That in itself is a cool story but for another time.  Adventers, as is the custom around here, took up a collection for their “promoted” priest, to thank him for his work and ministry and pastoral guidance during the period before and during the Civil War.  Plus, he was called to be their new bishop.  We might say they were doubly inspired to be very generous, indeed!  Some reports claim they raised as much as $10,000 for their former rector and new bishop, the proceeds of which were meant to be used to rebuild a house suitable for a bishop and Vice-Chancellor near the grounds of the rebuilding university.  Such was needed because General Sherman had rolled through town and destroyed the University of the South.
     As another aside, let me just say this now, when the time comes for God to call me away from you, feel free to try and outshine your spiritual forebears in any such departing rector’s purse!  I may not need a bishopric, but with seven kids, and possible grandkids by then, well, you can do the bedroom math!
     Advent’s gift was used as intended.  A house was built for Quintard, and he split his time between rebuilding Sewanee, administering to the needs of the diocese, and working to make sure there was space for freed slaves to remain in the Episcopal church, any one of those would be time consuming enough.  I guess that’s why he is a saint!  But our forebears at Advent had roles in all that.
     The time came, naturally, for Quintard to consider moving, or really settling into, the diocesan seat in Memphis.  Nashville was not nearly as important then as now.  Memphis, and the folks out west, grumbled and complained that the bishop was far too concerned with the restoration of the eastern end of the diocese.  Add to that the various plagues of Yellow Fever, and the fact that in his secular profession now Bishop Quintard was a medical doctor, and one can easily see why he felt compelled to move from Sewanee to Memphis.
     I have not yet found the Vestry notes, but knowing Adventers, I can well imagine how discussions went regarding the disposal of the soon-to-be-former bishopric.  Assuming their personalities are similar to personalities today, I imagine a few Adventers felt they owned the house, morally if not legally.  After all, they had paid a chunk towards its rebuilding!  Since he was bishop of Tennessee, it makes sense that the bishop mentioned to those who had generously provided that he would need to dispose of the house.  Good, y’all know where this is going.  Now you know why I want the detailed Vestry notes!
     There were at least a couple considerations for the bishopric: keep it as the “eastern home,” or use the proceeds of a sale to improve the bishopric in Memphis.  Remember, travel was by horse or horse and buggy in those days, unless the towns were on the railroads, so having two houses would not be as crazy as it sounds today.  Quintard seems to have been convinced of the need to let it go for the benefit of others.  Sewanee graciously offered to accept his gift of a house for new administrators or professors – remember, he was the Vice-Chancellor for many years.  In the end, he offered the house to the Sisters of Humility, a newer order of nuns, coming out of the Oxford movement, who could use the house as their convent for training and living in the south.  And now you know your tie to this story.  Advent’s ancestors built the house that served as the convent for the sisters on the holy mountain, the convent from which Constance was asked by the bishop to gather others and head speedily to Memphis to care for the orphans.
     In 1873 Memphis had suffered what was maybe the third big outbreak of Yellow Fever.  Remember in those days, Memphis sat on the modern equivalent of a super highway.  Barge traffic up and down the Mississippi River enabled the growth of our country and the cheap transport of supplies.  Memphis was a bustling, growing, cosmopolitan city then, just as it is today!  I hear you chuckling.  See, I have been here long enough to hear and catch some jokes about rival cities.  Thanks to the topography and relatively mild winters, Memphis also had a vast supply of mosquitoes, who bore the blood disease.  After the plague in 1873, Bishop Quintard noticed the sheer number of orphaned children, children whose parents had been taken by the plague, roaming the city of Memphis.  So, he wrote Sister Constance, who was then the superior on the holy mountain in his old, our old, house, asking her to start a school for the orphanage that was using his bishopric in Memphis.  Constance wrote others in her order and enlisted the aid of those outside the convent, and they gathered in Memphis to do as the bishop had requested, but with a couple requests of their own.  Bishop Quintard had to support them as they had no funds themselves, he was to be their spiritual advisor, and he had to make the Eucharist available to them every day.  Bishop Quintard agreed to their demands, and those gathered by Constance headed to Memphis.
     Those interested in more of this story should feel free to visit the cathedral in Memphis, as well as a number of surrounding parishes in Memphis, as well as the archive of the Episcopal church and the diocese.  I’m assuming their records are as extensive and disorganized as our own!  But six of Constance’s nuns from the holy mountain joined her in this great work, as well as Sister Clare from St. Margaret’s House in Boston, the Rev. Charles Parsons from Grace and St. Lazarus in Memphis, the Reverend Louis Schuyler from Holy Innocents in Hoboken, and the Very Reverend George Harris from the cathedral in Memphis.  For nearly five years, these amazing Episcopalians tended to the education needs of the orphaned children in Memphis and the sacramental work pledged by Bishop Quintard!  That work, by itself, is worthy of canonization in my mind.
     Unfortunately, plagues continued to haunt Memphis.  The outbreak in 1978 was particularly virulent.  Those with means fled the city; those without means were left to fend for themselves and take their chances.  Conditions got so bad that the city ceased to function as a city.  It went back on the county tax rolls because there was no one to run the city nor anyone from whom to collect taxes.  The orphans, of course, had no means, and those charged with their care took their responsibility seriously, and loved and tended to them as their Father in heaven tended to them in turn.  By the time the 1878 plague had run its course, nearly all those who worked with the orphanage were dead, including two priests who were also medical doctors like the bishop, a couple of the Sisters’ two matrons, several volunteer nurses from New York, and (here’s the scandalous part) the known owner of a local and successful bordello!  As our Gospel lesson reminds us today, they laid down their life, in service of God’s call and in imitation of their Lord’s own service to them and us.
     As a classicist, when I read the story from a Tennessee perspective, I could not help but be reminded of the story of Rome and the normalization of Christianity as I read about the stories of the Memphis Martyrs.  I know modern conspiracy folks like to pretend that Peter and Paul and the other Apostles conspired create this religion to gain great wealth and power.  It would be a brilliant plan, to be sure, if they would have become the inheritors of that wealth and power.  Instead, like many Christians during those first two centuries after the death and Resurrection of our Lord, they were killed for their faith.  It’s not taught much in modern history or culture classes today, but humanity is always great about blaming the “other.”  Just as some folks like to blame “those people,” whoever they think those people are for today’s perceived society, economic, or theological ills, the Romans did the same thing.  Only, it was our forebears who were “the other” then.  Diocletian and Severus and pretty much most emperors loved to blame the Christians for plagues, for economic downturns, for military defeats, for pretty much the same reasons we blame others for our ills.  Countless Christians lost their lives in those persecutions, as they are called, and even more lost their lives and livelihoods during activities between the great named persecutions.
      Along the way, though, a curious thing happened.  Though they were blamed for the gods’ displeasure, our forebears took care of the dying, tended to the survivors, and buried the dead from the various black plagues that afflicted Rome.  While the rich and powerful fled the city, our forebears tended those in need and loved those who felt abandoned.  Our forebears rescued the babies, usually girl babies, cast out onto the trash heaps because the family patriarchs were unwilling or unable to raise yet another girl.  In other words, our forebears loved their neighbors, especially the least and most marginalized, as themselves, as image bearers of the Creator of heaven and earth.  Over time, emperors could no longer call on a persecution to solve the ills of the city.  Sure, an emperor could call for a persecution, could blame Christians for whatever he wished, but getting the people of Rome to join in the hatred became harder and harder as time went on, particularly as people noticed their leaders constantly fleeing the city and showing no such love of those whom they ruled.  Yes, an emperor was given a mystic vision and eventually bent the knee to Lord Christ, but does anyone here not doubt that he did so out of some political expediency?  Can we imagine Augustus or Nero or Severus or Diocletian or any other of those emperors bending the knee over such a vision?
     The impact of the death of the Memphis Martyr’s, Constance and Her Companions, is well documented in Memphis and, on a much smaller scale, not unlike what happened in Rome.  Chiefly, we Episcopalians in Memphis, and then Tennessee and Arkansas, but then around the country benefited.  As the papers and societies discussed the loving sacrifice, people were drawn to our doors, to our worship.  As the Church has always noticed, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church!
      Hearing the story today, you might be a bit humbled.  Good.  We should all be.  But we should also be encouraged.  If you think back to the beginning of my story, who here thought I was describing a superwoman or superman of faith?  As I shared the story of Bishop Quintard discussing with prominent members of Advent the disposition of the gifted house, who here imagined men and women in white gowns and halos having serious, faith-filled discussions during a Vestry meeting or other gathering?  Given the laughter then and now, I’d say none.  My guess is that a few of us thought back to some heated discussions during our own times of service on the Advent Vestry and silently prayed to God that those notes are not detailed or, even better, lost to us and our posterity, especially future rectors, for fear that we might look a little more human and a little less saintly to those who come after us! 
     Given all that you think you know about history and attitudes, who here assumed that the male bishop “summoned” and the good nuns obeyed, just like women ought?  Ooh, that got snorts.  But seriously, that’s how we are told the past, and especially the Christian past, worked, are we not.  Yet, here we have the story of a saint, our saint, requesting a convent to come and help educate orphans.  Though those ladies were no doubt filled with gratitude that our saint had provided them generously with accommodations, did they go running as summoned?  No.  They made their own demands of the bishop.  Did he put his foot down, point to his mitre, and re-demand their obedience and gratitude?  No!  He listened to their requests and agreed they were good.
     And those nuns, what are we to make of them.  Most of those who responded to the bishop’s request in 1873 were educators.  What did they know about nursing?  Not much.  And, true they got a practice run at nursing by the end of 1873, but none of that practice truly prepared them for the horrors of the outbreak in 1878 which caused the city, for all intents and purposes, to cease to function.  By necessity they became nurses.  They learned their craft by trial and error, yet those whom they served saw the love of Christ in their obedient service.
     But isn’t that the point of all of God’s story?  He works through and in spite of “normal” human beings like ourselves to accomplish His plan of salvation.  It is His good pleasure to redeem the lost, to restore the broken, because it is those folks who have the sense of gratitude, who give wonderful thanks to Him for His saving work in their lives, and who are, as a result, fit tools for His purposes, heralds of His Gospel, and Spirit filled little incarnations of His grace, in fitting imitation of our Lord Christ, the Incarnation!
     I know the more Protestant leaning members of Advent today have a . . . difficult time with the idea of sainthood.  I know a couple tolerate it from me because they are absolutely convinced the Baptist part of the Episco-baptist in me is strong.  It also helps, I think, that we have a patron season rather than patron saint.  We are a Church of Christ’s coming and Second Coming rather than a St. Luke’s or St. George’s or Saint David’s.  I also hope, however, that it is tolerated because we do a good job around here of sharing the lives and stories of the saints.  As we celebrate the feast of Constance and her companions today, you will hear a number of reminders that the saints provide us with patterns of holy living and victorious dying, of how the saints surround us and teach us and pray for us, and I will even bless you at the end of the service entreating God, through His reminder of your connection to these saints, to enable you to bear witness to Him and His truth against all adversity.  What I also want you to here this day, though, is that neither you nor I are responsible for being perceived as saints.  To you and to me the work we do in God’s name is just our work.  We feed the hungry and the homeless, we provide a safe place for mental health counseling for those who cannot afford it elsewhere, we provide a safe place for those suffering from addiction, we provide a place for musicians to make what they insist is a joyful noise.  None of us would describe that work as heroic.  None of us would likely describe that work as saintly.  Yet that description, in the end, is not up to us.
     Our Gospel passage ends with Jesus praying to the Father after sharing with us that He dreads what comes next.  Jesus understands that it is for the purpose of His Passion and Crucifixion that He came into the world, and so He will be obedient to the will of His Father in heaven.  But He makes a request of God the Father: Father, glorify Your Name.”  His and our Father answers Him: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”  We all know from our Lenten studies of this passage that the Father is speaking about the Resurrection.  Certainly, His Name, and that of Jesus, will be most glorified in the Resurrection of our Lord.
     But remember our baptisms.  Remember when God promised that He had yoked Himself to you?  Remember when God taught each one of us that when we are honored, He is honored; and that when we are dishonored, He is dishonored?  The whole idea of Lordship is that mutual binding.  God is teaching and telling us that when we suffer, He suffers with us.  It is that promise that allows us to give up our need for vengeance.  It is that promise that allows us ultimately to trust that one day we will be vindicated for choosing Him above all others!
     It is also that promise which reminds us of the glory possible for us!  So long as we are obedient, like His Son, what is our reward?  No, not heaven.  I mean, that will be a cool place and all, but think of our discussions the last couple weeks.  Wait!  I heard the beginning.  Who said a place of honor with a rising question voice?  Chicken.  You were on the glorious right track, pun intended.  God’s promise to each of His adopted sons and daughters is that we will share in glory forever!  Sometimes, unsurprisingly, that glory bursts through in this world.  When we seek to serve others as Christ served us, obedient to His will on our lives, that glory, that shekinah of God cracks through.  Others see in us He Whose image we all bear.  And because of that foretaste, that early realization of His pledge, we appear holy and righteous and, dare I say it, saintly, to them.  We point the way to the Deliverer; we show the way that leads to the cross, death, and eternal life.  And those whom we show are ever and always grateful!
     And here’s the best part: every one of those saints whom we remember were normal people like us.  What distinguished each of them was the Lord they served.  Sitting here today, you may have heard the story of Constance and her Companions for the very first time.  More likely, some of you heard it for the first time realizing your parish forebears’ role in that incredible story, too.  But most of us here are here because of the work of other saints of Advent.  Maybe it was St. Polly?  Perhaps it was St. Anne?  Maybe it was a saint who is still living among us?  Maybe it was a saint, whose work in your life is known only to you and to God?  The Gospel truth my fellow Adventers is that each of us, like all those saints, has the same opportunity to love God and others in His Name.  And He, the Creator of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen, has promised that just as His Son was glorified that amazing Easter morning and awe-inspiring Ascension, that His Name will continue to be glorified in the lives of His disciples, in the generations that came before, in the generations that now walk the earth, and even in the generations yet unborn, until the Day of His glorious return for which we Adventers should all long and wait, even as we are about the work He has given us to do!

In Christ’s Peace,

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

On dinner parties, humility, and being exalted . . .

     This week, I really annoyed one of my sermon prep colleagues.  As many of you know, I belong to a couple groups where we talk shop.  Unsurprisingly, one of those places we talk shop is in sermon preparation.  It’s a fun group.  We share what we are preaching on and sermon illustrations, or sometimes we ask for illustrations when we have brain freeze.  I was, unfortunately, late to the party this week due to pastoral considerations.  By the time I got to where I could begin to think about this week’s sermon, my favorite group had covered all the rabbit holes.  I learned, for example, there are parabologists.  People get PhD’s as experts in parables.  This is a real thing.  Apparently, one can be an expert in the parables of Luke, the parables of Matthew, the parables of Mark, or just of parables in general.  That was an important discussion because the teaching today is the subject of much discussion among parabologists.
     It’s not really germane to my sermon, but think of your favorite parable.  It is generally told by Jesus in the third person.  Why?  It’s so our perspective can change as our walk with God changes, right?  Think of the parable of the Prodigal Son.  What will be a teaching on that parable?  Great, forgiveness.  What if I announced today I was preaching on the parable of the Loving Father?  What will be the likely subject of that sermon?  That’s right, our loving Father in heaven pursuing and wooing us.  You guys are sharp today.  What if, instead, I said I was preaching on the Ungrateful Older Brother.  What would be the subject of my sermon?  Exactly.  Grace-hoarding or something like that.
     See.  Y’all are parabologists.  You understand that the parables are stories that invite us to take on the perspective of one of the characters to help teach us and others about God and about human beings, especially ourselves.  All three titles speak to the same parable taught by Jesus.  All the details are identical.  It’s just that our focus, our attention, can change, even as our walk with God changes.
     I share that rabbit trail with you because a number of experts, apparently, argue that this teaching in Luke today is not a parable at all.  Chiefly, the argument seems to be that Jesus teaches in the second person, you, rather than in the third person, there was a man or there was a woman.  In other words, it’s very pointed to us, the audience.  It’s more like tutoring than like an invitation to learn.  The problem with that line of thinking is that Luke introduces the teaching in verse seven as a parable.  Now, did Jesus teach this lesson in a parable and Luke wrote down his own engagement with that direct teaching?  I doubt it, but it’s possible.  Does it matter?  In the end, I would say no.  It’s the kind of things about which academics argue, just like the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin, but those of us trying to live our faith with integrity really could care less about.
     Of course, one of my colleagues came across a theologian who was very disappointed in this teaching of this lesson.  All Jesus is doing, according to this particular writer, is teaching us table manners and giving us good, solid advice for daily living.  From this writer’s perspective, there was no theological perspective that made this event particularly applicable in the daily life and work of readers.  That drove my colleague nuts.  How could the professional not see the eschatological perspective that was self-evident?  You can well imagine that thread and the accompanying rabbit trails!  Of course, my colleagues were struggling with modern sermon illustrations which illustrated their contention that this is, indeed, a theological teaching.  That, it turned out, was my only contribution to a number of sermons this week.
     I should also note, before I begin, I see the irony at play.  As y’all can tell by the grouping of the readings, we should be focusing on humility.  We are not to be full of pride, at all.  But, I was also chewed out this past week by three families giving consideration to joining us formally.  Each of the families is a blended family.  Well, the adults are.  Somehow, someway, neither Adventers nor me may have mentioned to them during their visits my work for the Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury.  For those adults who are faithful Roman Catholics, such mentioning may have lowered their anxieties about joining our parish.  A couple, in fact, suggested that I lead with that in my introductions.  So, on a week when I am supposed to teach us to be humble, some may hear a brag.  I guess we would say that’s God having a jest with us?
     Anyway, some five years ago, a cardinal was interviewed by the local big paper in Rome.  Those of you who do not know how the Roman church works, cardinals are assigned parishes in Rome.  They are sort of living patrons of those local parishes.  When they are in town, they are expected to preach and celebrate at the parish.  It is their connection to the local populace.  And, when they are in town, they are all working to become the next Pope.  This particular gentleman was giving out coins in front of his parish as Archbishop David and our group walked by his church – that’s how I got all the background information.  Much like every US Senator thinks he or she could be the next US President, every Cardinal seems to think he should be the next Pope.  This man was giving out coins, David admitted he was being a bit cynical, because he wanted the groundswell of popular support to cause other cardinals to vote for him.
     Now, remember, this was five years ago.  Francis was beloved by the Progressive wing of the Roman church and distrusted by the Conservative wing of the Roman church.  In this interview, the good cardinal was pushing back against the Pope’s new policies.  The Holy Father expected them all to give up their wonderful homes and castles and live in mundane apartments.  The Holy Father expected them to give up their Mercedes and drive something like Fiats instead.  Heck, the Holy Father expected them to eat with the homeless and the starving!  Can you believe that?!  On that last part, the cardinal went on to complain about how bad homeless people smell.  One cannot enjoy a meal with such stink in the air.  The cardinal in question went on to say something along the lines that he could not wait for the Holy Father to grow into the office, that he become more Pope-like, and allow them the privileges of their offices.
     David shared with us that Pope Francis often got in trouble with the Swiss Guard.  In fact, he later shared that a commander or two had already resigned over the new Pope’s habits of not listening to his security—it’s like a President ignoring the Secret Service.  One of those habits that annoyed the Swiss Guard was Francis’ sneaking off in civi’s to help churches feed the homeless in St. Peter’s square!  Now, given that information, you might well imagine the Pope was not particularly sympathetic to this cardinal’s complaint.
     Shortly after I started here, and I’m talking weeks rather than months, the reporter noticed that new construction had begun on St. Peter’s.  His interviews with workers led him to believe bathrooms were being installed.  During a q & a session with the Pope for the paper, he asked about it, knowing that nothing happens in the Vatican without the Pope’s tacit, if not implicit, approval.  And St. Peter’s Square is more likely to require tacit approval as the Pope address the masses there all the time.
     The Pope mentioned to the reporter that he had read the article in the paper a couple months back that included the comments from his “brother bishop.”  As the Holy Father prayed over those comments, he realized his brother was correct.  It is hard, if one is homeless, to get cleaned up.  Businesses are not good about opening up their establishments for free.  Residential folk are not too keen on allowing the homeless to come in and clean up.  Most churches do not have showers in their facilities.  It pained him to think of the number of homeless people, aware and embarrassed by their predicament, who had no doubt been forced to decline his brother bishop’s invitation to dine.  No doubt they did not want to sit down to a meal with him without first cleaning up.  So, as a solution to the problem, the Pope had ordered public showers to be erected around St. Peter’s.  That way, the homeless could get cleaned up before going to his brother bishop’s meals and so spare him their smell and them any embarrassment.  In one fell swoop, the Holy Father both provided a necessary service for the needy in his community, and he ensured that the next Pope would NOT be the cardinal in question.
     Our lesson from Luke this week takes place at a meal on the sabbath.  The religious folk have their eye on Jesus because of the healings He has done on the sabbath, in clear violation of the torah from their perspective.  Those of you who attended our Maundy Thursday meal have seen this in person, but such meals would have had the tables arranged in a square “U”.  The host sat at the middle of the U.  The most important or honored guest sat to the host’s right.  The second most important or honored guest sat immediately to the host’s left.  The third was second to the right; the fourth was second to the left.  And so on.  The middle of the U was for servants and slaves to tend to the needs of the guests and the host.  Most of the ANE was very conscious of social status.  The Paris Hilton’s and Kim Kardashian’s of the modern world are amateurs at such things.
     When one was invited to such a feast, a great deal of energy was spent determining where one sat.  One could always try and sneak a bit closer to the front, but one ran the risk of overstepping one’s bounds.  Plus, host’s would invite a few people from above their social status.  The hope was that the more famous person would attend, thereby improving the significance and standing of the host’s party, or, if worse came to worse, ensuring that one might get a future invitation to that higher guest’s dinner party.  Imagine today if you went to a party and Garth Brooks or Taylor Swift showed up.  If you were the host, how much would you be hoping you’d get invited to a future event of theirs?  But how famous would you be in your own social circle if they attended your event?  Get it?  Now, we are amateurs at such things.  The ANE folk, and Romans in particular, were professionals on steroids when it came to honor and social status!  The folk that we think thrive in this kind of environment would have been devoured in that one!
     Jesus is at one such meal and, as is typical for Jesus, he observes and uses the everyday experience to teach His disciples and us.  On one level, His instruction is about table manners.  In the scene I described above, where we would spend time and energy trying to figure out the appropriate place to sit if we were invited, we would have to figure out how close to the host we could sit without causing offense to more important guests or the host.  If I sat at the 10th most important spot, but I was the 30th most important guest to the host, I ran the risk of experiencing the scene described initially by Jesus, where the host tells me to move down because so-and-so needs my seat.  I would experience the shame of having over-reached my status and having to be put in my place.  The whispers for the next few weeks would probably remind me of my mistake, and I would probably not be invited to a number of future feasts because I did not know my place.  But could I get away with sitting at the 25th most important seat?  The 22nd?  See the game?
     Jesus’ wisdom, on one level, speaks to that everyday problem.  Choose the least important seat.  If I sat at the least important seat, no one will make me move.  Nobody wants that seat!  One barely made the cutoff for the meal if one is assigned that seat!  I will not be perceived as haughty.  I will be known as one of those guests who knows his place and ensures future invitations.  But, if I am important to the host, what could happen?  The host may make me move closer to the front!  As dishonoring as the walk of shame was for the one asked to move down, imagine how power the walk of importance would be for one asked to move up!  Now the whispers would go the other way!  He’s such a nice guy he has no idea how important he is.  Can you imagine that Brian thought he should sit at the end of the table, as if he’s not one of Ralph’s favorite guys?!  See the difference?
     Jesus’ teaching does have practical application.  In this game of seeming infinite importance, Jesus has instructed His disciples how to win all the time.  Of course, Jesus has a different game and different perspective in mind, but we should not be surprised that being faithful, living as He did, in the small things points to an eschatological blessing that is seldom in our minds.
     One of the big questions I get asked constantly in private discussions is whether somebody is Christian enough.  Nobody panic, I will not be citing specific names.  People will come into my office and ask if they are Christian enough.  My answers usually frustrate them.  I, naturally, ask if they believe that Jesus is the Son of God, came down from heaven, died for their sins, was raised on the third day, ascended back to heaven, and will one day return to judge us.  If they answer yes, I tell them they are probably Christian enough.  The probably, as you might imagine, scares them.  I have to remind them that judging their salvation is above my paygrade.  The guy who hung on the Cross gets to decide who is in and who is out.  He sees the heart; I can only listen to the words and see the behavior.
     It’s at this point in such conversations that the person in question will begin to wonder whether they are “doing enough.”  As a pastor, I have to be careful.  We can never do enough to earn salvation—that’s the opposite of grace.  But sometimes, people are expressing a call or feeling of a call on their lives that they have been resisting.  So we have to work through what it is that the Adventer is really trying to say.  If God is calling us to something, and we are fleeing like Jonah, then, yes, we should feel guilty.  That’s part of why we pray for those things left undone.
     How might the humility in small things evidence themselves today, particularly for those of us whose social circles do not include fancy dinner parties?  Are we cussing out the lady in line in front of us at Publix who only begins to dig for her checkbook through a purse the size of a camping backpack after the cashier is finished ringing up her groceries, as if paying for the groceries is a new thing?  Are we quick to flash folks the universal sign of respect for their driving skill and efforts to cut us off on the roads of Nashville?  Do we avoid eye contact or people altogether when we think they may want to ask us something?  DO we participate in the office gossip?  Do we bully the kid at school?  There are lots of ways you and I can exhibit humility in everyday life.  There are lots of ways where we can follow the example of holy living set forth by our Lord Christ and teach others about Him without saying a word.
     And here’s the kicker!  What is Jesus’ promise?  If we had red letter Bibles like many of our friends and co-workers today, what would be in red letters?  Look at verse 11.  Who’s doing the real acting?  God.  Those who exalt themselves in this life will what?  That’s right!  Be humbled.  Be humbled by Whom?  Good.  You are paying attention.  God will humble.  But what will God do for those who humble themselves as His Son taught?  That’s right!  The Creator of heaven and earth, the Maker of all that is, seen and unseen, will exalt for all eternity those who humble themselves on earth!
     To use the image of the feast, God will tell us to move closer to the head of the Table.  Those who humbled themselves will get that walk of exaltation, of joy, of peace that knowing that God was well pleased with them!  Sitting here, you might wonder how big the Table is if every disciple gets exalted.  Truthfully, I have no idea.  I do not know how this exaltation works.  In the end, I know it does not matter much.  Whatever exaltation I might conceive and teach, God is going to swamp it by orders of magnitude.  I just know that He is promising to exalt those who live like His Son.  So, we can measure our own behavior if we are worried.  Am I loving others as I want to be loved?  Am I serving others to His glory?  Do I evidence to others the Peace that passes all understanding?  If we don’t, we know we have repentance and work to do.
     Jesus, of course, is not finished.  He has further instructions for those of means.  When they host parties, Jesus instructs them to invite those who cannot repay them.  I’ve already covered how folks invited others expecting invitations to their parties.  Jesus’ new instruction, of course, is double-edged.  Guess who never got invited to the good parties?  That’s right!  Those he specifically mentioned.  Some were perceived as accursed by God.  Some were simply ignored because they had nothing to offer potential hosts.  In that culture, in that time and that place, what would be the effect of such invitations on the one receiving the invitation?  That’s right!  They would know they were noticed.  How easy a step would it be to teach them, based on that experience, that God notices them, that God loves them?
     But what of the invitors?  What would be their lesson?  They’ve been given much?  Certainly.  That they can incarnate God’s grace in their lives?  That’s another good one.  Teach others about the grace of God?  Man, y’all are on point today!  There are lots of good lessons for those doing the inviting.
     What does Jesus promise them, if they do as He commands?  That’s right!  That they will be repaid in the resurrection of the righteous.  To use modern language, God will make sure they are reimbursed for the cost, be it financial, social, or other, at the resurrection of the righteous.  Whoa!  Think of that for just a second.  Jesus is promising, in red letters yet again, that God will cover the IOU’s of such extravagance lavished on the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind!
     I am sometimes asked by folks both within and without the parish if I am worried that people are ripping us off in our various ministries.  What if folks are reselling the food?  What if folks are misusing the toiletries?  What if the people you are helping do not really need your help?  What if they are not really addicted?  What if they are not really homeless?  First, I cannot see hearts.  I can only take people at their word.  If they are taking food or toiletries to resell them, that’s on them, not us.  Plus, it’s a lot of work for very little money.  But what of those whom we are called to help?  What is God doing in their lives, guiding them to us, meeting their needs.  What is our reward for that divine work?  That’s right.  He will repay at the resurrection of the righteous.  Will God write us a check and reimburse us for the food we bought?  I doubt it.  But He will repay.  It’s Jesus’ promise.  So, like a good humble group of servants, we serve, trusting that God will settle all accounts, both ours and theirs, whoever the theirs is, at His Second Coming!
     In one sense, it is incredibly easy work.  In another, it could not be more counter-cultural.  But it is the work He has given us to do, or so it seems to many of us at Advent, and so we pledge Him our best efforts just as He pledged His best, eternal efforts to us!
     At the beginning of the sermon, we talked a bit about parables and about table manners and practical lessons.  In some sense we chuckled, but I hope it was a chuckle that captured God’s sense of humor and sense of living.  Do things on the earth matter?  Yes and no.  They are not lasting and so, in that sense, they do not matter as much as we tend to think; but God does will that we represent Him well in this life.  Here is where we face the refiners fire and the temptations and stumbling blocks that teach of us our need to trust, to depend, on Him.  Being faithful in the little things means we can be trusted to be good stewards the big things.  How we live our lives, in the mundane, day to day, ordinariness of our lives is even a testimony to others regarding our thankfulness to God.  Do we believe we are only stewards of His material goods, His time, and even the talents He gives us?  Our lives testify to our answers.  Do we really believe that the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen, came down from heaven to make our eternal communion with Him possible?  The way we live our lives testifies to whether we truly and inwardly digest that understanding?  Are we redeemed people, both individually and as a group?  Do we live our lives joyfully, confidently, and full of that peace that passes all understanding, confident that our Father in heaven will reward us at the resurrection of the righteous?  The way we live our lives testifies to whether we have internalized that and every other teaching Jesus gave us!
     Brothers and sisters, I get that it’s hard.  The world tells you you deserve it your way today.  Every message outside these walls is one of immediate gratification and putting yourself first.  If that was all that there was, the world would be right.  But you and I know better.  We have been taught better.  And the One teaching is none other that the One who was raised from the dead, the Firstborn of the righteous.  The One who made it possible that we might share in His eternal glory is the One who teaches, who instructs us, that others might come to His saving embrace through the living of our lives.  And as an added bonus, as if eternal salvation were not enough for us, it is our Savior Jesus who promises that, if we live our lives in emulation of His, God Himself will exalt us!  At that Feast He promises for all His beloved children, we will all be moved to places of honor and celebrated for living our lives as He called and taught each one of us!  That, my brothers and sisters and fellow travelers on this journey of faith, is worth remembering not just on a Sunday of Labor Day weekend, but every day of our lives, whether we are bishops living in European castles, Popes running our own city, normal folks living in Nashville, or those whom society seems to have forgotten even if He has not!

In His Peace,

Thursday, August 29, 2019

On cries of injustice and His promise to make us fountains who never fail . . .

     One of the dangers of using a lectionary is that we are dependent upon the skills of the committee that produces the readings.  I don’t mean that, of course, as if their PhD’s do not prepare them to examine the texts and edit them.  I suppose my real gripe is with the editing and the breaking of texts in a parish setting.  When they put the lectionary together, it’s done rather academically, though I imagine covered in prayer.  Sometimes, readings will be grouped in ways that may make perfect sense to academics, but not to those of us living in messy parish life.  Other times, the groupings are clearly meant to introduce a concept, like sabbath this week, to a congregation, when what the congregation needs is something else from the readings.  Thankfully, our Anglican forebears have recognized this danger.  The celebrant, in our tradition, has been given wide latitude to add to the chosen readings in the interest of parish well-being, even when we used the BCP lectionary.  It being Rally Day, and an opportunity for folks to sign up for various ministries over in the Parish Hall before we descend like locusts on the potluck and hamburgers, it seemed a good time for us to consider our ministries, corporate and individual, in light of God’s accusations against His people.  So settle in, pay attention, and consider what God is saying to you in the readings and in the needs in your wildernesses.
     Way back in chapter 5 of Isaiah’s book, we read an interesting poem.  It is interesting for a variety of reasons, among them the word play and the fact that the song is actually a lament.  I know most everyone remembers the song from three years ago, the last time we read it, but we do have some newcomers among us, who have joined us within the last three years, and I’ll take a moment to catch them up.  In chapter 5, God describes Himself as a farmer.  In particular, He describes Himself as a Vintner, a grower of grapes.  He has chosen the best land.  He has selected the best grapes.  He has dug a wine press in the very center so that the workers will not have to haul the harvested grapes too far.  He has built a watchtower to protect the vineyard, and He has placed a wall around it to protect it.  What should He expect as a result?  What kind of fruit would you expect this vineyard to produce?
     Correct!  Great grapes.  The best for making wine, right?
     Instead, this vineyard has produced rancid grapes.  If you flip back in your Advent Bible it will probably say wild or sour grapes.  The Hebrew term used actually carries a rancid smell.  God describes the rancid grapes as producing injustice and cries of suffering.  In fact, in a really cool wordplay that the Psalms Bible Study groups would love, God expected His vineyard to produce mishpat and tsedaqah, justice and righteousness.  Instead, His vineyard produced mispakh and tse’aqah, bloodshed and cry.  In many ways, the song hinges on the interplay of those four words.  Add to the mispakh and tse’aqah the rancid smell and possibility that the grapes were red and we have an interesting metaphor regarding blood, don’t we?
     To this point, of course, it’s rather academic.  Ah, God is a Vintner.  He chooses great land.  He selects the best grapes.  He protects His vineyard and makes it function economically.  The real pastoral problem, of course, is that at the end of His self-description, God declares that Israel is the vineyard!  Whoa!  God’s people are producing rancid smelling grapes?  God’s people are producing bloodshed and cry?  That can’t be, can it?
     If we had more time today to delve into the image selected by God, tse’aqah is not just a cry of sadness.  It is the forlornness of misery.  It is the word used to describe the plight of God’s people in slavery in Egypt—I have heard the cries of My people---and the accusation against Sodom and Gomorrah—I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to Me.  These are loaded terms.  God is effectively telling Israel, and us, that He gave them everything and they perverted His work, producing rancid smelling fruit in their lives!
     I see the squirms.  Yeah, how would you like to be on the receiving end of this pronouncement?  Can you imagine standing before God’s throne, Him saying He gave you the very best land and seeds, and you produced rancid injustice and suffering and bloodshed with His gifts?
     If it makes us squirm, that’s good!  At least we are beginning to see what God might have to say to His people today, right?  Our Collect today reminds us of part of our purpose, right?  God has gathered His Church together in unity by His Holy Spirit so that it may show forth His power among all peoples, to the glory of His Name, right?  I mean, when I said that Collect earlier, who hear did not think it was describing the modern Church?  Ok, let’s make it easier, who hear did not think it an apt description of the Church in the United States?  I mean it’s unfair for Him to think we can bridge national borders, isn’t it?  Ok, well at least it described us as a parish, right?  We are gathered in unity to show forth His power, right?  For those of you newer to the parish, that feeling as you considered those questions, and others related as prompted by the Holy Spirit, is what I mean by a spiritual wedgie.  We know what God expects and desires, and we also know we are falling short.  Sinning against Him.  That realization or recognition makes us uncomfortable, like a wedgie in junior high, just as God intends!
     And, unlike our Hebrew forebears, we have the Incarnation, Passion, death, Resurrection, and Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ in full view.  To use the words of last week’s Collect, we see clearly the atonement for sin and pattern for holy living in the life and work of Jesus Christ.  Isaiah’s audience had none of that.  We really got God’s fullest and best, and what have we produced?  Ouch?  Unfair? 
     You and I live in a country where many claim to be Christian and where many claim that our laws are based on God’s torah.  Make no mistake, I love my country.  I am often thankful that I was born here and not any number of other countries around the world.  But do we REALLY want God thinking of us as His chosen nation?  We are fighting political battles over how to care for children; what quality of education our youth, especially poor urban youth, should get; whether certain types of guns and ammunition are needed for personal defense or sport; whether systemic injustices like the prison for profit business model should be tolerated or encouraged; whether individuals without homes should be tolerated in our communities; whether good medical care is an inalienable, never mind human, right.  And I have not gotten to the really fun fights in our society over the death penalty, abortion, trade, or any other of a host of really divisive issues.  Oooh.  And look at the squirms.  We worship together in a parish that calls itself a multigeneration family, and do we really want to tackle the hard questions?
     In truth, that uncomfortable feeling we are feeling at the prospect I might launch into a discussion on one or more of those societal debates ought to make us uncomfortable.  The accusation that God lays at the feet of His people in Isaiah can be levelled against us.  Are we using what He has given us to glorify Him in our lives?  In our communities?  In the wildernesses where we labor or play daily and weekly?  Are we using our position to nudge those around us to begin producing the sweet fruit that God desires, or are we content to hide behind our wealth or influence or other advantages, allow the rancid fruit to fill God’s nose, and then hope He passes over us?
     Some of you wrestling with God over this question, or maybe you think it’s me, may well be saying to yourself, what can I do, I’m only one person?  How many Scripture lessons do we read each week where the faith of one person saves others, even whole communities?!  We’ve spent some time with Abraham this summer, a man whose faith made the birth of Jesus ultimately possible.  If you need a New Testament example, look no further than Mary, whose “let it be as He desires” brought forth the Incarnation and the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation.  If God can save the world through the work and faith of one or two people, what CAN’T He accomplish with your faith and your obedience?  Others of you wrestling may well be saying, Brian, I’m ok, I have Jesus.  Do you?  Can someone really have Jesus and not proclaim with their lives what they profess with their lips?  Ultimately, thankfully and mercifully, the guy who hung on the Cross has the final say.  But it’s that guy who hung on the Cross for each one of us who places these claims, these calls on our lives.  If we constantly reject His calls and claims, are we truly His?
     Make no mistake, I am not interested in evaluating your faith.  My job is NOT to tell you you are a good enough Christian or that you should be worried about your salvation today.  That’s God’s job.  That’s His Holy Spirit’s job, wrestling with each one of us, about 75 or 80 I’d say.  It’s also His Holy Spirit’s job to nudge us back toward God, right?  As we wrestle with His Word and the example of His Son, our consciences provoke us.  Am I doing what I am supposed to be doing?  Am I glorifying God in my life? 
     Isaiah, again, points to helpful self-examination.  Have we removed the yoke that exists between us?  Do we point fingers and claim that these fights should be the works of others, or do we recognize that God may well have called us into those fights.  Are you feeding the hungry?  Are you assisting the refugee and immigrant among you?  Are you meeting the needs of the afflicted around us?  Make no mistake, in the Parish Hall you may see ways that Adventers are doing these things that surprise you.  You may have never considered one of those ministries a need.  But God did!  And a fellow Adventer answered His call!  And now you each have an opportunity to follow God’s call more concretely.  Better still, maybe in your perusal this morning the Holy Spirit may prompt you with an idea.  Maybe you think the work of Good Neighbors is awesome, but there’s another need going unmet.  Share it with Leslie and others and with me.  You may be right!  And if you are, you can bet God may be calling others to that work, too!  Maybe you think the work of Body & Soul is wonderful, but something else should be done besides food, and clothes, and toiletries.  Again, you may be right!  Share that idea with Hilary or Nancy or a member of the Vestry or me.  Maybe your real gift is a gift of voice.  Maybe God is calling you to use that gift to speak the most valuable words to ever come out of human mouths and so nurture those who seek this sanctuary, this sabbath, before heading back into the world.  Maybe your gift is fervent prayer, grant writing, who knows what, I can promise you, God gave you at least one and wants you to use it to His glory in your life.
     And, that, naturally, is where the Gospel once again overwhelms and awes us.  Isaiah, speaking the words of God today, reminds us what happens when we satisfy the needs of the afflicted in our life.  Our light rises in the darkness and our gloom is like the noonday!  He satisfies our needs in the parched places and makes our bones strong.  Best of all, we become like a spring of water, whose waters never fail!  Can any of us hear that promise and not think of the woman at the well with Jesus?  When He tells her of that water, what does she ask?  Right!  Give me this water always.  Brothers and sisters, God is promising us, if we obey His call on our lives, we will be like fountains of that life-giving water.  The source, the spring, is Jesus; but you and I are promised that we will be like fountains to others in our life!
     I should film from the pulpit sometimes.  Y’all went from squirming and uncomfortable to wonder just like that.  I know.  It’s almost too wonderful for words to contemplate.  God is promising that those of us who meet the needs of the afflicted in our lives that we will be little fountains of His Son.
     If the Gospel ended there, it would be enough.  Such a promise from God would overwhelm us or cause us to blubber in awe.  Just give me heaven and I’ll be fine with that, Lord.  But He does not stop with that promise.  Some of these evils that we are called to fight are gigantic, systemic, deep-rooted.  There seems to be no chance that little ol’ me or little ol’ you can really do anything about them.  And in human perspective, we are correct.  We are not strong enough, smart enough, or whatever else enough.  Thankfully, God has a different perspective and power and wisdom.
     God will execute judgment on His people.  Y’all should know the story of the Exile as God keeping His promises made at Sinai and again on the banks of the Jordan.  Israel will experience the prophesy named in Isaiah 5.  Babylonians and Assyrians and any rogue bandit of the day will, in fact, plunder her, as evidence of her disloyalty.  But, one day in the future, another faithful saint will respond to God’s call.  Actually, a number of God’s people will respond to His call.  And all that was thrown down will be repaired.  Ezra, Nehemiah and others will be known as repairers of the breach the restorers of the streets.  And that same God, whose power working in you, can make of you a modern version of that!  If it is God calling you to be the destroyer of an unjust system, that’s just how you may be known!  If it is God calling you to be a rebuilder of something crumbled, that’s just how the world may perceive you!  And here’s the better news, even if the world does not recognize your work, even if the world misses your impact, those whom you served certainly will not!  And God, who is a God who is near—remember last week, He, too, will know who you are and vindicate you in the end!
     I know we came together this morning a bit disjointed expecting an opportunity to sign up for the same old ministries.  8 o’clockers have probably had a bit too much caffeine by now and 10:30 folks were still asleep at the beginning.  Heck, I only got one go at this sermon!  But we remind ourselves this day, this particular day, that the ministries we do at this place we call Advent, we do in His Name and to His glory, that others might be drawn into His saving embrace.  And for nothing more than a bit of faith and obedience on our part, he offers us, no, He promises us that He will make us ride upon the heights of the earth, that we will share in His glory, not for a few years, but for all eternity!

In Christ’s Peace,