Monday, November 8, 2010

All Saints Sunday, Year C, 7 November 2010

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

From the letter of Paul to the Romans:
“To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 1:7)

From the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians:
“To the church of God that is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:2)

From the letter to the Philippians:
“To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the overseers and the helpers: Grace to you and peace…”(Phil. 1:1-2)

Anyone notice a theme going on here?

All these letters and many others in the Christian scriptures open with a greeting directed to “The saints who are at…” this or that place. Today we celebrate the feast of All Saints, one of the principal feast days of the Church—a day that is so important that it can “take over” the Sunday following its proper date of November 1st.

All of which raises a question. What does it mean, to be a saint? Who gets the title?

As shown above, it’s a common form of address in Paul’s writing. The phrase is literally “The holy ones”, and is related to the same root word from which we get words like sanctify and sanctity. All of which point back to the original meaning, which has nothing to do with morality or a particular sort of behavior as such, but rather with being set apart. Chosen and designated for a particular purpose by God—and decidedly “different” in many cases. To be holy is to be distinctly Other-than-ordinary. Unusual. Even a bit odd. Or a lot.

The truth shall make you free, one of my professors used to say, paraphrasing the gospel of John. But first it shall make you STRANGE.

In a few moments we will sing the song of ultimate strangeness, ultimate otherness, ultimate out-of-the-ordinary. Not once, but three times: “Holy! Holy! Holy! is the Lord, the God of hosts.” We might well rethink those words: Other! Other! Other! Not like this, not like that, not like anything we can imagine or envision. God is always and forever, More Than.

God’s chosen ones, God’s set-apart-for-a-purpose ones, God’s particular, peculiar ones: The saints.

I grew up in the evangelical Bible-belt culture of southeast Texas. The saints, insofar as I ever gave them much thought at all, were long ago and far away in Bible times, or they were a somewhat dubious devotional practice of my Roman Catholic neighbors and school friends. Kind of like Mary—who got unwrapped, along with the strings of lights and glass baubles and green scratchy garlands around the first of December—and then around the first of January disappeared again for the rest of the year. I had to discover a little more about life, and about the mystery of God active in my own life, before I could reimagine what a saint might look like.

A story is told of a Sunday School class where the teacher asked “Who is a saint?” One of the children, remembering the stained glass windows in the church, replied “A saint is a person with the light shining through them.”

A person with the light shining through them. The colored glass of the image itself may be dusty, or cracked, or flawed in all sorts of ways; but the light shines through anyway.

The second letter to Timothy says that “In a large house there are utensils not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for special use, some for ordinary use.” (2 Tim. 2:20) Some vessels of gold or silver, or pottery or glass, or wood…all with a purpose, all with a designated use.

Who are your saints? Who have been the people in your life “through whom the light has shined?” Who have been the vessels of God’s grace and love and mercy to you, when you were in need of those gifts?

We have built a place of remembrance for those people, an All Souls altar, in the narthex of the church this morning. You have brought pictures and objects of remembrance to share those stories, and I hope that you will take time during coffee hour to tell each other about our own saints.

Many years ago, a young mother wanted to teach her children about the saints. So she began to think of some of the big names: St. Luke the physician, the writer of the Gospel; Margaret of Scotland, who built hospitals and churches and encouraged the clergy to preach better sermons; Joan of Arc, who left her farm and village and challenged the crown prince of France to drive the English soldiers out of his country. And that young mother sat down and wrote a poem about the saints. She never intended to publish that poem, or that anyone outside of her family would ever hear it. These are the words she wrote:

I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true;
Who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor, and one was a queen,
and one was a shepherdess on the green;
They were all of them saints of God, and I mean, God helping, to be one too.

We’ll sing those words in a few minutes. They have become one of the most beloved hymn texts in the Episcopal Church, and with good reason. Lesbia Scott wrote them to be easily understood, an explanation of the words of the Creed: “I believe…in the communion of the saints.” The words of the last verse move the singers out of the long-ago and far-away, into here and now:

They lived not only in ages past; there are hundreds of thousands still.
The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will.
You can meet them in school, on the street, out at sea;
In church, on the bus, at the store, on TV;
(Okay, yes, I changed those last two lines up a bit…)
For the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.

The saints—the holy ones, the set-apart ones who have been God’s vessels of grace and mercy—the sometimes cracked, dingy, spider-web-covered ones through whom the light has shone in spite of their flaws—are all around us. What we look for, we will see; what we seek, we will find.

And so my dears, this week look for the light shining around you. Look for the light of God in the world, even and especially in the most unlikely people and places. And when you find it, put yourself in front of it. Open up to let it shine in, and through, you.


Monday, November 1, 2010

23 Pentecost, Year C, October 31, 2010

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Psalm 119:137-144, 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12;
Luke 19:1-10
Today, Salvation Has Come preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner." Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost."

Much of my ministry so far has been some form of “talking people down out of trees.” You know what I mean? Someone will come into my office or call me on the phone and be completely in a fizz about something or another—maybe they’ve gotten really bad news that day. Or maybe they’re angry with someone else, so angry that they can’t speak to that person without yelling and ranting and raving. Maybe they’re sad and upset about a situation they can’t control or fix or influence…the reasons are infinite. I find myself with them, sitting and listening as hard as I can. Just being with them—sitting and hearing what they need to say.

Eventually the flood of words slows down to a stream…then a trickle…then finally silence. And then—only then—I look over and ask, “Would you like to come down out of the tree now?”

Nothing outwardly has changed, the situation is still whatever it was in the first place. But inwardly they have already “come down out of the tree” and are perhaps ready to get back on the road. Maybe they remembered there is something they can do, some word they can say, some gift they can bring. But in any case, they’ve discovered that they themselves have changed in the encounter, in the conversation.

Conversation—talking—and conversion—turning around—are from the same root word, which has to do with change. See the thing anew; change your mind; go in another direction; remember what you are intending and pursue it. Come down from there, get your feet on the ground again.

Zacchaeus is, literally and figuratively, up a tree this morning. He’s worked himself into quite a fizz indeed trying to see Jesus, “to see who Jesus was.” We know that Zaccheus is a chief tax collector, and that he was rich. We heard last week about another tax collector, or as I described him: Extortionist Goon. The neighbors feared him and hid their children when he passed by; he was in cahoots with the occupying Roman military and political system, he could get away with almost anything. Clearly one of the bad guys, outside all bounds of decency and acceptable social acquaintance.

And he wants to see who Jesus is. I wonder…how did he know about Jesus in the first place?

Maybe there had been a conversation. Maybe Zacchaeus overheard someone else—some of his own servants or entourage—talking about this rabbi from Nazareth who healed the sick and fed the hungry, who had a reputation for hanging out with the wrong kind of people and telling wild upside-down stories about tax collectors and Pharisees. Clearly the word had gotten around, because this crowd has gathered to meet Jesus on his way through town, and Zacchaeus can’t see what’s going on.

He could have easily gotten one of his entourage to break through the crowd for him. Sent one of the under-goons to knock some people out of the way—but he does not do that. Instead he does something altogether different, something humiliating to his own dignity, something a child would do. He runs ahead of the parade, and climbs a tree at the side of the road.

Jesus comes along, surrounded by the crowd, everyone talking at once. He looks up, and sees—and everyone else in the crowd sees as well—Zacchaeus hanging from a branch over the roadway.

I mean, really!

Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector of the district, the baddest bad guy in town, hanging over the path, with his robe hitched up around his knees, hat knocked half-off to one side…they could hardly stifle the giggles, not daring to openly guffaw, but what else could you do?

And in the midst of all this commotion, Jesus stands looking up. Gazing at a man hanging from a tree, the object of laughter and derision by the crowd. He sees Zaccheus there, really sees him. He stands, not saying one single word. And when the laughter stops, he speaks so that everyone can hear.

Zacchaeus—come down ! Hurry, do not delay, for I must stay at your house today.

What did he say? He’s going to stay at HIS house? Surely not—of all people, can you imagine, I never heard of such a thing, what could he be thinking…chatter chatter chatter, pick-a-little-talk-a-little, cheep cheep cheep…

And so they arrive—Jesus, Zacchaeus and this entire entourage of people, sweeping up to Zacchaeus’ front gate. Poor Mrs. Zacchaeus, whose daily routine has just completely been thrown for a loop, looks with dismay at this enormous lunch crowd. Signaling the cook to put some more water in the soup and mentally counting the extra vessels of wine in the storeroom, she comes to greet the guests.

Zacchaeus stands there, and says to Jesus—with everyone in the crowd overhearing every word—“Look, half of everything I own, I will give away; if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”

“IF I have defrauded” indeed! They all know who he is. Everyone within earshot has been affected, one way or another, by his defrauding others—the neighbors who were victimized; the members of his own household, servants and syncophants and all who benefitted from his shady doings.

It’s not just Zacchaeus’ own decision, you see. Everyone else has a stake in this too. What he does, or does not do, affects many people besides himself. Some who had been struggling and suffering will be relieved; others who have been important and well-off because of his patronage will have to adjust their own expectations. We heard this all the way back at the beginning of Luke’s gospel, in the song of Mary:

God has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.

The grammar of the statement is worth noting. Our translation renders it as a future action: “I WILL give back, I WILL repay four-fold.” But it’s actually not even that far in the future—it might be rendered just as rightly “Even now, see, I am giving back…I am repaying even now…” Did he take out his moneybag and start handing out funds right then and there? Can’t tell…the story doesn’t say.

Jesus approves Zacchaeus’ action, but more than that, he approves Zacchaeus. “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham.” Today salvation has come--not in some distant, future, life-after-death understanding, but now, even now, this day, this moment—the mysterious power of God arrives, to take and bless and gather and restore a broken life into something new, something it had not been before.

For the writer of Luke’s gospel, the use of possessions—wealth—the Stuff, matters enormously. As does the gathering in of those who were outsiders and strangers, the feared and mistrusted ones. Them People.

We’re on the verge of election day, as you have perhaps noticed. The ads are flying thick and fast, with seemingly little regard on either side for careful thought or conversation. The general intention is to get as many voters as possible well and truly “in a fizz, up in a tree.” One of the favorite tools toward this end is fear—fear of “them people”, whether that means out-of-touch leaders in the state house or out-of-sight strangers who want to take over and ruin everything for “US.” Whoever “US” might be imagined to include—it certainly requires someone to be “not US.” Them people, again.

Jesus confronts this notion this morning. In the presence of people on both sides—those who have been victims of an deeply unjust system, and those who have benefitted from it—he welcomes even the man who stood at the heart of it all. He tells him who he is—a son of Abraham, one of the people of God, no questions asked. And Zacchaeus, for his part, begins something new altogether. His hands and heart are open to give; in the same instant, they are open to receive.

Today salvation has come, because today he gives and shares?
Or, today he gives and shares, because today salvation has come?

Yes. Exactly. That’s just it.
May it be so for us; may it be so among us.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

22 Pentecost, Year C, 24 October 2010

Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox
Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18;Luke 18:9-14

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

Jesus and his followers are getting close to Jerusalem. They’ve been on the road for a long time, and they can almost see the temple mount in the distance. Time is running out; they know what’s going to happen when they get there.

What they don’t want to talk about—nor do we—is that death awaits. The world as they have known it will come to an end. Jesus has been very clear with them that he is on the way to his final departure, his “exodus” as it was called earlier in the gospel, and like the Exodus in the earlier history of Israel, this crossing over will lead his followers into a new life they cannot yet imagine.

Jesus has been teaching them about the Kingdom of God all this time. This strange kingdom is like no other kingdom they—or we—have ever known. It is not about power or prestige; it is not about dominating other people or remaining dignified and aloof. Quite the opposite.

Jesus tells a parable this morning about two men, praying in the temple. One man is clearly the good guy: He does all the right things; he observes the rituals of his religious tradition; he gives ten percent of his income (that’s before taxes, by the way) to the priests. We would like him. This is someone we would welcome with open arms into our congregation, and probably send his name to Bill Mccuch as a potential vestry member.

The other man is a T-total mess. Our translation has “tax collector” but the term “extortionist goon” might be a more dynamic image. This is someone who has sold out to the occupying Roman political system, and is shaking his own people down for everything he can get out of them. He has grown rich by the exploitation of others; his own mother and brothers cross the street to avoid him; he is corrupt to the core.

And there they are, both of them together in the temple. Why they are there—who knows? The good guy would probably be there anyway, he was certainly one of the regulars. Maybe he was serving as the Vestryperson on duty that morning. Tony Soprano over in the corner there hasn’t darkened the door of the place in years…not even at the high feasts.

The good guy is thanking God for…well, for being himself. And that’s not a bad thing to be grateful for. But he’s more than a little impressed with his own good-doing, you’ll notice. “Thank you that I’m not like ‘them people’”. Especially THAT guy over there… And Jesus’ hearers would agree, that being THAT GUY would be a terrible thing.

Meanwhile Tony in the corner—for whatever reason he even showed up that day—looks down at his shoes. Won’t even lift his face to see the other people in the room. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He knows who he is, that he is NOT one of the good guys, that he does NOT have his life together in any ordinary sense of the term, that he is totally outside the boundaries. Definitely and assuredly one of “Them People.” Completely and Wholly Other.

This one, Jesus says, went home justified before God. He knew he needed mercy, and he asked for it, and God gave it.

Justified and justification are some of those churchy words that have picked up a lot of associations over the years. But I want you to think for a second in a slightly different context. As I write the words to this sermon, I can decide how I want the printed page to look. I can, with a couple of keystrokes, cause the words of the paragraph to line up vertically on the left, or on the right, or both at the same time. I tell the computer: “Justify the text”—that is, set the words in a particular relationship with one another. The words themselves—black dots on a white screen—have no agency in the situation, I can do with them whatever I like.

God’s justification—sometimes called “rightwising,” setting in right relationship, putting back in order—is frequently unlike our notions of such things. We want an apology when we have been wronged; we want to see the guilty punished and the innocent vindicated; we demand to see suffering visited on those who have caused suffering. (“O daughter of Babylon”, Psalm 137 again…) But this is not what Jesus is up to; not today, not on the cross of Calvary. (My ways are not your ways; nor are my thoughts your thoughts, says the Lord. Isaiah 55:8)

Tony goes home justified before God apparently because God desires Tony, and responds in mercy to his plea. Our good guy, our friend who does all the right things and keeps himself out of trouble, whom we would far rather have as a next-door neighbor, as a colleague, as a leader in any religious community, apparently thinks that he’s got it all together. That he’s doing fine—thanks God, much appreciated—but that that’s all he needs.

“Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves, and regarded others with contempt.” One of the most common and most seductive ways of making ourselves feel better about who we are, is to calculate who’s below us in the pecking order. We’ve all seen the bumper sticker: “I may be slow, but I’m ahead of you!” But then again, we’re all behind someone too…staring at their backside, possibly tailgating a bit, or a lot. This is the calculation of the old kingdom; the power plays and one-upmanship; the endless competition and addiction to success that the world has known from the beginning.

Jesus comes, preaching and teaching; healing the sick and raising the dead; proclaiming a kingdom that is in, but not of, that world and its addiction to success. In fact, he tells his hearers, the kingdom is found in the unlikeliest places and people. Among the last, the least, the lost and the dead is God most often found—for they know they don’t have their lives together, not even in the slightest. And in losing, and getting lost, in giving up the old game and dying—not just the big final breath, but all the little deaths and losses along the way—we also have the opportunity every day to find the kingdom. To cry out, when we can’t even take our eyes off our own shoetops: God, have mercy on me, a sinner. To repent, to turn around, to return to the God of mercy and welcome and healing and forgiveness and resurrection from the dead. The dying and rising of Jesus is the pattern for our lives as Christians; day by day, minute by minute, we are invited into deeper awareness and enactment of that reality. It is not about good-doing (although that may be a by-product); it is not about one-upmanship or a kind of churchified competitiveness that is simply the same-old-same-old with a cross stuck on top of it. It is about entering into a living mystery that changes us, first and last, into the image and likeness of Christ.

In the short story Revelation, Georgia author Flannery O’Connor tells of a day in the life of Ruby Turpin, a woman who has spent most of her life quite convinced that she is on the side of the good guys. But on this particular day, that certainty is compromised. In a doctor’s office waiting room, Ruby is attacked by a young woman with the remarkable name of Mary Grace—who literally throws a book across the room at her. In the melee which follows, Mary Grace and Ruby Turpin are very close together, and Mary Grace says to her: “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.”

Ruby is stunned by this communication, and goes home and thinks about it. She demands an answer: How am I a good person, and a wart hog from hell too? At the last, she is standing out in a field, angrily yelling at God: “Who do you think you are?”

…The sun slipped behind the treeline. Mrs. Turpin remained there… At last, she lifted her head. There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk…A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw this streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black [folk] in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were [singing] on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away…In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.
At length she got down…and made her slow way on the darkening path to the house. In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.

1 "Revelation" from Flannery o'Connor: The Complete Stories,(New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 1971), p. 508

Monday, October 18, 2010

19 Pentecost, Year C, 3 October 2010

Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 137; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:1-10
The Waters of Remembrance, preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

“By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion.”

The people of God are in exile, carried away as prisoners of war from their homes, their very lives, everything they have known. They have seen their houses destroyed; they have seen the city, the temple, in ruins; they have seen it all. They are on the verge of forgetting who they are: If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill/Let my tongue adhere to the roof of my mouth.” The singer, the musician, pleads to be rendered mute and silent, in the face of this tragedy. “How CAN we sing the songs of God, away from God’s house, away from our own home?”

They have seen what no one should ever, ever, ever have to see. And in remembering that sight, their sadness turns to rage. To anger. To a call for vengeance.

“Oh Daughter of Babylon…happy the one who takes your children and dashes them against the rocks!”

They have seen what no parent should ever, ever, ever have to see. And we see their anger, their rage—which we do not want to see, or hear, or experience. Because it makes us too uncomfortable.

Until the current revision of the Sunday lectionary, whenever this psalm was appointed for public worship, it cut off after the sixth verse. Sadness—that was more or less okay. Anger, rage, fury…we can’t talk about that here. Not in church. Not where we’re supposed to all be nice, all the time.

I have two words for that. One is Bull. The other sounds like Spit. Which is what I sometimes want to do, when I see or hear things that no one should see or hear. If we cannot tell the truth here, in the assembly of the baptized, in the presence of God “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid” then what exactly is the point of all this?

We get angry. We feel rage. We long to see vengeance visited on those who have wronged us, or have violated those whom we love. Think of 9-11. Where were you, when you heard the first news that morning? And felt all the shock, and grief, and heart-stopping fear…all that at first, and later the other.

It’s not pretty, and it’s not easy, and it’s not nice. But it is real. We did, and we do, feel all these things at times. And the psalms, more than any other book of the Bible, deal with that reality. Never more so than in this passage this morning.

This is the voice of a parent—a mother, a father—who has witnessed something unspeakable. And yet they must speak now, even as they struggle for the words. The words come forth unbidden, even unwanted…but fierce and raw and searing in their power.

Two Saturdays ago I went to Savannah, to attend a training for clergy and church staff and volunteers, called Safeguarding God’s Children. This is a nation-wide program of the Episcopal Church intended to make churches and church workers aware of, and attentive to, the issues of sexual misconduct and abuse of “the little ones.” The statistics are horrifying: one out of every four women, and one out of every five men, has been a victim of such abuse by the age of eighteen. Over sixty percent of these acts are performed by people who are known to the families: friends, community leaders, authority figures of some kind. I saw, on the video interviews with the victims and their families, the same sorrow and grief and anger of which the psalmist sings.

I heard stories that turned my blood to icewater. Stories of experiences that no one—especially a child, one of the little ones Jesus speaks of—should ever, ever, ever have to go through. And the common theme through all of these, articulated by the victims, by the parents and families, by the community leaders of church and school and social agency, was always: We should have talked about this before it happened. We should have told someone what we saw. We should have said something.

Silence can be golden—but it can be deadly as well.

The reason for this Safeguarding God’s Children training, is to open the conversation at all levels—the local parish church, and in and around family tables, and at the diocesan and national levels too. To go ahead and Say Something while there is time—not to create fear and anxiety, but to build strong boundaries in our churches. To let our communities of faith know “This is a safe place for everyone.” And to let anyone who might have mischief on their minds know “This place is too difficult for you—you won’t get the silence and secrecy you need—move along!”

We may not be able to change national statistics. But we can change what we do, here at home, about keeping our life together as safe, and honest, and transparent as possible. And please understand—I am not suggesting that “we have a problem” here at St. Augustine’s. But I want to see that we don’t. So here’s my pledge to you, as your priest in charge:

• We will watch over each other, and speak up if we see or hear something inappropriate or even just a bit “off”;
• We will observe appropriate boundaries, honoring one another physically and emotionally, while continuing to love and care for one another;
• We will make this place a safe place for all people, as we seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves and as we respect the dignity of every human being.

In your bulletin this morning there is an insert, with some information about these things. Phone numbers, and contact data. Please take it with you when you leave church. Put it somewhere visible—on the refrigerator or your dresser mirror. Know that if you call one of those phone numbers, you may do so with complete anonymity. You don’t have to “get involved” beyond that. The people trained in these matters will do the work that may need to be done.

If you have a story to tell, and would like to tell it, I want you to call me. Or email me…I will be the only one who hears or reads what you have to say. We can meet here at church, or go to lunch, or find a time and place that is agreeable. But part of this whole process of getting real, is getting the stories out there. Not for general examination and discussion and dissection—but so that healing can happen. So that those feelings of sadness and grief and anger and hurt and all of it, can be released, to burden you no longer.

When Jesus addresses his friends this morning in the gospel lesson, he’s talking to the inner circle—the leadership. Remember that the gospels are not eyewitness accounts of the events they describe, but rather are written down quite some time later. So it’s just possible that Jesus, as Luke tells the story, is addressing the leadership of a second or even third generation of church authorities. “Don’t think that YOU all are the masters of all this, folks. You are here to serve those who are in your care—the little ones. The vulnerable ones. The ones to whom the Kingdom of God belongs…God’s kingdom and power and authority are not your possessions to hold onto. And they are certainly not to be used against the little ones. Anyone who abuses their power like that is better off with cinderblocks on their feet, in the middle of the Savannah river.”

The letter to Timothy takes this theme as well. The language of being “the prisoner of the Lord” is similar to Jesus’ language of slaves and service. Jesus and his friends and contemporaries knew that the world they lived in was hierarchical—that everyone was under the supervision and authority of someone else. Maybe another person, but even more likely a power or energy or spirit that was entirely nonhuman. (We don’t like that idea, we rugged individualists. Independence, free agency—that’s our preferred mode of operation.) But the fact is, we’re all somewhere in the pyramid. We’re all under the authority, and the influence, of someone—in fact, many someones—other than ourselves.

To be “in Christ” as we read this morning, is to place ourselves under Christ’s authority and protection and leadership. The one who is “in Christ” has become a servant in the household of God. We who are in Christ will deliberately, intentionally, and continually reject all those false gods and promises which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. We will “repent and return to the Lord” (Metanoia again, you remember that word) when we fall into sin.

You may have noticed I’m quoting the baptismal covenant quite a bit. I hope you did—because I meant that you should. These words are words of transformation for us, who claim Christ as Lord and Savior (yes, even in the Episcopal Church!); they are for us a symbol of our identity. They are the articulated reminders of “our highest joy”, our Jerusalem, our true home. They are not a talisman against bad things happening to us, they will not protect us from trouble as such. But they are who we are; they are our constitutional identity as the people of the crucified and risen Christ, in whose death and rising from death all our life, and all our death, is transformed and made new.

As you come to communion this morning, I invite you to dip your hand in the water in the font, there in the aisle. Put some on your forehead, with the sign of the cross. Remember your baptism: remember who you are, and whose you are. This is the sign, this is the mark, this is the brand by which we are known, sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own for ever.

By the waters…we remembered. And we are re-membered, put back together as God’s beloved. For that is who we are, when we feel like it—and even when we don’t.

21 Pentecost, Year C, October 17, 2010

Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119: 97-104; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8
Justification, Redemption and the Hokey Pokey, preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

For some years now I’ve been musing on the theological implications of the Hokey Pokey. You remember the Hokey Pokey? How does it go…you put your right hand in, you put your right hand out, you put your right hand in, and you shake it all about. You do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself around; that’s what it’s all about.

Depending on who’s calling the song lyrics, this can go on for a LONG time. Elbows, knees, your backside, any and all body parts are eligible to be included in the dance.

I was thinking of the Hokey Pokey this week, because of all the body parts mentioned in the appointed scriptures. Jeremiah, still held captive in Jerusalem, writes to the exiles in Babylon and quotes a proverb: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” This seems to be another way of saying that the consequences of sin are multigenerational. But, says Jeremiah, this is about to change. “No longer shall that proverb be used…no longer shall they teach one another…but all shall know me, and all shall carry my teaching written on their hearts.” God is doing a new thing, and everyone—the tall and the small—shall be restored.

To carry God’s teaching written on the heart is not merely a mental exercise. For the people of Jeremiah’s time, and Jesus’s followers as well, the heart was the seat of the will and the intention. The whole self was symbolized by the heart—the emotional center was located further south, in the bowels. (Charles Wesley, the famous 18th century hymn writer, used that imagery when he wrote a lyric addressing God’s kindness: “To me, to all, thy bowels move.” We don’t sing that anymore. For good reason.)

Lift up your hearts! I will bid you in a few minutes. We lift them to the Lord! you will answer back. There too, the heart represents all that we are, our totality as individuals and as a community. Not just our emotional state at the moment.

When the psalmist sings this morning “How sweet are your words to my taste! They are sweeter than honey to my mouth” he is using a metaphor (the mouth, eating, as the “consuming” of God’s teaching ) describing the antidote to that nerve-jangling sour experience Jeremiah mentions, of the children’s teeth set on edge. He describes his own behavior: “I restrain my feet from every evil way/ that I may keep your word.”

And yet in the second letter to Timothy we hear of feet that go wandering away to strange teachings. We hear of “itching ears” that want to hear comfortable and easy and soothing words, rather than the message that God intends to send. Never mind them Timothy; you have your work before you. And you have the tools with which to do it—from childhood, when Mother and Grandmother told you the stories of faith and prepared you for this ministry which you now have taken on. Never mind the scoffers; you know what to do. You know the message you are bringing.

Jesus and his friends are walking the way to Jerusalem. Their feet, and their hearts, are pointed in a particular direction. And it’s getting a little bit scary—they know it’s not going to be easy. Jesus tells them a parable which, Luke says, is “about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” But I’m not sure that’s really what it’s about at all. The story of the unjust judge, as it’s often called, is troublesome—mostly because it makes us reevaluate who we think God is. The language of judges and judgment is alarming to many of us, because we’ve been taught to believe, in our heart of hearts, that for whatever reason we’re going to come up short. That we are lacking something, somehow. That we are not good enough.

This judge in the story is apparently not very good either—he would be properly disbarred by the Jerusalem judicial review board. At the least, we know he’s not interested in proving himself to anyone—God or humanity. But he is an important person in the culture. Some Body.

A widow comes to him. We’ve been talking about Bodies—and here is the No Body to beat all. No husband, no children, no means of support…she is as good as dead in that time and place. She’s not quite as far over the edge as the ten lepers in Samaria, but pretty close. And she keeps bugging him, day in and day out. Give me a favorable ruling against my adversary.

She has no merit to her case, no real grounds for action—and the judge first refuses to have anything to do with it. But finally he’s so tired of listening to her, he throws up his hands and says “Okay, enough, you win!” I will give you justice—actually, I will JUSTIFY YOU—before your adversaries.

I will justify you. You have no merit to your case, you’re wearing me out talking, you’re as good as dead—I will justify you. The unjust judge doesn’t care to be known for his fairness in making judgments—he gives justification even to the unworthy, the frivolous, and the dead. He is indiscriminate in his awarding vindication to those who do not deserve it in the slightest.

Jesus is on his way to the cross. To the place of death, and destruction, and the loss of everything—and there he will justify us all. The tall and the small, the great and the miniscule, and especially the least, the last, the lost and the dead. Regardless of merit, regardless of deserving: his unjust death in a place of degradation and rejection will become the instrument of justification—rightwising, the restoration of right relationship—for all of us.

At the end of the Hokey Pokey, however long it has gone on, and however many strange body parts have been involved, the final verse of the song calls the dancers to “put your whole self in, and shake it all about, and turn yourself around…” All the testing and trying and half-attempts now come together—everyone in, all that you have to bring, now. Heart and mind and soul and body. Jesus comes to the cross in the fullness of his own self, and in that fullness he redeems the fullness of all that we are, or were, or ever will be. And it is this faithfulness—not our own belief, much or little as it may be—this faithfulness of Jesus, even unto death, to which we look in hope, at the coming of the Son of Man on the day of judgment and grace.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

18 Pentecost, Year C, September 26, 2010

Jeremiah 32:1-3a; Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31
There’s Always More , preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

A great writer, or painter, or composer always creates more than he or she knows at the time. That’s why certain literature and paintings and music are great—there’s always more to learn, each time you hear that music or see that painting or read that story. There’s always more there to discover, the next time and the next.

In our gospel this morning, Jesus has been teaching and preaching and getting a lot of attention, and some of it decidedly negative. The Pharisees and the scribes are eavesdropping on him, as he tells his close friends the story about the Shrewd Steward (our Gospel lesson from last week) and how they also should be a bit street-smart about dealing with “The Stuff”—the possessions, the wealth, the skills they have been given, for the good of God’s kingdom.

A verse we did not read this morning, tells us that the Pharisees and scribes were “lovers of money.” This is a useful accusation if you’re intending to do a little character assassination—in Jesus’ time and in our own. The author of Luke is setting up a distinction, between those who hear Jesus’ message and follow him—which includes being generous with the Stuff—and those who do not follow, but cling tightly to their Stuff.

Jesus tells the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus. The rich man lived in luxury. Not just “well off”, this guy is LOADED. Purple cloth and linen signify the highest ranks of a hierarchical society; “feasted sumptuously every day” is the language of a celebration or a banquet—not just on Thanksgiving or a birthday or special occasion, but every day.

Lazarus was there at his gate, every day. In the Mediterranean world, to this day, houses are built with walls facing the street, enclosing the courtyard and then the living quarters beyond. The only way in, and the only way out, is through the gated doorway leading to and from the street. Lazarus was there, every day, as the rich man came in and out, going about his business.

Jesus’ hearers would have accepted as common sense the idea that material wealth and physical health were signs of God’s blessing and favor upon those who deserved it; likewise that poverty, disaster and disease were indicators of God’s disfavor or condemnation. Someone—either Lazarus himself or his parents—probably committed some grievous sin that brought down God’s punishment, in the form of this sickness, these sores and oozing wounds. We’re not so far from Lazarus and the rich man sometimes, in thinking such thoughts ourselves.

Both the rich man and Lazarus die and are buried, and here the story takes a turn. Instead of being rewarded with continued blessing and approval, the rich man finds himself in Sheol. (This is not “Hell” by the way, most of our ideas of which come not from Scripture at all, but from a remarkable work of medieval science-fiction by the poet Dante Alegheri, the Divine Comedy.) Nevertheless, the rich man expected to be received into the place of refreshment and welcome (and why not—he always had been treated so before?) and is surprised to discover Lazarus in that place instead, and himself somewhere else entirely.

He calls across to Father Abraham. “Send Lazarus over here to bring me a drink of water.” Not even Please, mind you. “Come heah, boy…” It’s very Thurston Howell the Third of him, you know? This is the first time he’s actually noticed Lazarus, after stepping over him in the threshold for years. He was never mean to Lazarus; he never threatened to call the authorities or tried to run him off…he just ignored him. He ignored the fact that there was a human being in need at his own front door.

“Child,” says Father Abraham, “Remember that in your lifetime you received all the good things.” If we are listening carefully, we hear in that response an echo from Jesus’ teaching at the beginning of Luke’s gospel, in the Sermon on the Plain.

“Woe to you who are rich now, for you have received your consolation.” (Luke 6:24)
You’ve got the Stuff—that may be all you’re going to get. Now or later.

But then Jesus continues, later in the same passage:
“Love your enemies, do good and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:35-36) Another translation has it as “Be Generous, as your Father is generous.”

“Father Abraham!” the rich man cries. And he has the right to call, he too is of the lineage of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, a descendant of the family of Israel. But that’s not enough, Jesus says to his hearers. Family heritage is all very well, but what are you doing with that heritage? How are you living up to those ideals? You call yourself a child of Abraham, one of the chosen people of God—are you doing what God’s children do?

We call ourselves Christians, followers of Jesus Christ. Are we doing what Jesus’ followers do?

Yes, at least sometimes we do. Sometimes we manage (even perhaps in spite of ourselves) to see what is right under our noses, at our own front doors.

This past week, “Joe” called the church office from Doctor’s Hospital. He was asking for a visit, and the prayers and anointing for healing. He is not a member of our congregation; he was on his way home to New York, after having gone to Florida for cancer treatment, when he took sick and had to go to the emergency room. Joe was one of the first responders on 9-11 in lower Manhattan, and his lungs are now full of asbestos.

Before I could go over to Doctor’s Hospital and visit him, Joe was released. He walked all the way to St. Augustine’s, with surgical stitches in his stomach, and was waiting in the office when I got out of a meeting. We went into my office and talked; we went into church and prayed; I gave him communion and the anointing he had asked for.

He had arranged transportation to New York the next day, but had no place to spend the night. So we made arrangements for a hotel room, and I took him to Target for a few necessaries—clean underwear and toothpaste.

I don’t know if everything he told me was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And guess what? It doesn’t matter anyway. “Be generous, as God himself is generous…” And your generosity, as the people of St. Augustine’s, made it possible for us to help this man.

I saw the church in action that day. Feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick and helping the dying to die with dignity. The corporal acts of mercy in our stained glass windows came down and took on flesh and bone and blood that day. We saw a need, we used our Stuff to help meet that need.

I tell you, my friends: It is as much wickedness to ignore or neglect someone—especially someone that vulnerable—as to slap them in the face or beat them with a stick.

But this parable of Lazarus and the rich man is a great story, because there is more to it than just “Take care of people,” important as that is. The last line gives us the clue: “…neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” As Christians we can’t hear those words and not have our ears perk up. Who is this Jesus is talking about? Yes, well…

Around the year 1515, an artist known to us as Matthias Grunewald created a series of paintings for a hospital chapel in modern-day France. The monks of this monastery hospital were famous for treating skin diseases, and when Grunewald painted the scene of Jesus on the cross, he inflicted the symptoms of those diseases onto Jesus. The muscles are knotted in spasm, the skin is blotched and broken and sticky with dried blood and oozing wounds—it is NOT a pretty picture. But it is a picture of reality, in that place. The patients of the hospital, looking at that painting in their chapel, saw Jesus looking like themselves. They saw themselves looking like him.

Jesus comes to us as Lazarus himself—in the little ones, in the lost ones, in the sick and the dying and the dead ones. For only in this can resurrection come; only in this can one discover “The Lord is risen indeed” and enter that repentance, that change of mind and heart, that even the Rich Man in his foolishness and vanity, asks for this morning.

May it be so with us; may it be so among us.

17 Pentecost, Year C, September 19, 2010

Jeremiah 8:18 – 9:1; Psalm 79:1-9 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16: 1-13
About the Stuff, preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

One hundred and fifty.

That’s how many boxes of books were carried into my house by the moving company eighteen days ago. That’s just books, mind you. One hundred and fifty banker’s boxes worth.

Is that nuts or what? I mean, really…

Too much stuff!

There are a half dozen reality television shows on the air right now—some in the home improvement genre, others more in the style of a documentary, all dealing with the same subject: People whose “stuff” has gotten out of control, and is compromising their quality of life or even putting them in physical danger. Too much stuff—no place to put it, no way to keep it organized, it’s taking over!

Jesus is talking to his followers this morning about “stuff.” And how it can be used, or abused, or even deadly.

He’s telling them a remarkable story, sometimes called “The Unfaithful Steward.” The rich landowner discovers that his property manager has been up to no good, or at least he suspects as much. He doesn’t fire him on the spot—but he asks him to produce the accounts for a review, prior to his dismissal.

This manager sees what’s about to happen, and starts making his own arrangements. He calls in everyone on his master’s accounts receivable list, and invites them to rewrite their respective bills. The idea is that, when he is dismissed from his master’s service, all these people to whom he has given a bargain rate, will in turn help him out as occasion may arise.

Here’s the twist: Jesus tells his hearers that “the master commended the dishonest manager—because he had acted shrewdly.” Not for his ethics, but for his street smarts.

Oceans of ink have been spilled over this story, with commentators through the centuries tying themselves into knots trying to square the circle. The problem seems to be that God (signified by the master in the story) is giving the wink to some decidedly shady business practices.

But I think we’ve got to read this parable as more than a fable or a morality tale. Actually, we have to read ALL Jesus’ parables that way, but often we don’t because they’ve become such commonplaces, all the shock value has worn off. Not with this one!

Jesus has just finished telling the crowds three parables about Lost and Found, and the One who seeks and finds. The lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost child (a.k.a. the Prodigal Son.) These parables are actually more about God’s activity, in seeking the lost ones, than anything else. And now Jesus turns to his close friends, his inner circle, and tells this parable of the Steward, who is in trouble specifically for “squandering his master’s property.” (16:1) The Steward has been doing exactly the same thing that the Prodigal Son was doing, just a few verses earlier, when he takes his portion of the father’s estate “…to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.” (15:13)

When the steward is caught in this squandering behavior, what does he do? Does he stop doing it, try to collect the debts and balance the books? He does not.

He keeps on squandering—even more than before. He “gives away the farm” or at least a considerable percentage of it, to those who will benefit directly from his actions.

I think Jesus may be telling this story at least in part for the shock value of it. He’s already told the religious leaders in earshot to get over themselves about feeling wronged because “them people” are being welcomed into God’s household; I wonder if he’s not compounding the effect by this story. “You think that last story was extravagant? Just listen to this!”

The writer of the Gospel of Luke (and the Book of Acts, which is Volume 2 of the story) is concerned with a few major themes, two of which are significant in this passage.

Theme 1) The surprising visitation of the Lord, which comes unexpectedly and turns everything upside down.
Theme 2) The use of possessions, wealth. “Stuff.”

When the Steward realizes that his Lord and master is about to visit a financial audit on him and turn HIS life upside down, he uses the possessions available to him (not really his own, however) to do something immediately beneficial to others, and only indirectly beneficial to himself. He’s not squirreling the money away in an offshore bank account—he’s handing out debt relief to those who need it!

Jesus tells this crazy story and then goes on to say a few words about “if one is faithful in small things, then so also they will be faithful in large things.” The last part of this morning’s lesson, verses 10-13, is a bit convoluted, but it moves the reader from the story Jesus has just told into the question of stewardship in general, and wealth in particular.

This phrase “dishonest wealth” in vs. 9 and again in vs. 13 at the end of this morning’s portion of the Gospel is the word Mammon. That word Mammon was understood to be a kind of personal name, the personification of money or possessions—of “the Stuff”. It stands for anything—money, possessions, personal relationships—that gets in the way of our relationship with God. So Jesus sets “the two masters”, God and Mammon, in opposition to one another. It is either this one or that one; compromise is not an option.

Jesus seems to be challenging those of us for whom “the stuff” has become our first priority to think again. To change our minds, change the direction in which we’re going. To repent, in other words. To commit an act of metanoia—you remember that word from last week. Turn around, you just missed your exit, go back and try again, please.

The Stuff is not God. Posessions, money, status, relationships with other people—as good and useful and important as all these things are—none of them will bring us the God-filled life that Jesus speaks of, when he talks about the Kingdom of God. But they are useful when we do the work of God with them. When we use what is available to us—as did the Shrewd Steward in the parable—in the service of the Kingdom of God.

We have a list of a few ways we can do that, right in front of us as we walk out of church every Sunday. It’s in the window in the vestibule, just outside those doors. The traditional corporal acts of mercy are on display, reminding us of our vocation as followers of Christ. Have you seen them there?

There are seven of them:
To feed the hungry;
To give drink to the thirsty;
To clothe the naked;
To shelter the homeless;
To visit the sick
To ransom the captives; and
To bury the dead.

Doing such things, and others like them, for the sake of people who are not part of our church family—who may be total strangers—is part of God’s invitation to us this morning. Such deeds remind us that our Stuff—however much of it we may have, a little or a lot—is God’s gift in the first place. The stuff is not ours anyway. It never was.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

16 Pentecost, Year C, Sept. 12, 2010

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
“Them People”, preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

Jesus is in trouble. Again. For hanging out with the wrong people, and particularly for not having the good sense to know that he certainly shouldn’t have them over for dinner. Any good respectable rabbi ought to know better than to associate with “them people.”

You know “them people?” We’ve all got some. Either they’re the wrong economic status, or the wrong level of education, or the wrong ethnic ancestry, or the wrong gender, or the wrong something. The ones that we’re pretty sure are beyond God’s reach…and certainly they’re beyond our wanting to deal with them.

Jesus is getting some serious flak from the Pharisees and the scribes. And remember, the Pharisees and the scribes are NOT evil people—they’re actually trying (for the most part) to engage the people of Israel as fully as possible with the religious observance of Israel. They’re trying to get as many people as possible involved in “doing it the right way.” But part of doing it the right way—observing the behaviors of faith—meant keeping away from “them people.” The disreputable ones; the ones who were clearly beyond God’s reach.

Jesus isn’t buying it—not then, not ever. He’s just gotten through telling his hearers “Don’t be grabbing the chairs at the head table when you get invited to the country club for Sunday lunch” and “Don’t think that having a bunch of stuff is going to give you the life you’re looking for.” Status and possessions will not get you into the kingdom of Heaven…not in this life or any other. Then, or now.

And after all this he says: “Let whoever has ears to hear, listen!”

“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.” Them people! The very ones who, according to the social code of the time, were clearly out of the question, out of the loop, out of range for God to do anything with them at all. Unacceptable.

The fact that this accusation against Jesus (“This fellow receives sinners and eats with them”) appears in the scriptural account at all testifies to the truth of the statement. Because if I sit down to write the biography of someone I admire, I’m going to make that person look good. I might actually omit some things that would reflect badly on him or her, if I thought they weren’t very important. Jesus’ critics have a point—table fellowship with the unworthy and the outsiders is a violation of the purity codes of Judaism. These critics are not only attacking Jesus, but his followers as well. Remember that the Gospels are written several decades after the events they describe—it’s not only Jesus who’s hanging out with “them people” now, it’s those who follow him who are doing the same thing.

Jesus answers by telling three stories: The lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost child. We hear only two of them this morning, but you’ve got to remember the third one, which is waiting just outside the picture frame.

All of these are set up as stories of repentance—“there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents/there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Repent and repentance are interesting words, which Jesus uses quite a lot. As does his cousin John the Baptist; as do the prophets of Israel from of old. The Greek word is metanoia—say that with me: Metanoia. It means something like “turn around, change the direction you’re going, change the way you think about this situation.”

An act of metanoia would be required if, for instance, I took the eastbound exit off 520 when I wanted to go to Atlanta. How fast would I realize “Oh shinola, that’s not what I wanted to do!” And I very well might pop myself on the head for being a nitwit, or not paying attention. I might need to pull over and check the map, or even (heaven forbid for the male of the species) ask directions! But what I would not do—I hope—would be to sit there on the side of the road and moan and groan and carry on and feel miserable for being so dumb. I would take the next exit, turn around, and get back on the road toward my intended destination.

Metanoia—repentance—is not about feeling guilty or ashamed. It is about turning around, back toward God and God’s kingdom. Which is what Jesus is constantly pointing his hearers toward, in preaching and healing and feeding and dying and rising from the dead—it’s always, always, always about discovering and going into the kingdom of God.

But here’s the thing about these stories of metanoia, of repentance, in Luke 15.

A sheep is too dumb to repent, to turn around. I’ve never worked with sheep myself, other than in the form of lamb chops from the cold case at Kroger, but I’ve been told that they are the dumbest animals around. Any shepherd would be a fool to leave ninety-nine of them alone, wandering and unprotected to go after a single one—but this shepherd does just that. The sheep is too stupid to do anything to help itself, the shepherd does it all.

A coin cannot repent, cannot pop up and turn around and roll back out from under the bed or the chair or wherever it’s rolled off to. The woman who tears the house apart looking for this coin is doing all the work of seeking and finding and gathering the neighbors for a party—Rejoice with me, I have found… Yes, she does the finding.

The third story which we did not read, is the story of the lost child—or as we know it, The Prodigal Son. The younger of the two brothers takes his share of the family fortune, wastes it, and ends up feeding the pigs of a farmer in a distant land. Finally, at last, he sees what a mess he’s made of it all (He ‘comes to himself’ as the NRSV says) and decides to go home and ask for a job as one of his father’s day laborers. He even practices the little speech he will give when he arrives, so that he’ll know what to say.

Meanwhile the father, who has been standing out in the road, waiting for him every day since he left, sees him coming and runs to meet him. The son tries to say his little speech of humiliation and beg for mercy—and the father will not even let him finish, he’s covering his face with kisses and tears of joy. The Prodigal Father then orders a party, with feasting and dancing, which thoroughly cheeses off the elder brother who is completely put out with this attitude of welcome and acceptance. It’s not fair that someone who’s been so bad should be treated so well!

No, by the standards of the world as we normally know it, it’s not. By God’s standards—of mercy, love and grace, however…that’s another matter altogether.

These stories Jesus tells: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost child, form a three-panel image called a triptych. Do you know that word, triptych? It’s like our three lancet windows at the back of the church—a large center image with two other images, one on each side, and all three of the images comment on and interact with one another. These three stories have to be held together to make sense of one another, and to begin to understand what Jesus is trying to get across to his hearers.

These stories of metanoia—repentance, turning around and returning to the Shepherd, the Coin-Hunter, the Prodigal Father—are actually less about the one who returns (the sheep, the coin, the child) and much more about the one doing the seeking and hunting and waiting. The Shepherd, the Coin-Hunter, and the Prodigal Father are all images of God, arrayed together so that “those who have ears to hear” cannot help but see and perceive and understand—and perhaps, themselves, be converted. Turned in their thinking, turned in their actions toward one another, and in particular toward “them people.”

It is not only Jesus who’s being criticized this morning for hanging out with “them people.” His followers are criticized for doing the same thing.

What would happen if St. Augustine’s Church began to get a reputation around Augusta for being the church that received sinners and ate with them? What kind of trouble would we get into? What vision of the Kingdom of God might we discover in that event?

I wonder…

Friday, September 10, 2010

15 Pentecost, Year C, September 5, 2010

Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33
In Which We Say Goodbye, preached by Rev. Peter Courtney

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN was going away. Nobody knew why he was going; nobody knew where he was going; indeed, nobody even knew why he knew that Christopher Robin was going away. But somehow or other everybody in the Forest felt that it was happening at last. One day when he felt that he couldn't wait any longer, Rabbit brained out a Notice, and this is what it said:

"Notice a meeting of everybody will meet at the House at Pooh Corner to pass a Rissolution By Order Keep to the Left Signed Rabbit."

He had to write this out two or three times before he could get the rissolution to look like what he thought it was going to when he began to spell it; but, when at last it was finished, he took it round to everybody and read it out to them. And they all said they would come. . . .

"The rissolution," said Rabbit, "is that we all sign it, and take it to Christopher Robin." So it was signed PooH, WOL, PIGLET, EOR, RABBIT, KANGA, BLOT, SMUDGE, and they all went off to Christopher Robin's house with it.
"Hallo, everybody," said Christopher Robin.
"What is it, Eeyore?" asked Christopher Robin.

Eeyore swished his tail from side to side, so as to encourage himself, and began. "Christopher Robin," he said, "we've come to say-to give you-it's called-written by-but we've all--because we've heard, I mean we all know--well, you see, it's--we--you--well, that, to put it as shortly as possible, is what it is."

Not quite knowing why, the others began edging away. Christopher Robin said, "Come on, Pooh," and he walked off quickly.

"Where are we going?" said Pooh, hurrying after him, and wondering whether it was to be an Explore or a What-shall-I-do-about-you-know-what.
"Nowhere," said Christopher Robin.

So they began going there, and after they had walked a little way Christopher Robin said:
"What do you like doing best in the world, Pooh?"

"What I like best in the whole world is Me and Piglet going to see You, and You saying 'What about a little something?' and Me saying,' Well, I shouldn't mind a little something, should you, Piglet,' and it being a hummy sort of day outside, and birds singing."

"I like that too," said Christopher Robin, "but what I like doing best is Nothing."

Then, suddenly again, Christopher Robin, who was Still looking at the world with his chin in his hands, called out "Pooh!" "Yes?" said Pooh.
I'm not going to do Nothing any more."
"Never again?"
"Well, not so much. They don't let you." Pooh waited for him to go on, but he was silent again.
“Yes, Christopher Robin?" said Pooh helpfully.
“Pooh, when I'm--you know--when I'm not doing Nothing, will you come up here sometimes?"
“Just Me?"
“Yes, Pooh."
"Will you be here too?"
"Yes, Pooh, I will be really. I promise I will be, Pooh."
"That's good," said Pooh.
So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.”

In this edited version of the last Chapter of House at Pooh Corner we get a powerful glimpse of the cost of growing up. Growing up means all the things Christopher Robin says it means: Things will be different; They Won’t let you; doing Nothing is no longer an option; and so on.

The real message in the midst of all this tenderness is the tough reality that everything is going to be different. Yes it is. It always is.

Things do not change; people do. The 100 Acre Wood will endure for close to forever, but the people who come out from the 100 Acre Wood will change because everything is going to be different.

We have spent almost 8 months together dedicated to the Gospel notion that everything will be different. What is nice about an interim is that we get the luxury of deluding ourselves that these changes, these differences, are temporary. They may be temporary, but only because some other change, some other difference, is going to replace them. The Gospel puts it simply: “The First shall be Last and the Last shall be first.”

Everything will be different. Everything. The Gospel is that in the midst of everything being different our relationships sustain us: the relationships with one another and our relationship with God even though these too change over time.

Now St. Augustine’s is part of our treasure chest of relationships that will sustain us into the next chapter. Should it happen that we come back in some future time, everything will be different.

So, be well good friends. God will continue to spend herself for you that your future with your new priest will flourish, change, morph and bear fruit in ways you have no idea about today.

Monday, August 30, 2010

14 Pentecost, Year C, August 29, 2010

Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14
Sitting in the right place, preached by Rev. Peter Courtney

It sure looks like the question of the day is “who should sit next to whom?” Mary Killen gives the following advice in April 2001 article in The Atlantic

“In sophisticated circles there is no question of seating a married couple next to each other. There is an old upper-class joke: ‘I had to marry her. It was the only way I could avoid having to sit next to her at dinner.’

Well bred women are trained to chat first with the gentleman on her left and then, during the next course, to the gentleman on her right. "If you run out of things to say, ask them if they have a dog," mother advises. "Whether the answer is yes or no, that's always good for at least five minutes' conversation." I have a friend who told me recently that a good one is “tell me about the house you grew up in.” Even the most backward conversationalist can manage that and even if they are boring, you don’t have to do the heavy lifting.

Another fixed rule is: "Always put husbands and wives out of each other's earshot; otherwise they keep correcting each other's stories. When they're too near each other, it also stops flirting, which is very important for the chemistry of a dinner party."

It is, of course, stuffy and pompous to want equal numbers of males and females. But, as I never tire of saying, even where it is highly unlikely that any romantic liaisons might spring up at your party, it is more fun if they are theoretically possible between those seated next to each other.

Seating has gotten harder these days. Guests say: "Please don't introduce us to new people—we haven't got time to process the friends we already have. If we are to meet new people, please may we sit next to someone who might be a likely marriage partner, someone famous, someone who will supply us with good anecdotal material that we can later recycle in our own conversational repertoires, or someone who will be of use to us in our careers?"

We move from upper class mores in 21st century England to first century Palestine. Jesus goes to the home of a leader of the Pharisees on the Sabbath. Everyone is watching him closely, eager as always to find fault when he makes a mistake. Jesus ventures into Martha Stewart land and dares to give lessons in etiquette right at the dinner table! Already in the first third of the first century of the Common Era guests are jostling for the prestige places at the table.

Then as now, places of honor were doled out with meticulous planning for the right effect. Then as now when someone moved a place card so they can sit with the right people significant dishonor can result. The gospel writer accuses the Pharisees, the keepers of religious propriety, with this kind of blatant social climbing.

Jesus response to this behavior is not just an etiquette lesson. Nor is he offering a Machiavellian plot on how to vault over the lower echelons of society with one hand tied behind one’s back. No, this is gospel business.

Jesus is describing how God would have it be. He wants us to know how it will be when God’s will is finally fully in place. Jesus is offering a glimpse of the great reversal of accepted values which the kingdom will bring. God is the one who invites us to the table; God is the one who assigns seating; God is the one who measures who is who and what is what. Most important, God uses standards which are different from those we would use left to our own devices.

Having dispensed with social climbing on the part of guests, Jesus starts in on what Kingdom hosting is like. As always hosting is a time for friendliness, kindness, hospitality and concern for others. A self-serving host expects some type of "return" for being nice. There are lots of strings hanging off this gift. If someone can’t be used for payback - cross ‘em off the list.

Jesus offers kingdom behavior instead. Jesus does not suggest merely providing charity for the poor, which was recognized as an honorable thing to do. Jesus pushes the acceptable norm even further: What would it be like simply to be generous for generosity’s sake? What would it be like simply to offer a gift with no expectation of any return?

A couple of years ago I met a law student from Korea. He is here in this country all by himself. He speaks quite adequate English although he struggles with our local idioms.
My heart goes out to him. I can see that this is an alien and lonely experience for him. I am not much help since I talk so fast. He tells me he only gets about one half of what I say. I have been trying to slow down for his benefit. I am aware that when I slow down I can begin to sound patronizing. All this is hard work. And yet I want to know him better. I want his experience in Athens to be more accommodating and less lonely. I am trying to figure out how to offer him hospitality in our home. Truth be told, I see a lot of myself in him.

Meeting this person feels like a gospel encounter, a gospel moment, to me. There is no social cachet involved. Oh, sure, if I manage to be genuinely hospitable I will feel good about my own generosity, but no one else will care. Jesus is offering me a friend. That is worth caring about.

Monday, August 23, 2010

13 Pentecost, Year C, August 22, 2010

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17
Hypocrisy: prejudice with a halo. —Ambrose Bierce, preached by Rev. Peter Courtney

The senior warden and the head of the Sunday School wanted to speak with me. They had the intense looks of people on a mission. Since they were both women they didn’t have skinny black ties on, but they were on the war path.
“You know that Ron is teaching Sunday School this year.”
“Yes, I do.”
“He is teaching directly from the bible.”
“I believe he is.”
“His bible has a zipper on it.”
“I’m pretty sure I noticed that.”
“The words attributed to Jesus are written in red.”
“Somehow that does not surprise me.”
“Well, we can’t have that.”
“Why not?”
“He is teaching a literal interpretation of the bible that hardly any of us believe in.”
“I’m pretty sure that is right. Why can’t we have it?”
“We just don’t believe in that stuff.”
“I know we don’t. How many people are in his class?
“How many members does this congregation have?”
“Around 800.”
“That sounds right. And what is one of the fundamental, if you will excuse the expression, fundamental values of our common life around here?”
“We really value the inclusion of a variety of people . . . .”
Their voices trailed off as they indicted themselves on their own deeply felt core values. They were wonderful people who had been willing to struggle with inclusion issues. The problem arose when inclusion needed to extend to the right, not just to the left. They also had a conversion experience. They came to believe that core values matter. They came to understand that when we make up values they will take us places we may not one to go. I also believe they found out that the unwelcome destination was of God. Ron continued to offer his class to a handful of people who were glad to have him do what he did. It was one of the proudest moments I have had in 42 years of ordained ministry.
The Pharisees had a rule, a rule based on the 4th commandment: Observe the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. Since this was Judaism and a religion, the job of the head people was to parse words like: “keep holy” and “Sabbath day.” After a while, “keep holy” meant not doing much of anything except what the rabbis considered holy. Reading Torah, praying, lots of food were good. Bad was long drives in the country, bowling, jokes, and any kind of activity that could be construed as work. Sabbath day was easier. It was the 24 hours beginning Friday afternoon until sunset on Saturday. Not a minute later or earlier.
I love my GPS. When the sun goes down it changes from daytime to nighttime mode. Now I know exactly when the sun goes down—officially. Don’t need a rabbi for that anymore.
Jesus tells a story about this good Jewish lady who had the arthritis real bad. She’d had it for 18 years and was so stooped she looked like an angle bracket with legs. Jesus heals her on the spot. She doesn’t ask for his help. He sees her condition and heals her. Apparently his GPS was broken since he didn’t know it was the Sabbath! Horrors! He did doctor work on the Sabbath!
The Pharisees quote the rules about the Sabbath. They had Jesus cold on every count. His bad. Not only was Jesus doctoring without a permit or license, he was also adept at practicing religious law without being admitted to the bar.
Jesus comes right back at them: “Who are you people to talk. Even you, you righteous prudes, even you would bring water to your cow on the Sabbath to keep it from suffering or worse, dying. When your money is at risk, so much for Sabbath rules. Further, this woman is a child of Abraham, a card-carrying Jewess who has been suffering for 18 years. And God healed her, not me. So who are you to say that healing is bad on the Sabbath when God goes ahead and does it.”
Of course Jesus is teaching that compassion is at the root of all religious observance, including the Sabbath. I love the cartoon I saw the other day: A Fire station in convent has a sign on it: “In case of fire, break vow of silence.”
I don’t know about you, but if this stuff is good enough for Jesus, it is good enough for me. I think it would be a good time for all of us so-called Christians to look at our core values about religious freedom. I get pretty nervous when modern Pharisees decide for all of us where hallowed ground is and is not.

Monday, August 9, 2010

11 Pentecost, Year C, August 8, 2010

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Psalm 50:1-8; Hebrews 11:-13, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40
Moral Decisions, preached by Rev. Peter Courtney

Jesus also said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, `It is going to rain'; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, `There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?"

How is it hypocritical to predict the weather based on local versions of the farmer’s almanac? Perhaps in the first century when there were no alternatives to folk wisdom about weather, people who could predict it accurately would be held in high esteem. I lived in the desert for a year. Trust me, weather forecasting isn’t very hard. “It will be hot/very hot/dangerously hot today.” Likewise in Hawaii: “trade winds 5-20 mph, temperatures in the 80’s with chance of late afternoon showers.” These days predicting the weather in Augusta is pretty easy too. “any chance of rain less than 80% means “No rain”.”

Predictions, like those Jesus mentions, are not all that hard to make. Try these:
“There will be at least one or more major oil spill every decade followed by intense hand wringing and blaming of a) government regulators, b) mine owners/managers c) God.”
“The drop-out rate will continue at 50%, SAT scores will barely maintain previous levels” followed by intense handwringing, finger-pointing and blaming of school superintendants whose tenures continue to shorten.
“The Athletic Director/Coach of fill-in-the-name-of-a major-college-program arrested for fill in the other blankfollowed by intense handwringing, finger-pointing and blaming the a) college president, b) NCAA regulators c) the crazed fan base for whom winning is everything d) God.

Jesus’ dire predictions of what was going to happen and what he was sent to do are his wake up call. Jesus says “Enough of this late-inning hand wringing. Enough of prognostication about simple things like weather predictions. Pay attention to what is actually going on now. Don’t forget to look in the mirror during the hand-wringing and blaming portion of the process.”

What distracts us from our own lack of responsibility for at least some of these enduring social problems is that we have had some success in dealing with some others. The sea-change with regard to tobacco use in America is nothing short of a miracle. I have lived in two tobacco states. Both of them were among the first and largest to adopt smoke-free policies for virtually everyone. Even in Nevada which is so libertarian it has laws against passing laws, even there smoking is now hard to do indoors. This leaves smokers out in the broiling heat. We have all seen smokers huddled next to office buildings trying to avoid pouring rain as they fill up on fumes all because most of us don’t want them on us.

Jesus’ violent wake up call is a religious one. Religious wake-up calls used to be a dime a dozen. They came so often and with such splenetic frenzy that people learned to ignore them. We still do.

The truth of the human condition is that if it doesn’t seem to affect us, we don’t care too much. We liked cheap Chinese imports until they started poisoning our pets and our children. We liked cheap interstate highways until the bridges began to fall. It is exactly this kind of self-satisfied attitude that Jesus finds to offensive in religion.

The problem with threatening people is that it is almost impossible to make a moral decision under duress. If some one says they will hurt you if you don’t do what they want and you do it to assuage the threat, you have not made a moral decision.

We make moral decisions when we consciously decide to change our behavior because it benefits the larger community. Recycling trash comes to mind. I believe in it. I think it helps everyone especially in the long run. And I don’t always do it with the fervor my spouse thinks appropriate. Jesus is warning me that I can predict the weather, but I am no good at predicting my own behavior. This week I am working on making moral decisions since Debby is away and I am doing all the trash.

10 Pentecost, Year C, August 1, 2010

Hosea 11:1-11; Psalm 107:1-9, 43; Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21
Rich Toward God, preached by Rev. Peter Courtney

A young man asked a rich old man how he made his money.The old guy fingered his Armani vest and said, “Well, son, it was 1932 in the depth of the Great Depression. I was down to my last nickel.“I invested that nickel in an apple. I spent the entire day polishing the apple and, at the end of the day, I sold the apple for 10 cents.“The next morning, I invested those 10 cents in two apples. I spent the entire day polishing them and sold them at 5:00 p.m. for 20 cents. I continued this system for a month, by the end of which I’d accumulated a fortune of $1.37.”“And that’s how you built an empire?” the boy asked.“Heavens, no!” the man replied. “Then my wife’s father died and left us two million dollars.”

Ah, the great preacher, Quoheleth speaketh to us today: All is vanity. Everything is a waste. Life is hard and then we die.

At one level it is true, isn’t it? We really can’t take it with us! We leave it to ungrateful heirs who should have gone to school and gotten a job or the government gets it or ex-spouses. Later on the only people who care about what we got are those who got it from us.

Still, we all know that nice stuff is, well, nice.

Several years ago a parish church building I worked in got hit by a major lightning bolt. I guess it was major. When 50,000 volts hits your building it knocks a huge chunk of granite off the tower and fried everything it within reach. I don’t know if God is in charge of lightning bolts, but I’m sure no one else is. All our cool electronics was pretty useless in the face of the power of well, an act of God.

Ecclesiastes and the Gospel of Luke refer to vanity this week. This is not the Snow White kind of vanity where the queen has a special mirror which lies to her about who is the most beautiful in the kingdom. I got caught looking in a mirror once by my prep school trained college roommate. He was expert at deflation. He simply said to me: “I caught you looking in the mirror. Did you get any better looking?”
No, biblical vanity is supposing that God thinks our stuff, our looks, our possessions are as important as we think they are.

Our spiritual task is to erect a greed guard. Our vanity is usually greed. There are lots of different ways to be greedy, even including being covetous of someone else’s relationship with God.

Jesus said, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (12:15). Here, Jesus invites us, not to avoid a life of success, but to choose a life of significance — a life which is balanced and meaningful. There are three questions which can help us balance ourselves.1. How do you spend your time?2. How do you spend your money?3. How do you make your decisions?Tolstoy’s short story, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” seems close to the mark. A Russian peasant was told that he could have all the land he could walk around in the time between sunup and sundown. At sunup the peasant began walking as fast as he could. By mid-morning he was disappointed at his progress so he increased his pace and didn’t even stop for lunch. Even in the afternoon heat he hurried yet more as the promise of great landowning stretched out before his fevered vision. Late in the afternoon he was soaked with sweat from head to toe. He was exhausted. He had walked around a huge section, but still he yearned for more. So, he began to run. Breathlessly he pushed himself beyond what he though anyone could endure. His heart pounded, his eyes blurred--sundown was only a few minutes and his goal still wafted in the distance. Faster and faster he raced. Just as he returned to the first corner stake he fell to the ground dead. Vanity, all is vanity.Jesus’ comment to the rich man, to the peasant, was “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” (12:21).We can be rich toward God, but never on the cheap.

The ultimate vanity story is one about the settlement of price-fixing charges against cosmetics manufacturers and retailers. The lawyers got $24 million, and each customer got a free cosmetic. (San Francisco Chronicle, July 19, 2003) Now that is vanity! Who is looking good now?

And then there was William Hogarth who was hired to do a painting that would be called “The Destruction of Pharaoh’s Host in the Red Sea.” The guy who hired him to do the painting was a notorious cheapskate.
Hogarth went to work, and painted the entire canvas with red paint, stepped back and declared it was done.When the buyer came to claim his painting, he was astonished. “Where are the Israelites?”“They’ve all crossed over,” Hogarth replied.“Well, where are the Egyptians?”“They’ve all drowned,” came the response.

Vanity, all is vanity, quoth the preacher.

Monday, July 26, 2010

9 Pentecost, Year C, July 25, 2010

Genesis 18:20-32; Psalm 85;; Colossians 2:6-15, [16-19]; Luke 11:1-13
Bargains Galore! Preached by Rev. Peter Courtney

The LORD said to Abraham, "How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know."
So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the LORD. Then Abraham came near and said, "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" And the LORD said, "If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake." Abraham answered, "Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?" And he said, "I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there." Again he spoke to him, "Suppose forty are found there." He answered, "For the sake of forty I will not do it." Then he said, "Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there." He answered, "I will not do it, if I find thirty there." He said, "Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there." He answered, "For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it." Then he said, "Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there." He answered, "For the sake of ten I will not destroy it."

I bought my first Ford Thunderbird on 8/8/88. As usual it was on impulse. It is in the nature of impulses that they act too soon. A month later the 89’s came out in a design that lasted until just a few years ago. I knew instantly that my impulse was wrong.

I managed to keep out of Ford dealerships for 12 straight months. When the sales person called the other Ford dealership nearby for the payoff figure so I could buy my 1990 T Bird with turbocharged V –6 he got the guy who sold me the 1988.
“Are you working with that Episcopal Priest from Virginia Beach?” he asked.
“Oh, yes!”
“He is a hard man!”

Our biblical ancestors were hard men too. Last week we remembered Abraham. He is the guy who lied about his wife to the neighbors and called her his sister. About how he and Sarah scoffed at God when God spoke of the miracle of birth for them. You have got to be hard to scoff at God when he sends a whole committee to deliver a message.

Today God has her hands full of hard people again. Not all of them are the bad guys either.

God hears a lot of whining about the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. He has a stack of faxes and emails on his desk outlining the bad stuff going on in those cities. He says to himself: “I better check these rumors out to see if it is true!”

God disguised herself as two tourists. This has been a popular disguise ever since for police undercover work. The first person the tourists come across is our friend Abe. He just stands there, looking kind of goofy.

God says: “Things are a mess down here, hunh?”

Abraham didn’t want to rat out his neighbors because they might key his truck or something worse. Abe was continually afraid of his neighbors. Still the situation was pretty self-evident..

God gets the message by reading between the lines and says: “I’ll fix this!” Just before God goes thermonuclear, Abe clears his throat.

“Uh, Lord?”

Pausing in mid stroke, and slightly annoyed to have his aim jiggered, God says “What is it?”

Abraham says: “This doesn’t seem right. I mean there are lots of bad guys in these towns, but what if there are four or five dozen pretty decent folks there. It doesn’t seem fair to nuke them too. After all, you are the king of the Universe, you ought to be able to run this railroad better than that.”

God took her thumb off the red button, squinted her eyes a bit, sighed and allowed, “ok if there were 50 decent types, I will spare the city.”

Abraham had been to the Ford dealership too. He replied: “What about 45.”

“OK, 45.”


“All right already!.”

“Oy vey, ok?”

“All right already. 10. And that’s it.”

God stomped off and caused a few tidal waves on some uninhabited islands just to let of steam.

Abraham thought he had gotten a pretty good deal.

As you know, Mr. and Mrs. Lot and their two daughters plus their fiancés, a total of 6 people were the only decent folks in the whole two cities. Even the future sons-in-law maintained the Sarah tradition and jeered and laughed at the idea that God might wipe them all out. So when Mr. and Mrs. Lot left town with their daughters, the fiancés got toasted along with everyone else.

What are we to make of this? Does bargaining work with God? If it does, what kind of God?
Is this a kind of prayer?

Our Hebrew ancestors expected a lot of God. They expected God to be consistent with God’s revealed will in the tradition. They expected that God wouldn’t do anything to them if they kept covenant with God.

God never has.

But God is not subject to hard men like me or Abraham. The story simply reveals that God does what is consistent with who God is. Abraham, to his great credit, is consistent with who he is, a persistent, faithful, take no prisoners stand up guy.

Scripture does not record Abraham’s response to the destruction of the two cities. It does tell of his willingness to sell his daughters to marauders to keep his home safe for his guests, but not a word about what happens after the Lot family leave town. He knew that even though he got God down to the 10 mark, he was counting on a j40% discount from this number since there were only 6, not even 10. God went the extra mile to save them even though they were under the limit.

Wow, more Gospel, God going past his own limits to reach out to us.

Monday, July 19, 2010

8 Pentecost, Year C, July 18, 2010

Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42
Old Enough to Choose, preached by Rev. Peter Courtney

Sixty-seven years ago today my parents had their first child. They named him Peter, no middle name. None of their children got middle names because my father hated his first name. They chose generic Anglo Saxon names for their three children and hoped that we could live with those names since there was no other choice. We have all lived happily enough with our parents’ choices.

On my 43rd birthday in 1986 Debby gave me a birthday breakfast at a nice restaurant in Virginia Beach. I hugged my colleague and friend Father Mike Vermillion goodbye. I never saw him again as he was killed on the way to the church conference.

I am a lot older today and a bit wiser. Father Mike never got to be old. I suspect he wouldn’t have missed some of the stuff that has happened in the meantime.

Still, I am getting to get older and he isn’t. For quite a few years now people I admire and who offer me friendship are older than I am. It has occurred to me that I am beginning to run out of people older than myself.

It happened to Abraham and Sarah. They were really old. They were older than almost anyone they knew. They had no children so there were no close relatives with grandbabies to admire. Tradition holds that God had a special plan for them.

God communicated this plan directly to them. He didn’t send a letter or an email; God sent a committee of three. Usually committees of three bear bad news. This one didn’t, it carried ridiculous news. Old Sarah was going to have a baby.

The committee politely asked Abraham where she was. It was polite for after all they had received generous hospitality from Abraham prepared by unseen minions now out of sight.

“Where is Sarah, your wife?”

They knew perfectly well where she was. Out of sight; out of mind.

“She is in the kitchen,” Abraham declared. Right! Cook. Scullery maid. Housewife. Typical woman. Knew her place. In the tent.

Tents, even in the desert are not soundproof so Sarah overheard this conversation. And she giggled. She chortled. She hiccoughed a few times too. Old Sarah. So old she knew almost no one older. She was going to have a child. Then she thought of the geezer Abraham. I suspect that is when the real hysterical laughter started.

All we know is that nine months later Isaac was born. No laughing matter this.

Things hadn’t changed 1,000 years later. Women were still in the kitchen providing hospitality while the men smoke and drank coffee. Martha, like her ancient ancestor Sarah was making nice. Well at least on the outside she was making nice. On the inside she was feeding a huge resentment. Her no-good, shiftless, lazy, show-off, know-it-all, high-brow, look-down-your-nose, sorry excuse of a sister was sitting with Jesus. This pitiful mess swanned it up while she Martha, hard-working, knew-her-own-place, self-less, generous, brought-up-right, Martha did all the work.

Martha tried what usually worked for her, some triangling and manipulation. Martha attempts to triangle Jesus into shaming Mary into doing the dishes.

Jesus, of course, does not bite. He knows the rules, the rules which applied to Sarah in the tent, still apply to all women. He ignores them. He doesn’t ridicule the rules. He just changes them.

We can be sure that this story about Jesus and Mary and Martha came out of the life of the church where some uppity women were doing bible study instead of the dishes. So the church remembered a story that showed that doing dishes was a good thing and so was bible study. Anybody, any man, any woman could do either or both as the Spirit gave utterance as St. Paul says in I Corinthians. Anybody could do either. Whichever choice anyone made was OK. There would always be someone who wanted to wash and others who wanted to study. What Jesus and St. Paul were at pains to demonstrate is that both were good.

No one had the right to enforce some hierarchy of goodness about the choices. Yes, we all know some people who would benefit from more bible study and less cooking and vice versa. We know that, but people make their choices. If they can stand them, so can we.

What the Gospel proclaims is that we make the choices, not someone else. The choices are ours. Things we have no choice over such as age, religion, gender, social class, regional geography do not make the choices in the Kingdom of God. Please join me in working for that kingdom all God’s children have more choices that most people did in Sarah’s or Martha’s time.