Monday, June 28, 2010

5 Pentecost, Year C, June 27, 2010

2 Kings2:1-2,6-14,Psalm 771-2,11-20,Galatians 5:1, 13-25, Luke 9:51-62
Anointed for Duty, preached by Rev. Peter Courtney

Sometimes one of the perks of a long tenure is the privilege of anointing one’s successor. God told Elijah to anoint Elisha, just as he told him to anoint various kings from time to time in the past. God appointed Elisha as the new prophet, but Elijah confirmed him by anointing him for the duty.

Elisha asked for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. By asking for a double measure, Elisha is getting in line to be a true successor. After such a long tenure it would be easy for people to wish we had the old guy back. Elijah is not coming back, at least not in God’s time. People who get whisked off to heaven in a chariot of fire don’t come back for funerals and weddings!!

Here at St. Augustine’s we are in the final stages of ministry succession, we hope. None of our former rector’s was assumed into heaven in a Hummer chauffeured limousine, nor have any of them tried to anoint their successor. Each of us has our own view of the graces and deficits of our former prophets in this place, including the current interim. Each of us hopes that the new priest who comes to join us will be wise enough to ask for a double portion of the gifts we liked in our former clergy. This is often where the challenge for the new priest lies. The varied expectations of each congregant are based on their personal experience with former clergy; those they appreciated and those they didn’t. One of the purposes of having an interim is to “break the cycle” even if only a little. One of the gifts God has given me is the capacity to be different from any priest you have ever seen before. I have received a double portion of “different” or as one of you told me recently to my delight: “You such a huge mess!”

It is important for us all to remember that Elijah, the most revered prophet in Israel, the one for whom a seat is reserved at every Passover Seder, absolutely infuriated his largest pledgers. You remember Ahab and Jezebel the power couple whom we talked about a couple of weeks ago? Elijah spent a lot of his tenure hiding out in a cave out in the woods. We might enjoy noticing a parallel in the story of one of Georgia’s most famous Anglican clergy-people, John Wesley, who had to sneak out of Savannah at night for fear his would-be-father-in-law was going to have him arrested.

I think the best we can expect is not an Elijah, but an Elisha. He is the one who dutifully followed Elijah all over Palestine from Jericho to Bethel ending up finally in Jordan. No matter where they went there was a crowd of nay-sayers telling Elisha he was hitching his career to the wrong guy since God was going to take him away. Every time one of the gloom and doom types spoke up Elisha said “I know that, leave me alone. I know what I am doing.” What Elisha was doing was being faithful to his mission. And it wasn’t just his mission, but he was fashioning himself after his hero, Elijah, from whom he asked for and received a double portion of prophetic gift.

The good news is that the chances of us receiving a faithful priest are pretty high. Faithfulness is one of the more common gifts exercised by our clergy. The not so good news is that we often are not content with faithfulness. We want so much more. When our priest does not have this or that gift, or has it and doesn’t know how to use it in our midst, that is where the ministry of baptized is so important. Our mission is to spare ourselves and our new priest a retinue of Job’s companions like the ones Elisha had to endure; a bunch of people pointing out what wasn’t going to work. We need people who are part of the solution. Notice at the end when Elijah and Elisha get to Jordan and the mantle falls on Elisha, the prophets, all 50 of them are standing at a distance. That is what we don’t need. We need the faithful in the pews standing by the water and crossing over on dry land to help our new leader use his or her gifts. Then truly it comes to pass that we can all say together: “Truly the mantle has passed from our former leader to the new one.”

Monday, June 14, 2010

3 Pentecost, Year C, June 13, 2010

1Kings 21:1-10, [11-14], 15-21a, Psalm 5:1-8, Galatians 2:15-21, Luke 7:36 – 8:3
Bully Girl, preached by Rev. Peter Courtney

Mortie Freeman’s house was at the edge of the woods in the valley, a white clapboard house with a porch around the front and side. Our house was at the top of the valley and had a few cherry trees, low hedges had a stucco exterior. Mortie Freeman never came near our house, but I used to walk by his on my way out of the woods. I never went into the woods by his house because he could see me coming. You see, Mortie was a bully.

My dad grew up in Boston when signs read, “Irish need not apply.” Suffering this indignity made my dad a vigilant witness for human rights. He got out of the Irish ghetto in Boston and bought a nice house in a Jewish ghetto in Philadelphia. It was an upper middle class ghetto, but ghetto none the less. In my class of 30 children there were only three left at the Jewish holidays. As far as I know we were the only Episcopal family in the John B. Meyer elementary school. There were few enough gentiles as it was never mind Episcopalians.

Like everyone else but me, Mortie was Jewish. His mother called him Morton. Mortie Freeman was fat, mean and scared. Since no one liked him he needed a victim. He found skinny little goy Peter to pick on. That is why I had to sneak by his house and avoid having him see me coming. Usually I could whip out of the woods and up the hill before he knew it. Like my Dad I have become a champion of underdogs ever since.

King Ahab was an over-dog. He was king of Israel, the Northern Kingdom centered in Samaria. He had married a top-dog Phoenician woman whose daddy had a lot of money. She wasn’t Jewish. Her dad was big in the Ba’al movement in Phoenicia and she had inherited his enthusiasm for this mystery cult and brought it with her to Samaria when she married Ahab. She set up statues in the temple and even judged a contest between Elijah the Tishbite and the scores of Ba’alite priests. Elijah won the contest and in a moment of fierce bad manners took the losers off to a valley like Mortie Freeman’s and executed them all.

This did not earn Elijah the love from Jezebel, Ahab’s foreign wife, so Elijah had to get out of Dodge.. He put several counties between himself and Jezebel. He went into the woods and didn’t come out at all. Ahab might have been king, but Jezebel was definitely the power behind the throne and a force to be reckoned with.

The trouble with being king is that sooner or later that seductive feeling of entitlement sets in. One day Ahab saw this neat vineyard that he thought would be a great addition to his holdings. He went down to the courthouse and looked up the plat. It belonged to Naboth, a fellow from Jezreel. Naboth may have had a nice vineyard, but he was not from around there and wasn’t politically connected. Ahab figured it was a no-brainer. He would offer the guy a low, but fair price for the vineyard, close the deal and move in. Soon.

Trouble was Naboth didn’t want to sell, at any price.

Even in those days the king had to pay and the subject had to agree for the transaction to be legal. When he couldn’t get what he wanted, Ahab went home to bed, sulked and wouldn’t eat. Ahab may have been king but he had the emotional development of a 6 year old.

In Phoenicia, where Jezebel came from, the Kings didn’t need to obey rules. Kings made the rules. Kings could change the rules anytime it suited them. Jezebel mocked Ahab saying: “Hey, aren’t you the king? What is the point of being king if you can’t have any ole vineyard you want? Who does this guy think he is to question your policies? What is he, some kind of communist?”

But Jezebel wasn’t in Phoenicia any more. Predatory king bullies may work up North, but not in Israel. So Jezebel went to her stealth strategy. She went underground. She passed an early version of the Patriot Act which defined anyone who didn’t do what the king wanted as a traitor. Then she hired some thugs through a cutout and set up Naboth the Jezreelite to take a fall for being unpatriotic.

It worked like a charm. In a mob scene worthy of Senator McCarthy, Naboth was condemned as a traitor. The crowd dug a hole, buried him up to his neck and stoned him to death.

This kind of thing goes on everywhere. It starts with Mortie Freeman beating up a kid different from and littler than he is. It happens on the school bus when the girls decide that one of the little girls is unclean and they persecute her every day until her mom has to drive her to school from then on. My parents decided to move before their children were permanently damaged from discrimination and insult.

No one intervened on behalf of Naboth the Jezreelite. He died and Ahab took over his vineyard. Ahab forgot about the God of his fathers. He liked this new religion which said that the government was for the king, not the people. But God was watching. God called Elijah the Tishbite out of hiding. God told Elijah that his own personal safety was of no importance compared to the urgency of confronting the bully in Ahab. Elijah did not want to go. He would rather walk around the world before he would come out of the woods anywhere near Jezebel’s house.

But God would not let up and made him do it. Sure enough, Ahab says to him: “So you are back, you so and so, and you have found me. What’s up?”

“What is up,” said Elijah the Tishbite, “is that you have wronged Naboth the Jezreelite and your bully wife has had him killed. The dogs who licked up Naboth’s blood will lick yours.”

Elijah is a hero like my dad. He called ‘em as he saw ‘em. He was first in the great tradition of prophets who name injustice when they see it. He advanced the value of truth-telling at great personal risk and expense to himself.

Mortie Freeman was a bully because he could be. This is true of any of us. God calls each of us to monitor the bully in ourselves and to tell the truth about the bullies we encounter in the world.

Monday, June 7, 2010

2 Pentecost, Year C, June 6, 2010

1 Kings 17:8-16 [17-24], Galatians 1:11-24, Luke 7:11-17
The Widow of Zarephath, preached by The Rev. Peter Courtney

I kind of knew what a MITE was when I was a little kid. I knew it was something small. I didn’t know about dust mites, or dog mites and other kinds of bugs. I did know that the Widow’s Mite was a whole lot to the widow woman even though it didn’t seem to amount to much according to the movers and shakers.

As children we received MITE boxes on the first Sunday in Lent. We little people didn’t have much to begin with. We were expected to do extra stuff around the house for a penny or two and then offer it to God in these little blue boxes with a cross on the top and pictures of multi-cultural children around the bottom. These pictures inspired us to know that all of the money went to mission work. We understood that the mites we put in our boxes were gathered as a great rolling stream and amounted to something in the end, like airplanes for the Bishop of Alaska. The image of these little offerings of little people making a difference down the line has stuck with me.

When we look at the widow of Zarephath something happens inside of us that may go unnoticed. We compare out. We look at ourselves and we do not see a widow, at least not like her.

If we are a widow we say to ourselves: “I am not reduced to gathering a few sticks to do some baking of a miserable pile of meal out of which I will make a few biscuits and then lie down and die.” That is not us. We look at ourselves and while we may feel sorry for ourselves because we are not rich and powerful like some people, we are not poor like that pathetic soul in Zaraphath.

Our comparing out is is necessary. We have to distance ourselves from the widow of Zarephath and the widow of Nain lest they make some kind of claim on us. We don’t want to be compared to someone who is willing to give all to God, because many of us are not willing to give very much, never mind all. In a word, these selfless poor people make us look, well, cheap.

Jesus does not call us to compare ourselves to one who gives all. Neither does the God who ruled Sidon where Zarephath lies. God expects us to work at becoming like these examples of selfless giving. This kind of giving expects nothing in return, not even a receipt or tax deduction or thank you letter or membership in a named giving society.

I know about this stuff in myself. I used to give money to my college until I retired. Then I stopped. This year is my 45th reunion year so I sent a check for a change. I gave enough to warrant a letter signed by the President of the College. Now let me tell you the absolute truth. I ran my finger over the signature to see if a real person had signed it instead of a machine. I know that many of these letters are signed by machines. Yes indeed, there was an indentation in the paper which a ball point pen would leave! Maybe they have a heavy handed machine designed to fool people like me.

When I read the story of the Widow of Zarephath, I could compare myself out. I could fairly say to myself: “I am a generous man, I give away a lot of money.” I would be right. I am generous. I also run my finger over signatures to see how grateful the recipients are! This means I am not as generous as I would like to think I am. I give out of my wealth. I am both richer and poorer than I think. I am richer because I am lucky and comfortable. I am poorer because I am counting the cost in a cheesy way even if I confess it to you in this lighthearted and humorous way.

God cares about generous hearts. God only wants 10% of our money. That is the easy part! The hard part is that God wants 100% of our hearts. God knows she will only get a portion.

Our letter from God has been signed with God’s own hand. If we ran our finger over God’s signature it would smear the blood of Jesus. It really would. When we do the kind of mental figuring I have described in myself we cheapen the blood of Christ. I am ashamed of myself. The Good News is that God will help me to do better than this.