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.

Monday, July 12, 2010

7 Pentecost, Year C, July 11, 2010

Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37
Inheritance, preached by Rev. Peter Courtney

One would think that he would have left well enough alone. Isn’t that often the case? If he had just been willing to take the stock answer and not gone any further he would have save a lot of wear and tear.

We are examining the lawyer in the parable of the Good Samaritan in our mind’s eye. He is an earnest Sunday school kid with perfect attendance. His blue blazer has pin holes from top to bottom of the left lapel left by the awards for perfect attendance proclaim his fidelity. He is the teacher’s pet the first to raise his hand, usually with the right answer. He always knows Torah and is used to being right. Being right has worked well for him. It has earned him respect, even admiration. Some people may have noticed that he is kind of short of friends, hardly has any at all, but never mind, he is a good boy. Good? It depends on how one defines “good”.

He does what any good lawyer would do. He asks a question to which he already knows the answer. “What do I do to inherit eternal life?”

At one level it is a silly question. He didn’t ask how to earn eternal life. He asked how to inherit it. He knew as we do that one inherits by being related to the testator, the one who is going to leave it to you when they die. He assumed he was so tight with God that when God died, the lawyer’s inheritance would be there at the reading of the will. All he had to do was outlive God. Oops. There is the rub.

He had actually asked how he could outlive God.

The answers he learned in Sunday school talk about loving God and loving one’s neighbor. They say nothing about inheritance.

The stock answer “Love God, love your neighbor” is both too hard and too easy to be satisfying. It is too hard since loving God is tough to measure and loving most of our neighbors is impossible.

He had been to Sunday school forever. He knew the answer to his question. He knew the answer was unrelated to the question. So he asks a question which assumes that the answer will say he is OK, knowing in advance the answer is hollow.

No wonder he sought to justify himself. He wanted an answer that would define the universe in a way that was comfortable. Ahh, comfortable. As a Torah Lawyer he was an expert in Torah exclusions. If he was going to be stuck with this cosmic, one-size fits all definition of how to inherit, how would he be any different or special from anyone else. Justification is about being special and different.

Why create a system which makes us special and different if we have to obey the rules which apply to everyone else. Special and different means we are not just anybody else! If the rules of loving God and loving neighbor were rigorously applied, our inheritance might turn out to be zip, nada, zilch. Our religious casuist sought a rule which guarantees the inheritance based on things he had nothing to do with like who his parents are. It is just hard to believe that God would be that generous.

Ahh, that is the Gospel. We are all frauds. None of us is justified by our inheritance or even our perfect attendance.

Jesus tells the story of two people, a priest and a Levite. These people are clearly justified, but when push comes to shove don’t measure up to even the slimmest standard of common decency or mercy!. They are inheritors in the system they maintain, and they are frauds.

The third person Jesus chooses is someone clearly defined by the system as outside of inheritance. Samaritans are half-breeds; a misbegotten anomaly in creation who everyone knows cannot inherit. Samaritans are related to the wrong people, the wrong God, why they are just trash.

Except. Ah here is the exception. Except the lawyer volunteers concludes that this illicit offspring of a Samaritan is going to inherit the promises of God because he is merciful. The Samaritan does not know the answers, went to the wrong Sunday school class, has the wrong parents, and because of Gospel receives mercy as he shows mercy.

It isn’t that the priest and Levite are not going to inherit, but that the kind of hair-splitting and logic chopping which defines others out of the inheritance simply won’t work in the face of God’s implacable mercy.

The lawyer knew this going in. He knew that unless and until the Gospel of God’s grace applies to everyone, it can’t apply to him. Jesus said: “Go and do likewise.” Likewise means cultivating the attitude of acceptance and inclusion that made what the Samaritan did even possible.

It isn’t about flipping quarters to drunks on the street. It is knowing that inheritance is not how God works. God works on mercy. I don’t know about you, but I find that extraordinarily good news.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

6 Pentecost, Year C, July 4, 2010

2 Kings5:1-14; Psalm 30; Galatians6:[1-6], 7-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Jump in the creek, preached by Rev. Peter Courtney

I want to introduce you to Naaman. Naaman is the real deal; he is a really big deal. He works for the Aramaeans as a general. He is the General Petraeus of his time. While Naaman makes good money and commands a lot of soldiers, he has a significant flaw. He has leprosy. The bible calls it leprosy, but it is probably not what we can Hansen’s disease which if left untreated means your body parts rot off. More likely it is some kind of heartbreak of psoriasis which is unsightly and inconvenient but not life threatening.

One of the perks of being a general is you get first pick on captives who become personal slaves. After raiding a Hebrew settlement one day, he picks up a nice girl to give to his wife. One day his wife’s girl passes along that she has heard of a prophet who could heal leprosy.

Even though Naaman was pretty desperate about his skin condition, he scoffs at the possibility that some foreign prophet could heal him. He didn’t tell anyone, but when he was young someone had kicked sand in his face at the beach and he had sent away for a Charles Atlas Course which turned out to be bogus. But Naaman hates being a leper. It is socially inconvenient and embarrassing. Leprosy is bad; it convicts the sufferer of being less than, a social pariah, one who must have done something bad to deserve this disease.
So Naaman decides to check out this prophet Elisha.

Elisha is not a proper Babylonian prophet; he is a foreigner and he doesn’t make house calls. Naaman figures all he has to do is turn up, the prophet will wave his hand over the diseased skin, say a magic spell and all will be well. Or at least it will be well after he pays the fee which he has already arranged. Healing works better with insurance.

So Naaman arrives at Elisha’s corner of the world and Elisha says “Go jump in the lake.” Actually he said “Go bathe in the Jordan river.” He might as well have said, “Soak your head in the sewer!” as far as Naaman is concerned. He took one look at the pathetic trickle of the Jordan Creek and exploded. “If I wanted to jump in a creek I could have done that in Babylon where we have proper running water, not like this sorry excuse for a river you have here!” What is cool is that after this explosion of snobbery and pride Naaman still had leprosy. So eventually and very reluctantly he sticks a toe in the Jordan. Poof! He is healed and made clean.

We are all familiar with the lepers whom Jesus heals. The leper who comes to Jesus behaves in an entirely different way than Naaman. He isn’t all eaten up with the reasons why this won’t work. He does not have a long list of excuses for being sick. He is not looking for anyone to blame. He simply says to Jesus: “Hey, look. If you want to heal me, you can!”

Jesus says “Right! I can and I will.” There is the usual fee attached. The healed man is instructed to go pay the co-insurance to the priests and get a certificate of health. Further, Jesus, not wanting a bunch of sickos chasing him around, tells the man to keep it a secret. That is what we religious folks are good at: focusing on the problem and keeping the successes a secret.

But the man whom Jesus heals does not do that. He goes leaping and yelling all over the neighborhood. “I’m clean. I’m healed. Jesus did it. Come and see.” The only bad thing that happened was Jesus had to hide out in the country for a while until the noise died down.

What we have here is the difference between focusing on the problem and focusing on the solutions.. On my way to and from Augusta I am listening to a book called Blunder by Zachary Shore. Shore examines the reasons why successful generals and political leaders with lots of smarts and resources make big mistakes. Naaman makes them all. He is afraid to lose face by going to a quack. He thinks the causes of his illness are beyond healing. He thinks that if someone comes from outside of Babylon they are ignorant hillbillies. He uses his own narrow, single dimension analysis to convince himself there is no point in trying something different.

Like so many of us, Naaman assumes that his condition is fixed and he focuses himself on the problem. If we focus on the rules we are likely to miss opportunities. I have just finished Shop Class as Soul Craft. This author points out any job that can be reduced to rules and protocols will be exported to Bangladesh. It is only when we are willing to dip our toe in the creek of new solutions that surprising things happen. Mostly the worst that can happen is we get wet! As hot as it is these days, even that might be welcome.