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.