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.