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.