Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Advent 6, Year B, 11 December 2011,

Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-,19-28
Preached by Rev. Lou Scales

When Linda and I first came to the Augusta area about 11 ½ years ago, we had the delightful experience of meeting new people, learning new places and settling in to the community. It was, and, to this day, continues to be, fun. One of the things that has been the most fun is seeing how people who have lived in one location for some time greet those who are new, to the community and to the area. After experiencing this phenomenon first hand for several weeks, we learned to our delight, that there was even a formula for determining some things about the people who greet you and try to make you feel at home. As you know, according to the telling, and, quite honestly, according to our experience, the formula, first annunciated by Chablis in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, goes something like this:

If they ask you what your profession is, they’re from Atlanta.
If they ask you where you go to church, they’re from Macon.
If they ask you who your great-great grandfather and great-great grandmother were, they’re from Augusta.
If they ask you what you want to drink, they’re from Savannah.
When you’re new in the area, or doing something new in the area, people want to know something about you. Now, in most cases, there is any number of good-natured ways people use to get acquainted, to get to know you.
Now the contrast to this is probably best described using the lyrics of an old black gospel song from this part of the country, most often sung to the driving beat of a blues guitar:
There's a man going around taking names.
There's a man going around taking names.
He took my father's name, And he left my heart in pain.
There's a man going around taking names.
There's a man going around taking names.
He took my mother's name, And he left my heart in pain.
There's a man going around taking names.
There's a man going around taking names.
He took my sister's name, And he left my heart in pain.
There's a man going around taking names.
In the song, the "man going around taking names" is a metaphor, of course, for everything that menaces human relationships and life -- most prominently, the slave trader and, finally, death itself. It is a fascinating image for potential evil, this idea of "taking names." Even school children can identify with it. "Now, children," warns the teacher. "I'm going to the office for a few minutes, and I'm appointing Frances to be the monitor. Don't misbehave or she will write down your name, and you'll have to deal with me when I get back." ... There's somebody around here taking names.
When John the Baptist was at work in Bethany, beyond the Jordan River, a delegation of priests and Levites, religious officials of the highest order, sent by their ecclesiastical superiors, showed up from Jerusalem. They were not there on a package tour of the Holy Land, and this was anything but a pastoral visit; they were there taking names. You could tell that from the very first words to come from their mouths. "Who are you?" they said. No small talk. No exchange of quaint pleasantries. No pictures of the grandchildren passed around. Just, "Who are you?" ... There are some people going around taking names.
John’s answers obviously did not please them, primarily because John told the priests and Levites who he wasn’t. He wasn’t the Messiah, he wasn’t Elijah, and he wasn’t the prophet. And his only job was to point to the one who would come after him. John was a witness. His own description was a quote from the prophet Isaiah, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”
Has it occurred to you that John’s description of himself and his mission is a description that could well fit for you and me? Our Baptismal covenant asks if we will proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. We are Christ’s heralds, Christ’s witnesses, by baptism, nourished in that task by the body and blood of our Lord. We are called daily to declare his coming, to declare his love and mercy extended to all. John’s mission has become our mission – to declare the coming of the Lord, to declare the love of Christ in all we do, in all we become.
Andrew Greeley tells this story:
Once upon a time there was a politician who was running in a very close election against a very clever campaigner. He had a good message and an exciting platform, but he was not well known. Thus he had to make a lot of speeches around the district, go to many meetings, attend tea parties, and receptions, and cocktail parties, and church gatherings, and touch every possible base in the district. It was still an uphill battle. A good friend of his was his advance man, the fellow who made the arrangements for all the events and speeches and logistics for the campaign. He was not a very good advance man; rather he was unreliable and pompous and, worst of all, disorganized. The other people in the campaign hated him, but the candidate stuck with his friend. As the election drew near the polls showed the candidate losing ground. The advance man knew they were going to lose, so he gave up altogether. The campaign self-destructed in the last week. Yet the candidate lost by only one half of one percent of the votes. All the media people said that if the campaign had been better organized, the voters would have got to know the candidate better and he would have won in a walk. We’re supposed to be advance persons for Jesus. Sometimes you wonder why he doesn’t fire us.
In this special season for the preparation we make to welcome our Lord, in the flesh, to dwell with us, it’s important to reflect on how it is we make our faith and our joy known about the One who comes. And when someone comes around taking names, I hope you will give your name loud and clear, telling the world, not only who you are, but WHOSE you are…

1. "There's a Man Going Around Taking Names," from Religious Music: Solo and Performance (Album number in The Library of Congress "Folk Music in America" series, 1978). Words in the public domain.

2. Andrew Greeley, Andrew Greeley.com, 1996.

5 Advent, Year B, 4 December 2011

Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13; I Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

Focus Statement: God is coming: Get ready!

When I was in college, I caught a robber breaking into my car.

I was in Houston, at a store downtown, and had parked in the small parking lot behind the building. As I walked out with my purchases and rounded the corner, I saw someone sitting in the driver’s seat of my car messing with the steering column. Rather than stepping back and calling for help, I hollered at the guy and he started running. I ran after him, but he got away. I came back and called the police, who came and looked at the car. It was not very damaged, and nothing was taken. But I still felt violated and angry. Maybe you have been burgled, and know that feeling too—it’s not really about the stuff being taken, it’s about the sudden insecurity and anxiety that’s left over afterward.

I get anxious and fearful about the passages in scripture talking about Jesus coming “like a thief in the night.” To my ears it sounds like the same thing. Look again at our reading from the 2nd letter of Peter this morning.

“With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise…but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. (Metanoia) But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.”

“A thousand ages in thy sight/are like an evening gone/short as the watch that ends the night/before the rising sun.” We sing those words, we acknowledge that TIME, as we perceive it, is not an issue for God. For us, definitely. We are born, we grow up, we grow old, we die. This is certain, for each and for all.

This language of “the heavens will pass away with a great noise/the elements will be dissolved (or “absorbed”) by fire” expressed for the letter’s first audience a then-current understanding of how the world would end, when time and the creation should come to a conclusion and return to the fiery energy and light from which they were made. It’s not so much “Big Bang Backwards” as a return to the source and origin of all things.

The author understands this not as a threat but as an urgent invitation: “Since you (all) already know this, and that God is patient, seeking the repentance (metanoia) of all, then you also know the solution to the problem.

You all remember Metanoia? Turn around, you missed your exit, you’re going to Columbia when you wanted to go to Atlanta. Change direction; change your way of thinking; change your minds. The surprise, the shock of the coming of the Day of God is no surprise at all. Be ready always, in lives of holiness and godliness. You are not waiting for disaster and destruction, but for all things to be made new. Be ready; Get ready!

When I was newly ordained, I served as the assistant at St. Paul’s Church in Waco, Texas. Waco, Texas is an interesting place. We were twenty miles from the infamous compound of the Branch Davidians and David Koresh in one direction, and we were twenty miles from then President George W. Bush’s presidential ranch in the other direction. We were surrounded by crazy people.

Waco, Texas is a city in a wide-open country. There’s lots of uninhabited space surrounding the town and suburbs. Not a lot of trees out there. Lots of room to wander, and wonder, and ponder. And that openness, that wilderness, draws people (some sane, some less so) who are asking the big questions.

“John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Mark’s gospel begins by plunging us into the midst of the story. No set-up at all, save a single verse quoting the book of the prophet Malachai (Not Isaiah, in fact) which is the last book in the Hebrew scriptures. By choosing this quotation, and by describing John the Baptist as he does (Wild man, wild clothing, lives in the desert, eats bugs), the author of the Gospel of Mark is telling us to remember Elijah. Elijah, the most important prophet Israel had ever known, whose return was to signal to the people “Get Ready—the Day of God is about to arrive.”

John comes, like Elijah, to speak not of himself but of someone else. He points to what he is doing—baptizing with water, as a ritual of cleansing and preparation. It’s a ritualized bath, to signify the desire for inner and outer cleansing, in anticipation of what is to come. BUT, says John, “You haven’t seen anything yet. You think this is something important—just wait!”

“I baptize with water; he will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” Matthew and Luke have the words as “with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Fire, again…not for destruction, but for cleansing and purifying, for the restoring and return to the origin and source of all things, our own creation included. The fire of the Holy Spirit, poured out upon God’s people to restore and re-member them—to put them back together, to draw them back into God’s own self.

Over and over John the Baptist says “I’m not the one you’re looking for.” He points beyond himself, to One who is just offstage, just out of sight, around the corner, waiting in the wings.

Monday afternoon I was waiting in the wings. The monthly vestry meeting was scheduled for that night, and I was beset with the worst case of stage fright I’ve ever experienced. (To put this in context, I’ve been performing in front of people since I was able to wear a tiny white choir robe and stand on the chancel steps of First Methodist Church, Liberty Texas, with the Cherub Choir to sing “Jesus loves me.”) So I’m used to being in front of crowds. But this was something else altogether. The vestry was going to take a vote, and although I had every confidence in the outcome, I was still more nervous than I’ve ever been in my time here at St. Augustine’s. I called a friend in Texas, one of my wisdom people, who talked me down out of the tree into which I had climbed, and reminded me that, even in this, it wasn’t all about me anyway. As much as I love this parish, and as much as you all love me, we aren’t really the point. We exist, priest and parish, to point beyond ourselves. We are here, like John the Baptist this morning, to declare the coming—the arrival, the advent—of The One whose shoelaces we are not worthy to untie, but who has made us worthy, by creating us and loving us, to stand upright and welcome Him, as both the baby in the manger, and as the creator of the sun, and the moon, and the stars of night.

May it be so for us; may it be so among us.

3 Advent, Year B, 20 November 2011

Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25: 31-46
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

Our Gospel this morning invites us to see beyond appearances. And the imagery of the sheep and the goats, which is what often gets most of the attention in this passage, really isn’t the point at all.

The Son of Man (as Jesus calls himself repeatedly in Matthew’s gospel) is a mysterious figure. He is a human being, like any other, who eats and drinks and gets hungry and thirsty, who has to sleep and burp and sneeze and all those things that we all do.

And yet, The Son of Man is not like anyone else at all.

The Son of Man is a title, mentioned first in the Book of Daniel, one of the strangest, most dream-sequence-filled books of the Bible. In that story, the prophet Daniel sleeps, and dreams of unearthly creatures gathered in the heavenly presence of God. God is seated on the high throne, in majesty and awe. Into this scene comes one “like a Son of Man” to be greeted and welcomed and placed in a position of highest honor and dignity. The Son of Man is at once recognizably human, and at the same time unmistakably much more than that.

All our gospel readings for the last several weeks have been leading to this climactic episode. And many of them have shared the theme of waiting and watching without being exactly clear when, or how, the waiting will conclude.

The sleepy bridesmaids are waiting for the bride and groom to arrive so that the celebration may begin. Some of them run low on oil for their lanterns, and the others send them on a fools’ errand at midnight. And in their running around in darkness, they miss the party altogether.

The slaves are waiting for the master who went on a long journey, and left them with untold riches to tend and use. For the one who decided ahead of time that he was himself incapable of doing anything satisfactory, that decision became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And this morning, we read this grand and overwhelming (and rather weird) passage about the sheep and the goats being separated, to the left and to the right of “the king.”

Notice what happens with the titles. “The Son of Man” of whom we’ve heard much in Matthew’s gospel already, disappears. “The King” seated on the throne, is revealed for the first time.

In the classic stories of childhood, there’s always that moment of revelation. The clock strikes midnight and the golden carriage turns back into a pumpkin. Beauty kisses the Beast, and the enchantment is broken, the prince and kingdom are released from bondage, and all is seen as it really truly is.

This passage of Matthew’s gospel is that moment. Everything has been leading to this point, and now all is revealed, just in time.

For if we were to keep reading, in the very next sentence we would hear Jesus reminding his hearers that it is now two days before the feast of the Passover. The cross is looming large in the background, the central drama of the Gospel—Jesus’ arrest, trial, death and resurrection—is about to begin.

Matthew presents Jesus as the good, the perfect, the most excellent teacher. He is Moses all over again, but more even than Moses, giver of the Torah, the teaching of God. Jesus is, in himself, the embodiment and completion of that teaching, as well as the one who brings it to the rest of us. And these last few gospel passages we’ve heard, from chapters 24 and 25, are the final Cliff Notes version of the teaching, given in the last minutes before the final exam begins.

For they will all—Jesus and his followers, way back then, and even now—undergo a trial of knowledge, endurance, skill and identity. EVERYTHING is up for grabs. And he wants them to understand, as clearly as possible, what they are to do.

I used to think of this story of the separating of the sheep and the goats as a clobber passage. Meaning “if you don’t get it right, God’s gonna clobber you and send you off to hell.” I grew up thinking that about a lot of the Bible, and it’s certainly possible to read large portions of the Bible that way if you want to.

But that sort of reading has two unfortunate effects: One, it puts God in the position of an omniscient bookkeeper in the sky, watching and waiting for any and every time I screw up, to catch me in sins of omission and commission. And two, it puts me in the position of somehow potentially being ABLE to work my way into God’s favor and approval by doing everything right and avoiding everything wrong, by my own will or determination. In neither of those effects is there any place for forgiveness, or mercy, or grace. To read this or any other passage of Scripture in such a way misses the point by making human beings more Godlike than God’s own self.

To read this passage literally would suggest that, if I went down to Broad Street one day, and declined to give money to a panhandler on the sidewalk, then immediately thereafter got hit by a bus, that I would therefore immediately be counted among “the goats.” We can’t read the passage in that manner, and do it any kind of justice.

But neither can we ignore it, or say it doesn’t mean anything much at all. The expectation is clear: Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. Clothe the naked. Visit those in prison, and who are sick. We see the images of those expectations every Sunday morning, in our stained glass windows in the vestibule, when we go in and out of church.

But notice something else in the gospel reading: Both the “sheep” and the “goats” ask exactly the same question. “When did we see you hungry and thirsty and naked and…and…and…?” They didn’t see the king. They didn’t see anything other than a Son of Man, or a Daughter of Woman. Another human being, just like themselves. This is the place of revelation. This is the moment when the enchantment is broken, the light dawns, and all things are seen for what they truly are.

They did not see with their eyes in any case. If they saw at all, if they perceived even in the slightest, then it was with the eyes of their hearts—discovering the hidden King, dressed in rags, masquerading as one of “them people.”

An old Scottish prayer tells us that
“Often, often, often, Christ goes in the stranger’s guise;
Often, often, often, Christ goes in the stranger’s guise.”

Christ is on his way to the cross, the place of ultimate humiliation and degradation. And yet that humiliation becomes the place where the enchantments of the world are broken, and the power and light of God are released to bring about grace, and mercy, and forgiveness. This is the power of which the writer of Ephesians speaks, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion…not only in this age but also in the age to come.”

It does not look like any kingdom we have ever seen.
He does not look like any king we have ever known.

Let us pray.
Open the eyes of our hearts, O God, that we may see Christ, however he may come. Open our ears, and quiet our busy chattering minds, that we may hear his voice. Raise us up to follow and serve him, wherever he may lead. Amen.

Monday, November 14, 2011

20 Pentecost, Year A, October 30, 2011

Joshua 3:7-17; Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

In her bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia , author Elizabeth Gilbert makes the following statement: “There are only two questions that human beings have ever fought over, all through history. ‘How much do you love me?’ And, ‘Who’s in charge?’ Everything else is somehow manageable. But these two questions of love and control undo us all, trip us up and cause war, grief, and suffering.”

The question of “who’s in charge” is a point of discussion in both our Old Testament and Gospel readings this morning. Joshua has been chosen by God as the leader of the children of Israel, after the death of Moses, and now we hear of his being officially established in this role. Whenever a new leader comes into office, there’s always that period of adjustment. Once the so-called honeymoon is over, the real work gets underway. And so Joshua sets out to lead the people across the Jordan River, into the Promised Land. For an entire generation they’ve been wandering in the wilderness, and now finally they are coming into the place that God had promised them.

I wonder what the Caananites, the Hittites, the Hivites, the Perizzites, the Girgashites, the Amorites and the Jebusites thought about all of this? They’d been there first, as the indigenous peoples of the land—and later scriptural accounts demonstrate that they were not all driven out at once, but continued to be a presence in the land in later generations.

When the procession reaches the riverbanks, which were overflowed by the river in its normal cycle of floodtide, those who carried the Ark of God on long poles stepped first into the river, and it was divided. And the people of Israel crossed over on dry ground.

This isn’t the first such story of crossing over on dry ground, is it? No…you remember the earlier one. At the beginning of the Exodus, at the Red Sea, with Pharaoh and his chariots and chariot drivers in hot pursuit of the Israelites, and Moses reaches out his hands to divide the waters on one side and another, so that the people are able to go forward. God makes a way, where there is no way.

This is what God does, in the story of salvation. Out of human catastrophe and disaster, God acts, over and over, to bring redemption and deliverance to the people. Where there is no way, God makes a way. Where there is no hope, God speaks a new word of creation and see! Hope and joy and new life break forth in impossible places.

Joshua and the people go forward, with the Ark of the Covenant—the outward and visible sign of God’s presence and power and protection with and among them—suspended on two poles, carried by the twelve members of the twelve tribes of Israel, holding the waters back as the people pass on through. In the ark of God were found the stone tablets of the Law, the Teaching of Moses, and a container of the manna, the strange food that had sustained and nourished the Israelites all that time, in their wilderness journey. The Ark was the object that spoke most clearly and eloquently of God’s actions in the past, and God’s presence with the people in their current situation.

So what happens, then, when such an object is lost, or taken away, or destroyed?
What happens when our outward and visible signs are no longer available, or are somehow altered beyond comprehension and recognition?

Jesus and the disciples are in the temple, not far from the place where the Ark of God eventually had a permanent home, many hundreds of years later after Joshua and the crossing at the Jordan River. They have just come from a series of discussions (or trick questions) posed by the various religious leaders, who have sought to get J. into trouble by one means or another. And J. is teaching his hearers how to regard these persons.

Listen to them” he says. “They sit on Moses’ seat”. In those days teachers and preachers usually sat to speak, and their hearers would stand or sit on the floor around them. “They sit on Moses’ seat”—they are the legitimate successors to Moses, just as Joshua was the first of many such successors. Listen to what they say—and then go do it, as they do not. All their doing is for show—to get attention from other people.

“They make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long”. Outward and visible signs intended to communicate a deeper connection with the presence of God, rather like the Ark of God there in the temple. But J. condemns the religious leaders, not because of those outward and visible signs in themselves, but because the inward and spiritual realities they should represent are dried up and lost. “They do not practice what they preach” is an expansion of the Greek. Literally it says this: “They say…but do not.” The words are good, the visual cues are good—but there’s nothing behind all of it.

But YOU—Jesus says—all of YOU know better than that. “Rabbi” and “Father” and “Teacher”, all these grand titles! Don’t make the mistake of thinking that anyone but God is God.
(Posy Jackson at ETSS, with the “God is God, and I’m not. And neither are you” tshirts)
You are all students in school together; you are all brothers and sisters, children of the heavenly Father; you are all learning from the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One of God.

What happens when the outward and visible signs are no longer available? Because for the first readers of Matthew’s gospel, that’s exactly what they were dealing with. The setting for this passage, the Jerusalem temple, was destroyed, razed to the ground, in the year 70. The place they had known as central to faith and culture and identity was gone. Their world had been turned inside out and upside down, and what were they to do now?

And into that fear and shock and heartbreak, Jesus speaks. “You all know what to do. And you know who you are. Don’t worry about the titles, and the changing structures, and the hierarchy. You are all students of the Good Teacher; you are all children of the Heavenly Father; you are all followers of the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One of God.”

The early Christians would hear those words and remember that they too had been anointed—rubbed on the crown of the head, or possibly all over their bodies—with fragrant oils at the time of their baptism. Just as Jesus was “the Christ—the Anointed One of God”, they too were part of that anointing, that fragrant, extravagant, messy pouring of a new outward and visible sign that conveyed the new and transforming action of God in the midst of their lives. Which were also messy, and complicated, and in great need of God’s mercy and guidance and wisdom.

Who’s in charge here? Jesus answers that question, for his hearers then and for us today, with a curious and seemingly backhanded response. “The greatest will be the one who serves; the one who exalts himself will be humbled; the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Let us be clear. Jesus is not telling his followers (then or now) to be conspicuous in their humility, to “show off” as it were, how they can put up with humiliation or discomfort or unhappiness for the sake of cultivating some sort of martyr complex. (Uriah Heep in David Copperfield, who speaks often and at length about “bein’ ‘umble” as he plots the downfall of the other characters in the story.) What he is saying, rather, is that when God’s priority list and values get put into action, it looks very strange. It looks like wide phylacteries and long tassels and fringes dropping down into the dryness and dust of the streets, to help and hold and lift up. It looks like dirt under fingernails, in the garden of St. Stephen’s House on Greene Street, or gallons of soup and smiling faces at The Master’s Table.

Outward and visible signs to be sure—some of venerable antiquity and tradition, some newly created or improvised on the spot, by the Spirit’s leading. But all of them filled with the power and the presence of God, and all of them answering both questions at once: Who’s in charge here—God is, and God’s dominion has just broken in; and also “how much do you love me?” Love beyond comprehension or limit, without measure or qualification.

For not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums…with deeds of love and mercy, thy heavenly kingdom comes.


19 Pentecost, Year A, 23 October 2011

Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; I Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

In the book The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible writer A.J. Jacobs documents his attempt to keep all 613 of the commandments found in the Hebrew Bible over an entire year. At the end of the year (and the end of the book) he observes that choices must be made, that not every commandment (nor every word of the Bible) can be held in equal importance. There has to be some way of prioritizing this collection of material, otherwise it’s just endless and impossible.

What is the key to all these teachings? How are the people of God to live and make sense of life in this world?

Jesus has been asked this very question: What is the greatest commandment? The person asking this question is identified as “a lawyer.” This is not someone who puts on a suit and tie on Monday morning and goes the courthouse in downtown Jerusalem to get a citation waved after his client has double-parked his camel in a no-camel parking zone. This is someone who has been carefully and thoroughly trained in the religious teaching and tradition of Israel. Jesus’ interlocutor himself knows the commandments—all 613 of them—very very well.

And so our expert in the law asks Jesus: What’s the number one commandment? And Jesus, being a good Jewish boy, answers with the words he has known from childhood. “Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” To this he adds a verse from Leviticus: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love God with everything you are, everything you have, everything that is in you. And love your neighbor as you love yourself. Everything else is commentary on the text.

Those who question him are looking for an opportunity to make trouble for Jesus. He’s in the temple when he tells this to his hearers. And it is the third time he’s been interrogated there, by leaders of various factions within the religious hierarchy. He came into the temple and threw out the merchants and moneychangers, and upset the ordinary flow of “business as usual.” And when he came into the temple, the people who accompanied him, even little children, were shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Palm Sunday shouts, leading to Good Friday’s cries of “Crucify him!”

So it’s an in-between sort of time. Things have happened; there is more yet to come. It’s not a safe, or easy, or comfortable time for Jesus or his followers. Anxiety is high; time is growing short. He’s been asked about paying taxes to the emperor—a question about loyalty and ultimate values. He’s been asked a preposterous question about marital relations in the life of the resurrection—by people who don’t believe in such a thing in the first place. And now he is asked about “the greatest commandment.” It is the last question he will be asked in that conversation, and it is perhaps the most important of all.

Love God with everything you have, and everything you are. All of which is from God in the first place.

When I am attacked by anxiety, or assaulted by fear, or tempted by despair—at the ways we treat one another, or the ways we abuse the creation, or the state of our national and political and cultural life—I remember. “In the beginning, God.” And “At the end, God.” And at every moment in between, “God.” As the psalmist writes, “Before the mountains were brought forth, or the land and the earth were born; from age to age you are God. Time is nothing to you—a thousand years in your sight are like an evening gone/short as the watch that ends the night before the rising sun.”

There is no place where God is not, even in the valley of the shadow of death itself. We are held in life—and in death—at every moment, in the hands and love of God. If St. Paul can say of his experience with the Thessalonian Christians, “We were as gentle and loving with you as a woman nursing an infant at the breast,” how much more are we then nurtured and nourished and tenderly held in God—who is both Father and Mother of all life?

In the beginning—God. At the end—God. In between, at every moment—God.

What if we could remember just that? At every moment—to be constantly aware of “Emmanu-el—God-with-us” as we moved through each day? To remember, as we will sing in just a moment, always and everywhere, to give thanks to God. How would that affect our response to Love our neighbor as ourselves? How would it affect how we loved ourselves? I suspect it would affect both of those things enormously—we might possibly even discover something of how God loves.

We are dust, and to dust we shall return. That is true.
But it is the same dust of which the sun and the moon and the stars are made. We are part of the creation in our very molecules, the very same creation over which God spoke, in the beginning, and pronounced: It is good, it is good, it is very good.

Go then, friends. Know that you are beloved and created in the image and likeness of God, know that there is no place where God is not. Go out this day, this week, and discover the places in your own lives where God’s dominion of mercy, justice and abundance is seeking to burst forth—even in places of pain and sorrow and need. And when you find those places, and those people, roll up your sleeves and get on with the work of being Christ’s hands and heart in this world.

May it be so for us.
May it be so among us.

18 Pentecost, Year A, October 16, 2011

Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

The goal of the life of faith is Union with God.
That’s what we’re after here, at St. Augustine’s Church.
It’s not about being nice to one another—although we do that.
It’s not about having programs and activities and services to give people stuff to do—
we’ve all got plenty of things we could be doing at any given time.
It’s not even about serving those in our community and town and world who need help—
as important as that is.

The goal of the life of faith is union with God. That’s what we’re seeking, as people of faith.

That sounds very ambitious, doesn’t it? Union with God—like something that only the professional religious people, monks and nuns and hermits and the very truly pious could even hope for. Moses, for instance, in our first reading this morning, is someone we might think of who got close to such union.

Moses had heard the voice of God in that burning bush, out in the desert, calling his name, telling him “Take off your shoes, you are on holy ground.” All the children of Israel had heard the voice of God on Mount Sinai, in the cloud and fire and trumpet blast, giving them the Teaching, the Torah of God. Moses had come down from that mountain, out of the cloud and fire, to discover that the people were running amok—they had decided that Moses was not coming back, that they needed to make another God to worship, the golden calf. And Moses, who had been with them for so long as they wandered in the wilderness, was MAD. So mad he took those stone tablets with the commandments inscribed on them, and threw them on the ground, where they shattered. And then, eventually, he—and the people he was leading—both realized they had done wrong. And said so, to each other and to God.

So now Moses asks God: “Show me yourself.” He has heard the voice, the words, many times over. Now he asks to see God’s own presence.

This is a very strange passage of scripture. “To see God” is not just about visual perception; it’s about intimate understanding. It is a metaphoric request—Moses does not merely want to “get a look at the Almighty”; he wants to know God in the deepest and fullest way possible. “Who are you that you will go with us? Do not send us away if you do not go with us, for then we shall surely be cut off from you.”

And God answers him, in a wonderful and poetic way. “You cannot see me fully face-to-face (that is, you cannot know me completely, for you would be exploded by my fullness.) But I will cover you and protect you when I come near, and afterward you will see my back. In other words, at the time of the close encounter you will be in darkness—only later, afterward when you think over what happened, you will see how I was there, as it were, from the back.

Is this not, indeed, how we see God? Or experience God’s presence? Sometimes we might be able to see God acting, in the moment, as it happens. But most of the time in my own life—maybe in yours too—it’s afterward. Looking back, thinking over “I was here, and this happened, and then I met this person, and then that other thing happened…and surely God must have been in there somewhere. I could never have manipulated it that way by myself.”

I know you by name, God says to Moses and the children of Israel. I KNOW you, inside and out. Top to bottom; beginning to end.

What do we say, every Sunday, as the liturgy begins? “Almighty God, unto whom/to you all hearts are open, all desires are known, and from whom/you no secrets are hid…” All hearts; all desires; no secrets. God knows it all, before we even know it ourselves, or can say it out loud. All the ugly and mean and cruel stuff; and all the weak and frightened and crazy stuff. And knowing us so completely, God loves us, each and all. Just as we are. No explanations needed; no excuses required.

That is the reality of who we are, as the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve, made in the image and likeness of God. Whether we know it, and welcome it, and live in that reality or not, it is still the reality of who we are, and whose we are.

The goal of the life of faith is union with God. Not just the faith of monks and nuns and hermits; not just the faith of Moses and St. Paul and the early Christians. But all of us are on that journey of faith too. As Christians, we look to Jesus as “the pioneer” of our faith. The one who goes before us and leads the way.

When we say that Jesus was “without sin” we don’t mean that he never got angry, or never asked questions of God, or never back-talked his Mama. He did all those things. When we say that Jesus was without sin, we mean that he was never OUT of union with God. He was never seperated from being fully aware of God’s embrace and presence with him. Even when he was standing in front of his accusers and detractors, like this morning in the temple.

The religious and social leaders of Jerusalem are looking for a reason to get him into trouble—because he has been troubling them. He has come into the temple—the religious, civic and commercial center of the capitol city, and thrown a major tantrum. He has kicked out the vendors and merchants—the sellers of sacrificial animals, and those who took people’s money, the currency of the civil society, and exchanged it (at rates suited to their own profit) into unmarked coins for use in the temple. He has made it impossible for “business as usual” to continue as usual, and the leaders are scared, and angry. They are afraid of what will happen if the Roman occupying forces get wind of all this; they are afraid of what will happen to THEM if the system they have lived with all this time is destroyed or changed in some way. So they are looking for a reason, and a way, to get rid of the trouble by removing the troublemaker.

One group comes asking him a loaded question: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor?
Please understand—this is not a question about paying taxes as such. This verse has been jerked out of context many, many times and used as a proof text to argue both for, and against, political economic policy. That’s not the point here.

The issue is not paying taxes as such; the issue is idolatry. The children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were quite clear in their faith that no depiction of God, in stone or wood, or gold or silver, or paint or any other medium, was a true picture of God’s whole being. If even Moses could not look upon God directly, but only see God “from behind” as it were, then it was impossible—even sacrilegious—to attempt to create an image of God in any artistic medium. NO IMAGES of the Divine Being were acceptable.

The Roman Empire, on the other hand, thrived on images. It was full of images. Everywhere the Roman Army went, they took their library of images with them. The imperial eagle; the military uniforms, the swords and spears and all the other paraphernalia. And above all: the image of the Emperor. On coins, and painted in colors on boards, and in a thousand subtle—and not-so-subtle ways—reinforcing the subjugation of the conquered peoples under this siege of carved, and painted, and metallic images.

To be required to deal with these images—which competed with the imageless, unseen face of God Almighty—was a sore spot among the people in Jesus’ time. Do we simply give up and go with the flow? (If Jesus said “It is lawful” it would be understood as an admission of acquiescence.) Or do we resist and refuse, even to the point of death? (If Jesus said “it is not lawful” then the leaders could turn him in as a political threat.)

But Jesus outwits them all, and asks them a deeper question still. He asks for one of the Roman coins, and holds it up before them all. “Whose image is this, on the coin?”
The word translated “Image” is the Greek word Icon. You know Icons…those little graphics on the computer screen that you click on, and they open up a new program or feature or package—some reality much bigger than the little picture on the screen.
That’s what an icon does—now and in Jesus’ time. An Icon, an image of any kind, carries associations with it. It participates in some reality larger than itself, and is an opening (a window, a door, a passage) into that larger reality. The sacred icons of Eastern Orthodox Christianity are just such openings—“windows into heaven” they are sometimes called.

Jesus is telling his hearers “Look y’all…this icon on this coin, this image of the emperor, is connected to the emperor’s reality. That version of reality is based on fear, and military power, and propaganda. Let him have it…it’s not the real thing anyway. Let the false Gods have their false images; Give to the true God all that belongs to God—which is everything that is real. It is God who made it all, in the first place. And calls each creature, each being, by name. In particular, yourselves.

What are the false images, that we could give back to the false gods, of our own time? Where do we see fear, and power, and propaganda, making demands on our lives—individually and as a people?
How can we claim the true image of God, the maker of heaven and earth, of all things seen and unseen? And of ourselves, children of God and beloved, always and for ever?

The goal of the life of faith is Union with God. The false images, and false gods, do all in their power to distract, and to entice, and to turn aside all those who seek that union. But they shall not have the victory. In Christ, the Icon of God—the true image and likeness, who opens the door to God’s own presence and self—we have an entry to that goal, that union. All our images and visions and depictions are but pale tracings of God’s fullness, and yet even in looking backward, even in “seeing God’s backside”, we see enough to urge us to go forward on our journey together.

17 Pentecost, Year A, October 9, 2011

Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

In the movie “Where The Heart Is”, starring Natalie Portman and Ashley Judd, the protagonist, Novalee, has taken her best friend Lexie and her four children into her home after Lexie’s boyfriend has beaten Lexie so badly that she is unable to work. In her despair at the state of her life, Lexie asks Novalee “What am I going to tell them? What am I gonna tell my babies, when they ask about why this happened?” Novalee pauses, and then says to her friend “You tell them…you tell them that our lives can change with every breath we take. You tell them that we’ve all got meanness in us, but we’ve got goodness too. And that the only thing worth living for is the good. And that’s why we’ve got to make sure to pass it on.”

We’ve all got meanness in us…yes, friends, we do. But that is not all to Lexie’s story, or to ours. There is goodness, and love, and joy, and peace, and patience and kindness and mercy and selflessness…all that is there as well. And all of that is worthy of our notice today.

Paul writes to the Christians at Philippi to remind them of these things, and to encourage them to remember. Not just remember, as in “call to mind intellectually” but to live into that reality. To commit an act of anamnesis.

“Anamnesis” is the vocabulary word for today—say it with me. It usually gets translated “Remember” or something similar, but that is too light a translation. “Anamnesis” means to remember something in the power of its reality. To be present in that power NOW, in the event that is recalled. When the Passover meal is eaten every year, and the children of Israel say of themselves “God led us out of bondage in Egypt into freedom” that is an act of anamnesis. When the cantor sings to us at the Great Vigil of Easter every year, “This is the night…when Christ rose from death and hell and delivered God’s people” that is a word of anamnesis. When we quote Jesus, concerning the bread and wine, “Do this in memory of me.” we are again speaking of anamnesis, the power and the immediacy of the event recalled is present and available to us right here, right now. We are there, in the upper room, ourselves.

Paul is doing something similar, reminding the Philippians of what they already know. Previously in the same letter, Paul has encouraged them: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:5-8)

Paul is quoting what we think is an early Christian hymn, which presumably the Philippians knew and had in their collective memory. He’s inviting them to be unified—“let the same mind be in you (y’all) that was in Jesus”—as they work together as ministers of the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. He is inviting them to let go of their own agendas and need to be in control, and instead seek to discover what God is doing in their own time and place, among them.

Only against this background does the opening of our lesson from Philippians this morning make any sense. “My brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for…stand firm in the Lord in this way, beloved.” The way of Jesus’ unselfish giving of himself for others, the way of mutual gratitude and respect.

This way of self-giving, of gratitude and respect is not about some strange dismissal of our own identities or personalities, but rather an ongoing, daily, even moment-by-moment awareness of our primary identity as Christians, as followers of Jesus Christ, who modeled that giving over of himself into the world (we call that the Incarnation, by the way) for the salvation of the world. Think of water, poured out of a pitcher into more water, in a large bowl or container. The water is still water, it hasn’t changed character. But it is part of a larger reality than if it just stayed in the pitcher by itself.

Jesus is poured out into the world, and we are followers of Jesus. Paul calls upon his hearers to recognized that we are also called to be poured out—not to stop being who we are, as if that were even possible—but to be participants in this redemptive, reconciling work into which Jesus leads us.

You do know, of course, that you are all ministers of Christ, right? That when you had the water of baptism poured over your head, that you became forever after marked—scarred, if you will—by the cross of Jesus? That your ministry as a follower of Jesus is mostly not here in this building, but out there—as parents and grandparents, as teachers and physical therapists and television producers, as engineers and personnel managers and writers, as whatever it is you do the other 6.5 days of the week. That is where your ministry is located. Not here in this building—out there, with them people.

And out there, them people are in great need of Jesus. Not the Jesus of bumperstickers and sappy piety; not the Jesus of evangelistic tracts handed out surreptitiously at First Friday on Broad Street. The Jesus you have met, here at the font in baptism and at the altar in the Eucharist; the Jesus you have encountered in each other in this congregation—sometimes hidden, often elusive, but nevertheless present. The Jesus you come seeking, like Mary in the garden on Easter morning, even in desperation. “They have taken him away, and I don’t even know where to look for him!” And Jesus speaks, and calls us by name.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; I’ll say it again: Rejoice!” Don’t be afraid of anything; in everything (and always and everywhere) give thanks to God…and the peace of God, which cannot be understood or explained, which is not dependent on outward circumstance, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

We’re used to that last phrase, from the blessing at the end of the Eucharist. But it’s a bit different. We normally hear “The peace of God…shall keep your hearts and minds.” Here it’s “guard”…Guard from what?

How about fear? That’s a big one. Or jealousy, or bitterness. Prejudice, and violence, hatred and greed, selfishness, angry words and angry spirits. Just a few things like that, from which we pray God’s guarding and protection.

We need such guarding, for the temptations are all around. When I was fired from my position at St. Crazy’s in New Jersey, I was mad. And sad. And hurt. And I held on to all that for quite a while. I didn’t really want to forgive that woman for what she had done. You see I haven’t forgotten it. But I learned a lot in that experience—about myself, about being part of a community of prayer and support and love—and something else. Something about God moving in mysterious ways, something about that peace which passes all human understanding and logic.

The temptations to fear and anger and hatred were—and are—all too real, and all too common.

All of that was out there for me in those days; all of that is still out there; all of that is in here. (In here—in us.) We’ve all got meanness in us. But we’ve all got goodness too.

“Whatever is true; whatever is honorable; whatever is just; whatever is pure; whatever is pleasing; whatever is commendable: if there is anything exellent or worthy of praise, think about these things.” Think about these things; ruminate and meditate and feed your mind and soul with these things, for your own soul’s nourishment. The other thoughts and feelings—anger and fear and all the rest—don’t give those any more attention and nourishment than they are already getting.

“Keep doing the good things you have learned and received and heard and seen…and the God of peace with be with you.” Not just “the peace of God” given, as it were, from a distance somewhere far away, but “the God of peace will be with you.” Here, in the midst of a people who pray and work and long for peace—in the world, and in every human heart.

May it be so for us;
may it be so among us.

Monday, October 3, 2011

15 Pentecost, Year A, September 25, 2011

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
… by what authority?, preached by The Rev. Willard Carter

“By what authority do you preach and celebrate this morning?” some of you may ask yourselves. I could refer to my call, education, the accreditation of the Seminary of the Southwest and to diplomas and ordination vows. Jesus had none of these. He was God. The religious leaders saw only an uneducated, charismatic man who lacked credentials and did not teach and act as they did. He confronted them with a crisis. Jesus was threatening their power and influence with the people.
What authority do you have and how do you react to the authority of others? If you're speeding to Atlanta on I-20 and there is suddenly a flash of blue in your rearview mirror, do you question the right of a patrolman to pull you over? Do you ask the patrolman about his authority to stop you? Do you blindly accept the authority of the Garmin “lady” are the Tom-Tom “man” to tell you directions?
The next five Sunday Gospel lessons will deal with the question posed to Jesus today by the religious elite – chief priests and elders "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" The interplay between Jesus and these leaders will conclude with Jesus' final question regarding the Messiah? (Matthew 22:46) No one will be able to give him an answer. The events will lead to Jesus' arrest, trial and crucifixion. The stage will be set for the overt clash of kingdoms – the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world.
Perhaps those who have been in the military will remember the authority of your Drill Sergeant. A Marine platoon had been on maneuvers for two weeks in the rain and mud of Georgia. The sergeant gathers them, calls them to attention and tells them that there is some good news and some bad news which would they like to hear first? Almost with one voice they shouted, "the good news, Sarge." Well everyone is going to have a change of clothes" the sergeant snaps. "But what's the bad news Sarge? " They ask. "Pvt. James gets to change with private Sams. Pvt. Sams gets to change with private Jones." What could be the good news and the bad news of authority in our gospel lesson be for us?
Jesus had authority from who he was and gave his disciples authority. He has sent disciples out on two occasions to exercise that authority. They were also given responsibility to carry a transforming Gospel and to be a blessing on those they encountered. They likewise received a blessing from seeing lives changed. Exercising their authority would have its challenges Jesus’ realized so told them to shake the dust off their sandals if they were not accepted. The good news is that this authority comes to us as the priesthood of all believers. The bad news is that we can abdicate it.
San Juan Capistrano, California –The LA Times reported last week that the city of San Juan, Capistrano fined Charles and Stephanie Fromm $300 for holding their regular Bible study groups, according to a statement from the Sacramento-based Pacific Justice Institute.
The couple appealed the fine and was told subsequent fines would be enhanced if they continued holding the study group without a conditional use permit -- a specialized permit allowing the activity under prescribed conditions, according to the statement.
City spokeswoman Cathy Salcedo in an email said according to the Times that the city does not prohibit home Bible studies. The Fromms' case is about when a residential area has been transformed into a place where people regularly assemble. "The Fromm case further involves regular meetings on Sunday mornings and Thursday afternoons with up to 50 persons, with impacts on the residential neighborhood on street access and parking," she wrote.
The city exercised its authority. What was the Fromm’s authority?

Last Wednesday night in Jackson, Georgia at 11:08 PM Troy Davis was executed under the state’s authority. Davis, 42, had been convicted in 1991 of the 1989 shooting death of Savannah, Ga., police officer Mark MacPhail. According to newspaper reports, the NAACP, Amnesty International USA, celebrities, elected officials and people around the world had rallied around Davis, pointing out that several witnesses from the original trial had signed affidavits recanting their testimony implicating Davis. MacPhail's family however maintained their belief that Davis committed the crime and relied on the testimony from the trial. Was the execution a result of the proper use of the authority that God has given us? Did it proclaim a Gospel of God's mercy?
Prior to today's gospel lesson in Matthew, Jesus curses the fig tree because it is covered with leaves but bore no fruit. Allegorically the cursing of the fruitless fig tree relates to the religious establishment of Jesus day. Jesus will subsequently proclaim a series of "woes...” on them (Matthew 23:13 – 36).
The religious leaders in today's gospel lesson intended to trap Jesus but they ended up trapping themselves. Have we not been given the authority and the responsibility as the disciples were to share the Gospel? Aren’t we to bring the good news of Jesus? If we say "yes" but do not bear the Gospel we become like the fruitless fig tree and the second son. We in effect trap ourselves.
Today we have the opportunity to say, "yes". We can say “yes” in the Creed. We can say “yes” in the Eucharist. We can say “yes” in the closing prayer. Finally, we can say “yes” in our lives in the world. What will be your response to Jesus? How will you exercise your authority this week?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

14 Pentecost, Year A, 18 September 2011

Genesis 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-20; Matthew 20:1-16.
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

When I was in seminary in Austin, a Friday tradition was to go to The Posse for lunch. The Posse was a pub a couple of blocks from the campus, right down the hill. We would all head down after morning classes and get a burger and a beer. And maybe another beer. And then it would be time to leave…except you had to walk UP hill from the Posse to get back to the campus. So it was often easier to just stay and have yet another beer. Or two.

One such afternoon, I was listening to a group of my classmates complain about one of the professors. Then they complained about all of the professors. And then they complained about the library staff. And the food in the cafeteria. And anything else they could think of to complain about. Finally I got up to leave, and announced “I am officially renaming you all the Gripe and Moan Society—you’ve done nothing else for the last forty-five minutes!” I don’t think they even recognized what they were doing. It had just gotten so easy somehow, to sit and grumble.

There’s an awful lot of griping and moaning and carrying on in our readings this morning The children of Israel complain to Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. “You should have left us in Egypt—at least there we had something to eat!” They have already forgotten the forced labor—making bricks with no straw—and the abuse they suffered at the hands of the Egyptians. Now they are hungry and tired and far from the only place they’ve ever known as home. And they are frightened. When they set out on the journey, it was new and exciting and everyone was ready to got. But now they’ve been walking for a long time, and they’re starting to wonder “How much longer? Are we there yet?”

You know how you feel when you’re hungry and tired and afraid and far from home? Yeah—like that.

Moses and Miriam and Aaron feel that way too. And they are the ones who are supposed to be leading this parade! They’re not sure if they’ve been getting the daily memo from the Lord…and don’t we always want it? Written down on an official papyrus scroll, with detailed instructions. “Go here. Do this. Stop for the night at…” It’s much easier that way, you know. There’s no discernment required. No waiting or watching, prayer or thought demanded. Everyone just follows orders and it’s all okay.

The children of Israel demonstrate their own fear and hunger, tiredness and anxiety in this complaining. This will become one of the themes of the wilderness journey—the people complain or act out of fear, and the Lord provides for them even in spite of their fearful, anxious griping, moaning and carrying on. Over and over again, this pattern appears as the story goes on. It is as if the writers want future generations to understand without question that in spite of the people’s fear and complaint and uncertainty, God was—and is—faithful to provide for those in need. Especially when it is God who has called them into the desert in the first place.

When Jesus tells the parable of the workers in the vineyard this morning, it is only a very few verses before he himself will be called into a place of danger and uncertainty, and will himself wonder “Are you still there, God? Are you with me?” We’re reading this passage in the fall, but were we to keep reading directly through Matthew, in just a few verses we would hear the crowd shout “Hosanna in the highest!” as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. It is nearly the last week of his earthly ministry, in fact. Time is running out, and Jesus knows it.

He tells this story of a landowner who goes early in the morning to hire day laborers to work in his vineyard. As soon as we hear of a vineyard, our ears ought to perk up—because that image is one that occurs throughout scripture. A vineyard, a piece of land where grapes are cultivated for the production of wine, is a very special place. It is a place where human beings and God work together. It takes time for the plants to grow and produce fruit, and in the meantime they must be pruned and watered. Someone (or many some ones) have to take care of them. If there is too much, or too little rain or sunshine, the grapes may be compromised. And if all goes well, then when harvest time comes, there is no end of work until the grapes are gathered and the young wine is pressed and stored. There is always some work for the workers in the vineyard to do, but as every good gardener knows, human effort can only do so much. We can help make the conditions for growth more favorable, but we humans do not cause the growth to happen. That’s God’s work. (We can, all too easily, interfere with and block growth—in all young growing things. That is why we are called to be stewards of the creation, not owners and landlords. The creation is not ours to own. But that’s another sermon.)

The image of the vineyard as a place of peace and stability and cooperation between human effort and divine nourishment and growth appears over and over in the Bible. Jesus is intentionally using that tradition to talk about the dominion of God, its priorities and values.

The first group of workers arrive early, but then more workers keep coming. More and more, every few hours another group arrives. There is clearly plenty to be done, what with weeding and pruning, tying up and smoothing out, watering and fertilizing and all the rest. But it must have been a very big vineyard indeed, to have so many workers in it. I can just see them getting in each other’s way occasionally—two wheelbarrows approaching a corner of the garden path from opposite directions, CRASH! Head-on collision, soil goes flying everywhere…and still more workers coming! Where will they all go?

finally the whistle blows, the workday ends, and the workers line up to receive their pay. The newcomers are paid first—the usual daily wage, as was customary. The others, who have been there all day, see this and think to themselves “Great! If they’re getting the usual daily wage, then we’ll get even more!”

And then—Surprise!

First, they’re shocked. Then, they’re mad! And then the complaining and moaning and carrying on starts up. “We’ve worked ourselves into the ground all day long, and you’re giving them the same amount you’re giving us? That’s not fair!”

It’s not that the workers who have worked all day think themselves ill-compensated as such. They received what was customary, to which they had agreed at the beginning of the day. But they were upset because the latecomers (“them people!”) were, in their estimation, being paid too much. “They haven’t earned the right…”

The Landowner of the vineyard (or perhaps Land LORD would be the better term—the LORD of the vineyard, the land, and indeed all of creation) is having none of it. The phrase in Greek is wonderful: “Is your eye evil because I am good?” Are you giving someone the stink eye, or looking down your nose at someone, because of my kindness? “Are you envious because I am generous?”
YES…great big pea-green YES right there!

They’re right about one thing. It’s not fair. At least, not in the way we usually mean that word. The only reward that the early arrivals have, other than the agreed-upon wage, is the satisfaction of knowing they did much good work there in the vineyard.

Jesus tells this parable to his inner circle of friends, after he has told them (and many others within earshot) how difficult it will be for those who trust in their bank accounts and many possessions to see and participate in the dominion of God. We didn’t read that passage in the Sunday lectionary—we skipped over it from last week to this. He is not condemning anyone—not those who have wealth (and by extension, the good opinion of society in general) nor those who do not have wealth (and perhaps are looked down upon as a result.) What he intends them to understand is that the dominion of God, the inbreaking of God’s values and priorities into human culture and society and experience, looks weird. It’s not “fair,” it’s not “normal” in many ways. It goes absolutely against the grain of all our hierarchies and systems and structures that serve the status quo. “The first shall be last; the last shall be first; a little child shall lead them all…the wolf and the lamb shall lie down together.”

In a very short time Jesus himself will come face to face the principalities and powers of the world, which function by violence and coercion, fear and death, and on the cross will overcome and reconcile them all. He will meet violence with peace, coercion with invitation, relentless hatred with equally relentless mercy and forgiveness and love.

No, it is not fair. It is not natural. It is a deep mystery of the reign of God, which still to this day confounds and confuses, undermines and subdues the powers and practices of the world.

Dear ones, this week—this day, this very moment—may we turn in repentance from grumbling and complaining, fear and anxiety, and learn more deeply to trust the love of Emmanu-el, God-with-us, walking side by side with us, at all times and in all places.

May we, more and more, day by day, become co-conspirators with Jesus, as we practice his transformational way of life in our own time and place.

May it be so for us; may it be so among us.

Monday, September 19, 2011

12 Pentecost, Year A, Sept. 4, 2011

Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14Matthew 18: 15 – 20
Becoming reconciled, Preached by The Rev. Will Carter

Doing what today's gospel requires is difficult. My great-great grandparents in Tennessee were “churched” many years ago. They were expelled from their Baptist church. They had sponsored a dance for their daughter who had just returned from New York. Their solution was to start their own church. The church is still doing well today but perhaps this is the reason for so many denominations and churches. It may seem easier to separate from someone who offends you then to become reconciled. The church can miss the point of the Gospel when we separate from each other. We miss the opportunity to be blessed and be a blessing as reconcilers. We miss the focus of Jesus call and His love.

Our daughter, Shara, is a perfect example. When she was two, she and her brother were having a fight and she came running to her mother. “Punish Jason,” she pleaded. Her mother, in her wisdom, told her instead, “Go tell your brother that Jesus loves him and so do you.” Shara darted off and said, "Mother said „Jesus will get you and so will I.‟" we can reframe reconciliation in the guise of vindication.

Many times, when others wrong us, we want to settle the score rather than become reconciled with them because it is difficult to become reconciled. Many times it seems easier to turn our backs on the offender and walk away. “Weren’t we right?” we might ask or “They should say that they were sorry to me.” Reconciling is an act of Faith which requires our vulnerability.

Many may see reconciliation as an official duty of the priest at the absolution and miss our individual duty. As Episcopalians we do make acts of reconciliation with God and each other at the Eucharist each week. We confess our sins and ask to be reconciled to God. After the General Confession (The Prayer Book also provides an order for reconciliation of the penitent.) The Priest gives absolution on behalf of God in Christ but this does not relieve individuals from being reconcilers. The peace which follows the confession is meant to symbolically allow us become reconciled with each other before coming to the altar for Holy Eucharist. This follows Matthew’s “binding and loosening of sins” on earth. What about our duty to deal with each other to affect personal and corporate reconciliation?

The church has experienced internal difficulties ever since its birth. In Paul’s letters and Acts we hear of strife between members and against the community. In I Chorinthians 1:10 Chloe’s people complain to Paul about church rancor. In Acts there are complaints about unequal distribution of bread to the widows of the Jews and Greeks.

In this week’s Ecrozier Bishop Benhase wrote of an incident during the passing of the peace at a Roman Catholic Church in Southern California when basketball star, Kobe Bryant grabbed a man’s cell phone. He hurt the man’s wrist in the process. Bryant seemed to be concerned that the man was trying to take pictures of him and his family during the Eucharist. It turned out, it seems, that no pictures were found on the man’s cell phone. Laying aside the issue of guilt and fault in this case, of both Bryant and the man in question, didn’t each miss the meaning of the Peace? 9/4/2011D 2
Reggie McNeil in his book, “Missional Renaissance” comments that the mission of the church is to be a blessing to our families, communities and the world. If we are caught in disruptive relationships and there is no harmony, how can we be blessed or can we be a blessing to our families or communities? How can we model reconciliation and reintegration into the community of Christ?
The steps are simple but to take them is difficult. For instance going to the one who sinned against you can be monumentally difficult. They may reject you out of hand and become permanently alienated from you. This possibility increases as you bring two or three witnesses with you who have recognized the offense. When you arrive at having the church consider the offense, things can become especially difficult.

We need to be reconciled because God created us to be at one with him and in harmony with our brothers and sisters. When we experience life that is in disharmony then the tempo of life is disrupted. Recently I had a grandfather clock cleaned and adjusted and it seemed to run fine for a while. Then without warning it just stopped. I would try to restart it and each time it would run for a short while then stop again. When I contacted the “clock man”, he said “It may be out of tempo.” When we are not in harmony with each other, our lives may have become "out of tempo". "Out of tempo" lives will require continually energy to restart life. The “clock man” readjusted the tempo and now the clock runs perfectly. Today's gospel is about getting a lives back into tempo by addressing disharmony and reestablishing harmony.

Has someone wronged you? Are there people you try to avoid? Individuals could be within the community, the church or at work. Why not take a first step to seek them out and attempt to reestablish harmony by expressing your feelings and perception about being in an un-harmonious relationship. By taking this first step you should have started a journey which may model for others coming into a relationship.

Consider the tempo of your life as you go through the next week recognizing that the Gospel today is not about "Jesus‟ going to get you" but about Jesus desiring you to be reconciler and to be reconciled.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

13 Pentecost Year A: September 11, 2011

Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
Preached by The Rev. Jason Haddox

The rabbis tell a story that, when the children of Israel had safely crossed the Red Sea and escaped from slavery in Egypt, as they stood on the shore and watched the waters roll over the Egyptian army, the angels around the heavenly throne wanted to sing and rejoice at the downfall of the Egyptians. But God stopped their singing, saying, “The works of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing praises?!?”
The deliverance of the children of Israel came at a price. The Egyptians could have let them go—God knows, by that time, the Egyptians themselves had suffered from frogs and locusts and boils and the death of the firstborn. You’d think they’d have figured it out!
But no, again they came after the children of Israel, chasing them even into the sea. Did they mean to kill them there on the shore, or take them back in chains to slavery again? In any case, they pursued the Israelites intending to destroy them, but their destruction came back upon themselves.
God did not rejoice wholeheartedly that day. Some of God’s children went out to freedom, and for them there was a new beginning. But some of them went down to their deaths, driven by the merciless arrogance of a ruler whose powers had been thwarted. No, God did not rejoice in that.
We have to be careful, when we assume that God is always and forever on our side, to the exclusion of someone (or someones) who differs from us. Paul writes to the Christians at Rome this morning, cautioning them about how they deal with one another—and these are all followers of Christ! “Who are you to judge your sister or brother?” again and again he asks. If you keep feast days or not; if you eat or if you do not eat, give thanks to God and do not look condescendingly upon those who do differently—for none of us are in this alone. This work of being Jesus’ followers, of seeking to embody the work and witness of the Risen Christ in our own lives, is never a solo virtuoso act. “We do not live to ourselves; we do not die to ourselves…whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. Christ lived, and died, so that he might be Lord of all—the living and the dead.” And so we say or sing these words at funerals—declaring in the very face of death, that death has not, shall not have, the last word.
Judge not your brother, or sister—because you do not know how to judge rightly.
Judge not—except in the way you wish to be judged by God.
“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” we will pray momentarily. In other words, Treat us, O God, as we treat one another.
Lord, have mercy upon us!

And guess what?
He does. For no reason at all, except that God is determined to love us into the kingdom of love, by love and love alone, he does indeed have mercy.
This is what it looks like, to be one of God’s people. This is what it looks like, to be a follower of Jesus.
In this work of being Jesus’ followers, Peter comes to Jesus with a question. Lord, if someone sins against me, how many times shall I forgive? As many as seven?
Try Seventy-seven times, Pete. Or how about four hundred and ninety…
Which is to say—stop counting. God has given up keeping the heavenly log books of who’s naughty or nice—why do you insist on keeeping score?
So he tells this outrageous story, just in case they still don’t get it.
Ten thousand talents is a sum beyond imagining. It is not possible that an ordinary slave, in Jesus’ culture, would ever have had access to that kind of money. Whole national economies would have not involved that kind of funding. Jesus is drawing the picture as big as possible, just to get the point across.
The master—the king—forgives the debt. And as soon as the slave is released from that debt, he goes and starts insisting that a fellow slave, who owes him roughly a few months’ wages—petty cash in comparison—pay up or get carted off to debtor’s prison.
The other slaves see this exchange and go running to tattle.
And the parable ends with the wicked slave being handed over, “to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.”
What I want to know is, how’s he supposed to pay anything if he’s being waterboarded and electroshocked?

This is not a subtle parable. Jesus is hitting them over the head with the point: Forgive one another, as you hope to be forgiven yourselves.

I ddin’t pick these readings, friends. The lectionary appointed them for this Sunday years before today—before the events of ten years ago, when in the aftermath of September 11th, the temptation broke upon us as a nation to lash out in anger, to seek vengeance, to find someone (or someones) to blame. Clearly that temptation has been around for a while—several centuries at least—and when we succumb to it, God bids the angels to silence again. “Why are you singing, when my children are destroying one another?”

Unforgiveness damages everything it touches—most of all, the one who will not forgive. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting what has happened—as if that were possible. It does not mean that everything goes back to the way it was before. It does not mean “kiss and make up.” Rather, it means freedom…from the past, from old anger and resentment and bitterness and being “stuck”—or even “enslaved.” I don’t think it’s by coincidence that Jesus contrasts slavery—a common enough cultural reality in his day—with forgiveness, as a synonym for being set free.

“Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Last week—in fact, only three verses earlier!) Jesus gives his followers—that’s us, folks—the power to set each other, and ourselves, free.

The children of Israel went into freedom through the sea. Perhaps, in their haste and joy, they had forgiven their captors in Egypt for what they had suffered there. The armies of Egypt came in haste and vengeance to the sea, and went in to their own destruction. They had neither forgiven nor forgotten. They were willing to perish themselves rather than let go of the past. They became the agents of their own destruction.

Forgive us…as we forgive. Each one of us; and all of us together.
May it be so for us; may it be so among us. Amen.

11 Pentecost, Year A, August 28, 2011

Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
Preached by The Rev. Jason Haddox

Last year when we began to plan for Holy Week, I asked about a wooden cross we might use for Good Friday. There was no such object, so I asked Bob Hatcher to make one for us—and did he ever come through! Made from two huge tree branches, and rope to lash them together, “Old Rugged” is outside in the churchyard if you haven’t seen it already. Sometimes we hear Jesus’ words in the gospel this morning “Take up your cross” and imagine that he’s talking about something that big and rough and heavy, that we’re literally supposed to lug around with us. I don’ t think that’s the point.

Let’s review. Last Sunday’s gospel (Matthew 16:13-20) was part one of this morning’s story—Jesus asks this followers “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter responds, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, God’s chosen and Holy One.

No sooner has he said this, but “Jesus [begins] to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
All of the Christian scriptures were written after the resurrection, so the raising on the third day is a given in the minds of the hearers. It is the lens through which they read the scriptures, and through which they see and make sense of the world they live in.

“Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” Peter’s response is perfectly understandable. We’ve just established a few verses ago that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the chosen Holy One of God. What on earth could Jesus now mean by saying all this about suffering and being killed? What self-respecting Messiah would put any of that on his to-do list? The Messiah should go to Jerusalem, certainly, and be hailed as the hero who would restore the fortunes of Israel and put the Davidic monarchy back together…but this agenda Jesus suggests is not only inappropriate, but foolish and degrading and just WRONG! Jesus, Jesus—what are you talking about?

“But he turned to Peter and said ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Now it is Peter who is rebuked—and the word here is most apt. “Satanas” is a proper name, often associated with “the tempter,” as we learned back in Ch. 4, in the wilderness after Jesus’ baptism. In fact, the words Jesus uses here to address Peter are EXACTLY the words he uses to rebuke the third temptation in the wilderness (Matt. 4:10).

“You are a stumbling block to me”…you are causing me to fall down, get distracted. “Stumbling block” is our translation of the Greek word skandalos…from which we get our English word “scandal.” Someone falls down in public and we laugh. Someone in public authority is discovered to be all too human, and we rush together to hurl insults and place blame. It is death by stoning in a media-soaked culture, where every move is known almost as it happens.

You, Peter, are causing me to get distracted, to go in the wrong direction. “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Better translation: You are not thinking of God-things but of man-things. (from Greek, anthropos, so “human” is okay, but the NRSV is avoiding “mannish” language and so loses the God/man contrast.)

In other words—you, Peter, have just not two minutes ago said as plainly as can be that you understand who I am—but you don’t. Not really. You still think it’s about the power game as Jerusalem and Rome have set the terms.

He calls everyone together and says “Look y’all, here’s the deal…
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or, what will they give in return for their life?”

The NIV translates “save/lose his soul,” which is also proper, but problematic (to say the least!) in the first instance… the possibility of “losing one’s soul” is not the same question.

Nevertheless, it’s a worthy question. Life (in the abundance that Jesus intends for his followers) or Soul (in its fullness, in this world and the life of the world to come)—what is the price of such a treasure? And how is it to be gotten and kept? Jesus seems to be telling them—and us—that it is not by the ways we think. That holding on to status or dignity or our own notions of how power in this world works, will ultimately prove a disappointment. That in fact there is something far deeper and more subtle at work here…something in which the universe itself has a vested interest.

This language of self-denial and carrying the cross is, and has been, a profound part of our vocabulary as Christians. I would argue that it is profoundly powerful language—and as with any great power, it can do great harm, or great good.

The great danger is that it be given as counsel or guidance too soon, or wrongly. For someone who is not yet sure of who they themselves truly are—because of being chronologically or emotionally young or unformed—“deny yourself” might be used as a means of control. For someone who has been the victim of systemic oppression or even abuse, “Deny yourself” could be a distorted use of scripture, an attempt to justify that abuse or oppression to the one victimized.

Jesus does not ask anyone to pretend that they themselves do not exist. That is not what’s going on here.

He tells the disciples, Peter and James and John and Magdalen and Joanna and all the others who were within earshot: “You know what you have seen and heard while you have been with me. And you know that some of it has not made sense—not in the ordinary way. Not in the same way you were taught to understand, and to see the world. But I’m telling you, this is the God-way of seeing, and understanding, and exercising leadership and power. It’s not about forcing other people to do things against their wills—it’s about looking at your own will, and desires, and fears and worries, and saying “In spite of all of this, I will follow the way of God. Which is not violent, or coercive, or angry—even when it is met with violence and anger and coercion.” Which does not insist on winning at any cost; which is even willing to suffer the indignity of death rather than meet hatred with more hatred.

Paul is telling the Romans the same thing. “Bless those who curse you; do not avenge yourselves; give food and drink to your enemies when they hunger and thirst.” It is beyond strange—such actions overturn the world’s values, by intentionally and consciously and repeatedly choosing to follow a different way of life.

That’s what Jesus is telling his hearers this morning. I am taking a road to God, which will be misunderstood and feared and scorned by the powers of this world as impotent and foolish and useless. And I’m inviting you to come with me. No obligation; no coercion. You can try to go it alone, the way you always have, the way the principalities and powers of Rome and Jerusalem, Washington and Wall Street and Beijing tell you you’re supposed to. But I have something wonderful, something they can’t even imagine, that I want you to have also. And I want you to share it with everyone you meet. Come with me and see—you’ve begun to discover it already.

Every time we baptize, we brand the new Christian with the cross. In water and oil, with the words “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.” We don’t have to go find a cross to carry, or ask someone to build one for us from tree branches and rope—it’s already on us.

The question then is: What are you—what are we—going to do with it?

Monday, August 15, 2011

9 Pentecost, Year A, 14 August 2011

Psalm 133, Genesis 45:1-15, Romans 11:1-2, 29-32, Matthew 15:21-28
Preached by Rev. Erwin Veale

I usually like to preach on the gospel lesson, the good news. Today’s gospel is a hard one for me so I want to take a different approach. I love the Old Testament story we see concluded today. Joseph had a chance for revenge. He had all the authority and resources behind him to wipe his brothers from the face of the earth. What would we have done?
Has anybody done you wrong? What has your response been? What is your attitude about that issue even in this very moment? I’d rather you answer these questions! I would not want to tell all with regard to my story and that of my family. What are we to do? We are to do as Joseph does in what we call the Old Testament.
Joseph’s actions precede those of Jesus and we are to also do as Jesus does. Jesus knew the story of Joseph very well. He was beginning to understand his role in this world. I believe he knew the power he had behind him to judge the world with a power even greater than Joseph had.
Joseph forgave. Jesus forgives. We are to do the same.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, 10 July 2011

Genesis 25:19-34;Psalm 119:105-112;Romans 8:1-11;Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Preached by Reverend Lou Scales

I once heard it said that the reason God created human beings is that God just loves good stories. In fact, God loves good stories so much that he gave Jesus the gift of being the Master Storyteller for us. For the next three Sundays, the Lectionary gives us Jesus’ parables from Saint Matthew’s Gospel.

Parables were Jesus’ favorite way of teaching. According to many scholars, the parables revealed the religious experience of Jesus and his insight into God in Heaven. Parables demand thought, and are often difficult to understand. Both today and next Sunday, in the two parables of the Sower (which may be different versions of the same parable) are part of a tradition of parables of reassurance, of encouragement, of confidence. They are paralleled by another tradition of parables of warning, of challenge, of urgency.

The trouble with parables is that they are disturbing, baffling, and puzzling. That Jesus intended them to be like that, as a tool for thought and insight, should go without saying. In fact, Marcus Borg tells us that the parables of Jesus “function in a particular way: they are invitational forms of speech. Jesus used them to invite his hearers to see something they might not otherwise see. As evocative forms of speech, they tease the imagination into activity, suggest more than they say, and invite a transformation in perception.”

It is significant and important for us to hear, and tell, these stories over and over again. In the telling and the hearing, time and again, we find new insights into ourselves, into those around us, and into God’s kingdom. Some times we’ll use the metaphor of God as Farmer to help us understand the way God seeks to grow us into the kingdom of his love and grace, and the patience God exercises in that effort. Hearing this parable again in these terms helps us to see how we can grow and mature in faith, depending on the kind of grounding we have in Word and Sacrament. We’ll use the metaphor of how the seed is planted to help us understand what happens to our efforts in evangelism. Same story, different insights for different times and circumstances in our lives. Different glimpses of the same loving God who continually calls us to a deeper knowledge and acceptance of grace and love.

And in that sense, today is no different, because you are not going to hear about either of those. Instead, you are going to hear, and, I trust, think and meditate, about what this parable tells us of how we deal with failure. In a world that seems to be consumed by the effort to succeed wildly in everything, we inevitably face that reality of not winning them all. We will not make a perfect score on every exam. We will not be the prime candidate for every job we want. We may not be admitted to the best university because there are others deemed more successful and having more potential that we do. In attempting to support our friends, spouses and children in their efforts to succeed, we will offer sound advice and guidance, based on our best intentions and considerable experience, only to have that advice and guidance graciously (and sometimes Ungraciously) rejected or ignored.

When it comes to facing failures in life, the farmer in Jesus’ parable sounds a lot like you and me. We work hard, and we only sometimes succeed. A lot of the best things we give to others are not well received by them. Much of what we want to plant in the lives of those around us doesn’t “take”…doesn’t become rooted and permanently planted in their lives. All of us have to deal with failure. All of us know those areas in our lives and the lives of those around us, where the best we give or attempt for ourselves comes up lacking, falling short of our hope, our dreams and our great expectations.

Some biblical commentators suggest that this parable of Jesus is somewhat autobiographical, and that well could be true. Jesus certainly had to face a great deal of apparent disappointment. He knows full well the pain of failure.

Jesus was born and raised in Nazareth, and his own hometown folk rejected Him. The people of Israel rejected both Him and his message. His handpicked twelve apostles? Well, one of them sold Him out for thirty pieces of silver, and the others fled when He was arrested, tried and crucified. Moreover, Peter was not too swift to take His message to heart. Thomas was the Doubter, and the others were not much better, either.

He died a criminal’s death, and was buried in a borrowed tomb.

Elijah, long before Christ, along with Jeremiah and other prophets as well, were notable failures, most of them ending up against the outside wall of Jerusalem on the receiving end of deadly stone throwing attacks.

The Apostle Paul would not make the “short list” of aspiring rectors anywhere in this area – what with his contentious relationships with authorities, his numerous arrests and convictions, his unwillingness to stay in one place for any length of time; his candidacy could not possibly survive the background check.

We know about missed opportunities, unfulfilled dreams and unmet expectations. We know the pain of giving it everything we had, and coming up short. We know the terrible agony of moving along, minding our own business, and then being devastated by a disaster of sickness, death, betrayal or catastrophe. What this parable invites us to re-discover is the goodness and strength that come through surviving and enduring the trials and disappointments. The parable of the Sower invites us – challenges us - to look again at how we deal with our losses and disappointments, and whether we allow them to beat us down, or choose to grow from them and become stronger because of them. Over the centuries there are marvelous stories of those who, when faced with the overwhelming option of quitting, refused to give up, refused to be beaten. I will remind you briefly of three:
John Milton wrote the classic Paradise Lost at the age of 60 – after he had been blind for 16 years.
After years of progressive hearing loss, by age 46, German composer Ludwig von Beethoven had become completely deaf. Nevertheless, he wrote his greatest music, including five symphonies, during his later years.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was stricken with polio at the age of 39, yet went on to be elected President of the United States – four times.

The stories of people who learned and grew and overcame obstacles and refused to quit go on and on. And Jesus knew those stories when he told his parable, and tried to let us discover for ourselves the liberating and challenging truths that only failure, disappointment and hardship can teach.

Some of our efforts will fall on the path, and will amount to nothing but birdfeed. Other efforts will fall on rocky ground, come up quickly, and wither just as quickly. Still other efforts will look, sound and feel good, only to be cruelly choked off before they really produce. But other efforts will find their way to success and faithful completion, not because we are lucky, but because we are faithful, persistent, and trusting in God’s never ending love for us and presence with us.

Listen to the words spoken by God through God’s servant Isaiah: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return until they have watered the earth, making it blossom and bear fruit, and give seed for sowing and bread to eat, so shall the word which comes from my mouth prevail; it shall not return to me fruitless without accomplishing my purpose for succeeding in the task I give it.”

Hope, encouragement and reassurance, spoken when we need it most. Jesus’ followers from then on, even to today, have needed to hear the same good news, and be reminded that our courage and persistence is born of hope in the risen Christ, and the complete trust in the reality of the risen Christ in our world and in our lives now.

As we come to the Eucharist feast, we may be coming bloodied, bruised and almost beaten, possibly disappointed and dejected. But coming to this feast is the renewal the parable calls us to remember. While our disappointment and frustration may be great, the goodness of love that is before us is absolutely overwhelming. Saint Paul reminds us, again and again, that we are the daughters and sons of God, and forever receive the indescribable gift of God’s love and grace. Again, Isaiah calls us to hear the words of the never ending promise of God who loves us: “Come to me and listen to my words, hear me, and you shall have life.”

So come to the feast, buy bread and wine without price, without cost. Know you are comforted and challenged, renewed and called to be the sons and daughters of the risen Christ.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, 3 July 2011

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45:11-18; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

In a scene from the movie “Julie and Julia” (released 2007?) Julia Child and her French cooking colleague, Simone Beck are waiting for their American hostess, Avis DeVoto, to meet them at the train station when they arrive in Boston. Simone asks Julia what Avis looks like, and Julia refers to her last letter from Avis: “Look for a middle-aged woman in a plaid jacket.” Simone realizes from this that, in fact, Julia has never met Avis in person, despite having been in regular written contact with her for many years. Julia is in the midst of explaining how this is possible when, in the background, a very short and petite middle-aged woman in a plaid jacket and hat (this is the late fifties, after all) comes running into the station, looking around the waiting room with great excitement. They see one another, and realize that yes—there she is, that’s the one. They stand face to face at last, and the viewers are simultaneously touched at this joyful meeting and amused at the disparity between their heights—Julia towers over Avis by at least a full head or more in stature.

“What are you looking for?” In this case, a plaid jacket, worn by a middle-aged woman. That was all she knew to look for.

In some respect, all of our lessons this morning are dealing with that question, What are you looking for?
The story from Genesis is almost a children’s bedtime story. “Once upon a time, in a far-away country, a man went on a long journey in search of a wife. Not for himself, but for the son of the man he worked for.
He sat at the place near the town where the young women would come in the evening to draw water for their families and animals, and there he saw her for the first time. But he didn’t know if it was really her, at first…he had to find out for certain.”

All he knew for sure was that he was looking for a wife for Isaac, from Abraham’s ancestral family. But who? Who was she, the one who would leave family and home and everything, and travel such a distance to live with someone she had never seen or met? Isaac, back home with Father Abraham, was still mourning his own mother Sarah, who had died some time before this. How could Rebecca know that this was a good thing to do?

But it happens…Rebecca goes with the man all that great distance, to become Isaac’s wife. I wonder what SHE was looking for, when she saw him walking in the field at evening, coming out to greet the travelers as they arrived. What did she think, when she saw him for the first time? Did she walk directly up to him and look right at him at once? Or did she hang back, watching and waiting to be introduced to her husband for the first time? I wonder.

In our gospel lesson this morning, John the Baptist is in lurking in the background. He needs no introduction, Jesus’ hearers all knew who he was. This morning John the Baptist is in prison, locked up for his criticism of King Herod. (By the way, this is not Herod the Great…more like Herod the Inadequate. Or Herod the Neurotic.) In a few chapters John will be executed, but for now he’s merely out of circulation. He has sent some of his own disciples to talk to Jesus, to ask him “Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for someone else?”

This is the same John the Baptist who, at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus comes to the Jordan River to be baptized, says in no uncertain terms, “I need you to baptize ME! What are you doing here?” (Matt. 3:14) This is Matthew’s version of the story, wherein the theme of Jesus’ impeccable qualifications to be “the one, the Messiah, God’s chosen servant and messenger” is always front and center.

“Are you the one, or should we wait for another?” And Jesus, rather than answering the question directly, sends them back to John with the instructions “Go tell John what you yourselves have seen: The blind receive their sight, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (11:5-6)

“What are you looking for?”

Jesus asks the crowd standing nearby the same question. “You all went out to the wilderness to hear John the Baptist—why? What were you looking for? Lovely scenery? A celebrity press conference? No…a prophet. And what a prophet, like none other ever before!

“What are you looking for, even now? John came to you as a prophet, a stern austere ascetic preacher of the straight-and-narrow way and you said “Oh he’s nuts. He’s possessed. Don’t worry about him.”

“The Son of man came, eating and drinking and gathering people in convivial community and you say “Look at him—carousing and drinking and hanging out with THEM PEOPLE—what a lousy example of moral rectitude!”

What are you looking for? Dear God in heaven…these people are impossible!

And indeed, Jesus turns to God in prayer—and a strange and complex prayer it is. We’re still in Matthew’s gospel, but this sounds like something out of John. “No one knows the Son except the Father/No one knows the Father except the Son, and those to whom the Son reveals the Father.” That interpenetration between God and Jesus, the inseparability of them, is given a tiny bit of explanation here.

“Come to me, all you burdened and troubled ones, weighed down with your own struggles and troubles and worries, and I will give you rest.” We love that passage.

But here’s the funny thing of it. Jesus tells them to take another burden, another weight. To exchange their own heavy yoke of struggle and difficulty for a different one—a lighter one, perhaps, but another one nevertheless. The exchange is not “Sit down here and rest and don’t move any more.” MY yoke is easy; MY burden is light. This, only verses after he has told the disciples “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

There is a price to all this.
What are you looking for?

Paul, in the passage from Romans, is in a rough patch of theological weeds this morning. I would advise you to go home and read the passage in context, because what we’ve got in front of us is a dense and somewhat frantic extract from a larger argument that Paul is making.

Grace—God’s unearned, unmerited gift and favor—is over all. And Paul wants to insist on this throughout. But Sin (and that’s Sin with a capital S, again…not just individual misdeeds) is still interfering. Or trying to interfere…showing up in the individual misdeeds of which Paul is currently obsessing just a bit. At the end of it all (“I do not do the thing I want to do, but the thing I do not want is the very thing I do…”) he exclaims “Who will save me from all this dreadfulness? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Immediately followed by “Therefore, now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

No condemnation. No condemnation whatsoever. In Christ’s life, and death, and resurrection from the dead, Death itself has been put to death, and we are caught up into the Resurrection even now. It may not feel that way some days, we may struggle to believe that that is the truth of it, but it’s not about how we feel on a given day. It’s much bigger than that.

It just may be that insisting on our own limited ability to perceive and understand—what Jesus describes as “sitting in the marketplace refusing to either mourn or dance” is a refusal to see, or to be pleased, with anything at all. Neither mourning nor feasting, but sitting in a pouty attitude with our arms across our chests and our lower lips thrust out. “Come to me” he invites…and that invitation to release our own burdens and struggles is not compulsory. We can hold on to our own “Stuff” for as long as we like—He will not force us. But then we’re stuck with it all.

The wisdom of the mysteries of the Kingdom of God are open, not to the wise and understanding, but to “little children”…for they themselves are open to receive them.

What are you looking for?