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?