Tuesday, August 20, 2013

13 Pentecost, Year C, 18 August 2013

Luke 12:49-56
Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox 

On vacation the last two weeks in upstate New York, I slowly read Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth.  The temptation to skip ahead to the last chapter was almost irresistible at times.  But no, there is no skipping ahead—the only way to the end is to go through it all.  Even the heart-rending scenes of betrayal and broken promises; even the violent scenes caused by unbridled jealousy and meanness; even the scary scenes where just the simple act of turning the next page is almost terrifying, to learn what’s going to happen next!    

Jesus brings us to such a place this day, and maybe, if we’re listening closely to the deacon read, we also wonder “What *is* going to happen next!”   

“I have come to bring fire…I have a baptism with which to be baptized…how stressed I am until it is accomplished!”)  His water baptism was back in chapter 3; this is about the deep waters of death into which Jesus will go when he reaches Jerusalem.  Things are getting really real; the enemies are sniffing around to find a way to get him into trouble with the authorities, and he knows it.  He speaks first to his inner circle, Peter and James and John, Mary and Martha and Joanna and those who have been with him all along.  He’s told them a story (which we didn’t hear this morning) about wise and foolish house slaves, who either pay attention to what they are to do in the masters’ absence, or who do not pay attention but go on as if they owned the house themselves.  He tells them (and all who hear his words) to pay attention—to notice what he’s up to, in and with and among all of them.  The Kingdom of God has come near—have you seen it lately?  Have you been looking out for it?  It is going to look rather strange.  Not quite what you might expect. 

He turns to the crowd:  You see the signs of the weather, and know what’s about to happen; why do you not understand the signs I show you?   

The signs he has shown them, in feeding the hungry and healing the sick, in touching the lepers and hanging out with the disreputable and undeserving, all point to the Way of Life in God; The yet-to-occur events of Good Friday and Resurrection morning are the ultimate showing-forth of that Way.  We see reminders of those events, of that Way of life, here every Sunday: in bread and wine, broken and shared; in words of Scripture read and sung and preached, where we listen to hear a word for us too.  But it is a strange Way, a Way unlike the ways and means in which we live most of the time—in first century Palestine or 21st century Georgia. 

Author and editor Christopher Kimball writes in a recent essay entitled “The Family Album”: “It is tempting to offer homilies about the past.  One might conclude that live was simpler, except that it wasn’t.  Lives were just as messy and complicated fifty years ago as they are today….Large extended families, three or more generations beaming out at the camera, tug at one’s heartstrings but also remind us of the arguments…and petty drawing room back and forth that is part and parcel of family members packed tightly in a narrow social spiral.”[1]  That inherited structure of “the way we’ve always done it” can provide stability and security; it can also stifle and strangle new life struggling to be born.  

In his life, death and resurrection, Jesus gives his followers the signs and directions that run counter to ordinary business as usual, “the way we’ve always done it.”    Jesus’ followers knew of those divisions in households; Jesus himself had been at cross-purposes with Mother Mary and the brothers earlier in Luke’s gospel.  As the Gospel of Mark tells the story, the family comes to get him and take him away b/c they think he’s totally flipped out! 

Following Jesus breaks down “business as usual.”  It breaks down walls between persons and cultures and nations; it threatens the powers that be and makes trouble for those with an investment in maintaining things “as we’ve always done it.”  Jesus knew what he was doing; his followers figured it out eventually.  And then they had to figure it out again.  And again.  And again.  Because it’s so easy to fall back into “the way we’ve always done it.”  And so the word of God patiently and persistently continues to call and invite those who will  listen, to once again stand up, brush off the dust, and take the steps in the Way of the dominion of God.    

We know how the story ends.  Mark and Luke and Matthew and John each tell the story in their own way, reflecting their own concerns and significant points, but we know how it turns out in the end.  What we don’t know just yet, is how our own story will go.  What is going to happen with the next chapter, the next turn of the page? 

School has started.  A new year, a new room, perhaps a new building.  Where’s the bathroom?  When is lunch?    Will I make new friends?  It will be all right, in the end.   

A new program year begins here at St. Augustine’s today—a new opportunity to learn and grow together, to listen for the word of God calling to us—each of us, all of us together, as we share food and fellowship and worship and prayer, as we continue together to run the race of faith, following Jesus, our leader and our Savior.  And it will be all right, in the end. 

On our vacation we took two days to visit our friends Rick and Tim.  As we drove through the mountains of Vermont, to the north we saw the great clouds coming toward us, dark and heavy with rain.  We knew perfectly well what was about to happen.  And we knew there was no avoiding it, only “go on through.”  The rain came, and we were surrounded by a great cloud, and it was unnerving.  But it was also a thin place, a knowing beyond knowing, of God’s presence and abundance.  Rain and sunshine, darkness and light, mountain above and river below, and at the end, safety and love and welcome.  We could not get to the place where we were going, where we were expected for supper, except to go on through.

[1] Christopher Kimball, “The Family Album” in Cook’s Illustrated Magazine, September-October 2013, No. 124, p. 1.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

12 Pentecost, Year C, 11 August 2013

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Preached by Sr. Miriam Elizabeth+, n/OSH 

They weren’t spring chickens; Sarah and Abraham. They weren’t even summer or fall chickens!  They were well into the winter of their lives when God came and spoke.  And let’s be clear, this was a God who had not spoken to them before; a God to whom they had not addressed a single prayer; in the way of these stories, a God who had not spoken since the flood. And yet, the word came, “Go from your country.  Leave the home of your ancestors and go to a land far away.  Settle among people you do not know and to whom you will be a stranger.” 

That sounds inviting, just the kind of change we all want to make in our lives!  Leave all that we know, all that is familiar, all that we have grown to love in the everyday of our lives – the people, the rhythms, the landscapes, the traditions – walk away from it all for some place yet to be named among a people unknown. 

Well, there’s a problem with that; more than one actually.  You see I know the manager of the produce section at Kroger.  How long will it take for the next person in the next place to learn that I love baby bok choy and will buy up an entire carton at one go if they’ll save it for me?  And where will the family gather for Christmas next year if we’re not here; if the family dining table isn’t extended with four leaves and set with grandmother’s china?  And where will we dip the grandchildren’s toes into water for the first time, if not in the Savannah River?  Where will we sit in church if not in my favorite back pew at St. Augustine’s?  Who will play our favorite hymns and on what kind of instrument?  Will we sing Silent Night at Christmas and what about the lilies at Easter?  Who will polish the silver?  Can we take even take the silver?  You see the problems?  And those are just the ones on the surface!

There are other, deeper issues at stake here.  We don’t have a map.  How will we know where we’re going?  How will we know when we get there?  What if we get half-way there and decide we want to turn back?  Will that be possible?  What will happen when we cannot move one more step?  Will we even survive the journey?  What about those who won’t?  Why should we take the first step, much less the second or third or thousandth?

Do you see why the writers of Hebrews linger over the story of Sarah and Abraham? They knew what it was to forget the promises made – promises of land and descendants, the promise of a kingdom “whose architect and builder is God.”  These writers knew what it was to be on the journey and to be discouraged, to lose your way, to cry out for things lost and left behind and to wonder if you will survive the next step.  They knew what it was to feel like you’re not getting anywhere only to discover it’s because you really haven’t left where you were in the first place.  They know the need for encouragement, for cheering and cajoling, and for the sharing of burdens along the way.

And so they write of those who have gone before, those who stepped out in faith into a journey of unknown time and place; those who let go of all they held dear and then, held fast to promises they held even deeper and dearer.  We are reminded of those who knew they would not see the fulfillment of those promises in their lifetime, and still they continued to step into the journey, letting go of once-thought treasures and holding fast to the treasures of a promised land, a heavenly city. 

Those writers remind us of the life of faith; a life of letting go, of leaving, of surrendering all that weighs us into the quicksand of what is known, familiar, and comfortable.  And they remind us of the life of faith that is holding fast to the Word of Promise even as we journey into unknown lands among an unknown people. 

Some of us have more trouble letting go.  We’re quite fond of bricks and mortar and less fond of tents.  We have never traveled without a GPS system and we load our camels down with every conceivable item of comfort, convenience and memory.  The stories of faith remind us of the depth of surrender and trust we need as we move into the first, the third and the thousandth step along the way.

Others of us have more trouble holding fast.  We would just as soon go our own way simply with the clothes on our backs, trusting our future to our own selves, only to lose our way and our selves down some rabbit trail while we avoid the rapids and the high rocks.  We need to know the stories of trust, endurance and perseverance in a journey that risks our bodies and our souls.

I wonder where you are today.  Are your camels so heavily loaded that you have yet to move or are you lost after chasing a rabbit?  Do you need to hear Sarah and Abraham as saints of surrender who let go and left behind what they knew as home; or do you need models of encouragement and perseverance that hold fast to the promise in the face of impossible odds?  Do you need to let go of your own kingdom or hold fast to the kingdom of God?  In either case, as the writers of Hebrews witness, “God is not ashamed to be called your God; indeed, God has prepared a city for you.”  So load your camels, or unload them as the case may be, and step forward with courage, faith, hope and perseverance, for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

Monday, August 5, 2013

11 Pentecost, Year C, 4 August 2013

Luke 12:13-21
Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox 

It is a Biblical truth, universally acknowledged, that when a story begins “A man had two sons”, there is trouble about to begin.  Someone is going to come out on top, and someone is going to end up looking like a fool. In the Old Testament we have Cain and Abel right off the bat, soon followed by Jacob cheating Esau out of his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew.   There are many others.  If the story tells of two brothers, make sure you’re near the door.  

So begins our gospel this morning:  “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  The fight has already begun.  

Jesus will have none of it.  He calmly and unequivocally removes himself from the midst of family drama, and sends brother #1 back to deal straightforwardly with brother #2.  He refuses to be caught in a triangulation, which is where I’m mad at someone, so I go tell someone else to step in and fix it for me.    

Instead he warns his hearers against “all kinds of greed; for…life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”  He tells a story of a landowner, a rich prosperous farmer, whose land produces abundantly. His fields and flocks produce so generously that the existing barns and storage buildings cannot hold it all.  This is an sign of God’s blessing, far more than enough, resources laid aside for years to come.  Surely this one is blessed by God!  

What will he do with all of it? 

He asks just that question, and begins to fret and to worry about what is to be done.  “For I have no place to store my crops.”  Remember we’re hearing this from Jesus, of whom we read just verses ago:  “Foxes have holes, birds have nests, the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”(9:57)  The language is exactly the same: whereas Jesus has not even a place of his own to sleep, this man has no place to keep all his extra supplies.  So he decides to tear down the existing barns to make room for larger ones, to hold all the grain and wool and everything else. 

And he says to himself: Self! You’ve got it made.  Relax, enjoy, all is well.  There’s nothing to worry about. 

Except that one little thing, which we all will face.  That reality of which Ash Wednesday reminds us every year:  You are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Much medieval art featured the presence of some object (frequently a skull) as a Memento Mori: “Remember that you will die.” 
In our time we have www.deathclock.com:  “The Internet’s friendly reminder that life is slipping away” where you can enter a few facts about yourself and find out how much longer you have left. 

So Jesus asks this man:  All this wealth, all these baskets of grain and wool, all these barrels of wine and bottles of oil, these sheep and cattle—what indeed will become of them? Whose will they be?  Not yours, certainly—there never was seen a funeral hearse pulling a U-haul trailer. 

“This night your life is required of you.”  That which you thought was the sustenance and substance of your life—both its purpose and its contents—will be taken from you. 

“So it is among those who store up treasures for themselves, but are not rich toward God.” 

What can that possibly mean, to be “rich toward God”?  God needs no grain or wool, no wine or oil.  God made all the sheep and cattle and everything that exists—so God does not need, in Godself, anything that is.   

Nor does God ask for anything in order to purchase his goodwill.  There is nothing you or I can do to make God love us more, because that’s not how it works.  God loves you and me because God is love.  God offers that love without condition, without distinction.  As Christians we speak of Jesus as the most complete and perfect expression of that divine love, even when people feared and rejected and crucified him.  They could not bear to hear him; they would rather kill him than change their minds and ways in order to make room for him and the message he brought.  And even then, when human fear and rejection and hate had done their absolute worst, God still had the last word. On Easter day, in the upper room behind locked doors, the risen Christ greets the frightened disciples and says “Peace be with you.”   

Shortly before the episode in  this morning’s Gospel, Jesus has criticized the religious establishment, the recognized clergy and civil leaders of the community, in this way:  “You take care to make a good show, to clean carefully the outward appearance, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.  You give one-tenth of your income to support the religious system, but you neglect to give justice to your fellow human beings, and you neglect the love of God above all.”  (11:39-42)  You’re doing all of these things, and that’s all well and fine, but you’re missing the point of all of it. 

And notice again who he’s talking to in the gospel this morning:  Someone (unidentified) from the crowd says to him “Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”  Someone has an estate to settle; someone (another wealthy prosperous farmer, perhaps?) has died, leaving wool and grain and wine and oil, barns and sheep and cattle and house and furniture to be divided among those who remain.   

Jesus tells them also, this is not the point.  Ultimately it does not matter who gets the larger share of the livestock, or the newest wagon in the barn, or Grandmother Sarah’s pearl necklace. Ultimately it’s about how you deal with one another in the sharing of the goods (of which there are plenty); in the way you treat one another in the face of temptation and acquisitiveness and greed.  

I suspect that being “rich toward God” has something to do with being generous in this life.  The prosperous farmer in the parable isn’t criticized for being successful, or for having lots of good things.  The problem is the failure to perceive the obvious—that he was mortal, that he had a limited amount of time on this earth.  The true statement “I have everything I need and more” led to a false assumption:  “I’m all set, I don’t need to do anything else but just enjoy what’s mine.” 

And yet he is called “Fool”, and told that “this very night your life is demanded of you.”  The grammar in Greek is better translated “THEY demand your life”—it’s unclear whether that suggests that God, or the angels of God come to announce this man’s death, or that the man’s possessions in themselves somehow ‘suck the life’ out of him. 

Shannon and I are fond of watching some of the reality shows on the History Channel.  One of our favorites is “American Pickers”.  The hosts, two friends named Mike Wolf and Frank Fritz, travel around the country in a large panel van looking for “rusty gold” that people have collected over the years.  And they find some characters.  And they find places—barns, storage units, warehouses, whole multi-story buildings—crammed to the roof with stuff.  Acres of land containing multiple buildings, and each building chock-a-block with stuff.  Sometimes they’ll buy items from the owners—old gas station signs, old motorcycle parts, old toys, all kinds of things that they can resell to serious collectors.  But sometimes the owners won’t sell any thing, for any price.  They hold onto every last rusty hunk that stuff, even as the piles around them threaten to come crashing down on them, unwilling or unable to let go of any of it.  

They have been possessed, as it were, by their possessions.  Their life force, their ability to look past the doors of those barns and storage units, has been cut off.  And the stuff, which could be taken out of the barn, out of the storage unit, out of the strongbox and sent forth to become a blessing to someone else, just sits and rusts and falls to pieces.  This is the warning Jesus issues to his hearers this morning.  This is the word of challenge; the call to metanoia, to turn around and change one’s mind and behavior.  

God blesses, in order to spread blessing.  If that blessing is not shared and spread and passed along, it becomes stagnant and dusty and burdensome.  But if it is shared and spread and passed along, it becomes the source of the kind of abundance and generosity and plenty that is part of God’s Shalom, God’s desire of peace and sufficiency for all God’s people.  

To whom will you be a blessing today? 
How will you go and share good news, kindness, the grace of God, with someone who needs a sign of hope this morning?