Thursday, September 26, 2013

18 Pentecost, Year C, 22 September 2013

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Psalm 79:1-9; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13
Preached by Rev. Deacon John Warner

God or Mammon?
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

I was 30 year old, married with a new born baby girl, recently hired by the local community mental health center, and a rising star. I was initially hired to work with individuals with developmental disabilities but felt that I could have greater impact in their lives if I moved into management. Within approximately ten years, I was promoted into positions of increasing responsibility and salary until I was selected by the governing board as the center’s new Executive Director. Promotions have their downside. As you climb the corporate ladder, the positions become more political. When the mental health center encountered difficulty in managing increasing state demands with diminishing resources, I began to see the worse for my future. The board lost confidence in my ability to lead the center and requested my resignation. Although I was able to find another position, my salary was reduced in half. Having become accustomed to a particular lifestyle, I was worried how my family would make it. I asked Marsha if she thought I should find a second job.  She wisely advised me that we should look at our budget, cut where we could, but delay the decision about a seeking a second job. As I look back upon this painful life experience, I am amazed that when you have your back against the wall, how well you can prioritize things, what is important and what isn’t.

Our scripture readings this morning include people who have felt overwhelmed by events and find their respective backs against the wall. Although Biblical scholars disagree on whom the speaker in the Old Testament reading is - possibly Jeremiah, Jerusalem or God – there is no doubt the speaker is experiencing despair, “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.” One has to look hard to find anything but despair in Psalm 79 in which the speaker cries to the heavens questioning when the Lord’s anger will be replaced with His compassion.

And then we have the parable of the dishonest steward or manager in our Gospel reading.  It’s a tale about a steward who has been managing a rich man’s estate. His master has called him “on the carpet” to account for his wasteful spending. He sees the “writing on the wall.” He believes that he is about to be fired. Like me after my resignation, he is scared for he doesn’t know what the future holds. Possessing little marketable skills he begins to plan on how best to transition into unemployment.  It is a sure bet that he won’t be receiving a letter of recommendation from his boss. “What about those vendors who owe money to my master?” he ponders. “If I reduce their debt significantly, one might be so grateful that they will take me into their home.” He then proceeds to reduce each debtor’s bill by 20-50%.

The term “wealth” used in today’s Gospel may not define in the way that you think. The King James Bible uses another word for wealth, mammon, which I believe communicates better. Mammon is derived from the Hebrew for “wealth or possessions in which one puts his or her trust.” During the Middle Ages, Christians began depicting mammon as any false god. John Milton carried this theme into Christian literature when he portrayed mammon has a fallen angel who worshipped earthly treasure over all other things.

According to the theologian William Barclay, there are three attitudes that we can take toward money:

a)                 We can regard money as the enemy and have nothing to do with it. This is what the desert fathers (and mothers), the hermits, did when they, viewed material things as tainted by human sin, refused to possess anything. This attitude if practiced widespread would be detrimental since the hermits depended on the generosity of others.

b)                We can regard money as our master in other words to be a slave to it.  The image that comes to mind is Charles Dickens’ character, Uncle Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, a miser whose  obsession in accumulating riches was so strong that he didn’t care how he obtained it or whom he ruined along the way. 

c)                 We can regard money as our friend, not to be avoided or to be worshipped, but to be used wisely and unselfishly.

How many times did Jesus talk about money? Well it is true that he talked more about the Kingdom of God than money. Not the Kingdom of God future but the Kingdom of God present - the Kingdom of God outside of the church doors.

          Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that money is evil. Money by itself is not good or evil; it is just a thing. It the person’s intention regarding the money that intrinsically makes it good or evil. Some might reply angrily, “Money is the root of all evil,” as a Biblical support for their argument; however, they would be misquoting scripture. The correct quote is “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. (1 Timothy 6:10 NRSV).  I believe money and the accumulation of wealth can become evil when its acquisition and maintenance becomes all consuming – when it becomes your mammon, your God worshipped.

            Jesus’ last words are very demanding. “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.” We cannot be slaves to both God and mammon. Psychologist terms this behavior as “divided consciousness” or more commonly known as “multitasking”, a situation that can lead to disastrous consequences as some may have encountered if they attempted to text on the cell phone while driving a car.  We cannot multitask God and mammon or wealth. Wealth is not a guarantee for salvation.

            Again, I’m not being critical of wealth and an individual’s acquisition of it. After all, I am a fan of capitalism and the free market system. However, taking liberty with the Spiderman comic series, “With great wealth comes great responsibility.” Therefore, I leave you this morning with three questions to reflect upon:

1.      How possessive are you of your wealth?

2.      In what way might your wealth benefit the disadvantaged, those that the church is charged to serve through our baptismal covenant?

3.      In what we have we benefited from our economic system and does this make us responsible for any who may have suffered from our success?


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

17 Pentecost, Year C, 15 September 2013

I Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox 

Several years ago Shannon and I were visiting friends in northern California.  We were there over a weekend—Easter weekend, as it happened—and we attended the Great Vigil of Easter at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. 

St. Gregory’s is an unusual church for many reasons.  It began in 1978 as a mission congregation, meeting in people’s homes, then worshipping in rented space for many years, before they began to construct a building of their own. The worship space is designed for movement.  Although there are chairs where the people sit for the reading of the scriptures and the preaching of the sermon, most of the space is wide open.  And most of the worship service takes place “on foot”, with the assembly standing, or walking together, or even, believe it or not, dancing.   

At two key moments during the service every Sunday, and oftener than that at special occasions like the Great Vigil, the entire congregation dances together, in a very simple folk dance—three steps forward, one step back.  They do this to remind themselves that Worship is not a spectator sport, done by professionals on behalf of an audience who sit and watch—that it is, as the word “liturgy” reminds us, “The Work of the People.”  They also dance to remember in their own bodies the truth of the Incarnation, the coming of God into the world in physical reality, not merely as a pious ideal or an intellectual abstraction.  

The altar at St. Gregory’s is a large table, placed in the middle of a large octagonal room, around which the worshippers stand to celebrate the Eucharist.  It is crafted of shiny dark wood, with two wide pillars supporting the tabletop.   

Engraved on one of these pillars, in sparkling gold letters large enough to see from a good distance away, are these words:
“Outos amartolous prosdexetai kai sunesthiei autois”
Which, being translated from the Greek, means:
“This guy receives sinners and eats with them.” 

The very words which are hurled in accusation this morning against Jesus and his followers, by the religious professionals of his own day. 

Jesus has just been teaching the crowds and all who will listen about what it means to follow him.  That it is not a small or frivolous thing to undertake; that they had better be ready to take it, and him, seriously—even being ready to reject the claims of family, friends, and finances, if push should come to shove.  Choosing to follow Jesus can be costly.   

At the end of all this, Jesus ends by stating aloud: “Let anyone with ears to hear, listen!”

And all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near—why?  “To listen to him.”
To those on the edge of polite society, those who had already been rejected by family and friends and economic and social status, these words of Jesus had a truth that called to them.  Made them “listen up” to his preaching, and more than that, to Jesus himself. 

And the Pharisees and the scribes start complaining.  “There he goes…hanging out with the riffraff again.  The users, the screw-ups, the bums and the crumbs and the ones who aren’t even trying to get their lives together.  Them People.”  

Jesus does not even try to argue with his detractors—because he cannot.  They’re right, after all.  He’s letting in people who have no right to associate with a respectable rabbi and his followers; he is infamous for indiscriminately sitting down to eat with almost anyone at all.  Think of how many stories of Jesus have to do with food, or take place at a dinner table.   

And there’s another problem here.  It’s not just Jesus who is being accused of issuing a too-open dinner invitation.  Remember that the gospels are written many years after the events they describe.  Luke’s gospel is thought to be somewhere between fifty and seventy years after the fact.  It would be as if I were to sit down in 2013 and write about Bishop Albert Rhett Stuart and Mr. Gwinn Nixon planning the founding of St. Augustine’s Church in 1960.   

The fact that this accusation is included in Luke’s telling of the story tells us that it’s still going on at the time, fifty, sixty years later—that Jesus’ followers are still known for this too-open interaction with the wrong sorts of people.  That generous table fellowship is still a hallmark of their community. 

Instead of arguing with his accusers, Jesus tells a story.  Two stories. 

One story of a lost sheep and a crazy shepherd; one of a lost coin and a frantic housekeeper.
He begins the first story:  “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost?” 

The proper answer that any right-thinking person would make is “None of us would do that.  Are you out of your mind, Jesus? One lost sheep—that’s the cost of doing business!  You can’t leave ninety-nine to chase after one, what would happen to the others?  They’d just wander off too!” 

Likewise, in the second story, he asks a crazy question.  “What woman, having lost a coin, and having turned the house upside down to find it, would not throw a fabulous party that cost more than the value of the coin, in celebration of finding it?” 
By this time the audience must have been standing there open-mouthed, wondering “What in the world is he talking about?” 

Because he’s not talking about ordinary everyday valuation of a single sheep.  Or of a single coin.
He’s talking about God.  Who goes into the wilderness chasing the one lost sheep. 
Who tears the house apart looking for the one lost coin. 
Who Searches for the lost ones, and Rejoices when they are found. 

The stories are not about repentance either, despite the assertions of vss. 7 and 10.  Sheep cannot repent, cannot have a “metanoia moment” when they recognize they have wandered off and gone astray.  
A coin cannot suddenly pop up from the place where it has fallen among the dust bunnies and breadcrumbs under the sofa, and roll itself back out into view.  The one who seeks the lost must come and find it there.  Must pull the sofa out from the wall, and root around stirring up the dust, and dig through all the flotsam and jetsam back there, to discover what has gone missing.  

A human being can repent, of course.  Any person might reach that moment of recognition that the life they have tried to build for themselves isn’t working; individuals and communities and even nations can realize they have “followed too much the devices and desires of their own hearts”, as the confession in Morning Prayer has it, and seek once again to walk in the way of Eternal Life.   

The good news is that the one who offers that Way of Eternal Life is eagerly longing for them to return to it.  Scanning the crowds, listening for the familiar beloved voice, ready to receive the one who comes, with embraces and welcome and joy. 

“I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord” says the writer of the letter to Timothy this morning, “...even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man of violence.  But I received mercy…and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”  Here is someone who has been a truly awful person, who knows how great a gift he has received from God in bringing him out of all that.  He has seen the better way, the Way of Eternal Life promised in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and has set his feet to follow that way.  And he is so overwhelmed by that joy and that gratitude that he bursts into song: “Immortal, invisible, God only wise…” 

I want to invite you to think for a moment.  Think of something, or someone, for whom you are grateful today.  It doesn’t have to be a Lifetime Achievement Award kind of grateful; something more modest is fine.  Think of that person, or that gift, or that moment for just a second. 

Now the part that might be a bit unusual for us:  I want you to turn to someone near you and tell them what you thought of.  Tell your neighbor, the person sitting by you:  “Today I am grateful for…” 

This God of ours, of whom Jesus tells these two outrageous stories this morning, is bigger and greater than we think, most of the time.  This God, whom Jesus addresses as “Daddy”, desires to give us abundant life, that we may in turn give away that abundant life, that prodigal welcome and persistent generous forgiveness to everyone we meet.  This is our call, as fellow-travelers in the Way of Eternal Life to which Jesus invites us. 

For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind;
And the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful, we should take him at his word;
And our life would be thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord.
(“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy”, Hymn 470)

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

16 Pentecost, Year C, September 8, 2013

Luke 14:25-33
Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox

 On an icy winter day early in the thirteenth century, in a town in central Italy, a young man named John Peterson Bernardone stood before the bishop and city fathers.  His own father, a wealthy cloth merchant, had reached the end of his patience with his son’s foolish habit of giving away money to the poor, and had actually brought legal proceedings against the young man.  He demanded that his son either cease and desist from this behavior, or renounce all his rights of inheritance to any of his father’s fortune. 

Young John, known more familiarly as “Frenchy” to his family and friends, had been a soldier, a lover, a man-about-town, and a decent hand in his father’s business endeavors.  He seemed poised to take over the family business and be quite successful in it.  But then he heard God calling.  He heard the voice of Jesus asking him to put down the sword, put down the flowers and candy, put down the silks and velvets, the account-books and money-bags, all these things that he had enjoyed, to come and follow the way of Christ. 

And so on that snowy, windy winter day, in the town square, in the presence of everyone whom he had ever known in his life—his brothers and sisters and mother, his friends, his parish priest and the bishop—young John took off his clothes, the rich brocades and warm furs he had grown up wearing, and handed them back to his father.  "Hitherto I have called you my father on earth; henceforth I desire to say only 'Our Father who art in Heaven'."[1]  Clad only in a linen tunic and a pair of sandals, that young man went out of the city gates that day, to seek union with the Jesus who had no place to lay his head.  The man, whom the world would later know and celebrate as Francis of Assisi, began his public ministry by publicly turning his back on everything that had been his life until that day, to follow the call of Jesus.   

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” 

I wish I could tell you he didn’t really say that.  But I can’t.

I can tell you that it doesn’t mean what you think it means.  At least, not entirely. 

“Hate” in this sense does not mean any particular emotional content.  Jesus is not demanding that anyone feel some strong emotion or other in regard to the attachments we all deal with.  Rather, he is asking those who choose to follow his way of living, to choose.  To consciously and intentionally say “Yes” to him, even if it means saying “No” to something else.  To close the door on “keeping one’s options open” in the event of a better or more attractive offer.  And there will be many better, more attractive offers. 

As the prophet Isaiah says (ch. 53):

“Who has believed what we have heard?
   And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 For he grew up before him like a young plant,
   and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
   nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by others;
   a man of suffering* and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces*
   he was despised, and we held him of no account. 

This is Jesus, who will shortly be put to death on a cross outside the walls of Jerusalem. 
Those who hear these words in Luke’s gospel already know how the story ends.  So do we.
Jesus invites those who follow him—then and now—to carry the cross with him.
To join him in a cross-carrying journey. 
To follow him, in the Way of Life which leads to Eternal Life,
but which looks very strange indeed. 

For the Way of Eternal Life is not concerned with holding on to, or controlling things. 
The Way of Eternal Life rejects the temptation to manipulate relationships and people as objects.The Way of Eternal Life to which Jesus calls his followers, indeed,
flies in the face of much of what we call common sense, and business as usual. 

When I was eight years old, my hometown in Texas experienced a flood.  Not a hurricane, not a long sustained rainy season, but a one-shot 24 hour stretch of full-downpour like none of us had ever seen.  My parents’ house sits in a low-lying area, and the waters began to rise.  The garage, on the lowest level, was completely flooded.  A six-foot chest deep freezer was bouncing around like a cork in the water; my father’s boat floated up to the ceiling of the garage with the trailer still attached, and we had to get neighbors to help hold it down and get it out of there.   

I stood on the front porch (fortunately at a higher elevation) and watched the excitement.  As I did, I noticed small red-brown balls bobbing in the water.  The fire ants (which are many and prolific in that part of the world) were being flooded out of their mounds in ours and neighboring yards, and were clinging together in an instinctive desperation to float to safety.  As each ant ball came to rest on the front porch, the ball would “explode” in all directions, as the ants scrambled for higher ground up the walls of the house. 

Sometimes we human beings act like ants.   

In times of crisis and anxiety, we cling so tightly to the things we think ARE our life
—money, power, status, family, friends, fill in the blank—
that we threaten to strangle the life, the very breath, out of one another in the process.   

We “hold on for dear life”
as if those things themselves ARE life,
until the things that should be used to give and share life
(for ourselves and for others)
become idols. 
Become false gods. 
Become “Our Possessions”—
not merely things we possess, but things by which we are possessed.   


Any of these, and many others we could list. 
As individuals, as families, as towns, as nations—
we can, and do, cling and grasp
and suppose that if we get hold of “enough” of these things
that our life will be secure.
That all the worries will disappear
And no harm will come to us. 

Jesus will have none of it. 
He tells those who desire to follow him—
even just a little bit, just the teeny-tiniest mustard-seed bit of wanting to be with him:
That’s not how it works.

All these good things, as good as they are, will not suffice.
And all the bad and awful things, as bad and awful as they are, will not have the final word. 

The word of Jesus, which calls through joy and sorrow,
abundance and scarcity,
apparent success and obvious failure,
which finds its consummation in a shameful death and an impossible resurrection,
speaks a reality beyond all of these things. 

Speaks, again and again,
of God who made all things,
and loves each of us beyond all reasonable sense,
and desires us with longing too deep for words.   

Speaks a word of invitation that called John Peterson Bernardone—“Frenchy”—Francis of Assisi, and countless others, and us as well, to “take up the cross, and follow.” 

Few of us will ever be like Francis of Assisi. 
Or like Sister Constance and her companions, of the Order of St. Mary, whose faithful service in 1878 during an epidemic of yellow fever earned them the title of “The Martyrs of Memphis.”   

They stayed behind in a plague-infested city when anyone who could get out, got out. 
They nursed the sick, buried the dead, housed and fed the orphans, and eventually gave everything, their very lives, to serve Jesus in the disguise of these poor ones.
We will commemorate their service and sacrifice tomorrow, on September 9th.[2]

Most of us will not be called to such dramatic, heroic service in the name of Jesus. 
But we are all called. 
And we are all carrying the cross. 
For in our baptism, we were signed with the cross on our forehead;
we were sealed by the Holy Spirit;
we were marked as Christ’s own for ever.   

And every day, day by day, moment by moment,
we are given the chance, again and again,
to let go of the things, the ways, the false gods
that draw us from the love of God.   

To say, however often as we need to:
“Jesus, I trust you.  Above all others. 
No conditions; no fingers-crossed-behind-my-back.” 
Eyes open; hands open; heart open.

[1] From “St. Francis of Assisi” at, accessed 9/8/2013
[2] The brief hagiography in Holy Women, Holy Men gives an overview of the story.  A more detailed account from original source materials may be found at, accessed on 9/8/13.