Saturday, December 4, 2010

Last Call at the Starlight Cafe

Advent 1 A
November 28, 2010
Isaiah 2:1-5
Ps. 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

A friend of mine just returned from a trip to upstate New York, to attend the final service of his childhood church, St. David’s, closing after around 100 years. This St. David’s, however, was not the first church of that name to open – or to close – in that town. An earlier St. David’s was founded in before the Revolutionary War, and existed for about 100 years until it closed. And why did it close – not once, but twice? Patterns of settlement changed. People stopped coming to church on foot, or by horse and buggy. The second St. David’s inhabited a building they bought from a Quaker meeting that also closed – which the new St. David’s was able to buy because they had saved the proceeds from the sale of their first Episcopal church, 100 years before. I don’t really know why this second St. David’s, finally, could not thrive. Was the building too small, too off the beaten path? Who could have known that superhighways would come rushing by, whooshing former townspeople off to greener pastures, or that the size of a parking lot would determine the size of a congregation. But St. David’s surely knows more than others, that the closing of a church does not necessarily mean that its life is over. It might be dead, the fields lie fallow for some time – maybe even a century or more – but that God’s mission somehow has knack – a penchant – a burning desire to come back to life, to thrive for a time – a good long time – and then perhaps lie fallow again until called forth for a new day, a new community, a new expression of the mission of God.

How curious, perhaps, to close this church at the beginning of the church year. But at the beginning of a year we look both forward and back. We long for the peace of Jerusalem, but know it as a city full of violence – and so what vision do we have of the future? One in which those swords are transformed into farming tools. We look to the past for the images, the vision, the hope, that will point us to a new future, that will transform this reality into God’s reality.

Our New Testament readings point to the danger of sleepiness: if we don’t pay attention we might just miss God’s new reality even as it breaks over our heads. Jesus underscores the suddenness with which God’s new reality can break into our lives. Right there, in the middle of ordinary things like working in fields, or preparing food: crash! One person is taken, one is left. How can we ever be ready? Were any of us really ready for the closing of this church? If we were ready, how would we know? Like with the death of a loved one, or when a friend moves away: what does it really mean to plan for those things?

What we can do is to live God’s life to the fullest, to live as though that new reality was already breaking in. Think of this:

One day Jesus may appear in the clouds, suddenly, like a thief in the night. But before that – as Matthew reminds us – Jesus will appear just around the corner, suddenly, like a hungry person, or a neighbor ill-clothed, or someone sick or imprisoned. (*)

God’s new reality is like that: it might be something strange and mysterious, or it might be something so ordinary and plain – and we must be paying attention if we want to see it. Indeed, the life we have is the life God has given us. What this first Sunday of the church year does for us is to encourage us to pay attention to what has been going on, so that we can see where the action of God is going into the future.

Many wonderful things have gone on in this place, and in the lives of each of us who have walked through these doors. We have talked about many of those things – the things you brought with you, things which have enriched us all. Some have talked about how the churchgoing habits of their youth were so built in to the very fabric of their being that coming to church every Sunday was just part of who they are. We are all richer for their faithfulness. Others talked about how they found this, or another church, when they were teenagers, looking for friends, stability and meaning. They found it in church, and maybe found it again when they came here. We are all richer for their seeking and finding. Others talked about shattered lives, and how people in this church touched them and made them whole. For others this is a place of beauty and refuge, of hospitality and warmth, a sanctuary apart from the mean streets. We are all richer for the friendship and trust our neighbors share with us.

In the midst of all this ordinary church life, God comes. God breaks through when we least expect it, turning what we thought was ordinary into something extraordinary. We may close the doors of this church for a while, for a season, for even a century. But what God has broken through to do here will live on. We will take what has been extraordinary with us, knowing that there will be more than enough to stay right here, and that in God’s good time the hungry will still be fed and the lonely welcomed and joyful congratulated and the weary given rest.

* David Bartlett, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew, quoted by Kate Huey in Reflections for the First Sunday of Advent,

Saturday, November 27, 2010

In Christ, all things hold together

Proper 29 C Nov, 21, 2010
Jeremiah 23:1-6
Canticle 16 (Luke 1:68-79)
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

There’s going to be another Royal Wedding. Prince William, heir to the British throne, announced his engagement to Kate Middleton. Now we in America are not monarchists – we got rid of them long ago! – but we do love to watch a good Royal Wedding. Or Royal Funeral. Or Royal Anything, when the Queen trots out in that golden carriage and the streets of London are filled with cheering throngs.

This last Sunday of the church year is known as the Sunday of Christ the King, when we celebrate that this world really is under the reign of God – a rule of justice, mercy and abundance, a rule of the world as God created it to be.

But what do we see when we think of “Christ the King?” Is our image “one surrounded with the art and beauty of a tradition [like that of the English royal family] that is more antique than active? Do we see this figure of salvation as hopelessly outdated and practically mute in these postmodern times?”i Our first lesson today uses the image of the shepherd-king David as the model of the good king; that is even further away from our imagination, in this landscape of the urban mean streets which we inhabit.

I was stunned when I read in The Enterprise that heroin costs $5 “a dose.” What IS “a dose” of heroin? Is it a “take two aspirin and call me in the morning” kind of a dose? Could someone overdose with a “$5 dose?” Would that $5 dose cost someone his or her life? Is a life then worth only five dollars?

I know that legions of state and city police rounded up dozens of drug dealers this week, and many of them were caught here on the streets of Brockton. There is hope, among police and the families of drug victims, that this will make it better, at least until ever-resourceful criminals find new ways to deal. There is hope that
no one will die of heroin this week, on the streets of this city, that this week at least no life is worth as little as five dollars.

Our gospel lesson is another story of criminal intervention – only in this case it is Jesus who was executed along with the equivalent of drug lords and petty thieves of first century
Jerusalem. Yet in the peculiar, upside-down understanding of the world that we Christians have, Christ realizes his kingship in his death. At his death they mock him, “This is the king of the Jews.” Even then the dying Jesus turns this idea of kingship on his head, offering salvation not only to his own people, the Jews, but even to these criminals on either side of him.

Our longings for the rule of a just king are longings to bring the chaos of the world around us into order. We can celebrate the reign of God today, and tomorrow wake up in this same city, where heroin costs $5 a dose and, oh, yes, this church is still closing.

As the Episcopal Church leaves this neighborhood, we do so with the pang of knowing that God’s work here is unfinished. But isn’t that the human condition? God’s work with each of us is unfinished. God has much more left to do with us, just as the City of Brockton has a long way to go before it shines with the glory God intends for it. We live in the in-between time: we have heard the Good News, that God’s promises will be fulfilled, but we wait, still, for when that will be completed.

Our second lesson, from the letter to the Colossians, are powerful words for those of us who wait. It encourages us to be strong, to give thanks that darkness has been dispelled and assures us that we truly live under the reign of Christ – the image of the invisible God.

Remember this phrase, when things get disjointed or confused in your life, or when the city sidewalks are still covered with weeds and drug dealers lurk around your corner, or when the new church you choose doesn’t quite yet feel like home; remember this phrase: in Christ all things hold together. In Christ, all things hold together, and that includes you. Christ, holds all of us, all the fullness of God and all the broken, unfinished-ness of our own lives, together, all of heaven and all of earth, waiting in hope, for the dawn of the new day.

i Mary W. Anderson, “Royal Treatment,” Living by the Word, The Christian Century, Nov. 15, 2003, p. 18

Saturday, November 20, 2010

New heavens, new earth, new church

Proper 28 C
Nov. 14, 2010

Isaiah 65:17-25
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

If the people of Haiti read that poem by Robert Frost, they might think, “Fire and ice are the only two signs of the end of the world that we have NOT seen.” Centuries of economic and environmental degradation, poverty, corruption, marauding gangsters, hurricanes, then the devastating earthquake, rains, mudslides and now an epidemic of cholera: the people of Haiti often describe their world like Jesus does in this passage from the Gospel of Luke. Survivors of the earthquake told of huddling with their families in doorways or other small, safe spaces, convinced that they were experiencing the end of the world. The people of Haiti faced, and still face, chaos and horrors nearly unimaginable to us. Yes, for God’s sake, END this world. The signs of the end are simultaneously signs of hope that God is about to do a new thing.

This fall, as we learned that St. Paul’s Church was closing, we read week after week from the prophet Jeremiah, the uncompromising prophet of Israel’s exile in Babylon. Torn from their homes in Jerusalem, from their beloved temple, the people found themselves in what they thought was God-forsaken Babylon – and yet to their surprise, God was there, already, ahead of them. Build and plant in this place, God told them. Seek the welfare of THIS city, this place, this strange land where you have been brought, for in the welfare of this place, this commonwealth, you will find your welfare.

So we thought about exile, we imagined what it would be like to leave home for a new and strange place, and we heard the testimony of people who had been there ahead of us, people in the past who had been exiles, sent away from home against their will: you can do it, they told us. And not only, “You can do it,” but God is there with you, every step of the way.

Today’s passage from Isaiah is about what God is saying to the people of Israel when they come back to Jerusalem – their beloved city which is now a WRECK. Imagine this prophecy in Haiti – or here in Brockton: God says, “I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered … be glad and rejoice!”

Yes, it is hard to get our heads around what this might mean, what it might look like. But wait: this is not a pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye kind of God we are talking about here. This God talks about not just that new heavens, up there, but a new earth, down here. God knows the earth is prone to disaster, that human beings make stupid decision, that oil wells spew destruction into clear waters, that builders take short cuts with houses that fall and crumble on to babies’ heads. God created perfection in paradise, then even the very first human beings made big mistakes and God threw them out. You could say it has been downhill ever since.

But in the words of Isaiah, God is now un-doing all those curses, all that anger, all that bleak exile and devastation. God is laying out a new plan for this battered earth and shattered communities, and God is stretching out a hand to us, to be re-builders with God – to work with God to make this holy place shining and blessed once again.

You have seen that work of re-construction begun here. You have fed the hungry with more than food: you have seen how God’s welcome and compassion make even the most discouraged faces shine. You have seen how cracks of hope have broken through lives of despair – how even the most pernicious weeds can be pried up from the broken pavement, and how beautiful flowers can grow. God has been showering blessings on this place, and we have been on the receiving end.

When you leave this place and go to a new church home, THAT is what you will take with you. You will know what people in “prosperous” places don’t know: that these prophecies of devastation and restoration are TRUE. That God does throw you into exile, into a strange place, where, nonetheless you find that God has already gotten there ahead of you – that God knows what it is like to live in a neighborhood like this, because God lives here – and that because God lives here, you know that leaving a place like this neighborhood in this condition is not what God has in mind.

When you join a new church home, you will bring with you blessings that your new congregation can only imagine. You will tell then, Listen: we have seen what God can do with absolutely nothing. We have seen a hint of that new heavens and that new earth; listen, and believe.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Heroism in God's cause is the mark of a saint

On this All Saints Sunday, I preached a two-part sermon. As St. Paul's Church prepares to close, we are thinking about the many gifts we have received in this place, and the treasures we will take with us wherever we go next. The part of the sermon where I talked about that comes at the end of this post.

So I also preached on the All Saints -- on the beatitudes from Luke, particularly powerful after a year of reading Luke and being challenged by the urgency of his Gospel -- and on the familiar readings from Ecclesiasticus and Revelation, the readings from the 1979 Prayer Book lectionary for the day.

"Heroism in God's cause is the mark of a saint" is a quote from Robertson Davies, from one of his Deptford Trilogy novels I read years ago, and still remember vividly. Heroism in God's cause could describe the people of St. Paul's Church, who year after year, and after adversity, decline, conflict and shrinking resources, kept open the doors of a church which
welcomed absolutely everybody, no matter how hungry or poor or dirty or unkempt or haphazard in their church attendance. The doctrinally pure, and the high-and-mighty prosperous may have fought pitched battles over it, and yes, many who stayed mourned the changes and yearned for a return of the glory days when this was the church of the ruling class. But are not all of our motives, human as we are, at best mixed? Nevertheless: in spite of it all, through it all, because of it all, St. Paul's Church embodied the radical hospitality of Jesus, giving its life to this place, this corner of Warren and not-so-Pleasant. Heroism in God's cause is the mark of this Saint Paul. Amen. Alleluia.

All Saints Sunday Nov. 7, 2010
Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10, 13-14
Ps. 149
Revelation 7:2-4, 9
Luke 6: 20-31

This whole past year, we have been reading the Gospel of Luke, where every story echoes the song we first heard from Mary, the mother of Jesus: God is here, to take down the mighty from the thrones and to raise up the lowly, to feed the poor and hungry and to let the rich go away empty, to bring the outcast and the sick and the imprisoned back from their exile into the heart of the community. We read it today, in Luke’s version of Jesus’ sermon, early in his ministry: blessed are you who are poor, you who are hungry, you who are weeping, you who are hated and reviled, and woe to the ones who think they have got it all.

God’s vision of the world is upside down from the one of conventional success. Let’s just say God is not interested in the stock market, or some banker’s balance sheet. God’s blessings go to those who need them the most.

Remember for the past couple of weeks I have been saying that Luke presents two ways of being righteous; one of those ways – the way of the conventional rule-follower and do-gooder – doesn’t work so well, Luke says. Like in our first reading: praise famous men? Praise the godly ones, who died unknown, blessed and righteous. How many of them, those godly ones, do we treasure in our hearts? Like in our second reading: who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from? Those who have seen more than their share of troubles in this world are given care and refreshment at the very throne of God.

Whose side is God on? This passage makes it clear: God is on the side of the ones who have been hungry and thirsty, the ones who have suffered from the heat of the day, the ones who have been lost, the ones who have been weeping.

The Gospel conveys a real urgency: Listen! It says, and then Do. Act. Take action on behalf of the people whom God loves. Think about the people you know or have heard of who have done that. They are all of them saints of God, and God means for each of us to be one, too.

A guided meditation, on what we treasure at St. Paul's:

Think about when you first walked in the door of this church.

For some of you, that was a long time ago. A great deal of your life has taken place within these walls: important events, family gatherings, times to rejoice, times of utter despair. Some of you, like me, have only been here a few years. Many of the important touchstones of our lives have taken place elsewhere. Think about those events. Think about the ones that were richest and most life-giving. Whether they took place here at St. Paul’s, or in some other place of worship, pick one – just one – such an event. Imagine that event in all its richness and beauty. Remember who was there with you, what you saw, what you smelled, what happened there and then.

What about that event made it so special? What still resonates with you today? What was the gemstone of that event, that you will treasure always?

Come back to the present, and look around this church. All of us walked through these doors for the first time, once upon a time. But we are here now, together, in this place. Think about it. What has kept you here? What about this place drew you to stay here? What is the wellspring of God’s mercy that you find here, that brings you back, week after week?

If you could give this thing a name, what would it be?

Imagine your life as a line, something you can see, visualize. Some people imagine their lives in a line moving from left to right; others like a movie reel, or things that appear in the foreground or recede back. Just imagine this scope of your life.

Now go back to your most treasured memory, that gemstone from the past, that holy moment that took place here or somewhere else, sometime in your own past. Where is that moment on your life line, your life journey? Give it a particular place. Think of it somewhere, in all of its richness and beauty. Anchor it in the map of your memory.

Now come to your more recent memory, the “why you keep coming back to St. Paul’s” memory. Where is that on your time line, your life journey? Imagine it, clear and strong and definite.

Now, what is the connection between these two things? What is the golden thread of meaning that they share? What do these two things have in common, this gemstone of a holy moment, and this thing that keeps you coming back here, week after week? You embody both of these things: what, other than you, do they share?

Thanks to Rachel R. for the batik chasuble from Cameroon. I love it! And I still wear it!!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Salvation has come to this house, and you are the children of Abraham

Proper 26-C Oct. 31, 2010
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Ps. 116:137-144; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10

The theme of “we’re in trouble” really makes it big in the news these days. The election commercials hammer that lesson home – times are tough, my opponent has the moral character of a horned toad, and so you’d better vote for me, or the country will go to rack and ruin. Or those hysteria-breeding news reports, about things that will go very, very wrong unless …. The headlines are full of it: are we sliding into a Japanese-style economic deflation from which there is no recovery? Has the average American become a non-voter who no longer cares who is in charge? Pick an issue – any issue: there is sure to be someone out there worked up over it.

Way back in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, a group of people, with similar urgent concerns, came to John the Baptist. Things are really getting bad, they said – maybe they shouted – to him. What then shall we do? John was very straight-forward; you may remember some of what he told this collection of ordinary people:

‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’ (Lk 3:11-14)

Later on in Jesus’ ministry, even rich people began to be curious – they, too, wanted in on this good news, these promises of the good life now, and for all eternity. You may remember this story:

A certain ruler asked, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.”’ He replied, ‘I have kept all these since my youth.’ When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ Those who heard it said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ He replied, ‘What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.’ (Luke 18:18-27)

Don’t we find echoes of the struggles of our own day in these stories? Don’t’ we all want to do the right thing, to find our groove with God, as it were, to live the good life now, to be saved from our fears and worries and hang-ups? To find a connection with God that will last us into eternal life?

Last week we read the story of the very righteous religious man – the Pharisee – and the categorical sinner – the tax collector. We talked about how these two represented two schools of thought – two schools of prayer, as it were – about getting right with God. For the Pharisee, getting right with God meant following all the rules – like that rich ruler. But there is a problem with this: according to Jesus, these folks can no more get into heaven than a camel can fit through the eye of a needle. If following the rules of righteousness doesn’t work, then WHAT THEN SHALL WE DO? This question begins to take on real urgency: how are we ever going to figure this out?

Which brings us to the second school of prayer, that of John the Baptist, echoed in today’s gospel. Zacchaeus didn’t intend to figure out the answer to these urgent questions; he just wanted to see Jesus. But what he discovered was that Jesus just wanted to see him – the rich tax collector, the categorical sinner, the one who no righteous person would be caught dead with, much less talking and eating with. Jesus wanted to see him. Zacchaeus didn’t know he was looking for salvation, when salvation came looking for him.

And then what did Zacchaeus do? He did what John the Baptist advised, and what the rich ruler and the Pharisee could not. He took all his possessions used them in service to God, to the kingdom, to the poor and the ones he might have cheated. He took Jesus into his house – Jesus and his whole entourage of sinners and poor people and women and soldiers and outcasts. Zacchaeus used what some would call “ill-gotten gains” to hold a banquet of abundance and mercy and generosity, to open the doors of his house to everyone Jesus would welcome. Zacchaeus learned that day, when he climbed down from that tree, that by giving away what he had, there would always be enough to go around.

Many years ago, people here at St. Paul’s began holding a banquet for everyone Jesus would welcome. When times were tough, when rich people were worrying about not having enough to go around, you gave it all away. You opened all the doors and welcomed everyone. You learned what Zacchaeus learned, and what the rich ruler couldn’t. Salvation has come to this house, and you are the children of Abraham.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Pharisee + Publican R Us

Proper 25-C; Oct. 24, 2010
Joel 2:23-32; Ps. 65
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

Where you SIT determines where you STAND.

It’s the political season. Who knew there were so many people running for office in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island? Not to mention Nevada, Pennsylvania, California and South Carolina? Who knew? So many ads, such scandals, what a lot of … stuff.

Where you SIT determines where you STAND. Do we really believe that someone who served less than a full term as the Governor of, say, Alaska, has any idea what we, in Brockton, Massachusetts, might want or need? Some politicians seem so remote from us –
like they used to say about Massachusetts politicians (when they were all Republicans, I think) “The Cabots speak only to Lodges, and the Lodges speak only to God.”

Kind of like that Pharisee in today’s reading. In his case, where you STAND determines how you PRAY.

Imagine a map of the Temple in Jerusalem. In the center, is the Pharisee of today’s reading. For him, being right with God means being separate – it means maintaining a holy boundary of separation between him and the whole nasty world around him. Remember that Jews had a hard time in 1st century Jerusalem. They were living under occupation by the Roman Empire, and they could not fully, completely, comfortably, live the way they wanted to live. They wanted to live the Torah life, the life of joyful obedience to God, but at every turn the Romans were making it difficult. It was so tempting just to give up – to break a few rules here or there just to get along, to follow what the occupiers demanded. In order to be faithful Jews, these Pharisees believed, they had to be separate. Righteousness meant being set apart, doing certain things and not doing others.

Now imagine again a map of the Temple in Jerusalem, and on the margins of this grand building we see the tax collector. He does not feel so good about himself. As a Jew, working for the Romans, he is a collaborator. He collects the heavy tax the Romans want, and that leaves his fellow Jews with less extra money to pay their tithe – the tenth of their income – to support the Temple. By the standards of the faithful Jews who want to maintain their separation from the Romans, this tax collector will never be good enough to get inside the Temple. God could not possibly hear his prayers. After all, he deals with nasty, unclean things – he deals with unclean people and collects money that will go not to the Temple but to Rome, to fill the coffers of those awful pagan emperors. The tax collector’s money will never be good enough to pay his tithe to the Temple, and so he will never be able to stand in that place where his prayers will go to God. So, you see: where you STAND determines how you pray. If you are able to stand in the Temple, you do so assured that God will hear your righteous prayers. If you cannot pay your tithe, or if your money is not good enough to pay the tithe, you will never be righteous enough to pray in any words that would get to God.

The Pharisee reads the Torah, and believes that the way to righteousness is separation and purity. That is one way to God. But then Jesus comes along and finds another reading there in the ancient texts. Jesus preaches that the way to righteousness is mercy. The Torah wants us to stand up for those who have nothing, to care for the widow and orphan, to welcome the stranger, to give sight to the blind and to let the prisoners go free. For Jesus, also, where you stand determines how you pray, but in Jesus’ case the place to stand is on the margins, on the edge of the Temple where only the less than pure can stand. Those are the prayers God hears, Jesus tells us. The righteous are the ones who have no choice about where they stand. They know they can never measure up, those for whom fasting is not an option, and who do not have any money left after what has to go to Caesar to give their tenth to the Temple. They know they are sinners. They know what they don’t have, and they know what they need: they need God. They need the mercy of God just to get through each day, each week. When they stand there, on the edge of the Temple, they stand there needing God, and as Jesus reads the Torah, this means that those people go away righteous.

The tax collector and his ilk – God listens to their prayers, and God is standing there with


Now this doesn’t mean that the Pharisees are such bad people. No one lives well under the oppression of an occupying army. They have plenty of examples in the tradition that tell them that this is the way to behave: they want to stay right with God.

But, Jesus says, this doesn’t work anymore. Maintaining status and privilege comes at
a high cost, and the cost is this right relationship with God. It’s not about what you have, or what you do, that keeps you right with God, but knowing that all of that is nothing, and that there is nothing between you and the abyss but the mercy of God.

Where you stand determines how you pray. So where are we? If we imagine
ourselves in the middle of the United States empire, in the prosperous heart of the world’s most powerful nation, then we can count our blessings. But none of those blessings need God. We can be righteous, and self-sufficient without God.

But if we imagine ourselves in … St. Paul’s Church, Brockton, far from the centers of
power, without anywhere near enough money to pay our tithes to anyone, to the diocese, to the state, to the city, a forgotten outpost from which the empire has long ago drained all our resources, well, then we get it: the blessings we have come from none of those places – not from Boston, or Washington, or whatever remains of shoe-manufacturing headquarters.

In our lives we live in both places, just as the Pharisee and the tax collector were two
sides of the same person. Both wanted to get right with God, but if you faced inward – toward rules, and security, and comfort – you would miss where God was standing, Jesus said. Turn around, Jesus said. Move from there, where there are rules for righteousness, to there, where nothing gets you anywhere, except being right with God.

p.s. The illustration this week is by Simon Schmitt-Hall

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Pray always. Do not lose heart.

Proper 24/C October 17, 2010
Jeremiah 31:27-34
Ps. 119: 97-104
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

We’ve been with Jeremiah a long time, now, hearing him tell us how God is plucking, up, breaking down, overthrowing, destroying – and even bringing evil (how can God bring evil?. The people of Israel have been in a tough place with God, and even the moments where Jeremiah have brought them a word of hope have been difficult. Last week we heard about how God wanted them to put down roots in Babylon, and to care for even that place of their hated captivity. By the waters of Babylon, where we sat down and wept?

We who know something about dislocation can appreciate Jeremiah: we who have lived in houses that have been foreclosed, forced to move when we didn’t want to – we who left our families and loved ones far behind and far away – we who long to be home, where home is someplace other than here?

In times like this, what does Jesus tell us? To pray always, and not to lose heart.

For a few years I was a Chaplain in a nursing home. A lay pastoral care giver worked with me, and she was a fervent, evangelical, pentecostal and born-again pray-er. She believed that if she laid hands on someone, the Holy Spirit would heal them. Like the persistent widow, she believed that if she asked God for something -- in her case, to heal someone -- God would act as instructed.

That did not always work so well at Castle Rest. Those disturbed by Alzheimer's continued to roam the halls, restless and inappropriate. Those succumbing to cancer continued to decline. People continued to be angry that they had to live there, or were poor, or that the staff did not attend to their needs on time. And every week our recreation therapist gave us a list of residents who had not survived the week. I think my friend prayed always, but I think she did lose heart, sometimes.

Prayer as a list of things God is supposed to do for us does make me uncomfortable. We know all too well – and reading Jeremiah these past weeks confirms it – that God’s plans for us don’t always coincide with our idea of a happy life. Yet I do think prayer has something to do with our passionate desire to return that which we perceive as out of whack to a state of blessed equilibrium. I may make light of my friend's fervent prayers, but she knew that those suffering from pain or confusion were not living the lives God
created them to live. She knew God heard their -- and her -- daily and nightly cries, and that surely God felt their pain, too. "Will God delay long in helping them?" When Jesus said that, he was filled with confidence; when we say that, we are more likely filled with anxiety and uncertainty.

Prayer, Jesus says in this parable, is about justice. God will quickly grant justice to those deserving it. "... yet," to quote an old hymn, "saints their watch are keeping, their cry goes up, 'How long?'" What is taking God so long?

To get a different reading here, let us turn this parable around. Picture the widow not as the downtrodden of humanity, but -- as God. We are the unjust judges, to whom God, as the ceaselessly begging widow, asks for her own just deserts. If we will act justly for no other reason, perhaps we will act justly just to get God off our backs.

This reading is not so different from the way the prophet Jeremiah has been portraying God. For example, in today's reading, he speaks of the old covenant with Moses, made when God brought the people out of Egypt. God's love was like that of a husband for a wife, Jeremiah says, and yet the faithless people broke the covenant anyway. God doesn't want any more rules like that, Jeremiah says. God wants us to love God and our neighbors from our hearts, from the deepest essence of who we are, from that place in ourselves where we most clearly reflect the image of God.

God, like the faithful husband, or the really annoying widow, never gives up. God wants justice, and God wants us to act justly, on behalf of "his chosen ones who cry to him day and night." That is prayer: persistence and patience, in the cause of justice.

And with whom does God stand in the cause of justice? This is the cast of characters in every story in the gospel: God stands with the least, the last, the lost, and the littlest. God stands with us when we are at our weakest. For it is in the welfare of the least among us, in the shalom of the people we least expect, in the justice for those who are strangers to us, that we will find the answer to all our prayers.

Jesus said, Pray always, and do not lose heart. For what do you pray today?

For what justice in your life, or in the world, do you need to hear Jesus say again to you, do not lose heart?