Sunday, December 23, 2007

New world coming ...

Advent 4-A Dec. 23, 2007 St. Paul’s Isaiah 7:1-10
Psalm 80 Romans 1:1-7 Matthew 1:18-25

It’s not so easy playing second fiddle to a miracle. The English poet W.H. Auden put these words in Joseph’s mouth:

All I ask is one
Important and elegant proof
That what my Love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.

It’s not too much to ask, is it? It’s only reasonable. Joseph was a reasonable man – he would not have let Mary be disgraced or stoned, the punishment for adultery, even though that was obviously her sin. But in Auden’s poem, as in the gospel – and as in so many aspects of all of our lives, when we are thrown into something beyond our control or understanding, all the angel says is,

No, you must believe;
Be silent, and sit still.

Surely that’s the hardest thing of all, having to sit still and wonder, really wonder, if all this is God’s will, and that God’s will is really something so good after all. How do we know that when we are caught off guard, all shook up, knocked for a loop, stunned – into silence.

This angel must have been persuasive, because Joseph is … obedient. The angel gives him two commands: Do not be afraid. (Easier said than done.) Name him Jesus. And then the angel defines the name: Jesus means, “He will save his people from their sin.”

People who know Hebrew tell us that the name “Save” is not uncommon in the Bible. Joshua means “save;” so does Isaiah and Hosea. Joshua brought the Hebrew people into the promised land; after Moses died Joshua saved the people. Isaiah and Hosea are prophets, mouthpieces of God, as the angels are messengers of God. The prophets saved the people by reminding them to turn away from their sins and toward God. And then the gospel handily reminds Joseph – and us – just what Isaiah said about the One God would send: name him Emmanuel, God with us.

Jesus, the one who saves. Jesus, God who is with us.

If this dream isn’t enough to scare the pants of anybody, I don’t know what is.

This salvation from God is coming in a pretty odd and counter-cultural way. But isn’t this “one who saves” being born into a world that is in pretty bad shape? After all, who gets saved in this movie, in this Gospel, this Good News that is unlike all other so-so news. Who gets saved? Everyone who feels unsaveable: sinners, yes, but sinners in whose eyes? The poor, the sick, the lonely, the unloved, the abandoned, the ordinary, the weak, the small, the hungry, the blind, the lame, the deaf. This kind of salvation is new news, and Good News indeed, for all those folks who have never been paid attention to, much less saved, by anyone else.

Who else is saved? Everyone else on the other side of that line as well. The rich, the healthy, the loved, the friend-beset, the strong, the large, the fat, the ones who see well, walk well, hear well. Salvation means that we are all saved, that there is no line anymore. Those of us on one side blend with those of us on the other side, and lo and behold, we see ourselves. We are saved from ourselves, from being stuck in a world where we don’t think we can help and being stuck in a place where we think no one will ever help us. Name him Jesus, which means “he will save his people from their sins.” Name him Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”

God is indeed with us, now, born in the dark of night, born in the dark of the year, born to save us from ourselves, born to bring us a new day, a new life, a new world. We are no longer alone, fighting these battles, wandering, lonely. God is with us. Now.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

O pray for us, the bourgeosie ...

Now is the time to read "For the Time Being," W. H. Auden's "Christmas Oratorio."
I quote it in my sermon for Advent 4, since this year we read the account in Matthew of the angel coming to Joseph in a dream, announcing that his wife is bearing a child by none other than the Holy Spirit, and that, "... masculinity is, to nature, a non-essential luxury."
Read it all. Now. Find a copy in the library, or come to me. We have a few!
Here is an introductory article.
more later ...

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Snow Day!

OK! There were 11 people in church this morning -- and three drove in from Duxbury to serve lunch at St. Paul's Table. I am glad people did not feel compelled to drive on risky streets. Ten inches of snow, and now sleet and rain. The few of us who walked to church this morning remembered you in prayer, and gave thanks that you were safe and warm. Here's the sermon -- which I did not preach -- we did an African-method Bible study on the Gospel text, on the story of John the Baptist in prison, asking if Jesus was "the one." I based the sermon on the exegesis I did for the Advent 3 Reflections for the Feminist Theology blog.

Advent 3-A Dec. 16, 2007 St. Paul’s Isaiah 35:1-10

Canticle 15 James 5:7-10 Matthew 11:2-11

I’m thinking differently about John the Baptist this week than I did last week. What happened in the middle was thinking about those young men who took up rifles in righteousness and despair and killed people in Nebraska and Colorado.

Seeing the faces, and reading the stories, of those young men, along with reading this passage from the gospel about John the Baptist, gave me a sympathy for them. No, of course, they are not John the Baptist, heralds of the coming of the Messiah, but like them John the Baptist was harsh, severe, confrontative. He was thrown in jail -- by Herod, widely considered an unjust king, yes, but thrown in jail nonetheless. He was thrown in jail for causing trouble, for raising a ruckus, and being thrown in jail must have been as shocking and shameful then as it is now.

What strikes me most about this passage today is the compassion Jesus shows for John. John’s disciples, who have heard of Jesus; activity, inquire about him. It is clear that Jesus is NOT John. Jesus at this point in his ministry is not about confrontation, but about healing, wholeness, inclusion, grace. He even says it: “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” What a contrast with John, thrown in prison for offending. Both Jesus and John are pointing to the coming of this same kingdom of justice and righteousness, but doesn’t it seem in this passage that they are going about it in starkly different ways.

But then look at what Jesus says about John. He seems to be defending John’s wild manners and confrontative tactics. What else did you expect, Jesus says, from a prophet who announces the world turned upside down? Did you expect someone nice, well-dressed, quiet, who speaks words that makes kings shudder. I am struck by two things in this short passage: just how different Jesus is from John the Baptist, and how much compassion Jesus has for John, with all of his ferocity and strangeness.

It’s refreshment Sunday, today, Rose Sunday, when the church directs our attention to the comforts of the Advent prophecies. We read it in Jesus words: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” We read it in the words of Mary his mother, who sings this song as she begins to understand just what this child she is carrying will promise: mercy for the fearful, food for the hungry, protection for the lowly. We read it in the words of the prophet Isaiah, the promise that the exiles will come home, that sadness shall be turned to joy, that the desert will turn to a place of fertility and abundance, that no one, not even fools, will go astray. There is something to behold: not even fools shall go astray.

With such words of promise and hope, do not our hearts ache for those murderous young men, for the lives they took so senselessly and quickly? It is one more reminder, as if we needed it, that the world is a broken, fractured place, too often full of darkness and despair. We do not have to go to such extremes to feel some of those feelings, some discouragement, some dullness, some suspicion, some impatience. Maybe our lives are not what we think they should be, or what they used to be, or what we hoped they would be by now. Maybe we don’t like our neighbors, or think there is anything worth getting up for in the morning. Surely John the Baptist was an impatient soul; you can hear it in his question of Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

This little passage from the Epistle of James is for those of us for whom the kingdom is coming just too slowly. “Be patient, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.”

How can we be patient, with young men shooting innocent people, with poverty, famine, war, disaster, with loneliness and ill health and even the price of heating oil? James explains it this way:

The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.

He hits the nail on the head of community life: “Do not grumble against one another.” Be patient, he says, like the prophets were patient.

This third Sunday of Advent is the most hopeful Sunday in this season of hope. It tells us what we have to look forward to: to health and wholeness, healing and inclusion, we will really be able to see, we will really be able to hear, we will really be able to understand. The people who will first hear this good news are the very least of the lot: the blind, the lame, the lepers, the dead, the poor. And it is these – not the powerful prophets, the gaudy kings, the righteous disciples – who will be first in the kingdom of heaven.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Neo and John the Baptist: The Matrix as an Advent story

See my post on the Episcopal feminist blog ...
John the Baptist, Neo, and violent young American gunmen ...
thoughts on the Third Week of Advent

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Bearing good fruit

Our little congregation IS a sign of the kingdom. Read on ...

Advent 2 A Dec. 9, 2007 St. Paul’s
Isaiah 11:1-10 Romans 15:4-13 Matthew 3:1-12 Psalm 72

The shoot growing out of the stock of Jesse is not just some ordinary sapling. It is a tree growing right out of ruin and destruction. The vision of Isaiah which we read in each of today’s lessons is not just a story of regeneration, the return of spring growth or something that happens with the dose of a good fertilizer. This vision is nothing short of a signal to people the world over that God acts. God is in charge.

These Advent prophecies speak of a world of abundance and beauty – so much so that it is tempting to think that they are about a return to an idyllic past, to the Garden of Eden even, before the perfect world God created got all messed up. Wolves lying down with lambs, cows and bears, young and old, children playing with snakes – none of that is natural.

Go back to the original creation story. What did God do? What was there before God created anything? It was chaos, a void, nothingness. And what did God begin to do? To give this formlessness some form, to order the chaos, to bring sense out of the senselessness of nature.

This Isaiah passage comes from a time of destruction in Israel. Nothing is left of the glories of their kingdom but some burned out, torn up stumps. What Isaiah is saying is that despite all this destruction, God is still creating, God is still acting, God is still bringing order out of chaos, meaning out of senselessness. In the natural order – in Eden, even – the predators are surely after their prey: wolves, leopards, lions and bears have to eat, after all, and they eat by killing. But when this new shoot arises from the destruction of the old, a new order will be established, a holy order, marked by justice and mercy. What this prophecy is saying is that God continues to order the world. If new and marvelous trees grow from dead stumps, and if ferocious predators lie down in peace with their prey, then imagine what glorious things will happen to us. How will God order our lives – with wisdom and understanding, with counsel and might, with knowledge and delight in God.

Paul, in this piece of his letter to the church in Rome, quotes Isaiah – this same passage of the shoot arising from the stump of Jesse. Out of the past order comes a vision for the new order. “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement, the God of patience and consolation,” Paul writes, “grant you to live in harmony with one another.” Paul is then very specific about who is not in harmony with each other: people like him, faithful Jews, on the one hand; and people not Jews, Gentiles, who have nonetheless heard about Jesus and think this Good News about this new way of life is a pretty good thing. How can people who for generations were at enmity now live together? How do these cows and bears graze together, these wolves and lambs not continue their deadly dance? Out of even this disorder, these old enemies, Paul says, God in his mercy is pulling you together. And as you live together, this is a sign of the coming reign of God, a sign of God at working still, bringing order – divine order – out of the chaos of broken relationships.

It’s great to be in this chapel during Advent, right here with the main man, John the Baptist – who also quotes the prophet Isaiah, who mentions the root of Jesse, but in a harsh and frightening way. For John the Baptist, this past is worthless without repentance. For John the Baptist, those who rest on the laurels of the past will reap the wrath of God. For John the Baptist, this is the deciding moment. For all those who for generations heard the prophets, heard their story of God acting and continually ordering the chaos of the world, now is the time. Choose. Choose this adventure God has in store for all of us, this adventure of justice and mercy and peace – this order which tames the chaos – or fall before the ax. Bear good fruit, or be cut down and thrown into the fire.

John the Baptist came from a tiny group of faithful Jews waiting for many years for the establishment of a just society. You can hear his pent-up fury, his righteous anger, his confidence in the promises of God. His prophecy is that the religious establishment of his day has moved so far from God’s expectations of justice and mercy that they will be mown down when that one more powerful than him comes. Like us, also a tiny group, that tiny group held out great hope for the future, because they – like us – live out God’s promises in the present. We are a motley crew, a diverse crew; in this tiny group we represent many cultures, many backgrounds, many walks of life. In this tiny group, with all our problems and differences, we live out the vision God has for the world. We are an Advent people, year round: listening for the prophets to give us a word of hope, watching for signs of the kingdom, and practicing, in our community life, for what it will be like when the whole world thrives under the reign of God.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Give us grace to awake us ...

... to see the branch that begins to bloom;
in great humility is hid
all heaven in a little room.
(Carol Christopher Drake, 1971)

Well, OK, I did NOT intend this to be a monthly blog but a weekly one! Yet in the past month I’ve been on the road:
  • A November retreat at the Benedictine Sisters of Erie – a large, active, welcoming, inspiring community, home to Joan Chittister. They ran a high school for many years, but now have a variety of inner city projects in Erie, including a quite spectacular art school for children. It inspired me for our plans for the day hospitality center here in Brockton.
  • Thanksgiving in Indian Lake: a lovely time, with Simon, Seth, Laura, Stewart, plus a friend of Seth and Laura’s (and Bill the cat and Tim and me, of course). A lot of cooking in a small space, though. But cozy, fun, nice to be in our own little home.

Big news back in Brockton. The short version: one of the steam pipes in the basement sprang a leak, forcing us out of the church and into the chapel for Sunday morning worship. But hey, it worked well! Today I rearranged the chairs in choir formation, and with a forest of tiny evergreens, the waiting crèche and a free-standing altar, we did a very nice job welcoming in the new Christian year. The music, with some rather second-string electric organs, can use some work, but it will come! With the price of oil at over $3.00 a gallon, well, I think it is pretty easy to get used to this lovely chapel for the dark and cold of winter.

Finally, a prayer for Advent, which was read tonight at the sublime Service of Advent Lessons and Carols at St. Margaret’s Convent:

Keep us, O Lord, while we tarry on this earth, in a daily serious seeking after thee, and in a believing affectionate walking with thee; that, when thou comest, we may be found not hiding our talent, nor serving our flesh, nor yet asleep with our lamp unfurnished, but longing and waiting for our glorious God for ever and ever. Amen. (Richard Baxter, 1691)

Advent 1 A 12/2/2007 St. Paul’s
Isaiah 2:1-5 Psalm 122 Romans 13:8-14 Matthew 24:37-44

Watch out!

It’s “watch out!” Sunday – the shout of rampart guards surround us – harps and cymbals swell the sound – the thrilling voice – the solemn warning: Watch out! Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake!

You might think this Sunday is about the future, about what will happen to us if we don’t watch out. The collect does tell us to look forward to "... the last day, when [Jesus Christ] shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, [when] we may rise to the life immortal..."

Terrible things can happen to us in the future, but I think Advent is about today, the present, the church of what’s happening now: "Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light..." What we are asking God to give us is the grace to live in the present aware of the reality of Jesus Christ in our lives. On Advent Sunday we pray to God to be re-committed to the great adventure of being “On the Way.” It’s a dark world out there, and Advent is the time we get suited up, in the armor of light, for the journey of being a Christian. In Advent, we prepare to greet our God, “the One who Comes,” the God who is with us, when we remember that to be a Christian means to live in this world on God’s terms, not ours.

The medieval mystic Bernard of Clairvaux talked about the Three Comings of the Lord. Today’s readings are about the Second Coming, the terrible and fearful day of the Lord. It’s Christ as the great tsunami, with no early warning system. We’re living on the beach, with no Weather Channel and the mother of all storms brewing out at sea. In the words of one of my favorite Advent hymns, the world IS wrapped in fear. These days, reading a psalm about going up to Jerusalem can be the opposite of inspiring. It is a fearful place, an armed camp, divided, broken.

But as Bernard put it in his Advent sermon hundreds of years ago, we are living in the time of the Middle Coming. In the First Coming, Bernard said, God came “in our flesh and in our weakness.” In the Second, God “will be seen in glory and majesty.” In this Middle Coming, Bernard says, God “comes in spirit and in power.” This intermediate coming may be a hidden one, Bernard says, but “in case someone should think that what we say about this middle coming is sheer invention, listen to what our Lord himself says: If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him.” And what do we do when we keep God’s Word? We feed God’s sheep, care for the poor and forgotten, feed the hungry, open the doors of our hearts so that they, and God, can come in. There is much to do between the day when we could hold Jesus in our arms and when the Son of Man knocks us off our feet. In this Middle Coming, we know God is here, because he is right by our side when we are doing all those things.

Celebrating Advent reminds us that we do not have to remain stuck in this dark and fearful place; we are the people who already have one foot in the new way of being, in that new kingdom that will come with God’s reign. I know that can sound kind of airy-fairy, but listen to this from Peter Maurin, who along with Dorothy Day started the Catholic Worker movement: “The future will be different if we make the present different.” That’s what Advent people believe, that’s what this season – this Middle Coming of Christ -- reminds us, that we cast away those works of darkness – of fear, anger, greed, of negativity and militancy and neglect – for we are Children of the Day.

Proper 29 C Nov. 25, 2007 St. Paul’s Jeremiah 23:1-6 For the Psalm: Luke 1:68-79 Colossians 1:11-20 Luke 23:33-43

For some Christian congregations it is always Easter. Or always Pentecost. Some Christian congregations stay right here in this lesson, this story of the crucifixion, and of Christ’s triumphant reign as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. In the Gospel of Luke, especially, Jesus’ confidence reigns supreme: this event, gruesome as it is, apparent failure that it is, is one more sign of God’s peaceful reign of mercy and forgiveness. Even in death, the human leader of this movement says, “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing,” and “Truly I tell you, today, you will be with me in Paradise.” He does not respond to those who taunt and mock him, for even the impartial witnesses of the other criminals know the truth: “This man has done nothing wrong.”

Some Christian congregations have no liturgical year, no beginnings or endings, no ups or downs. Everything in their services points to this event, this Christian high, and here they stay. There is something to be said about this approach: after all, the lives we lead are full enough of ups and downs, failures and setbacks, slings and arrows – too much drama and we do not yet know the ending. The Christian story, on the other hand, encapsulated like this one of Jesus’ death and triumph, always has a happy ending. We can leave our trials and troubles at the door, for here Christ reigns supreme. It’s Easter, and only Easter, every Sunday.

We Episcopalians, however, are members of a liturgical church. We follow a calendar of the church year developed long after the Bible was written, traditions influenced by the cold, dark winters of northern Europe, by missionaries eager to win converts and so adapted the customs of the people around them. They gave Christian interpretations to the change of seasons, to the cycle of planting and harvest. They put the date of the birth of Jesus in the deepest, darkest part of winter, and said here is the birth of the true sun, the Son of God.

One way to think of this liturgical calendar of the year is that we work out the dramas of our lives in church. At this time of year, especially, we are reminded that being a Christian is not just one smooth high. This Sunday’s gospel pulls us back to the triumph of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, and then next Sunday we are yanked into the preparation for his birth. This is just not a Jesus in the present tense, a God who relates to us only in the light of triumph and perfection, but a Jesus with a past and a future. Jesus is rooted in God’s prophecies from long ago, prophecies which acknowledge what is wrong with the world, and which draw us into the future when those wrongs will be righted and God’s justice and mercy will reign.

For the church to read this passage from the ancient prophet Jeremiah side by side with the story of Jesus’ crucifixion shows us how the early Christians began to make sense of Jesus. To speak of shepherds was one way people in ancient Israel talked about kings, about their political leaders who were supposed to rule their kingdoms by God’s standards. But just as today our political leaders fall far short of our standards, so too did the shepherds Jeremiah denounces. Rather than protect the sheep, they scatter them, and so, Jeremiah says, God will replace those shepherds with a righteous king, a king who will bring everyone together, a king who will be wise and just, who will bring safety and abundance.

This is the picture Luke gives us of Jesus on the cross: Jesus faces his trials calmly and with confidence. The God of peace would not lash out even in the face of violent persecution. As he goes to his death, he brings all of us with him. In the end, the triumph of God is not like some great army, not like a righteous version of the hated Roman Empire. The triumph of God is not some smooth and predictable outcome, coming in on a white horse at the head of the cavalry charge. In the end, the triumph of God is forgiveness and mercy. In the end, we are standing there at the foot of the cross, with all our mixed motives and confusions, our hopes and dreams, our violence, anger, disappointments and betrayals. “Are you not the Messiah,” we shout. “Save yourself and us.” Is this how the world will end, we wonder, echoing the poet, not with a triumphant bang, not even with resistance, but with a whimper? “Today,” Jesus says, “you will be with me in Paradise.” The story ends neither with a bang nor a whimper, but with an embrace.

Next week the church has us start this whole cycle over again. The one in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” will be born of a poor mother in a stable. The righteous branch raised up from David will be raised in obscurity in a back-water town on the edge of an empire run by an occupying army. The one through whom all things were created, and all things hold together, will be celebrated as one small enough for us to hold in our arms. King of kings, Lord of lords: not with a bang, nor with a whimper, but with an embrace.

Proper 28 C Nov. 18, 2007 St. Paul’s
Isaiah 65:17-25 Psalm: Isaiah 12:2-6 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 Luke 21:5-19

For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

When I was on retreat last week, I was praying in front of a tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament – the bread and wine which had been consecrated as the body and blood of Jesus. It’s the place we sit in prayerful vigil, from the end of the Maundy Thursday service, through the long darkness of Good Friday, in hopeful anticipation of the resurrection of Easter. Such a vigil, it struck me last week, is like pregnancy. Thinking of Jesus lying in the tomb, silent and dark, and thinking of a child, curled up, not yet born. The child is not waiting to be born, but we, the father or mother, wait, for the pregnancy to end, for the child to appear. It cannot be hurried. It cannot be slowed.

These weeks before Christmas, like those days before Easter, are like that image of pregnancy, that tomb that holds the still, dark body of Jesus. In two weeks we will enter the season of Advent, when we officially “wait” for the birth of Jesus. But today’s Old Testament and Gospel lessons are full of prophesies of what will come when Jesus comes among us again, when the reign of God is fully here, when the new heavens is over our heads and the new earth is under our feet.

I bet this chapel is not where most of you want to be this morning. I bet most of you want to be in the church. You might even feel that today’s apocalyptic gospel, about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem – the very temple the Jews returning from exile had just rebuilt when prophets like Isaiah, from today’s reading, or Haggai, from last week’s reading, were writing. But for the time being, this chapel is where we are going to be. This is where we will wait. The texts about the Jews going into and coming back from Jerusalem should resonate strongly with us right now.

Like last week’s reading from Haggai, Isaiah is trying to encourage the flagging energy of the people trying to rebuild Jerusalem, a city which no longer resembles its former glory. Speaking for God, Isaiah says,

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.

The Hebrew word for “create” is barah, a word that applies only to God. Only God can create, and what God is about to create here will have no resemblance to what came before. Isaiah goes on to describe this new creation of God – a creation built right in existing history – there is no apocalyptic destruction of the world about to happen for this new world to appear. What God will create is the peaceable kingdom. The holy mountain. The place of homesteads and victory gardens, of justice and mercy, and most of all, of joy and delight.

So often in history the people of God have been in this position of waiting – of hearing the words of the prophets and waiting, in faith and hope. We are in a very biblical place here, in this little chapel, this little place where we will wait for what God will create here.

The task before us is not mine. The task of rebuilding is a communal one, done by the people of God. The very temple it took the people of Israel so long to rebuild was the very one Jesus proclaimed he would tear down -- Jesus speaking with the power of the very same God who spoke those words of such hope and comfort through Isaiah.

“Now hope that is seen is not hope,” St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, Christians eagerly awaiting the end of their own exile, their life of oppression under the Empire, the day of the Lord’s coming. As Christians we hope, but we cannot specifically describe what we hope will arrive. I don’t know what will happen here. It will not be like it used to be. But as Christians, we believe – we know – that God, our God, is a God of new things, of a new heavens and a new earth. This was the God who promised Abraham and Sarah more descendants than there were stars in the sky. This was the God who led the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt to a new life in the promised land. This was the same God who threw those same people, become lazy about their faithfulness to God, into exile in Babylon, and who delivered them back home again. All with the vision, that what it meant to be faithful to God was to live as God intended us to live, wolves and lambs, lions and oxen, together in peace and compassion.

Our God is a God of new things: a new heaven and a new earth; a new church and a new Pleasant Street. What we are doing is God’s work, and we’ve not seen anything yet.

Proper 27C Nov. 11, 2007 St. Paul’s
Haggai 1:15b-2:9
Psalm 145 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17 Luke 20:27-38

When the Jews were able to return from their exile in Babylon, Jerusalem was a mess. Israel was a ravaged land, and Jerusalem was a destroyed city. But there they were, back home, and nothing to do but to rebuild. Everything had to be rebuilt, and at one point, according to the prophet Haggai, the people were slacking off. They had worked on their houses, but when it came to rebuilding the temple, they got depressed and stopped. This was Solomon’s Temple, which the older people remembered in all its splendor. They remembered the glittering gold and fine fabrics, the throngs of people who once filled the courts with praise. They remembered what once was, and they could not go on. They were exhausted at the thought of not being able to rebuild it the way it used to be; they hated the idea of a less-than-glorious temple. It was at this point that God sent the prophet Haggai to them to say, Buck up! Take courage! Do not fear! The splendor that will come to this house is my splendor, God said. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine. The house you will build will be greater than what was once here. In THIS place, I will give prosperity.

What good words for Veterans Day. You know this day was originally called Armistice Day, to commemorate the armistice, the end of war. It was declared by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919, who had declared the war that just ended “the war to end all wars.” On this 11th day of the 11th month, Wilson said, remember those who died in that war to end all wars, and remember that we stand for peace and justice. On Veterans Day, then, we stand with one foot in the past – in mourning and remembrance – and one foot in the future – the future for which we not only hope but work – the future of peace and justice – a future in which the destroyed cities, like Jerusalem, will be rebuilt, and where all the exiles, and refugees, and displaced persons, and war victims will live, where all soldiers will be former soldiers, swords turned into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks.

It is very hard to imagine that future, given the world we live in. In the Gospel lesson, the Sadducees, who were kind of like Biblical fundamentalists, thought they could trick Jesus with their superior knowledge of the details of Biblical law. They thought they could expose Jesus and the Pharisees, who they also disliked, believing in the fallacy – in their eyes – of the resurrection of the dead. They trotted out a long what-if, which they believed would end in their victorious, AHA! We caught you, Jesus, in a heresy, an untruth.

But at the end of their long, drawn-out tale of multiple husbands and who gets who in the resurrected life, it is Jesus who turns the table on them. What they cannot imagine is that the reign of God will not be a mere continuation of the here and now, with its rules about marriage and hierarchy, and women as property and children as chattel, where all that matters is who carries on the man’s name. No, Jesus says, the reign of God is not that at all. In the reign of God, the beloved of God are equal to angels – they are the very children of God, and of this new way of being. The rules of the old age are coming to an end. In this new age, God rules, and death and death-dealing are over-ruled. Jesus trumps them with a proof-text about Moses and the burning bush, when God proclaims himself to be the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – God not of the dead but of the living, for to God all of those who were considered dead are alive.

Today, November 11, is also the feast day of St. Martin of Tours. Martin lived in the 4th century, and was a soldier in the Roman legions. He was from the edges of the empire, from what is now Hungary. He became an officer, and served in the occupying army in France. One day, a beggar came to him, asking for help in the name of Christ. Moved with compassion, Martin used his sword to cut his own cloak and to give half to the beggar. The next night, Martin had a vision of Jesus, dressed in a torn cloak. “Martin the Catechumen covered me with this clothing.” Martin saw that the poor man with whom he had shared his very own cloak was none other than Jesus himself. Martin went then to be baptized, although he continued to serve in the military.

The time came, though, when he realized that being a follower of Jesus meant he could no longer follow Caesar. “I am Christ’s soldier,” he declared, “and I am not allowed to fight.” His superiors charged him with cowardice, and to prove them wrong he stood with his comrades on the line of battle, but with no armaments. It was his own, personal armistice. His courage demonstrated, he was discharged and went to live a peaceful life, in service to the poor, to people on the margins of Roman society, and as the bishop of Tours.

In the world we live in, where now nearly 100 years after the war to end all wars we seem to live in endless war, it is tempting to see holidays like Veterans Day or Memorial Day or even the 4th of July as holidays which give us our marching orders for more wars. We rightly remember those who served, and especially those who died in that service. Like the Sadducees taunting Jesus, like the people too discouraged to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, we cannot imagine a world without wars.

In the reign of God, Jesus tells us, that kind of a world is over. God is not God of the dead, not God of the battlefield, whether the cause of whatever war it commemorates was honorable or stupid. In the reign of God, all those who died are brought alive, and even we are like angels. Even we will live like the children of God we truly are.

All Saints 11/4/2007 St. Paul’s Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18 Psalm 149 Ephesians 1:11-12 Luke 6:20-31

Our history is a mixture of the orthodox and the pagan. All Saints' Day, for example, falls on November 1 because the ancient Celtic feast of Samhain (what we now call Hallowe'en) happened at this time in the autumn. Samhain was the time when this world and the supernatural intersected – the boundaries between this world and the next were thin, permeable. Trick-or- treaters are remnants of the goblins people truly feared would snatch them or their children on that night: give them a treat or they would take you with them to the other world. The Church, hoping to win more converts by joining the crowd, "Christianized" the festivities by moving the commemoration of All Saints' from its 4th century observance during the spring feast of Pentecost to this magical time in late autumn. If you're going to get involved in the "other world," the church seemed to say, make it the Christian "other world": the communion of saints.

This world and the other world – when God becoming human is the quintessential example of how this world and the other world meet and mingle. We speak of the Body of Christ, and mean us, our flesh and blood bodies, in the here and now. The Body of Christ also includes all those Christians who have gone before – the Communion of Saints, which we remember vividly today of all days, this day when we acknowledge just how close we are to the “other world” and to those who have gone before. Michael Ramsey, the late archbishop of Canterbury, put it this way:

"One consequence of the mystery of Christ is that Christian people don't stand -- so to say-- on the ground of the present moment, and view past generations, or their comrades in paradise, as people some distance away from them. No, we see the present moment more clearly and bravely because our stance is within the Communion of Saints. How closely, how lovingly, they are praying with us today."

That curious place of standing in the present and the future – at one and the same time – is the place the Gospel of Luke takes us in these beatitudes. The Good News is a great reversal: those who are poor now, those who live on the margins of the rich and comfortable, those who are smug and happy, those who are powerful and mighty, those who mourn and are persecuted: all those conditions will be reversed. This is the upside-down Gospel which describes what the kingdom of God is like, what creation under the reign of God is like. In the here and now, with all our troubles, we see the Communion of Saints as God sees it, right here, full of hope for the world as it should be. A few weeks ago we read the story of Lazarus and the rich man, and the message of that story is the same one Jesus tells today. Jesus has Abraham say to the rich man, who wants poor Lazarus to take care of him, once again, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things; and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.” No doubt about it: in the Gospel the blessed are the poor, the economically poor, people without much money. In this Gospel of economic reality, God loves the poor, and says to the rich, you’ve already gotten yours.

If the beatitudes then describe who the people of God are, the verses just after that tell these people how God expects them to behave. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse, pray for those who abuse. Jesus sets very high standards of morality for us – go beyond reciprocity, beyond “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The people of God – and especially those of us who are hated, scorned, set aside, reviled and cursed -- are to do unto others as God would do. The way God acts toward us – that is how we are to act toward others. This is love not just as an emotion, but as an action, an attitude, in which we will good things even for those who have been mean to us.[i]

It seems very nearly impossible, but remember who is here with us on this All Saints Day: all those who have gone before. They are standing around us, cheering us on, praying for us, showing us the way. In Central America, during the terrible civil wars of the 1980s, when government thugs were slaughtering villagers, assassinating priests and nuns and kidnapping the witnesses, every day was All Saints Day. The brave people of God would gather in church and call each martyr, each missing person, each saint among them by name. Presente! They would cry out as each name was called. Presente!

On this All Saints Day, at this thin time between the world as it is and the world as God would have it to be, those comrades in paradise are here to assure us how close it is, how close we are to the kingdom of God.

[i] Exegesis from Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991) pp. 105-112

Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Two Both of Thems

Today's New York Times and Brockton Enterprise contain several stories about religion:
  • a Jesuit priest in Chicago is finally arrested after years of "special" relationships with young boys. They were his helpers, doing his laundry, carrying his baggage, sleeping in his bed -- on and on. A lot of this happened even in Evanston, even during the years we lived there, when we knew the Roman Catholic Church not to be full of pedofiles and creeps but honest, faithful people trying to live out the gospel. And oh, yes, sinners, even this sinner, a prominent, learned, well-traveled man, whose reputation or standing or persuasiveness or even his very sin itself allowed people who ought to know better to overlook what he was doing. It is heartbreaking what is done in the church, in the name of the church, under the cover of the respectability of the church.
  • further erosions in our own Episcopal Church are revealed, in the story of the vote in Pittsburgh to remove the Diocese into a purer, more scriptural institution. Meeting in Johnstown, PA, best known for the devastating flood in 1889, when a poorly built dam burst. In the words of the National Park Service, "The story of the Johnstown Flood has everything to interest the modern mind: a wealthy resort, an intense storm, an unfortunate failure of a dam, the destruction of a working class city, and an inspiring relief effort." It was the first major disaster relief success led by Clara Barton and the Red Cross. It seems to me that with this vote in Johnstown, the Episcopal Church is heading for a similar disaster with everything to interest the modern mind: a wealthy institution, an intense storm brought about by ferocious conflicts over the interpretation of the Bible, the unfortunate failure of the customs, canons, common prayer and all other institutional bonds of the church to hold us together, all leading to the destruction of our multi-class, multi-interest, multi-form and moderate church. Bishop Duncan smugly explained the vote by diocesan convention to secede: “What we’re trying to do is state clearly in the United States for the authority of Scripture."
  • yet on the west coast, some people of faith, whose interpretations of scripture are diametrically opposed, seem to be getting along. Some rabbis and Jewish lay leaders have partnered with Rick Warren, of the massive Saddleback Church, and the Purpose-Driven Life, to learn how to apply the evangelistic techniques of the megachurch movement to Judaism. The Jews involved in these conversations with evangelicals belong to the more moderate "mainstream of American Jewry," the Times reported. Rick Warren's interpretation of scripture leans more toward Bishop Duncan's. "When Mr. Warren conducted his workshop for Synagogue 3000’s leaders in 2005, several participants challenged his view of homosexuality as abnormal and unbiblical. 'Every faith has its own parameters,' Mr. Warren responded, calmly and firmly, in an exchange preserved on a DVD of the session. 'You can’t believe it all.'" Does that mean then, that we can get along? That we can learn from each other? That we can agree to disagree about what God reveals? On the testy subject of conversion -- Christianity's conviction that "Jesus is the only way to God" -- "Mr. Warren told his Jewish listeners, he 'doesn’t believe in coercion' though he 'does believe in persuasion.' That seemed to placate, if not necessarily please, the group."
  • meanwhile, today's Brockton Enterprise carried an opinion piece entitled, "Young are negative about Christians." Duh, Tim said when he showed me this piece. The author, David Yount, a former board member at the College of Preachers, reviews the recent Barna Group (more California evangelicals) survey which discovered a widening disconnect between young adults and Christianity, along with Robert Wuthnow's recent book, After the Baby Boomers.
It is a curious and challenging time for the church. Being a priest in the Episcopal Church these days is like living on one of those trampoline-like nets firefighters hold out when someone jumps from a burning building. Only this net is being continually shaken by those who are holding it, and the cast of characters doing the shaking is always changing.

So how does one preach on texts like those presented to us last Sunday, the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, a text which addresses the challenge of dividing who is in God's grace from who is outside of it? What follows is an only middling sermon, yet in its middling-ness reflective of the difficulty of thinking and praying about the text, writing a sermon and then preaching it, all the while being tossed up and down in the air by an increasingly volatile group of handlers, aka, church leaders.

Proper 25 C 10-28-2007 St. Paul’s
Sirach 35:12-17 Psalm 84 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 Luke 18:9-14

The church – I’m talking about the whole church here, this church, the Episcopal Church, this diocese, all churches: the church would be better off if it were full of Pharisees. Full of people who played by the rules, who paid their way, who showed up every day full of feeling and commitment. People who read not only the Bible but all sorts of other theological texts, who subscribed to current journals of religion, who understood both sides of the issues, people who led a disciplined spiritual life, people who were generous with their giving, people who went the whole nine yards.

This is not the church we live in. Pick a church – any church: the rules are too often used as a battering ram, as power to impose one set of norms or values over other people who hold different norms or values. Spiritual practices are used as measures of superiority – look at how much better I am than you are. Our building is bigger, our outreach program is more comprehensive, more people come to hear our preacher, we are more efficient, get a better return on our investments, we avoid pitfalls, shun conflicts and everyone gets along.

That’s nice, I think. I wonder where those churches are.

Today’s gospel passage is often used to set up a false dichotomy between the smug/ picture-perfect religious person, and the humble sinner with the heart of gold. Whom does Jesus love? Why, the sinner, of course. But: WHO is the sinner in this story? Both of them. Whom then does Jesus love? Both of them. [Or “the two both of thems,” as our oldest son used to call his twin brother and sister when they were babies. Once, when he was sitting near one of them in their stroller, a woman complimented the beautiful baby. We have two, he said; do you want one?] Whom does Jesus love? Both of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Both are worthy of Jesus’ love, and both are sinners.

Now a tax collector in first century, Roman-occupied Palestine, was by definition a sinner. He was a Jew who had to collect taxes for the Romans – each person was taxed and the Romans wanted their money. They did not pay the tax collectors, so the tax collectors paid themselves by charging more than the tax; the only way they could make a living was by skimming off the top. Everyone hated them, and treated them with contempt.

But for Jesus, even the folks who do everything right can be sinners as well. Look again at the first line in the passage: “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” I think that is the key phrase: they trusted in themselves. Yes, we can do everything “right” but that does not make us better and someone else worse. Everything we have is God’s – it is God’s creation and God’s freely given gifts. It is God’s grace, God’s abundance, God’s mercy. Our blessings are not our doings. That’s what the “righteous” man didn’t get, and somehow the tax collector did. He knew he could not possibly earn God’s mercy, and knowing that, Jesus said, he was justified. He got right with God. He lined himself up on God’s wavelength. The other man, for all his good deeds didn’t get the point, that it wasn’t about him and what he did. It was about God.

When the two left the temple, they continued on with their lives: the Pharisee with his good works, the tax collector with his petty thievery. What are we to do?

The lesson is for us. The temptation is to be the Pharisee, to rely on ourselves and our good works. The invitation from Jesus is to cast all that away, to live in the reality of God’s abundant grace, sinners all. How do we open the doors of our hearts to that reality of grace? And if we did, what would the world look like?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

God is not calling us here to worship the Episcopal Church, but God is calling the Episcopal Church, an unjust judge if there ever was one . . .

I'm going to put up two sermons -- today's and last week's.

With this series of lessons from Jeremiah, I have been reading Walter Brueggemann. I have been influenced by the way he
combines serious exegesis of the text, a profound appreciation for the history of the people of Israel, and zingers for what it means for the Christian church today. They are texts of urgency -- and today, with the Episcopal Church crumbling around our ears, located, as we are in Brockton, on a corner of crumbling lives and drug deals and substandard housing, those texts of urgency scream with the timeliness of today's headlines.

Will we really take these texts seriously enough? Allow them to work in our souls and lives and hearts and minds ENOUGH to make a difference in this community? Will we, the Episcopal Church, be able to get out of the way enough to bring the light of Christ HERE?

Proper 24 C Oct. 21, 2007 St. Paul’s Jeremiah 31: 27-34

Psalm 119:97-104 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 Luke 18: 1-8

Once, when Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look! Here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

Those words come just a few verses before today’s Gospel story in Luke. Chapters 16, 17 and 18 are full of stories and pithy sayings of Jesus about the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God, Jesus is saying, is not what you expect. Every one of these stories turns the hearers’ expectations upside down. The kingdom of God, Jesus is saying, is here.

I wish this God stuff could be easy. I wish all we needed was a strapping preacher man with a nice wife and seven children, like in 7th Heaven. I wish everything could work out in the end like in Touched by an Angel. I wish, like in The Vicar of Dibley that all we needed was five cranky men on the parish council and the church would be full on Sunday without doing any work. I wish God would just take it easy, would kick back and leave us alone, would be a proper God like all those other gods, who just need a few rote sacrifices to be appeased, a god who is not much interested in how this world works but just wants us worship him, or them, by doing just what we are doing already, nothing too taxing, a god who looks like us so we can be who we are and still be in the image of God. I am afraid, however, that that kind of god is the god God rejected when God got into this covenant business with the human race. Way back, when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, and were treated badly by Pharoah, so badly that they cried out to God and God heard them, God rejected being the god of the status quo, the god of the established order, the god of business as usual, the god of why don’t you Israelites just negotiate for a better labor contract and be still. When God heard the cries of the oppressed people of Israel, God jumped in. God waded in the deep water. God began to care about how the people of Israel were treated, and not just about how they were treated, but that they should no longer be slaves, and not just that they should no longer be slaves, but that the whole world – the whole human race – was the object of God’s desire. And that God wants us – even us – to be partners with God in making this whole world become the world God created us to be.

It would be a heck of a lot easier if we didn’t have this covenant with God, if we just had rules to follow. But here God wants this relationship with us, a relationship built on that first promise to deliver the children of Egypt out of slavery. Centuries later, after lots of misbehavior and angry words, God is back at those children of Israel. Their holy city, Jerusalem, had been sacked, they’d been hauled off to Babylon in punishment, and told to put down roots in that foreign place. Now, through the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah, God comes back at them with a restatement of the covenant, a new covenant, a covenant written on the heart. Way back, when God made a covenant with the people, God left safety and security behind. God plunged in to our messy lives.

Jeremiah emphasizes three ways God wants us. First, God wanted the torah here, on the heart. God did not want the rules of the law just to apply to what to do and not to do. God just didn’t want us on the Sabbath; God wanted us every day.

Second, God wanted everyone to have access to God. God was into radical democracy; every one, from least to greatest, oldest to youngest, privileged to destitute, could know God. God wants no experts. God wants you.

Third, every one was forgiven. The past was past, sins were behind us, we would no longer be haunted by what used to be. We would be free to focus on the present, on the future, on the hope for a better world.

Jesus is right in line with this new covenant of Jeremiah. The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed. God is not the judge who has to be begged, appeased, courted – God is not the judge of business as usual, of vested interests, of the way things have always been. In today’s parable, I am afraid that we have to do the hard work. I am afraid that the judge is us. God is the persistent widow, trying to get our attention year after year, battering us, hitting us on the head, never letting up. How long will it take before we, like the judge, relent and let God in? How long before we realize that our job is not to feed the hungry, or to care for the homeless in our substandard basement, with our donated food and our spare time, but to build homes, to build lives, to build a community? That our job at St. Paul’s Table is to put ourselves out of business? To turn our hearts inside out for God, and for the people God loves? God is not calling us here to worship the Episcopal Church, but God is calling the Episcopal Church, an unjust judge if there ever was one, to give of ourselves with our whole hearts, to be the people God created us to be.

The above image of the persistent widow asks, Have we as a nation become the unjust judge to a widowed world? Read more about the global implications of this passage.

Proper 23 C 10/14/2007 St. Paul’s Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Psalm 66 2 Timothy 2:8-15 Luke 17:11-19

When I drive around a city like Brockton, or Syracuse, where I grew up, or Philadelphia, where my children go to college, I experience a profound sense of dislocation. None of these places are like they used to be. Whole industries have just picked up and moved, leaving behind the communities of people – immigrants from somewhere else -- who moved here to work in those industries. My brother, who has had a good, United Auto Workers-guaranteed job with Chrysler Corporation for many years, just moved to Indiana, in order to work the last few years he has to to keep his pension in tact. As we survey the urban, industrial landscape in America, you could describe it all as an experience of exile.

In our Old Testament lesson, we are back in the land of the exiles. Jeremiah is again preaching to the exiles in Babylon, those who have been uprooted by force, by the violence of an invading army, and transported to a foreign land, the place, as we read in last week’s psalm, Psalm 137, where the people could not conceive of finding God. But Jeremiah, the prophet who told these people that their own faithless behavior caused God to send them into exile – this same Jeremiah now comes back at them with a word of hope.

Ok, he says, there you are in that foreign city, that unrecognizable place, where you have been thrown into exile. But that is the very place where God wants you: where God wants you to settle down, to build homes and gardens, to have families and children, to live and prosper. Seek the welfare of that very city where you now live – not the city of your romantic, longed-for or nostalgic past. Seek the welfare of THIS city. Pray that God bless THIS city. For it is in the welfare of THIS city that you will find your welfare.

This is almost TOO-obvious a lesson for us, this tiny congregation in this great big building, feeding 100 hungry people a day, on a blighted corner of neglect, weeds and drug deals. The welfare of this city, of this city block even, is where we find our welfare.

The Hebrew word for welfare is shalom, a word used 397 times in the bible! It is translated into English in many ways, reflecting the complexity of how it is used in Hebrew. Shalom means peace, weal – as in “Commonweal” or “Commonwealth” – it means completeness, to cause to be at peace, to make peace, to be at rest, to be at ease, to be secure, or safe, or to prosper, to be whole, to be perfect, to be victorious. It is at the heart of the word “Jerusalem” – salem. It is the same as the Arabic word, salaam. If we move into Greek, the language of the New Testament, shalom might be understood as what Jesus meant when he said “the kingdom of God:” the time and place when the justice, mercy and love of God prevail.

To work toward that vision of God’s shalom in this place is to work toward nothing we have seen before. We’re not going to rebuild St. Paul’s Church the way it used to be, any more than the rebuilding of Brockton will recreate it the way it used to be, with shoe factories and tidy streets and stay-at-home moms. In the words of the hymn that begins, “O holy city, seen of John,” we beg, “Give us, O God, the strength to build the city that hath stood/too long a dream, whose laws are love, whose crown is servanthood,/and where the sun that shineth is God’s grace for human good.”

When the city of Jerusalem was invaded, and the leaders and people carried off in captivity to Babylon, there were some Jews who stayed behind. They lived in occupied territory, and they really lived there. Meaning they intermarried with the occupiers, and in the eyes of the exiles in Babylon, they were traitors. Since they did not suffer the pains of exile, and “collaborated” with the enemy, they were pariahs. When the Jews came back from Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem, they treated these stay-behinds no longer as kinsmen, but as enemies. They were the Samaritans. Even the passing of hundreds of years could not erase this animosity, and as late as the days of Jesus, faithful Jews could barely spit out the name, “Samaritans.” The name was short-hand for everything disreputable, bad and unclean.

What a shocking story then Jesus tells. This is not just a story about how polite people say thank you. This is a story about God’s shalom, God’s wholeness, God’s health. About who is the citizen of God’s commonwealth. The only one truly whole is the one the other nine despised, the one marked by some as unclean forever. The one forever “other” than Jesus’ own people, the people of the covenant, the people who thought they were automatically assured of God’s grace.

The peace of God, then, is, amazingly, caught up in the peace of the other. Our welfare is inextricably tied up with the welfare of complete strangers. Our wholeness is wrapped up in the wholeness of our enemies. Our health is entwined with the health of people we consider “beneath us.” Our future will look nothing like our past, and this is where we plant our garden.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Spiritual Dislocation: Loss and Hope

The lessons for Sunday - yesterday - included the last stanzas of Psalm 137, about smashing the heads of our enemies' children on rocks. Yow. That alone is an argument for the selective reading of scripture ... or is it?

Proper 22-C Oct. 7, 2007 St. Paul’s Lamentations 1:1-6
Psalm 137 2 Timothy 1:1-14 Luke 17:5-10

Our opening prayer for today lays it all out there. We ask God for some big things. We ask God to forgive us those things of which are conscience is afraid. Not even in the deepest, most private recesses of our own hearts and minds can we admit these things – our very conscience – that little voice of me conversing in secret with myself – the Jiminy Cricket of our souls – there are things in our lives that we cannot admit even there. It is these things we bring today before God and ask – audaciously – for God’s mercy and forgiveness. And then, when we are flat out there, prostrate before God, Almighty and everlasting, God always more ready to hear than we are to pray, knowing we are unworthy before this abundant and merciful God, nevertheless, we ask for more. We ask God to give us good things which we are not even worthy to receive. We’re pretty bold here, pretty audacious, pretty flat out.

How many of you, before today, have ever read to the end of Psalm 137? Most of that psalm is familiar and beloved, the subject of lyrical songs of longing, speaking of the unassailable virtue of exiles longing for home, exiles cast into some foreign place against their will. And yes, verses 1-6 do speak of that deep human longing for home, for the one and only sacred space where we can meet God. But verses 7-9: why are we reading such words in church? Words that give voice to rage, violence, vengeance, retribution? Words which talk about destroying enemies for all time by destroying even the innocent children of the people we hate?

The Bible is a complicated book. It tells the story of how we humans, at our most deeply and uncontrollably human, meet God, at God’s most deeply and uncomprehendingly divine. All of our humanity seems to be given equal weight. We are good, are we not, when we long for the home that has been taken away from us? And yet we are wicked, are we not, when we scream curses and long for the blood of innocent children? We cannot, if we understand the word “good,” give equal weight to everything we read in the Bible. We also cannot cut out the parts we don’t like.

Our two lessons from the Old Testament today come from the experience of the people of Jerusalem defeated by the Babylonians – Babylon is, you know, today called Iraq. The Jews are defeated, captured and taken into exile. They long for home. They don’t know how they can worship God apart from the Temple, from their accustomed ways of doing things. They are screaming, crying, wailing, tearing out their hair. If we were near them, we would be embarrassed by such display of emotion.

But their very own theological leaders, the prophets, like Isiaiah and Jeremiah and the author of this book of Lamentations, remind them, in no uncertain terms, that the Jews brought this trouble on themselves. They had strayed from God’s commandments, they had lived faithlessly and foolishly, and at God’s own behest the Babylonians had marched in and destroyed all that the Jews held sacred. In no uncertain terms, said the prophets speaking for God, it was time for reform, time to regroup, to get back with God.

It was hard to hear the prophets then, and it is hard now. Think back to that most destructive day in our memories: Sept. 11, 2001. We were feeling the grief, loss, shock, dislocation that the ancient people of Jerusalem felt with the destruction of their city. Many of us in our society gave voice to that same vengeance we read in Psalm 137. Years later, we are still feeling the loss, the dislocation, maybe still the grief and rage. But has the violence helped? Has the vengeance brought back one of the people lost, restored the orderliness or calm of those days gone by?

The feast day of St. Francis of Assisi was last Thursday, October 4. St. Francis was known for his gentleness with animals, and for his awareness of the beauty and goodness of God’s creation, and so we use the example of St. Francis to give thanks for and to bless those creatures of God whom we love and who love us. We remember Francis’ beautiful prayers to “brother sun and sister moon,” and how we know the goodness of God when we are close to God’s creation.

But in light of this morning’s lessons, we should pay heed to another part of Francis; life. Francis lived at the time of the crusades, in the 12th and 13th centuries. Although he had been a soldier as a young man, his deepening engagement with the Gospel, his identification with the humanity of Jesus, and his life of poverty and simplicity, drew him to try to find ways to intervene in the seemingly endless violence of war and conquest. In 1219, Francis joined one of the crusades, to the Islamic town of Damietta, Egypt, near the mouth of the Nile. Determined that that Muslims should hear the Good News of Jesus, he passed through the combat zone, and received permission to speak to the Sultan Malek-el Kamel. The sultan was not converted to Christianity, but he was converted to Francis. Deeply moved by his enthusiasm, dedication and courage, the sultan, when their cordial conversation was over, sent Francis safely back to the Christian camp.

We know how the story ended. The war continued, and still continues, centuries later. The scriptural cries for vengeance ring louder in our ears than do the pleas for peace and mercy. Would not we, if, like the disciples, we encountered Jesus say, not only, “Increase our faith!” but “Give us faith; we don’t know which way to turn.”

Occasionally there are moments, when mustard seeds can move mulberry trees, if not whole mountains. That encounter in 1219, between Francis and the sultan, between faithful Christian and faithful Muslim, is one of those moments. The sultan recognized not only Francis’ enthusiasm, but his courage, and faith, in the words of some anonymous theologian, is reason gone courageous. Faith is reason gone courageous.

No wonder Jesus told the disciples – and us – that all we need is faith as big as one of the tiniest of seeds in God’s creation. That’s all we need to do what God wants us to do, to figure out our way between loss and vengeance, grief and violence.

Walter Brueggmann offered, once again, the insights I needed to make sense of the complicated texts for today. Look at this 10-year-old essay of his, from The Christian Century, "Conversations Among Exiles."

The experience of the exile, such a fundamental, deep story in the scriptures, speaks to the experience of Christians today. With moorings gone, institutions crumbling, very little like it used to be, in our churches, our communities, perhaps even in our families. Brueggemann is eloquent about what this ancient literature of despair, longing and hope can offer us today:

"But when the church is faithful to its own past life with God, it has ways of speaking, knowing and imagining that can successfully address our cultural malaise. When it remembers its ancient miracles, has the courage to speak in its own cadences, and re-engages old seasons of hurt, the church possesses the rhetorical and testimonial antidotes to denial and despair."

The story of St. Francis wove easily into these lessons. I was particularly taken by that story of Francis conversing with the sultan, as an example of how the violent conflicts between Christians and Muslims can be halted, for even the briefest moment. And in those brief moments, we see a glimmer of a more peaceful, negotiated space between people of faith.

LAST week, it was the gospel that challenged us: the story of Lazarus and and the rich man. The challenge is reading that text without sentimentality --

Proper 21 C 9/30/2007 St. Paul’s Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Psalm 91 1 Timothy6:6-19 Luke 16:19-31

I once read that when Albert Schweitzer read this story of Lazarus and the rich man, it was the turning point of his life. He came up with his plan to work in a medical mission in Africa, and became, for all the world, an example of effective compassion.

When you hear something like that, what do you think? That it is inspiring? Or that it is impossible?

Sometimes I think that packing up and going to some far away place to help those who are desperately poor is easier than staying here in Brockton. We serve 100 or more people a DAY in St. Paul’s Table. Across the state, cities like Brockton are home to 30 percent of the Massachusetts residents who live in poverty. In Holyoke – where homeless families from Brockton are sometimes sent because that is the closest affordable housing for them – 51 percent of the people live in poverty – and do you remember New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina? Only 38 percent of those people lived in poverty then. Across America, the richest 1 percent of the people control 19 percent of the national income.

[read the Gateway Cities report, about Brockton, and 10 other former mill cities in Massachusetts.]

Is that “great chasm,” spoken of by Father Abraham, truly fixed between us, between the haves and the have-nots, for all time? Is it, as some people fear, growing?

There is one thing that Jesus does not endorse when he tells this parable: the fallacy the rich get rich and the poor get poorer, and there is nothing to be done for it on this earth. Jesus does NOT believe that the poor must wait until they rest with the angels to receive a reward. Jesus does NOT believe that the rich man is doomed and destined, because of his riches, to sear in Hades. Jesus tells this story because he believes movement is possible, just as we know it is possible for someone – for Jesus – to rise from the dead. You could say that global redistribution of wealth is about as likely to happen as someone rising from the dead – but with God, even that is possible.

These are dramatic passages from the Gospel of Luke in these last weeks of the church year – the weeks before Advent when we get ready to hear the story of God coming to earth. There is an urgency to how Luke frames the Jesus story. These stories should make us uncomfortable. It’s much easier to read these stories about the rich and the poor, about the innocent and the damned, in a way that mystifies the conflict – that takes it out of the real and implies that it is only a metaphor – that it only seems to be talking about real poverty and real wealth. But Jesus spiritualizes it: being rich and being poor is seen, in this gospel, the way God sees it. That rich man can sure beg Father Abraham to warn his wastrel brothers of the judgment to come, but none of them will get any aid or comfort from on high when their time comes.

This Gospel of Luke turns everything upside down. If we were writing this story today, the “rich man” would have a name. A famous name. A rich person’s name. A name that would roll off our tongues like honey. A name that would be frequently heard on “Access Hollywood” or frequently read on the covers of magazines.

But in the Gospel of Luke, the rich person has no name. He’s just “the rich man.” Lazarus has the name. Lazarus, who is poor and sick and hungry and lonely. It’s Lazarus who is the favored one of God, Lazarus who, dare I say it, in his poverty and weakness, carries in the most exemplary fashion the Image of God.

Now, Lazarus does not deserve to be poor. Or maybe he does. Maybe it’s even his own fault that he is poor – a life of bad choices. Maybe he was mean; maybe he was nasty. But it’s Lazarus’ cause that God takes up as God’s own. It’s Lazarus who illustrates what God means by justice.

Have you noticed that no one changes in this story? Yes, Lazarus goes to heaven, and the rich man to hell, but the gulf between the two of them is just as wide as ever. The rich man doesn’t get it, that it’s not about charity, about giving up a little of what his family has to buy his way into God’s favor. The rich man aims low; he asks for mercy, not forgiveness. He won’t get any of it; he won’t understand what God has to offer, Abraham says, even if someone rises from the dead. The rich man asks only for water, not for life.

And that’s something Jesus’ hearers didn’t know that we know. Someone did rise from the dead. Someone did turn all this order of rich and poor, of have and have-not, of privileged and cast out, all upside down.

What that means is we no longer have to play the rich man’s game, keeping some poor forever while others stay rich and isolated. We can live by God’s rules, the way Jesus did, Jesus who could not be bound by poverty and wealth, or even by the rules of death. If St. Paul’s Table is where everybody can eat lunch, well, then this St. Paul’s Table – this Table of the Lord’s Supper – is everybody is fed. This is where mercy and forgiveness flow in an unending store, where we come forward thinking all we’re asking for is a little piece of bread. But when we open our hands we find new life.