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.