Sunday, October 24, 2010

Pharisee + Publican R Us

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

Where you SIT determines where you STAND.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Pray always. Do not lose heart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Taking our mustard seeds with us

Proper 22 C October 3, 2010
Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 137
2 Timothy 1:1-14 ; Luke 17:5-10

We all know some smug Christians. You know, those, “I have faith – and it’s a heck of a lot bigger than a mustard seed!” They imply to us, “What’s wrong with you?” They love passages like this one from the Gospel of Luke, this extolling of a muscular and over-the-top discipleship.

Doesn’t it just wear you out sometimes? Especially at those times when things are not going as you hoped, or expected? Is the opposite of faith, as these folks define it, really doubt, or weakness? Or is the opposite of faith certainty? Think of using this line, when you meet someone who seems to have it spiritually all together:Certainty is the belief that I’m smarter today than I will be tomorrow.

Oh, is it really? Are you really so sure that nothing new will come your way, that you will learn nothing, be in no way tested by the course of events, find no new and startling joy or unexpected delight that will turn your world upside down? Is there really nothing left to learn?

The people of Israel, dragged into a hated exile in Babylon certainly did not feel certainty – unless it was certainty that they were miserable. Sitting by those strange waters in a place that looked nothing like home, they started to look inward. Shaken to the core, they would rage at their enemies – even to the point of wanting to kill their enemies’ children, because, after all, where was this God who said would always be with them? This God who led them to the Promised Land – only to take them out of it again? Sitting by those strange waters, the people of Israel began to re-think what it meant to be the people of God, began to see that it had less to do with that place Jerusalem – that external, objective reality – and that it had more to do with that place in their hearts. The people of God began to realize they were not defined by something out there, some set of buildings or a set of religious rituals; the people of God began to realize that being the people of God started here, in the heart of each person. God’s promises of compassion and mercy were not somewhere out there, but here, in the heart of each of us. And because they were here, in the heart of each of us, they were no longer exclusive to “our kind of people” or “our place” or even “our temple.” Thrown into exile, the people of Israel began to think about themselves, and to pray to God, in a new way.

Paul must have written this letter when his friend, Timothy, was experiencing some kind of despair. Paul seems to be needing to encourage him, prop him up. Listen to this again:

Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.

For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

As we start to think about what it will mean to worship God in another building, perhaps with another community of faith, let’s think about who in this community play the role of Lois or Eunice in our lives. Who are the leaders who instilled in us a sense of God, a sense of community, a sense of hope? Who do we think of, when we need to be reminded of the great continuity of our mothers and fathers in the faith? Whose faith, which we first encountered here, in this place, now lives in us?

And as we do that, keep in mind that what appears to be as small as a mustard seed to some, is, to those of us who have eyes to see, as big and powerful and long-lasting as the mightiest of trees.

Monday, October 4, 2010

God invests in us

Proper 21-C September 26, 2010
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16;
1 Timothy 6:6-19 ; Luke 16:19-31

Today’s lessons would, on the surface, to seem to have nothing to do with us.

The prophet Jeremiah, whom we have been reading for some weeks – Jeremiah, the prophet who is speaking for God, telling the people of Israel why they are about to be invaded, their temple destroyed and their families moved into exile – Jeremiah now is talking about buying land – in Jerusalem! As the invaders approach! As the Temple is destroyed! In the face of the end of life as they knew it, Jeremiah buys property. Jeremiah invests in the future – in a land that will not belong to the people of Israel for a very long time. Jeremiah buys a stake in the future – a very far off future, to be sure, but a stake nonetheless. Jeremiah buys a stake in God’s future: the people of Israel will be restored to their home. Not now, perhaps, but some day.

The reading from Timothy, and the gospel parable from Luke, are admonitions against the rich: the merciless, wealthy man is sent to Hades, to suffer torment, because he did not share his abundance with the poor man, Lazarus, who after death rests with the blessed Abraham in heaven. In the words of a parable, “a great chasm has been fixed” between the poor and the wealthy, and it is clear what side of that chasm God wants us to be on. Timothy, too, hammers the point home: if we are trapped by our desire for riches, riches and more riches there will be no room in our lives for God. What does Timothy tell us to do?

… to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for [our]selves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that [we] may take hold of the life that really is life.

Why do these lessons seem to have little to do with us? We have just heard the news that our church will close – because we aren’t wealthy enough to keep it going. So, we know the opposite side of these lessons first hand: we are about to go into exile ourselves, like the people of Israel; and we know all too well the life of Lazarus. We know of that “great chasm” between the wealthy and the poor, and we know what side of that chasm we are on.

There are plenty of religious groups who base their faith on optimism. Everything is getting better and better all the time. For some of these people, life is always Easter. You get richer? It’s a sign of God’s blessings. You get poorer? Well, you’d just better work harder and see what God can do for you. I wonder, sometimes, when the tsunami of life hits people in those churches, what they would do? If God is always about sunshine, can they see God in the shadows? If God is always about growth and increase and building, can they see God when things are falling down around them?

Like Jeremiah, I KNOW that God is in a place like St. Paul’s Church. I KNOW that God stands with a family whose house is being foreclosed and taken away from them. I KNOW that God eats lunch at the Table. Like Jeremiah, I KNOW that God invests in the future and that God is with us, here and wherever we go, for the long haul.

St. Paul’s has been a church of remarkable generosity. St. Paul’s has been a church of sincere good works. St. Paul’s has been a church always ready to share.

Like Jeremiah buying that plot of land, God has invested in you. You are the deed that will last a long time, and in your very selves you embody the promise that God will always be here.

Picture Jeremiah, standing in a field which is surrounded by land no longer owned by the people of Israel. He has staked out this little plot in a world now taken over by strangers. In the midst of something that should seem desolate, Jeremiah – and God – have grabbed hold. They have faith, so why shouldn’t we, that even when so much changes here, when other people are in charge, that this very ground on which we stand belongs now and always to God.

We have been entrusted with this plot of land for some time, and now it may pass to someone else. We have been entrusted with a piece of God’s mission for some time, as well, and have faithfully fulfilled that mission with grace, generosity and compassion. We have welcomed the stranger and fed the hungry. God has invested in us, and we, who have been shaped by the work of this place will carry that mission with us wherever we go.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Is there no balm in Gilead?

Proper 20 C September 19, 2010
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Psalm 79:1-9
1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

In the Broadway musical, “Fiddler on the Roof,” the people of the little Jewish village in Russia pray, “God bless and keep the Czar … far away from us!”That very same sentiment is found in our second reading, from Timothy: pray for those kings, rulers, magistrates, police officers, immigration agents, and even bishops (!) – “all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life” – far away from us!

As much as we might want that, especially in church, especially in a place we hold sacred, and on Sunday morning – a time we hold sacred – as much as we might yearn for that quiet and peaceable life, the Word of God is not the thing that will bring it to us. More often than not, the Word of God de-stabilizes us, upsets us, dismantles our expectations, forces us to change our course, give up the things we thought we so important. Let us hope there is some balm in Gilead – a far-off place – because there is nothing here, Jeremiah says. No comfort left in Jerusalem, where the people have gotten so focused on their worship in the temple, that they have not noticed that God is no longer there.

This passage from Jeremiah is a tough one to hear, because it just seems so hopeless. Isn’t God supposed to help us? To give us pleasant words to comfort and uphold us, especially on Sunday mornings?

A little context about the passage: the people of Israel center their worship of God in the Temple in Jerusalem. They say prayers and perform liturgies that have been passed down to them for generations. They expect that when they pray, “God help us,” God will show up. After all, they use the right words, wear the right clothes, make the right sacrifices. On top of that, they are used to God’s good graces showing up on schedule; it’s the end of summer – where’s the harvest? The sure sign of God’s blessings?

But things are not going so well for the people of Israel. Their temple is about to be destroyed, taken over by foreigners, and they are to be sent away, into exile, in some far-off place. They cannot imagine why this is happening to them. That is where Jeremiah comes in.

Jeremiah speaks for God. He speaks words of anger, grief, love, longing – Jeremiah speaks the great pathos of God. More than anything else, God wants these people he has created to be in relationship with him. And God’s heart is just broken when they continue to turn away. God wants them. God doesn’t want them just to go into the temple and perform rituals. God wants faithfulness. God wants that old relationship he set up with the people at the beginning. God wants the world to be a loving place. God wants the poor to be taken care of, the strangers welcomed, the neighborhoods safe. God knows there is enough of everything to go around – it IS God’s creation after all, so share it! God doesn’t really care that much about the temple, and all its fancy stuff. It just gets in the way. God wants them. The people. His people. God wants us.

God is heartsick that the people aren’t getting it, and he is heart-sick that they are suffering. There is no help for their dis-ease there in Jerusalem, in the temple, in the establishment. Maybe in Gilead, maybe far away. But not here.

That is what that passage is about. We’re reading these bits from Jeremiah this fall, and eventually we’ll get to the end, eventually we’ll get to see how Jeremiah helps the people of Israel put their lives and their faith back together after they have been shattered and destroyed and told they have to leave their home. Eventually, but not today.

Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the most sacred day in the Jewish religion. It is the Day of Atonement, coming some days after the celebration of the New Year. During those days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Jews think and pray and remember how they have not been right with God, or right with their neighbors. On Yom Kippur they read the difficult biblical stories of judgment, like the story of Jonah, who had to sit in the belly of a whale before he could begin to understand what God wanted him to do.

On Yom Kippur, Jews also remember the exile, that defining event that Jeremiah wrote about. That experience of always being far from home, of yearning for comfort and security, of depending on the kindness of strangers, of not being able to walk on one’s own streets or to plant one’s own garden – that experience of exile and displacement is part of how the Jews understand who they are. But even in exile – and this is the core message of Jeremiah – God was with them. A modern writer put it this way:

It is said that when the Jews went into exile, the Shekinah, the divine presence, went into exile, too – hovering over us, around us wherever we were, waiting for us to invite the sacred into our lives.[i]

There is nothing more that God wants than that. God wants us. God wants this world that God has created to shine once again with God’s glory and abundance. The temple in Jersualem did it for a while, but then it didn’t. It stopped being the place where God met the people. It actually started to get in the way between God and the people. It was great for a while, but then its purpose came to an end. It had to go, and the people had to move away. They left their shell of a building behind, and maybe they didn’t understand this at the time, God went with them, too, and waited there, ever patient, ever welcoming, with arms stretched wide.

[i] Sam Kestenbaum. “Yom Kippur at Sea” (New York Times, September 18, 2010, p. A19)