Positive Presence

Sermon for Sunday, January 21, 2018 || Epiphany 3B || Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20

Each day, a thousand different choices confront us. Most are easy to navigate, and we do so without much thought. We might not even think of these as choices because we’ve made the correct choice so often that the incorrect one fades away. What do you do when you approach a stop sign? You stop, right? But there’s a hidden choice here. You could stop. You could choose to blow through the stop sign without even slowing down. Or you could perform the infamous rolling stop that got me caught twice by traffic cops when I was sixteen. Continue reading “Positive Presence”

P.E.A.C.H.

Sermon for Sunday, October 12, 2014 || Proper 23A || Matthew 22:1-14

peachToday I’d like to do something a little different. Do you remember how, in math classes, your teacher told you to “show your work” in order to get full credit for answering a question? Well, this morning, I’m going to show my work as we go through this sermon together. Rather than just give you the end product of my Bible study, my struggles and false starts, and my attempts to listen to the Holy Spirit, I thought I’d pull back the curtain and show you some of the process.

I’ve decided to do this today for two reasons. First, the passage we just read from the Gospel according to Matthew is very difficult to encounter, so taking a step back and looking at it from a higher vantage point can be beneficial. Second, I never want to fall into the trap where I set myself up as such an unassailable expert in all things spiritual that, instead of inspiring you, I keep you from thinking you have the necessary skills to do what I do. Believe me, I am not an expert. I’m just a fellow disciple, who perhaps has a bit more specialized schooling than you might.

So think about this sermon as one that is really a step or two from the normal finished product. In it, we’ll explore together one way I like to study and interpret Biblical passages. My hopes are, by the end of this sermon, we will hear a word from God about today’s Gospel reading, and we will all be just a little bit more confident the next time we sit down to read the Bible. So without further ado, let me introduce you to a favorite acronym of mine: P.E.A.C.H. PEACH will lead us through five steps toward more fruitful Bible study. I commend these steps to you whenever you sit down to study our sacred texts. PEACH stands for Prayer > Encounter > Atmosphere > Charge > Humility.

We’ll start where any endeavor should: with Prayer. You might seek out a prayer specifically about reading the Bible, or you may write one for yourself to pray whenever you sit down to read. Or you may allow a new prayer to bubble up whenever you are getting ready to pick up your Bible. Perhaps your prayer might sound something like this:

“Dear God, thank you for prompting me to read the Bible today: please help me to be surprised by the generosity of your Word, to be patient in the face of everything I still don’t understand, to be enfolded by your grace as I read, and to be courageous as I bring your love with me from these pages out into the world; In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.”

After you pray, read your passage. Read it aloud. Read it slowly. Try to have an authentic Encounter with it. Don’t allow preconceived notions about how you think you should feel about the Bible ruin this authentic encounter. If the text makes you revolted, feel revulsion. If the text makes you question, feel confusion. If the text makes you peaceful, dwell in that peace.

Today’s parable from Jesus contains so much overt hyperbole that any emotion our encounter with it evokes will most likely be a strong version of that emotion. The parable begins innocently enough. We have a king, a sumptuous wedding banquet for the prince, and guests who decide they have better things to do. So far this sounds like several other parables Jesus tells. But then everything goes haywire. The realism of the story disintegrates when the would-be guests kill the invitation deliverers. And then when the king burns down their city. And then when the host throws the improperly dressed fellow not back out into the street but into “the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

I don’t know about you, but so far my authentic encounter with this story leans me toward discomfort, if not all out revulsion. It’s entirely possible that such a response is exactly what Jesus is going for. To look further into that, we turn to the next letter in PEACH. “A” is for Atmosphere.

The atmosphere of a reading is everything around it that helps it breath. This can mean a lot of different things where Bible study is concerned, but for our purposes, let’s say the atmosphere surrounding our reading is everything that happens within a couple of chapters of it in the Gospel. Backing up, we witness Jesus ride in humble triumph into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. That means we are at the beginning of Jesus’ final week. We know what’s right around the corner, and by all accounts, so does Jesus. Jesus gets off the donkey, walks into the temple, overturns the tables of the moneychangers, and drives out all the sellers of sacrificial animals. This disruptive action probably seals his fate.

Jesus returns to the temple the next day, where the chief priests, Pharisees, and many others question him. He tells three consecutive parables, all having to do with inviting a new and unlikely set of people into the kingdom of heaven. The first parable (which we read two weeks ago) speaks of two sons, on who did the will of his father and one who didn’t. The second (which we read last week) speaks of wicked tenants who kill the son of the vineyard keeper. By this time, Jesus’ opponents realize he’s talking about them. But he’s not done. Now Jesus tells today’s parable, and the violence ratchets up again. With each story, Jesus gets more explicit and more graphic. After a few more verbal skirmishes, Jesus stops speaking in parables entirely and denounces the scribes and Pharisees openly. If chasing people out of the temple didn’t sign his death warrant, this indictment surely does.

The important thing to glean from our look at the atmosphere of our story is the constant ratcheting up of tension within Jesus’ parables. With each successive story, he makes his point more graphically so that no one mistakes his meaning – that those chosen to represent God among the people had failed in their duty and that God was welcoming all to become God’s representatives.

And this is where we find the “C” of PEACH. This is where we hear our Charge from God, the word God puts on our hearts during many prayerful, authentic encounters with scripture. In today’s passage, our charge comes when the king sends his messengers out to invite everyone they find in the street to attend the wedding. Everyone becomes a guest, no matter what. We hear our charge in this good news. Everyone is capable of being a guest at the heavenly banquet. Therefore, God invites us to treat all people – regardless of any reason we might have not to associate with them – as guests at God’s table, as people who bear the image and likeness of God in their souls. The more we treat each other as God’s honored guests, the more generosity, hospitality, and gratitude we will show one another. And not just each other, but everyone, for the wedding hall is filled with guests.

But this charge, which invites us to be radically welcoming, runs up against our last letter in PEACH. “H” is for Humility. The prayerful, authentic encounter with scripture often leads to unanswered questions and causes for further study somewhere down the road. The humble response when this happens is simply, “I don’t know.” Such is the case with me and the very strange paragraph about the fellow who doesn’t have a wedding robe. I confess I don’t know what to do with those few sentences. I have no answers, just questions, and so I strive to remain humble in the face of these cryptic words of Jesus, to admit I’m not in a place to hear them instead of throwing them out or explaining them away.

So there you have it. I invite you to try this process when you read the Bible. For fruitful study, try PEACH: Prayer, Encounter, Atmosphere, Charge, Humility. Without going through these steps this week, I would still be stuck in the discomfort of the passage and I would not have heard my charge, which I now share again with you. Everyone is a guest at God’s table. Far be it for us to bar the way. Instead, why don’t we go out “into the main streets and invite everyone we find there to the wedding banquet.”

Someone Else Syndrome

Sermon for Sunday, September 21, 2014 || Proper 20A || Matthew 20:1-16

SomeoneElseSyndromeMy twins are not quite two months old, and yet I wonder when they will first look at the other and feel jealous. It might be my imagination, but I swear I’ve seen a barely perceptible glint in my daughter’s eye while she’s rocking away in the mechanical swing and I’m holding her brother – a barely perceptible glint of envy. Her eyes haven’t settled on a color yet, but I would swear in those few moments that they were green.

I can’t imagine there is conscious thought about it, but some instinct of survival tells her that her brother is getting something that she’s not getting, that he’s privy to a better bargain than she, while he’s in my arms and she’s in the swing. They aren’t quite two months old, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a primitive, pre-cognitive jealously rear its ugly head.

Of course, in a year or two, full-fledged active jealousy will come along. She will be playing with a toy and he will decide that toy is far more interesting than the one he is playing with. The green glint will flash across his eye; he’ll push his sister down and take her toy. At that point, he won’t be able yet to distinguish the horrible emotion he felt in that moment of envy, but he’ll feel it nonetheless.

Fast-forward a few more years, and the first day of middle school will come. They will step into school and immediately they will be bombarded by an overwhelming array of new and different ways to compare themselves to others, new and different ways to feel less than those around them, new and different ways to be envious. Someone will be wearing the sneakers he wanted to get, but – wretched parents that we are – we won’t want to spend the money because he’ll just grow out of them next month anyway. Someone will be wearing her hair the way she wanted to get it cut, but (darn it) if her hair just wouldn’t style that way. Too curly, the hairdresser will say.

I see these opportunities for jealousy in my children, and I also see the ancient nature of jealousy in our sacred texts. The first murder in the Bible happens because of Cain’s jealousy of his brother Abel’s sacrifice. Later, Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery because they are jealous of his status as their father’s favored son.

Jealously is one of those primal emotions that shows up in our earliest texts and lurks within each of us from an early age. Think back – when was the first time you remember feeling jealous? Someone else had the new Barbie doll. Someone else got picked for the team ahead of you. Someone else had a fruit rollup at lunch and all you had was a lousy vanilla pudding.

It’s this notion of “Someone Else” I want to focus on for the next few minutes. I’d venture to say that a goodly portion of the world’s problems has come about because of “Someone Else Syndrome.” This syndrome attacks on a global scale. Poverty, hunger, access to basic medical care and clean water – they all have their roots in the jealous guarding of resources. After all, there is enough food in the world to feed everyone. And yet some have too much and some have none at all. The Someone Else Syndrome attacks on a personal level, as well. Infidelity, covetousness – even bullying – have their roots in our incessant primal need to compare ourselves to others.

The Someone Else Syndrome is so prevalent in society, now and in Jesus’ time, that he addressed it in one of his parables, the one we read today about the landowner who invites workers into his vineyard. At the beginning of the story the landowner negotiates the appropriate daily wage with those who start out early in the morning. He hires more throughout the day, and the last enters the vineyard with not more than an hour left to work.

Up to this point, none of the workers has experienced Someone Else Syndrome yet, but it attacks with the first disbursement of wages. The latecomers receive the full daily wage, which prompts the original workers to expect quite a bit more. They compare themselves to the latecomers: “We worked twelve hours in the heat, while they only worked one. Could we possibly get nearly two weeks worth of wages for one day of work?”

But they are disappointed. They get to the front of the line and receive the same as everyone else. Now, if none of the workers were privy to the pay scale of the others, would the original workers have been jealous? Of course not! They would have received what they were promised and gone about their merry way. The simple fact that they compare themselves – and unfavorably so – to others makes them think they got a raw deal. The Someone Else Syndrome strikes, and jealously blazes up within them.

This Someone Else Syndrome strikes us, as well, all the time. Some of you might have been afflicted by it at breakfast this morning when your spouse nabbed the last of the orange juice. Or when you got to church and someone else was in your pew. I’m sad to say that each of us has a terminal case of Someone Else Syndrome. There is no known cure. But there is a treatment. The treatment involves dedication in prayer, practice of selflessness, and cultivation of the antidote for jealousy.

That antidote is generosity. Generosity comes in two forms. First, generosity flows from us when we share freely out of our abundance, when we don’t let our relentless comparisons to others trick us into thinking our resources are scarcer than they really are. Second, generosity compels us to desire good things for other people, independent of whether we get them, too.

The Someone Else Syndrome makes us think in zero-sum terms; that is, because someone else has something, we can’t have it, and therefore we must feel envious. But the generosity treatment exposes the lie of zero-sum thinking. A generous heart rejoices in the blessings others have received, and this joy leaves no room for jealously to strike. Someone else had the new Barbie doll; well, I’m glad to see her so happy. Someone else got picked for the team ahead of you; well, he was having a bad morning and that just made his day. Someone else had a fruit rollup at lunch and all you had was a lousy vanilla pudding; well, I’m not sure what to say about that one. It seems my generosity treatment is still in the early stages.

But you get the idea. Generosity flips the Someone Else Syndrome on its head. We are all connected to one another, so when one person is blessed, we all are. When we practice generosity, even as the Someone Else Syndrome tells us to be jealous, we access the source of all blessing. We access the love of God, which is the very thing that connects us to the Someone Else we’re supposed to be jealous of. The more we practice generosity, the closer God will draw us to all the Someone Elses in our lives. And the more joy we will share together, in community, in friendship.

So this week, I invite you to start actively combating the Someone Else Syndrome we’ve all had since childhood. Ask God for the strength to practice generosity, to rejoice at the fortunes of others, to share the joy of their triumphs and then to bear with them the pain of their defeats. Don’t let the Someone Else Syndrome cut you off from one of the greatest gifts God has given each of us, but which we fail to receive so much of the time. This gift is the joy made manifest by God’s love connecting each of us, one to the other. This gift is the capacity to rejoice no matter who is the object of good fortune. This gift is a heart overflowing with generosity.

The Gospel’s Only Thanks-Giver (Besides Jesus)

(Sermon for Sunday, October 13, 2013 || Proper 23C || Luke 17:11-19)

Sometimes when I sit down to study a passage of the Gospel such as today’s, I wonder what Luke chose not to include in his text. After all, we don’t have a minute-by-minute account of Jesus’ life. The Gospel writers weren’t following behind Jesus taking dictation. Decades after the events of the Gospel, they collected material – certainly more than they ended up using – and put together their accounts. In those accounts, the writers bounce around, crafting their narratives with stories and themes and progressions that make the most sense to their various audiences. Asking “What did Luke leave out” prompts another set of questions: “Why did Luke put this in? What about this specific story makes it special enough to include in something as important as the greatest story ever told?

CodexAureusThese questions surfaced for me this week when I read today’s Gospel lesson. At face value, this story is quite simple. Ten diseased outcasts petition Jesus for mercy, he heals them, and one returns to say, “Thank you.” Seems like a pretty ordinary healing story, doesn’t it? Boilerplate, even. (Well, as ordinary as a miracle can get.) So why would Luke choose to include another healing story? He healed someone with a skin disease way back in Chapter Five, not to mention plenty of people with plenty of other maladies in between.

So what makes this story special? In such a short piece of writing as the Gospel, why this narrative? Turns out there is something extra special in this story, but it’s hidden. There’s one element in the story – the last element I mentioned earlier, the “Thank you” from the Samaritan – that pushes today’s lesson into the extraordinary. I did a quick survey of the rest of the Gospel – all four accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) – and this Samaritan is the only person Jesus heals who then says “Thank you” to him. This hidden thanksgiving makes this story special. We remember this Samaritan ex-leper because he said “thank you” to Jesus.

Giving thanks is fundamental to our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. Each week, when we gather to worship God, we engage in the special event known as the Holy Eucharist. This strange word comprehends both our hearing of God’s Word of Holy Scripture and our sharing God’s meal of Holy Communion. Do you know what this strange word – Eucharist – means in its original language of Greek? It means “thanksgiving.”

So each and every Sunday we gather here to give thanks to God for all the blessings God has given us. We do this not to relegate the act of thanksgiving to an hour on Sunday morning, but so that we begin each week with the right frame of mind and heart: a mind aware of blessing and a heart inclined toward gratitude. Giving thanks here on Sunday morning propels us along a trajectory in which we continue thanking God over the course of the week.

With that being said, why engage in the act of thanksgiving in the first place? Right off the bat, giving thanks makes us more generous people. Generosity blossoms in an environment where fear of scarcity holds no sway. Earlier in the Gospel, Jesus and his disciples are looking out over a sea of hungry faces. There’s more than five thousand of them, and they haven’t eaten all day. Jesus and his friends have nothing more than one family’s lunch – five loaves of bread and two fish – but he tells them to feed the crowd anyway. Their supplies are laughably meager, and yet Jesus takes the bread and gives thanks to God for it. And somehow all the people in the crowd eat their fill. In the act of giving thanks, Jesus dismisses the fear of scarcity. When we give thanks to God – in times of scarcity and in times of abundance – we move away from fear and toward generosity. The more generous we are, the more apt we are to rely on God’s grace, which continues moving us away from fear. With this movement, a virtuous cycle develops, and the act of giving thanks starts making generosity a defining characteristic of our identities.

And yet giving thanks does so much more. God is always present in our lives, but we are not always present to God. Giving thanks offers us an opportunity to participate and deepen our relationships with God. When we are simply glad, our gladness has no target. We say we are glad about something, but not that we are glad to something. Not so with gratitude. When we are grateful, we can say we are grateful about something and grateful to someone. The Samaritan man in today’s Gospel lesson returns to Jesus to express his gratitude, to give thanks. The other nine are presumably glad they were healed, but they do not show their gratitude. By returning to Jesus, the Samaritan signals his desire to remain in relationship with Jesus, who blesses him again saying, “Your faith has made you well.” When we give thanks to God, we show our gratitude to our creator, who in turn blesses us with deeper relationship.

And yet giving thanks does even more. When Jesus sat at table with his friends on the night before died, he took bread, and gave thanks to God for them and for the time they were sharing together. He implored them not to forget him, and he gave them his presence in the bread, which he called his body. Then he shared the bread with them, and ever since his followers have been doing the same. Thus the act of giving thanks – especially in the meal we will share together in a few minutes – gets us outside ourselves and wards off the illusion of self-sufficiency. We give thanks together. We share Christ’s presence as a community. Giving thanks, then, makes the community stronger.

Because Jesus calls us to give thanks as a community, we can find one more reason (among the thousands we don’t have time to discuss) to engage in thanksgiving. Giving thanks propels us to use our gifts. The best way to give thanks to God for a gift God has given is to use it for God’s greater glory. I can thank God for my singing voice by saying, “Thank you God for the gift of music.” Or I can sing. When we serve one another and the world by using our gifts, then we have truly thanked God for them.

Giving thanks is fundamental to our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. We remember the Samaritan man today precisely because he did what no one else in the entire Gospel does. He returns to thank the one who healed him. I wonder what you are thankful for today? I wonder when was the last time you felt generous or when you felt your relationship with God deepen or when you shared in a community or when you used a gift? I invite you this week to reflect on how natural it is for you to give thanks to God throughout your day. If you find it uncommon, pray for more awareness and generosity. If you find it common, give more thanks for that joyful conclusion. No matter what, know that whenever you find yourself in a position to give thanks to God, God is giving thanks for you.

Sermon Reconstruction: Abundance and Generosity

For this past Sunday, I chose to deviate from my normal sermon preparation (sit in my chair writing and polishing until the full text is presentable) in favor of an extemporaneous style which I do once or twice a year. This less common style is the one I grew up listening to, as my father* (who was on the radio before becoming a priest) is very good at holding an entire sermon in his head and stringing his thoughts together with nary an “um” to be heard. While my father and I share a lot in common, preaching style is not one of them. I’m a writer through and through.

So it came time to preach on Sunday. I had a few notes written down. I preached. I recorded it through the church’s sound system. I was about to post the recording, and then noticed my digital recorder’s battery had run down. Long story less long — what follows is a short reconstruction of the thoughts in the sermon. It’s not exactly what I said, but here goes. (Check out Luke 12:13-21 before reading on.)

Jesus often talks about priorities, specifically about reorienting our priorities so they line up better with the order God yearns for us to adopt. For us today, the two priorities that need lining up are possessions and relationships. So, show of hands: who think Jesus would put our possessions above our relationships.

(No one raised his or her hand here. I went to sit down, saying that I guess I didn’t need to finish the sermon. A bit of laughter. Then I continued.)

Right. For Jesus, relationships always trump possessions. In today’s Gospel reading he says: “For your life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” But have you ever stopped to wonder why relationships are more important than possessions?

That's my guitar at a concert back in 2008.
That’s my guitar at a concert back in 2008.

The answer starts with how relationships and possessions differ. We possess our material goods. We own them. We paid for them or they were given to us. My most prized possession is my 2006 Taylor 410e Fall Limited Edition acoustic guitar, which was a present for my ordination to the priesthood from my home parish. It is a beautiful instrument and it makes a beautiful sound. It also makes me want to write songs as often as possible, which was not the case with my previous guitar.

So if for some reason I had to give up my guitar, would I be able to do it? If the answer is “no,” then I cease possessing my guitar and the instrument begins possessing me. The moment I can’t let it go is the moment I cede my sovereignty to the object. I become its vassal. It becomes my idol.

Our possessions have an uncanny ability to lead us down this life-denying path. Just think: when you were three years old, were you able to let the other kid play with your firetruck? I didn’t think so.

But possessions differ from relationships because other people cannot be possessed. The history of the United States is tarnished by the evil of trying to possess other people, and the legacy of slavery still reaches its cancerous tendrils into modern society. While one set of people thought of another as property, I can’t imagine that those subjected to the dehumanizing nature of slavery ever thought of themselves as possessions. People can’t be possessed, and when we try, evil is the result.

Since we cannot possess others in the same way we can possess objects, our relationships teach us how best to prioritize our material possessions. A relationship flourishes precisely when we aren’t trying to possess it; therefore, sustaining life-giving relationships helps us practice the kind of emotional letting go that we aren’t good at where our material goods are concerned.

Each of us is blessed with an abundance of possessions, but abundance becomes a blessing when we pair it with generosity. Generosity turns our possessions into the resources which fuel new relationships. As we give away the things that we might otherwise bow down to, we come into contact with the recipient of those things and discover the opportunity to form a new relationship.

Thus generosity catalyzes a virtuous cycle: generosity spurs new relationships. Generosity in relationship helps it flourish. This flourishing teaches us to be generous with our possessions and turn them into new relationships.

When we prioritize possessions over relationships, we become lonely misers like the foolish man in the parable. His foolishness is not that he’s wealthy. It’s that he desires to share his wealth with no one else. God blesses us with abundance, but God also blesses us with the ability to turn abundance into blessing when we pair it with generosity. So what does a life full of God consist of? Not the abundance of possessions, but the generosity of relationship.

* You can hear my father, The Rev. Dr. William Carl Thomas preach at balconyperspective.com.