Sermon for Sunday, May 14, 2017 || Easter 5A || Acts 7:55-60
Growing up, I was not the stereotypical rebellious preacher’s kid. I never stole my parents’ car. I never had a fake I.D. I never smoked or did drugs or partied. I was actually a pretty boring teenager. Even so, I committed my fair share of infractions against my parents’ rulebook. No matter the infraction, big or small, my parents never grounded me. They never took away privileges. They certainly never whipped me. They didn’t need to. They had a much more effective punishment at their disposal. They would sit me down for a Talk, look me in the eye, and say, “Adam, we love you. And we are very disappointed in your behavior.”
Sermon for Sunday, February 28, 2016 || Lent 3C || Luke 13:1-9
This is a sermon about grace. I’ve been wanting to share with you my definition of grace for a while now, but the time didn’t seem right. Then after spending time with Megan Palmer’s family two weeks ago, preparing for and leading Megan’s service last weekend, and having the stomach flu most of this past week, the time to talk about grace has finally come. Maybe I was waiting for a moment when I was sure I had recently experienced it. But before we talk about grace, I need to tell you about my dad’s sense of humor.
Growing up, my favorite movie was Return of the Jedi. I watched it about once a week, except for the year I was six when I watched it once a day. VCRs were still relatively recent inventions, and none of us realized you could wear out a VHS tape until I wore out Return of the Jedi. Whenever I finished watching the movie and the iconic John Williams score started blasting throughout our house, my father would turn up in the living room doorway and ask, in all seriousness, “Did the rebels win this time?”
Whenever my sister or I got hooked on a particular movie, this same joke would resurface, notably in the late 90s. “Did the Titanic sink this time?” And after I got my Lord of the Rings Special Edition DVDs: “Was the ring destroyed this time?” Now when it comes to senses of humor, mine is a chip off the old block, for better and worse. And so when my kids start watching the same movie over and over again, I will never in a million years be able to resist the urge to ask: “Did they find Nemo this time?”
I tell you all this because, believe it or not, it impacts the way I interpret today’s Gospel lesson. You see, I think the Gospel writer Luke and my dad share this bit humor. Luke narrates Jesus telling this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ The gardener replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Do you get the joke yet? It’s pretty subtle (and not exactly haha funny), and maybe you had to grow up with a dad like mine to see it. The joke is this: that fig tree is never getting cut down. Luke preserved it in his Gospel. Luke knew this great story he was writing would be shared and he hoped it would be shared until the sun stopped putting forth its light. Every time someone read this parable, the fig tree got another chance. Luke wrote these words down about 1,936 years ago, which is 1,935 more years than that fig tree had to produce. And the fig tree is still standing. Every time we read it, there is the tree still standing. Yes, the rebels win at the end of Return of the Jedi – every time – because that’s how movies work. And yes, the fig tree is still standing because that gardener is taking care of it and always will. I told you this is a sermon about grace. Do you see it yet? We’re getting there.
Now you might quibble here and say Luke’s joke doesn’t work because, even though the fig tree is never going to be cut down, it’s also never going to bear fruit. It’s stuck in this in-between time, a time of potential but no results. Yes, this is true, and we’ll get back to that in a minute.
But first, one more word about why I think Luke is playing with his readers here. Matthew, Mark, and Luke share a lot in common, so much in fact that we often refer to them as the “synoptic” Gospels. “Synoptic” means “with the same eyes.” But Luke’s version is the only one with this parable about the fig tree. There’s a fig tree in Matthew and Mark, which Luke does not include, and their fig tree fares much worse. In Matthew and Mark, the fig tree withers and dies when Jesus gets a bit petulant that it doesn’t have any figs on it. But Luke doesn’t share that story. Luke shares this one, the one about the fig tree that always has another chance to bear fruit whenever the story is read.
The key words here are “another chance.” That’s grace. “If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” Next year. Another chance. We read the parable again. Next year. Another chance. That’s grace.
Growing up, I always heard my dad define the concept of grace together with the concepts of justice and mercy, as a way to distinguish between them. His version went like this: “Justice is getting what you deserve. Mercy is not getting what you deserve. Grace is getting what you don’t deserve.” I’ve always loved that, and these definitions have guided me my whole life. But recently, I’ve added this: “Justice is having a chance. Mercy is having a second chance, or a third, or a fourth. Grace is not having your chances numbered.”
Grace is not having your chances numbered. Grace is being the fig tree that will always have the gardener tending to it, no matter how long it takes to bear fruit. Grace keeps us moving ever on, especially when we are stuck in the in-between time, the time of potential but no results. Grace gives us another breath when grief has knocked the wind from us. Grace gives us another chance when disillusionment or apathy sap our will to seek for justice and peace. Grace gives us another bit of rope when we think we’ve come to the end of ours.
Grace is the sublime consequence of a God who will never give up on us. That’s pretty good news, right? And yet, while God will never give up on us, we still have every opportunity to give up on God. Our chances are not numbered except by how many we are willing to take, by how often we are willing to trust God to be with us, come what may. That’s God’s promise to Moses in today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, by the way. “I will be with you,” says God. No matter how often you fail, no matter how many chances you need, I will be with you. That’s grace.
It’s true that our chances are only numbered by how many we are willing to take. It’s also true that another chance is always shimmering on the horizon of possibility. And so grace beckons us to take more chances, to lead more expansive lives, to trust more deeply in the God who will never give up on us. And to bring that God to people who have never even been given one chance, who have never experienced the blessing of justice, let alone mercy or grace.
Yes, the rebels win at the end of Return of the Jedi. Every time. Yes, the Titanic sinks. Yes, the ring is destroyed. Yes, they find Nemo. Yes, the fig tree still stands. And yes, grace abounds in limitless chances to trust in a God who never gives up.
Sermon for Sunday, February 1, 2015 || Epiphany 4B || Mark 1:21-28
Over the last month we have been considering our walks as followers of Jesus Christ. God affirms us as God’s good and beloved children. God invites us to the center of our own brokenness, where we seek the missions God yearns for us to pursue. We trudge with Jesus to the cross and find those missions where the two planks meet, at the intersection of the world’s need and our passions. So what happens when we engage those missions on a personal level? What happens when we join together to accomplish those missions on a larger scale? What happens when we partner with God to bring God’s healing and reconciliation to this world? The answer is our fourth word. The answer is Confrontation. The world fights back. Those who profit from the status quo fight back. The spiritual uncleanness that festers in the dank recesses of everyone’s heart fights back.
Here’s a recent example from a part of the world most of my generation participates in: video games. (Before you scoff it off as kids’ stuff, know that in the United States, the video game industry now pulls in more revenue than the film industry.) In the last six months, many brave women have started speaking out about the truly disgusting way women are sexualized (and sometimes brutalized) in video games, as well as about the utter lack of women working in the Tech industry in general. While there has been good positive reaction to this burgeoning discussion, the bulk of the reaction that has been grabbing headlines is negative. Grossly negative. Horribly negative. A subgroup of truly vicious male gamers has taken upon itself to lash out at these women in the most demeaning and degrading ways: death threats, rape threats, constant harassment, hounding on social media with language that makes me sick to my stomach, and even disclosure online of the women’s home addresses and telephone numbers to make them fear for their safety. These brave women, and their many male allies, have a mission: to alter an industry badly in need of change, to make it safer for men and women alike. And they are even now confronting a demonic piece of that industry, which seeks to terrorize them into submission.
I use the word “demonic” here on purpose. Whenever we engage in the missions God has invited us to pursue, demonic forces, both interior and exterior to ourselves, confront us and try to dissuade us by any means necessary from following through. Just look at the Gospel lesson for today. We aren’t even done with the first chapter of Mark, Jesus has barely begun his mission, and already he confronts an unclean spirit. This unclean spirit seeks to expose who Jesus is before Jesus is ready to do so for himself. But Jesus rebukes the spirit, silences it, and drags it kicking and screaming from its victim. This confrontation typifies Jesus’ ministry: in each encounter, Jesus confronts something that stands in the way of people being reconciled to God and to each other; and in each encounter, Jesus conquers, though not always in the ways we might expect.
Now, I know that dismissing this kind of Biblical story is easy in our day and age. We look to psychology for a comfortable, modern lens with which to interpret unclean spirits. Demonic possession belongs to horror films and to fantasy worlds populated by vampires, zombies and werewolves. But for all the science and science fiction that we can use to explain away stories like today’s Gospel, the fact of the matter remains that we ourselves and the world at large are afflicted by spiritual uncleanness. We have voices inside us that coerce and cajole us away from the missions God sets before us – demonic voices like apathy, lethargy, fear, greed, dominance. Society has these same voices, and in society these voices are bankrolled.
To these many voices, Jesus says, “Be silent, and come out of him.” Be silent, so we can hear the deeper, more constant voice of Christ propelling us away from these unclean voices. Heeding the voice of Christ amongst the clatter within prepares us to confront the same unclean voices in their entrenched forms in society.
A week and a half ago, I was blessed to listen to Dr. Cornel West’s keynote address to the Trinity Institute, which we webcast at St. Mark’s. Quoting the great W.E.B. DuBois, Dr. West offered four questions that always surface when good people confront the entrenched demons of society. Number one: “How shall integrity face oppression?” Number two: “What does honesty do in the face of deception?” Number three: “What does decency do in the face of insult?” And number four: “How does virtue meet brute force?” *
With these questions Cornel West outlines the confrontation that we people striving to follow Jesus Christ encounter. Being part of God’s mission of healing and reconciliation means choosing, as often as we can in our brokenness, the first option in each of these questions. How do we confront oppression? By exhibiting enough integrity to stand with the oppressed, especially when it is inconvenient or unpopular. How do we confront deception? By holding steadfastly to the truth, especially when it gets mangled by extremism. How do we confront insult? By nurturing the dignity of all people, especially when injustice has strangled any notion of decency from the equation. How do we confront brute force? By not submitting to it all that is good and virtuous about us; by not fighting fire with fire.
Remember the ultimate confrontation, in which our savior defeated each of these demonic forces. Jesus took all the oppression, deception, insult, and brute force the world could muster with him to the cross. And in his resurrection, he exposed them for what they are: a sham. Whenever we are seduced by the demonic voices within, we are falling victim to all that is counterfeit about our fallen world. Whenever we side with the entrenched injustice of society we perpetuate the fraudulent narrative the world loves to tell. Confronting this narrative with the true one that God continues to tell takes all the integrity, honesty, decency, and virtue we can muster – and more. Confronting this narrative takes embracing the love of God and letting it shine through us to bring to light everything that would prefer to stay in darkness.
That’s why we confess our sins every single week. We don’t do it because of our individual, personal sins, though those are subsumed into the act of confession. No. We confess every week as a sort of inoculation against the demonic voices that seduce us away from God’s mission. We confess every week to remember that God calls us to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. We confess every week to announce to ourselves and to each other that we are willing (and with God’s help ready and able) to confront the entrenched sins of the world.
When we joined up with Jesus, this is what we signed on for. This was his mission, and he continues it through us. I don’t know about you, but oftentimes I think it’s too big. I quiver in fear. I find myself rigid with spiritual lethargy. I start to give in to the coercing and cajoling voices that seek to muzzle my witness. When this happens to you, remember that you are walking with Jesus. And hear his voice rise over the clatter and say, “Be silent, and come out of him.”
(Sermon for Sunday, September 19, 2010 || Proper 20, Year C, RCL || Amos 8:4-7)
Imagine with me a fellow of no particular consequence, an Israelite who lives in the capital city of Samaria. The year is 752 BCE, thirty years before the Assyrians conquer Israel. Through the words of prophets such as Amos, however, we know that the people of Israel lost themselves long before the Assyrians came. Our fellow of no particular consequence knows first hand the truth behind Amos’s words. His name is Dallim. This is his story.
He said I was free. He said I had paid my debt. He said I no longer had to work for him. The steward said these things as he walked me to the front of the estate. He opened a postern door in the baked clay walls and gestured to me. I shuffled through the small doorway, and without another word, the steward began walking back to the main house. I was about to call out to him when the guard shut the door in my face. I slumped against the warm, looming wall. He said I was free. But as I crouch here…now…on another forsaken threshing floor, searching for scraps of wheat to lessen my hunger, I know one thing for certain. I may no longer be indebted to his master, but I am unquestionably not free.
It all started six years ago. I wasn’t rich by any stretch of the imagination. But I wasn’t poor either – not like the beggars in the street. I got by. We got by – my wife and I. I ran a small stall in the marketplace selling whatever I could get my hands on. I called my stall a “specialty” store; everyone else called it “Dallim’s Junk Shoppe.” But I did a fair bit of business. I was the guy who could find things – a scrounger.
The day my wife told me she was pregnant was the happiest day of my life. I started trading for all of the things I imagined new parents would need – swaddling clothes and wooden toys and a woven bassinet. Then one day, something went wrong. She shouldn’t have gone into labor for three more months. She delivered our little girl on the floor of our hut. The baby never opened her eyes. My wife took to bed and a week later closed her eyes for the last time. For months, I didn’t leave the hut.
When I finally came back to myself, I had next to nothing. My family was gone. My landlord kicked me out of the hut. I went to the stall in the marketplace and found that my “specialty” store had truly become the junk shop. The thieves left a few baubles and trinkets, the things not worth stealing. They took everything else, including my scales, a gift from my wife’s father. That made me miss her all over again. Those scales were priceless, and not just for the memory. They were weighted perfectly – my father-in-law was no cheat. I used the scales so much that I nearly stopped needing them: I could weigh a shekel in my hand.
As the shock of the theft of my merchandise subsided, I realized how badly I needed food. I had been subsisting on dust and grief for too long. I put the worthless trinkets in a sack and slung it over my shoulder. I walked through the marketplace until I found a grain merchant. I tried to trade him the trinkets for some grain, but he would have none of that. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, “I’ll give you an ephah of grain and you can pay me next week, eh?” I was amazed. How generous he was. He handed me a sack of grain and asked for my sandals as surety that I would come back. You can’t eat sandals, so I readily agreed. I was so relieved that I didn’t notice how small this merchant’s ephah really was.
The week went by, and I still had no money to pay him. “No problem,” he said. “You can pay next week.” I went away with another sack of grain. This happened several more times – I’m not quite sure how many. I planned to sell my stall to repay him, but I just couldn’t find a buyer. The last time I went to see the merchant for grain, I told him my plight. His smile faded from his face. “You have no money. Then I will take your stall.” Again I was relieved. “But your stall,” he continued, “is not nearly enough. No. No. I will take you, as well.”
The genial merchant was gone. He was a hard, grim man from that moment on. I was indebted to him, and I worked and I worked. But I rarely saw him, and he didn’t even know my name. The steward gave me my orders. I filled the grain sacks and noticed them shrink year after year. The moment the sun set every Sabbath day, I hitched the horses to the grain carts so my master could immediately go back to market – no doubt to seduce more helpless people like me. What’s a few sacks of grain to half a dozen years of free labor?
In those years, I often thought of the life I could have had – with a wife and children and a small, successful business. That was my dream, and I woke to my nightmare. I was a nameless drone, a slave to a corrupt man, whose corruption seemed to be rewarded at every turn.
I lost count of the days working in that estate. They ran into each other and made weeks. The weeks made months and the months years. So I was surprised the day the steward walked me to the postern door. The guard shut the door in my face, and I slumped against the warm, looming wall. I thanked God for giving me my life back. I was Dallim again, not the grain merchant’s debt-slave. I was free.
At least, I thought I was free. But I had nothing. The beggars had more than I – they had begging bowls. But I promised myself I would not fall into debt again. I used to be good at finding things. I used to be a scrounger. I could do that again. But oh, I felt the darkness creeping in, the same heaviness that gripped me after the deaths of my wife and baby girl. I started sleeping in doorways and alleys. I could not make myself get up. My world shrank to the space within reach of my prone position. I wasted away.
When I finally came back to myself, I was beyond hunger. In my reflection I could see where each of my ribs met my breastbone. I went to a windswept hill near my old master’s holdings to find a threshing floor. The floor was bare. I went to another. It, too, was bare. And here I am now – crouching on a third bare floor, swept clean of the scraps of wheat that are supposed to belong to the poor. And driving away I see the distinctive cart to which I hitched the horses for so many years. My old master: stealing the poor by loaning them the very grain that is rightfully theirs. Ours. Mine.
I’m trying to muster some righteous anger or indignant surprise. But I simply feel…ragged. I will never be free while the threshing floors stay bare, while I’m stuck in this soul-rending poverty. How can I exist in a world where corrupt men like my old master trample on the needy? How can I live when they bring to ruin the poor of the land? How can I find a morsel of food when they sell the sweepings of the wheat? They move through life making collateral damage out of everyone that can’t afford to get out of their way. They see only what they want to see and the poor fade into the scenery. They consume and consume with no regard for the welfare of those that they have taught themselves to ignore.
But God: you know I’m not collateral damage, don’t you? In your eyes, the merchant and I are the same, right? You won’t ignore me like they do. God: you still know my name. My name is Dallim. And I matter.