Sermon for Sunday, September 18, 2016 || Proper 20C || Luke 16:1-13
There was a group of fabulous philosophers active in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Born and raised in Liverpool, England, their names spread quickly throughout the world, and their words continue to influence people to this day. One of their early well-known treatises speaks the same message as Jesus’ words this morning. They write:
Say you don’t need no diamond ring and I’ll be satisfied Tell me that you want the kind of thing that money just can’t buy I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love.
These lines of the Beatles #1 hit bring the song to a very different conclusion than you might expect from hearing the beginning. The first two verses say, in part: “I’ll buy you a diamond ring… I’ll get you anything… I’ll give you all I’ve got to give if you say you’ll love me too.”Continue reading “Can’t Buy Me Love”→
Sermon for Sunday, November 9, 2014 || Proper 27A || Joshua 24:14-25; Matthew 25:1-13
Last Wednesday, I was visiting Gene and Judy Roure at home as Judy continues recovering from surgery. I arrived right after lunch and we were having a pleasant conversation when something unforeseen happened. My eyes started to close. I couldn’t help it. I made a conscious effort to keep them open as we talked, but you know if you ever try that tactic, your body just assumes you’re using reverse psychology. I knew the lack of sleep Leah and I have been experiencing would catch up to me eventually, but I sure didn’t want it to happen during a pastoral visit! So I did the only thing I could think to do: I asked Gene and Judy if it would be okay to close my eyes for five minutes while sitting in the terribly comfortable rocking chair in their living room. Being the lovely and gracious people they are, they readily said, “Yes.” I put my head back and let my eyes do what they desperately wanted to do. I shut them and slept for five glorious minutes.
So when I read the end of today’s Gospel lesson, all I can do is chuckle half-heartedly. Jesus sums up the rather strange parable of the ten bridesmaids by saying: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” of the coming of the kingdom of heaven. Keep awake, he says. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last three months since the twins were born, it’s this: trying to keep awake makes you really sleepy.
Even the bridesmaids in the story don’t keep awake. All ten of them — the wise and the foolish — get drowsy and fall asleep when the bridegroom is delayed. They all wake up at midnight, but only the five wise ones have enough oil in their lamps to see the bridegroom coming. These details of the parable make Jesus’ summary sound a little off. Rather than “keep awake” shouldn’t he say, “tend your light” or “keep your lamp lit?” If this parable were one of those stories on a standardized test, one of the questions might be, “Which title best describes this story?” If my choices included both “keep awake” and “tend you light” I think I’d choose the latter. But Jesus chooses the former.
(As an aside, I don’t think Jesus would have been a very good standardized test taker, what with his penchant for answering people’s questions in wildly creative and unexpected ways.)
Whether or not the testing board would accept Jesus’ answer of “keep awake,” that’s the one he gives. This leaves us in the position of reconciling the content of the parable with Jesus’ odd summary. What about tending our lights leads to “keeping awake?”
First of all, we mustn’t take Jesus’ summary literally. Obviously, we can’t survive if we stay awake all the time. If we don’t sleep, eventually we go insane. (There’s a great Star Trek: The Next Generation episode about that, by the way.) So if we can’t literally keep awake all the time, how do we live into Jesus’ instruction? At Wednesday’s visit with Gene and Judy, my eyes started closing of their own accord because of my physical exhaustion. But there are plenty other types of exhaustion that lead us to close our eyes and ignore our part in bearing witness to the coming kingdom of heaven.
There’s emotional exhaustion. You carry the burdens of so many others on your heart. You worry. You fret. You can’t help vicariously feeling their pain, and it overwhelms you. There’s the exhaustion of crises. Everything in this world seems to be going haywire. Famine, poverty, war, discrimination, disease. You can’t even watch the news anymore because the compounding crises overwhelm you. There’s the exhaustion of resources. You give and you give, and there’s always more need. It never stops and the direness of the need overwhelms you. You start to see a pattern here. When we feel overwhelmed, we get tired. We just want to close our eyes and enter the blissful ignorance of sleep. So we disengage. We fail to keep awake.
And this is where tending our lights comes into play – because there’s another term for disengagement and failure to keep awake. It’s called “burn out.” Show of hands: how many of us have used the phrase, “I feel so burned out right now,” at some point in our lives? Being like the wise bridesmaids in the parable means keeping oil in our lamps so they don’t burn out. After all, it’s a whole lot easier keeping a fire burning than it is to light a new one.
Burn out happens when we exhaust our supply of oil and have no way to replenish it. You take on too many responsibilities and pretty soon juggling all of them is the biggest responsibility you have. You start to wonder if there’s any way for a day to be more than twenty-four hours. To stick with our metaphor, you’re burning the candle at both ends and your fuel ain’t gonna last much longer. Burn out is inevitable. And when it comes, you don’t necessarily stop. You might continue your breakneck pace with no fuel until you enter freefall and crash land in the desert.
So tending our lights means making good choices about what to spend our oil on, so we don’t exhaust it. If we choose everything, then nothing gets the attention it deserves, we never achieve the excellence that focus instills, and, more to the point, we burn out. But by carefully and intentionally choosing where to place our energy, we keep the oil burning in the lamp longer, and, in a happy coincidence, our choices can lead to replenishment of the oil.
Let’s take Joshua’s speech to the people of Israel for example. At long last they have occupied the Promised Land, and now Joshua puts a choice before them: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” The choices are the Lord, the God of their ancestors or the false gods of their neighbors in their new home. Joshua makes his choice clear: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
This is the first choice Joshua puts before the people. And it is the first choice that confronts us each morning when we wake up. Who will you serve today? The Lord, who calls us to be lamps shining with the light of the kingdom, or the false gods that litter our lives with the junk of the world and scream in our ears words like “more” and “now.” When we wake up in the morning and answer “The Lord,” then all the other choices we make that day will be built on the sure foundation of the God who yearns for us to be shining versions of ourselves. This yearning leads to us burning bright, not burning out.
When we tend our lights to burn brightly, we first choose to serve God each morning. Then, with God’s help, we decide how best to move through the day so that our own personal flourishing contributes to the flourishing of the world and the coming of the kingdom. Rather than taking on too much, we focus on those passions, which God gives us the gifts to pursue. Rather than being overwhelmed by crises and need and emotional entanglement, we say, “I can make a difference,” and then we shine our lights into particular dark corners of this world that we can, in fact, help to brighten.
Today, I invite you, I urge you, to make the active, conscious, and intentional choice to serve the Lord. With this choice made, see how God helps guide your other choices so that your lamp stays lit and so that you keep awake to the coming kingdom of heaven. We’ve all been burned out before. Some of us might be on the edge of burn out right now. When you feel yourself approaching that edge, just stop. Stop and focus on your own light. How much oil is left? Can you really sustain the pace you’ve set or will the fuel run out before the race is run? Tend you light by overhauling your choices. First choose the Lord. Then ask God to guide you to make choices that will replenish your oil so your light will grow all the brighter. And with this fierce conflagration shining inside you, you will awaken to the coming kingdom of heaven.
Sermon for Sunday, October 12, 2014 || Proper 23A || Matthew 22:1-14
Today 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.”
Sermon for Sunday, July 13, 2014 || Proper 10A || Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Okay, to start off: I’m not going to preach this morning about my rapidly approaching fatherhood. But I just want to point out God’s divine sense of humor in us reading in the Hebrew Scripture a story about the birth of twins. Rather, this morning, I’m going to preach about God’s persistence and God’s extravagance. To do this, I’d like to talk about the second of my three days of Godly Play training.
In Godly Play, Jesus’ parables reside in golden boxes, and on this second day of training, the leader invited the students to pair up and choose a box. Now, I don’t remember if I chose the parable of the sower or if the parable of the sower chose me, but either way, my partner and I opened our golden box to reveal a long piece of brown felt, three types of ground depicted on wooden cutouts, some tiny birds, and a sower with arm sweeping up from his satchel of grain.
We laid out the parable and started learning how to tell it in Godly Play style. We rolled out the long piece of felt underlay and slowly placed the types of ground on it. In Godly Play, everything happens slowly and deliberately. You take each piece out of the box, hold it, look at it, and draw the children into the story through your own focus and intentionality. Well, at that day of training, as I had just learned this theory, I was extra careful to move slowly, deliberately, and intentionally. I studied each piece as I removed it from the golden box. I held the sower. I held the birds. I held the rocky ground. I held the thorny soil. I held the good soil.
At the end of my first rehearsal of the story, all I could think was this: “Why waste so much seed?” Out of four types of ground, only one yielded grain. A mere 25 percent of the seed was successfully planted. The rest was stolen by birds or scorched in the sun or choked by thorns. What kind of sower would waste three-quarters of his seed?
Turns out, God is that kind of sower. Our God is a God of abundance, of surpassing love and extravagant grace. God scatters the seed of God’s word everywhere in creation and within the hearts of all people. What might seem like waste to us who are so often concerned with the scarcity of things, to God the scattering of seed among all things is simply standard operating procedure. The word of God is eternal. The word of God is never going to be exhausted. Thus, God can scatter as much of the seed of the word wherever God wants with no care given to it ever running out.
The prophet Isaiah proclaims such a reality when he speaks this word from God: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (55:10-11).
So if God’s word accomplishes that for which God sent it, what of the seed that seems to be wasted? What of the seed that fell on the path, on the rocky ground, and among the thorns? These questions were on my mind as I continued preparing the parable of the sower for presentation at Godly Play training. But it wasn’t until I was putting away the parable for the final time that God gave me the gift of a small insight. I had already put the sower, the birds, and the types of ground back into the golden box. All that was left was the long strip of brown felt, the simple underlay for the other pieces. I sat there staring at it.
In a parable story, the felt underlay exists mostly to give shape to the other pieces. But as the first thing you pull from the golden box when you begin a story, the underlay can also serve as a warm-up activity to fire the imaginations of the children. “ ‘I wonder what this could be?’ you say,” as you turn the felt over in your hands, looking at both sides before smoothing it out on the floor. It’s a chocolate bar, a child might offer. It’s a brown snake. It’s a belt for a giant.
But as I sat there staring at the brown underlay all alone, I said, “I wonder what this could be?” and the answer came back, “It could be me.”
The brown felt upon which I placed the different kinds of ground could be any of – is each of us. Each of us, at various moments in our lives, has been the path upon which the birds came and ate. We have been the rocky ground. We have been the thorns. And hopefully, at some points, now or in the past or future, we have been the good soil. Thus, the kinds of ground upon which God’s seed falls are not different people, but different moments in the lives of each individual person.
Sometimes we receive the word with apathy and allow the birds to eat it up. Sometimes we dedicate ourselves with renewed fervor, only to have the fire burn hot and quick and die as soon as it started. Sometimes we allow the cares of the world to drown out the whispers of the abiding promises of God. And sometimes…sometimes we are receptive to God’s word, and the seed sprouts up abundantly.
I said at the beginning of this sermon that it would be about God’s persistence and God’s extravagance. Have you noticed them yet? The sower could plant the seed only in the good soil, but instead the sower flings it far and wide, trusting that even on challenging ground, the seed makes some impact. This is God’s extravagance – an expansive gesture of love and grace on the receptive and unreceptive alike.
And what of God’s persistence? Well, to extend the metaphor of the parable, the birds eat up the seed only to deposit it somewhere else. The seeds that die by scorching sun and choking thorn still sink into the loam to fertilize the ground. Thus, none of the seed is wasted; even the seed that falls outside the good soil can accomplish the purpose for which God cast it in the first place. Likewise, when you and I are at places in our lives when we are not exhibiting traits of good soil, God still casts seed upon us, knowing that even a hint of the word can make an impact, however small. Each seed cast upon us when we are unreceptive prepares us to become good soil at some future time. God yearns for us to be good soil, but God can wait because God is persistent.
As you take stock of your current relationship with God, ask God what kind of ground you are right now. What steps can you take to partner with God to till your soil into the kind receptive to God’s word? Trust that God continues to shower seed upon you because of God’s extravagant grace and persistent love no matter how many rocks or thorns stand in the way. The good news is this: sooner or later, in this life or the next, God’s word will take root in each of us because the sower will never run out of seed.
(Sermon for Sunday, March 10, 2013 || Lent 4C || Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32)
After I finish this opening bit of the sermon, I’m going to ask for a show of hands, so please listen to see if you remember this illustration from your youth. You arrive at school one day – perhaps you are a month or two into, let’s say, the seventh grade. That morning before school, you looked in the mirror and grimaced at the half dozen new pimples, which had colonized your forehead during the night. You tried to comb your bangs over the spots, but your hair just wouldn’t stay, so you resigned yourself to the fate of being called “pizza-face” all day. So you walk into the school wishing your forehead were in a less conspicuous area of your body, but you know it’s not, so instead you concentrate on making your entire self less conspicuous.
Halfway through the day, everything is going fine – better than expected even. No one has mentioned your acne; you really haven’t talked to anyone all day, except your best friend at lunch. But then on the way back to class, the day takes a turn. You and your classmates are waiting outside your fourth period room when someone brings up the hot TV show that everyone’s watching. (In my day, it was Dawson’s Creek, but I’m sure you can come up with one.) The show was on last night and something terribly important and life altering happened to the main character. Everyone’s discussing the episode and you just smile and nod, hoping against hope that no one asks your opinion because your mom doesn’t let you watch that show, but your classmates don’t know that and if they did, they’d have another reason to make fun of you.
But, of course, someone does ask, and you stammer out something generic about the show, but it’s obvious you don’t watch. Your classmates start laughing, and you can feel your face getting flushed, which only makes the pimples redder. You will the teacher to open the classroom door, but she doesn’t, so you race off to the bathroom to be alone with your shame.
So don’t be ashamed to admit it – show of hands, how many of you remember a day similar to this one back when you were in that Lord of the Flies–esque jungle known as middle school? …Yeah, that’s what I thought.
You want to know the worst thing about that feeling of shame from long ago? The feeling of shame is still there; hidden perhaps, but there. The context may be different. The constellation of catalysts may be more grown-up. But the disease of shame has – from a tender age – infected each and every one of us.
You can blame Adam and Eve if you like. They are the “Patient Zero” of this disease. After they eat the fruit of the tree, they notice their nakedness, so they cover themselves up with primitive garments. When God comes to them in the cool of the evening, Adam says, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” Here we have the first documented case of the disease of shame. Adam and Eve hide from God because they are ashamed of their nakedness.
Shame, then, is the feeling that prompts us to want to hide – from God, from the world, and especially from ourselves. The disease of shame invades the secret places within us and then starts whispering incessantly: you aren’t good enough. You aren’t worthy. You are defective. How could you possibly think you measure up? And the worst of all: You are a mess and a failure. How could you possibly think God or anyone else could ever love someone as shameful as you?
I’m sure these debilitating thoughts were running through the mind of the younger son as he fed the pigs. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells the famous and beloved story of the young man who squanders his inheritance in a far off land. He is destitute when a famine hits, so he hires himself to a pig farmer. On those days when the hollowness of hunger is worst, he longs to eat the pigs’ slop. Jesus chose his details well, for there isn’t a much more shameful position than for a good Jewish boy to be anywhere near such unclean animals. Jews were never to eat pork, let alone touch the pig. And here is the younger son, cut off from his family, wallowing in the mud, hungry, unclean, and ashamed.
You can hear his shame whispering to him, can’t you? How could you possibly think your father will take you back as his son, you worthless swine? His shame convinces him that all of his mistakes, all of his bad choices, all of his ruinous living amount to too much for his father to forgive. Another whisper: How could you possibly be reconciled with all this disastrous baggage?
The younger son agrees with his shame and decides that his father would never bring him back into the family, but that maybe his father’s generosity would extend to hiring him on as a laborer. So he sets off for home. And then something happens that the younger son doesn’t expect, something that his shame had convinced him was impossible. When he is still a speck on the horizon, his father sees him coming and races to meet him. His father runs flat out, as if he can’t bear one more minute estranged from his son. When they meet, the son begins his prepared speech, but his father isn’t listening. He’s already preparing a welcome feast because his son was lost and is now found.
How many of us have let the voice of shame drive us into hiding? How many of us still have the disease of shame eating away at our capacity to give and to receive love? How many of us have let our shame convince us that we are unworthy of God’s attention? I’d hazard to guess that we’ve all been there, feeling like the pimply kid in seventh grade or like the younger son among the pigs.
Perhaps your shame starts whispering when you look at all your bills and realize your salary will barely cover them. Or when you can’t bring yourself to acknowledge the presence of the homeless man on the street in Boston. Or when you say something hurtful to your spouse during an argument. Or when your colleagues don’t think to invite you to lunch. Or when your date stands you up. Or when you look in the mirror.
Whatever the source of your shame, please believe that God our Father is running flat out to meet you in the midst of it. Your shame might tell you to hide. Your shame might tell you that you aren’t worthy of God’s effort. But your shame is lying to you. There is no shame big enough to scare God away. You will never be so defective that God stops desiring to repair you. You will never be so lost that God can’t find you. And when God finds you, you can participate with God in beating your shame into submission. With your shame healed, you might find you are willing to ask for help when trying to make ends meet. Or you might find yourself serving the homeless man at the Long Island Shelter. Or you might look in the mirror and see beauty rather than shame looking back at you.
So the next time your shame threatens to engulf you with its incessant negative whispering, look to the horizon. See the dawn break. See the sunlight racing toward you. And know that God has already run out to meet you in the midst of your shame. God has already enfolded you in a compassionate embrace. And God has already welcomed you back into God’s family, as a beloved child who was lost and has been found.
(Sermon for Sunday, March 14, 2010 || Lent 4, Year C, RCL || 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:-13, 11b-32)
Connie looked especially haggard. For the better part of two hours, I watched her hold a phone to each ear, tap-tap-tap on the keyboard, and patiently plead with belligerent passengers all at the same time. As I inched closer to the desk to change my flight information, I caught snippets of the abuse hurled in Connie’s direction and prayed for forgiveness for the entire irate human race. The reason for the belligerence was simple: the airplane was broken. Some gizmo that keeps the flaps from freezing fell off during the plane’s trip to Nashville. One piece in a hundred thousand broke, and the plane was grounded. One piece – a nothing part, really, until you don’t got one. Then it appears to be everything.
Ironically, Delta had to fly this nothing part, this anti-flap-freezing gizmo, in from elsewhere. The departure time leapt forward, finally settling on 8:00am yesterday morning, a full twenty hours and ten minutes late. With the airplane broken, the system broke down, as well. All the other flights out of Nashville were booked solid. Passengers missed connections. People were stranded and growing more bellicose with every update of the plane’s ramshackle status. And in the middle of it all stood Connie, a wisp of a woman on the verge of tears. She clung to the desk, and she clung to her manners. She was the unlucky target of vented frustration, of heaps of bile, of caustic protestations. And all because the plane was broken.
You’d think that people would be used to brokenness by now. You’d think that people would take the brokenness in stride because brokenness marks our lives everyday: broken homes, broken bones, broken pavement, broken promises, broken ecosystems. You’d think that this brokenness would come as no surprise. But every time we encounter brokenness, we seem to react with astonishment and incredulity. How could your best friend betray your trust? How could the kid break his wrist right before the big game? How could the airplane be grounded?
While brokenness does seem to mark our existence, I think we react with astonishment because in some deep place within, we know that “broken” is not the way things are supposed to be. We believe that God created everything and called Creation “good” and never made a thing called “brokenness.” And yet, brokenness crept into Creation. Separation and division soon followed. Today, we see a broken world, and we know that it could be, that it should be – better.
And in that seeing, in that knowing, we hear God calling to us, inviting us to work with God’s help to repair this brokenness. In today’s lesson from his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us that God “has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” He continues, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”
The world needs this message of reconciliation because the world is marred by broken relationships that need repairing, separations that need healing, divisions that need stitching up. When Jesus welcomes and eats with “tax collectors and sinners” in this morning’s Gospel, he models the ministry of reconciliation. The scribes and Pharisees like their society just fine the way it is, and they grumble when Jesus upsets the brokenness with which they have learned to live. So Jesus tells them a story about a family, a family marred by brokenness, a family in need of reconciliation.
The younger of two sons presses his father to give him his share of the inheritance. The father acquiesces and divides his property. The younger son takes his portion and travels to a distant country where he squanders his fortune in what the King James Version calls “riotous living.” So I’m wondering: what’s the younger son’s sin? At first glance, his sin sure seems to be his debauchery, given his status as a decadent wastrel. And while this qualifies as sin, I don’t think his prodigality takes the top seed.
Instead, his major sin is the division caused by his separation from his family. Jesus makes a point to say that the father divides his household to fulfill his son’s wish. And then the son doesn’t settle nearby, but in a “distant” country. With the division and separation complete, all that’s needed is a famine for the younger son to notice his folly. When he comes to himself sitting in the filth among the pigs, he realizes the brokenness his departure caused. He no longer feels worthy to be called a son, so he prepares himself to live with the brokenness and to be considered a hired hand rather than a member of the family.
At this point in the parable, I imagine the scribes and Pharisees nodding their heads in approval. The younger son defiled himself. He is unclean after touching all those pigs. Of course, he mustn’t be welcomed home. But Jesus isn’t finished telling the story yet.
The younger son travels back to his father’s house, and yet he’s aware that it will never be home again. His decision to separate himself from his family saw to that. But when he is still a vaguely human shape on the twilit horizon, his father sees him and runs out to meet him and embraces him and kisses him. “I am no longer worthy to be called your son,” he says. But his father will not tolerate the separation, the brokenness any longer. “This son of mine,” he says, “was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” This son of mine. With these words, the father repairs the broken relationship, and the two are reconciled.
At this point in the parable, I imagine the scribes and Pharisees raising incredulous eyebrows. Now the father is unclean, as well, because he touched the younger son before he purified himself with the appropriate rituals. What kind of family is this? But Jesus still isn’t finished telling the story.
A celebration for the younger son’s return begins. His elder brother hears the revelry coming from the house and asks a slave what’s going on. When he finds out about his brother’s return, he will not enter the house or join the party. The elder son echoes his brother’s sin by separating himself from the celebration. When the father comes out to plead with him, the elder son shows his own division from the family. He calls his brother “this son of yours,” thus ignoring the fraternal relationship. And rather than working like a son, he says, “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you.” Like a slave. Like the hired hand the younger son was prepared to be.
But the father continues to repair the brokenness in his family. “Son,” he calls his eldest. There is no division between us because “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Then the father attempts to heal the fraternal separation by emphasizing the sons’ relationship to one another: “This brother of yours was…lost and has been found.”
As the parable ends, I imagine the scribes and Pharisees noticing that they themselves look an awful lot like the elder brother. I wonder if their own irritation with Jesus deafens them to the reconciling nature of the father in the parable.
Both sons separate themselves from the family, the younger through taking his inheritance to a distant country and the elder through refusing to join the celebration. But their father goes out and meets both sons in their brokenness. He runs up to the younger when his son is still far off. He leaves the party to be with the elder. When neither brother feels much like a son, the father practices reconciliation and repairs his broken family.
The father refuses to separate himself from his sons. Likewise, God refuses to be separated from us. Our sin may separate us from God, but God never separates from us. As Paul says, God “reconciled us to himself through Christ.” God never gives up on relationships with us. Instead, God continually brings us back into relationship with God. We may be broken, but God is whole, and so we can find wholeness. We may be separated, but God is welcoming, and so we can bring welcome. We may be divided, but God is One, and so we can come together.
Today, we see a broken world, and we know that it could be, that it should be – better. We know in that deep place within that the world is not supposed to be broken. And we also know that God has reconciled us to himself in order that we might engage in a ministry of reconciliation to this broken world. The question is: will we?
And the answer is this: we will, with God’s help.
* The first person to notice and correctly identify the reference to Joss Whedon’s Firefly in this sermon wins five points. (These points aren’t really redeemable for anything, but hey, you should try to get them anyway.)
* If you are as big a fan of Firefly and Serenity as I am, you may also notice that the overarching theme of this sermon is pretty similar to that of the film Serenity. And no, that’s not the reference. The reference is incredibly specific.
So, the United States is mired in the worst financial fiasco since I was four years old. Because of my early developmental stage back then, I was more concerned with fire trucks than the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Now, I still get pretty excited when I see a fire truck, but the economic crisis occupies my mind with far more regularity. Every news cycle seems to have a direr story than the one before, the presidential candidates talk about little else, and the crisis is the number two topic at coffee hour right now (after college football, which, of course, is more important, especially when my team is ranked #2 in the AP).
With the Dow taking a nosedive and 401Ks across the land going on the South Beach diet, can you think of a better time for churches to start their fall stewardship campaigns?
I know the previous sentence sounds sarcastic, but it’s not. Of course, I wish we had never gotten into this mess in the first place. But we’re in it now, and the best thing we can do is take hard looks at our priorities. The economic crisis is forcing us to reevaluate how we allocate our resources. The first step in this evaluation process is realizing “our” resources are not ours at all.
Jesus tells this parable: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:45-46).
A bishop I knew a long time ago used to tell a story about this passage from the Gospel according to Matthew. I was very young, so I might get some of the details wrong and I might embellish others, but it goes something like this:
Once there was a man who found a pearl. This pearl was the most magnificent specimen. Indeed, only in the wildest dreams of clams did a pearl like this one exist. It was the size and weight of a golf ball, but no one would think to compare the two. The pearl was in a class by itself. It shone with a light all its own. The light might have hid some imperfections if the pearl had had any. But it didn’t. The pearl, thought the man, was, quite simply, perfect. The trouble is, the pearl was in a glass case and very visible alarm wire crisscrossed the case and a wrinkled shopkeeper hovered over the case. The man opened his wallet, thumbed through the small bills in the billfold and pondered his several credit cards. He pulled out one especially shiny card and, pointing to the pearl, tried to hand the card to the shopkeeper. The shopkeeper raised her eyebrows and shook her head.
So the man went home. He wandered through his house, into the garage, and onto the deck. He gathered up everything not nailed down and sold it all—his car, his computer, his beloved grill. He went back to the shop. Not enough, the shopkeeper’s look told him.
So the man sold his house. Not enough. He cashed out his stock options. Not enough. He even gave up his mint-condition Nolan Ryan rookie card. Not enough. The man stared plaintively at the shopkeeper. Then his eyes wandered down to the pearl. He knew somehow that obtaining this pearl was why he was alive, what he was made for. He didn’t know how he knew, but, looking at that pearl, he just knew. He looked back up at the shopkeeper. “What about me?” he said, “What if I give myself?”
The shopkeeper smiled, brought a jangling set of keys to eyelevel, and began searching for a key. She found it, unlocked the case, and slowly lifted the pearl off of its bed of velvet. “Here you go,” the shopkeeper said. “And by the way,” she continued, “you were willing to give up everything for this pearl. Your house and grill and baseball card are still mine, but I want you to look after them for me. And remember, you are mine, too.”
This story has been with me for quite a while, and I share it because I think it centers the discussion of stewardship better than anything I can come up with myself. To understand the importance of stewardship, we must first acknowledge that everything we have comes from God, and is, in fact, still God’s. We are just holding onto God’s stuff for a while.
Indeed, a steward is someone who manages the assets of another. So when we talk about stewardship in a Christian context, we are saying that we are blessed with abundance from God, and we are striving to use that abundance justly and wisely. When we think of Christian giving—of time, of talent, of monetary resources—we should really tack on another word. We should think of it as “Christian giving back.”
Stewardship always entails some form of giving. Stewardship has at its base a certain kind of giving that we do every Sunday. When we celebrate the Eucharist, we are literally “giving thanks,” for that is what Eucharist means. By starting with thanksgiving, we acknowledge that our gifts, our lives, our livelihoods come from God. Stewardship must start with an “attitude of thanksgiving.”
The reevaluation of our allocation of resources begins with humbly acknowledging that we are not the owners of the stuff we accumulate and gratefully giving thanks to God for what God has given us to look after. In the end, this all comes down to trust. The financial crisis in which we are currently embroiled is predicated on untrustworthy practices; indeed, we don’t even know how much certain things are worth any more because of deceit and mistrust. But God is trustworthy, and God has entrusted us with God’s stuff. How will we respond?