Monday, October 16, 2017

Party at Jesus' Place!

This past Sunday was a special one at the church I serve, as we had our first bi-lingual celebration of the Holy Eucharist. The day came about, in large part, as a result of me serving on the Bishop's Committee on Liturgy.  At our August meeting both our diocesan and suffragan bishops encouraged us to incorporate more Spanish into our liturgies and to raise up the voices of our Hispanic brothers and sisters, who make up the largest growing population in the Episcopal Church.  Over the past month churches throughout our diocese and the larger Episcopal Church have been finding ways to add more Spanish, honor Hispanic ministers, and a number of other celebrations as part of National Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15).  Good Shepherd did our part on Sunday as a way to remind ourselves that we are part of something so much bigger than ourselves.  We are part of a worldwide church that worships with the same liturgy and offers the same message, even when we do so with a different tongue.  Thus, Sunday was our day to remember our part in this great big family of God, a family whose members are all invited to celebrate at God's banquet table.  

This was one of those weeks when the Revised Common Lectionary gave me a great gift.  I was worried about preaching not only for a bi-lingual Eucharist but also for a Sunday that is smack-dab in the middle of our stewardship season.  Thankfully, the RCL gifted me with this reading from the Gospel According to Matthew: 

 'Once more Jesus spoke to the people in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”'
--Matthew 22: 1-14

An artist's rendering of the Parable of the Wedding Banquet

There’re a few things worth noting about this story when we look at who is represented in the parable and what it might have meant for Matthew’s audience.  The king, of course, is God.  The wedding banquet for his son is Jesus' coming into the world, either the first time or at the Eschaton--the latter is a recurring theme in Matthew's Gospel. The invitations were sent out by God well in-advance, and in the ancient world that was normal; in fact, very seldom was a day or time attached to an invitation, meaning that folks just had to be ready whenever the host finally put the word out and said, ‘Alright everyone!  It’s time to party!’  God, therefore, had long ago issued the invitation, and the people were expected to be ready whenever God called for them to join the party.  But they weren’t ready, even going so far as to kill God's messengers who came to bring them to the party.  The messenger are the prophets, and one-by-one they were all denied when they tried inviting people to the party.  Even Jesus, the very one to whose party they are being invited, is standing there telling them, "It's time!" but they will not listen.  Seeing that none of those folks are interested, the king—God—calls for every sort and condition of person to come into the banquet hall.  Go and invite EVERYONE, the king says, especially those who may have never been to a wedding banquet.  Thus, Jesus embodies this by ministering among the outcasts of society, including:  widows, tax collectors, prostitutes, Gentiles, drunkards, and every other kind of sinner.  Jesus himself invites them to the party, to a new relationship with God, and therefore a new way of being.   

Parables, of course, have something to teach us even now, and so we are reminded here that it is our task, as well, to invite every person to a relationship with God.  It’s been said numerous times that the most segregated time in America is the church hour on Sunday mornings.  Often people get drawn to church because that’s where their friends go, or that’s where the people of a similar social or economic status go, or that’s where people who look and speak like them go.  Yet the invitation is for everyone, especially those that we would never even think to invite.  We are the very servants in the story being called by our king to go out into the highways and byways, into the homeless shelters, thrift stores, jails, soup kitchens, and every other place to invite all to the celebration—the good, the bad, the clean, the dirty, the rich, the poor, the black, the white, the straight, the gay, the liberal, the conservative, the English-speakers, and the non-English speakers.  For the party that God invites us into is one of praise and worship, a place where where the labels we give each other disappear at God's banquet table; that is, at the altar of God.  The Communion rail, where we reach out our hands for Jesus, is the place where all are invited, all are welcomed, and all connect with each other and with God, for it is here that we get a taste of the very banquet of heaven. 

Yet there’s another part of this parable, isn’t there?  What about the guest who doesn’t have a wedding garment and is therefore thrown into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth?  What kind of person is that?  

He'll kick you out of the party, but with a smile on his face!

By not taking on the wedding robe, this individual in the parable is showing a supreme sign of disrespect to the party's host.  Yes, the door was opened to him, but once he came inside he did not want to actually be a part of the party itself, rather he wanted to continue doing whatever he was doing before he arrived.  He had not changed into the proper garment, had not taken on a new identity within the community of the party, and thus he was told to leave.  The host had not intended for folks to merely show up, instead the host clearly intended for the guests to engage and be changed by being a part of this celebration.

Indeed, we are all invited to the party, but that also means we must be willing to be changed by the party.  We must engage with the party, taking on the proper garment(s). This piece of the parable has nothing to do with actual clothes—Jesus isn’t saying we must wear certain things when we come to church—instead it is about putting on the garments of preparation, faith, reverence, hope, love, and thankfulness.  If we accept the invitation to the party, we must be willing to put on Jesus' wedding garments, rather than keep our same old ratty clothes on.  We cannot go to the party and keep being who we were before!  Instead, we are invited into an experience that will change us for good, and we cannot do that if we simply show up.  We must engage and allow this celebration to change us.  Yes, it is a celebration--a party, even--but it is not a social club.  Being a part of Church does not mean just going to hang out with our friends for a couple hours and then going home.  Instead, this celebration is one in which we are called to engage, take on those garments that Jesus hands us, and be transformed by our experiences within the life of the party.  That, after all, is the very nature of stewardship! 

So today, may we be eager to go out into the streets and invite all that we meet to this great big party of God’s.  May we remember that everyone has an invitation, that we are part of a celebration that is so much bigger than ourselves.  And may we hold true to the fact that we are called not just to attend the celebration, but to be active participants in it, so that by engaging with one another and with Jesus we may be changed for good.  So, brothers and sisters, vamos de fiesta!  Let's party!

At this guy's party, all are welcome!!

Monday, October 9, 2017

Make Us Instruments Of Your Peace

"If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus."
--Philippians 3: 4b-14

Most weeks I unpack something that Jesus said a long time ago, trying to get at what he meant back then and asking what it might mean for us now.  This week, though, I’d like to talk about two people who were followers of Jesus, who lived more than 1000 years apart, but who both embodied what it meant to love and follower Jesus as their Lord, and who serve as examples of what that looks like even now for us.  Their names were Paul and Francis.

Caravaggio's Conversion of St. Paul.

I've written a good bit about Paul, how he once persecuted Christians but then became one after he had a conversion experience on the road to Damascus.  He was transformed by this encounter, and it led him to minister amongst the Gentiles, those non-Jewish folks who had always been on the outside looking in when it came to the story of God’s love and mercy.  One of those groups of Gentiles was in Philippi, a city in northeastern Greece.  The Philippians were struggling with how to live into their new lives in Christ, but there was a tendency among the faithful to lord their titles and prestige over one another.  Arguments often arose among them, thus a letter to Paul was in order.  Paul, therefore, wrote to them to quell such arguments.  He began by laying out all of his own fancy credentials: he was Jewish since birth, which made him better than adult converts; he was descended from the tribe of Benjamin, which was the Jewish elite class; he had known Hebrew all his life, unlike those Jews who lived in areas where all they knew was Greek or Aramaic; he knew the law and followed it so zealously that he was a Pharisee, the most pious and highly respected folks in a Jewish society.  That's quite a resume, but in the letter Paul told the Philippians, that he regarded all of those accolades as loss, and that he suffered their loss so that he may gain Christ so that he may be found by him.  All of the prestige meant nothing to Paul when compared to Jesus. That’s the kind of guy Paul was.

Francis and the animals.

Francis was born in 1181 in the Italian port city of Assisi.  Like Paul, he came from a high-fallutin’ background.  His family were wealthy merchants, and as a young man Francis wore the finest clothes and spent money lavishly.  He joined the military and gallivanted around, but near the age of 24 he began to lose his taste for all this fun and excitement.  He started avoiding sports and feasts with his friends, and when one of them asked him if he was ever going to get married he said, ‘Yes, to a fairer bride than you have ever seen.  Her name is Lady Poverty.’  During a pilgrimage to Rome he joined the poor in begging near St. Peter’s Basilica, and while there he had a mystical experience.  Like Paul, he heard Jesus speak to him, saying, ‘Francis, go and repair my house.’  When he got back to Assisi his father was irate, but Francis threw off the fancy garments that his father had given him, renounced his inheritance and all other world goods, and set out to live a life of poverty, penance, and peace.  Others followed him, including his sister Clare, and in 1208 the two of them established the Order of Brothers Minor and the Poor Clares, which continue in both the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches. 

What Paul and Francis both understood was that ultimately their worldly goods and possessions, as well as the positions that they occupied in their respective communities, didn’t matter.  Both led comfortable lives before they knew Jesus.  Both could have skated by and been content, but they knew that in the end it was all vanity.  Most of us, were we in their positions, would wail and weep and gnash our teeth if we lost our jobs, our homes, our money, our titles, our families.  Not so with Paul and Francis.  For them Jesus was everything, all the rest was just stuff.  They knew that the only thing eternal, the only thing that endures is Jesus.  Truly and deeply understanding that, however, means emptying oneself of all the stuff.

That emptying is called kenosis in Greek.  Earlier in Philippians Paul wrote that Jesus emptied himself; that is, in taking human form the King of the Universe emptied himself of all divine power and prestige, and while ministering on earth he gave up all of his possessions, including his home, so that he could show others a life that knew only the love of God in a deeply intimate way.  That life was then emptied out for the whole world on the cross, so that everyone might see it and live into it themselves.

It is from the cross that Jesus offers that invitation to kenosis, to emptying ourselves of all of the things that we think make us who we are, of all of the idols that we have made.  Our jobs and money, our cars and homes, our possessions and hobbies, in the end mean absolutely nothing!  Jesus, the one who is pure, unbounded love, is the only thing in the world worth our worship and devotion, the only thing in the world that ultimately matters.  All the rest are idols and vanities.  Both of these saints exemplify what it means to empty oneself, but Francis does so in a specifically meaningful way.

This past weekend church communities of all kinds throughout the world--both Protestant and Catholic--celebrated Francis with the Blessing of the Animals. How did the connection come about between Francis and the animals?  It isn't so much begins Francis lived with and loved the animals, but more so because by emptying himself of all the stuff, Francis was able to see the world for what it really is:  one great big family of God.  He called the sun his brother and the moon his sister and often said that all of nature must honor and praise God in their own way.  There are legends that he brokered peace between an angry wolf and some townspeeople, and that he preached to the birds.  Even when disease would ravage him, Francis praised God, for the disease—also a living entity—was merely fulfilling its purpose as instituted by God. It is as if Francis never really left the Garden.  

The Garden is the place from which we all came, of course.  There humanity cared about nothing but being in relationship with God and all creation.  At some point we left the Garden, but our animal friends did not, which is how they are able to show us God's unconditional love in such amazing ways.  My dog Casey, who played a huge role in my senior seminary sermon on Saint Francis, greets people in our parish each day with the same enthusiasm and love.  She has no need of power, prestige, or possessions, and she serves as a daily reminder for me that those things are not what matter, that we are all have a place in the great Circle of Life, in the words of that great spiritual at the beginning of The Lion King.  

The one who reminds me what it means to be in the Garden.

As we look around we see a world that is not unlike the one Francis knew.  It is a world that is cold and cruel, where people place their value in objects and titles, rather than relationships.  It is a world where our pride prevents us from seeing one another as brothers and sisters in the family of God, where people’s accolades and prestige seem to be the only things that matter.  But thanks be to God for the example of blessed Francis, who invites us to empty ourselves of our pride and need to place our self-worth in the matters of this world, so that we may put on nothing but the love of Jesus Christ.  I wonder what would happen if we all could do that on some level.  So as we honor this particular brother of ours, may our eyes be opened to seeing all of our brothers and sisters—two legged, four legged, no legged—so that we may take our place on that great path unwinding.  Blessed Francis, pray for us!  

In the circle...

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Power of Fear

'When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him."'
--Matthew 21: 22-32

When I was a kid one of the most terrifying comic book villains I knew was the Scarecrow, who is a member of Batman’s rogues gallery that specializes in fear.  He doesn’t have any supernatural powers, instead Scarecrow preys on the people’s everyday fears and exploits them for his gain.  As a kid I had nightmares about the Scarecrow because the weapon he utilized was the most real weapon of all, the weapon of fear. 

Scarecrow.  The stuff of nightmares!

Fear is incredibly powerful.  It can paralyze us, drive us into mental and emotional instability, and destroy our relationships.  So often the Scriptures show us examples of how powerful fear can be.  Adam and Eve feared God when they found out they were naked.  Jonah feared being a prophet and ran away from God.  Peter feared letting Gentiles join the church, afraid of what change might occur.  There may be no characters in our biblical narrative, however, that are more controlled by their fears than the religious authority figures of Jesus’ time. 

Whether we're talking about the elders, scribes, chief priests, or Pharisees, all of these folks fell in the same category:  religious fundamentalists who were terrified when they saw the rapidly changing religious landscape around them. Perhaps no one embodied their fears quite like John the Baptizer.  He was a member of a group called the Essenes, who had retreated into the dessert when the corruption in the cities became too much to handle.  Out there, away from security of the Temple and their Roman overseers, who provided protection in return for obedience, the religious authorities came face-to-face with their greatest fear, a madman who was calling people to repent of their sins and inviting them to do so through a new form of mikvah, the Jewish ritual bath. While the people adored him for the bold ways that he spoke truth to power, the people in power themselves were scared to death of John. 

At the end of the day, though, they could ignore John since, after all, he spent all of his time wailing in the dessert.  They could not ignore Jesus.  Unlike John, Jesus walked the city streets with the Pharisees and ate dinner with them.  He spoke among the chief priests, unpacking the Scriptures and teaching right alongside them and the synagogue elders, all the while doing so with a kind of authority that none of them had ever seen before.  They thought, because he wasn't as crazy as John, that they could control him.  They were wrong.  They thought because he was a simple carpenter from a town that was not supposed to produce a prophet--or any thing good, for that matter--that they could trick him or foil his schemes.  They could not.  Ultimately, it is they who get tricked, as we read in this passage from Matthew, which is among the last times that Jesus visits the Jerusalem Temple.  Here the great fears of the authorities come shining through. 

You see, the authorities were the kinds of folks that, because of their fears, tried to play both sides. They desperately tried to maintain their positions by denouncing John as a demon and consistently conspiring against Jesus., who they called a false prophet.  Yet their fears of losing those positions also caused them to acquiesce to the crowds who loved John and Jesus and regarded them as prophets, if not more. Their fears of change, of losing their power, of being exposed for the hypocrites that they were, drove nearly every decision that they made.  What's more, if we read through the lines of dialogue between them and Jesus we can see just how ashamed they are.  They know what they're doing.  Yet in order to keep their positions, out of tremendous fear, they maintain their front.  They lie to all sides in order to gain favor, and their shame grips them. Even in the above passage, when Jesus asks them to declare whether John’s baptisms were of human origin or divine, they are too fearful, to ashamed, to say anything; afraid of Jesus’ judgment if they say it was from heaven, and afraid of the crowds if they say it was not. They cannot even come up with an answer.  Why?  Because they are ashamed.

Shame is one of the most oppressive by-products of fear.  Shame causes us to throw up walls around ourselves, out of fear that if people see the real person inside they will hate us.  Shame tells us to pretend that everything is ok, that we must maintain our public image and put on a happy face, for fear that if we let our true emotions out something terrible will happen.  Shame forces us to lie to others, to ourselves, and even to God, in order to maintain the facade that everything is ok.  The religious authorities were shameful lot, and they projected that shame onto others—especially folks like the tax collectors and prostitutes that Jesus mentioned.  Rather than address their own fear, the authorities shamed folks like these, saying they were the real problem, stigmatizing them and forcing them out of their worship spaces, all the while reassuring folks that they themselves were perfectly fine.  That’s some mighty powerful shame that comes from some mighty powerful fear.

Yet Jesus takes that fear, that shame away, even from the tax collectors and prostitutes.  They had been shamed by the authorities and their communities, and surely they lived in fear.  In spite of all of that, they knew Jesus, the one person who said to them, "Bring that shame and fear to me, and I will give you a new life beyond all of that!"  They knew that to truly know Jesus meant that they didn’t have to be ashamed anymore, that their fear did not have to rule their lives.  They got it in a way that the authorities never could because they were able to let go of their old selves, able to let Jesus truly take up residents in their hearts.  The authorities fought this took and nail, but the "sinners" knew:  Truly loving God and knowing Jesus means they don’t have to be fearful or ashamed.  That’s why Paul says in chapter 1 of Romans that he is not ashamed of the Gospel--the Gospel was as losing story, and the cross was the ultimate symbol of shame, yet Paul rejoices in them--and why the First Letter of John, chapter 4, says that perfect love--that is, the love of Jesus--casts out fear.  If we know Jesus, really and truly, we need not be fearful or ashamed. 

What are you most fearful of right now?  Are you fearful of losing something or letting go?  Are you fearful of some great change or the uncertainties of the future?  Has your fear taken you to a place of shame, where you beat yourself up or throw on a nice face just so folks can’t get inside?  Today I invite you to give all of that to Jesus.  We Anglicans talk about "knowing Jesus" in our heads and hearts, but I'm talking about literally.  Hand off your fear, and tell Jesus your shame (he sees all of it, anyway!).  If you attend a church, the next time you come to the Communion rail, lay those burdens down as you take Jesus in your very hands. Fear is absolutely the most real, most powerful weapon there is, and if left alone it will ultimately destroy us from the inside out, as it eventually destroyed those religious authorities.  But we have Jesus!  And when we empty ourselves of our fear and shame, all that is left is him and his love.  We need not give in to fear, brothers and sisters, but merely abide in to the love of Jesus that casts out all shame and fear.