Monday, November 21, 2022

True Kingship

'When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots to divide his clothing. The people stood by, watching Jesus on the cross; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!" The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews."

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."'

--Luke 23: 33-43

One lasting image of kingship for me is Arthur, King of the Britons, giving his credentials to Dennis and unnamed, poor woman – who, it should be noted, didn’t vote for him.  I'll let the scene speak for itself:

King Arthur meets his constituents. 

That scene in the early moments of Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a classic. While our system isn’t perfect, at least we don’t rely on strange women distributing swords to declare who our leaders will be - though there are some years when I wonder if that wouldn't be better. In a world that has fewer and fewer traditional monarchies – and in a country where we literally fought a war over whether or not we should keep being part of one – we may not think much about what kingship or sovereignty means on a daily basis, but the celebration of Christ the King comes around each year to invite us to do just that, and what’s more, it reminds us that our true king turns the whole concept of kingship on its head.

Christ the King Sunday was celebrated by Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, and a few other Protestants this past Sunday. It marks the final day of the liturgical calendar, the last Sunday of Ordinary Time. The day was created in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, making it one of the newest Christian feasts. The world was just seven years removed from the Great War, but fascism was on the rise, and in less than 15 years there would be a Second World War.  In response to the growing popularity of authoritarianism, the pope wrote in his encyclical Quas Primas, that the faithful should gain strength and courage form the celebration of this new feast, as they were reminded that Christ must reign in their hearts, minds wills, and bodies, and that the leaders and nations would see that they were bound to give respect to Christ and see that the Church had the right to freedom and immunity from the state. It may not carry the same weight in our Episcopal tradition as it does for our Roman Catholic siblings, but Christ the King was a day created in a time when the world most needed to remember that Jesus is the only true sovereign, and some might argue that we find ourselves at such a time once again.

A visible reminder for us here Good Shepherd in Asheboro is our Christus Rex – literally ‘Christ the King’ – which dominates our sanctuary. Those entering the space are drawn to it, as Jesus' arms are outstretched to welcome everyone into our space and to offer comfort and solace. It is both a powerful image - signifying Jesus' victory over sin and death and his reign over the universe - as well as one of vulnerability - as his wounds are still visible, if you are close enough to see them. 

The Christus Rex at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Asheboro, NC.

Much has been made of art depicting a victorious, kingly Jesus. As Christianity spread throughout the known world – particularly after the First Crusades in the 11th century – Jesus was depicted more and more as a conquering warrior, but when we look at the readings prescribed for Christ the King Sunday – not only this year but every year of our liturgical cycle -  ‘victorious’, ‘conquering’, and ‘warrior’ aren’t the words I suspect we’d use to describe the kingship of Jesus. 

Especially given where we find him in our Gospel text this year – at the place called the Skull. It’s here that the King of Glory reigns. And what are the words, the characteristics that we might use to describe his kingship? There’s forgiveness – Jesus asking God to forgive the very people who are killing and mocking him, for they know not what they are doing. There’s grace for the criminals, the seditionists, who are crucified with them, as the first derides Jesus, but he doesn’t retort or condemn him, and when the second asks Jesus to simply remember him, Jesus doesn’t tell him he needs to be baptized first, nor does he chastise him for his crimes, but he gives him the free gift of pardon, reminding everyone for all time that in his kingdom even condemned criminals can be redeemed. There’s a cross instead of a throne – the one and noble tree, to borrow the words of the Pange Lingua that we sing during Holy Week. There’s a crown of thorns – a derisive gesture on the part of the soldiers who crucified him – instead of jewels. Let’s face it, we whatever image that comes to mind when we think of kings, we don’t exactly have a picture here that fits any of our prescribed notions of such, do we?  This scene is a mockery.  It’s a joke; a complete flipping of every idea that the world has ever had about kingship, sovereignty, and power.

Crucifixion, by Hans von Tubingen

But that’s the point with Jesus. Throughout Luke’s Gospel, which we’ve been reading all year and finish up today, Jesus has been telling us, in his own words spoken through parables what his kingdom –  or what he called the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God – looks like: a wasteful, prodigal child returning to a father’s loving arms; a shepherd foolishly going off to find one lost sheep; an ugly mustard shrub providing shelter for the birds; a rich man’s feast open to the poor and marginalized. A day called Christ the King  may seem to invite a Gospel reading like Matthew, chapter 24, with images of Jesus coming with the angels, riding on the clouds and shining like the sun at the trumpet call. That's kingly, right?! Instead we get Jesus being crucified because the kingship of Jesus is summed up right here at the cross. 

Many who followed Jesus wanted him to overthrow Rome and set his kingdom up to look every bit as cruel, with their enemies treated as bad or worse than Rome treated them. These were the zealots, and there are still around. They’ll tell you that there are folks who get left out of Jesus’ kingdom. But throughout Luke’s Gospel this year we’ve seen Jesus buck that trend, and he does it one last time here on the cross when he forgives his murders and grants Paradise to the seditionist. And isn't that something? The seditionist asks to be remembered in Jesus' kingdom, and everyone else was clammoring for a kingdom of power, might, riches, and glory. But Jesus tells him that he'll be with him in Paradise, an old Persian word for a walled garden. The world wants a kingdom, Jesus offers Paradise.  Wow!

If someone tells you that you – or anyone, for that matter – gets left out of Jesus’ kingdom, don’t’ believe them. Remember Jesus’ own words in John 12: 32, that when he is lifted up upon the cross he draws ALL the world to himself – and ALL means ALL…y’all!.  This is where our king, the King of glory, reigns, hung upon a tree. And by doing so, by flipping the narrative of power and kingship, Jesus makes it possible for literally EVERYONE to be part of his kingdom. That is some good news right there! All we have to do is tell everyone that it is so and live our lives as if we actually believe it.

This is the scandal of the Gospel. And if we are members of Jesus’ kingdom, we’re not members of any other; and if Jesus is king, then nobody else is. It’s him and his kingdom. There’s nothing like it, and there’s nothing better! And Jesus didn't say that his kingdom was far off or that we had to wait for any End Times for it to get here. What did he say? The kingdom of God has come near to you! It is here! And it is within all of you!

Empires fall, all terms of office and reigns of those in power end, but Jesus shall reign wherever the sun doth its successive journeys run, his kingdom stretches from shore to shore till moons shall wax and wane no more. 

Monday, November 14, 2022

God Helps Those Who Help Themselves (And Other Lies)

"Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone's bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right."

--II Thessalonians 3: 6-13

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

--The Collect for Proper 28, Year C (The 23rd Sunday after Pentecost)

Reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting an (apparently) Arabic or Hebrew New Testament.

All Holy Scripture may have been written for our learning, but Holy Scripture can be really complicated. If taken out of context passages of Scripture can be used to support or debunk just about any talking point. One such example is II Thessalonians, chapter 3, verse 10, which was the Epistle reading for this past Sunday.  “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command, anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”  If we’re not careful, we could easily interpret this text as support for the argument that people who are not willing to help themselves don’t deserve to be helped at all. But if we understand the kind of Christian community out of which this text comes, we find that there is good news here, and that the message isn’t what we might think it is. 

First, we need to understand the Second Letter to the Thessalonians as a whole.  Though we may assume that it is a sequel to the First Letter to the Thessalonians, which is a letter that is indisputably written by Paul, there is strong evidence to suggest that Paul likely was not the author of the second letter.  We know this from the letter’s tone—which is much harsher and more direct than the first —as well as the use of certain verb tenses and other factors relating to the original Greek text that show us that this letter doesn’t share the same traits as other, authentically Pauline letters.  The fact that the text’s authorship is disputed doesn’t mean we should throw it out, but who wrote the text always matters when we’re trying to learn from it.

As we read II Thessalonians, we can see that the author is writing to a community of people who are sure that Jesus is coming back any second now, and that immediacy is causing all kinds of problems. Certain members of the community are forsaking their duties, both in worship and in work, because, why put in a long-term commitment if Jesus is on his way?  To add to this stress, other members are so discouraged by the persecutions that they are facing that they have little to no motivation to participate in the life of the community.  These folks are effectively living off the work and ministry of others.  An example of this for us today might be folks who are perhaps fully capable of coming to church or participating in the life of the parish, but they willingly never come and yet still wish to reap the benefits.  This idleness among the Thessalonians takes the form of eating the food for which others have worked and prepared, but it goes to a deeper motivation that is detrimental to the community; for to early Christians, work and prosperity were not signs of individual grace but evidence of one’s role in supporting the whole community. Thus, to refuse to show up was to rebel and take unfair advantage of others, and THIS is the problem in Thessalonica, not mere idleness or laziness but a kind of inactivity that harms the rest of the community.

This hits on a matter that we must always bear in mind when reading Scripture, especially those deetailing the ways and means of what we call the early Church: these texts are directed to specific communities. This letter raises the concern of what it calls idleness, but not in a general sense, rather as it relates to living in Christian community. Verse 6 introduces the idleness problem with: “keep away from believers who are living in idleness” (emphasis mine). The author’s denouncements are not directed toward, say, the homeless person sleeping outside the church door or the woman and her kid who come by the office asking for food.  Also, we must note that the word "idleness" is not a perfect translation of the Greek word ataktos, which denotes behavior that is insubordinate or irresponsible. The Thessalonians don’t have an issue with needy people banging on the church door but a lack of responsibility on the part of the Christians already inside. 

Still, Christians today do misuse this text as a cop-out for not helping others. Just a few years ago I remember seeing a social media post from Senator Kevin Cramer  (R - North Dakota), who touted how his Christian faith influenced how he governed. A constituent then asked his thoughts on Matthew, chapter 25 – you know, when Jesus says “whenever you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or visit those in prison you are doing it for me.” To which Senator Cramer quoted, you guessed it, II Thessalonians 3: 10, pointing out that the Bible explicitly says that those who cannot work for themselves and for their own bread shouldn’t receive any from others. It sounds a lot like another quote I’ve heard a time or two: “God helps those who help themselves,” which, of course, is a sentence you won’t find in any translation of the Bible, not even the Message! 

Unfortunately, there is a tendency on the part of many Christians to forget that context matters for every sentence of every book of the Bible. Using this passage as an excuse not to give to those in need or to moralize against folks who are poor, hungry, or homeless, not only is a gross misuse of the text but also completely—and conveniently—ignores every other mandate in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospels to address the needs of those who seeks help—which can be found, among other places, in Deuteronomy 15: 11 – “Since there will never cease to be need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” – and, from last week’s Gospel, Luke 6: 30 –‘Give to everyone who begs from you.’.  This text must never be used to label poor people as lazy, and it is our duty to understand its context, so that if and when we find ourselves in conversations with those who would have us believe that Scripture teaches us not to offer any assistance to those unable to work or in some other great need, then we will be ready to correct their course—in all Christian love.

What is the point of the text in our own time if it is not a far-reaching indictment of “lazy” people?  The ultimate goal of this text is to bring people back into the community.  Too many of the Thessalonians were relying on Jesus’ immediate return—and if we lived with that level of fear and anxiety we might also just say, ‘Forget it!’ to all kinds of responsibilities.  But what the Thessalonians had forgotten, and perhaps even what we forget sometimes, is that members of a Christian community are responsible to one another. As I said to my congregation on Sunday, when you’re not here, the community is worse off, and when you’re not at the Table, the community is cheated of the gift of your presence.  That’s not in any way meant to malign those who tune in to church online because they physically cannot be there in-person. But for those of us who can, the question we might ask ourselves when we kept up on Sunday morning and decide if we will show up shouldn't be “Do I need to go to church today?” but rather “Who needs me to be in church today?”  

With everything in us, we must resist the urge to see this text from II Thessalonians and others like it as an invitation to judge others.  If we’re not careful, we could take it as an invitation to be the very worst kind of judgmental, passive-aggressive, shaming Christian.  Instead, let us hear this text in the manner it was originally intended, as instruction for us to be accountable to one another in the context of our own Christian communities, and to embrace the unique experiences, perspectives, and talents that we each bring, eager to share them, which, of course, is what stewardship is all about.  And so, as we "read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Scriptures," even in a complicated text like this one, we find there is, as always, good news.  

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

No One Is Alone

In the second act of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods, the four remaining lead characters – the Baker, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack – come together to sing the show’s penultimate number called No One Is Alone. After the long, arduous journey they’ve been on, each one having experienced tremendous heartache, they try to understand the consequences of the things for which they have wished throughout the show, and they begin to decide to place community wishes over their own. The song itself serves a dual purpose: first, to show that each of the characters’ actions – and by extension our own – are not made in a bubble and that no one is guaranteed to be the protagonist of their own story. And second, and I would say most importantly, the song demonstrates that even when life throws its greatest challenges at us, we do not have to face them alone, that there are still people who love us, believe in us, and are cheering for us.

The original Broadway cast of Into the Woods sings 'No One Is Alone.'

I would add, even when we cannot see them. For that is what the Feast of All Saints is about, the companions we have had along our journey through the woods of our own lives, those who showed us the way, who may have gone on to glory, but whose lessons, whose love, whose spirits live on and inspire us to keep going and remember, to borrow the last line of that song: things will come out right now/we can make it so/someone is on your side/no one is alone.

All Saints Day may have actually been this past Tuesday, November 1, but this feast day is one of the few in the Church that can be moved and take precedent over the principle celebration of a Sunday morning, which is how we celebrated it in the context of my parish. Think of it this way: each Sunday is kind of a mini-Easter, and even when a feast day falls on a Sunday – for example the feast day of one of the apostles or Mother Mary – those celebrations take a back seat to Sunday itself and get moved to the next available day. But All Saints gets special treatment, perhaps because of its significance in celebrating the lives of all those who have gone before us. There really is something special about this day.

In my own life this day is special because I am reminded of the parish in which I grew up, All Saints in Norton, VA, where I was blessed this week to share the preaching duties with my Dad when we celebrated All Saints Day and remembered the life of The Rev. Fran McCoy, my priest for 19 years and one of the most important people in my life – a true saint if there ever was one. 

Clergy gathered at All Saints Church in Norton, VA for the festive Eucharist for All Saints Day.

For Good Shepherd, the parish where I serve now, All Saints Day holds a lot of meaning. In 2015, 2016, and 2018 we had baptisms on that day. In 2019 it was the day we returned to the sanctuary after a 6-week exile to the outdoor chapel and Pugh Funeral Home due to mold remediation. And in 2020 after much planning and prep, it was to be the day we came back to public worship after COVID-19 brought everything to a standstill in March, but a new wave that fall kept us apart for several more months. And now, in 2022 we marked the day with another celebration, the golden anniversary of the first public worship in our sanctuary.

The sanctuary of Good Shepherd in Asheboro, NC, set up for a Christmas Eve Midnight Mass in 2021.

We took time during our worship this Sunday to recognize the folks who were there in 1972 and gave thanks for the saints who had helped make the space possible. I couldn't help but believe deep in my heart that those beloved brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers of our faith were with us that day, and are truthfully, with us at all times and in all places. The commitment of those folks at Good Shepherd to the Gospel, to breaking bread and praying together made our sanctuary possible when they began to outgrow their original sanctuary, which became our chapel. A lot has changed about the space since 1972 – the altar, choir, and baptistry have all been moved, and it is now a lot easier to take Communion sine the rail was moved down closer to the congregation, instead of being up not one, but two sets of steps. But our eyes are still drawn to the Christus Rex when we enter, as Christ the King draws our hearts and spirits into his very presence and brings us closer to each other, closer to him, and closer to our dear companions – the saints.

And that is what the saints truly are to us, our companions. The word is taken from the Latin com, meaning “together or with,” and pan, meaning “bread.” Our companions are literally the ones with whom we share bread. And just as your closest companions are the ones you invite to share bread at your dinner table, here at this holy Table, Christ brings us together – he who himself is the bread of life, the bread of heaven, the bread that feeds and sustains us . And it is this Bread that we share with each other, yes, but when we come to this rail we do not do it alone. None of us is alone. The heavenly banquet that we know our loved ones are sharing right now is nothing less than the Eucharist itself. This banquet is happening at all times in the Kingdom of Heaven, and when we share it together on this side of the Kingdom, we step out of our own time and place and receive that foretaste of glory divine, and right next to those we love but see no longer. They may not have universities or churches named for them, but they matter to us. We know who they are - and so does God - those companions, those saints. And at the Table of the Lord we share with them in what Saint Ignatius of Antioch called “the medicine of immortality.”

There are many things that make Christianity so special, but one is the emphasis that it places on community. Salvation is not something we achieve on our own – contrary to popular opinion, we do not go out and “get saved” by ourselves. We pray, we break bread, we study, we grow, we fail, we fall, and we keep moving closer and closer to salvation together. The lives of the saints remind us of that fact. They remind us that no one is alone.  Because they were never alone, even when the world rejected them. Jesus never did. Even the world rejects us, Jesus never does, and the saints, whose prayers from heaven sustain and strengthen and inspire us, never do either. No one is alone.

Ceiling depiction of All Saints Day (image courtesy of Seton's Parish in Pickerington, OH)

The last few years have been really lonely, but one of the things for which I am most proud of my parish - and many church communities, for that matter - is how they made sure that everyone remembered that though there may have been lonely moments, no one was alone. Their calls, especially to our most vulnerable folks who have been shut in, cards to those of us who were ill and could not interact with others, and all the other ways that they reinforced the importance of this Christian community, helped so many get through some tough days until they could at last return to the sacred space for which we gave thanks on Sunday. And even for those who have not returned, just knowing that the church is here, that the work begun before our chapel was ever even built, continued when the sanctuary was dedicated 50 years ago, and ongoing now, is enough. All Saints is the day that unites us to our forebears who laid the physical cornerstone of our church building, so that it may be a place of worship for the One who is the very cornerstone of all things, Jesus our Lord. We share in the Communion of Jesus’ own Body and Blood with one another and with the saints, so that we may recall our own place in the Communion of saints, and go from the Holy Table united as one Body in a common mission to seek and serve and love all persons as Jesus has sought, served, and loved us. For as Saint Augustine of Hippo once put it, “We eat the Body of Christ, so that we may be the Body of Christ.”

Thanks be to God for the blessed Feast of All Saints! For in it we have the assurance that we are not alone. No one is alone. The saints who have gone on to glory are praying for us and are with us. And the saints on this side of the Kingdom, still striving, continue to pray and work together for the glory of God and the Good News that the Kingdom of God is in our midst. For all the saints, who from their labors rest, who thee by faith before the world confessed thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blest. Alleluia!  Glorious feast!  

Monday, October 31, 2022

Lessons In Contrition From a Wee Little Man

'Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner." Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost."'

--Luke 19: 1-10

How many of you remember the nursery rhyme about Zacchaeus, the wee little man?  It went something like this:

I actually sang that in the pulpit on Sunday when I preached on this story. I had, in fact, never heard this song before I was serving as a youth minister and school chaplain just before seminary. It makes for a catchy song for kids to remember, but as Paul says in I Corinthians 13, now that we are adults we must reason and think like adults, and when we do that we find a whole lot going on here, which is a story about a miracle, really - making amends, repentance, conversion, and the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to change people’s lives if they are open to being changed. 

An Orthodox icon depicting the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus.

Jesus says that he has come to seek out and save the lost, and to be certain Zacchaeus appears to rank among these. He is a chief tax collector, which means that he profited off of the corrupt system by which tax collectors would often charge ridiculous interest rates and cheat people, namely the poor. The chief tax collectors were then charged with making sure the Roman officials got their cut, so that the collaborative system of oppression could continue. Zacchaeus is among the most hated out of a group that is already pretty well hated. 

This story, at first, looks like it will repeat what happened when Jesus encountered a rich young ruler just one chapter earlier. Remember that story, how the rich man was devastated when Jesus told him the only thing he lacked in order to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven was to sell all he had and give it to the poor?. Now we find another rich man, and this one a tax collector, which means Zacchaeus didn’t exactly earn his wealth by honest means.  Surely, Jesus will call him out for his greed, right?

The rich young ruler, as depicted in the graphic novel Marked by Steve Ross

Here's why I love this story – and by extension the whole Gospel of Jesus – he never does what we expect him to do. Instead of calling out Zacchaeus’ sin, Jesus spots him in the tree and invites himself over for dinner. That seems a bit presumptuous, right? I mean, even for Jesus, to just say, “Hey! I’m coming over to your place for dinner, set another plate out!” seems a tad rude. Didn't his Blessed Mother raise him better? But let’s contextualize it for a second and remember what the table means. To invite someone to your table back then, and sometimes even now, was a power play; you invited others to dinner so that you may gain favor with them, which is why only those of equal or higher social standing were invited. Jesus turns this system around by inviting himself over. Once again, unexpected. That is pretty cool, and a helpful reminder for us even now to pay attention to whom we invite to our tables – and by extension, whom we do not invite. After all, Jesus made quite a habit of eating with the “wrong” kinds of people. Maybe we should follow his lead.

And this is where we see the conversion of Zacchaeus. Wherever he was spiritually before he saw Jesus, he’s not there anymore. He was certainly one of those who were lost, but now – through no will or actions of his own, but only by the grace of Jesus – he has been found. Which is why he doesn’t respond like the rich, young ruler. When the people start to grumble, he doesn’t try to defend himself. Instead, he wants to make restitution and reparation for what he has done. He will not only give half of his possessions to the poor, but from the rest he will pay back four times what he owes to any person whom he has defrauded. If we look at the Greek here, we have a curiosity: in the original Greek it’s not future tense – I will pay – it’s present tense – I am paying; and, in fact, the King James Version also uses the present tense. It’s not just some promise for the future that he may or may not fulfill, it’s happening right that second, and as is the case with the present tense of ancient Greek, it is implied that the paying is not just happening in that moment but will continue to happen, on and on into infinity. It is both a present reality and a future promise. Kind of like the Kingdom of Heaven itself.

This transformation is, quite simply, a miracle, and something of a fulfilled prophecy. Going back to the story of the rich, young ruler, Jesus points out that it would take a miracle for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. One chapter later, behold the miracle. Zacchaeus, the rich tax collector hears Jesus’ invitation and willfully and freely chooses to seek forgiveness for the wrongs he has done, and in so doing is changed forever and gives each of us hope that regardless of how others may see us, whatever stuckness we find ourselves in as a result of our sin, we can get out of it by accepting the free gift of the grace of God and doing the hard work of making amends with those we’ve harmed. That is a miracle, and it still happens whenever God’s kindness inspires us to acts of justice. 

We see in Zacchaeus another miracle, that of downward mobility. The world wasn’t that much different back in Jesus’ day as it is now. Folks were just as eager to move up in their social standing in 1st century Palestine as they are in 21st century America. Zacchaeus is a “climber” in more ways than one. He doesn’t just climb up that tree, but his role as a tax collector allowed him to move up and above his neighbors, resulting in them holding Zacchaeus and his ilk in contempt, judging them as sinners. But Jesus dismantles both of these claims to superiority when he calls Zacchaeus to “come down.” Zacchaeus can’t be in relationship to Jesus or his neighbors if he takes this lofty perch above everyone – both literally and metaphorically. He has to move down, move toward Jesus, move toward his neighbors. He had to abandon the vertical strategy for success that involved climbing over others, and instead adopt a horizontal vision of righteousness and justice characterized by redistributing his wealth. Downward mobility. Yet another miracle.

Finally, we have to imagine that Zacchaeus used this encounter with Jesus and this moment of inner transformation to help right the unjust system in which he had long participated.  As New Testament scholar Fred Craddock put it “while nothing of Zacchaeus private life is revealed in this story, this much we know on principle: no one can privately be righteous while participating in and profiting from a program that robs and crushers other people.” No one leaves an encounter with Jesus and remains the same as they were before. The same must be have been true of Zacchaeus, of all of us. If we are not inspired by our own spiritual transformations to address the ills of our time, then what was the point of being transformed to begin with?

This is a story about how the grace of God can transform any of us, if we are open to receiving it. Zacchaeus does to fight back, he doesn’t defend his sinful actions when confronted by the crowd, but he is accountable for the wrongs he has done, makes amends, and is changed by the simple invitation from Jesus, “Come down.”. He at last has eyes to see where he has been and what he has done, and by “coming down,” moving toward Jesus and toward his neighbors, his whole being is transformed. When we are as open to receiving the grace of God as Zacchaeus is, our eyes are open and we see the foolishness in upward mobility and are inspired to make amends for our wrongs and undo the systems of oppression in which we ourselves have participated. There’s way more to this story than just a fun little nursery rhyme. Would that we could all be as eager to see Jesus and be transformed by him as this wee little man.

Monday, October 24, 2022

Lessons in Prayer from the Pharisee and Tax Collector

'Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."'

--Luke 18: 9-14

What was the first prayer that you learned?  For me it was a bedtime prayer that hung on my wall: “Now I lay me down to sleep/I pray the Lord my soul to keep/If I should die before I wake/ I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.” There is a lot I could say about how theologically sound or appropriate that prayer actually is for a child, but I’m grateful my parents taught it to me because it helped me over the years develop a practice of prayer before bed. Even if it is just a “Thank you, Lord, for this day,” I try to manage some sort of acknowledgment of God, and very often that super short prayer has been the only one I can muster the entire day.

It is said that all prayer, when you get down to it, falls into one of four categories, four types of prayer: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication – or as Anne Lamont put it: Wow, Sorry, Thanks, and Help. Adoration are the prayers of praise to God and acknowledgment of who God is, and who we are not. Confession is when we acknowledge our faults and ask both God’s forgivingness and that of others. Thanksgiving is simply saying thanks to God for all God has done. Supplications are offered for particular people and situations, maybe for a loved one who is sick or a crisis going on in the world for which we cry out to God to intercede. I would say, “Now I lay me down to sleep” falls into the category of supplication. 

I’ve noticed that sometimes folks get the notion that praying is reserved for a certain type of Christian with a special aptitude for it, like the ordained. I get that a lot if I’m having dinner with someone who glances at me when it’s time for grace and says something like, “You’ve got the direct line to God.” Blessedly, while I was away on my medical leave our the Vestry of my parish adopted the practice of having one of their own say the opening prayer before the monthly meetings. I really like this, and I’m glad that it’s something we have continued to do since my return. It’s a good reminder that prayer is something we all can do, something we all must do, not just the clergy. 

Prayer, as it turns out, is a prominent theme throughout the Gospel of Luke, which we’ve been reading all year. From the adoration prayers announcing Jesus’ birth in chapter 1, to the supplication of Jesus on behalf of his murderers in chapter 23, the life and ministry of Jesus in this Gospel are distinguished by prayer. The parable that Jesus offers to his followers in today’s reading is a lesson on prayer.

An icon depicting the parable of the pharisee and tax collector/publican

Two men go up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. We are already conditioned to understand the contrast between these two people – the self-righteous, elitist Pharisee and the greedy, despised tax collector. The Pharisee, the text says, stands and prays by himself, suggesting a kind of aloofness. A better translation of the Greek phos heauton is that he prayed “within himself,” something of a narcissistic silique. While the tax collector makes his plea very loudly down on his knees.

Now to be sure, the Pharisee does pray one of those four types of prayer. It’s a thanksgiving to God and was actually a fairly common one among Pharisees at the time. He thanks God that he is not a sinner, like other people, especially this tax collector. Meanwhile, the tax collector puts himself in a posture of contrition and remorse, his is a prayer of confession and supplication. Which of these two characters gets the approval of Jesus? Of course it is the tax collector, who, though part of a notoriously greedy and sinful lot, humbles himself before God and his fellow worshippers in the Temple.

"Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble those themselves will be exalted." We are all too familiar with these words of Jesus, yet I wonder how often each of us hears this story and asks which one am I? Jesus’ audience was literally filled with Pharisees and tax collectors , but because I am going to guess that none of you dear readers is either a Pharisee or tax collector, I think our challenge with this text is to find ourselves in it. 

We might be quick to vilify the Pharisee; after all, they are so often painted as the bad guys in the story. Yet, as the German theologian Karl Barth once said, both men are equally shamed before God: the Pharisee for his self-righteousness and the tax collector for his greed. The difference, Barth points out, is that the Pharisee doesn’t recognize his sin and the tax collector does, which is why Jesus commends him, despite his sin. The Pharisee is quick to point out the speck in his neighbor’s eye but not the log in his own, to borrow from another parable of Jesus from Matthew, chapter 7. And so, are we able to recognize our own sin, or are we too busy pointing out the sins of our neighbors? It takes a lot of vulnerability to the former.

This, I believe, is the great lesson of this parable for both Jesus’ audience then and for our own time. Last week I was making a pastoral visit in the home of a parishioner, and I noticed that the tv remained on throughout our visit, and I couldn't help but notice that every single commercial was a political ad. I paid no attention to the party or even the name of the candidates, just the tone of the ads, and even though the volume was off, I could tell simply in the formatting, the colors and saturation on the screen, the text that flashed, and the images of the candidate and the opponent that these were all attack ads, sending the message, “The candidate who approved this message is not like this other person.” It was the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector playing out in real life, and it made me very glad that I don’t have cable television in my home. 

The higher we lift ourselves up, the farther we will fall. To be humble, as Jesus teaches in this parable, is to have the vulnerability to recognize our own sin. The Pharisee was too busy focusing his prayers on thanking God for all the good stuff going on for him that he couldn’t see what he was doing. We develop eyes to truly see and hearts that are humble when we cultivate a full prayer life that incorporates not just thanksgivings but adoration of God, prayers of supplication for others, and confession for our mistakes, what we have done and left undone. Such a full prayer life is something we practice each Sunday in our liturgy together, but as a colleague of mine always likes to say, “Sunday is the dress rehearsal for the rest of our lives.” Every day brings with it the invitation to practice such a life, even if the prayers we make are super short.

If I ask myself who I am in this parable, the truth is I have probably been more like the Pharisee than I’d care to admit, too focused on saying thanks for all the good in my life to notice my own self-righteousness. But knowing that, what can I do about it? How can my prayer life be changed, so that I can be changed? I do not believe prayer changes things, but I believe it changes us, it changes the one praying. With a full prayer life that balances Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication we can meet and live up to the great challenge of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is that all people are beloved – the Pharisee, the tax collector, you, me, them, everyone  - and that it is within our power to create Beloved Community (what Jesus called the Kingdom of Heaven) wherever we are. We don’t need to humble ourselves to the point of beating ourselves up, nor should we be so thankful as to exalt ourselves to the point of acting as if God should be thanking us for coming to church on a Sunday. It’s a balancing act. How might we humble and exalt ourselves and others in appropriate – that is, balanced – ways? 

In this world of ours right now it seems like everyone just wants to exalt themselves and throw shade at their neighbors the way the Pharisee in the parable does. It’s impossible to ignore because that message plays out everywhere we look. May we who follow the Way of Jesus take the higher road, which, ironically, involves getting on our knees and, like a humble, vulnerable child, simply praying: Wow, Sorry, Thanks, and Help

Monday, October 17, 2022

Wrestling With God

'The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed." Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.'

--Genesis 32: 22-31

'Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, `Grant me justice against my opponent.' For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, `Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'" And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"'

--Luke 18: 1-8

I have a confession to make.  I am closet fan of professional wrestling. I got hooked when I was in high school, thanks to Kenny Mullins, the senior in my 8th grade algebra class who said to me one week, “Just watch it!” I did and it was all over.  After about 10 years I gave it up like a lot of fans do – it was just too weird at that point – but even though I don’t watch much, I pay attention to what’s going on, listen to a weekly wrestling podcast, and am still fascinated by it. It may be predetermined or performative, but at its core it represents something fundamental about the human condition: the struggle between the babyface good guy and the heel bad guy, and in the end there is always closure to their conflict.

Jacob wrestling with God (artist unknown).

So however crude or rudimentary it may be, pro wrestling is what I first thought about when I read our passages from Genesis and Luke this week. In Genesis we find Jacob running for his life, and to be honest, he’s kind of the heel in this story. He has cheated his brother Essau of his birthright, stolen a blessing from their father Isaac that was reserved for Essau, and altogether cheated and lied to get what he wants. Essau is out to get Jacob, who we find in our reading on a mountain where he wrestles all night with a stranger. It is widely accepted that this stranger is some kind of earthly form for God. All night long they struggle, grappling with one another. It’s a slober-knocker, as the legendary wrestling announcer Jim Ross would say. God knocks out Jacob’s hip, but Jacob is relentless and won’t quit until he receives a blessing. When morning comes the blessing is granted, God gives to Jacob a new name, ‘Israel’ – literally, one who wrestles with God. Jacob even names the place where the contest took place ‘Peniel’ – the face of God. Wrestlemania’s got nothing on this bout. 

We generally associate the name Israel today with a specific place, the state of Israel that was founded in 1948, but throughout the Scriptures the name is not a reference to a geographic location. The earliest Scriptures of our Old Testament, the Hebrew Tanakh, were put down during the days of the Babylonian Exile, meaning that there was no kingdom or country called Israel during the entire time the Jewish and Christian Scriptures were written. Instead, ‘Israel,’ as it appears in the Bible, is a reference to a group of people, to the descendants of the one who wrestled with God on that mountain. And we see that population of people continue that tradition of wrestling with God, don’t we? We see it generations after Jacob is gone when the Hebrew people are enslaved in Egypt and then wander through the dessert to find their home. We see it in the aforementioned Babylonian Exile and the words of the Prophets and the Psalms written during that tumultuous time. We see it in the anguish experienced by Jesus’ own people in the Gospels as they live under Roman occupation. And certainly, in the years since, through the Inquisitions, pogroms, and Holocausts that have tried to destroy them, this persistent population knows what it means to wrestle with God because it literally is their name. 

That same persistence is what Jesus is articulating in the parable from the Gospel of Luke.  Let’s be honest, this is not an easy parable to understand, is it? If the judge in the story – often called the Unjust Judge – is a stand-in for God, it sure looks like he’s a bit of a jerk. He refuses to grant the widow’s request time and time again; she finally wears him out until he gives in to her demands, weary that she will exhaust him, or as the literal translation reads, ‘Give him a black eye!’ I don’t believe, nor do most biblical scholars, that we should equate the actions of God with those of the judge. Our relationship to God is not one where we pester God to the point that God gives us what we want – that is a pretty immature kind of faith. Yet one thing we can gleam from this parable is that, sometimes, it definitely feels like we are pestering God, that we are wrestling with God. The moral of the parable, then, is that our faith should be persistent and relentless, not so that we get what we want, but so that we always remember that God does, in fact, hear us and will bring closure, even if it is not always the kind that we were seeking. 

The persistent widow and the unjust judge (artist unknown).

The story of Jacob and the parable of the persistent widow both speak to something to which we all can relate, and that is the struggle we sometimes feel with God.  There isn’t a person among us who has not wrestled with God, sometimes all night like Jacob.  There isn’t a person among us who has not felt like they have pestered God again and again again with their request. I’ve been there. We’ve all been there the last two years, sure, but even in the Before Time we all experienced those moments. When a person died suddenly. When we lost a job. When we went through a divorce. When life made little sense.

 I can remember many times sitting in the parish oratory or at a coffee shop and talking to someone who would open up and share their experiences, and they would be scared because they had been taught that you don’t wrestle with God or question God. You just accept everything that comes your way, without exception. Yet this is contrary to what the Bible actually shows us. It’s not just Jacob or the parable of the persistent woman. Maybe the best example, of course, is Job. We don’t read nearly enough from Job, but that story is one that often gets misinterpreted. We celebrate his patience or the fact that Job coined the phrase, ‘The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,’ but we sometimes forget that Job eventually cursed God and cursed the day he was born.  Job, for those who don’t know, is the oldest story in the Bible, whose roots can be traced back to an era long before Judaism existed, and its lesson is older than our Scriptures themselves, the lesson that part of what it means to be human is to wrestle with the Divine. 

Job by Leon Bonnat (1880)

That may sound like a downer, but I actually believe it is Good News. Here’s why. When we accept the message that we shouldn’t question God, we minimize our experiences of pain and those of others. But when we wrestle with God and dare to ask questions like “Why did this happen?”  - or even the question Jesus himself asks on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”- we open ourselves up to an actual two-way conversation with God.  That conversation might not be easy or short – it seldom is either– but in the end, out of that wrestling, out of that struggle comes clarity and understanding, comes the closure that we need, even if it isn’t what we were originally seeking. 

We may often come to the Scriptures looking for the message that makes us feel good, only to be hit with stories like these. They’re not easy to hear, but they speak to a deep truth, the truth that when we wrestle with God we are not doing anything wrong. We are, in fact, growing deeper in our relationship with God, deeper in our knowledge and love of God, deeper in our understanding for how God is living and moving in our very being. It is similar to a marriage. I’ve probably learned the most about my spouse, myself, and our relationship in the times we’ve wrestled with each other. They’ve actually made our relationship even stronger and more meaningful. I suspect the same is true for y’all’s relationships, with your partners and with God. 

So if you find yourself questioning God, wrestling with God, know that it’s ok. If you feel like you’re pestering God, that’s fine because God can take it. And in the end, you might come away changed, maybe with even with a limp, but one way or another, when the bell sounds, you’ll find the closer you need.

Monday, September 12, 2022

Being Lost

'All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."

So he told them this parable: "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

"Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.' Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."'

--Luke 15: 1-10

I lose things.  Like, a lot. I’ve lost my high school ring – which was miraculously found in another state six months later – my father’s college ring from the Citadel – which was never found, sadly – and a lot of other accessories, besides just rings, whose stories could fill up the rest of this sermon time. While I was serving at a church in South Carolina I lost my sunglasses, and our wonderful parish administrator, who was a devout Roman Catholic taught me a short, simple prayer to Saint Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost items:

Dear Saint Anthony, please look around.
Something is lost and cannot be found.

I never found that particular pair of sunglasses, but if and when you do find the thing you’ve lost, you’re supposed to show your gratitude by praying:

Dear Saint Anthony, thanks for coming around.
What I had lost has now been found.

Maybe you called on Saint Anthony when you were little, or maybe you did last week. Assuming you did find the thing you were looking for, do you remember how overjoyed you were to find it? 

Saint Anthony of Padua, patron saint of lost items.

The entire 15th chapter of the Gospel of Luke is made up of three parables about lost things – lost sheep, lost coin, and lost child, which is the parable of the prodigal son that we don’t hear this week because we actually heard it way back on the Fourth Sunday in Lent. Each of these parables follows the same pattern: a sheep is lost from the fold, and the shepherd goes to find it and rejoices when it is returned; a woman turns her house upside down to find a coin that is equivalent to a whole day’s wages, and when she finds it she throws a party to celebrate; and of course, in the parable of the prodigal, a son squanders his inheritance and comes home in shame, only to have his father meet him and have a great celebration with wine and beef and fancy robes. Something is lost, someone searches for the something, and joy abounds when the something is found.

Jesus’ use of parables was common among rabbis of his day, as most of us know. They were meant to teach an important lesson about God and about ourselves, and they invited the hearer to identify who is whom in the story. It’s not too hard to figure out, then, that in these parables God is pretty clearly the shepherd searching for the sheep and the woman searching for the coin.  The sheep and the coin, therefore, are you. They’re me. They’re every person whom God loves. To some that might sound a bit like low-hanging fruit, but it’s true, and it’s important to remember. Our shame often gets in the way and whispers to us in the voice of the Enemy “Maybe everyone else, but not you. Not after what you’ve done, the life you’ve led, and the decisions you’ve made. God couldn’t possibly love you that much, to seek you out, to throw you a party. Anybody but you.” I’ve been guilty of hearing that voice. Maybe you have, too. So it matters, it really matters, that we can hear Jesus tell us today, through these stories, that yes indeed, God loves you and is searching for you, like a shepherd searching for a lost sheep, like a woman searching for that lost coin, and when God finds you, God’s enthusiasm abounds so much that there is a party in heaven, just for you!

Wow! That is some good news, indeed, ain’t it? Yet even when they hear this kind of good news, the religious authorities and elites still grumble. Grumblers gonna grumble, I guess, no matter what good news they hear. The parables, then, are a plea to them to remember that rejoicing is the proper response to God’s abundant love, not grumbling.  

This brings up an interesting point about these parables and this exchange between Jesus and the authorities. The chapter starts by pointing out that the tax collectors and other notorious sinners have come to Jesus, and rather than turning them away, he has welcomed them and shared table fellowship with them. They seem to get it. The sinners understand Jesus and the parables, they get that they have been lost and are now found and their hearts have been strangely warmed in such a way that they can accept God’s grace and Jesus’ love. But the authorities? They don’t see that they are also lost. All they can do is grumble about this unorthodox – we’ve never done that before – behavior from Jesus, and so they grumble. These so-called righteous folks are blinded by what they think they’re supposed to do, how they have been taught to believe and act. Now they’re spiritually lost, and even when Jesus is standing in front of them, they still think they’re the shepherd and the woman in the stories, not the sheep and the coin. 

That’s how we get lost, when we start believing that we’ve got it figured out, that we are the righteous ones. This is when the Gospel ceases to be enough for us, when the grace of God and love of Jesus are just ideas that are nice but not really significant to our lives; we need more. I’d propose, to paraphrase David Lose, the Sr. Pastor of Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis:  “might the parents who want their children to succeed so much that they wrap their whole lives around sports games and recitals be lost; might the career-minded individual who has made moving up the ladder the only priority be lost; might folks who work jobs they hate just to give their families things be lost; might the earnest Christian who is constantly grumbling about the affairs of their neighbor be lost?"

To truly be lost is to act as if the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the grace and love of God aren’t enough; that we need to make some sort of meaningful contribution to society that others can validate, otherwise we don’t really matter. To be lost is to forget that we are children of a God who passionately searches for us, who is active in history and in the world today, who never gives up on us, even if we give up on ourselves, each other, and God. You are loved, my sisters and brothers, so very much! You are of more value than a sheep or coin or any other object. And God is seeking you out, to love you and remind you of that love everyday, but it is only when we can admit to our own lostness that we can truly be found. It is in acknowledging, not so much to God or others, but to ourselves, that we don’t have it all figured out, that we are frail and vulnerable and in need of love, that we can let God in to welcome us back to the place we’ve always been, where God celebrates the precious possession that is us.