Talents

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Talents

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
November 19, 2017

When I was a kid I had a summer job cutting grass for our neighbors.  I was used to mowing our lawn on our riding lawnmower--frankly, I enjoyed it--and so I was surprised to realize that other people who didn’t  like moving the lawn would actually pay me money to do it for them.  It was a great realization.  And suddenly I had a little cash as a result.

My parents took me down to our bank to open a passbook savings account.  If you’re older than about half of you here, if you’re my age, you’ll remember these accounts--at least at the George D. Warthen Bank of Washington County, a savings account had an actual passbook--a little book that you’d write deposits and withdrawals in--and you’d bring it in every time you visited the bank to make a deposit or withdrawal.  I was introduced to the miracle of compound interest--interest rates were much higher then--and I loved going to the bank.  It had cool air conditioning, and beautiful and clean terrazzo floors, and everything smelled like money--the metallic smell of pennies and the ink from dollar bills.  The tellers were patient and kind and I loved it when they stamped my passbook savings folio.  And they always gave me gum.  Chicklets.  The bank was a magical place back for a child back in the heady days of profitable retail banking.  I still love a good old-fashioned bank lobby, though much has changed for banking.

But what’s not changed is the sense that I learned, in those little ritual actions around that savings account, that saving money is a virtue--an important thing to do.  And so I get really concerned when I read the parable of the talents--when I hear that the person who’s taken the most conservative strategy, the third servant who just wants to protect the master’s wealth by burying it in the ground, is cast “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 25.30)  His portion is taken away and given to the one who earned the most.  “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will haven an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”  (25.29)

I don’t like the way this story turns out.  Shouldn’t the cautious, careful, saving servant be honored?  And if he now has less than the other two, shouldn’t he be given more?  Why should his portion be taken away? 

I’ve been thinking a lot about this story this week, especially as it might involve us, in this time and place.  And if you’ll bear with me I’d like to re-tell it, updated for our time and place.  This is NOT the gospel text, and I’ve taken lots of liberties with it, but sometimes seeing a story from another perspective can help us learn something.  Here’s a contemporary re-telling of the parable of the talents:

The kingdom of heaven is like this.  A very wealthy man is taking a trip around the world--it’s been a dream of his for years, and he’s finally doing it, but there are places that will be remote, and out of touch, places he won’t have cell phone and data service, and so his risk management advisers have told him that, to be safe, he really needs to divide up at least part of his wealth--to diversify its management--while he is away.  And so he calls in his closest in-house financial advisors--his money manager, his accountant, and his lawyer, and asks them to steward some of his wealth while he’s away.  The man thinks his manager is really clever, so he gives him 3 million to invest, all at the manager’s discretion, while he’s away.  He knows his accountant is very trustworthy but a bit more conservative, but she’s got some good ideas, and so he decides to give her 1.2 million to manage.  His lawyer is so honest, and he trusts him, but, the man thinks, he knows the law--not the financial markets--and so he gives him just over half a million to manage for him.  That’s almost five million dollars in today’s money--or, in the measure of the ancient near east, eight “talents” or 48,000 denarii, or days’ wages, to be managed by the three trusted employees. 

The man heads off on his journey, satisfied that, no matter what happens to the rest of his property, at least this part of his wealth will be well managed, available for him when he returns.

After many months, about a year, he returns to his home and calls in his employees, asking for an accounting of his five million.  The money manager is thrilled to tell him that he’s done a really exciting deal.  He’s funded a research trial for a new cancer therapy at Alexion in exchange for a guaranteed portion of the future earnings of the new medication.  The FDA has approved the therapy for use, and wouldn’t you know it, he’s doubled his investment.  The future returns on the investment for the new year are conservatively estimated at six million.  The manager has effectively doubled the value of his cash--and helped bring a new therapy to market that will save lives. The man was delighted at this innovative--and lucrative--use of his money. 

The accountant presents her portfolio.  She’s bought a small retail property, a set of storefronts that have been derelict and empty; she’s invested just a portion of the money in renovations, and she’s spent several months signing multi-year leases for tenants that are neighborhood-friendly:  a deli, a clothing store, and a daycare.  The appraisers have valued the building that she bought, with its new leases, at 2.5 million.  She’s doubled the value of the cash the man left her to manage, and by renovating and bringing in new businesses into an old eyesore of a building, she’s built up the neighborhood in the process.  The wealthy man was overjoyed and what his accountant had accomplished--not only for his balance sheet but also for the neighborhood.

But the lawyer--the lawyer was very careful.  He knew he had a fiduciary responsibility to preserve his employer’s wealth.  And so he socked the half million away in various savings accounts; that way it would be protected by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and would be immediately accessible in the event that someone else’s investment went south.  It was a prudent measure, safe, conservative.  And the money would earn the prevailing interest rate of .01%.  When he was called to account for the funds he’d been given, he presented his employer with a bank draft of five hundred thousand dollars--plus fifty dollars in interest that had been earned for the year. 

The wealthy man was furious.  Furious at his lawyer.  He took the bank draft, handed it over to the money manager to invest, and fired the lawyer on the spot.

When I think of the story in this way, in this retelling, I realize a few things.  The risk that the manager and the accountant took was calculated--but it was exactly what the man wanted them to do. They used his wealth as a tool, to give back to him, and to give back to the community. It was only through taking the risk that something new happened, something good--a new development, a new treatment. 

The man expected them, we learn, to do something with the money--not merely to hold onto it.  To gain a return on his investment.  Stewardship in this story involves actively using the gifts that have been given, not just holding onto them.  That’s why the lawyer fails at the exercise.  You or I might be perfectly happy getting back what we had given, with no loss; that’s certainly safe, after all.  But the man in our story is entrepreneurial.  He expects more.  He expects the employees to do something with it.  And the amount of the return doesn’t even matter.  Three million, one and a half million, it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that the first two employees took the chance, that something happened. They attempted to generate a return of some sort. 

And, in fact, the third employee misses the mark in another way.  Not only does he fail to try something new, to generate a return, to do something good with the tools he’s been given, but he fails to realize the scope of the project.  He has been given something that does not even belong to him.  And he is afraid--so afraid of the wealthy man, so afraid of the risk, so afraid of failure, that he just holds onto it.  In returning what he’s been given, the same value, he’s actually devalued the wealth.  The wealthy man expected a return.  He expected an increase in value.  And here he is, getting back the same amount. It’s a lost opportunity, there’s less value than there could have been.  And all because the third employee was afraid.

Isn’t it like that in our own lives?  God has given us gifts, all different, in different amounts and sorts.  But our money, our talent, our ability, our skill, even our very lives--these come from God, and they belong to God.  And God expects us, invites us, to use those gifts for the kingdom of God.  There is an expectation that we will take a risk!  That we will do something radical and holy for the kingdom of God!  That we will give God a chance to take what we offer, giving back to God from God’s own bounteous goodness, and bless and return those gifts for the reconciliation and healing of the whole of creation.

That’s what we’re doing today when we drop our pledge cards in the alms basin.  When we make your offering today.  When you pledge and pay online or write a check or serve on the altar guild or as an usher or teach a Forum class or bring a dish to a potluck or say a prayer for a fellow parishioner or even ourselves.  We are taking a chance, trusting God, taking a risk, knowing that God will be faithful.  We are offering to God a little bit of what God has given us, trusting that it will be enough, that God will use it for the work of God’s kingdom.  That our gifts can be used by God to heal and restore the world.

And we know that God is faithful, we know that this is all possible, because we have seen God’s own gift, the gift of God’s love in Jesus Christ, Jesus’s own self-offering that triumphs over sin and death and rises and ascends and fills all the world with God’s love. 

I want to tell you a story that I learned this week at a celebration I attended.  This year is the 40th anniversary of the Community Soup Kitchen, and most of those years have been spent in the parish hall here at Christ Church.  This Thursday we gathered in the Hall to celebrate the anniversary of the Community Soup Kitchen, and the CSK board honored Christ Church for its years of partnership in ministry.  As part of the celebration, Diane Welborn, the founding director of CSK, told a story about how the program was founded, in the basement of the Salvation Army just a few blocks away from here.  Wanting a larger, above-ground space, Diane put together a dinner, hosted by Father Rowan Greer, to ask David Boulton, the ninth rector, if it might be possible for the Soup Kitchen to move to Christ Church.  There was anxiety in the vestry, there was worry in the neighborhood. What would it mean to welcome these guests?  Was there enough capacity?  Could the building--could the neighborhood--handle this influx of folks day after day for a meal?  But you said yes.  You took a risk.  And what was then a program feeding maybe 30 hungry people each day now feeds ten times that.  People who come to Community Soup Kitchen aren’t guests of ours; they are becoming a part of our community.  We are joining at tables together, anticipating that heavenly banquet where there is enough for everyone, all are fed, and all are whole through God’s creating and redeeming love.

And all of this happened because God took what you offered, blessed it, and gave it back for the building of the kingdom of God.  All of this happened because you said yes to God.  Because someone asked, and you took a risk.  Because you gave.

Today, when you make your pledge, say yes to God.  Take a risk in joining in God’s reconciling work.  Know that, whatever you can give, God will bless it so that there is enough for the work of the kingdom of God.

After all, all that we have is of God’s own bounty, given to us.  It already belongs to God.  Take a chance. See what God is working to accomplish here in us, using us, here at Elm and Broadway.  How will God multiply our talents today?  How will we join in the abundance of God’s kingdom?  How will we trust in the hope and promise that is the kingdom of God?

I give thanks for God’s goodness, and thanks for your stewardship of God’s good gifts.

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Who are these?

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Who are these?

The Rev’d Daniel R. Heischman
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
All Saints' Sunday
November 5, 2017

“Who are these?”  That is the question of the hour on All Saints Sunday.  Who are these people we refer to as saints?  On the one hand, we may speak of saints as anyone who has been baptized into the Christian community, a rank we hold by virtue of our initiation into Christ’s death and resurrection – “for the saints of God are just folk like me,” as the familiar hymn goes. 

At the same time, we inevitably wonder about those “holy people,” whose lives seem to reflect a powerful and unusual presence of God through their distinctive service, temperament, or spirituality, those who stand out from the Christian crowd. These were the ones to whom, in the words of Sirach, “The Lord apportioned great glory.”  It is so often these saints that come to mind and heart when we ask, “Who are these?” 

If I was to venture a common attribute to these types of saints, I would say that what most commonly characterizes them is their lack of awareness about being of “saintly material” in the first place.  They might be quite surprised to hear that they were candidates for sainthood, and their powerful commitment to service and deep love of others was something they would consider to be “no big deal.” The writer Kathleen Norris once observed that, “If I am Christian, I will be the last to know.” Given, I am a Christian by inheritance, she continues, and a Christian by theology.  But, as she put it, “I can point to any number of people in my small town who are much better Christians than I.”

Perhaps because saints live so deeply with their belief, day after day, they are so keenly aware of how deficient they might be in their belief and practice.  Their modesty about the shape and scope of their faith clearly delineates them from the self-righteous, and can leave us in awe of their humility.In the work that I do with school teachers I am often struck by the degree to which so many of them are, at root, utterly modest about the impact they have on their students.    Drawing upon what Norris wrote, they are usually the last to know about their influence.  Their essential goodness, coupled with their humble expression of that goodness, makes many of them such wonderful people to work with and know, let alone true saints in our respective communities.

Or, we might recall those first responders who, as hundreds were escaping down the staircases at the World Trade Center, were heading in the opposite direction – right into the very danger those hundreds were escaping.  As with them, there can be a certain fearlessness we can identify in saints – at times their boldness may seem to border on carelessness, but it leaves us awestruck just the same.

Modesty, fearlessness, a willingness to sacrifice – all of those things may come to mind when we think of saints.  But there is at least one more dimension to sainthood that leads us, here in church, to celebrate this great feast day – it is through a saint that we are privileged to capture at least a glimpse of God.

In the end, sainthood is not about human achievement; it does not primarily have to do with possessing a particular virtue or doing some good deed, important as that can be.  Saints are not to be equated with heroes, who may well have done what they have done on their own.  It is the grace of God working in that person that befits sainthood, a grace that all of us possess by virtue of our baptism.

In these times, it might be worth considering if there are particular ways that the grace of God is shining through in the saints we encounter in life.  Saints can point us not only to God in general, but to the specific needs of our world in this place and time, and how God calls us to respond to those needs.

I can think of at least three.

The first is our need to recapture the basic dignity of all human beings, something clearly affirmed in our baptismal covenant.  In a world that seems obsessed with rank, media exposure, and externalities, the basic human dignity that forms of the core of who we are, regardless of our status or even our achievement, longs to be recognized, and saints can indeed point us back to that fundamental reality.

In 1952, Robert Coles was a medical student in New York, deeply discouraged by a world of empty achievement and cut-throat competition.  He decided to do some volunteer work for the Catholic Worker Movement in Lower Manhattan, a movement led by Dorothy Day.  Making his way down to the Lower East Side on afternoon, he entered the soup kitchen where Dorothy Day was working.  There he saw the woman, about whom he had heard so much, engaged in a conversation with a woman that was, while intoxicated, able to carry on in a mildly coherent fashion.

The conversation seemed to be taking a long time, to the impatient Coles, eager to meet Dorothy Day.  At long last, Ms. Day got up from her conversation, came over to Coles, and asked him, “Are you waiting to talk with one of us?” 

Coles was stunned by Day’s question – “Are you waiting to talk with one of us?”  Wasn’t it obvious he wanted to speak with her?  As Coles later explained, those three words – “one of us” -- cut through all of my layers of self-importance, pride, and pretense. 

In a world where appearance, external accolades, and attention on the self so often is equated with human worth, Day’s simple question not only challenges us, it may well bring us to understand what God is seeking for all us to do and be in this world.

Second, a recommitment to the essential but, oh, so difficult challenge to love our enemies.

Coles encountered another saint in his studies, later on in his career, a saint who may well tell us something more about God’s challenge to us today.  Her name was Ruby Bridges.  In the late 1950s Ruby’s family moved to New Orleans, from rural Mississippi.  At that time white children and black children went to different schools in New Orleans, and, following a court order to desegregate the schools in 1960, Bridges was one of four black girls to go to two white elementary schools.  Of the four, only Ruby was sent to the William Franz Elementary School.

On Ruby’s first day, a large crowd of angry white people gathered outside the school.  People carried racist signs, shouted out derogatory names to Ruby as she entered the school, escorted by federal marshals.

Ruby experienced that treatment each day for several weeks as she entered school.  Ruby would not say a word. 

One morning her teacher noticed that Ruby, as she passed by the hostile crowd, seemed to turn to them and say something.  When asked by the teacher what she had said to the hostile crowd, Ruby responded, “I wasn’t talking to them.  I was praying for them.” Every morning, she explained, she had stopped before encountering the crowd to pray for them.  This morning she had forgotten, until she was in the midst of them.

In a world full of hostility, where we are quick to label the other as an enemy, where name calling and threatening language have become commonplace, a young saint continues to challenge us to pray for those who might wish us harm, who look upon us filled with anger and fear. 

Finally, a love for the stranger.

We often think of saints as having mystical visions, and there is one vision I recall that may well have great relevance to our lives today.  In 1958, Thomas Merton was walking in downtown Louisville KY, in the midst of a great spiritual struggle he was having over how, as a monk, he was to seek to move beyond the world toward God while living in the world.  An answer seemed to be provided to him that day.

As he writes:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I was theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.  It was like awaking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation…This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and joy that I almost laughed out loud…..

Strangers do not normally engender that type of response in us – indeed, where our tendency in the world today is to keep our distance from strangers, rather than feel a deep connection with them, Merton’s vision reaches across the decades to us, perhaps with a message from God – the stranger, that mass of humanity out there, is capable of being loved, not simply assumed to be our enemy.

“Who are these?”  One who turns a life upside down by her simple question; a young child praying for those who wish her harm; a monk searching for meaning and finding it in the midst of, of all things, a downtown crowd.  These are the saints who show us God, who radiate the image of God stamped on all of us, and who call us back to that image, to our own sainthood, our own capacity to be truer followers of Christ.

“Who are these?”  The ones we can all recall, who in turn call to us.

Comment

Render unto God

Comment

Render unto God

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
October 22, 2017

You may notice each week that the front cover of the leaflet usually features a Northern European woodcut that somehow comments on the gospel reading itself--an image depicting the scene in the gospel, or somehow commenting on it.  This pairing of art and text is the exegetical work of our fine parish administrator, whose attention to the service leaflet is itself a ministry, and for which I am grateful.  This week, however, the image that best suited the reading was a small one, one buried inside your leaflet, the image of the denarius, with the emperor Tiberius’s likeness on it.  This coin, probably worth about a day’s wage for a farm laborer, is probably the same one that the Pharisees brought to Jesus when he asked them to show the coin used to pay taxes to the emperor.

The image of the coin was too small to feature well on the front page of the service leaflet, however, and so we defaulted to the image of the interior of Christ Church, the engraving you see there before the rood screen was added.  This prompted a conversation about what it might mean to have a picture of the nave on the front of the leaflet.  If the image on the front cover of the leaflet is usually a commentary on the gospel, what does it mean for the pictureto be the building itself?  What are we saying by putting an image of a physical thing, real property, the building itself, on the cover of the leaflet?  Can a building be gospel commentary?  What need does God have of physical things like buildings, like money?

The Pharisees have plenty of questions like this for Jesus in today’s gospel reading.  Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?  The Pharisees are trying to trick Jesus.  They’re trying to get him to say that the Jewish people, that his followers, that anyone in earshot can ignore the demands of the Emperor to pay taxes.  That everything belongs to God.  Jesus surprises them by pointing out that the emperor’s image is on the coin, and, as the old Authorized translation says, they should “render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”  (Matthew 22:21)  But Jesus surprises them by saying, yes, do your duty.  Pay taxes--give what’s required for the common upkeep of society. 

And we get that.  We understand that we have to pay taxes.  Or that we have a moral obligation to pay taxes.  A commitment to one another in the social contract that is our common life together in society. 

We even understand that we have an obligation to give above and beyond the tax, the amount needed to fund our civil society.  And we call that not an obligation but a duty--philanthropy--the love of humanity, expressed in our generous giving to help one another, especially those in great need.  Philanthropy is a great thing.  It’s our duty. 

We are obligated to pay taxes, to participate in our part of the social contract.  We are bound by duty and moral conscience to help one another, to participate in philanthropy, the love of humanity, by giving to causes that help our fellow humans--the arts, disaster relief, poverty relief and recovery programs.  All of these are deserving of support.

But what about God?  What are we to give to God?  What does God need from us?  Sometimes I miss that second part of Jesus’s directive--render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, sure, we understand that.  That was what the Pharisees were listening for. Would he upset the political order.  But the far more radical thing that Jesus says is the second part of that statement:  “Render unto God the things that are God’s.”

Well, what are we to make of that?  If God made the world, everything belongs to God, right?  So where do we draw the line?  What is it that Jesus is saying, really? 

And why would God need our money anyway?   Salvation has been paid for by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We can’t buy our way into it.  We can’t earn salvation through good works.  It’s only available through the grace of God.  And besides, what would God do with money, anyway?  Isn’t asking for money in the church just a continuation of a collusion with empire, the Constantinian model of doing church continuing into our present day, dying a long, slow death?  Think about it.  Maybe Jesus could buy a bunch of bread with a denarius, or some clothes, or new sandals, but the resurrected and ascended Jesus surely doesn’t need coin.  God doesn’t need our money.  God is, after all, fully spiritual!  God has no need of material things like money.

I hear those arguments sometimes when I talk about tangible things like money, or buildings, or heating bills and roofing slates.  And there’s a great story that Antony Bloom, the late Orthodox Metropolitan of London, tells about material things and God.  It’s a story about Moses and a shepherd. 

Moses spent the day with the shepherd in the desert, tending his sheep together, observing, milking, herding them.   At the end of the day, as they were settling down for the night, Moses noticed that the shepherd poured a little of the best milk into a bowl and set it on a rock away from the camp.  Curious, Moses asked what the shepherd was doing.  He replied, “Each night I take some of the best milk from the day and set it aside as an offering for God.”  Moses, much wiser and more sophisticated than the simple shepherd, was amused, and asked, “Well, does God drink it?”  The shepherd assured him that, yes, God drank the milk!  It was always gone by the next morning.

Moses smiled and explained to the shepherd that God, being spirit, has no need of material things.  There was no way that God could drink the milk.  The shepherd was mistaken.

To settle the disagreement, the little shepherd hid behind some bushes and stayed awake all night, hoping to get a glimpse of God coming to drink the milk.

Later that night, while Moses was sound asleep, the shepherd, barely able to keep his eyelids open, spied a little fox creeping across the desert towards the rock.  The little fox sneaked over to the bowl, lapped up all the fresh milk, and ran off as quickly as he’d come. 

The next morning, the shepherd dutifully reported to Moses that, indeed, Moses was right.  Crestfallen, the shepherd conceded that, indeed, God had no need for his milk—it was just a little fox drinking it.  “Why, this is good news!”  Moses told the disappointed shepherd.  “Now you know more about God than you did before.”  But the shepherd was still sad.  He explained to Moses that the one thing he could do for God was now useless.  His act of love was useful only in his own head.  His eyes now opened to the truth, that night he set out no milk on the rock.

Moses, surprised by this turn in the shepherd’s emotions, thought about this for a while.  And that night, while he slept, God appeared to him in a dream.  “Moses, why did you deprive me of the milk the shepherd used to offer me?”  God asked.  Moses, rather stunned, said to God, “But you had no need of it!  I was only trying to help the shepherd know you better.  To teach him that you are spirit!” 

“Moses,” God replied, “you were wrong.  It’s true that I am spirit and that I have no need of the milk.  But the little fox quite likes milk.  And it was my joy to share it with him.”[1]

It is exactly true that God has no need of our gifts, our offerings, our money.  But God can use them for God’s good purposes.  The shepherd had no idea he was feeding the little fox.  But God knew. His gift was taken and transformed by God, sent back to do God’s will, God’s work, in the world.  Cyrus the Great, whom we hear about in our reading from Isaiah today, wasn’t even Jewish, and yet God used Cyrus to free God’s people in exile in Babylon.  Mary, engaged to Joseph, unmarried, just a young girl, had no idea that she would be the mother of the Messiah, Jesus, the Christ, and yet God used her faithfulness to accomplish God’s good purposes of reconciliation, of salvation, in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.  God can take our offerings of ourselves, our souls, our bodies, our time, our involvement, our prayer, and yes, our money--the resources given to us by God--given back to God--and, like the bread of the Eucharistic feast, take them, bless, break, and give them back, transformed, to do the work of building God’s kingdom.

It’s true, friends, God does not need our gifts.  But he can use them, just as God used  the action of the simple shepherd and used it to accomplish God’s ongoing creative will in the world.  The little fox was fed through this simple action of the shepherd’s gift to God.

But what’s more, the shepherd himself needed to make that gift to God.  When it was taken away from him, his relationship with God was broken.  Sharing the milk, giving the first, the best of his milk back to God, from God’s gift to him--this was an act of love and service to God.  He didn’t even mean to feed the little fox--that was God’s work--but his work was loving God.  Being in relationship with God.  And giving the milk, setting out that small saucer each night, was his work.

And that’s what Moses learns in the story--that the shepherd needs to give.  That giving is a part of the shepherd’s right relationship with God.  That in giving, the shepherd is transformed.  That the shepherd is incorporated into the saving works of God, through God’s grace, involved in this simple act of sharing.  Taking, blessing, breaking, and giving--the cycle of thanksgiving into which we are invited, in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in the Mass, in this very moment, in all time.

Moses surely knew this; he would have known that Abraham gave a tithe, one tenth, of what he had as an offering through the priest Melchizedek. (Gen 14:20)  Jacob at Bethel, after his dream, promised a tenth of what he had as an offering to God.  (Gen 28:22)  The law assumes an offering, a tithe,  one tenth, of what the earth yields, of produce or livestock, is offered to God.  (Leviticus 27:30-32, Deuteronomy 14:22-23) 

The shepherd knows about the law.  He knows that we’re expected to give one tenth of our first fruits, the bounty of our labor, gifts given to us from God, back to God.  And that’s what he does with his little saucer of milk.  But he’s not giving out of obligation.  It’s not an obligation, like a tax.  It’s not even a duty, like philanthropy.  This is a wholly different sort of giving.  The shepherd is giving out of joy.  He’s giving because his gift describes a relationship--a love for God--a reflection of the love that God has for him, in God’s creation and perseveration of the shepherd and his sheep, in the relationship and love that the Great Shepherd has for us.

Friends, we give out of joy, of the first fruits that God has given us.  And this giving changes us.  It is an expression of our love for God.  It is a way of keeping God first.  It’s an expression of God’s love for us.

Render unto Caesar, sure.  We know how to do that.  We have forms and accountants and laws for how to do that.  But rendering unto God the things that are God’s; are we quite as clear about that?  The second part of the commandment is the big one! 

And sure, there are plenty of reasons that we might not give.  That we might not give enough.  Or even at all.  Maybe it’s not convenient to bring cash.  Maybe you don’t use cash or even checks--just your bank card or electronic payments.  Well, there’s a url right in your bulletin where you can make a gift online.  There are cards in the back of the church that you can drop in the almsbasin when it comes by that say you’ve made a gift online so that everyone can participate in this action of offering--the taking, breaking, blessing, and giving of thanksgiving, of the Eucharistic feast.

But I suspect the real reason we’re uncomfortable around conversations about giving is far larger.

Over the last few weeks you may have noticed a new wooden almsbasin in the lady chapel.  It replaces a wooden almsbasin that was taken a few months ago.  When the almsbasin was missing from its usual spot in the chair in the front row of the chapel, often the mass server would forget to bring out an almsbasin from the sacristy, and often we’d just forget to pass the plate entirely at the weekday masses.  We’d forgotten to give.  Last week at a daily mass I was in the congregation, and I made a point of asking a parishioner to pass the plate.  There were nervous twitters and even a good-natured laugh as the plate was passed around and came back empty.  No one had prepared, no one had cash on hand, to drop in the plate.  I asked someone, one of the Hildans, actually, afterwards why he thought folks had laughed--what that was about.  And he replied, “Well, we all know each other pretty well in the House, and we know how poor we are.  We didn’t have anything to offer.”

I suspect that’s more true to the point about all of us.  We believe we are too poor to offer anything to God.  Like the little shepherd, we are doing the very best we can to care for our own sheep, to lead our own lives, and in this time of scarcity there’s not enough to do any more. 

That couldn’t be further from the truth.

We have every blessing we can imagine.  We have life, and health, and hope.  We have Christian community.  We have the very presence of God amongst us--a God who creates and sustains, who redeems and loves us, who longs to be with us so much that God comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

The shepherd is not rich by earthly standards.  But his heart is full of love for God.  And God takes his saucer of milk, the first fruits of his labor, and blesses it, and uses it for the healing of the world.

Friends, today, this week, this month until Advent, I invite you to think about how we give.  How we render unto God the things that are God’s.  How God has given to us.  And I invite you to be always giving.  How will you give that saucer of milk, that tenth of what God has given you, that first fruits of your labor, to God?  If you don’t believe you can, what’s stopping you?  What barrier is in the way, and what does it mean?  God has broken every barrier down to be with us in the person of Jesus Christ.  Let us render unto God the things that are God’s, of the great love he has for us.

AMEN.

-----

 

[1] The story of Moses and the fox is told by Anthony Bloom in Beginning to Pray (New York:  Paulist, 1970), pp 48-49.  (Also published as School for Prayer, London:  Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd)

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Taking a Knee

Comment

Taking a Knee

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 1, 2017

This week a seminarian and I took an afternoon to review the 9 o’clock customary.  If you serve in the acolyte corps, you already know that the customary is a document that lists in detail what we do in the liturgy, with step by step instructions--what each person does, where she or he moves, what comes next--that sort of thing.  It’s detailed.  The customary for the 11am Solemn High Mass runs over 70 pages at present.  It’s a valuable document, important mostly for training new acolytes, but also for making sure the celebrant doesn’t just wander about aimlessly.  It tells us all where to be next.  Every now and again, however, the customary has to be reviewed--to make sure it still matches what we’re actually doing in the liturgy.  To add anything that might have been missed in previous editions.  To make sure it remains a living, useful document.

Some of the things we looked at in the customary this week were the moments when the celebrant and sacred ministers bow after the words of institution, “This is my body, broken for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.” At the nine o’clock service we bow, because, truthfully, it would be hard to genuflect, or kneel on one knee, behind the altar.  It just looks funny. And so we bow at that moment. 

We do lots of bowing around here.  We bow our heads at the name of Jesus.  We might bow or genuflect before the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  We may bow or genuflect at the mention of the incarnation, as in the creed, “[Jesus] came down from heaven…by the power of the Holy Spirit, he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man…”  We may even kneel during the canon of the mass, the portion of the Eucharistic prayer when we pray that the bread and wine may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ--that his real presence might be made known in the gifts of Bread and Wine.

All of this bowing and genuflecting and kneeling is designed to do one thing--to show reverence, respect, to the presence of Christ in the world around us.  It’s designed to show us in our bodies as well as our minds that we put Christ first in all things.  That we confess with our whole selves that “Jesus Christ is Lord…” as the epistle reading says.

I love that we genuflect here, that we bow, that we kneel--that we use our whole bodies, not just our minds, to pray.  When I was growing up the only time that I thought about kneeling was when I watched a period film and characters were genuflecting to a monarch--or when a coach said to a high school football team, “Take a knee.”  That usually meant he wanted to tell them something--and wanted the players to be quiet and listen.

With the start of football season again this year, lots of players have been taking a knee--not just football players, but lots of people--in what’s become a surprisingly controversial gesture.  If you follow football at all, or if you read the news, or if you’re on Twitter, you already know what all this is about. Almost a year ago now a player for the San Francisco 49’ers called Colin Kaepernick, during a pre-season game. Kaepernick remained on the bench while other players stood.[1]  Kaepernick sat out the National Anthem as a form of protest, as a way of making a statement publically repudiating systemic cultural racism, protesting the racist treatment of African Americans and people of color in our society.  A few games later,  Kaepernick shifted to kneeling during the national anthem before games as a way of maintaining his protest while also honoring the service of men and women in our armed forces.  A way of showing love and respect for our nation and her people, while still calling it and us to account for the racism that’s a part of our shared lives together.[2]  By the time our President called on the NFL to fire players who didn’t stand for the National Anthem,[3] the idea of taking a knee during the National Anthem had apparently become a subject of national debate, with passionate feelings on both the standing and kneeling sides of things.  This week at the New Haven Symphony’s opening night of its season, as the conductor walked on stage at Woolsey Hall to lead the stirring strains of our National Anthem, the woman in front of me knelt down in her row, and later the conductor made a comment about making it through the National Anthem “without incident.”  Wherever I go, I can’t seem to get away from this issue of kneeling and the National Anthem.

Now, I suppose Christians of good conscience can hold different opinions about Mr Kaepernick’s action.  The irony is not lost on me that what this It strikes me that taking a knee looks an awful lot like genuflecting to me, like a posture of deep respect.  But others see it as an affront to the flag, the nation, or the National Anthem itself.  Mr Kaepernick has made public statements about both his love for our country and also about his concern about how our country treats people of color.  I don’t think, as Christians, we can ignore the overwhelming evidence of systemic and ever-present racism in our culture that seeks to oppress African Americans and other people of color.  We can’t ignore statistics that show that the US locks away in prison a far higher percentage of its citizens than most of the rest of the industrialized world--and that a tremendously disproportionate number of those prisoners are black.  We can’t ignore our history of racial injustice, from Jim Crow to slavery itself.  We can’t ignore that some people in our country owned other people, and that our entire economic system, at its founding, benefitted from slave labor.  It’s worth taking a knee to lament, to mourn, those injustices.

But if in Mr Kaepernick’s action we find critique and rebuke, I also find invitation and hope in the idea of taking a knee.  I’m not suggesting anyone should or shouldn’t fall down the next time the National Anthem is played.  But I am suggesting that the one we are called to kneel before, the one at whose name “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father,” that this one, Jesus Christ, gives us a way forward.  Even when the whole world, when all of our civil society, seems divided, when there seems no way forward together, no hope, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ gives us hope for reconciliation.  Hope for healing.  Hope for tomorrow.  I find hope in the gospel lesson—the story of the son that shows up to work in the vineyard.

We had something of a similar story in my family growing up.  Every Christmas my grandmother would host a big gathering for all of her family.  It was a big enough family, five four children and their spouses, twelve grandchildren, cousins, aunts, uncles, and a few crying great-grandchildren sprinkled in for good measure.  And so this gathering was pot luck.  Folks would volunteer to bring something--a meat, a side, a dessert.  And every year my aunt Rachel would promise to bring asparagus casserole for thirty people, for example, and then flake out and bring dinner rolls instead.  My aunt Sarah, however, would always over-prepare. She’d say she was bringing a ham, but she’d really show up with a ham, a turkey, sweet potato casserole, and asparagus casserole for thirty--because she knew her sister-in-law was going to forget.  Now, the dynamics of all of this are fraught, to be sure, but the point is that we learned to rely on my aunt.  We loved both Aunt Rachel who brought the rolls and Aunt Sarah who over-functioned and brought enough food to feed an army.  But we could COUNT on Sarah.  We knew, no matter what was said, that Sarah would come through.  That she’d make sure everything was okay.

The gospel today has a story a bit like that.  A father has two sons, and he asks them to go work in his vineyard.  One son says he’s not coming, don’t count on him, he just can’t make it.  And yet he shows up, he puts in his time, he helps out and gets the job done.   The other says that, sure,  he’ll work in the vineyard.  He has the best of intentions.  But who knows, maybe he overslept, or maybe he just needed to get a little work done at home, or maybe he just wasn’t feeling well.  He doesn’t show.   It sounded right, but he never delivers.  It’s the brother that shows up, the one that changes his mind, that actually ends up doing the thing his father asks.  

The brothers are both from the same family.  But only one shows up in the vineyard. We know that Matthew’s story, this tale in the gospel, is designed as an invitation to Matthew’s community, to his brothers and sisters, an invitation to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, to follow him.  But the verses that follow make it clear that whatever the community has believed, whatever has come before, all are welcome in the vineyard. 

The prostitutes and tax collectors will enter the kingdom before the religious authorities, Jesus says.  Because nothing that has come before is beyond redeeming.  Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.

How can our society, so deeply divided -- divided by racism, by ideology, by hurtful words and hurtful policies and hurtful disregard for one another -- how can we move forward?  How can we live together, in the legacy of racism and slavery that divides us?  That oppresses so many of our brothers and sisters, that tears our society apart? 

This story of the son who changes his mind, who ends up doing the thing that his father asks even when he said he wouldn’t--this story gives me hope for our country, our society.  This story of God’s grace gives me hope for change, for healing, for reconciliation and wholeness. 

In Ezekiel today we hear the proverb, “‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel.” (Ez 18.1b-3)  God, speaking through the prophet, proclaims a different reality--a reality in which change is possible.  A reality in which future generations can live differently.  “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.” (31-32)

When we realize the great sacrifice that Christ has made--how much God has loved each of us, how much God wants to be in relationship with us--how much God wants us to be whole, to be the people that God has created us to be--when we realize that, how can we but help to love God and love one another in return.  How can we but help to turn and live--to do whatever it takes to change our lives, our systems, our culture so that every person is valued, every person is respected, every person is treated with dignity.  So that every person is loved.

We have an example in Christ Jesus ,who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness…and became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross.” (Phillipians 2.5-8).  Not only do we have an example in Jesus, but we have an invitation--an invitation to participate in his death and resurrection.  An invitation to be freed by him from the bonds of sin and shame.  An invitation to turn and live.  An invitation into new life, into the hope, the joy, of resurrection and wholeness.

Not merely an example, a pattern, but a whole new way of being.  We have died with Christ, and we have risen with Christ.  We are incorporated into his new resurrection life.

In the days that follow, can we take a knee?  Can we acknowledge Jesus as Lord, his life, death, and resurrection--his invitation to new life--as the governing principle of our own lives?  Can we love as Jesus has loved us?  Can we love one another as he has loved us?  Can we trust in his redeeming power?

Through God’s grace we can.  May we claim the liberation, the freedom, that Jesus promises.  May we change the things in ourselves and in our society that separate and divide, that oppress and subjugate, so that all may live.  In the love of Christ, through his redemption, may it be so.

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[1] Steve Wyche, Colin Kaepernick explains why he sat during national anthem.”  nfl.com, 8/27/2016.  Retrieved 9/30/2017 at http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000691077/article/colin-kaepernick-explains-protest-of-national-anthem.

[2] Billy Witz, ”This time, Colin Kaepernick takes a stand by kneeling during anthem.”  The New York Times,September 1, 2016, p. B11.  Accessed online 9/30/2017 at https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/02/sports/football/colin-kaepernick-kneels-national-anthem-protest.html.

[3] https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/911655987857281024 (accessed 9/30/2017).

Comment

What God Sees

Comment

What God Sees

The Rev’d Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 24, 2017

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I still remember the first time I discovered the wonders of DirecTV and Dish Television. Growing up in a household with basic cable, where our channel list only reached double digits, seemed amateur and primitive once I stumbled upon satellite television. There were all kinds of television channels. Channels dedicated solely to cartoons, sports, news from around the globe, movies, and music. There were also channels that I found extremely odd yet interesting, for example, the Golf Channel and the Outdoor Channel. I never understood why someone would want to watch a channel solely dedicated to doing things outdoors while seating inside . Wouldn’t you just move outside and experience a true live broadcast of the Outdoors. 

However, as I scrolled down the infinite glorious list of television channels, one channel in particular caught my attention. And that channel was the Eternal Word Television Network, known as EWTN.

Are you shocked?

I remember watching Life on the Rock with Fr Mary and of course Mother Angelica. Till this day, I occasionally peak and watch EWTN programming, however, nowadays I do this through their YouTube Channel rather than on the television. On a particular Saturday morning when I was visiting my uncle’s home, I stumbled upon a kids cartoon series which retold the great stories of scripture. From the story of creation, to the parting of the red sea, the story of David versus Goliath, and of course, the story of Jonah and the whale. This cartoon series quickly became the highlight of my family visits. So often the core message behind the re-telling of these biblical stories was simple -- God is faithful, even amidst human sin, doubt, and all other obstacles. These cartoons were not concerned with biblical interpretation and history and cultural context. After all, their audience was a seven year old Carlos not a twenty-seven year old man.

Unfortunately, in simplifying and whittling down a biblical story to one or two easy points, we lose sight of the layers and complexity in holy scripture. We accidently neglect pockets of scripture that demand of us to more deeply listen, read, and inwardly digest God’s holy word. So far many years, my understanding of the Book of Jonah came from a 18 minute cartoon episode and nothing else. So if you would have asked me what the story of Jonah was all about I would have simply said -- “The story of Jonah is the story of a man who was in a shipwreck. He trusted in God and loved God. So God protected him by giving him refuge in the belly of a whale. The whale spit out Jonah and God forgave a few bad people afterwards. The end.”

In reading this week’s scripture passages for mass, I quickly realize that my childhood understanding was not only that, a child understanding, but neglected the layers of conflict and wisdom in holy scripture.

Professor Julia O’Brien at Lancaster Theological Seminary points out that“Throughout this book, Jonah cares only about himself. In the first chapter, Jonah jeopardizes all on board the ship in order to avoid a task he refuses to accept. In chapter 4, which we heard today, Jonah’s concern appears to be his reputation: he credits his refusal to go to Nineveh to his awareness the God might relent from carrying out the very punishment Jonah had announced. In the same way Jonah's care for the bush is not for its own well-being but for what it offers him.”[1]

The image of a faithful and humble Jonah has been shattered, I admit, I had not given much thought to the book of Jonah since I was a child. My attention would sometimes shift to the story of Jonah, without much meaning, whenever I saw a Vineyard Vines whale on an article of clothing. In re-reading this book, rather than finding a faithful hero in Jonah, what I found was an anti-hero. By no means a villain but a true anti-hero --  someone whose actions and character are highlighted for the specific purpose to not follow in their ways.

Even with its comic and exaggerated features, the story of Jonah challenges us to question not only the main character’s actions and comments but also question God’s response.

It’s clear from the minor prophets in the Old Testament, that Nineveh was at odds and despised by the Judean community. So much so that Jonah cared more about the destruction of a bush than the possible destruction of women, men, and children in Nineveh. And let’s not forget the opening lines of the book, where God tells Jonah “ Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it: for their wickedness has come up before me.” All signs point to an utter rejection and punishment of Nineveh and its people. But by the end of the story, God shows mercy on Nineveh. Completely at odds with Jonah’s message from the Lord and his human understanding. In the story of Jonah, God’s freedom to act is reinforced. While wicked cities and people are punished in other prophetic books, in the Book of Jonah God shows mercy.

God is free to act as God pleases. We can trust in a loving, merciful, and redeeming God because of God’s very own gift in the person of Jesus Christ. However, even before the arrival of the Incarnate Word, we see God act out of love, mercy, and redemption. Even if it meant shocking those who swore they know God and had heard his word spoken to them. Regardless of how Jonah viewed Nineveh, regardless of how we might view anyone on earth, even our biggest enemies, borrowing words from First Samuel, we should never forget that God does not see as mortals see.

What Jonah saw in Nineveh was an evil and wicked nation and people. His view was supported by those around him and by their understanding of God. But God does not see as mortals see. What God saw in Nineveh was a people who had turned in their ways which was more than Jonah could gaze on. This is not to excuse the horrors that the people of Nineveh had committed against feuding nations. Rather, this is a reminder that even amidst horrible deeds, wickedness, and sinfulness God does not see as mortal see. Because what God sees in all of humanity is not, as the old spiritual says, a “wretch like me” but humankind created in God’s image.

What God sees in us we cannot fully understand but we can begin to acknowledge that no matter how hard we try, how well educated our opinions and thoughts might be, we will never see the world as God sees it. And this is a good thing. Because as Christians our job is to view the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. If we’re able to hold on to an ounce of understanding of how God views the world it is not by our doing but by doing of Christ. Even if we can’t see as God sees, we are given a lens through Christ to see the world beyond our capacity and imagination. We are able to see God’s kingdom even if blurred and at moments unclear. We are assured, once again, of God’s capacity for love, mercy, and redemption, even if we our eyes fail to see. For the love of God is broader than the measures of the mind, and God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea. Amen.

 

[1] Julia M. O’Brien. Jonah, Theological Bible Commentary. Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.  

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How often should I forgive?

Comment

How often should I forgive?

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 17, 2017

I once knew a woman that had a memory, they said, like an elephant.  She could recount any wrong done to her by anyone in the county, or to her mother or grandmother, for that matter.  Like the Appalachian feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, wrongdoing--and remembering--was generational for this woman, and it carried on to her children.  She was willing to forgive, but she never forgot.  And she passed that gift of remembering down to her children.  And they remembered everything she’d ever done wrong to them.  And they never forgot.

Forgive and forget, we say.  But she never forgot.  And so I wonder what she thought about forgiveness--what forgiveness meant for her.  I wonder what we think forgiveness means to you.  What forgiveness means for me.

My sister and I loved to play Monopoly growing up.  I liked to be the car or the little dog.  My mother would sometimes be the top hat.  I never wanted to be the shoe.  But whatever game piece I was, as I moved around the board, I was wary of that corner space, “Go to jail.”  Or, if you were very unlucky, you might draw the card, “Go directly to jail.  Do not pass Go.  Do not collect $200.”  This was an unfortunate sentence.  But, if you were very lucky, you might be holding another card, the “Get out of jail free” card, which would let you out of jail, back to the action, back to racing around the board, buying properties, collecting rents, and bankrupting your opponents.  “Get out of jail free” was forgiveness.  A reprieve.  A chance to get back out there.  Isn’t that what forgiveness is about?

We know we are supposed to forgive one another.  We pray for forgiveness at every service: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we say.  And I don’t know about you, but usually I think of forgiveness as something a parent gives to a little kid.  Oops, I broke the window!  I’m sorry!  Forgive me!  Don’t punish me!   Or like that “get out of jail free” card.  Forgiveness is a pass on something we’ve done wrong; it’s avoiding punishment, right?

No.  That’s not what forgiveness is about, though I confess to you it’s what I think about when I think about forgiveness.  Real forgiveness, true forgiveness, seems to elude us, as it does Peter, who really wants to understand.  Who really wants to get it right.  Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?  Is seven enough?  That’s a gracious plenty, right?  Three strikes and you’re out in baseball.  Seven times is really generous!  But Jesus says, Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Over and over again.  Forgive over and over.

How can that even work?

I want to tell you three stories about forgiveness.

Several millennia ago, maybe seven or eight thousand years ago, there was a boy called Joseph.  He was the son of Jacob, also called Israel.  He was the grandson of Isaac, and the great grandson of Abraham and Sarah.  Joseph was the next to youngest boy out of twelve boys and at least one girl in his family; he was the firstborn of his father’s second wife.  He was younger, a bit clever, and very annoying, and most of his dozen brothers hated him. 

One day when he had been particularly insufferable a few of his brothers decided to kill him.  Instead their brother Reuben convinced them to throw him down a well.  (That’s better, right?)  And so they did.  They felt a little bad about leaving him there, though, and so they sold him as a slave to a caravan of merchants heading to Egypt.  (Again, better than letting him die in the well, right?)  And so they were rid of Joseph.  Remember, however, that Joseph is clever.  And even as he is borne away into slavery in Egypt, all is not lost.  He works his way up through the ranks of servant eventually to become the second most powerful government functionary in all of Egypt, second only to the Pharaoh himself. 

When Joseph was in his thirties, and his authority in Egypt well established, a famine struck the ancient Near East.  Joseph, because again, he is clever and wily, had stored up on behalf of the Egyptian government so much grain that he could not even measure it all.  And so all of the Egyptians and the surrounding tribes and nations came to the Pharaoh to beg for grain.  They came to ask Jacob for help. 

And amongst those who came were the sons of Jacob, his father, the Israelites.  Not knowing who he was, they came even to Jacob for help.  And Jacob fed them. He gave them grain.  He saved them.  And years later, when their father died--it’s always at the funeral that things come out, right?--when his father died, his brothers came to him and begged forgiveness.

Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.   (Genesis 50:15-21)

Joseph’s forgiveness didn’t unwind all the past.  It wasn’t a “get out of jail free” card.  But it saved his brothers and their families.  And it acknowledged a far greater truth--that God’s goodness prevails even over our sinfulness; that the love that is God triumphs even over death and destruction.  His brothers had intended to do Joseph evil.  But God used it for good.   Joseph didn’t put himself in the place of God, which is, at the root of all things, the original sin.  He simply continued to love his brothers.

Here’s another story about forgiveness.  Basil, Cardinal Hume, formerly Archbishop of Westminster, tells this story.   

When he was a boy the young Basil sneaked into the pantry of a neighbor’s kitchen, poking around for a treat or something good to eat.  He found there, in the unattended pantry, a bushel of apples--just picked, ripe and fragrant.  There were so many apples, and surely his neighbor wouldn’t miss just one. 

So sure enough, Basil reached out and took just one apple.  Just one.  And, as he turned to run from the pantry with his purloined fruit, he ran into the neighbor himself.  And what do you think the neighbor said to him?  Of course the neighbor told him to put it back.  And of course that’s the right thing to do.  But later in life, as he pondered the mysteries of God’s forgiveness, Basil the adult, the Benedictine monk, the Archbishop, began to suspect that there might have been a different response. 

He began to reimagine the story so that, as he turned and ran from the pantry, right into the neighbor, the God figure in his re-imagining, God might have said, “Basil, I see you’ve taken an apple. They’re so ripe, so fragrant, so delicious.  Here, why don’t you have another.  Go on.  Take two.”

What do you feel when you hear that story?  Profound relief at the forgiveness and generosity of God?  Confusion or even anger that the boy isn’t corrected, or even punished?  I have to admit I struggled with this story for a while.  I wanted to explain to young Basil why it was wrong for him to steal.

But God, who has all the apples, is generous and giving.  Is loving and forgiving.  Here, take two.

This word “forgive” has nothing to do with “getting out of jail free.”  It has nothing to do with punishment postponed or remitted.  It has nothing to do with getting away with something.  It doesn’t even have anything to do with correction, or reproof, or reproach. It’s neither fair nor just.  But it is lifechanging.

This word “forgive” that Peter is struggling with, this word “forgive” that we are praying for--forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us--this “forgive” isn’t even about other people.  It’s not about those who’ve sinned against us.  It’s about us ourselves.  It’s about how we have been forgiven by God.  It’s about God’s radical willingness to love us in spite of how we have failed to love God.  And it’s about the possibility of something new, of something radically alive with generosity and wholeness.

The word “forgive” that Peter asks about--Lord, how many times should I forgive someone--that word, in the Greek root, is aphiemi.   It’s the same word in the Our Father--“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  And it’s the same word in another story that you may remember, the story of Lazarus.

Jesus’s friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were about the most hospitable folks we know of in the gospels.  They always had friends over.  They were always welcoming people.  And when Lazarus fell ill, Mary and Martha sent for Jesus.  But he didn’t arrive in time.  And so, when he finally made it to their house, Lazarus was dead and in the tomb.  Jesus, with tears in his eyes, called his friend forth from the tomb, and Lazarus came out.  Jesus’s next words to the community, as Lazarus stepped forth from the tomb into the sunlight, were “Unbind him and let him go.” 

The Greek word that Jesus uses is aphete, from the same root, aphiemi,  that Peter uses to mean forgiveness.  That Jesus himself uses when he teaches us to pray, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Jesus isn’t saying Lazarus has done something wrong.  He’s saying that Lazarus is freed, set forth, sent forth, going into new life. 

And that’s what forgiveness is. 

It’s not a “get out of jail free” card.  It’s not a pass, an excuse, an avoidance of punishment.

It’s a chance for something new.  For wholeness, for reconciliation, for a new life.

It’s what’s offered to us in Christ’s death and resurrection.  That God loves us so much that, despite our failings to love God, even in the moments of greed, lust, wrath, pride, or whatever sin you can imagine when we put ourselves in the place of God, that God still holds onto us, expecting that we can be in better relationship.  That we can love God, that we can love one another, as we ourselves have been loved.

For that’s what God does.  Even in the face of our sinfulness, God is still there, loving us, giving God’s own self to us.  Even as we take all the apples for ourselves, God is there saying, take more.  Here I am.  As Christ pours himself out on the cross he forgives the thief who hangs by him.  He forgives those who have crucified him.  He is there, offering his love.  Inviting us into loving relationship.  And sending us out, forgiven, to love one another and the world. 

When you come to the altar today, receive God’s presence in the Sacrament; receive Christ’s forgiveness.  And be transformed, sent out to something new, to love God and love one another.  That’s the story of Joseph--responding only to the love of God, not the hurt that’s been done to him.  That’s the story of Basil Hume--God’s gracious love, offering even more of God’s own self.  That’s the story of Lazarus--sent forth into new life.  That’s our story--healed, forgiven, restored, and sent forth into new relationship, new life in Christ.

AMEN.

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Sermon for Holy Cross Day

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Sermon for Holy Cross Day

The Rev’d Molly James
     Dean of Formation, Episcopal Church in Connecticut
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Holy Cross Day
September 14, 2017

May God’s Word be spoken. May God’s Word be heard. May that point us to the Living Word, who is Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

It is a privilege to be with you all this evening. I am grateful to Fr. Stephen for the invitation. It is always a joy to be a part of liturgy in this beautiful and holy space. It is a particular joy to be with you on this night as we celebrate the feast of the Holy Cross. It may sound strange, but this is actually one of my favorite feasts of the Church year. Now, don’t get me wrong, of course I love Christmas and Easter. Of course I find Holy Week to be tremendously meaningful. It is more that today feels a like a more personal and intimate feast day. It is like Holy Week in miniature without all the logistics and details we clergy have to keep track of then. It is a day that is a real gift. It is a day to contemplate what the Cross means in our own lives.

For me this day has real, personal significance. When I was in the midst of my own discernment process for ordination, I was asked what moment in our Lord’s life I connected with most deeply. My answer was immediate: the Cross. I was 22, and I was only a few years removed from a battle with bone cancer. It mattered a great deal to me that our Lord and Savior knows the fullness of the human experience, including the realities of pain and suffering. My intimate connection with God came through confronting my own mortality and knowing that God knew exactly what I was going through.

I know I am not the only one for whom the realities of the crucifixion hold deep meaning. No doubt many of us here have had profound experiences of personal pain and suffering. No doubt, like so many of the notable Christian theologians and mystics, we have come to the realization that God’s presence can often be most deeply felt in the midst of those challenging experiences. Profound experiences of suffering have a way of narrowing our vision. We realize how many things in life are more superficial or insignificant. The mundane distractions of daily life fade away, and we are left with what really matters: our relationship with God and with those around us. The experience of illness or profound loss can take away so much, but as St. Paul, so eloquently reminds us, there is nothing in life, not even death, that can separate us from the love of God. And it is so often in those crucible moments of our lives that we see the love of God most fully and feel it most deeply in our own hearts.

That is the truth of the Cross. The Cross shows us the depth of God’s love for us. God loves us so very deeply that God is willing to give of God’s self, even to the point of death. This is a profound reality, and it is often the pathway to deeper relationship with God. There is, however, an important caveat to be made here.

While I absolutely believe that suffering is an avenue to deepen our connection to God, that does not mean that suffering is a good in and of itself or that it should be sought out. Our Collect today asks that we might “take up our Cross” and follow Christ. That phrase deserves a little unpacking. And our readings help us to do that. Our readings, particularly the Epistle from Philippians and John’s Gospel remind us that love and self-giving generosity are at the heart of the Cross. They remind us too that we are called to be children of the light. God does not wish for us to experience pain or suffering. We must remember that Jesus came so that we might have LIFE, and have it abundantly.

Unfortunately, there is a strand in our Christian tradition that has said that since suffering is a way to God, we should seek it out (note the monastic traditions of self-deprivation or even self-harm). Or perhaps even worse is the way the Church has used the glorification of suffering to promote oppression. Sadly,there is a legacy of the Church saying to those on the margins or those who are oppressed that they should accept their current reality as their “cross to bear” and to find consolation in the fact that suffering brings us closer to God.

One of my favorite theologians, is a Roman Catholic sister from Brazil named Ivone Gebara. She is a feminist theologian who is deeply critical of the Church for the ways in which it has used the Cross to perpetuate those on the margins of society, particularly women. Gebara helps us to look at the reality of suffering with an important critical lens. When we encounter suffering in our lives, our own or others, we must ask an essential question: is this suffering endemic to the human experience (such as illness or a natural disaster) or is this suffering the result of injustice? If it is endemic, then we must learn to live with it, and it is here that we can be grateful for the gift of feelings God’s presence most abundantly in the midst of suffering. If, on the other hand, the suffering we have encountered is the result of injustice then we followers of Jesus are called to fight injustice.

There is far too much injustice in our world today, whether it is the economic injustice of the ever widening gap between rich and poor, the rise of hate speech and hate crimes against individuals for their gender, race, sexual orientation or ethnic identity. Too many of our sisters and brothers are suffering. We are called to take action and to speak out against injustice wherever we find it.

So I hope that this Holy Cross day will be a day of comfort and inspiration for all of us. I hope we can find comfort, particularly any of us who may in the midst of our own trials and tribulations, in the profound truth that God knows our suffering and God is present with us even in our most painful moments. And I hope that we will also be inspired, particularly those of us who are in positions of power and privilege, to fight against injustice. I hope that we will be inspired to stand with those on the margins, and to realize that if we have any cross to bear in life it is the hard and holy work of realizing God’s dream of justice and life abundant for all people.

AMEN.

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Beyond "Playing pretty," being nice

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Beyond "Playing pretty," being nice

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 10, 2017

When I was a child we’d often visit my great grandmother on Sunday afternoons.  She lived only about 40 minutes away, and we could leave right from church and be at her house in time for a late lunch, eat some fried chicken and drink some sweet tea, enjoy a slice of chocolate pie that was her special recipe, and then change out of our church clothes into play clothes to go outside.

Outside was a wonderful place for a young child to be--no adults around to supervise, garden toolsthat doubled as toys, a wild rose garden with paths to explore, and a barn with a hayloft to climb up in.  It’s a wonder I never got tetanus, climbing over rusty farm implements and boards with nails in them and all manner of other things that, today, seem pretty dangerous.  But as a child there seemed to be no danger, and it was good to be outside, playing with my sister and our cousins.

My great grandmother, however, was wiser than I was, and she knew the perils of the outdoors.  She’d warn us not to throw chinaberries at one another for fear we’d put someone’s eye out.  She’d remind us to turn the water off at the pump house for fear the well would run dry.  (It never did, as far as I know.)  And she had a particular phrase for how she expected us to behave:  “Y’all play pretty, now.”

Y’all play pretty.  What my great grandmother meant was pretty straightforward.  Don’t hit one another.  Don’t break any bones.  Don’t call each other names.  Be nice.  Be safe.  Take care of each other.  Play nicely with one another.

That’s a reasonable thing to tell children, isn’t it.  It’s probably a good thing to tell adults, too, for that matter.  Play nicely with one another.   And we generally did.  I suspect that, had we not been nice, if we’d “played ugly,” my great grandmother would have come out the door of the screened in front porch and told us about it. 

As best I remember it she was a pretty straightforward person.  She’d have told us if we were doing something wrong. 

And that’s really what Jesus is talking about in the gospel reading for today.   If someone sins against you, go and tell them privately.  If the person doesn’t listen, go with one or two other people.  If he or she still won’t hear you, tell the whole church.  

Part of that seems like good advice.  It sounds like my great grandmother stepping out of the screened porch onto the concrete steps of her farmhouse, calling across the garden to us to stop throwing chinaberries, or to quit running with the rake, or to turn the tap off at the pump house.  It’s reasonable, instructive rebuke--clear, concise, and truthful.

But what really makes my skin crawl about that passage, and maybe yours too, is another image.  The image of well-meaning, good Christian folks, banding together, coming to someone’s home and calling them out for something.  In the community where I grew up, I heard this sort of thing called “speaking the truth in love,” and I imagine it went something like this.  “Brother So-and-So, you’ve acted contrary to scripture.  You’ve sinned against the Lord.  You’ve not kept the faith.”  And it makes me think of these stories I’ve heard of folks getting thrown out of their faith communities--sometimes for things that you and I wouldn’t think are sinful.  Maybe for being who God has made them to be--gay, or lesbian, or transgendered--or somehow being a little bit “other” in the eyes of the community. 

I tend to associate this passage with moral purity codes--of how the community think folks should act and be and do--which sometimes can align with what we know of God in scripture, and sometimes doesn’t.

I think that sort of approach, using this scripture as a proof-text to get what we want from another person, seems manipulative and, frankly, contrary to what the gospel is really telling us.  “Telling the truth in love” isn’t a mandate for trying to remake the world in an imaginary image, or a way of testing someone’s purity, or a way of excluding someone from society.  I’m not sure I trust the motivation of those folks who are showing up to “tell the truth in love.”  So there’s the bit about manipulation that makes me wary about this passage.

But there’s also some discomfort around anyone telling me what to do, anyone calling out sin!  I’m not very comfortable with that, and maybe you’re not, either.  We are a pretty individualistic society, and we don’t want other folks to tell us what to do--and we certainly don’t want God to tell us what to do!  That’s at the core of our human condition, isn’t it; what was the one thing God told Adam and Eve not to do?  Don’t eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; everything else is yours, just don’t eat from this one tree.  And of course, that’s exactly what Adam and Eve did.  They ate from the one tree that was forbidden. 

We don’t like to be told what to do.  But sometimes it’s actually good for us!  God set boundaries for Adam and Eve that protected them from the problem of evil, and they broke those boundaries.  They’d have been better off following what God said.  My great grandmother was right to tell us not to run with rakes or throw chinaberries; there’s a slight possibility we could have injured ourselves. 

But what Jesus is inviting us to do is not to be the morality police.  It’s something quite different.  He’s inviting us to be honest with one another in relationship; even to name when we have experienced sin personally; when we have been hurt. 

That can be quite empowering, and it can indeed lead to repentance, to change. 

If someone has hurt me, I can be honest about that hurt--to speak how I am experiencing that hurt--and perhaps they’ll listen.  Perhaps they’ll change.  But even if they don’t, I am surrounded by the Church, that bears witness to the kingdom of God come near. 

“If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.   …Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’” (Matthew 18:17-18, 20)

Jesus is inviting us to be more than nice--to do more than “play pretty”--but to genuinely be honest with one another, to be open, vulnerable, to be in real relationship with one another where we can tell each other honestly how we are, how we experience one another; he is inviting us to be honest about sin itself.  Not as a method of rebuke, as a way of shaming or blaming one another, but as a genuine expression of relationship, of honesty, of loving faithfulness to God and one another.

I hope this bears itself out in community here at Christ Church.  I believe it’s part of what we’re working on at Saint Hilda’s--a life of Christian honesty.  I like to think of Saint Hilda’s House as something of a lab for life--a place for discernment and formation where young people get to reflect on what it means to give their lives to Jesus; what it means to love one another, to be in honest Christian relationship.   You know the part about service, how each Hildan volunteers for ten months in a nonprofit group focused on justice--the Community Soup Kitchen, Columbus House, IRIS, Christian Community Action, and, this year, Junta and the offices of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut.  You probably know that each Friday the Hildans spend a day in study and contemplation, reading and discussing theology together and meeting with spiritual directors and mentors to reflect on their time in the House.  But also each week they have a house meeting--a facilitated time to check in with one another and a time to reflect, honestly, with one another on how their common life together is going.  It can, and often does, involve telling the truth in love.  It can be hard.  And it’s also a primary way for the community to grow in relationship, to deepen in love.

“Playing pretty” -- being nice to one another--is good up to a point.  But for real relationship to happen, we also have to be honest with one another.  And here’s the catch--and here’s where that phrase “telling the truth in love” gets it right in theory if not in practice--the lens through which we relate to one another can only be love.  “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:8-10)

What would it look like if everything we did, every action we took, every word we said, was rooted in love?  Love for our neighbor as ourselves? 

How would our laws change?  What would national borders and immigration policy look like if everything was borne of a place of love for our neighbor?

How would our criminal justice system change?  If we love the neighbor who sins against us, who steals, who commits murder, how then do we go about the work of justice--the hard work of protecting the vulnerable in society, of lessening the danger around us, while loving even our enemies--even those who perpetuate crime? 

How would we be in relationship with one another?  How would we deal with hurt, with pain, if we loved one another? How would our tongues be tempered?  How quick would we be to forgive--if we were rooted only in a place of love?

If it sounds like hard work, it probably is, and we have a lifetime to practice. When we don’t get it right we are assured of forgiveness. And that there will be a chance to try again.  But through God’s grace we already have the pattern for love--the cross.  We have already seen how Christ’s love for us has changed us, has changed the world. 

I invite you this week to look at the relationships you’re in.  To do more than “play pretty” or be nice--but to be in real relationship, to really love one another.  Let everything you do be rooted in love.

Christ has shown us the way.  We know how to love, because he has first loved us.

AMEN.

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Who is welcome?

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Who is welcome?

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
August 20, 2017

When I was young person growing up in a small town in Georgia, most of my peers, most of my male peers, loved American football.  Not professional football, mind you, but college ball--UGA, Auburn, Alabama, Georgia Tech--the big land grant universities that had big athletic programs and football teams.  My father had played baseball in college and, frankly, we just never were interested in football in my family.  As a small, scrawny, bookish boy, I didn’t play football with my friends--I tended to play softball with my family in the back garden or tennis with friends at the town court--but I never learned to play football.  I was so out of the loop with regard to understanding football that, one weekend, my parents (who also weren’t really interested in football) took my sister and me to a home game at UGA--the University of Georgia.  We checked a book out of the library to read up on the rules so that we’d be a little clearer about what was going on.  I remember loving the band, being excited about seeing Uga, the bulldog equivalent of Handsome Dan here in New Haven, and being vaguely interested in whether or not the Bulldogs were winning, but I just had no interest in actually playing football--in chasing a pigskin ball down the field and crashing into other players.  It just wasn’t my thing.  And so, in a town where football was practically a second religion, I was one of the odd kids out who didn’t play the sport.

It was fine, generally speaking, that I didn’t play football.  I played tennis, which I was incredibly bad at because I couldn’t see the ball; I tried to play basketball, until a coach kindly suggested that perhaps basketball wasn’t my highest calling.  And all of that was, generally speaking, okay.  Except that, in my small school, the physical education program was a little secondary to the athletics program, and, for eight grade, one of our units was weight training in the varsity football weight room.  At the same time that the varsity football team was using the weight room.

As a small, scrawny, not-football-playing kid, I can only tell you that I have never felt more out of place than in the varsity football weight room.  Now, no one told me that I was in the wrong place, or that I didn’t belong.  But I definitely got the sense that I was in the wrong place.  I didn’t feel right there.

I know what it means to feel out of place, unwelcome, in a particular situation. Maybe you do, too. And that’s why, when I hear the gospel reading this morning, I really wish things had gone differently.  I wish that, when Jesus met the Canaanite woman, that he’d been really welcoming to her.  That he’d gone out of his way to greet her, to make her feel accepted.  This is, after all, the Episcopal Church, and all are welcome!

But Jesus doesn’t immediately welcome the Canaanite woman, does he.  In fact, the disciples are really annoyed with her.  They’ve been surrounded by huge crowds--and the gospel writer tells us over and over again how Jesus is trying to retreat from those crowds, to find a moment’s peace--and now they’ve gone away from the Sea of Galilee to the coast, to Tyre and Sidon, a new place--and they’re confronted by a Canaanite woman.  She’s not even Jewish.  She’s not the audience Jesus is there for!  And she follows them, shouting loudly, calling on Jesus to heal her daughter.  Over and over and over again.  Can’t she just go away, the disciples ask.  And Jesus himself at first ignores her and then, when the disciples ask, he seems to try to send her away with the explanation, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24)  I can’t help you, lady!  Leave us alone!

The woman knows that she is an outsider.  She lives not in Jerusalem but out nearer the coast. She isn’t a part of the tribes of Israel.  She’s a foreigner, an outsider.  And she lives on the margin of society--her daughter is possessed by a demon, she says.  She’s so much an outsider that she even breaches the norms of polite society. She trails behind the disciples, shouting constantly at Jesus.  This woman is annoying!

And here, depending on how you understand Jesus, things get tricky, right?  If you believe that Jesus is fully human, it’s easy to say, “Well, this is a place where Jesus gets it wrong.  In his humanity he is challenged by this difficult woman, but eventually he does the right thing.  Here Jesus learns that God’s mercy is for all people.”  And that well may be.  But if your Christology is a bit higher and you focus on that Jesus is fully divine, he must, like God, be fully perfect and surely couldn’t have made this sort of mistake.  He must then be testing his disciples--setting up an incident to show them the truth, to teach them that the Canaanite woman is included in God’s love.  And that’s an explanation I’ve heard before, as well.

I’d like to suggest that I think that the focus on Jesus’s motivations in this situation may be a bit of a red herring, even an unanswerable question.  For me, what this encounter with the Canaanite woman shows us is not something about Jesus--but something about the way the world is.

Our world is deeply divided--in small, quiet ways and in big, systemic ways.  There are clear, present ways that we make one another feel unwelcome, excluded, outsider; I think of the obvious issues like segregation, Jim Crow laws, the institution of slavery itself in our country--but also the quieter, more subtle ones--where and which statues we erect in our town centers, whose names are honored in our institutions, and who we see in leadership around us.  There are subtle ways that we divide and exclude--sometimes consciously and sometimes even unconsciously.  And it’s not just about race, is it.  How are disabled folks afforded access to our public spaces?  How are the mentally ill cared for and treated in our society?  How would the Canaanite woman’s daughter have been received here in New Haven--or the Canaanite woman herself, crying out in the streets as she was?

The world is divided.  And we see that reflected in the circumstances of the story we hear this morning.

But Jesus shows us something different.  Jesus shows us that the kingdom of God has come near.  That the love, the mercy, the grace of God is available to all people--not just the ones we want it to apply to, either!  It’s available to those in great need.  To those who are annoying.  Even to those who are full of hatred. 

I worked for a priest once whose voice still resonates in my head from time to time; anytime I’d get really annoyed with someone, he’d remind me, “Oh, she really is something, isn’t she.  And just to think--Jesus died for her, too.”

“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people,” God says in the words of the prophet Isaiah.  This love, this mercy, this kingdom of justice and peace is for all people.  Not just for the Jewish nation.  Not just for Christians.  For all people.  Good and bad.  Lovely and unlovely.

We look across our nation and can see easily and quickly that the reign of the kingdom of God is not yet.  We are divided, we fight, we exclude one another.  But the kingdom of God has come near.  We know what things can look like.  What things should look like.  We have a glimpse of the reign of the kingdom of God.

And all people are included in that gift of love.  The Canaanite woman, her daughter, you, and me.

Will we accept that great gift?  Will we allow our hearts to follow Jesus--to live within the vision of that kingdom of love, of justice, of mercy?  Will we welcome the Canaanite woman?  Will we welcome one another?

This is not always easy work, living as though everyone is included in God’s love.  It requires a cost.  It means we have to work towards including those who don’t fit, who differ from our own understanding and preconceived notions of the world.  It means we have to give of our selves, of what we have, even of our own privilege, to make sure that all are invited.  It means we may suffer at the hands of evil while proclaiming the coming of the reign of the kingdom of God.  There is a real cost to living within the knowledge of God’s love and mercy.

But it is only through the mercy of Jesus that we can begin to try.  May God give us his grace to love.  His grace to heal.  And the courage of the resurrection to live into the reign of the kingdom of God.

 

 

 

 

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More than Conquerors

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More than Conquerors

The Rev’d Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
July 23, 2017

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

For centuries, Saint Paul’s letters have been at the center of Christian faith. Arguably, the most important figure in Christianity besides Jesus, Saint Paul and his letters have been the foundation and source of theological arguments throughout the ages. From the earliest Church Fathers to modern era reformers, Saint Paul has been the aid and inspiration for many Christian thinkers.

Countless parishes bear his name, and his impact on the Christian faith goes further than the eye can see. While educated in the Law and a Roman citizen, Saint Paul was not systematician, he was not setting out to write a multi volume theological book. Nor was he writing books for the bible. Instead, Saint Paul was a man for whom his experience with the risen Lord altered his life forever. Dedicating his life, even to his last breath, to spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ.

While venerated and held in high regard by scholars and theologians, Saint Paul himself was not a larger than life figure. While successful in teaching people of Jesus, it was not without its blemishes nor was it a one off event. Hence all his personal letters where we find Saint Paul teaching and reteaching Christian communities. Sometimes at a point of anger and frustration. While he was able to make believers out of various non-jewish communities, his missionary efforts would come to end and his life taken away by the empire.

From all accounts, his own included, Saint Paul was not a luminous or grand figure. If we read through Saint Paul’s letters, we’d find out, by his own admittance, that he was not a gifted speaker, possibly suffering from a speech impediment. Saint Paul speaks openly about his imprisonment and physical abuse by Roman soldiers. He even shares with his audience his own medical problems. An unknown deformity in his eye had plagued him in his missionary endeavors in Galatia.

I’m sure like many of us, Saint Paul must at times felt both blessed by God and beaten up by the world. And yet for Saint Paul all the ailments of this world, all its challenges and stumbling blocks, were no longer a deadly threat. While our bodies may be bruised, our hearts broken, our minds challenged, and our bodies decaying, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, all of humanity has been given the chance to transcends this earthly life.

While Saint Paul reminds us that all life will end and flesh will decay, the cosmic promise of Jesus Christ is that all flesh and bodies will be transformed. And while we cannot see what this looks like, what life after death looks like, we are led by the Spirit. As Saint Paul reminds us, we who are led by the Spirit are children of God and we will one day be glorified with Christ.

And yet all this talk of the life to come and bliss of the resurrection may in itself be of no use for us. Specially for those whose lives are filled with fear and horror every day they wake up.

What good is Saint Paul’s message of a new creation?

What actual joy can we obtain by believing that one day all bodies will be redeemed and transformed, when innocent lives and sacred bodies are taken away by evil forces?

Especially as we’ve witnessed and continue to witness over and over again certain lives understood as inferior and even disposable. The plague of human violence has created a false economy where some bodies have been viewed as more valuable than others. And we don’t have to look too far into our history to see this. Just turn on your tv or pick up the paper and you’ll see the death of innocent men, women, and children.

Yet, Saint Paul’s personal assurance that our bodies will one day be transformed is not oblivious to the suffering and pain experienced by human bodies. Rather, Saint Paul’s assurance that one day, one day, our bodies will be transformed and made new comes from his own experience with the risen Christ, whose wounds were not vanished but transformed in his resurrected body. Saint Paul’s certitude does not neglect the pain and suffering of our human bodies, on the contrary, Saint Paul views the state of human creation as that of a mother in the midst of labor. An image he’s not afraid to use even for himself in his letter to the Galatians, where he compares his pain at the division taking place amongst Christians to that of a mother giving birth.

While the pain of labor was symbolic for Saint Paul, his own body was no stranger to pain and violence. Remember his imprisonment and physical abuse by Roman solider. In the Book of Acts, we’re told that “the magistrates had Paul and Silas stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods.  After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.”

For Saint Paul, a new creation, the transformation of the flesh and body, is at the center of Christ’s resurrection. This believe is what kept him going amidst beating, imprisonment, and ridicule.

In his letter to Romans, Saint Paul’s final known letter, we find a seasoned and experienced Paul. After years of missionary trips all over the known world, we find an old, beat up man, who has given up everything to go out and spread the Good News. Putting his body on the line, Saint Paul seems more convinced than ever of God’s faithfulness.

In the verses the follow today’s Epistle, Saint Paul freely and openly puts it out there for all who might struggle to believe that God will reign supreme. That our bodies, and the bodies of the innocent and vulnerable, the living and dead, will not be consumed by the violence of the earth but transformed by the love of God in Christ Jesus. After his own trials and tribulations, Saint Paul writes:

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

Amen.

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How We Listen

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How We Listen

The Rev’d Matthew D. C. Larsen
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)
July 16, 2017

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

In college, I took a mission trip to Honduras to help with construction of shelters for women rescued out of prostitution. On one break, I was sitting outside on the street and a boy walked in front of me, bought some ice cream from a cart, and sat down right next to me. We spoke for a while, and then I decided, since it was a mission trip, I should talk with him about Jesus. I looked at him and very pious said what I thought was “Jesus Christ died for your sin.” What I actually said was, “Jesus Christo se murió por su periodicos,” which of course means, “Jesus Christ died for your newspapers.” The boy calmly looked at me, licked his ice cream, and said, “Sí.”

Swing and a miss. Sort of missed the whole point.

After many years of studying the gospel tradition, I realized my bizarre claim, while not theologically true, was not terribly different from the way Jesus often taught. Jesus often taught to confuse people who weren’t prepared to listen. What do I mean?

Always pay attention to the bits of the scripture that the lectionary cuts out. Our gospel reading about the parable of the seeds cuts out seven verses in between the parable and its interpretation. We imagine Jesus as an effective communicator, because he used stories to drive his point home. But in these omitted verses Jesus explicitly says he speaks in parable to confuse those without ears attuned to the rhythms of the kingdom of god.

The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ 

For this people’s heart has grown dull,

                        and their ears are hard of hearing,

                                    and they have shut their eyes;

                                    so that they might not look with their eyes,

                        and listen with their ears,

            and understand with their heart and turn—

                        and I would heal them.’ 

Last year I published an article on listening in the ancient world. We may tend to think of listening as a simple act, but it is not. Pliny the Younger wrote to the senator Claudius Restitutus to tell him about a reading he had just left. Pliny was in a sorry state of righteous indignation. A few clever persons in the audience had listened to the reading of a highly finished and polished work in the most rude way imaginable: they just sat there—still and undisruptive. They kept their mouth closed. They did not wave their hands. They did not even rise to their feet.[1] The audience, it would seem, did effectively what you all are now doing as you listen to my sermon. To us, this is completely acceptable behavior. To Pliny, it was laziness and conceit. That’s because not all listening is the same.

There are different types of listening. Just because you hear with your ears does not mean you are listening with your heart. Spiritual listening is the kind of listening that allows you to see with the eyes of your heart. Seeing is not the same as beholding, even though both relate to the sense of sight. Listening and seeing is not the same thing as heeding and beholding with the ears and eyes of the kingdom of god.

When Jesus ends the parable with “Let anyone with ears listen!,” he is not simply saying, “Now y’all pay attention.” That is the interpretation of the parable. Just because you have eyes and ears does not mean you are really seeing and listening. The question is: how do you hear? How do you see?

It has to do with the way we see complex issues. Allow me to offer one example. This week the Rev. William Barber, president of the organization, Repairers of the Breach, was arrested for protesting the new healthcare bill, which aims to remove protections for the most vulnerable in our society, including people with pre-existing conditions, such as members of my family, while raising costs for others, all the while exempting the people trying to put the bill into law. Their protest signs said, “Love Thy Neighbor. (No exceptions.)” Barber said, “The senators are preying on the sickest and the poorest in this country. That kind of prayer is hypocritical. Their kind of prayer is the prayer that makes God weep, ... We come here today to talk about sin. Sin. This bill, an attempt to use power to take health care, is sin. It’s immoral.”[2] How can we be a nation too poor to provide healthcare to the most vulnerable in our society and rich enough to spend $406 billion dollars on fighter jets?[3] Jesus never said “I’m sorry but you have a pre-existing condition.” Never said “I’m sorry but as a society we can’t afford to take care of the most vulnerable.”

I get that these issues are complex, and I don’t mean to make them seem otherwise. The issue raised by our gospel reading, though, is how we will we listen, how will we see the situation. Seeing and listening with the eyes and ears of the kingdom of god means be attuned to how the most vulnerable in our society are being treated. What would it look like for god’s justice to reign? Jesus stands every time with, and was in fact one of the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the downtrodden, the vulnerable.

What is at stake in how we listen? In the parable, it is a question of do we listening in such a way that it open, receptive, and life-giving. Or are our hearts, eyes, and ears to hardened or shallow to allow life around us to flourish. What is at stake in the end is not only the flourish of those around us, but also our own very souls, as well.

Come to the one who nourishes the soil of our hearts, who teaches us to see, to listen with eyes and ears of the kingdom of god, to the one by whose wounds we ourselves are healed.

 


[1] Pliny, Ep., 6.17.1–2; cf. A.N. Sherwin-White, The Letters of Pliny: A Historical and Social Commentary (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), 375.

[2] Taken from http://www.charlotteobserver.com/latest-news/article161200048.html (July 15, 2017).

[3] Taken from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-07-10/f-35-program-costs-jump-to-406-billion-in-new-pentagon-estimate (July 15, 2017); https://www.commondreams.org/news/2017/07/10/nation-too-broke-universal-healthcare-spend-406-billion-more-f-35 (July 15, 2017).

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