a call and a claim

a sermon, based on Matthew 9.35-10.23, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, June 18, 2017

Jesus called his disciples, before saying, “Follow me”,[1] declaring the purpose, the reason for the call, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is near.”[2]

Jesus Commissions Disciples, James Tissot (1836-1902)

This same good news he sends them out on a missionary journey to proclaim. But his accompanying instructions are hardly as appealing. A declaration dripping with danger: “I send you as sheep among wolves.” Then a mystifying, difficult (impossible?) to operationalize message: “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Then a terrifying statement: “Beware…you will be beaten…and dragged before rulers.” Then a consoling, but, given what has been said, confusing word: “Don’t worry.”

Jesus, the way you treat your friends it’s a wonder you have any followers!

Now, in Jesus’ time and in the historical context of Matthew’s gospel, a half-century after Jesus when the church was under persecution, these words of warning were necessary. To go into the world with his counter-cultural, contra-status quo message of unconditional love and justice inevitably would lead to trouble with secular and religious authorities. And Christian conversion could erupt in discord within one’s family.

Moreover, Jesus’ message of hardship was part of a prophetic tradition woven into the cultural and spiritual fabric of his people’s understanding of what happens when one stands up, stands out in the name of God.

Still, what sense do we make of these biblical insights into the hard texture of discipleship?

In our day and time, Jesus’ words seem, sound alien. Mainline American Christianity, in which the Episcopal Church is firmly rooted, generally knows little about bold prophetic proclamations that provoke persecution. Verily, there have been historical moments when Christian reticence to speak in the public square from the stance of faith to the raging cultural, political, and social issues of the day justifiably has led to the charge that the church is a non-prophet organization! However, our Christian sisters and brothers in some regions of Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East can testify to the truth of Jesus’ words. To be his disciple can and does put them in direct, at times, violent confrontations with governments and the followers of other faith and secular traditions.

Nevertheless, I believe that we can attest to the vivid reality of Jesus’ warning that proclamation brings trouble, particularly in the recent past and current generations when the divisions between conservative and progressive Christians have been and are so pronounced; the right denouncing the left as so inclusive and relativistic that it stands for nothing and, indeed, is no Christianity at all and the left decrying the right as narrow and doctrinaire, far from Jesus’ all-embracing love.

Today, putting all this aside, I focus solely on Jesus’ message. For if we take it and him seriously, there is, in his instructions for the missionary journey, an unmistakable and immutable call and claim on any, every disciple, of any and every age, in any and every age. A call to us, a claim upon us to go forth into the world – and, in the concrete daily circumstances of our lives, through our profession in word and deed of God’s love and justice – proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven is near.

 

Illustration: Jesus Commissions Disciples, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 4.19

[2] Matthew 4.17a

my crucified Lord, crucify me!

thinking a personal reflection, based on Luke 23.33-43, for the Last Sunday after Pentecost, November 20, 2016.

(Note: Tomorrow, November 16, 2016, I will undergo a long overdue, much needed surgery. I’ll not be up and around on Sunday, November 20, to preach with my dear folk of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC. Oh, how I’ll miss seeing and being with them! Nevertheless, this personal reflection is something akin to what I might have said were I able to be up and about this coming Sunday!)

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The Last Sunday after Pentecost ends the half-year trek from the Day of Pentecost (this year, May 15, 2016); a period set aside to review and reflect more deeply on the Christian story told from Advent through the Easter season that will begin to be retold starting next Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent.

The Last Sunday after Pentecost, also known as Christ the King Sunday, bids the contemplation anew of who Jesus is as Lord, how Jesus reveals his Lordship, and, in that revelation, how to follow him.

a-view-from-the-cross-aka-what-our-lord-saw-from-the-cross-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902-brooklyn-museum-new-york

Jesus, hanging on the cross, said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing”, repeating this word of pardon throughout his dying…

As “the people stood by watching.” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

As “the leaders scoffed at him, ‘He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

As “the soldiers mocked him, offering him sour wine, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

As “one of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

The leaders scoffing, the soldiers mocking, and the criminal deriding, sarcastically address Jesus with honorific titles, “God’s chosen one”, “the King of the Jews”, “the Messiah”, for they, beholding him die and believing the only demonstration or proof of his identity is that he saves himself, doubt him.

The second criminal, in contrast, speaks to his fellow sufferer with the intimacy of his name, “Jesus,” then in his request, an astonishing statement of faith, acknowledges who Jesus is, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answering, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise”, promises salvation in that eternal realm of God’s nearest, dearest presence.

That Jesus’ kingly throne is a cross, that his crucifixion and his dying are his demonstrations, his proofs of his kingly identity, that his last will and testament are words of forgiveness to those who witness and will his death and of salvation to a criminal who confesses that he deserves to die (“I have been condemned justly”), cause me, call me, command me to believe that all receive God’s mercy.[1]

In truth, I do believe that the universality of God’s forgiveness is precisely what Jesus, in his life and ministry, death and resurrection, reveals. Yet I, a self-interested and biased person, am not as unconditionally inclusive as Jesus. Not even close! If I was in Jesus’ place, it would be difficult, no, well-nigh impossible for me to forgive those who were watching me die and willing my death or, more truth to tell, to forgive even an honest criminal or, most truth to tell, to forgive anyone who judges another as unequal and lacking in human dignity based on gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, religion and spirituality, class and ability/disability or anyone who harms another creature or the creation.

In writing this, my soul shudders. For it means nothing more or less than that my will is so unaligned with Jesus, that my way of being and doing is so far removed from his, that he, in his way of being and doing, challenges, confronts how I think and feel, believe and act. This means that had I been there, as that haunting spiritual inquires, “when they crucified my Lord?”, I would have crucified him, too. This means, thanks be to God, that as the people watching, the leaders scoffing, the soldiers mocking and the criminal deriding Jesus, he would have forgiven me, verily, today, in my willful human sinfulness, he does forgive me! This means that what I am given, I am to give to others.

What? To anyone who judges another as unequal and lacking human dignity, who harms another creature or the creation, forgive them? Though, in following Jesus, I believe that I am to live and labor to challenge and confront those who, for any reason or cause, would demean others and destroy the creation, yes, I am to forgive them for they, I also believe, in relation to the way and will of God, know not what they are doing.

Jesus, my crucified Lord, crucify my prejudices that they may die that I may live to be as you are. Amen.

 

Illustration: A view from the cross (aka What Our Lord Saw from the Cross) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum, New York. Note: Many gather at the feet of Jesus, including Mary, his mother, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, John, his disciple, Roman soldiers and a centurion robed in red, and Jewish leaders on horseback. In the background is a tomb where Jesus’ body is to be interred.

Footnote:

[1] Here, I define mercy as God’s compassionate forbearance in withholding the condemnation that sinful humankind deserves; as opposed to grace being God’s unconditional benevolence in granting salvation that sinful humankind does not deserve.

persevering hope

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Luke 21.5-19, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 26th Sunday after Pentecost, November 13, 2016

Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem, the Holy City. They stand near the temple, God’s House, the most revered site of ancient Judaism. Some look up, marveling at its majesty.

a-model-of-the-temple-of-jerusalem

The temple, history testifies, was magnificent, yet laden with terrible contradiction. King Herod the Great, a despotic puppet of the Roman Empire, spent massive amounts of capital to build and to beautify the temple. Thus, as a testament to the grandeur of God and Herod, the temple, all at once, was hallowed and unholy.

Jesus prophesies its destruction, alarming those who hate Herod, yet revere the temple and, even more, the God it glorifies. In anguish, they ask, “When will this terrible moment be and how will we know?” Jesus breathlessly speaks of natural calamities, political and social chaos, internecine warfare, betrayals, persecutions, martyrdom, and then, strangely, a promise of peace amid the strife…

This last, a reminder of the necessity of perseverance in trying times…

An indispensable message for our day…

This past Tuesday, we, the American people, elected our 45th president. Or did we? Was it not only some of us? For this election was the culmination, perhaps only the next stage of a historically divisive campaign season, distinguished, tarnished by shocking elements of the vilification and demonization of persons and positions, the shattering of relationships among families and friends, neighborhoods and communities, the splintering of any façade of national unity, and perchance, for some, by some, whether in praise or in protest, setting aside our vaunted inauguration traditions of upholding our world-respected peaceful transition of power. Though not on the cosmic scale of Jesus’ prophecy, nevertheless it was, is deeply disturbing, highly destructive with long-lasting (unending?) consequences.

I fret, I fear for America. As I pray for our perseverance and the preservation of our national fabric, I find solace and strength in scripture.

the-destruction-of-the-temple-of-jerusalem-1867-francesco-hayez-1791-1882

Reading on in Luke’s gospel, Jesus continues, speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem, all fleeing in terror, yet imploring his listeners, as God’s faithful people, to lift their heads in expectation of their redemption.[1]

simeons-prophecy-to-mary-1628-rembrandt-harmenszoon-van-rijn-1606-1669

Reflecting on the beginning of Luke’s gospel, I recall that moment, eight days after the birth of Jesus, when a thankful Mary and Joseph, according to custom, brought their infant son to the temple. Two aged souls, Simeon and Anna, having waited long for the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation, witnessed, welcomed the presentation of Jesus as a sign that the time had come.[2]

Throughout human history, Simeon’s and Anna’s faithful, hopeful watching for the coming of the Lord has been emulated, particularly when the horizon was dark with the gloom of disaster, the doom of defeat.

I think of generations of slaves who died longing to breathe free, who left a legacy of hope fulfilled by those who tasted the fruit of the Emancipation Proclamation, and who gave birth to Martin Luther King, Jr., who, on the night before he was assassinated, spoke of his hope for something yet to be; a hope not then, and not yet fully realized: “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop…I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But…we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land! So I’m happy…I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”[3]

I think of generations of our Native American sisters and brothers who for centuries have decried the long-on-the-books liability of the dignity of human equality charged and yet unpaid against the account of American justice. Still, those of this day, continue to hope.

I think of the words of one of my favorite anthems that give glorious voice to the exquisite anguish of waiting in ardent hope for something not yet come: “Lord of feasting and of hunger, give us eyes to see your bread in the miracle of wonder, till all tables will be fed…See the silent ones who wait when the blessing seems too late.”[4]

Whenever the day is dark and the night darker still, Jesus calls us to lift our heads, look around, and see, yes, our fears, yet also that “great cloud of witnesses”[5] who lived and died in hope of beholding their salvation. Thus, we know that we never hope alone!

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustrations:

A model of the Jerusalem Temple

The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem (1867), Francesco Hayez (1791-1882), Accademia of Venice. Note: In tragic fulfillment of Jesus’ prophesy, in 70 CE, the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman army during the First Jewish-Roman War.

Simeon’s Prophecy to Mary (1628), Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669). Note: Mary and Joseph appear surprised when Simeon tells them, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel…” (Luke 2.34). The prophet Anna, “at that moment…began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2.38).

Footnotes:

[1] See Luke 21.20-36, especially verse 28.

[2] See Luke 2.21-38.

[3] From I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, delivered at Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968.

[4] From Lord of Feasting and of Hunger, Herbert F. Brokering (1926-2009)

[5] The Epistle to the Hebrews 12.2, referencing the models of faith, specifically, in the Hebrew Bible (mentioned in Hebrews 11) and, generally, all those of past generations.

here, by the grace of God, are we

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Luke 6.20-31, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Sunday after All Saints’ Day, November 6, 2016

According to legend, John Bradford,[1] a 16th century English reformer, destined to be imprisoned in the Tower of London and burned at the stake by Queen Mary Tudor, watching a group of prisoners being led to their executions, observed, “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford.” Thereby, he gave to succeeding generations a succinct statement of righteous recognition that another’s misfortune could be one’s own if not for divine blessing, more particularly, that one’s providence is in God’s hands, and, more generally, that one’s fate is not, is never entirely in one’s control, but alway subject to circumstance and chance.

Growing up, I often heard my father, when speaking of those amidst life’s travails, quietly comment, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Later, as a student of scripture, I realized that John Bradford, my father, and countless others had paraphrased Paul’s gratitude for having been called to be an apostle after having persecuted the followers of Jesus: “By the grace of God, I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.”[2]

This spirit of righteous recognition is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”[3]

all-saints-albrecht-durer-1511

Today, we observe All Saints’ Day;[4] “saint” being a New Testament title for a Christian.[5] Today is our annual reminder that we, throughout the year, are to “sing a song of the saints of God,”[6] commemorating those of bygone days “who from their labors rest…who…by faith before the world confessed th(e) Name (of) Jesus[7] and those who “lived not only in ages past,”[8] including us in our time who follow Jesus and those not yet born who, known only in the mind of God, will proclaim Jesus as Savior and Lord in generations to come.

In Christian tradition, our heroines and heroes are those like the first apostles[9] who were martyred, though threatened with death, refusing to renounce their faith in Jesus or like Mother, now St. Teresa of Kolkata who demonstrated an especial degree of holiness of life and kindness for the living and the dying or like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr., who lived and died for the cause of justice. Yes, they and more are worthy of honor as saints of God.

Yet we dare stand, do stand with them in saintly light because they, as we, were human. All, as we, flawed. All, as we, falling short of the glory of God.[10] All, as we, poor, impoverished in every way, except being perfect in imperfection. All, as we, Jesus calls blessed!

Let us, included among the saints, pay close attention to Jesus, who speaks to us, saying, “you that listen.” Listening to his declaration of discipleship, let us, on this All Saints’ Day, reenlist as saints, committing ourselves to do as Jesus commands: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you…”

This is radical! As in the Latin radix, “root”, in a spiritual sense, meaning a return to the origin of things, going back to the way God intended from the dawn of creation. And, let’s be honest, in an existential sense, radical as in extreme, even crazy; beyond the reach of reason, surpassing any sane expectation!

Yet Jesus’ declaration is a description of who a saint is and what a saint does. Jesus’ declaration is a description of saints who pray and saints who work, here and now, in this life, in this world to fulfill the prayer, “Our Father…Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Even more, Jesus’ declaration is a description of God’s nature, who God is and, still more, the way God treats us! God loves us, does good to us, blesses us – with the miracle of life, health, and strength; minds to think and dream, hearts to feel and love; the majesty of creation, the earth, our island home set in the ever-expanding sea of infinite galaxies; the marvel of families and friends to share life’s joys and sorrows – even when we are enemies of God, whether in ignorance failing or knowing, yet refusing to do God’s will.

Against a world continually rife with violence, against our American political scene sullied with the vilification of parties and the demonization of persons, Jesus’ declaration of saintly living stands in razor-sharp contrast. On this All Saints’ Day, as we remember those in ages past, we, for here, by the grace of God, are we as God’s saints in our day, are called to do God’s will and thus bequeath a legacy of righteousness for those to come.

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustration: All Saints, Albrecht Durer, 1511

Footnotes:

[1] John Bradford (1510–1555)

[2] 1 Corinthians 15.10

[3] In the parallel text of Matthew (5.3), Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (my emphasis); being those who know their inherent lack of power to secure their futures, much less save themselves from eternal death and thus who know their daily, constant need for God. Luke refuses to spiritualize our human deficiency, viewing poverty as the scarcity of resources in every dimension of human existence; spiritual, yes, but also physical, intellectual, and material.

[4] Since the 10th century of the Common Era, observed in the western Christian Church on November 1.

[5] For example, see Romans 1.7, 1 Corinthians 1.2, 2 Corinthians 1.1, Ephesians 1.1, Philippians 1.1, Colossians 1.2.

[6] From the hymn, I sing a song of the saints of God, words by Lesbia Scott (1898-1986), The Hymnal 1982, #293.

[7] Paraphrasing words of William Walsham How (1823-1897), from the hymn, For all the saints, The Hymnal 1982, #287.

[8] Scott, verse 3

[9] See Stephen’s story in Acts 6-7. See also Acts 12.2: King Herod killed the Apostle James with a sword. According to legend, all of the apostles, save John who was exiled, died violently.

[10] Romans 3.23

today!

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Luke 19.1-10, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, October 30, 2016

A rich man asks Jesus, “What must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus speaks of the commandments. The man cites his lifelong faithfulness. “You lack one thing”, Jesus says, telling the man to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and follow him. The man, crestfallen, cannot part with his earthly treasure. Jesus observes, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter heaven!” The disciples, shocked, believing wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, exclaim, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus says, “What is impossible for mortals I possible with God.”[1]

No, I’ve not mistaken this morning’s appointed gospel text (every preacher’s nightmare!). Rather the story of Jesus and the rich man provides context for the meeting between Jesus and Zacchaeus. Their encounter illumines the purpose of God who sees what mortals cannot see and answers the question, “Who can be saved?” whether asked by the disciples…

Or by us whenever, for whatever reasons, we cannot see our wealth of life and possibility bestowed by God, but only our lack. Whenever we look inside ourselves and see afresh what we work to hide from others, would hide from ourselves, and, though we pray: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid…”[2], wish we could hide from God. Whenever we recall the times we fell short of our best into the pit of our worst. When we were not loving and giving, but self-seeking, self-serving. When we were beset by fear that we wouldn’t, couldn’t be who God calls us to be or who we want to be. When our dreams of personal fulfillment crashed into the nightmares of our errors in judgment; the shadows of the consequences of which still haunt us. When we can’t lower the volume of that loud, long-playing psychological tape of blame and shame recorded ages ago by the criticisms of others and our self-condemnations.

Can we be saved? If the rich man and Zacchaeus are symbolic reflections of us – the rich man, in the respectability of his obedience to God’s Law, representing how we might like to appear and Zacchaeus, in his disloyalty, selling out to the Roman Empire, collecting taxes from his own people, how we’d like not to appear – then, between the two, Zacchaeus, I believe, answers our question, for his story reminds us that appearances can deceive.

The virtuous rich man wasn’t ready to relinquish his wealth, serve the poor, and follow Jesus. The duplicitous Zacchaeus desperately wanted to see Jesus, shamelessly disregarding propriety, lifting the hem of his robe to his waist, running, climbing a tree, and ignoring the crowd’s derisive pointing, laughing at “little Zacchaeus.”

zacchaeus-in-the-sycamore-awaiting-the-passage-of-jesus-zachee-sur-le-sycomore-attendant-le-passage-de-jesus-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902-brooklyn-museum

Here, too, is irony. Zacchaeus looked for Jesus, who already was looking for him. Jesus, the proclaimer, the personifier of God’s unconditional kingdom-love, always is looking for anyone ready to receive him.

Yet, deeper still, appearances deceive. Zacchaeus, a tax collector, is assumed to be corrupt. However, though in the English, Zacchaeus says, “Half my possessions, I will give to the poor” the Greek says, “Half my possessions I am giving to the poor.” The generosity Jesus commands, Zacchaeus already does! His liberality is no spontaneous, one-time act, but a constant commitment. Zacchaeus says, “If I’ve defrauded…”, for it’s not a given he has cheated anyone.

Yes, all is not always as it appears. We are not always as we appear to others and ourselves. However, we always are as we appear to God. Thus be assured if ever, whenever we wonder, “Can we be saved?” the answer never depends on us, but always on God, in whom all things are possible and who, in Jesus, always answers, “Yes”!

Daring to believe this, let us dare more, asking, “When can we be saved?” The answer is always “today”!

In Luke’s gospel, everything important happens today

The angel of the Lord appeared to shepherds in the fields keeping watch over their flock, proclaiming, “To you is born today in the city of David a Savior, the Messiah, the Lord.”[3]

Jesus inaugurated his ministry, reading Isaiah’s prophecy: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, liberty to the oppressed”, then saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”[4]

The penitent thief crucified with Jesus, said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”[5]

Jesus said to Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house.”

If ever, whenever you and I look at ourselves asking, pleading, “Can I be saved?” Luke, the divine physician, through the Jesus-Zacchaeus story, prescribes an antidote to our wonderment, a remedy for our worry, answering, “Yestoday!”

Today is always the time of God’s salvation! Today is the time of our liberation from fear and all that binds us, so to liberate others who are bound! Today, like Zacchaeus, let us open our eyes to see Jesus and what he is doing around us, in us, through us. May you and I know that whenever, wherever, with whomever we follow Jesus, bear the gifts of faith and hope, love and forgiveness, bring the light of compassion to the least, last, and lost, bestow strength to the feeble and solace to the forlorn salvation comes today!

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustration: Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Awaiting the Passage of Jesus (Zachée sur le sycomore attendant le passage de Jésus) (1886-1894), James Tissot

Footnotes:

[1] See Luke 18.18-27 (my paraphrase)

[2] From the Collect of Purity (my emphasis), The Book of Common Prayer, page 355.

[3] Luke 2.11

[4] Luke 4.18, 21

[5] Luke 23.42-43

a Lilliputian prayer

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church a sermon, based on Luke 18.9-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, October 23, 2016

Sometimes one can be good and inspire intense dislike or bad and dislikable, yet, perhaps paradoxically, useful.

the-pharisee-and-the-publican-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902

Jesus tells a parable of two who prayed. One, a Pharisee.

Historically, Pharisees haven’t fared well. “Pharisaical” is a synonym for the hypocrisy of outwardly doing of all the right things, but inwardly being less than true to the values the actions symbolize.

All Pharisees weren’t bad. Indeed, their “job” in Judaism was to know and do God’s Law – all 613 ritual imperatives of Sabbath observances and feast days, dietary rules and tithing. They were to be embodiments of the heart of the Law: love for God and neighbor. Yes, Jesus condemned the Pharisees as legalistically obsessed with externals; more concerned about correct conduct than love or justice.[1] Nevertheless, their role in the life of the community was important, for all of us need outward and visible, at times, living symbols of the values we cherish if we are to know and remember them.

All said, Pharisees were respected, admired, but not well liked. Hard to like someone who rises above us and perhaps looks down on us.

The second actor in Jesus’ two-person drama is a tax collector. A despised collaborator with the hated Roman Empire. A desecrator of the Law, taking money from his own people on behalf of the enemy. A thief who often levied higher amounts than were owed, pocketing the difference.

Tax collectors, seeking to repent, came to John the Baptizer, asking, “What should we do?” John said, “Collect no more than is due!”[2] Zacchaeus, a tax collector, overwhelmed with gratitude that Jesus would come to his home, joyously declared, “If I’ve defrauded anyone, I’ll repay fourfold!”[3] Clearly, tax collecting was profitable; the prosperity often the spoiled fruit of the misery of others.

Nevertheless, the disrespected, despised tax collector was useful as one who falls beneath us and perhaps upon whom we can look down.

So, the Pharisee. In his prayer, his hubristic litany of self-praise, he saw himself as morally superior to the tax collector. And he hadn’t lied. He had done everything he said. But he hadn’t lived the Law. He hadn’t loved. Thus he fulfilled Paul’s sad commentary on a loveless life; blessed with ability and achievement, but lacking compassion for others: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels…if I have prophetic powers…understand all mysteries and all knowledge…and faith…but do not have love, I am nothing.”[4]

The tax collector, in his contrite confession, had gotten nothing right, but everything real, for he hadn’t fallen prey to the temptation of comparison. (Whenever I measure myself against another, I know the risk. Whenever I, by my standards, look for some lesser mortal over whom to exalt myself, I will find that person. Yet inevitably I also will stumble into shadows cast by giants whose Brobdingnagian achievements by comparison make my accomplishments appear Lilliputian.[5]) The tax collector, judging himself only by himself, found himself lacking, compelling his cry for mercy.

As we interpret this tale, it is good for us to remember that Jesus was an intuitive story teller who taught in parables because he wanted us to think for ourselves. I believe Jesus ended the story with the tax collector’s plea: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Luke, writing a generation after Jesus, added the moral to the story, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” I guess Luke didn’t trust us with our own ruminations.

I think this because the ethical line that Luke draws is too solid and too straight. The Pharisee, outwardly righteous, inwardly flawed. The tax collector, outwardly flawed, inwardly righteous. Nothing in life or human experience is that clear!

So, taking up the story where I believe Jesus left it calls us to recognize that a Pharisee and a tax collector abides within each of us.

Like the Pharisee, we, at times, compare ourselves with others. The cost is that our self-perception and esteem can rise or fall in relation to how we view others. At the same time, we need to claim the pharisaical promise that we are “not like other people”. Each of us is created wonderfully, differently, uniquely, individually. Therefore, there always is something each of us can give to others and receive from others.

Like the tax collector, we earn much of our profit, yes, our material treasure, yet also the wealth of our personalities at the cost and through the giving of others. Therefore, forgetting that, we always are in danger of believing somehow we did it ourselves and, thus, need to remember to pray like a Lilliputian, in gratitude, always in mind and heart of our need for mercy.

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustration: The Pharisee and the Publican (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902). The Pharisee (left), as described in the parable, “standing by  himself”, his bearing erect, hold his hands aloft in prayer. The tax collector or publican (right) also stands alone and, “far off”, his posture abject, leaning against a pillar for support, his head bowed in his hand, unable to “look up to heaven”, his other hand grasping, “beating his breast”, all signs of contrition. (Note: publican was a title given to a public contractor who served the Roman Empire in a variety of roles, one of which was tax collection.)

Footnotes:

[1] See Matthew 23.1-36 and Luke 11.42-44.

[2] Luke 3.12-13

[3] Luke 19.8

[4] 1 Corinthians 13.1, 2, my emphasis

[5] A reference to peoples, respectively great and small in size, in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726).

individuality, communality, and money – a financial stewardship sermon

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Jeremiah 31.27-34 and Luke 18.1-8, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, October 16, 2016

john-donne-1573-1631-portrait-by-unknown-english-artist

John Donne, 17th century Anglican priest and poet, in perhaps his best known work, wrote: “…No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee…”[1]

Donne’s meditation on life and death following a grave illness also serves as a reflection on those universal aspects of human existence: individuality and communality…

We, with our individual histories and memories, thoughts and feelings, wants and needs, observations and opinions, perceptions and intentions, live in relation with others. We are “hard-wired” to belong. We always are in the act of joining, developing, and maintaining (sometimes tolerating!) community with one or many.

Often I’ve thought that if I was God, I would design life so that anything as necessary as breathing, which I believe relating to others is, would be easy to do. Alas, being in relationship, living in community can be wondrously energizing and woefully enervating; sometimes at the same time! Largely because it involves the constant interplay between our desire to be fully, authentically ourselves and our equally present need to be connected with others, who, no matter the similarities, always because of their individuality call us, challenge us to step outside of ourselves, to see life, the world, ourselves in different ways.

Amid this prevailing existential concern, Jeremiah speaks. Seeking to console a people exiled from their homeland, the prophet tells of a coming time of God’s renewal of their covenantal relationship; one characterized by an inward possession of God’s spirit through which individuals will be responsible for their behavior, no longer having their “teeth set on edge” accountable for the sins of others.

the-unjust-judge-and-the-importunate-widow-john-everett-millais-1829-1896

Our gospel passage illustrates this tension between individuality and communality in a different way. Jesus tells a parable, ostensibly about the necessity of perseverance in prayer. A cantankerous and callous judge grants justice to a widow, who, though the symbol of helplessness, wields the power of persistence. What appears to be a battle of two contestants is really the interplay between individual choice and corporate responsibility; the widow’s relentless demands compelling the judge to do his job for the sake of communal order.

Herewith, and perhaps this will strike you as an odd prologue, I request that we, each and all, consider making a financial pledge to support the life and labor, mission and ministry of Epiphany Church in 2017.

Today, we gather as living inheritors of the previous 170 years of Epiphany’s history; one marked by times of the feast of success in the growth of the congregation, the renovation of our worship space, and the addition of buildings and property and the famine of the struggle to keep the doors open, indeed, during the 19th century, the doors being closed for nearly ten years due to the lack of a priest to share ministry with very few people.

Today, we gather, I pray aware, alert to our continued possibilities. Not because of me. Rather because of you. For you, as individuals, many of you present and active for years, have come and do come to form a community whose spirit, as God’s Spirit written on your hearts, is one of love and respect, welcome and acceptance.

Today, we gather, looking beyond this day into the future. There’s an old saying that the gospel is free of charge, but there’s a cost to proclaim it. Yes, Jesus, a peripatetic preacher, always on the move, declared to a potential follower: “Foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but I have no place to lay my head.”[2] Yet we, Epiphany, are responsible for the care of ourselves and the maintenance of our space and accountable to our larger communities of Laurens and our diocese. Our faithful stewardship of all of it requires money.

Still, my request for our money, transcending solely earthly considerations, is fraught with the tension between our individuality and communality, our singular being and shared belonging, our personal care for ourselves and mutual concern for one another. Nothing quite stirs that tension, asking us to contemplate afresh where the balance is, than the call to spend our money. For this, far more than a practical matter of adding and subtracting dollars and cents, is a spiritual expression of what we value and where we find our hearts.

This, therefore, is a hyper-sensitive matter. Therefore, I – unlike the widow who, according to the Greek[3] demanded justice by threatening to punch the judge in his eye until, by her force and his fear, he submitted – simply ask each of us to make a pledge.

alms-basin

 

Photographs: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan); alms basin, Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC; the inscription (read counterclockwise): “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20.35).

Illustration: The Unjust Judge and the Importunate Widow, John Everett Millais (1829-1896)

Footnotes:

[1] From Meditation XVII of Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, John Donne (1572-1631)

[2] Luke 9.58, my paraphrase

[3] The word hypōpiazein (as the judge says: “I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out”) literally means “to hit under the eye”.