my?

a sermon, based on Matthew 21.33-46, which I had planned to preach with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church. Laurens, SC, on the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, October 8, 2017. Note: As happens on occasion, in the midst of the liturgy and prior to the sermon I was overwhelmed with emotion during which another word was given to me, I pray by the Holy Spirit, to share with my people of Epiphany Church. I will try to reproduce what I said and post it later.

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Jesus tells a parable, truly, a prediction of his death. Jesus is the son of the landowner, a symbol of God, sent to the vineyard of Israel, following other servants, the prophets, to collect from the tenants, the chief priests and the elders, the due portion of the harvest of the obedience of love and justice for all people.

Parable of the Wicked Tenants (1864), Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896)

“When the owner of the vineyard comes,” Jesus asks, “what will he do to those tenants?” The chief priests and the elders reply, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to others who will give him the produce at harvest time.” With this answer, they, ironically, unknowingly, reveal their blindness to the reality that they are the object of Jesus’ scathing indictment. They are the wretched tenants who refuse to give God the harvest of righteousness. They are those who have confused sacred leadership for the people with sovereign ownership of the people. For the Owner of the vineyard is God and God alone.

And that point, from the first century unto today unto eternity, is, for us, as God-believing, God-revering folk, a universal truth.

It is difficult, well-nigh impossible for me, for anyone to write or to speak without using the word “my”. My wife. My daughter. My family and friends. My people of Epiphany Church, Laurens, South Carolina. My mind and heart. My soul and spirit. My home and property. My day and time. My life and labor and leisure. My money…

The risk of employing this necessary word referencing our realization of our connection to people, places, and things is that we unconsciously can come to believe, and act accordingly, that we possess people, places, and things (an equal danger being that people, places, and things can possess us to the point that we cannot live freely, fully without them).

Yes, in some sense, in this mercantile world, we do own things (our creditors and the IRS surely think so!). And, yes, as we know that in death we can take nothing of this life with us, it is prudent that we make legal provision for the disposition of our things.

Nevertheless, these worldly practicalities cannot, must not, must never obscure our constant realization of the eternal revelation that God is Owner and Provider of all life and all that is in this life and the next…

Therefore, you and I, as God-believing, God-revering folk, alway, every day, every moment of the day, are to discern, come to know, and to decide, choose, to offer to God the produce, the harvest of our living in our love and justice toward all…

For it is in this act of faith, hope, and love, that we, with sincerity and truth, can say, “my God!”

 

Illustration: Parable of the Wicked Tenants (1864), Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896). Note: Millais depicts the son of the landowner lying dead outside the vineyard fence under the eyes of two of the murderous tenants; upper right, the vineyard watchtower stands in the distance.

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the victims – those who died and their families and their friends and their communities and the world and all of us

Tonight, I watched the reporter and commentator Anderson Cooper’s CNN broadcast, AC360 Special Report: Las Vegas Lost: Remembering the Victims; a compilation of vignettes of the lives of the 58 victims of the mass shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday, October 1.

Las Vegas

As I watched, I noted the differences; never hard to seek and to find in any crowd of people. The victims were…

women and men,

young and old (the youngest, 20, the oldest, 67),

mothers and fathers, daughters and sons,

grandmothers and grandfathers, granddaughters and grandsons,

mothers-fathers-daughters-sons-in-law,

wives and husbands, partners and lovers, fiancées,

Asian, black, Hispanic, white,

Americans, mostly, and two Canadians,

small town and big city folk,

outdoor-and-indoor folk,

patriots and rebels,

straight and gay,

people of faith and not,

beer-lovers, wine connoisseurs, and teetotalers,

teachers, truck drivers, medical practitioners, construction workers, military and police personnel, combat veterans and pacifists, students and retirees.

And as I watched, I noted the similarities; never hard to seek and to find in any crowd of people. The victims were lovers of country music who, when shot, bled the red blood of our unmistakably, ineradicably common humanity and died.

And as I watched, I noted the similarities in the testimonials of families and friends who, with tearful, confessional honesty, and who, in their grieving, grappling with their paradoxically excruciating numbness, described their loved ones, almost to a person, as…

“kind”

“thoughtful”

“enthusiastic about life with a contagious smile and infectious laughter”

“filled with love”

“loyal”

“self-giving”

“joyful”

“putting others ahead of herself/himself”

“caring”

“compassionate”

And as I watched, I beheld (never hard to seek and to find) the composite, thus, magnified goodness of these 58 souls – all they did, all they were for all they knew and all who knew them – now lost to their families and friends, to their communities, to the world, and to all of us.

We never will, never can know all the more good these 58 souls would have done. And we who live to exercise our freewill toward the fulfillment of goodwill have lost 58 comrades in the daily labor to make this world a better place. So, let us, by the grace of God and in the strength of the Spirit, redouble our efforts.

predictable patterns?

On October 1, 2017, in another American mass shooting, 59 people were killed (one being the assailant from a self-inflicted gunshot wound) and over 500 injured. By the numbers, this is the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.

Still, I think, I feel that all whose loved ones died last year in Orlando, Florida or in San Bernardino, California in 2015 or in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012 or in Blacksburg, Virginia in 2007 (or in any other incident in our ongoing national saga of mass violence), for as long as they grieve, which will be for as long as they live, may consider those the deadliest mass shootings.

Since Sunday, as in the instances of all mass shootings, I observe a predictable pattern; some, not all of the elements being…

Every one of us of goodwill, regardless of race or religion or no religion, class or culture, personal philosophy or opinion, decries the murders.

Some of us demand and some of us resist renewed efforts to enact tighter gun control laws; and, in this, some of us in either camp vilify the motives and the morals of some of those in the other.[1]

Still others of us contend that, for the sake of compassion for the mournful, the immediate aftermath of the tragedy is not the time to engage in political combat.

And, inevitably, all of us who live will “get on with it”, going back to living our lives as we have known them, that is, until the next mass shooting.

However, on this last score, something for me, something in me has changed. Perhaps it is because, as I age, I find myself more attuned to and pained by our human trials and tribulations, worries and woes, sufferings and sorrows. Yes, mine own, yet, even more, those of others, all others.[2] Thus, though I will “get on with it”, I won’t, can’t get over it.

What I think, feel, believe this means for me is that my awareness of human mortality and life’s fragility, suddenly, shockingly, sickeningly renewed this past Sunday, will not, will never fade…

What this means is that I, every day, will be more conscious that all of us are mortal, we will die, and that all of us are fragile, our lives, whether by natural calamity or human violence, accident or disease, can be tragically transformed in an instant…

What this means is that I pledge to live with more intention than I ever dared to dream…

And, on this feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, I can think of no greater, grander guide than to live my life in the conscious keeping of the prayer attributed to him:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace!

That where there is hatred, I may bring love.

That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness.

That where there is discord, I may bring harmony.

That where there is error, I may bring truth.

That where there is doubt, I may bring faith.

That where there is despair, I may bring hope.

That where there are shadows, I may bring light.

That where there is sadness, I may bring joy.

Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort, than to be comforted.

To understand, than to be understood.

To love, than to be loved.

For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.

It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.

It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Here, I think, in political terms, it has become all too facile to cast Democrats as gun control advocates and Republicans as gun rights activists. For it seems to me that either the stance of gun control or that of the Second Amendment “right of the people to keep and bear Arms” is not the sole interest or desire of any party or persuasion. Indeed, I have been surprised, which, confessedly, reveals more about my biases and assumptions, when discovering that a friend, an avid hunter and combat veteran, is a longtime believer in strict gun laws and another friend, who has never owned or desired to own a gun, is a staunch supporter of individual gun rights.

[2] I wrote about this in a previous blog post, continuing becoming… (August 30, 2017).

all that should have fallen – at a time of tragedy, a Christian prayer

O God, as thousands of Your children gathered under Your gracious canopy of stellar space to celebrate Your gifts of life and music, all that should have fallen as the day ebbed and the night came was the mantle of warm darkness; all that should have fallen upon ready ears attuned to mirth was the wail of the guitar, the beat of the drum, the strains of the human voice singing, telling a story in country song, and the accompaniment of merrymakers joining in gladsome chorus…

What should not have fallen were the bullets, sent down, by the heated, hateful hand of another of Your children, in deliberate rain, falling in a fearsome fusillade…

What should not have fallen were the bodies of Your children struck down, dead or wounded, others scattering, crouching, running in terror…

What should not have fallen to the pitiless ground were the screaming, weeping cries of disbelief, fear, and grief.

O God, as what should have fallen was halted in savage mid-flight by all that should not have fallen, I pray You hail the dead in the heavenly halls of the everlasting Light of Your peaceful Presence, I pray You heal the wounded in mind and heart, soul and spirit, and I pray You hasten the day of Your coming that Your living will that countenances no killing – through Your Spirit, making benevolent habitation in all of Your children – be done on earth as it is in heaven; in the name of Jesus, I beseech You. Amen.

which one?

Epiphany 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 21.23-32, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, October 1, 2017

Never answer a question with a question, so the olden adage advises, lest one be accused of refusing to engage in honest dialogue or, as bad, seeking to conceal one’s ignorance. Clearly, Jesus was no proponent of this school of thought.

Jesus triumphally entered Jerusalem,[1] then brazenly cleansed the temple of money changers and sellers of animals,[2] thus, disrupting the sacred economy of the institution of ritual sacrifice, and now, self-authorized, has taken up residence in the temple, teaching, preaching. The chief priests and elders charged with maintaining order, demand, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

The Pharisees Question Jesus, James Tissot (1886-1894)

The accusatory tone of these religious leaders is a strong indication that it’s hardly likely they will accept anything Jesus says. Nevertheless, given, again, their role as overseers of the life of worship of their people, God’s people, theirs is a fair question. What does Jesus do? He answers their question with a question to which they plead the fifth, refusing to answer. Jesus doesn’t answer their question, but rather responds with a parable about two sons whose father asks to labor in the vineyard. One says, “No”, but then goes. The other says, “Yes,” but then doesn’t go.

Parable of the Two Sons, James Tissot (1836-1902)

“Which of the two,” Jesus pointedly asks not only those chief priests and elders, but also us, “did the will of his father?”

The one who appears to be, who presents herself, himself to be a follower of Jesus who outwardly does the right things, but whose mind and heart, soul and spirit are far from doing, being the love and justice of the kingdom of God or the one who by all appearances fails, falls from grace time and time again, but finally responds favorably to the call of Jesus, “Follow me”, acting fairly, living faithfully; even if it comes at the proverbial “eleventh hour” of the last breath of life in this world!

Which one are you? Which one am I? Jesus calls you and me to answer and not with a question.

On another, deeper level, I believe the answer to Jesus’ question is neither the one who said, “No”, but did go nor the one who said, “Yes”, but didn’t go, but rather Jesus himself. He was…is the son who when sent to proclaim in word and deed God’s will of self-sacrificial, unconditional love, came among us teaching and preaching, holding out his hands especially to the least, last, and lost, then stretching out his arms, loving us all, from the least to the greatest, to death, his own, that we might be redeemed from sin and death. Jesus is the son we are to imitate.

When Jesus asks us, as he does today and every day, “Which son did the will of his father?”, by the grace of God, let us answer, “You, Jesus, are the one and you, Jesus, are the one we follow that we, your sisters and brothers, God’s daughters and sons, might do, be fulfillments of God’s will.

 

Illustrations:

The Pharisees Question Jesus (Les pharisiens questionnent Jésus) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Parable of the Two Sons, James Tissot

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 21.1-11

[2] Matthew 21.12-13

a funny thing happened on the way to the protest (or “it seems to me”)

Symbol. A visual image or word that points beyond itself indicating, signifying an idea or object, verily, a reality oft unseen, but not unknown, which allows the beholder of the symbol, truly, the believer in the reality to which it points to comprehend it and communicate it with others.

And, it seems to me, in order for a symbol to be a symbol, that is, to perform the function of pointing beyond itself to a reality, at least two people (preferably more, of course) have to behold the symbol more or less in the same way, that is, perceiving it as pointing (believing it to point) to a similar reality.

And that’s the funny thing about symbols, whether images or words. No two people, it seems to me, necessarily see the same thing in the image or mean the same thing by the word. We humans, each and all, based on our individual histories and memories, thoughts and feelings, desires and needs, philosophies and theologies, intentions and actions, beliefs and behaviors (in other words, all this and more that constitutes being human; one’s sense of self and life’s experience) are entitled to our views of an image or word and the values that we associate with it.

Therefore, it seems to me, it’s important for humans, especially when we disagree, to be able and willing to engage in conversation or dialogue (literally, dia [through or across] logue [speech or words]) to communicate our potentially manifold understandings of a symbol.

And, it seems to me, such conversation requires respect; literally, re (again or anew) spect (look or see). With respect, I can see you no longer through the lenses of my sense of self and life’s experience, but rather, having listened to you as much, if not more than I have spoken to you, I can, that is, I am able (and, I would pray, willing) to see a symbol and its attendant reality through your eyes.

All this, it seems to me, applies to our current raging and divisive protest about protest involving the symbols of the American flag and the Star-Spangled Banner.

American flag against blue sky

Person One, based on her/his sense of self and life’s experience, beholding the flag and hearing the national anthem, believing they signify American liberty and equality, stands, salutes, and sings.

Amercian flag, tattered, behind fence and barbed wire

Person Two, based on her/his sense of self and life’s experience, believing these symbols to be signs of personal and systemic denial of liberty and equality, sits or kneels, locks arms or raises a fist.

Person One criticizes Person Two for disrespecting the flag and anthem, indeed, denigrating America.

Person Two criticizes Person One for pledging allegiance to a system in which the equality of opportunity, indeed, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” are oft deferred, at times, denied based on inherent human qualities of race and gender.

It seems to me that Person One and Person Two are entitled to their points of view and to behave in ways, short of violence, that reflect their perspectives.

It seems to me that if Person One and Person Two could and would dialogue they might arrive at a new place of mutual understanding.

Now, this doesn’t seem to me, for this, based on my sense of self and life’s experience, I know. Whenever I, with respect, listen to another, I, at the end of our dialogue, may not be able to say, “I agree with you”, but, and it never fails, I can say, “I understand your point of view, indeed, I understand you and, therefore, why and how you stand and sing or sit or kneel, lock arms or raise a fist.”

the push and pull of mystery

I awoke this morning in a melancholy mood thinking about the cares that beset any human under the sun, the daily reminders of our limitations, the not (never?) having enough time, energy, or money (or any two or all three), in the face of our desires and needs, to complete, compete, or compensate.

Then I pushed beyond my personal, largely small cares, thinking about greater current woes of the world. Among them:

  • The horrific destruction of hearth and health and hope wrought by the winds and waves of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and the tectonic tumult of earthquakes; turning verdant lands barren, bringing darkness, save for still-shining stars, to what seem endless nights, cancelling the coming day for the final closing of the eyes of the dying, and
  • The dread specter of rising, billowing nuclear clouds, and
  • The social, cultural unrest of an America stirred by the symbols of flags, anthems, and statues, and actions, whether to stand and salute or lock arms and kneel.

Then pulling back from these painful thoughts, as I oft do, I meditated on mystery – not a riddle to be resolved by human reason, but rather the reality of all things beyond human power to control, perhaps even human ability to understand and, thus, to amend.

mystery - Hubble telescope

My meditations provoked, as they always do, questions. Among them:

  • Why do, must people suffer?
  • Why, after centuries of observing and studying the futility of war to resolve disputes, do we, as peoples and nations, continue to lust for combat and long for conquest; the latter, given the superior and spreading nuclear capacity to destroy both enemy and self, being a fool’s goal?
  • Why, despite our best ambitions toward equality, do we continue to separate ourselves along lines, some invisible, yet all seemingly inerasable, of race and class, culture and clan, party and perspective; resulting in our apparent inability and unwillingness to acknowledge the existence of another point of view?
  • Why, long recognizing the incontestable truth that we occupy one planet (notwithstanding the dreams of lunar and Martian colonization) and that we form a global community of inseparable, interlocking interests, do we remain blinded by our prejudices, refusing to see the common humanity that we all irrefutably share?

Underneath these realities, as I behold them, lies unfathomable mystery. Understanding so little, I cannot answer my questions. One thing I do know. I cannot end suffering, war, inequality, prejudice, and a legion of human ills. However, as a person of faith, I can and do pledge to repent, daily, praying the Holy Spirit to make me more conscious of my:

  • time, energy, and money and how to use what I do have to serve, to share with my sisters and brothers of greater need;
  • anger, oft rooted in my sense of an affront to my personal honor and how to channel its virulent energy toward efforts to make peace with others and myself;
  • individuality of self and my commonality with all, so that in acknowledging the former I never disavow the latter;
  • biases and how to peer more deeply into the eyes of “the other” and mine own to behold our common God-given image.

I am not sure how this does, can, or will work. For I perceive it as mystery. By faith, I shall trust God, the greatest Mystery, to bring it to pass.