it’s remarkable

 

a sermon, based on Matthew 25.31-46, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, November 26, 2017

For all who believe in judgment – whose sense of right and wrong is crystal clear, whose moral compass is balanced, whose ethical sensibilities are sharp, whose response to life’s injustices is the hope for an afterlife when all wrongs are made right – here is the definitive Bible passage!

Jesus speaks of a celestial court. “All nations” – the whole earth, everybody – are gathered before him to be judged and divided; the righteous to eternal life, the accursed to everlasting punishment. Everyone gets what everyone deserves! Justice is done, finally, forever, never to be undone!

Christ separating the sheep and the goats, 6th century mosaic, Basilica of Sant_ Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy

But let’s be glad this cosmic judgment hasn’t happened yet and that we are not on trial. For none of us can be assured of acquittal. For we, even with our best intentions, are imperfect, thus fall short of the standard of judgment, which, according to Jesus, is service with our sisters and brothers in greatest, gravest need.

And it’s remarkable, worthy of recognition, that the standard of judgment has nothing to do with doctrine. Surprising given how much we Christians o’er two millennia have fought and died about whose right and whose wrong about what we believe and don’t believe! Yet Jesus doesn’t demand a recitation of a creed or a profession of faith, even in him.

Rather, and it’s remarkable, Jesus identifies service to the needy of this world as service to him, the Messiah of the eternal, living God. Thus, service is not only a cornerstone of human society, it is the code of the universe, the heart of life as God hath made it. We’re not living…being unless we’re serving.

And it’s remarkable how unremarkable this service is. With the exception of welcoming a stranger who becomes a friend or caring for the sick who may be made well, these acts of service hold no promise for lasting transformation. The systemic conditions of which human need is the symptom continue to create need. The hungry, once fed, hunger again. The thirsty thirst again. The naked need clothing again. When the visit is over, the visitor returns to a life of liberty while the prisoner remains imprisoned.

And it’s remarkable that these simple, straightforward acts of service are not intended to be deliberate deeds by which we seek to gain “extra credit” or “bonus points” to balance the liabilities, our sins of commission and omission, on the ethical ledger of our lives. As the sheep didn’t know they were serving Jesus and as the goats, had they known Jesus was in need, would have served him, service is to be spontaneous and unconscious.

And it’s remarkable that the image of sheep and goats is not only an earthly symbol with heavenly meaning, but also reflects an ordinary practice of first century Palestinian shepherds; in the evening separating their mixed flocks that had grazed together during the day, the sheep preferring the chilly night air, the goats needing warm shelter.

In this light, this story isn’t only about eternity, but also now. A story about life in this world. A life in which not only the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned, but all of us are needy, in some way, all the time. Thus, a life in which love and justice call us to reach out in compassion with those in need, for we never can know when we will be the ones in need, praying that a helping hand reaches out to us.

In that light, this story is less about God’s judgment of us and more about our judgments of others and ourselves. Are we, more often than not (for none of us always is any one thing!), sheep who serve spontaneously and unconsciously? Or are we goats who would serve if the task was great enough or the one to be served, in our judgment, worthy enough? Or are we an animal yet to be named who does see those in need, yet refuses to serve?

Which are you? Which am I?

 

 

Illustration: Christ separating the sheep and the goats, 6th century mosaic, Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy 

 

 

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freed from fear…imagine

preaching, 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 25.14-30, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 19, 2017

Jesus tells a parable about talents. In his day, monetary units of precious metal equal to fifteen years’ wages of a day laborer. For our day, the root of our notion of our capabilities, our talents that enable us to do something.

Viewed through the worldly lens of economics, this story is about our stewardship of our abilities and our money; using them fully, investing them wisely for which we, at life’s end, will give a reckoning through our legacies and bequests.

Hmmm, maybe.

From a heavenly perspective, this story is about our faithful use of divine gifts, as Paul delineates in First Corinthians,(1) among them, faith and discernment, knowledge and wisdom, bestowed by the Spirit, which we are to use for the sake of others and for which we must give an account at the end of time, the Day of the Lord, the second coming of Jesus of which Paul speaks.(2)

Hmmm, maybe.

Today, focusing on two of the four characters, I suggest that this parable is about an elemental aspect of our relationships, all of our relationships, with God and with all others. Not the first two servants, who invest and double their money, make the same speech to their master, who, with the same words, praises and rewards them. They function as literary foils like Romeo and Juliet’s Friar whose patience magnifies Romeo’s impatience or Mr. Hyde whose evil illumines the goodness of Dr. Jekyll or the malevolent Draco Malfoy to the benevolent Harry Potter. The first two servants, in their exacting similarity, highlight the utterly different relationship of the master and the third servant; who, suffering from a case of fiscal paralysis, buries and returns the money.

Parable of the Talents, Eugène Burnand (1850-1921)

There is the point of the parable, which, though it may seem, is not a judgment against laziness, but rather is about fear.

FEAR - Scrabble tiles

The third servant imagined that his master was unkind. “I knew you were harsh, so I was afraid.” And acting on his fear, “I hid your talent and here it is.” The master replies, “You knew, did you, that I am as you imagine? If so, then you should have done otherwise.”

The point. Whatever we imagine about God and anyone else will influence our behavior. Speaking for myself, if I imagine God or you to be judgmental, I will be afraid and, in my fear, remain guarded, reveal little, risk even less lest I fail and fall under your judgment. If I imagine God or you to be benevolent and fair, then I am free to take the risk of being open and vulnerable, indeed, to be as loving and just as I perceive God and you to be.

What we imagine, we reflect. What we reflect, we will be and do, think and feel, intend and act.

If this is true – and I believe it is! – then the moral of this parable is this: Resist and reject fear. Risk faith and trust in our interactions with God and others, for there is truest freedom.

 

Illustration: The Parable of the Talents, Eugène Burnand (1850-1921)

Footnotes:

(1) 1 Corinthians 12

(2) 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11 is the day’s appointed epistle reading.

the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…except when it can’t!

preaching, 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 18.21-35, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, September 17, 2017

To be human is to live in relationships. To live in relationships is to know the joys of love and acceptance and the sorrows of disagreement and disappointment, hurt and anger with others and with one’s self. To know sorrow is to face, at times, to fight with the need for forgiveness of others and of one’s self.

Peter raises (unbeknownst to him, on our behalf!) this life-essential issue of forgiveness with Jesus. He proposes a limit of seven times; a magnanimous act, doubling an ancient standard of three, adding one for good measure! Jesus, as we’ve grown to expect, takes the matter to another, supernatural level, expanding the economy of forgiveness beyond the bounds of human imagination: “Not seven times, but seventy-seven” (meaning infinite) “times.”

I visualize Peter’s face, perhaps ours, too, frozen in shock as he and we struggle to comprehend limitless forgiveness. Quickly we might object: “Jesus, are you crazy? The world, yours then and ours now, doesn’t work this way! Our relationships are built and balanced on scales of give and take and our judgments of right and wrong, and, frankly Jesus, some things are terrible and can’t be forgiven and, if so, only after a long time!” But before we can stammer out our protest, Jesus holds up a calming hand, saying, “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…”

Jesus tells a parable of a king who forgives a pleading servant unable to pay a massive debt. That servant then condemns a fellow servant who owes, in comparison, a pittance. Other servants report this ingratitude to the king, who furiously reverses his decree of amnesty, sending that unmerciful servant to his doom.

Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (1556), Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1500-1579), University of Michigan Museum of Art

A traditional Christian interpretation considers this parable a symbol of God’s grace. The king represents God who, in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, has forgiven our sinful debt of disobedience that we could not pay. Therefore, we are to share the kindness of God’s forgiveness with our fellow human beings, whose wrongs, no matter how great in human terms, from heaven’s standpoint, cannot compare.

However, there are problems with this view…

Chief among them, the king, in revoking his pardon of the unmerciful servant, implies that there are limits on God’s illimitable forgiveness, which, at best, is a conundrum and, at worst, a contradiction…

And even if we view the torture of the unmerciful servant through a psycho-existential lens, perceiving it as the ill of bitterness that we inflict on ourselves when we refuse to forgive (though I believe that’s true!), it remains a penalty initiated by the king, who, again, represents God…

And the parable is built on a foundation of earthly inequality of authority and power between the king and servant and between servant and servant…

And, from there, the parable progresses on a worldly arc of the injustice of servant to servant and the vengeance of the fellow servants, desiring punishment, reporting the misdeed to the king who, again, revokes his pardon, therefore, imitating the cruelty of the unmerciful servant.

Limited forgiveness, inequality, injustice, vengeance. No, no, no, no! This is not, cannot be a depiction of the God Jesus reveals. This is not an image of love. Therefore, as I believe the kingdom of heaven may not be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants, this parable is a correction, verily, a condemnation of a world, our world where we humans limit forgiveness and worse, when hurt and angry, oft fall prey to the temptation to make God in our image as one whose judgments are like ours, thus not set on a scale of gracious and merciful love. (How many times has someone done another wrong and the offended party or a sympathizer said words to the effect: “God has a day of reckoning in store for that person!” or more bluntly, “God’s going to get that person!”)

Yes, some things in this life are terrible. And when terrible things, especially when wrought by human hands, happen to others and to ourselves, we would do violence to the souls of others and ourselves to demand that forgiveness, theirs and ours, be swift and absolute. Sometimes forgiveness takes time. Yet forgiveness alway is our calling that we, as God, may live in unlimited liberty, unfettered by the bonds of bitterness.

 

Illustration: Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (1556), Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1500-1579), University of Michigan Museum of Art. Note: The painting depicts the moment in the parable when the king (on the left, pointing, his countenance creased in anger) scolds the unmerciful servant (on the right, gazing at the king, his brow furrowed, his hands clasped in a pleading gesture, his mouth partially open as if speaking, seeking to make his case): “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18.32b-33). The two other figures in van Hemessen’s portrayal of the parable are the king’s record keepers; one counting coins piled on the table and the other, with pen in hand, looking to the king for direction. In the background, a man is being dragged into an underground chamber by soldiers, representing the soon to come fate of the unmerciful servant: In anger his lord handed him over to be tortured… (Matthew 18.34).

three thoughts for today’s troubled times

 

Note: The unrest in Charlottesville two weekends ago involving clashes between white supremacists and counter protestors remains for me a disturbing symbol of societal turbulence. Something unresolved (irreparable?) – a misanthropy with cultural, ethnic, genderal, racial, and religious overtones – has broken loose in the bowels of America and now freely, insidiously courses throughout the bloodstream of the nation. Something, too – a distress, a dis-ease – has erupted in my soul. Daily, I wrestle and, from time to time, write, seeking some semblance, if not of peace with the ills of the world (for how could that…I be?), then for a way to abide in the equanimity of personal integrity. Out of my ongoing inner quest, these three thoughts…

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In the midst of turmoil, without and within, may I, by the grace of the Spirit, remember what a mighty God I serve. A God, my God who can deliver me, deliver all from whate’er befalls. And if, when God, who can, does not – for I recall the words of the psalmist, which Jesus prayed, cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?…O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer; and by night, but find no rest”[1] – then I believe God must be doing a greater thing than I can conceive. It is this faith that inspired Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, under the threat of death, to answer, “O Nebuchadnezzar…if our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. If not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods.”[2] It is this faith that inspired the Apostle Paul, to exclaim, “Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”[3]

It would be…is easy for me to blame Donald Trump – and what I consider to be his egotistic, opportunistic populist rhetoric that, through his presidential campaign, animated and, now, during his presidency, has continued to galvanize the forces of misanthropy – for Charlottesville, both in its immediate historical moment of two weekends ago and as representative of a larger societal ill. However, I follow Jesus who calls me to do (embrace) and to be (embody) the unconditional love that strives not merely not to inflict harm, but more to enact good for the sake of “the other” (all who differ from me) that he demonstrated on the cross of his crucifixion and death, praying that God forgive those who were killing him. Therefore, in the face of the temptation to judge, indeed, to condemn, I must look first and most within. And my confession of my sins leads me to a blessed state of compassion for others, turning me away from a bitter spirit of condemnation of others.

Having compassion for (and not condemnation of) another, nevertheless, should I discern that another’s words or deeds reflect an unsavory aspect of character or intention, and, given the status of authority, resurrect objectionable elements within the body politic, I, refusing to be silent, can and will commit myself to respond with the free speech of protest.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Psalm 22.1a, 2; Mark 15.34

[2] Daniel 3.16b, 17-18a

[3] Ephesians 3.20

common?

Subtitle: a Monday rant

Sub-subtitle: an admission of a personal pet peeve

confess - regret

I don’t know (or if I once did, I don’t recall) who was the first person (even the second, thus close enough to claim being the first) to make that insightful observation of human behavior, saying, in so many words, “As far as I can tell common sense is far from common.”

By common sense, I’m not referring to that Aristotelean category concerning that inherent animal and über-useful capacity to employ varied senses to perceive collectively (or commonly) the nature of the surrounding environment, say, the proximity and speed of approach of a potential predator. Nor am I thinking of that native human (given our desire and need to be in relationship) sensory awareness of others.

Rather, by common sense, I mean that garden-variety-everyday-we-know-it-when-we-see-it-even-if-we-can’t-explain how-or-why shared human rational ability to perceive and understand situations and circumstances and to respond reasonably.

Closely associated with common sense, I think, is common courtesy; that human trait of civility in relations with others, expressive of one’s respect for others’ (and one’s own) individual dignity.

My pet peeve?

(I digress. I understand the peeve-part, from “peevish”; connoting a behavior, habit, or trait that provokes my ill-temper. But why is my peeve my “pet”, which I generally associate with something favorable or valuable? Thus I think my peeve is the pet behavior, habit, or trait of another that riles my viscera. Oh well, back to my point…)

I hate it (and I don’t use the word carelessly, but rather candidly descriptively) when folk don’t respond to my communications.[1] For, when this happens, I usually feel the hurt of disregard.

And when it happens and happens and happens, I also usually think afresh that common sense and courtesy ain’t that common.

However, I also usually recognize that my pejorative judgment of the other person is precisely that, a pejorative judgment of the other person; and, doubtless, with no information from the other person, inherently unfair to the other person.

So, also usually, I don’t spend too much time (some time, yes, but, again, not too much) pondering, wondering why the other person didn’t respond. For truth to tell, as I’m the only one I know thinking and feeling what I’m thinking and feeling, the issue is with me.

And also usually where I end up is recognizing again one of my soul-deep needs for acknowledgement of my person. The roots of this need trace back to my formative years and what I’ve discerned was a lack in my adolescent individual psychosocial development. And, as I believe that the one person I cannot escape is me, this, my need and deficiency is something I’ve been working on for years and, I trust, will continue to work on until I die.

I still hate, well, don’t like it when folk don’t respond. But I also know it’s not really about them. It’s about me.

 

Footnote:

[1] In a faintly related way, this, for me, is in the same group or class of (or perhaps classless) behaviors as one’s not replying to an RSVP, but then showing up. But, in such an instance, at least the person does appear; her/his arrival and presence being, however late and unexpected, a demonstrable response.

Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

On politics, religion, and presidential elections (subtitle: fill in the blank; sub-subtitle: WWJD?[1])

The American socio-political climate is as sizzling and sweltering as a South Carolina spring morning when long before noon the temperature and humidity climb to the high-80s (or higher!). The unrest, characteristic of the 2016 presidential campaign (which was, I think, in part, a bitter fruit of the rising, roiling ideological conservative-liberal tensions of the prior decade), pestilentially persists. Those who voted for _______,[2] some of whom rather would have voted for _______,[3] with the election of Donald Trump, are _______, _______, and _______ .[4]

In the light of this heat, here, in the South, I hear political speech with religious undertones (or is it religious speech with political overtones?). To wit (with each successive declarative or interrogative statement, from whatever side of the political spectrum, uttered with increasing certainty and stridency):

“Jesus would have voted for _______.”

“Jesus told me to vote for _______.”

“How in God’s name could you vote for _______?”

“How can you call yourself a Christian and vote for _______?”

I am a Christian. I love and follow Jesus. I strive, praying the strength of the Holy Spirit, to obey his one commandment: to love unconditionally.[5] Daily, I try. Daily, I fail. Daily, I pray the Spirit’s presence and guidance to try again.

Given my existential and spiritual orientation, at first, I was taken aback by what I deem unabashed and unbridled hypercritical politico-religio language.[6] Then, catching myself (or, rather, the Spirit catching me) falling prey to judging others, I stepped back from the precipice of that pit so to look and to listen with the eyes and ears of love. What or rather who I see and hear are my sisters and brothers, some of whose expressions correspond with mine and some not. Yet my agreement or disagreement does not, must not affect my ability and willingness to tolerate, even more, to accept, and still more, to honor their thoughts and feelings, their wants and needs, their hopes and fears that are the ground, the heart from which spring their words. And in that tolerance, acceptance, verily, reverence for their God-given human dignity, I can “lay down my life” – my preferences and prejudices – for their sake.

 

Footnotes:

[1] What would Jesus do?

[2] Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump

[3] In the case of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders or, in the case of Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Jim Gilmore, Lindsay Graham, Mike Huckabee, Bobbly Jindal, John Kasich, George Pataki, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, or Scott Walker or, with the choice of voting for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, did not vote.

[4] happy, hopeful, and compliant or sorrowful, fearful, and defiant

[5] Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13.34-35) and “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15.12-13).

[6] During my many years of living and laboring in and around Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, where the lingua franca is über-partisan, self-authenticating, other-vilifying speech, I do not recall hearing anything like this.

Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

“Bless your heart”

Living in the South for the past 2½ years, how often have I heard this phrase? Dwelling in the realm of time and space where much is measured numerically, though I cannot truthfully say “countless times”, truly I can say, “I’ve lost count!”

And hearing it daily, repeatedly in many a (every?) setting, I have learned that this über-utilitarian aphorism has manifold circumstantial uses and contextual meanings; the majority of which fall into two major categories…

As a pitying or insulting negative judgment of a person, whether behind the back or to the face. For example, “She/he/you had such good intentions, but her/his/your performance was sadly underwhelming, bless her/his/your heart.” When employed in this instance, usually the speaker arrives at that closing phrase with lowered tone and soft voice, having the effect of tempering the harshness of the critique and, at times, masking barely the passive-aggression of the criticism.

Blessedly, I have heard or overheard these three words used far more as an expression of earnest kindness. One does a good deed for another and the recipient of that grace says to the giver, “Thank you and bless your heart.” A loved one dies and one, seeking to offer a word of consolation, says, “Bless her/his and your heart.” In each case, the phrase oft is uttered with a breathy sincerity that infuses, inspirits the words, in the first instance, with genuine gratitude and, in the second, with sincerest sympathy. And in each case, the phrase oft is preceded by the sacred word, “God”.

I digress…

A word, as a symbol, points beyond itself to a reality (at times, in the instant moment of its utterance or script, unobservable), which the word, both for the speaker/writer and the listener/reader, brings into the view of the mind’s eye, thus, giving shape to and making sense of the reality. In this act of communication, usually, indeed, I think, always the speaker/writer and the listener/reader, each with her/his own experience and perception, do not, cannot mean the same thing. Hence, the necessity of their engaging in deepening interaction, frequently (always?) entailing the employ of more words to define the one word.

That said, here in the South, I discern a remarkable similitude in people’s use of the word “God” in reference to a reality, indeed, a Being, thus, not something, but rather Someone to whom is ascribed the agency of the power to create and sustain life. Moreover, in Christian circles of faith, I observe that folk speak and write of God in various ways, yet, again, with a notable likeness, as the principal actor on the stage of the universe and the primary protagonist of scripture’s sacred story as revealed through the life and mission of the people Israel, in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and by the eternally illuminating presence of the Holy Spirit.

In this, I experience an inner, spiritual, nearly ineffable resonance; indeed, a kindred person-to-person blessing of hearts.