party hardy!

a sermon, based on Matthew 22.1-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, October 15, 2017

What a bizarre story! Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a wedding banquet given by a king.

Who wouldn’t want to be invited? Clearly, none of these folks, who, summoned once, then twice, the second time with the added enticement of a description of the menu of succulent oxen and fatted calves (Yum!), refuse to come, and some of whom kill the messengers! The furious king retaliates, murdering the murderers, who are his subjects, and destroys their city, which is in his kingdom! Nevertheless, the party’s still on, the king inviting people off the street!

Sometimes when I’m preaching, as my personal reality-check, to assure myself that I’ve neither confused you nor left you along the way, I’ll ask you, “Are you with me so far?” As I read on this parable, I hear Jesus asking, “Paul, are you with me so far?” No!

Ah, then I remember that back in that late-first century day, Matthew was referring to the kingdom-banquet of God’s son, the Messiah, Jesus, the invitation to which some had rejected. The violence of the immediate outcome notwithstanding, our focus, as Christians, those who have accepted the invitation, is, must be on what happens at the party; where the king chastises and casts out a guest who, either disregarding or disrespecting the occasion, has failed to dress appropriately and, therefore, is out of place and might as well not have come at all.

Parable of the Great Banquet, Jan Luyken (1649-1712)

My sisters and brothers, God’s salvation in Jesus is a banquet. You and I have been invited to wear the robes of God’s love and justice, to feast on the food of God’s love and justice, to dance to the tune of God’s love and justice, and to share God’s love and justice with all. This, I submit to you, is what it means for a Christian to party hardy! So, let’s wear, feast, dance, and share God’s love and justice, thus, demonstrating our delight in being invited and having accepted the invitation to God’s banquet!

 

Illustration: The Parable of the Great Banquet, Jan Luyken (1649-1712). Note: Luyken’s depiction of the great banquet portrays the moment when the king (on the right with his arm outstretched) directs his attendants to “Bind (the guest who chose not to don a banquet robe) hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness…”

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the separable individuality of suffering

A friend, Daniel Gutiérrez, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania – though we’ve never met in the flesh, via Facebook we have connected and, even before, I, having known of him, Episcopal Church circles trending toward small, have admired his life and ministry from afar – today, in a FB post, wrote: Monday will be two weeks since the horrific violence in Las Vegas. Have we forgotten? Have we moved to the next news cycle? Let us embrace His Kingdom.

Bishop Gutiérrez, for me, an incarnation of passion for God’s love and justice, reminds me ever to remember, to “embrace” the sorrows of my sisters and brothers, in the instant case of his post, the October 1 mass shooting. His clarion call of loving and just remembrance gives me pause to reflect on how, if not easily, inevitably I do “(move) to the next news cycle.”

Thinking about this, I turned to Pontheolla and asked, not to induce her guilt, but rather as my reality-check, “Honey, when was Hurricane Harvey?”[1] She answered, “I don’t remember exactly.” I replied, “Neither do I.”

I repeated my question concerning Hurricanes Irma[2] and Maria,[3] the Mexican earthquake,[4] and the current California wildfires.[5] Her answers, the same. My replies, the same.

I wonder. Is this not true for any (all?) of us?

Do we not move on unless and until “it” (whate’er the tragedy) is our immediate experience or that we are vitally, viscerally connected because our loved ones, those near and dear to us, have suffered?

Do we not move on given the press, the pressure of our daily inundation through the 24-hour news cycle that continues to operate under an ages-old mandate, “if it bleeds, it leads” (which is to say, suffering, more than good news, sells, therefore, dominates the headlines)?

Do we not move on, for suffering hurts and there is only so much that we, psychically, even physically, given our own trials and tribulations, worries and woes, can tolerate?

I suspect that for these reasons, perhaps primarily the separable distance of tragedy not personally experienced, the painstakingly honest answer is “yes”, we do move on.

Yet, Bishop Daniel, I want to do as you implore…

I want not to move on…

I want to stay, as damnably discomfiting as it is, in the pain of the tragedies of others.

Why?

At most, for I want my mind and heart, soul and spirit never to be inured, desensitized to the hurts of others, so to be able and willing to act where I can, when I can, how I can for their good, and

At least, for I believe that the sufferings of my sisters and brothers, whate’er the tragedy, as easily, perhaps as inevitably could well have been mine and could well one day be mine.

 

Footnotes:

[1] mid-late August

[2] August 30-mid September

[3] mid-September-early October

[4] September 19

[5] early October-ongoing

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.

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

is racism immortal?

I usually don’t comment on television. We watch so little of it, save for some favorite shows on the Food Network, HGTV, ESPN, and the news networks. Thus, we skipped tuning in to the recent 69th Primetime Emmy Awards as most (all?) of the nominated shows we hadn’t seen.

However, for reasons of historical and social realities that matter to me, I can’t pass on this…

This past Sunday, September 24, 2017, CBS[1] launched, figuratively and literally, Star Trek: Discovery; set as a prequel to the original 1960s series, situated in the 23rd century, of the adventures of Captain James T. Kirk, science officer Spock, and others, as the now-famous introductory voiceover stated, in “Space, the final frontier…boldly go(ing) where no man (later changed to “no one”) has gone before.”

universe

One of the main stars, indeed, lead actor of Star Trek: Discovery is Sonequa Martin-Green, an African American woman.

I am not a Star Trek aficionado; science-fiction as a literary and cinematographic genre never has hooked, perhaps paradoxically, my ever-vivid imagination. Still, I do respect Star Trek as an iconic, groundbreaking franchise. The original series featured one the most racially and ethnically diverse casts, then or perhaps now. Even more, a show, then and now, whose plot-points consistently focus on engagement of alien cultures is, for me, a not so subtle declaration of the embrace of inclusion and the celebration of “the other.”

Hence, I would have supposed that Star Trek fans would welcome Ms. Martin-Green with (dare I would hope) universal applause. Sadly, that hasn’t been true, for she and the show have faced criticism, some, blessedly, not all, couched in racial terms and, some of that, articulated in the language of white genocide or an anti-white bias.

As a follower of Jesus, I strive (yes, failing, yet striving again) to live each day doing, being the love and justice of unconditional benevolence and fairness toward all people. As such, racism, its existence and its experience by offenders and the offended, grieves me. Given my, again, ever-vivid imagination, from time to time I have fantasized that if I was immortal, thus, destined to live forever in this world (that is, if we humans don’t destroy it via nuclear or climatological holocaust), then I would live long enough to see the end of racism. Clearly, in 2017, even looking through the 23rd century lens of Star Trek: Discovery, we’re not there yet.

 

Footnote:

[1] Columbia Broadcasting System

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

On Labor Day and the letter and the spirit of the law

About a mile from my home, on one of the main thoroughfares that runs through Spartanburg and, east and west, beyond, is a lawyer’s office. The building, an attractive cottage, nestled in a stand of mostly crepe myrtle trees and well-manicured shrubbery, sits 50 yards from the road. Zipping by, one might not notice it, save for the conspicuous curbside sign advertising the attorney’s name and contact information and, for me, more…most prominently, in bright flashing crimson neon, a scripture citation. This past week, Isaiah 43.2: When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. The “I” of the Isaian prophetic reference, of course, is God.

I don’t know the attorney or his intent in publicizing biblical references. Nevertheless, allowing my imagination free rein to run, I assume that it’s an expression of his scripture-rooted beliefs and values[1] and that it may prove (has proven?) a boon to his business, attracting clients who ascribe to faith-based commerce, in this case, legal services.

As I muse about this, I recall the counsel of a dear friend, Woodley Beal Osborne, a very fine person and lawyer. He once said to me, “Paul, there’s a reason it’s called law school and not justice school.” Yes, there’s a difference, sometimes, I think, vast between the law as a system of behavioral regulatory rules established and enforced by society and government (the fitting and fruitful application of which can be governable by time and place, person and circumstance, and degrees of personal and financial resources) and justice, which, whether rooted in natural law or sacred principle, connotes an ethical, universal, and unconditional quality of righteousness, indeed, the rightness of fairness for all people.

So, I – who, back in the proverbial day, entered college as a political science major with his sight set on becoming an attorney and who, through a nocturnal vision from God, was called into Christian ministry and who, as a follower of Jesus, seeks to fulfill His gospel-call of love and justice for all people – wonder where this South Carolina barrister draws the line between conventional jurisprudence and scriptural justice. My hunch is, again, as the law and justice, though related, are not the same, that he must. My hope is that he has discerned an unassailable bond between the law and justice and, thus, in a word, seeks to do just law.

Perchance one day, driven by more than merest curiosity, but rather sincerest interest, I may stop by his office and inquire.

 

Footnote:

[1] Another biblical reference I have seen is 1 Peter 3.15: In your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you. Here, I assume his conspicuous and clever emphasis, in a legal sense, is on the phrase “make your defense”, though I also suppose that he means to affirm his Christian hope.

what do you say?

me preaching 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 16.13-20, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, August 27, 2017

“Who do you say I am?” This question has divided the world. Christian from non-Christian and Christian from Christian.

The division occurs not simply given how you answer, whether you say Jesus is the Son of God, verily, God, an esteemed prophet, a wise teacher, a wondrous miracle-worker, or merely the founder of a religion, but also given how important you think the question is. A matter of life or death? A matter of existential significance, your very response a declaration of who you say you are? Or is it of lesser import, like an intriguing intellectual exercise suitable for a relaxing late summer evening with friends over a good meal and a fine glass of wine?

For if you think the question is important, worth pondering, a matter of personal interest and experience, then that sets you apart from someone who considers it a casual matter or not worth thinking about at all.

And here’s the irony. If the question is important to you, then fairly soon, I think, you may discover that it doesn’t matter how you answer. For Christianity is less about orthodoxy, right belief, than orthopraxy, right practice. Or, more…most truly, Christianity is about the connection between belief and practice. Before Christians were called “Christians”,[1] they were known as followers of “the Way.”[2] For following Jesus was, is not primarily a method of thinking or even believing, but a manner of living and behaving, particularly in regard to others; loving your neighbor, especially the poor, as yourself.[3]

To put this another way, Christianity is not merely about what you believe about Jesus, who you say he is, but also about what values you associate with that belief and how faithfully you practice them and how you deal with others and yourself when you don’t.

My Christianity is about love and justice; unconditional compassion and fairness for others. All others. Those whom I like and don’t like, those with whom I agree and disagree, those who share and don’t share my values. My Christianity also is about how loving and just I am or can be given the limitations of my personal history and experience, insight and understanding, preferences and prejudices, which is why my Christianity calls, commands me always to turn to God, trusting in God’s grace and mercy to strengthen me to be and to do love and justice and to forgive me not if, but when I fail.

What is Christianity for you?

That’s my primary point. You decide. You get to decide. It’s for you to decide. No matter how you put it, it’s your call. Your choice.

I think Jesus meant what he said. Who do you say I am? Not what do others say, even if “the other” is the church with its two millennia old and counting proclamation of doctrine based on that first century answer to the question, as reflected in Peter’s reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  No. What do you say?

A penultimate word, for now… Today or any day, after you answer, tomorrow or any next day, given new experiences and circumstances and your reflections upon them, you may find yourself answering Jesus’ question differently or, though using the same words, understanding them differently. The point is to remain open, honest, and transparent with yourself in your continuing, deepening walk with Jesus.

A final word, for now… At the end and beginning and middle of any day, however you answer the question of who Jesus is for you, remember that your truth is the truth only for you.[4]

 

Footnotes:

[1] See Acts 11.26.

[2] See Acts 9.2.

[3] Matthew 19.19. See also Matthew 25.31-46, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.

[4] By way of an apologia or explanation, it was some time ago when, through a gradual process (as most life processes are) of experience and examination of that (those) experience(s), I came to this truth; that is, what I discern to be true can be related to some universal truth (however conceptualized), but, in humility and honesty, I cannot, I dare not claim my truth as that universal truth, thus, true for all people. To state this point another way, there always is a difference between what I declare is my truth and the Truth, and even my truth and your truth. This perspective has allowed and encouraged me to remain in encounter and conversation with others whose views differ, whether marginally or greatly, from mine with an aim of understanding others, learning from others, and expanding my boundaries of the nature and definition of truth.