any questions?

a sermon, based on Matthew 22.34-46, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 29, 2017

From the moment Jesus entered Jerusalem on that occasion we annually commemorate on Palm Sunday,[1] he has been embroiled in one fight after another with Pharisees, Sadducees,[2] and Herodians,[3] chief priests, elders, and scribes, all, through serious questioning and subterfuge, seeking to discredit him. They have challenged his authority[4] to preach and teach in God’s Name and to act as a prophet, driving the usurious money changers and sellers of animals from the temple.[5] Jesus, in turn, has confounded them with parables that expose their duplicity[6] and, in one stunningly scathing declaration, beginning, “Woe to you,” condemning the unrighteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.[7]

Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees (Malheur à vous, scribes et pharisiens) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Our gospel passage depicts the last gasp challenge of Jesus’ adversaries before being silenced, daring to ask no more questions. A testy lawyer proposes a test, “What is the greatest commandment?” A tough, trick question. By this time, the written code of God’s Law numbered 613 commandments; 365 “thou shalt nots” and 248 “thou shalts.” The lawyer, in effect, dared Jesus to choose wrongly and thus shame himself in the face of the people. Jesus, always standing on a higher plane, summarizes all of the laws; first and foremost, “Love God.” then adding a necessary corollary for all who dwell in time and space, that is, in relationship with others, “Love neighbor.”

A lawyer questions Jesus, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Now, we, who breathe the ether of life in this world, often equate love with our emotions; how we feel. Even more, our degree of loving often is based on the scale – and our often unconscious determinations – of our likes and dislikes. Still more, given our fundamental human self-interest, our recognition of love often is rooted in our awareness of the benefits we derive.

I know or think I know these things based upon years of pastoral ministry listening to others speak of their lives and loves and a longer number of years coming to know myself. To wit, I love Pontheolla because of who I have become through her. I love fine food and wine because they satisfy not only my hunger, but also my palate. I love good writing because it speaks to my intellectual curiosity and stretches my imagination.

Ah, but the love of which Jesus speaks, indeed, the love that Jesus is and demonstrates is never inwardly self-focused, but always outwardly other-focused on God and neighbor. And Jesus’ love does not emanate from emotion, but rather is a work of the will, the power to choose and to choose constantly. For this reason, Jesus’ love calls us, he calls us to love with our hearts, souls, and minds; all that we are, for it takes all that we are to be constant.

Jesus calls us to act benevolently, first toward God who first loves us, then toward all whom God hath created; yes, our families, friends, and acquaintances, those within our associations of birth and choice, those we like and the like-minded with whom we agree and strangers and those we don’t like and with whom we disagree, even those who have harmed us who we might call “enemy.”

So, let’s admit it. Jesus’ love is impossible for us. For how can we, sensate creatures, who know most (all?) of what we know through our physical senses, love God who is intangible Spirit? And how can we love our neighbors as ourselves, as we wish to be loved, for our neighbors, even our nearest and dearest, being other than we, at some point, are bound to do unto us as we would not desire, and so, too, we toward them?

Ah, here is the genius of Jesus in linking these two commandments. Our love of God is made manifest, real, tangible, visible in our love of neighbor, and our love of neighbor whom we can see is to love God whom we cannot see.

Any questions?

 

Illustrations:

Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees (Malheur à vous, scribes et pharisiens) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

A lawyer questions Jesus (Un avocat interroge Jésus) (1886-1894), James Tissot

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 21.1-11

[2] Matthew 22.23-33

[3] Matthew 22.15-22

[4] Matthew 21.23

[5] Matthew 21.12-13

[6] Matthew 21.28-32. the Parable of the Two Sons; Matthew 21.33-45, the Parable of the Vineyard

[7] Matthew 23.1-36

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I’m sorry…another thought

O’er the years, along with Pontheolla’s patient and persistent nudging,[1] it occurs to me that there was…is another elemental influence upon me, teaching me to learn how to say, “I’m sorry.” My life as a pastor.

In this role and responsibility, many times I have said “I’m sorry”, yes, for things I didn’t do or say that I should have done or said or for things I did do or say that I shouldn’t have done or said, yet also and mostly as my earnest expression of sorrow in response to life’s difficulties endured by the countless people who have confided in me.

O’er the years, as I reflect, most folk who have shared with me the anguished chapters and verses of their lives didn’t expect or desire that I do anything other than to lend love’s listening ear. From these manifold human encounters, there is an image, a scene of life’s drama fixed in my remembrance; one that has occurred over and over again…

Having poured out her/his soul’s anguish, s/he sits, hands tightly clasped, head lowly bowed. For some time, and then more time, all is silent and still. Slowly, s/he raises her/his head, her/his eyes searching, finding, gazing fixedly into mine. I softly utter the words, “I’m sorry.” In nearly every instance, s/he replies as softly, “Thank you.” And more than half of the time, s/he adds, “But why are you sorry? You didn’t cause this.” And I respond, “I am sorry because if I could, I would move heaven and earth for this not to be so for you.”

O’er the years, listening, loving, I have been taught by others who took the exquisite risk to open their souls to me to sorrow with them as if their anguish were mine own. Though I would want no such thing for them, I would want nothing other for me than to be and to bear with them in their pain.

 

Footnote:

[1] See my previous blog post, I’m sorry… (October 23, 2017)

#MeToo

In the immediate aftermath of the daily increasing revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s decades-long sexual predation against women, the #MeToo campaign was launched with a simple, straightforward, profoundly compelling message:

If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.

Carried aloft on the wings of social media, the response or rather, truly, sadly, the manifold responses of many, many women, some chronicling, detailing particular personal experiences of harassment and assault has been…is an unassailable testament to “the magnitude of the problem.”

My fear – perhaps, I confess, rooted in my prevailing pessimism about the perfectibility (or rather my persuasion about the imperfectability) of human nature – is that little to nothing will change; that, in days, weeks, months, years to come, #MeToo will have proven to be a powerfully cathartic, personally transformative, but not a communally revolutionary experience.

Why?

Because sexual predation, as, I believe, is true of all oppression, is an expression of the exercise of power, and…

Power is that capacity for one, always within the context of an enabling system, structure, society, to will and to do something, in this case, to harass and to abuse women, and…

As I read and reflect on human history, I cannot think of a time when the powerful, for the sake of the justice of equality, relinquished their privilege, however ethically bankrupt, to will and to do.

In the spirit of the Magnificat,[1] Mary’s song of praise to God in her reverent recognition of the One she bore in her womb, especially her words – He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly – I, in faith, hope, and love, shall pray fervently that I am wrong. For I, and I trust in league with many, many women and men, with the help of God and helping God, shall pray and labor for change.

 

Footnote:

[1] The full text of the Magnificat or The Song of Mary (Luke 1.46-55):

My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,

for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him

from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.

this is what I said (to the best of my immediate memory)

My sisters and brothers, the sermon I intended to preach I will post later this afternoon on my blog page. Should you desire, you can read it there. Another word has been given to me to share with you this day.

As I age, day by day I feel more and more the pains, the sorrows of others. So much so, that, at times, I sleep less, I eat less because I feel more. This past week was one of those times.

Last Sunday, in Las Vegas, fifty-eight of our sisters and brothers were murdered. Over five hundred others were injured. Only God knows how long their recoveries, if they do recovery fully, will take.

Less known, perhaps, is that this past week there were three or four other mass shootings; defined as the death or injury to four or more persons in a public setting. Yet this is not a word about gun control. Though I will say that I am not opposed to the individual, private ownership of guns.

Now, during this past week, as I watched and listened to the news coverage in the aftermath of Las Vegas, especially the stories of the lives of the dead, the testimonies of their families and friends, I heard many words, among them: “kind”, “compassionate”, “always thinking of others first”, “infectious laughter”, contagious smile”. I am struck by a sense of the spiritual capital these folk, none of whom I knew, amassed and shared in their lives of goodwill. Spiritual capital now lost to their families and friends and to us.

In my sixty-five years, one of the hardest things for me to do is to stay in the present. I spend a lot of time reviewing the past, my past and a lot of time anticipating the future. The past is past and the future has not yet come. Las Vegas reminds me that today is here and tomorrow is not guaranteed, thus, the necessity, the essentiality of striving as much as possible to remain in the present.

So, today, as your priest, I beg you, let those you love know, in every way you can, that you love them. Tell them. Show them. Even when they upset you rejoice and be glad that you are upset, for that demonstrates that you are alive to feel and that you love others enough to be upset by what they say or do or don’t say or do. Tell them, show them: I love you…I love you…

So, I say to you now: I love you.

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).

more on waiting…

thinkingI am a person of irrepressible second (and third, fourth, fifth…on and on) thoughts. This morning, I reflected afresh on yesterday’s blog post (September 14, 2017: waiting…), where, at its heart, I considered human want and need and that inherent aspect of life of delayed (at times, given the course of human events and relationships, denied) fulfillment. I ended that post, having moved from considering my waiting to wondering who might be waiting for me to act for good.

As all humans, I am a person of abiding self-interest, which, honesty compels the confession, often is abounding with selfishness. In this painful self-awareness, I have come to believe, to know that whenever (even the thought of) another’s want or need presents itself to me as primary for me it is a sign of the work of God’s Spirit of unconditional love touching, transforming my spirit. This leads me to think about God waiting…

In the stories of the Bible, whether in the Old or New Testaments, when people, in dire circumstances, seek divine deliverance, generally, they think to offer the prescribed penitential rituals, for example, animal sacrifice, prayer, and fasting. And what God, also speaking generally, desires is not outward ceremony, but inward change of heart expressed in a love of God that manifests itself in belief and behavior, prayer and practice. In a word, God waits for humans to love as God loves.

As this I believe, as this I know, I pray: O Spirit of God, Source of breath and strength, ever stir in my spirit the grace of Your presence and power that I may…that I will do and be as God does and is, through Jesus Christ, my Lord. Amen.

106 and counting…

Dad & me, Tuesday, 7-29-86, Charleston Int'l Airport

Note: Today would have been my dad’s 106th birthday. William John Abernathy (August 7, 1911-April 27, 1996) and I had a difficult relationship; one fraught with the daily tension and enduring mutual resentment of the clash between his irresistible force of an alway-authoritarian, at times, arbitrary disposition and my ever-immovable object of adolescent rebellion (which continued well into my adulthood). O’er the years and o’er many trails of solemn reflection and trials of sober regret and sincerest repentance for my great part in our brokenness, I’ve come to understand, love, and respect my father. Today, the thought occurring (Why? I’m not entirely sure) to leaf through one of my journals, I found this forgotten (and astonishingly dated) twenty year old entry…

+

Thursday, August 7, 1997: On Sunday evening, August 3, Pontheolla and I attended a Healing Eucharist at the Washington National Cathedral. At the time worshipers were invited to come forward, we went and knelt at the altar rail. I asked “to be delivered from my long held bitterness against my departed father so that I can be free and so that he might be free!” I was anointed with oil and received the laying-on-of-hands by the celebrant, Ted Karpf, who prayed a prayer for my healing. I experienced then and continue to experience an ever-deepening sense, spirit of relief and of release. I wept a single, slow-moving tear of thankfulness as I sat with Pontheolla, holding hands, praying my healing would abide.

Ironies, painful and heart-rending, abound…

Ted had preached a homily, speaking eloquently and provocatively of the human condition, which finds self-worth in work and does not (cannot!) hear and respond to God’s gracious word of worth in being…simply being. Ted couldn’t have known that he was speaking so directly to one of my life’s issues, hurts, questions! (I pray my healing will abide.)

Moreover, the service was held in the War Memorial Chapel. Perhaps what I perceive as the irony of setting a service of healing in the place memorializing those who have died honorably in defense of country in times of war, if not intentional, was, at the least, purposeful. Verily, those who have endured the wars of acceptance and rejection in wounded, broken relationships need healing, for they have died a 1000 deaths and perhaps have killed others a 1000 times in those recurring mental scenarios of vengeance. (I pray my healing will abide.)

 

Photograph: Dad and me at the Charleston (SC) International Airport, Tuesday, July 29, 1986 (one of the few pictures of my father and me in which we are more or less smiling)