Easter 4, Year B, 2012

I am the Good Middle Manager.  The Good Middle Manager asks for reports on time.  The Consultant, who is not the Good Middle Manager, sees the buyout coming and leaves the employees and runs away and the corporation calls them in and fires them. The consultant runs away because a consultant does not care for the employees.

The Good Middle Manager doesn’t quite have the same ring as The Good Shepherd, does it?

The image of a shepherd is a romantic one.  We think of Heidi in the Swiss Alps, and those sentimental paintings of Jesus with a baby lamb in his arms.  While the life of a shepherd might be far removed from our experience, to the crowds that followed Jesus, the idea of someone being a shepherd would have been as familiar as someone being in management is to us.

And not only that, but Hebrew Scriptures are filled with shepherds.  Abraham was a shepherd, Jacob was a shepherd, Moses was a shepherd, and of course David was a shepherd.

What about being a shepherd makes a person so likely to get called into service by God?  Why does Jesus identify with this job?

Shepherds must be both responsible and courageous.  They must seek out good pasture in which their sheep can feed and they must diligently protect their flocks from wolves and other predators.

Unlike herding cattle, which can be done from behind, a shepherd leads from the front, calling out to her sheep, who know her voice and follow her.

Abraham, Moses, and David all ended up being called to rely on these skills when it was their turn to lead people.  Whether they felt prepared or not, each of them became responsible for leading God’s people to new places and new adventures.  And each of them had to defend God’s people against various dangers.

Jesus, of course, is more than just a shepherd of us, his followers, he is The Good Shepherd.  He is not a hired hand, who is going to run away.  He is not a Pharisee who has lost intimacy with God’s people.  He is not a consultant, who has professional distance.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Jesus loves his flock of followers and they followed them, and still follow him, by listening to his voice as it is handed down to us in the Gospels. For generations now, Christians have learned that by following Jesus, they are led into rich pastures.  Following Jesus leads to intimacy with God.   Following Jesus leads to lives rich with meaning.

Lately, I’ve been reading books about parenting.  This week I am reading a book called “Raising Happiness” by Christine Carter.  Dr. Carter has done a ton of research about what generates happiness.  She has carefully compiled this research and thought about how parents can use it to raise well adjusted, happy human beings.

Frankly, she could have titled her book, “Being Sheep:  How following The Good Shepherd can lead to a Lifetime of Happiness.”  She covers the importance of having deep social connections, practicing gratitude, letting go of perfectionism, learning how to ask for and give forgiveness, serving others, learning self control, even eating together!  If that doesn’t sound like life in Jesus’ sheepfold, I don’t know what does.

Dr. Carter describes behaviors that Christians who follow Jesus should be practicing whether we have read her book or not.  Our Shepherd leads us into community.  Our Shepherd acknowledges our imperfections and chooses to take the fall himself, teaching us about forgiveness. Our Shepherd shows us how God is at work in the world, teaching us gratitude.  Our Shepherd is a servant, teaching us to serve.  Our Shepherd gives us the Holy Spirit, empowering us to have self control. And, of course, Our Shepherd gives us the gift of the Eucharist, which we eat together every week.

The sheepfold is not a perfect place.  After all, it is filled with sheep.  But the sheepfold is this amazing crucible in which we sheep can practice all the things the Shepherd teaches us.  It is in the sheepfold, this very church, where we can practice asking for forgiveness when we have wronged someone; serve one another, practice gratitude for all God has given us; work on self control of our bodies and speech; and encounter that Good Shepherd as we gather together weekly to partake of his body and blood.

It is in this sheepfold that we try to follow our Shepherd together.  We may bump into each other occasionally, step on one another’s toes, get into each other’s patch of grass, but we are all trying to go in the same direction, listening for that voice so we can follow together.

Whether we are a rummage volunteer, Sunday School teacher, grounds beautifier, mission trip goer, St. Nick’s wreath maker, chorister, priest, sexton, usher, verger; we are all in the same flock, following the same Shepherd.

We are a few weeks away from moving into our summer rhythm at Trinity. This is a perfect time to take a few months and for all of us to listen to our Shepherd’s voice.  Where is our Shepherd leading us?  What new adventures are in store?

Whatever they are, we know we can trust our Good Shepherd to lead us safely on the journey.

Thanks be to God.

 

Proper 10, Year C, 2010

Listen to the sermon here.

Have you heard the story about Capt. Matt Clauer that has been circulating this week?  Capt. Clauer was serving in Iraq last year when he got a frantic phone call from his wife, Mary.  Together, they owned a $300,000 house, for which they had completely paid.  Mary was calling because she had just learned that their Homeowner’s Association had foreclosed on the house, because Mary had neglected to pay the HOA dues two months in a row, worth a total of $800. By the time he returned from Iraq, the house had been sold at auction for $3,500 and resold again for $135,000.  Mary and Matt are still living in the home, and fighting in the court of law to reclaim it.

If they were here today, they probably would have a thing or two they would like to say about neighbors.   I wonder how many of their Texas neighbors, members of the HOA board, are sitting in churches today, listening to the story of the Good Samaritan.   I wonder if the Clauers are in church this morning, hearing this story and wondering how in the heck they are supposed to love neighbors like theirs.

I wonder if any of you, thinking about your neighbors, are wondering how you’re supposed to love them?

That’s the thing about neighbors—they are just around all the time. In Charlottesville, I had a neighbor who always raced at least ten miles over the speed limit through the neighborhood AND who let his dogs poop wherever they wanted without cleaning it up.  He drove me crazy because there was no way I could get away from him.

And neighbors are problem enough, but what about friends and family?  They are really hard to shake off.

I wonder, if in the story, we hear today, whether the priest or the Levite knew the poor unfortunate soul lying in the ditch.  I wonder if they passed by and said, “Oh Frank.  Always getting into trouble.” and walked on by.  I wonder the intimacy, the neighborliness they might have had with our victim actually prevented them from helping.

As lovely as it was for the Samaritan to help this guy, helping a stranger is sometimes easier than helping someone close to you.  If an out of work alcoholic comes by the church needing a little help, we can graciously point him in the direction of several places that can be useful to him.  If I had an out of work alcoholic relative approach me, I’d probably feel a lot less gracious toward them.

When the person in our lives who is in trouble is close to us, we know that there is danger in our lives being disrupted.  If we enter into another person’s crisis, we run the risk of getting entangled in their lives, creating a web of obligations and favors from which we may not be able to extricate ourselves.

And yet, Jesus calls us to be that kind of neighbor.  He calls us to act like the Samaritan, even when we’re not breezing through a strange town.  Even when the person in the ditch lives next door and you well know you might need to pull him out of the ditch a second, or third time.

The Samaritan does set a good example for us in terms of boundaries to help us with these challenges.  The Samaritan does not take the victim home with him.  The Samaritan takes him to an inn, does what first aid he can, makes sure the innkeeper will check on him, and then leaves town.

The Samaritan does not appoint himself the victim’s social worker for life.  He sees an acute crisis and responds.  And then he goes back to Samaria.

Knowing how to respond to a neighbor, friend, or relative in crisis is really difficult.  But knowing what our role is can be helpful.  First of all, it is important to remember that we are not God.  Now, I know that can be difficult to remember, but just absorb it for a minute.  You are not God. Your role is not that of omniscient being who has the power to solve everything.  All we can do is our loving best.

If the crisis happens to our spouse, child or parent, our role may be to function as that person’s advocate, making sure they get to the doctor, to court, or to rehab when they are scheduled to do so.  If the person in crisis is a friend, our role may be that of listener—giving our friend a safe place to express all her fears.  If the person in crisis is a neighbor, our role may be that of practical help—mowing the lawn, bringing over a meal.  Our response will change depending on who is in trouble and what their circumstances are.  Sometimes our response will be pointing our neighbor in the direction of people who can be more helpful than we can.

Whatever our role is, the Good Samaritan challenges us to live out our faith. He challenges us to pay attention to the world around us.  He challenges us to respond to another’s pain, when it would be just as easy to walk on by.  He challenges us to live the way Jesus taught us to live: We shall love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and with all our souls, and with all our strengths, and with all our minds; and our neighbors as ourselves.

Amen.

Proper 22, Year C, 2007

I’d like all of you to turn your faces to the window and concentrate on the large tree between the church and the Marston La Rue House.

(Squeeze eyes)

Did it move?  Well, let me try again.

(Squeeze eyes, grip podium)

Oh, well.  I have to confess that every time I hear this passage, every time, I try to move a tree with the power of my mind.  This plan has yet to work.  Not one branch has wavered, not one root has become unhinged from the dirt that surrounds it.  I find this all very frustrating.

When the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith, they were frustrated, too.  They did not ask Jesus to increase their faith out of some selfless piety.  They asked Jesus to increase their faith because they had just heard Jesus say, “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.  “And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”

This teaching was too much for them, as most days it is too much for us!  They did not want to have to forgive people who had hurt them, especially people who had hurt them a lot.

So, they ask Jesus to increase their faith-as if faith was a something that could be measured-as if faith could be used up and then replenished like gasoline in an automobile.

But Jesus reminds the disciples that faith cannot be measured in quantities. To have a gallon faith is not better than having a pint of faith.  Faith, in fact, is not about us at all.  Faith is about God, not about our capacity to believe.  Jesus tells the disciples that if they had the faith of a mustard seed, they would be able to uproot a local mulberry tree and toss it in the sea.  Obviously, none of us have the capacity to move a tree just by thinking about it.  God, however, can move a tree.

How many of you were around for Hurricane Isabel?  I was living at the seminary in Alexandria at the time.  When I awoke the morning after the hurricane I was shocked to see that giant trees, trees whose roots had stretched deeply, were knocked over as easily as playing cards.  In Richmond, the damage was even more intense.  In the lush Maymont Park, the carcasses of dozens of overturned trees littered the grass for almost a year. 

For God, moving a tree is as simple as creating a big wind.  For us, not so easy.

So, faith is not about us willing God do so something through the power of our own piety, but realizing that God can do things greater than we can even imagine.  God can even uproot us in places we are stuck and fling us into a new life of freedom and joy.  This part of the passage is about expanding our horizons, opening our minds, coming to terms with a limitless, powerful God.

And then, before we can get too excited about all this, Jesus turns a corner.

In the second part of our gospel reading today, Jesus tells a parable about a slave and a slave owner.  This parable is extremely, nail bitingly, glance around at your neighbor uncomfortable for us.  First of all, it addresses slavery, which in our country was the most shameful part of our past.  Secondly, Jesus encourages rude behavior!  We are in the South.  We thank people.  I sometimes write thank you notes for an event before I actually go to the event.  The idea of not thanking someone who has worked all day for you and then cooked is shocking!

When we think about this passage, it is helpful to remember the context of the time.  In Jesus’ time, slavery was not a race issue-it was a political and financial issue.  A person could be placed in slavery when his country was conquered by another country.  A person could also sell himself into slavery if he was deeply in debt and needed to buy his way out of the debt.  None of this makes slavery acceptable, but in Jesus’ time, it was a part of the system that was taken for granted.  So, when Jesus uses a parable about slavery, he is not endorsing slavery, simply acknowledging that it exists and using slavery as a metaphor his listeners will understand.

So what does this metaphor mean?  To Jesus’ listeners, the idea of thanking a slave would have been laughable.  Slaves had jobs to do-their whole purpose in live was to do these jobs, so to commend them would be silly.  I do not think that self-esteem was a big issue in Jesus’ time. 

Jesus is reminding his disciples that, as followers of Jesus, they have jobs to do, too.  Yes, their God is a mighty God who can uproot trees and transform lives, but that same God also calls us to responsibility.  When it comes to forgiveness, Jesus is telling his disciples to “just do it.”  He’s telling them not to expect to be coddled by God or thanked for doing what they are supposed to be doing. 

While these images of faith and slavery seem radically different, they are two parts of the same point.

God is God.  We are not God.

God can do amazing, nature defying, life changing things.  If we step back and let God do these things, all we have to worry about is doing what we’re supposed to do. We are not responsible for controlling the universe, or making miracles happen.  We are not responsible for changing the lives of others.  We are responsible for our own lives and how we live them-living with integrity, kindness, honesty, forgiveness, love.

If we acknowledge that we already have a mustard seed of faith within us, then all we have to do when we are worried about something or someone is to pray.  We are called to pray and wait for God and do the work God has given us to do without complaint.

When we do manage to do what God has called us to do, we don’t wait around to be praised, but we go on with our lives, knowing we have done the least we can do  to live lives worthy of God. 

So, we live in the tension of faith-of trusting in an endless God, while still navigating our own small lives.  We live in the tension of dreaming big dreams and praying big prayers, while still taking out the garbage every day.  The life of faith is both incredibly expansive and freeing, and limiting-as it provides us boundaries to live healthy and holy lives.

This tension is also a kind of freedom.  By trusting in God, rather than ourselves, an enormous weight is lifted off our shoulders.  By responding to God’s call when we hear it, we always know we are doing what God wants us to do.  Living out this tension offers us a life without anxiety-knowing that we are each fulfilling our own small role and that God is taking care of everything else. 

Proper 20, Year C, 2007

Have you ever seen the Monty Python movie, Life of Brian?  The movie is a very funny satire about a man named Brian who lived during the time of Jesus and gets mistaken as the Messiah.  Though Jesus is not directly involved in the plot, there is a hilarious scene that takes place during the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus is preaching, but the crowd is so large that those on the edges cannot quite make out what Jesus is saying. 

When someone asks what Jesus just said, a man says,

MAN #1:

    I think it was ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers.

and a woman replies:

MRS. GREGORY:

    Ahh, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?

Her husband clarifies:

GREGORY:

Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.

Later another man, instead of hearing Blessed are the meek says,

MAN #2:

    You hear that? Blessed are the Greek.

GREGORY:

    The Greek?

MAN #2:

    Mmm. Well, apparently, he’s going to inherit the earth.

GREGORY:

    Did anyone catch his name?

You get the idea.  The joke is funny because we do wonder if those who wrote the Gospels got everything Jesus said right.  Today’s gospel reading, frankly, is a prime example of a time when we preachers look at a text and wonder, perhaps, if Jesus was a little off his game when he said these things.  Or maybe his followers just flat out misheard him.  Even the great theologian St. Augustine said about this passage, “I can’t believe that this story came from the lips of our Lord.”  We’ll never know exactly what Jesus said, but just because a passage of Scripture is confusing is no reason to abandon it, so let’s dig in.

This is another one of these congregation participation sermons, so let’s all open our Bibles to the Gospel of Luke, chapter 16.

You’ll see the passage has three parts-a long story about a dishonest manager, then verse nine which obscurely reflects on the story, and then verses ten and on, which try to neatly wrap up some aphorisms about money that really have very little to do with the above passage.

These last verses are so neat and tidy; they seem incongruous with the rest of the passage.  Remember that the Gospels were oral stories handed down, and then edited into a coherent text.  So, it is entirely possible, that Luke or one of Luke’s editors had two separate Jesus stories they combined for our passage today.  For now, we will treat them just as that-and focus our attention on the first part of the passage, which presents enough problems as it is!

In this ambiguous passage, a dishonest manager gets fired for cooking the books, and then as his final exit, works some shady deals, possibly cheating his boss-and then is rewarded for this deception!

So, to understand this more deeply, let’s relocate the parable-imagine there was someone, probably Corin Capshaw, who owned all of Old Trail.  He owned the land, the houses, and the shops in the Village at Old Trail.  Every one who lived and worked in Old Trail rented their property from Mr. Capshaw, but because he is a busy man, he can not manage all the property himself, so he hires a manager. 

Keep in mind, this is all imaginary and the Beights family runs Old Trail with the greatest of competence and decency.

In this system, the manager has the authority to rent out not only the property, but also objects to the tenants at a very high commission.  So, say you wanted to clean your new coffee shop and you needed a power washer.  You could borrow a power washer from the manager, and when you were done with it, you would return the power washer and also give the manager a fee-say a hundred jugs of olive oil.  The owner gets some of this fee, but the manager also takes a commission. 

So, in this imaginary story, the manager is not only pocketing these fees, but he’s doing something actually bad, too-some sort of “squandering the property”.  Perhaps he’s lending things he’s not supposed to lend or skimming money from the rent.  We’ll never know.

Mr. Capshaw has it within his rights to have the guy arrested, but instead, he shows mercy and merely fires the manager.  The manager is desperate because he doesn’t really have any other skills and does not want to do manual labor or become a beggar so he comes up with a scheme. 

He needs other people to really like him, and he needs it to happen stat.  If people like him, perhaps they can find him a job or let him live with them.  In any case, he gathers all the people that owe him debts from borrowing powerwashers and the like and he goes through the list systematically and slashes their debt.  He makes some friends, his boss gets his portion of the money and his property back, and they get a great deal.  Everybody wins.

The manager notes this and is very impressed.

And then the passage gets really weird.  Jesus says, “And I tell you, make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”  Huh?

Is Jesus saying if we’re going to make gains from dishonest wealth we should at least make friends out of the deal? So when we’re caught we have some place to go? Whaaa?

Who knows?  This passage is messy, the manager is messy, the editing is messy.  It’s all very messy.

Now, I want you to keep your bibles open and find the parable that occurs directly before this parable.  What is it?

(Parable of the Lost Son)

If you’ll notice, our parable today has a very similar arc to the parable of the prodigal son.  A young man acts in a disgraceful way in each, and also experiences some degree of redemption.  BUT, where the parable of the prodigal son is all extremes-the complete depravity of the son, the complete forgiveness of the father, our parable today is much more murky.

We’re left not knowing exactly what is going to happen to the manager-or even exactly what he did wrong.  We’re not even entirely clear how the owner feels about the manager-is he really angry, does he feel forgiveness or even pride by the end of the story? 

While the Prodigal Son is a beautiful and perfect parable, its story of sin and redemption is so extreme, I think not all of us can relate to it very well.  Most of us, when we sin, when we hurt ourselves or other people, we do it in small ways.  Most of us don’t have the chance to get our inheritance early, turn our backs on our families, and go wild in the big city. 

However, even those of us who are “good”, who are more like the older brother in the prodigal son story, screw up.  When we screw up, it’s usually saying something before we think, or making a really bad, but not malicious, judgment call.  We may be a little greedy, a little unethical.  In short, I think most of us are much more like the manager, than the prodigal son.  We do our best to support ourselves, and if our livelihoods get threatened, we’re not above engaging in a little creativity to save our necks.

And redemption in our lives is not always as dramatic as the father’s loving embrace in the prodigal son story, either.  When we’re being forgiven, we do not often have a huge emotional experience of deep reconciliation with our loved ones or with God.  We may just feel the small satisfaction that comes with knowing that a relationship has been repaired and that we are safe in the affections of another.

Yes, the story of the manager and the landowner is messy, but our lives are messy, too.  Life is not a fairy tale or a movie-problems don’t get resolved in dramatic sweeps with violins singing in the background.  More often than not, we don’t see the easy solution, we don’t understand what God is doing or what God wants from us.

And maybe this frustrating, confusing, messy passage is a gift to us-a reminder that not everything needs to be tied up neatly for life to have meaning.  A reminder that grace comes even in the midst of confusion and misunderstanding.  A reminder that even our stupid, petty, daily sins are greeted with grace.

And yes, perhaps even the cheesemakers and the Greeks are blessed, for God’s grace encompasses all of us, even when, especially when we don’t understand how.

Proper 13, Year C, 2007

Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.

Matt was in Baltimore last weekend, for a weekend of watching Orioles’ baseball with his dad, in celebration of his father’s 60th birthday.  On Matt’s way home Sunday, stuck in traffic on the beltway, he saw a bumper sticker he had never seen before.  The first time he saw it, the bumper sticker was on a small, sleek, Porche sportscar.  The second time the bumper sticker was on an imposing Mercedes sedan.  The bumper sticker read:

“Don’t be fooled by the car, my treasure’s in heaven.”

Few bumper stickers I’ve seen say as much in as few words.  The owners of the bumper stickers are making SURE you notice that their cars are really, really expensive and fantastic, while simultaneously implying that they have a deep spiritual life, and know better than placing too much value on their fancy cars.

The bumper stickers tell us a lot more about them than even they realize, I think!  The false piety in the bumper sticker’s message is enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up!  While I’m a firm believer in talking openly about many taboos in our society, I think perhaps these kind of people are the reason our mothers told us it was tacky to talk about money.

The man in our Gospel passage today has a similar kind of insensitivity.  He has come to hear Jesus deliver a discourse, and man, what a discourse he overhears!  In one lecture, Jesus teaches his listeners the Lord’s Prayer, then goes on to talk about the nature of demons and evil and divinity.  This lecture is very heady and profound.  The Pharisees invite Jesus for lunch in the middle of this discourse and true to form, Jesus manages to insult and alienate them.  After lunch, Jesus comes back to teach more and he find that the crowd outside has multiplied.  Now thousands of people are waiting to listen to him.  There are so many people there, they are stepping on each other!

Jesus does not disappoint, either- He comes out with two guns blazing.  His first sentence after lunch warns people to beware of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.  This is an inflammatory, shocking statement. 

At this point, the man in our story interrupts Jesus.  Like so many followers we’ve been hearing about on Sundays lately, the man seems not to connect with Jesus’ words at all.  Instead of asking a follow up question about the Lord’s Prayer, or asking Jesus if he was implying that he was GOD, or asking what Jesus’ beef with the Pharisees was all about, the man instead asks Jesus to arbitrate a dispute between his brother and him.  His brother has inherited the entirety of his family’s estate and the man does not think it is fair.  He wants Jesus to make his brother give him half the money.

Can you imagine?  You’re at the downtown Pavilion, PACKED with people, listening to the Son of God speak and you have the gall to interrupt and ask Jesus to settle a matter of an inheritance?

Money makes people really, really stupid.  Or, rather, greed makes people really, really stupid. 

This man’s passion about his own problems and his own desires, put blinders on him.  They blinded him to the spiritual reality that was right in front of him and all around him.  Jesus was giving him a view into eternity, a view into the spiritual realm-a view that could have changed his whole life.  If the man had really listened closely to the Lord’s prayer, he would know that God provides his daily bread, that God provides everything he could possibly need. 

But because this man had blinders of greed on, he misses the wonder of the reality of God in his midst.

Jesus tells him, to remember to “be on guard against all kind of greed, for life does not consist of an abundance of possessions.”

As wealthy Americans, we should put a copy of this verse on our flat screen TVs, iPods, Jimmy Choo shoes, Ethan Allen furniture, and IRA bank statements.  As a culture our relationship with money is just as screwed up as the man who wanted Jesus to settle the matter of our inheritance.  We tend to either get in denial about money and spend wildly until we’re deeply in debt, or become so obsessed with our savings, we become misers who cannot appreciate the deep richness of the life around us. 

For many, money makes us afraid.  We do not understand how much we should pay in rent, what we should save for retirement or our children’s education, whether we should buy or rent a house, how much we should tithe and what in the world we should do with our money when we die.  We buy “stuff” because we feel anxious, or competitive, or because we feel a deep yearning for the object.  We don’t always feel in control of what we buy.  More than once, when I open my American Express bill, I have gasped and said, “How did that HAPPEN?” 

And when we hear Jesus’ words about greed and possessions we feel condemned.  We feel we have failed in our Christian duty and that makes us feel sad, so we go out and buy something that makes us feel better.  Or, if we’re feeling really guilty, maybe we donate some money to a good cause. 

The good news is that Jesus’ words are not meant to condemn, but to redirect. 

Jesus wants to redirect him, and us, from believing that our value and our future are rooted in what we have.  He tells this really unusual parable-unusual in that it is really simple and straightforward.  A rich man’s fields are incredibly abundant and he stores up their riches until his barns are bursting!  God finds him and yells at him-God tells the rich man that he is going to die and all these stored goods will be useless.

(Maybe Warren Buffet was meditating on this parable when he decided to give 85% of his billions to charity!  I bet his children would have loved to get ahold of Jesus and complain about that particular inheritance!)

Those of us who do not deal with the problem of what to do with a multi-billion dollar fortune still need to be redirected.  We need the Holy Spirit to nudge us, to guide our attention away from our stuff and the process of acquiring more stuff and direct that attention towards the one who created us and created all the stuff in the first place. 

Money and things will never satisfy our deepest longings.  We long to be loved.  We long to be safe.  We long to be understood.  We long for an end to our anxiety.  We long for health.  We long for reconnection with those from whom we are estranged.  We long for justice.  We long for forgiveness.

And of course money and objects give us some measure of comfort and can greatly ease our lives, but they can never fill our deepest longings.  Money and resources cannot give us the deep assurance that we have been made for a purpose and out of deep love.  Money and resources cannot know us.

No one knows this better than babies.  You could give little Carter all the toys in the world, and not one of them will give him even an iota of the comfort of being held in his parents’ arms. 

God loves us deeply, better than the best parent out there.  God knows us intimately.  God accepts us wherever we are and longs to be in relationship with us. 

And when we consent to the reality of God’s presence around us, when we consent to the relationship God wants to have with us, we become filled with the peace that comes with that kind of deep relationship. 

And when we become filled with peace, we become free to deal with questions of money and possessions out of a deeply rooted place.  We come to understand that life is abundant with love and relationship and even resources.  We begin to treat money less as the enemy and more as a tool God gives us to use as we seek holy lives.  We see money as a resource rather than as an end.  We see possessions as gift, rather than as entitlements. 

We come to understand that our  life does not consist in the abundance of possessions, but in an abundance of relationship with God.

Thanks be to God!

Proper 10, Year C, 2007

What is the answer to the meaning of life? 

Throughout the centuries, philosophers have debated this question.  Perhaps Douglas Adams says it best, in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when he tells us the answer is. . . 42.  In this comedic, satirical piece of science fiction, a group of travelers go on a long adventure after the earth is destroyed. Along the way, after a fearsome journey, the travelers ask a sage what the answer to life, the universe and everything is.  The sage tells them, “42” and when they complain he says what they really should have asked is what the question is.  The never do find a satisfying answer.

Adams reminds us that the meaning of life is not something that can be condensed into a sentence or even a paragraph, though many have tried.

One of the many who has tried to pin down an answer to the meaning of life is a young lawyer in Jesus’ time.  This particular lawyer wanted to see how Jesus would respond to another phrasing of the meaning of life question.  That is, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  For that’s really it, isn’t it?  When we ask about the meaning of life, we’re asking about our own mortality.  We’re asking what is the point of giving of ourselves, if we’re all just going to die anyway?  We’re wondering if there is anything after this?

Jesus must have interacted with lawyers before this one, because he simply deflects the question back to the man and asks him, “What is written in the law?”  The lawyer replies with the Schema from the Hebrew Scriptures which is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus then affirms that this is the way to live.

But what doesn’t Jesus say?  Jesus does not say, “This is what you do to get into heaven.”  Jesus does not say, “This is what you do so that God won’t get mad at you.”  Jesus tells the man that loving God and loving neighbor is the way to live. 

What a profound statement.  Jesus answers the man, but in doing so, demonstrates that the man’s motivations are all wrong.  God does not want us worrying about what might happen, but what is happening right now.  Loving God and loving our neighbor will lead us to glimpses of understanding the meaning of life.  When we are in relationship with God and reach out to our neighbors, we get a glimpse of eternal life.  Wow. Deep. 

And Jesus wasn’t kidding.  According to this week’s Christian Century, Bruce Greyson, a psychiatrist right here at UVA has done loads of research with those who have had near death experiences.  In his research he has found nearly every person who has survived these experiences comes back, and changes their life to suit the “Golden Rule”, because through their experience they have come to understand that the Golden Rule is like gravity-it’s just how the universe works.

The Shema is not just a set of instructions, like, “Be nice to your brother!” The Shema is a description about the state of humanity, and our relationship with God and each other.  We become our deepest, best selves when we are in relationship with the divine.  We become our most compassionate and wise when we connect with the people around us.  When we follow the schema we truly live

So, does the lawyer run home and journal about this profound insight? 

Nah, instead he asks, “So, um, who exactly is my neighbor?”

The lawyer just doesn’t quite get it, does he?  Perhaps not all of his neighbors were the borrowing-a-cup-of-sugar, having-cookouts-on-the-fourth-of-July kind of neighbors.  Maybe some of his neighbors drove their sports cars too quickly through the neighborhood while their music blared.  Maybe these same neighbors let their kids set off firecrackers every night the week of July 4th.  Maybe these neighbors let their dog run around and poop anywhere it pleased.  (These are just hypothetical neighbors, of course.  They don’t live in my neighborhood.)

In any case, the lawyer wants Jesus to define the word neighbor.  And Jesus, being Jesus does not say, “Well, lawyer, a neighbor is anyone living in a half mile radius of you.  However, if one stretches the definition of a neighbor to include people with whom you engage on a daily basis, neighbors also include parents of your children’s friends, members of the country club, co-workers, and those of the same political party.”

I think this definition would have greatly pleased the lawyer.  However, Jesus much prefers telling a story than telling you an answer straight. So, he tells the lawyer the story of the Good Samaritan. 

We all know the story.  A guy was traveling from Richmond to Charlottesville and got beat up by those guys in white t-shirts we’ve been reading about in the newspaper.  They beat him up really badly and leave him for dead.  Three people pass the poor guy. The first person is me, a priest, but I’m on my way to a really important pastoral call and just don’t have time to deal with it, so keep walking.  Secondly, one of Jerry Falwell’s assistants sees the guy, but he’s busy going to make a speech about how great Falwell was, so he keeps going, too.  Finally, Paris Hilton is in town for some reason.  Instead of ignoring the poor guy, she actually stops, takes him to the Omni, calls Martha Jefferson Hospital to get a doctor to come over, and makes sure the Omni will let him stay as long as he needs to recover. 

Seriously?  Paris Hilton?  She of the DUI, suspended license, jail time, all night partying, “special” videotapes, and boyfriend stealing?  Yep, it was Paris who ultimately had more compassion and more guts to help the poor guy than any of the religious figures that walked by and ignored him.  In this story, Paris is the true neighbor, defying all expectations and social norms. 

When he hears this story, the lawyer realizes that this whole question of “Who is my neighbor?” is far broader than he realized-the idea of neighbor is not just the people in your circle-but everyone from the most down and out beat up guy on the sidewalk, to the person who runs around in circles for whom you have nothing but derision and disrespect.

This is inconvenient for the lawyer. This truth is inconvenient for us!  To truly live the Schema, to truly have the depth of human and divine experience, to live as we are meant to live, we are intended to be in relationship with all kinds of people, all kinds of neighbors-even if we would never choose to live next door to them.

For in the end, we are all beings created in the image of God, no matter our station in life.  In the end, the invitation to love God with our totality, with our whole being, is open to all of us. 

For to live, to really live, is not living for the future or regretting the past, but living in the fullness of God’s love here and now.

Proper 28, Year A, 2005

Investing is serious business.

I learned this at a finance workshop that Karin Bonding ran several weeks ago.  A few women got together over a bottle of wine and some chocolate truffles and faced the cold hard truths of our financial situations. 

If you were watching us, you would know exactly where our financial weaknesses were by when we gulped a sip of wine. 

I gulped when I realized how long I would need to save money for a downpayment on a house. 

Another woman gulped when she realized how much she needed to save for her children’s college education. 

There was a collective gulp when we talked about the money we would need for retirement.

Karin was fantastic at helping us calm down and figure out how we could meet our financial goals.  Apparently stuffing your money in a mattress and panicking is not a valid financial plan.

The slave in today’s gospel lesson could have used Karin’s advice.  His master entrusts him with one talent, which was a huge amount of money at the time.  A talent was a very large coin that could weight as much as 60 to 75 pounds!  Imagine if your boss asked you to invest several million of his dollars.  I can sympathize with the slave’s nervousness. 

The slave wanted to make sure he protected that talent, so he buried it deep within the earth so nothing could happen to the coin. 

Imagine his anxiety each day of his master’s trip, visiting the mound of dirt that protected the coin to make sure no enthusiastic canine had dug the coin out from it’s protected spot.  What relief he must have felt to return the talent safely to his master! 

Unfortunately for the slave, the master was not as interested in the protection of the talent as he was in the investment of the talent.  The master rewards the two slaves who have taken the risk of investing the money and takes away the talent from the man who dug the hole after calling him lazy and wicked!

We do not often think of God as a savvy investor—After all, when you can create a universe just by thinking about that universe, you probably don’t have a serious need for cash.

We’ll be helped if we remember this story is a parable.  Imagine Jesus as the master.  He is going away for a time, but will be back soon.  Jesus wants to make sure that believers don’t waste the gifts of the Church by hiding them.  He wants us to invest ourselves to the best of our ability, so that when Jesus returns, he’ll be able to see the returns on our investments. The question is:  how do we know what gifts Jesus wants us to invest?

I was, for three years, the world’s worst secretary.  I hate working in an office all day.  I hate filing.  I don’t like being interrupted by an authority figure.  I’m not crazy about answering the phone.  I’m also not fantastic with details.  So, you can imagine the disaster that awaited my poor boss anytime he needed anything.  My gifts did not match up to my responsibilities.

I think sometimes in the church, we get so panicked about getting programming together, that we cajole, beg, or manipulate parishioners to step up to do jobs that need to be done, regardless of whether their gifts match the responsibilities.  While I’m not going to stop recruiting for Sunday School teachers, my dream would be that everyone in this parish would be doing the work that best suits you, that brings you pleasure. 

Each of you has incredible gifts.  I’ve been saddened to hear some of you, particularly women, focus on the tasks in life you believe you do not do well. 

Humility is one thing, but when we deny the gifts God gives us we’re wasting a chance to really invest those gifts.  Remember, the God of the universe created you.  This is the same God who made mountains, and diamonds, and fireflies and rainbows—God makes really good stuff.  You are no exception. 

So, if you are not sure what your gifts are or if you think you know, but want to explore some more, or if you are convinced you are giftless, I have a wonderful book to recommend to you.

The book is called Living Your Strengths, and the authors and publishers can be found in your bulletin.

Living Your Strengths was written based on a study conducted by the Gallup Organization.  Some researches from the Gallup Organization interviewed people who were the best in their fields—the best CEO, the best teacher, the best cleaning woman, the best actress—and so on.  When they compiled the results of their interviews, they found that people have thirty five areas of strength and each of us excels at four or five of these. 

Living Your Strengths addresses how to use these gifts in a church setting.  However, the information you learn will help you use your strengths in the rest of your life, as well.

Here is a quote from the book, “In Gallup’s research into human potential over the past 30 years—including interviews with more than 2 million people—the evidence is overwhelming:  You will be most successful in whatever you do by building your life around your greatest natural abilities rather than your weaknesses.  Your talents should be your primary focus. . .Your calling is what God wants you to do with your life; your talents and strengths determine how you will get it done.  When you discover your talents, you begin to discover your calling.”  (p. x)

The CATCH to this book, is that you need to buy the book to take the online quiz to find out what your strengths are—so clearly whoever marketed this book had the gift of fleecing his market audience. 

I think this book can be a helpful tool for us, because it re-frames our thinking about gifts.  Instead of wishing for someone else’s creativity or ability to cook or financial savvy, or worrying about our weaknesses, it helps us take an honest look at our own gifts. 

You might not have had any idea you had the gift of consistency or individualization, for instance.  If you do, you might do well visiting with some of our housebound parishioners.  If you have the gifts of analysis and being a learner, the adult forum committee might be the place for you.

If I had read this book before taking on my job as a secretary, I might have realized that my gifts of empathy, arranging, adaptability, connectedness and individualization, did NOT a good secretary make.  However, they do make a decent minister.  I could have, like many people, focused on my weaknesses and tried to better them.  That is a fine goal.  However, if I had spent the last three years improving my filing skills rather than going to seminary, I would still be one unhappy girl.  If we really want to maximize our role on this planet, and in this church, a more effective approach will be to focus on our strengths and do ministry out of that part of ourselves, rather than focusing on our areas of weakness.

At 11:00 [Today we celebrate the baptism of Clancy Beights.  We’re not sure what his strengths will be—He recently learned how to put his foot in his mouth, but his growth probably won’t stop there.  We do know that he will be an important part of the church, as we all are.]

The wonderful thing about the investment God has made in us, is that God invested in US, not in you or me.  God invested in the church—millions of people all over this planet.  We are all incredibly different, but we can work together to really make a difference.  We do not have to be responsible for every committee, every job, every mission.  God will show us what our, individual callings are and how we can best use our strengths to serve him.  

Proper 21, Year A, 2005

My best friend in college was a woman named Carissa. She was raised in Houston and Singapore in a family in the oil business. I was raised overseas, too, but by two teachers. While my family cleaned up okay, elegance was never our greatest strength.

Carissa got married right after college and, as one of her readers, I was invited to the casual barbeque rehearsal dinner—I believe the dinner was actually described as a pig-pickin’. Since the dinner was casual, I dressed the part—a plain blue t-shirt and a pair of khaki pants. When I arrived at the party, all the other women were wearing silk dresses and pearls. You see, I had missed two important social clues. First, the party was thrown by Texans and Texas casual, it turns out, is not so casual. Secondly, the party was being held at the Virginia Country Club. Now, being southern, all the guests were very kind to me. . .even the ones who thought I must be on staff and kept asking me where the bathrooms were.

I was much luckier than the poor underdressed guest at the wedding in our gospel reading today. I was not cast into outer darkness and I did not once gnash my teeth. As you might imagine, however, I have a great deal of sympathy for this poor character. Why was he punished for wearing the wrong outfit?

The parable we read today about the wedding banquet is the last in three parables commonly known as the vineyard parables. These parables are Jesus’ response to the Pharisees challenging his authority—we heard the other two the last two Sundays. First, the parable about the owner of the vineyard asking his two sons to work, second, the parable about the tenants killing the landowners son, and now this parable about the wedding feast.

In our parable today, a King is giving a wedding banquet for his son. He invites the usual fancyguests, but all of them refuse to come. After punishing them thoroughly, he invites poor people off the streets.

So far, this parable makes a lot of sense. God has initiated a party for his son Jesus, the religious establishment of the day rejects the party, so God extends his invitation to prostitutes, tax collectors, and the like.

Now, however, we come to the poor unfortunate guest who is not wearing a wedding garment. The King does not show him an OUNCE of Southern hospitality, in fact he throws him out on his ear, to eternal weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Phew!

Here’s my question. How many poor, off the street people do you know that own silk dresses or tuxedos.

Not too many, right? But in the world of this parable, no one else is getting berated for wearing the wrong clothes, but all the guests came off the street. So, where did the other guests get their wedding garments?I wonder if the King actually provided clothing for his guests.

And if the King DID provide clothes for his guest, and this particular guest insulted him by rejecting the gift, the King’s reaction makes a little more sense.

At the risk of piling metaphor upon parable and confusing us all mercilessly, imagine this garmentless guy as the kind of person who never really invests in anything, but always likes to hover around and see what is going on. He wanted to be at the wedding party, but he did not necessarily want to be associated with the King.

He’s the nosy neighborhood woman who takes a sharp intake of breath (tssss) when you give your kid a snack before dinner, but would stand idly by if your kid was running into traffic. He’s the guy not even assigned to your project at work who always has some negative comment to say about your ideas, but never offers to pitch in and help. He is, if I may be so bold, the kind of guy who comes to church to see and be seen, but is not particularly interested in God or his own spiritual journey.

Our friend is the kind of guy who is always detached, never passionate, never a “joiner”, but always has an opinion.

There’s a great scene in “O Brother Where Art Thou” in which one character has recently been baptized and another has sold his soul to the Devil. George Clooney’s character looks back and forth between the two and says, “I guess I’m the only one here that remains unaffiliated.”

Our parable today indicates that not affiliating with God is dangerous behavior. This kind of wishy washy behavior is the kind of behavior that gets a person tossed into outer darkness.Yikes!

You see, aligning ourselves to God is not a passive act, aligning ourselves to God—like William’s parents are choosing today—is a choice, a commitment for something.>

When Jesus told the Pharisees this parable, he was on the long, bloody road to the cross. Jesus knew the cost he was going to have to pay to be obedient to God and you can understand his impatience with people who would not commit to being on God’s team.

As the King offered to change the identity of this wedding guest with the wedding garment, God wants to change our identity. He wants us to wear outward and visible signs of our commitment to him, not in the form of crosses around our neck or Christian T-shirts, but in the form of our lives.

Our God is a passionate God, who is passionately jealous. He does not want us running around dating money or power or sex as our other Gods. He wants us to choose him, to align ourselves with him in worship, our prayer life, and the choices we make throughout the day.

There is no joy in a relationship in which one member is detached. No marriage is satisfying unless both partners are completely engaged. God is completely committed to us. He has shown that through Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection. Through our parable today, he reminds us that he wants our utter commitment to him. He longs for our energy, time, and love.

Being a half-way Christian is not enough. God can handle our doubts and questions and fears, what he does not want is for us to hold back. Better to engage, argue, even berate God, then to say, “Eh. I’ll pray tomorrow.” God offers us more than a wedding garment to accept, he offers himself.

Amen.