Lent 4, Year C, 2010

Jesus drove the Pharisees and the scribes CRAZY.

The author of the Gospel of Luke does a wonderful job of portraying the way the Pharisees and scribes followed Jesus around, unable to tear their eyes away from what they thought was a theological train wreck.  They have spent years of their lives following every rule, gaining knowledge of every bit of law and scripture, and gaining power step by logical step.  And then Jesus, a carpenter, strolls on the scene and immediately starts captivating his followers with his powerful words about God’s love.  I picture the Pharisees and scribes a little bit like principal Rooney in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I picture them so unsettled that they get a little obsessed, a little unhinged, but they just cannot stop themselves from following Jesus around and getting even more agitated.

What the Pharisees and scribes REALLY can’t stand, what just drives them batty, is who Jesus invites over for dinner.  They cannot reconcile why a man who claims to speak for God would hang out with tax collectors and “sinners”.

Jesus takes pity, or a jab, at the Pharisees and scribes and he explains his behavior using three parables:  the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the Prodigal Son.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, a young man approaches his father and asks for his share of the inheritance.  And while this is a greedy question, it is also an incredibly hurtful question.  The young man is implying that his father is worth more to him dead than alive.  The young man is rejecting the relationship with his own family so he can go party in the big city.  And although the father must have been devastated by this betrayal, the father complies with the son’s wishes, and gives him his share of the estate.

Like many a young man before or since, the prodigal son blows through his money, much sooner than he expects and is soon reduced to working on a farm, envying the slop the pigs enjoy.

He soon comes to his senses and decides to go home, eat crow, and hope his father takes him back.

We all know what happens next of course. Before the young man can get a word out of his mouth, his father is running out of the house, throwing his arms around his son and welcoming him back into the fold.  The prodigal son makes his repentant speech, but his words are just icing on the cake for the man’s father.

And just this story alone would be lovely.  The image of a heavenly father welcoming us rebellious children back home with open arms speaks deeply to us about how much God loves us, even when we make mistakes.

But Jesus’ parable has a wrinkle.  And the wrinkle is the older brother.  The older brother who has always been faithful to his father.  The older brother who took on more work when his good-for-nothing sibling took off to the big city.  The older brother who did not have any extra money, who never got to go to the big city, who never went to a party.

When this older brother comes home from the fields, smells the celebratory fatted calf cooking, and realizes his brother is safely home, he is furious.  He complains to his father that he has never had so much as a celebratory goat cooked for him despite his years of faithful service and now his dissolute brother gets an entire fatted calf?  He’s so mad he even accuses his brother of using his father’s to sleep with prostitutes, a claim that is made nowhere else in the text.  Older brother is NOT HAPPY.

The father pleads with the older brother, reassures him that all the father’s property will still go to him, and invites him to join the celebration.

We never find out what the older brother decides to do.  Jesus leaves the Pharisees and scribes hanging, leaves us hanging.

Instead of mocking or rejecting the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus is offering them the same invitation the father offers the older son.  You are still welcome here.  Jesus may be hanging out with tax collectors and sinners, but the Pharisees and scribes are still welcomed at the table.   Jesus’ may be changing the game, and showing how God includes those on the margins, but that does not mean that God is shoving out the establishment.  The question is whether the establishment wants to join the party!

There is never a scene in the Gospels where the Pharisees and scribes look at one another and say, “Let’s take a risk!  Let’s join this Jesus and see where he leads us!”  Until the very end, they resist his invitation of a new way of being in relationship with God.  They are so tied to the rules and regulations and the old way of doing things, that they cannot join the party, even though they have an open invitation.

Whether we like it or not, those of us in the Episcopal Church, for the most part ARE the establishment.  We have money and power and hundreds of years of liturgical tradition to which we cling.  There is great value in all that tradition, but the danger remains that we will cling to the past and refuse an invitation to new life that Jesus puts in front of us.

Paul and I have been to several conferences and meetings of Episcopalians lately and we’ve noticed a disturbing trend.  More than once we have heard people make speeches during which they lament the demise of the Episcopal Church.  These particular priests were a generation older than we are, and my understanding is that they were lamenting the Episcopal church of the 1950s, when the church was rich both in numbers and in finances.

I have to tell you, I think these speakers have completely missed the mark.

I may be biased, but I fell in love with the Episcopal Church in 1999, when it was already “declining” according to some perspectives.  The Episcopal Church of the 1950s was probably great.  I bet members wore really snappy hats and that children had more time to be involved in church life and that people tithed a bigger percentage of their income.  But from my perspective, the Episcopal Church of this decade is much more exciting, much more like one of Jesus’ dinner parties, than the church of yore.

I love the Episcopal Church.  I love the traditions, the fancy words, the music, the liturgy.  But what I love most about the church is its welcome.  In this new, modern Episcopal church people of different races are allowed to worship together, gay members do not have to hide their sexuality, and as a youngish woman, I get the honor of being your priest!  None of that would have been possible sixty years ago.  I love the Episcopal church because we’re allowed to ask theological questions that would have made the hairs on the back of the Pharisees necks stand up!  I love the Episcopal Church because we’re allowed to read about the Gnostic gospels or world religions without someone offering to pray for our souls.  I love the Episcopal Church because to us, worshiping God is more than just having a bunch of “correct” answers.  We are invited to enter into mystery, together.

So, when I hear people lament the end of the Episcopal Church I want to tell them they are missing the party!  We may not be as powerful politically or financially as we once were, but who cares?  Being a Christian is not about power, it’s about being a disciple of Jesus Christ.  And I can think of no better place to be a disciple of Jesus than at the party the Episcopal Church is throwing right now.

And I hope we are inviting everyone to that party, the outcasts and the establishment; the Prodigal sons and their judgmental older brothers; those who are mourning what our church once was and those who are just discovering us.

Amen.

Second Sunday in Easter, Year A, 2008

When I went through the ordination process, one of the first steps was to have several meetings of a discernment committee at my parish.  My discernment committee at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Richmond was filled with a wonderful variety of parishioners who asked me all sorts of good questions.  Mary Horton, a fabulous woman who single handedly inspired me about the beauty of pointy toed shoes, asked me, “Do you believe in resurrection?”  Now, I was thinking about human death, since my mother had just died, and I told them that I honestly did not know.  There was a long, awkward pause, and all of a sudden I realized she meant JESUS’ resurrection.  I quickly blurted out, “Yes!  Yes!  I believe in Jesus’ resurrection, I’m just not sure if the rest of us have the same kind of bodily resurrection!”

Phew.  I might not be here today if I hadn’t interpreted that long pause correctly!

I wonder if Thomas was met with the same awkward silence when he just could not believe the other disciples had seen the risen Jesus.

You can just imagine Thomas coming back into the locked room, completely innocent of what had just happened.  Maybe he went out to check on a family member, or to grab some lunch.  Maybe he just needed a break from the doom and gloom and wanted some fresh air.  Regardless of why he left, he was the only disciple not to see Jesus for himself.  He came back to the room and everyone was babbling excitedly about seeing Jesus.

Of COURSE Thomas was incredulous.  There are certain things you don’t expect in life-for, example, snipers shooting at cars right here in Greenwood.  Thankfully the thing Thomas was not expecting was not bad news-he had already heard the bad news of Jesus’ death-but really, truly wonderful news.

Thomas was a skeptic.  Thomas wanted more information.  Thomas wanted to see for himself.  He tells his friends that he wants to “see the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands, and put his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in his side”.  Thomas wants evidence and sensory proof that what the disciples saw was actually the resurrected Jesus. Thomas is not comfortable with the certainty that his friends are experiencing.

Thomas could be the patron saint of the Episcopal Church.
 
One of the reasons I joined the Episcopal Church is that it welcomes all of us Thomases and all the questions we have. I used to be part of a church community that would tilt its head and tell you, “We’re praying for you.” if you asked too many questions.  Questions were a sign that your faith was wavering, in danger.  To them, real faith looked like an iron clad suit-inflexible and dogmatic. 

John Polkinghorne, the English priest and physicist reminds us that truth is not the same thing as certainty.

Many people confuse the two, but truth is a much broader idea than certainty.

When Thomas finally sees Jesus, Jesus invites Thomas to put his hands in Jesus’ side.  After all his big talk, Thomas cannot bring himself to touch his Lord. Suddenly, Thomas no longer needs the certainty of concrete evidence.  He has a personal encounter with a loving, resurrected Jesus and no longer needs proof of Jesus’ resurrection.

The truth of Jesus, and our relationship with Jesus is much more complicated, and much more beautiful than simple certainty.

If we become absolutely certain about who Jesus is and what God is like, then we close ourselves off to the power of the Holy Spirit to teach us something new.

Our minds are very small.  Even here, in intellectual Charlottesville, our minds cannot begin to grasp the complexity of the living God.  All of our rumination and theology is nothing more than an educated guess, really. 

We like to be organized, so we come up with books and books of theology and all try to agree on exactly what the Bible means, but even the Bible is a complex and multi-layered text.  The Bible is for exploration, not classification.  The Bible is an adventure, not a set of rules.

Being too certain can lead to a limited experience of God.  Being too certain can cut us off from people different from ourselves.  Being too certain can lead to ugly talk, accusations, and even violence.  Being too certain can even lead to personal collapse.

Once I got past the point of just giggling about the whole Elliot Spitzer debacle, I began to get really fascinated at what motivated him to act out the way he did.  For that matter, what made Ted Haggard behave the way he did?  Or any moral leader who has a moral meltdown?  What men like these have in common is an intense and narrow perspective on the world to which they are professionally obligated to adhere.  They built their reputation on moral certainty that left no room for them to explore their own deep thoughts and feelings in a safe and open manner.  They ended up compartmentalizing themselves into irresolvable pieces and that loose construction eventually collapsed in spectacular and humiliating ways. 

If Spitzer and Haggard had been in tune with the complicated truth of who they were and who God is, rather than being so certain of a set of mores for those under their care, they may have spared themselves the humiliation of sexual and financial indiscretions that later came to light.

Asking questions, even taboo questions, about ourselves and about God is one of the healthiest, most faithful acts we can do as Christians.  Thomas teaches us that we are allowed to ask whether God is real, whether the resurrection is real, whether the virgin birth is real.  We are allowed to doubt.

Faith would not be faith without doubt.  Inherently, faith is about taking a risk, taking a chance.  Over our life, our faith will ebb and flow.  There will be Sundays where we can say the Nicene Creed with confidence and other Sundays where we might need to skip a part or just listen to our brothers and sisters recite it.  In the Episcopal Church, unlike most churches, to join you do not need to sign a statement of belief.  You do not have to sign off on specific theological points or agree to a proscribed set of ideas.  In the Episcopal Church we believe faith is expressed by coming together and worshipping, by the act of loving God, rather than the act of believing facts about God. 

We can no longer put our hands in Jesus’ wounds, but we can encounter him at the Eucharist.  The physical contact and assurance Thomas, and we, long for can still be met as we kneel before him and accept his body and blood in the form of bread and wine.  The intimacy that Thomas shared with Jesus, the gift of being in Jesus’ presence is still offered to us. 

And when we come to share that intimacy in the Eucharist, we don’t need to have all our ducks in a row.  We can come confused about God, confused about ourselves.  We can come with robust faith or whimpering faith and Jesus will still meet us and open his arms to us.

Thanks be to God.

Proper 20, Year B, 2006

You know what makes me nervous?

What makes me nervous is when I read passages from the Bible that describe ungodly cultures that sound exactly like our culture today.

In our passage from Wisdom today, the author is describing a culture that has made Death its friend, rather than the life giving God.  The author describes the society like this:

Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist, and make use of the creation to the full as in youth. Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes, and let no flower of spring pass us by. Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither. Let none of us fail to share in our revelry; everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment, because this is our portion, and this our lot. Let us oppress the righteous poor man; let us not spare the widow or regard the gray hairs of the aged. But let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless.

Anyone who gets excited about Oprah’s annual Christmas gift giveaway show or ever seen an episode of My SuperSweet Sixteen or is concerned about our foreign policy or believes the aftermath of Katrina showed an ugly class and racial divide can’t help but read this passage and go “Gulp”.

I dreaded writing this sermon all week.  I like when passages are all about how much God loves us no matter how screwed up we are.  Like anyone, I don’t like facing up to how my life–or my culture–may not be faithful to God’s principles.

This passage has been keeping me up at night, making me wonder, “What if they are right?”

What if the fundamentalist Muslims are right and our culture of greed and sex and violence is corrupting the world and we deserve to be wiped out?

What if the evangelical Christians are right and the secular culture of promiscuity and alcohol and drug use and eroding “family values” are against God’s will and those of us who don’t subscribe to their narrow Christianity are all going to hell?

What if the leading scientists and Al Gore are right and American pollution is causing global warming, leading to irreversible destruction of the polar icecaps, warming of the oceans, and ultimately more and more natural disasters like Katrina, killer heatwaves, and massive coastal flooding?

What if the political left is right and the war in which our country is engaged is based on a complicated schema of lies and political maneuvering and is inherently unethical?

What if the political right is correct and if we don’t engage in these sorts of wars, we’re giving power to terrorists and all they stand for?

Ugggggh.

We’re living in a maelstrom of conflicting public opinion, values, facts, religious beliefs and political maneuvering. 

How do we, as Episcopalians, who value the Bible, but also tradition and reason, wade through the morass before us to develop a coherent ethical response?  How do we bring our concerns before God and discern a path to follow?

(Pause)

I don’t know!  That’s why I didn’t want to preach about this text!

In all seriousness, I do think there is a way for us to find a way of holiness amidst all the confusion and pain and fear of our present.

In the first chapter of the Wisdom of Solomon, right before our passage today, Solomon describes a godly society,

Love righteousness, you rulers of the earth, think of the Lord in goodness and seek him with sincerity of heart; because he is found by those who do not put him to the test, and manifests himself to those who do not distrust him. For perverse thoughts separate people from God, and when his power is tested, it exposes the foolish; because wisdom will not enter a deceitful soul, or dwell in a body enslaved to sin. For a holy and disciplined spirit will flee from deceit, and will leave foolish thoughts behind, and will be ashamed at the approach of unrighteousness.

A holy and disciplined spirit. . .that’s not the sort of thing we Episcopalians usually talk about.  We’re the “fun” branch of Christianity.  We get to dance and drink and have money!  We get to dress well and drive nice cars!  We’re Catholic “lite”; Lutheran, but without the guilt!  We’re more likely to have dinner parties than prayer groups, cocktail hour than an hour of Bible study.

And while I do think the Christian life is a life of celebration and joy, and I am certainly not going to stop going to dinner parties, I believe God is calling us, as a church, back to the Spiritual disciplines. 

I recently went to a conference in Atlanta, in which Phyllis Tickle spoke about the crisis of the modern church.  She talked about how every 500 years, the church goes through a major rummage sale and cleans itself out.  Five hundred years ago, we experienced the Reformation.  500 years before that the Eastern and Western Church split.  500 years before that, a bunch of Monks, the desert Fathers and Mothers, moved out to the desert and began a new kind of contemplative Christian practice.  500 hundred years before that, came Jesus.  500 years before that the Temple in Jerusalem is destroyed and rebuilt, 500 years before that, the Israelites decide they don’t want to be ruled by Judges so God sends them a King.  500 years before that Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt and they wander in the desert for 40 years.  500 years before that Abraham is sent out in faith by God to be the Father to a new group of God’s chosen people.  The pattern is incredible

Phyllis Tickle’s point was, that at the present moment, the modern church is experiencing just such a shift, the emergent church-those large churches with small groups, praise music, non traditional church buildings and conservative theology–gain more power than the main line Protestant churches.   Since the time of Darwin, the church has been redefining itself-sorting through its beliefs and moral and ethical underpinnings.  She reassured us that the Protestant church isn’t going anywhere, but we will experience change, just as the Catholic church did 500 years ago, and the Eastern church 1000 years ago. 

Despite this massive historical context in which she placed our current church crisis, her call to us was simple and ancient:  to return to the Spiritual disciplines. In times of turbulence and change, God calls us back to him.  God reminds us that we cannot control the world, but that we can submit to him, and try to stay aligned to his ways in our day-to-day lives.

Ms. Tickle’s preferred spiritual discipline is saying the Divine Hours.  Saying the Divine Hours is an ancient practice that began with the early monastics.  It consists of saying prayers are assigned times of the day, using assigned words.  This is not the time for personal prayers, but a time to align oneself with God and with all the other Christians who are praying at the same time of day.  However, saying the Divine Hours is not the only way to practice Spiritual Disciplines.

I commend Tickle’s work to you, and also the work of Richard Foster.  Twenty-five years ago Foster wrote The Celebration of Discipline, a book designed to help Christians find a way to live the Spiritual disciplines in a meaningful way.  He divides them into three groups:  The Inward Disciplines, The Outward Disciplines and the Corporate Disciplines.

The Inward Disciplines consist of meditation, prayer, fasting and studying.  The Outward disciplines of simplicity, solitude, submission and service.  The Corporate disciplines are confession, guidance, worship and celebration.

I don’t recommend trying to begin a dozen spiritual disciplines at once!  That cannot end well.  I do, however, recommend saying a prayer with the list in front of you, and choosing one or two.  

Spiritual disciplines are just that-disciplines.  They aren’t necessarily fun, or even rewarding right away.  Like any discipline, results can only be observed after a long time of practice.  But what these spiritual disciplines do is align us with God.  And in this time of uncertainty, both religious and political, we cannot afford to engage with the world on our own strength and wisdom. 

Instead of worrying about whether we are on the right side of all these political and religious debates, God invites us to take a deep breath and reach back to ancient and timeless practices to stay rooted in truths that came before and will come long after all our current crises have faded away.

Amen.