CHRIST THE KING, C, 2019
“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To speak of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
and why the sea is boiling hot,
and whether pigs have wings.”
(Lewis Carroll, The Walrus and the Carpenter)
The time has come. This Sunday represents the last Sunday of the Church year. It is Christ the King Sunday and the time has come. I don’t have much to say, I’m afraid, about shoes or ships, beyond expressing a sincere desire for them both of them to keep the water out. Of cabbages I know little beyond the obvious, of sealing wax I know even less – and of kings, well, we’ll see.
The concept of kingery bears little significance in our world these days. It loomed large in this country’s beginnings – we had this whole big Revolutionary war and created a constitution to be rid of kings and queens and their ilk. We have not entirely lost our national fascination with royalty – Queen Elizabeth and her offspring, and her offspring’s offspring, and her offspring’s offspring’s offspring control at least their fair share of the newsstand real estate, whatever declarations of Independence we may have made 243 years ago. Their travels, their outfits, their squabbles, their weddings, their foibles, and those hats – we drink it all in.
Our fascination with them comes, I suppose, from just how fairytale they seem – with their own sets of rules and customs, their seemingly endless streams of jewels and clothes and their ability (however illusory the impression) to remain seemingly untouched by the vicissitudes of the world we share. Ah, and the power. Let’s not forget their power. It is seductive to think of someone making all the tough decisions, taking care of things, protecting their people, guiding their subjects regally and wisely to just and good decisions.
The Jews sought such a king; a King impervious to the centuries of exile and servitude and victimization they had suffered. 6 centuries before “God was pleased to dwell” on Earth through Jesus, Jeremiah spent most of his prophetic career warning the powers that be that their misbehavior would destroy their kingdoms, scatter their people. Inconveniently for those same people, Jeremiah proved a better prophet than politician and the Babylonian exile came to fruition. In the face of this tragedy Jeremiah shifted his tone from castigating to comforting, delivering God’s promise to remove the current failed leaders and replace them with better ones, encouraging the devastated people to look forward to the appearance of a new, righteous king.
600 years later, some descendants of those people met Jesus. “Maybe,” they thought, “maybe this time, maybe this man, maybe this king” – and Jesus rode into Jerusalem amidst waving palm branches and Hosannas. And 5 days later – he stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross and died – like no king anybody ever wished for, but somehow, mysteriously, still ushering in the exactly the kingdom for which we yearn so desperately.
In his book, “Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner wrote, ”As far as I know, there is only one good reason for believing that he was who he said he was. One of the crooks he was strung up with put it this way: ‘If you are the Christ, save yourself and us’ (Luke 23:39). Save us from whatever we need most to be saved from. Save us from each other. Save us from ourselves. Save us from death both beyond the grave and before. (my emphasis) If he is, he can. If he isn’t, he can’t. It may be that the only way in the world to find out is to give him the chance, whatever that involves. It may be just as simple and just as complicated as that.”
Give him the chance. Give Christ the chance. Give him a chance to teach us compassion, even if it means sacrifice. Give him a chance to live physically on this earth right now within you, through you. Give him a chance to bring light into the darkness of the world. Give him a chance to reveal the humbling release of forgiveness – forgiveness received and forgiveness bestowed.
Rev. Ginny McDaniel writes “Today’s text about Jesus offering forgiveness as his final act is resonating with me like never before. If the church needs a single message, a sound byte, if you will, for this impatient, multitasking generation, it’s this: It’s ALL about mercy. We don’t need taller statues to proclaim our message. We don’t need bigger buildings and fancier gadgetry. Mercy is what the world needs, now as never before, now as it always has.” Mercy, compassion, loving-kindness.
Apropos of the approach of Advent, in God and Empire, Jon Dominick Crossan wrote, “The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen soon, violently, or literally. The Second Coming of Christ is what will happen when we Christians finally accept the First Coming … and start to cooperate with its divine presence.” The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg expounds, “In other words, on Reign of Christ Sunday, we are invited to remember that the “Kingdom of God” or “Reign of God” — to which Jesus constantly pointed — is as fully available now and always as it was 2,000 years ago. The question that remains each Reign of Christ Sunday is whether we will choose to live as if the one who reigns is not Caesar, but God.
We celebrate Christ the King today.
We celebrate Christ’s humility, not his royalty
We celebrate Christ’s compassion, not his power
We celebrate Christ’s travail, not his triumph
We celebrate Christ’s gift of self, not his accumulation of riches
We celebrate Christ showing us the way of new life, not rescuing us so that we can repeat the old broken ways.
(paraphrased and adapted from Delmer Chilton, Lectionary Lab)
We celebrate Christ the King in our worship today
Do we go out those doors and live His reign?
The time has come. Amen.
Proper 28, C, 2019
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
I have noticed, over time, that while my presence can be comforting for some folks in an exam room, in a hospital room, or in a labor room, my voice on the other end of a phone call to a patient in the evening or on a weekend tends to create the opposite effect. Usually I call just following up on labs or x-rays or something, but still – not knowing the changes that particular phone call could portend is for patients…unsettling. It turns out, it was not particularly helpful if I carefully prefaced those conversations with, “Now, I don’t want you to worry.” In fact, there may not be any words better calculated to induce panic. Actually, I never tried it, but I might create even more consternation if I carefully prefaced my conversations as Our Lord did with “Do not be terrified”
Do not be terrified – and then he goes on to describe in great detail a staggering array of things about which to be terrified: wars, insurrections, famines, plagues. And then He gets personal: They will arrest you, persecute you, family will betray you. Do not be terrified indeed. The Lord works in mysterious ways…
I read a story, of an American Philosophy professor doing research in the Asia. She asks a Japanese colleague to explain some of the complexities of Shintoism and Buddhism. The Japanese scholar initially demurs, but finally does her best to thoughtfully clarify the point in question.
The American professor listened intently, taking careful notes. At the conclusion of the explanation, she thanked her colleague profusely declaring gratefully. “Finally I understand perfectly.” The Japanese scholar looked puzzled. “Really?” she asked quizzically, “You understand now?” “Yes,” replied the American, “I have pondered this question for years, but your explanation has at last made it absolutely clear to me. “Hmmm,” said her Japanese counterpart with a troubled look on her face, “Then I must not have explained it properly.”
If we take today’s lessons at face value, they do not feel like good news. Not good news at all. Might even say apocalyptically bad news: All sorts of people from scholars to evangelists to persons of more suspect motives spend all sorts of time and energy engaging these sorts of texts to promote the idea the the end times are nigh; that our wars, our earthquakes, our famines are THE wars, THE earthquakes, THE famines that Jesus references. And they could be right, of course. The world may end next week. Certainly a great deal of time and effort has been spent establishing those timetables and calendars. And if the world doesn’t end exactly when predicted, well, back to the biblical timetable analysis.
I’ll be honest though, it seems that as people of a living faith, we can do more good concentrating on other things. It seems like Jesus, who cured the lepers, healed the blind and the lame, ate with outcasts, spoke truth to power – might have more in mind than declaring that the world will end and offering a reassuring pat on our heads in a scary world. If that is the depth of our understanding of scripture, we may miss the bigger point.
It’s a scary world. Wars. Famine. Ancient hatreds forced into sharper view and enhanced by fear. The centuries between Jesus’s life and our own have not ended these things. He does, indeed, preach the apocalypse, but the word does not mean what we think it means. It is not the stuff of zombie movies and Left Behind. It is not an ending, but an unveiling, a disclosure, a fresh, honest view. An opportunity to apprehend reality as we’ve never apprehended it before. (Debie Thomas.)
The disciples look at the temple and they see the glittering gold, and the sheer, vast scale of the place. Jesus sees something temporal of this world. Something which must, and will, end.
November 14, 1960 – 59 years ago this Thursday – much of New Orleans, much of the country saw the end of the world in little Ruby Bridges as she walked her brave little African American six year old steps into an otherwise all white school and sat herself down for an equal education. 4 US Marshals walked with her. So did Jesus. And a world did begin to crumble. In 2011, that same child of God stood in the halls of the White house looking at a newly installed Norman Rockwell painting of the event entitled The Problem We All Live With, while the first AA president stood with her saying “I think it’s fair to say if it hadn’t been for you guys, I might not be here and we would not be looking at this together”
Jesus reveals the birth of the kingdom in the death of fear; the seeds of new birth in the ashes of destruction. Martin Luther said, “If tomorrow is the day of Judgment, then today I want to plant an apple tree.” Jesus offers the disciples, offers us, the long view. Oscar Romero wrote,
It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about: we plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.
You testify daily to the presence of christ with us. You testify with every smile, every generous act, every refusal to let fear guide your actions, …. Brothers and sisters, as Paul says, do not be weary in doing what is right, for “the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings“ Amen.
Proper 27, C, 2019
As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
After my awaking, he will raise me up;
and in my body I shall see God.
I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him
who is my friend and not a stranger. (Book of Common Prayer, BCP)
This paraphrase of Job’s lament comes from the funeral liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer. Out of death, life. Resurrection, the resurrection of Christ, our own hope of resurrection is a cornerstone of our faith.
Jesus was days away from The Temple. From Pilate. From Gethsemane. From the cross.
The Sadducees, a conservative Jewish sect, contemporaries of the Pharisees and the Essenes, rejected the authority of oral tradition. They believed only in the written Torah, the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the Hebrew scriptures. The concept of resurrection does not appear anywhere in those 5 books. True to their own faith, the Sadducees rejected the notion of the resurrection and of angels. The pentateuch does, however, have rather a lot to say about levirate marriage – the system presumed in today’s Gospel lesson.
Levirate marriage. The word comes from the Latin, levir – brother-in-law. Prior to belief in resurrection, the Israelites believed that a person lived on in their descendants and in their descendant’s memory. Hence if a man died without children, his brother was obligated to take his wife and have children by her, thus ensuring that the brother would “live on”. By this system, our poor, nameless, barren serial widow would have worked her married way through 7 dutiful brothers in turn.
Whose wife will she be in the resurrection – for 7 have married her?
The sadducees had zero interest in the fate of their fictional widow. They sought by their question to expose the ridiculous notion of the resurrection, the utterly unworkable impracticality of it.
Guess what. God’s not big into practical.
If the pharisees had asked a question designed to trip him up,Jesus would have answered with a snappy unanswerable comeback question. He knew the Sadducees mocked him with their question, but this time, with the Sadducees, He answered in all seriousness, meeting them where they were. Your faith comes from the written Torah? Look at Exodus the story of the burning bush. God appeared from a burning bush and said to Moses. ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ I am. Not I was back then when they were alive. I AM.
We, like the Sadducees, have a habit of trying to put limits on God; trying to put God in a box of our own understanding. We remake God in our image, create Earth in Heaven as some sort of endless replay of all the good bits of life here. No, says Jesus. You don’t get it. The resurrection is not just an extension of life here except with wings and a harp. It is something different. Something other.
Now, resurrection is a hard pill to swallow for many. For some a notion at once so mysterious and so mystical holds no sway if it cannot be touched, tasted, seen, verified, proven and reproduced. If it makes you feel better, several physicists are actually working on the physics of immortality. Dr. Frank Tipler, a quantum mathematical physicist from Tulane postulates that in the very last moments of cosmic history matter will transcend its own destruction by an implosion of creative power, basing his theory on the currently accepted notion of a collapsing universe. “John Polkinghorne, a theoretical physicist and Anglican priest believes also that physical resurrection is “a perfectly coherent hope,” in which our souls function along the lines of DNA, carrying the unique pattern of each one of us inside our bodies and when we die, being used by God to recreate new bodies in any future world of God’s choosing”. (Sunday, November 11, 2013: “27 Weddings and 8 Funerals” Rev. Dr. Joanna Seibert)
Not convinced? That’s ok. Because the resurrection isn’t about what you believe, or I believe, or the Church believes – the Nicene Creed notwithstanding. It is rather about God’s belief in us. About Jesus’s willingness to journey to the cross and beyond and back. About, as one priest writes, “God’s investment in the creation, the incarnation, the essential goodness of matter, bodies, flesh. Anyone who is ever part of God’s life never stops being part of it. Even if it was for less than a moment, they still belong to God forever.” (Sunday, November 11, 2013: “27 Weddings and 8 Funerals” Rev. Dr. Joanna Seibert)
Theologian Paul Tillich suggested that death isn’t a moment, but a process we are living every day fulfilled finally in one moment. If so, consider what it means for us to be progressing in death while simultaneously progressing in life. “Just as physical death is the culmination of the slow dying that is life lived, is the resurrection of the body also the culmination of the slow living that is death dying away?” (Shannon Schaefer)
Still don’t understand resurrection? Me either. It won’t fit in our God box. We don’t have to understand it. We experience it – see it, in miniature, all the time, every day. When you see that seedling bravely peeking through the leaf litter and snow you’re walking through. When you see an addict, with the help of community, NOT take that next drink. When you learn the stories of your elders. When you shake the hand of a veteran who struggles to find his or her place in a world that changed with the agreement to risk life for the protection of hearth and home. When you walk with the grieving. When you stand with the vulnerable; when you dare to BE vulnerable. When you smile and meet the eyes of a stranger, and the eyes of Christ smile back at you.
As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
After my awaking, he will raise me up;
and in my body I shall see God.
I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him
who is my friend and not a stranger. (BCP)
ALL SAINTS SUNDAY, C, 2019
For better or for worse, my children bear Northland nature names. Gavia is the scientific nomenclature of the common loon – my husband campaigned to make her middle name immer, which would complete her association with the bird whose plaintive song inspired us late in that pregnancy. Linnaea borealis, the twin flower, lives on several continents, but always only in the northland, preferring cool, moist climates. Cool and moist certainly sounds like familiar surroundings these days. The flower Linnaea borealis was named for Carolus Linnaeus – the father of the modern method of grouping and naming species. Humans named groups of things long before Dr. Linnaeus came on the scene – some times more logically than others. Easy enough, for example to see where group name parade of elephants comes from, or a tower of giraffes, an exaltation of larks, a romp of otters or even a pounce of cats. But what did the poor crows do to deserve to called a murder or ravens to be called an unkindness? I frankly don’t think I’d care much for an audience of squid. Consortium sounds rather too dignified to represent a bunch of crabs, conspiracy too sinister for sprightly lemurs, and business too serious for mischievous ferrets. And what is a murmuration when its not a bunch of starlings, anyway?
Today we honor a different group: the communion of saints. All Saint’s Day actually falls on November 1, but since it’s one of the 7 principal feast days of the church, we move the observance if necessary. Interestingly, November 3rd is actually the feast day of Richard Hooker, a 15th century Anglican priest whose claim to fame is his defense of via media – the middle way that the Anglican Church navigates between Roman Catholicism and Puritanism. A certain ambivalence within the Episcopal church with regard to saints I think is reflected in our negotiation of that middle way. We don’t seem, as a rule, to adopt the passionate personal devotion to individual saints that our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters stereotypically do, but we are not quite ready to ignore that blessed communion either.
Rightly so. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, “The saints have no need of honor from us; neither does our devotion add the slightest thing to what is theirs. Clearly, if we venerate their memory, it serves us, not them. But I tell you, when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by tremendous yearning.”
Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and prolific spiritual writer, converted to catholicism in his 20’s. In the autobiography he wrote at the direction of his abbot, Merton describes a conversation between himself and poet Robert Lax that occurred when Merton first began to contemplate what his conversion meant…
I forget what we were arguing about, but in the end Lax suddenly turned around and asked me the question:
“What do you want to be, anyway?”
I could not say, “I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of all those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review,” or “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English at the New Life Social Institute for Progress and Culture,” so I put the thing on the spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged and said:
“I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”
“What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?”
The explanation I gave was lame enough, and expressed my confusion, and betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all.
Lax did not accept it.
“What you should say” – he told me – “what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”
A saint! The thought struck me as a little weird. I said:
“How do you expect me to become a saint?”
“By wanting to,” said Lax simply.
“I can’t be a saint,” I said, “I can’t be a saint.” And my mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities: the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say that they cannot do the things that they must do, cannot reach the level that they must reach: the cowardice that says: “I am satisfied to save my soul, to keep out of mortal sin,” but which means, by those words: “I do not want to give up my sins and my attachments.” (Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain)
Blessed are you – the poor, hungry, weeping, hated. These are the vulnerable people, the people who know their dependence on God, who have fewer attachments to release. One theologian writes, “Vulnerability, I should warn you, is a nice sounding word that names a condition most of us would like to avoid. Vulnerability names the condition of need and dependence that is often not comfortable and that our culture regularly invites us to imagine that we can and should avoid.” (David Lose) But vulnerability is also what makes us human, what makes us need to connect, part and parcel of love.
Woe to you who are rich, consoled, satisfied, laughing, popular. In this context, according to one scholar, “‘woe’ functions as a sharp contrast to “blessed,” yet the Greek word ouai does not mean “cursed” or “unhappy.” Certainly not “damned.” Like the English word yikes, it is more of an attention-getter and emotion-setter than a clear characterization or pronouncement. (Matt Skinner). Look out: devotion to money will kill your soul. Yikes: dependence on the illusions of self-satisfaction and respectability will drive you away from communion with God. Uh oh: Allow yourself to be vulnerable to the life changing, radical love of God; to protect the poor, comfort the sorrowful, feed the hungry, love your enemy – You may find you’re a saint after all, one of the communion.
To be a saint is to be sanctified;
set apart for a sacred purpose.
That would be you.
Every breath of your life is for a sacred purpose:
to shed light, to radiate God’s love.
You don’t have to be influential,
or pious, virtuous or pure.
You have to be yourself.
The You of you is what God has made holy.
You are God’s Beloved.
All you have to do is act like it.
Everything you do today is an opportunity
to embody God’s love,
not by your effort or skill,
but by the love you embody.
The light of God is in you.
Be transparent to it.
(Steve Garnaas-Holmes, Unfolding Light). AMEN!
Proper 24, 2019, C
Luke alone among the Gospels relates today’s incident. “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Having told the parable of the self-serving, unprincipled judge and the plucky, persistent widow, Jesus concluded His thought saying that God will quickly grant justice to those who cry to him night and day. If today, sitting here, 2000 years later, after millions of prayers by thousands upon thousands of saints and sinners alike have wended their way heavenward, you find yourself satisfied that justice has quickly come, you are excused from the rest of the sermon. And while you are not listening to the rest of the sermon, please, please, pray for those of us who harbor some doubt at this point about the swiftness of justice. (paraphrased from J. Hugh Magers, Sermons that Work)
An e-mail made the rounds a few years ago describing a sign seen posted in a hospital cafeteria: NOTICE: Due to the current budget cutbacks, the light at the end of the tunnel will be turned off until further notice. In a world governed by money and power, administered by individual interests, entrenched anger and fear, and capitalized by the seemingly endless exploitation of our most vulnerable citizens and of the earth itself, sometimes light and justice seem far away and our prayers as unheard as those of the widow. Which begs the question, is God really any more sympathetic to the cause of justice than that corrupt judge? If the moral of the story is just keep prayerfully pestering God like a toddler in a cosmic candy store until He provides us our spiritual sweeties, then what is faith really beyond an endurance contest? What is prayer beyond an itemization of desires and demands?
Biblical Scholar Raymond Bailey describes the immense power of a judge in Israel saying: “In Israel, the judge was the final arbiter. There was no jury, no court of appeal. . . The judge in the parable is a law unto himself, who has no sense of accountability to persons or God. He shirked his duty by not bothering to even hear the case . . . . . The widow throughout the Bible . . . was a vulnerable victim . . . a symbol of helplessness.” (The Lectionary Commentary, The Gospels, p. 429) With that kind of power accountable to no one, naturally we place God in the place of the judge. But what of Jesus?
Before the Soviet Union collapsed, Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn served years in the Soviet prison camps of Siberia. Along with other prisoners, he performed hard labor day in and day out, in all seasons, summer and bitter winter. Eventually he could see nothing more to life than backbreaking labor and slow starvation. The intense suffering reduced him to a state of despair.
One day the hopelessness of his situation overcame him. He saw no reason to continue his struggle, no reason to keep on living. His life made no difference in the world. He gave up.
Leaving his shovel on the ground, he slowly walked to a crude bench and sat down. He knew that at any moment a guard would order him to stand up. When he failed to respond, and the guard would beat him to death, probably with his own shovel. He had seen it happen to other prisoners.
As he waited for a violent but swift death, head held down, he felt a presence. He looked up and saw a skinny old prisoner squat down beside him. The man said nothing. He picked up a stick. He traced the sign of the Cross in the dirt. The man then got back up and returned to his work.
As Solzhenitsyn stared at the Cross drawn in the dirt his entire perspective changed. He knew he was only one man against the all-powerful Soviet empire. Yet he knew there was something greater than the evil he saw in the prison camp, something greater than the Soviet Union. He knew that hope for all people was represented by that simple Cross. Through the power of the Cross, anything was possible.
Solzhenitsyn slowly rose to his feet, picked up his shovel, and went back to work. Outwardly, nothing had changed. Inside, he had received hope. [Paraphrased from Luke Veronis, “The Sign of the Cross”; Communion, issue 8, Pascha 1997. Via Charles Hoffacker, Sermons that Work]
God is all powerful, but what of Jesus? Jesus was born in a stable, an itinerant preacher without means or power and nailed to a tree as an ignominious criminal. But He came. To be here. With us. For us.
“As Brené Brown puts it, “I went to church thinking it would be like an epidural, that it would take the pain away . . . But I realized that church is more like a midwife, standing next to me saying push. . . I thought faith would say, ‘I’ll take away the pain and discomfort, but what it ended up saying was, ‘I’ll sit with you in it.”
What if the judge is not meant to represent God at all, but the worst of our humanity – ruled by our own wants, our own desires, caring not for God nor fellow man until we have to, until we’re pestered into change. And the widow? A reminder of Jesus, vulnerable but steadfast. Fighting, nudging, pleading, persisting for the cause of justice. Standing with those in need. Drawing crosses in the dirt of our lives. Teaching us what it means to pray.
Soon we will pray together over the bread we break, the wine we drink, the spiritual meal that we share. God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, we will entreat – open our eyes.…Jacob is, I think, my prayer hero. Jacob is not much of a moral example – he lied to his dying father, cheated his brother out of his birthright, ran away in the night, fooled his uncle – but he accepted no half measures in relationship with God – he fought, and struggled and insisted on relationship. He became Israel – one who strives with God – and his people became Israel, and we are, spiritually speaking, descended from those people and we forget sometimes to strive with God. To come to the table for strength, as well as solace; for renewal as well as pardon.
“Prayer,” a dear friend once told me, “does not change the circumstances of our lives, it changes us! Which, by coincidence, changes the circumstances of our lives.” (Rev. Dr. Stephen B. Smith, personal communication). AMEN.
Proper 23, C, 2019
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.
In the 10th century BCE, the northern Israelite tribes separated from Judah in order to establish a rival monarchy and settled in the region of Samaria along with Galilee to the north. Two centuries later the Assyrian empire conquered these northern tribes. The empire transported distant Mesopotamian peoples into the region, resulting in centuries of inter-marriage. From a Judean perspective, these developments continued ethnic compromise of the already alienated branches of Jacob’s family tree. The Samaritans developed their own religious traditions; traditions emphasizing devotion to Torah and affiliation with the sanctuary on Mt. Gerizim near Shechem.
In the 2nd century BCE, much of Galilee converted to Judaism. Subsequently the Galileans recognized the Jerusalem temple as the proper center of worship. This left the middle region of Samaria isolated between two Jerusalem-affiliated populations. In 128 BCE, the rivalry turned especially violent when Judeans destroyed the Samaritan sanctuary on Mt. Gerizim. The hostility between the groups remained strong, and by Jesus’s time, remained strong enough for Galilean pilgrims to Jerusalem, south of Samaria, to opt to bypass Samaria en route to Jerusalem, even though it added considerable time to the journey. (Source: Ira Brent Driggers, Working Preacher)
But Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.
In Leviticus, the law says, “The leper who has the disease shall wear torn cloths and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry, ‘unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp.”
Now, in Jesus’s day leprosy could have been anything from actual Hansen’s disease (what we know as leprosy) to a bad case of eczema or psoriasis. Either way, it placed the sufferer in a no man’s land, a world outside polite society, a world between living and dead, between human and animal, between Samaria and Galilee.
According to the WHO, elimination of leprosy as public health problem (defined as a registered prevalence of less than 1 case per 10 000 population) was achieved globally in 2000. The people society treats as lepers almost never have Hansen’s disease, they don’t mark their appearance, and they don’t yell out warnings. They do often live in a land between.
My brother’s oldest is incredibly bright, and funny, and compassionate. Actually both of them are, but I always admired the way his oldest in particular seemed to march to the beat of an internal, personalized, individualized drum, seemingly never bowing to the external pressures of growing up. It turns out that, not only was he not comfortable in his own skin as I always thought he was, but he went through life feeling like he lived in the wrong skin altogether. He did not really understand what “transgender” meant until he went away to college – and over time came to learn that the term applied to him. His education was his family’s as well as we grappled, among other things, with the very real pain that can be inflicted with the misapplication of a pronoun. I still feel a deep pit in my stomach when I remember he went driving in the rural south with a driver’s license that didn’t match his pronouns and his physical appearance.
Friday marked the 31st National Coming Out Day, a celebration of LGBTQ+ folks that have made the decision to open up about their sexual orientation. 31 years of celebrating that act, and still LGB youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth and are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide. (the Trevor Project)
Thursday was World Mental Health Day. One in five people have mental health issues. Mental health conditions are the leading cause of disability across the United States. Less than half of the adults in the U.S. who need services and treatment get the help they need with
An average delay between the onset of symptoms and intervention is 8-10 years.
The people who live between today don’t have Hansen’s. They have depression or anxiety, or suffer the devastating effects of addiction, or struggle with chronic disease. They are escaping crushing poverty or oppression or war or natural disasters. They love someone mainstream society says they should not or express their gender in ways that don’t fit society’s rules. They have black skin or brown, or wear a turban or hijab.
It’s you. It’s me. It’s the people we love. It’s the people we struggle not to hate. We’ve all of us found ourselves at the edge, in between, unaccepted or unacceptable. But Jesus was traveling through the land between Galilee and Samaria and they called out to him Jesus, master, have mercy on us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that Jesus meets us both on the boundary of our lives and also at the center.
Go, show yourselves to the priests. And they did. They did what they were supposed to do; what their culture, their rules, their values told them to do. With our individualistic, money driven, accomplishment driven, power driven world, we might relate more to Naaman’s values.
That great general did the things that won battles, won wars, won spoils, won honors and accolades. Naaman – the name means pleasant, a bit ironic for someone in his particular line of work, especially someone who was slowly rotting away from leprosy – Naaman took the advice of the Israeli slave girl and went off to the enemy Israeli king in search of a cure.
He did not come empty handed – he delivered his letter of reference from the king. He offered lavish gifts He would give anything, perform any feat of bravery, of daring. He expected grand recitations, grandiose ceremony, sacrifices – a little pomp if you please. The prophet didn’t even bother to come outside to meet him. Go wash in the Jordan said his messenger.
Naaman almost turned around and went back home, he was so mad. His servants saved his skin (quite literally). You’d do big things, pay big money, risk big risks – why not do the little thing Elisha asks?
Reading the story, you can see all the hot air blowing out of Naaman as he slowly deflates. His royal connections can do nothing. His military prowess is useless. The excessive ransom has been ignored. There is nothing left. Nothing except to strip down and bathe in a second rate muddy river according to the word of the man of God. And he was made clean. And he knew God. “All he had to do was empty himself out, abandoning the pretense that who he was, or what he was worth, could get him what he needed.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Cheap Cure)
Jesus responded to the needs of the ten – gives the gift of healing freely, but one was made well. The Greek is sozo (sodzo). It can be translated “made well”, but might better be understood here as “made whole”, in the sense of being completed and made to be what you were meant to be all along. (David Lose). He wasn’t made whole by writing Jesus a demur thank you note, or muttering “thank God” under His breath as he ran to the priest to be allowed to rejoin society. He was made whole by face planting at Jesus’s feet, letting go of hate and anger; embracing love and acceptance and “As soon as healing takes place, go out and heal somebody else.”
Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good. (Maya Angelou)
PROPER 22, C, 2019
HABAKKUK 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Bad. Things. Happen. You know this. I know this. The news tells us this. From destruction of our ecosystems to economic devastation to violence on large scales and small – bad things happen. From emerging antibiotic resistance to self destructive behaviors to unwelcome diagnoses, to that pesky cold that just won’t let go, bad things happen. From floods and earthquakes to my suddenly soggy feet as I pick my way to the garage – bad things happen. It is a timeless truth.
Certainly the feces was flying fast at the proverbial fan almost 3000 years ago when Habakkuk penned the lament we heard today. Thought to be a contemporary of Jeremiah and Zapheniah, the mysterious Habakkuk wrote in the early 6th century as the Babylonians, whom he calls the Chaldeans, rose to power – shattering the lives of the Israelites, plunging them into chaos. “Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.” He described the chaos in his world, but his words could just as easily have described ours. Bad things happen.
It’s easy to see why the disciples might beg, why we might beg for just a little more faith. “Wait” is the message in Habakkuk. “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” But 6 centuries after Habakkuk and the Chaldeans, God among us set His face for Jerusalem, and the Kingdom remained elusive.
Increase our faith! The Chaldeans were long gone when the disciples voiced their plaintive cry. For some reason the lectionary doesn’t include the verses that immediately precede the disciples’ desperate sounding request-I asked Lee to read them anyway. If someone sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you, you must forgive.’ Seven times a day, one assumes day after day. That’s a lot of sinning. It’s an awful lot of forgiving. Increase my faith…
We talk about faith, they talk about faith, as if it were a commodity, something to be traded and used; strengthened and managed; saved for times of need. Preserved for the times we need the mulberry tree to uproot and jump in the ocean. Commentator Sarah Dylan Breuer writes, “The word ‘faith’ (pistis, in the Greek) is often spoken about as if it meant trying to talk ourselves into intellectual assent to something, with “increasing our faith” meaning that we are successfully persuading ourselves that we have adopted an idea we think is ridiculous. That’s not faith; it’s self-deception, and usually a pretty unsuccessful kind of self-deception that results in our feeling a little guilty and hypocritical, as we know that we don’t actually believe what we say. But faith is not about intellectual projection and assessment; it is not an intellectual analogue to that process we go through to build and maintain hubris.”
So far in Luke, Jesus named as faithful a woman’s desperate confidence that if she only touches him he will be healed (3:48), a centurion’s concern for a sick servant (7:9), and a woman’s gratitude at being forgiven (7:50). Soon he will also call faithful a Samaritan leper who returns to thank him for healing (17:19) and the plea of a blind beggar for sight (18:42). (references from David Lose). Ms. Breuer continues, “Faith is relationship — a relationship of trust, of allegiance. When Jesus talks about “faith,” he’s not talking about what you do in your head; he’s talking about what you do with your hands and your feet, your wallet and your privilege, your power and your time. Faith in Jesus is not shown by saying or thinking things about him, but by following him.”
Now Jesus launches into what to modern ears seems a highly distasteful discourse on slavery – indeed the passage has been used in the past to justify the reprehensible institution of slavery. I’ll let you in on a secret, Jesus wasn’t talking about slavery. He was talking about relationship.
My grandmother was a formidable woman. She raised two daughters under very difficult circumstances, and loved them fiercely. She had this perfect posture and dignity and brooked no nonsense. She came, over time, to accept my father as an adequate suitor for her daughter. He knew how to be polite, and what direction respect needed to flow. He earned his bachelors and masters from MIT and had a good job. He cleaned up nicely, looking sharp in his crisp Air Force Uniform. She found him acceptable.
But the thing that impressed her, the story she told me over and over about my father came after my brother was born. My grandmother came to help very soon after his birth, as new grandmothers do. When she came, of course, my brother was still very much in what my husband sentimentally calls the “leaky sack of fluids” stage of infancy. Fluid in, fluid out. He cried one day as newborns do, and Grandmother came in all her efficiency to remedy the situation. There she found my father. Changing. dirty. diapers. 500 years ago Martin Luther wrote, “When a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other menial task for his child…God with all his angels and creatures is smiling”. I’m sure, had he known her, Martin Luther would be relieved to know my grandmother agreed with him. She fell in love with my father at that point, and was still telling me the story 15 years later. My father shrugs when reminded of this story. That’s what fathers do. Not for thanks, not for payback, certainly not for glory, and not even to win over their formidable mothers-in-law. But because that is the relationship.
We cannot approach a life in Christ as an exercise in maximizing faith or optimizing likelihood of attaining eternal bliss. G.K. Chesterton rightly advised, ““Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.”
I paraphrase Thomas Merton slightly, substituting “serving Christ” for “prayer”, “We are indoctrinated into means and ends…But that is not the way to build a life [serving Christ]. In [serving Christ] we discover what we already have. You start where you are, and you deepen what you already have, and you realize that you are already there. We already have everything, but we don’t know it and we don’t experience it. Everything has been given to us in Christ. All we need is to experience what we already possess. The trouble is, we aren’t taking the time to do so.
“Wait” says the God of Habakkuk. In verses we did not read, his faithful prophet responds with hope in a hopeless world:
Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength; (Habakkuk 3: 17-19a)
We are not, as Mother Teresa said, called to do great things, but to do small things with great love. Change the dirty diapers of the world, one diaper at a time. Reach out to the stranger in love. Challenge the injustice in your little corner of the world. Teach a child and open her world. Offer a healing touch, a nourishing meal, an ardent defense, all for the love of Christ…That mustard seen is within you. Let it grow. Amen.
PROPER 21, C
1 Timothy 6:6-19
“At his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus.” Over the course of the 4 canonical gospels, Jesus blessed us with at least thirty-seven parables (depending on who’s counting), comprising about a third of the recorded teachings of Jesus. Parables about the Kingdom. Parables about forgiveness. Parables about redemption. Parables about prayer. Parables about, well there are a couple that we haven’t quite figured out what they are about, with last week being a prime example. Thirty-seven parables. One name. Lazarus. In 37 parables, one person gets a name. Why?
The Gospel of Luke in particular is replete with references to God’s compassion for the poor as well as references to the reversal of earthly fortunes in the Kingdom of God. Mary sings “He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty”. The beatitudes in the sermon on the plain declare “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.” From these examples through today’s parable, Luke emphasizes God’s compassion for the poor, the crippled, the lame.
Parables tell truths within stories allowing those truths to be more easily absorbed, digested. A story captures imagination and engages a listener in a way no dry discourse can. A master story teller, Jesus drew from the familiar. Most of his parables arose from everyday life in Palestine. This more fanciful tale he adapted to his purposes from an Egyptian folk tale of the afterlife. It is not meant to be a theological expository on the nature of Heaven and Hell – the story is not really about heaven and hell at all. It’s about seeing. It’s about relationship – with God, with neighbor. This is, in a way, Christendom’s original Pearly Gates joke.
You may have heard this more modern Pearly Gates story. In our changing climate, floods are becoming ever more common. The flood waters rose in the community of a devout Christian man. He went to his roof and he prayed, “Heavenly Father, help me.” A family in a rowboat came by and offered him room in their boat. “No. Thank you, kind neighbor, but my faith will save me.” The flood waters rose, and he climbed to the peak of his roof. “Heavenly Father, the flood waters are rising, help me.” Just as it seemed he would be washed away a rescue boat noticed him and offered him safety. “No. Thank you, kind neighbor, but my faith will save me.” Finally he was washed away, but he managed to grab a tree as the waters rushed by. A helicopter spotted him and came to pick him up. Again, the faithful man clung to his prayer and his faith. “No. Thank you, kind neighbor, but my faith will save me.” He died. When he came to the Pearly Gates he approached St. Peter – Maybe it was Father Abraham? – and said, “I was a good Christian man. I gave to the church. I said my prayers. I clung to my faith. Why did God not save me?” Said Father Abraham, “He sent you two boats and a helicopter. What more did you want?”
God sent us Moses, the prophets, sent us his Son. He daily sends us opportunities to see, to listen, to act, but all we see is the floodwater of poverty. We cling to what we know. We hide our eyes.
800 million people, 11% of the people in the world are immediately vulnerable to climate change impacts – drought, floods, extreme weather changes. 1 in 10 people live at altitudes at relatively immediate threat by rising sea levels. In the U.S., the wealthiest nation in the world, nearly 15 percent – some 40 million people – struggle to put food on the table. 12 million of these hungry ones are children. 25% of Native Americans live in poverty. Nearly 2.5 million preventable deaths of children under the age of 5 every year—are related to malnutrition. (Bread for the World.) Ecologically and economically irresponsible practices of the rich impact the very poor dramatically more than anyone else. The numbers are absolutely overwhelming. The immensity of the chasm between the world as it is and the world as it should be is enormous. We become inured to tragedy, to poverty, to hunger. We don’t see anymore.
Jesus gives Lazarus a name. Lazarus is not one in 10 or one of 800 million people or part of 25%. Lazarus is Lazarus. Neighbor to the rich man. Jesus describes no malevolence in the rich man. He lived in his fine house with his fine clothes and ate his fine food. Jesus convicts him of nothing worse than living the American dream 1700 years before America existed to live it in. We don’t know that he abused Lazarus. He didn’t see Lazarus. The rich man built the chasm between them, a chasm constructed of indifference, an indifference so profound it persisted even in death – send him with father, send him to my brothers – the demand of a master, not an equal.
A first century Palestinian would not have been inclined to see the rich man as evil. Their culture taught them that reward follows virtue. Rich = Righteous. A diseased or poverty stricken person must have sinned, or had parents who did. We are not so different. Jesus doesn’t tell us if Lazarus drank his last pay. He doesn’t tell us if Lazarus got sacked for showing up to work late. He doesn’t tell us if Lazarus lived too long on his parents’ good will or gambled away the family livestock. He doesn’t say. It doesn’t matter. He is suffering. He is our neighbor.
Although our culture tells us that we cannot have enough – enough money, enough power, enough security, enough stuff – for the most part, we are rich. Some have more monetary wealth than others to be sure, but by virtue of the fact that we have clean water and heat in the winter and food on our tables, we are rich. And yet, we do not have to be the rich man. We can open our eyes and see the need outside our gates. We can painstakingly demolish the chasm. We can set our hopes not on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God. We can be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share. We can take hold of the life that really is life. The poor, the suffering, the marginalized – they have names. They are our neighbors. Sweet holy God, open our eyes to see your work in the world around us: the work you have done. The work we must, must do! AMEN
PROPER 20, C, 2019
Sometimes words just sound biblical. Even if you cannot place the phrase chapter and verse, it seems nonetheless biblicalish: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.” “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud.” “This too shall pass.” “The Lord moves in mysterious ways.” You don’t have to know chapter and verse to know the source. In case you, like me, like most Episcopalians, don’t know chapter and verse of every bible quote someone spits out, the first is from John 3:8; the second from Romans 12:16. No one quite knows where the third is from, but it’s not actually in the Bible. The notion of its biblicalness can be traced to football coach Mike Ditka’s misquote at his press conference after the Chicago Bears fired him. As to the last, The Lord moves in mysterious ways – we actually have poet and hymnodist William Cowper rather than Jesus to thank for that one. From Jesus we have instead, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into their eternal homes”, Given everything that Jesus teaches before and after, this sounds not only NOT biblical, but mysterious indeed.
This parable follows the lost chapter we discussed last week – the lost coin, the lost sheep and the prodigal son. If you read a half a dozen commentaries on this parable, you will find at least a dozen interpretations of it. It’s that baffling. We’ve gone from the lost chapter to the insoluble parable. For the moment, we are going to resist the temptation to assume that Jesus sprained a parable spinning muscle with the Prodigal Son and simply went wildly astray with this story. We are going to further, for the moment, put aside the attractive idea that the meticulous Luke got his notes out of order somehow. Finally, we are going to reject the simple and entirely plausible notion that some scribe some time in history overindulged in mead before reaching this page and in an alcoholic haze inadvertently altered the sacred word forever. Eliminating these explanations leaves us with one simple question, “Huh?” Is Jesus really telling us to cheat and steal our way into eternal life?
If all else fails, take a look at the context. Back we go to Jewish first century Palestine. The torah forbids charging interest due to its exploitative nature. Respectable people (like the manager’s rich master, for example) must abide by the letter of that law. Abiding by the letter of the law is what respectable people do. Ah, but a person’s got to make a living, right? Witness the attitude Amos illustrates in our first lesson today: Can’t work on the Sabbath? When will worship end so we can get back to selling? Not making a profit? Change the value of the ephah and the shekel, the currency. Torah says you can’t charge interest? You get around that law by rolling the number that would have been interest into the total debt. No itemized bill, no interest – sort of like adding the gratuity to the bill for large parties in a restaurant. And while it wasn’t technically interest, it was a standardized rate – higher for the more risky commodities, lower for more stable things. Olive oil, which can spill or go rancid, fetched 50% price hike. “Take your hundred jug bill and make it 50.” The more stable wheat fetched 20%. You owe 100 containers of wheat? Make it 80. (source: Alyce McKenzie, The Dishonest Steward: Reflections on Luke 16:2-8a) While the steward’s motives are far from philanthropic, he gives back to the debtors only what they should never have owed. What they could never keep up with. What kept them perpetually beholden. The steward forgives their debts -forgives their debts in the name of the Master. Suddenly it seems bit more biblical.
Rather than bemoaning his losses, the master commends the manager – possibly for finally showing the cleverness the master thought he was hiring in the first place. Still we wait for Jesus to tell us why the manager was wrong, how the master was duped. We are respectable Christians following respectable rules doing our respectable Christian thing. Surreptitiously redistributing the wealth of others is more Robin Hood than Jesus. But forgiveness – that is Jesus. That is so very Jesus.
Anglican scholar Sarah Dylan Breuer explains it this way,
“FORGIVE,” Jesus says. “Forgive it all. Forgive it now. Forgive it for any reason you want, or for no reason at all. Forgive even someone who’s sinned against you, or against your sense of what is obviously right. You don’t have to do it out of love for the other person, if you’re not there yet. You could forgive the other person because that’s what you pray in Jesus’ name every Sunday morning, and because you know you’d like forgiveness yourselves. You could forgive because you know what it feels like to stay unforgiving, the bad taste of bitterness festering inside you. You could forgive because you are, or we want to be, deeply in touch with a sense of Jesus’ power to forgive and free sinners like us. Or you could forgive because you think it will improve your odds of getting to heaven.
It boils down to the same thing: deluded or sane, selfish or unselfish, there is no bad reason to forgive. Imagine how extending the kind of grace God shows us into every possible arena – financial and moral – can only put us more deeply in touch with God’s grace. (Sarah Dylan Breuer, SarahLaughed.net: dylan’s lectionary blog, Proper 20, Year C)
Fr. Robert Capon (Kingdom, Grace, Judgement: Paradox, Outrage and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus) makes the case that although we – and by “we” I mean the church; the fine, upstanding, respectable church – that although we cannot resist the urge to gussy up Jesus, to make him respectable and clean and pretty, Jesus tells this parable precisely to illustrate that He most definitively, deliberately, decidedly is not respectable. He broke the sabbath and ate with sinners and disrupted worship and overturned the money tables and was executed as a criminal. He’s not respectable. He’s down and dirty and real.
According to Fr. Capon, “The unique contribution of this parable to our understanding of Jesus is its insistence that grace cannot come to the world through respectability. Respectability regards only life, success, winning; it will have no truck with the grace that works by death and losing–which is the only grace there is.”
I don’t believe that Jesus intends us to steal. He was pretty insistent a number of times about that whole 10 commandments thing. But he does expect us to throw off the yoke of respectable, predictable behavior, to creatively challenge the status quo of power and wealth differential, to forgive radically – no matter who might be looking or what they might think. As Mother Theresa reminded her nuns, “In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”
“You cannot serve God and wealth.” You cannot serve the status quo and forgive. You cannot serve Christ and respectability.
To paraphrase William Purkey:
You’ve gotta serve like there’s nobody watching,
Forgive like you’ve never been hurt,
Pray like God’s always listening,
And live to bring heaven on earth.
PROPER 19, CLuke 15:1-10
“Let anyone with ears to hear listen” says Jesus to close out Luke’s Chapter 14. And then, “All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus”. And here we sit complete with our own faults and frailties, our own silent acquiescence to the status quo, our own moments of smug self satisfaction, at home with the tax collectors and the sinners and the grumbling pharisees and scribes, listening to the “The Lost Chapter” of Luke. The entirety of this chapter consists of parables about lost things. The most famous of all lost and found stories, the Prodigal Son, rounds out the chapter after the parables Mel just read.
Everybody knows the story of the Prodigal Son, but I really love these two parables. Lost is a quality I can identify with. I possess what may well be – and I don’t mean to brag here, but we are in a time and a place for truth telling – I possess what may be the world’s most impressively, mind bogglingly, abysmal sense of direction; an absolutely uncanny ability to get lost.
Within the last couple of years my brother taught me a life altering trick – you can tap on an address on a smart phone. If your phone is in the mood, it will offer to give you step by step directions about how to get to your destination. This is miraculous, although the pesky thing does keep saying things like, “go north to highway 100”, or “head west 200 feet to 3rd Street”. Understand, if I can’t physically see Canada or witness a sunset in real time, I don’t know North from West. This limits the utility of the phone’s function outside of waterfront I Falls. Still, most of the time with a smart phone I can get anyplace I can google.
15 years before Google existed and closer to 30 years before I bought a smartphone, I unofficially tagged along with my brother’s Explorer post for a backpacking trip in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming. Dad served as a volunteer leader. He and I had been hiking together for a while. We shared the weight. He carried the tent. I carried the fly and ground tarp. He had the food and matches. I had the clean-up stuff and spices. I had short little legs (even shorter back then than they are now), so I hiked slower than my father and brother and my brother’s long-legged friends. The trail travelled mostly downhill that afternoon, making for a spot 9000 some feet above sea level called Teepee Pole flats. We all started off at the same time down the back country trail, but the other hikers soon hiked out of my sight. I toddled along at my own pace, lost in my own little world, alternately enjoying the scenery and cursing the rocks and branches in the trail.
As the day wore on, the grade of the trail evened out. Flat ground replaced the steady downhill. I eventually reached a subtle little carved sign. Teepee Pole Flats. Our destination. Except I was alone. Everybody else had been ahead of me, but I.was.alone. Maybe a scampering marmot shared my space, some buzzing insects. But no human. I hiked on a short ways. Hiked back. Read the sign again. Drank some water. Peered up the trail. And back. Remembered I wasn’t carrying the food. Or the main part of the tent. Or matches. Read the sign again. Teepee Pole Flats.
Finally my father and brother came busting down the trail with some speed, wearing facial expressions ranging from concerned to determined to grim; expressions which transformed to relief and sheer joy when they saw me inexplicably in the right place. They too remembered I did not have a tent, or food, or matches, and had remembered also the sheer scale of the country we traversed. I learned later that the trail had several turn offs. For anyone with a functioning sense of direction other trails seemed far more logical ones to follow. With no sense of direction to hamper my way, I mindlessly put one foot in front of the other all the way down the mountainside. I arrived at the designated spot first, complete with confirmatory signpost, but I cannot explain how very lost I felt.
C.H. Dodd wrote nearly a century ago that “A parable arrests the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaves the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought” (Parables of the Kingdom, 1935:16). The moral of this story, Jesus says, is “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents”. So we happily make God into shepherd or housewife, and take on the role of sheep or coin, sought after and valued by God, as long as we repent and turn back again into the right way. Problem is, that coin, did not repent. My guess, the sheep didn’t either. That sheep mindlessly put one foot in front of the other until it found itself without ovine company. They, the coin and the sheep, were found because somebody wanted them found, insisted that they be found. And it is comforting, I guess, to think that our God will find us, our Savior save us even if we just sit around mindlessly sheeping. It’s comforting, but it puts me back at TP Pole flats, helplessly staring at the sign, wondering what to DO.
Which of you, Jesus says, “having a hundred sheep?” Not which of you buried in dust bunnies under the bed, or bleating alone in the countryside, but which of you having a hundred sheep or 10 coins. To imagine ourselves, not as bleating ruminant, nor as missing currency, but as trustworthy shepherd, as the diligent housekeeper, that puts the emphasis of the parable on a different syllable completely.
In this case, as Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Repentance is not the issue, but rejoicing; the plot is not about mending our evil ways, but about seeking, sweeping, finding, rejoicing. The invitation is not about being rescued by Jesus over and over again, but about joining him in rounding up God’s herd and reviving God’s treasure. It is about questioning the idea that there are certain conditions the lost must meet before they are eligible to be found, or that there are certain qualities they must exhibit before we will seek them out. It is about discovering the joy of finding.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life). It’s about finding and building and rejoicing in God and all God’s creation.
The 13th century Sufi mystic, Rumi, said, “What you seek is seeking you.”
We are sought and we are seeker. We are lost and we are found, shepherd and sheep, lover and beloved. We can rest in Christ’s peace and still reach out to welcome the lost. We can be co-creators of love in this world (paraphrased from Fr. Richard Rohr), sweeping every corner for the lost, the lonely, the frightened – and all this because of the crazy, mixed up, insane, upside down abundance of life and joy that is God among us.
Thanks be to God! Amen.