Tuesday, August 31, 2010


(A sermon preached on Proverbs 25:6-7 and Luke 14:1, 7-14 at All Saints' Littleton & St. Matthew's Chapel, Sugar Hill, NH on 8/29/2010)

“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11)

Humility has traditionally been lifted up as the greatest of all virtues. Scriptures abound praising the virtue of humility: scriptures from our tradition and from numerous others.

I thought it would be wise then, to find out as much as I could about humility...so I can help us all get on board with being more humble.

Of course, I’m joking, but I do mean to suggest how elusive humility is...

In Webster’s online thesaurus, I found a good definition:

Humility: the absence of any feelings of being better than others humility, the peace activist accepted the Nobel Prize on behalf of all who have worked to end the violence>

But I was shocked by most of the synonyms and so called “related words”:

Demureness, lowliness, meekness, compliance, deference, resignedness, submissiveness; naïveté, simpleness; bashfulness, shyness, timidness.

It almost seems like there’s a serious backlash towards humility: that practicing this virtue is something that is not just undervalued in our culture, but even despised.

Perhaps this is in part because these words have been historically associated with the “proper” way for women to act in many societies.

Certainly humility has been used in a negative way to subject and put down, but this does not seem to be the basis of the word in its value as a virtue or it’s use in the lectionary this morning.

So let’s move on to what might be our shortest lectionary reading, (Proverbs 25:6-7):

Do not put yourself forward in the king's presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, "Come up here," than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.

The Proverb is advice on how to keep from being humbled: put down in the presence of others.

Being humbled in this way is humiliating, embarrassing, shameful, and often anger producing.

But being “humbled” by someone (or something) in this way rarely teaches us anything about humility.

I’ll move now to the Gospel: Jesus is dining with the Pharisees, and he witnesses the political power games being played around the table. Everyone is angling for the best seats: the position of honor.

Think first class on an airplane...box seats at the theater...the picture window of a restaurant....anywhere but the front few rows of church....

So Jesus’ sharp mind thinks of the Proverb saying, and twists it a bit to fit the occasion. I imagined that Jesus had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek when he said this:

"When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you."

I can just see the comedy of the Pharisees fighting over the lower places at the table, fueled by the secret desire to be put in the place of honor in front of everyone.

But seriously, how often does this happen? When have you heard of someone with say and authority coming around and saying: “Oh, this place won’t do for you, it’s not enough! Come up here to the place of honor. Take notice everyone!!! By the way, you deserve a raise....”

Following Jesus’ advice is clearly not a path by which to get you noticed by the boss, be it God or otherwise.

But is there more to Jesus’ words than irony? Could it still be that his words pointed to a path of humility?

I once asked a friend, health and spirituality writer Caren Goldman, about humility, citing the Gospel story.

She wrote back:

“Can one wake up and say: "I think I'll be humble today" and really be someone who is "humble?" Or is true humility something that is a result of being, instead of consciously doing?”

I think she’s right. Think about it this way: we seldom even talk about being humble, much less choose to become humble, in part because talking about being humble, is, ironically, usually not a humble thing to do. We know humility when we see it, we know it’s good to be humble, but it’s hard to even engage humility without seeming self-serving, which is DEFINATELY not being humble.

The pursuit of humility is almost always ego driven. Your motivations make it near impossible. Even if you’re successful for a moment, you likely to find yourself saying inwardly, "Wow: I'm being humble. I wonder if anyone noticed.” Or even, “Hey, I’m good at being humble. In fact, I'm MUCH more humble than your average person. Maybe I should teach a class on humility.” (adapted from Sarah Dylan Brauer)

These examples are humorous but potentially dangerous ways of falling into pride while attempting to be humble. But there is an equally dangerous path: attempting to be humble by always self-sacrificing. That line of thinking sets you up into believing that you can humble yourself into God’s good graces: that somehow by always punishing and denying yourself you’ll somehow please God, which is not only painful, but is ultimately an ego driven way of life as well.

Real humility is very rare: the people remembered for it are few and far between.

Mother Teresa is a universal example of great example of someone who truly lived with great humility.

I’ve read that Mother Teresa worked daily at being gentle and loving people amidst her faithful work. From what I can tell, she struggled at times, but I also believe that she was special in her gift of humility.

Witnessing her humility calls me to new consciousness and accountability for my own actions.

But, the truth is, I can’t simply choose to be humble like her: my best attempts would still be ego driven.

My friend Caren went on to suggest, “Perhaps the best we can do is what Jesus ultimately asks in this and other stories: what happens when we move beyond ego?”

I think she’s right again. Jesus seems to understand that the ego drives us to make choices that may not be in our best interest spiritually or otherwise.

It also seems clear that our ego makes it really difficult to walk a path of humility.

So perhaps this is what Jesus is up to in this morning’s reading. Instead of saying, “be humble,” he suggests a sincere path where one can experience humility.

Let’s imagine one of the people sitting at the table heard Jesus' story and took it seriously. Imagine one guy, I’ll call him Roger, who had been fighting to get somewhere for quite sometime. Roger had been trying to make something of himself for numerous reasons: success, money, self-worth. and to move up in his circles. But he was weary of fighting: and was feeling empty, underappreciated, forgotten, and alone. Roger hears Jesus’ parable and decides to give it a try. At meetings, he takes the open seat nobody really wants. In the lunchroom, he sits down at a table without any “high powered people” at it. He becomes more generous with his thoughts and observations, and doesn’t worry and get angry when someone else uses them or even tries to take credit for them.

He doesn’t suddenly get promoted, and he doesn’t get called out and honored in front of others. And yet Roger starts to change: his inner stress is somehow lessened, and his tendency to suddenly get angry with others over little stuff mostly vanishes. Roger discovers new joys in the everyday, where all he used to do was worry about being good enough, and never truly feeling like he was.

One day, it happens. Roger’s going about his day, and someone, out of the blue, says to him: “Roger, I’m so glad you’re here. Not only do you get your work done, but you seem to enjoy what you’re doing. Your joy is wonderfully contagious. Thanks for making my day better.”

The swell in Roger’s heart is a strange mixture: a touch of pride, a heap of gratitude, and an overall sense that he doesn’t really deserve that much kindness, or at least not anymore than the next person.

And, lo and behold, Roger has experienced humility.

What practices might ultimately put you in a place where you can experience and be transformed by true humility?

Kinder, gentler driving habits? Resisting the urge of using biting sarcasm? Listening more closely to someone even if you think you already know what they’re talking about?

There might be lots of little things that each one of us can do to better place ourselves in situations where humility shines, in others and in ourselves.

But I want to draw your attention to one last thing.

The most powerful example I can think of concerning humility is Mary saying yes to God.

Don’t assume that opportunities to move towards humility are limited to stepping back or moving aside. It takes an incredible amount of humility to allow yourself to be open to change.

The greatest leaders say yes to God by taking a chance in walking a new path. They open themselves up to criticism: allowing themselves to be scrutinized and picked apart, and despite all of the attention that is focused on them, they remained awed to be part of something bigger than themselves, and grateful just to be so blessed.

For Christians, saying yes to God means that it is your ego that steps aside, and doing so allows Jesus to sweep you into the whirlwind that is God’s Spirit. And it’s from within this Sprit that we truly experience humility.

So, this is the question this morning: What is God calling you to say yes to?

For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Glee Fest

I just returned from my parents house, and a Glee Fest!!!

Every time I return for extended time with my parents (at least three nights), my mom and I usually have a marathon session of “thoughtful television,” often an entire season of something on DVD.

Since I am often exploring the intersection of Popular Culture, Religion and Ethics, I discover (much later than many people) that there are particular shows with a lot to say. Nothing’s better than sharing these shows with someone you care about (poor Darlene, my wife, is subjected to many a TV show and DVD purchase).

Since I don’t make it back to Chicagoland that often, my mom gets to watch the best of the lot. If she takes a liking to the first episode or two, we’re off to the races. (Truth be told, it was my sister, and then my mom, who introduced ME to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, arguably the best of these shows in the last 20 years).

Last time, mom and I made it through the entire series of Firefly (sadly easy to do, thanks a lot FOX!!!) This time, we watched my new favorite show, Glee. My mom loved the show.

What was shocking, however, was that my dad watched every episode with us. My dad usually falls asleep within the first 10 minutes of a TV show or movie. The few times he actually drifted off, he actually got upset with himself for missing some of the show!

The singing talent of the cast Glee is undeniable: from entertaining solos to the heartfelt ensemble numbers.

What makes Glee for me, however, is the compelling storylines and characters.

Take, for instance, the character Kurt, and his father, Bert Hummel. After Mr. Hummel’s first appearance, a verbally rough encounter with his son, my dad exclaimed “what a jerk.” Little did he know that we, the audience, were being set up for a breaking of a stereotype... The powerful scene where Kurt comes out to his dad is such a wonderful surprise. Glee certainly uses stereotypes, but sometimes in unexpected ways. After the unexpected happens, you realize the complexity of the character, so the results feel true.

It’s not a perfect show. Terri Schuester was completely overdone (both in acting and dialogue). While I think it’s great that the wise Mr. Shue has faults and doesn’t always say the right thing, I think he’s a little too clueless regarding some of the trouble he gets leading Emma on during the first half of the season.

The rewards however, the characters interactions with one another, along with the clear cost of keeping secrets from those you care about, make Glee’s faults well worthwhile.

The episode that truly won me over, however, was Wheels. The subject was insensitivity. The initial focus was Artie and his wheelchair. The episode demonstrates well how good people can be so sensitive in one case, and clueless in another (the kids reaction to Artie, Mr. Shue’s reaction to Kurt singing a girl’s part, and Artie’s obsession with Tina’s stutter). The episode is weaved together wonderfully.

Yet perhaps the best part of Wheels is that Sue Sylvester’s humanity is finally shown. Sue is a great villian. People just love despising her, thanks to clever writing and great acting. But with “bad guys”, I always want to see some complexity. I want to understand why they are who they are, and my favorite villains have the potential for redemption on some level. This episode contained the first sign of such a thing in Sue. She didn’t instantly become likeable: in fact, she even became more deplorable. But this example of her humanity was not lost by the writers, and the later payoffs have been powerful. (Don’t worry Glee fans, I’m sure we’ll get more of delightfully horrible Sue next season!!!)

Ultimately, Glee is a show about joy, self-worth, friendship, mentoring, leadership, and fidelity. In my opinion, it is hands down the best show currently on television, and I look forward to bringing another season home to my parents, (but my hunch is, by then, they will have already watched it!)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The time is now

(A sermon preached on Luke 13:10-17 at the church where I grew up,St. Andrews' Episcopal in Downers Grove IL, the morning AFTER my 20th High School Reunion!)

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18:19)

According to the Gospel of Luke, these are the words that Jesus used when he returned to the synagogue in his home town. The Gospel tells us that all spoke well of him, and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. However, moments later, those who heard Jesus speak were ready to throw him off a cliff.

Words of warning for any preacher returning to his hometown…

Even those of you who do not know me have likely figured out that I am the son of Kurt & Mary Ann Wiesner, who have been members of this congregation for almost 39 years. I am in town for my 20th High School reunion from Downers Grove North, which was held last night. I am honored to be with you this morning (but would be lying if I told you that I wasn’t a little tired...)

I bring you greetings from the people of All Saints’ Littleton, the Diocese of New Hampshire, and my bishop, Gene Robinson, whose name you may recognize....

There’s always an increase of passion one way or another at my bishop’s mention, and many people want to know what it’s like with him as the bishop. What’s hard for the rest of the world to understand is that for Episcopalians in New Hampshire, he’s just our bishop. By “just”, I mean he is like any good bishop: his primary concern is our joys and struggles as people who are trying to live faithful, communal lives in Christ. He may have rock star status, seeing pictures of him with Obama and Bono makes this clear, but first and foremost, he is Gene, our bishop.

It’s great to be able to preach among friends and family that I grew up with. My first priest was George Williams. George Deatrick led my confirmation class. When, as an 18 year old, I felt a call to ordained ministry, the first person I went to talk to was Jim Leswing. I sang under the direction of Kathy & Karen’s mother, Georgette Reims. And, as a child, I learned what it meant to be a “high church Episcopalian”, dedication to beautiful ritual and the pursuit of social justice, from the slightly intimidating, but truly gentle Ralph Shaw. These are only a few of the many memories I have from growing up among the people of St. Andrews’.

I’m a little nervous morning, perhaps in part from so much past connection, but also due to the many words of warning from Jesus and others about returning to publicly speak in one’s home town. However, that’s not the real reason I brought up the words Jesus used in his home synagogue.

Each Gospel has a theme: an overarching purpose to Jesus’ ministry. For example, in the Gospel of Mark, it’s the Kingdom of God coming near, repentance, and belief in the Good News (Mark 1:15). For Luke, it’s these words from his 4th chapter that I’ll say again:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18:19)

It is my opinion that we are to keep these words in mind as we explore the Gospel of Luke. They are the setting and primary back story of every interaction of Jesus’ ministry.

In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue. He sees a woman who is in captivity. Her ailment is not life threatening per se; she has learned to live with it for the last 18 years. Emile Townes writes:

For eighteen years, this unnamed woman must strain to see the sun, the sky, and the stars. For eighteen years she has become accustomed to looking down or just slightly ahead but never upwards without difficulty. For eighteen years her world has been one of turning from side to side to see what those who stand upright can see with just a glance. She is used to this, and no one questions her fate.” (In Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., p. 382)

Jesus, however, sees her, and calls her to him. “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” He lays his hands on her, and she immediately stands up straight.

What follows is indignation from the synagogue leader. We are told that he is angry that Jesus has cured on the Sabbath. What he does, however, is so classic: instead of going after Jesus, he verbally attacks those who would be healed by Jesus. “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.”

Perhaps there’s a part of him that is jealous of Jesus, and perhaps his underlying motivation is the question of who has power. However, it’s worth noting a few things. He recognizes that clearly Jesus does have the power to heal, and he also sees Jesus’ interaction with the woman as work. I’d even go further and say that he would call it good work. His anger with Jesus comes not from the healing action, but that Jesus does not follow the established rules.

I think that it’s in our best interest to realize that this synagogue leader is likely not a bad man. It is his belief that he’s doing what is right by following the traditions in place. I can imagine his argument: we have a rule to honor God by observing the Sabbath day and keeping it holy. Work can wait until tomorrow. Sure, we can act in an emergency, but where do we draw the line in granting exception to the faithful following of an observation so that its keeping doesn’t become arbitrary and it loses its power and meaning?

Kate Huey writes that:

“You can feel the tension here between two faithful Jewish men who are both struggling with what it means to be faithful. The religious leader isn't mean-spirited; he's trying to press his case for obedient faithfulness. And so is Jesus. They both want to observe the Sabbath, but they don't agree about how to keep it. Jesus says the time for salvation isn't tomorrow; it's right now, no matter what day it is. In fact, maybe Sabbath is the perfect time for healing!”

We often connect the Sabbath with God’s resting on the seventh day of creation in the opening story of Genesis. However, David Lose suggests that Deuteronomy 5 links the Sabbath to the Exodus; that is, it links Sabbath to freedom, to liberty, to release from bondage and deliverance from captivity.

Lose thinks that this is this tradition that Jesus is tapping into:

(Jesus) reminds his listeners of other instances of when releasing, untying, and setting free is allowed by law and then characterizes the woman's ailment as being "bound by Satan."

Of course it is permissible to set someone free on the Sabbath, Jesus seems to say, for the Sabbath is all about freedom. The Sabbath Day – whether the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday or the Christian day of rest and worship on Sunday – reminds us...all of us, that we too have been captive and were set free, and therefore invites us to look around and see who else might still be bound and waiting for release.”

I think this is what Jesus ultimately means by “proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.” This is Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God.

The link to the kingdom of God is actually spelled out in the verses that follow this morning’s passage. Verse 18 continues:

(Jesus) said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” (Luke 13:18-21)

Jesus, throughout his ministry, proclaims the coming of the kingdom of God: found in surprising and often ordinary places like the common mustard seed or yeast. When someone…anyone…takes the action needed: the planting of the seed, the mixing with flour, or the setting free of someone in bondage, the kingdom of God draws nearer. Sometimes this happens in the framework of our rules and traditions, but often we encounter the kingdom of God in a way that counters our expectations: challenging our way of doing things. This can be a hard thing to handle, and sometimes good people react badly, like this morning’s synagogue leader.

As the kingdom of God breaks through into our world, encountering places of brokenness and in need of healing, we are called to recognize it as it takes shape in ways we may have never considered.

I believe that this is what God yearns for, and dreams for us. We are all called to actively be part of this vision: to be open to experiencing the kingdom of God, thankful that it is unfolding in both old and new ways, and willing to do our share of the work to make it a reality.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What's American?

"Like President George W. Bush before him, President Obama warned against linking all followers of Islam to terrorists. “Al Qaeda’s cause is not Islam — it is a gross distortion of Islam,” he rightly said. It is our tolerance of others, he said, “that quintessentially American creed,” that stands in contrast to the nihilism of those who attacked us on Sept. 11, 2001."

From the New York Times op-ed.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


(A sermon preached on Luke 12:49-56 at All Saints' Littleton, NH on 8/15/2010)

This morning’s Gospel lesson is not a pleasant passage of scripture to deal with. It often appears at inopportune times, and ultimately gets used to justify all sorts of bad behavior.

Case in point. I follow a website via Facebook called Beliefnet. It is an interfaith website that offers daily inspiration with news articles on faith, religion, health, and more. It offers good op-eds, and provokes thoughtful questions for people of all faiths.

For the start of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting and prayer where Muslims seek forgiveness and a faithful renewal, Beliefnet offered an article, written by a Muslim, called “21 Ways to be a Better Muslim.” The list of 21 is a normal feature of Beliefnet, and, after a brief description of why it’s important for Muslims to seek to improve themselves, goes on to list things like “rejoice in the light of God’s love”, “establish daily prayer,” and “reach out to your neighbors with kindness.”

Almost instantly upon it’s posting, people that later identified themselves as Christians starting writing:

Why is this on here? Are you kidding me???? You are kidding right??????? BE A BETTER MUSLIM???? GET OUT OF DENIAL. DO THEY CARE ABOUT OUR OBSERVANCES???

They started bringing up 9/11 and the treatment of women in Islamic countries, and, as the final argument, that American is a Christian nation.

The reaction is not unrelated to what is happening throughout the country, and not just near Ground Zero. People throughout America are protesting wherever new Mosques and Islamic culture centers are proposed. The arguments are familiar: not in my neighborhood, stop rewarding those responsible for terror, and that this should not happen in America.

Returning to the post on Ramadan, others, including me, responded with words about tolerance, an open mind, and reminders that Beliefnet is an Interfaith, not a Christian website. Those who responded sought to remind people that the acts of extremists do not represent a religion, that America is built in a large part on freedom of religion, and, of course, that Christians are called by Jesus to love and kindness, and not to hate.

Perhaps because it was on my mind in my sermon preparation, but I kept waiting for someone to bring up this scripture, or something like it, as proof for their negative comments. No one on the website mentioned this week’s text, but I for one can imagine how easily it could have been used to justify the negative reactions.

In truth, this morning’s text, and others like it, causes a great deal of confusion. We hear week after week about Jesus’ message of love and inclusion that is found throughout the Gospels. However, when we get words from Jesus like this, we are often unprepared, and wonder what is going on.

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Lk 12:51-53)

The relationships that one would assume would be closer and more loving thanks to Jesus’ presence, are instead, fractured.

(Quick aside: I have to admit, after 35 some years observations, I sort of laugh at the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law inclusion. Maybe Jesus should of left that one alone as an example of a surprising source of conflict. Oh well.)

We are called to attempt to discern Jesus’ point in all of this; taking into account ALL that Jesus has said before reaching a conclusion that, in truth, will likely be far from complete.

With this in mind, let’s turn to what the text doesn’t mean.

First off, I don’t believe for a second that this is a convenient out for having to treat one another in a generous, loving way. I don’t believe that this passage is to illustrate the way that differing religions are to relate to one another.

I am also unconvinced in the interpretation that the message is that Jesus should be “loved more” than those we traditionally love (this is more from the hating mother, father, brother and sister version of the saying, but one can see that parallels).

Ok, the easy part...what it isn’t, is out of the way. Now the hard part: what might this mean?

I think that this is a warning for those who would follow Jesus. Perhaps it can be illustrated by a quick story I encountered from Andrew Prior on his website.

A lecturer at Agricultural College (in Australia) said he had once casually asked a student if he was going back on the farm after university to take over from Dad.

The young man replied, “Well, Grandpa hasn’t let Dad have a go at running the farm yet.”

This quick one liner illustrates a structure of power that is still found today in many families.

John Dominic Crossan notes that the emphasis in the Gospel lesson is on generations rather than gender (“father against son, son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”). He suggests that the reign of God’s love tears families apart along the axis of power, particularly power that is abused as parental power has often done. (Quoted by John Shearman in Prior’s blog post)

Think about it this way: So often in families, we are told that we have to preserve peace at all costs. The problem is, what society often refers to as “peace” is often putting up with the current divisions of power, keeping one’s mouth shut, fitting in, and not questioning out loud.

William Loder writes:

‘Peace at all costs’ has no place here. That kind of harmony gilds oppression with respectability and rewards wrong. Instead we face a full scale conflict, taken right into the heart of human formation: the family. The family is being dethroned from its absolute claims....Jesus is confronting the gods of family and warning that this is very dangerous territory.

It was not that Jesus sought to subvert families as such. It was rather that he espoused a vision of God and God’s agenda for change which often stood in direct conflict with other absolute claims, like wealth, possessions, land, culture, religion and family. He appears to have deliberately encouraged some to dislocate by leaving behind the claims of their local communities, clan, and family. Like him they traveled with him as a kind of entourage of protest against the prevailing systems. But he also encouraged others who stayed where they were to put the kingdom first. Everything else has its place but falls into proper perspective when the ‘God part’ is taken care of. That is not a guarantee of peace and harmony, but an involvement in change which will have its own rewards. It will encounter resistance and rejection from the powerbrokers of the gods of family and tradition.”

This morning’s Gospel is not an invitation to provoke others, or permission to demean those that follow a different path. Instead, it voices a reality that following Jesus will likely upset business as usual, especially along the established lines of wealth, power, and custom, and it is not surprising to expect that these divisions will especially cause friction among those in close relationship.

Andrew Prior writes:

The heart of human formation, in the beginning, is the family, nuclear or not. It is there we begin to learn, and are first injured. The freedom the gospel offers us is to step out of that family, and place the heart of our formation in the hands of God....

...we come to follow Jesus, seeking peace, justice, and the kingdom. What does this do, but immediately challenge the power structure to which we formally gave allegiance? How much do we wish for the peace? We may need to endure great and painful division....”

While some of these “painful divisions” may still need to occur in our lives, most of us here today have likely already experienced more than our share of them. It is along lines of religion, sexuality, and family expectations that often today top people’s lists for causing division, but there are surely other places as well. While it is ultimately liberating when we follow where God leads us, some of the places of division in our lives leave faded scars, and others still are open, deep wounds.

In conclusion, I believe that Jesus’ words today call us into action in at least three ways.

We are called to not fear the truth, even if it will upset the understood peace in our lives and in the lives of others.

We are called to be generous, gentle, and patient with each other; as we ourselves walk towards truth, or as we witness others moving or recounting transformation.

And, finally, we are to remember that division does not end love. Coming into conflict with each other, and experiencing division, does not relieve ourselves from the responsibly (and great honor) of being loving as one’s neighbor. It is always within God’s love, that we are ultimately called to see one another.


Monday, August 9, 2010

Faithful Waiting

(A sermon on the RCL Readings for August 8th, preached at All Saints' Episcopal Littleton, NH)

This morning is one of those rare lectionary moments where all of the readings speak to each other with vivid images:

---Abram is assured by God as he looks at the heavens, counting the starts

---faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen

---be dressed for action, with your lamps lit

---the owner of the house misses the thief

The setting for this entire lot of scripture this morning is uncertain times. The place is one of anxiety: ranging from old childless Abram (Genesis 15:1-6), a group of persecuted followers disappointed that Jesus’ return was not imminent (Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16), and a group of disciples disturbed by what Jesus was teaching and concerned about what was to come (Luke 12:32-48).

The overarching message to those who are uncertain (which, in reality, is all of us) is this: do not be afraid. God is gracious. God is loving. God is present. God sees our good intentions. God is architect and builder. And, perhaps most radically: God is coming, and those who are ready will be fed and served by God.

Good news, indeed.

The question for us today, deceptively simple, is this: how are we going to wait?

All of us are waiting for something. The child wants to be older. The student yearns for the day of graduation. The worker strives for the promotion. The couple waits to be parents. The family seeks security. The sick person waits for health to return. The woman turns towards a day of retirement. The man waits to be visited by family. And, finally, the one whose health is fading for the last time, waits to die.

Arriving to the place that we are hoping for may require some action or choices on our part. At the same time, some of what we wait for remains out of our control. The vision of what is to come remains out of focus, and the truth of the matter is that some of what we wait for, for one reason or another, will either not happen, or be so different in reality that we might not recognize it.

Through it all, we are called (by the Hebrew Scriptures, by Paul, and by Jesus) to wait in faith: trusting God as we live our lives.

Now, faith is a rather elusive thing. Paul writes, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

They are beautiful, poetic words which are easily misunderstood.

The problem is, we hear “faith”, and we often think this means being certain. But in truth, perceived certainty is often what counters faith.

In the most extreme example, we’re seen that terrorists are able to do atrocious acts of violence because of their perceived certainty in their rightness. On a lesser extreme, most of us have at one time or another encountered people so “certain” in their faith that they are blinded to love and truth, and consumed by fear and hate.

While it’s easy to point out the extremes, I believe that most of us have areas where we think we have it all figured out, and places where we think that we have nothing left to learn.

It’s usually these “certain places” that get us into trouble.

One such “perceived certainty” is that money gives us security and will protect us. That was the rich man’s folly in last week’s Gospel lesson (Luke 12:13-21).

Money isn’t a bad thing. It can be quite useful for living in today’s world. We tend, however, to become obsessed with acquiring a certain amount, believing that reaching that point will protect and fulfill us. Jesus spends a great deal of time on money and possessions, and our tendency to rely on them.

Money, of course, isn’t the only thing that makes us certain. Some believe that our technology will answer every question. Some believe that our particular talents will always sustain us. Some think that self-denial will make us worthy, and some think our reason will answer every question.

As the Psalm says: “There is no king that can be saved by a mighty army; a strong man is not delivered by his great strength.” (Psalm 33:16)

Good things, when they reach a perceived certainty, become the enemy of faith.

Faith is not certainty. It is not set in stone, nor is something that always seems strong. It is something that demands questioning, openness, and redefining.

So what, then, is faith?

John Shelly writes: “faith is both the gift of God’s unconditional love and the human response of trust and gratitude that issues in deeds of love and justice.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, 2010, p. 330)

I like that so much, that I’m going to repeat it: “Faith is both the gift of God’s unconditional love and the human response of trust and gratitude that issues in deeds of love and justice.”

Returning to the Gospel story, faith is being “dressed for action and having your lamps lit.”

This is another saying that gets us into trouble. “Dressed for action and having your lamps lit” isn’t remaining indefinitely on edge. Constant “level orange” is no way to live. Jesus further says: “If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.” This illustrates the problem: no one can forever stay on watch. Eventually, one will finally fall asleep, and that’s when the thief will come. Holding on to everything too tightly will raise anxiety, cramp your fingers, wear those around you out, and ultimately be fruitless.

Faith that stays alert is, in Gene Lowry’s words, “positioning ourselves to be surprised.” It is an active state of being where we are ready and open to the possibilities of life: ready to be interrupted by God and each other.

David Schlafer writes, “Being “rich towards God” involves a “generosity of spirit” that opens our perceptions toward manifestations of God’s generosity that are always present, but often at the edges of awareness, easily overlooked when focus gets obsessive.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, 2010, p. 330. Gene Lowry's quote comes from Schlafer's article as well.)

Part of faithful waiting is alertness towards God.

Finally, there’s this image of faithful waiting for God as a stranger or foreigner in a strange land. Here lies yet another challenge for us listeners. The tendency is to hear this as suggesting that we don’t belong to this world, leading to an understanding that heaven is all that matters.

The experience of foreigner or stranger (in the Bible, in history, and in my own observations) seems to suggest something more. To be certain, there is a sense of journeying towards an unseen place that truly will be home. But there is also grateful anticipation in the here and now, not just in what is to come. Home is seen not just as the place one is going, but in the actual journey itself. The stranger or foreigner experiences faith and joy not just at a final destination, but in the people and opportunities that present themselves along the road home.

As strangers and foreigners on this journey of life, it is my hope that we see that the uncertainty of our wandering lives is made complete not by arriving to a particular, waited for moment, but by God’s and each other’s faithful presence along upon the way.


Thursday, August 5, 2010

Focus On Greed

(A sermon on the RCL Lectionary readings for August 1st preached at All Saints' Episcopal Littleton, NH)

The topic of the day is clearly greed: all of the readings mention it. The message comes across like a heavy hammer: be on guard for all types of greed.

This morning’s Gospel text in particular reads as a warning for all who hear it. After all: who wants to be called a fool by God?

It also seems to set up the perfect money pitch: David Schlafer offers that many sermons preached on this text today end up with the message “you can’t take with you, so be generous with you assets---especially the church.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, edited by David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor)

While I’m certainly not against generous giving to All Saints’, I’m also not satisfied with this as the overall message of the day.

Schlafer suggests that there’s more as well. He suggests that this morning’s episode is not unlike Martha’s predicament of a few weeks ago (Here's my blog post and the reading from Luke 10:38-42). Martha was “distracted by many things.” In the final analysis, she was in the wrong not because of what she was doing, but because she had lost focus on what was important. (FOW)

It seems to me that Jesus is once again talking about focus: on God, and on each other.

The start of this whole episode is a dispute between brothers. A voice in the crowd shouts out: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” (Luke 12:13-21)

If you think about it, isn’t this a lot like Martha’s plea? “Tell Mary to help me Jesus!” There’s an “if only” quality to it. If only my sister was helping me, all would be right in the world. If only my brother would divide the family possessions with me, we’d have peace and harmony and good will forever.

Jesus’ parable comes in this context. The land of a rich man produced abundantly: so much so that the vast storage resources already in place aren’t large enough to store all of the excess.

Remember Martha’s language from a few weeks ago? “My sister has left me to do all the work by myself. Tell her then to help me.”

The rich man thinks in a similar manner: “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

We can see the rich man’s greed. His focus is clearly off. He offers no thanks to God for his abundance. He attempts to hoard far more than he really needs, going to such lengths as to tear down is ample barns to build larger ones. What’s even worse is that there is no concern for anyone else: no desire to share his abundance with those who are in need.

But perhaps the greatest tragedy is that the rich man believes that his soul will be fed by “having ample goods for many years,” and that the soul’s ultimate desire is to “relax, eat, drink, and be merry.”

This is a seductive and all too easy trap to fall into in our world today. With so many things out there promising to bring us happiness and fulfillment, we can always be wanting and searching for the “if only” that will bring contentment to our souls.

Dramatically, God shows up and reveals the rich man’s folly.

Here is a not so subtle reminder about life’s unexpected twists, and the ultimate reality that our earthly lives will one day reach an end. That reality, however, is not the overarching message this morning. The purpose of this encounter with Jesus is not fear and condemnation, but a gentle (yet urgent) reminder towards the right way to care for our souls.

Last week, we studied Jesus’ answering of the question “teach us how to pray.” We combined the versions of the Lord’s Prayer found in Matthew and Luke:

Hallowed be your name
Your kingdom come
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our debts
As we also have forgiven our debtors
And do not bring us to the time of trial.

This is a foundation for soul care: it is the real message of the day. The power of prayer comes from the connection that it brings us into: relationship with God, and relationship with each other. It focuses on our daily needs, as well as the needs of others: food, forgiveness, and fidelity. These are the things that we ask of God, and these are the keys to living faithfully with one another.

This is the real way we nourish the soul.


Judge rules on California's Proposition 8

Excellent post by Cathy Lynn Grossman (USA Today) on the Proposition 8 ruling from the religious perspective:

The ruling overturning Proposition 8 -- the ban on gay marriage in California -- is a fascinating document. If you have 20 minutes (to read the ruling) you will find Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker's portrait of 21st century marriage will, depending on where you start, cheer or horrify you.

But since F&R focuses on religion, I'll zero in on the relevant quotes in Walker's ruling that address the interests of religious institutions, clergy and believers. You could summarize it pretty quickly, Walker seems to be saying, "'Believers, it's not about you."

The ruling says:

Marriage in the United States has always been a civil matter. Civil authorities may permit religious leaders to solemnize marriages but not to determine who may enter or leave a civil marriage. Religious leaders may determine independently whether to recognize a civil marriage or divorce but that recognition or lack thereof has no effect on the relationship under state law.

Walker also writes,

Proposition 8 does not affect the First Amendment rights of those opposed to marriage for same-sex couples. Prior to Proposition 8, no religious group was required to recognize marriage for same-sex couples.

He cites the California constitution that...

[A]ffording same-sex couples the opportunity to obtain the designation of marriage will not impinge upon the religious freedom of any religious organization, official, or any other person; no religion will be required to change its religious policies or practices with regard to same-sex couples, and no religious officiant will be required to solemnize a marriage in contravention of his or her religious beliefs.

Walker examines about how several major religious groups -- Catholics, Mormons, conservative evangelicals such as the South Baptist Convention, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod -- condemn either homosexual identity or behavior or both, citing documents from the Vatican to denominational resolutions.

But he spells out in all capital letters in the decision:


California's obligation is to treat its citizens equally, not to "mandate [its] own moral code."