Sunday, October 16, 2016

God in the Dark [Proper 24C]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Genesis 32:22-31

God in the Dark

Some people find God in the Light. Some people see God's face in a beautiful sunrise. Some watch the Spirit dance on the golden horizon, all tingly warm embrace, all peace and comfort. But some only seem to encounter God in the dark. Jacob was one of those men.

And in a way, I guess it is fitting. He was the kind of guy who was always on the run, staying in the shadows, like a fox who can't help but feel the warm breath of the hounds. He always heard footsteps. I mean, to be fair, he chose this life. That day he strapped goat skin to his arm – his first great scheme, snatching the blessing from his older brother – there was no going back; he set this course. And in some ways, the treachery and scheming made for him a good life. He did arrive at the Jabbok with his two wives, his two, well, the text says maids, but those maids were more than just maids, they were two of the four mothers of his children, his eleven children, and all of his Father-in-Law's finest sheep – the bounty of yet another devious scheme, once again perpetrated against members of his own family.

But a life of running takes its toll. And so he also arrives at the Jabbok fully aware that the next day could very well be the day of reckoning. For fourteen years, he had lived in this self-imposed exile. But after this night, he would once again see his brother Esau, the brother whose life he had taken, the brother who long ago promised to take Jacob's life in return. Jacob was turning himself in. His life of running was over, that was clear. What was unclear was: would his life be over?

Jacob planned to spend that night alone. He sent his wives, his maids, his children, his possessions, everyone and everything, across the stream. But he stayed, not quite ready to take the next step. I suspect he had a lot on his mind; perhaps he considered running away again – one more time, into the cover of the night. He was alone; everyone else was on the other side; no one would even know until the morning; that's a pretty good head start. There he was: alone in the darkness. Alone, with his past transgressions. Alone, with the uncertainty of his future. Alone, or so he thought.

That night was like back in the beginning – when God was creating and separated the light from the dark. It was that kind of dark. It was the kind of darkness that feels impossibly heavy – like it was pushing down on his chest, fighting against his lungs. It was the kind of darkness that always seems to grow from the seeds of anxiety. The kind that occurs before a dreaded day, before an uncertain future.

His long journey away from and now back to his brother, the years of running that would end with the daybreak, had started in the darkness as well. God met him, back then, in the darkness when he first started running. But that first darkness was different from this, at least it felt different. That was beautiful angels and a ladder to the heavens and the promise of a future; it was God giving him a reason to run into the new light of the morning.

He knew this darkness was different because instead of a head full of lovely dreams, this night offered a headlock. All night long Jacob wrestled and struggled with a mystery. Even the text is confused. The author says “man”; Jacob says “God”. And I suspect no argument could convince him otherwise.

Because that night changed him: body and soul, name and future. His first encounter with God in the dark gave Jacob the strength to run. This encounter with God in the dark ensured he would never run again.

He limped out of that night a new person, reborn in the womb of that dark night. He limped out of that night with this strange blessing. Not all blessings are created equal. Not every blessing is easily recognizable. A displaced hip is not the most obvious blessing, clearly. But his body was broken so that his heart and soul could be healed. Jacob needed that scar to live into the future God wanted for him. He earned that limp. In a previous life he stole a blessing that he did not deserve. But on this night he fought and struggled until he earned that blessing. The first one was cheap; this one, it cost him.

He could have run away from the struggle. God knows that was his history. He could have hid himself in the darkness. He could have slipped the hold and given up. He could let go long before the blessing. But Jacob, all busted hip and desperation, needed something that night; he would not let go without a fight; he would not let go without that blessing.

Jacob limped out of the darkness with a new name. But of course, the name was more than just a name; it was a new identity; it was a God-given future, a destiny. Somehow Jacob was changed in that dark, mysterious encounter. God grabbed a hold of him and he was never the same – and the change was much more than hip-deep.

Jacob is remembered now as one of the great patriarchs; the name bestowed by God in that dark night, Israel, became the name, not only of one man, but of an entire people. He is a legend – but Jacob was no saint. He left in his wake a lifetime of shattered relationships, the product of his dishonesty and trickery and cowardice. Had he walked out of the darkness into his brother's gleaming blade, no one would have been surprised; some would have considered it a form of poetic justice – the inevitable harvest of a life spent sowing seeds of deception.

But for all of his running, Jacob could not out run God. And that is really what this story is about. In their first dark encounter, God had a dream for Jacob. But he was not living the dream. In this deep darkness, God once again shows up with a dream for Jacob – a dream for a future that was better than his past. And even though no one would have blamed God for walking away from this shady guy and his checkered past, God doubles down, stakes a new claim with a new name, God stays with him through the entire anxious, restless night. When Jacob thought he was all alone, it was God who was there with him in the darkness.

Some people find God in the Light. Some people see God's face in a beauty sunrise. Some watch the Spirit dance on the golden horizon, all warm embrace, all peace and comfort.

But some of us encounter God in the darkness. And sometimes it feels like a struggle. And sometimes the struggle leaves scars.

But sometimes only a limp will keep us from running away. Sometimes we need the scars to remind us that in the deepest darkness, we are never alone.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

How Long? [Proper 22C]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4

How Long?

I still remember the day so vividly. Friday, December 14, 2012. It was my day off and so I was home with my family – now three since Oscar was born the previous September. We sat in the family room, a bright, cool winter sun flooding into our space, and we turned on the TV. On the screen was a terrible nightmare that had escaped into the real world. Even now, almost four years later, it's still too horrible to think about. And yet parents lived it. Their little children frozen in time by a mad man with guns.

I remember staring at the television screen, sick to my stomach, sick to the soul, the death toll growing: tiny lives that never fully blossomed, hopes and dreams never fully realized. Denial is the first stage of grief, but it wasn't that, it just seemed unreal, too terrible to be real. Never before, nor since, have I cried so much for people I did not know. I remember those tears, there were so many tears, but also not enough, never enough to cover all of those tiny lives. After the chaos cleared, the final death count came in: Twenty little children killed in a flurry of terrible bullets. Parents' hearts ripped out. Lives shattered. Scars that will never, ever heal.

That tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut was so horrendous, I thought, “Something will have to change. We can't go on like this.” But then this week, another school shooting, children made targets in South Carolina. And I am Habakkuk weeping over the devastation of Judah, lamenting as the Creator's creation unravels. Then and now I pray to God, “How Long?” And still our story is written in blood. The prophet's words are the news crawl of our age: “Destruction and violence are before us; strife and contention arise.”

Newtown. Charleston. Orlando. 9/11. Our story written in blood. You never forget where you were the moment you heard; you never forget the violent images, burned into you brain, into your soul, into your heart; you never forget the stories of the aftermath: pain and tragedy, of families torn apart and lives cut short. And the prayer, a haunted question: “How long, O Lord?”

Iraq. Afghanistan. ISIS. Our story written in blood. You never forget the first strike, flashes of light and clouds of dust; you never forget the images of bombs and torture, of rubble and human lives as collateral damage; you never forget the stories of the men and women who never came home, and innocent children caught up in a grown-up war. And the prayer, the same prayer, “How long, O Lord?”

In our city streets. In our facebook feeds. Creeping ever closer to our front doors. Lives ended with a pop, in an instant. Our story written in blood. Every lifeless body, every survivor left behind, every lethal injection (death piled on death), every violent viral video in the cycle leaves a scar. Violent images have become the icons of our age, reminders of our human depravity. We measure our days in terrorist attacks and bloody wars and mass shootings. We are all victims of the violence; it chips away at our humanity, at our ability to love, at our willingness to live out the Gospel in this world. We are Cain, destroying the Image of God. We are Cain, breaking the heart of God.

And then weeping into the silent night sky, fists clenched, eyes burning: “How long, O Lord?”

And it is from the Cross that our Crucified God hears the question. Humanity sentences God to the death penalty, and yet, God does not walk away, does not leave us. Despite the violence, despite the threat, God did not keep a distance. God was broken by the same violence that continues to break communities and families. God was scarred by the same violence that still leaves marks on our hearts and souls. Our God, a victim of our violence, hears our frustrated prayer: How Long, O Lord?

And replies: “How long, O children of the earth, how long?” Our prayer in the mouth of our Saving Victim. Our prayer returned to sender. Our prayer, God's question, all along. We are Human, looking for someone to blame.

But on our best days, we pull ourselves away from the steady stream of bad news and we dare to dream of something better. We dream of the wolf lying down with the lamb. We dream of swords beaten into plowshares. We dream of a world in which nations will practice war no more. We dream of a heaven absent of pain and sorrow. We dream of a heaven in which God wipes the tears from every eye. On our best days, we might even dare to rage against the dying, to start making those dreams come true – in this world, sowing seeds of love and hope in these killing fields.

This is my dream for the world in which my boys are growing up. And just because it is a dream does not mean it is unrealistic – just that is hasn't happened yet. Just because our history is written in blood does not mean our future will be defined by violence. Past results do not guarantee future performance.

God bore the unbearable weight of our human violence on the cross. God became every victim. God lived every life that ended too soon. Our bloodthirsty ground drank the blood of God. We destroyed God just like we destroy the Image of God over and over again. We wrote God into our history of violence.

But God re-wrote the ending. Our God exposed our guilt, confronted our violence, to show us that there is more to the story, more to the story than violence and death. Into our utter hopelessness God planted a seed of hope, a promise of life. Violence and death will not have the last word. Love is stronger.

When it seemed there was no hope, no answer, no escape, God laid everything on the line, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world, to show us a better way, to give us a future – through death and into life, from the violence of our Good Friday world to the hope of Easter morning. And in this Easter world, the Easter world in which we live, death is not the only answer; in fact, death is not the answer at all. In God's Easter world, death is overcome by life, the grave is where we shout our Alleluias, and the weeping of the dark night, the despair, the hopelessness that weighs us down, gives way to the joy of the morning. This Easter miracle is God's answer to our haunted question; It's God's answer to our fatal disease; It's God's answer to our most desperate prayers. We wrote a heartbreaking history of violence with a Good Friday ending – and no one, not even God, was spared. But that is not the end of our story. Because God wrote a better ending. 


Sunday, September 25, 2016

Cross the Chasm [Proper 21C]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Luke 16:19-31

Cross the Chasm

The chasm was always there, it's just that it never went away. It is explicitly noted in death, it's fixed in death, but it started long before the poor man fell into Abraham's bosom. The chasm appeared when the poor man was left to rot away by the gate and the rich man was too busy Scrooge-ing through an ocean of gold coins to notice. Or maybe he noticed but didn't care. Or maybe crossing the chasm just felt like a bad investment.

If last week's parable was confusing, and it was, today's is much less so. There are a lot of hiding spots in the ambiguity of last week's parable; we are not so fortunate today.

But that doesn't mean it is impossible to distract ourselves from Jesus' intense, confrontational message about wealth and possessions. We could easily get bogged down in the peripheral details of the story; we could easily, as some have done, turn this parable into eschatological speculation. We could easily lose ourselves in the afterlife and forget that this parable is very much about life – this life, here and now.

I suspect that Jesus would say something akin to what C.S. Lewis says in the preface to his own fictional journey through the afterlife, The Great Divorce: “I beg readers to remember that this is a fantasy. It has of course...a moral. But the transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or speculation at what may actually await us. The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.” So might the afterlife find us all cuddled up together in Father Abraham's lap? I suppose; anything is possible. But that is certainly not the point of this parable.

So what is the point? In Jesus' parable there are two featured characters: a rich man and a poor man. More than anything, these two men in Jesus' parable represent the shocking extremes of wealth disparity. The rich man is extremely rich. He wears fine linen and purple – a color often identified in the Scriptures as being a symbol of wealth because the purple dye was extremely costly. Purple clothes are not so rare today, so instead we might say something like, his closet was packed exclusively with handmade Brioni suits. And the rich man feasts every day. In the ancient world maybe a king, maybe, could do that. There was no refrigeration; no freezers. Feasts were rare and reserved for special occasions. But the rich man in Jesus' story: he feasted sumptuously every day. He is the very picture of extreme wealth, of luxurious excess.

If the rich man is the picture of extreme wealth, the poor man is the polar opposite. He was likely dropped at the rich man's gate, discarded with the last scraps of his dignity, like an old problem, off-loaded, un-burdened. On the ground, at the gate, unable to defend his sores from the roving hounds, it is likely he was left because he was crippled. There was no social security, no disability in those days. This is what he had: the dust around the gate. He was miserable and abandoned and dying. And all he longed for were scraps – maybe the bread the rich used as napkins, yes that was a thing, maybe the crumbs the dogs licked off of the floor. His expectations were low – and even those low expectations were too high. And to add to the sorrows of this life of hunger and abandonment, he was covered in sores. And dogs licked him. People here in the Springs love dogs, so you might be tempted to think this detail is sweet. It is not meant to be. In that society dogs were unclean scavengers. Jesus is not painting a sentimental scene in which a sweet little puppy helps nurse a homeless man back to health; quite the opposite actually: Jesus is showing his listeners rock bottom. The dogs are simply insult to injury.

And then death happens, because it always does, to rich and poor alike. And Jesus gives us a glimpse into the great reversal – the promised reversal that runs through Luke's Gospel, from the Magnificat (God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.) to the Beatitudes (Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God / But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.) What is promised, plays out in this parable. Good news for the poor man outside the gate; not great for the rich man on the other side.

But what about Jesus' audience, listening intently, trying to find a place in this parable? They were almost certainly not as rich as the rich man; also they probably were not as destitute as the poor man. They lived, like most of us do, in the space between.

This parable was not directed by Jesus to a bunch of people living the ultra-luxurious lifestyle of the rich man in the story. That type of wealth and privilege was extremely rare, the top of the top-tier. And it is too easy to write this off as a blanket critique of the richest rich. And, though one wouldn't know this from this parable, Jesus is not uniformly anti-rich people in Luke's Gospel. He eats with Zaccheus before the man divests of a single dollar and even then does not require Zaccheus to give away all of his wealth. Jesus' ministry is underwritten by a handful of wealthy women whose names are listed in the Gospel. The Gospel of Luke even begins with a message to its wealthy, Roman patron, the guy who funded the book, paid for the research, Theophilus.

That said, Jesus certainly has strong feelings about wealth and money – and mostly those feelings are not positive. The most damning words in the Gospel are reserved for those who cling more tightly to money than to God, most often in the Gospel those are people of great financial means. However, Jesus does not let anyone off the hook. He doesn't allow us to hide behind an upper-middle class or middle class or working class identification. This parable is directed to lovers of money, to those who choose the latter when Jesus says earlier in the same chapter of Luke's Gospel, “You cannot serve both God and wealth.” For most of us, not just the rich, that, practically speaking, is a tough call. That's why Jesus has to say it.

In fact, the parable is fairly clear on this point: the rich man in the Gospel is not condemned for his riches; he is condemned for what he does and does not do with those riches. He invested in the wrong things. He built a kingdom but it was the wrong kingdom. And this is Jesus' warning. Jesus is skeptical about wealth, but he also realizes that it can be used for good. It can be invested in love and beauty, in mercy and kindness. It can be invested in saving lives and restoring dignity. Money is often spent to build up private kingdoms of personal comfort. But it could be spent to build up the kingdom of God; it can be invested in the stuff of God's best dreams.

This story is not about the rich man. This story is not about the poor man. This story is about us. We, the listeners, we are the subject. Because unlike the two men in the story, we are still alive; we still have a chance to make the difference the rich man never chose to make. There are desperate people at our gate, on the other side of the chasm from us – folks in need of mercy, folks in need of refuge, folks who need to see that their lives matter. Jesus calls us to cross the chasm, cash in hand, salvation on the heart, to find the humanity on the other side. This story is not a description of the afterlife; it is not a historical biography; this is a wake up call; this parable is always Jesus sounding the alarm.

Thanks to Jesus, we've now seen the rich man's fate; we've seen the reckoning required for a life of selfish disinterest; we've seen the cost of stockpiling treasures on earth. And to some extent, because, if we are honest, we all love money a little more than we should, we wake up from this parable like Scrooge after his evening with the Ghost of Christmas future: eyes wide, cold sweat, staring down some hard truth, whispering, “Help me, Jesus.” Jesus leaves us with a choice, the same choice he offered before: God or money? It's one of his favorite questions. He tells this story, a hard story that encroaches on our checkbooks and our hearts, because he knows which way we're leaning. But he also tells the story, because for us, unlike the rich man, there is still time, still time to make a difference, still time to invest in our suffering brothers and sisters, still time to invest in the cause of love, still time to invest in the world of God's best dreams. That is the kernel of good news hidden in this stark parable: it's not too late.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

A Better Investment [Proper 20C]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Luke 16:1-13

A Better Investment

Well, it seems that either God or the lectionary committee, or perhaps both, has decided that we are talking about money today. OK...good, no one seems to be leaving – yet. And so I thought, maybe, I could make this a very short sermon and simply remind you of Jesus' final phrase in today's Gospel: “You cannot serve God and wealth” and then invite the Stewardship Committee to take it from there.

But alas, instead, I decided to drag this out a bit. Although, later in the service you will be hearing from the Stewardship Committee. We are doing that part.

Today, I want to talk about this Gospel. I want to talk about it because I think it is one of the more confusing parables that Jesus tells. And I think that is the case because we, the Church, are often not very good at reading parables; we do them wrong. We read them as if they are meant to be allegories – always with God as the most powerful or prominent character. And today, in this parable, that is this rich man, the master. And so today, that is, I think, problematic.

The parable is about a manager – a business manager. His job, it appears, is to manage and oversee his employer’s property and finances. He's the money guy. It is a good job – so much so that in the ancient world, men were known to sell themselves into a master’s household for the prestigious opportunity to oversee a rich man’s finances. The position seems to mean even more than usual to this particular manager. Beyond enjoying the prestige of the position, he has no safety net, no social security, no back-up plan. When he is informed that his job is on the line, rather than send out updated resumes, he starts to picture life as a homeless loner – unable to do manual labor and unwilling to transition from his corner office to the street corner.

But apparently willing and able to scheme. And so begins the scheming. It occurs to the manager that he has a couple of options: one, he could work really hard and do a better job, or he could create an elaborate scheme to exploit the fact that he has not yet been fired and squander some more of his master's resources to earn himself favors that he can then cash in when he is desperate and unemployed. And so, of course, being human, he chooses option number two. Rather than prove to his employer that he deserves to keep his job, the manager essentially plans to go out in a blaze of glory. Let's call it the Hail Mary of survival plans. The manager’s plan? To slash the debts of those indebted to his master thus creating goodwill for himself. And in doing so, perhaps he might earn, let's say, the number of days sleeping on someone's couch that fifty jugs of free olive oil could buy. I mean, just for example.

And so before the master pries the ledger from his hands, the manager goes to work – well, not work, scheme. The text gives us just a couple of examples but wants us to realize that this manager was going right down his list. He was slashing prices left and right, reducing debt everywhere he found it. Balance sheet be red, that manager was dealing, using that rich man’s quickly shrinking fortune to buy his way into some homes, gain himself some goodwill, bank for himself some favors.

Now, it was not all bad for the rich master. I mean, it was not all good, he was getting ripped off and his least favorite employee was publicly taking advantage of him, but also not all bad. It was pretty solid PR for the rich man; all the former debtors would praise his generosity. He just reduced their debt – and for seemingly no reason, other than just the goodness of his own heart. And not only that, also he recognizes in his manager, a man he was about to fire, an ability to plot and scheme and work the system – which apparently he values. And so, believe it or not, the master, rather than fire his manager, actually commends his manager for being shrewd – for showing keen foresight. And they live happily ever after – working the system, manipulating others for personal gain, and making money. The End.

So this is Jesus' parable. And I think it is fair for us to ask ourselves: what exactly is the lesson Jesus wants his followers to learn? Is Jesus imploring us to model our behavior after this scheming manager, a manager he himself describes as dishonest?

Probably not, right? And so this is why we have to be careful not to read this parable as an allegory – with God featured as the most powerful character, in this case the rich man, who's all about collecting on debts and celebrating dishonesty. You know, godly stuff. And us, the listeners, taking the role of the dishonest guy.

Parables are not allegories. They are stories lifted from the day-to-day world of the listeners, stories both familiar and yet twisted up just enough to keep the listeners' minds churning and puzzling. A dishonest businessman scheming – not entirely unbelievable. A ripped off business owner celebrating, rather than firing, his most dishonest employee – a little strange. It is admittedly less prose than poetry. But rather than a lecture, Jesus chooses to communicate these deep truths about the Christian life to his followers, chooses to challenge and encourage, through story.

And so I say: nobody in this parable is God; no one is Jesus. We're not supposed to be like the dishonest manager, scheming away in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is a parable, grounded in the real world, the world in which the audience lived and worked. And so what Jesus gives us today is a picture of an almost typical day in the business world. The rich man and the manager are just flawed human characters – they have positive and negative traits – going about their flawed human business.

Jesus does not mean for us to indiscriminately emulate the shrewd and dishonest manager. But the story does tells us something about how Jesus wants us to live our lives as Christians. And though that is not like the manager, one does have to admit, that the manager sure does put a lot of effort into his selfish scheme. He works really hard at being dishonest. He puts his heart and soul into it.

Which makes him a pretty believable human character. We put a lot of effort into a lot of things that, if we are being honest, don't have much eternal value. So that could be our financial security like the manager in the parable; or it could be getting a promotion at work, or asking out a beautiful woman, or writing the perfect political post for your facebook wall, or beating a video game, or winning your Fantasy Football league. Plotting, scheming, planning: investing heart and soul in all kinds of things. It's what we do. I'm sure it is also what Jesus' original audience did – though maybe fantasy camel racing or something instead of fantasy football.

And so Jesus tells this parable, a parable that challenges our priorities and the depth of our commitment to the work of God in this world. We put a lot of effort and energy into all of the little, minute details of our lives – into making money, into winning arguments, into being successful or popular, even into the ways in which we spend our leisure time. Imagine what this world could be if we invested as much of our hearts and souls, our energy and resources, into the kingdom of God, into the work God has given us to do. Imagine if the Church, the people of God, were as invested in spreading the Gospel as the dishonest manager in today's parable was about finding a place to bunk.

This parable is a call to a deeper commitment. Jesus is challenging us to invest our all in the one thing that is most important, but all too often low on our priority list: our relationship with God. Jesus is challenging us to go all in: heart and soul, time and money. With this strange parable, Jesus is calling us to make a choice for the Kingdom, to give ourselves to something eternal. Jesus is challenging each and every one of us to make a better investment. 


Sunday, September 11, 2016

Waiting for the Guests to Arrive [Proper 19C]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Luke 15:1-10

Waiting for the Guests to Arrive

Today's Gospel takes place in a high school cafeteria, apparently. And Jesus, how embarrassing for him, is sitting at the wrong table. And that is a real problem for the Pharisees, who, in this story, are playing the cool kids, the in-crowd.

Jesus has potential; before he doesn't, at the end of the Gospel, he has a pretty strong following; so, he maybe could be one of them, one of the popular guys. But the problem is: he is sitting with the losers, with the outcasts, with the social pariahs. It's a bad look. He spends way too much time with people who don't matter. And, if we're being honest, not enough time with them. The Pharisees are jealous, angry, put out that Jesus would actually choose to grace those people with his presence.

They don't understand how Jesus could possibly be interested rubbing elbows, breaking bread, with sinners. They don't understand why he would waste his time, why he would risk his reputation. And so Jesus decides to tell them two stories, stories that he thinks will help them understand his heart, and therefore God's heart, better.

It doesn't go very well. See, the first story is about a stinky kid, a shepherd, who, by the time Luke's Gospel is penned, are associated less with King David and more with the shifty, the thieving, and the drifters; one ancient rabbi goes so far as to lump them in with the camel drivers, and you know that's not good. And the second story is about a poor girl. So, two characters unlikely to be invited to the Pharisees' table anytime soon.

And to make matters worse, Jesus, who is already on the outs with the religious leaders, suggests in his story that the stinky kid and the poor girl are who God is like. And that's not generally how the story is told; God is supposed like a king or like a priest or like a powerful business man; not like a poor person. So this is a problem: Jesus not only dines with questionable characters, he thinks God is one of them. And the truth is: that's not how this works; the Pharisees don't need Jesus, some upstart, to explain God to them; this is their business. And they are doing just fine without him, thank you.

And honestly, is this the kind of God we want anyway, a God like this shepherd, a God like the insufficiently financed woman? The characters in Jesus' stories are not kings and queens; they are not wealthy or respected. They lose things. They are uncomfortably vulnerable. And when they find the lost items, sometimes items lost in the house, they throw embarrassingly excessive celebrations. And let's be honest, the cool kids are not going to those parties. And at this point, Jesus has completely lost the religious leaders, who frankly didn't like him much before he chose the wrong friends and told his strange stories. And you can be sure, they are not interested in his stinky, poor God, this so-called prophet who sits at the loser's table.

Some time has past since Jesus told his stories, these stories we heard today. Shepherds are now for most of us a foreign concept. Lamps are lit only in houses when the power goes out. The world has grown up and, today more than most, we are reminded that this world is dangerous, and so this God, the God to whom Jesus alludes in his old stories, this God with the excessive mercy and the absurd celebrations and the desperate invitations to a disinterested guest list, does not appear to meet the needs of our world. If we need a strong president, as we are so often told, we certainly can't settle for a weak God who errs on the side of excessive mercy. And so rather than search the margins, rather than check the loser's table for our Divinity, we have created a God for our dangerous times – a God who grants us the mercy we deserve, and rules the rest of the world with an iron fist of justice, a God who blesses our bombs and sends our enemies to Hell.

The world is simply too dangerous for the God of Jesus' stories. This world is too harsh for such a merciful, for such a vulnerable God. I mean the God in today's parables seems great: so loving, so joyful, so excited. But this world is tough; this world would break that God's heart.

This God invites us, practically begs us, to rejoice over every lost cause that comes home – every prodigal son, every lost sheep, every undeserving misfit who stumbles onto God's excessive mercy. This God wants us to not just tolerate, but actually celebrate when other people get more than they deserve. Which of course is not fair. It's not the way the world is supposed to work.

There is an old Jewish story about a hardworking farmer; it goes a little something like this. God appears to a farmer and grants him three wishes, but with the condition that whatever God gives the farmer, God will give the farmer's neighbor double. Delighted by his good fortune, the farmer wishes for one hundred cattle. Sure enough, God gives him one hundred cattle. It is an incredibly generous gift. The farmer is thrilled. And then he sees that God gave his neighbor two hundred cattle and he starts to feel weird, upset, even; it is hard to explain but his joy starts to fade. But he has two more wishes. And so for his second wish, the farmer asks God for one hundred acres of land. God is delighted and gives the farmer the amazing gift for which he asked, and, of course, as per their deal, two hundred acres for the neighbor. But rather than receive the land with the appropriate excitement, the farmer seethes as he bitterly watches his neighbor joyfully prance around on his much larger piece of land. And so with his heart pounding, his nostrils flaring, the farmer makes his third and final request. He says to God, “I wish for you to strike me blind in one eye.” And God wept.1

I mean, mercy is great. It's nice that God is generous – until someone else gets more than we think they deserve. Jesus, by telling these parables, confronts the bitterness and jealousy that lives in the human heart – and not just in the hearts of the Pharisees. When we want justice to roll down like a flood, God shows mercy. And it is not fair. The lost wandered off and we stayed. And God shows mercy. And it is not fair.

It is a tale of the human heart vs. the heart of God. Somehow it is easier to live with the idea that God might send most of the world to Hell than it is to live with a God who loves too much, who is too merciful, who would welcome us all into Heaven. It is easier to accept the shepherd who writes off the lost sheep to stay with the ninety-nine. There is an absurdity to God's mercy that always clashes with our sense of merit. Somehow it is always God's mercy that is most offensive.

I worry about this big-hearted God like I worry about my big-hearted kids. They dance like crazy in the middle of stores in embarrassing ways. They fall for silly things with excessive passion. They open their hearts to people who are strange and smelly and poor; they do things like stop in the street to explain Pokemon Go to the homeless man everyone else is trying to avoid. They shake with joy over ten-cent lollipops. And that makes me happy; it makes me happy that they wear their big-hearts out in the open.

But also it breaks my heart. Because I grew up and so I know how this story turns out. I know that one day this hard world will do everything it can to steal that innocence from them. And it will tell them how to act like a grown up. And it will teach them that justice is more important than mercy; and it will teach them to guard their hearts; and it will teach them to look at other people with suspicion and fear; and it will teach them that those people get what they deserve. This world will break their big-hearts.

Mercy has a tough go in this world. This world doesn't celebrate the return of the lost sheep. This world punishes the sheep and fires the shepherd. This world doesn't celebrate the discovery of the lost coin. This world finds a way to move that coin into the coffer of someone more responsible.

In this dangerous world, in this violent, grown-up world, Jesus gives us a child-like God. A God whose big-heart is too exposed; a God whose mercy is excessive, whose celebrations are absurd, who sends desperate invitations to a disinterested guest list. And let's be honest, not many people are interested in that party. This is a tough world and it's going to break God's heart.

Over and over and over again. And God knows that. But the tears don't stop the party. Our God still naively believes in every lost cause. And so God leaves the door, and the heart, wide-open. This is our God, our generous, vulnerable, merciful God, shaking in joyous anticipation, just waiting, still waiting, always waiting, for the guests to arrive.

1New Interpreters Bible, 298.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Living Martyrs [Feast of St. Stephen - Observed]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51c-60

Living Martyrs

I think it is perhaps safe to suggest that we put a bit too much emphasis on St. Stephen's death. I mean, we still make him carry around stones – which I will admit is helpful for icon identification, but also it is a little cruel, like rubbing it in. He was executed. It would be like putting an electric chair or a firing squad on someone's tombstone.

But that does seem to be a human tendency: to over-emphasize that final earthly moment; we make saints and sinners out of death. And so someone who dies a martyr's death wipes the slate clean of a lifetime of indiscretions. And someone who commits suicide is unfortunately defined forever in the eyes of many by that one solitary act, as if all of their good deeds are discounted, their virtues forgotten.

And so while Stephen will forever carry his stones, will forever be commemorated as the first martyr, he is so much more than his stoning. And if we miss Stephen's life for his death, we'll never truly understand the significance of his sacrifice. If we miss Stephen's life for his death, we will never understand why he still matters, why almost two-thousand years later this church bears his name.

Unlike some in Church history, Stephen did not set out to die for the cause of Christ. That was not his goal; that was not his chosen vocation. He was chosen to feed people. The twelve apostles were finding it difficult to keep up with pastoral needs of a rapidly growing Christian community. The administrative tasks were piling up. Juggling paperwork and emails and parish registers and membership roles was making it increasingly difficult to be faithful to prayer and Bible Study. I get that. Frankly I consider this section one of the most believable stories in the entire Bible. And so these frazzled disciples choose and commission seven men to help them out, to care for the poor and distribute the food.

Stephen was the first chosen. And the author of Acts tells us that he was chosen because he was full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom – the same traits the author, who also wrote the Gospel of Luke, attributes to Jesus. And this resemblance is why Stephen was killed but it is even more so why he is remembered and commemorated.

Stephen is known in the Church tradition as the first martyr. And in a sense that is true. Martyrdom came to be understood as dying for one's faith. And to the extent that that has become the functional definition, that is what martyrdom is. But the word “martyr” doesn't necessarily have anything to do with death, at least etymologically speaking. “Martyr” comes from the Greek word simply meaning “witness.” I suspect the meaning began to shift because in the first few centuries of the Church the witness part often directly preceded the death part.

This fuller, original meaning of “martyr” can also be applied to Stephen; he was a martyr, a witness, before the stones were thrown. Had Stephen somehow survived the stoning he would be no less a saint. And it is important for us to remember that. See he is our patron saint; his life and example help define our identity as a Christian community. And in Colorado Springs, it is highly unlikely that any of us will be stoned to death for being Christian. And so if we revere St. Stephen only for his martyr's death, he will become remote, distant; we'll have no reason to live into his rich legacy. He will simply be a man who died many centuries ago – and that doesn't make him special. All of the men who lived 2000 years ago have since died.

The important truth is: Stephen became a martyr long before his death. He was a living witness for Jesus. And that he died is not why he is a hero of the faith; he is a hero, he is our patron, because he had the courage to follow Jesus even when it became clear that death would be the end result. Before he died a martyr's death, Stephen was a living martyr.

And that is what I find amazing about Stephen: his courage, his witness was unconditional. He proclaimed the Good News of God in Christ by his death; that is true. But also he proclaimed the Good News of God in Christ when he was just an unknown in the community. And the Apostles noticed and they gave him a platform for his witness. He proclaimed the Good News of God in Christ when he was loving the poor and serving the hungry. He proclaimed the Good News of God in Christ when he was performing great wonders and signs among the people. He proclaimed the Good News of God in Christ as stood before the council with his angel-face and his divisive truth and his heart on fire. And he proclaimed the Good News of God in Christ when the rocks started flying and the heavens opened. And as he died, Stephen proclaimed the Good News of God in Christ in the prayer he prayed – a prayer of forgiveness, Jesus' dying prayer offered back to Jesus. Before he died a martyr's death, Stephen was a living martyr.

I get the sense Stephen didn't worry about much in life. It seems to me he had one concern: Stephen worried about being like Jesus. He let the rest of the world decide how they would respond to that. And so the Church saw the Jesus in him and made him the first deacon. The council saw the Jesus in him and stoned him to death. But, you know, at least they saw Jesus in him. And that was what mattered to Stephen – maybe the only thing that mattered to Stephen.

We can easily get hung up on his death – it is a dramatic and powerful story – but Stephen's witness was not confined to a solitary moment; a hero's death was never the goal. Stephen was the embodied definition of “singleness of heart.” He had a goal, one goal, and that goal was Jesus. And not even stones could stop him.

We call ourselves Grace and St. Stephen's Episcopal Church. We have taken his name. He is our saint. We are the inheritors of his legacy. Not a legacy of death. What we are called to emulate is his witness. The gift St. Stephen continues to offer us is his courage, his courage to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ – no matter the cost, no matter the consequences.

We bear witness: that is what we are called to do. We might never do great wonders or signs. We might never prophesy before hostile crowds. We likely will never face a barrage of deadly stones. But like Stephen, we can proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. And we can do that with strength and courage, with gladness and singleness of heart. Like Stephen we are called to be martyrs, living martyrs, until the day we die.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Here and Now [Proper 15C] (Preached to the early service congregation on Choir Camp Sunday)

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Luke 12:49-56

Here and Now

Today's Gospel ends with Jesus asking the crowds: “But why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” I think the answer is actually quite simple: the present time is the most difficult time to interpret. It's just so close; we lack all perspective. The past is done, frozen in time – ready to be examined and dissected. The future is formless – a land of hopes yet unrealized, a playground for our imaginations and fantasies. But the present: it is slippery; it keeps moving. And it contains everything – all of the stuff of life, joy and pain and everything in between – all of it at the same time. It is much easier to escape or avoid than to interpret and embrace.

And perhaps that is why the crowd kept their heads in the clouds. The clouds distract us with the past and future. They float on the winds of anxiety. That original audience of Jesus, the ones addressed in today's Gospel, they kept their eyes on the skies because past experiences taught them that the skies might just tell them the future. And so rather than stay with the present, they gave into the distraction, pulled by the past and future, but never in the moment.

We're not so different. Most of us fumble through life juggling nostalgia and prognostication – longing for anything other than the present moment – toggling between the good ol' days of the past and what we hope might be, could be, just has to be, a brighter future.

And so we miss it; we miss the here and now. We dream of the heavens and we miss the Kingdom of God breaking into our lives and into our world. We close our eyes and escape into the past and never see what God has for us right now. We struggle and strive for a better, more secure, more prestigious future and yet as the prayer says, “It is but lost labour that we haste to rise up early, and so late take rest, and eat the bread of anxiety. For those beloved of God are given gifts even while they sleep.”1

Waking or sleeping, there is no moment outside of the presence of God. The present is always in the divine presence. In fact, we're in it right now. This moment is holy. Witness the miracle happening in this place, in your life. Right now you are feeling, touching, breathing, alive. So breathe it in, this moment, full of the ancient Spirit of God. What was and is and is to come is flowing through you right now, in this moment.

But soon you will leave this place. And your mind will try to pull you back or forward or pull your head into the clouds. And your mind will sow these seeds of discontent and anxiety – as if there is something better than what God is giving you right now. And then you'll miss it: you'll miss the moment.

Which isn't to say that we shouldn't plan for the future. Of course we should. And it isn't to say we shouldn't value our history. Of course we should. But Henri Nouwen reminds us that, “To live in the present, we must believe deeply that what is most important is here and now.”2 Of course the God named “I AM” longs to meet us in the present. Our course a Savior named Emmanuel, “God with us” would challenge us to stay with the present time.

But in the midst of so many distractions – distractions from within and without – staying in the moment, staying present, is hard; it takes discipline. Nouwen calls prayer “the discipline of the moment.” What we call “pray without ceasing.” Now, I want to be clear: I am not encouraging you to read Morning Prayer from the Prayer Book while driving to work or to chant a psalm in the middle of a business meeting. Instead, think of prayer as simply opening your heart to God in each and every present moment. “Pray without ceasing” is living in the embrace of God-with-us. Richard Rohr says, “[Prayer] is not a technique for getting things, a pious exercise that somehow makes God happy, or a requirement for entry into heaven. [Prayer] is much more like practicing heaven now.”3

Whether we feel it or not, and sometimes we can, sometimes we can't, we live, and move, and have our being in the very presence of God. Right here and right now. We're living into the Kingdom come. We're being embraced by the ever-present love that is God. And because of that, this very moment is infinitely precious, blessed, holy.

It is hard to pull our heads out of the clouds; it is hard to shake off the distractions circling around us; it is hard to resist the tempting allure of past and future. But when we do pull heads out of the clouds, we see that the present time is all we really have. What is most important is with us. Right here and right now.

1A New Zealand Prayer Book, 167.
2Here and Now, 21.
3The Naked Now, 23.