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.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Prayer [Proper 12C]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Luke 11:1-13


I have knocked; I have knocked on unanswered doors. I have searched; I have searched and did not find. I have asked; I have asked questions into the bottomless abyss from which no answer ever emerged. And so have you. Not every time. But some times. You have prayed for a healing that never came. A solution that was not solved. You have knocked at the door and it seemed the knock just echoed through an empty house. I chose to preach on this text because I really did not know what to say about that – especially in light of today's Gospel.

Now I don't think prayer is a sanctified magic spell. I don't think using the correct words or doing it the right way guarantees desired results. If that were the case sporting events would get very complicated. All those prayers going back and forth could get pretty confusing for heaven. And we can be sure, a lot of the prayers would be prayed for sporting events, or elections, or Dancing with the Stars – something competitive. Ask, and it will be given is clearly not that simple. And actually, that is probably a good thing. Human beings are pretty emotional, consistently irrational, too often rash and irresponsible – I mean, not you all, of course, but the other human beings. We sometimes pray for things that cannot or should not be.

And also prayer is not like rubbing a genie's lamp. Prayer does not give us power or control over God. God does not owe us three wishes, or anything else for that matter. Jesus is not telling us, in today's Gospel, that if we just keep asking, eventually God just has to give us what we want.

Although, that said, the story Jesus tells does kind of suggest just that: keep knocking if you want that bread. In Jesus' story, the man knocks on his friend's door at midnight. I think we can all admit, that is not a convenient time to knock on a friend's door – especially a friend who has kids – especially a friend whose kids sleep in his bed. And yes, trust me: that is a thing. And no, it was probably not what he planned when he had his first child but it's just the way it is because his kid refuses to sleep through the night in his own bed. And so why would this neighbor knock on his door; he is a friend and I know that guy has complained to his neighbor about his child's sleep issues. So stop knocking; you are not getting any bread tonight! And now the kids are awake and it is going to take forever to get them back to sleep.

And all he hears echoing through the house, echoing through the neighborhood, is that painfully persistent: knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock. It just won't stop. It is the middle of the night: make the visitor go to sleep and get the bread in the morning. Who even goes outside at midnight? They didn't have street lamps or porch lights in 1st century Palestine. But still: Knock, knock, knock.

I feel comfortable suggesting that both of the men in the story are probably good guys, not perfect, but good enough guys. The man who came knocking was appealing to a friend on behalf of his guest. That is a pretty generous thing to do – generous to his house-guest, not so generous to the man in bed, trying to sleep. The man in bed is looking out for his children. And he does eventually bring his friend the three loaves of bread; he doesn't call the cops; doesn't answer the door carrying a baseball bat. But on the other hand, his friend is desperate and his first excuse is: I already locked the door. I'm not sure how complicated first century door locks were exactly, but probably not that complicated; he is clearly trying, and failing, to brush the neighbor off. Helping his friend is not his initial instinct. Good enough guys – they have some good intentions – but they're flawed.

It is always tempting to try to allegorize and then literalize Jesus' stories and parables. But it never really works because Jesus' characters here, and elsewhere in the Gospels, are human and we know humans, and we know humans are not God. If the man in the house is supposed to be God, then, let's be honest, God is kind of selfish, a little bit disinterested, and only blesses annoying people, and even then, begrudgingly.

So let's look again. Let's imagine that this parable is not a description of God. No God in bed with the kids; no God knocking on the door in the middle of the night. In fact, God is never explicitly mentioned in the story at all. God is only implied and even then only to provide contrast – asking the listener to remember that God is even more generous than our closest friends, even more loving than our parents. I think Jesus makes this clear when he says to the crowd at the end of the Gospel: if you sinful people love your children enough to give them good gifts, imagine how much more a good and loving God cares for you. Contrast.

So the characters are not stand-ins for God. They are just people; it's a story about people – people like the ones we know, like us and our friends. And yeah, they look out for each other, give each other gifts, meet each other’s needs – even if they are not always that excited about it. They are pretty good folks and also they are flawed. The man in the house gives his friend the bread; he gives him what he needs even though he is clearly annoyed and put out and tired. That's pretty honest; that's pretty human.

The story, and the entire passage that surrounds the story, is, I think, not an allegory about God, but a reflection on the nature of prayer. Jesus recognizes that we are willing to ask favors of our friends, inconvenience them, annoy them, beg them to do things we know they do not want to do. We knock on their doors. We ask them for favors. We do it all the time. Some of them love us; most of them just like us; some can barely stand us.

And yet the passage begins with Jesus' disciples asking him how to pray; because while they've spent their entire lives appealing to flawed people who find them annoying, they do not know how to talk to the God who loves them perfectly and unconditionally. And so this parable is about prayer and, more specifically, that we should be doing it. Because God really loves us and actually wants us to knock on the door – even in the middle of the night.

But I do have to admit. I still don't know why some prayers go unanswered. I don't know why sometimes we ask and it is not given to us. I don't know. I don't think prayer guarantees anything. I don't think it is magic. I don't think it forces God's hand. And yet, I still want you to pray for me. And I still pray for you. And I still think God longs for our prayers and our company.

And I even think God wants us to keep knocking on the door, to be persistent in prayer. I think that is why when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, Jesus doesn't tell them, “Just say whatever.” He says, “Say this.” A prayer to pray – over and over and over again. Jesus gives them the prayer of his heart – a prayer that the Church has prayed persistently for two thousand years.

It's kind of an unusual prayer. There is no “I” or “my” or “me” or “mine”. It belongs to everyone and yet is possessed by no one. It is timeless and yet desperately immediate. It is the words of Jesus coming out of our mouths – always the same knock, always the same ask.

That the kingdom of God would come. Here on earth. To swallow up our violence in love and peace.
That every person would be fed. That every need would be met.
That our sins would be forgiven. By God. And by each other. Peace on earth. Reconciliation.
And that people would no longer be tempted by the evil and sin that so easily besets us.

It is what God wants for us. It is Jesus' heart offered to God. It is the prayer Jesus gives us to pray – a prayer that dares to hope for the impossible. Two thousand years later we are praying Jesus' prayer because it still needs to be prayed. Because, through us, Jesus is still asking, still searching, still knocking. And we keep praying his prayer because so are we.

Prayer isn't so much a request or a magic spell or a wish. Prayer is simply a vulnerable heart placed in the hands of our loving God – over and over and over again. With no guarantees. We pray not for the promise of results, but because no one else can hold our fears, and loves, and heartaches so well, so carefully.

There is a beautiful prayer in a New Zealand Prayer Book that ends “we put our trust in you the living God, risking disappointment, risking failure, working and waiting expectantly.”1 Every prayer is an act of trust; we trust our lives to a God we cannot see, cannot touch, cannot control. Every prayer is an act of hope; and we hope for the impossible. Every prayer is a risk – but it's a risk worth taking. So lift up your hearts.

1 p. 484

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Mary and Martha [Proper 11C]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Luke 10:38-42

Mary and Martha

When I was in college, my junior year, I was an RA, a Resident Assistant. It was the year that Gallup released their StrengthsFinder test. And every RA was required to take the test. The idea was that once we identified our strengths, we could then lead our fellow students from a place of strength. It was a nice test actually: everybody won because everyone had some strengths. Out of the however-many strengths Gallup identified, each person was given a list of their Top Five. Of course then, because it was a college, we had to talk about those strengths at length with our classmates; we were given exercises to accentuate our strengths; we wrote essays. We were probably even graded on how well we expressed our feelings about our results.

Anyway, I don't remember all of my strengths. But I do remember my number one strength: achiever. And while all strengths are special and equally valuable, I was pretty sure Achiever was the best.

And that is why, I suppose, I am a bit uncomfortable with today's Gospel. Martha has many tasks; she has a lot to do, a lot to accomplish in a short time. And no one is helping her. The other woman in the house is her sister Mary. And she is sitting around with the men. But things have to be done; items need to be checked off the list. And so of course, good old Martha, a woman after my own heart, a woman after my own StrengthsFinder results, takes care of business. And as a reward for all of her hard work, she is presented with a good old talkin'-to by Jesus. She is scolded.

And this, it should be noted, is the same Jesus who just ended his last parable, the Good Samaritan story, by saying, “Go and do.” Well, Martha is a doer and she is getting nothing but flak.

I suspect this is one of those Bible stories that really speaks to some members of the Church – let's say, those who attend the contemplative prayer group on Mondays – and probably less so to those members who add items to their to-do list just so that they can check them off. And it is true: there are plenty of folks who have used this story to “prove” that Jesus prefers quiet, sedentary Christians. And it is true: this text has been interpreted, at times, to support a false dichotomy between prayer and service, between action and contemplation. I say “false dichotomy” because I think the Gospel of Luke, a gospel that puts the parable of the Good Samaritan, a story about service and action, directly beside this story of Mary and Martha, clearly expects followers of Jesus to be both hearers and doers of the Word. Both prayer and service are necessary components of the Christian life; both action and contemplation are required if we are to keep the Great Commandment to Love God and to Love People.

And yet, the reality is: Martha still gets scolded. Now, she is not scolded for welcoming Jesus; that is a good thing. Jesus encourages his followers to show hospitality. And she is not scolded for preparing a meal for Jesus and his disciples; that is also a good thing. Jesus understands that. He is a feeder; he feeds the crowds; he feeds his own disciples; he offers himself as food.

Martha is scolded, however, for being distracted. Now I have no doubt it was possible, but I'm not sure we could even figure out how to be distracted in first century Palestine. The art of distraction had not yet been perfected. They did not have facebook, or Twitter, or Pintrest. There were no smartphones. No Netflix. No cable or Direct TV. No TV at all actually. Not even radio. Most folks couldn't even read. And if you can image, there weren't even Pokemon characters hanging out in front of the grocery store. I guess the best distractions were spending five hours washing clothes by hand or slaughtering a sheep for dinner; maybe refilling the oil lamps so that you could see in your own house.

Or in Martha's case, she was distracted by her many tasks. She was busy and it seems that being busy was perhaps her hobby. And I think that is what this text is truly about. It's not about prayer vs. service, contemplation vs. action; it is about discerning what is truly important, what is most precious in this life.

In the Good Samaritan text it was the person lying on the side of the road who was precious. And that demanded action; love meant seeing the man and picking him up and caring for him. Quiet contemplation in that circumstance was insufficient. In this text it is the words of Jesus that are precious. And that demanded a pause; love meant sitting at the feet of Jesus. Mary figured it out. Martha was too busy. It's not that what she was doing was inherently wrong; it wasn't evil to prepare a nice meal. It's just that she was too busy doing what she was supposed to do, to do what love demanded.

And Martha was doing what she was supposed to do. Mary was not doing what she was supposed to do. And in that culture such things were very clear. Mary was a woman; she was supposed to do what Martha was doing: cooking, cleaning, hosting. What Mary was doing, sitting at the feet of Jesus, being a disciple listening to her rabbi, was what the men did. Martha's complaint was appropriate, at least culturally appropriate.

And yet, the reality is: Martha still gets scolded. And we know it is for being too distracted, too focused on her tasks. That's fine; true enough. But maybe there is more to it than that. Maybe Jesus scolds her because he loves her enough to want more for her – more than a life of tasks, more than a life of busy-ness, more than a life of social conventions and rule following. Maybe Jesus wanted her to open her eyes to the precious moments she was missing. Maybe he wanted her to be open to the possibility that the Holy Spirit doesn't always follow a to-do list.

And maybe Jesus wants the same for us. We live in the midst of a world of distraction – not all of them bad, not many of them evil. But our tasks, the busy-ness, the overwhelming expectations and responsibilities of our lives always threaten to distract us from presence of Jesus. The flashing screens threaten to blind us to the precious, hurting people lying in our paths. The constant noise threatens to drown out the precious words of Jesus, the good news that gives us life and hope.

And so maybe more than anything, this little story in Luke's Gospel, the story of Mary and Martha, is a call to deeper discernment, a call to open eyes and open ears. A reminder that our tasks are only a distraction when we allow them to take priority. They trick us into thinking that are more urgent than they really are, more important than they really are, more essential to our lives and identities than they really are. Your one life in this big, dangerous world is too important. It is too important for you to miss the point. There is only one thing in this world we need and that is Jesus – the Jesus who sends us out to love and serve boldly, but always calls us back to sit at his feet.