Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Prophet's Voice [Advent 2B]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Mark 1:1-8

The Prophet's Voice

When I was a kid, I collected baseball cards. I loved it. I had thousands, still do in our storage room, actually. (Sorry, honey.)  Baseball card collecting combined three of my absolute favorite things: sports, sorting, and statistics. I loved opening the packs. I loved putting them in plastic sleeves. And I loved looking up the value of each card in my Beckett Baseball Price Guide.

Those Becketts mesmerized me. They listed the values of baseball cards dating back as far back as the late-1800's. Each month I would buy the newest copy of the magazine at the baseball card shop and check to see the ways in which the value of my collection fluctuated. Mind you, it actually didn't matter because I never sold any cards, I was like eight years old, but I guess it was exciting, as a child, to know the things I liked held real monetary value.

In the price guide there was each month, a hot and a cold list. I'm not sure how players ended up on the hot or the cold lists; I don't think there was terribly scientific method used. But one of the things that always baffled me about that feature was that most of the time the same players populated both lists. Some were, according to the Beckett Baseball Price Guide, both hot and cold – simultaneously!

In fact, there was one player in particular who I remember quite often found himself at the top of both lists in the late 1980's and early 1990's, at the height of my collecting, and that was Jose Canseco. People loved Jose Canseco. He was charismatic. He looked like a movie star and dated movie stars. He hit huge home runs and stole bunches of bases. And his team, the Oakland A's, won a lot of baseball games. And also people hated Jose Canseco. He was arrogant. He was brash. I'm not sure folks knew it at the time, but he had so much steroids coursing through his body he was about to explode. And his team won a lot of games – which, if you were an Indians fan, for example, was a despise-able offense. Jose Canseco was so popular and so offensive that he was always topping both the hot and the cold lists.

The Biblical prophets, like John the Baptist, share the same fate. John was popular enough to draw a nice crowd, but at the same time he was staring down the chopping block. Now, I should be clear mostly Jose Canseco is nothing like John the Baptist. One is a saint; the other is a...well, the other is not. But like Canseco, John the Baptist was both incredibly popular with some and famously offensive to others. He was one of those guys who could top both the hot and cold lists.

But somehow, over the last two-thousand years, during the posthumous life of John, he has transitioned from caustic to quirky, from cage-rattler to cartoon character. I'm sure it's the clothes and the quality zingers we find in the Gospel. But it is important that we remember during this Advent season that John was a prophet. He spoke truth to power. And he was executed for telling that truth. Sure, he could draw crowds, but that doesn't mean those gathered by the river always liked him or even agreed with him.

In fact, even though he is commemorated as a saint, probably very few Church people today would agree with the severity of his message or his confrontational style. He was not nice or polite. His audience was, I'm sure, constantly anxious – never knowing when his truth would take aim at them. He embarrassed the religious leaders in the crowd. He told his fans that they were sinners in need of repentance – not a popular message; just ask any preacher. He insulted his own people by telling them that they are not special; he said, “God could make children of Abraham out of some rocks.” He was imprisoned and beheaded because he never sanitized his message for anyone; he was willing to confront even the most powerful people with their moral and ethical deficiencies. Gosh, he even argued with Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, when Jesus showed up to be baptized. He was a difficult guy.

John was a prophet – in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets. And like them, he spoke God's truth until he was silenced by death – because the salvation of the world depended on it. Prophets say the things no one wants to hear but know in their hearts are true. The basic job description of the prophet is tell the Truth until you are forcibly silenced. It's a rough job. Actually eating locusts with honey, was probably the sweetest perk of John's vocation.

And not only did the prophets tell the Truth, they did so unequivocally. Those prophets were not known for their pastoral sensitivities. I mean just look at our reading from the prophet Isaiah today. Most of his messages are portents of disaster and ruin – pretty dark stuff. This one, the one we heard today, is easily one of his most encouraging messages. And in this message of comfort he says, “People are like grass. The Grass withers, the flower fades.” That was the message of comfort – something like, “Well, at least it won't be bad forever. One day you'll die.” Being a prophet, telling God's truth, is a tough job.

John was called, by God, to be abrasive and caustic – in all of the holiest of ways, of course. He was despised and disliked by every powerful person in the religious and political realms. And yet people kept showing up at the river. Now why would they do that?

Well, for some it was probably for the spectacle. Others probably came to hear the religious leaders called snakes and the politicians exposed as philanderers. But this was much more than some populist movement taking place in the woods.

People came because in a world of lies and spin, there were some who were absolutely starving for the truth. Some people came to the water because they needed at least one person in the world to tell them something true – even if it wasn't flattering, even if it was hard to hear.

And so the people showed up. They showed up because they sensed, deep down in their bones, that there was something more to this world than political posturing and self-righteous stagecraft. Something truer, something realer, something worth giving their lives to. NT Wright compares the scene at the River Jordan to the Exodus – which I find very intriguing. He writes, “John is turning [the story of the Exodus] into a drama and telling his hearers that they were the cast. They were to come through the water and be free. They were to leave behind [their] 'Egypt' – the world of sin [and rebellion] in which they were living.... They...were looking in the wrong direction and going in the wrong direction. It was time to turn round and go the right way (that's what 'repentance' really means). It was time to stop dreaming and wake up to God's reality.”1 They showed up at the river, risked John's devastating message, to find something real, to hear something true, to live into the shocking new reality God wanted for them.

John the Baptist always shows up in the Advent season. He shows up not just because he is the precursor of the Messiah – although he is. He also shows up because in this season of Advent, we are called to prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ. Every Advent we are faced with the same imperative. And it is a painful, discomforting, and shockingly personal call. A call to repentance. A call to consider our orientation, to be honest about our loyalties, to re-examine the priorities of our lives. It is a call to leave behind those things that hold us captive and walk through the water into God's reality, our salvation.

Advent always begins inside. John's revolution did not begin in a marble palace or on the Temple Mount. John's revolution was a word - a prophetic word that split a person in two, went straight to the heart, beating in the chest of each person, standing on the banks of a new life. Prepare the way of the Lord is not just his job, it is ours.

And preparation begins in your heart. That is why God sends us the prophets. That is why we listen to their words – even the ones that leave scars. Those words are meant to cut deep; they are meant to pull out the weeds by the roots. They are meant to hurt until they no longer hurt.

The prophets and their challenging words are a gift to us – maybe not always the gift we want, but always the gift we need. They turn us around and push us towards Heaven. They mean to put you to work, to compel you get your heart ready for its divine guest, to make a worthy dwelling place for your Christ on this earth. John is calling me and you to get ready for Jesus – the Christ who longs to become incarnate in us. And that is no small thing. And so John challenges us to rid our lives of all of the attitudes, and thoughts, and ideas, and actions that prevent Jesus from being born in our lives, and through our lives into our world.

Because the ultimate goal is to wake up to God's dream, is to prepare the way for the Lord to come and establish the Kingdom of God, not only in our hearts, but in our world. The ultimate task of Advent is to ready this world for the coming of Christ, to, as we heard in the epistle from Peter today, make a world in which righteousness is at home.

Today, in this season of Advent, we again are called to heed the disturbing, discomforting, challenging voice of the prophet – a voice that undoes us in all of the best ways. It is calling us to prepare the way of the Lord – into the world, by way of our hearts.

1Mark for Everyone, 2.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Keep Awake! [Advent 1B]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Mark 13:24-37

Keep Awake!

Keep awake” is what I would tell myself every time I walked into the ground-level entrance, what some might call the basement entrance, of the library. Keep awake. By the time I arrived at the door, darkness had already enveloped the campus. Dinner had come and passed, weighing me down with happy contentment. And the cold air of the New Jersey winter was no match for that classroom so close to the boiler.

I was there to learn about Orthodox Christianity from Dean James Pain – a kind and wise professor, nearing the end of a long academic career, a kind and wise professor whom I hope is not here this morning to hear this story. I would settle into one of the plush, comfy chairs, the kind with the desks attached by hinges so that one could pull up a flat space for writing, or typing, or resting one's head. The room, that basement classroom, had no windows, save the small one in the door, that simply gave a view of the austere hallway. And then, once the class was settled in, Dean Pain would turn off the lights and fire up a video or an old-fashioned slide slow. Warm, dark, and cozy. And I would tell myself, “Keep Awake.” But generally, I would fail to heed that important message.

I have always been a good and attentive student. Before that class in seminary, I think I had only one time in my long academic career fallen asleep in a class, again during a movie, in the fifth grade. But it was almost as if that night class in the basement of the library in a warm, windowless room was designed with the express purpose of putting students to sleep. And, I failed to mention, that class was like three hours long. The students who stayed awake were heroes; they were super-human.

Today begins the season of Advent. And this season greets us with the same urgent message: Keep awake. Only this time the message is delivered by Jesus – a stark warning to begin this new Church year.

But what does it mean? What does it mean to keep awake? The most literal interpretation is not helpful. Certainly this is not endorsement of sleep deprivation. Although the disciples in the garden of Gethsemane might disagree with me on that.

But in this season of Advent – a season rich in joy and hope, pregnant with anticipation, a season that walks us to the baby in the manger – we are also confronted with a desperate urgency meant to rouse us from the cozy comfort of crackling fires and warm eggnog. It is Advent and waiting has never been so jarring. What does it mean to keep awake?

It makes me think about the movie The Matrix, a film during which I did not fall asleep. It is like how Neo is offered the blue pill or the red pill. It is a crossroads: the blue pill allows him to rest forever in a state of mind-numbing ignorance, to continue to dream his life away; the red pill is the wake up call. Once he takes the red pill, the familiar illusion is over; he is faced with the startling reality of life; once awake there is no going back to sleep. He knows too much. And the truth demands action.

This is not simply the stuff of movie plots. It is a decision with which all of us are confronted. It is the plea of Jesus in today's Gospel. Do not sleep your life away; do not hide in the daydream. Keep awake.

It is hard to keep awake, though. Or as the young people might say, it is hard to stay woke. Our culture is designed to put people to sleep. Paralysis by consumption: life spent on shopping, and streaming, and appointment viewing. It is like a white noise machine feeding us a steady stream of consumerism and 24-hour news.

There is so much noise that it drowns out life. Steady and unrelenting: so much pressure, despair, controversy, conflict, entertainment, and information that hiding under the covers often seems like the only escape. And we drift into the isolation and sink into the loneliness of our age, seduced into inaction by a steady flow of injustice racing by on the daily. We live in the age of overwhelming. We are born with golden slumbers in our eyes. Here in the future, we have computers for that. Just go to sleep.

And yet it is the voice of Jesus, sounding like an alarm clock, cutting through two-thousand years, echoing through past, present, future, to rouse us from our sleep. Just as he roused those sleepers in the first century. While our culture might be designed to sedate us, ours is not the first. Every culture, every empire, finds its own unique way to pacify its people. And that is why Jesus' urgent plea is timeless and it is personal. That is why we find it ringing in our ears still today. The message is for us. Because heavy eyelids are a part of our inheritance. And it is our job to take the red pill, to stay woke, to keep awake – and then probably to nudge your neighbor, because we're all in this thing together.

The plea is ever urgent because the task, staying awake and alert, is never easy. The power of evil is desperate to silence the Good News. The darkness of this age is desperate to hide the children of light under the blankets. The powerful on their thrones are desperate to keep the truth locked behind a bedroom door. They do not want your voice, just your cash. The shock and awe of injustice, lies, and violence is meant to put you in a daze, to make you think that the darkness and despair of this age, the heartbreak and cynicism of this age is the best you should ever expect.

I am telling you that is not the truth. Keep Awake!

We were not created and redeemed, chosen and called, to accept the cheap knock-offs this world offers us. We were designed for the reality that is the Kingdom of God. We were designed for no less than peace and love, for no less than hope and salvation. The signs of the Kingdom are all around us, pushing up through the cracks, but you will not see them if you eyes are closed. Keep awake.

We do not have to accept the narrative that says that violence and death are the price of our existence. We serve a Jesus who offers us new life, abundant life, resurrection life. We do not have to the accept the narrative that says that our worth is measured in dollars and cents. We serve a Jesus who places on each and every one of us an infinite value.

We stand today at the dawning of a new Church year. And at this new beginning we are confronted by this urgent message of our Christ: Keep Awake. Do not allow the darkness to overcome you. Do not allow the despair to close your eyes. The coming Kingdom promises to break through even the most vivid nightmares of our world. God's reality is just beyond the horizon, ever nearer, waiting to be greeted by the expectant eyes of those who heed the voice of the Master to keep awake.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Sheep, Goats, or Something Else? [Christ the King A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Matthew 25:31-46

Sheep, Goats, or Something Else?

Today’s Buzzfeed quiz is brought to you by the Gospel of Matthew: “BAA or MAA!?: Are you a super sheep or a ghastly goat?” Answer just six simple questions to find out! It is quite a quiz too. It has that essential element that really makes an on-line quiz pop: the element of surprise. Everyone seems very surprised by their results. And to keep it interesting, the stakes are shockingly high – not like “what will my facebook friends think of my results?” high. But still pretty high, like eternal punishment or eternal life.

Today is Christ the King Sunday and the final Sunday of the Church year. And a month of very challenging Kingdom of God parables from Matthew’s Gospel has led us to this dramatic climax: the apocalyptic tale of the sheep and the goats – the final story Jesus tells the people before his arrest and crucifixion. This is the last song in the set list.

In some ways it is shockingly different from the stories that precede it. Those parables were very much grounded in the everyday realities of Jesus’ audience. The settings were weddings, farms, business meetings – familiar places. The stories featured flawed characters who act very human – familiar faces. But as is always the case with Jesus’ parables, the absurd and the hyperbolic always nudge their way into the familiar – puzzling the listeners with unexpected twists and turns – all in an attempt to open a door into the divine mystery.

And though this story comes flush with livestock, it takes place quite removed from one’s typical day on the farm. All of a sudden it is Judgment Day – that great and terrible day, oft described by the prophets of old. Though it should be noted: not exactly as described by those prophets. In this story, there are a lot more sheep and a lot more goats in the throne room. Now, I've never been in the presence of a king upon his throne, but I imagine this scene is much noisier and much smellier than the typical royal palace.

One might consider this an absurd twist on your more typical judgment day throne room scene. And it is. But what I find even more puzzling is that everything seems a little too simple. You see, even though this is clearly a judgment, there really is no need for a judge. The King simply separates the sheep from the goats – a distinction so clear that even a child could make it. I think my boys were probably around two years old when they were able to distinguish one from the other in their picture books. The scene doesn't really require a royal on a throne, a wise king or a discerning judge, just a shepherd or a well-trained dog.

Because things are so cut-and-dry, there is no room for ambiguity, no place for nuance. There is none of the complexity we encounter in our own human relationships or even within our self – where goodness and badness seem to live together in an on-going struggle. Here there is no spectrum, no opportunity to explain, no exceptions. There are just two groups – easily identified and easy to sort.

Even the criteria by which they are sorted is simplistic. There are only six questions on the test – and no one gets a C. Half of the flock aces the exam; the other half puts up goose eggs. And the scene is utterly devoid of questions we might expect to face on Judgment Day. There is no mention of belief. There are no doctrinal standards. No prompt for a confessional statement. No indication if participation in the sacramental life of the Church plays any part in this judgment scene. Oh, and also there seems to be no grace, no forgiveness, no mercy. The people who did good things go to one side; the people who failed to do those things are grouped on the other hand.

In that way, it is a bleak scene. A surprisingly anxiety-inducing narrative, brought to you by the same guy who said, “Don't be anxious about tomorrow.” Good luck – especially to any goats out there in the congregation. I mean, can you imagine hearing this story while lying on your death bed or hanging next to Jesus on a cross after a lifetime as a bandit?

And that is the challenge of this text, right? There is no grace, no forgiveness, no mercy. And yet, these words, this story, falls from the lips of the one who forgave his executioners, responded with love to every person who begged him for mercy, and promised paradise to the bandit who died beside him – a bandit who lived a life of crime and was rewarded with an eternity of grace.

It is difficult to know exactly how to read these texts. We run into this in Bible Study all the time. For example, the book of Joshua, which we are currently studying, is teaching us that sometimes historical texts are not very historically accurate. And we realizing that that's OK because theological fluency was the point; historical accuracy was not the reason the book of Joshua was written. It is what we want from the book, but is was not the writer's goal or concern.

And this is the same challenge that we find with our Gospel today. This story is not what we what it seems to be, not even what we want it to be. We read this story and looks like a vision of the future to come – the prediction of an oracle. And as terrifying as that should be to us, to some extent that's what we want: we want it to be the solution to the problem of judgment – like finding the answers to a test, in this case the ultimate test.

Because if it is that, those of us with breath in our lungs and life in our legs, can get out into the world and earn our salvation. Jesus seems to be telling us exactly how to get eternal life. It reads like an instruction manual. And unlike Lego sets or Ikea furniture assembly instructions there are only six steps. That's not bad. It's a how-to for want-to-be sheep.

And of course, just look at the ending of the story, you want to be a sheep. The alternative is not great. Sheep or goat; goat or sheep: the answer is clear.

But one of the strange details of the story is that no one seems to know where they stand. Jesus makes it pretty clear in this Gospel; if this happens at the end of days, centuries of Gospel readers know the way to the right hand and still, each and every person reacts with surprise – both those on the right and those on the left. “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison?”

It is almost as if Jesus was not expecting his audience to identify with the sheep or with the goats. Is it possible that this tale is meant to be more than the scare tactic we often see it as? The truth is each and every person in Jesus' audience, especially those first followers of Jesus who were Jewish, would already know that God expected them to care for the vulnerable. That is all over the Law and the Prophets. Jesus lived that ethic during his earthly ministry. He spoke it clearly when he reinforced Love of God and Love of Neighbor as the summary of the entire Law. He spoke it clearly in the Sermon on the Mount, found in this same Gospel of Matthew. I'm not sure a strange apocalyptic parable is needed when the message is already clear.

I think it is helpful to consider the original audience. Not only were they Jewish followers of Jesus, they were the same audience to whom Jesus gave the preceding parables: a Church in waiting. And more than that, a small, battered Church being tossed about in a world that did not understand an upstart religious sect that worshiped a crucified man. This Church had witnessed the death of their Messiah, but also the execution of their leaders as well, including Peter and Paul.

If this passage is addressed to the sheep, it is a happy story but one without grace. If it addressed to the goats, it is a tragic story and one without mercy. But what if it was addressed to a third party? What if this story was told to the least of these – a struggling first century Christian community? Then it is drenched with grace.

They were waiting and waiting for Jesus to return, to save them from the loneliness and persecution. This parable reminded them that no matter how bad it got, behind the scenes of eternity, their Christ, Jesus, was sitting upon the throne – Christ the King. He would reward those who cared for them and he would punish those who neglected, ignored, or hurt them. Things might be tough on this side of eternity, but in the bigger picture, Christ was their defender.

But even more than that, even though they felt so alone, they actually were not. Even though they waited and waited, Jesus was with them. In some mysterious way, that eternal King, who on Judgment Day would judge the nations from a throne of glory, was one of them. And every time someone showed that little Church mercy, they were showing mercy to Jesus – because he was right there with them. And every time someone hurt them, they were causing Jesus pain – because he was right there hurting with them. This parable foreshadows the final promise Jesus makes to them to end the Gospel: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

We are no longer that small, persecuted Church. On most days, we no longer remember that we are still waiting. Rather than the least of these, we are members of the world's largest religion – which means we bear the responsibility to be the sheep to the vulnerable and the marginalized. But one thing has not changed: Jesus is still with us – hiding in our hearts and sharing our pain – to the end of the age.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Scary Talented [Proper 28A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Matthew 25:14-30

Scary Talented

There are a number of scary texts in the Bible – tales of the Devil, demon possession, of weeping and gnashing of teeth, and people thrown into the outer darkness. And there are others: there's that time when people offered the wrong kind of incense and were consumed by fire from heaven – which is why I have the acolytes prepare the incense, just in case. There is the part about everything you do in private being made public – which is especially scary for teenagers and politicians. There is pretty much everything in the book of Revelation. And there is that thing where the one perfect, sinless person who loves everybody gets nailed to a cross – which tells me that no one is safe.

And yet, growing up, there was no more terrifying story than this parable about the talents. Let me explain: When I was a child, I was pretty shy. I didn't like to draw attention to myself, didn't like to be in front of people. But I did like to sing – and I was good at it. And that was the problem. God gave me a talent, but I did not want to get up on the stage.

And I knew that put me in a precarious position, because I had heard this parable read and preached in church. And it always made me sweat. I didn't want to lose my singing voice. I didn't want God to take away my talent.

I grew up in the Pentecostal tradition. Pentecostals take the Bible seriously and quite literally – even take the parables literally, as allegories. And so I used to hear fairly often as a boy, “If you don't use your talents, God will take them away from you.” And that is a horrifying thought – especially for a child. But, as a means to an end, it is also an excellent way to get someone to do what you think they should do. And so, it was often applied, in my case, to singing. As in, “If you don't sing for Jesus, you are going to lose that nice singing voice.” And so you can see why this passage was for me the most terrifying of all.

Now at this point, it is worth saying that the word “talent” is the worst thing that ever happened to this parable. The worst thing. To us – especially those of us for whom English is our primary language – the word “talent” means an ability – an ability gifted to us by God or genetics for which we are responsible. If one hopes to live up to his or her potential, he or she must develop that talent – take the raw material and transform it, through hard work and effort, into something useful.

But the Bible was not written in English, neither did the events take place in the United States of America. I hope this is not news to you; I hope you knew that. It seems that the word “talent” found in today's English text was originally talanton in the Greek and simply meant a large sum of money – maybe something like 15-20 years wages for a low-level worker – a low-level worker like the servants in today's Gospel. It was a lot of money but that is all it was – just money. But because the master in our parable doled out the cash according to the ability of each servant, the word talent came to describe, in the English language, “one's natural ability to do something.”1 Give the talents to the talented – or something like that.

The “talent” to “talent” etymological history made this parable easy. The interpretation was built right in. And why mess with that; so few parables are that straightforward. Overlooking all of the other details of the parable – some which should at least give us pause – this became the most obvious of Jesus' parables. Something like this: God gives us talents. God expects us to use, grow, develop those talents. If we don't use our talents, God will punish us, in fact banish us to the place of the weeping and the gnashing of the teeth – which sounds like a terrible place. And so you better be faithful with your talents, or else.

Which I guess, would mean, on the other hand, the inverse must be true as well: a good use of talent earns you divine favor and a place in Heaven. “Well done, good and trustworthy slave...enter into the joy of your master.”

There is something appealing about this interpretation. It allows us to be in control – of our fate, of eternity, of even God. Because of this parable, we know how to get into God's good graces: just sing on stage. That is, once you get over the stage fright, the easiest path to salvation. Unfortunately for us, we favor this whole grace-based system – one in which God loves us and marks us as Christ's own forever in baptism – rather than a “hard work earns heaven” theology. And so perhaps, this parable, this parable that seemed so easy, merits another look.

I think a good starting point is to look at this parable with fresh eyes – as if it were not in the Bible because the truth is when Jesus told it, it wasn't. What would you think if someone just told you this story: There was an incredibly rich man who decided to take go away for a while. But before he did, he called in three of his low-level employees and he gave one, let's say, 5 million dollars. Another he gave 2 million dollars. And to the third, he gave a million. The risk involved is huge, right? You might think at least one of the employees would be tempted to skip town, spend the rest of his days lounging on a Mediterranean beach. They were entrusted with more money than they would make in a lifetime as servants.

But they don't skip town and rich man's risk pays off in cold, hard cash. Though the three employees did not know it, this was basically a high-stakes job interview. The rich master gives no instructions but apparently his expectations were insanely high: double that cash. Now what you need to know about this rich man is that he is the kind of person who “reaps where he does not sow” - which is to say, either he steals from others or at least he makes his fortune exploiting the labor of others. Because more than anything, he likes to make money. He rewards the ones who hustle and double the money. It is not easy to double money without either crazy good luck or some ethically questionable behavior. But money is money and the ones who make him money are rewarded.

And then there is this third employee. In ancient times, burying money was known as the best way to protect it from thieves; they didn't have mattresses back then. And assuming the third employee was Jewish, which I think is fair given the context, benefiting from the system of usury – benefiting from the interest earned on the debts of others within the Jewish community – violated God's Law. So what he did was not unreasonable. He just did not play the game. He didn't make money but he didn't lose money either.

But the boss, the rich man, punishes the third employee severely for merely protecting the principle investment. And I think it is worth remembering that this third employee, the one he punishes, is also the one he judges least able. Remember he gives talents based on talent – to each according to his ability. And yet when the employee fails to meet his unspoken expectations, the rich man utterly destroys him.

If I told you this tale divorced from its biblical context, you might think I was talking about the mob or maybe an ultra-competitive hedge fund or Wall Street firm. You probably would not think I was talking about the kingdom of God. You probably would not associate the rich man with Jesus.

As the preacher, I, as much as anyone, would love to pretend that this is a simple parable. Then I could just scare you into using your talents, of course for the good of the parish, and we could get on with the Creed. But I am afraid it is not. Parables, it seems, never are.

If Jesus just wanted people to use their talents, he would say that. He is capable of speaking in a straightforward manner. He does so elsewhere in the Gospel. He tells parables for a reason. These parables are meant to hook the audience, to puzzle the head, heart, and soul with their hyperbole, humor, and absurdity. They are not meant to be easy; they are meant to work on us.

This parable begins with the absurd: like saying to us the CEO of Wendy's walked over to the fry station and handed an employee 5 million dollars and expected her to double it. That's not going to happen. That would be absurd. The absurdities, and hyperbole, and humor are not always obvious to us 2000 years later. And so we tend to use allegory and read the parables as morality tales – always starring God or Jesus in the role of Master. This parable more so even than most because of the talent translation.

But the easy answer only keeps us from digging into the heart of this parable. It prevents from having to go deeper. And so we stay at the surface and hone our talents to try to earn God's favor. Which we of course do not have to earn, because God already loves us.

I'm not sure what the right answer to this parable is. I'm not even sure there is one right answer. But I know this parable does work on me; it challenges me; it forces me to really ponder what Jesus wants for me, for us.

This parable speaks to me a little differently every time I encounter it. And I kinda think that is always the point of a parable. I think that is why Jesus spoke in parable instead of prose. He could have given us a straightforward, easy answer, but instead Jesus blesses us with questions.

That said, I'm not gonna leave you hanging. I am going to tell you what I hear in this parable, this time. This time, for me, it is about the absence. The rich man always leaves, every time, and this time I really noticed that. Now, I don't think the rich man in the story is Jesus. Jesus was a poor itinerant preacher who forgave his executioners. There's not much resemblance here.

But this parable was given to a Church that has long lived with the absence. Jesus spent three years in the ministry and almost two-thousand years away. And the Church has been waiting. And we are waiting still. Waiting for Jesus to return, to make things right, to make things better, to make this into the world of God's dreams. And as we wait in this volatile, scary, dangerous world, it is tempting to hide away, to play it safe, to bury our light behind our heavy doors and fortress walls.

But I think this parable is calling us to something else. This time, when I read this parable, I think it is Jesus calling his followers to get out there into this dangerous world with hearts wide open, to take a chance on something great, to put our all on the line for a better world, a world that is more dream than nightmare. Yes, we are still waiting for thy kingdom come, but we are not called to wait with our heads and hearts buried in the sand. I think this parable is Jesus calling us to love 'til it hurts, to hope with reckless abandon, to risk while we wait.

1 Sacra Pagina: Matthew, 352.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

All Saints' Day: Baptism and Burial

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Revelation 7:9-17

All Saints' Day: baptism and burial

All Saints' Day seems as if it should hold the answers. And yet instead it is like struggling to find the opening in a curtain that has no opening. Tangled up and twisted, desperate to glimpse the mysteries of the other side, to find answers to the questions that vex us, questions of life and death, of time and eternity. Here we are so close and yet no closer.

What brings us here? To this place? To this day?
To this place – equal parts baptism and burial.
To this day – equal parts baptism and burial.

What brings us here? Is there something we seek? And if so where might that something be found? In the wood of the pews – wood that wears a million fingerprints, worn into shape by a million worshipers, the living and the dead, who sit and stand and sit again and kneel and sit again, wood that holds cards and pencils but also decades of prayers whispered into the air and tears never wiped away – at least not yet?

Or in the stone – stone that seems as if time is no match? Stone that stoically watches, unmoved, unaffected. Stone that could tell the tales of those who filled this nave, this chancel, this pulpit – from one generation to the next, but chooses to stand in stubborn silence?

On the water – the water that sits, still, in the font? It awaits Holy Spirit; it awaits today six more heads. It is water that has the power to change souls, to make born again, to carry death and resurrection, and yet it is also just water.

Or in the chalice – where wine will wait for something mystical to happen, to absorb salvation? But in the meantime will be pestered by gnats while this priest adds the necessary manual acts that will drive away those pests, desperate to protect the holy from the profanity that closes in on us.

Or might it be in the people? Oh, the people: so fickle in a way that wood and stone never are. Today we are looking for saints and so we look into the past because we are sure that here we are simply surrounded by human beings, very real, very frail human beings, human beings struggling right now to intermittently attend to a homily, distracted by money and children, life and mortality, nary a halo in sight. And even though a few of the humans are dressed in the guise of holy men, don't be fooled, the halos, if there appear to be halos, are only the product of old lighting and golden thread weaved through priestly vestments – halos as fool's gold.

All Saints' Day seems as if it should hold the answers. And yet instead it is like struggling to find the opening in a curtain that has no opening. Tangled up and twisted, desperate to glimpse the mysteries of the other side, answers to the questions that vex us. Here, in this place, on this day, we are so close and yet no closer.

What brings us here? To this place? To this day?
To this place – equal parts baptism and burial.
To this day – equal parts baptism and burial.

I deal in mysteries, that is my business, and yet I want to know. Those I love keep fading into the darkness of eternity, the same darkness which continually pulls me closer, and I want to know what lies beyond the darkness, to know the the unknowable. Don't you? Is that why you are here? It would take one glimpse. One glimpse behind the curtain, one tear in the veil, would change everything. To rather know than believe. True, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” But which is better: to be blessed or to rest assured?

I lie in bed, in the dark, not every night, but sometimes, and I wrestle against the cold inevitability of death. I question the arrangement – to know that death is coming but to not know where it leads. It seems less than ideal. Like it should be one or the other: know and know or not know and not know.

That is how it feels in the dark but then, in the day, I stand at someone's bedside and I say Last Rites. And in that moment, though I still don't know, it feels like it is OK, like some divine voice whispers peace through eternity and into my soul – not to untangle the mystery, just to remind me that death is not the end of the story.

Death is the reality waiting at the end of each mortal life. And while that means that every person lives with a measure of grief, also there is grace in a procession that leaves nobody out. We sit where others have sat. And we pray where others have prayed. And though the path of life and death leaves us with more questions than answers, it is a path that is paved before us. It might feel like uncharted territory, but it is not. It might feel like we walk into the darkness alone, but we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.

This day, All Saints' Day, is equal parts baptism and burial, life and death. And that sounds like a juxtaposition of opposites, as if the two were separated by forever and eternity. But the separation is no wider than perception. Death and new life live together in the waters of baptism. And so new life finds its way into burial. The beginning of the journey is also an ending, so the ending of the journey is also a beginning.

With God at every gate.1 And so the mystery, perhaps every mystery, leads us to the same destination.

We don't get to know. I don't know why. And so we are asked to trust – to trust that in the shadows, and behind the curtain, and in every mundane miracle, and in every desperate night, and in every precious death, and through every darkened gate there is God.

And we are asked to trust that God will love, keep, treasure every little one we bury in baptism and every loved one born into eternity. And we are asked to trust that God will see us through both life and death.

We long to be scholars; we get to be mystics. It is not that there are no answers. It's just that easy answers keep us from deep truths and so God does not give us easy answers. God is calling to go deeper; to break the surface and drown in the mystery. We would never learn to trust God, to rely on God, to search for God if the answers to life and death and eternity were easy to find.

It is a change of perspective; it is a new way of pursuit. Edward Hays says that, “The challenge of the saints of the twenty-first century is to begin again to comprehend the sacred in the ten thousand things of our world; to reverence what we have come to view as ordinary and devoid of spirit." The wood and stone and water and wine are rich with sacred stuff – holy vessels disguised as common. And in these pews are saints – flawed and fragile, of course, but made holy by Spirit and marked as Christ's own forever. Even death is teeming with resurrection life. We will never know all of the answers; but the sacred truth is everywhere. Close your eyes; trust your heart and you will see God at every gate.

1 From Emily Dickinson's poem The Journey.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Things that are God's [Proper 24A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Matthew 22:15-22

The Things that are God's

You can almost hear Jesus' eyes roll in this Gospel. One might argue that we are perfecting the art, but partisan bickering and political entrapment are not inventions of the 21st century. Were it not for Jesus' confrontational immediate response, we might be fooled into thinking that this is a sincere inquiry on the part of the Pharisees and Herodians, but there is nothing genuine about the question these political adversaries are asking Jesus. They are trying to drag him into that old soul-crushing abyss: the partisan divide. Politically savvy as they are, they know either answer, yes or no, has the potential to compromise his base of support.

Now, every preacher has been told, at one time or another, to keep the politics out of the pulpit. It's just that the Bible is chock full of politics. It's not the politics we care about, but much of the Bible, including today's Gospel, is politically charged. What we don't know, that the first readers of the Gospel did know, is that there are some interesting political dynamics occurring in this incident. This encounter becomes religious, but it begins in a very political place.

Now these days, because of our political climate, many of us get excited when we encounter any trace of bi-partisan cooperation; if you are one those excitable folks, this will make you happy: the Pharisees and the Herodians, the two groups mentioned in our Gospel reading, were not political allies. And on the issue of this tax, they totally disagreed. But here, they come together around a common cause: to ruin Jesus.

If there is another topic preachers are warned to avoid it is money. No talking about politics and no talking about money. It's just that the Bible is chock full of money stuff – including this Gospel. Jesus is talking about some money, but in Jesus' defense, he did not bring up the subject; you can thank the Pharisees for that. Money has always been a touchy subject it seems – even in the first century; Jesus' adversaries hoped to use the subject, as the Gospel writer makes explicit, to entrap Jesus.

It should be said that the tax about which Jesus was asked was a very specific tax. Jews paid other taxes – temple taxes, land taxes – these were not up for debate. The tax in question was an Imperial tax – a tax paid to the emperor to support Imperial oppression. And so you might understand why many Jews, including the Pharisees, were not big fans of the tax. Very few people enjoy paying for the privilege of being oppressed.

On the other hand, the Herodians did support the tax. It seems strange that there would be any group of Jews who would support the Imperial tax of the occupying Empire. But those individuals who were put into power by the Romans, those benefiting from Roman rule, you guessed it, the Herodians, were happy to support the system that ensured their power and privilege – even if it meant ruffling a few feathers within the tribe.

So, as you can see, the tax was understandably controversial. But there was more to the question than just whether one should financially support the empire. The question Jesus is asked is: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Now we might think: of course it is lawful to obey the law of the land. But the question is not about secular law; it is a question of Jewish religious law.

The Jews, like other occupied peoples living under the authority of the Roman Empire, were required to pay the Imperial tax with Roman currency – instead of their local currency. The problem is the Roman currency bore the image of the Emperor and a declaration of his divinity – specifically that he was the son of god. And that is the rub: possessing Roman currency was considered unlawful by some Jews. The coins broke two of the Ten Commandments: no graven images and no other gods.

So this was the trap: the Pharisees intended to catch Jesus between the loyal Jewish Nationalists, those who wished to be free of Roman oppression and therefore strongly opposed the tax and the Roman currency, and the Roman authorities, who strongly opposed anyone who opposed the tax. Answering either “yes” or “no” would have had significant consequences for Jesus.

Clever as always, Jesus answers the question by not really answering the question. He avoids the trap; he paves a third way. Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's. Rather than answering a question about taxes, Jesus begins a conversation about ownership and belonging.

There is an unfortunate word choice in the version of the Bible from which we heard this morning, the New Revised Standard Version's translation of the Greek. After someone hands Jesus the coin, Jesus says, in the version you heard today, “Whose head is this?” But that wording misses Jesus' point. What he actually says is, “Whose image is this?” It might seem like a small thing, but it is not. Jesus is making an intentional allusion to the Genesis creation stories; that would have been clear in the original text. By suggesting that the coin belongs to the one in whose image it is made, Jesus is making an important theological statement. He is not just answering a question about one's relationship to money or taxes. Jesus doesn't allow us to compartmentalize our lives so easily; every question is theological because all of life falls under the reign of God.

And so Jesus says, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's.” Which begs another question, a question much more immediate for those of us not living under Roman Imperial rule: what things are God's?

In the context of taxes and money, probably the most obvious answer from the biblical perspective is the tithe. The Bible explicitly mentions the tithe thirty-nine times – 32 times in the Old Testament and Apocrypha, seven times in the New. In the Biblical context, including in Jesus' day, that meant 1/10 of one's first fruits – 10% off the top given directly back to God.

Ten percent, the tithe, is a significant offering. And Christians have long argued whether or not to take that number literally. Does the idea belong to a time and culture long in the past or is it still what God expects us to give back to God? Also, before or after taxes? Our own General Convention has even weighed in – reaffirming a number of times that the tithe is the minimum standard of giving for Episcopalians and even encouraging clergy to teach the tithe – which rarely happens because no one really likes talking about money in church.

But is that it? Is the tithe, which for many seems like a lot to give, even what Jesus is talking about when he says, “Give to God the things that are God's”?

The question of what is God's, what belongs to God, is why the translation issue I mentioned earlier is so important; because it gets to this deeper theological point Jesus is making in today's Gospel. The coin bears the image of the emperor; he has staked his claim by marking it with his own image; give to the emperor the things that belong to the emperor. And you, human being, you bear the image of God.

That makes the tithe seem like an infinitely small requirement. God's claim is not on 10% of your salary; according to Jesus, God wants it all – all of you. God has staked a claim by marking you with the divine image. You are made in God's image. You bear the image of God. Give the coin to the emperor; Give yourself to God. NT Wright says it well: “Caesar' are as nothing before the all-embracing claim of the one true God.”1

It sounds like a lot because it is. All you have and all you are belong to God. Which is to say: God wants you. God wants your heart, your mind, your soul, your body. God wants your life. And that is why God marked you with God's own image.

Of course, this has wide-reaching implications. It becomes the reason those symbols of your life and labor end up in the offering plate. It becomes the reason you place your heart on the altar. It becomes the reason you dare to sow love where there is hate, you dare to sow hope where there is despair. It becomes the reason you can't help but share the Good News. It becomes the reason you shout your alleluias at the grave. Because you are made in the image of God and you belong to God. It becomes the reason you forgive yourself. It becomes the reason you let go of the secret shame that has burdened you for years. It becomes the reason you look in the mirror and finally see someone beautiful looking back at you. Because you are made in the image of God and you belong to God – because God loves you and wants you.

Now I know there have been times in your life when people have hurt you and tried to make you feel small. I know there have been times when you have been made to feel unlovable; but that is not true; the God of the universe loves you with an impossible love. I know there have been times when you have been made to feel unwanted; but that is not true; the God of the Universe wants you so badly that God left paradise to come and find you. I know there have been times in your life when you have been made to feel less than beautiful; but that is not true; of course you are beautiful. You are, after all, made in the image of God.

And so you are spoken for. You have been marked as God's own forever. And that means no one else has the right to claim you. That means no one has the right to abuse you or use you or treat you in a way that makes you feel small or dirty. No one has the right to objectify you or dehumanize you.

Because you are made in the image of God. Precious in God's sight, held in God's heart, marked as God's own forever. You, child, you belong to God.

1 Twelve Months of Sundays, 115.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

On Earth as it is in Heaven [Proper 22A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

On Earth as it is in Heaven

I remember vividly that moment on the morning of June 12, 2016. It was a Sunday morning and I was sitting in Room 211, upstairs, meeting with folks who were interested in our EfM program. And I felt my phone vibrate. It was a text message from my wife. She doesn't typically text me on Sunday mornings; she is aware that I am generally unable to check my phone; I have a lot going on and typically a lot of layers to navigate between hand and pocket. And so, I reasoned this must be important. I checked my phone; I wanted to be sure everything was OK.

It wasn't. “Did you see?” The text read. “Largest mass shooting in US history, 50 people.” And I felt instantly sick – though, I have to admit, and I am embarrassed to say this, I was not quite as sick as when I heard about Sandy Hook. I excused myself from the class and went downstairs. My head spinning; my heart breaking. The first thing I did was check on a friend, a college friend who is gay and lives with his husband in Orlando, to make sure he was safe. And then I had to see the news for myself – hoping against hope that there had been a mistake, that it wasn't really true. But it was and so I hurried to add a petition to the prayers of the people before the next liturgy.

All of it was too terrible to really process and so that Sunday morning, between the liturgies, I did things. Trying to respond in the moment to an event in our nation to which one should never have to respond. Later that week, on Wednesday evening, we prayed the Great Litany and tolled the bell – fifty times, one time for each person shot to death in that Orlando night club.

And then this Monday morning, my wife woke me up with another terrible message: “Did you hear about the shooting in Las Vegas? They are saying it is the worst mass shooting in US history.” And instantly I felt sick – though, I have to admit, and I am embarrassed to say this, not as sick as when I heard about Sandy Hook, and not quite as sick as when I heard about Orlando. And that it does not make me feel quite as sick anymore, that makes me feel sick. Because I am worried that the shock is wearing off, like when one keeps watching the same horror movie over and over again.

What should be unbelievable is becoming increasingly believable. And what should shock me, shock us, is becoming too normal, as if, as a nation, we now expect these things to happen. And I will keep praying “on earth as it is in heaven.” But also this week a man rained down bullets on a crowd leaving 60 dead and hundreds injured. And so this week, I think, heaven feels far away.

The first thing I did was check facebook to make sure my uncle and aunt, who live in Las Vegas, were safe. And then I had to see the news for myself – hoping against hope that there had been a mistake, that it wasn't really true. But of course it was.

Later on Monday, Fr. Brendan and I sat down and planned the public prayer services, for Monday evening and Tuesday morning, and then thought about how we might respond to this tragedy during Wednesday's Animal Blessing. We prayed our prayers and tolled the bell – sixty times, it's hard to even say that out loud, one time for each person shot to death. I hate that we now know how to respond to unprecedented mass shootings.

Which brings us to this morning and Thou shalt not kill. This one has been set in stone since the days of Moses. Of all the commandments it seems the most obvious and the most doable. Most people keep it without even trying.

And yet, from the moment Moses descended Mt. Sinai, humankind has invested countless hours and limitless resources developing the most devastatingly efficient ways to break this commandment. We can kill and destroy in such creative and terrible ways that probably we make the devil jealous.
The Ten Commandments have become more symbolic than understood in our nation - something to up on a courthouse lawn or drive around the country on a flatbed truck. The Commandments are surprisingly popular considering one of them is about keeping the Sabbath – not the most popular idea in our culture.

But I suspect the importance of the Ten Commandments has very little to do with what is actually written on the stone tablets. I think for many people the value is found in the promise of a moral code that is set in stone, something constant in a scary world that is ever changing. There is something mesmerizing about a document that seems so black and white in a world so colored grey. Would that the world could be so simple that ten rules were all we needed?

But while the Ten Commandments are God-breathed and vitally important to our faith – both in the days of Moses and still today – they were never intended to be the whole story or the final word. God doesn't stop with these Ten Commandments; the size of the Torah with its 613 laws is proof of this. This is not the end of the conversation; it the beginning. The Ten Words, so-called in the Jewish tradition, is the charter covenant between YHWH and the people God led out of Egypt. God is extending to the people an invitation into a relationship. And so while, some will always think of this as a list of rules, it is actually all about relationships. The Catechism in the Prayer Books asserts that the Ten Commandments are a gift given to the people of God “to define our relationship with God and our neighbors.”1

The Ten Commandments are the beginning of a conversation – a conversation intended to inspire compassion, encourage empathy, lead us into deeper relationships. They have become decisive in our time, but they were meant to foster community. Often we think of these laws as the “Thou shalt nots.” Though it is worth noting, as one commentator points out, “We can keep all of [the commandments] while taking a nap. That's hardly burdensome.”2 But Biblical Scholar Terence Fretheim suggests that eight of the commandments are stated in the negative for a reason. He writes, “As such, they open up life rather than close it down; that is, they focus on the outer limits of conduct rather than specific behaviors. At the same time, the negative formulation indicates that the primary concern is not to create the human community but to protect it from behaviors that have the potential of destroying it. Yet the commands implicitly commend their positive side.... For example... not killing suggests efforts to preserve life.... It is not enough for a community's life and health to simply avoid crimes.”3

God is not calling us simply to Thou Shalt Not; it is not enough to avoid doing terrible things in this world. We are called to make this world a better place, a place more like heaven. No one of us can dispel all of the violence of this age. But each of us can speak a word of life; each of us can take action against the forces of death.

God's first action was to breathe life into the void, into the chaos. We, created in the very image of God, are called to do the same. Thou Shalt Not Kill is not enough. We are people of life. Where there is violence, we sow peace. Where there is despair, we sow hope. Where there is death, we are called to proclaim life. The same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead dwells in us. We are filled with resurrection power. Our story is that life overcomes death – every time.

In a culture seemingly addicted to violence and death, in which mass shootings have become so common we can only remember the ones in which there are double-digit fatalities, we, as followers of the Risen Christ, made in the image of the God who breathed life into Creation, are called to resist the forces of death by any means necessary. See the world I woke up to on Monday morning is not the world I want for my loved ones, for my children. I want better for us. I want Jesus' prayer; that's what I want. I want on “earth as it is in heaven.” And I think you do too.

Everything I read tells me to just accept things the way they are. I'm not gonna do that. Everything I read tells me that nothing will ever change. I don't believe that. Maybe on earth as it is in heaven is too much to ask. But that is the prayer Jesus taught us to pray, so I believe there is hope. We serve a God who raises the dead, so I believe there is hope. We just need to dream bigger dreams. We need to dream dreams of swords beat into plowshares. We need to dream dreams in which gun violence is no more, in which there are no more mass shootings. We need to dream the dreams of the angels – for peace on earth and goodwill to all. We need to dream God-sized dreams for our nation, for our world. I am challenging us to use our holy imaginations to imagine something better. What does it look like? What does on “earth as it is in heaven” look like? And what are we willing to do to make our dreams come true? What are we willing to do to make our prayer, on earth as it is in heaven, become the reality?

1 BCP, 848.

2 Preaching the Old Testament, 95.

3Interpretation: Exodus, 221.