Sunday, December 29, 2013

Fear Not!

A Sermon on Luke 2:8-20

Shortly before Christmas, a few members of my congregation gathered in the church basement to watch and discuss A Charlie Brown Christmas. If you haven’t seen it before, you should – it’s well worth your twenty-six minutes. The classic television special which has been broadcast every year since 1965 focuses on Charlie Brown’s holiday blues and his search for meaning and joy in the midst of the season’s commericialism, competitiveness, and distractions. In one scene, the glum little boy sits down at Lucy’s five-cent psychiatric help stand. Charlie Brown explains his feelings of depression, and Lucy begins to reel off a list of possible diagnoses, until finally she suggests that Charlie Brown may have “pantophobia, the fear of everything,” and Charlie responds with a cry of “That’s it!” so loud it knocks Lucy over.

But, contrary to Lucy’s claim, this five-cent diagnosis doesn’t solve Charlie Brown’s problems; neither does trying to direct the Christmas pageant; neither does buying a little Christmas tree that all the other children find sorely lacking. Finally, an exasperated Charlie Brown exclaims, “Can’t anyone tell me what Christmas is all about?” “Sure, Charlie Brown,” replies little Linus, “I can tell you what Christmas is all about,” and in one of the loveliest moments ever animated, he stands in the center of the pageant stage, and recites from the King James Version the same passage we heard during today’s Gospel reading:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, 'Fear not: for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.' And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.' 
Throughout the entire Christmas story, every dialogue between angels and humans opens with the same words: fear not. The angels who appear to the shepherds, like the angel who appears to Mary, and the angel who appears to Zechariah, and even the angel who appears to Joseph in the Gospel of Matthew, all greet people with the words “Do not be afraid,” or as in the King James Version that Linus quotes, “Fear not.” I’ve always assumed that it must be terrifying to see an angel – after all, the only description of angels that appears in the Bible describes them as fiery six-winged beings.

But listening to Linus tell the story of the angels appearing to the shepherds with the words “fear not,” I couldn’t help but remember Charlie Brown’s earlier diagnosis of “pantophobia – the fear of everything.” Perhaps the reason for the angelic greeting, “fear not,” is not that angels are fearsome creatures, but rather that humans are fearful creatures. Perhaps the words “fear not” are not intended only for the shepherds, quaking in fear at the awe-inducing sight of God’s messengers, but also for all of us.

We humans often live in a state of fear. We live with all kinds of fears. Some of us fear losing a job, or that we will never find a job, or that we will be stuck forever in a job we hate. Some fear that there won’t be enough money to meet our needs. Some fear the end of a relationship, or that we will never find the right relationship. Many of us fear illness, injury, and death – our own, or that of a loved one. In one way, these fears are legitimate – the things we fear are real and painful. But it is also true that fear can run rampant in our lives, sapping our energy, driving our decision-making, and undermining our joy.

I’m a new mom – my baby boy was born in May. And as I’ve become a new parent, I’ve noticed the new part that fear plays in my life. Sometimes fear keeps my baby safe – I cross the street more cautiously, lock up the cleaning chemicals, and keep an eye out for choking hazards. Other times, fear plays a more insidious role. New moms are constantly bombarded with advice and warnings: don’t overdress him! Don’t underdress him! Make sure he gets plenty of sleep or his brain won’t develop correctly! Don’t let him sleep on his tummy or he might stop breathing! Keep him away from cell phones! And anything that might have germs on it (which is everything)! And plastics! And non-organic foods! As soon as he was born, people started warning me about all of the things I should be afraid of, and companies started trying to sell me products to protect my helpless little baby from dangers real and imagined. Disaster seemed to lurk around every corner.

Fear can be an all-consuming emotion, multiplying and amplifying itself. It can crowd out everything else: joy, satisfaction, contentment, trust. It can shout down the trustworthy voices of loved ones and parental instincts and the still, small voice that whispers the love of God. When my son was a newborn, I would gaze at that tiny, fragile little boy in my arms and hold my breath and worry, and worry, and worry about all of the things I needed to do to protect him from harm, and all the harm that might come to him despite my best efforts.

After the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school last year, President Obama shared a quote by Elizabeth Stone, who said that to have a child is “to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” As a new mom, I felt that keenly; I was freshly and intensely aware that there is much to fear in this world, for each of us.

But the angels come, over and over again, saying those words: fear not. Not because the things we fear are not real, but because the good news of God’s love is greater than all that we fear. Because, in Jesus Christ, God has come into the world to share in all of human life: our fears, and our hurts, and our joys. In Jesus Christ, God knows what it is endure pain and sorrow. In Jesus Christ, God knows what it is to share bread and wine and laughter. In Jesus Christ, God knows what it is to be scorned and rejected. And through Jesus Christ, God knows what it is to send a little baby into a world that is sometimes dark and dangerous and hurtful and hateful, but is also brimming with beauty and sweetness and goodness.

God knows that there is much to fear, and God comes to us anyway, and God sends us messengers who tell us, “fear not.” Because in Jesus Christ, God enters into every dark and dangerous place of human life, bringing light and truth and love.

God’s love took on flesh, and God held her breath and gazed at that tiny, fragile little baby, born in a barn, hunted by a powerful king, bringing light and love into a world that would reject him and harm him and crucify him. And although there was much to fear, God’s light shone in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

So fear not, brothers and sisters. Fear not.


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Ora et Labora

Sandwich line volunteers and clients
A sermon on 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

“Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” Who knew that was in the Bible? When we think of the great teachings of the Christian faith, we’re more likely to think of “Love God and your neighbor” or “Blessed are the poor in spirit” or “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.” Sometimes we mistakenly think that all the harsh, punitive, and legalistic texts of the Bible are found in the Old Testament, and that the New Testament speaks only and always of a God of grace, mercy, and niceness. But tucked away in the dusty and neglected corners of the New Testament, we find teachings that appear just as troubling as the difficult texts of the Hebrew scriptures. There it is in black and white: “anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” 

This passage comes from Second Thessalonians, a letter which may or may not be by the apostle Paul. Although the author identifies himself as Paul, in the ancient world, it was common for people to write under the name of the great thinkers whom they admired and hoped to emulate. For a Christian to write a letter that appears to be by Paul would not have been seen as dishonest or unethical – it would have been the moral equivalent of playing in a Beatles tribute band. Second Thessalonians is the most heavily disputed of the epistles which claim to be by Paul – there are solid scholarly arguments to be made either way. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll just refer to the author as Paul today. But ultimately, whether it is by Paul or by one of his followers, it is there in our Bible. It would be a mistake to try to write it off as non-Pauline and therefore unimportant just because it makes us uncomfortable. In some ways, the scriptures we struggle to make sense of are the most important to wrestle with, because they can be so easily misused. 

This very passage was being misused in the news this past May. In debates about cutting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (more commonly known as food stamps) Representative Stephen Fincher pointed to this verse from Second Thessalonians as justification for cutting the program’s budget by $4 billion. Of course, the congressman was arguing based on the false assumption that food stamps recipients are primarily people who could be working but are not. In fact, 41% of households receiving food stamps have at least one working adult – but fulltime work at minimum wage still leaves people in poverty, and so many turn to food stamps to help stretch their paycheck. Furthermore, 76% of households receiving food stamps include at least one child, elderly person, or handicapped person. Hardly a good application for a scripture verse about those “unwilling to work”! 

But more importantly, using this verse to argue about poverty relief legislation misses the context of the verse entirely. Second Thessalonians is a short letter addressed to the Christian community in Thessalonica, which is located in modern-day Greece, a community which was founded by the Apostle Paul. Paul and the Thessalonian church believed that the second coming of Christ was imminent – they assumed that it would certainly occur during their lifetimes, and they awaited it anxiously and with great anticipation. The entirety of the letter is crafted in response to this assumption, and to the things that were happening in the community because of it. 

Given that most of the rest of the epistle deals with concerns about the return of Christ, some commentators suggest that this section about work and idleness flows from those concerns as well. Some of the Thessalonian Christians, they suggest, were so certain that Jesus was returning imminently that they stopped working – after all, what need is there to work if the world as we know is going to end and the Reign of God will begin within weeks? They wouldn’t be the last – many sects and cults in the centuries since then have asked believers to leave their lives, jobs, and families to make final preparations for the end of days. 

But, of course, Jesus did not descend from the clouds in glory, and as the weeks and months and years stretched on, commentators suggest that perhaps those early Christians turned to the church to support their material needs as they continued to watch and wait, and that the passage addresses these people. Perhaps they even saw their imposition on the community as a sign of spiritual superiority – that they were truly devoting themselves to the life of faith, rather than spending time on the mundane matters of daily life. In response to this, the epistle points back to Paul’s ministry: Paul worked as a tentmaker to support himself, even though he also declared that those who devote their lives to spreading the Gospel should receive financial support from the Christian community. If even Paul worked to support himself, the letter argues, why shouldn’t these believers? 

This passage is not addressing the question of whether nations or churches should support programs that relieve poverty – although I would argue that both Paul and Jesus believe in feeding the hungry. The passage does not address at all the question of people who are unable to work. It focuses on the internal workings of the Christian community, calling for a community where everyone cares for their own needs and contributes to the needs of the community as they are able. Our seminary intern Stephen noted in our conversation this week that the word “work” need not refer specifically to employment as we understand it – “work” could refer also to the work of the community, the work of parenting, the work of ministering to the wider world. 

In the sixth century, a great saint of the church named Benedict fleshed out a vision of a community of faith working together in a text which we now know as the Rule of St. Benedict. Christianity was taking a new turn, as some people began to form monasteries, organized Christian communities separate from the rest of the secular world, to live out their faith. Benedict founded several such monasteries, and crafted the Rule to guide those communities. The Rule calls all members of the community to “ora et labora,” or prayer and work. Benedict offers guidelines for balancing work and prayer: at certain hours of the day, the entire community is to engage in the work that keeps the monastery going, tending gardens, working in the kitchens, and so forth. Those with special skills can be set to specialized tasks, but only if it does not lead them to feel superior and haughty toward those without special skills. And those who are ill, infirm, very old or very young should be given work that neither leaves them idle nor wearied by the strain of hard labor. I like to think that, although the language of Second Thessalonians is shockingly harsh, its intention is to point toward this kind of vision of a community living and working and praying together. 

For many years, our church has offered a sandwich line for hungry people, a ministry that we cosponsor with our Catholic brothers and sisters from the Franciscan Community Center. For years, the sandwich line took place outdoors: dozens of people, many of them elderly and physically impaired, would line up outside the church, waiting for waiting for almost an hour in the cold or the heat or the rain for a bag lunch. About a year ago, we made a big change: we opened our doors, set up chairs in the basement, brewed an enormous urn of coffee, and moved our sandwich line inside. We weren’t sure we would be able to manage it, because we knew it would be a lot more work. But something amazing happened: when there was good work to be done, people were excited to do it. Our team of volunteers grew and is growing, and more importantly, the sandwich line clients themselves help out as they are able. Some of the able-bodied folks help us to put the chairs away. People bring cups of coffee to the frailest, like Felicia, who will turn 92 this Wednesday. When there’s an announcement to be made, one of our bilingual clients helps us by translating into Spanish. When the elevator broke, one woman took it upon herself to care for the people who couldn’t make it down the stairs, carrying pastries and sandwiches up the stairs to them, making sure they felt included. 

When I hear a congressman justify cutting food stamps with the words “anyone unwilling to work should not eat,” I wish I could show him our sandwich line: the sense of community, the willing hands, the people caring for another; the very people he dismisses as lazy, working together to create an oasis of grace and mutuality in an unjust world. 

So I don’t mean to make excuses for Paul. But the more I think about it, the more I think I understand where he was coming from: frustrated at the failings of human communities, he admonishes them in the hope of motivating them to move toward a vision of a different way of living. A way where willing hands offer what they have to strengthen the church. A way where holy purpose shapes the community and its members in their living and their giving. A way where those who know the grace and love of God pour that grace out into the world. 

Thanks be to God. 


Thursday, October 31, 2013

Not Like Other People

A Sermon on Luke 18:9-14 for Reformation Sunday

One day about ten years ago, I sat down in the freshman dining hall at my college. It was early in the year, and friendships hadn’t really formed yet, so I had arrived alone, and sat down to eat lunch with two people I recognized.  We all had met briefly in the whirl of orientation events, but we didn’t know each other particularly well. 

“What does your necklace say?” the young man asked, gesturing at the young woman’s silver necklace. 

"Sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide,” the young woman replied. 

“What does that mean?” he asked. 

Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone,” she answered. 

“So it’s a religious thing?” he continued. 

“Yes, she answered, it’s a Christian thing.” 

 “I’m Christian, and I’ve never heard of it,” he mused. So she began to explain. 

She was a devout Lutheran, as it so happened, and the words on her necklace were three of the most important theological tenets of the Protestant Reformation. “Sola scriptura” means “scripture alone.” This was a core principle propounded by the Reformers, people like Martin Luther and John Calvin, who were the spiritual ancestors of Lutheran churches like hers, UCC churches like ours, and many other denominations as well. Against a church that claimed the authority to speak on behalf of God, the Reformers declared that all Christian teaching must be based on the Bible – putting the authority to study and discern the will of God back into the hands of any person, clergy or lay, who had access to a Bible and the ability to read it. “Sola gratia” means “grace alone”; the Reformers taught that God’s love is not meted out based on our merits; we do not, and cannot, earn God’s love. God’s love simply comes to us, regardless of anything we do or fail to do. “Sola fide” means “faith alone”; Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin saw that many Christians – lay and clergy – treated the life of faith as if it were a to-do list: check off all of the boxes, and you would be saved. Against this, they asserted that faith in God is all that is required for salvation, and is the only path to salvation – not going to church, not refraining from sin, not praying every morning and night, not giving all your money to charity – simply faith. 

The young woman at the dining hall table explained the three tenets to us (although perhaps not in those exact words) - beliefs that I would later encounter again and again in my studies as a religion major and then a seminary student. And she concluded with something like,  So that’s why Catholics are wrong.” 

“Are there a lot of Catholics where you’re from?” the young man asked. 

“No, I’ve never actually met one before,” she answered. 

“I’m Catholic,” he told us. 

“…Oh…” she said, with obvious discomfort. 

We all hurried through our lunches, talking about the weather and our class schedules, and I haven’t seen much of them since. But the story comes to mind on this day, Reformation Sunday, as we remember the Protestant Reformers who are the spiritual ancestors of our faith community. And it comes to mind especially as we encounter today’s Gospel lesson, a parable from the Gospel according to Luke. 

Speaking to an unfriendly audience, Jesus tells them this parable: two men went to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee. Now, the Pharisees and the early Christians were often at odds with each other, and so the Christian tradition has come to hear the word “Pharisee” as if it simply meant “bad guy” or “hypocrite.” But the Pharisees were more than that. In a culture where religious observance was largely the purview of religious elites, the Pharisees advocated for more robust religious practice in the daily lives of everyday people. They wanted religion to be practiced by the people, not just seen to by the priests – a concern that they shared with the Protestant Reformers hundreds of years later. 

So a Pharisee went to the temple to pray, and he said, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” Well, that’s pretty repulsive, right? Giving thanks for his superiority to others is a rather arrogant prayer. And yet, he does have reason to boast: he fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of his income, he says. That is to say, he is really making some serious sacrifices to put his faith at the center of his life. One commentator I read observed that churches would be glad to have more members like this Pharisee – who pour their energy into their religious community and life of faith. 

Meanwhile, the tax collector also prays. Tax collectors are another set of stock characters in scripture who are unfamiliar in our modern context (they’re not at all like IRS agents), but unlike Pharisees, who get cast as bad guys because they were in a theological debate with the early Christians, tax collectors were universally despised in Jesus’ context. They paid the Roman authorities a fixed amount for the privilege of extracting exorbitant taxes from Rome’s colonial subjects by any means necessary. They collected as much money as they could bully and brutalize out of the people of their region, paid a set amount to Rome, and got to keep however much was left. They were collaborators with an oppressive imperial regime, their income was squeezed out of people who often were barely subsisting, and they were hated for it. But this tax collector goes to the temple to pray and, Jesus says, he “would not even look up to heaven” to pray; his posture is humble. He beats his breast and prays, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Jesus declares that the tax collector “went home justified,” unlike the Pharisee. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted,” Jesus concludes. 

It is an apt parable to hear on Reformation Sunday, and the temptation would be to cast the Reformers and those who follow them as the tax collector, and the Catholic church they stood against as the Pharisee. Unlike the Pharisee, who believes he can earn his way into God’s heart through fasting, prayer, and tithing, the theology of the Protestant Reformation places the emphasis on God’s love and forgiveness. The emphasis is on God’s faithfulness, not on human faithfulness. Reformed theology emphasizes that we are imperfect – that we mess up and fall short. It teaches that our relationship with God is not predicated on our being good enough. God will always be reaching out to us, because God is loving and gracious and merciful. This parable is kind of a prime example of “sola fide” and “sola gratia.” It would be tempting to conclude that, like the tax collector who puts his faith in God’s grace, we must remember our spiritual heritage and cling tightly to the legacy of the reformers. 

The problem is that, if we followed that interpretation through to its logical conclusion, we might then conclude with a sentiment like this: “God, we thank you that we are not like the Pharisee. We understand theology. We believe in grace and mercy.” And then we would be right back where we started: like the Pharisee, we would be patting ourselves on the backs for having it right, and looking down our noses at those whom we think have gotten it wrong – defining our faith not as a positive expression of our relationship with God through Christ, but in contrast to inaccurate stereotypes of other faith traditions. 

 Like that young woman in the freshman dining hall, like the Pharisee in the parable, it is tempting to define ourselves based on our assumptions of our own superiority. God, we thank you that we are not like the tax collector. God, we thank you that we are not like the Pharisee. 

God, we thank you that we are not like the Catholics, or the fundamentalists, or those fancy Manhattan churches where you’d better have just the right clothes and plenty of money. God, we thank you that we are not like the churches that oppose LGBT inclusion. God, we thank you that we are not like all those people who show up at church only on Christmas and Easter. God, we thank you that we are not like those people who think watching a televangelist counts as going to church. God, we thank you that we are not like that young woman in the freshman dining hall.

Jesus tells us this parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector not so that we can judge the judgmental Pharisee, but to invite us to reconsider how self-righteousness and judgment might stand in the way of our own relationship with God. The Pharisee’s prayer reveals that he is so concerned about how he measures up in God’s eyes that his view of God’s creation is distorted. “I thank you that I am not like other people,” he says. But the other people he names are all children of God, created in God’s image, people who make mistakes and fall short, people who judge others and doubt themselves, people who are capable of love and courage and faithfulness. People from whom the Pharisee might learn something about God, if he had ears to hear. And as we hear this parable, the judgment we feel toward the Pharisee reminds us that we, like him, sometimes slip into judgment and condemnation. Like him, we sometimes forget that in God’s eyes, we are all equally beloved and beautiful, not because of what we have done or failed to do, but simply because we are children of God. And God loves us not because we are better or more correct than other people, but simply because God loves us. 

So as we hear this parable on this Reformation Sunday, let us give thanks for our spiritual heritage not because it makes us better than other traditions (I'm not sure it does), but because it draws us closer to the God who made us all, Pharisees and tax collectors and everything in between. The God who loves us all, Protestants and Catholics and everyone else. The God who has mercy on us all, saints and sinners and those of us – all of us – who are a little of both. 


Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Prodigal Manager

A sermon on Luke 16:1-13
Note: The sermon will make more sense if you read the parable first.

It’s a little bit embarrassing that I have opened so many sermons in the last couple of months by telling you how difficult it is to preach on whatever passage has been assigned for that Sunday. I had really hoped not to do it this week. So I opened my Bible with hope and determination, and found myself utterly puzzled by the Gospel passage. Not to be deterred, I opened my commentaries and navigated to my favorite lectionary blogs to find a little interpretive assistance. Commentator after commentator declared unequivocally that this week is known as Jesus’ most inexplicable parable. 

Perhaps the problem is not with the parable, but with how we are trying to interpret it. Christian interpreters have a tendency to approach the puzzling and confusing passages of the Bible as if they were algebra problems. If we just do enough research, we imagine, the correct answer will emerge. Find the right theological concept, or Old Testament reference, or alternate meaning of a Greek word, and solve for X. The Jewish tradition, of which Jesus and the disciples were part, has other modes of interpretation that might fit better for us today. The practice of “midrash” takes those puzzling places and intriguing gaps in scripture as jumping-off points, imaginatively fleshing out characters and events with a rich tradition of stories. From this point of view, a confusing scripture is not a problem to be solved, but an opportunity for faithful imagination. Rather than an algebra equation with one correct answer, we could envision it as a melody line in need of harmonization. It’s not that “anything goes”: there are plenty of notes that will create jangling discord rather than transcendent harmony; but with study, prayer, and inspiration, there are countless ways to add to the music.

In that spirit, I am going to tell you three very short stories today, stories in the voices of three of the characters in this parable, as we imagine together what Jesus might have been saying in this parable about the rich man, the manager, and the debtors. 

This is the first story, the story of the debtor: 

A hundred jugs of oil is a lot of oil. I didn’t know if I would ever be able to pay it back. Olive oil isn’t cheap now, for all your industrialization and mechanization, but imagine what it cost us then, how much labor went into cultivating those olive groves and pressing out the oil in presses of rough-hewn stone and wood. A hundred jugs of oil I owed! Even the fifty I originally borrowed was a lot – too much – but what choice did I have? My kids needed to eat. You all talk about credit card debt and student loan debt and home owners’ debt as if debt were a twenty-first century problem, but believe me, debt is an old, old thing. 

I knew that I had borrowed fifty, and Josiah the manager knew I was borrowing fifty, and the rich man Nicodemus would have known I was borrowing fifty if he kept his own books. But the Torah laws forbid charging interest. And in a world like ours, that was never going to work – no one was going to lend out of the kindness of their hearts – so everyone just knew the workaround. You would just write down the larger amount, as though that was what you had borrowed to begin with. Oil you have to pay back double, because it’s risky. The jugs can crack, or the oil can go rancid, and then the lender is out of luck. 

Anyway, word got around one day that Josiah had been less than scrupulous with the books – something about sneaking food to someone and trying to cover it up. Nicodemus had caught wind of it and was firing him. When I got word that Josiah wanted me to come and see him right away, I was afraid that my loan was about to be called in. I didn’t have the hundred jugs of oil. I might, someday, be able to repay the original fifty, but not a hundred. Not today. I rushed to Nicodemus’s property, terrified by visions of what would happen to me and my children when I couldn’t pay up. Debtor’s prison? Slavery? 

But that’s not what happened at all. “How much do you owe?” Josiah asked. “A hundred jugs of oil,” I replied. “Are you sure?” Josiah inquired, looking at me significantly, “I could swear I only gave you fifty.” He was right, of course; fifty is what I’d borrowed. “Let’s correct this bill,” Josiah said smoothly. And it was done, the illicit interest forgiven and my debt halved in the stroke of a pen. The reduction of my debt gave me relief, peace of mind, hope, a chance at freedom, finally, from the debt that had weighed on me. Did he do it for selfish reasons? Maybe he did. But blessing came from it anyway: when Josiah came to my door, I had something to offer: a place to stay and a warm meal for someone who had once been a debt collector, but was now a friend in need. It was a blessing and a gift to have something to offer; I, who had always had to ask and borrow and receive, was able to extend hospitality and kindness, grace freely given, as I had freely received. Thanks be to God. 

This is the second story, the story of the manager: 

You start off with the best intentions. Or at least, I had. I was hired to manage Nicodemus’s property and I swore to myself that I wouldn’t be like those other managers. You see, managers didn’t get a fixed salary, paid by the employer. Instead, their income came from extra charges to the borrowers. Someone borrows fifty jugs of oil, say, and pays back a hundred to the property, and a few to the manager as well. Tax collectors make their money the same way, but they’re even less popular, since they work for the Romans. 

I never wanted to be one of the bad guys, squeezing wealth out of the desperation of the poor, but what could I do? You have to feed your kids somehow. And you want a decent pair of sandals, and maybe to eat meat at dinner every so often, and some wine. And would it really be so bad to get one piece of jewelry for your wife? Next thing you know, you’re charging as much as those guys you hated – or even more! 

I felt so guilty all the time, but I just didn’t know what to do. I lived every day with this gnawing, vague sense of helplessness and shame. Sometimes I’d try to soothe my conscience – someone would come who would never be able to pay back their debt, and I’d lend to them and just never follow up. Someone in terrible need, just on the edge of ruin. I’d try to make it come out right in the books, but it never quite did. 

I guess Nicodemus must’ve found out about one of them, because one day he sent me a message: he was going to need an accounting of the property, because he wasn’t going to employ me anymore. I summoned everyone who was indebted to Nicodemus, and I could feel this palpable sense of dread, as they all waited to talk to me. I could see them all, the ones I had given a break to, and the ones I had overcharged to try to cover for it, and I knew they all just hated me. 

But here’s the thing: I knew my job and my comfortable life were slipping away; there was nothing I could do anymore to try to hold on to them. And once I knew that, all of the rules that had kept me bound up with guilt and worry melted away, and I knew what to do. There would be grace and mercy poured out into my life in the days to come, but I didn’t know that yet. I just knew that in the few hours I had left managing Nicodemus’s property, I finally could be faithful to the one who made me, instead of the one who employed me; I finally could serve God instead of wealth. In that room, I turned away from everything I was supposed to do, and I canceled debts left and right. I proclaimed good news to the poor, and release to those captive to crushing debt. And the Spirit of the Lord was upon me. Thanks be to God.

This is the third story, the story of the rich man: 

I know that, comparatively speaking, I never had much to complain about. Feeling conflicted about being rich doesn’t hold a candle to the worries of families who can’t feed all their kids. I know. But there it was: I felt conflicted about my wealth. Guilty, even. I knew that the scriptures didn’t look kindly on the rich. I tried to figure out what to do about it, sometimes, but I just felt stuck. I didn’t go around making “the ephah small and the shekel great,” as the prophet Amos once wrote, but the laws against charging interest? I couldn’t just give out free money. I was rich, not stupid. 

There were nice things about being wealthy, but the lending and the collecting and the accounting… it was all so uncomfortable. I was relieved to finally hire Josiah to handle things. He seemed to be doing a fine job, so mostly I just let him handle things; it was easier that way, and the less I thought about it, the less guilty I felt. 

Everything was going smoothly until one evening when I was at a dinner party, where I heard from a friend that Josiah had given a winter’s worth of food to a poor widow out of my storehouses. I guess he thought he’d be able to cover it up, but she’d let it slip to the other women at the well. The story was all over town, and I was a laughing stock. I would have been willing to give the widow the food if Josiah would have just asked me, but to find out that he’d been stealing from my stores like that and trying to cover it up? I was furious. I got up the next morning and went to demand a thorough accounting, sending a messenger ahead of me. 

By the time I got there, though, Josiah had taken matters into his own hands. He had canceled the interest on every single loan, and I’m pretty sure that some debts had been canceled altogether. Pride, fear, and defiance mingled on Josiah’s face. I know I should’ve been angry, but to be honest, we were so far past that that all I felt was a kind of relief, a sense of freedom. It was like all the wealth I’d accumulated had trapped me under its weight, and I didn’t realize how constricting and suffocating it was until it started to lift. 

I think Josiah expected me to fire him, or worse. I probably could’ve had him thrown in jail. But I looked around at the people he had freed from debt and fear and anxiety, and I knew he had freed me as well. And so I thanked him, and I asked him to do one last thing as the manager of my property: to give it all away to whoever needed it. That night, with little more than the shoes on my feet, the clothes on my back, and the walking stick in my hand, I left my old life behind and started down the road. I’d heard there was a rabbi traveling the countryside, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and teaching about a kingdom where grace and mercy flow like cool water. I set out to follow him. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Broken Record Gospel

A Sermon on Acts 11:1-18

“Stop me if you’ve heard this one,” my music teacher would say. “Stop me if you’ve heard this one,” and he’d start to tell a story or a joke or an instructional anecdote that we almost certainly had heard at least a dozen times. Maybe a hundred. The story about the time he forgot his music for the concert. The example about how parties get louder and louder until you have to shout to be heard. The joke about accordions: “What’s the difference between an onion and an accordion? No one cries if you chop up an accordion.” 

“Stop me if you’ve heard this one,” he’d say. Sometimes we would actually try to stop him – we were obnoxious teenagers, so we’d roll our eyes and shout out the punch line before he got there. But on he would go, through the familiar stories and jokes, deaf to our objections, hitting the same familiar points, sometimes in the same words, until he reached the conclusion. 

Why do people do that? There are lots of reasons – sometimes we’re forgetful, and don’t realize we’re doing it. Sometimes telling the same tired joke becomes a beloved ritual, like this recurring exchange which used to take place in my grandparents’ house and now has been passed down to my parents and aunts and uncles: “Would you like to join me in a glass of wine?” one would ask. “Do you think we’ll both fit?” the other would always reply. 

Sometimes we tell the same story over and over again because we are making sense of it emotionally, learning to live with what we have lived through – often trauma survivors need to retell their story many times as they seek emotional healing. And sometimes, we tell the same stories over and over again because they are deeply important to us.  Whatever the reason, surely we all know people like
that – sometimes we even are people like that – repeating the same beloved stories and jokes to the same indulgent or not-so-indulgent audiences. 

Today’s lesson from Acts, at first glance, doesn’t seem to have this repetitive quality – perhaps you’re wondering why I’m talking about this at all! – but when I studied it this week, I noticed something odd. In the reading, we hear the story of Jesus’ disciple Peter defending himself to other followers of Jesus, his fellow Jews who are asking why he has been breaking Jewish customs by eating with non-Jewish people, presumably eating meals that would include non-kosher food. Peter explains his actions by describing a vision he has had while praying in the city of Joppa. He tells them that he saw a vision of a sheet descending from heaven, filled with non-kosher animals, which a voice instructed him to eat. When he objected that he has never eaten anything unclean or profane, the voice declared, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Three times this exchange repeated, and then the sheet vanished into the heavens. No sooner had the sheet vanished, than three men appeared at the door, inviting Peter to the home of a man named Cornelius, a Gentile. And so Peter went, following the call of the spirit, believing that the vision he had seen bore much greater import, freeing him and the other followers of Jesus from following the laws and customs that separated social groups, in this case Jews from Gentiles, and ultimately opening the early church to believers of both Jewish and non-Jewish heritage. 

We are taught in seminary that when we’re studying a text and preparing a sermon, we should make sure to read what’s around the text: what comes before it, and what comes after it. So I read what comes before and what comes after the story of Peter defending himself in Jerusalem to the other believers. Our reading comes from chapter eleven, in which Peter describes his vision to other members of the early church; but just before our reading, in chapter ten, the narrator describes Peter receiving the vision. The two accounts are equally detailed, and in fact, they are nearly identical, word for word. 

Why in the world does the narrator describe Peter’s vision, and then, only a few verses later, have Peter describe the vision, almost verbatim? Surely the same thing could have been accomplished with just a brief sentence. The narrator could have said something like, “Peter told them all of the things that he had seen,” or “Peter told them about his vision.” It would have been shorter, saving ink and precious parchment in a time when those things were valuable resources. But the narrator not only shares Peter’s words, but emphasizes the repetition by having Peter use almost exactly the same words to describe what the narrator has just described a few lines before. 

I think perhaps, when we hear Peter share the story of the vision he has seen, when we notice that we have already heard this story, it can remind us of something important. It is not enough for Peter to have a private religious experience and let that be the end of it. In fact, it is not even enough for Peter to have a private religious experience that changes the way he thinks and believes and acts, and then keep the reason to himself. 

Peter’s vision has offered him a glimpse into a new thing that God is doing. God is throwing the doors open wide, breaking down the barriers that have contained the good news within the Jewish community, sending Jesus’ followers out to build a community that transcends the social categories of Jew and Gentile. It is not enough for Peter to simply begin to eat with Gentiles. He is called to tell the story of the new thing that God is doing, to invite other followers of Jesus to join him in this new chapter of the unfolding story of God’s love. 

 This is the first most striking example of a story being repeated in the book of Acts – the telling and the retelling occur only a few verses apart, and are close to verbatim – but there are other stories, as well, that we encounter two or three times or more. The apostle Paul’s conversion story is told in Acts 9, but he retells his own story twice – first to a crowd in Jerusalem in chapter twenty-two, then to King Agrippa in chapter twenty-six. Furthermore, the book of Acts is crowded with speeches in which the various apostles tell the story of what has happened with Jesus Christ. 

It is not enough for the disciples to know the good news. It is not enough for us, the readers, to know that they know the good news. Again and again, we are shown the disciples sharing and telling others about God doing new things: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; the conversion of Paul, a former persecutor of the early church; the vision which leads Peter to start spreading the good news to Gentiles as well as Jews. 

To us, who know the story, it can sound a bit like a broken record. Peter begins to describe his vision and we say, “Wait, I’ve already heard this!” But Peter’s speech reminds us that there are others who have not heard Peter’s story. Peter’s speech reminds us of the vital importance of continuing to share the story of God’s unimaginably vast love with people who have not heard this good news – even if we sometimes feel like a broken record, repeating the same old story over and over again. 

A few nights ago, Bishop Gene Robinson was the interview guest on the Comedy Central show The Colbert Report. Bishop Robinson was the first openly gay bishop ordained in the Episcopalian church, and he has been a strong and faithful voice for the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church, as well as for civil rights for LGBT people. He was promoting his new book, God Believes in Love: Straight Talk about Gay Marriage

I grew up in a church which became Open and Affirming in 1987, before I can remember. I cannot remember ever having been part of a religious community that didn’t openly, clearly, and loudly support LGBT inclusion and LGBT rights. And so as I watched Bishop Robinson speaking with Stephen Colbert, a lot of his arguments sounded a little bit old hat. The church of the past has gotten it wrong, he said. God loves each of us, just as we are, he said. There's no asterisk on "you are welcome here," he said. I’d heard it all before. I’d said it all before. 

I listened to Bishop Robinson speak passionately and faithfully and honestly about what he believes God is doing in our contemporary church. And as I listened, I remembered this week’s text from Acts – the same story, the same words, told to new people, because they hadn’t heard it yet. And I realized that every single time Bishop Robinson says those same words, proclaims that same good news, tells that same story of a God whose love is big enough for all of us, someone out in the world is hearing it for the first time. Someone is sitting in front of their television, or listening to their radio, or clicking around on the internet, who has only ever heard of a God of closed doors, a God of insiders and outsiders. Someone, for the first time, is invited to worship a God who is bigger than they had ever imagined. 

Was the conversation from today's Acts reading the last time Peter ever told the story of the vision he received that opened the church to people like you and me? No, I imagine he told that story many, many more times as he continued to spread the good news. Does Bishop Robinson get tired of repeating those same talking points, making those same theological arguments? I bet he does (Correction: he does not) – I know I sometimes do ; I may be a young pastor, but I remember having these conversations since I was as young as eight years old, and sometimes I feel like a broken record. 

Perhaps it’s the same for you: this church has, for decades, been on the forefront of issue after issue, trying to lead the wider church toward more justice, more inclusion, more light, more love, and sometimes perhaps we feel like we’re just repeating ourselves. 

But today’s lesson reminds us that, even if the story we are telling is so familiar to us that we could recite it in our sleep, we are called to witness to the good news of God’s love. Because out there in the world, there is a lot of bad news: bad news of hatred and violence; bad news of oppression and injustice; bad news of a God of insiders and outsiders, whose love is rationed out only to those who think correctly and believe correctly and love correctly. 

There is a lot of bad news out there, and there are many, many people who are thirsty for good news. Good news of love and compassion; good news of grace and mercy; good news of inclusion and welcome. We are called to proclaim that good news, whether we are proclaiming it for the first time or the thousandth. 

When we do that, friends, when we tell that same story over and over, we are not merely broken records mechanically repeating the same old song over and over. We are bearers of a sacred story, a story of God’s love for all of creation made known in Jesus Christ, a story which never changes but is always growing, overflowing every barrier, breaking down every door, taking root and flourishing in our lives, and making its dwelling place in our hearts. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Care and Keeping of Your Pastor

A Charge to the Congregations on the Ordination of my Friends

 Last Sunday, I had the honor of being asked to share a charge to the congregations at the ordination service of two of my dear friends, J. and T.  I first met both of these women at seminary, where I was finishing my M.Div. the same year they started theirs.  Our friendships formed the next year, when we were in an internship program at the same church -- the church where, two years later, their ordination service was held.  

What a joy it was to celebrate with them! Their ministries will surely be a blessing to the congregations they serve, to the United Church of Christ, and to the world.  Here is the charge I offered to their two congregations:

First Church and South Church, you have discerned God’s call to your community to be pastored by J. and by T., and you have answered. It was a bold decision and a good decision. May God richly bless your ministries together. 

Congregations, whether you are welcoming J. as your new pastor, or continuing with T. as your Associate Pastor, my first charge to you is this: Honor her ministry. 

She loves your church. She has studied and trained and worked in preparation to pastor a church – your church – well. She prays for you, and she dreams about God’s vision for you, and when she meets me for lunch on her day off, we talk about how each of us can best minister to our congregation – how she can best minister to you. So honor her ministry by trusting her. Trust her when she wants to try something new, something that pushes you out of your comfort zone, something that really isn’t your thing at all, maybe even something that doesn’t go very well. And remember that if she doesn’t occasionally try something that doesn’t go well, she probably should be more adventurous with you. 

Honor her ministry by telling her the truth when you disagree with her, and by respecting her when she disagrees with you. 

Honor her ministry by remembering that a great deal of her ministry will be invisible to you, and that some of the very best pastoring she does, you will never hear about because of the vow of confidentiality which she took as part of her ordination vows, just a few minutes ago. 

And as a young woman in ministry, I ask you this one practical thing: honor her ministry by supporting whatever decisions she makes about how to manage her own safety. Young women ministers, especially, think carefully about how and when we are alone in the church building, how we handle one-on-one meetings, and what we would do if we felt unsafe. She has considered those questions, I am sure. Perhaps you will sometimes think she is being too cautious. More likely, you will sometimes wish she would be more cautious. But she will make her own decisions about how to do her work well and safely, and what she needs is your trust and your support. Honor her ministry by supporting her decisions, whatever they may be. 

My second charge to you is this: Honor her humanity. 

Honor her humanity by respecting her time off. That time keeps her life more balanced; it means that she has time to nurture her friendships and relationships, to spend with her family, to dance or do yoga, to rest. When she has time to do those things, she is a better pastor and a healthier person. 

Honor her humanity by giving her room to grow and to change. Know that she will not always be exactly the same as the day you first met her, or the day your congregation called her, or today. She will change over time, because she is human. By the grace of God, we all will. 

Not only will she change, but her life might change. Yours might, as well. She will walk with members of your congregation through the beginnings and ends of relationships; through engagements and marriages and divorces; through rites of passage and graduations; through the births of children and grandchildren; through illnesses and the deaths of loved ones; through job transitions and retirements. Perhaps you will walk with her through some of those things in her own life, as well. No matter what changes in her life, she will be the pastor you have called. 

And finally, congregations, pray for her.  I charge you to pray for her, and for her ministry. If you just remember to do that, everything else will be fine. 

May God bless your lives together. Amen.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Broken Bread and Broken Bodies: A Reflection for Maundy Thursday

Tonight, around the world, Christians are gathering for Maundy Thursday services: services where we remember the last night Jesus spent with his disciples. He washed their feet and shared bread and wine with them, a meal we commemorate each time we celebrate communion. 

I love communion for many reasons; I love the idea of sharing equally in the bread, against everything the world teaches us about who should have more and who should have less; I love that this tradition connects us to Christians around the world and through the centuries; I love that we are asked to remember Jesus not just with our minds, but with our bodies. But on this day, on Maundy Thursday, with the shadow of the Good Friday cross looming ahead of us, the communion ritual takes on a much darker tone, and it brings up all of the dangerous and harmful ways that the broken body and the cross have been interpreted to hurt people. 

The church has a long history of using the story of Jesus’ passion to tell vulnerable people to silently accept abuse. A woman in an abusive marriage, a woman who was afraid for her life, once went to her pastor, asking him what she should do about the situation. Her pastor told her that, like Jesus did, she should submit meekly to the abuse. He told her that if she was Christ-like by accepting her husband’s violence, perhaps God would transform her husband’s heart. And so she went back, and suffered in silence. This woman’s story is not unusual; if you listen to the voices of domestic violence survivors, you will find that many Christian women have been asked to accept violence in imitation of Jesus. 

And so on Maundy Thursday, as we anticipate tomorrow’s Good Friday remembrance of the crucifixion, communion makes me uneasy. When I hear Jesus’ words, “this is my body, broken for you,” I remember that this story has too often let the church glorify passive suffering in the face of evil. I remember all of the bodies that have been broken for Jesus, in imitation of Jesus, because people thought that that was what God wanted. And so, although I love communion, I have a hard time with it on Maundy Thursday. But on Maundy Thursday we also hear another story: a story from Exodus

The Israelite people are still in Egypt, and the first nine plagues have taken place. Now, God speaks to Moses and Aaron, saying that what is about to occur will mark the beginning of each year for the Israelites. It will be a momentous event; a calendar-changing event. Each household will prepare a lamb, enough for everyone to eat. But this is not a leisurely meal. God instructs the Israelites to eat “loins girded, sandals on feet, and staff in hand.” The Israelites need to be ready to go. While they eat, the Passover will take place: God will strike down every first born human and animal; only the Israelites will be exempt, because they will have marked their doorposts, and so their houses will be “passed over.” And once this has taken place, Pharaoh will finally relent and the Israelites will be able to go out from Egypt. 

This text talks about a very different response to evil and oppression! In this text, the people are working with God for their own liberation – they are strapping on their sandals and grabbing their walking sticks. They are poised to leave. What a different story to tell a woman in an abusive relationship! This story doesn’t tell her to pick up her cross, to let her body be broken in imitation of Christ. This text says, "God is with you, and God will help you find a way. So eat something, and make sure your shoes are on."  

Although this is a text of liberation for the Israelites, it comes along with a devastating tragedy for the Egyptians: every firstborn, human and animal, dies. It’s hard to see how this can be the will of a loving God – but there it is in the text. We want to explain it away. We want to give some justification for why God would do that, but no explanation we can come up with would be adequate. We want to say that, historically, God did not do that.  But even if these plagues are legend rather than history, they are still right here, in our Bible, so we don’t get to say that they don’t matter. 

The Jewish tradition offers a powerful response to this story: every year, during Passover, Jews celebrate with a meal called a Seder. The celebration includes eating and singing, ritual foods like bitter herbs, and ritual words, like “Why is this night different from all other nights?” The celebration includes drinking four cups of wine. It is a feast of joy. But in the middle of the feast, there is a moment when the people remember the plagues, and the suffering that happened in Egypt in order for the Israelites to leave. They name each plague aloud, and for each plague, each person removes a drop of wine from her or his glass.  Ten drops of wine to remember ten plagues; ten drops of wine from every glass, as people remember that their joy is less because of the sorrow of the Egyptians. No explanation is offered, historical or theological. But for centuries, Passover celebrations have included, in the midst of joy, this remembrance of sorrow and suffering. 

It is very likely that it was one of these meals (not a Seder -- that formal ritual had not yet taken shape -- but a Passover celebration) where Jesus and his disciples ate together for the last time. A meal where the community celebrates liberation, and grieves over suffering – the suffering of their own community, and even the suffering of their oppressors. A meal where they remember the time when they ate with their shoes on and their walking sticks in hand, waiting and watching for the moment when they could act to liberate themselves. 

So as Christians gather at the table tonight, may we remember that the Gospel does not ask us to accept and celebrate broken bodies. Jesus’ journey will lead him to the cross, and there are ways in which Christian faith leads us to take up our crosses and follow. But this story reminds us of something essential: in the face of suffering and oppression, we are not asked to be meek and silent. No, we are called to be ready, attentive to how we can work with God for justice. We are called to put on our shoes.  We are called to take up our walking sticks.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

What Do You Do with a Fruitless Fig Tree?

Sermon on Luke 13:1-9

What do you think of when you think of Jesus? What words and stories come to mind? For many of us, I imagine it is famous stories that Jesus told, like the parable of the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan, or his teachings, like the beatitudes: “blessed are the hungry… the meek… the peacemakers.” Others may recall miracle stories of Jesus healing people with the touch of his hands, or feeding crowds with a few meager loaves and fishes. Or we may think first of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross, and his glorious resurrection on Easter morning. What you probably don’t think of when you think of Jesus are stories like the one we find in our lectionary for today, stories of Jesus saying things that are dark and cryptic, threatening and foreboding.

Two of the young people at my church are preparing for confirmation this year, and as part of our studies, we all read through the Gospel of Luke together, from beginning to end, over the course of about a month and a half. One of the surprising things about the Gospel of Luke – and, in fact, all of the gospels – is how often Jesus’ teachings sound frightening, apocalyptic and mysterious. So it is with today’s reading – in my study Bible, each little section has an italicized heading, and today’s reading is entitled “Repent or Perish.” We may not be familiar or comfortable with these teachings, but if we want to walk with Jesus this Lent, we would do best to walk with him through unfamiliar parables and enigmatic teachings, as much as we walk with him through the green pastures and still waters of familiar words and comforting stories.

You probably noticed that today’s lesson actually has two pretty distinct sections. In the first, Jesus hears news of a tragedy. Apparently Pilate, the Roman governor who oversees Judea, has slaughtered some Galileans, people who had probably traveled to the temple for religious observances. Not only has he killed them, but he has mixed their blood with the blood of the sacrificial animals that were sacrificed at the temple – an act of desecration, of disrespect for Jewish faith and practice, beyond the cruelty and injustice of killing these people for no reason we are ever told. Jesus is told of this atrocity, and challenges the common notion – as common today as it was two thousand years ago – that bad things only happen to people who deserve it. He asserts that neither the Galileans nor those who died in another tragedy, the collapse of a tower in Jerusalem, were deserving of their fate. The listeners’ sins are just as bad, he says, as he calls the crowd to repentance. That is the first section of the lesson.

The second section of the lesson is a parable. Parables, as I’m sure you know, are symbolic stories, meant to teach deeper spiritual truths illustrated by ordinary things. They tend to look simple at first glance, but as we explore them, we find deeper layers of meaning and multiple angles of interpretation. Like a kaleidoscope, we turn them over and over and find new and beautiful reflections of sacred truths. This parable is an unfamiliar one, a parable about a fig tree. There was a man who owned a fig tree, Jesus says. Like many land-owners of the time, he did not farm the land himself, but was more of an absentee landlord. One day, he comes to inspect the fig tree and finds that, once again, for the third year in a row, it has not born any fruit. “Why should it waste the soil,” he asks the gardener. “Cut it down at once!” But the gardener intervenes: “Let it alone for one more year,” he says, “I’ll dig around it to aerate the soil, and put manure on it to fertilize it. Maybe it will bear fruit next year. If not, you can cut it down.”

The parable is left, in a way, unfinished. When I told friends about the text I was studying this week, I would tell them the parable and they would respond, “And then the next year the fig tree bears fruit?” We don’t know, in fact we don't even know how the landlord responds to the gardener – we are left wondering what will happen to this fig tree. Will it get one more chance? And if it does, will it produce fruit? Perhaps a year later the landlord will come back and find it fruitless again. Will the gardener allow it to be cut down then, or beg once again for more time? And by the way, does this have anything to do with the first part of today’s reading, about the slaughtered Galileans?

If you’ve heard this parable before, and perhaps even if you haven’t, you may be familiar with the most traditional interpretation of the parable: the landlord is God, interpreters have tended to assume. The gardener is Jesus, and the fig tree is either humanity in general or the Jewish people in particular. (This last interpretation is because there are some scriptural images in the Old Testament that envision Israel or its people as a fig tree.) The fig tree is fruitless, the standard interpretation goes, because humans are unrepentant sinners, refusing to turn toward God, to love and serve God and neighbor. God is ready to call us to account – to chop that tree down. Jesus, according to the traditional interpretation, is the gardener who intervenes on our behalf. In the face of an ax-wielding God, Jesus intercedes for us, asking God to have mercy on us. Jesus’ love for us may yet nourish us into fruitfulness, if we just have a little more time. In this interpretation, the parable is a call to repentance, telling us that Jesus has intervened with God and bought us some time, but we had better repent and produce fruit before that landlord’s patience runs out. Or so the traditional interpretation goes.

As you may be able to tell, I am not a big fan of the traditional interpretation. Too often, we forget that the doctrine of a triune God means that God is one, one as well as three. If God is one, how can we imagine a creator God eager for our destruction, held off temporarily by the merciful and compassionate Jesus? If God is one, then not only does Jesus Christ, our savior, love us and want to show us mercy and nurture us into fruitfulness, but God, our creator, loves us just as much and wants these very same things for us. An interpretation of a parable that imagines God and Jesus squaring off against each other, arguing over whether to be punitive or merciful, seems to my mind to be on theologically shaky ground. That’s not the God I know, and that isn't the God we proclaim.

What other option is there? What other ways could we interpret this parable of the fruitless fig tree? When we consider that Jesus has just heard bad news of senseless violence done to innocent people, we could hear the story this way: the merciful gardener is the triune God, and the ax-happy landlord is the powers that be, the powers of violence and empire and oppression that demolish and destroy whatever gets in their way, whatever doesn’t conform to their desires. The landlord is human violence, evil, and sin, individual and systemic. This interpretation offers a bit of an answer to the question that the crowd may have posed to Jesus, and the question that has been posed so often since then: where is God when bad things happen? This interpretation imagines God as the gardener, trying to stand in the way of destruction, at work in the world to protect us, time and again. If God is the gardener, then God is always trying to intervene with those who hold the power to do violence, although God’s pleas sometimes go unanswered.

Perhaps, then, this parable is not a warning that Jesus can only protect us for so long from the destruction that God wants to bring upon the fruitless fig tree. Perhaps this is a promise that God is at work on our behalf, trying to protect us from forces of violence and evil.

But what if we are not the fig tree at all?

What if we are the landlord, so quick to judge and find lacking, so ready to condemn, if someone or something doesn’t meet our standards or benefit us? Before telling this story, Jesus has just heard the news of the deaths of the Galileans. He hears the news and he asks, “Do you think they were worse sinners than you?” It sounds like he’s responding to a familiar old refrain; perhaps the crowd is starting to wonder whether the Galileans somehow had it coming. So often when a tragedy befalls someone, voices start to rise up saying that they brought it on themselves; it was their own fault; they had it coming. When natural disasters strike, far-right-wing pundits often blame the calamity on the affected cities or regions for being debaucherous, irreligious, or politically liberal. When a woman is assaulted, people ask where she was, and what she was doing there at that time, and how she was dressed. And how easily do we slip into explaining away everything from heart disease to homelessness as the result of personal irresponsibility, trying to convince ourselves that we are safe and protected from calamity by our own diligence? When we are quick to explain away the misfortunes of others, though, we can become slow to extend compassion, grace, and mercy.

When we hear this story, we tend to assume that we are the vulnerable fig tree, and perhaps that might lead us to look at our lives to see whether we are being spiritually fruitful. That is a fine question. But a more interesting question is this: are there places in our lives where we are too quick to judge, to condemn, to chop down, and too slow to offer grace?

A recent New York Times article entitled “Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?” told a stunning story of a married couple named Kate and Andy Grosmaire. After their teenage daughter was murdered by her boyfriend, they were grief-stricken and angry, but in their grief these two faithful Christians discerned God urging them toward mercy and forgiveness. In their home state of Florida, this sort of crime would most likely lead to life-long incarceration. The bereaved couple sought reconciliation with their daughter’s murderer, and intervened on his behalf. He will serve a very long sentence, and then he will be released, and he plans to devote the rest of his life to anti-violence work. It is not exactly a triumphant story of redemption and rejoicing; there is still pain and sorrow and bitterness; but two people have made the hard decision to choose mercy instead of vengeance, reconciliation instead of retribution.

Choosing mercy and grace does not always come easily to humanity. We struggle to forgive each other; we respond to violence with more violence. We may not always rejoice when we chop down a fruitless fig tree, but we do it with a shrug and a clear conscience. When we hear stories like this one from the Gospel of Luke, we hear them as dark and ominous. But perhaps the dark and ominous presence in this story is not God, but humanity. Perhaps that landlord with the ax in hand is not a vengeful God, but our own vengeful selves. Perhaps we are not the fig tree, threatened with imminent destruction, but we are the landlord, invited to turn away from our own destructive tendencies and towards God’s way of grace, mercy, and regeneration.

If we say yes, if we set the ax down – today or ever—it is because God the patient gardener has been working, year after year, lavishing all of us sometimes-fruitless fig trees with love, mercy, and grace. Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

It’s Not About Losing Weight: Lent, Food, and Five Countercultural Ways to Fast

 As Lent begins, many of us “give something up” for the forty days (forty-six, actually, if you count the Sundays, which the Church traditionally does not) between Ash Wednesday and Easter. For long centuries, Christians have practiced Lenten fasts, abstaining from certain foods, and abstaining from food altogether on certain days. Contemporary Christians often give up sweets, chocolate, coffee, fried foods, and so on. 

But our culture is rife with harmful messages about body image; it tends to define our worth by our weight and attractiveness. In the midst of such a culture, Lent’s call to simplicity and austerity can sound an awful lot like one more message that we would be better people if we could just lose five pounds.  But the purpose of Lenten practices has nothing to do with our culture's claim that our worth comes from our physical appearance.

So I offer to you a few things I hope you will remember this Lent, and five ways you might choose to fast from our materialistic, body-obsessed, consumer-driven culture. 

  • You – including your body exactly as it is right now – are made in the image of God. All of humanity, in our many colors and ages and shapes and sizes, our beautiful diversity, reflects the Creator. Any cultural claim or critical comment that tells you to be ashamed of your body is not from God. 
  • Your body is a good gift from God. Don’t hate it. Give thanks for it. Make friends with it. Steward it well. Give it exercise and water and nourishing food and enough sleep. Take good care of it because it's healthy and feels good, not to try to conform to impossible cultural beauty standards. 
  • Food is a good gift from God. As the Psalmist says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good!” There are no inherently evil or inherently virtuous foods. God will not love you more if you eat more kale and less cheeseburgers. God gave us food – all food – for our nourishment. Besides, God already loves you. 
  • Lenten practices should draw us closer to God. So go ahead and give up chocolate, if you normally turn to it for emotional comfort you could draw from prayer or meditation. Give up coffee, if you fear you’ve made it a false idol. Give up fast food in solidarity with fast food workers. Take up exercise, if you feel called to better stewardship of the body God gave you. But remember, no matter what: you are made in the image of God. And you are loved beyond words, just as you are. 

The Fast I Choose” – Five Countercultural Ways to Fast 

  1. Fast from body-negative media: Mute the television during commercials.  Fast from websites and tv shows that focus on weight and image.  Stop reading body-negative magazines. 
  2. Fast from artificial sweeteners: Eat fruit. (Or real dessert with sugar in it!) Drink water. Sweet things are supposed to have calories. Our desire to satiate our sweet tooth without sacrificing our waistlines might come at great cost to our health. 
  3. Fast from unjust foods: This is basically impossible. But you might choose not to patronize restaurants that don’t pay a living wage. Or you might choose to abstain from factory-farmed meat. Or switch to some fair-trade products (even if paying more means consuming less). 
  4. Fast from mirrors: Again, basically impossible. But what better way to resist cultural messages that our worth is external? One account of a “mirror fast” is here
  5. Fast from disposables: Give up the paper cups, pizza boxes, and plastic take-out containers that deplete our earth’s resources and clog our landfills. Bring lunch from home. Take a reusable cup to the coffee shop.
For more about Lent, food justice, and body image, check out this sermon I gave a few years ago.

Holy One, we give you thanks for the many good gifts in our lives, and most of all for the gift of your love made known in Christ.  Bless us this Lent, that whatever fast we choose, it might draw us closer to you.  Amen.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Your Pregnant Pastor: Ten Things You Should Know

  1. I am grateful that you’re happy for us. Far too many women still face on-the-job discrimination and hostility because of pregnancy. It wasn’t so long ago that it was legal to fire women because they were pregnant! I feel so blessed that this community is excited to welcome our baby. I’m excited too. 
  2. I don’t have morning sickness… any more. For most women, morning sickness is most intense in the first trimester. But the first trimester is the early, risky part of the pregnancy, when miscarriage is most likely, so most women wait until it’s over to tell people. By the time I told you I was expecting a baby, my morning sickness was over. I do have plenty of other pesky pregnancy-related ailments, though, so if that’s what you’re wondering you could ask “How are you feeling?” 
  3. I still love to talk about God. Remember when we used to talk about God a lot? And also about spirituality, the church, and Jesus? It was before I was pregnant. I miss that. Let’s keep talking about God, okay? 
  4. I can still do lots of things! Your pregnant pastor’s mileage may vary, but many pregnant pastors are just fine carrying chairs, setting up tables, taking the stairs, and standing in the pulpit to preach. I know you want me to take good care of myself, and I appreciate it. If you see me doing something that you worry about, please don’t scold me like a naughty child! You’re welcome to ask me “Pastor, would you like me to do that for you?” or "Pastor, do you need help with that?"
  5. But there are some things I can’t do. I might need to sit down if I’m tired, or slip out for a minute or two during a long worship service. I may need to put my feet up on a chair. I might need to eat more often than normal. It is a bit harder for me to keep track of details and dates. Again, your pregnant pastor’s mileage may vary. I really appreciate the grace and patience my congregation has extended to me! 
  6. I’m getting a lot of advice. Like, really, a LOT of advice. Some helpful, some conflicting, some medically unsafe. If you want to share advice with me, I’m more likely to listen if it’s just one or two really important things. The best advice I’ve gotten was from a congregant. She said, “Don’t worry about all the advice you’re getting. You’ll find your own way, and you’ll figure it out. You’ll be fine.” 
  7. I still want to know what’s going on in your life. I know that you’re excited about my pregnancy, but I’m still your pastor, and I want to hear about you! I’ll update you about my pregnancy (if you ask), but then I’m going to ask about your life, and I really want to hear how you’re doing. 
  8. If you want to touch my belly, I’d like you to ask me first. I know it’s sticking way out and it’s very tempting, but it’s still my abdomen. We don’t touch other people’s abdomens without asking. 
  9. I am excited for my baby to be part of the church. I love the church, and I love my congregants – that’s why I’m a pastor! I can’t wait for my baby to meet you, his church family. His life will be richer because you’re in it. 
  10. I will still be your pastor. Sometimes pastors can be parental figures, and a new baby can cause a bit of anxiety or sibling rivalry. So I hope you really hear this: when I am his mom, although things may need to change a bit, I will still be your pastor, and I will still love you.