Sunday, September 28, 2008

The race to the bottom - Proper 21A - Sept 28, 2008

It would hardly come as a newsflash to point out that we are coming to the end of one of the longest presidential campaigns in U.S. history. I believe that senators McCain and Obama are both honorable and patriotic men who sincerely desire the best for their country. However, no one, especially in our time, can become president of the United States without possessing a degree of ambition that is almost unimaginable. The discipline of an Olympic athlete pales beside the discipline it takes to sit in the Oval Office. Furthermore, to become president one must be absolutely convinced that one is qualified to wield more power than any other single individual in the world and possibly more power than anyone else in human history. Finally, I also suspect that no one can become president without a degree of ruthlessness. I don’t necessarily mean that in a pejorative sense, but the pursuit of the presidency requires a willingness to put aside one’s own needs and often to put aside the needs even of one’s spouse and children. It requires a willingness to punish one’s enemies promptly and without sentimentality.

Today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians tells us about another race, not a race to the top, but a race to the bottom. Paul tells us that Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave [or servant]”. Paul outlines five steps in Jesus’ race” to the bottom: he emptied himself of his divine nature; he took human form; he became a slave or servant to others; he was crucified; and he died.

What a contrast to the presidential campaign! One is a race to the top and the other a race to the bottom. One is about having more and more power, and the other is about having less and less power. One is about seeking the highest office and the other is about seeking the lowest place in the universe – the grave. Don’t misunderstand me: we live in an imperfect world. We need officials, including presidents, monarchs, and prime ministers to order human affairs. The United States long ago decided that the office of president would be filled by someone elected to it for a four year term. In order to be elected, one must want to be elected and campaign for the office. And not even our greatest presidents have had unmixed and pure motives for seeking the presidency. But Christ bids us seek service rather than self-aggrandizement. He invites us to join him not in a race to the top but in a race to the bottom, a race to the place of greatest need.

The steps Paul outlines in Philippians are also the steps we have to take. First, Christ “emptied himself.”. We, too must empty ourselves. There are times when we must put the needs of others before our own, God’s priorities ahead of our own priorities. Now, because we are human and finite, we must also exercise good self-care. Without caring for ourselves, we would have nothing to give to others. But if we are attentive to God, then we will find that at times God calls on us to throw caution to the wind and in ways both large and small to give ourselves for others.

Second, Paul tells us that Christ took human form. We also have to get inside the skin and the minds of others – to learn to see the world from other points of view, to empathize with those different from ourselves. The world looks very different from the point of view of the developing world than it does in most of North America. If we are white, we would do well to imagine what it is like to be black in a majority white culture. Christians should occasionally stop and imagine the world through Jewish or Muslim eyes.

Third, Christ took the form of a servant. It sounds simple and it is simple to serve others. We do it every day. We prepare a meal for someone else; we even sometimes do the gracious thing and let the jerk in the approach lane cut in traffic ahead of us. But to be a real servant is to give up some of our power, our prestige, our place of honor. It is to step back and step down and let another have the higher place. It is to be willing to receive orders, rather than to give orders, and these are things I find very difficult to do and suspect you to, too.

Fourth, Christ embraced the cross. To understand what that meant in the first century, we must know that crucifixion was the most shameful form of death in the Roman world. The great Roman orator Cicero said, “Far be the cross from even the mention of a Roman or free-born person.” For us to embrace the cross is to embrace that thing, that place, that we find most disturbing, most difficult, even most shameful. Our cross might be our willingness to let others think less of us in order to save the reputation of another. It might be our willingness to tell the hard truth instead of the easy and face-saving lie.

Fifth and last, Paul tells us that Christ embraced death itself. We die not once but many times. We accept death when we refuse the job with more power and a higher salary because it will require moral compromises. We might die a bit when we reorder our financial priorities so that we can give more to the church and other worthy causes.

Winston Churchill once remarked that we make a living by what we get but we make a life by what we give. For Christ, life was less about having and more about giving. And that is the mind, the attitude, that Paul tells us we should all have.

In Sunday School last week I pointed out that the Roman world put the highest value on honor but that Christianity reversed Roman values by pu tting the highest value on humility. The cross was the most shameful form of death but Christianity put the cross in the very center of their faith. Christianity also seems to reverse the values of our world.

I have no quarrel with those who seek the presidency in order to serve the common good. It is a noble task, and I believe that some are called to it. But all of us are called to seek not the place of highest honor and greatest power but the place of least power and greatest humility. Because that is where we will also find the most profound meaning for our lives and the source of greatest satisfaction. That s where we will find God and the very power of Christ’s resurrection.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Life on this side of the comma (Proper 20A) Sept. 21, 2008

The play Wit is about a 40 some odd year old English professor who is dying of ovarian cancer. In one scene the play flashes back to her grad school days when her principal professor takes her to task for her analysis of a poem by John Donne based on an inferior edition. The older professor says, “It should read ‘Death, comma, thou shalt die.’ Only a comma separates life and life everlasting.”

A lot of people seem to have the idea that religion is mainly about life on the far side of the comma – life everlasting. But Jesus’ parables strongly suggest that religion is more concerned with what comes on this side of the comma, with life in this world rather than life in the next.

Jesus spoke of a merchant going about his business who was set upon by thieves and how a member of a despised minority rescued him. He spoke of a woman who scoured her house from top to bottom to find one of ten coins that had been lost. He spoke of a young man who demanded that he receive his inheritance from his father while the older man was still alive. He spoke of a shepherd who went after a single lost lamb, even though ninety nine were safely in the pen. And in today’s gospel reading Jesus speaks of three groups of workers who receive the same wages even though the first works all day, the second a half day, and the third only an hour.

Did you notice a common thread in all these parables? They all show an interest in and an awareness of the details of money, business, and commerce. The parable of the good Samaritan is about a merchant traveling along one of the principal routes of commerce in the ancient Near East – the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The woman in the parable of the lost coin had lost ten percent of her savings. The shepherd in the parable of the lost lamb seems to be making a foolish decision in putting 99 percent of his wealth at risk to search for one percent. The younger son in the parable of the prodigal son is invoking his inheritance rights as specified in the laws of Israel.

It almost seems too coincidental that the parable of the workers in the vineyard comes at the end of a week of economic news so bad that one could almost describe it as apocalyptic. What does Jesus have to say to us at the end of this week of meltdowns, bailouts, and bankruptcies?

First, I take comfort from the fact that Jesus displayed familiarity with the workings and details of finance and commerce. Make no mistake: Jesus took the side of the poor and blessed them. He told the wealthy and pious young man who sought everlasting life to sell all that he had and give the profits to the poor. He told us that the wealthy would find it as hard to enter heaven as a camel who tried pass through the eye of a needle. But he did not curse wealth or the wealthy; the well-to-do Joseph of Arimathea was one of Jesus’ disciples and provided a resting place for Jesus’ body. For Jesus wealth presented a spiritual problem but was in no sense a sin.

Second, today’s parable does not take sides. The point is not that the employer was unfair in giving less to the workers who worked all day than to those who worked only one hour. Nor is the point that the workers who worked only one hour took unfair advantage of the vineyard owner or of their fellow workers. The point of the parable is that God’s gifts do not get distributed evenhandedly, and that those who enjoy a greater share of the good things of this world are not more loved by God than those who enjoy a smaller share.

So, what message, if any, is there for us in this parable after this week’s extraordinary economic news?

I think there is both a message of comfort and a warning.

We can take comfort in the fact that no matter how late the workers showed up at the vineyard they were rewarded. God is generous and provides for the needs of his children. Furthermore, God gives us more than we deserve, although seldom as much as we desire.

However, in the last words of today’s gospel reading, as well as in the parable itself, there is a warning.

We do well to pray and sing “God bless America.” By and large, America has been a good global neighbor. The Marshall plan rebuilt America’s adversaries after World War II; NATO checked Soviet expansion; and the Peace Corps brought education and health care to isolated parts of the world.

But it would be a mistake to assume that America’s wealth is a sign that we are in some way God’s favorite or that we are being rewarded for being especially virtuous.

The parable of the workers in the vineyard tells us that, like the vineyard owner, God distributes his gifts without regard to deserving. In world terms, America is a young nation. We are, if you will, workers who have come at the end of the day but have been rewarded for a full day’s work.

What will tomorrow or next week or next year or the next century bring? Americans are a small percentage of the world’s population but enjoy a percentage of the world’s wealth far in excess of our numbers relative to the rest of the world. Perhaps tomorrow we will be the workers who work an entire day and receive no more pay than the workers who sign on at 5 pm.

The final words of today’s gospel reading sound a more ominous note: “the last will be first and the first will be last.” The 20th century was the American century but what will the 21st century bring? Will we be first or last or somewhere in between?

Pres. Reagan frequently described America as a “shining city on a hill” and I believe that in some sense that is true. He borrowed that image from Puritan leader John Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity,” who, in turn, borrowed them from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the 5th chapter of Matthew’s gospel. But the words are more ambiguous than they seem. Jesus said, “A city set on a hill cannot be hid.” In other words, the city on a hill would be an example to others: an example for good if it succeeded or an example of failure if it did not succeed.

Winthrop linked the success of the Puritan settlement in New England (and by extension, all of American history) with Micah’s admonition to “love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly before God.”

"Now the only way to avoid… shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to [modify our own desires and needs], for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace… [God] shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, 'may the Lord make it like that of New England.' For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. "

Whether the stock market goes up or down, whether the 21st century is as much the American century as the 20th century was, whether our financial institutions succeed or fail are beside the point. We shall be the “shining city on the hill” if (as Winthrop said) we “uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality… delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.”

I can do no better than conclude with the prayer for America by Katherine Bates, who also invokes the image of America as “a shining city on a hill:”

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears.

America! America!
God mend thine ev'ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Forgiveness (Proper 19A) Sept. 14, 2008

It was the wrong question. It was also not the real question that Peter wanted to ask Jesus. What Peter really wanted to say was, “Lord, if someone gets on my wrong side, when can I let ‘em have it?” But Peter figured that Jesus wouldn’t respond too well to a question like that, so instead, he asked, “If a member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Thinking that he might win some extra points with Jesus for being patient and kind and forgiving, Peter set the bar high for putting up with all the mean and difficult people we have to deal with: “Shall I forgive as many as seven times?”

I am sure that Jesus knew the question that Peter was really asking and also knew that Peter thought that seven times was a lot of times to forgive anyone. His answer floored Peter and should floor us, if we really understand what Jesus is saying: “Peter, don’t just forgive seven times but seventy-seven times.” Jesus was NOT saying that there is a limit to forgiveness; rather he was saying, “Forgive until you have lost count how many times you have forgiven.”

Forgiveness may be the most difficult discipline of the Christian life. In his book Letters to Malcolm, C.S. Lewis says, “I suddenly discovered today that I had forgiven someone who wronged me twenty-five years ago.” It can take 25 years to forgive someone who really hurt us; it can take a lifetime; perhaps it can take even longer than a lifetime. I don’t know anyone who is really good at it, and that includes me. In fact, I think I’m especially bad at it. This may be more than you want to know about me, but I believe there are two kinds of anger: I call them “fast burn” and “slow burn.” People whose anger is “fast burn” lose their temper quickly but then they also get over it quickly. People whose anger is “slow burn” don’t lose their temper quickly or easily; it takes a lot to get them riled up. But when they get angry, they stay angry. I’m embarrassed to admit that my anger is the “slow burn” variety. It takes a lot to get me angry, but when I do get angry, it can take a very long time for me to stop being angry and a long time for me to forgive someone who has angered me. I’ve gotten better about it, but it’s still a problem I wrestle with.

But forgiveness is not only a discipline of the Christian life, it is also an essential discipline for our well-being. Dr. Fred Luskin of Stanford University has done extensive research on forgiveness and claims that practicing forgiveness enhances all aspects of our health – mental, spiritual, and physical. Luskin even claims that forgiveness may help lower blood pressure and reduce stress that damages cardiac health. Luskin teaches that there are nine steps to achieve forgiveness, but I think the nine can be summarized in this way: acknowledge your feelings, choose to feel differently, don’t give away your peace of mind and self-control to the person, institution, or situation that hurt you. And keep in mind that forgiveness doesn’t not necessarily mean condoning what happened to hurt you. (For more information go to

The New Testament hints at some of the problems associated with the unwillingness to forgive. A few weeks ago the gospel reading included Jesus’ statement to Peter, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” One way to understand forgiveness is to understand it in terms of binding and loosing. However, the paradoxical thing is that when we forgive someone, we are not releasing that other person, we are releasing ourselves. We are untying the mental and spiritual knots that bind us.

One of my best friends in college was John. A few years after graduation, John did something that I found enormously offensive, and if I were to describe it, you would probably agree that it was offensive. I told John that I was offended but he not only never acknowledged that he had done anything wrong, he was unwilling to give me a hearing. The result was that we were estranged for more than a decade. Finally, at our 25th college reunion, John apologized. As soon as he did, my anger and estrangement instantly evaporated. Now, John was not the one who was bound; I was the one who was bound by my anger. I could have unbound myself at any time by forgiving John.

The trick is to distinguish between accountability and forgiveness. John needed to be held to account for what he had done, but I believe it is possible to hold someone accountable and at the same time to forgive them.

Note that Jesus did not tell Peter to forgive and forget. Sometimes, especially in intimate relationships, we need to both forgive and forget. When your spouse forgets to take out the garbage or put the top back on the toothpaste tube, then we need to forget as well as forgive. But the child or spouse who is abused needs to find a way to forgive or at least let go of the anger, but they do not, indeed they must not forget. In fact, healing begins with remembering things that have long been forgotten.

Near the exit from the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem is a sign bearing a quotation from a 17th century Jewish mystic: “Remembrance is the path to redemption but forgetfulness is the path to exile.” We don’t have to forget the harmful things that people have done for us, and it20may be necessary to remember them in order to heal them. Indeed, forgetting them, sweeping them under a mental carpet, can make it possible for the perpetrators to harm us or others again. But we also don’t have to hang on to the feelings that those harmful events caused.

It is interesting that this gospel reading comes at the end of the week when we remembered the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Can we forgive those terrorists? Can we forgive Al Qaida? Can we forgive Osama bin Laden?

I believe that forgiving and also holding people accountable are perfectly compatible. I believe that in some sense all Americans, perhaps even all civilized people, were attacked on 9/11. But I also believe it is possible to forgive them. Forgiving does not mean excusing or condoning but it does mean operating from a position of love, not anger. However, the loving thing to do may be to do whatever is necessary to bring terrorists to justice and prevent them from harming others.

One of the best portrayals of the power of forgiveness I’ve ever seen is the film Dead Man Walking. In it we see two couples who are quite understandable filled with rage at a man who murdered their children and they are even angry at the nun who becomes his spiritual advisor. It powerfully illustrates the truth that the inability or unwillingness to forgive binds us, ties us up in knots that only we can untie. Thefilm also illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding about capital punishment. The two couples want their children’s murderer executed because they believe it will bring them peace of mind and heart and in some way will right the wrong of their children’s murder. But there are some wrongs so great that I don’t believe they can ever be made right on this side of heaven, and I doubt that capital punishment has ever brought anyone peace of mind and heart.

Now, even though I am personally opposed to capital punishment, I believe that it may be possible to forgive someone and still believe that the only proper punishment for their crime is to have their life taken from them. What is wrong and indeed contrary to the spirit of Christ is to seek revenge. Capital punishment may be the most appropriate punishment for a small number of crimes, but it must be understood as a penalty imposed by the legal system. It must under no circumstances be understood as a way of righting a terrible wrong or an act of revenge. What brings us peace of mind and heart is forgiveness – letting go of our feelings of hurt and angry and revenge and trying to practice love.

The story is told of a young Roman Catholic seminarian who was verbally and emotionally abused by the head of his seminary. Finally, the head of the seminary expelled him and forced him out of the seminary on a dark, cold, and snowy evening. The seminarian seethed with rage toward this man for years. Once when he was telling the story of this man’s cruelty to an old, wise priest for the millionth time, the older priest said, “My son, you must forgive him.” The young man said, “Oh, yeah, sure… you don’t know what I’ve been through. You don’t know ….” The older priest interrupted him, “What I mean is this. When you say your prayers, say, ‘Heavenly Father, please kill this man who has so cruelly mistreated me.’ And keep on praying that prayer until God changes the prayer to ‘Heavenly Father, forgive him.’”

Be honest with God about your feelings. Pray for your enemies, even if the prayer starts out with “Dear God, please kill them.” But keep on praying and try to change your prayer and your behavior by learning to practice love toward those who have harmed you or harmed someone close to your heart. Henri Nouwen once said that forgiveness is the name we give to the kind of love practiced by people who love poorly and the truth is that all of us love poorly. And because we love poorly not only do we need to forgive others, it is an indisputable fact that there are lots of others who need to forgive us, too.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Gospel of the God who is with us (Proper 18A) (Sept. 7, 2008)

Text: Matthew 18.20: “...where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Mt 18.20)

If it were up to me, I would give Matthew’s gospel a new title. “The Gospel according to St. Matthew” has an impressive dignity, weight, even majesty, about it, but it just isn’t very catchy. I would re-christen Matthew’s gospel as “The God Who Is With Us”.

Matthew’s gospel begins with the story of Joseph’s mysterious and troubling dream in which an angel prophesied that Mary’s child was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that a child would be born to a young woman and that the proper name for that child would be “Emmanuel”, God with us. (Mt 1.23) Matthew ends with the Risen Christ’s promise to his disciples, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt 28.20) And in the very heart of Matthew’s gospel is Jesus’ great promise that wherever two or three are gathered in his name, he is there among them. (Mt 18.20)

“The virgin shall... bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.... God is with us”.

“Remember, I am with you always...”

“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

The Gospel of the God who is with us.

I want to focus on the three parts of Matthew’s great theme: God is with us.

First, it is GODwho is with us. When one of you enters the hospital for surgery, you certainly want your family to be there, and you would probably like to have one of the parish clergy there. It’s comforting when a friend or family member promises us, “It’s OK; I’m here for you”. But Matthew’s promise is of a different magnitude altogether. It is the Creator of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible who promises to be by our side.

But do we really want to take God up on his promise? Having the Almighty at our side might be more terrifying than comforting.

Annie Dillard famously asked, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does not one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares: they should lash us to our pews.”

The God who promises to be with us is like TNT – a source of infinite but uncontrollable power. The God who promises to be with us loves us unconditionally, but God also invites us to take up our cross and follow him, to lose our lives for the sake of the Kingdom. Along with the comfort and assurance we receive from God comes the demand of discipleship.

Secondly, God promises to be WITH us.

Anthropologists tell us that different cultures have different ideas of the appropriate space between persons. It’s a bit of a generalization, but people in Mediterranean cultures often talk very animatedly almost nose to nose. Northern Europeans (and most North Americans) prefer a little more distance.

The God who promises to be with us appears to be more Mediterranean than northern European. This is a God who does not maintain a polite distance. This God promises to be with us, to be in our midst, to be among us. This is a God we cannot keep at arm’s length. This is a God who is closer than our next breath.

God does not say to us, “I’ll be right over here if you need me. Just give me a shout.” This is not a God to whom we can say good bye at the end of today’s service and leave in church until next week. This is not a God who will leave us alone.

Francis Thompson’s great poem, “The Hound of Heaven” speaks of this God who does not maintain a safe, polite distance:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind: and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.

And it ends:

Halts by me that footfall:
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
“Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.”

Finally, the God of Matthew’s gospel promises to be with US.

God promises to be with us, with frail, fallible human beings. This may be the most remarkable part of Matthew’s theme.

It would make more sense if God promised to be with the stars in the Milky Way. That would make sense to us. God, after all, is majestic, splendid, all-powerful, and all-knowing. We would expect God to inhabit the vast reaches of space. It might make sense if God promised to be in the crashing waves of the ocean. To paraphrase the prophet Elijah’s great insight, God is not in the earthquake, fire, and whirlwind; God is in the still, small voice, and in that frailest of all vessels – the human heart.

God promises to be with us. Now note something very important here. The “us” God promises to be with in today’s gospel, indeed throughout Matthew’s gospel is plural. That is not to say that God is not with us when we are alone, but the promise, the assurance, the certainty of God’s promise, is to us not individually, but corporately. “...where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Mt 18.20)

That’s a hard saying for many of us, including myself. I tend to be a loner. I want to do things on my own. We live in a culture that is individualist to the Nth degree. But God tells us to come together and promises that when we do come together under his banner and in Jesus’ name, that he will be with us.

The reason that God makes this promise to us corporately is that it is only through others that we are able to receive love from God and offer love to God. Jesus’ great promise to be present wherever two or three are gathered in his name is prefaced by a discussion of what to do when a member of the community hurts or offends another member. Jesus was nothing if not realistic. Even the community gathered in his name and experiencing his presence will be a place of conflict. We know that all too well. But he tells us to come together anyway.

“...where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Mt 18.20) God is among us, because corporately we are Christ’s body, the sacrament of Christ’s presence in the world. Perhaps C.S. Lewis put it best when he wrote: “There are no ordinary people You have never met a mere mortal... Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ... the glorifer and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.”

The message of Matthew’s gospel is so simple, I can sum it up in three phrases: GOD promises to be with us; God promises to be WITH us; God promises to be with US. Amen.