The Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King by The Rev. Martin Elfert

 

Nov. 24, 2019

Lessons:

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

It is the end of the church year and, as is always the case, we bring these liturgical 365 days to a close with the Feast of Christ the King. Now, what is unusual about this particular Feast Day, about this particular “always,” is that in this case “always” doesn’t actually mean that all that long. Christ the King is a Feast that was created by Pope Pius XI in 1925. Originally the Pope had Roman Catholics celebrating Christ the King on the final Sunday in October and then, in 1969 or 1970, depending on which part of the internet you ask, the Feast got moved to the last day of the church year.

It is not clear when the Episcopal Church started keeping the Feast of Christ the King. Indeed, if Scott Gunn, the editor of Forward Day by Day and one of the creators of Lenten Madness is to believed, the answer to that question is “never.” Gunn says that the Episcopal Church has never officially adopted this Feast at all and, therefore, what all real Episcopalians know is that what we are actually celebrating today is the Last Day of the Season of Pentecost.

Now maybe that is a lot of insider baseball. But I am bringing it up because I want to suggest the history of this Feast and the intention behind it may have some things to teach us.

Cast your mind back to 1925. Most of us here this morning had not yet finished college by then. But see if you can remember what was happening in the world at that time and, in particular, what was happening in and around Rome where the Vatican is located.

1925 was the year that Benito Mussolini came to power, that he became Prime Minister of Italy. So it was a time of rising nationalism and, still more specifically, of rising fascism. And one of the things that fascism looked and maybe still looks like is a leader, a human being, having this God-like status. Mussolini was someone who bordered on all-powerful, all-knowing. Whose will it was wrong to question, whose will it was maybe even impious to question. To question or to challenge Mussolini was very nearly to question or to challenge God.

Mussolini was Lord of Lords and King of Kings.

And it is in response to this understanding of the world, to this theocracy, to the model in which the leader overlaps with God, that Pope Pius says No. There is one King, there is one Lord, and he ain’t somebody goose stepping around Italy in brown pants.

This Feast, in other words, is explicitly political in nature. It declares that our faith as a Christians, as followers of Jesus, places profound demands on how we engage with the world of politics.

And if we want, we can regard Pius’ decision cynically. We can conclude that Pope Pius was lamenting the erosion of power by the Vatican and by the Pope in particular, that he was longing for centuries gone by in which the Pope was something pretty close to a monarch or a god himself.

And maybe that cynicism would be fair. But here is one of the things that I trust about God: God can and does take things human actions that maybe did not have the best motivations and find a way of making them holy. And no matter how pure or impure the intention behind this Feast may be, it has something important to say.

I think I have told you before about my late friend, Barbara. Barbara was well into her nineties by the time that I met her. She was full of years and full of wisdom. And Barbara said something to me that I think about often. She said:

We need to be careful about what we worship.

Because we will worship something.

To put Barbara’s thought another way, notwithstanding the hand-wringing that sometimes goes on in churches about a perceived decline in religious participation, in fact there has been no decline in religiosity whatsoever. To this day, 100% of human beings are religious, 100% of us our giving our lives, our attention, our hearts to something that is irrational or, if you prefer, transrational.

Virtually all of us, for instance – including virtually all of us here in church this morning – are worshipping early and often in the religion called consumerism. Consumerism is the promise that we will find healing, belonging, and meaning in stuff, that we will find transformation, in the accumulation of stuff. This is a religion that we keep on worshipping in even though it lets us down every single time. As Jeanne shared with us a couple of weeks ago, no matter how many shoes you accumulate, you will not satisfy your deep longings.

Some of us worship in the religion that is booze. It is our own Gary Tuck who pointed out to me that many bars feature row upon row of beautifully arranged and beautifully lit hard liquor, a setup that Gary calls An altar to alcohol. Some of us worship in the religion that is called work, boasting to our friends about how many hours we work and how little sleep we get, answering the question How are you? with the words I’m so busy. And some of us, as in the days of Mussolini, worship a public figure, a celebrity or a politician.

There are way, way more examples that we could find. And so our question is not, Am I religious? but rather it is something more like:

Have I chosen my religion critically and wisely and lovingly? and

Does my religion give life to me, life to my neighbour, life to God’s creation?

Maybe we could use the language of the Bible here and phrase those questions a different way:

Am I worshipping that which is joyous and true? Or am I worshipping a false idol?

Now, I want to stop here and emphasise that when I speak of idolatry, when I speak of bad religion, I am not speaking of other expressions of what we typically call faith. I am not the least bit troubled that someone is a Hindu or a Muslim or Buddhist or whatever. To the contrary, I am glad that those folks have a practice that invites them into conversation with the divine, I trust that, at some level beyond human understanding, those folks and you and I are talking about the same ultimate reality, about the same God.

No. When I speak of idolatry or bad religion, I am talking about that stuff that promises to fill the God-shaped hole that all of us have in our hearts and that fails spectacularly over and over again.

It is in response to this bad religion that comes the Feast of Christ the King. In response to the promises of Mussolini and his contemporary descendants, in response to the promise that you will find your salvation in iPhones and shoes, in response to the promise that you will find freedom in booze, in response to all of these idols, Christ the King says no. Here are religions that invite us into selfishness and apathy and maybe even self-destruction and hatred, and here is title of King, a title that belongs to the patriarchy and to the world of power and violence.

Here is given to a peasant who is murdered for telling too many people that all they really need to do is love God and to love neighbour.

Crown him with many crowns goes the old hymn. And this is the mystery of this Feast day, this is the mystery of our faith. That when all of the false idols gather together, when the bad religion that is empire takes Jesus, takes God, and nails him to a tree, there God reveals the futility and brokenness of empire’s violence once and for all. In God’s suffering on the cross, which God does in solidarity with every human being who suffers and with the suffering of the earth, we discover the staggering truth that Jesus Christ is King.

Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Nov. 17, 2019

Lessons:

Malachi 4:1-2a
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

 

 

One of the themes that recurs throughout Jesus’ teaching is:

Be ready.

You don’t know when the bridegroom is coming, you don’t know when the owner of the house is coming, you don’t know when the thief is coming. So stay awake. Have your lamps filled with oil, build your house on solid rock, slaughter the fatted calf and make sure that you have dinner in the oven.

Jesus is a bit like the motivational speaker who tells us:

If you fail to plan, then plan to fail.

That’s how Jesus talks.

Except when he doesn’t.

Except on days like today when he says:

Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance;

for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.

Is this just Jesus trying to keep us on our toes? That’s entirely possible; I’m not going to rule it out. Jesus absolutely has the capacity to take the steering wheel and turn it hard, so that just when you are sure that a parable or a teaching is going one way it is suddenly skidding hard and facing back where it came from. But here’s what I’m wondering about this morning: what if when Jesus says that hard times are coming and that you and I aren’t to prepare our defence ahead of time, his instruction isn’t contradictory to those times when he says that we are to be ready but, rather, it is complementary?

Here we are in church. And what we are doing here together is a practice. We are practicing being Christians, we are practicing being in community, as Brené Brown says, we are practicing coming to the communion rail with people whom we would sometimes like to choke. We are practicing following Jesus. We’re not here because we have everything figured out, because we know with perfect clarity what we believe, because God has explained everything to us. Quite the opposite. We’re here because we do have doubts and because there are questions that don’t make much sense to us.

We are here because we sense that we need to practice.

And like every practice – like practicing scales on the piano, like practicing your lines for a play, like practicing your baseball swing, like practicing driving (what else belongs on this list?), maybe like practicing law or practicing medicine, the practice that we call church is sometimes exciting and sometimes beautiful and sometimes weird and sometimes aggravating and sometimes boring.

But we trust – I trust, anyway, and I’m guessing that you are here because you do as well – that all of the practice matters, including the hard and boring stuff, maybe even especially the hard and boring stuff. Because my understanding from folks who have gotten really good at something, let’s say folks who have gotten really good at playing the piano, is that they have gotten near to mastery because they have put in the kind of boring but kind of vital work that is doing stuff like playing scales.

And maybe Sunday morning in the Episcopal way has some things in common with playing scales. The liturgy – the order of service that we follow across this morning – is remarkably predictable across the year. We sing different hymns, we wear different colours, we say some different prayers. But a sermon such as this is almost always followed by the creed which is almost always followed by the prayers of the people which, unless it is Easter, are almost always followed by the confession and absolution, which is almost always followed by the peace.

Our practice takes us on this well-worn path. And while there is some variation on what we do on the path – some weeks there is a puddle on the path that we need to walk around – the path itself remains the same.

Walking this path is part of how we obey Jesus when he says, Be ready. Practicing is big part of how we get ready.

But having practiced there are times when we get to or, maybe, when we have to put down the structure of scales or Sunday liturgy and improvise. There are times when we have to make up our minds not to prepare.

So. One of the things that most folks who want to get ordained do is to spend a stretch of time, maybe ten weeks or so, functioning as an apprentice chaplain in a hospital. This time of apprenticeship is known as clinical pastoral education, or CPE. CPE is kind of legendary among ordinands. During CPE you have the privilege, the wonderful and the terrifying experience, of walking into the hospital rooms of strangers.

And I think that those of us who came to CPE having practiced church a lot, those of us who came out of structured traditions such as this one, often wanted to bring our structure with us into the hospital room. The Book of Common Prayer is a kind of security blanket. And I guess that we reckoned that, if we prayed with people in hospital beds using the official prayers within it, then we couldn’t go too wrong.

Except that sometimes, oftentimes, the set prayers of the BCP could prevent us from really listening and really being present with the folks in those rooms.

And so we got an instruction from our mentor, Will Hocker. Will said:

If you must bring a Prayer Book with you into a hospital room, make it a small one.

And leave it in your pocket the whole time.

Having prepared, having obeyed Jesus’ command to practice, to get ready, it was now time for us to obey his command not to prepare. Doing all those scales, if you like, had gotten us ready for a place where it was a good and holy thing not to be prepared.

I wonder how many other parts of our lives are the same? It is kind of a commonplace to say that we live in alienated society, but it’s a commonplace because it’s true. A great many of us are mystified by our neighbours who do not think or act or vote like us. A great many of us do not even interact with our neighbours who do not think or act or vote like us. We don’t encounter those folks except on Twitter or, maybe, over an excruciating Thanksgiving dinner. And at dinner, over the turkey, we either ignore that which divides us or we engage it with anger and even contempt.

We have in our hands our prepared talking points, our prepared jabs and jokes, our prepared data, our prepared tweets. And these things will earn us likes and high fives from people who already think like us. And they will do nothing, nothing to open our hearts or minds or to open the hearts or minds of our neighbours.

Now, let me stop here and emphasise that I am not championing some uncritical moral relativism where everyone is entitled to their opinion and all opinions are equaled valid. No. There is an objective wrong and an objective right, I insist on that, some opinions are far, far better than others. What I am saying is that, if it is our hope to be the best and most moral people that we can be, if it is our hope to follow Jesus as completely as possible, sometimes we need to set down our prepared everything and get curious.

I had an experience a few weeks back that I have been thinking about a bunch. There is a public figure out there whom I do not admire. As you think about my experience, I’ll invite you to imagine a public figure whom you do not admire. And I friend and I were talking about that public figure when my friend caught me utterly off guard by expressing their deep admiration for that public figure.

I was so startled that I didn’t say anything. Which is probably just as well, because if I had said something, it would have been:

Why do you like that guy? He’s a total wiener.

Looking back, I wish that I had gotten curious. I wish I had said:

Tell me. What is it that you admire about this public figure? What is it that you think that they are doing great?

And maybe that is what Jesus is doing in his teaching this morning. When he says, for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict, I’ve always heard his teaching as something like a revenge fantasy. With the Holy Spirit’s help, I am going to be able to turn the tables on my opponents, I am going am going to humiliate the people who have humiliated me, this will be like the last scene in an action movie where the villain gets what they deserve.

But what if what Jesus means is that, when you encounter violence and contempt, you do something amazing and keep on remembering the full humanity of the one who is turning that violence on you? What if you respond with curiosity, with generosity, and love?

Here’s the hard part. Jesus is really clear that this may not work. Even more, he is clear that it probably won’t work. He lists off all of these calamities, all of this suffering. And then he says, Make up your minds not to prepare. And then he goes right back into calamities and suffering. Jesus may well be saying that there is a one in ten chance of an open heart changing a situation that is filled with hate, maybe a one in a hundred chance.

But he says,

Do it anyway.

It is worth the chance that the wily Holy Spirit will move in their hearts and in yours. And something will change.

This is the holy naivete of the Gospel.

Jesus’ disciples have prepared and prepared. They have followed Jesus and listened to Jesus and imitated Jesus. And now with all of that preparation done, it is time not to prepare at all. It is time to go towards that which they fear and to make up their minds not to be ready. And as they meet their neighbour who maybe wishes them harm, as they meet their neighbour with their hands empty and their prayer books in their pockets and their phones turned off and their hearts full, maybe their neighbour will notice just a little of the love of Jesus that they are carrying with them.

And maybe that love will prove to be something that no one, no one, is able to withstand or to contradict.

 

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Jeanne Kaliszewski

 

Nov. 10, 2019

Lessons:

Job 19:23-27a
Psalm 17:1-9
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Luke 20:27-38

 

We have been hearing Jesus in a lot of arguments these past few weeks, but this one feels different somehow. There is no back and forth between Jesus and the questioner, no probing questions from Jesus in response, no mysterious parable offered.

Jesus seems simply to have no time for this question because, I think, the question itself presupposes only death. It is death upon death upon death…7 times in fact. And the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God that called to Moses in the desert to free God’s people from bondage and slavery into freedom and justice and new life, has no patience with a worldview that starts and ends only in death.

Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive Jesus says.

Furthermore, the Sadducees riddle posits an afterlife which is pretty unimaginative. I mean, not only is the woman in this hypothetical viewed only in relationship to men in both life and death, and thus still subject in the afterlife to the same oppressive power structures Jesus’ whole ministry is in opposition to, but the resurrection described simply replicates the way life works here and now. This world, its relationships and problems and ways of living and interacting are simply transferred from this life to the next.

This is not how God works, Jesus says. In God we find a qualitatively different kind of life, and a qualitatively different kind of death. In God systems and relationships and structures which are not life-giving have no place. Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive.

Jesus offers no details or description of what resurrection looks like. And much like I wish he would explicitly call out the patriarchal assumptions of the Sadducees, I also wish he provide more detail of how resurrection works….but that is not what we get.

What we do get is a clear response that life in God, resurrected life, is completely different than the life we live without God. The systems and ways we interact with one another are fundamentally changed in a resurrected life…are transformed in the love of God.

What is posited by the question in today’s Gospel is a transactional understanding of life and death. But Jesus says, hold up, that is not how God works. God is the God of the living. Life in God is not a series of transactions from birth to marriage to children to death. Life in God, even death in God, is transformed by the love of God which is always generative and creative.

And we are called to participate in that life of love.

We are all here, I think, because this is a place, this is a community of followers of Christ, where we find life. And that means, I think, as Jesus is teaching us in today’s Gospel, that this is a place where God creates new life and where the transactional patterns of the world are transformed into the life-giving love of the kingdom of God.

And one place where that contrast between transaction and transformation is clear is when it comes to money. The world tries to tell us that spending our money will lead to a new life…..but that’s a lie. Buying a new phone or new shoes or whatever can feel good for a bit, trust my friends I have a closet full of shoes to prove that….but it is ultimately deeply unsatisfying because it is only a transaction. I give someone my credit card and they give me something in return and that thing gets old or breaks or the novelty wears off and I am right where I started.

But sharing my money in this place, giving toward the life-giving work of God that is happening here….that is transformative. A few weeks ago Martin shared that he and Phoebe tithe, they give 10% of their money away. Since I started here with you good people, I have also pledged 10% of my salary from Grace to Grace.

Which from a transactional view seems kind of silly, right? I mean wouldn’t it make more sense to just say I will work for 10% less rather than go through the motions of you all paying me and then me returning the money back to Grace?

But something happens in that process…in that circle. In the process of Grace giving  me a stipend, in the process of you all in this room paying me, I am incorporated into the life and family of this place. And then when I pledge it back to Grace, it becomes so much more than simply a few hundred dollars per month. It is transformed, in and through God’s life-giving Spirit and the good work and people of this place, into something greater than it was……

And that is not to say that only money does that. It certainly does not. But just as resurrection is the promise that our whole selves, our entire being from the tops of our heads to the tips of our toes, will ultimately find new life in God, when we give of our whole selves to this place….our time, our talent, and yes, our treasure, we are fully participating in the life-giving kingdom of God.

God takes our offerings, our money and talents, our bread and wine, and transforms them into something life-giving. The experience of being in this place is far more than the sum of its parts….I mean we have to pay for the heat to be on and the lights to be lit and the space to be clean and the clergy to be here…but those transactions are transformed in and through and with God into a community of Sunday morning worship of song and praise, into a parish hall full of Phame students drumming along with We Will Rock You, into classrooms full of children making art and friendships every summer at Grace Art Camp, and into tables full of hot and delicious food for those who join us here every Friday night.  Just as God transforms everything, even death, into new life, so does God transform all we give to Grace into life and hope and love.

(For 10 am…. In a few minutes, right before the Peace, we will be taking some time to prayerfully consider our financial commitment to Grace for the upcoming year, fill out our pledge cards, and bring them up to the altar. I love that we do this together, as an act of worship and praise and community to be blessed and celebrated together. Thank you for all you are and all you do and all you bring to this place.).

Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive.

 

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Jeanne Kaliszewski

October 27, 2019

Lessons:

Jeremiah 14:7-10,19-22
Psalm 84:1-6
2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18
Luke 18:9-14

From the moment we enter this world we are quantified.

Newborns are whisked away from their parents and weighed and measured. They are scored 1 minute after birth and then again at 5 minutes on this scale called the Apgar scale, which from 1 to 10 rates how healthy they are when they are first born.

And this comes from a very good place, I think. This comes from an intention to protect something so vulnerable and new in the world.

But it keeps going, doesn’t it?

I remember as a new parent going anxiously to the pediatrician, at 3 months at 6 months, and given graphs showing where my child fell on the growth curve. I was given scores every 3 or 6 months of how well they were measuring up against the developmental milestones they were expected to be achieving every 3 or 6 months.

And this keeps going and going. When they enter school they have to know a certain number of sight words by the end of kindergarten and are ranked in their reading level compared to their peers in their grade. Assessments are given, standardized tests, college rankings, what major you should choose based on what you will earn…on and on and on. Our lives are quantified by mathematical formulas.

And I think this comes from the same place as it does at the beginning of our lives: to protect us from being a human being in this world, and unpredictable and scary world where we are so vulnerable. And so we hold onto these things we can quantify, these solid numbers that tell us “yes, our children are going to be ok, yes, we are  ok.”

And so in this morning’s Gospel when we hear the Pharisee go to the temple and begin to pray to God (and perhaps to those who are surrounding him) and share how he is measuring up in his life of prayer, in his righteousness, in his justification before God. He prays “I fast twice a week when only once is expected, I give 10% of my income.” I suspect that this impulse in the Pharisee is coming from a similar place, an attempt to guarantee his righteousness and holiness in front of God.

And before I go on I just want to make a quick note about the Pharisees, because it is easy, especially when we spend a lot of time in the Gospel of Luke, to kind of equate Pharisee with hypocrite or corrupt official. And that has more to do with the writer of the Gospel of Luke and the context in which he was writing than it does with the tradition of Pharasaical Judaism which is a rich, important and valuable tradition in the Jewish faith. In fact, there are many scholars who believe that Jesus himself was raised up within the Pharisee tradition. So just a sort of caveat as I go on in this sermon and any time we talk about the Pharisees, please know this is Jesus offering a parable, a character and not something we should use to judge this entire tradition within Judaism.

All that being said, Jesus is very, very critical of this Pharisee in today’s parable. He is critical of the way the Pharisee is attempting to quantify his righteousness and prove himself to be justified in front of God. But perhaps even more so Jesus is critical of this Pharisee when, in temple, when he is praying and the Pharisee looks across and sees a tax collector also there, praying, obviously deeply hurt and in pain, beating his breast, the Pharisee’s reaction is “Thank God, I am not like him.”

That image of the tax collector beating his breast is quite an arresting one, it is almost as if in the presence of God he is trying to break his own heart open, and present it to the Lord.

The academic and sociologist, Parker Palmer, suggests that there are two images we can keep in our mind’s eye when we think about a heart being broken. The first is imagining the heart as a brittle and fragile thing, that when it breaks it breaks like a wine glass dropped on the hard kitchen floor, smashing into thousands of pieces, shards flying everywhere, never to be made whole again.

The other image he suggests we use for a broken heart is that of a fist. A fist in the middle of our chest that when it is broken opens up like a hand, fingers splayed wide, to hold our own hurt but also to hold the hurt of the world in the palm of our hand.

I would suggest today that the tax collector in today’s Gospel, when the Pharisee saw him, was trying to do that very thing, to break open his heart like a hand to recognize in that moment that whatever hurt or anguish or pain had brought him to that place that day, he was ultimately and completely at God’s mercy, vulnerable before God reliant entirely on God’s grace and love.

What’s also interesting about this image, this gesture that the tax collector uses in the temple that morning, this gesture that Jesus refers to in describing him, this beating your breast or chest is one reserved for women in this culture that Jesus lived in. And more specifically women who were grieving a deep and painful loss.

There is perhaps no more powerful emotion in our human experience than that of grief. And perhaps within that spectrum of grief nothing more overwhelming and painful than a parent’s grief at losing a child. The image I imagine for this kind of grief is that it is like being dropped into a dark ocean, angry and stormy, with nothing to hold onto and no land in sight, trying desperately to keep your head above water.

I have some friends, Mary and Dustin, who I think are in this deep abyss of grief right now. I don’t know if y’all had heard of this story by there was a young man, named Owen Klinger, who went missing a couple of weeks ago and his parents were searching for him along with a lot of us as well. Owen was in kindergarten with my daughter and we have known Owen, and Owen’s parents, since those early school days. We did not know Owen well, I do remember Owen as a joyous, athletic, funny, musical kid who was always there. He was really a beautiful boy.

And so last week on Tuesday, at the University of Portland where Owen was in his first year, the community there had a mass to come together and grieve the loss of Owen who, after being missing for two weeks, his body was discovered in the Willamette River. It was clear that the deepest fears of his parents and those who knew him had come true, that he had died.

And this community gathered in the chapel of the University of Portland and mourned the loss of their friend, of their brother, of their son. And after that service Mary and Dustin went out to the press that had gathered in front of the chapel and spoke to them.

And in that moment Mary, most especially, embodied a heart which has been broken, not like glass on the kitchen floor but like a hand put forward to the world. She shared that when she had dropped Owen off at college a couple of months before, she had said to him “Owen, I want you to make a difference, I want you to impact this community.”  She said she had wondered whether he was listening to her. But she said that morning just leaving from a service grieving her son, she said she realized that he had been listening to her. She said that even in his death he had made an impact on this community, that he had brought  people together from all over the city who had looked for him, who had cared for him, who had prayed for him and who held him in prayer and love.

In that moment, her heart was broken open like a hand and she was saying, I think, that the value of his life could not be quantified in the too few years he had spent on this earth but in fact in the love and spirit he had embodied when he was alive and he continued to have in his death. In that moment, God held Mary’s heart and God held Owen’s as well.

I think, sometimes, we think of Christ’s divinity primarily in Christ’s strength, in the miraculous strength it took to overcome death and the power of the resurrection, in the joy we find on Easter morning. And my friends, that is real and there is true joy in the world and there is power in that image.

But I would also suggest that Christ’s divinity is found in his deep vulnerability, perhaps no more than when he was on the cross when he cried out in pain and anguish “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”. In that moment Christ is at his most human and most divine. And the good news is that even in that awful place, that there is no pain so deep, no grief so wide that Jesus or overwhelming that we human beings experience that Jesus is not there with us and always will be.

And we know that, I think, because every Sunday we gather at this altar and we remember Christ’s body broken and the blood poured out for us. And we offer up our hands and a piece of Christ’s heart is put in them and we take that piece of Christ and we bring it into ourselves. And we are called, my friends, to be brokenhearted people and sent out into the world, a world that desperately needs more broke hearts. Hearts broken open in sadness and grief, but also hearts broken open in joy and love.

I would like to leave you with a poem by Mary Oliver:

 

Lead

Here is a story

to break your heart.

Are you willing?

This winter

the loons came to our harbor

and died, one by one,

of nothing we could see.

A friend told me

of one on the shore

that lifted its head and opened

the elegant beak and cried out

in the long, sweet savoring of its life

which, if you have heard it,

you know is a sacred thing,

and for which, if you have not heard it,

you had better hurry to where

they still sing.

And, believe me, tell no one

just where that is.

The next morning

this loon, speckled

and iridescent and with a plan

to fly home

to some hidden lake,

was dead on the shore.

I tell you this

to break your heart,

by which I mean only

that it break open and never close again

to the rest of the world.

 

 

 

 

 

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost by Anne North

Oct. 20, 2019

Lessons:

Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 121
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

What to expect when you are expecting the worst : living with metastatic breast cancer

I have been leery most of my life about showers. I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in about 1960 at age 12; my parents were expecting a thriller very like The lady vanishes, and instead got two frightened children who they kept sending to the concession stand but who peeked. So it is probably understandable that it was in the shower where I first discovered my tumor with the size and shape of a Lego brick.

Statistically, I am a likely candidate for breast cancer. My mother had it, the Pacific NorthWest is a hotspot, and the unexpected is regularly sprinkled here and there among us.

Vladimir Putin had just invaded Ukraine at that point in time, February 2014, so naming the tumor Putin was easy. We have comfortably settled into informality; he’s now Vlad to me

Kaiser has a rather impressive army of specialists you see at the start of the adventure. They lay out an array of possible treatments, use jargon like tumor boards and estrogen positive receptors and I highly recommend bringing a scribe with you to any high stress medical encounter. My son and daughter came with me, allowing me to go into a trance, as one does, at the first mention of the word cancer.

There are some dismaying facts and statistics out there. The one in eight rate of women acquiring Breast Cancer isn’t inevitable, but certain sets of the population are genuinely at risk at some point. We can lower the odds of severe outcomes by early diagnosis and body awareness. Many women are the first diagnosed in their families – my mother was one  – but many other women are aware of relatives who have struggled over the years.

My impression is that all varieties of the medical profession are still working to definitely know how and why cancer strikes. We know certain activities heighten the risk of disease. Smoking, heavy drinking, excess weight gain, being a down winder from a nuclear reactor, age, genetics and … ?? Diet?? Lifestyles?? Not to increase your paranoia, but infusion nurses have noticed and told me that they are seeing more and younger patients arriving for chemotherapy treatments.

My Vladimir Putin resurrected in 2016 and added some extra spots scattered across my ribs and other bones. So far, the variety of treatments I have received keeps the fires tamped down and my body reasonably functional. I was surprised that treatments aren’t based on Three strikes and you are out as I had assumed. The attention and publicity over the decades have paid off in a huge array of drugs, treatment plans and the tantalizing prospect of breast cancer along with all the other nasty varieties becoming a chronic disease.

Adding to the mysteries surrounding the disease, there are varying statistics by racial background. Diagnosis and treatment are uneven across the nation. Historically, access to studies and medical care has been unequally available across the population. African American women are statistically later to be diagnosed and more susceptible to resistant forms of cancer that really need early diagnosis. After living in the United States for a period of time, both African women and Latino women are reaching statistics similar to the African American experience.

In the last 9 years, the Portland chapter of the Susan G Komen Foundation has worked through the Worship in Pink program to focus on the African American community and to reach out to remind and encourage all populations of women to take proactive steps toward health. Grace Memorial has sponsored the program here over the past 4 to 5 years.

My experience has been one of having many different medicines infused into my veins, working to tamp down the aggression of my tumors. Side effects vary, some challenging others pretty mild. I may never have a normal head of hair again, but then what better excuse for hat shopping? Nurses know how to get you through treatment crises, they really are the best.  The unexpected, which always happens has been the warmth, kindness and support of family and friends and neighbors. I feel the caring, I feel the sense of being held up by many. Family with whom I agree about nothing, pray for me. I am so blessed.

Some people have commented that I seem to be rather cheerful about my prospects. The reality for me is that when I was first diagnosed several friends were also treated for other forms of the disease – pancreatic cancer and ovarian cancer. Earlier, a friend had esophageal cancer. These are less common and less publicized maladies, and my friends had more difficult, challenging treatments leading to speedy deaths.

I cannot complain. I have lived well and have a good shot at making it to my goal — to vote in the 2020 election. Everyone needs goals!

 

 

 

Blessing of the Animals, The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Sept. 30, 2018

Lessons:

Jeremiah 22:13–16
Galatians 6:14–18
Matthew 11:25–30
Psalm 148:7–14

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.

For I am gentle and humble in heart,

and you will find rest for your souls.

Why do we like Saint Francis?

Probably the most obvious answer, especially on a day like this one, is that Francis loves animals and so do most of the rest of us. Francis is the thirteenth century’s answer to Ace Ventura, Pet Detective: a bird perched on his shoulder, a mouse in his hand, wolves and dogs and cats curling around his legs.

And that’s beautiful stuff. To have a dog look at you in tail-wagging adoration is amazing, it is a foretaste of heaven. When a member of our family would return home after a few days away, our late dog, Bodhi, would run jubilant laps around the living room. In those moments Bodhi looked like he had won the lottery or, possibly, the Super Bowl.

There really is something to the old bumper-sticker prayer:

Lord, help me to be the person that my dog thinks that I am.

And so we are kind of going to be drawn to a saint who embodies our love of animals, who gets that love.

But I suspect there’s more, that Francis’ connection with animals is not the only reason that, in a time when most of us do not keep feast days, we keep Francis’ feast. My guess is that we are drawn to this human being because, almost 800 years later, we have the sense that Francis, in imitation of Christ, was and is deeply free, that he was possessed of a profound freedom.

Now before we go any further, let’s acknowledge that, in America, in October of 2019, freedom is a complicated word. We have neighbours for whom, somehow, wandering around a Walmart with an assault rifle is freedom; for whom the frantic consumption of the earth’s resources is freedom; for whom indifference to the suffering of the least of these is freedom; for whom celebrating war is freedom.

If that is what freedom is, may I be in chains.

I’d like to make the suggestion that real freedom, the freedom of Francis, the freedom of Jesus, is not like that stuff at all. Here’s the definition of freedom that I would like us to try out this morning:

Freedom is living with deep trust.

Freedom is living with the deep trust that God made us to be good; that our lives have meaning; that we, as individuals and communities, have the agency and ability to respond to God, to live into that goodness. It is to trust that there is enough, that God has given us a world of beauty and abundance, and that if we want, if we choose, there is enough for absolutely all of God’s children to thrive. It is to trust that no one and nothing owns us. And maybe this is more difficult – or maybe it’s the best part, I’m not sure – it is to trust that we don’t own anything, that everything we have, our very bodies included, are fleeting gifts.

Here’s the thing about freedom, about the freedom of Francis and of Jesus before him. Here’s what makes it kind of dangerous. Francis’ freedom is glorious, it is holy, it might be the best thing. But boy, is it hard.

Because Francis took Jesus totally literally when Jesus said Sell what you have and give the money to the poor. Francis chose to live in poverty; he chose to beg for his food; notwithstanding being disabled and what today we would call being chronically ill, he lived a lot of his life outdoors. He spoke Brother Sun and Sister Moon and, amazingly in our death-denying culture, even Sister Death.

And not many of us live that way. I certainly don’t. I like living indoors; I like knowing with something pretty close to certainty that I will have plenty of food for tonight’s dinner and for every dinner this week and every dinner this year; I like being able to travel; I like being able to save for retirement and for my children’s college education; I like having a computer and watching Netflix on it.

I am probably not going to be selling everything I have and giving it to the poor or to anyone else. And I don’t think all that many other Christians are going to do so either.

And yet I long – dare I say we long – for Francis’ freedom. Because as much as I like all of that stuff, all of the goods and services and privileges that I have, this stuff also troubles me, it is also something like a burden, something like a yoke that is heavy.

What does it mean that, by my own standards at age twenty, I am fabulously wealthy, and yet I am still worried that I won’t have enough, that my money will run out? If anything, I might be more worried than I was at twenty, more stuck in a place of scarcity than I was then. That suggests that I could have a hundred million dollars or a billion dollars or a gazillion dollars, I could have enough to pay off the national debt and still go yachting every weekend, and I would still be worried about running out.

And let’s be clear, my worry – and if this in any way sounds familiar to you, your worry – is not a character flaw or a failing or even a mistake. Rather, it is the consequence of careful design: constantly being worried about running out is how consumerism trains us to live. Consumerism tells me and you that we cannot join Francis in participating in the abundance of Jesus, in the feast where everyone gets fed, where the loaves and fishes never run out, because if we pass on the dish with the fish and the bread on it to the next person, there might not be enough for us.

So.

In addition to being St. Francis’ feast day, today is the first day of our fall financial stewardship campaign, that season of the year in which all of us who love this place that we call Grace Memorial are invited to prayerfully consider making a pledge towards God’s work through our parish. And when I realised that these two things were going to coincide on the calendar, St. Francis and money, I thought to myself:

Well, that sucks.

What a bummer that something as joyous as remembering Francis and blessing animals is intersecting with the annual chore that is a pledge campaign.

But then I thought some more and I prayed some more and I said:

Why am I acting and talking about giving to God’s church as though it were a chore? Because my experience actually hasn’t been that way at all. My experience – much to my surprise – is that financial stewardship is kind of a joy. That giving intentionally and prayerfully to church is a tiny taste of the freedom that Francis had.

This is a testimonial.

I don’t know if we are allowed to give testimonials in the Episcopal church. But here we go.

When I first started going to church on a regular basis some fifteen years ago, I encountered this idea called pledging. I’d never really heard of pledging before, it wasn’t part of my life anywhere else, anywhere in the so-called secular world. And so Phoebe and I had to encounter this question:

We love this church; how much are supposed to give? How much do we want to give? How much can we afford to give?

Both of us were working in the performing arts which, as you perhaps know, is the opposite of lucrative. We weren’t wealthy.

Rather than tossing a dart at a board or rolling dice or whatever, we took the advice of our priest, Peter, who said, Why don’t you try out giving twenty-five dollars a week? (Indexed for inflation, maybe that’s $32 or $33 a week now.) We did, and our family’s adventure with pledging began.

Over the ensuing years, we were lucky enough or blessed enough or privileged enough to increase our giving. It wasn’t a linear increase, like an escalator going up: when I went to seminary and our income got dramatically reduced at the same time that we started paying tuition, our giving reduced dramatically as well, and then it resumed its increase as we entered the workforce.

Now, here’s the problem with hanging out with people who have gotten serious about following Jesus. They challenge you. Their challenge is loving, but the challenge is real nonetheless. People who have gotten serious about following Jesus challenge you to see the dignity of every human being, even the human beings whom you don’t particularly like or respect. People who have gotten serious about following Jesus challenge you to understand the earth as something holy, as something pretty close to God’s body, and therefore as deserving of our reverence. And people who have gotten serious about following Jesus challenge you to have a day planner and financial statements that both proclaim how big a deal the Gospel is in your life.

Some of these people even challenge you to consider tithing.

Let me pause here to say that I am aware that I am walking out into a little bit of a minefield here, that there is more than one person in this room for whom the subject of tithing is a catalyst for annoyance or even resentment. And I get that: like so many things that the institutional church has gotten its hands on, the tithe has been used in a screwed-up way a lot of times, it has been a weapon for guilt trips and shame.

But I want to suggest that, like other churchy words that so many of us are suspicious of – words such as evangelism or ministry or even religious itself – we are allowed and maybe even called to take back the word tithe, to claim it, to allow the possibility that it is something good and holy. That the ancient, Biblical practice of setting aside 10% of what God had given us and giving that 10% back to God just might be wonderful.

A few years ago, Phoebe and I started to wonder about the tithe. We were drawn somehow to this practice – like a lot of the things the Holy Spirit does, She kept on gently and persistently suggesting to us that we take on this practice. Phoebe and I looked at each other and said: Is there any way that we could pull that off?

I have a gross salary of just over $80,000 a year. Is there any way that we could possibly give just over $8,000 a year to Grace?

But starting a few years ago, we tried it out.

And friends, the tithe has become one of the most rewarding aspects of our family’s shared spiritual practice.

For our family, the tithe has been the end of wondering whether we were giving enough, whether we were making a sacrificial gift to our church. It has been the end of being conflicted about our giving. It has been a choice to live with generous hearts, to know that our finances match up with our values. It has been a choice to trust that we have enough, that God’s abundance includes us. It has been a declaration that our money doesn’t own us. It has been a choice to loosen our grip on our money.

It has been a little taste of St. Francis’ freedom.

I know, from speaking to other folks who tithe, that our experience is not unique. That for those who are able to adopt this spiritual practice, it is liberating. And so I will invite you to talk about tithing with your loved ones, to pray about it, and if you haven’t done so before, to consider whether tithing might be a spiritual practice that you would like to try.

I reckon that we love Francis because, like Jesus before him, he was so deeply free. He took Jesus’ yoke and he learned from Jesus. And in doing so, he found rest for his soul.

May you and I find that kind of freedom that Francis had.

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Jeanne Kaliszewski

Sept. 29, 2019

Lessons:

Amos 6:1a,4-7
Psalm 146
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31

I was about 5 or 6 years old when I got my first pair of glasses. Everyone in my immediate family, my parents and my siblings, they all had perfect vision. So no one thought I might need some help seeing. Until, I think, in kindergarten or first grade the teacher reported to my parents that I seemed to be squinting a lot at the board, sometimes actually getting out of my chair and walking up to it to see what was written there. So my teacher told this to my parents and they hurried me off to the opthalmologist, I got my eyes tested, and about two weeks later I got my first pair of glasses.

And I do not really remember this experience but my mom did tell me about that first ride home from the eye doctor. She said she could hear my voice coming from the back seat, exclaiming in wonder and awe at the things I could now see in the world.

“Look! Look at the leaves on the tree!”

“Look, there is a dog walking down the sidewalk, not just some blob.”

“Look at the flowers and the birds….aren’t they beautiful?”

As a child I did not know that world looked that way until I got those glasses. And sometimes I have that same experience when I encounter certain passages of scripture, like the parable we hear Jesus sharing this morning.

Certain passages of scripture bring a clarity, a crispness to my vision of the world and help me see, perhaps, a glimpse of how God sees the world.

And we can see this even in the way this parable is written. There is a tremendous amount of detail in these few short lines. As a reminder this is one of a series of parables, of stories, that Jesus is telling the people that the writer of Luke/Acts describes as “Pharisees and sinners and tax collectors.”

And Jesus, I think, starts kind of gently with these parables. We get these lovely, sort of warm and fuzzy stories of lost sheep and lost coins. And then I think he starts to get a little more pointed as he goes along, we hear the parable of the prodigal son, the parable of where to sit at the wedding banquet, and then the dishonest manager.

And then we land on this parable, the only parable in the Gospels in which two of the characters are named.  And the details with which Jesus tells this story are very precise. He describes the clothes that the rich man is wearing, fine linen and a purple cloak. These clothes that, at the time Jesus would have been sharing this story, were reserved only for priests and kings. In fact there is a story in history that the emperor Caligula, a little bit after Jesus’ life, had a visiting foregn king (who was the grandson of Cleopatra and Marc Antony) murdered for having the temerity of wearing a purple cloak when he came to visit Rome.

And then we get this image of Lazarus at the gate, brought every day there by his friends, covered with sores, filthy and hungry, yearning for just a few crumbs. The only kindness he encounters is from the dogs who come and sit by his side.

There is such clarity of vision and detail in this story and I think the clarity parallels, perhaps, or gives us a sense of what Jesus is calling the people who were listening to him that day and calling us to hear in this story.

I’ll just say up front, my friends, that I do not think this is a parable that is meant to be a blueprint for us of what happens after we die, a sneak peek at the afterlife. Rather I think this is a blueprint of how we are called to live, a vision of how God sees the world.

And we see this in the sort of contrasting visions of what the world thinks is important and the way God thinks about the kingdom and how we are called to live.

We have the story of the rich man who builds a gate around his house so he does not have to see people like Lazarus near his windows. Building gates and doors to keep out people so he can enjoy the safety and comfort of his home away from the world. But in the context of this parable, in the context of the vision of God, that gate becomes a chasm, a chasm over which the rich man is looking and can barely glimpse God.  It becomes a chasm that separates him from the kingdom of heaven.

We have a vision of the feasts the rich man enjoys in this world, sumptuously eating with his friends. But in the vision of God that feast becomes meager food indeed when compared to the heavenly banquet that Lazarus enjoys with Abraham and all the saints.

And the frustrating thing about this parable is that the rich man still does not get it. Right? He’s in hell, he’s being tormented and still he’s trying to act in the way he acted in the world. He’s ordering Abraham around, asking him to send Lazarus down to serve him. The rich man can not lose that vision of the way the world has told him things are supposed to work and open himself up into the vision of the kingdom of God.

And I do not think this is unique to the first century, indeed I know it is not. When I was reading this parable I was reminded of sociological study I read about conducted by some scientists at the University of California at Berkeley. And in it they had subjects come in and play Monopoly. But the Monopoly game was rigged so that certain subjects, certain players, were given advantages in the game. They either collected double the money when they passed Go or they were given more properties to begin with. And the scientists observed how these players, who had the advantages, interacted with the players who were subject to the regular rules of the game.

And the scientists observed that about 15 minutes into the game, the people who had been given the advantage in the system began to behave differently. They began to move their pieces around the board very aggressively. The began to eat more pretzels. In fact one player who was given advantages in the game was observed telling the other player all the great skill he had brought to the game and that was why he was winning.

The system, the way the world works, the way the world tells us we are to find safety in wealth and privilege, in success, that way of the world is in direct opposition to the vision that God has for the kingdom.

And it hard to strip away the world tells us to see and see with the eyes of God, but I think my friends, that in this place we are sometimes given a glimpse of the way God sees the world.

My first full Holy Week was spent in this place. I participated in catechumenate with Mother Esme, with a few folks who are here now. And I remember that as a group we were encouraged to come to all three services of the Triduum during Holy Week. And we came and ate an agape meal that I think Yetunde cooked and we came and washed each others feet and we had our feet washed.

And I remember coming to my first Good Friday service ever here in this sanctuary. And I was moved and I was stunned and I was confused by what I saw. And I remember leaving and it was dark outside and I got home and I did not really have a sense of what was happening. And there were so many feelings and ideas running through my head and I just kind of collapsed into bed.

And then I woke up the next morning and I looked across the room at the clock and for the very first time in my life I could read the clock. And for about 30 seconds I was overwhelmed by this idea and I thought “Oh my God, what I experienced as healed me, God has healed me! And I can see! I no longer have this astigmatism and I can see without my glasses.” And then I realized, no I had gone to sleep with my contact lenses in.

But my friends, I think what might not have been literally true that morning was metaphorically and spiritually true for me. My experience in this place, my experience of encountering God in those ancient stories told, the stories of Moses and the prophets that Jesus talks about in today’s parable, those stories shifted something in me. And I no longer saw the world in the same way.

And I think that is something we are given the opportunity to encounter every time we come together in this place.

When we look through the lens of the Eucharist, the bread and the wine become a feast of unending life, a heavenly banquet where all are welcomed.

When we look through the lens of Christ’s death and resurrection we can see that death is no longer the end but the beginning of new and unending life in God.

And when we look through the lens of love we can see perhaps the kingdom, the world, perhaps as God sees it. Everyone, everything, infused with the Holy Spirit and beloved of God.

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost by Suzy Jeffreys

Sept. 22, 2019

Lessons:

Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 113
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

Do you know what a grappling hook is? Most of you probably have a vague enough notion that if we launched into a congregation-wide game of Pictionary, you could sketch one out well enough that someone in your pew would guess correctly. Or you would do what I did, when my five year old asked me, “Please please please can I have a grappling hook like Batman,” Google it, and then wisely answer “Maybe for Christmas,”…and hope he forgets.

A grappling hook is – no surprise – a hook with multiple prongs attached to a rope and it’s used to grab objects. Its original use – by the Romans, who invented it around 300 BC – was actually as a way to catch the rigging on an enemy ship so that it could be brought close and boarded. And hence we have verb, “to grapple,” to be engaged with the complications presented by something. While you will leave here today knowing exactly what a grappling hook is, I cannot promise you’ll leave knowing exactly what the notoriously tricky Parable of the Unjust Manager is all about. And this is, in fact, what Jesus intended for his listeners – and now for us – when he spoke in parables. Had he wanted to be crystal clear and singular, he would have chosen – and often did choose – a different means of teaching. In choosing to speak in parable form, Jesus was inviting his listeners to engage, to be surprised, to question each other and themselves.

So, picture your grappling hook, and imagine throwing it at today’s unwieldy parable, gripping it tightly and bringing it close so we can grapple with it.

The rich man finds out that his household manager has been either untrustworthy or incompetent. Whichever it is, he seems to have lost his master some money. The rich man makes it known to the manager that he’s on the chopping block. The manager, while he still has some power and in the hopes of securing some friends who he can turn to when he’s fired, does a favor to some of the families who owe money to his master and forgives part of their debt. We are not told, but we assume, that they are elated and relieved to be out from under the burden of some of their debt. What is surprising is how elated the rich man is. He commends the manager for being savvy and for making friends by dishonest means. Luke follows the telling of the parable with a number of sayings, ending with one very familiar to us – “You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Grappling is, I think, the right approach with parables, because not doing so is fraught with pitfalls and temptations. And I want to talk about a few of those and how to avoid it.

First is the temptation to allegorize parables. This reminds me of an old church joke – A pastor was talking to a group of kids in her congregation and said, “I have a riddle for you. What’s brown and has a big bushy tail and eats nuts,” to which one little kid raised his hand and said, “I know the answer is Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel.” When we allegorize a difficult parable to bring meaning to it, we assign a character as God, another as Jesus, maybe another as “us.” The problem, of course, is that many of Jesus’ parables’ characters are morally complicated, so we find ourselves manipulating and twisting a parable to fit the tidy allegory. Instead of this approach, what if we identify the place where the allegory starts to fall apart, recognize that as the “surprise” of Jesus’ teaching and start our search for meaning right there. In this parable, that spot for me is when the rich master praises his manager for going behind his back to protect his own interests over his masters’. We don’t know for sure, but the master could be responding to any number of things – the basic morality of the managers’ mercy toward the debtors, his pride at hiring a clever manager, his realization that the debtors are more likely to be able to actually pay him back, thereby bringing more wealth into his coffers. When we stop at this point in the parable, this point where it becomes trickier to identify the manager as Jesus or the master as God, it may be because we find ourselves asking if we’re called to act shrewdly and, if so, feeling uncomfortable with that. But this concept of acting shrewdly is not isolated to this parable or to the Gospel of Luke. In Matthew when Jesus sends out his disciples, he says, “See I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

So finding the surprise in the parable, and not shying away from it, leads us to this idea of shrewdness. We might be tempted to immediately ask what shrewdness looks like for us as Christians. But before we answer that question, we need to make sure to avoid a second temptation in interpreting parables – to start looking for the lesson for us today before understanding what was going on then, the context. Have you ever Googled a really remote place? For example, Christmas Island. On Google Maps you have to zoom out six times from Christmas Island before catching sight of any other land, in this case Java, before you’re able to place where exactly Christmas Island is located. Without that context, it would be foolish to set out in a boat looking for Christmas Island. When we look at Jesus’ parables, one of the most important and constant pieces of context for us to remember is Jesus’s Jewishness. Jesus was a Jew. He would have been familiar with the words of the prophet Amos we heard this morning. He would have known that during the time Amos was active many Israelites were living prosperous lives built on deceitful practices and enslavement, just like the rich master lived in Jesus’ time. Jesus would have also known that in this setting the manager was likely an enslaved person as well and therefore himself indebted and without options had he not acted shrewdly. He also would have known that there’s a strong possibility that the portion of debt the manager forgave was actually his “cut,” the amount he’d added to the debt to line his own pockets…hence Luke’s reference to “dishonest wealth.” Finally, for us as readers of Scripture, there’s also the context of Luke’s gospel, which includes a great deal of attention to wealth, poverty, and the reversal of fortunes. So now, we can see the commendation of shrewdness not in isolation or for its own good, but in the context of the inequality, enslavement and corruption of the day, set against Luke’s emphasis on the forgiveness and mercy of the Kingdom of God

So by zooming out to capture the context, the question becomes something different, not just should we be shrewd, but what would it look like to be shrewd with our wealth – even with our dishonest wealth – in the service of the Kingdom of God? By invoking “dishonest wealth,” I’m not suggesting we all have made our living at the expense of others or through corruption. But many, I’d reckon most, of us benefit from dishonest wealth – from the land we live on gained through the genocide and destruction of Native Americans to the privilege and power afforded to those of us with white skin, because of the unjust underpinnings of the concept of race. When faced with our own complicity in this dishonest wealth, we may be tempted to throw up our hands in helplessness, smash all our electronics, get off the grid and hide our money under our mattresses. But this parable calls us surely to something else – to grappling, to wrestling with the complicated and nuanced aspects of living in our world and asking how we can use those aspects to bring about the Kingdom of God – free of oppression and debt, full of mercy and forgiveness – here in our world.

Finally, especially for the preacher there is the temptation to come up with a single, pithy lesson that ties up all the loose ends neatly. Amy-Jill Levine, a scholar who describes herself as a “Yankee Jewish feminist,” writes about the surplus of meanings that abound in parables. She says that not only can many meanings emerge from parables, but to reduce parables to just one meaning destroys their potential, that parables work because not in spite of the fact that multiple meanings emerge. She cautions that if we read a parable and think, “Oh yeah, that’s it, I got it!” and move on, we probably don’t, that we should go back again and again, even to the “easy ones,” and search for more meaning. Upon another reading of the Unjust Manager, for example, I noticed something about intention and impact. Jesus includes in the parable the fact that the manager was primarily motivated by self-interest, by making sure he had people to rely on in his upcoming period of unemployment. Does the manager’s selfish intention change the positive impact on those whose debts were partly forgiven? No. Does it change how we view the rightness or morality of that manager’s debt forgiveness? Maybe, maybe not. On Friday, people around the globe participated in the Global Climate Strike, demanding climate justice for all. Sixteen year-old Greta Thunberg is one of the young people behind the Strike, and when she was asked by Trevor Noah of The Daily Show, “Why do you think young people are so focused on climate change now?,” she said, “I think it is because we know that these consequences will face us during our lifetime.” Sixteen year-old Isra Hirsi, the co-founder of the US Youth Climate Strike and daughter of Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar, talks about how the turning point for her own advocacy around climate change was when she – a young, Black, Muslim woman – became aware that climate change threatens to affect communities of color the most.

In these two cases, Ms. Thunberg and Ms. Hirsi are saying that it is because they have the interest of their selves – and others like them – in mind that they have become such passionate and committed activists for moving away from the age of fossil fuels. When they attest to this self-interest, this doesn’t make me see their actions as any less moral. In fact it fills out my understanding of why they protest, because the interests of their planet, the interests of their fellow humans, the interests of their particular communities, and the interests of themselves intersect.

And so we come to yet another, deeper – not final – layer of meaning in this parable: In grappling with how to use our wealth to bring about the great reversals of the Kingdom of God, we too will be set free…and the desire to see ourselves included in those who are set free is a powerful, valid and commendable desire.

 

 

 

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Sept. 15, 2019

Lessons:

Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-11
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

 

This is a story that ends with a cliffhanger.

The story goes like this.

Once upon a time.

Once upon a time, Jesus came to Portland.

The whole city was really excited. Somehow, impossibly, Jesus was not on the news or on Twitter or NPR. But everybody had a story about bumping into him.

One person said that they had seen Jesus down on the Eastbank Esplanade, and that Jesus looked like he was thinking pretty hard about kicking his leg over the railing and walking across the water to the other side. Someone else talked with Jesus as they rode the tram up to OHSU. On the ride up Jesus told them that, back in his day, if you and your friends wanted to get to the top of a mountain, you had to climb it yourself. And still another person bumped into Jesus at Powell’s Books. You’ll never, they whispered, believe what Jesus was reading.

Everybody had a tale about meeting Jesus. Everyone, that is, except for one person, a person whose name I have changed to Stanley. Stanley was leading a good life. He lived in a good house, had good friends, attended a good church, drove his good car to his good job. Stanley was a good person.

Stanley wasn’t sure what it meant that so many people had met Jesus but he had not. He was getting kind of worried. And so he got pretty excited when word reached him that Jesus was at the park right near his house.

Stanley stopped everything. He turned off the kettle, he put the cat outside, he told Alexa to shut off the radio. And he got up and he went. Down the street, past the coffee shop, and the pub, and the other coffee shop, and the other pub, down into the wild green.

And there Jesus was.

Jesus was standing on a little hill, the toes of his bare feet digging into the grass. His blue track suit shining in the sun.

Telling stories.

A crowd was gathered around. Stanley joined them. He stood beside someone he knew, a friend, another good person. And he listened.

Jesus’ stories might’ve been even stranger and more confusing and more beautiful in person.

Who knows how long Stanley and the others stood there? Time passed that day the way that it did sometimes when Stanley was a child, when an afternoon of play would come so close to perfection that he could scarcely believe that the sun was setting and the voices of home were calling to him.

Jesus’ storytelling ended in the very same way as those afternoons did all those years ago, not with Jesus saying,

The end,

but with Jesus saying,

I’m hungry.

Stanley was hungry too. He started looking around for a food cart. Maybe he could take Jesus out for dinner?

But Jesus didn’t go anywhere and nor did anyone else. It looked like they had done this before. Somebody in crowd had a little food. And someone else had a little more. And together, Stanley was amazed to see, there was plenty. Down went the picnic blankets and down went the food and down sat the people and Stanley was just about join them.

When he noticed who all was there.

A minute ago, when everyone was standing, Stanley could only see the handful of people near him. But now, with Stanley still on his feet and just about everyone else sitting down, the faces became clear.

The friend whom he stood beside a minute ago is not the only one whom Stanley knew at this picnic. He know no fewer than half of the people here. Maybe more.

Here was Stanley’s relative, the one whom it was so much work to be around, so that Stanley spent every Thanksgiving and Christmas working hard to avoid the laundry list of subjects that lay like landmines between the two of them. Here was his neighbour from a few houses down, whose bumper stickers and lawn signs feel like bee stings or bombs into Stanley’s world. Here was the one whom Stanley had not seen in some time, maybe months, maybe years. At their last parting there was anger and accusation and damage that Stanley was not sure could ever be forgiven.

There were still others.

And so Stanley pushed his way through the people and across the picnic blankets and over to Jesus.

Jesus!

Stanley whispered. But it was the kind of whisper that is loud enough to turn heads.

Jesus! I’m not sure if you know who all is here.

And Stanley told him the history of the people who were sitting around him, that these were the kind of people who were here at the picnic.

To which Jesus replied:

I know! Isn’t it amazing that they are all here?

But the expression on Stanley’s face made it clear that he did not think that this was amazing at all. At least not amazing in a good way. Jesus saw Stanley’s brow furrow, saw his face start to redden. And so Jesus said:

Stanley.

Do you do much sheep herding?

Stanley was about to reply but Jesus just kept on talking.

You know when you have a hundred sheep? And one goes missing? Well, what do you do then? You leave the ninety-nine by themselves out in the desert and go find the one. Right?

But Stanley was not sure that this was right at all. In fact, it sounded kind of irresponsible to leave ninety-nine sheep with no one looking after them where they might get lost or eaten by wolves. But again, before he could reply, Jesus said:

So you leave the ninety-nine and you find the one. You pick up your sheep, you carry it home. And what you do say to everyone?

Rejoice me with!

And Jesus looked around at those seated on the picnic blanket and he beamed.

But Stanley still looked confused. And so Jesus said:

Okay, I’ve got another one. Have you ever lost a coin in a couch? You know how you drop everything and you tear apart that couch, until you are standing in a pile of cushions and couch lint and mummified raisins, the coin in your hand? You know how you text all your friends then? What do you text to them?

Rejoice with me!

A moment of silence passed, Stanley staring at Jesus, Jesus staring back at him with the biggest smile on his face that you can imagine.

Meeting Jesus was may more disappointing that Stanley had expected.

At last, Stanley spoke:

Okay, I get it,

Stanley said,

These people on the blankets, with everything that they have done, everything that they are responsible for, all of the hurt that they have caused. They are like the lost sheep, they are like the cost coin. And we’re all supposed to rejoice that they are here.

Yay. I guess.

Another moment of silence passed. And then Jesus says:

Oh, no, Stanley. They aren’t the lost sheep or the lost coin.

You are.

And we’ve found you.

Jesus looked around at everyone on the blanket and he said:

Rejoice with me!

And there was a great cheer.

And this is the cliffhanger at the end of the story. There is space on the picnic blanket for Stanley, there is abundant food for him to eat, there is a party hosted by Jesus.

Tell me,

Tell me,

Tell me,

Does Stanley choose to sit down?