Aug 252013
 The Great Banquet

The Great Banquet

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely…. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.

“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”  (Luke 1, 7-14)

Last week Ollie gave a great sermon about prejudice and how by making ourselves feel special – we can end up organizing our lives in ways that help us avoid the pain of truth and lose sight of our common humanity – of the ties that bind us together in this life.

When I read it I was struck by the themes that it shared with what I had hoped to talk about a bit this morning.

You see- I knew that this coming week is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and so matters of race and prejudice have been on my mind a lot lately – and especially heightened by all that has been in the news of late – with the Trayvon Martin murder in Florida, the stunning verdict in the Zimmerman trial and the killing just this week of a student in Kansas.

So I’ve been reading and listening to interviews and researching and thinking about where we are on this very difficult issue in this country for a few weeks now.

And my hope – because I’m a bit of a perfectionist, was to write a really terrific sermon – one that would knock it out of the park – one that folks might take home with them well into the next-week  -Tuesday even.

But, the more I thought of it and of all that Ollie had already said so eloquently –I decided that I really just wanted to add my voice to his in the hope that perhaps we might consider continuing this conversation together, opening ourselves to struggle beyond the squirmy place he mentioned last week.

So here goes.

My mind over these past few weeks has been teetering back and forth between images from the past and present day concerns.

I was just 7 when the march happened but I remember pretty clearly how talk of it gripped the adults in my house – how much time Huntley and Brinkley spent on events occurring across the country –Memories of watching the news with my parents, full of reports and pictures of black people blasted by water hoses and lines of police ready to arrest.

On the other hand, and perhaps since it is the last week before the new school year I’ve been thinking a lot about the students I tutor at Esperanza in Lawrence (which for those of you who may not know is an Episcopal middle school for girls, 99% of whom are Latina) and how I might answer their questions about how much has really changed since that day 50 years ago this Wednesday…

I think I’d have to tell them in all honesty that the results are worse than mixed.

Consider just a few quick examples:

At the time of the March the focus of which was on Jobs and Freedom – unemployment among African Americans and other people of color was 10% — today it is over 13% in many of our cities it is much higher than that.  We also know that whites with fewer qualifications and less education are 4 times more likely to be hired than a more qualified black or Hispanic job applicant  (even whites just coming out of prison have greater success getting the job when competing against black applicants who have never even been arrested).

In 2013 with all of the advances of medical technology available in the richest country in the world, African American mothers are still twice as likely to have low birth weight babies- which is the leading cause of infant mortality –and not only is that true – we know that college and graduate educated Black women have a higher rate of infant mortality than white women who never finished High School.

While the rate of marijuana use among whites, African Americans and Latinos is nearly exactly the same, people of color are 4 times more likely to be arrested and jailed for such charges.

I could go on and on but you get my point.

So what’s to be done? And why should well meaning, hard working, generous, faithful white people care about those kinds of numbers – aside of course from our baptismal covenant that requires us to do justice in the world? Why?

Certainly not because of guilt or a sense of shame–but rather because of what Jesus asks of us in our reading this morning.

In his parable about the great banquet he not only asks us to be humble – he’s sending us a message about not being so attached to our comforts – not being so comfortable with our entitlements.  He’s saying don’t be so certain of your own welcome – leave room for others, be considerate in how you judge your own rank and that of those around you –

Don’t be so quick to assume you are better than the guy next to you, that you are special.

Fifty years after one of the most daring and courageous assemblies of citizens, black and brown and white together –in our nation’s capital – we still struggle so with the burdens of prejudice. We still find ourselves faced with the kinds of statistics I just quoted that undermine our confidence that things can change – its so tempting to want to organize our lives and our view away from the pain of those truths – to tell ourselves that slavery was far in the past and we had nothing to do with it – to look at the murder of a black teenager coming home with candy as somehow his fault.

Its not only tempting to look away from these realities – we’ve become pretty good as a culture at responding with silence – race and prejudice are just not topics we want to talk about  -so denial has become a national coping mechanism.

We may declare that we live in a post racial America – pointing to an African American President as proof that we are done with this – no more segregated water fountains –legal sanctions against discrimination in housing and employment – but those overt and intentional types of prejudice have been replaced by modern forms that are unintentional, systemic and hidden.

Just saying it ain’t so doesn’t make it go away – our reluctance to claim the privileges we receive when our skin is white –whether we asked for them or not – that reluctance doesn’t make those privileges any less real.

In fact – maybe that initial reaction we can feel of defensiveness and guilt – are clues – important clues to something Jesus is trying to tell us in the reading today – maybe they point to our resistance to some truth we aren’t comfortable hearing.

When I picture myself at the banquet Jesus describes -I can feel the “But, but – “ forming on my own lips as he says – don’t march right up to the better seats – and while what he has asked sinks in a bit more, I can still see myself looking around to make sure others aren’t getting the seat I had picked out for myself—before finally realizing that he is saying “it is not yours to decide” – nor is it yours to remove yourself – or set yourself apart from others – your brethren – from my beloved

And he ends his parable about humility Jesus kicks it up a notch – with the direction to give without counting the cost – to do without assuming the payback – without anticipating what we will get in return, without expecting anything.

He ‘s just finished telling us the importance of humility and he adds – a request that we love courageously – that we make ourselves vulnerable – and stop expecting guarantees.

He’s saying that only spending time with those who can repay us isn’t generosity at all its another reinforcement of his point that we are all one – that there is no one special among us that we each one of us, no matter our race or rank need that kind of unconditional love.

And here’s the best part of all – he not only asks these things of us he seems to think we’re capable of them.

I’m pretty sure that means that despair is not an option – denial and silence are not the way we are going to get through this struggle over race and prejudice, and any shame or guilt or defensiveness we encounter along the way can’t deter us from the work we have before us –

Besides, he thinks we can do it.

Amen +

 We’re all guests at the banquet: Sermon for 25-Aug-2013  Posted by on Sun, 25-Aug-13 Sermons Comments Off on We’re all guests at the banquet: Sermon for 25-Aug-2013
Aug 182013

I bring not peace, but division — Jesus



May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our rock and our redeemer. Amen

Let’s pray.   Jesus, how can this be? Are you really saying “I don’t come among you to bring peace, but division?”  We thought your realm was all about justice and peace, but you say you’re bringing fire and division.  You say you’re bringing trouble. Say it isn’t so!

We thought fire, trouble and division were signs of the powers that be, of the realm of this world. Our newspapers are full of accounts of people going to war with each other, assaulting strangers, and shouting at family members. If we tell the truth, our hearts are sometimes full of the same kinds of division. And now, Lord Jesus, you tell us you too come to offer division. Ouch. That hurts.  Please, Lord, we don’t seek to be divided from you or one another. Quiet our minds and open our hearts, we pray, so we can learn, understand, and walk with you on your journey.  Amen

A quick note about a certain word in the Gospel: Jesus says he’s under stress. That doesn’t mean what we think it means. The 20th-century physiological kind of stress we all know - lack of control over our lives, fear, high blood pressure - wasn’t understood until about 1926. Jesus’s stress is exactly the opposite kind: it has the positive sense of a forceful Holy-Spirit-led calling that casts out fear.  The prophet Jeremiah knew this sort of stress: when he was very young (Jer 1:7-8) he heard these divine words,

“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”

The stress Jesus carries with him is that kind of confident stress.

In this part of Luke’s Gospel Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem. He knows he’s on his way to his “baptism with which he must be baptized” at Golgotha. He’s walking in the shadow of the Cross: walking with holy confidence.

We know who is with him on this way: it’s Peter and the other disciples, and it’s you and me. But, his followers don’t have the big picture. We don’t know – or maybe we do know but we’re in denial – about where he’s leading us.  It’s not a lark – it’s no summertime dream – this journey we’re on. With every step we take, we understand the journey more a little more clearly, and we get a little more uncomfortable.  Like the disciples we’re looking for ways to deny the increasingly obvious trouble that’s ahead of us.

We’re still distracting ourselves by jockeying with each other for position. Like the disciples we’re still scrambling for special status at the end of the journey. A few verses earlier, Peter asked Jesus whether he’s telling parables “for us or for everyone.”  In other words, Peter’s thinking “I’m special. I must be special.” Today’s Gospel speech is part of the Lord’s answer: there are no secrets in my kingdom. There’s no place to hide from our discomfort, and no need for distractions to deny the truth.

Still, it’s human nature to avoid reality. Fred is a man I know. For years he had some sort of pain in his right shoulder. He taught himself to use his left arm when he needed to reach above his head. He gave up swimming. When his yoga teacher said “lift up your arms” he said “I can’t do that, it hurts.”  When she said “just try it,” he stopped going to yoga class. Fred organized his life around being special, and trying to find peace by avoiding his pain.

Fred is like Peter. Peter knew that Jesus is headed for the cross, but he couldn’t deal with the pain of that truth. So he distracted himself by building himself up as special: a Jesus-movement insider.

As a culture, we also organize our lives to avoid that pain of truth. A year and a half ago at the annual YWCA breakfast in honor of Martin Luther King’s birthday, an artist called Aimée Sands came to speak.  She’s one of those people who knows the holy stress that Jeremiah and Jesus know. She showed her short movie “what makes me white.”  She showed some scenes of herself as a white kid driving through black neighborhoods with her parents, being afraid, and –clunk—locking the car doors.  It was hard to watch.

When I was in El Salvador with our congregation’s group a year ago, that movie scene came back to me. In one unfamiliar crowded neighborhood I caught myself sneaking a look to see if the door to our bus was locked. Ouch. I was on that trip, or so I thought, on a mission from God. I thought I was special. I thought I was doing my bit to advance human unity. But my sneaky fear was a dope-slap. I was forcefully reminded that I have a burden of prejudice that I can’t easily lay down. I’m worried about my own status. I’m like Peter – like him I ought to know better, and I do know better, than to worry about my own status and my own fears. But I can’t let those things go.

The uncomfortable truth is far bigger than my private thoughts alone. This kind of denial goes beyond my, and your, personal interior reactions. It’s a problem we all share. Back at the YWCA breakfast  that cold January morning: When Ms. Sands showed her “what makes me white” movie a lot of people (not just me) were squirming in our seats, as if we saw God’s finger pointing at us and heard God saying “you’re prejudiced!” “You talking to me?” “Yes, you.” In the discussion after the movie lots of people stood up to speak of their reactions; people were defensive. In response to that divine pointing finger, people protested their innocence and special status, and tried to avoid and deny the situation.  One person made the claim that his community “seems to be very unique in that sense that we are very accepting.”   There’s no racism here, he said. We’re special, he said.

But it isn’t so. God yearns for God’s creation to be united. But we aren’t. We are prejudiced. We are fearful of strangers. We try to pretend that that we’re one big happy family. But it’s not so. Each of us thinks we’re special, and collectively we’re good at convincing ourselves we’re special. We aren’t special, but still God is faithful to us.

Here’s the question: what is the peace of God’s realm? Is it Peter’s peace: the peace of “I’m special?”  Is it the peace where we congratulate ourselves on not being racist when we live in a community without much racial diversity?

Is it the no-swimming no-lifting peace Fred made with his painful shoulder?  No! Fred finally visited a physical therapist. The physical therapist said, “lie on that table. This might hurt.” Then he pushed hard. Something popped loose. It did hurt, but instantly the shoulder started working better, and gradually healed. Pop! There’s nothing special about Fred’s shoulder any more.

Would it were so easy to heal prejudice and racism with one quick “pop!” It isn’t so. That kind of healing is slow.

Jesus did not come to bring us fake peace. Jesus came to open our ears and eyes. He came to show us the reality of God’s realm: a reality where we do have divisions in our human family. In this Gospel lesson he’s hoping to set fire to the fake peace we get from “I’m special and you’re good.” He’s hoping to have us live with the truth of our divisions, and see one other as special, not ourselves.

Let’s pray.  Lord Jesus, send your Holy Spirit to pour on us some of that same holy stress which you are under. Fill us with unquenchable fire, and set us free from the “I’m special” delusion. Open our eyes to see each other, in our divisions and our unity, with love. Give us your courage to walk in the shadow of your cross, and your grace to follow you beyond your grave into your realm of glory, now and always.

Aug 042013

Good morning Ethan, Ainsley, Syndi, Riley, and everybody. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our creator and our lord and savior Jesus Christ.


(We worshiped outside, and we baptized four people. The audio recording didn’t work, so text only today.)


It’s a big day for you and your families, you four. We, this congregation gathered here, representing the whole church, are going to baptize you. We’re going pour a little water on your heads in the name of God – in the name of God who is mysteriously the parent of us all.  … in the name of Jesus, God the son, who is mysteriously our brother … in the name of God the Holy Spirit, who is mysteriously the breath that gives us life, and the wind that cools us when we’re hot, heals us when we’re hurting, and wakes us up when we’re lazy or selfish. It’s the holy wind that blows us always to care for each other like God cares for us.

And then we’ll make the mark of + the cross on your forehead and say that you’re marked by the cross of that same Jesus and sealed by that same Holy Spirit forever.

You may be thinking, so what? Why is this such a big deal?  If you were listening carefully to our first reading, who could blame you for wondering “so what?”

“What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?” the Teacher (who could have been the wise King Solomon himself) asked. What indeed? Why bother? What is the purpose of life? Is it all just vanity? Does everything we do just fade away like the early morning mist?

This question “so what”   — is life just vanity? in Solomon’s words – is a good question. It’s a hard question. It’s a question you’ll ask. It’s a question other people will ask you.  It’s a question for which you’ll have no answer some days. Other days you’ll have great answers. It’s possible that you’ll have a different answer every day.

All these people are here to baptize you today. Your parents are here (raise hands), your godparents (hands), and what other relatives and friends? Grandparents? Aunts and Uncles?  The rest of us are here to do the same.  I wonder, what’s our answer today to this big question “So what?”  Our answer is you, Riley, Sydni, Ainsley and Ethan. When we look at you we see the love of God, the Spirit, Jesus the brother, and the Lord our parent reflected in you. When we participate in your baptism, we get to hear the word of God come from heaven saying to you four these words,

You are my children. I love you and I’m proud of you.

When we participate in your baptism we can be reminded that we are all God’s children. I get to remember that God loves me and is proud of me too.

So, when I ask you all “So what?” will you answer “God loves me and God is proud of me?” OK?

So what?  (answer)  So what? (answer)


That’s good.

Yes, it’s true that it’s a sign of God adopting you into God’s own family as God’s child. Yes, it’s a sign of Jesus being your brother.  And of course it’s a sign of the Holy Spirit giving you life forever.  That’s really good.

Still, there’s more to this “so what” question about your baptism. It means all of us are adopting you as our brothers and sister. It means we are all taking responsibility for you, and you’re taking responsibility for us.  It’s a promise: whenever, in your life, you have a day where there’s no answer to So What?  We’re here for you to share your struggle. On those days when you have a great answer to So What?, we’re here to share your joy. Unconditionally. For real. Forever.

I’m talking about us all. Sometimes somebody says to me, “I was baptized Methodist” or “baptized Catholic” or something like that. But that’s not quite right.

We’re baptized Christian. When we’re baptized we become sisters and brothers with every person around the world and through the ages who follows Jesus. Today, we are celebrating your part in that whole family of God always and everywhere.

Of course, like any human family, we’re not a perfect family. None of us are perfect, not even close.  We do sometimes come up with really bad answers to the question “So what?”  Look at the rich farmer in Jesus’s story from the gospel reading.  He had a good harvest, and he asked himself, so what? His answer was, “I’m really a great guy! I’m so clever and rich. I’ll just stash away all this food. I’m all set!”

Lucky for him God intervened, said “you fool!” and reminded him that it’s not all about him. We all know baptized Christians – our sisters and brothers — who behave like that sometimes. When I’m honest with myself, I know it’s me who behaves that way sometimes. I suspect the same is true for everybody here too. We know we’re not perfect.

But God does love us, and we do love each other.  Like God loves us, we love each other. Like God intervened with the rich farmer, we try to pay attention when God intervenes in our lives. We hope to support each other and love each other when we do foolish things. And we hope to hear God’s loving voice and see God’s loving face when we listen to and gaze upon each other.

You’re being baptized. So what? So God loves you and God is proud of you, from the foundation of the world, now, and into the ages of ages, forever.

Amen? Amen.

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