As the bulletin indicates this morning we were to have Terry Rooney as our preacher. But late Friday afternoon Terry let me know there had been a death in Ireland of a very close friend and she needed to get on a plane yesterday so she could be there for the funeral tomorrow. So, please keep her in your prayers as she travels – and we will arrange for her to be with us as preacher again some other Sunday.
So, I want to share with you some ruminations that relate to our Gospel. And then I will invite Dale Cavanaugh to come forward to share a Stewardship message on this the second Sunday of our Stewardship Campaign and we want to give significant time to that.
It is our practice at the outset of our monthly vestry meetings to read and reflect together on the Gospel for the coming Sunday. So as we did so with this Gospel reading I was struck by how the inner thoughts of the Pharisee in the reading seemed to echo the tenor of much of the political language of this campaign season. The Pharisee describes others as thieves, rouges and adulterers. And then he looks askance at a tax collector. Need I say more? And though I have my own political leanings – just as each of you do – I recognize there has been this sort of polemic against the “other side” from all sides this campaign season. And I suppose a certain amount of that is what we have come to expect in our politics, but never has it gotten to such a fevered pitch of vitriol.
I can complain with the best of them about this vitriol, but when I took an honest look at myself this week I had to admit that the negative and sensationalist tone that surrounds this campaign had become a bit like a drug to me. I have heard others say it too – we have become addicted to learning what new lows can be reached in this campaign season. And like any addiction this never leads anywhere good. And indeed it just encourages me to entrench myself in my own political perspectives and to feel even deeper disdain for the “other side”, seeing them as one-dimensional losers. And that lands me right back with the Pharisee in this parable in a self-congratulatory, and dangerous stance.
I am concerned by the long way we have to go to be a united country following this election, no matter who is elected. And I think that is not just a national issue, I think it trickles down to our states, local communities, our neighborhoods, our schools and even to our families. I thank God for this parable which helps me recognized how my own self-congratulatory stance (and maybe yours too) feeds this situation.
The good news I hear in this parable today is that there is some of the Pharisee – self-reliant, haughty and judgmental – and some of the Tax Collector – repentant, humble and God-reliant – in each of us. I am hopeful that in coming weeks we can move more into the thinking of this Tax collector. That is, at the same time that we hold to political ideas that we feel promote the good of the world, we also can stretch to accept that there are people who hold very different ideas, but who are nonetheless like us beloved children of God.
“How to embody this?” I ask myself. Well, I am thinking that if my candidate wins, I am going to bake some cookies for someone I know was rooting for the other candidate. Just as I would want to take the time welcome a new neighbor with such a treat, I pray God will give me the inclination to show the same sort of hospitality to one whose yard sign for the other candidate got me riled up in recent weeks, remembering that though our yard signs are one-dimensional, we are not. What might an expression of care and curiosity look like in your life? Whatever it is, I pray that God will fill our hearts with a sense of blessedness far greater than any temporary high we might have been gaining from the negative news cycles we have just lived through.
And God only knows where such simple expressions of kindness might lead – and that is a good thing, because we are going to need God’s wisdom and God’s guidance to build the bridges that are so desperately needed if we are going to move forward together in this United States of America.
In the name of the One who told the Parable – Jesus our brother and savior. Amen+
During Sunday School one Sunday morning a teacher was explaining to the children that God is always with each one of us, wherever we are. One little boy piped up and said, “But I thought God lived in our bathroom.” The teacher, puzzled, asked him to explain. So he said, “Well every morning my father goes to the bathroom door, bangs on it and yells, ‘God, are you still in there?’”
Though the little boy was confused about just who his father was addressing behind that bathroom door each morning, he may have learned an important lesson about prayer from watching his father’s morning routine. He may have learned about the importance of persistence in the life of prayer. Each day, though the father found the door closed to him, he persisted in knocking.
Maybe that’s not all that different from what Jesus is trying to get across with the Gospel parable of the widow and the unjust judge. In the story, the widow who comes seeking justice is constantly put off by a corrupt judge who has no respect for the law or for the people who come seeking its protections. This judge is shown brushing off the poor widow as if she were a pesky fly. But the widow, believing in justice, would not be put off. And so she persists. She does not give up banging on the door. And her persistence pays off when she finally receives the justice she sought.
This parable has always bothered me, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I’m bothered by the character of the unjust judge. The opening lines of our Gospel reading indicated that Jesus told this parable as a lesson on prayer. If that’s the case it seems logical to assume that the widow symbolizes the person praying and the judge symbolizes God. But why would Jesus choose the image of an unjust judge to symbolize God?
As I’ve thought about that question, it occurs to me that maybe Jesus chose that image for the simple reason that sometimes it can feel to us as if God is acting like an unjust judge. Sometimes when life beats us up, we feel like God is not on our side. And bang as we might the door we want opened remains shut to us, and we cry out, “God, are you still in there?” We pray for an ill friend and they don’t recover. We pray for the safety of our family and friends. We pray for comfort and some sense of security. And yet life’s twists and turns can leave us dumbfounded by suffering and tragedy that are far beyond our control.
A good friend of mine has a method of dealing with life when it gets like that. She does what she calls a “damage control assessment”. She explained it to me once. She said that what she does is sit down and honestly list the realities of her current situation. Then she asks herself the question, “What is the worst possible case scenario that could come out of these current circumstances?” She says that facing her worst case scenario energizes her and gives her hope, because she can usually figure out some way to deal with even the worst that she can imagine. And experience has taught her that it is very rare that her worst case scenarios come true. But even if they do, she says her “damage control assessment” helps her realize that she has the resources within her to make some sort of response.
In a way I think that is what Jesus has done in this parable which is supposed to teach us about prayer. He has said, OK your reality may sometimes be painful and seem rich with injustice. The worst case scenario is that God is an unjust judge. OK, what can you do if that is indeed true? Well, you can be like the persistent widow, like a dog with a bone, or like the man at the bathroom door – you can pester and annoy that old judge until you get justice. And then after he has affirmed how life can sometimes feel to us, Jesus gives us the good news that our worst case scenario is not true; God is not an unjust judge. God is great with mercy. God will not delay long in bringing justice to those who cry to him.
Well, that brings me to the second reason I’ve always been bothered by this parable. It shows that the widow’s persistence yielded justice. So, aren’t we to assume that the message for us is that if we persist in prayer we will get what we ask? But we don’t always receive what we ask for. We don’t always get what we want even if we pray our little hears out. So the happy ending of the story is not always the way our story ends.
Sometimes the experience of prayer is more like the night Jacob had by the Jabbok River in our first lesson from Genesis. Sometimes prayer is more like a wrestling match between us and God than it is like a coffee date. Sometimes prayer is a jarring experience in which something within us gets put a bit out of joint. This is usually because we are trying to force our will on God. If that is the case, what we need to remember is that prayer is not simply about asking for what we want or think we need. Prayer is also about being open to the knowledge and wisdom of God, even when it seems to drive directly against the grain of our plans. What we want, the justice we envision may not be what is best for us or others. Prayer is the act of bringing ourselves and the circumstances of our lives of God, “not to inform the One who is all-knowing of our needs, but to impress upon ourselves the limits of our own capacity to meet those needs.” (Synthesis CE: Lectionary Sunday Guide) But, if prayer is sometimes still more of a wrestling match than a pleasant conversation that is OK God was patient with Jacob, and will also be patient with us. That night by the Jabbok God went the distance with Jacob, wrestling him from who he was into who God new he could become, and then giving him the sacred name of Israel. In turn Jacob, now Israel, renamed that place Peniel, because it had become holy ground for him. It had become for him the place he knew God in a tangible and life changing way. Prayer is about discovering our holy ground, where we can at times wrestling with God, and at times simply linger in God’s nourishing presence. Holy ground were we know and are known by God.
Having said all of this about prayer based, on the idea that in this Gospel parable the widow represents the person in prayer and the unjust judge God, it occurs to me that there may be another faithful way to read this parable as well. Maybe we can read it to say that God is the widow and we are the unjust judge. Maybe God is the one pursuing us in prayer, banging on our door to see if we are still in there. Maybe God is in it for the long run with all of us, banging away to help us move more deeply into connection with the divine realm where our true home lies. Sometimes we struggle and wrestle and stumble ahead, at other times we experience more spiritual clarity and more easily take the next step or open the next door. And we find all passages of the journey lead us to this holy ground where together here in community, we confirm our faith in the One who gave us this parable in the first place – Christ our Lord. Amen+
Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills O God that we my love and serve you today and always. Amen
This Gospel is, in large part, about gratitude and about faith — two themes we frequently hear about in Luke. We are reminded about the importance of gratitude to each other — and gratitude to God for everything. And, yes, it certainly is about faith; the importance of having faith, trusting in it, and living with it. And that is something really important to think about.
Kimberly Bracken Long, a professor of liturgics at Columbia Theological Seminary, says that Jesus is teaching us about the nature of faith in this Gospel. She describes faith like this: In short, to “have faith” is to live it, and to live it is to give thanks. She says living a life of gratitude is what constitutes living a life of faith……..And then this past week in, Brother Give us a Word, a daily series of short meditations from the Society of St. John the Evangelist, that I know many of us here read, Brother David writes, “Faith isn’t believing that certain claims or statements about God are true. Genuine faith presumes a relationship with God. It implies a radical trust in God and a way of seeing the world as life-giving and nourishing rather than as hostile and threatening.” ….. And we are taught as Christians, that that relationship with God can and should be mirrored in our relationships with one another. That is what Jesus, over and over exhorts us to do…to love one another — to relate to one another in love, to show kindness and mercy, as God shows to us
Imagine how hostile and threating the outside world was for the 10 lepers from today’s Gospel…how it must have been the opposite of a world that is life-giving and nourishing. Their life must have been the ultimate in being marginalized – truly outside of society, not even on the margins, considered unclean spiritually and physically – forced to wear bells to announce their approach so others could scatter, in order to avoid even being near them, lest they become contaminated.
I’d like to ask you to picture the scene we heard in the Gospel in your mind’s eye. So let’s just pause here for a moment and imagine we are there watching. Maybe close your eyes for a moment and envision this group of 10 lepers as they approached Jesus. What do you see? What does this group look like to you? Picture one of the 10 — how does he appear to you?
I’ve asked a lot of people similar questions over the past few weeks and it is amazing how even the word leprosy can still trigger such strong images in people’s minds. How the word conjures up thoughts of a highly contagious, horrible disease. I think it is ground into us, at least in part, from Biblical stories of the unclean leper and by movies that portray the lepers in Jesus’ day being wrapped in dirty rags, some leaning on makeshift canes or propped up on outcrops of rock for support as they begged. Even today, when we know how easily treated this disease is, people still told me of seeing images that include things like missing body parts and discolored skin, with seeping wounds when they picture someone with leprosy.
As a young women in my first year of clinical nursing — back in the day, I experienced just how embedded those images were in me. I worked for a period of time on a dermatology unit at Mass General. Now to be hospitalized for a skin condition meant that you had to be pretty sick and usually sick with a disease that was very serious, often life threatening, that first presented with an anomaly of the skin. We didn’t learn a lot about those types of diseases in college, and as a new graduate at a prestigious hospital, trying to cope with a steep learning curve, I often found myself in situations in which I felt I was not fully prepared. I recall a particular afternoon, getting report before starting the evening shift as the charge nurse. The charge nurse going off-duty reached the point in her report to me where she told about the new admissions. “Our new admission, Mr. X, in room 815 comes to us with a diagnoses of Hansen’s Disease”, she said matter of factly. As she continued to report on the particulars of the plan for his care, my mind was frantically casting about to make sense of the diagnosis. Hansen’s Disease, Hansen’s disease, I thought. And then I got it! “You mean leprosy”, I blurted out – in fear. Even then in the 1970’s, the biblical images from the first century are what had come to my mind. Over the weeks we treated that patient, I got to know him a bit. I recall talking with him about what it was like to live with leprosy. I told him about a true novel that my girlfriends and I read in high school that captivated us. Miracle at Carvell. Carvell being the name of the last leper colony in the U.S. that closed its doors in the mid-50’s. As I recounted some of the painful stories we read in that novel, he said to me, “Ahh, but at least they had each other to love”. He went on to talk about what it was like to always find himself alone and ostracized, when others knew of his illness. And since most of the time his appearance was what we would consider to be normal, he explained that he just didn’t talk about it, didn’t let folks know he had Hansen’s Disease. But, he told me, he was never able to just be himself — so he was still really alone.
Over the past few weeks, as I have thought back remembering my patient with leprosy, I realized that yes, this Gospel is about gratitude and faith, but it really made me think about community. When I pictured the 10 lepers in this morning’s Gospel in my mind’s eye, I eventually realized that I saw a community, albeit one in an imposed exile – refugees of a sort, bound together through shared experiences and values. Even though this small band of men were considered unclean and were shunned, they nevertheless had each other. But more than that, I saw them in a community that presumably created a life that was nourishing and life giving with many elements of faith in God’s grace, or else why would they have approached Jesus asking for mercy? And Jesus speaks of the faith that the one possess who returns to him. In my mind’s eye I saw them living a life of faith together, in some sort of relationship with God…..and that that relationship was mirrored to one another — seeing the face of Christ in each other and being Christ to each other. I saw them living in a community of illness that was also a life lived in the nature of faithfulness, and therefore, a life they all lived with gratitude – in thanksgiving.
Through the story of these lepers, this Gospel gives us an example of being in relationship with God and mirroring that relationship to one another — allowing us to see a world that is life-giving and nourishing through God’s grace and love, despite being surrounded by a hostile and threating world. An image many of us may need today when we are so often confronted by images of violence, injustice and calls for self-righteous revenge.
I wonder what happened to their community – their community of illness when they were no longer ill? As is so often the case with the stories in the Gospels, we don’t know for sure. But in my mind’s eye, I see them going off — forming new and diverse communities where they continue to live a life of faithfulness. And, as Kimberly Bracken Long said, to live in faith is to give thanks.
So I invite us to look for the communities in our lives over the next week —where we mirror our relationship with God to one another, where we live in faith and give our gratitude to God. I know I see communities where that happens right here at St. Paul’s that many of you and the members of your family of all varying ages are a part of. And let’s not forget about those parts of our lives that we live outside the walls of this building. How do we mirror our relationship with God, and strengthen God’s Kingdom when we are outside of these walls?
I invite us to really think about this because one of the things Jesus is continually doing through the Gospels is drawing us into a deeper level of community. A deeper level of community, where we live in a manner of faithfulness, where we love one another and where that love is reflected as the face of Christ in each other. As our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry said this past week, “we are called to rededicate the work of our communities to spread the Good News of all of creation to help make followers of Jesus Christ so this world looks less like our nightmare and more like God’s dream.”
So let us go forth and continue to build a community where, with praise and in thanksgiving through and in our bodies and souls, we whole-heartedly say and mean, Thanks be to God!
Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Jordan
This Gospel parable was painful for me to read this week because to me there is such stark similarity between the way the rich man and the poor man relate – or fail to relate- and so many of the images we see and stories we hear in our modern media. This week there were 2 more killings in our streets of black, male, American citizens by police officers. And then I heard the statistic that in the city of Chicago there have been 511 murders already this year – that is double the rate in New York and LA combined! Many of those murders are black Americans killing other black Americans, in inner city neighborhoods – many of these murders are gang related. It is perhaps easy to assume that these are bad people doing bad things. But isn’t it more likely, that many of this people are hopeless people – people who see no escape from economic structures that do not allow them a way out of poverty. Hopelessness of that magnitude so often devolves into violence, which begets more violence, especially in a society like ours awash with fire arms.
And we in the largely white middle and affluent classes have the privilege of distance, yet if we let our conscience speak to us we feel uneasy about and grieved by this economic disparity and the suffering – the living hell- that so many black citizens of our country experience while our lives feel quite safe and pleasurable.
And we in the US are not alone in this experience. Through our global interconnectedness, we see that in all corners of the world – in almost every human society, economic disparity, and the ethnic, racial, gender or religous intolerance so often connected to it, results in a majority of one sort or another being privileged in ways that have horrendous and often tragic consequences for an oppressed minority. And these disparities often become so entrenched that it is as if a chasm has been fixed so that even those who might want to pass from one side to the other – to bridge the gap – cannot.
And so we find ourselves back in the Gospel parable again – although now Jesus has turned the tables on us and suggests that a great reversal of the disparity takes place in the realm of the reign of God – the rich one suffers will the poor one is held in the bosom for Father Abraham. And by the end of the parable Jesus has us where he wants us, suggesting that human beings who oppress others in this world will not change their ways even if someone rises from the dead.
I think he delivered that last line of the parable with a gleam in his eye. It really is the only line of hope in this Gospel, but we can so easily miss it. Some of us miss the hope in this line because we are so busy trying to fix things, or control life and be all powerful so that things come out the way we think they should. While others might miss the hope in this line because they take the fatalistic view that things are as they always have been and always will be with regards to the human family, and there is scarce little we can do about it.
If we are the fixer type we may well exhaust ourselves trying harder. If we are the fatalistic type we hear this line confirmation for not trying to change things at all. Either way, we miss the invitation it is- an invitation to surrender – to surrender to the mercy of God for us and for all people. This last line of the Gospel parable is paradoxical because it is proven to be untrue by the very person who tells the parable.
For us, Jesus is the one who rises from the dead and brings the unimaginable mercy of God to us sinners – and by sinners I mean all of us- those who think we can change the world through self-will and those think the world and its people will never change, and all those in between.
As is often the case when I am writing a sermon, this week as I read the first chapter of the new book that our parish book group is reading, I came across a passage that is appropriate to all of this. It is from the book Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People by Nadia Bolz-Weber, and she writes this:
“There are many reasons to steer clear of Christianity. No question. I fully understand why people make that choice. Christianity has survived some unspeakable abominations: The Crusades, clergy sex scandals, papal corruption, televangelist scams…But it will survive us to. It will survive our mistakes and pride and exclusion of others. I believe that the power of Christianity – the thing that made the very first disciples drop their nets and walk away from everything they knew, the thing that caused Mary Magdalene to return to the tomb and then announce the resurrection of Christ, the thing that the early Christians martyred themselves for, and the thing that keeps me in the Jesus business…is something that cannot be killed. The power of unbounded mercy, of what we call The Gospel, cannot be destroyed by corruption and toothy TV preachers. Because in the end, there is still Jesus.
And I can’t shake Jesus, though I’ve tried. The gospel, this story of a God who came to us through Jesus and who loved without bounds and forgave without reservation and said that we have the power to do the same, cannot be destroyed by all the stupid mistakes [we make]“ (Accidental Saints p.10)
The stupid mistakes we make as individuals, and the fears we give into that drive our conscious and unconscious mistrust of those different than us, can add up to the tragic collective structures of society that oppress and even kill – in body or in spirit – other beloved children of God. This collective sin distorts our vision so that the human family resemblance of the one we perceive as “other” is lost to us. And so we put in place structures – be they gates or be they walls – to keep those “others” out.
What to do about this sin disease that infects us – As Bolz-Weber suggests – turn to the unbounded mercy of God, which we Christians find in Jesus? Our baptismal liturgy echoes just that. In the most ancient part of the liturgy, there is a six part exchange between the priest and those to be baptized, or their Godparents on this topic. If you pull out the red BCP from your pew rack and turn to page 302 you will see it there on the bottom part of the page. Let’s enact it here again this morning. I will ask the questions, please respond with the answers:
|Question||Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces
of wickedness that rebel against God?
|Answer||I renounce them.|
|Question||Do you renounce the evil powers of this world
which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
|Answer||I renounce them.|
|Question||Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you
from the love of God?
|Answer||I renounce them.|
|Question||Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your
|Question||Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?|
|Question||Do you promise to follow and obey him as your
Those first three questions and answers – known as the renunciations – names evil which underlies all human sin on 3 levels – the cosmic, the societal, and the individual and internal. But is not enough to renounce the power that evil has over us, we also have to turn to the divine expression of power, which we Christian meet in Jesus, and give ourselves over to his care and leading. Which what is expressed by those last 3 questions and answers – also known as the affirmations. Later in the Baptismal service when we get to the Covenant we review this all again when we are asked – “Will you persevere in resisting evil and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” and we answer “We will with God’s help” And we should take notice here, it does not say, “if you fall into sin” it says, “when you fall into sin” There is no perfection we can achieve in this and we are not cured of the sin disease. Baptism is not like inoculation. Becoming Christian is a life-long undertaking. We are not cured of sin, rather what we have is a daily reprieve from the sin disease, contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition (to borrow some wording from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous). We will not become perfect people in the church, but we are promised that we will be provided with power and guidance to live restored and restorative lives in a world whose future rests in the hands of God. Giving ourselves over to shine in this world with God’s light, will matter. Following where Christ leads will mean serving others in ways that begins to bridge chasms that divide the human family, even if only in what seem to be small ways.
I want to end with the final two questions form our baptismal covenant, but before I do, I want to quote Bishop Barbara Harris, who as many of you know is a black American and the first woman consecrated bishop in the Anglican Communion. Leading up to her consecration there were threats against her life, and all forms of hateful speech directed at her. At her consecration the preacher of the day said something Barbara says she has never forgotten. That preacher said, “Don’t forget that the power behind you is greater than and evil that confronts you!” Friends in Christ, as we face the world and all its facets of complicated suffering let us remember that. And in let’s now affirm that truth in the hopeful words or the final two questions from our covenant on the top of page 305 in our prayer book:
|Celebrant||Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
your neighbor as yourself?
|People||I will, with God’s help.|
|Celebrant||Will you strive for justice and peace among all
people, and respect the dignity of every human
|People||I will, with God’s help.|
The mercy and the power of God comes to us for these purposes in Christ Jesus. In his name. Amen+