Vineyards

I cannot grow an apple tree,
aromatic herbs, fresh flowers.
I dig and plant and water and weed;
everything dies.
I drink the wine of another’s vineyard,
climb the walls to scrump the orchard,
cadge the scent of another’s roses
passing by.
In the spring, unprompted, a bud.
I try not to tread it down.
The God has reclaimed the garden
as her own.

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Year A Proper 21: a problem with authority

Based on today’s New Testament texts: Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

Let the same mind be in you that is in Christ Jesus.

Here’s a little window into the mind of Jesus; the humble one, the slave, obedient unto death, even death on a cross.

“By whose authority do you do these things?” they asked him, as Jesus strode into the temple, turning tables, teaching, preaching, proclaiming good news and acting it by way of his healing touch. The chief priests and the elders would like to see a little less authority out of Jesus, and a little more of that legendary humility.

The chief priests and the elders have a problem with authority, and it is not related to humility. There is more than one way to abuse authority. We know that the chief priests and the elders, by the end of the week in which this exchange takes place (because yes, we are back here, in Holy Week, after the triumphant procession of Palm Sunday, after the turning of the tables, after the healing miracles, God forbid!)

We know how the chief priests and the elders will overstep their authority by colluding with the forces of oppression to murder the God Incarnate. Men of God committing deicide out of sheer cowardice.

But there is more than one way to abuse one’s authority.

Jesus fixed them with his question: if you want to know about my authority, tell me about yours? What did you do about John?

We know that they heard him – he called them a brood of vipers, and they allowed it. If they had said that they didn’t believe him, they should have denounced him to the crowd, they should have warned them about false prophets.

They, the leaders and teachers of the people, should have done their duty and led, with authority; led the people away from the River and back to the Temple, rejecting the baptism of John. It was their responsibility to lead the people with authority. But instead they stood, and watched, and said nothing.

If they did believe him, they did worse. You remember what happened to John, in the end, imprisoned by Herod, executed, in the end, on a drunken whim. If the chief priests and the elders did believe John, they should have denounced his execution, defended him; they should have used their authority to rally the crowds behind him and rescue him.

They did neither. They abdicated their authority, the authority entrusted to them as religious leaders, as men appointed by God and their community to speak truth to power and to the populace; to pray and to act with authority and with the authenticity of their call and with courage.

Jesus fixed them with his question, and they did not know how to answer him. My guess is they didn’t even know where to look.

“I don’t need to explain my authority to you,” concluded Jesus. “You have enough problems with authority of your own.”

“Let the same mind be in you that is in Christ Jesus. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”
Jesus’ humility, his love for others, his interest in the interests of others has nothing to do with abdicating his authority or his call to act and speak courageously. On the contrary, putting the interests of others before his own is exactly what got him into trouble.

It’s complicated. In another way, it’s very simple.

We are the chief priests and the elders of our day. Not just those of us with the robes and the ordination certificate – although I will admit to a certain responsibility for the authority I have been granted. But we call ourselves a priesthood of believers, ordained each of us by our baptism to proclaim the gospel in word and deed, to seek and serve Christ in all people, to uphold justice and the dignity of everyone we meet and those we will never encounter – all of us, each of us is ordained by our baptism as a priest to the people around us.

The authority that Jesus has given us as disciples is also our call to put the interests of others ahead of our own – not as an act of abdication but as an act of genuine, authentic service, loving our neighbours as ourselves, each of them and all of them, as a direct result and corollary of our love for God and the love that God has shared with us in Christ Jesus.

It is not a life without conflict, or struggle. When he sent out his disciples to preach the kingdom of God Jesus told them there would be difficulties, even danger. Because there is the authority that the world grants us, and the authority given by God.

The authority that the world grants each of us is arbitrary and unequal. I get a lot of leeway by virtue of my ordination, my education, my age, by being White, and having just the right kind of foreign accent. Others get more around here, perhaps for being male, or American-born; others less, perhaps for having just the wrong kind of foreign accent, or simply for being not White.

When the world treats us unequally, inequitably, when we deny the authority of another to be the author of his or her own life (or at least co-authors, with God), the freedom to write his or her own story in the pages of the book of life that God has given them, then the world reveals its own problems with authority. And we know it. We chief priests and elders know when we hear the truth: that there is a problem in this country, with racial profiling, with violence, with selfish conceit and ambition and a distinct failure of society as a whole to put the needs and interests of anyone ahead of its own. We see it in Ferguson and in Florida and in Beavercreek, Ohio. We have a problem.

So Jesus asks us, how will we exercise our authority, as priests to the people, as elders in our church, commissioned and ordained by our baptism to uphold the dignity, the authenticity, of every human being? Not only here, with our words and worship together, but out in the vineyard, how will we speak for justice? Will we have the courage to seek and serve Christ in all persons, or will we hand him over to the authorities to be crucified?

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who did not see his equality with God as something to be grasped at, but emptied himself in order to stand shoulder to shoulder with us; who humbled himself in obedience to the law of love, loving even to death. His humility was not timid, nor did it compromise his authority to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed. No; it was by putting the interests of others before his own; it was by loving God and his neighbours with the strength of God and the authority to speak truth to power; it was by his fierce faithfulness to the kingdom of God, even to his death and beyond, that this humble man brought the whole world to its knees.

Let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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Year A Proper 21: By whose authority?

Rarely does Jesus give a straight answer to a straight question; but rarely, too, is he quite as direct about his indirection as he is here. Leading to the following reflection:

Can you imagine being Jesus’ mother?
I don’t mean that part –
we’ve all seen the paintings and the sculptures
and the visions of that part. But
can you imagine being Jesus’ mother
on all of the other days?

“What would you like for breakfast, dear?”
“What do we have?”
“Fresh-baked bread and a few warm eggs.”
“Bring them here.”
“Bring them here, what?”
“Bring them here so that I may be
about my father’s work.”
“The word I was looking for,
Jesus,
was please.”

That was back in the days when
he would give a straight answer.

“Where are you going?”
“The Spirit blows where it will.”
“What time will you be home?”
“No one knows the day, or the hour.”

By the time he was teenaged, he had
perfected the art of answering
a question with a question,
[“Where have you been?”
“Where do you think?”]
in such a way that sometimes he was
out of the house and out of town
before his mother knew what had happened.

No wonder, when he began to get famous,
and they asked her what it was like,
raising a Messiah,
she put her head on its side
and fixed them straight:
“What do you think?”

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Year A Proper 20: Jonah and anti-Jonah

Poor, petulant Jonah. If he couldn’t give the Ninevites hell, he wanted to at least give them purgatory.

I’ve done all of this work, he said, endured all of this drama: the running away the wailing and gnashing of teeth, the getting thrown to the whale with its gnashing teeth, swallowed from the sea and spit up on the shore. I’ve worked hard for my redemption. And now I come here and say “Repent” and they put on a bit of sackcloth and ashes and you forgive them. I knew you’d do that. It’s just what you would do. Forgive them.

Rabbinical commentaries suggest that some of the reasons Jonah ran away from the assignment that God had given him were the fear that if the Gentile people of Nineveh repented, it would make the Israelites look bad, sitting back in their own sin. Or if the Ninevites repented and God forgave them, after Jonah had threatened them with hellfire and destruction, it would make Jonah look bad, like a false prophet full of empty threats. Jonah was afraid to rescue Nineveh from destruction, because he was worried that their redemption would reflect poorly on him.

I am not sure that Jonah had thought it all through. It would be difficult to paint a less sympathetic portrait of a prophet if you tried. First of all, faced with the Mission Impossible challenge, he refused to accept it. He tried running away and hiding in the belly of a trading boat in order to escape from the eyes of God, which was dumb. He put the rest of the ship in danger, not acknowledging his part in the storm that surrounded them, until they cast lots and found him out. Even then, the sailors tried to save him, to row the ship to shore, but they were faced finally with the choice to give up Jonah or give up the ship. They didn’t give up the ship.

“And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”

Tradition has it that the fish was created out of the waters of chaos in the first six days described by Genesis specifically for this purpose: to swallow up Jonah until he should sing his song of repentance and be spit up on the shore and sent out once more to warn the city of Nineveh of the wrath of God.

Finally, God tells Jonah a parable, by way of a tree. “Shall I not be gracious to those whom I have made?” asks God. It’s almost like the cosmic version of God telling Jonah a bedtime story about God’s love for all of God’s people; the “Guess How Much I Love You” of divine interventions:

“I love you to the ends of the ocean. I love you to the depths of the sea. I love you to the belly of the whale and back. I love you more than this tree.”

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Several centuries later, Jesus is telling a parable to his disciples about justice and grace. Jesus is kind of the anti-Jonah. Jesus had no hesitation in calling those around him to repentance. Jesus, like Jonah, once slept in the belly of the boat while the storm raged around and the other sailors feared for their lives. Jesus once slept three days and nights in the darkness formed before the beginnings of the world, and came back to the land of the living. Jesus knew that the storm was raging over him, and he stilled it. Jesus knew that death had no hold on him, and he destroyed it.

Now, Jesus tells a parable.

It is a parable for people like Jonah, like us, who don’t always like the way that God messes with our sense of justice and fair play. We don’t always like that God loves others as much as God loves us. Jesus told the Pharisees that the tax collectors and the whores would get into heaven ahead of them – my guess is that we would be as insulted as they were to hear the same thing told to us.

But look again at those labourers, the ones that were called up last, who only worked an hour or two and got the same gracious day’s pay, a living wage; they didn’t get off lightly. They had spent all day in the marketplace, under the hot sun, waiting, afraid, and ashamed, frightened that they would not be able to feed their family tonight, ashamed to go home.

One missed the job because he didn’t have his own equipment. One because his leg was lame and he missed the bus to market. One was, frankly, the wrong race, colour, ethnicity for the majority of the employers in the marketplace. One failed the background check. One was too old, another too young, one was overqualified, one had dropped out of school and had no certification. One didn’t have the right immigration papers to work. One couldn’t manage the hours around her childcare. One fell asleep after coming right off the night shift to look for a second job. They were the children left till last when the popular people got to pick teams.

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The city of Nineveh repented, from the greatest of them to the least of them. Even their king wore the same sackcloth and ashes. Even their cows observed the fast! It was the system, it was the city that repented of its evil ways.

I wonder what that would look like in our context: for our system to repent and recoil from injustice and idolatry. What would happen if we were to see our fast food workers, our Walmart workers, those weary for a living wage, the ones left till last, the ones left with the least in our marketplaces; what if we were to read them as a parable, hear them as prophets? What if fair play meant that everyone got fed, if we were as gracious to one another as God is gracious to each of us, each according to our need.

I wonder what stands in our way.

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Whatever that may look like, at the end of it all, at the end of all of our drama, our running away, our storms and our shelters, our success and our shadows and all of our stories; when all is said and done and we are swallowed up by the darkness of death, God will not let us go. God will extend to us the grace that we need, each and every one of us. God’s loving kindness and mercy endures for ever. And if we still aren’t ready, if we still don’t get it, if we still resist God’s grace, for ourselves or for another; if we are still following Jonah instead of Jesus, then perhaps God will sit us down one more time and tell us a parable, a story of God’s grace: Do you know how much I love you?

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The Gospel according to Jonah

In the form of a bedtime board book:

I love you to the end of the ocean.

huntington beach 020

I love you to the depth of the sea.

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I love you to the belly of the whale and back.

20140920-203007.jpg*

I love you more than this tree.

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* Jonah and the Whale, Sarum Antiphoner, 1400, Ransworth Church, Norfolk, England, Printed and Published by Jarrold & Sons Ltd, Norwich

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Seeing the light

On the carriageway out of the castle
about halfway down, the tunnel bends sharply.
They told us that a dray horse,
poorly schooled in perspective,
would find it hard to believe that
the tight, bright portal at the end of the driveway
would admit its escape.
Poor, simple soul, it would rather trust
blank walls and blind corners
than see light at the end of the tunnel.

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Year A Proper 19: forgiving

You remember the Joseph story:

“Way way back many centuries ago, not long after the Bible began…”

Jacob was the grandson of Abraham, and the father of the twelve tribes of Israel – in fact, it was Jacob who was given the name “Israel.” Unfortunately, favouritism was well in fashion in the Bible, and Jacob made no secret that he favoured Joseph, the first child of Jacob’s favourite wife. Joseph unfortunately absorbed all of his father’s fondness and allowed it to make him proud, puffed up; he lorded it somewhat over his brothers, relating dreams of them bowing before him and the like. The brothers, as you can imagine, didn’t like it one bit. In fact, they threw Joseph in a pit, then sold him to slavers, and told his distraught dad that he was dead.

Joseph went to Egypt, and after a story worthy of an afternoon soap opera, or even a Broadway musical; after a story filled with ups and downs and dreams and dilemmas, Joseph ended up in charge of the Pharaoh’s stocks and shares, with the power to give or withhold life from any suitor when famine fell across the region. When his brothers came begging for food, Joseph had the perfect opportunity to take his revenge – but fortunately, he recognized instead the opportunity for mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation. All of which didn’t happen at once, but he worked through it and in the end, they all lived together happily ever after.

Until their father died. After all was said and done, after Jacob died, Joseph’s brothers were afraid he’d take back his forgiveness.

They were afraid, in fact, that Joseph would behave like the King in the parable, offering mercy with one hand, and taking it away with the other – they were concerned that his forgiveness was conditional, temporary, unreliable.

Is that the message of Matthew, that God’s grace is unreliable? I think that if that’s the message that we are getting, we may be reading the parable wrongly.

One commentator puts it this way:

“It is better to let the story remain unallegorized, so that it is an earthly king who reneges of his original gracious forgiveness, and let it illustrate, in an analogous way, the awfulness of failing to forgive as God forgives.”*

It says in the Bible how fearful a thing it is to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31); and yet it may be more terrible to fall into the hands of one another, imperfect in mercy as we are.

The King, in the parable, is more like us than like God. He is happy to be dispensing mercy, it makes him feel good, right up until the moment when he realizes that his reach is limited, his influence only felt by those who choose to be converted by his mercy and grace. We are fools if we think that our mercy waves a magic wand and heals the world.

And yet we are called to persevere. Not seven times but seventy times seven. No matter whether the rest of the world joins us and joins in.

In this past week alone, we have remembered the victims of 9/11. We have been rudely reminded of the shootings in Chardon High School, when the killer briefly escaped incarceration. Countless smaller, sharper shocks have no doubt punctured our own dignity and shaken our complacency. How many times have you found yourself apologizing this week? How many times have you been called upon to accept the repentance of another, at face value, at the cost of giving up a comforting and comfortable grudge?

We will be challenged to give up on forgiveness, grace and mercy. But forgiveness, grace and mercy are grounded in the hope that things can be better; that, as Joseph told his brothers, “God intended it for good” – not that God intends each act of evil, so that good can come from it; that would make no sense. God did not will Joseph’s brothers to put him in the pit – how could God will creatures made out of the goodness of God to do evil? But God is able to twist even our acts of evil, even our worst atrocities, and make good out of them. Not make them right. This is not a whitewash. But God can make good out of everything. And so the arc of history, however crooked, will always end up bending towards mercy, grace, love.

You remember the people of Nickel Mine, Pennsylvania. After a man killed their children in their one-room schoolhouse, and himself, they turned to forgiveness to heal themselves and others from that terrible act.

After the July 2005 bombings in London, many of us wondered about the widows of the men who carried out the attacks – how much did they know? Were they complicit? Even in they were innocent, could we forgive them for loving the men who tore our capital, so many families apart?

The Amish community of Nickel Mine had no such reservations. They reached out to the widow of their killer and pulled her to their hearts. I can only imagine that they saw this as the one way that they could twist some good out of something so terrible; wring life out of death. And so with God. God creates only good; and God intends for our good; and God will not, eventually, be denied.

If you were to ask me how we are to forgive certain acts – acts of terrorism, the beheading of the innocent, the murder of children – I would have to tell you plainly, I don’t know. I don’t know. We all struggle with forgiveness, sometimes as much in the small as in those great things.

It is rarely easy. But I do know, I believe that it is our call to uphold hope, to preach the gospel that God intends the world for good, and good for each person in it. And it is in that gospel context that we are to extend mercy, to practice forgiveness, by the grace of God. Seventy times seven we are to meet the cruel realities of the world with the gracious reality of the gospel.

Will we be taken for fools? Maybe so. But the foolishness of God is beyond the wisdom of humanity. More than seventy times seven times beyond.

***

And so, at the end of their little story, Joseph forgave his brothers. He forgave them all of their petty acts of evil and all of their grand gestures of hatred because he knew that God is bigger than his big brothers. He knew that the mercy of God is true and that the justice of God is loving. He knew that the good that God intends for the people of God is bigger than any foil we can find for it; God’s good creation can withstand any evil we invent for it. Joseph was able to continue in forgiveness, many times over, because he knew in the end that God is good, all of the time; and that all of the time, God is good.

* Leander E. Keck in New Interpreter’s Bible (Book 8): Matthew, Mark  (Abingdon Press, 1995)

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