Year A Proper 24: the stewardship sermon

The question about taxes, and rendering unto Caesar, led into a sermon with time for pew-talk. The outline / framework went something like this:

Jesus does a really nice politician’s job of handing the question back to the Pharisees and the Herodians and asking them, “What do you think? Where do your priorities lie? What do you think of Caesar? What do you Herodians think of the puppet kingdom of Judea? Where do you think God is in all of this, and just how do you reconcile it all?”

Because whether or not Caesar’s head is on the coin, all things come of God. Even Caesar bears the image of God, when you think about it.

Jesus invites his inquisitors to think more deeply about their own relationship with money, power, and the economy of Creation.

We’re going to do a bit of the same this morning. I’m going to ask you to reflect on your relationship with money, its power, and the economy of grace. First, I’m going to tell you a personal story about how I relate to taxes.

My Granny Lyle lived and died in her little council house in the northeast of England. She left school at fourteen and went “into service” in the local doctor’s house – think the little maids in Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs, on a much smaller scale. Once she married, of course, she had to move out and in with her husband, a working man in the local industry. They raised two children, and she was widowed the minute the younger married and moved out herself. I knew Granny Lyle only as a widow, living in her government-provided house, on her widow’s pension, with her little dog and her budgerigar. As she aged, she became less and less able to breathe: “Puffing Billy,” she called herself. When she died, she left her funeral paid for, and fifty pounds for each of her four grandchildren, her life savings. My father and uncle burned her few sticks of furniture out in the back yard – there was nothing worth keeping – and the dog went to live with a neighbour.

When I paid my taxes and my rates, I knew that Granny Lyle could pay her heating bill, receive free hospital care, feed the dog. Such stories, for good or ill, are what form our attitude to the way in which money supports us in our communal life. Of course, I have the advantage of having lived only in democratic societies where I have at least some mechanism for influencing the way in which my taxes are spent – the vote – but I also have a vivid and affectionate picture of how one who raised me up can be sustained by my turnabout.

So much for Caesar. What about rendering unto God that which belongs to God?

Of course, the short answer to what belongs to God is everything, even Caesar; so again, Jesus is inviting his audience to think a little more deeply, consider their relationship to God, and to “everything.”

This is where it gets a little squirrelly in churches, especially around stewardship time. Because we know that the church is not God, and rendering unto the church does not necessarily equate rendering unto God; in fact, paying for Granny Lyle’s council house in the name of neighbourly love may be just as good and godly a thing as signing a pledge card. Still, the church is one mechanism for returning our gifts to God in worship, in community outreach, and in the hope of a future that brings heaven a little closer to earth.

I’m going to tell you an even more personal story, which explains a little of how I relate to the church.

When I was born, and my mother and I left the hospital for the first time, I was given into the arms of a social worker from the Church of England Children’s Society, who took me to a foster family, and it was that agency which, over the next weeks and months, arranged my adoption by another family, who gave me my name and the history that I have now. [By the way, they were also marvellous to both my birth mother and me when they helped us to reconnect, happily and affectionately, twenty-nine years later. We keep in touch with a lot of help from facebook!]

Again, our stories guide our giving, our receiving, our understanding of what is mine, what is yours, what is ours, what is God’s.

I invite you specifically in your prayer this week to consider the stories that you were told or that you have told yourself about money: to give thanks where you can; to ask forgiveness if it is needed; to request guidance or comfort if it’s all just too confusing.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Love you to death

Flashback: That week, everyone spoke in sympathetic soft, tilted voices. In a grim comedy, I parrotted their corporate condolences, squawking them directly into my father’s hearing aid.

The funeral director was trying coyly to explain the need for a high-necked outfit: the small incision to the throat which would permit the embalmer’s art. As she spoke, she shuffled papers nervously, until her eye fell on the death certificate: septicaemia. “Never mind,” she said.

“What do you mean, we can’t touch her?” asked my bewildered father. No, not us. Them. No embalming. Public health dictates that septic bodies be left intact. As she died, my mother would continue in her death, her body left to nature’s devices and decay.

The last time I saw her living, I peeled off my gloves to soothe her brow, pulled off my mask to kiss her cheek. Rolled up the gown on my way off the ward, washed my hands and hoped.

I can barely imagine doing otherwise, God forgive me. God help us.

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A silhouette
against my eyelids,
black on red;
a name beaten out
by my heart’s tattoo;
the claim that staked me
through and through;
I render unto,
surrender unto -
whose image and
title is this?

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Year A Proper 23: come to the feast

There have been two weddings in this church in the past ten days, and three within three months. Each was its own blend of nervousness, family friendship, family friction, love, hope, and joy. Each of them was noticeable, in the end, for its joy – never but at a wedding do you see so many people smiling from ear to ear from the first note of the prelude to the dying note of the postlude.

Not everyone remembers to smile. Over the past few months, I have heard and read more times than I can remember the sentiment of my clergy colleagues who “would rather do ten funerals than a wedding.” I wrote a blog post on it a week or so ago, frustrated by our apparent ability, facility, even talent for denying ourselves joy, for shutting ourselves out of the feast, those of us who really should know better. After all, if we do not believe that love is a good thing, that family is a God thing, that relationship is the work of the Holy Spirit, why are we in this business in the first place?

“Rejoice!” says the letter to the Philippians. “Again I say, rejoice!” Hold onto whatever is true and pleasing and excellent. Let those things fill you with joy. Rejoice.

The Bible – actually the Bible doesn’t have a great track record on preaching marital joy. From the squabbling and blame games of Adam and Eve to the curmudgeonly instructions of the bachelor Paul – marry only if you have to; better to marry than to burn, at least – with trickery and adultery and polygamy and political matches, the Bible is hardly naïve about the nature of our attempts to make of one flesh two whole, individual, independent people.

[It is also, let’s just be clear for a moment, entirely inconsistent about who should be permitted to marry whom, so that when the politicians and pundits feed us lines about biblical marriage, we should be tasting the distinct flavour of red herring.]

So the Bible doesn’t view marriage through rose-tinted glasses, but it does celebrate it. At the wedding in Cana, despite arguing with his mother, Jesus did supply enough wine to keep the party flowing. The one guest, out of the good and bad gathered from the sides of the streets, thrown out of this wedding, in this parable, was the one unprepared to celebrate, to rejoice; the one unwilling to acknowledge the joy of another, the joy all around him. He was thrown out to wail and weep with the other misery guts, so as not to bring the whole party down.

A few years ago, before I was ordained, I assisted at a funeral followed by a wedding for one family in one week. It was hard, on everyone. And yet when the day of the wedding dawned, even the widow set aside her grief and her widow’s weeds and dressed up instead in the outfit she’d planned to dance in at the wedding of her son, and everyone smiled to see the young couple make their vows, those ridiculous, marvelously, gospelly, naïve promises to love one another for a lifetime when none of us knows even what tomorrow will bring. Everyone rejoiced, even through tears, to see the celebration, to participate in the start of something new and blessed by God, something loving, something true.

The Lord God will destroy the shroud and the winding sheet; God will swallow up death forever. Instead, the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast, a banquet. This is the Lord for whom we have waited, let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation,

says the prophet.

Rejoice. Again I say, rejoice. Hold onto whatever is true, and whatever is pleasing, and whatever is excellent. Let those things fill you with joy. Rejoice.

There is plenty in this world that threatens to rob us of the joy that God intends for us. We know all about disease and suffering and death and war. We know about racism and sexism and Islamophobia and homophobia. We know about selfish, petty people and we know about divisive politics. We know violence and we know hunger and we know all too much about all too many things that threaten to rob us of the joy that God intends for us.  We do not need to rob ourselves of joy that is offered to us on a plate full of wedding cake. We do not need to deny the joy of others. That is too easy. Rejoice, says the epistle. Again I say, rejoice.

A friend reminded me this week of the difference between happiness and joy. Happiness, she said, comes from happenstance; stuff that happens. It is irregular, it is conditional, it is unpredictable.

Joy does not depend upon circumstances so much as on decisions. We can choose to be joyful even in the face of fearful things. (That is not to say that we always can choose joy, on command, on demand. We are prone to suffering, and when it takes us by surprise, or it wears us down with its persistence, it can take an effort and it can take time to return to joy.)

But joy depends less on happenstance than on the knowledge that whatever happens, God is with us. Joy is a choice. The choice to rejoice. To hold on to whatever is true, honourable, pure, just, pleasing, commendable, excellent; those things that speak to us of God, and communicate the joy with which God made us and invites us and blesses us. The joy which God promises us, after death has been destroyed, even in the midst of life.

And here is the promise of that joy, that feast, to which all are invited, the good and the bad found along the roadside, you and I, and the only wedding garment with which we are ordered to adorn ourselves our grateful hearts, and the joy that comes from within.

In the older versions of our prayerbook, there was an exhortation for the priest to use when giving notice of Communion and inviting the parish to its celebration:

Dearly beloved brethren, on — I intend, by God’s grace, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper: unto which, in God’s behalf, I bid you all who are here present; and beseech you, for the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, that ye will not refuse to come thereto, being so lovingly called and bidden by God himself. Ye know how grievous and unkind a thing it is, when a man hath prepared a rich feast, decked his table with all kind of provision, so that there lacketh nothing but the guests to sit down; and yet they who are called (without any cause) most unthankfully refuse to come. Which of you in such a case would not be moved? Who would not think a great injury and wrong done unto him? Wherefore, most dearly beloved in Christ, take ye good heed, lest ye, withdrawing  yourselves from this holy Supper, provoke God’s indignation against you.

It is an easy matter for a man to say I will not communicate  because I am otherwise hindered with worldly business. But such  excuses are not so easily accepted and allowed before God. If any man say, I am a grievous sinner and therefore am afraid to come; wherefore then do ye not repent and amend? When God calleth you are ye not ashamed to say ye will not come? When ye should return to God, will ye excuse yourselves, and say ye are not ready? Consider earnestly with yourselves how little such feigned excuses will avail before God.

Those who refused the feast in the Gospel, because they had bought a farm, or would try their yokes of oxen, or because they were  married, were not so excused, but counted unworthy of the heavenly feast. Wherefore according to mine Office, I bid you in the Name of God, I call you in Christ’s behalf, I exhort you, as ye love your own salvation that ye will be partakers of this Holy Communion.

Rejoice always; again I say, rejoice. Come then, let us keep the feast.

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full or smashed empty,

spilt or splinted, say that I

am; or you are not

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The wedding robe

White lace cut down to a christening robe.
Later, a doll with curly blonde hair wore
my mother’s leftover wedding weeds,
a moulded Miss Haversham
preserved in plastic, dressed for the feast,
rosebud lips perpetually parted for love.

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Year A Proper 22: parables and other stories

There is a kind of through the looking glass feel to this parable. If you think of the classic fairy tale structure, where a king sends three messengers on a quest to redeem his belongings, in this case the wine of his vineyard, the story goes something like this:

A king had three sons. He also had a vineyard which he carefully prepared and left in the hands of tenants. When the time came for the vineyard to yield up its harvest, the king sent his eldest son to negotiate with the tenants, but they tricked the eldest son, and he fell for their trickery out of greed or dishonesty or plain dumb stupidity, and his fall led to his death. After a while, as he had not returned, the king sent his second son out after him. Again, the tenants ran rings around the middle child, and he, too, fell prey to their wickedness and his own insufficiency. Finally, the third son, the youngest, the darling one, came to his father and begged to be allowed to try his hand at completing the quest. The king at first refused, afraid to lose his one remaining heir, but eventually he relented, and the youngest son set out, and through a combination of charm, bright honesty, righteous cunning and winning ways, defeated the tenants, and restored the king’s rightful property. The watchtower turned out to contain an imprisoned princess. The king was so glad to receive his vineyard back, and the princess’s father so glad to receive his daughter back, that between them they endowed the happy couple with marriage, riches, and happy ever after.

That’s how the story is supposed to go. And in that classic context we don’t worry so much about the fate of the wicked tenants, nor allow them to fill us with the fear of hellfire.

But this parable has skewed the picture, and here’s why. There is no happy ending. There is no ending. The king leases his vineyard to new tenants, and the suspicion may be that the same cycle will at some point repeat itself. After all, Jesus is quoting and developing a parable used by Isaiah eight centuries or so earlier, ending with judgement, which was picked up by the Psalmist, pleading for restoration, which has cycled through scripture and repeated whenever it appeared appropriate to the times. It is not a fairy tale, nor is it a fable with a single moral to the story. It is a complex narrative with multiple points of entry, capable of conveying meaning to chief priests in first-century Judea, prophets in the eighth century before them, people of the un-thought-of nation of America two thousand years hence.

There is no happy ending, because there is no ending; but there is hope in this parable. The central character of the story is not the tenants who come to a bad end, nor the slaves and the son whom they sacrifice. It is the vineyard. And in the ending that we have, the king reclaims his land. He starts over. He makes sure that the vineyard is sustainable. He does not give up and he does not let go. He does what is necessary to ensure that his vines grow. Back in the Song of Songs, God says, “My vineyard, my very own, is for myself;” it is a love song.

There is judgement in the parable. It is present in Isaiah, and in Matthew. Back in Hosea, the vine itself is unfaithful; as it grows and spreads, it offers its fruits back to other kings, other gods. There is judgement in the image. But there are many different ways to find ourselves in the parable.

The vines may be each of us, any of us whom God has planted in this good earth to bear fruit. The parable asks, are we rendering our harvest back to God? Sometimes vines need pruning; are we taking care of our roots, our fruitful brances, are we shedding deadwood as we grow, that which makes us less healthy, less productive, less alive? The hope for the vines is that God has planted us, and tends us, and cares for us.

And what of the tenants? Which of us does not bear some responsibility to care for the vineyard of God? If we are parents, or godparents, we have promised at the baptism of our children, our charges, to raise them in the knowledge and love of God, and of God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. If we are baptized ourselves, we have promised to work in the vineyard of the world, proclaiming the gospel in word and deed, seeking and serving Christ in all persons. How diligently are we tending to the vines that are in our care? What fruits are we offering back to God? And how do we respond to those messengers from God who come to our conscience and demand an accounting, those little taps on the doors of our souls? Do we offer ourselves back to God, or do we kill them and bury them, hoping God won’t notice?

Or are we called to be the slaves, the prophets, the ones sent to be those clarion calls to the conscience of others? Do we have the courage?

But as I said, the central character of this parable, this set of parables is the vineyard. As Jesus told it, the vineyard is the people of Israel, planted and protected by God, but betrayed by God’s stewards, the chief priests and elders. The vineyard is those who find themselves betrayed and occupied by unsympathetic forces: the Judeans under Rome; the Christians of Iraq, under threat of extinction from ISIS; the democrats of Hong Kong; those living under the oppression of poverty and systemic inequality, awaiting benefits that never bear fruit; those living in fear of debilitating disease, of Ebola, of death; all of those who feel as though God, their king, has left to go and live in a far away country, out of sight and out of reach.

The hope of this parable for those people is that God has not forgotten them, that God has not forsaken them, that God will return and roust out those who would do evil unto them and restore them.

This is not a fairy story with a happy ending and a moral in its tail. This is a description of the real cycle of faith and life that we live out in the presence of God. Its message is an appeal to our conscience, yes; but it is also a promise that God will not, does not abandon that which God has planted. Its lack of an ending is a reminder, true and to be trusted, that God’s mercy endures forever.


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