Rich blessings

An ironic title, given the gospel text?

This Sunday, we hear of Lazarus and the rich man, known by some as Dives, although that may or may not be what his brothers called him.

Paul warns that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil; but it’s too late for Dives. Isn’t it?

May the God of Abraham hold you close; the God of Moses lead you in paths of righteousness and peace.

May you be rich in mercy and generous in spirit.

May God’s Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, who raised Lazarus from the dead, keep alive in you the promise of his saving grace, 

in this world and the next. Amen.

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The yearning

I dare not reach for glory,

for fear of falling.

I cannot bear to love you,

for fear of drowning.

I dare not turn away from you,

for fear of desolation.

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Pray even for kings

A sermon for Year C Proper 20: Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

For Paul to write in his letter that we should pray for kings is akin almost to Jesus’ commandment that we pray for our enemies.

When you consider the kings that we hear of in the New Testament – the Herods of infamy, murdering children and beheading Baptists – and the emperor with this idolatry of office, his “desolating sacrilege” – well, then we get some measure of how radical and unreasonable Paul’s plea for prayer might be.

It doesn’t come easily, that prayer for those with whom we disagree, or even for our enemies.

John Calvin, the famous Swiss reformer, writes in his commentaries of Paul’s instruction:

He expressly mentions kings and other magistrates, because more than all others, they might be hated by Christians. All the magistrates who existed at that time were so many sworn enemies of Christ; and therefore this thought might occur to them, that they ought not to pray for those who devoted all their power and wealth to fight against the kingdom of Christ, the extension of which is above all things desirable. The apostle meets this difficulty, and expressly enjoins Christians to pray for them also. And, indeed, the depravity of men is not a reason why God’s ordinance should not be loved.

The depravity of men should not undo the commands of Christ to pray for the good of all.

Paul and Calvin shared a concern to keep the peace even while they knew that they lived under imperfect rulers, far short of the godly ideal. Calvin had his own issues with authority; he considered that the best political system was one where he was in charge, and his church would recruit the civil services as enforces of law and order.

Paul asks us to pray so that “we might lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” Amos and the Gospel give an ethical framework within which to locate such godly and peaceable lives: simple stuff: be fair; be honest; be faithful.

The temptations of daily life to slip, to cheat and prevaricate are well known to us, and they become magnified in public life.

I don’t think there is any political system ordained by God outside of the kingdom of heaven; and we’re certainly not there yet. But I do agree with Calvin that we invest authority, delegate power to the civil authorities in return for the promises of protection, peace, and stability in our daily lives. The failure of some, or even of many to deliver on those promises cannot undo the commandment, nor the necessity, to pray for them.

So how are we to pray for “kings and those in high office,” especially in a contentious election season?

I know that there are serious flaws in our political system. I know that there are many of us who are angry with those in power and those seeking power, but the depravity of men is not a reason, Calvin reminds us, why God’s ordinance should not be loved.

I am bound by law not to get too specific from the pulpit about any one political official or candidate. I am saved from some serious internal injury at times only by referring back to my baptismal covenant, to promote the dignity and respect of every human being, no matter their personal deficiencies in my own eyes; remembering that this one, too, is made in God’s image; remembering the beam of wood in my own vision.

I am scarred and I am saved by my kitchen sink epiphany of mashed potatoes. I told you in the spring that I was brought up short by the sudden revelation of Jesus sitting at table with Pharisees and tax collectors and my least favourite candidate for public office; passing the food and sharing it together.

Calvin, again, puts it this way:

It is our duty, therefore, not only to pray for those who are already worthy, but we must pray to God that he may make bad men good.

I am encouraged by the prayers of others. Every so often – maybe once a year – I get a postcard in the mail from my seminary, telling me that on such and such a date, I was included by name in their intercessions. It is remarkable the effect that such a simple message has. It provides warm comfort. It provokes my conscience. It makes me a better priest.

When all else fails, I remember the opening scene from Fiddler on the Roof. A man asks the Rabbi,

“Is there a proper blessing for the Czar?”

“A blessing for the Czar?” the old man repeats. “Of course! May God bless and keep the Czar – far away from us!”

That we may lead godly and peaceable lives.

It is, as Paul says, God’s will that all people should be saved, and come to the knowledge of God’s love and grace demonstrated to us by the Christ, Jesus. It is our duty to pray that this should come to pass, not neglecting to offer thanksgiving for those who are faithful in their public service, and to pray for the encouragement, correction, and even the repentance of those who may need it.

It is such an encouragement to me to receive those postcards of prayer from my seminary successors that I thought we would offer some encouragement this morning to those who need it, following the directions of Paul to offer intercession, supplication, and thanksgiving for those in high office.

You are invited to write on a postcard the name of someone – elected or seeking election, or someone of great influence in your own community – someone who needs your prayer, either of thanksgiving or of encouragement; or someone for whom your own conscience would have you intercede. If you wish to add a blessing, or to sign your own name at the bottom, you may do that, too.

[At the Prayers of the People, I invite you to speak aloud the name which you have written down. Then, at the Offering, we will gather the postcards, and I will see to it that they are mailed to their intended recipients.]

For, “This is right and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Amen.

 

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Sea and sky

A week ago, I was in the tropics, enjoying the ocean, the rain forest, the island. flower
I took my first ever ride on a jet ski; we saw sea turtles, swimming fast and deep, glinting green. I thought about the petroglyphs in the caves we had visited the day before, that spoke of our ancestors’ deep appreciation of these dinosaur-descended, unmissable links between Creation, Evolution, and ourselves; if one is inclined to see them in such terms.

arecibo-observatoryThe previous day, our car had clambered us into the midst of the karst hills, to find hidden in the heights not only ancient caverns, but the largest radio telescope of the twentieth-century race to explore space. Evolution, it may seem, breeds within itself dissatisfaction with the status quo: we want more.

It is a truism that we make God in our own image: but do we look within, for the seeds of our being, or without, to developments as yet beyond our imagination? Did our ancestors reverence the sun, or the sea turtle, searching for signs of alien life, for the Other, which is God?

sky

Underneath it all, girding the sea with grace,
green beneath the surface, quick and gone, keeping
the secret of an epoch-old understanding, creature
to Creator, unevolved, unchanging, suspended in salt-water

Above the firmament, stars turn, burn out: which
will we worship; turning God into our highest reach,

or deep within the womb of the world,
resting in unbroken waters?

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Character reference 

This week’s readings focus on character. 

The virtues of honesty, faithfulness, and godliness are lifted up; although the “advice” of Jesus to “make friends by means of dishonest wealth” is a bit of a curveball. Those of us who grew up with a British sense of sarcasm may hear his lip curl through the ink of the text; especially if we read Amos first.

Paul urges prayer for kings and those in authority – so that they might leave us alone and in peace. Those of us embroiled in US election coverage may detect a sigh of resignation through the syllables of Paul’s epistle.

May you be blessed with the finely tuned hearing of a bat, the wisdom of a snake, and the faithfulness of a labrador in the study of this week’s lectionary selection.

That’s not my biblical blessing for the week, by the way.

God help you to find faithful and peaceable lives,

graced by godliness and the quiet dignity of Jesus,

in the service of God our Saviour;

and the blessing of God: Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit; be among you always. Amen.

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One in a hundred

A sermon for Year C, Proper 19, and the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks, from the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, OH.

It’s easy to wax allegorical about the parable of the one hundredth sheep. I could enjoy the idea that God would leave behind ninety-nine also-ran sheep to come looking only for me. But how often have I been lost, and would I expect God always to pay attention only to me? Of course, in an infinite God there are infinite possibilities, and in ninety-nine out of one hundred of them I am the sheep left behind in the wilderness. And how does that feel?

Then there’s the parable of the lost coin.

It’s clear that the stories go together, but if I am the lost sheep, and God is the shepherd, then I am also the lost coin, and God had so many of us that She lost track. Or was She counting us, and dozing before the fire, so that I slipped between the cushions of the universe without God noticing?

The Psalms tell of One who never slumbers nor sleeps, but the parable tells a different story.

And who are God’s neighbours, God’s peers, invited to party over a spring cleaning session that turns up loose change from under the sofa?

I wonder if we need to take another look at this allegory of a parable.

(I am indebted to Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (HarperCollins, 2014) for provoking new readings of familiar stories.)

What if I am the woman who has plenty – nine out of ten, which is an A-grade life, after all. What if I have all of that, but I am missing the piece that makes life whole, complete. Worth living. What if I have lost sight of the one piece of treasure that really counts?

“Store up treasure in heaven,” advises Jesus elsewhere. Treasure God. Treasure the one currency that underpins all of the commerce of life, relationship, joy.

If that is what I have lost, then it is worth turning everything upside down, moving every piece of furniture, routine, habit, every strut and structure to find that one piece of currency without which none of the rest works, or counts. And what joy, what cause for celebration, when it is found.

That could make some sense to me.

Oh, but then am I the shepherd of that relationship? Is it my responsibility to tend it, to feed it, to set out to find it when I have lost track of it among the ninety-nine other claims on my time and attention? Couldn’t I just wait for God to come and find me?

The perfect thing about a parable is that it is not a fixed allegory, where this means that. It is not a code to be broken, but an invitation to find ourselves in the lifelong story of God’s relationship with the sheep of His pasture, the people of God’s hand.

So in that spirit, here’s another possibility. What if we think of the shepherd, or the woman, as the church, and we are collectively responsible for the sheep, for the treasure, for the currency of place, time, community, not only dollars and cents but souls placed within our care. And what if we find that we are slipping, losing track of those whom we think and know deep down we love and value, but of whom we have lost sight.

Is it their task to find their way to us? Or ours to pursue them, leaving safe in their pews the ninety-nine, or the forty-nine, or whatever the count may be? Setting out with loving inquiry and concern for the safety and place of the lost one.

Before you get too far along the path of noticing that the shepherd is employed, contracted and commissioned especially to tend to the sheep, notice too that the woman is in an ordinary domestic setting, and it is within her own home and family and circle of friends that she seeks and sweeps and celebrates.

Of course, one thing to remember in this version of the parable is that the repentant sinner in this scene is not the sheep which doesn’t even know that it is lost, but the shepherd who redeems his dereliction of duty by going back for his missing charge. A coin is almost certainly exempt from sin or repentance, but the woman who decides to clean up her act and get her – ahem – items together is the one for whom the angels sing out their joy.

In any case, it is we who are called to repent; to turn and to seek God. God who has never lost sight of us; never stopped loving us.

Fifteen years ago today, some brave people stepped up to seek and serve the lost and the missing. Many laid down their lives out there in the dust and ashes, sweeping for survivors, restoring hope when all seemed lost.

And this is where the parable gets flipped.

Ninety-nine percent of us were at a loss that day, and afraid. Only a few found their feet on solid ground. Like those few in a plane over Pennsylvania, bound for the Pentagon. When all seemed irretrievably lost, they found the way of the cross. They stood as with Jesus before Pilate, saying, “You do not take my life from me, because I give it freely, for the sake of strangers.” Each life offered for the sake of saving ninety-nine more.

There are those for whom the losses of that day will last a lifetime. There are those for whom the losses of everyday life and love are sufficient to give pause, afraid to trust in the security of God’s shepherding skills.

Paul has a word for those lost sheep, assuring them out of his own story of being lost and found that the overwhelming grace of God is sufficient to all of our needs; that the love and faith of Jesus is more than enough to save us from our own lost selves.

However we read the parables, it is, after all, grace that pursues life in the midst of destruction; love in the face of loathing. It is grace that promises that peace will drown out violence. It is only by the grace of God, unearned treasure, that we find the will, the hope to endure, and to keep our hearts fixed on restoration, redemption, reconciliation with one another, and with God.

It is grace that allows us even in solemnity to imagine the angels rejoicing in heaven over every life, every soul that has been found to have been marked with God’s sheep-tag, pressed from God’s mould, counted as precious in God’s sight.

Amen.

_________

From the first letter of Paul to Timothy:
I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

From the Gospel according to Luke:
He told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

 

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Blessings lost and found

This week’s post is late, partly because I’m on vacation, but also because I have had some struggles settling into a place of blessing in this week’s gospel reading.

It should be easy: we love the idea that God would gladly leave behind ninety-nine of you to come and find me whenever I am lost. I am, after all, that special.

But if I am the sheep, then I am also the lost coin; currency; lost between the sofa cushions of the universe, fallen out of God’s apron pockets  when She wasn’t paying attention. To me.

You see the problem.*

On the other hand, Paul has a perfect blessing nestled into his letter to Timothy this week. Perhaps that will help.

May you set out from here secure in God’s faithfulness and love;

may you find reassurance at each turning, looking to the cross of Jesus to point your way;

may resounding joy always accompany your homecoming;

and when you do find yourself lost, may the overwhelming grace of God sweep you back to where you belong,

redeemed, restored, beloved. Amen.


* For inspiration and wisdom in working through the allegorization and de-same of the parables, I recommend reading Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (HarperCollins, 2014)

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