Rendering repentance

The readings are for Year A Proper 24

Does your phone know your face? I find it really freaky when Facebook looks at photos I’ve taken and tells me who is in them. It’s a little worse when it gets it wrong. Recently, Apple brought out an iPhone that uses facial recognition technology to unlock the home screen, as an alternative to the thumbprint technology we’ve only just got used to. But when the phone was launched, at the public demonstration, it failed to recognize its owner and open up. It turned out that so many people had been playing with it behind the scenes, trying to get it to open up for them, that it went into lockdown and refused to play when its actual owner showed his face.

To whom do we belong? To whose face do we respond, and open up? How easily or otherwise are we misled, or overwhelmed, by distractions that do not belong in the place of that face?

The question that the Pharisees and Herodians ask Jesus is not really about the Roman taxes themselves, and the answer he gives them has very little to do with them. It’s really a question, both sides recognize, about authority, allegiance, and idolatry.

To give some context to this exchange, Jesus is telling parables in the Temple at Jerusalem. Only yesterday, just the day before, he had caused a commotion by turning over tables and spilling the small change of the men turning secular money into currency free from graven images and other signs of corruption; currency more acceptable for the purchase of sacrificial animals, and donations to the upkeep of the Temple.

Coins that celebrated Caesar, with his graven image and the inscription that named him, the emperor god of the Romans, had no place in the house of worship for the one and almighty God. That’s why there were moneychangers.

But when Jesus asked his religious inquirers to pass him a coin of the realm, inside the precincts of the Temple, they had no hesitation. They were carrying.

Jesus’ response to their trick question is to confront them with the reality that they have introduced the image and title of a false god into the house of God. They are asking the wrong question, he implies, asking what it is that is owed to Caesar, and what (remembering where you stand) belongs to God? Here’s a hint: everything. Everything belongs to God; even Caesar himself.

In essence, instead of answering their question he was inviting them to take a good look at themselves, and the compromises they had made in their lives that nibbled away at the “all” with which they meant to love God. It is his old theme, the one with which he began his mission and ministry among them: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

We all make compromises in order to get along in this life. We all have competing demands on our time, our attention, our loyalty and our love. But we have been charged first to love God, with all of our heart, and mind, and strength, and soul; and then to love our neighbours as ourselves. These are the faces that should open us up, unlock our compassion and our humanity. Repentance involves taking stock of the distractions that keep us from true love, and the compromises that diminish our ability to respond to the face of God when it is right in front of us.

Repentance means doing the hard work of recognizing when graven images, which have no place before the throne of God, have been allowed to undermine the work of love.

I can’t help but think of the stories that have come out in the past weeks and months about widespread sexual harassment, abuse, and worse at the hands of powerful men whose faces were recognized everywhere; whose images commanded plenty of currency; who came to believe, one can only imagine, that they were owed whatever they could lay their hands on. Whomever they could lay their hands on. Their crimes are easy enough to recognize, once the story is told; but what about the silence and the whispers that helped to keep their currency flowing? I am not talking about their victims; no one except the one who has endured it knows how hard it is to talk about sexual violence, and no one should undergo the violence of being forced to tell her or his story. But there were others. There were those who were in a position to see the writing on the wall and the hands where they shouldn’t be and who failed to turn the tables, who turned their faces away for the sake of keeping the money moving, or for the sake of their own stock.

[I said a moment ago that no victim of sexual harassment or abuse has to tell her or his story; but I would add that I am available, if you have found the past few weeks triggering. I am not a licensed counsellor, but I am available to listen, and to pray, and to seek alongside you healing grace in the face of God.]

We all make compromises to get by, and we all have competing demands on our loyalty, our time, but we have committed first to love God, with all our heart, mind, strength, and soul; and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Part of our repentance has to be an examination of our complicity in situations, relationships, systems that permit the sacrifice of individuals, even entire groups of people, for the sake of the status quo; for the sake of keeping the money moving; for the sake of our own social currency.

When we see corruption entering the realm that should belong to God – remembering that everything belongs to God – then I pray that we have the courage to turn the tables, to respect and to protect the dignity of every human being, as we have promised in our baptismal covenant; to convert our culture to one that can stand without shame before the throne of God.

If we are not in a position to turn over tables, we can still follow Jesus’ example here, use his questioning technique. It can be as simple as interrupting an off-colour, sexist, racist, homophobic, or demeaning remark with a question: “Excuse me? What did you just say?” Inviting the Pharisees, the Herodians, the hypocrites to own up to the currency they are using; idolatrous coinage that does not belong before the face of God. Of course, first, we had better clean out our own pockets and purses, make sure that the currency we carry is clean.

There is an irony to be admitted in talking about the face of God, when we have just read from Exodus the story in which God refuses to show God’s face to Moses, but only the divine backside. It is a strange enough story to break the tension and restore us to the remembrance that God’s love is not only serious, but that God delights to play with us, in the most divine way; truly to love us. I don’t know how Apple technology would deal with recognizing the back end of God, but it is God’s love that is designed to open us up, to invite us into love, into grace, into mercy. It is the economy of grace that comes to us with Christ’s face, asking nothing in return but that we recognize him, follow him, turn our faces toward him, unfurling our hearts like flowers that open to the sun.

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Render

Render
at a recent Apple launch, the phone was supposed to recognize its owner, but too many people had been playing with it backstage, and by the time of the public demonstration, it no longer knew whom to trust, nor which was its owner’s image

Render
a bruise on the skin of an apple, dented slighted by somebody’s thumb; marked out

Render
a bruise on the skin of an arm, bleeding gently from the needle. He has his father’s eyes, but the DNA goes only gene-deep

Render
to no one evil for evil

Render
to Caesar that which bears his image, but to God everything that God has touched

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Love and marriage

Today’s readings include the golden calf incident during the Exodus, and the parable of the wedding banquet 

You may have seen, as I did, the story this week of a young girl who chose a new, white suit in which to make her First Communion. She and her family were told that she would not be welcome to participate in the public ritual if she did not put on a white dress instead. “Many are called but few are chosen,” indeed! We rightly snarl at such obvious missing of the point of Holy Communion, its promise to all people of an invitation to Christ’s table, a reconciliation of betrayer and betrayed, of God and humanity, sharing in one bread, one cup. To be cast out of the party, with weeping and gnashing of teeth for wearing the wrong cut of clothing? Incomprehensible! we say; then we turn ourselves around to read the parable of the underdressed wedding guest.

Cast that child as the one wearing the wrong sort of robe, and see whether it doesn’t change your whole perspective on the king and his party. It has become, all of a sudden, a cautionary tale about how we remake the kingdom of God in our own image, cast it in gold and bronze, and worship our own religion as an idol.

The king was throwing a wedding party for his son, but except for a passing reference to that insignificant little background detail, you would never know it. There is no evidence, in the telling of the story, that he has any investment in the joy of his son’s marriage, in the soundness of the couple’s love, in the holy mystery that tempts two people to promise forever to one another, as though any of us ever knows what tomorrow may bring.

Instead, the king has hung his self-satisfaction, and the happiness of the day, on having all of the right people at his table (judging by their response, his concept of the “right people” is already a little off); or if he can’t get the right people, then at least enough people to make a good showing; or if he can’t guarantee even that, he can at least make sure they’re dressed the part. It’s all about appearances; shiny, precious, shallow, and godless.

Behind the scenes, a marriage is taking place: the symbolic seal and promise of steadfast love; a covenant of faith; but you would never know it from the king’s story.

He has made a golden calf out of his party, his popularity, his reputation.

A golden calf.

The people who followed Moses out of Egypt had just been given some very clear instructions in a handy, 10-point plan, for living as the people of God. Love the Lord your God, says the 10-point plan, in summary; don’t reject, abuse, or dishonour God. Love your neighbour: don’t lie, cheat, steal, kill, or envy them (because there is no place in love for avarice and envy, only for mutual celebration). Love God, love your neighbour; really love them both, and we’ll all get along just fine.

The people were good with this until the very first time that Moses was late home from work. At which point, they were prepared to burn up every shred of faith and trust that they had in God, melt down their golden rings, and create for themselves something more immediate, less demanding, and more shiny in a precious metals sort of a sense.

Obviously one problem was that they had invested far too much stock in Moses as the messenger of God, forgetting that their faith, and their love, was far better invested in God, godself. God is never late home from work, because that would be a concept beyond time, space, and imagination. The whole debacle could have been avoided if they had heeded the very first point in the 10-point plan: I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me.

None of us sets out to commit idolatry. It’s more subtle than that. We start out with good intentions: “Let’s dedicate a feast to the Lord,” says Aaron; but we are afraid that God will not show up, and so we take matters into our own hands, and create for ourselves a god that cannot absent itself, that cannot hide from us, nor ask us hard questions about love.

It’s tempting to use these stories to reflect upon the latest arguments about how to honour the flag of these United States. At its best, our patriotism reflects the democratic values that hold all people equal, worthy of honour, beloved neighbours. In the language of faith, we might describe them all as children of God, indivisible and whole. If we find that such equality, honour, and love are sometimes, somehow, somewhat missing, or belated, then how are we to address ourselves to the symbols of these patriotic values, and to advance them, without falling into the idolatry of uncritical adulation? The instant gratification of a symbol is empty unless we are prepared to undergird it with the meaning we ask it to bear. As Richard Niebuhr once wrote, “[T]here is no patriotism where only the country is loved and not the country’s cause – that for the sake of which the nation exists.”[1]

It’s tempting to go there; oh, but then what about the church, and what about our own lives of faith and idolatry? We cannot get away with making comments about other faith traditions and their dress codes without addressing our own tendencies to create sacred cows, and to worship golden calves. It is often easier, shinier, and more instantly gratifying to find temporary solace in criticism, self-justification, and self-congratulation than to repent, and reorient ourselves towards the ultimate goals of loving God and loving our neighbours as ourselves.

Idolatry divorces the love of neighbour from the person presenting themselves as neighbour in the wrong clothes, at the wrong moment. It fashions a shiny god that is never late home from work instead of loving God as God is: ever-present and often overlooked.

In the table that Jesus sets, the betrayer is reconciled to the betrayed; the sinner sits next to the Son of God; the human and the divine are met together in one bread, one body, and all are invited to take a part. The covenant of faithful love; the love that God has for us, and the love that God demands from us, for God, for our neighbour; this marriage is celebrated and blessed, and all are invited to the table. The Sacrament, the symbol is undergirded by God’s faithfulness, God’s love, and we are invited to invest our love, our lives, to make good our vows to God, loving God and our neighbours, without fear or favour, as ourselves.

Some are busy, and some are late. Some are simply too angry for love. Some are not sure what they are doing at the party. Some party just for show. The tables are filled with the good and the bad, the beautiful and the beastly, the overdressed and the underpaid. A toast is raised, and the people look up, their hearts lifted for a moment by the promise of a love that lasts forever, by hope. Even the king takes a pause from policing his partygoers and raises a glass, seeing the light reflecting off it in a moment of beauty, as the singers whisper, “Rejoice!”

______________________________

[1] Richard H. Niebuhr, The Church and its Purpose (Harper, 1956), 35

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The myth of redemptive violence

A sermon for the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Year A Proper 22) – October 8, 2017

No one can steal the inheritance of God. No one can take away the hope that has been instilled in us by faith in Jesus. No one, and nothing – neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The tenants of the parable believe that they can steal and kill their way into owning the vineyard which they occupy. They are so removed from right relationship with God and with the world that they see others only as economic variables; they think that they can do violence with impunity; and when the landowner’s son comes to sort them out, they say, “Let us kill him and get his inheritance.”

They think that they can murder, mayhem, and steal their way into the kingdom of God.

We have tended – Christians have tended – to read this parable as a judgement against anyone we think got it wrong – Pharisees, by any other name – and a justification of ourselves. God will smite those former tenants, we declare, leading to all kinds of anti-Semitism, by the way; and we, the true and deserving people of God will inherit the vineyard.

Whenever we imagine God smiting someone else, we are on dangerous quicksand.

From the first chapters of Genesis, we find that God doesn’t operate on our economy of vengeance. When Adam and Eve (as the story goes) become disobedient, God hand-stitches them clothes to wear outside of the Garden. Even when Cain murders his brother Abel, and is sentenced to wander the earth, God places a mark on his forehead, to warn others not to harm him, to protect him from their vengeance. God does not give him up altogether.

When someone cuts off the ear of a servant sent to help arrest Jesus in another Garden, Jesus rebukes him, heals the man, and reminds everyone that had he wanted he could have called down legions of angels to decimate the forces of violence lined up against him. When he is resurrected, he does not stride into Pilate’s palace to terrify his tormentor, but sets up a barbecue on the beach for his friends.

The idea of redemptive violence, of using violence to remedy the record or reset justice is at odds with what we know of God in the Bible and in Christ Jesus. The myth of redemptive violence is one that we sell to ourselves to excuse our own inclination to revenge; to protect ourselves from the gospel that demands total love for God, and total love for our neighbour.

We cannot protect the social status of violence without becoming subject to it. We cannot promote the myth of a good guy with a gun without causing a stampede, an arms race; because we all believe we’re good guys, often with good reason. The myth of redemptive violence allows us to structure a society ready at a moment’s notice to open fire.

The first tenants of the vineyard were wicked men. They tried by murder and mayhem to steal the fruits of the vine and turn the deed to their own name. But the second tenants do not restore the landowner’s son to life, they do not undo the evil that has already happened, and they do not inherit in place of the one who was murdered. They are still and only tenants.

This parable is not the story of our salvation. It is a story about our stewardship of the grace that God has given us, in leasing to us this life, this world, and one another. What harvest will we return? What fruits will we offer back to the Landowner?

The fruits of the Spirit of God stand in stark contrast to the myth of redemptive violence. As Paul writes to the Galatians, such things as anger, enmities, and strife are not the fruit nor seed of the kingdom of God. But the fruits of the Spirit, sown by God and rendered as fruit by faithful tenants of the vineyard: those things are love, peace, patience, faithfulness, self-control, and so on. We know the lists and we see the difference. We have a choice as to what kind of tenants we want to be, cultivating our own crop of weeds, or working on the seeds God has sown, in order to render to our Landowner a good and plentiful harvest.

Love, joy, and gentleness: those fruits of the Spirit take work to cultivate. That’s why they are sown among patience, and self-control. It takes constant vigilance to weed out the temptations to slip back into anger, fractiousness, and despair.

I have heard a lot this week from people who despair of changing our trigger-ready culture of defensiveness. Sales of bump stock – the device used by last week’s Las Vegas murderer to upgrade his semi-automatic rifles to fire like full machine guns – those sales are said to have spiked since his attack, and rumours that they may come under legislative scrutiny; and so there are those who have some reason to say that the forces promoting gun proliferation and the myth of redemptive violence in this country are too strong for us.

But as a follower of Jesus Christ who overcame even death and the grave to bring us to something better than crucifixion, I have to disagree. We can be good tenants, promoting the health of the vineyard, and weeding out weaponry, and the destructive myths we use to render violence. We can move mountains, if our thoughts and prayers for the latest victims of violence are backed by faith in the one who loves us, rather than the myths sold us by our gun suppliers; if we remember who is was that sowed the Garden in the first place, and placed us in it.

Standing at the foot of the cross, we are bound to remember that its violence was redeemed not by vengeance nor by a continued economy of violence, but by the irrepressible forces of life, of God’s love, which endures all things, through which all things were made, in heaven and on earth.

For no one can steal the inheritance that we have from God. No one can kill the faith that we have in Jesus, to bring us hope. No one, and nothing in heaven or on earth can separate us from the singular and enduring love of God planted within us by Christ Jesus our Lord, and watered by the Spirit.

Amen

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Friday

In God’s gospel truth, the day comes
when nothing is to be done,
except to shiver below the lowering sky,
crouch within the trembling earth,
wind down the body into
the new-hewn tomb

*

*

*

The birds are the first to recover their voice.
Riding the up-draft, they have seen beyond
the turning of the world;
they have overflown the flood,
from their crop dropping scant hints of melody,
feeding us on broken hymns

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Guns kills people (updated)

A version of this was first posted four years ago. My prayers go out, too, for those we sorrowed with then, whose hearts are rent open, whose pulse rises, whose fear returns with each new atrocity that we visit upon one another.

Guns are not choosy. Guns just kill people. It’s what they do.

We are hearing more, bit by bit, about the latest victims of the latest American massacre. Each detail chips a little more flint from our hearts. The woman who found heaven in a softball diamond. The police officer and football coach. The “superhero who loved country music.” The man who died in the lap of his best friend. The father who was shot shielding another, and whose son tried so hard to save him. God heal their souls from their violent passage and bring them to peace; God help his mother, her brother, their daughter, his friends; God console all those who are in grief.

A hotel room stocked as an armoury of enviable firepower, and it was legal, meaning we allowed it, according to news reports:

Of those weapons, 12 had devices known as bump stocks attached that allowed semi-automatic rifles to mimic fully automatic gunfire. The ATF agent, Jill Snyder, said officials had determined the devices were legal. The weapons – rifles, shotguns, pistols – were purchased in Nevada, Utah, California and Texas, she said.

We failed to control those guns, and because we did, a previously law-abiding, unsuspected citizen of these United States used them to kill dozens of people, dancing on a Sunday night, and to injure hundreds – hundreds – more.

At the risk of repeating myself, and with all respect to the dead and the injured and those who mourn them: Guns kill people. It is their raison d’etre. That being the case, we must control them. We must clip their wings and limit their clips and we must do it before more blood is shed, because if we do not, that blood is on our hands.

We, the people, run this country, so we say. Guns kill people. We, the people, need to fight back.

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Book Review: For Sabbath’s Sake

“Should this be your first go of sabbath, don’t write that you want to observe a strict twenty-four hours in a mountain cave while doing a headstand atop hot coals.”

Good advice abounds in this new book by J. Dana Trent, as does good humour. I had the pleasure of meeting the author at a writers’ conference this summer, and was further rewarded with the pleasure of reading an advance e-copy of her book, For Sabbath’s Sake: Embracing your need for rest, worship, and community.

This Sabbath thing is different from a prescription for self-care whose end is to extend our productivity or general usefulness. It is not a Puritanical penance for the other six days of living large. It is a remembrance that God made time, and hollowed out within it a resting place for us to share with our Creator. Who would knowingly turn down such an invitation?

There is no hint of reprobation here for those of us who struggle to keep the Fourth Commandment; only an invitation to wonder how it might be to revel in the gift of God’s time. That’s not to say that I felt no guilt reading this book. As an Episcopal priest, the experience of a new Episcopalian seeking and failing to find guidance or example within her church of how to practice Sabbath caused me to think about the messages I am giving my congregation (by sitting at my computer, for example, after service and before the next public activity, writing this book review).

Towards the end of the book, a sub-title declares, “Ego is the Enemy.” Since meeting Dana this summer, and being provoked by her to consider my own approach to Sabbath, I have been reminded regularly that God, in the story of Genesis, after six days of Creation, decided that a day of rest would be a fine idea. “Who am I,” I find that I keep asking myself, “to decide that I need less rest than God?” Ego is the enemy of letting myself into that time hollowed out by God as a resting place to share with my Creator.

But just as God is slow to anger and abounding in mercy, so this book offers the grace of companionship through the hurdles and hobbling that come between us and our Sabbath rest.

These is even, for those keen on a check-list, a helpful Appendix of suggestions, including scripture references, and guidance towards Trent’s trinity of Sabbath practices: rest, worship, and community.

My take-away, though, is a certain wistfulness, a longing for that hollow space where God is waiting for me. This book has reminded me what I am missing, and like a helpful spiritual friend, nudged me in the direction of finding my own way back to Sabbath, back to the beginning, back to God.

An abbreviated version of my review was posted on this book’s page at amazon.com

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