On Birthdays and Blessings…

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My husband and I experience our birthdays very differently.  He is perfectly happy to have a quiet, reserved day, wanting to be acknowledged, but not wanting a lot of attention on him.  I, on the other hand, love have a ton of attention on my birthday – songs, cake, cheers, you name it.  So when my daughter insisted I wear a “It’s My Birthday!” sash yesterday, I only hesitated for a second.  What was funny about the sash was the experience I had wearing it.  The funniest reactions were probably at the bus stop.  I think most of the kids must have parents more like my husband as they seemed surprised I was celebrating.  But one kid in particular asked me, “So are you having a big party with your friends tonight?”  When I replied I was not, her response was, “Yeah, I guess you’re too old, huh?”

It’s funny how a six-year old can make you question your life.  I was suddenly wondering, “Should I have assembled a party?  Should I have found other big ways to celebrate?”  But as the evening closed yesterday, I reflected on what my day of celebration entailed:  a breakfast, including eggs and coffee, my children proudly made by themselves; a lunch in the school cafeteria with my older daughter and her friends; an evening watching my younger daughter’s ballet class – an activity I cherished growing up; a surprise dinner by my husband, fully ready upon our return home; not to mention cards, cupcakes, and endless texts, calls, and social media messages.  It wasn’t a party in the traditional sense, but it did feel like wonderful day of celebrating life – my life here and now.

In the last couple of weeks, I have administered last rites, conducted a funeral, spent several days with my dad who was in the hospital, talked to families dealing with crisis, consoled the bereaved, baptized a baby, and heard people’s life stories for the first time.  When you are that deep in the reality of life, parties or treats no longer seem necessary.  What suddenly becomes important are the ultimate things of life – breath, family, loved ones, intimacy, little life moments.

To help me keep celebrating, I invite you this week, to slow down and look at the blessings all around you.  I know some of you are hurting, some of you are just trying to get by, and some of you don’t have that many stressors right now.  Wherever you are, take a moment today to give thanks to God for all your bountiful blessings – big and very small.  Each breath, each day, each year is a gift.  Tell me where you are feeling grateful.  I’d like to celebrate with you!

On God’s Love…

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Fall is my favorite season of the year.  Mostly I love the transformation of foliage into beautiful shades of yellow, red, and orange.  Although spring’s blossoms are certainly lovely, there is something bold and deeply stirring about fall colors that warms my entire being.  You can imagine my disappointment this year, then, when the forecasters warned us the fall foliage would likely be less vibrant this fall due to the drought we experienced at the end of the summer and into the beginning of fall in our area.  I had already seen evidence of this disappointment as some of my favorite trees turned straight from green to brown – or even a grayish brown, as if their color had been drained.

But last week, driving home from a long meeting, I turned a corner I rarely travel as the sun was lowering, when I gasped.  A tall tree had turned a brilliant shade of yellow, every leaf singing a beautiful song, as the sun made the tree dance in a radiant glow.  The sight was so stunning, I found tears prickling in the corners of my eye, and a tightness I had not realized was in my chest dissolving away.  The tree was a magnificent gift, ready for the receiving of anyone who would have it.

I was thinking how similar God’s love for us is.  We so often lower our expectations with the slightest hint of scarcity, bracing ourselves so we do not experience loneliness, disappointment, or sadness.  We do not even notice the slow development of our guardedness, and before we realize it, we cut ourselves off to others.  But God is not easily deterred.  Out of the blue, we find ourselves sideswiped by God’s love – some unexpected act of kindness by another, an undeserved gift, or an observed moment between others that restores our hope in humanity – and we realize how God’s love is there all along, shining brilliantly.  And when we stubbornly slip into a theology of scarcity or a closed-off sense of abandonment, God shows up with such force that we cannot help but see abundance and love all around us.

I invite you today to find your own moment of God’s love and beauty.  Whether it is in a brilliantly glorious display of fall foliage, a sacred act of kindness between strangers, or a moment of appreciation for the gift of this day, I invite you to look for God today.  But be forewarned:  once you finally see that God-moment today, you are likely to start seeing a lot more of them in the little, shocking, overwhelming, mundane, beautiful moments of life.  I cannot wait to hear how God is warming your heart today!

Homily – Luke 18.9-14, P25, YC, October 27, 2019

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Today’s parable from Jesus is one of those short parables that seems pretty straightforward at first glance.  Jesus describes two men who go to the temple to pray.  One is a Pharisee – a law-abiding, God-fearing man who offers a prayer of thanksgiving, albeit one that is full of self-righteousness, comparing himself and his choices favorably against those of others – suggesting in a sense that others are outside of God’s favor and grace.  The other is a tax collector – a corrupt collaborator with the government who, full of shame, humbly confesses to God his sins.  Jesus tells us the tax collector, “went down to his home justified rather than the other.”

Our temptation is to hear this text and conclude something quite simple:  the Pharisee is bad and the tax collector is good; bragging about yourself is bad and being humble is good; being a faithful person who misjudges God’s abundance is bad and being a self-aware sinner is good.  The problem with reading the text in this black-and-white way is we miss little details.  With such a stark reading, we can find ourselves walking out of church today thinking, “Thank God I’m not like the Pharisee!”  And before we even notice, we realize we are praying the same prayer as the Pharisee from the parable!

But this week, I stumbled on a little translation difference that shifted this parable for me.  In verse 14, Jesus says, “I tell you, [the tax collector] went down to his home justified rather than the other…”  But scholar Matt Skinner argues the preposition, “rather than,” should be translated instead as “alongside.”  So, verse 14 becomes, “I tell you, [the tax collector] went down to his home justified alongside the other…”[i]  Skinner argues there is much more nuance in this parable than we often allow.  That both men are praying, both men have faults, and both go home justified in different ways.  Sure, the Pharisee limits the extent of God’s grace, and he is unaware of his sinfulness in such exclusion, but the tax collector is no innocent.  Both men go home justified alongside each other.

One of the things we have been celebrating this stewardship season is our identity.  When we say, “We are Hickory Neck!” we say we are a people who have raised over $170,000 for local charities, who have over 50 volunteers on a given Sunday, who support one another through spiritual offerings like Lectio Divina, Book Club, Bible Study, and Jam Sessions, who nurture children and young families, who welcome newcomers, who work hard, and who have fun.  We are all those things are more – I imagine each of us here has a mental picture about what we mean when we say, “We are Hickory Neck!”  One of those things is that we walk home justified alongside each other.

That is what I love about this community.  This is a community that is passionate about Jesus and take’s Christ’s light out into the world.  This is a community that is passionate about caring for one another – where all can feel loved and affirmed, and all can find a place to thrive.  This is a community that is passionate about serving our neighbors – those young families looking for a sense of belonging and affirmation, and those retirees looking for a new sense of home.  This is a community that is passionate about liturgy, music, having fun, sharing sorrows, honoring history, dreaming about future possibilities, and laughing – lots of laughing.  This is a community that is passionate about investing our individual resources into Hickory Neck so Hickory Neck can bless others as Hickory Neck has blessed us.  We are Hickory Neck!  We are a community who walks alongside each other.

But that’s just me.  I want to know what gets you excited about Hickory Neck.  I want to know what saying “We are Hickory Neck!” conjures in your mind.  At your tables is a list of ideas from our Stewardship Committee.  Reread those ideas, and then talk with the people at your table about what you think of that is not on the list.  Write them down as you talk, so the Stewardship Committee understands what is important to you as we support and fund ministry.  You have about five minutes to chat and make notes, and then we’ll regather with a word of prayer…

Let us pray.  God of abundance, we come to you as self-righteous, sinful followers, who regularly mess up.  But our heart is with you.  We want to be agents of your light and your love.  Help us to love you abundantly.  Help us to support your kingdom generously.  Help us to walk alongside one another, shining your light for others so they may give glory to you.  In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[i] Matt Skinner, “Sermon Brainwave #686 – Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Ord. 30),” October 19, 2019, as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1192 on October 23, 2019.

On Shining Our Light…

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A couple of weeks ago, Hickory Neck had a wonderful guest preacher who talked to us about stewardship.  He led with a participatory set of questions.  The first was, “What is your reaction when I tell you today is a Stewardship Sunday?”  The responses ranged from “anxiety,” “nervousness,” “dread,” and “frustration” (though some people studiously responded, “gratitude”).  The next question was, “How do you think your rector feels about Stewardship Sundays?”  The responses were fairly similar, and the preacher surmised that stewardship is something rectors dread too because so much of what they can do is based on what parishioners are willing to give.

The funny thing is though, as I sat there listening to the preacher’s question about my own feelings, my initial response about how I, as rector, felt about stewardship season was “joy.”  I know what you are thinking, “Come on, Jennifer, we know you get stressed out about money as much as we do!”  And there is probably a latent sense of anxiety or at least uncertainty.  But mostly I feel joy.  I love talking about stewardship because to me, talking about stewardship is a lot like evangelism.  Both involve talking about something you love and inviting people into that passion.  And I absolutely love and am passionate about the community of Hickory Neck and the powerful ministry we are doing.  I see every day what a powerful place this is for people, and what an incredible impact it is making on their lives.  So, asking people to financially support this place is really just a matter of inviting people to affirm that goodness in their life – to give with the same abundance that is experienced within this community.

The other reason I feel joy in talking about stewardship is because talking about our financial giving is what people do when they are in relationship with one another – they talk about what it is important to them, and what effects their everyday lives.  Money is one of those things that is at the very heart of our lives – we need it, we use it, and we often wish we had more.  Jesus even talked about money perhaps more than any other issue in his ministry.  But the reason many of us get uncomfortable talking about money is because money feels personal and intimate.  But being in authentic relationship means sharing things that are personal and intimate.  With whom else can you talk about money if not with those to whom you are closest, who support you in your darkest moments, and who love you unconditionally?

The last couple of months I have run into many colleagues and long-time friends, and invariably they ask me how things are going at Hickory Neck.  I have noticed when I answer that inquiry, my body has a visceral response.  I immediately and unconsciously smile and let out a sigh of satisfaction before I launch into what I love about our community and the work we are doing together.  As you are working on your pledge cards this week, I hope you can first think about what those things are at Hickory Neck that give you joy, that make you excited to be here, investing your time and energy.  Then I hope you can allow your financial pledge to be a testimony to that joy.  Come, shine your light with me!tens-shining-our-light-horiz

On Festivals, Fitness, and Fun…

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Photo credit:  Charlie Bauer; permission required for reuse.

This week is one of my favorite weeks of the year.  This is the time when our church community transforms our property for our Annual Fall Festival.  Leading up to this week, there is a lot of organizing, delegating, preparing, and a fair amount of stress.  But this week, everything snaps into place.  The setup crew knows exactly what to breakdown and where it goes.  The Attic Treasures crew knows just what layout works and the room is magically converted to look like the same inviting space.  Later, our parking crew will come out and lay out where cars can park, tents will be erected, and all kinds of goods will be placed.  Having done the festival for nineteen years, we know the drill and seem to operate from muscle memory.

I love this week for several reasons.  One, I love seeing the community come together – both parishioners and neighbors alike, to make for a fun week of memories, laughter, and new experiences.  I love seeing people’s passion for helping others unfold in a way that is loving, affirming, and fun.  And I also love seeing people step up, taking on things that are a burden on their time, but doing so for the greater good.  The week truly is inspiring, and I love inviting the larger community into our joy.

This week – or perhaps next week after the dust has settled – I invite you to consider what other parts of your faith life might need to be flexed enough so that you have muscle memory around them as well.  Perhaps it is just making Sunday worship a part of your weekly experience with God – letting the routine of liturgy create a common pattern for you, while also seeing how the routine of liturgy creates surprising moments of grace and joy.  Maybe your muscle memory can form around inviting people to church.  I find the more I talk about a thing I am passionate about, the more talking about it becomes easy.  Or maybe your muscle memory will be around creating practices that feed your soul – our monthly book group, our yearly Women’s Retreat, a weekly Bible Study or Choir rehearsal.  If any of these practices create even a portion of the joy we experience during Fall Festival week, I expect you are in for a real treat.  I cannot wait to hear about it!

 

On Light, Community, and Being All In…

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Photo credit:  Jennifer Andrews-Weckerly; resuse with permission

This past weekend, our family traveled to Staunton, Virginia, for their annual Queen City Mischief and Magic weekend – a weekend to celebrate all things Harry Potter.  We had a great time discovering what houses we were sorted into, observing how to duel with wands, and learning dances for the next Yule Ball.  The kids busied themselves collecting trading cards from costumed characters and from local establishments.  The whole downtown area shut down and found creative ways to channel the world of Harry Potter – from the local train station taking on the persona of Platform 9 ¾, to a photography business creating keepsake photos, to a toy store changing out their stock with Potter toys, games, and books, to the local university offering lectures related to themes from the series, to the local spirits store selling “butter beer.”  For those who love the Harry Potter books and movies, it is a great fun-filled weekend.

As we drove home, I realized what amazed me most about the weekend was not the characters, the paraphernalia, or the crowds.  What amazed me was how a few years ago this small town had a crazy idea to convert the town to this magical place – and everyone bought into the idea.  Staunton does not have some significant tie to JK Rowling or the filming of the movies.  They are just a small town in the middle of the state who decided to do something – and the whole town was all in.  I do not know the history of that idea, or how many people said, “but we’ve never done anything like this,” along the way, or how they figured out the logistics and convinced people to get on board.  But what I can tell you is after two years of attending the festival, the whole town is not just grudgingly on board, but wholeheartedly comes together to welcome people to their town that might not otherwise ever step onto their streets.

I know Staunton converts itself for just three days.  But the more I thought about the event, the more I wondered what kind of power our community might be able to harness for good.  I have certainly seen hints of that kind of energy with the WMBGkind movement in Williamsburg – a community of people committed to being a community of kindness as their dominant identity.  I think that is why I have always thought WMBGkind and the faith community can be such great partners.  Though we use religious language, the end result is the same.  We want our community to be a community that lives Christ-like lives of loving-kindness.  In that way, no matter what our denominational or faith differences are, we can step out of our day-to-day operations and be a part of something much bigger – of a people all united around mission of loving neighbor as ourselves.

This week, Hickory Neck kicked off its stewardship campaign, “Shining our Light.”  What I love about the campaign is the campaign reminds us to look at how much light we are gifted with (in worship, in learning, and in play), and then to gift that light the community around us – to shine our lights, rallying the entire community to live life differently.  That is a cause I am happy to pledge our financial giving to; that is a cause I am excited to pledge our time and talent to as well.  This month, as we pray about our own stewardship, I encourage you to think about how your giving not only supports the ministry of Hickory Neck, but might just have the power to transform our community into something much bigger than ourselves.  I am all in.  Won’t you join me?

Sermon – Luke 16.19-31, P21, YC, September 29, 2019

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I was listening to my favorite preaching podcast this week, which is hosted by three to four seminary professors and scholars.  Usually they spend about a third to half of the podcast talking about the gospel lesson, and then spend the rest of the time on the three other lessons.  But this week, the focus on the gospel was pretty truncated.  In fact, one of the scholars basically said, “If you are looking for some new knowledge or some hidden message in this gospel, there isn’t one.  This one is pretty straightforward.”[i]  After a convoluted, at times ambiguous, lesson last week about a crooked manager who gets praised for his deviousness, this week’s gospel has very little ambiguity.  You can almost hear echoes of Luke’s beatitudes from chapter 6, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God….but woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”[ii]

We could easily read this parable about the rich man and Lazarus and think, “Wow that rich man really messed up; I am so glad I am not rich so I do not have to worry about that kind of poor behavior.”  But here is the thing:  Jesus is not telling a story about “that guy.”  The fact that Lazarus has a name but the rich man does not gives us a big interpretive tool for this parable.[iii]  This is not a parable about a man who messed up ages ago.  This is a parable for faithful people everywhere who daily must navigate the truth of scripture with the reality of being persons of wealth.  Our very citizenship in this country means that we are people of wealth.  We are the rich man.

So, if we are the rich man, what can we learn from him?  Unlike in our passage a few weeks ago, Jesus is not telling us to give up our possessions so we are no longer rich.  What Jesus is saying is our wealth will make behaving faithfully very difficult.  Later, Luke will tell us behaving faithfully with wealth will make getting into the heavenly kingdom as difficult as getting a camel through the eye of a needle.  Jesus warns us because wealth has a corrosive impact on our lives.  Wealth can make us confuse wants with needs.  Wealth can make us think we somehow deserve wealth – as if we did something to earn favored position in life, instead of blessing coming from the grace of God.[iv]  Wealth can deaden our empathy, turning us inward, slowly turning us into people who avert our eyes in the face of poverty, who dehumanize those in poverty, seeing them as servants instead of equals, who become convinced just being Christians and not living as Christians is enough.

We can see how the rich man in our parable gets there.  We are told his clothing is of fine quality.  He eats sumptuously every day.  He clearly ignores Lazarus, sitting by his gate every day.  We know he actively ignores Lazarus because we find later he knows Lazarus’ name without ever having reached out to him.  Even in his death, the rich man is buried with dignity and care.  Therefore, his behavior in Hades, or Sheol, should be no surprise.  Even in suffering afterlife, the rich man dehumanizes Lazarus.  He regards Lazarus as a servant and messenger who can be ordered around to bring him water or warn his brothers.  When your whole life has been blessed by wealth, slipping into a pattern of forgetting to respect the dignity of every human being is quite easy.

The judgment of the parable is both gentle and direct.  Beloved father Abraham, who gathers Lazarus into his bosom, still sees the humanity in the rich man.  Calling him “child,” he almost sadly has to remind him of his poor earthly behavior.  When the rich man desperately tries to help his living brothers, Abraham finally has to be firmer.  Like the beloved father he is, Abraham draws a definitive boundary.  As the rich man insists his brothers need a personal testimony to change their own wealthy behavior, Abraham reminds the rich man they have already been warned by Moses and the prophets. And if any of us wonder if Abraham is being overly dramatic, we need only catalogue the scripture lessons warning about wealthy behavior:  Exodus 22.21-22, 23.9, Leviticus 19.9-10, 19.33, 23.22, Deuteronomy 10.17-19, 15.1-11, 24.17-18, Amos 2.6-8, Hosea 12.7-9, Micah 3.1-3, Zephaniah, Malachi, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and on, and on, and on.[v]  And Abraham is not even talking about Jesus’ warnings.  Even later letters, like we heard today in the first letter of Timothy, take up the mantle.

So if our very citizenship makes us like the rich man, what can we do to resist the corrosiveness of wealth?  The gospel lesson today seems to suggest three things.  First, one way to combat the seductive lure of wealthy living is to root ourselves in Scripture and Christian community.  One of the things our Discovery Class attendees are learning is how steeped in Scripture Episcopal worship is.  Just by coming to church on Sundays, we hear a large portion of the Bible’s words.  Add in our songs and our prayers, and suddenly we find our liturgy is dripping with the words of Scripture.  Coming to church and hearing hard texts like this one and the ones we have been having for weeks, we find ourselves among a community of people who want to live life differently, and need Holy Scripture and each other to do that.  Of course, reading and praying with scripture and your Prayer Book outside of Sundays doesn’t hurt either.

Second, another way to resist the pull of wealthy living is to spend time examining the chasms in our lives.  Abraham insists Lazarus cannot help the rich man for many reasons; one of those reasons is the great physical, uncrossable chasm between the two realities the men now inhabit.  But that chasm is just a reflection of the chasm that existed on earth too – the rich man’s gate that prohibited connection, help, or even awareness of Lazarus’s suffering and need.[vi]  We create those same chasms, those same gates in our everyday lives too.  We ignore the dilapidated housing we pass on our drives, we allow ourselves to forget the vast number of students on reduced and free lunch in our schools, we choose homes and sidewalks that allow us to avoid the homelessness we meet every winter at the Shelter.  Today’s gospel lesson encourages us to use our eyes to see, really see, the gates we have built and to begin to dismantle them.

Finally, another way we fight the power of wealth is to use the wealth for goodness – to shine our light into the world, as our stewardship team will be encouraging us to do this month.  I know that kind of charge can feel overwhelming – we could give away every cent we have and not heal every Lazarus we meet.  I am not saying we should not use some of our wealth to try – whether we give to the Lazarus in front of us, the non-profits that create support systems for Lazaruses, or, and particularly important, we use our wealth to support this faith community:  the community that teaches us how to be faithful, that brings together the community of support we need to follow Jesus, and that propels us into the world as enlightened people of faith.  As the dishonest steward taught us last week, we can use our corrupting wealth for goodness.  We can use the precarious nature of wealth to be agents of light in the world – to shine our lights as Hickory Neck.

The work will be difficult.  Jesus assures us the work will be hard and shows us that reality in parable after parable.  But we are encouraged today because of the people in this room.  This is a community of people who not only give us a sense of belonging and support, this is also a community of people who have your back in figuring out this whole faithful Christian living thing.  This is a community of people who vulnerably, humbly, and joyfully are willing to walk with you.  We can shine our lights because each person in this room is shining their light too.  Together we can do the work to open gates, dismantle closed doors, and fill in chasms of separation.  Together we can turn the lure of wealth into a tool for goodness.  Together we can show the world another way, shining our lights.  Amen.

 

[i] Matt Skinner, “Sermon Brainwave #682 – Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Ord. 26),” September 21, 2019, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1180 on September 24, 2019.

[ii] Luke 6.20, 24

[iii] Charles B. Cousar, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 117.

[iv] Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville:  John Knox Press, 1990), 196.

[v] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina Series, vol. 3 (Collegeville:  The Liturgical Press, 1991), 253.

[vi] Skinner.

On Discernment…

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This past weekend, our Diocese elected its next bishop.  Having never served in a diocese that was electing a bishop, I was not entirely sure what to expect.  I had heard stories of clergy politicking for particular candidates, trying to sway their colleagues to vote a particular way.  I knew we have a diversity of perspectives in our Diocese and coming to consensus may be difficult.  And although I had spoken to many clergy colleagues about their discernment for the best bishop, I did not know nearly as many laity and what their discernment had been like.  By the time we gathered for the election, I felt anxious, hoping we could be civil, but dreading what might be a contentious process.

Instead, I found something quite different.  Some of the difference may have been the result of careful crafting.  We were seated in an auditorium, with a long center row.  Try as one might, getting up and down to talk to others between votes was not exactly easy.  Instead, many of us were left to pray on our own or consult the limited people around us.  Likewise, once the polling was closed, we were required to wait for the candidates to be notified of the results before we were; once the results were announced though, the leadership immediately had us vote again.  We had little ability to process the results of one ballot with others before voting again.  Further, before each vote, our chaplain read a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer.  And finally, there was absolutely no internet or WiFi in the room, forcing us away from technology and into a real sense of presence in the room.

Perhaps it was the rigid structure that guided our behavior, making the election different than I expected.  But I also suspect those gathered last weekend consciously chose a different path.  Instead of dividing into camps behind one of the six candidates, our laity and clergy seemed to embrace the election as a matter of prayerful discernment, not premeditated politicking.  Limited by the confines of the room, you could sense the powerful prayers emanating from each delegate – desperately trying to discern the Holy Spirit’s will.  The pacing of the ballots did two things.  One, there was ample time to prayerfully consider the name one just submitted electronically, before knowing what everyone else had just done; and two, there was a mandate to keep moving, to keep faithfully and rapidly calling on God for answers.  Even our chaplain seemed to root us in tradition.  By using the BCP instead of extemporaneous prayer, she minimized her and our influence on one another – instead, calling us back to the book the is such a marker of our identity.

You may already know about the dramatic turn of events toward the end of our election.  I suspect the prayerful process of discernment in which we were engaged in that space was also shared among the candidates, helping them to faithfully discern what they should do too.  Having walked through that experience so prayerfully, I wonder if there is not something for us all to learn from about the hard decisions of everyday life.  Perhaps we too could stand to:  root ourselves in prayer, trust those around us to be praying too, create environments around our discernment where are weakness are less able to thrive, return again and again to the beautiful words of prayer book, make space for silence when you do not know all there is to know, and, perhaps most importantly, trust the Holy Spirit to do great things in spite of us.  If you are in discernment about something in your life, know that you have my prayers.  I would love to hear your stories of how the Spirit is moving in your life too!

Sermon – Lk. 16.1-13, P20, YC, September 22, 2019

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In seminary I took a class about Reconciliation, and one of the requirements of the class was to lead a Bible Study at the local jail.  Our team of four Episcopalians waltzed into the jail, prepared with study notes, a lesson plan, and as much of an air of confidence as we could muster.  Not very long into the Bible Study, though, we realized we were in trouble.  You see, many of us had been drawn to the Episcopal Church because the Episcopal Church embraces the via media, or the middle way; we are a church that affirms the sacredness of the gray over the black and white.  But an inmate has no time for gray.  Their whole lives are governed by black and white, right and wrong.  The rigidity of life in jail is applied to Holy Scripture as well.  Most of the inmates were either perplexed by our suggestion of any ambiguity or gray in Scripture, or simply thought we were wrong.  Fortunately, our professor had come along.  After about forty-five minutes of debate and disagreement, our professor quietly spoke.  He invited the men to reflect on life where they were from, the complexities of the street, racism, and poverty.  If life at home was so layered, ambiguous, and complicated, surely Scripture could be too.  I am not saying my professor made any great strides in the debate around the literal interpretation of Scripture, but I believe he may have opened a window for some of the inmates.

I think today’s Scripture lesson is a bit like that jail classroom.  At first glance, this could be considered a text that is black and white.  The final verse of our gospel says, “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”  There is no gray in Jesus’ words.  Either we choose God or we choose money.  And based on the fact God is one of our two options, there is no ambiguity about which of these options we should choose.  But here is the problem with trying to assert this passage of scripture is black and white.  Whereas as the end of the passage Jesus seems to be saying we must choose God or money, in the parable, Jesus seems to be saying something else.

If you recall, in the parable, we have a poorly-behaving manager.  The manager has squandered away the master’s money.  When he is caught, the manager takes a good look at himself and admits some honest truths – he is not capable of doing manual labor and he is too embarrassed to beg for money.  Having been honest about who he is, he connives his way into a solution:  he will engender goodwill among his neighbors by doing financial favors for each of them – forgiving portions of their debts in the hopes that they will sometime very soon return the favor.  Both the master and Jesus recognize the shrewdness or wisdom in the manager’s behavior because the manager uses his wits to get out of a devastating position.  In verse nine, the text says, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

This is where things get confusing.  At first, Jesus seemed to be clearly saying money is evil and we must choose God over money.  But when Jesus says to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth,” Jesus seems to be claiming money can sometimes be one of those gray areas of life; in fact, money can be used as a means to an end.  Now, we all have varying philosophies about money.  Some of us manage to care very little about money, with money holding very little power over us.  Some of us struggle with money, sometimes remembering how money can be used for good, but most times feeling like money creates stress and anxiety in our lives that we cannot seem to shake.  And others of us become narrowly focused on money – either in how we can acquire more or what ways we can spend and enjoy money more.  What Jesus knows we often forget is money is inherently “dishonest.”  Money creates systems of injustice and hierarchies of power; money can destroy marriages and friendships; and money can be the ruin of many a person.  So when Jesus says to make friends through dishonest wealth, he does not mean to become a dishonest people; he means money inherently lures us into dishonesty, and we can either throw our hands up in the air in resignation and a refusal to be associated with that dishonesty, or we can use that dishonest wealth as a means to something much more important – relationship with others.

One of the things I like to do when I am struggling with a challenging Biblical text is to look at other translations to see if I can make more sense of Jesus’ words.  This week, I found the most help from a translation called, The Message.  Now as ample warning, The Message is a very contemporary paraphrase of the Bible, which takes a lot of theological liberties that I am often uncomfortable with; however, I also find that the language from the paraphrase opens up the biblical text enough for me to start seeing the text with fresh eyes.  The Message translates Jesus words in this way:  “Now here’s a surprise:  The master praised the crooked manager!  And why?  Because he knew how to look after himself.  Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens.  They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits.  I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.”

What Jesus is trying to say to us today is layered, and very much lives in the gray of life.  First, money has a corrupting force in our lives.  As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Jesus talks about money incessantly in scripture, from telling people to give away all their money, to scolding people about storing up their money in larger barns, to reminding people not to stress about money, to this odd text about money.  As Luke concludes today, Jesus tells us that we cannot serve God and money, because of the all-consuming way money can corrode our relationship with God.

Second, we cannot escape money.  Money is a part of our everyday lives, and as we all know is necessary for functioning – for food, for shelter, for clothing, for comfort, for ministry.  Even those monks and nuns who take on a vow of poverty still rely on the money of others for support.  Money, with all its potential for corruption, is inescapable in our lives.

Finally, once we understand the power and place of money in our lives, Jesus reminds us that when we are wise, keeping God at the center, we can use money as a means to goodness in our relationship with God and with one another.  The manager “transforms a bad situation into one that benefits him and others.  By reducing other people’s debts, he creates a new set of relationships based not on the vertical relationship between lenders and debtors (rooted in monetary exchange) but on something more like the reciprocal and egalitarian relationship of friends.”[i]   This kind of work is not about charity per se, but about making friends.[ii]

Many years ago, there was a commercial circulating around the internet.   In the video, a boy is caught red-handed trying to steal a bottle of medicine and a soda.  A woman is berating him in front of a marketplace, wanting to know why he would take these things.  He confesses that the items are for his mother.  A local merchant steps forward, and hands the woman a handful of money to cover the cost of the stolen items.  The man then quietly asks the boy if his mother is sick.  When the boy nods yes, the merchant has his daughter also bring a container of vegetable broth and other items, and sends the boy on his way.  The next clip of the commercial shows the merchant thirty years later, still working in his shop.  He collapses and is taken to the hospital.  The daughter becomes completely overwhelmed as the medical bills add up, even selling the shop they had once run together.  As she is found crying near her father’s bedside, she finds a revised copy of their medical bill.  The amount due is zero.  We find out through the video that the doctor who forgives the bill is that same boy who stole medicine thirty years ago.  He writes at the bottom of the bill, “All expenses paid thirty years ago with three packs of painkillers and a bag of veggie soup.”[iii]

Jesus knows how money corrupts our world.  To be sure there is no ambiguity about the place money takes when talking about God.  We are to choose God.  But Jesus also knows that we can shrewdly utilize our money as a tool to create relationships that glorify God.  This is Jesus’ invitation for us today:  to examine how our relationship with dishonest wealth can be used for goodness.  Jesus affirms for us this week that the way into the black and white, the right and wrong of life, might just be through the path of gray.  Amen.

[i] Lois Malcolm, “Commentary on Luke 16.1-13,” as found on http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx? commentary _id= 1783 on September 18, 2013.

[ii] Thomas G. Long, “Making Friends,” Journal for Preachers, vol. 30, no. 4, Pentecost 2007, 55.

[iii] As found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XADBJjiAO_0 on September 20, 2019.

On Stories, Remembering, and Healing…

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Today marks the eighteenth anniversary of September 11, 2001 – a fateful day in the United States.  Even eighteen years later, this is a day where we as a country remember – remember where we were that day, remember the people who were touched by tragedy that day, remember how a single day could transform a nation and the world.  This day hangs heavy in our consciousness each year, the weight never quite lifting even with the passage of time.

I think part of why this day is so heavy for us as a people is because of the people this day touched.  Certainly, we could look at the death toll, and recall the names of the almost 3,000 people who died that day, most without the opportunity to say goodbye to their loved ones.  But September 11’s reach went beyond those who died.  The ripple of that day is mind-blowing:  those who were physically injured, those who were bereaved, those who were supposed to be in those buildings and somehow life’s circumstances kept them away, those whose health continues to be poor from living nearby or helping with the cleanup efforts, those who walked for hours fleeing danger, those who made hard decisions that day – some leading to life and some leading to death.

Four years after that fateful day, NPR’s StoryCorps launched their September 11th Initiative.  A program built around having people tell their stories, StoryCorps launched an effort to record the stories of that specific day – of the man who traded shifts that day and whose mentor died because he had volunteered to take his shift; of the man who consoled his wailing two-year old and had to wait four months before his wife’s body was finally identified; to the woman who sifted through bones and debris in a hanger months later, trying to help people find closure; to the airline employee who checked in the terrorists that day at the gate; the father who lost both sons, one a firefighter and one a police officer, in the line of duty that day.  Every story, every single one is gut-wrenching and tear-evoking.  And every one gives a tiny glimpse into the magnitude of the ripple effect this one day had on all of us.

This day, I invite you to honor September 11 with stories.  Talk to your neighbors, friends, and strangers about their experiences.  Listen to stories like the ones on StoryCorps.  Read whatever stories you can find.  When we engage in one another’s stories, we engage in honoring the dignity of every human being, something we pledge to do in our baptismal covenant.  We allow the depth of this day to do something to us.  And somewhere in that intimacy of story, we begin to hear an invitation – an invitation to honor life today.  Whether it is an act of kindness (maybe even the kindness of simply asking someone to tell their story), or whether it is a time of prayer to honor all that has been, or whether it is a commitment to reclaiming love so that hatred can never win in such a powerful way as it did that day.  May our stories help us connect to the cosmic story of a God who loves us and gives us light in the darkness.