Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sermon; Proper 20A; Matthew 20:1-16

Anybody who has had children, even those of us with only one child, has heard cries of, “That's not fair!”  Anyone who has ever worked with other people has heard, at one time or another, “That's not fair.”  We ourselves have probably uttered, “That's not fair,” more than a few times in our life.  And on more than one occasion I have responded, “It may not be fair, but that's the rule.”

It seems we want things to be fair even though we have been told multiple times, “Life isn't fair.”  But the more I look around and pay attention to things when this gets said, the more I am convinced that we don't want things to be fair for everybody, we just want them to be fair for us.

Here are some examples:  We say we want fairness, but it took this country 144 years before allowing women the right to vote.  We say we want fairness, but female employees are routinely paid less than their male counterparts.  We say we want fairness, but our country refuses to grant healthcare to all citizens.  We say we want fairness, but black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men.  We say we want fairness, but crimes against whites are more harshly punished than crimes against other ethnicities.  We say we want fairness, but nobody seems to be outraged when LeVar Burton says that every time he is pulled over he rolls down his window and puts out his empty hands.  We say we want fairness, yet white politicians have recently complained about attempts to register black voters.

We say we want fairness, yet we complain when those whom we think are less deserving are treated exactly like us.  We want fairness, as long as it is on our terms and doesn't grant too much fairness and equality to those who are different.

I think the underlying reason for a disparity in fairness has to do with value.  That which we value, and those whom we value, are treated with a greater degree of fairness.

In the parable, the landowner pays those who worked only a few hours the same rate as those who worked many hours.  The landowner believed this to be fair.  Those who worked many hours didn't see it like that.  They didn't see it as fair because they saw themselves as more valuable than the others.  Their effort was more valuable.  Their time served was more valuable.  And because they believed themselves to be more valuable, they believed they should receive more pay.  After all, it was only fair.

The landowner, however, has a different take on what is valuable and what is fair.  For the landowner, he valued the people who worked for him.  You could say that he valued people in that he made no distinction between the two groups.  He valued people enough to go in search of laborers for his field.  And he values those people enough to treat them fairly.

“But how can it be fair to pay those who have hardly worked the same as those who worked all day?” some may ask.  It's fair because the landowner pays everyone a living wage.  He pays them enough to buy food, clothing and shelter.  He pays them enough that they don't need to beg for help.  He pays them a wage that values their humanity.

Should every job have the same pay scale as every other job?  No, and I’m not trying to make that point.  Education, training, level of responsibility and other factors all should be taken into account.  But there's no reason a woman with the same level of education in the same job as a man should be paid less.  It comes down to what we value.  If landowners of today (businesses) see themselves as more valuable than another human, then wages will be set at the absolute minimum.  If, however, those same people value the people who work for them because they are people and children of God, then they should be following the example of the landowner in today's gospel and paying everyone a living wage.

The landowner in the gospel does care about the basic needs of the people in his area.  This is why he continually sought out people needing work.  It's why he paid everyone a living wage.  From out of his abundance he provided abundantly.

Rather than looking at the generosity of the landowner to others as a slight to us, maybe we could start viewing it with the same spirit of generosity that values those around us.

If we come to value others in the same way as the landowner, then maybe we can argue for women to receive equal pay.  Maybe we can work toward a health care system that is affordable to all.  Maybe we can work toward reducing the racial disparity of our prison system.  Maybe we can argue for living wages.

And whether or not that is fair depends, I think, very much on whether or not you value all people or only some people.

Amen.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Swamping

When I was a teen I had a summer job as a swamper during the cherry harvest.  It was a regular summer job for me for maybe four years.

There were basically three jobs in the orchard -- picker, swamper and counter.  In some of the larger orchards you would also have a driver.  I worked in a small orchard, so I both drove and swamped.

My job was to arrive at the orchard at 6 a.m., hook up a trailer to a tractor, drive over to pick up a load of empty bins (four bins to a trailer), and then drive up and down the rows of cherry trees collecting boxes of cherries.  A counter rode with me to tally up how many boxes the pickers had.  After the count, I would empty the boxes into the bins.  When all four bins were full, I would drive the load to the pick-up site, unload the full bins, then drive over and load up with empties.  The cycle continued until at least 6 at night, and sometimes later.

Today I have proofed a Sunday bulletin, sort of began the process of looking at Sunday's gospel reading (equal pay for unequal work periods), fielded one phone call about our broken stained glass window, learned of four parishioners who were on a Level 1 evacuation notice due to a new fire, talked with one of those parishioners for about 45 minutes getting her calmed down enough to think straight, and met with one parishioner in person who is self-described as "burnt out on church."

I still have a meeting with my Senior Warden scheduled.

Some days I miss the swamping.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sermon; Proper 19A; Matthew 18:21-35

Today's gospel passage is a continuation from last week.  If you remember, last week Jesus laid out a three-step process for forgiveness.  If someone sins against you, go and tell that person.  If they listen to you, you have regained that one.  If they don't listen to you, invite two or three other people along and again try to regain that person.  If they still don't listen, involve the whole church.  And if they still won't listen, treat them as a Gentile and tax collector.

So today Peter presents Jesus with a quandary:  And just how many times should I forgive that person?  Seven?

Jesus answers, “No, not seven.  You should forgive them seventy-seven times.”  In other words, you should always be ready to forgive.

I think there are two common misinterpretations about forgiveness; or maybe one misinterpretation and one abuse.  I’ll start with the former.

One common misinterpretation is when we insist that the victim has to forgive the person who sinned against them “because the Bible says so.”  This is a misinterpretation because it changes the dynamic.  Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault.  If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”

In other words, if John sins against me, I need to go and point that out to him.  He, in turn, should apologize, repent, and ask for forgiveness.  At which point I am to forgive him.  But because we deal in real life, that is more complicated than that basic outline.

What seems to happen far too often is that the sinner puts the onus on the victim.

“I'm sorry you were offended.”
“I'm sorry you took it the wrong way.”
“I'm sorry you didn't get the joke.”

Oh, and by the way, because you were offended, you need to forgive me because Jesus said so.

That leaves no room for honest repentance.  That leaves no room for amendment of life.  That leaves no room for behavioral changes.  And that only serves to place the blame for the problem on the victim who was offended.

It is this misinterpretation that can lead to abuse.  It has led to abused and neglected children being forced to forgive those who hurt them without calling the abuser to accountability.  It has led to women being told to not press charges for domestic violence because Jesus told us to forgive and move on.  And it has led to victim blaming where domestic violence or rape is defended because “she asked for it.”

This isn't how forgiveness works.  If I offended you, it's not my job to say, “I'm sorry you were offended, but you really need to forgive me.”

Instead, it's my job to say, “Wow, I'm sorry I hurt you.  How can I make this better?  Will you/can you forgive me?  I ask/beg/plead your forgiveness.”

If we are confronted as a sinner, we need to admit that we have sinned.  We need to own up to our error and work to ensure it never happens again.  Our job is not to place the blame for our actions on those whom we have harmed.

On the other side, forgiveness is not necessarily for the sinner, but for the person who was sinned against.  Forgiveness isn't a way to poo-poo the event – “It wasn't a big deal . . . it doesn't matter . . . I guess I’m just overreacting.”  It was a big deal, it did matter, and we aren't overreacting.

Forgiveness is a way for us to say, “I won't be ruled by hatred.  I won't look to get even.  I won't use this as a reason to escalate hostilities.”  Forgiveness allows us to move on.  Forgiveness gives us the ability to live in peace.  Because, quite honestly, it's hard work being angry all the time.

Forgiveness ultimately means we don't hold grudges.  We recognize we have also been forgiven, and that we, in turn, forgive others as we ourselves have been forgiven.

To illustrate this point, Jesus told the parable of the unforgiving servant.  He uses the example of a servant owing 1000 talents, being forgiven that debt, but then turning around and not forgiving someone who owes him 100 denarii.

Let me put a modern spin on that.  You may remember several years ago when Michael Vick was arrested and sentenced to three years in jail for running a dog fighting ring and horribly abusing dogs.  There was no doubt that he had committed this crime and he did, in fact, serve the time.  After his release there was a lot of discussion as to whether or not he would get picked up by another team.  As it turned out, Andy Reed signed him to a spot with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Ever since that event, Mike has supposedly turned his life around.  He works with the H.S.U.S. to speak out against dog fighting and animal cruelty.  There are people on both sides of this particular issue – some who see no sign of repentance and some who do.  I’ll let you to make your own determination.  But he has worked at it and he has done some good stuff and, in some circles, he has been forgiven for that heinous crime of animal cruelty.

Let's suppose, though, that after his release a Humane Society employee forgot to feed a particular animal one evening.  And then let's imagine that Michael Vick was the person who discovered the error and got the person fired on the spot.  Vick would then become the person in the parable who had been forgiven of a great amount and yet was unwilling to forgive another person of a small amount.

Forgiveness is not a tool with which we control others.  Nor is forgiveness a one-time event.  The path of forgiveness is a lifetime journey.  The goal of forgiveness is to grant us peace.  The grace of forgiveness allows us to forgive others as we have been forgiven.

As a victim of sin, may we strive to see the sinner as God sees us.  As a sinner, we need to remember that forgiveness lies in the hands of those whom we have harmed, and it is only through the hard work of confession and repentance that trust is regained and grace is bestowed.

Finally, as a person, we need to remember that we are all sinners in need of forgiveness.  May God have mercy on our souls.

Amen.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Non-football Football Injury

Yesterday I worked a double header at the local high school.  I was the Referee for the JV game and the Back Judge for the varsity game.  I asked the crew to be on site around 2:30 so we could do a short pre-game.  Due to work schedules, this isn't always possible, and the guys wandered in one at a time, all arriving by 3.

The temperature at kickoff was in the neighborhood of 100 degrees.  Ish.

Between games we went into the storage area where we had met before hand to grab our gear and move to our regular locker room.

The storage area contains all sorts of things you'd expect -- chains, yard markers, down box, blocking dummies, etc. etc.  One of the things in there was a large, two-wheeled thing they use to brush the field.  It has a long neck on it with a bolt that is obviously used to connect to a four-wheeler or golf cart, and was tilted at a 45 degree angle and about four feet off the ground. 

I must have been tired and not paying attention very well, because when I bent down to get my bag I slammed my head into that bolt.  I immediately dropped to the floor and sat their with my hands on my head.  Yeah . . . .that's gonna leave a mark.

The good news is that I didn't bleed all that much and the cute trainer came in and took care of me.  What little bleeding there was stopped quickly, and I don't appear to have any permanent damage.  I apparently do much better on the field than off it.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Sermon; Proper 18A; Matthew 18:15-20

No sermon today.

That's not to say I didn't preach . . . I did.  But it was an off-the-cuff type of thing that covered several bullet points that were floating around in my head.

This past week looked like this:  Monday, Labor Day -- out of the office all day; Tuesday, The Kid had knee surgery -- out of the office most of the day; Wednesday, in the office; Thursday, out of the office all day for a meeting up north; Friday, met with the elementary school staff about our "adopting" their school, officiated at a funeral, took a nap, worked a double header up north; Saturday, recovered from the double header.

So here I was, Sunday morning, without my usual prepared sermon.

Instead, I was ruminating on the following:

What's it really look like when we confront someone who has sinned against us?
Stained glass windows and rocks
Sports heroes and society's willingness to not hold them accountable
Victim blaming, especially when the victim is a woman
We are the gentiles and tax collectors

Put that all together and you have a fairly good idea of what the sermon was like today.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Not to be cynical, but . . .

I had a couple come in asking for help with gas last week.  Nothing unusual there.

What was unusual was that they said they wanted to make a new start and do things right.  That meant attending church and could I tell them about mine.

I talked with them for 30-45 minutes.  Besides wanting to attend church, they were also wondering if I would do marriage counseling with them.  Yes, they knew they were already married, but they could benefit from going through classes as a good starting point toward doing things right.

I gave them an overview of the church, and that, yes, I would meet with them for the marriage prep classes.

They left and said they would see me on Sunday.

They were not in attendance today.  And, honestly, when I told them that the Episcopal church looked a lot like the Roman Catholic Church and the husband said, "I like the Catholic services when I was at San Quentin," I really didn't expect to see them in the pews today.

Sermon; Proper 17A; Matthew 16:21-28

Someone once said, “There are two rules to life:  1) Don't sweat the small stuff; and 2) it's all small stuff.”  And while this may seem like a good way to avoid undue stress, increased blood pressure and the development of ulcers, if you think about it, it really doesn't work.

Not sweating the small stuff is what forced Apollo 13 to Jerry-rig their spacecraft with square pegs in round holes.  Not sweating the small stuff caused another spacecraft to crash into Mars because one department used the metric system, while another used U.S. standard.  Not sweating the small stuff has led to the deaths of untold numbers of humans because the small stuff never got checked or worried about.  And when I talk to couples who want to get married, I tell them it's never the big argument – “Honey, I bought a boat” – that causes lasting problems, it's the build up of small stuff over time – squeezing the tube in the middle, leaving the lid up, putting the roll on backwards.  The small stuff can be hugely important.

Today is the second half of a big incident.  Last week Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  And after getting responses of John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or a prophet, he asked, “But who do you say that I am?”

This is one of the times when Peter got it.  He got it when he identified Moses and Elijah on the mountain.  He got it when he walked on water.  And he got it last week when he said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Today is the second half of this big incident.  This is the first Passion prediction in Matthew, and Jesus tells the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer, die and be resurrected.  Last week Peter got it.  Now, like the time he wanted to stay on the mountain, or the time he sank, or the time he cut off someone's ear, he doesn't get it.  Now he pulls Jesus aside and says, “This must never happen!”

Jesus responds with the famous, “Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me.”

Jesus points out that Peter is thinking how the world thinks, not how God thinks.  Peter is thinking about what he wants.  John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, a prophet – these are all things we the people want Jesus to be.  And Peter, the mighty rock on whom Jesus will build his church, now becomes a small stone sticking up in the path that causes people to trip.  Jesus reminds Peter, the disciples and us, “Not my will, but your will be done.”

This is big stuff.  But then Jesus says something that I think points to all the small stuff.  He says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves.”

Let us deny ourselves if we want to follow Christ.

This verse, like so many others, has been misinterpreted and misused probably ever since going to press.  A common misinterpretation is to read this as advocating a form of self-flagellation.  There was Bernard of Clairvoux who denied himself sleep to spend more time reading and writing on Scripture.  There were the flagellants of the 1300's who whipped themselves bloody twice a day.  There are and were countless people whose life mantra seems to be, “Being miserable for Christ.”

This passage has been misused by church leaders attempting to control their parishioners, especially around the issues of money and obedience.  Guilting people into giving more money than they have, or promising pie-in-the-sky if you suffer for our cause on earth is more common than you might imagine.  And it has been used against people who question the authority of the church by telling them that they must deny themselves of evil thoughts and obey.

This probably comes as no surprise, but I do not think this passage was meant to be used this way.  Any passage used to justify self-abuse or blind obedience is being used incorrectly.  Any passage used to justify abuse and control of others is being used incorrectly.  So then, how do I think this passage should be used?

I think it has to do with the small stuff.  We are too easily controlled by our appetites and desires.  We are too easily swayed by advertising and the desire to live up to certain lifestyles that we wish to be accustomed.  We get used to always having certain things at our immediate disposal, whether that is snacks, coffee, clothes, books or any one of a number of small things that add up over time.

When we go shopping, do we shop for what we want or what we need?  Are we buying new clothes because we want to stay in style, or do we have an actual need?  Are we buying two or three of something when one or two will do?  And if we can get by on the one or two, do we have plans for the extras and leftovers?

Denying ourselves doesn't have to be painful, but it does have to be intentional.  The goal of denying ourselves is to learn to submit not to our appetites and desires, but to God.  Self-denial helps to remind us that we are children of God, and so are those whom our self-denial affects and/or helps.

Three months from now our gospel reading will be the separation of the sheep from the goats.  “When did we see you hungry, thirsty, naked or alone?”  The answer is, “What you did for the least of these you did for me.”

For us to help or care for the hungry, thirsty, naked and alone requires us to deny ourselves.  It requires us to deny giving in to our appetites and desires and replace them with submission to God.  This does not have to be a major life change.  Nobody is asking you to sell your house, give the money to the church and live in a tent.  But Jesus is asking you to make small, incremental changes every day.

If everyone replaced one or two non-necessity items with one or two food or clothing items for a Ft. Vannoy child every time we went grocery shopping, we would have an everlasting supply of food and clothes going to the school.

Or we can look at our budget.  Pledge income for St. Luke's total $101,632 from 49 pledges.  Of that, 7 pledges total $44,540, and 42 pledges total $57,092.  Those 42 pledges average $113/month.  Obviously not everyone can afford to pledge large amounts, but can most of those 42 pledges afford an extra $10/month?  It's only a small amount, small stuff, but that small stuff adds up.

“If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves.”  Denying ourselves doesn't have to be self-abusive.  Denying ourselves doesn't have to push us into poverty.  But denying ourselves does have to be intentional.  Denying ourselves usually works best when we focus on the small stuff first.  Eventually, all that small stuff will add up, and then we will have done big things.

Amen.