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.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Josh Gordon

The NFL has suspended Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon for the entire 2014 season for failing yet another drug test.

The reports I've heard have said that he had a drug problem in college and that the Browns knew about it when they drafted him in the supplemental draft.  The NFL runs on the premise that if talent is greater than the problems, the problems can be overlooked.  It would appear that Gordon's problems are now outweighing his talent.

As one NFL veteran has said, you need to screw up a whole lot before a suspension is handed down.

Whether or not you agree with the suspension, or with how the NFL handled it, I found Gordon's statement to be along the lines of, "Really??"

I'd like to apologize to my teammates, coaches, the Cleveland Browns organization and our fans.  I am very disappointed that the NFL and its hearing office didn't exercise better discretion and judgment in my case.

You've got a drug problem.  You've been busted multiple times for using illegal drugs.  You continue to use illegal drugs while working for a company with a well-known drug testing policy, and you're upset that the NFL didn't exercise better discretion and judgment?

Methinks Josh Gordon should get a better handle on the meaning of discretion and judgment.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sermon; Proper 16A; Matthew 16:13-20

Today we leave the Old Testament behind (as far as the sermon is concerned) and get back to focusing on the gospel.  And as we have seen time and time again, the appointed lesson seems like it could have been hand picked for the day.  There are two things in this story I want to focus on.

The first has to do with Peter's confession of Jesus as Messiah.  This particular story takes place in the district of Caesarea Philippi.  We don't know exactly where in the district this happened, so some of what I'm going to say may be an estimation on my part.  Caesarea Philippi has a long and interesting history.  At the time of Jesus the city was the administrative capital of a Roman territory.  Based on that, I can make the assumption that it was a busy city with a decent-sized population.

By this time in his ministry, Jesus is no longer just another street preacher.  He has become a well-known healer, teacher and rabble-rouser.  People know him and know of him.  So, in the area of Caesarea Philippi, in public, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

He gets four answers:  John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.  These answers are important because they aren't reflective of a popular poll.  This isn't a Judea's Got Talent contest to determine the next superstar.  Nor is Jesus playing a game of What's My Line.  What Jesus is doing here is setting up a contrast between how the world views Jesus and how faith views Jesus.

John the Baptist was a dynamic and controversial preacher.  Jesus has some of those same qualities, so people identify him with John.  Elijah is to return at the end of the age to signal the arrival of the Day of the Lord.  Jesus has spent a lot of time proclaiming that the kingdom of God is at hand, so people identify him with Elijah.  Jeremiah was the suffering prophet, and prophets before him spoke with power and authority proclaiming that God is doing a new thing, both of which are often identified with Jesus.

Jesus exhibits a little of each in his personality, but he is not any one of those individuals.  What the people are really saying about Jesus is that he may be exciting, but he is nothing new – same song, different verse.  And in saying that, Jesus is made into their image – easily identified, easily ignored, easily controlled.  But these are one or two dimensional answers.  Jesus is looking for something more, so he asks Peter, “But who do you say that I am?”

Peter, in a moment of faith, expresses his opinion based on his relationship with Jesus.  Peter doesn't just cover the basics  – John, Elijah or Jeremiah.  Peter proclaims Jesus to be the Messiah, the son of the living God, the Savior of the world.  He came to this conclusion based on his time spent with him, what he saw and what he heard.  And he did it in a very public place.

What this tells me is that if we sit on the sidelines, or if we allow people to tell us who they think Jesus is, we will only get a partial picture.  How do we avoid this?  We avoid it by participating in worship on a regular basis.  We avoid it by being active disciples in our worship and study.  We avoid it by working on our relationships with both God and the church.  As the Collect for Proper 28 goes, we need to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.

Today we have gathered to worship in the park.  We gather every Sunday to worship, but this is different.  Today we are out in the open.  We are vulnerable to being told by those passing by who Jesus is.  But by worshiping out in the open we follow Peter's example of proclaiming in a public place that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the living God.  And if we continue to follow Peter's example of active discipleship, then we will get better at following his example of public proclamations.

The second thing I want to focus on is this whole “keys of the kingdom of heaven” business.  This, and Peter as the rock of the church, is what the Roman Catholic Church uses to justify the papacy as a whole, and Peter as the first pope in particular.  Protestants will point out that Jesus never says anything to Peter about passing on those keys to successors.  Whether or not Peter was the first pope isn't important.  What is important, I think, is the meaning of those keys.

The image a lot of us get when we hear Jesus giving Peter the keys of heaven is Peter, keys in hand, guarding the Pearly Gates.  This is, at best, a highly stylized vision.  Personally I also think it is a simplistic and overly literal vision.  I tend to think that what Jesus gives to Peter is being given to all of us as well.

Think about this:  Peter was a disciple who spent time with Jesus.  As I’ve already said, he watched, listened and learned.  He had his good times (he identified Moses and Elijah on the mountain, walked on water and proclaimed Jesus as Messiah), and he had his bad times (he wanted to stay on the mountain, he sank, and he cut off somebody's ear), but he worked at it.  And it was in that working at it, in that discipleship, where the keys of the kingdom of heaven were found.

For the past two months I have been working with officiating rookies.  We have been going through the rules book and mechanics manual.  We have discussed plays and rulings.  I have shown them how to determine if the play will be a run or a pass.  We have talked about reporting fouls.  In essence, this is a group of disciples learning something new and . . . and I am giving them the keys of becoming a good official.

The keys Jesus gives Peter aren't tools for opening up or locking down the Pearly Gates.  The keys are what Peter is, and we are, learning about Jesus through discipleship.  Those keys are to be found when we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest what Jesus is telling us about himself.  And those keys aren't only for Peter, but for everyone of us who allows our preconceived notion of Jesus to take a back seat while we learn about this man we claim to worship.

This is the perfect day for today's gospel lesson.  On the day Peter publicly proclaimed Jesus as Messiah, we sit out in a public park making that same proclamation.  And on the day Peter is given the keys of the kingdom of heaven, we can be assured that, if we pay attention, we will receive those keys as well.

Amen.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Post sermon thoughts

Yesterday I preached the last of my Genesis sermons and it had to do with Joseph (you can read it below).  In essence, I pointed out that Joseph was the world's first robber baron -- instituting a mandatory 20 percent tax on all produce and the selling what was forcibly collected back to the people for their money, cattle and bodies.

As people were filing out of service, more than one of them said something along the lines of, "I didn't know Joseph did that!  I'm going to have to go and read that story again."

Mission accomplished.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sermon; Proper 15A; Genesis 45:1-15

Today is our last lesson from Genesis and it wraps up with, as the bulletin cover proclaims, Joseph forgiving his brothers.  But if you read the Joseph story, it's not really clear if Joseph does forgive his brothers; nor is it clear if the brothers accept an offer of forgiveness.  As my New Testament professor often said, “It's more complicated than that.”

Joseph is an interesting character.  We met him last week as a pretentious teenager who seems to have enjoyed tattling on his brothers, was doted on and coddled by his father, and who relished telling others about his dreams of power.  That is a decidedly negative view of Joseph.  We could just as easily say that he was a trustworthy servant of his father, was showered with love to offset the abuse at the hands of his brothers, and dreamed of the time when he would be treated with dignity and respect.

Today's story is close to the end of the Joseph cycle and shows the brothers in an emotional reunion.  What the Lectionary misses between the time he was sold as a slave by those brothers until today's reunion is significant.  He ends up a house slave in Egypt, rising to a prominent position.  There's a false charge of attempted rape, a prison sentence and a reprieve by the Pharaoh because of his interpretive abilities.  Joseph, against all odds, has risen from abused younger sibling and jailed slave boy to second in power over all Egypt.  He got what he dreamed of: he got a power and role reversal, he got treated with respect, and his brothers did bow down to him.

I want to focus in on some of what we don't hear.  He gets tossed in jail because he is accused of attempted rape by Potipher's wife.  After some time in jail Joseph is joined by Pharaoh's baker and wine steward.  They have dreams and Joseph interprets them:  the wine steward will be returned to his position and the baker will lose his life.  The dreams come true and Joseph is forgotten.

Two years later Pharaoh dreams of fat and skinny cows, but his staff is unable to interpret them.  The wine steward remembers Joseph, so he is brought in.  After getting cleaned up, he tells Pharaoh that his dreams mean there will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine.  Joseph is immediately promoted to FEMA Director, overseeing a system of disaster preparedness.

For seven years he taxed and stored 20 percent of all produce.  For another seven years those stores were used to feed Egyptians and any foreigners who were starving.  And here's where Joseph gets complicated; here is where Joseph is shown to be less of the traditional hero and more entitled tyrant.

For seven years he collects a mandatory 20 percent flat tax on all produce in Egypt.  The amount taken in was like the sand of the sea and beyond measure.  And then the famine began.

When people ran out of food, they went to the government for help.  Under Joseph's direction, the supplies that were forcibly taken from the citizens were then SOLD back to them, as well as anyone else needing it.  As the story goes on, Joseph food in exchange for all the livestock in the land and, eventually, sells food for people, making slaves of every Egyptian in the country.  Joseph, who is now on the side of power and privilege, establishes a system that allows him to continue to prosper while everyone else is pushed further down into poverty and dependence.

What Joseph did to the starving Egyptians is what banks are doing today with predatory lending practices, improper foreclosures, overdraft fees and low balance fees.  It's what home supply stores do both pre- and post-hurricane.  It's what company towns and stores did, and do, to their workers.  It's what payday loan centers do to people desperate for money.  Joseph was, in effect, the very first robber baron.

As this great famine spread throughout Egypt, it also spread throughout the known world, affecting Joseph's father and brothers as well.  Jacob, now known as Israel, sends his older sons to Egypt to buy food for the family.  The brothers eventually meet up with Joseph since he is the sole determining factor on who will receive food and who will not.  It's no surprise that the brothers don't recognize Joseph, but he definitely recognizes them.

The reading for today would have us think that this was a happily emotional reunion between long lost brothers.  You might also think this is a story with a happy ending where the long-separated brothers are welcomed into Egypt, given good land, and provided for out of Joseph's massive wealth.  But you would be wrong.

Before Joseph offers any kind of forgiveness or shows any sort of kindness, he will use his power to get revenge for what they did to him.  He accuses them of spying and throws them in jail for three days.  He releases all but one, holding him as hostage, until they bring Benjamin to Egypt.  He sets them up for theft.  He charges Benjamin with a capital offense and keeps him as a slave, forcing the brothers to grovel for mercy.  For Joseph, revenge is indeed a dish best served cold.

But it really isn't.  All revenge does is lay the groundwork for the escalation of violence and mistrust.  That's not to say reparations for bad behavior cannot or should not be made; but reparations must never be vengeful.

Reconstruction in the South failed because, rather than work to repair the war damage, Northerners worked to punish the South into submission.  WWII was caused, in part, by the draconian punishment meted out on Germany after WWI.  In the movie The Black Book, the lead character is publicly humiliated for her involvement with the Nazis solely to satisfy their desire for revenge and to make them feel superior.

Joseph, the least of his brothers and the one with no power, dreamed of the time he would have power and people would bow to him.  That dream came true.  But instead of using his power to establish a system of equity or a system that cared for those most  in need, he used his power to drive the population of Egypt further into debt and slavery.  And instead of looking at all he had been given after being sold by his brothers and saying, “What you meant for ill, God meant for good,” when they first show up, he manipulates and humiliates his brothers in the name of revenge.

We need to be careful with power and role reversals.  We are told that God will raise the valleys and lower the mountains.  We are told there is no more Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. But if we take those reparations and reversals and turn them into revenge, we have missed the point.

Unlike Joseph, we should work to raise up the lowly in a way that none feel the need for revenge.  Unlike Joseph, our goal should be to level the playing field so all are treated with dignity and respect from the beginning.  Because it will only be when we actually strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being, that we will begin to see the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

Amen.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Really?

Sometime around 2009, the NFHS (the governing board of high school athletics) approved the use of those black pants with the white stripe to be used in cold weather games.  In 2011 they said that those pants were to be the standard uniform.  This meant that we were no longer wearing those white knickers.

I'm not going to get into whether or not the pants are good or bad or better or worse than the knickers.

This is about the supply companies.  I got an e-mail from one vendor who was advertising a "starter package" for football officials.  It included: hat, two shirts, flag, beanbag, whistle, AND KNICKERS.

Why anyone would pay $95 for a starter package that included something we haven't been wearing for five years is beyond me.

Really?  Does this place think football officials are stupid?