Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sermon; Commemoration of the Feast of St. Luke

Today we celebrate St. Luke.  His official feast day was yesterday, but we are celebrating it today because, according to the BCP, “The feast of the Dedication of a Church, and the feast of its patron or title, may be observed on, or be transferred to, a Sunday, except in the seasons of Advent, Lent, and Easter.”  So there.

What do we know about St. Luke?  First and foremost, he wrote both the gospel that bears his name and The Acts of the Apostles.  We get most of our information about him from Acts, Colossians, 2 Timothy and Philemon.  He was thought to be a Gentile and possibly a member of the church in Antioch.  Tradition has it that he wrote his gospel while in Greece, never married and died at 84.  And in about 356, his relics were transferred from Thebes to the Church of the Apostles in Constantinople.  Eventually the body was moved to Padua where it remains today.

That's the body.  The head, however, is another matter.  In 1354, Emperor Charles IV removed the head and took it from Padua to Prague, where it rests today in the cathedral of St. Vitus (which I saw, but didn't take the tour to try and find St. Luke's head).  And, for a time, there were two heads of St. Luke, one in Rome and one in Prague.  The head in Prague was sent to Padua for study, and it was found to be a perfect match to the body.

However, this parish is not named for St. Luke because someone paid a visit to Prague, saw the head of St. Luke and said, “We need to name a church after this guy.”

How can we, as members of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Grants Pass, best honor and represent the saint for whom we are named?  First, we can start by taking our cues from today's gospel reading.

Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom.  He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.

All of the gospels record Jesus paying visits to synagogues, but it is only in Luke where we are told that it was his custom.  We might understand that Jesus attended synagogues, but I think most of us have this idea that he was wandering the highways and byways, teaching on land and sea, and generally leading the life of an itinerant.  But Luke tells us that it was Jesus' custom to attend synagogues.

Of course, there are people whose custom is to attend church on Christmas and Easter, but I get the feeling that Jesus attended synagogue more than just on Christmas and Easter (so to speak).  Reading through the gospels, and understanding Luke's claim that Jesus customarily attended worship, can give us insight as to how important worship was to Jesus.  Not only was attending worship important, but participating in worship was important.  In several places in the gospel Jesus teaches at synagogue.  And in Luke, Jesus is portrayed as a lector when he reads from the scroll.

I realize I’m preaching to those who don't need to hear this, but it's important to make attending worship on a regular basis your custom, if not your priority.  It's through our worship that we participate in these holy mysteries and it is in our worship that we join our voices with Angels, Archangels and all the company of heaven in joyful praise to God.

The primary focus of today's gospel is Jesus' reading from Isaiah:  He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.  Luke is the only gospel to record this particular incident.

As a parish of St. Luke, what would it look like if we lived into this prophecy?  First we need to ask ourselves who are the poor, captive, blind and oppressed?  The answers might be obvious, but they also might not be who you think they are.  And second, would we be willing to step out in faith, living like all this is possible?  If we did take that step, then we could confidently say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

And second, as members of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Grants Pass, we can honor and represent the saint for whom we are named by looking to Luke himself.

As I said earlier, first and foremost he was an evangelist, writing both the gospel and Acts.  A later church tradition holds that he was one of the 70 sent out by Jesus, as well as the unnamed disciple on the road to Emmaus.  As members of St. Luke's, we could, and should, be better evangelists.  How many times have you shared the Good News in the last week, month or year?  How many people have you invited to church?  When meeting a visitor/newcomer, have you made an effort to reach out to them.  We are named for St. Luke the Evangelist.  We need to get better at that Evangelist part.

Luke was a physician, and is therefore the patron saint of doctors.  Can we here at St. Luke's bring a spirit of healing to those in our midst?  If we work to proclaim the good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and free the oppressed, then I believe we can.

Luke is also the patron saint of artists.  There is an ancient Christian tradition that Luke painted the first icon of the Virgin Mary, although that is not verifiable.  Even so, how could we, as members of St. Luke's, honor that aspect of our patron saint?  Grants Pass has a good-sized arts community.  We have several parishioners involved in a variety of choirs and theater.  I had a conversation recently with a parishioner about this very thing – how might we evangelize the good news of the gospel to the arts community in Grants Pass in a way that offers a spiritual home to people who need one as well as allowing the kingdom of God to grow?

Some of these are difficult questions.  Some of them are vague.  Some of them don't have immediate answers.  However, if we are to move forward, if we are to grow, if we are to help fulfill the mission of God, then it might not be a bad idea to have a role model.

Evangelist, healer, artist – how will St. Luke inspire you?

Amen.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Sermon; Proper 23A; Matthew 22:1-14

No matter how you slice it, we are faced with a weird little parable from Jesus.  This is a kingdom parable, but it seems so disjointed and outrageous that it might as well come from Revelation.  And, as you read or hear it, it does seem to have some apocalyptic overtones – destruction, a new group of people and eternal judgment.

The story gets even more bizarre if you actually pay attention to it.  A king gives a wedding banquet for his son and send out slaves with the guest list.  This is where we run into the first problem – those invited refuse the invitation.  The second problem comes when more slaves are sent out and those on the invitation list kill them.  A third problem comes when the king invades the city, killing the residents and burning it to the ground.  This is not a good use of resources, by the way.  Finally, the king sends slaves into the city that was just destroyed to invite a new set of guests.

Here I need to mention that scholars think this isn't so much a parable as it is an allegory of Christian history up to that point.  The king is God, the son is Jesus, the marriage feast is the end of time, the slaves are the prophets, the original guests represent Israel, the burning of the city is the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 a.d., and the new guests are the Gentiles gathered in the church.  Having just come through other parables with that same format, we understand it just as Matthew's early audience did.

We can see ourselves in this allegorical parable.  We were not the first invited; but we were invited, as was everyone else, both good and bad.  We can see that within our own congregation, and we can certainly see it within Christianity as a whole.  We are not always good.  Some days we are bad.  And within Christian history there have been some very bad people – just think of how many women and children have been abused at the hands of Christian leaders.

So . . . both good and bad fill the wedding hall.  Both righteous and unrighteous.  Both sinners and saints.  Tax collectors, prostitutes, Mother Theresa and Frank Peterson.  All these people accepted the invitation to come to the banquet.  And they not only accepted the invitation, but they accepted the invitation as they were.

They did not respond, “Let me go tell my family goodbye,” or, “Let me first bury my father.”  They did not respond, “Let me fix everything bad about me so that I may be worthy to come.”  They simply answered the invitation as they were when they were called.  Part of this parable is convincing others that they don't need to be perfect to come to the banquet, they just need to come.

So now we get to the banquet itself.  All the guests, both good and bad, have arrived and entered the wedding hall.  The king arrives and begins mingling with his guests.  All of a sudden he sees a man without the appropriate attire.  Walking up to him he says, disapprovingly, “And just how did you get in here without a wedding robe?”

I originally imagined this person to be standing at the buffet, his plate overflowing with shrimp, crab legs and stuffed mushrooms.  He's trying to balance his plate on top of his wine glass, and he's got a mushroom stuffed in his mouth because he wanted just one more.

“How did you get in here without a wedding robe?”

And he was speechless.

Now we come to the most problematic part of the story.  After the king killed those originally invited and burned their city to the ground, he rounded up what can only be classified as refugees to fill the wedding hall.  We've all seen images of refugees and, whether it be Jews escaping Nazi Germany, Sudanese and Afghan families running from ethnic and religious fighting, or the children of Central America fleeing gang violence and sex trafficking, refugees have precious few possessions.

This refugee of the king's own making has no response.  So the king has him hogtied and thrown out into the outer darkness, far removed from God.

How can this be, we ask.  The king ordered the destruction of the city.  The king caused people to lose their homes.  The king created a group of refugees.  And now the king is throwing him out and abandoning him.  So much for inviting and welcoming everyone.

But, as you may have guessed, this parable really isn't about a parish dress code.  This parable is about change and changing.

There's an old tradition in the church that when a person is baptized they are given a white robe.  This is part of the symbolism that our old selves have died and we are raised to a new life in Christ.  And in this new life there is joy and plenteous redemption.  In this new life, there is grace.  In this new life there is awe, wonder and generosity.  In this new life, there is a changed way of being – that is why it's new.

This story reminds us that being a Christian puts an end to business as usual.  As Christians, we have received grace upon grace along with God's generous and abundant love.

This should change us.  In worship we should be filled with a sense of awe and wonder at the Holy Mysteries presented before us.  Outside of worship, we should respond to the gifts God has given us with a generosity of our own.  And, knowing that this is not an exclusive banquet but that all are invited, we should be following the king's example of reaching out and inviting all people to the wedding feast.

This parable is reminding us that if we accept the invitation without making the effort to make a change in our lives that reflects the abundance and generosity of God, or without making the effort to reflect kingdom values, then we will have the opportunity to reside where our selfish attitudes and behaviors are more to our liking.

In short, this parable is reminding us that we should be acting like we want to be here.  The kingdom music is playing; let's dance.  The kingdom banquet is ready; let's feast.  The kingdom is at hand, let us change into our wedding robe; let us change our way of being.

Amen.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Newspaper Article

The local paper is doing a piece on Clergy Hobbies which, I believe, will be running in tomorrow's paper.

They sent a photographer out to last week's game to get some pictures of me at work.  Before the game was sort of annoying as the photographer wanted to do all kinds of shots and posed things.  I felt like I needed a big fan to get that "flowing locks" look.

Anyway, the reporter sent me a few shots that aren't bad and of which they will use one for the story.  I don't want to put them all up here, but I thought I'd post up my favorite.  So here it is, Reverend Ref in action:


Prison Ministry?

A few weeks ago I received a letter from an inmate at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Facility.  In that letter he said that he was most likely to be released to our area in three years, was there an N/A group (he's a recovering addict) and could he tell me more about the church?

I replied back saying that there were groups that met here, but couldn't promise it would still be going in three years, and I enclosed a few TEC brochures.

I received another letter from him today.  He wants to know if I can fix him up with an N/A sponsor and would I be willing to be his spiritual mentor.

How do these people find me?

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Sermon; Proper 22A; Matthew 21:33-46

Today's passage follows directly on the heels of last weeks' passage.  Remember that Jesus is now in Jerusalem during the final days before his crucifixion.  While there, he continually confronts and antagonizes the Pharisees and religious leaders.

He does this because he sees the problems of Judaism and, like any good prophet, calls the religious leaders to task.  He sees the leaders too focused on condemning the unrighteous and barring certain people from access to God in a vain attempt at maintaining their religious purity.  He sees leaders so focused on doctrine that they either miss seeing God's grace or resent the fact that others have equal access (remember the parable of the generous landowner?).  And he sees a religious leadership that has sold their soul to climb in bed with political leaders while maintaining the facade that they are separate.  Does any of this sound familiar?

Once again Jesus tries to get the religious leaders to see things the same way God sees things.

But there is a problem with this particular passage, and that is that it has been, and still is in some settings, read with antisemitic overtones.

There was a landowner – God who planted – created a vineyard – Israel
And leased it to tenants – religious/political leaders
The tenants refused to give the landowner what was his, so he sent slaves to collect – God sent prophets
Who were beaten and killed
Finally he sent his son – Jesus who was also killed
The tenants were evicted and new tenants will take over – Gentiles

It's easy to see how this can be read with an antisemitic bent.  But that becomes problematic if we truly believe Scripture to be “the living word of God.”  The Bible is not a static record of history, but is God's word that can and does speak to us today.

And if it speaks to us today, then this parable isn't simply about those awful Jews who turned their backs on God, forcing God to reissue his blessing to the Gentiles.  This parable is also about us who, as adopted children of God and caretakers of his vineyard, must remember to act in ways consistent with grace and love so as not to be driven out.

St. John Chrysostom has my favorite commentary on this passage, and he points out a few things that we might tend to gloss over.  Note that it was through the sole efforts of the landowner that anything was created in the first place.  It was the landowner who planted the vineyard.  It was the landowner who installed the fencing.  It was the landowner who dug the wine press.  And it was the landowner who built the watchtower.  After doing all this, after creating a place to his own liking, he leased it out to tenants.

As St. John Chrysostom said, he left little for the tenants to do except to care for what was already there and to preserve what was given them.  But they made little effort to be productive.

They didn't care for what was given them, and they didn't work to preserve it, to ensure it would continue to produce.  They had no respect for the vineyard or for the landowner, and they treated both as disposable commodities.

But as I said, this is not simply a record of old stories.  This is the living word of God and it speaks to us today.

We are living in a land created by God.  We are tenants chosen by God to care for and preserve what he has created.  We are to work so that what grows in the vineyard nourishes not only us, but those on the other side of the fence as well.  And we are to remember all belongs to God and that from his abundant creation we present an offering of thanks, praise and abundance.

All of what I have mentioned so far can certainly apply to religion and church.  In the context of this passage and at this point in the story, Jesus is more forcefully arguing with the religious leaders that they are missing the point.  That fence around the vineyard isn't to keep people out; it's not a barrier.  Instead, the fence is a boundary that says, “Within this fence you will find beauty and abundance.”  The fence is there to show what God has to offer should we choose to enter through the gate.  It is not there to maintain the purity of the vineyard.

Jesus is here to welcome all people inside the fence – tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners of all kinds.  And this flies in the face of the religious gatekeepers and those more concerned with purity than with grace and love.  And if we ourselves are more focused on keeping the gate closed than open, protecting the vineyard's purity, then we are just like the religious leaders of Jesus' day.

But this parable can also have another meaning outside our church walls as well.  Instead of reflecting the religious institutions of Judaism and Christianity, this parable could also point to our care of the physical environment we find ourselves living in.

A landowner planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press, built a watchtower and leased it to tenants.  And the Lord God planted a garden where he put his people to care for it.

This earth and all that is in it – birds of the air, fish of the sea, animals of the land, creatures of every kind – is God's creation.  All that is, seen and unseen, was created out of God's abundant love.  And we are the caretakers of that creation.  We are the caretakers of earth, sea and sky.  We are the caretakers of the birds, fish and creatures of every kind.

God created all of this abundance out of his abundant love.  It is our duty and obligation to care for this creation, to share with others from the abundant harvest, and return to God from that which he has given us a sacrifice of abundant thanks and praise.

Because if we don't treat this creation as God's creation, if we treat it as nothing more than a disposable commodity that is only here for us, then, like the parable says, we will be put to a miserable death.

That death, however, won't be at the hands of God; it will be the result of our own handiwork.

Theologically and physically speaking, this parable reminds us that we are but caretakers of what God has given us for the benefit of all.

On this day when we welcome and bless the many and varied creatures of God, let us remember that we should be as quick to welcome and bless those people who wish to be part of God's vineyard; and let us remember that it is our responsibility to care for what God has created on behalf of those creatures who depend on us for their well-being.  Amen.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Wednesday Words

I don't recall if I've mentioned this here before or not (a quick glance through the blog tells me I haven't) but I'm beginning a new discipline -- or something like that.

A few weeks ago I was up in Eugene for a clergy meeting.  On the way home my traveling partner told me that he had begun sending out a little midweek meditation via e-mail to his congregation.  I said that sounded like a good idea, but that would give me just one more thing to stress over and work to prepare.

He said, "No, it's really easy.  I just whip out three to five hundred words (so a page or less) about something that caught my attention and got me thinking.  Sometimes that's from something in the week, sometimes it's from something I've read, and I always keep a file drawer full of things that got me thinking at one time or another.  But here's the interesting thing -- people love it.  In fact, they love it so much, people tell me that this has become the most important thing I've done or the most important part of their week."

And he challenged me to do something similar.

I said I'd think about it.

After thinking about it, I've begun doing it.  Three weeks ago I sent out an introductory piece letting everyone know it would be coming.  Two weeks ago was the first piece.  Yesterday was the third.

And the response has been overwhelming.  People love it.  One person has told me that he doesn't leave the house on Wednesdays now until after he has received it.  Somebody told me last week, "That was the best Wednesday Word EVER!!"  I thought about reminding them I've only written two, calm down.

But the response has been very positive.  People are encouraged.  People are thinking.  People like it.  So now I'm stuck with it.

And that's okay.  It's nice to do something that has been positively received for a change.  The trick now is to keep being brilliant.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Paperwork

This past Friday I worked a double-header.  I was the Referee for the JV game and the Back Judge for the Varsity game.

In both games the home team was over-matched and lost by a wide margin.

In the first game, however, we had some issues.  There was a certain player who I flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.  You would think he would have gotten the message, but apparently that one flag wasn't enough for him.

Later in the game there was a scrum and he was beating his chest and beginning to taunt the other team.  I should have flagged him for his second unsportsmanlike foul (and, in fact, was reaching for my flag) when a team captain jumped in, grabbed him, started pushing him toward his sideline, and told me, "I'll take care of him."

Kudos to the JV captain for behaving like a captain, so I let that one go.

Then late in the third quarter there was a running play that ended by my Head Linesman.  When the play was over I saw his flag fly.  I ran over there and he was in the middle of telling two players they were gone.  So I calmed him down and asked what happened.  The home team player was twisting the ankle of the runner in an obvious attempt to cause, if not injury, serious pain.  Flag.  The visiting player, after player #1 had been pulled off, retaliated by kicking him in the head.  Flag.

Two ejections and I spent time on Saturday doing the necessary paperwork.

My supervisor called me this morning and wanted to debrief just to make sure that I wasn't changing my mind about the ejection after having the weekend to think about it.  That is SOP for our association.  I told him, "Nope . . . I'm positive he needed to be ejected."

The upsetting part of all this is that had I flagged him the second time, this incident never would have happened and the visiting player would not have been ejected.

I will remember that for next time.