Proper 21 Year A: Karma Land Mines

Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32
I have often thought that Ezekiel’s proclamation that we heard in our first reading of God’s absolution of children from the sins of their parents is incomplete. It is true that people are liable only for their own sins, but it is also true that many people suffer from the consequences of other people’s sins, including the sins of the people who came before them in the past. We can see that in children who were born of mothers who ingested dangerous substances during pregnancy. We can see it in generations of families caught in cycles of abuse. We see it in first world countries suffering from terrorists fueled by the hatred and frustration of people living in their former colonies that were pillaged by the earlier governments and business interests of those first world nations. We see it in the seemingly unsolvable racial problems caused by our own nation’s history of slavery. We see it in church denominations separated from each other because of the what seem to us to be trivial matters, but were seen in the past as issues important enough to split churches.

However, there is also the truth that just as children suffer because of the sins of their parents, we also benefit from the good things they have done. We live in a wonderful monastery associated with a wonderful denomination in a wonderful country because even though all of  the people who came before us in those institutions were sinners who sinned, they also did many good things of which we are reaping the benefits.
So we too must be careful in our actions. We are sinners who have, do, and will sin, and the people who come after us will suffer because of it. We must heed Ezekiel’s proclamation to repent and turn from our transgressions, and get new hearts and new spirits; to turn from our own selfishness and turn towards God, turning from death to life. We heard Paul talk about that in our second reading this morning, when he wrote to the church in Philippi to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard each other as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” That doesn’t mean that we should not enjoy life here and now, but it does mean that we should enjoy it in such a way that it does not leave a mess for others to clean up after us.

Of course, most people do not do evil on purpose. It does happen occasionally, but that is a topic for another sermon. Most people do selfish things without thinking about it, because human society is selfish, and that is what we are used to. First world countries pillaged their colonies because that is what first world countries were expected to do. Large landowners in this country kept slaves, because that was how things got done. People split churches because they thought the issues of the time were important enough to do so. We just can’t think outside of our box, or culture, or zeitgeist, or whatever we want to call it, and that is why it is important to pray about our occasional big decisions, as well as our daily patterns of little decisions and behaviors. Everything we do will have an impact on future generations (even the most trivial things), and even though we can never be certain of the situations in which those generations will find themselves, we must always try to put ourselves in their shoes and see how our actions and decisions will affect their lives. We must base our lives on the desire to be a blessing to all, and when we do that, we will be ever more able to think outside our box, guided by the Holy Spirit.

We are responsible only for our own actions, but we are also responsible for the impact that those actions have on everyone else throughout time and space. May we act wisely and prayerfully, always as servants whose Lord of the Universe is servant of all.  AMEN

Proper 6 Year A: Chosen People

Exodus 19:2-8a
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35-10:23

Our scriptures today describe our job and what to expect as we perform it: our job is to bring people and God together, and we are to expect trouble while we try to do that. In our Old testament reading, God tells Moses to remind the Israelites of the dangerous path God has carried them through out of slavery in order that they might be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” They were God’s chosen people, but not chosen because they were superior or to be superior; they were simply chosen to fulfill the task of transmitting the truth of God’s love to the world around them.

The gospel story this morning is about Jesus commissioning twelve people to travel around, bringing the loving, healing mercy of God to the people around them. Jesus warns the twelve that their message will be unpopular with some powerful people who will harm them, but to do their best to keep their message of hope alive. Like the twelve, we are still disciples of Jesus, and we still have the task of bringing God’s grace to our own world. Like the Israelites, God chooses us, not because we are superior or to be superior, but to humbly serve others as God’s priests: being channels of God’s love, joy, and peace to the world around us.

And so, just like the Israelites escaping from slavery and walking through the wilderness, and just like the twelve disciples upsetting harmful social and religious structures, we will encounter trouble as we live out our vocations as God’s ambassadors. One source of trouble is the fact that being associated with God in any way brings with it high expectations of moral behavior. We will all fail to meet those standards and so will be rightly branded as hypocrites, but it does not mean that we should not expect ourselves and others to strive for them. One thing we do need to work on is to have a better understanding of morality than the often encountered childish view of morality only meaning prudishness, but that is fodder for another sermon. But even the most pure and respectable disciples of Jesus will be offensive to many of the power-holders of our greed-driven culture, because by pointing to Jesus, the disciple points away from greed.

We in this building are not in much danger of physical abuse for following Jesus, unlike the people of Myanmar or Zimbabwe or North Korea. We are much more likely to be slowly numbed and seduced by the consumer culture around us, and to slowly substitute merchandise and military strength for God. We are prone to buy disposable, polluting items to try to fill our emptiness, rather than realize that God already fills us infinitely. We won’t have horrible persecutions that we can use to help us grow, as described by Paul in our second reading today. But we do have the choice of letting our daily minor trials and our occasional major catastrophes making us either bitter or sweeter. Choosing the sweeter option is not easy, but it does make our job as disciple of Jesus easier. We won’t always choose the sweeter option, at least not at first, but hopefully we will come around to it, and help each other choose it so that we may be better channels of God’s grace to our world, living out our vocations as a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation” as we travel the difficult road from slavery to our promised land, bringing as many others along as we can.   AMEN

Easter II Year A: We Forget

Acts 2:14a,22-32
I Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

The Lord is risen indeed. It will be hard to forget that for the next forty-two days, because during that time, the altar will be fancier than usual, we will have a huge candle burning, and almost everything we say in this church will be followed by “Alleluia”. But even with all that, we will forget, and we much of the time we will act as if it never happened, because humans are forgetful. We will forget it even more as time goes by, so that next year we will have to have another Lent and Easter to remind us again. But even with a lifetime of Lents and Easters, we will still keep forgetting the fact that the Lord is risen indeed and we will act as if it never happened, because humans are forgetful. We forgot that we were not supposed to eat the fruit of one tree; we forgot that we are not supposed to make our own Gods, kill each other, or lie and steal; we forgot that we are supposed to have fair business practices and treat foreigners with respect. We forget that God lived a human life as one of us, died as one of us, and brings us to new life, making us more human than we ever were before.

But we forget, and we so often act as if it never happened. Peter reminds us of the Resurrection of Jesus and of our participation in it in our second reading this morning. He also warns us that even though Jesus has been resurrected, we have not. He reminds us that before we are resurrected, we must go through trials and death. That sounds more like something from Lent instead of Easter, Christmas, or any other time of year. It sounds like work, instead of celebration – like preparation instead of party. If we want to, we can shrink from our trials, but by doing so we only show our forgetfulness, because resurrection can only come after death.

Of course, hoping for hardship is not the way to go – God made a good world, and we should seek the goodness of it. Unfortunately, our own sinfulness and the sinfulness of others often covers up that goodness and brings us harm (that is the law of karma, if we are not afraid to call it that). The good news of Jesus is that God’s grace is more powerful than the law of karma, and even though we do so much to harm ourselves and others, and they do so much to harm us and themselves, God breaks the chain of pain by soaking it up himself and not passing it on. He also calls us to participate in his work of breaking the chain of sin and grief by taking a little of it into our own lives – not because it is good for us, but because it is bad for others, and as disciples, we are to do as the master does. As Jesus did not retaliate for his betrayal and torture and instead made something good out of it, so we are to soak up the pain around us and do all we can to heal the situation and the person committing the crimes, instead of trying to find quick and easy release by passing the pain on to others. Through this daily crucifixion of our own desire to find joy in others’ pain, God can, will, and does bring us to the joy of resurrection.

The Lord is risen indeed. That is too good to live as if it never happened. With every alleluia, every fancy candle, every act of self-control and love, may we announce it to the world and to ourselves. We will forget, because humans are forgetful. So we will keep hauling out the alleluias and fancy candles every year. Those other things that Peter talks about: suffering trials, faith tested by fire – we can do those things all year long.   AMEN

Christmas I Year A: At The Kid’s Table

Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Galatians 3:23-25;4:4-7
John 1:1-18

Christmas is filled with images of children: telling Santa Claus what gifts they want, waiting for Santa Claus to bring those gifts, opening the gifts, breaking the gifts, going to Grandma’s house, sitting at the kid’s table for Christmas dinner (usually a card table either stuck next to the end of the main table where the adults eat, or put in an adjoining room so the adults can eat in peace). Of course the main child image of Christmas is the Christ child, because he’s what the whole hassle is about, anyway.

Paul adds two more child images to our Christmas celebrations in our second reading today. Those image are of us humans – Children of God. He mentions that God gave us laws to live under in order to form us into adults, and then he says that God also adopted as children when God lived among us as our brother Jesus. That might not make sense, but no human words can ever fully explain God, and Paul was doing his best to make the incomprehensible comprehensible.

Maybe it could be put this way: God creates us to be his Children, God puts his stamp of approval on us by being one of us, and God further claims us (his natural children) by adopting us as doubly worthy of God’s name. That might not make sense either, but once again, human words can only go so far.

What it all boils down to is: we are God’s Children. As Children, we must grow. Contrary to what a lot of tv preachers and political candidates and people knocking on doors with Bibles say, becoming a Child of God is a beginning, not an ending. As Baby Jesus had to be wrapped in swaddling clothes and nursed by his mother, as kids at Christmas time have to wait for the gifts to come and Christmas dinner to be served, we have to admit our dependency on God. We also need to realize that growth is difficult and takes a lot of work, so we must be open to the things God gives us to grow and use them to our advantage with a minimum of whining. That is difficult, and I certainly don’t do it very well, but it is the only way to grow.

So while we are in this life, our vocation is grow, even though we will never be fully grown. This table up here is the kid’s table, even though the host is the King of the Universe, who chooses to feed his children himself, with himself. May we take what God gives us today with joy and gratitude, and may we be open to all the good gifts to come.   AMEN

Proper 27 Year C: Trust

Job 19: 23-27a
II Thessalonians 2:13-3:5
Luke 20:27-38

Our scripture readings from Job and the Second Letter to the Thessalonians are both about trusting God. Paul talks about God a lot, but his words all boil down to two phrases near the end of the reading this morning: “the Lord is faithful” and “the steadfastness of Christ”. Job is a different character than Paul. In fact, Job leaves all the talk about God up to his friends, and instead, chooses to talk to and with God. Because of his relationship with God, Job is able to say that even with all his troubles and arguments with God, he knows that God lives and will hold him in life. The Sadducees in the gospel story (along with the Pharisees in most other gospel stories) have gotten an undeserved bad reputation. They did not mean or want to be stupid and evil, and the vast majority of them were not stupid and evil the vast majority of the time. They just wanted to understand God and live the way they understood God wanted them to live. Maybe the reason they got such a bad reputation in the gospel stories is because they spent so much time trying to analyze their relationship with God that they didn’t have any time left for an actual relationship.

We can so easily be like Job’s friends or the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Paul at his wordiest, spending so much time talking about God that we never get around talking to and with God. Of course, talk about God can and should be helpful – it is called theology, and there is nothing at all wrong with it. We just need to steer clear of substituting theology for relationship with God. In fact, Paul, most Sadducees and Pharisees, and probably Job’s friends, all had wonderful relationships with God, and those relationships were most likely helped and fueled by their theologizing. However, the Book of Job, the Gospels, and The Acts of The Apostles all show us how theology can never be a substitute for trust in God.

Jesus talked about God a lot, too, like the example in our gospel story this morning. But we must always remember that he also spent a lot of time talking with God. We need to follow his example, and discern the proper times for theology and the proper times for prayer. We need to be like Job, and know when it is more helpful to talk to God than to talk about God. We need to be like Paul and know when our words are getting in the way of our lives. And we need to be like all those good Sadducees and Pharisees, and allow our religion to help us and others around us.

God is the God of the living – living words and living relationships. Both are good, and both can help the other. May God help us to know which to turn to and when, and may we be open to God’s directions.   AMEN

Proper 24 Year C: Perseverance

Genesis 32: 3-8,22-30
II Timothy 3: 14-4:5
Luke 18: 1-8a

The first sentence of our gospel reading from Luke this morning sums up the basic idea from all our scripture lessons today: “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Pray always + don’t lose heart = perseverance. That might seem easy for Jesus to say, because sometimes we have the mistaken notion that Jesus found it easy to pray. All we need to do to dispel that misconception is to read the story of the night in Gethsemene before his arrest. Knowing how difficult it was for Jesus to pray, we might wonder why he expects any of his disciples to pray, and we find an answer to that problem in the parable we just head from Luke.

Usually, the parable is interpreted in such a way that the corrupt judge represents God, and the widow represents us, and if we only nag God enough, we will finally get what we want. However, it might make better sense to see the judge as ourselves, and the widow as God expecting us to do the right thing, and persevering in that expectation. Megan McKenna explains it this way in a book in our library: “we see ourselves as the woman, the righteous one, demanding our rights from God, when prayer [should be] acknowledging we have no rights…We never think God might be the widow and the tables might be turned.” (Parables – The Arrows of God pp105-106).

In other words, we are not to pray in order to change God; we are to pray in order to let God change us, so that we can see the world as it truly is – as God sees it. Praying in order to change ourselves is much more difficult than praying in order to change God, because when we truly see ourselves and how much we need to change, we usually don’t like what we see and we often despair at the possibility of ever growing. That’s why the first sentence of our gospel reading this morning is so important: “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” (Perseverance.) As Megan McKenna says in the book just quoted: “In Hebrew the word for prayer means to stand in the presence of God, to be seen for what we are, to be judged and not run away.” (p 109) We need to keep at it – to stand in the presence of God with nothing hidden, knowing that God loves us more than we ourselves or anyone else ever could, even though God knows all our secrets. God knows us best, yet God loves us most. God knows the wonderful people we can become if only we persevere in truthfully allowing God to change us. God knows firsthand, because God is one of us. Jesus persevered in prayer, as difficult as it was, and asks us to do the same.

Prayer is not the only thing that needs our persistence. We also need to persist in our work, as the other scriptures we heard this morning make clear. We heard Paul writing these words to Timothy: “I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.” Those instructions are for a pastor, but we are all called to be pastors in some way to the people around us in our everyday lives. Jesus worked and prayed as he fulfilled his calling, and we are to do the same. Every walk of life offers opportunities to bring God’s love, peace, and joy to the little part of the world around us. As Paul tells Timothy: “As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.”

With all of this in mind, the strange story about Jacob from our Old Testament reading this morning might make a little more sense than it usually does. Jacob was not a good person. He was a cheat who was cheated and then cheated his cheater. Now he wants to change, to repent. He wants to turn around – to come back home and do the right thing, but he is scared of what his brother (whom he cheated) might do to him. Jacob is not used to doing the right thing, so he takes every precaution to protect his assets in case something goes wrong. The one person he can’t protect himself from is God, so finally God confronts him. Jacob perseveres in his encounter with God, and in doing so, is changed so much that he is given a new name. He also carries with him a wound from the struggle. So it is with us – we might be wounded from life’s struggles, but we can’t say we have truly lived until we have truly lived until we have had those struggles. And even though it often seems a struggle, like Jacob wrestling, it is only through perseverance in prayer that we can be changed, given a new name, and become a blessing to those around us.

So that is our job as Christians: to persevere in prayer (standing in the presence of God with nothing hidden, allowing God to make us into a new creation), and persevering in our work (bringing Jesus into our own world in our own way). It is not easy, and it never gets easier, but it is necessary.   AMEN