Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sermon for Sunday, October 24, 2010- Luke 18:9-14 Looking Into the Mirror

Every now and again I like to read historical fiction, great big books that make history come alive by telling the story in the voices of human beings with all their personal dramas and relationships. I am particularly fond of historical fiction about England – maybe it is the idea of all those beautiful costumes and references to places I have visited and actions that have shaped our lives as Americans and as Episcopalians.

Whatever the reason, I love those books…but there is usually a challenge with them. Invariably, they tell the story of several families whose lives intertwine, so there are many characters with similar names. Sometimes in the front of such a book there is a family tree, so I can check back and remind myself who someone was, who his forebears were, and how there might have been a lateral relationship as well as a linear one. Cousins marrying, for example, or the stepson of one family fathering a child who later wars with the child of the first family. A family tree is one very helpful way of making sure I have not lost track of the story.

Other such books might have something different in the front to guide my way, a list of all the characters and something about their roles in the action of the story. Lucius Malfoy, Son of Abraxas Malfoy, husband of Narcissa Black, father of Draco Malfoy, grandfather of Scorpius Malfoy, wealthy reformed Death Eater. Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, formerly a student, now sick and destitute, living in a cramped garret at the top of an apartment building. Thomas Cranmer, family chaplain of the family of Anne Boleyn, noted reformist in church matters, later named by Henry VIII as Archbishop of Canterbury after England broke with Rome.

These little listings, just like the family tree, give me enough touchpoints so that I can remember who these people are, what their relationships are, and how they might fit into the story as a whole.

Would that we had such lists giving us clues when we hear Jesus tell a parable to make a point!

Today we hear the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector at their prayers. We can hear the pride in the voice of the Pharisee as he prays. We can hear the quiet desperation and shame in the voice of the tax collector as he prays. We think we know which character is good and which character is not so good. The Pharisee is a pompous blowhard who has no clue as to what true religion is about. He is not only pompous, he is insensitive and rude in his condemnation of the humble tax collector, who places himself in all his brokenness before God and begs forgiveness. Simple. We get it.

But in this parable, as in all parables, it is a little more complicated than it looks at first glance. Jesus turns things upside down to shake us up, to make us rethink our assumptions.

Easy to get confused when Jesus does that. I wish we had those character listings!

What would the listing for the Pharisee look like?

Levi ben Sirach, wealthy and devout Pharisee, dedicated to the temple, tithing and following all the rules for praying and good deeds, serving faithfully as all Pharisees are so called to do, and decrying the way the practices in the Temple have become so very sloppy. Because of his status as first son of a prosperous merchant, he is respected in the community, but sometimes feared for his harsh tongue. A good (if sometimes stingy) husband, loving (if sometimes stern) father to five sons and seven daughters.

What would the listing for the tax collector look like?

Saul ben Judah, tax collector, seventh son of a poor shepherd, working for the Roman government because the land on which the family had grazed its sheep for five generations had been taken to pay for food during a time of drought, petty skimmer of tax revenues, widowed when his wife died during the drought, father of one son and four daughters, two of whom had been taken as concubines by the local Roman governor and one of whom is a bit slow. Walks with a limp due to an accident with a chariot when he was walking to the next village to collect taxes early one morning.

Hmmm. Does that help us understand what is going on here?

A bit, but let me add a little color commentary here to flesh this out.

The Pharisee comes from a place of privilege. Even though the Romans have been oppressing the Jews in the time of Jesus, there is a pecking order amongst the Jewish community, and the Pharisees, who see themselves as fierce guardians of the law, are quite high in that order. They are the ones who have been reforming a broken Temple system, by enforcing those laws extraordinarily strictly, and sometimes making those around them miserable. Our Pharisee has some inherited wealth – he has inherited because he is the first son, not because of any particular skill or merit. But he is also a faithful Jew, following the one true God, and in his desire to see things done right, he has become a Pharisee, so that the law may be adhered to. He prays regularly as the law decrees and he gives generously, perhaps not only the ten percent that the Law says, but the ten percent of what he purchases from other sources, just in case those sources had not tithed. He knows there is a right way and a wrong way to do things – he tells his family this several times a day – and by the heavens, he is going to make sure that things are done in the right way.

Our tax collector is also a faithful Jew, but he has done something that causes him to be generally despised by the rest of the Jewish community: he works for the Romans. He is a tax collector, so he is viewed as someone who is supporting the oppressors who believe in pagan gods – they even call their emperor a god, for goodness sake! – and so is a traitor on several levels. He skims money from the taxes he collects, a common practice because wages for the tax collectors were so miserable, so he is also a thief to both Romans and Jews. He does not come from a place of privilege. There were several brothers who were older than him, so he got nothing from his father, and the family was poor anyway. He has lost his wife, and his children have been a mixed blessing. His son is off working somewhere – he has heard not a word from him in several years – two of his daughters were taken from him for the pleasure of the governor. Just as well, since he could not afford to marry them well. One daughter is mentally limited and will never marry, so he has the responsibility for her. The other daughter is languishing at home, helping and hoping that some day someone will marry her. He views his life as a failure in both material and spiritual ways.

Okay, that gives us a clearer picture of the dichotomy between these two characters…sort of. What if we try and relate it to our own times?

In modern society, our Pharisee might be the president of the local bank, the head of the United Way fund drive, chairman of the board of his church. He might have graduated from UVA with honors, have served on the board of several charitable organizations, been elected to the School Board but ran into a spot of trouble because he was so ardent in getting rid of books that he deemed unsuitable from the school library. He might now be active in supporting political candidates whose views he felt were congruent with his own. A pillar of society. Respected, and feared a little, because of his power in the community. Generally, though, a good Christian man. A model Christian, even!

What about our tax collector? I am going to change his story a bit, since we tend to think of tax collectors as annoying but a necessity of our system of government. Instead, since the point of the story is that this person is universally despised, we will make this fellow a low-level worker in a manufacturing plant. He is an ex-con who served time for dealing drugs. On his arms are the prison tattoos made with a ballpoint pen and a pin, reminders of who he was and what he did. One is a reminder, too, of the wife whom he left behind, the wife who died of an overdose while he was in prison. The state took his children away – just as well, since he does not make enough to support them. He is trying to live the straight life – a pastor who regularly visited and counseled him in prison has helped him find Christ – but he trips and falls every now and again. He has avoided the drugs, but he drinks too much, and he stole a fifty dollar bill he knew his friend kept hidden in his locker at work, because he really wanted to go get drunk on night of his wedding anniversary. He looks like what he is. An ex-con. An alcoholic. A small man, no model of anything except wretchedness. No wonder when he goes to church he hides in a corner in the back.

Do these men sound more real to us now? Can we imagine them sitting next to us in the pew?

And which one would you rather be?

The fine upstanding person who follows all the rules, donates, helps, does all the right things?

The messed up ex druggie and dealer who is still in the thrall of drinking and who even steals from his best friend, who drags himself into church and begs for forgiveness for the thousandth time?

Bring them in close, make those two characters in the parable people you can recognize, not two-dimensional creatures two thousand years away, and the story feels entirely different.

And here is where it gets really interesting: do you want to be either of them?

The pompous guy who is so proud of himself for following all the rules.

The broken and messed up guy who is still struggling with following the most basic of rules.

I have a hard time wanting to be either of them. They both make me ashamed and a little disgusted.

And maybe the reason we have such a hard time with this, is that we know that in some ways, we are both of them. We follow the rules. We pay our taxes, get our cars inspected, drink in moderation, donate to the church, are faithful to our spouses, and love and care for our children. But we are also the persons who may have padded our expense account, paid someone under the table because we did not want the bother of filling out government forms, started spending a lot of time on the Internet looking at content that was pretty nasty…or it may have been less egregious. We may have been unkind to our co-worker, parked in a handicapped space when it was our spouse who has the handicap, not us, lied to our children because we just did not want to take them to the movie that night.

If we look in the mirror, we see to our horror that we are both the Pharisee and the tax collector. The self-righteous and the broken. The one who does good and then poisons it by self-aggrandizement. The one who cannot seem to get past the bad things of the past.

Jesus tells us a story that seems a simple illustration of righteousness, but we cannot fall into the trap of saying Oh yes, I am the humble tax collector. Jesus loves me because I am so very, very humble.

Yup, that is rich, reveling in our wonderful humility…

Jesus holds the mirror up, surprising us with what we see. He dares us to be honest about the reflection in the glass.

Yes, we want to be good.

Yes, we want to do what is right.

Yes, we fail, in ways both large and small.

Yes, we keep coming to Him, asking forgiveness, just as we have done many times before.

Jesus is the mirror. He takes us with us to the foot of the Cross to show us how great his love is for us, that he would take that flawed soul reflected in the mirror and wipe away the brokenness and sinfulness and make us new. He reminds us that prayer is not about boasting. For that matter, it is not only about admitting our sins.

It is about praying to be better, to be the reflection in the glass that is the beautiful vision God has for us. It is about gratitude for the gift of Jesus, the mirror, not only forcing us to be honest with what we see but also showing us a different reflection, a vision of what we might become, if we ask for his help.

Jesus tell us stories not only to know him, but to know ourselves. He is the mirror. Look into that mirror. Know him, and be healed.


Friday, October 22, 2010

Best Laid Plans

Big Old Seminary had been planning to renovate its beautiful old chapel. Over a century old, with beautiful stained glass windows and placques memorializing so many worthies who served there and in the larger world.

It burned this afternoon. I saw pictures on FB. The windows are blown out. The roof is gone. All that is left at this point is a brick shell, and the firefighters are continuing to try and put out the last of the blaze.

So now the next steps will be to grieve and to pray, and then to plan. Heckuva way to spruce up the chapel.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sermon for Sunday, October 17, 2010 Luke 18:1-8 “Praying Out Loud”

Who knew that Jesus was secretly a candidate for “Last Comic Standing?”

This Gospel parable, about the incredibly persistent old lady and the impatient judge, could be a stand-up routine. In the fifties, it would have been Henny Youngman, telling the tale in a New York Jewish accent. In more recent years, we could imagine Tyler Perry turning it into a Madea movie.

It’s a common trope, this idea of the pesky and insistent old lady and the less-than-honest man whom she wears down over time until she finally gets what she wants. We hear and we think that Jesus is being uncharacteristically funny, but the point of the story is anything but comic.

It is about praying.

Yes, really.

It is about prayer and the nature of prayer and persistence in prayer. And it is also about the result of prayer…justice.

Now, justice may not be the first thing you think of when you contemplate what you ask for from God, but that is what this story is about. The woman might well be powerless in her society – most women without a man to advocate for them were powerless then – but she has one instrument of power – her voice. And, my, does she use it!

Everywhere this judge shows up in town, the woman is there, hollering at him, asking him to rule in her favor against her opponent. If she did this in a modern day courtroom, the bailiffs would whisk her away…but she encounters this judge in dozens of different places around town, and everywhere she does, she pesters him about her case. In modern times, he would ask for a restraining order against her, to force her to stay away, but in this story, it seems like he cannot escape her.

He responds to her simply to shut her up – the squeaky wheel gets the grease – and she gets her justice finally, not because the judge is an honorable man who wants to see that the law is carried out, but because he is tired of hearing from her.

It sounds rather like some of our pre-teen children pestering us for the latest iPod or the hottest brand of jeans, does it not? And how often do we give in, simply to get the sweet relief of a thank you rather than another round of begging?

My guess is that Jesus told that story because a similar event had happened in the area in which he was preaching, and it was a story that was talked about over morning coffee and around the well by all the neighbors…and everyone laughed out loud when they heard it, because everyone knows old Auntie Leah can be so persistent and loud! Of course she got what she wanted, because she was like a dog with a bone – she would not let that judge go until he had ruled in her favor!

But then Jesus took that funny story and turned it around into a compare-and-contrast moment. Yes, the woman got what she sought because she wore the judge down. And yes, the judge was not the most wonderful fellow; he sounded like he was a judge simply because he liked the power and prestige, not caring for the law or for justice. But imagine a judge, The Great Judge who loves us and cares about righteousness, being approached by someone in need of justice. What would that Great Judge do?

He would respond, and it might not even take endless pestering for him to provide justice to those who cried out for it. There might be some sort of heavenly triage system, where those most in need of justice would receive it quickly…but they would have to ask for it.

The Great Judge would respond to the cries of those who needed justice, because those who cried out to God showed their faith in those supplications. And for some, it might take more than one cry or one prayer for God to tend to their need.

How many people cried to God for justice in the concentration camps of World War II before the Allies crushed the Nazi death machine?

How many people cried to God for justice in the Japanese internment camps in the United States during World War II before the camps were disbanded at the end of the war?

How many people cried to God for justice when they were beaten for attempting to register to vote?

And eventually justice came – in God's time, not in the time that those who cried out hoped for. And that is a key part of this story.

God expects us to be persistent in our prayer to him. What we may be praying for may not be a justice with a capital J, it may be something more personal, and we may need to keep praying for a while. While what we pray for may seem terribly important to us, in God's triage system, it may take a while to be addressed.

Is this some sort of test? Is this a measure of our faithfulness? Jesus clarifies how God works and what we can expect in the final line of this Gospel story… he says "Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. "

But then he adds a plaintive word of his own, a challenge to those who listen to the story: "And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

Jesus tells this seemingly funny story to make the point that persistence in prayer is a sign of deep faith.

It is easy to pray when you get an immediate and positive response from God. But can you be persistent in prayer when it seems to take God a while to get back to you?

The whole world has spent the past two months following the story of the Chilean miners trapped underground, and we all breathed a sigh of relief when the last of the men were pulled up from their underground prison in a remarkable rescue effort. The thing that struck me as I watched all the different players in this drama was the persistence of their prayer.

We are told that the miners prayed – one of their group was a lay pastor – and sang religious songs to keep their spirits up. Family members formed a makeshift camp around the rescue site. They, too, prayed. For 65 days they prayed. I have no doubt that some there, both above ground and below, were thinking, "Why doesn’t God hear my prayer? Why is it taking so long?" And yet they kept praying. They were persistent, because they believed. Their words might not have been "grant me justice" because their need was different than the widow in Jesus story. But their persistence was unmistakably the same. And God responded, in God's time, as always.

When we pray, can we have the faith to be persistent? Can we keep up that conversation with God even when we think he isn’t responding to us quickly enough? Can we accept that God's triage means that sometimes things need to play out in a way that we do not necessarily understand?

That's faith. That is the persistence of prayer shaped by an understanding that God's ways are not our ways. That is trust that God will respond in the way that is ultimately best.

If we believe, if we pray persistently, if we trust in God's love for us, then when the Son of Man returns, he will rejoice in the faith that he finds among us. He will say, "These are the ones who never stopped talking, asking, arguing, complaining, thanking the Father in Heaven. These indeed are the blessed ones. "


Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Our older cat, Mia, crossed the Rainbow Bridge this morning. She was to have surgery to amputate her hind leg - she had osteosarcoma - and she crashed as they were getting her IV started. Three doses of epinephrine and the paddles, but they couldn't revive her.

She was a shy girl, especially after we adopted Spooky, who quickly asserted herself as the bad-girl alpha cat in the house. She was particularly attached to PH, and liked to sit on the pull-out writing shelf of his desk as he worked.

She only became assertive herself when there was fish being served for dinner. Then she'd come to the dining room table, get up on her hind legs, bat your arm with her paw, and talk kitty baby talk to you to encourage you to give her a nibble of the salmon or the flounder or whatever.

She will be cremated and her ashes will be placed somewhere near where she liked to watch the birds and squirrels, perhaps by the birdbath.

Sleep well, sweet kitty. May you be somewhere where there is lots of salmon (preferably pan-roasted), many birds to watch (particularly cardinals), and a soft window seat to lounge on.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Today's Sermon: Jer 29: 1,4-7 “Deal With It!”

In just about any quaint gift shop in America – you know the ones, with the word “shop” spelled as “Shoppe” as an indicator of the quaintness, you’ll see a little plaque or needlepoint pillow for sale. It’s usually got a daisy or a geranium on it, with the words beneath: “Bloom where you’re planted.”

Some of us heard this phrase from our grandmothers first, and the message that Meemaw or Grandma or Nonna was giving us was a simple one: do the best you can, where you are, no matter what the situation, and don’t complain or wish you were somewhere else.

Poker players have a similar motto “work with the hand you’re dealt.” Even if the cards are not the best, use the skills you have and do your best to maximize what you’ve got.

An even shorter and more pointed phrase came in to use in recent years: “deal with it!”

All these phrases, be they charming or brusque, say the same thing. Wherever you are, whatever is happening in your life, you have a choice. You can complain about what you don’t have, or you can take what you’ve been given and do your best with it.

This is what the prophet Jeremiah is saying to the people of Israel, held in captivity in the Babylonian exile, and complaining bitterly about it.

The Psalm that is often referred to in this period of Israel’s history is Psalm 137: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion….How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” God’s wayward people, taken captive and exiled to Babylon, weeping and miserable amongst the pagans, wondering how this could have come to pass. And Jeremiah, who had warned them that they would be punished if they didn’t shape up, sends them a message, a tough one for them to hear: “You’re going to be here for a while. God will not pluck you out of this mess you made quickly. So if you’re going to be there, it’s time to stop complaining and wailing and start shaping up. Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have children, and marry off those children to continue this line of the House of David.”

And the very last instruction he gives them seems strange indeed: “Seek the welfare of the place where you now live in exile and pray for its welfare, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Pray for the good of the place that is such a place of bitterness for them? Pray for their enemies? The Hebrew word for what they were to pray for was “shalom,” an abiding sense of well-being in every aspect of life. And that word shalom is used three times – praying for the shalom of the city, because if there was shalom in the city, the exiles would find the shalom of God as well. They would satisfied with where they were and what they did.

It’s another version of “bloom where you’re planted/work with the hand you’ve been dealt/deal with it!”

When Jeremiah sent this message, it wasn’t necessarily happily received. But something about Jeremiah’s words rang true, and the people did what he said were the instructions from God: build houses, plant gardens, raise families, and live as good members of the society in which you now reside, contributing to its welfare.

Was it the situation that they wanted? No. But here they were in Babylon. They had a choice. They could sit by the waters and cry all day long, or they could dry their tears, straighten up, and bloom where they were planted.

Can we bloom where we are planted? Can we take the hand we’ve been dealt, and work with it? Can we deal with it?

There are times when we look around us and start thinking of what we don’t have. “I wish I had more money.” “I wish I was in better health.” “I wish I had someone special in my life.” “I wish I could find a job, or a better job.” We sit by the waters of Babylon and we weep.

A little weeping is a good thing, but perhaps it is equally good to find a way to say, “This is the hand I’ve been dealt, so I’ll work with it and do the best I can.”

I was listening to a new CD on my iPod the other day, by one of my favorite artists, a classical singer by the name of Thomas Quasthoff. It was a pretty amazing CD – Quasthoff, a German, normally sings the songs of composers like Schubert and Strauss, and in this CD he covered jazz standards and tunes from the Great American Songbook. His beautiful voice soared and crooned and growled through those familiar standards, tunes like “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” “Accentuate the Positive,” and “In my Solitude.” And I thought of the time I saw and heard him in concert at the Kennedy Center a decade ago.

He walked out on stage, following his accompanist, Justus Zeyen. Zeyen was perhaps six feet tall, a slender man in a black tux, with spiky blonde hair. Quasthoff was not four feet tall, in a black turtleneck and slacks. His arms were barely arms at all, just short appendages coming out of his shoulders, with hands that resembled flippers. He had been born with these severe physical limitations because his mother had taken the drug thalidomide during her pregnancy. It became apparent in his childhood that he was quite bright – the drug that so cruelly caused his misshapen body had not affected his intellect at all. And he excelled in school, and it also became evident that he had musical talent, so much so that he wanted to go to the conservatory. But the conservatory would not admit him as a voice major, because with his nonfunctional hands, he could never learn to play the piano. So instead he went to university and then on to law school. But his gift for music continued to grow, nurtured by teachers who saw the gift and not the limitations, and by listeners who fell in love with the exquisite baritone voice and musical artistry that he showed.

That night in the Kennedy Center, sitting perched on a stool, he sang the “Winterreise,” a song cycle of love and tragedy and joy by Schubert. He took his audience from the intensity of the Earl-king riding through the night to love under the linden trees. And after the regular program, he sang an encore “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” A tour de force, a spiritually uplifting and beautiful rendering, his voice ranging across three octaves. He blew us away. And in that 90 minute period that we listened to him, we did not see the short stature, the absence of normal arms, the odd walk. We saw and heard only a man of extraordinary gifts taken to the maximum level that he could take them, sharing them with love and grace.

Quasthoff has been interviewed occasionally, and when asked about the refusal of the conservatory to accept him, he said, "At the time I felt punished for a problem that I was not responsible for." "Looking back now, because I had to study privately it was a chance to involve myself much more deeply in the music. There would have been many distractions at music college. I had vocal lessons nearly every day; normally it is one and a half hours a week. Now I think it was a good thing, but at that time it was hard for me."[1]

He refuses to be categorized as "disabled". "For me, my disability is a fact and not a problem. I'm not living the life of a disabled person. For sure, I have to handle some things differently from other people. But it's not so different from the life of someone who is not disabled. In any case, who is really not disabled? I am in the lucky position that everyone can see it. But if you are never happy, if you are only concerned about money or success, this is in my opinion also a kind of disability."[2]

Bloom where you’re planted. Work with the hand you’ve been dealt.

So what do these stories of the people of Israel and a singer with physical problems have to do with us, especially on this Sunday when we begin our annual pledge campaign?

We may believe that as much as we love this wonderful parish, we are beset with limitations. We are hindered by “shoulds” – we should have more people, we should have more programs, we should do something different. The “shoulds” get in the way of all the wonderful things that we are, by the grace of God, and that we might become with the grace of God. This is a place with many gifts, and many possibilities. We do not have to imitate other churches that seem, on their face, to have greater success than we do based on earthly standards. We can be the best “us” that we can be, and bloom radiantly in who we are and what gifts we have and the place in which we are planted. If we only focus on the “shoulds” instead of our own unique hopes and possibilities, we will always be dissatisfied. But if we make a conscious decision to be ourselves, and be the best of ourselves, to the glory of God, then marvelous things will happen. To do this as God hopes that we will, it takes your practical support. That means your time, your talents, and your money. And to do this best, you will give, not because you think God will be unhappy if you don’t, but because you know that God rejoices when you live into his love by sharing it to help strengthen the Body of Christ and the coming of the Kingdom. And the result of that, we hope, will be deeper relationship with Christ, joy in serving Him, and the welcoming of other folks who want a little of that joy that you feel.

So bloom where you’re planted, in this wonderful place, and work together with the hand we’ve been dealt to fulfill God’s promise. Don’t let the word “should” or “can’t” distract you from God’s possibilities incarnated in you and in this place. Deal with it, and rejoice!


[1] Stephen Moss, “I’m lucky. Everyone can see my disability”, The Guardian, 20 October 2000.

[2] Ibid.