Monthly Archives: September 2010

Out of Many, One: Reflections on the Rich Man and the Poor Man

” . . . set [your] hopes [not] on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God . . . be rich in good works, generous, & ready to share . . . so that [you] may take hold of the life that really is life.”  [I Tim. 6:19]

Most of us are made to feel a bit uncomfortable by today’s readings.  We find ourselves not in the story of the poor described in the reading from Amos, nor in the character of Lazarus in the Gospel, but with the rich man.  As one commentator stated, “if that doesn’t make us squirm, it should.”  [Claire Fischer-Davies, Christ Episcopal Church, Blacksburg, Virginia, “Synthesis”, 9/30/07]

Most of us have plenty to eat, a place to sleep, clothes to wear, cars to drive & an abundance of gadgets (necessary & not so necessary) to make our lives easier.  We are convicted by our wealth, & we find excuses to overlook it on a daily basis.  But the truth is that we in America live better than most people on this planet, where there are so many who suffer from malnutrition, poor housing, preventable disease, & have little beyond the basics of food, clothing & shelter to sustain them.   Even in these recessionary times, we are better off than most.  Yet, we try to hold on to what we’ve got with tenacious regularity.

What’s wrong with having a nice house, good meals, hot showers, the latest electronic equipment & enjoying the finer things in life if one can afford it?  It’s not hurting anyone . . . or is it?  We humans have a highly developed facility for denial.  We readily accept the ease & comfort of our lives as a birthright – the idea that each generation has a right to live better than their parents – that’s the American dream, the American promise.  But we have this at a cost.  Our creature comforts can rob us of our empathy.  Those who “have” tend not to want to see or acknowledge those who “have not”.  That’s what’s happened to the rich man in today’s story.  Surrounded by all the things his wealth could give him, he could no longer see Lazarus as a human being of equal worth, deserving of his mercy, his pity, his help.

When we visited Canada a couple of years ago, we spent a day on the streets of Victoria, window shopping & partaking of the food & other delights of the city.  We’d gone into a specialty store that carries expensive dark chocolates, filled with wonderful, gooey, flavorful centers & bought a box of our hand-picked favorites, spending more than we usually would; but, hey, we were on vacation, time to indulge ourselves!.

It was a cold April day, with a brisk wind blowing, & we felt snug in our jackets.  As we left, I noticed (again) an older man, sitting in a chair near the store, begging.  I’d seen him (& ignored him) on my way into the store – after all, that’s how to handle “those people”;  we all know that it’s easiest just to ignore them & go on about one’s business.  But on our way back up the street, having passed him again, I asked Darryl for a few dollars to give him & went back.  Something nudged me to talk to him, to really look at him & not be content simply to thrust the bills into his hands & leave.

We started talking, & he told me what he’d really like was a hot cup of coffee from the 7/11 across the street, but it was difficult for him to get there himself (a problem with his legs).  So, I asked if he wanted milk or sugar; & Darryl & I went off to purchase the coffee, a nice tall cup with plenty of milk added.  Then we went back across the street & gave it to the man.  He was grateful, overly so, for the little time & money this had taken us to do.  Others, many others, continued to walk past the man without a glance, or a word, or a handout.  Maybe he sat there every day, begging, & the locals were used to ignoring him; I don’t know; but I do know that afterwards, Darryl & I went to a very nice pub on the high street & had a delicious, hot meal with some Canadian beer, continuing to enjoy our vacation in this beautiful city.

Yet I kept thinking about this man who was ignored by so many around him in this city full of people.  What had happened to put him in this position?  Unemployment?  Some kind of disability, a war veteran perhaps?  And where was his family?  Was there no one to help him?  Had he done something to alienate those close to him?  And what did it matter, anyhow…?

Why hadn’t I thought to get him some food as well as the coffee?  He hadn’t asked for it, true; but if someone is begging like that, surely they need food as well as a hot cup of coffee?  Better yet, why hadn’t I invited him along for dinner, to share a hot meal in a nice restaurant with us, out of the cold for just a bit, that’s what Jesus might have done – he ate with tax collectors & sinners, the unseen of his age, all the time.  So why hadn’t I done this?  Because it’s just “not done”?  Because people would have looked at us?  Because we were on our vacation, after all, & that’s no way to interrupt a good time?

I felt guilty, but I didn’t do anything more about the man.  Yet, he stayed in my thoughts, chipping away at my certainties about how I live my life & what I can & can’t do for others.  2½ years later, I still think about him.

We, as a culture, have become desensitized, I think, by all the images of poverty & war & natural disasters that play out on our TV screens.  We’ve seen it all from our living room sofas, but do we feel it anymore?  There is such polarization, such a looming distance between “us” & “them” –  whether its people who are poor, or the jobless, or immigrants, or Democrats & Republicans, the Tea Party advocates, Israelis & Palestinians, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindis, atheists, or agnostics.  We’ve created giant chasms between these groups that are becoming larger all the time, with our rhetoric & our emotions having shifted into high gear.

“E Pluribus Unum” is our national motto, but how many of us remember what it means?  That short Latin phrase means, “out of many, one”.  We are supposed to live as a single Unity, as one people, as one nation, & under One God, however we name Him – all these diverse groups are included in that brief synopsis of our national identity.

To serve God, as Christians, we are called to internalize God in the person of the Holy Spirit, to let the Spirit guide & direct our hearts to action, to “set our moral trajectory”, as one person named it.  [Paul Keim, Goshen College, Indiana, “The Christian Century” 9/19/07]  How often do we do that?  How often do we really think about bringing God into the breach of our relationships with others, seeking reconciliation with rather than retribution against those with whom we differ?

When we live as Christ’s disciples, we’re called to get rid of these distinctions, to live beyond the labels that individuals or groups are saddled with.  We are called to “love one another,” “to love our neighbor as ourselves,” “to show hospitality to strangers.”

As Christians, we are called to bridge these chasms in relationships, not widen them.

We are called to find solutions,

to work as God’s partners in God’s work in the world,

to heal the wounds that divide,

to bring loving hearts to the situations that break our hearts wide open,

to act in concert with a God who shows mercy & pity,

to comfort & to help the under-dog,

the under-fed,

the under-housed,

the under-privileged,

the under-appreciated,

the under-the-radar, but still human, beings in our midst.

Dare to think of the possibilities of changing our outlook, to coincide more closely with God’s outlook on humanity.  To be more outwardly focused than inward – “To take hold of the life that really is life”, as Paul wrote to Timothy.

And so, I leave you with a prayer (which you can find on the table in the back if you want a copy) as you go into the week ahead:

“May today there be peace within.

May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.

May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.  May you use

those gifts that you have received and pass on the love that has been given to you.

May you be content knowing you are a child of God.  Let this presence

settle into your bones and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance,

praise and love.  It is there for each and every one of us.

May today there be peace within.”

[from Gunilla Norris, “Weavings,” Vol.XXV, #4, 2010, p.39]

Amen

-The Reverend Deacon Katharine Holland

St. David of Wales

September 26, 2010

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Pleasing God

And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Some years ago, my spiritual director said the one piece of advice he could give me as I prepared for the ordained ministry was to “have a prayer.” What he meant by this was that as soon as I became a priest, wherever I went and whatever I was doing, people were going to ask me to pray with them or for them. So he suggested that I memorize a prayer that would be suitable for any occasion. The one he recommended was the collect we prayed this morning, for this sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost. I love this prayer. I did study it, but I confess I never memorized it. Thank God I’m an Episcopalian and I don’t have to memorize anything! Everything I need is written down in this prayer book!

You all remember this morning’s collect, right? O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts.

We do not please God all on our own. This prayer makes clear that we are in a relationship with God. This prayer reminds us, as all of the Sunday collects do, that God gives us the grace to do what God asks us to do. This, I believe, is the essence of our faith. God gives us the grace to do what God asks us to do.

If you study the Sunday collect each week, or if you sit down sometime with your prayer book and read through them all (beginning around p. 211), you’ll see that this is stated in one way or another in every single collect. I’ve said it before and it’s worth saying again: God gives us the grace to do what God asks us to do. And this includes pleasing God. God provides us with the strength to do God’s will. Without God we are not able to please God.

Our God is a relational God. If we believe in the Holy Trinity, we believe in a God who not only is a relational God, but is a relationship—three persons in relationship with one another, one God. Of course, try explaining that to someone. “My God is a relationship.”

Last week I talked about a God who is forever giving us choices. This week, my theme is similar. Our God is a God who can change his mind. That’s one of the ways that God is in relationship with us, and that’s what is so wonderful about today’s reading from Exodus: Moses and God have a conversation, a dialogue, give and take. Moses asks God to change his mind, and God does.

Of course, God asks us to change our minds as well. The psalm gives us an intimate glimpse of someone making a confession. It is the kind of confession that speaks of longing, longing for conversion of life, and for conversion of one’s relationship with God. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Listen to me, be with me, and shape me into the person you want me to be. All we need to do is ask. (And be patient, but that’s probably another sermon for another day.)

Paul’s letter to Timothy speaks to us about Paul’s own experience of conversion, of having his mind changed by Jesus. If Jesus can save Paul—who persecuted the earliest Christians before they were even called Christians—Jesus can save anyone. Paul is a living, breathing, walking illustration of the words “without you we are not able to please you.”

In the gospel, Jesus asks the religious insiders to change their understanding of just how vast God’s mercy is. We tend to always side against the pharisees and the scribes when we hear stories like today’s, but think for a moment about a time when you thought to yourself: why do we have to let those people use our building? Why does the pastor seem to care more about someone who doesn’t even make a pledge than about me? Don’t people know they’re supposed to take a shower before they come to church? God’s joy at people on the outside, coming in, is greater than we can imagine. God asks us to change our minds.

Ironically, it is our stubbornness or our judgmentalness which in turn makes us the lost sheep, the lost coin. Just like the scribes and the pharisees, we need God to help us change our minds. And God is just as joyful about our being found as the shepherd with the lost sheep or the woman with the lost coin. Neither the lost sheep nor the lost coin does anything to get found. Without you we are not able to please you. At the same time, God doesn’t actually do anything to find us—God is always there. The lost-and-found experience is part of what it means to follow a relational God.

* * *

Probably all of us have reflected from time to time about how God’s relationship to us is similar to a parent’s relationship to his or her child. Of course, parenting is as complex and multi-faceted a relationship as the Holy Trinity. I’d like to close with a story I heard a coworker tell years ago, which I see as a parable of God and mind-changing. Her five-year-old daughter became very angry with her and decided to run away from home. (Not uncommon for five-year-olds.) The mom, my friend, didn’t try to stop her or call to her or even worry about her. She followed her out the door and through the twists and turns of the subdivision where they lived, staying just far enough away that her daughter didn’t know she was there, but close enough to know exactly where she was and what she was doing. Eventually the little girl realized she’d gone farther than she wanted to. She stopped and turned around, and there was her mother, who had been there all along, following her and waiting for her. She ran into her mother’s open arms, and they returned home, each, in their own way, rejoicing.

Choose life

I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendents may live…holding fast to your God.

I grew up in New York City, and was blessed on my father’s side of the family with a wonderful Jewish heritage. They would all describe themselves as Jewish agnostics, and always identified themselves as “members of the Tribe.” We always celebrated Passover, the way most Americans celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas regardless of whether or not they believe in God.

From my mother’s side of the family I inherited what a friend once called “a certain quality of indecision.” I’ve gotten much better, but family and friends have often enjoyed teasing me about that quality. Most of the time it manifests around inconsequential things: what to order in a restaurant, or what to do on a free Saturday. I’m the person who loves that bumper sticker: “If you can’t change your mind, are you sure you still have one?”

Back to my father’s side. I had lots of Jewish friends who invited me to their Bat Mitzvahs and later, their weddings. So I grew up hearing the wonderful toast: “L’chaim.” To life! The life that this toast acclaims is the life God offers the people of Israel in today’s reading from Deuteronomy: Life in relationship with a God who is forever offering us choices.

All of our readings this morning are about choices.

In the New Testament, Paul asks Philemon to make a choice. The letter is interesting for a bunch of reasons. For one thing, the letter is one of the shortest books of the bible. It is one of a very few times in our cycle of Sunday readings that we get practically an entire book in one fell swoop! For another, we only get Philemon’s story once every three years, and even though I could spend several sermons on today’s gospel, Philemon deserves our attention for a minute or two.

This letter tells a story about about a family triangle that includes Paul, who writes the letter, Philemon, who recieves the letter, and Onesimus, a runaway slave who is both the subject of the letter and the messenger who delivers it.

Onesimus is a slave from the household of Philemon. Philemon is a new Christian. Paul encounters Onesimus in Ephesus, while both of them are in jail, although for different reasons. Paul was constantly being imprisoned for stirring up rebellion against the civic religion in the cities he visited; Onesimus was likely jailed as a runaway slave. Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon, carrying the letter we heard this morning.

Unlike Jesus, Paul always preached God’s kingdom within the existing social order, and so Paul is not necessarily asking Philemon to set free his slaves. (Historically, abolitionists and others have seen this story as maddeningly ambiguous when it comes to slavery.) Paul is saying that conversion—deciding to follow Jesus—changes things. It throws up for grabs all of our existing relationships and calls us into new relationships. Paul says that to Philemon, Onesimus should be no longer a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother. Paul wants Philemon to exhibit the psychic change that goes along with a conversion.

Paul’s letters are filled with the language of intimate family relationships. In this short epistle, we hear the word brother five times. Other disciples are sisters, God is our father. For Paul, this language of family is a metaphor for church life, but it also points to the way that church transforms all of our relationships. Paul asks Philemon to look at his connection to Onesimus in a new way. Paul wants Philemon to choose life—a fuller life for himself and for Onesimus.

In the Gospel, Jesus asks us to make a choice, a choice between being a disciple and all that we hold dear to us. He doesn’t really put the choice in very attractive terms:

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, brothers and sisters…cannot be my disciple. Well, I don’t know about you, but that kind of language would be sort of a show-stopper for me.

When we hear Jesus telling us to hate our parents or our children, I hope that what we hear is this: Do not hold onto anything too closely, do not confine ourselves to a narrow definition of family. Remember what family means to Paul. Remember what Jesus says elsewhere: who are my mother and my brothers? Here are my mother and my brothers.

As some of you know, when I was in seminary I did an internship in a parish in the east end of London. I learned a lot there, but probably the most valuable lessons were the ones I learned about the English parochial system. There the churches still exist within traditional geographical “parish boundaries,” and everyone who lives within that boundary is a member of the parish. So the priest of the parish where I was an intern, and the small group of people who were active in the week-to-week worshipping community there, considered themselves as ministers to the whole community: to the local school, the shopkeepers, the homeless people in the neighborhood park, and anyone who drifted through their doors at any time of day or night. This relationship broke open for me what we in this country think of as who is in and who is out, who is a parishioner, and who is not.

The choice Jesus offers us in discipleship, like the choice in which Paul encourages Philemon, is the choice to open wide our hearts to embrace a much larger family.

* * *

Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple…So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

What does it mean to be willing to carry the cross? Often people use the phrase “my cross to bear” about a difficult family member or a job they don’t like. When Jesus asks his disciples to carry their cross and follow him, he asks them to follow him to his death, and to be willing to die with him, or because of him. This willingness itself can be the choice for a new life. All over this country, churches like ours are faced with the choice of holding dearly to life as they know it, or being willing to die in order to find new life.

All over the world, people who have struggled with alcohol and drug addiction learn that their life as they know it must end in order for them to truly live.

I think what keeps us from picking up our cross to follow Jesus are those intangible qualities in ourselves that possess us. Now think for a moment about what possesses you. Is it fear? Or pride? Insecurity? Selfishness? Ingrained habits? Perfectionism? Fierce independence? Episcopal reserve rather than wild abandon? Old resentments? These are the possessions that Jesus wants us to give up.

How do we do this? How do we decide? Earlier in the summer we heard the story of Mary and Martha. (It’s one of my favorite stories and no matter when I go on vacation, I seem to always miss it!)  Jesus says to Martha: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” That one thing, it turns out, is a singular focus on Jesus and the work to which he calls us—this is how we pick up our cross, and this is how we choose life. What will you choose? What will you give up in order to follow Jesus?

As we continue with our discipleship journey, let us let go of all that possesses us, and let us choose life. L’chaim!

What IS a “worship lab”?

Our first worship lab is September 12 at 11 am. We’ve got five labs scheduled this fall, experiments in worship as a place to gather people who aren’t currently engaged in a worshipping community, in the hopes that they’ll help us create a new kind of worship. For those who are seeking and those who aren’t seeking but might be longing for they-know-not-what, we’ve got questions: what do you long for? How do you experience grace? What part of your spirit isn’t being nurtured and fed? How do you speak of God and experience God? We have lots more questions than answers, but here’s a little bit that we do know about our new service:

  • We’ll select our scripture texts from among the same texts people of faith in churches all over the world are reading that same day
  • We’ll break bread together and give thanks for what we know and what we don’t know
  • We’ll celebrate the seasons that map our lives onto Jesus’: birth, ministry, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension
  • We’ll go out into the world to continue the ministry of Jesus in concrete ways every time we gather
  • We’ll serve really good coffee before, during, and after worship

If you or someone you know will benefit from helping to shape an evolving worship experience, join us. Have an idea for an experiment? Let us know.

And if you’ve read this far, you might want to share something for our wish-list:

  • Christmas lights
  • Retired sanctus gong(s)
  • Ridiculous amounts of liturgically colored fabric (sheer, green, blue, white, purple, red)
  • Candles (short, fat, long, skinny)
  • Favorite poems about lost-and-found experiences

Can’t come on September 12? The next worship lab is October 3 at 11 am.