Author Archives: saintdavidadmin

“Mercy, have mercy on me!”

Proper 25B, October 25, 2015 – by The Rev. Linda Goertz

 “Mercy, have mercy on me!”

Sometimes it feels like life just pummels us, simply squeezes every ounce of stamina, joy, and hope, right out of us.  Sometimes it’s huge — a hurricane, earthquake or flood; the warfare and chaos that Syrian refugees are fleeing; Job reeling from one disaster after another.  Sometimes it’s simply the drip, drip, drip of nothing going right day after day, a constant critic, an aching emptiness, a dull, tired hopelessness.

We cry out in pain, “Why is this happening to me?”  Where is goodness in all this?  Where can I find relief?  Is that Good News ever going to come?

We ask this at times in our own lives, the lives of those we love, and the lives of others we see suffering all around us.  How I wish I had some easy answers or tidy explanations for all of us.  But I don’t.

Job’s so-called comforters and friends thought they had answers: he must have sinned, they said; he needs to confess his wrongdoing; this is all to teach him some lesson; God needed another angel in heaven, and on and on.  Some people think – and unfortunately proclaim to the world — that natural disasters or illnesses are punishment for this or that sin.  Some people even feel they deserve bad things – and that’s a sad and terrible – and untrue – burden to carry.

What’s worse, some of us don’t even think we have a right to cry out about it.  “Oh, it’s not THAT bad; others have it worse; who am I to complain; God — or my family or my country — expects me to suck it up, be brave, suffer silently.”

How I love Bartimaeus!  He’s brave enough to actually put it all out there.  There he is, begging at the gate, knowing that every passerby believes – assumes! – that he’s got something really ugly and WRONG inside him: why else would he have been afflicted with blindness?  He must deserve it.  Bartimaeus gets this every single day, over and over, and yet he still can hear the news that Jesus is near.  The faith that’s somehow managed to stay and grow inside him is the thing that helps him see his chance to meet Jesus.

And he starts yelling.  Savior Messiah Rescuer save me!  Have mercy on me!  I’m in misery and I need help!  And all the Nervous Nellies around him, the “good” citizens who would rather die than make a fuss and who are just so EMBARRASSED on Bartimaeus’ behalf – they all try to shush him but he just keeps on calling out, Have mercy, have mercy, have mercy.

That’s what Jesus pays attention to – the absolute truth of just where we are.  If we are drowning, if our world is ending, if we are in bitter anguish, do you think God doesn’t want to hear that?  Doesn’t want to be with, to suffer with us?

Isn’t that what Job, too, does all through that long, long book of his?  God, speak to me!  Help me know!  I’m suffering.  And God DOES speak to Job, does show him something so profound and mighty that Job has no words for it, only a deep yielding to that mystery.

Many of us struggle with Job’s yielding – why is it enough that God’s immensity is revealed?  Why are there no answers given?  Is Job giving up, or did something beyond explanation, beyond words, happen when Job was face to face with God?  All you can tell is that everything has changed.

Everything changes for Bartimaeus too; Jesus hears his heartfelt cry and stands stock-still, invites him close, asks him face to face, what do you want?  Let me see, says Bartimaeus.  Let me see, said Job.  Let us see you.  Let us know with the clarity of light that you are here, that you are WITH us.

And that part-hope, part-belief, part-insane and painful honesty is what transforms and heals Bartimaeus and Job and us and, please God, somehow, some way, our shattered, grieving, world.  Heals us so that we can finally see the Holy One before us, inviting us to follow.

“Following” means that we may need to begin crying out again over new ills and pains – the ones we can finally see in the world.  We’re going to be called to demand light and healing for others.  We’ll have to unseal our silences, stand before the gates of power, wherever they are, and demand justice, demand an end to violence and oppression and manipulation.  Because once we start following the Healer, we are on that mission.  And it will – He will — transform us.

Now this is the moment where, for the past several Sundays, we’ve had someone from the congregation share words about stewardship.  But that isn’t happening today – even though next Sunday is when all our financial pledges are being gathered in.  I’m not going to talk about the money you could be giving for the sake of the budget.  I’m especially not going to be one of Job’s dubious friends who might assure you that if you give sufficient money, you will receive Special Blessings from God personally.  It doesn’t work that way.

When we follow Jesus, we are asked to give in other, more demanding ways.  No-longer-blind Bartimaeus may have had a few surprises ahead as he followed Jesus.  It turns out that we’re going to be asked – by God’s own self, in God’s own way – to give of our true selves in concrete and possibly even tedious ways, to shout out for mercy for others and then to deal with the consequences of those demands for mercy.  We’re going to be asked to wash other people’s dirty dishes and to pay attention to the quiet person who doesn’t know how to cry for mercy herself yet; asked to sit with someone who doesn’t smell very good and is confused; to faithfully attend government meetings that go on too long and maybe accomplish only a tiny bit of good, or even none, and church meetings that are much the same.  To cook a meal for the shut-in who’s not very rewarding to visit; to listen with the ear of the heart to the complainer; to get up a little early when we just want to sleep in to make the coffee that welcomes the newcomer.  We’re asked to visit the prisoners, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, AND stay late to lock the doors in the building.  Because sometimes – sometimes —that’s what mercy looks like.  That’s what healing looks like.  That’s what giving really looks like.

Yes, let’s give money as we are able, so the good work can keep on growing.  But don’t let’s stop there and call it good.  Let’s give ourselves.  Amen.

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Proper 14B, August 9, 2015 – The Rev. Linda Goertz

Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

Being hungry, even for a day, is mighty unpleasant.  I know when I’m really hungry, I can’t even think straight.  Sometimes, when we’re hungry for things other than food, we make even less sense.  The Old Testament story for today is about a violent and painful mess that comes from being hungry for the wrong things – the story of Absalom.

Absalom isn’t the sole creator of his mess, of course; he was born into it.  His father David’s first six sons have six different mothers – and not all of those women, I suspect, were completely willing partners.  David used people.  When David’s sons are grown, Absalom’s oldest half-brother, Amnon, rapes and then abandons Absalom’s sister Tamar, shaming her, ruining her life.

Absalom finds revenge for his sister; he broods and plans for two years, but finally he traps Amnon and has him killed.

After the murder, Absalom flees.  He comes back three years later, but his father still won’t see him; so he just hangs around and lets his resentments fester.  Pretty soon, a plan emerges, which I’ll paraphrase as, Dad won’t love me, but I’ll get everyone else in Israel to love me and THEN he’ll be sorry!

So first he lets himself be seen and talked about – kind of like a politician or rock star.  He even makes a public spectacle out of his yearly haircut.  Oh my, he’ll say, giving his head a Miss-Piggy sort of toss, my luxurious hair is getting so HEAVY, I simply must have it cut.  And when it’s cut, he has the trimmings WEIGHED .  (Because apparently, having a whole lot of hair is politically cool.)  The point is, he’s gorgeous and people are fascinated with him.

But two more years go by and King David still won’t pay attention to him.  Absalom asks for help from Joab, the general of David’s army, but Joab ignores him — twice.  We’ll see about that! says Absalom, and has his people burn down Joab’s barley field.  (Not really a clever move, making the army general your enemy.)  Joab does intervene, and David finally forgives Absalom.

But Absalom isn’t content.  Old wrongs are still going around and around in his head and he’s still hungry – for who knows what.

So he starts hanging out at the crossroads with his chariot and horses and royal garb and just being gosh-darned SINCERE with every passer-by.  Nobody listens to you, he says to each of them, except ME.  “If only I were judge in the land!”  The text reads, “so Absalom stole the hearts of the people of Israel” – the people who had their own hungers for security and attention.

There’s more plotting, more conspiracies, and finally Absalom gathers an army.  David flees for a time, but readies his own army.  David’s parting command to them as they march against his son is, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.”  Somehow, despite all Absalom’s posturing, deceit, ego and malice, David still sees the son he loves.  If only Absalom did.

You know the end: the battle rages, 20,000 men are slaughtered.  Absalom is galloping through an oak grove and forgets to duck.  His head gets caught fast in oak branches, and he’s left hanging “between heaven and earth,” while his mule runs from under him.  What a terrible image.  Our rage and revenge and sickened hungers eventually get us so stuck that we hang between heaven and earth, vulnerable and alone.

The soldiers remember David’s command, so they don’t kill Absalom, but Joab – possibly remembering his barley field burnt to a crisp – plunges three spears into Absalom and lets his own “special squad” finish him off.

When David hears that Absalom is dead, he goes up to his chamber, weeping, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!  Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

This is one of those moments where, despite all his misdeeds, David shows his truest self.  Broken and flawed as he is – and as wretched and conniving and twisted as Absalom had become – David loves Absalom with a father’s love.  In this moment of profound grief, he wishes he could have died in Absalom’s place.  Frederick Buechner says, “If he could have given his own life to make the boy alive again, he would have given it.  But even a king can’t do things like that.  As later history was to prove, it takes the King himself.”

So let’s come back, finally, to our Gospel passage.  The Good News about the kingdom of Jesus is that Jesus’s love for us is far beyond that of an ally or a friend or even an earthly father.

Jesus, even knowing who we are and what we’re like, loves us with his whole self, his full, incarnated being — and that love is the deep, truly-satisfying love that’s like bread to the starving.

We, like Absalom, may feel famished in the midst of a tortured and empty landscape; at the worst of times we hang helpless between our ambitions and our desires, and we despair.  And in that achingly vulnerable place, are we met with holy rules or conditions or tepid toleration?  No, no, no.  Listen to what Jesus says here:

“…anyone who comes to me, I will never drive away.”  It makes me terribly sad when I see and hear people who think they speak for God, but whose words and actions drive away hungry souls like you and me.  Those folks imagine there’s some necessary standard of purity that they’re living up to but others aren’t.

I know I’m not meeting any purity standard.  I’m dangling from that oak tree along with everyone else, all-too-aware of how I bring myself and others pain, how I get myself into messes and how I’m so not in control of fixing myself or others.

Yet into that very emptiness and pain comes Jesus.  Jesus, whose freely-given life is living bread to the starving, the source of life and restoration we’ve been longing for all our lives.  Jesus, who will never drive us away.  Jesus, who says, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Whoever believes in me. . . Let me end with a word about believing.  In our 21st-century worldview, we think of “believing” as a mental operation: we weigh facts, discard untruths, and enter into agreement with an intellectual conclusion.  That contemporary understanding makes it hard to approach the ancient outlook of metaphors, stories and relationships.

My concordance tells me that the word translated as “believe” here was more like our word “trust” or “entrust.”  Jesus is asking for us to trust him — not by ignoring the evidence of our senses and intellect, but by coming to know him so well that we can rely on what he offers us.

Jesus doesn’t ask us to sign a letter of agreement filled with theological terms.  Jesus simply OFFERS himself as living bread – here at this table this morning and every day — and asks us to feed on his unending love.  May we always say yes to this gift.  Amen.

“For nothing will be impossible with God”

—By Linda Goertz

Last year at Advent time, I went to an evening service at St. Paul’s in Oregon City, where they had laid out a labyrinth pattern on their parish hall floor, and we walked that path in silence.  Beforehand, each of us had received a little piece of paper with a message.  Mine, which I still have tacked up on the wall at home, said, “I want to be born in you this Christmas.”

Those words went straight to my heart that night.  It’s been decades since LeRoy and I had to face my inability to have children, but that loss is still part of who I am.  So that loving reminder that Christ longs to be carried in and birthed through each one of us was, for me, a miracle that is both old and new.

I’m astonished at Mary herself.  I don’t think she, as a young, not-yet-married woman, was saying to herself, Oh, I sure hope I get pregnant soon! – let alone, I hope a messenger from the Most High God suddenly appears before me!  The Scripture translation we have says she was “much perplexed,” but I think that must have included an element of terror; because right away the angel says, “Do not be afraid, Mary.”

Throughout the story of Jesus’s arrival in this world, angels are always telling people, “Don’t be afraid.”  They tell Mary, they tell Joseph, they tell the shepherds, “Don’t be afraid.”  Because, really, a Word from God, a message, a call from God is scary; it can sound impossible.  “How can this be?” we say along with Mary, “since I’m” . . . since I’m just ordinary me, not smart, not powerful, not someone important in the world.  Since I don’t know what to even say when hatred and violence are screaming; since I feel powerless in the face of systemic oppression; since the bad guys sometimes seem to be winning.

So the angel, the messenger from God, tells us that the Holy Spirit will come upon us, will overshadow our inadequacies and the world’s failings, with a power that’s not our own.  That nothing is impossible with God.  Nothing.

God’s desire, God’s intent for us is always healing, always a wholeness beyond our imaginings.  Not just, “We’re going to get some encouraging information from God to improve our lives,” but we will be transformed.  Mary was never the same after this – she lived out exponentially more joy and more great sorrow than the little just-betrothed Mary of Nazareth ever dreamt of.  Because God intended her to be fully herself, and she had the boldness to say YES, to say, Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.  Not according to her best imaginings and plans, but according to God.

In our Old Testament reading, King David had a plan ready, too.  He was grateful for his victories, he loved God, and he proposed creating a sign of that love and gratitude: he decided to build a temple for God.  And his trusted advisor Nathan — the prophetic Nathan who doesn’t hesitate to tell David when he’s sinning – agrees.  What a great idea, a dwelling for God; it’s so totally what good people of faith all over the world have been doing, in honor of the God who saves and guides and loves us deeply.  Build a beautiful sanctuary for God.  Right?

Not according to this story.  God tells Nathan – who then has to go tell the king, remember – God says, I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about . . . did I ever speak a word . . . saying. ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’

What we think God wants of us may not always be what God wants most for us.

Creating a place of beauty where we can come and worship God is good; I believe that God loves it when sisters and brothers come together and celebrate our joy at who God is.  I think the delight and awe we express when we prepare for a feast like Christmas, when we decorate the church and make it lovely – like some folks are going to do after church today – I think that’s a good and delightful thing to do.  But we can’t be only in this building – not while God’s own Self is moving in the world.

In the passage from Samuel, God is so emphatic: I took you from the pasture…I have been with you wherever you went…I will make for you a great name…I will appoint a place for my people…I will give you rest.  And then the biggest declaration: the Lord will make you a house.

God receives our love and our homage and our worship – but not our trying to place the Holy in a box with a roof.  God makes the dwelling place by being God.

At St. David’s, we’re going through a transition in leadership and many of us have that wild mix of feelings that comes with change.  We have new ideas and plans and hopefulness but sometimes we feel anxious enough that we really, really just want to nail things down.  Maybe we want certain things in our worship or our outreach work to change, or certain other things to stay exactly the same, or that one person on the committee to do what we want . . . we can get pretty busy building God’s house according to our own ideas.

But meanwhile, God is moving around, here, there, outside, in unexpected places.  God is sitting on the curb beside a man who smells bad, God is at a used car lot with the woman who doesn’t have enough money for even an old clunker.  God is in Syria and North Korea and Sierra Leone and Jerusalem, in downtown Portland marching and in the solitary confinement cell of a prison, and out on the mortgaged family farm and with the student whose loans are due and the teen who feels life isn’t worth living.

God is moving, and our privilege is to step outside and join God as we hear the call.  There will always be time to gather here, and we need to do that regularly, but that messenger of God – the one who tells us not to be afraid – is calling us now, calling us outside, telling us that nothing is impossible when the Holy Spirit empowers us.  So if you’re feeling a nudge, listen to it, for it may be God’s call to come outside.

And you know what we say in reply to that call, don’t you?  We say, Here am I; here we are, servants of the Lord. Let it be with us according to your word.  Amen.

What Shall I Cry?

-Sermon by Lindsay Ross-Hunt

“Grant us stillness of heart, oh God, that we might have eyes to see and ears to hear the moving of your spirit among us.  Amen.”

I want to talk this morning about waiting.  After all, Advent is supposed to be about waiting, right?  But waiting for what?  The chance to officially have permission to sing Christmas carols instead of Advent hymns?  To open that one package under the tree that has captured your attention? To gather with family and friends whom you may not always get to see?

These are all lovely things to look forward to, but they are not what we are waiting for during this season of Advent.  The waiting of Advent, as we see in this morning’s readings are not a passive “can’t wait” sort of attitude, but rather an active preparation for what is to come.  Because what is to come is beautiful.  And hard.

I was a little worried about what to preach this week.  After the ruling (or lack thereof, really) in the Eric Garner case, I saw a friend on post on Twitter, “preachers, if you didn’t preach last week on how #blacklivesmatter, you now have another chance.”  The weight of yet another situation where an unarmed black man was killed by a police officer–an agent of the state–and this time entirely on video, left me at a loss for words.  And not just a loss for words, but almost a kind of inability to even understand what I was feeling.  I felt full of emotion and yet empty at the same time.  And so I found myself asking, along with the individual in Isaiah, “What shall I cry?”  Everything I could come up with felt inadequate in the face of such injustice and pain.

To the individual in Isaiah, God says, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breathe of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass.  The grass withers the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.”  This may seem strange comfort to us, who live in a culture where we’re told we can be and do anything–and we believe it!–and that we as individuals matter and have an impact on the world.  Being told we are like grass doesn’t seem like much comfort.

But imagine you are in exile.  Imagine your conquerers have told you your God has been defeated and is dead.  Imagine you are a stranger in a country where you are different from everyone else and where those who destroyed your home continue to endeavor to destroy your culture and identity by trying to make you more and more like them.  Where you are subject to the rules crafted by those in positions of power, not those who understand what life is like “down here.”  Perhaps, in a place like this–in a place like the Israelites in exile in Babylon, in even here in Black or Native America, these words may sound different.  Equalizing.  Because if we are all grass, then that person in power is not so powerful after all.  In fact, the only true power is the word and promise of God to bring salvation and shalom.

This is what we hope for.  This is what we wait for.

In our readings this morning, we are drawn a spectacular vision of just what this salvation of God looks like, and especially in the Psalm.  We chanted this morning, “Truly his salvation is very near to those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.  Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.  Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.”  Wow.  Did you catch that this morning?  I think this is one of the most beautiful passages in all of scripture.  “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”  And God is in the midst of it all.  God’s presence dwells in the land among God’s people.

But while this picture is beautiful poetry, it is also a profound statement on human society.  God’s shalom involves not just mercy, but truth.  And not just peace, but righteousness–or right relationships.  This is super important.  Because the absence of conflict without right relationships is empty–in fact, it may describe any number of oppressive societies throughout our history.  And mercy without truth is incomplete.  In the New Testament reading this morning, Peter says that on the day of the Lord, “the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.” Again, another reference to how the salvation of God involves transparency.

Why is that transparency so important?  Why does mercy also need truth?  We don’t like to talk much about sin anymore, it’s loaded with all sorts of theological and emotional baggage for many of us.  But in our efforts to distance ourselves from those seemingly judgmental religious systems we throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water.  We can’t escape the reality of sin in our world, and the way in which we are tangled up in it, the way we are involved and perpetrate it, the way it impacts and harms us and those we love.  This is a part of the active waiting of Advent: looking with fresh eyes at the truth that needs to be identified so that right relationships, mercy and peace can move forward.
I heard Cherokee theologian Randy Woodley, a professor just down the road at George Fox say once that, “Shalom is always tested on the margins [of society]–if it’s not working on the margins, it’s not working. Repentance is choosing to use your power for the benefit of others.”

Ten minutes on any news broadcast can tell you that it’s not working.  People are afraid.  People are dying.  People are taking to the streets all over this county desperately asking to be heard in whatever way possible, crying out all over the land for truth telling and right relationship.  For shalom.  When I heard the text in Isaiah say, “God will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep,” I couldn’t help but think of the countless images of these heartbroken and outraged mothers calling for change.  Of the letters going around Facebook from one mother to another pleading for white folks to have eyes to see and ears to hear . . .

Isaiah’s words this morning are both words of comfort in the midst of this pain and words of challenge.  Let’s remember that to be comforted is dramatically different than being comfortable.  We are not called to be comfortable. On the contrary, as Advent people we are called to step into all the broken and messy places of this world and work towards the salvation and shalom of God.  Theologian Debra Dean Murphy says, “hope is not wishful thinking; it is risk and action and the courage to undertake both.”

So how will you wait this Advent season?  How will you, in your own way, “prepare the way of the Lord through the wilderness” and work towards the mercy, truth, righteousness and peace that is God’s promise of salvation? There is no shortage of opportunity around us.  Saint Augustine once said, “it is solved by walking.”  Let us walk together.

Gospel: Matthew 18:21-35

Proper 19 Year A, 09/13/14 Contemplative High Mass

“ . . . how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

All this week, I’ve been asking myself, “What does Jesus mean about this seventy-seven times of forgiveness?”

There are a lot of things God may be saying about this, and the Holy One may already be nudging you about of them.  I’ve been thinking about my family of origin, where we have a history at holding on to grudges.  Some of us make a painful point of not talking to each other, being quick to say something critical about the other.  We humans are so eager to see each other’s flaws and to cement that as our view of them instead of wondering if things could be different – instead of seeing each others’ woundedness.

Is that what forgiveness is?  Seeing behind or beyond the sins?  Does that mean we think what the offenders did was OK?  Of course not.  God is not saying we should be doormats, or that we should excuse behavior that is destructive, or pretend that evil isn’t active in our world.  But I think there’s a way to tease apart the necessary recognition of wrongdoing; to distinguish it from that mental “throwing-away” of the entire person involved.  We need to learn to tell the difference between, “That action was just plain wrong” and “This person should be obliterated.”  Yes, if someone tears you down or abuses you or otherwise hurts you, it would be a very good idea to separate yourself from that person decisively; but we hurt ourselves if we turn that into nonstop warfare and bitterness.

I love the illustration Jesus gives us in this Gospel; it’s just so – Dramatic!  Can’t you just see the guy who owes the king a few billion dollars, how terrified he is, how much he sees his life and everything he cares about, on the verge of being taken away?  And then –the astounding act of the king in forgiving an astronomically large debt!  How might you feel in his place, leaving that royal chamber?  We just recently had a workman – whose visit was promised to cost us $125 per hour – say, “Ah, I was barely here half an hour; I’m not going to charge you anything!”  We were just grinning all day!  What would it be like if suddenly all your student loan debt was forgiven?  Or your home loan or your credit card paid off?  I think most of us would be stunned with gratitude.

But THIS guy walks down the hall, sees a fellow who owes him, depending on how you figure it, maybe a couple of months’ wages — so it’s not an insignificant amount, but not a fortune – and he throttles the other slave!  He grabs him by the throat and shakes him and threatens to throw him in jail unless he pays up!  What. A. Creep.  As I’ve been re-reading this, I realize this man didn’t even spend a moment being happy or relieved or grateful.  It’s like he didn’t get the gift at all, he didn’t even notice the enormity of the forgiveness he’d received.  How sad.

But the story’s not over, and what I think I love MOST about it is the thing that comes next.  The other servants are so outraged at this injustice, so righteously distressed at their friend’s plight, that they go public.  They take it to the top and they tell it all to the king, and he’s so furious he reverses his forgiveness and the guy ends up in jail.  It’s the community’s action that led to justice – the community that understands that being forgiven is the fuel that lights our own compassion, and the community that won’t let someone living in willful unforgiveness destroy others.

That part of the story says to me that, when we see injustice, we actually have to open our mouths and our hearts and DO something about it, just because we are a forgiven and freed people.  Is this country treating immigrants in an unjust way?  Arresting and imprisoning black and brown folks more than white?  Are we listening to those who beat the drums of war without seeking other solutions?  Do we support politicians who encourage polarization?  Are we walking past the homeless, the hungry, the mentally ill on our streets, accepting that as the norm?  Do we tolerate churches excluding any of God’s people?  Being a forgiven, healed people of God means that we take action to heal and forgive and build up others.  That’s not being a doormat.  That’s not some light-hearted “forgive and forget,” or some apathetic, “It is what it is.”  That’s being true to the great gift we’re given, and sharing God’s grace with others – which is part of owning that grace for ourselves.  Those two can’t be separated.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I strive so hard that I fall into the trap of magnifying my own brokenness, and that gets me lost.  God has been showing me that I need to continue to return to the well of refreshing, healing grace.  The pattern should be that we receive and accept healing; we work with joy to share that freeing grace with others; and we come back to drink ever more deeply.  As Bishop Steven Charleston says, “Life may be fickle, but God’s mercy is constant.”

If we are a church full of people who truly are free to give and receive mercy, then let’s help one another practice that.  Just as in our families of origin, where we still sometimes suffer from the wounds we’ve given and received, our sisters and brothers in the faith community can hurt us easily, and we know how to hurt them.  You know what I mean – that eyeroll when we talk about so-and-so; that quickness to blame this or that church leader for not being perfect in every regard; that snub or impatience or faulty decision that we’ve been brooding and talking about for weeks or months — or years.

Forgive it.  There was hurt, yes.  And now it’s past.  I truly, truly don’t have to carry that with me till the end of time.  I can actually ask to be freed from that burden hanging around my neck.  I can – we can – mean it in a few moments when we say, together, the Lord’s Prayer, and ask that our many trespasses, big and small, be forgiven because we have finally let go of the other person’s sin against us.  We can truly share bread and wine at the Lord’s table like people who have stopped counting “who owes whom and how much.”  We can come with open hands, ready to receive grace.  Thanks be to God.

God’s Economy – Isaiah 5:1-7, Matthew 21:33-46

Preached by Sara on October 5.

Everlasting God, you always give more.  

If you have ever spent time in wine country, ideally on foot or on a bicycle, you will easily understand why, in biblical times, the vineyard was a sign of divine blessing.  The cultivation and harvest of grapes, with their finely tuned dependence on the sun and the rain, the temperature and the topography, smacks of a grand design. The vineyard was the sign of Noah’s re-establishment after the great flood, the sign that life on earth was going to flourish under God’s protection. Noah was the bible’s first vinedresser, and the bible’s first alcoholic, so I would venture to say that the vineyard is also a sign of the choices that God sets before us. Matthew’s parable of the Wicked Tenants tells a story of bad choices and the misuse of God’s gifts.

This vineyard story comes on the heels, as it often does, of the celebration of St. Francis, whose feast we observed yesterday. Francis is the saint who more than any other is associated with nature, and with the love of all creation. Francis was in tune with God’s circle of life, and with humanity’s right relationship with God and creation.

As we explore this gospel story about the misuse of God’s gifts, I cannot help but share a conversation, transcribed by God knows who or when, between St. Francis and God:

God says to St. Francis, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there? What happened to the dandelions, violets, thistle and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect, no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon. I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now. But all I see are these green rectangles.

  1. FRANCIS: It’s some of the tribes that settled there, Lord. They started calling your flowers weeds and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.

GOD: Grass? But it’s so boring. It’s not colorful. It doesn’t attract butterflies, birds and bees. It’s temperamental with temperatures. Do these tribes really want all that grass growing there?

  1. FRANCIS: Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.

GOD: The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make them happy.

  1. FRANCIS: Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it, sometimes twice a week.

GOD: They cut it? Do they then bale it like hay?

  1. FRANCIS: Not exactly Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.

GOD: They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?

  1. FRANCIS: No, sir — just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.

GOD: Now, let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so it will grow. And when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?

  1. FRANCIS: Yes, sir.

GOD: These humans must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.

  1. FRANCIS: You aren’t going to believe this, Lord. When the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.

GOD: What nonsense. At least they kept some of the trees. Trees are a sheer stoke of genius, if I do say so myself. The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the summer. In the autumn they fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture in the soil and protect the trees and bushes. As the leaves rot, they form compost to enhance the soil. It’s a natural circle of life.

  1. FRANCIS: You’d better sit down, Lord. As soon as the leaves fall, the humans rake them into great piles and pay to have them hauled away.

GOD: No. What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the winter and to keep the soil moist and loose?

  1. FRANCIS: After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy something which they call mulch. They haul it home and spread it around in place of the leaves.

GOD: And where do they get this mulch?

  1. FRANCIS: They cut down trees and grind them up to make the mulch.

And so on…

This may seem like a rather whimsical story somewhat removed from today’s readings, which are anything but whimsical. But it is about our relationship to God’s love and our right use of God’s gifts, God’s abundance. We always do well to ask ourselves: how do we make the best use of God’s abundance? How do we use God’s gifts in a way that reflects our relationship with God and with our neighbor?

At the time of the Exodus, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob set himself apart from any other god by giving the people the ten commandments, spelling out not only right relations with God, but also with our neighbor.

The commandments set in motion the formation of a new world order. In the story of the Wicked Tenants of the vineyard, this order, which holds our love of God and neighbor, gets broken.

Like the mythical conversation between God and St. Francis, only much more painful, this is a story of bad stewardship, a parable of people who forget that all that they are and all that they have belongs to God, all the time. The story has been described as being about the difference between stewardship and ownership.

And now a commercial: This happens to be the season here at St. David’s where we explore the use of the abundance God has given us, both individually and corporately. I know that all of you have or will very soon—like today—sign up to attend one of the small group gatherings being held this month. How you participate, not just with your pledge but with your presence and your voice, is very much connected to how the future of St. David’s unfolds in the next chapter of its wonderful life.

Back to the Gospel. When we are more focused on ownership than stewardship, greed happens. Greed is part of our humanity, whether we’re talking about corporate greed or national greed or personal greed.

Most of us do not suffer from greed in such a degree as the folks who make headlines in the Bible. But many of us do suffer from selfishness, fear, anxiety, or the longing to have more control of our surroundings. Those guys in the vineyard suffered from those things, too. All of that—the greed, the fear, the drive to control and own the world around us—all of these things separate us from the love of God. Like it or not, we call this separation sin.

God’s intent for us, God’s longing, if you will, is not separation, but closeness. Not sin, but enjoyment of God’s abundance. What is God’s intent for us? This is something I always pray about, both for myself and for our community.

The good news is that our own desperate acts, driven by selfishness or fear, point to our utter dependence upon God. The good news is that as we awaken to our dependence upon God, God is indeed there; God will renew our strength. God does not destroy the vineyard. The vineyard is the kingdom to which we are continually invited and in which we live life to the fullest. It is always there as a sign of divine blessing and a source of God’s extravagant abundance. What will you do with this abundance?

Radical Empathy

As a child, I loved musicals. I, if pressed, and plied with a glass of wine,can sing most of “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” and “Gary, Indiana”. Please don’t ask me to do this at coffee hour, although if you come to our stewardship gathering I might be willing!

I have distinct memories of the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar”, and the scene that made one of the strongest impressions was when Jesus enters the temple in Jerusalem. In the 1973 movie, the temple kind of looks like Saturday Market crossed with burning man crossed with a gun show. There are weapons, and money, and women being traded.

Jesus storms in. This is a rock and roll Jesus. This is Jimi Hendrix Jesus, Mick Jagger Jesus, Freddie Mercury Jesus. He is furious at the desecration he sees and wails that all must leave his father’s house. He is angry at the corruption of the space and the corruption of the people. He is angry, perhaps, that in this place where we expect to find God, God is nowhere to be seen.

Today’s gospel picks up where that story leaves off, minus the go-go boots and pot of the movie. The priests of the temple are questioning Jesus, asking by what authority, by whose authority, did he throw everyone out of the temple: they demand to know “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”.

Jesus, as usual, answers their question with a question, and ups the ante even more by bringing John the Baptist into the mix. He responds the  “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”.  This rhetorical jousting is not just a trap, as the temple leaders seem to think, but by bringing in John the Baptist Jesus is defining himself through association with him; he is defining his own ministry with that of the radical, itinerant prophet who lived in the wilderness eating wild honey and preaching of the messiah to come.

Jesus, by aligning himself with John the Baptist and all who followed him, is also defining himself not by who he is, but by his people. He is answering the question of the temple leaders by consciously placing himself with the radicals, with the prostitutes and tax collectors. And in doing so, he is illustrating to them, and us, that God is often found in the most unexpected places and the most unexpected people; God is found in the wilderness rather than the temple, in the crazy prophets and sinners rather than in the chief priests, in a rock in the desert rather than an oasis.

Jesus is also telling us that it is our responsibility as Christians to stand with those oppressed, to associate ourselves with the radicals and the overlooked and the looked down upons. Jesus is reminding us here that who we say we are is less important than whom we associate with and what we do.

And luckily for me, I am identified partly through my association with all of you. And we are identified by our association with Christ. But what happens when we leave this building, when we leave one another? It is too easy for me, at least, to slip my identity as a Christian off like an old coat when it does not suit the surroundings I am in.

So when Paul exhorts “Let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus”, he doesn’t just mean on Sunday, when we are surrounded by one another and lifted up in prayer and song. I think what Paul is telling us is not to be imitators of Christ, although that is certainly not a bad place to start (the whole what would Jesus do thing has some merit), but to put ourselves into a place of radical empathy and love.

Paul gives us a kind of recipe for finding that empathy when he writes: “2:1 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2:2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 2:3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 2:4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others”.

“Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind”. Empathy is what Paul is really encouraging us to find, and empathy is hard, but I believe empathy can serve as a path to grace.

There is an amazing video that was making the rounds about a year ago about empathy versus sympathy. In it some animated animals illustrate the words of Brene Brown as she discusses how hard empathy can be because it requires us to access something dark and painful in ourselves. She reminds us that empathy fuels connection, that it is feeling with someone and not feeling at someone, and in her words empathy “creates a sacred space”.

She outlines 4 parts to an empathic response: 1) perspective taking, taking the perspective of another, 2) staying out of judgement, 3) reading emotion in others, 4) and communicating that emotion.  And while I agree with these 4 characteristics of empathy, I think the key is staying out of judgement.

I think it is debatable whether staying out of judgement helps promote empathy or whether empathy help us stay out of judgement, regardless empathy often means crawling down into a hole with someone else, and recognizing the same pain and emotion that they are feeling in ourselves. It also means not feeling the need to say just the right thing or fix the situation. And for many of us, including me, that is incredibly hard so often we just say nothing or move quickly past. Brene Brown notes that rarely does an empathic response start with the words “At least” and says that it is better to say “I don’t really know what to say about what happened, but I am really glad you told me”.

We live in a culture that does not value empathy, that seeks to drive our behavior through comparison and judgement and shame. As followers of Christ, putting ourselves in the mind of Christ means putting ourselves in the mind of others. And not others that we know and like and who are just like us. It means putting ourselves in the mind of the homeless guy on the corner, in the mind of the mother screaming at her 3 kids in the grocery store, in the mind of the 18 year old African American boy who grabs a pack of $2 cigarettes, in the mind of the friend struggling with mental illness. We are identifying ourselves with the prostitutes and the tax collectors and the radicals living in the woods. We are identifying ourselves with Christ.

When I found firm footing in my faith, when I started to feel a real and profound connection to God, it was as if my heart was cracked open and love and connection rushed out of it like water from the stone in Exodus. Everything and everyone seemed to make me cry. I believe that was God, God was both fueling my connection and in that connection.

This means letting God, letting Christ, letting the Holy Spirit, and letting each other into the hard and broken places within ourselves. As Leonard Cohen sings “there is a crack in everything, that is how the light gets in”.

—Jeanne Kalizewski