"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Ebola, Fear, and Holiness

Proper 25, Year A

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; Psalm 1; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

          I mentioned to a couple of people this week that I was going to preach on Leviticus, and each time I heard groans all around. Leviticus is that book full of obscure laws, that book that tells us that God forbids us to eat shrimp and to wear polyester-cotton blends. Leviticus is that book that seems to speak against many of our modern understandings about sex. It decrees death for all kinds of infractions, including death to the one who merely insults a parent. The book of Leviticus is the place at which many a well-intentioned Christian gives up her vow to “read through the whole bible.” After romping pleasantly through the exciting stories of Genesis and Exodus, the happy reader suddenly gets bogged down in these alternately boring and shocking priestly law codes.
          Why preach on Leviticus? What do we modern Christians have to do with all of the primitive boundary-making that fills this book?  Weren’t the ancient Israelites just making laws to define themselves as a people, to set themselves apart from the nations who threatened their identity? What does that have to do with us?  Didn’t Jesus show us that we have a loving God, not a fearsome God who needs to be placated with obscure rituals? And we’re not obsessed with purity anymore, certainly? We don’t talk in terms of things being ritually “clean” and “unclean …” We’re too sophisticated to fear what seems out of place in nature. We’re no longer frightened beings who see lightning strikes as acts of God. We have science to light our paths. We don’t need to obey a detailed list of rules in an attempt to control a universe that we don’t understand….
          Or do we? How about this headline from the news just this week: “Infection Protection: New CDC Ebola Guidelines Stress Gear Ritual.” After those two nurses came down with Ebola in Dallas, the Centers for Disease Control created “an almost ritualistic approach” to protect health care workers. "We need to increase the margin of safety," they pronounced with gravity. All healthcare workers must undergo rigorous training in exact ways of putting on and taking off gear in a systemic manner.[1] Reading about the new regulations, they sound an awful lot like those detailed instructions in Leviticus.
          Indeed, Ebola is bringing out the fear of contagion in all of us. The idea of this disease that infects us through disgusting bodily fluids, that oozes blood and melts our organs—it reaches us in the deep, dark places of our fears. They say that there are three kinds of universal human disgust: 1.) the primary disgust that is triggered by bodily fluids (sharing spit in the communion cup, for example, or stepping in dog poop); 2.) the socio-moral disgust for strangers, for those people who are “different,” who don’t belong in our circles; 3.) the strong animal-reminder disgust that occurs when we are reminded of our own deaths.[2] All three of these kinds of disgust are triggered in us by the Ebola virus. Blood and guts, foreigners, and death: they stir up deep repulsion in us—the kind of repulsion that naturally leads us to purify, to set boundaries, to try desperately to make things right and clean again.
 David Brooks described this week the parents in a Mississippi school who kept their kids home just because the school principal had traveled to Zambia, an African country untouched by the Ebola outbreak.[3] There are all kinds of people turning up in public places in crazy homemade hazmat suits. We are now quarantining people who arrive in the United States from infected countries. I’m not saying that many of these precautions aren’t necessary. I’m merely pointing to the link between fear, rules, and boundary-making. As Brooks writes: “[What we are experiencing with Ebola] is a fear you feel when the whole environment seems hostile, when the things that are supposed to keep you safe, like national borders and national authorities, seem porous and ineffective, when some menace is hard to understand… People seek to build walls, to pull in the circle of trust. They become afraid.”[4]
Can you admit to your fear—or at least your disgust—over Ebola for a moment? Let it float around in your mind as you join me in giving Leviticus another chance. First of all, let us understand the Israelites' picky little laws in the light of our own attempts to save ourselves from contagion. When we are facing death and disgust, we all clean, and we all circle the wagons. But more importantly, today’s section from Leviticus points to a deeper reality than the uncleanness of shrimp. Today’s reading from the Holiness Code is about living out a proper relationship with God and with others in the midst of the very kind of fear and disgust that we are feeling. It’s about creating community stability in the face of our human struggle to control the dangers of this world.
“I am Holy,” begins the Lord God in our reading. “I am different, set apart! I am different not just in my power, but in my love. In the power of my love, I “brought you, my people, out of the land of Egypt” when you were slaves. I am the God who frees every captive, the God whose Love never ends. And because you are made in my image, you are holy like I am. As you are in relationship with me, you will set others free, as well. That is who you are. You will love one another and all of the creation that I made, as I love you.[5] This divine self-definition and command is at the center of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is no wonder that the rabbi Jesus quotes it as the center of his own Good News. We are to act justly with one another because God is just. We are to be in relationship with one another because God’s very self is relationship. We are to love our neighbor because loving the other is the very essence of our God.
Moreover, this love that we are to have for our neighbor is not some kind of vague, abstract love. This holiness that we are given is not some hazy, saintly aura. According to our text, we enact God’s holy love when we pay fair wages to those who work for us, when we don’t profit off of the backs of the poor, when we forgive a grudge, when we give away part of our earnings to those who are hungry and alone. As one modern rabbi writes, an example of the holiness of loving neighbor can be as simple as promptly writing a check to the plumber who has just fixed your leaky faucet, aware that in so doing, you are participating in God’s love for the world.[6] Leviticus brings home to us that love and holiness consist of small, real, and tangible practices. It’s like Pastor Walt Wangerin’s story about the time that he was trying to profess his deep and abiding love to his wife. “I don’t need all your grand words,” she told him. “If you love me, just make up the bed every morning!”[7]

          When Ebola came to Dallas this month, one Christian congregation was given the chance to act out of the freeing holiness of God.[8] You see, Louise Troh, the fiancĂ©e of Ebola victim Eric Duncan, had been coming to church at Wilshire Baptist in Dallas. When she was put in quarantine, waiting to come down with the deadly disease, the people of Wilshire Baptist decided that the holiness of God called on them to reach out to her in love, not to withdraw behind safe boundaries. They agreed that it was OK for their pastor to visit her. They made her casseroles. They were not afraid of letting their pastor go to her and then come to shake their hands at the church door. “This is what we do,” everyone agreed. “We reach out in small concrete ways to our neighbor in need.”

          Leviticus does not have to be used to bind and to belittle.[9] Fear’s need for rigid boundaries and self-preserving purity does not have to control us. The call of our loving God for us to be Holy as God is Holy can free us from the fear that imprisons us. One loving act at a time.

[1] http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/ebola-virus-outbreak/infection-protection-new-cdc-ebola-guidelines-stress-gear-ritual-n230206
[2] Richard Beck, Unclean, found at http://www.christiancentury.org/reviews/2012-06/unclean-richard-beck.
[3] David Brooks, “The Quality of Fear,” found at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/21/opinion/david-brooks-what-the-ebola-crisis-reveals-about-culture.html?_r=0.
[4] David Brooks, Ibid.
[5] See Fred Gaiser’s interpretation of this passage, found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1004.
[6] “Holiness is Where You Find It,” found at http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Judaism/2000/05/Holiness-Is-Where-You-Find-It.
[7] Walt Wangerin, Jr. As for Me and My House: Crafting your Marriage to Last (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990).
[8] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/george-mason/when-ebola-comes-to-church_b_5971124.html.
[9] Gaiser, Ibid.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Parable of the Church Community Garden


 Proper 22, Year A

Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80: 7-14; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

         In light of our new garden project slated for this spring, perhaps you can identify with the Parable of the Community Garden …?
Once upon a time, a little suburban church decided to build a community garden. They were proud of their abundant and fertile and well-located property, and they had great gardening skills, so they created their garden with care and precision. They chose a lovely site with just the right exposure to sunlight. They wanted the garden to be close to the church, so that it could be at the center of their ministries, and so that it would have access to abundant water. They dug gracious beds by the sweat of their brows and carefully added the fertilizer that would produce abundant yields. They even built a little pergola with a few benches inside, a shelter where visitors could pray and find shade on a hot summer day. Then they invited neighbors to come and share in their garden. They gave them free plots of fine land to plant and develop.  Their priest was proud of the parish’s generosity and their hard work, and the parishioners felt good about themselves. What a fertile spring it was, full of love and growth!
But do you know what those neighbors did? Those neighbors who were given such a great gift? When the summer heat bore down, some of them stopped caring for their plots. They let the gorgeous vines droop and wilt, and they let the weeds take over the soil. The garden looked just awful! To add insult to injury, some of the neighbors came in and stole the harvest from the church’s plot, too! Just stripped those zucchini and tomato plants bare! What lazy and ungrateful neighbors! The church members fumed. The rector was incensed. How dare people mess up this great parish program! How dare people dishonor their land and their work!
Tell me, what should those church members do to those bad neighbors?
          Before we decide, let’s take a closer look at the two stories that Scripture gives us today about gardens. Usually, when we read both of these stories, we assume that they are all about Israel.  In Isaiah, and in much of Hebrew Scripture, vineyards stand for God’s chosen people, Israel. God lavishes love and care on Israel, but the people do not turn out to be very worthy fruit. Instead of producing glorious wine, the vineyard of God’s people produces rotten, diseased grapes: grapes of injustice and greed. So God destroys God’s disappointing work. Isaiah wants the leaders of Israel to hear this story and to see themselves in the bad fruit. He wants them to change their ways and to follow God’s commands and to love their neighbors as themselves.
          And then Matthew clearly builds on Isaiah’s image, right? This time, Israel is not the vineyard itself but the cruel and obtuse stewards of the vineyard. The Jews, led by the scribes and the Pharisees, refuse to recognize and honor God’s messengers the prophets, and especially God’s Son, Jesus. Matthew wants Christians to see themselves as the new tenants of God’s vineyard and to judge the errant tenants whom they have replaced.
          But Jesus’ stories are always more than lessons for other people. Jesus wants his stories to speak to our hearts, today, right now. Despite Matthew’s take on this story, I don’t think that Jesus just wants to pat us Christians on the back with this parable. First of all, I think that Jesus wants us to hear, once again, about the amazing love, grace, and generosity of our God. Just as we lavish care on making our garden, God lavishes care on every corner of creation. God constantly pours loving energy into every flower, every creature, just like the sun shines light down into every living thing, just like the wind caresses the whole world into motion. To me, the blessing of St. Francis Day, the feast that we celebrate this afternoon as we bless our pets, is that St. Francis calls on us to see God’s amazing love in all of creation. Our animal blessings are the recognition that our love for our pets, and their unconditional love for us, is a mirror of the unconditional love that flows between God and the whole creation. We don’t really “own” our pets. They are vulnerable creatures, entrusted to our care by their Creator. When we care for our animals, and when we lovingly build a garden, we are sharing in something holy and precious to God. We are sharing in the joy of God’s life-giving Love.
Oh, but the tenants in Jesus’ parable, these stewards of God’s vineyard. What about them? Clearly, they are violent and cruel. When you heard the parable, you immediately condemned them, didn’t you? I sure did. We condemn the bad tenants because of their insolence, because of their violence, because they don’t respect the owner of the vineyard whose land they work. Where do they get the idea that they are going to get an inheritance by killing the son, anyway? They don’t own that land. They aren’t sons of the landlord. There is no way that they are going to inherit that vineyard. Their sense of entitlement is so great, their covetousness so overpowering, that they begin to see themselves as owning the land that is merely given into their care.[1]
In the same way, when you heard my story about the community garden, you probably condemned the lazy, ornery neighbors, too, didn’t you? The church should throw them out, right? They should close off that garden. No more sharing with these good-for-nothing neighbors. The church should put a tall fence around their garden, with a big lock on it, and they should post a big “no trespassing” sign. If you come back, we’re calling in a lawyer to judge between us, we might well shout!
Oh, but wait a minute—If Jesus’ parable calls the tenants to account in the name of the landlord, who does my parable call to account? In my parable, we church members are the landowners, not the tenants! And yet, in the light of scripture, we are not really the landowners, either, are we? We might have started to see ourselves that way, but our Church is Jesus’ Church. Our land is God’s land. We are supposed to care for it, but are we supposed to lock it away? Where does wise stewardship end, and life-killing possessiveness begin? How often do we forgive our neighbors for their trespasses? Wasn’t it something like seven times seventy times? How does that square with “No Trespassing!” signs? How often do we pour ourselves out into the community around us before we expect anything in return?
It is so easy, isn’t it, to see the work that we do as a church as “our work?” And to want to control it? Believe me, it is especially tempting for priests to see it that way, but I think that it is a temptation for all of us. When we give of our income and of our time and talent to the parish, we are giving up part of ourselves to this larger body that we love and see as an extension of our families. The harder we work to make good things happen here, the easier it is to “take ownership” of our work. That’s what we ask for in leadership, isn’t it? Stepping up and taking ownership? When we invite others to use our buildings—to have parties in our fellowship hall or to hold meetings in our community building—we kind of feel like they owe us something, right? Maybe not money, but at least respect and a helping hand? It’s the same for our sports fields, right, or for our eventual garden?
If only Jesus didn’t keep messing with our idea of ownership, turning everything upside down, making the first last and the last first. If only it didn’t keep sounding as if it is OK not to be in total control. If only cornerstones could look like cornerstones. If only power weren’t condemned, and humility raised up.
In my parable, I bet that little church decided not to close down the garden. I bet they even sent their children over to meet with the lazy neighbors, offering them cold sodas and buckets of ice cream. I bet the children would have offered to dig weeds with them, to get to know them and to find out how the church could help them to take better care of their plots. I bet that’s what Jesus would have done, anyway.
          Before you decide this month what you are going to pledge to St. Thomas, before you decide in which areas you want to serve, before you decide how you want to give of all of your gifts, I hope that we can remember two things. I hope that we can remember the joy of generous creation: how good it feels to join the divine creativity by pouring oneself into a generative project like a garden, or a painting, or an act of charity, without expecting anything in return. And I hope that we can remember that we are mere tenants on this earth, here to serve and preserve what belongs only to God. We are heirs only through God’s Son. Our church, our land, our lives, our projects, and the outcome of our creative efforts belong to God. St. Francis of Assisi directs us today back to our Gospel lesson with his words:
Brothers, look at the humility of God,
and pour out your hearts before Him!
Humble yourselves
that you may be exalted by Him!
Hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves,
that He Who gives Himself totally to you
may receive you totally![2]
Image result for church community garden images

[1] Bernard Brandon Scott, Hear Then the Parable (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 251.
[2] St. Francis of Assisi, “A Letter to the Entire Order,” quoted in http://paintedprayerbook.com/2008/10/04/feast-of-st-francis/#.VC7Cu1f6-Hk

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Musings on Parenthood, Power, and Authority

          Proper 21, Year A

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25:1-8; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

            Sometimes we twenty-first-century city-dwellers have trouble relating to the ancient agricultural and societal images in Jesus’ parables. We need a lot of background explanation to grasp the nuances of kings and stewards and mustard seeds. But today’s parable from Matthew is one that burrows straight into our hearts. Which one of us has not at some time been the parent or either one of the children in the story that Jesus tells us today?
          When my three children were young teens and preteens, they had a list of Saturday chores. They were supposed to share in the care for the household by taking turns cleaning the bathrooms or dusting or vacuuming in the basement. Every Saturday morning, this working single mom would trudge joylessly to the grocery store. Passing through the den, where my pajama-clad kids were happily ensconced in front of computer games and Saturday morning cartoons, I would intone, “OK, while I’m gone, I want you to do your chores. I want them done before you do anything else. I don’t want to still be nagging you about this on Sunday afternoon!”  
          Every Saturday, my headstrong elder son, who had learned to back-talk in squawks at age seven months, would balk.
“Not now, Mom!” he would holler. “Why do you always make us do chores? None of our friends have to do chores! You are just a neat-freak! Everything is perfectly clean right now! Just leave us alone!”
His younger siblings, in sweet contrast, would always answer, eyes still glued to the TV, “Sure, Mommy! We’ll do it. See ‘ya later!”
When I would come home from my errands, though, it wasn’t unusual to find my elder son’s chores all finished, while his younger siblings were still glued to the TV in their PJ’s.
          As a parent, I wanted to have authority over my children. I wanted them to obey me when I told them to do something, for goodness’ sake. I wanted them to share my vision of a clean house. My blood would boil when my elder son would refuse to do what I asked, and then it would boil again when the younger ones would ignore me. How I dreaded that Saturday power-struggle. Sure, I was tired and wanted help with the cleaning, but I also wanted my kids to know that I was boss, that I was in control of both the housecleaning and their actions.
          When I hear today’s parable, I tend to feel trapped. When it comes to Almighty God, it isn’t often that we dare come out and say “NO!” But it is so easy to talk the talk, yet wimp out on actually putting our Christian words into deeds. In general, just think how much easier it is to “like” something on Facebook than to actually join in the project yourself. When it comes to our Christian lives, it is even harder. God is asking us to do such impossibly difficult things, like loving our enemy and forgiving one another and following him to the Cross. Who is eager to go into that vineyard?! When we concentrate on the children in this parable, it is so easy to feel paralyzed by guilt over our failures. How is this simple parable, then, Good News?
          I think that we need to take a serious look at the father. Is the father here a parent like I was, anxiously obsessed over controlling his children? That’s often the view we have of God, isn’t it? The God described in our first reading sounds more like that kind of a parent: Caring  but powerful, a God who is in control of the lives of all of his children. If we don’t follow through, the prophet warns, “iniquity will be our ruin.” Is it God who wants to control us, I wonder? Or are we the ones who long for the security of a controlling, judging God?
Our world, like Roman-occupied Palestine in Jesus’ day, is a world where it’s easy for the strong take to power over the weak. Power-plays are what we’re used to. Just recently, for example, we’ve been hearing in the news about domestic and child abuse, due to the recent arrests of two NFL players.[1] We’ve been hearing, too, about the “militarization” of our police forces, after the tragedies in Ferguson, Missouri. Police fortified with weapons and riot-gear are agents of physical power and coercion. Angry football players can loom over women and children with the physical force of their tackles and the impunity of their status. They can make us obey, that’s for sure, whether we want to or not. If I had been a more “powerful” and scarier mom-with-a-big-stick, I would have gotten my kids to do their chores without a peep, I bet.
In our lesson today, the religious leaders don’t like it that Jesus is moving in on their territory. He is interfering in Temple matters—chasing out the money-lenders—without their authority. He is putting himself in God’s powerful place. He is messing with the orderly universe in which they operate. In figuring out how to deal with Jesus, they see a power-struggle. Jesus, however, is trying to shake them up. He turns the religious leaders’ fretting about authority to his own ends in today’s parable. Jesus isn’t interested in a power struggle. Authority, unlike power, cannot force itself onto someone by violence. It can only be given.[2] Sometimes, it is bestowed in order to achieve a certain end: A police officer is given authority by the laws of the city, county, or state to make certain arrests. But in many cases, authority must also be freely accepted by those beneath the person in authority.  Beating a child might give you power over him, but not authority. Coming in with riot gear might make you powerful, but it won’t give you authority over someone once you take that gear off. That’s why efforts at community police work—officers walking around a neighborhood every day, getting to know the neighbors and helping people with their daily problems, building mutual respect, has often led to successful outcomes in the communities where it has been tried. Authority is different than power. When Jesus asks the religious leaders—and us—“What do you think?” he is giving us a choice. We can accept his authority, or we can turn away from it. No coercion, no threats, just an invitation: “What do you think?”
God is not the one who wants to throw around his power. As Paul points out, we are dealing with a Lord who willingly takes the form of a slave. In Jesus, we are dealing with a God who bends down into the lowliest of human flesh and even into the weakness of death on a cross in order to raise the weak and the lost up with him in glory. The Lord that Paul describes in today’s letter to the Philippians is as far from the powerful violence of riot police and rampaging NFL players as you can get. This is a God who waits for us to invite him, a God who gives us freedom to choose, over and over and over again.
It is the very open-endedness of the parable that is our Good News. The parable continues to ask, even today, “What do you think?” Our forgiving God continues to invite us all. There is another parable that begins with “a man had two sons.”[3] Can you guess which one that is? Yes, the parable of the Prodigal Son, the parable in which we are once again asked to choose between two sons, this time an elder and a younger. While we usually identify with one or the other, the Father in the parable does not have to make a choice between his children. The Father loves both sons. The Father longs for nothing more than to have both sons with him always. Even Ezekiel, whose language is full of the unfortunate “tit for tat” kind of divine justice, allows God to plead with his wayward people: “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone …Turn, then, and live.”
Our loving God offers life to all of his children, not chores and obligations. Our God doesn’t storm back in from the grocery store wanting to show us who’s boss. Our God invites us, as many times as is necessary, to get dressed in the borrowed robes of Jesus, to turn our faces from the lifeless computer screen, and to join him freely and joyfully in the deeds of love that will bring about his Kingdom. Just a little hesitation, a tiny split-second crack of openness to the future, that’s all it takes, and God will empty into us the ever out-pouring, ever in-gathering mind of Christ. As St. Paul points out, with God at work in us, there’s no limit to what we can do. In hindsight, I wonder how my children would have reacted if I had given them a joyful hug and a kiss as I walked out that door?

 [1] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/18/sports/football/nfl.html?_r=0
[2] David Lose, “Pentecost 16A: Promising an open future.” Found at http://www.davidlose.net/2014/09/pentecost-16a-open-future/
[3] Bernard Brandon Scott, Hear then the Parable (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 85.