Sunday, September 25, 2016

September 25, 2016 - Proper 21C

Lectionary Readings

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            “If you died today, do you know where you’d spend eternity?” There’s a billboard in rural North Carolina that I’ve passed several times through the years that asks just that question. If you haven’t seen that exact billboard, I’m sure you’ve seen one like it. I wonder how that phrase makes you feel? It saddens me to have the love of God so misrepresented, it angers me to have the Gospel reduced to such certainty, it frustrates me to have faith be more about what happens after death than what happens during life, it makes me uncomfortable to be in the judgment rather than the faith business. And yet, after hearing our gospel text from Luke about Lazarus and the rich man, we might find ourselves wondering about that very question. Will we be spending time with Lazarus or the rich man?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

September 18, 2016 - Proper 20C

Almighty God, may you guide us to seek the Truth: come whence it may, cost what it will, lead where it might. Amen.
            To say that was a challenging parable is an understatement. Lest you think that you just need to reread it a few times and it will make more sense, I’ve been doing that all week and it’s still an enigma. When I read commentaries on the passage this week, I noticed that they all seemed to spend more pages on this parable than other Biblical passages, sort of the way when you don’t have an answer you just stammer on, hoping that something might eventually make sense. One scholar even called this the “problem child of parables.” For one, the explanation that is offered by Jesus after the parable doesn’t seem to line up properly with the parable itself.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

September 11, 2016 - Proper 19C

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            I’m often surprised at how often the lectionary serves up the right readings for the right occasion. The Scripture readings that we have each Sunday morning aren’t chosen by me, or the Bishop, or really anyone. Rather, there is a three year cycle of readings known as the Revised Common Lectionary, and it’s used by churches around the world – such as Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians. The idea is that Christians, regardless of denomination and worship style, are hearing the same readings each Sunday. And it seems more often than not, when there is something happening in our common life, by the Spirit’s guidance, the lectionary gives us Scripture that fits the occasion. Today is one such day of providential alignment.
            Today’s gospel text from Luke is all about being lost. Have you ever been lost? I remember back in seminary, we went to a fall festival with some friends. One of the friend’s young children got separated from the group and was lost. I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt such a sense of panic. But when we found the child, who was safe and unharmed, he had no idea of the panic that his temporary disappearance had caused. For him, being lost didn’t cause any sense of panic, as he didn’t even know that he was lost.
But sometimes being lost is a scarier experience. A few years ago I went to Israel, and had an experience of being lost. The Old City of Jerusalem is a walled city that has been built and rebuilt over thousands of years. As such, sometimes it feels more like a maze than city. I was exploring the city on my own one afternoon, map in hand, and found myself in a part of the city that I didn’t intend to be in. Like most big cities that are ethnically diverse, sometimes tensions are high. There was some sort of scuffle unfolding right in front of me and next thing I knew, someone was picking up a chair and throwing it through a store window. I was lost and very much felt terror.
Have you ever been lost? How did you feel? What was it like to not know where you were or where you were going? Of course, sometimes being lost is more of a metaphorical reality than a literal one. Sometimes after the death of a loved one, we are lost – not knowing what to do next. Retirement can make us feel lost – not being sure how we find our identity which had been tied to our job. When you have to make a decision and struggle to make up your mind, you may describe your situation as feeling lost. We lose all sorts of things: priorities, faith, financial security, health; being lost is a part of the human condition.
That fact that today is the 15th anniversary of September 11th cannot be ignored. September 11th will always be remembered as a day of loss. Three thousand lives were lost that day, not to mention the thousands more that came as a response to the attack. Americans lost a sense of innocence that day as we felt the world that we thought that we knew crumbling. The search went on for days after the attacks, looking in the rubble for those who were lost. Signs went up around Manhattan as family members were searching for loved ones who didn’t come home that night and were lost. Regardless of your political views, September 11th was a day that the world changed and it was a day of profound loss.
As we reflect back on that day, I remember the strong sense of unity that came out of it. Flags were everywhere, but not as signs of nationalism but of unity. Americans put aside their differences in the face of a loss that was bigger than politics or ideology. Republicans and Democrats came together to mourn and to rebuild. Of course there were still disagreements on September 12th. Some thought that a military response would be the wrong one, but still unity overcame division, at least for a while.
And I can’t help but look around at the state of our union and wonder, “what happened?” Any sense of unity that came from that tragedy has been eroded. In his first inaugural address, President Lincoln closed by saying “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” Lincoln’s final sentence urged a nation on the brink of war to be touched by “the better angels of our nature.” In the wake of September 11th, our better angels prevailed as we came together as a people. We went out of our way to be kind to each other, because we were all dealing with a sense of loss. We wrestled with ideas, not with each other. It seems though that these better angels have been displaced by old demons.
The thing is, when we are lost and in a panic, we’ll search and search until we find some safety net, something to give us a sense of direction, anything to take away our fear. After September 11th we came together in unity, but soon we found the demons of scapegoats and revenge which have resulted in a seemingly never-ending debacle. And now look at our nation – divided along so many lines in the midst of the most contentious election in generations. We’re lost, and instead of allowing ourselves to be found, we’re alleviating our anxiety with solutions that no longer work in an ever-changing world. We blame “them,” people who are not even in the same room as us and refuse to come together to even sit at the table with each other. Whether it’s #AllLivesMatter vs #BlackLivesMatter, Clinton vs Trump, or Sitting vs Standing during the National Anthem, we’ve become separated from each other and are losing our way.
When I hear these parables by Jesus, I am reminded of ways in which God saves the lost and brings the flock together. The first thing that these parables from Jesus say is that you matter to God. Like the lost sheep or the lost coin, you are worth searching for. You are a unit of God’s grace and love: unpresented, unrepeatable, and irreplaceable. Today we’re having a Baptism, which is great reminder of this to us. Baptism is the Sacrament of belonging. Despite whatever the world says about you or how other people see you, Baptism cements your identity as God’s beloved. So know that you are worth being found.
What’s so interesting about the parable that Jesus tells is that the shepherd not only leaves the 99 to find the one lost sheep, but that the shepherd, that is God, notices that the one is lost. If you have a flock of 100 and one leaves, we might think it’s not a big deal. But to God, it is. The flock is only complete when all are present, and that’s how the church is. I’m so glad that today is the beginning of the program year at St. Luke’s. I hope that you all had wonderful summers at the beach, in the mountains, and on vacation. But I’m glad that summer is over and that you’re back here – that the flock is gathered together. When you’re missing, you are missed. It’s a lesson that could go a long way in our culture – when one person is missing, we all are affected.
Notice in the reading that the act of salvation, of the lost being found is all God’s action. The lost doesn’t have to send up a signal flare, the lost doesn’t have to admit that they wandered off, the lost doesn’t have to earn the search and rescue operation that saves it. Remember that you are never too lost to be found, and neither is anyone else. But consider what this mercy from the shepherd who searches for the lost sheep and carries it home might look like from the perspective of the 99. Perhaps they’ve judged that one lost sheep as a hopeless cause, as a lazy vagabond, as a worthless charity case. But they don’t know that the shepherd loved that sheep so much that the shepherd was willing to leave them all behind to redeem that lost sheep and show it mercy. The thing is, we don’t know all the ways in which God has forgiven, redeemed, and restored those people who we would say are “lost.” So we would do well to remember that none who are loved by God are ever truly lost.
The parables also show us that God is persistent. God will stop at nothing to find us when we are lost. God is relentless in showing mercy and love, and there’s nothing that we can do to stop that: not destroying skyscrapers and not exchanging our better angels for our old demons. There’s a poem written by Francis Thompson called “The Hound of Heaven” which describes God in just that way: as a search hound who pursues us until we are caught up in God’s saving love. The interesting thing about the poem is that the poet was someone who struggled with depression, addiction, and poverty his entire life, and even in this darkness, even when he made his mission running and hiding from God, God didn’t stop seeking him out. Because you matter so much to God, God isn’t going to ever give up on you. You can never cross the line into being unredeemable or not worth finding. How might we have this same persistent passion for doing the work of the Gospel, and living into the better angels of this nation, by chasing after a democracy that works and pursuing liberty and justice for all?
Both of these short parables end with a great celebration, perhaps one that seems preposterously out of proportion with the situation. Consider the lost coin – a woman loses a coin and searches for it. When she finds it, she throws a big party for her family and friends to celebrate finding the coin, presumably by spending the very coin that she found to pay for the celebration. It’s a sense of joy and celebration that defies explanation.
This is what our Eucharistic celebration is all about. When we gather at the altar, all of the sheep are gathered into one flock. Those who of us who have felt lost during the week are found by God’s grace. We are reminded of our worth and value in God’s eyes, and the great lengths that God will go through in order to find us. And the Eucharist also looks forward to that day when all of Creation gathers around the heavenly altar together – when all divisions are ended, when none are lost, when God’s love is known by all. So in that sense, the Eucharist not only reminds us that we have been found in God’s love, it gives us hope that one day the flock will be found all together.
But in the meantime, know that God seeks you out because you are loved by God and you matter to God. Know that if we allow ourselves to be found by God, all wounds can be healed, even the wounds of loss, the wounds of September 11th, and the wounds of partisanship and vitriolic hatred that come from our politics. There is a wonderful invitation to the Eucharistic table that comes from the Celtic tradition of our Anglican heritage, may it be our invitation to be found and healed by God in this Eucharist:
This is the table of Jesus Christ.
It is made ready for those who love God and are loved by God.
So come, you who have much faith and you who have little;
you who have been here often and you who have not been for a while;
you who have tried to follow and you who have failed;
you who have been lost, that you might be found.
Come, for it is Christ who invites us to meet him here and be fed by him.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

September 4, 2016 - Proper 18C

In the name of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            One of the challenging aspects in preaching is that we often only get a handful of verses read from each book or letter in the Bible on a Sunday. Often, we miss the larger context of the writing when we only focus in on a small section of it. Today though is different, as our second reading is the entire letter of Paul to Philemon. So let’s take this opportunity to consider a full book of the Bible.