My, Myself, and I

3

Greed is inherently selfish.  My insatiable desire for money and things and the power that goes with them is predicated on the fact that I can not care about the needs and sufferings of anyone else.  In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, it seems that it is the wonted selfishness of the Greedy Foolish Rich Man that is at the core of Jesus’ parable.

Commentary after commentary this week is highlighting the first person pronouns at work in Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  After Jesus begins the parable by clearly stating that the land, and not the man, had produced abundantly, he goes on to put first person pronouns in the mouth of the rich fool no less than twelve times!

My crops… My barns… My goods… My soul

This rich man’s sin ins’t that he was greedy, but that he failed to take notice that the abundant harvest was first and foremost the work of the God who created all things.  Beyond that, he also failed to see acknowledge that those crops might be better put to use in caring for the poor and needy who were no doubt in his view.  He certainly didn’t harvest all that produce by himself.  He didn’t build his own barns.  He didn’t pickle his own okra.  All around him were servants and craftsmen, those made by God in God’s image and likeness, who helped make his crops flourish, who helped build his system of storage, who helped ensure that his food would not spoil, but there is no reference to the existence of anyone other than himself.

I will… relax, eat, drink, and be merry

When we lose sight of our neighbor, we fail to live into the fullness of God’s dream for us.  “It is not good for man to be alone.”  In Genesis, these are the first words of God about something that is not good.  Isolation, being out of relationship with those around us, is not good, and selfish desire is a key cause of isolation.  When my focus is on the trinity of me, myself, and I, we are no longer in relationship with the Trinity of Love that is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Be on guard…

As the American Dream has evolved, selfish desire has become a foundational component.  We have made all of life a zero sum game, assuming that for others to have more, I would have less.  In God’s economy, it just doesn’t work that way.  Instead, when I give something away, I find myself richer than I could have ever imagined.

Some Context

This Sunday’s Gospel lesson always feels like a non sequitur to me.  Either that, or a story Luke added in to solve a stewardship problem in his church.  It start with a man blurting out to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  I mean, really?  Throughout the course of the Gospels, we often see Jesus the Rabbi invoked to settle theological debates, but off the top of my head, this is the only time we see Jesus invited to act as a judge.  From the time of Moses on, this case would have been taken to an elder or a judge for settlement, yet here we find a man, obviously ticked off at his brother, asking Jesus to weigh in on a family matter he knows nothing about.

From there, we get Jesus telling the Parable of the Rich Fool, which sort of deals with the question of this man’s inheritance, but sounds a whole lot more like Luke’s church is having trouble raising funds.  As a stewardship text, it comes at a particularly bad time of the year, since many Episcopalians forget that Sunday morning worship exists in the month of July.  I’ll dig into the theological claims of this parable later in the week, but for now, I’m content to try to figure out why Luke includes this story and why the RCL thought it was worth telling in the dog days of summer every three years?

To try to figure this out, having noticed that we’ve jumped from early in Luke 11 to midway through Luke 12, I decided to get my bearings.  Where are we?  What’s been going on?  How’d this man end up so close to Jesus?  Luke answers these questions in the bits we skipped along the way.  It seems that decrying lawyers was a popular in first century Palestine as it is today.

The second half of Luke 11 has Jesus spewing “woe to yous” to hypocritical lawyers and Pharisees, while Luke 12 opens with crowds number in the thousands.  There were so many people following Jesus at this point that they were trampling over one another to get a glimpse of him.  One can imagine the sound of hundred of voices crying out for Jesus to help them.  The sick, the demon possessed, the hungry, and yes, in one particular case, the jealous and greedy, all vying for Jesus’ attention.  It is no wonder this story seems so awkward or out of place.  Luke could have chosen any of a hundred or more these encounters between Jesus and a needy person in the crowd.  Hopefully, as the week unfolds, we’ll understand why he chose this one.

Good Stewards – a homily

Stewardship gets a bad rap these days.  So often, when we talk of stewardship in the church we mean it only as “the way we spend our money.”  More specifically, we mean that stewardship is “giving money to the church,” and while the gifting of the first fruits of our labors to God is important for the church and for our own spiritual wellness, the reality is that we are called to be stewards not only of our money, but of all the gifts that God has given us: the gift of speech, the gift of compassion, the gift of intellect, the gift of prayer, even the very gift of life – the list goes on and on.  This call to be good stewards of all that God has entrusted to our care is made abundantly clear in the first letter of Peter; a letter written to encourage the fledgling church in Asia Minor in the face of persecution.  For a church that was still very much without a structure, this letter would serve as an important reminder to hold fast to the faith.  In the short passage we heard read this afternoon, the letter was also intended to encourage the followers of Jesus to be good stewards of their gifts for the up-building of the kingdom.

“Serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies…”  Throughout generations, these words have encouraged disciples of Jesus to be steadfast in their ministry despite ongoing hardship, which is why they were selected as the New Testament lesson on this day that the Episcopal Church sets aside to remember four strong women who were unafraid to use the gifts that God had given them despite societal pressure and persecution.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Amelia Jenks Bloomer, both members of Trinity Episcopal Church in Seneca Falls, New York dedicated their lives to the rights of women in the late 19th century.

elizabeth_stanton

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

220px-ameliabloomer-sig

Amelia Bloomer

Stanton used her gift of language to write a commentary on the Greek New Testament, focusing on the way in which certain passages of Paul were used to keep women from ordained ministry.  Bloomer used her ability to write to engage in newspaper and pamphlet debates with members of the clergy over dress codes which kept women subordinate and put them in real physical danger.  She argued that “The same Power that brought the slave out of bondage will, in his own good time and way, bring about the emancipation of women, and make her equal in power and dominion that she was in the beginning.”  Stanton and Bloomer, both white women, used their gifts to bring about social change for women, which ultimately led in 1920 to 19th Amendment and the right to vote.  Sojourner Truth and Harriet Ross Tubman, both black women, born into slavery, used their gifts to bring about freedom for African Americans.

sojourner-truth

Sojourner Truth

72963925

Harriett Ross Tubman

Sojourner Truth was given the name Isabella at birth, and spent the first 28 years of her life as a slave, sold from household to household and given a new last name each time she was purchased by a new master.  She escaped from slavery, and began serving homeless women in New York City.  At age 46, she heard God call her to the life of a travelling preacher.  Despite the fact that Sojourner Truth had never learned to read or write, she used her gifts of charismatic presence, wit, and wisdom to share her message of God’s freedom for slaves and women throughout the country.

After two decades of severe treatment and beatings, Harriet Ross Tubman escaped slavery at the age of 24.  She returned to Maryland at least 19 times between 1851 and 1861, freeing more than 300 slaves and leading them to safety in Canada.  When the Civil War began, Tubman joined the Union Army as a cook and a nurse.  The gifts she honed leading slaves to freedom were put to use as a spy and a scout, and because of her ability to lead, she became the first woman to lead troops into military action when 300 black troops joined her on an expedition to free over 750 slaves.

Stanton, Bloomer, Truth, and Tubman each had gifts from God, and each were willing to use them to bring about God’s dream of freedom and dignity for every human being.  May God grant us the wisdom to discern our gifts and the courage to use them to bring about his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen.

Give us today our [daily] bread

One of the most famous lines ever uttered by Jesus, and my Greek lexicon says, “of doubtful meaning,” how can this be?  Well, it seems that in both versions of the Lord’s Prayer: Luke’s that we will hear on Sunday and Matthew’s that we will pray on Sunday; the word used to describe the type of bread is, wait for it, a hapax legomenon!

maxresdefault

The Greek word “epiousios” is found in both versions, which they probably borrowed from Q or some other shared source, and, at least according to none other than Origen, was not a word used in ordinary speech.  He posits that perhaps one of the evangelists coined the term.  So, if the word for “daily” wasn’t used to mean “daily,” does it make a difference?  And if so, what does it mean?

Thanks to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, I’ve come to know that in the Peshitta Syriac New Testament, the word is translated to mean “necessity.” “Give us the bread of necessity for today.”  In the Curetonian  Gospels, which are also Syriac in origin and perhaps older than the Peshitta, it is translated as “continual.”  The question remains, “does it matter?”  Well, probably not.  In the end, the earliest translations seem to be in line with the more modern “daily.”  Jesus invites us to follow in the footsteps of Israel in the wilderness and to trust God enough only to ask for provision for this day.  Tomorrow’s worries will take care of themselves.  Whether the bread comes to us continually or only according to our necessity, the reality is the gifts of God will come to suit us for today, and today alone.

That’s our prayer, then.  Give me the bread I need for today, and by extension, make be to be content with what I have and not anxious about what is to come.

Father

By the standards of this world, this blog has a pretty meager following.  On any given day, not counting those who read posts in their email box or through an RSS feed, only about 80 or 90 sets of eyes lay upon my words.  As I’ve said, however, this blog is such a part of my own spiritual practice that I would write it even if nobody read it.  Still, it is nice to receive feedback from time to time.  Overnight, one of my parishioners read my blog and offered some thoughts on the opening line of the Lord’s Prayer from her reading of CS Lewis.

“Its very first words are Our Father. Do you now see what those words mean? They mean quite frankly, that you are putting yourself in the place of a son of God. To put it bluntly, you are dressing up as Christ. If you like, you are pretending. Because, of course, the moment you realise what the words mean, you realise that you are not a son of God. You are not being like The Son of God, whose will and interests are at one with those of the Father: you are a bundle of self-centred fears, hopes, greeds, jealousies, and self-conceit, all doomed to death. So that, in a way, this dressing up as Christ is a piece of outrageous cheek. But the odd thing is that He has ordered us to do it.” (From Mere Christianity Compiled in Words to Live By)

I find these words from Lewis to be quite interesting in light of the Apostle Paul who, in his letter to the Romans, suggests an alternative way of looking at our calling God “Father.”  In a lesson that will be very familiar to Episcopalians who attend funerals, Paul suggests that we do not approach God as “Father” or “Abba” of our own volition, but through the power of the Spirit.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

abba_father_std_t_nv

When Jesus suggests to his disciples that they begin their prayers by addressing God in the same manner he does, it isn’t, I don’t think, about taking on the veil of Christ and thereby being convicted of our own inadequacies.  Rather, to approach God as Father is to come before him with the boldness of faith in the power of the Spirit.  It is to stake our claim as adopted children and co-heirs with Christ.  To begin the prayer of the kingdom by simply calling God “Father” is to embrace our position in the kingdom which should convict us not of our own sinfulness but of our high calling as brother and sister disciples of Jesus and sons and daughters, first-order heirs of God, who are committed to the spread of the kingdom of God throughout the world.

The Lord’s Prayer – Unplugged

This Sunday, we will once again hear a very familiar passage from Luke’s Gospel.  The Lord’s Prayer is, without a doubt, the most familiar prayer in the western world, which is why despite the familiarity of this passage, many will find the Lukan account to be very disconcerting.  Luke’s version of Jesus teaching his disciples how to pray is very different from the Matthean version that we Episcopalians are used to praying on a daily basis.  It is, to use a modern idiom, The Lord’s Prayer Unplugged.

277380_papel-de-parede-nirvana-mtv-unplugged-in-new-york_1024x768

Still one of the best albums ever recorded.

In fact, the Lukan version is so stripped down from its more familiar Matthean counterpart, that two full pages in Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament are devoted to scribal accretions on the very simple original.  Some of them are familiar.  Some add in “who art in heaven.”  Others needed it to include “on earth, as it is in heaven.”  The most interesting addition is an invocation of the Holy Spirit that seems to come from left field: “Your Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us.”  Still, the most likely original version is that which we will hear read on Sunday.

“Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

While it might be interesting in a sermon to play on the differences between the more familiar version from Matthew and Luke’s acoustic rendition, I wonder if it wouldn’t be more helpful to let it sit on its own.  Let the people feel uncomfortable, as if you’d had them read Psalm 23 from something other than the King James Version.  Instead of focusing on what isn’t in Luke’s version, pay careful attention to what is.  As the week goes one, we’ll look more deeply at the particular petitions, but given the context, with Jesus having set his face toward Jerusalem and the urgency of his message that the Kingdom of God being at hand, what are we to learn from this abbreviated teaching on prayer?

The idol of distraction – a sermon

Sunday’s sermon can be heard on the Saint Paul’s website, or read here.


Life is busy.  Whether you are working or retired.  Whether you are the parents of small children or your grandchildren are grown.  Whether your iPhone dings with every text, tweet, and email or if your flip-phone is from the early aughts.  Life is busy and seems to be getting busier with every passing minute. This spring, the Johns Hopkins Health Review published an article entitled “The Cult of Busy,” which argued that “there is a global epidemic of overscheduling and it’s ruining your health.”[1]  Recent studies have shown that the ongoing stress of being too busy can actually shrink your brain’s gray matter.  It can lead to depression, high blood pressure, anxiety, and insomnia, and it is ruining our relationships with our spouses, our children, and our friends.  The Cult of Busy is killing us like a frog in boiling water; we won’t notice it until it is too late.

The worst offender in the Cult of Busy, is, unfortunately, our own selves.  Studies show that while Americans feel busier now than ever before, we actually have more free time than previous generations, and parents are spending more time with their children then they did 40 years ago.  The core problem in the Cult of Busy is the powerful idol of distraction.  There is rarely a time when we are able to be wholly attentive to where we are.  External stimuli are constantly vying for at least a portion of our already over-stretched attention. Every restaurant, waiting room, and even gas pumps now have TVs to distract you from what you’re doing; that is, if your phone and the search for Pokémon aren’t keeping you distracted enough.  Being pulled in multiple directions is a key source of stress and creates what researchers call “toxic time,” time that “slips away in an unrelenting concern that we should be someplace else doing something more.”

While the Cult of Busy may be booming in 21st century America, it isn’t exactly new.  People have been distracted and stressed by the pull of expectations since the very beginning.  The Cult of Busy is even at the heart of today’s Gospel lesson which features the Cult’s patron saint, Martha of Bethany.  This story is often told as a way of lifting up the life of contemplative Mary as better than the life of working Martha, but if there were no Martha’s there would be no Altar Guild, no coffee hour, no Family Promise.  Without Martha’s there would be no Church.  No, this isn’t a story that tells us we shouldn’t do anything but sit at the feet of Jesus.  Instead, it is a story about the evils of distraction.

When Jesus and his disciples arrive in Bethany, Martha follows in the footsteps of her ancestor Sarah and sets about the business of making her guests feel welcome.  She likely drew some water for the road weary travels to wash their feet.  Then she got the oven going, preparing to bake some bread for all to share.  Perhaps it was fig season,  Martha would have known that Jesus loved figs, and so she fixed a plate of honey drizzled figs for the good Rabbi.  While she worked, she listened as Jesus taught.  Each time she entered the room with a new plate of olives and cheese, she grew more and more frustrated with her sister, Mary, who was doing nothing but sitting idly by, listening to Jesus.  The distraction of her sister began to gnaw at her.  Martha’s ministry of hospitality, which had started out as joyful, focused work, grew increasingly distracted and annoying.  Pans that were once stacked nicely in the sink started to clang and she banged them around, passive aggressively at first, but in downright anger as the afternoon rolled on.  She was, as Luke tells us, distracted by her many tasks, and finally had enough.

“Jesus Christ! Don’t you care that Mary has left me alone to do all this work?!?”

Her distraction had become overwhelming.  I suspect Jesus knew of her frustration long before Martha’s outburst.  He could smell the burning bread, hear the clanging pots, and noticed as she sighed deeply every time she refreshed the wine.  Jesus had compassion on Martha even as she worshiped the idol of distraction in the Cult of Busy.  I imagine him putting his arm around her shoulder as he said, “Martha, Martha… you are worried and distracted by many things.”  As Luke retells the story, he has Jesus coining a new word for distraction here.  Perhaps he saw that Martha had reached an unprecedented level of distraction and so the regular words wouldn’t do it justice.  The word Jesus used shares the same root as the word for riot or uproar.  Within her soul, there was anxiety, struggle, and even violence, and Jesus knew that this is no way to live one’s life.  When we allow ourselves to become so busy, so distracted, and so worried that our minds become fractured by the many tasks that lie before us, the kingdom of God can easily get lost in the shuffle.

The key to regaining control over time, according to the researchers at Johns Hopkins is, quite simply, do less.  Jesus suggests something more impossibly simple than that.  Jesus tells Martha that “there is need of only one thing,” and that “Mary has chosen the better part.”  Again, I don’t think this admonition to Martha is Jesus setting up the prayerful asceticism of Mary over the diaconal ministry of Martha, but rather, a reminder to all of us that distraction is destructive.  Scholars pull their hair out over this passage because Jesus never tells us what the “one thing” is.  There is no direct antecedent, no further teaching, just “one thing.”  As I thought about this lesson while struggling with the Cult of Busy myself throughout a hectic week, I became more and more convicted that the reason Jesus didn’t have a direct antecedent for his “one thing” is because it isn’t the thing that is important, it is the one.

Jesus did not fuss at Martha because she was engaged in the work of hospitality, but because her ministry of hospitality had become distracted.  She had lost sight of one thing, and was instead distracted by many things.  She was angry with her sister for not helping out; she was frustrated with Jesus for not fussing at Mary; she was upset that there were so many disciples to feed; and she was probably mad at herself for getting so upset.  Mary, on the other hand, had chosen to pay attention solely to Jesus.  She didn’t get distracted by her sister banging the pots and pans in the kitchen.  She paid no mind to the huffing and puffing from the doorway.  Even the smell of bread burning didn’t distract her from the one thing she had chosen to be fully present for: the Son of God sitting in her living room.

Johns Hopkins suggested that we do less.  Jesus recommends that we only do one thing: that we give whatever that one thing is our full and undivided attention, and that we do that one thing to the honor and glory of God for the unbundling of the kingdom.  All you who are Marthas like me can keep on serving at the altar; keep on making sure coffee hour happens; keep on volunteering in the community, but when you do those things, allow yourself to be focused only on the task at hand.  Don’t worship the idol of distraction in the Cult of Busy.  Don’t be distracted by oughts and wants and shoulds, but be fully present where you are.  All you who are Marys can keep on doing the work of prayer; keep on meditating on God’s holy word; keep on listening for the will of God.  Don’t worship the idol of distraction in the Cult of Busy.  Don’t be distracted by oughts and wants and shoulds, but be fully present where you are.  The kingdom of God will grow through the Church when Marthas and Marys each forego the Cult of Busy and give full attention to only that one needful thing, whatever it may be.

[1] Elizabeth Evitts Dickenson, “The Cult of Busy” Johns Hopkins Health Review Spring/Summer 2016 Volume 3 Issue 1. Accessed on 7/14/2016 at http://www.johnshopkinshealthreview.com/issues/spring-summer-2016/articles/the-cult-of-busy