Grace, free of charge

After last week’s parable, isn’t it nice when one of these is so easy to hear and understand? Finally, Jesus affirms the right person, and condemns those other people. Finally, God is on our side. It feels so nice, doesn’t it? Maybe we should give God thanks for this great Gospel story. “Lord God Almighty, we thank you that we are not like other people, those hypocritical Roman Catholics, overly righteous Baptists, and pesky Mormons. We thank you especially that we are not like that ridiculous Pharisee singing his own praises to you. We attend church regularly, we listen attentively to the lessons as they are read and the sermon as it is preached, we give a portion, maybe not a full 10%, but some portion of our income to your Church, and we have learned that we should always be humble and thank you God that we are so very good at it. Amen.”

That felt good. Bask in it for just a moment. God is on our side. Except. Except, well, I can’t help but feel like I’ve fallen into a trap. That thank you sounded a lot like the Pharisee’s prayer that I found so icky. This is precisely why I hate the parables so much. As soon as I think I’ve got them figured out, I’m sitting in the bottom of a hole wondering how I got there. Maybe we need to take another look at this parable in order to find our way around this parabolic trap.

Two guys went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. This story takes place at the Temple for a reason. Ancient Jewish society was pretty stratified, but there was no place where the lines between those who were “in” and those who were “out” were more visible than at the Temple. The various walls, porticoes, and curtains were meant to show who was allowed where. The holy of holies, where the presence of God resided, was only to be entered into once a year by the High Priest. Outside of the curtain that veiled the holy of holies was the Court of the Priests, a location set apart for the work and sacrifices of the Priests and Levites. Outside of that walled area was the Court of Israel where righteous men could stand and see the Priests as they offered the sacrifice. Then came the Court of Women where all Israelites would be allowed to enter. In this area there was even an area set aside for Lepers. Outside of that was the Court of the Gentiles, where outsiders would be allowed, and merchants usually set up shop to sell the animals needed to make various atonements. Everybody had a place, and everyone knew where they were supposed to be. You were never more aware of your place in society than standing in your assigned location within the Temple Court.

The Pharisee took his normal place in Court of Israel and began his usual prayers. In the same way that many of you enter the nave on Sunday morning and kneel to say your prayers, the Pharisee stood, looked up to heaven, and quietly prayed to himself a prayer that was actually pretty standard in his day, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers” and seeing the Tax Collector off in the distance, he added, “or like that Tax Collector over there. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of all my income.” There is no dishonesty in the prayer of this Pharisee. He is a righteous man, one who strives to live up to the letter of the law. He fasted regularly as a sign of his penitence. He gave generously so that those who were in need could have food and shelter. He did all the right things. As he came to the Temple, he was righteous. As he prayed this prayer, he was righteous. As he went home at the end of the day, he was righteous. To the hearers of Jesus’ parable, the Pharisee had done nothing wrong. He gave thanks to God for the things for which he should be thankful.

The Tax Collector, on the other hand, took his usual place “far off.” Tax Collectors were some of the lowest life forms in Israel. Ethnically Jewish, they shook down their own people for the pagan-worshipping Romans and always managed to take enough extra to keep their families fashionably clothed and well fed. He stood at the edge of the Temple, but Tax Collectors were outsiders religiously, politically, and economically. Though a leper could take his rightful place in the Court of Women, the Tax Collector was considered so unclean that he would have to stand outside with the Gentiles. Without even lifting his eyes to heaven, he beats his chest repeatedly and says, presumably out loud, maybe even with a shout, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” To the hearers of Jesus’ parable, a Tax Collector has never spoken truer words. If he was anything, he was a sinner. He was a sinner when he arrived at the Temple. He was a sinner as he prayed this prayer. And he’d go home a sinner.

The way this story is supposed to end is the Pharisee goes home righteous and the Tax Collector goes home unrighteous. Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a parable if it ended that way. Jesus once again pulls the rug out from under his audience and says, “I tell you, this man [the tax collector] went to his home justified rather than the other.” There is no way for me to give this story the shock-value it deserves. There is no way you can hear this the way Jesus’ audience would have but suffice it to say this is probably another one of those “let’s throw him off the cliff” moments in Jesus’ ministry. He had a lot of those. Here he tells the crowd that while the Pharisee went home righteous, the Tax Collector went home justified. He was accounted as righteous by God. He was restored by God to right relationship with God.

It’s just not right. It’s unfair. How can this hated Tax Collector go home justified? He hasn’t done anything. He didn’t offer a sacrifice. He didn’t pay his atonement. He just stated the truth, he is nothing but an unclean sinner, and that’s all he’ll ever be. Except, of course, by the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Lord. And that’s where this story spins on its ear. If this were just a story about the need for humility it would be impossible to live up to because humility is impossible to hold on to. As soon as you have it, and realize you have it, it’s gone. “Hey, I’m being so much humbler than that guy. Oh wait, nope. Never mind.” If humility is just another virtue, another law God is calling us to live up to, it too will lead only to death. But this is a story about grace. The Tax Collector wasn’t being humble, he was being real. He, like you and like me, was a sinner in need of God’s great mercy. And so, he asked for it. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, mercy is freely available to everyone, even Tax Collectors.  The Pharisee didn’t think he needed any mercy, he was doing just fine on his own. The Tax Collector knew he needed the grace that only God could give and so he received it. He went home justified, redeemed, restored. And he woke up the next day and went back to the despicable work of collecting taxes from his own people and collecting his own salary from their threadbare pockets and would return to the temple again and again saying “God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

This morning we gather in one of God’s many Temples. We sing praises, offer prayers, and confess our sins. At the table, we remember the sacrifice Jesus made so that God’s grace might be freely offered to all. If you know you need God’s mercy, take it, for it is given to each who has need. If you don’t think you need it, you best take it anyway.  You need it more than you know.  From the Tax Collector we should all learn that the truest prayer any of us can pray is the prayer that God is most eager to answer, “O Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Amen.

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A Tough Parable Explained

       Soon after I arrived at seminary, my classmates and professors began using a word that I had never heard before.  Exegesis.  To downplay my confusion, I joked that I always thought that Mary Magdalene was the ex-o-Jesus, but nobody laughed then either.  Eventually, I learned that exegesis is the critical study and interpretation of a text.  I came to appreciate that exegesis is the key to good preaching.  Good exegesis has four parts: study around the passage, within the passage, behind the passage, and before and after the passage.  I don’t do a full-blown seminary caliber study before every sermon, but I do always try to take time to dig into the scriptures and to see where God is at work.

One important component of exegetical study before and after the text is understanding the history of interpretation.  As you might imagine, over the course of two thousand years, these parables, poems, and letters have been read in various ways.  Constantine, the Emperor of Rome hears Jesus telling the rich man to sell everything he has and give it to the poor very differently than a medieval widow who lost her husband and children to the plague who hears it very differently than a middle-class white American working 55 hours a week to keep up with a mortgage, car note, and student loan debt.  There is much to be gleaned from each of these interpretations, especially for a preacher, like me, whose audience is diverse in background, education, and socio-economic status.

Which brings us to today’s parable that my Bible calls, “The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge.”  What a weird story.  Throughout the Gospels, Jesus tells some off-putting parables, but this one has to be in the top 5.  It is such a challenging story that Luke does his best to help us understand it.  In this case, the history of interpretation starts even before the story was written down as the author attempts to help us understand how we should read the story.  The preamble to this parable comes at verse one.  The author writes, “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.”  Ok, so this is going to be a story about persistent prayer.  We go into the text ready to associate ourselves with a character who is persistent in prayer only to find that the widow isn’t praying to God, but to a judge who seems to be the exact opposite of God.  This judge has no fear of God and no respect for anyone.  He says so himself.  What are we to do with that?

Jesus tries his hand at interpretating the story as well.  After the parable, he says “Will not God grant justice to his chose ones who cry to him day and night?  Will he delay long in helping them?”  Well, if God is just, then why do we have to cry to God day and night for justice?  And two thousand years later, there is still injustice, cruelty, and hatred on earth.  Waiting two thousand years seems like maybe God has delayed quite a long time in helping the oppressed.  Not to suggest Luke or Jesus are wrong here, but these two interpretations just don’t sit right with me.  It feels like we’re missing something.  Let’s fast forward and see what else we can find.

The original Biblical texts weren’t divided up into chapter and verse, but by at least the eighth century, scribes were dividing the text into chapters, each with their own titles.  Like Luke’s heavy-handed attempt at an explanation, these titles often set the stage for how we are to think about the story that is to follow.  This has advantages and disadvantages, of course, but it does help us understand how interpretations have changed as the titles change.  As I mentioned earlier, in my Bible, this story is called the “Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge,” but before that, it was often called “The Parable of the Importunate Widow.”  Importunate is not a word I knew before this week, but it means to be persistent in a bad way, persistent to the point of annoyance.  Think of the four-year-old who never stops asking “why” or the totally hypothetical chihuahua named Ruby who wishes for attention and lays on top of your keyboard while you are trying to write a sermon.

As the Parable of the Importunate Widow, like with Luke’s preamble, our attention is meant to be focused on the woman.  Her story is a sad one, based on the context clues.  She is at least a four-time outcast.  First, she’s a woman.  Second, she is a widow.  Third, because she must go to court herself, we can assume that she has no male relatives at all.  Fourth, she pesters, and pesters, and pesters, and pesters.  It is this importunate, quadruple outsider that Jesus holds up as the example of faithful persistence.  Most importantly, her request of the judge isn’t frivolous, but it is simply for justice.  Day after day, she returns to the judge and asks, “grant me justice.”  “Grant me justice.”  “Grant me justice.”  Unlike our prayers, this widow’s petition can’t be done in the comfort of her own home over a cup of coffee.  She must work for it.  Each morning, she has to get up and go, knowing full well that the judge will likely be deaf to her cries.  And yet, she persists.  That’s why she’s the model of faith for Jesus.  She’s importunate, annoyingly persistent, in her pursuit of justice.  At the very end of the passage, Jesus asks, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  In this line of interpretation, I think Jesus is asking, when he returns, will he find disciples whose faith compels them to passionately pursue justice?

As I said, importunate isn’t a word we hear much these days.  Most modern Bibles title this “The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge,” which tends to focus our attention on the judge rather than the widow.  This judge admits that he doesn’t have respect for people, and he doesn’t care for God.  The interpretive lens the title gives us suggests that this means the judge is unjust, but at least two scholars I consulted this week argue that it means he is the totally nonbiased.  Either way, his judgements come not from any partiality to his fellow human beings or to the will of God, but instead wholly from within himself.

We don’t know why the judge repeatedly refused to hear the cries of the widow, but out of his own mouth we learn why he finally relents, “Because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”  Here’s another place where the history of interpretation matters.  Translators make interpretive decisions all the time.  The NRSV and most modern translations say something like “wear me out,” but the Greek word actually means “to bruise, to beat up, or to give a black eye.”  Whether the judge was afraid of a black eye literally or figuratively is an open question, but the reality is that he ultimately granted her justice to shut her up, such was the veracity of her persistence.  Jumping back to that final verse, when Jesus asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” we might hear him saying, “when I return, will I find folks have been fighting day after day to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven?”

No matter who we focus on or how we interpret this story, the question that Jesus poses at very end seems to be an important one.  This is a parable about the fullness of time, and how we, as disciples, are called to live in the meantime.  “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  Will Jesus find importunate people pursuing justice?  Will Jesus find disciples fighting for what’s right?  When Jesus returns, will he find us persistent in work and prayer for the building up of the Kingdom of Heaven?  Amen.

Giving away that which is passing away

       Since 1999, the late Hugo Chavez and his disciples in the Fifth Republic Movement have been in power in Venezuela.  Their policies of cultural and political hegemony have exacerbated an already delicate situation in the South American country such that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that more than six million Venezuelans have left their home country because of a lack of reliable food, water, and electricity and the constant threat of violence.  The Venezuelan refugee crisis is the third-largest external displacement crisis in the world, behind the worn-torn countries of Syria and Ukraine.  Refugees from Venezuela are often left with only the clothes on their backs as they escape violence, oppression, and degradation.  The vast majority of them have settled in Latin and North America.  More than 50% have landed in Peru, and close to a quarter are here in the United States trying to navigate the convoluted and expensive asylum process.[1]

       Adding insult to injury, earlier this week, 48 Venezuelan asylum seekers – men, women, and a dozen elementary aged children – were put on airplanes with no indication as to where they were going.  Vulnerable, confused, and afraid, they were transported from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, a mostly rural, island community about three hours south of Boston.  Stuck in the middle of an ongoing fight between Republicans and Democrats, these 48 human beings were nothing more than pawns for politicians as they argue the merits of their own version of immigration reform.  Faced with 48 new residents who arrived unannounced and without much more than a backpack’s worth of belongings, the residents of Martha’s Vineyard had a choice to make on Wednesday afternoon.  They could throw up their hands and say, “not our problem.”  They could call on immigration officers to come handle it.  Or, as they did, they could welcome the stranger in their midst, loving their Venezuelan neighbors as themselves.

       According to the Martha’s Vineyard Times[2], at about 5 pm, less than two hours after the flights had landed, the Dukes County Sherriff addressed the asylum seekers.  “We’re going to take care of you,” he said through a translator, “Get all your personal belongings together and then we’ll move… The most important thing is we get you food and shelter and water.”  Their first stop was the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School where they were given food, water, and temporary shelter.  Ninety minutes later, school buses rolled out from the high school to St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown where they spent two nights.[3]  Edgartown Pizza provided dinner.  Mocha Motts brought coffee.  Local lawyers supplied legal aid, while dentists and doctors offered medical care.  When faced with a people being used as “unrighteous mammon” for political gain, the people of Edgartown and Martha’s Vineyard showed compassion, grace, and love, and they proved themselves faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The 150 members of St. Andrew’s were, one might argue, faithful with the little they have while ministering to human beings that others considered to be unrighteous.

       Our Gospel lesson for this morning is probably the most difficult parable Jesus ever told.  In most parables, we can easily figure out the allegorical relationships.  In the parable of the lost sheep, we realize pretty quickly that God is the shepherd and human beings are the sheep, but here, it’s not quite so simple.  God being a greedy master who violated the Torah and charged exorbitant interest on his loans doesn’t quite work.  Jesus as the unrighteous servant who cheated his boss to save his own tail isn’t quite right either.  It’s not real obvious what exactly Jesus wants us to glean from this parable as it is read in isolation this morning.  When we find its place in the larger story, however, things begin to come into focus.  The parable of the shrewd manager comes on the heels of three parables about lost things.  We heard two of them last Sunday.  The parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin.  The lectionary skipped over the parable of the prodigal or lost son, and now here we are with this strange story about debt relief.

       I can’t help but wonder if Jesus ended up telling this story because of the bad pun about the Pharisees that Mother Becca told us she grew up learning – “that’s not fair, you see.”  I wonder if the reaction to the three lost stories was the same as the reaction of the elder son to his prodigal brother’s return and his dad throwing a party in response, “it’s just not fair!”  “All this rejoicing at those who were lost, who because of their own bad choices failed and became lost, it just isn’t fair.”  It’s the same response we hear about Narcan saving the lives of those who have overdosed on fentanyl, “it’s not fair.”  It’s the same response we hear about those who are having a portion of their student loan interest forgiven, “it’s not fair.”  It’s the same response we hear about those who left everything they knew to escape poverty and violence in Venezuela and ended up in Texas searching for a better life, “it’s not fair.”  Jesus is clear in this crazy parable, life in the Kingdom of God isn’t fair.  Life in the Kingdom of God is a life in which God has written off the debt of sin that all of us carry.  None of us deserve the grace that has been given to us in Christ Jesus, and that is precisely the point.

       Our response to the illogical and unfair grace of God is what Jesus seems to be getting at in this parable.  We can choose to think that none of this is fair, to hoard grace for ourselves, and to ignore the needs of those around us, but that won’t take us very far in the ridiculous economy of God.  It might make us feel better in this highly individualized, 21st century America, but it won’t carry much weight in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Our other choice, the one I think Jesus would have us choose considering this parable, is to realize that none of this is fair and to give away as much grace and mercy as we possibly can – to take every last thing entrusted to our care and to share it with our neighbors, strangers and friends alike.

       It isn’t hard for me to imagine how Christ Church might respond to a situation like the one St. Andrew’s Edgartown found itself in on Wednesday night.  Whether it is Room in the Inn, Churches United HELP Ministry, Wednesday Community Lunch, or hosting Narcotics Anonymous meetings, there’s a lot of stuff we do around here about which some would say “it’s not fair,” but using the resources we have for the betterment of our neighbors is exactly what this congregation has shown itself to be about.  We are, and will continue to be, faithful with what we have been given so that we might be entrusted by God to be faithful with even more.  That we have so much isn’t fair. It is only right that how we use this massive physical plant and our abundant and historical finances should be wildly unfair to the glory of God.  Giving away those things that will pass away is the only way to cling tightly to that which shall endure, eternal life in the Kingdom of God.  Amen.


[1] https://data.unhcr.org/en/situations/vensit

[2] https://www.mvtimes.com/2022/09/14/migrant-workers-land-vineyard-via-texas/

[3] https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/2022/09/16/episcopal-church-on-marthas-vineyard-takes-in-migrants-flown-in-by-surprise/

True Religion

Every year, at about this time, I feel compelled to preach the same sermon I’ve been preaching for fifteen years.  This prayer we pray on Proper 17 always manages to get stuck in my craw.  It is unlike anything else in our Book of Common Prayer.  Specifically, it is the petition that God of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things might increase in us “true religion.”  Every year, I wonder to myself, what exactly does that mean?  What are we praying for?

The word, religion, appears only eight times in the Prayer Book.  Two of those times are in the Rite I and Rite II versions of our Collect for today.  How is it that a word that gets so little airtime in our one-thousand-page statement of faith, can be a central request in a prayer we pray on an annual basis?  What does it mean to ask God for an increase of “true religion”?

       These questions are increasingly important, I believe, in a world that is becoming more and more secular.  According to Pew Research Center’s 2021 National Public Opinion Reference Survey on Religion, for the first time since their survey work began, more Americans said that religion had somewhat, little, or no importance in their lives than those who said religion was very important.[1]  Increasingly, religion, specifically Christian religion, carries all kinds of negative connotations.  In March, The Episcopal Church published a study that showed while most Christians see themselves as giving, compassionate, loving, and respectful, a majority of non-religious Americans see us as hypocritical, judgmental, and self-righteous.  A plurality of those in other religious traditions felt the same.[2]

       It isn’t a stretch to suggest that Christians, no matter their denomination, are failing to shine a positive light on our religion.  In 1549, when Thomas Cranmer was editing this Collect for inclusion in the first Book of Common Prayer, he had similar feelings about the religion of Roman Catholicism.  Rather than translating the original prayer, “increase in us religion,” he added in the word “true” to differentiate what he thought he and the other Reformers were creating from all that had come before.  True religion, as opposed to the impure religion of Rome, was what Cranmer hoped for the Church he would leave behind, but nearly 500 years later, it would seem we still have a long way to go.

       As we seek after true religion, the first question we have to ask is what exactly is religion?  In the year 750, when this Collect was first written, religion connoted “faith as the lived experience of love, veneration, devotion, awe, worship, transcendence, and trust; a way of life; …”[3]  The lived experience of love.  Devotion.  Trust.  A way of life.  These are terms that defined religion, or what Thomas Cranmer might call “true religion” in its earliest form.  Nearly thirteen hundred years after this prayer was first written, religion has come to mean something entirely and, I believe, quite unhelpfully different.

       The first definition when you Google religion is “the belief in a worship of a superhuman controlling power,” which bears little resemblance to “lived experience of love, devotion, and trust.”  The late Wilfred Cantwell Smith, comparative religion scholar at McGill and Harvard universities, argued that religion underwent a significant change of meaning following the Reformation.  Christian writers began using the word “religion” more frequently during the seventeenth century to signify a system of ideas or beliefs about God.  Throughout the following centuries, Smith says, “in pamphlet after pamphlet, treatise after treatise, decade after decade, the notion was driven home that religion is something that one believes or does not believe, something whose propositions are true or are not true… In modern times, religion became indistinguishable from ideas about God, religious institutions, and human beings; it categorizes, organizes, objectifies, and divides people into exclusive worlds of right versus wrong, true versus false, ‘us’ versus ‘them.’” [4]

Unfortunately, the modern understanding of religion is nowhere close to the meaning of religion that the original authors of this prayer had in mind.  If we are going to take our Collect for this week seriously, then how do we begin to reclaim some of that olde time true religion?  Conveniently, our lectionary helps us with the passage from Hebrews.  As the author of Hebrews brought this sermon series to an end, their goal was to leave the congregation with some practical and pastoral advice for living out this life of faith – that is how to be religious – and it all depends on love.  “Let mutual love continue,” the preacher writes, exhorting the congregation to care for one another as if they were members of the same family: showing philadelphia, love like a sibling, to each other by sharing resources, cooperating with each other, and showing compassion and ongoing commitment to our siblings in Christ Jesus.  True religion doesn’t stop at the doors of the church, however, nor does our call to love only include those with whom we share a community of faith. The preacher goes on to admonish the congregation, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.”  That word, translated as hospitality is philonexia or “love of stranger,” and it was a foundational tenant in the religion that developed following the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

The preacher goes on to describe true religion as that which cares for those in prison and those who are being tortured for their faith.  True religion means maintaining a faithful commitment to one’s spouse if they have one.  True religion means not letting the love of money replace the love of God, love of neighbor, love of sibling, or love of stranger that is our true calling in Christ.  The sermon wraps with these words, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

This morning, our annual ministry fair is happening out in Surface Hall.  Through those doors, you’ll have the chance to hear about much of the good that is being done in the name of Jesus inside and outside of these walls.  Christ Church does a pretty good job of living into the true religion of Hebrews 13, but the hard truth is that none of the programs we do will matter to God if we do not have love underneath it all.  What is most important, at least as far as the preacher of Hebrews and the preacher of this sermon are concerned, is that the motivation for everything we do is love.  The Diocese of Ohio has taken on a slogan that I think sums this true religion thing up quite well.  “Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Change the world.”  Increase in us true religion, O God, and teach us to love you, love our neighbors, love the stranger, and change the world.  Amen.


[1] https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/12/14/about-three-in-ten-u-s-adults-are-now-religiously-unaffiliated/pf_12-14-21_npors_0_4/

[2] https://www.episcopalchurch.org/jesus-in-america/

[3] Wilfred Cantwell Smith, quoted in Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion, p. 97

[4] Ibid.

Jesus came to bring fire

       Just after midnight on Sunday, September 2, 1666, a fire broke out at Thomas Farriner’s bakery in Pudding Lane, near the Thames in London’s Old City.  As was the model in early Modern Europe, neighbors worked to put out the fire while they waited for parish constables to coordinate the firefighting effort.  After about an hour, constables arrived and determined that neighboring houses needed to be demolished to provide a fire break as the Old City was infamous for overcrowded, timber-built tenement houses that crept closer and closer to one another, making a rapidly spreading fire a constant and realistic fear.  As you might imagine, the people who lived in the houses ordered to be demolished weren’t too keen on the idea.  As they protested, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, Lord Mayor of London was summoned to settle the dispute.  An inept and inexperienced politician, Bloodworth couldn’t make the necessary decisions, and fueled by wind, wood, and the occasional gunpowder stockpile, the fire spread, and spread, and spread.  By the time it was finally controlled on the morning of Wednesday, September 5th, the fire had destroyed some thirteen thousand homes, 86 parish churches, dozens of civic buildings, and the great St. Paul’s Cathedral.

       Fire is an interesting thing.  One could argue that humanity’s ability to control fire is the greatest achievement of all time.  By controlling fire, we developed the ability to cook food.  This led to great advancements in life expectancy as food borne illnesses no longer threatened human beings in the same way it had for all of human history.  By controlling fire, we were able to make light at night, forever changing how the world worked.  By controlling fire, we were able to smelt ore and create stronger tools.  By controlling fire, the internal combustion engine was created, making travel around the world possible.  Of course, uncontrolled fire is still one of the most dangerous things on the planet.  In 2019, there were approximately 1.3 million fires in the US, killing more than thirty-seven hundred people, injuring another sixteen thousand, and causing nearly fifteen billion dollars in damage.  Even controlled fire has its dangers.  Controlled fire used to light tobacco kills roughly seven million people around the globe every year.  The controlled use of uncontrolled fire by way of guns, bombs, and other weapons accounts for an unimaginably staggering level of loss as well.

When we think of fire, we tend to think of its destructive power first and foremost, which sets this morning’s Gospel lesson off on the wrong foot.  Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”  What are we supposed to do with that, Jesus?  Don’t get me wrong, the rest of this passage isn’t particularly easy to deal with, but with all the negative attributes of fire, thinking of Jesus as one who came to bring destruction is a real challenge.  With Mother Becca’s sermon image of the Leon Cathedral in mind, I couldn’t help but read this Gospel passage and immediately think of the destruction of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Great London Fire of 1666, even as it also brought to mind the apartment fire a friend of ours had nearly 20 years ago that caused her great anxiety and grief for years after.

Despite our fixation on fire’s destructive qualities, the reality is that, just like in life, fire in the Bible carries with it both good and bad connotations.  The prophet Micah compares God’s grace to a refiner’s fire, used to burn off impurities and bring forth a more perfect finished product.  In Genesis, God gets Moses’ attention by appearing to him as a bush that is burning but not consumed.  All throughout the Old Testament, fire is used to offer sacrifices to God.  There are a lot of good uses of fire in Scripture.  It is also true that fire and brimstone rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah for their abominable lack of hospitality to the stranger.  In his letter, James compares the evil power of the tongue to a fire set by hell itself.  It would seem that in the bible, fire isn’t seen as inherently good or bad, but rather it depends on how it is used.  So, when Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth” it could mean that he has come to bring judgment and destruction, or perhaps it means that he has come to bring purification and renewal.

How we see the fire Jesus came to bring is all a matter of perspective.  When we hold on too tightly to our own self-interests, our own wealth, and our own security, the fire that Jesus brings will seem destructive as it separates us from the idols that have replaced God in our lives.  These things are hard to give up, and the loss of them, while in the long run good for us, is a very painful process.  On the other hand, when we are seeking after the Kingdom of Heaven, actively searching for ways to develop a close relationship with God, the fire that Jesus brings can be seen as a gift, as it clears away that which holds us back, and helps us grow more fully into who God created us to be.  This is the good news in an otherwise difficult passage.  Jesus came to bring fire that will renew, refine, and restore us to right relationship with God and with each other, if we are able to let go of all that needs to be burned away in the process.

In the aftermath of the Great London Fire, Sir Christopher Wren showed himself to be one of the greatest architects in English history.  Wren, who had been working to renovate St. Paul’s Cathedral at the time of the Great Fire, was responsible for rebuilding 52 of the 86 churches destroyed in the fire, as well as the redesign St. Paul’s.  The old, 11th century Gothic building now destroyed, Wren designed a brand-new, Baroque style cathedral that to this day, holds one of the tallest and most magnificent dome structures in the world.  The great edifice, built of Portland Limestone, was consecrated only 31 years and 3 months after the Great Fire, an enormous undertaking for the time.  Legend has it that early in the construction process, Wren was wandering around the site on Ludgate Hill talking to the craftsman on site.  He found three stone masons working on a scaffold, and called up to the first and asked, “What are you doing?”  The first mason responded, “I’m a stone mason. I’m working hard laying stone to feed my family.”  To the second, Wren asked, “And you, what are you doing?”  “I’m a builder, I’m building a wall,” he replied.  Finally, Wren asked the third mason, “What about you, what are you doing?”  “Me?” the man answered, “I’m blessed to be doing the great work of building a magnificent cathedral to Almighty God.”

       What are you building?  Is your life’s work a series of blocks, stacked upon each other, in the name of your own self-interests?  The fire that Jesus came to bring will burn all that self-centered stuff away.  There will be no joy in it.  There will be nothing left to look upon with pride.  If, however, you are working to build a magnificent cathedral to Almighty God, then the fire will be used in productive ways, helping to build the Kingdom in and through you.  Jesus came to bring fire.  Whether it is controlled and beneficial or uncontrolled and destructive, well, that all depends on us.  Amen.

The Scandal of Particularity

       I graduated from seminary fifteen years ago last month, which is really hard to believe.  Some days, it feels like a month ago; others, it feels like fifty years.  The hard truth of being fifteen years out of seminary is that I don’t really remember much of what I learned.  Between two kids, two jobs, the BP oil spill, a two-year pandemic, and the December 11th tornadoes, I’m lucky to know my name most days.  Still, there are a few things that have remained stuck in the cobwebs of my mind.  One of them came floating back to the forefront of my thoughts this week as I prayed through the Acts lesson preparing to preach.  It is called the Scandal of Particularity.  This is the notion of the absurdity that God would choose to enter humanity as a particular person, in a particular place, at a particular time, among a particular culture.  That the Second Person of the Trinity came to earth as a Jewish male, in first century Palestine, born to working class parents from a backwater town is, in many ways, a scandalous idea as it puts so many limitations on the God of the universe that it is nearly impossible to believe.

       Yet, we do believe it.  We believe it because Jesus claimed it.  Even when pressed by Philip to just show us the Father, Jesus says, with all the confidence of God in flesh, that if you have seen him, this shaggy bearded, rough handed, occasionally grumpy, wandering rabbi, you have seen the Father.  That’s all well and good, but the further you get, in both space and time, from Jesus and his disciples, the harder it is to wrap your head around this very particular person actually being God incarnate.  That’s why, forty days after Jesus was resurrected from the dead, his disciples pressed him even further.  “Lord, now that you have been raised from the dead, now that you’ve made your resurrected body known to many who already believed in you, now that you’ve escaped time and space only to return to it again, is now the time when you will finally restore the kingdom to Israel and set everything right?”  The disciples want to know, definitively, when all this particularity is going to go universal.  When will the heavens open and God’s reign finally be known upon the whole earth?

       What happens next, however, is more of the same.  The heavens are opened, but instead of God coming down to earth to fix everything humanity had messed up, Jesus is lifted up and seated at God’s right hand.  Like it was on Good Friday, the disciples are once again left alone to figure out how what they learned from Jesus is going to change the world.  Jesus had told them to wait, that someone else was coming who would empower them to take the Good News and share it beyond the particularity of Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, and, ultimately, the ends of the earth.  For ten days they waited, they gathered in prayer, and they wondered, “what next?”  In the meantime, the city of Jerusalem began to swell with tourists.  Tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of the Jewish faithful came to celebrate the Pentecost Festival, an annual remembrance of the giving of the Law to Moses by the offering of the first fruits of the harvest to God at the Temple.

       The very ethnically Jewish city teemed with people from all kinds of different cultures.  Since the exile by the Assyrians in 733 BCE and exacerbated by the Babylonian exile in 597 and Roman occupation in 63 BCE, the Jewish diaspora had led to Hebrews living all over the known world.  They had intermarried, learned different languages, and settled into new cultures, even as they remained faithful to the Jewish traditions and festivals.  So it was that on the Pentecost, the fiftieth day after the Passover, faithful Jewish Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans, Cappadocians, Pontins, Asians, Phrygians, Pamphylians, Egyptians, Libyans, Romans, Cretans, and Arabs were all in the holy city of Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and caused the Good News of God in Christ to move beyond its original, particular audience, to be heard by the whole world.

       The Spirit arrived with wind and flame, filling the house in which the disciples were holed up, and alighting on each of them, filling them to overflowing with the Holy Spirit: Advocate and Guide.   They began to speak, each in a language foreign to them, and tell the Good News.  What’s so awesome about this story is that even as the Church grew from 120 to thousands in a few hours, God’s affinity for the particularity of humanity never went away.  God didn’t make it such that everyone miraculously learned to understand Hebrew in order to join the Way of Jesus, but rather, God made the disciples each to speak the particular language of those gathered in the city to offer sacrifices.  With the help of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles spoke across lines that have divided humanity forever: language, culture, ethnicity, race, gender, and politics, while never asking anyone to give up who they were as human beings to follow Jesus.

       That’s not to say that following Jesus won’t change us.  God loves us just the way we are, but God loves us too much to leave us that way.  Following Jesus will require sacrifices as we listen for the Spirit’s guiding, seek to love our neighbors, and grow in compassion.  Following Jesus will not cause us to give up who we are as human beings, however.  Straight or gay.  Trans or cis gender.  Black, white, Hispanic, Arab, or Asian.  UK, UofL, or meet and right Bama fan.  The particularities of who you are in the fullness of being made in the image of God is welcome into the Body of Christ on Pentecost Day.  What’s more, God doesn’t just welcome each of us into the fold but goes so far as to invite us in the particular language and idioms with which we are most comfortable.  The Body of Christ truly is open to all flesh.

       As we celebrate the Day of Pentecost and enter the long season to follow, I invite you to listen to what the Spirit is saying to you?  Amidst the particularities of your own life, where is the Spirit inviting you to change and grow?  Whom is the Spirit asking you to know and to love?  What is the new thing that God is up to in your life and in the life of this particular community of faith called Christ Episcopal Church?  Listen carefully and hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.  Amen.

The Good Shepherd

I’d like to begin this morning with a short meditation exercise.  It is not something I do very often, so I hope you’ll indulge me a little.

Find a comfortable posture.

Make sure your feet are firmly planted on the floor.

Close your eyes.

Become aware of your breath.

As you breathe in, feel your lungs expand.

As you breathe out, notice your chest easing down.

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

Now, bring to your mind’s eye, if you can, Jesus.

Allow him to stand before you.

Gaze upon his appearance.

There’s no need to say anything.

Just sit in the presence of Jesus.

Now, allow Jesus to leave.

On to his next encounter.

Grateful for the time you spent together.

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

Amen.

I wonder what Jesus looked like to you.  Was he a carpenter, complete with rough hands, and sawdust in his beard?  Was he on the lakeshore, cooking up a fish breakfast for his friends?  Was he standing in a natural amphitheater, offering a word of hope to the crowd?  If you pictured Jesus as a pink bear with hearts on his stomach, you are a child of the 80s and have conflated Jesus with love-a-lot bear from the Care Bears, and I think that’s probably ok. I think our primary image of Jesus says a lot about the kind of faith we have.  Jesus as a carpenter infers a very incarnational faith, one focused on the humanity of Jesus and what he came to teach us about how life in the Kingdom is to be lived.  Jesus the chef is the Jesus of compassion who cares deeply for his friends and shows us what it means to love our neighbors.  Jesus the teacher is probably a favorite among Mainline Christians, he is the one who came to earth to bring about change and to teach us how to be reunited with God.

The image of Jesus that has spoken to me of late is the same Jesus I preached about back in 2018, which is the image right up above me, Jesus the Good Shepherd.  Over the years and thanks to our lectionary cycle, it seems as though the image of God and/or Jesus as a loving shepherd seems to show up exactly when I need it.  Just a little over nine years ago, our nation was being held on the edge of our collective seats in the aftermath of the terror of the Boston Marathon bombing.  For four days, we eagerly awaited as law enforcement sought the suspects.  We watched the video of that backpack casually being set down time and time again.  We were all on edge.  I remember opening the same lessons we have for this week and being so very grateful for the Good Shepherd to arrive on my computer screen.  I needed Jesus to pick me up and carry me, for I knew I didn’t have the strength to find green pastures on my own.

My attention then, as now, was drawn especially to the 23rd Psalm.  Some of us prayed this psalm together just a couple of days ago as we stood with our friend Carroll and mourned as he buried his son, Hal.  Psalm 23 is closely associated with death, especially in the very familiar King James translation.  Over the years, however, I’ve come to understand that it is actually a song of praise.  Listen to it with fresh ears from a different translation, the Contemporary English Version.

You, Lord, are my shepherd.
    I will never be in need.
You let me rest in fields
    of green grass.
You lead me to streams
of peaceful water,
and you refresh my life.

You are true to your name,
and you lead me
    along the right paths.
I may walk through valleys
as dark as death,
    but I won’t be afraid.
You are with me,
and your shepherd’s rod
    makes me feel safe.

You treat me to a feast,
    while my enemies watch.
You honor me as your guest,
and you fill my cup
    until it overflows.
Your kindness and love
will always be with me
    each day of my life,
and I will live forever
    in your house, Lord.

“You, Lord, are my shepherd. I will never be in need.”  Our God is a God of abundance.  God’s blessings are poured out upon us as both sunshine and rain.  The gifts of God include the very breath of life, the miracle of birth, the joy of relationship, and the hope of the resurrection.  God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a shepherd, the Good Shepherd, who lays down their own life for all sheep.

“You let me rest in fields of green grass.  You lead me to streams of peaceful water, and you refresh my life.”  Here’s the crux of Jesus’ message in our Gospel lesson today.  As followers of the Good Shepherd, we hear his voice and follow him to eternal life, or what our Catechism calls, “enjoyment of God.”  Of course, we need not wait until the great by and by to enjoy eternal life.  The Psalmist, Jesus, and two-thousand years of Christian tradition are clear that eternal life happens when we allow God to refresh, restore, and renew our lives today.

“You are true to your name, and you lead me along the right paths.  I may walk through valleys as dark as death, but I won’t be afraid.  You are with me, and your shepherd’s rod makes me feel safe.”  There is, perhaps, no stronger a statement of faith in all of Scripture than this famous section of Psalm 23.  There is no inherent promise that evil will not befall us.  Accidents will happen.  Bad people will do bad things.  Illness knows no prejudice.  Thanks to a complicated tax code, death is the only true certainty in life.  However, amid all the challenges that life can bring, God is right there with us. Abiding. Comforting. Sympathizing. God is there. This is a helpful reminder today as the last two years have left us all somewhere in the dark valley.  God is there.  God is here.

“You treat me to a feast, while my enemies watch.  You honor me as your guest, and you fill my cup until it overflows.  Your kindness and love will always be with me each day of my life, and I will live forever in your house.”  Psalm 23 ends with the Psalmist bringing us back to pondering the overwhelming abundance of God.  A feast has been laid out before us, and the invitation is open to all.  After more than a year without sharing the Eucharist, I know that I will never take the opportunity to join in God’s feast for granted. As we approach the altar and receive a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, it is helpful to offer thanks for the eternal promises of God’s goodness.

Psalm 23 is one of those amazing gifts that transcend time.  Like the Lord’s Prayer or the Golden Rule, we know it by heart because it is forever etched in our souls.  When times get tough, as they seem to so often, it is helpful to have things we can easily fall back on.  So today, I’m thankful for Good Shepherd Sunday, for the comfortable image of Jesus tenderly carrying a lamb, for the promise of the heavenly banquet, and the assurance of eternal life starting right now.  Surely, God’s goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.  Amen.

Believe like Mary

       One of the greatest gifts of serving a congregation with multiple clergy is that I don’t have to preach both of the big sermons every year.  Becca and I have the luxury of alternating Christmas and Easter, which gives us a couple of years between tackling the well-worn stories that we all know and love.  Still, every time my name does come up to preach one of the two biggies, I stress about it.  Big time.  I want to say something new, something brilliant, something that brings you all back next week.  Of course, it isn’t all about me, and after 2,000 years of sermons on the Incarnation and Resurrection, there isn’t much left that hasn’t already been said.  So it was, with great joy, that I read through my go-to sermon prep resources and found something I had never seen before.

       It was in a commentary published by Alicia Myers, Associate Professor of New Testament and Greek at Campbell University Divinity School.  Published in April of 2020, I had far too many things on my plate to read any commentaries that Easter, and so I’m two years late to this party.[1]  In her post over at Working Preacher, Professor Myers rehashes the various experiences of the empty tomb that Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter, and the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved each had.

       Mary was the first to arrive.  Having violated the Sabbath laws by walking such a great distance before sunrise on Sunday morning, Mary found the stone rolled away and immediately assumed that someone had stolen the body of her friend and Rabbi.  John doesn’t say that she even took a second to look inside.  Instead, Mary did what any sensible human being would do, she took off running for help.  She went to find the two people who were closest to Jesus – Simon Peter and the aptly described, Disciple Whom Jesus Loved.  Breathless, she told them what she assumed to be true, “Someone has taken the Lord.”  Just as Mary had done, they started running.

       Some scholars believe that the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved was John simply because the Gospel that bears his name has him winning the race back to the tomb.  Whoever he is, upon reaching the tomb, he looked in and saw the burial clothes empty. Quickly,  the more impetuous Simon Peter flew through the opening in the rock and stood, shocked, by what he saw.  Crumpled up linens in one corner, the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ face nicely folded up in another, and not a sign of Jesus anywhere to be found.  The other Disciple finally entered, saw the same scene, and John says, “he believed.”

For as long as I’ve been hearing John’s Easter story, I have assumed this meant that in that moment, this Disciple suddenly remembered everything that Jesus had told them.  How, on at least three different occasions, Jesus had told them that he would die and rise again.  How, on that mountain where Jesus was transfigured, Elijah and Moses talked with him about the plan of salvation.  How Jesus had promised to go and prepare a place for them so that he might take them to his Father’s many mansions.  I have always thought that finally, in that empty tomb, everything made sense, and the disciple believed that Jesus was the Messiah, who died and rose again.

Here comes Professor Myers, who points out what actually happens next, a portion of the text that I apparently never hear.  John says, “he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.  Then the disciples returned to their homes.”  *Mind Blown* They didn’t get it.  What the Disciple believed wasn’t that Jesus had risen from the dead.  No, he didn’t understand that yet.  Instead, he believed what Mary believed, that someone had stolen the body of Jesus, and totally unsure of what to do next, he just went home.  To sulk.  To mourn.  To worry.  To pray.

This response makes a ton of sense, of course.  Dead people don’t come back to life.  Dead people stay dead, and so, when they are famous, or infamous, as the case may be, and their body disappears, the first assumption probably isn’t, *snaps fingers* Resurrection.  The first thought is, logically, “Well, that stinks.  Somebody stole his body.  Let’s go home and figure out what to do next.”  For the first time ever, I finally see what is really happening in this story, and I’m flabbergasted.  Maybe you are too.

One person does stick around, however.  Mary is too shaken to just go home.  Stuck between grief and anger, Mary stands at the entrance of the tomb and does the other logical thing, she weeps.  As she wept, she took her first look inside the tomb and saw, not the crumpled up grave clothes, but two angels, who asked her why she’s crying.  “Someone took my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve laid him,” she replies, still fully convinced that her dead Rabbi is still dead.  She turns around, sees a man she assumes to be the gardener, and answers his question in a similar fashion, “If you took him, please tell me where he is.”

It isn’t until she hears her name, “Mary,” that Mary Magdalene has the epiphany that I’ve always assumed that other Disciple had.  In an instant, she realizes the miracle that has happened.  Her friend, her Rabbi, her Lord has been raised from the dead.  Mary no longer believes that his body has been stolen.  She now believes that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead.  Before she knows it, Mary is being commissioned as the Apostle to the Apostles, sent to proclaim the Good News for all the world, “I have seen the Lord.”

If it were left to Simon Peter and the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved, we might not be here this morning.  It isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that they would have seen the empty tomb, believed that Jesus was gone, and headed back to Capernaum and a lifetime of fishing in the Sea of Galilee.  Something kept Mary at that tomb early Sunday morning.  Maybe she was paralyzed by grief, or maybe it was the Holy Spirit that kept her close so that she might see and come to believe.  Thanks to her, and generation upon generation of people like her, we are here this morning to share in the celebration that comes from believing in the unbelievable miracle that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  Thanks to her, and generation upon generation of people like her, we have the privilege of taking our turn in building the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. May you be blessed with the faith of Mary Magdalene this Easter Day, and believe, deep in your bones, that love always wins, that hope conquers fear, and that joy comes in the morning.  Amen.  Alleluia.


[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/resurrection-of-our-lord/commentary-on-john-201-18-11

Palm Sunday Whiplash

       I have always struggled with Palm Sunday.  Theologically, liturgically, and practically, every year, Palm Sunday feels like whiplash to me.  The problem is right there at the top of your bulletin.  While we call it “Palm Sunday” colloquially, in truth today is “The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday.” We might walk into it with an expectation of only hearing the shouts of joyful Hosannas, but the reality is that before it’s over, the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ is going to catch us all short.  One year, back in Alabama, Keith and I made the decision to avoid it all together.  We just didn’t read the Passion narrative, and instead invited everyone at Saint Paul’s to join us as we walked the whole week with Jesus.  Of course, that didn’t happen, and the vast majority of the congregation came to Easter services having not heard all that lead up to the miracle of the resurrection.  For a few years, we skipped the Passion Gospel in its normal spot, went through the whole service, and then returned to the spot where the Palm Sunday liturgy started to hear it at the very end.  I found that experience to be quite moving.  It gave enough space between the “Hosannas” and the “Crucify Hims” to not make my neck as sore, and, until two years ago, I would have told you it was my preferred pattern for The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday.

       After two years of disrupted Holy Weeks due to COVID, I am now fully committed to the Palm Sunday liturgy as it is printed in the Prayer Book.  I’ve come to realize that the whiplash is a necessary part of Holy Week.  It helps us in our own journey with Jesus to see that the same crowds that shouted “Hosanna” would, in no time at all, be crying out “Crucify him.”  Each of us has those same crowds within us, alternating between the “Hosannas” of living into the vision of the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus brought to earth and the “Crucify hims” of a life lived in fear, self-preservation, and sin.  The reason that The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday makes us so uncomfortable is because it is the story of our own lives – vacillating, sometimes minute by minute, between joyfully following Christ and selfishly following our own desires.  And so, at the entrance of the nave, in the moment of transition between joy and sorrow, we stop and pray, that this disjointed path we walk from a triumphal entry on Palm Sunday to trudging toward death on the cross on Good Friday might be for us the way of life and peace.  In that prayer, we confront those two very distinct parts within ourselves, seeking to follow Christ all the way to the cross, yet knowing that like Peter and the rest of the disciples, it is very likely we will stop short in fear, in discomfort, in hope of another way.

       For the first time in three years, we have the chance to walk the Way of the Cross together.  From waving palm branches this morning, to the institution of the Lord’s Supper, foot washing, and the stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday, to somber prayers before the cross on Good Friday, to the Great Noise and the joyful proclamation of Easter at the Vigil, to brass, eggs, and alleluias on Easter morning, I hope that all of you will take the opportunity, in-person or online, to walk with us through the full range of emotions that this week will bring.  If the last two years have taught me anything, however, it’s that this just might not be possible, for any number of reasons.  If you can’t walk to and through the tomb with us this week, I hope that the whiplash of this morning will be enough for you to feel the emotional roller coaster that Holy Week invites us to experience.  I pray that as the week goes on, you’ll think back on the joyful “hosannas”, the frightful “crucify hims”, and the sorrowful last words of Jesus from the cross and see in them the very path of life, holding them in your hearts with joyful expectation of what is to come next Sunday as we celebrate the resurrection.

       Dear friends in Christ, this is The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday and the entrance into a most Holy Week.  I pray that you might find a way, anyway, to walk in the way of the cross this week, and that through the grace of God, it might be for you, nothing less than the way of life and peace.  Amen.

Spiritual Turkey Crap

       This week, my Facebook memories were full of pictures and reflections on life in the early days of COVID shutdown.  There were photos of Rick and Linda’s earliest live-stream setup right there in the crossing.  There was a post from outside Kroger, waiting with 25 others for it to open at 7am so we could buy toilet paper.  My favorite was the whiteboard in the Conference Room with a 90-day plan to reopen and blow the doors off with brass at Pentecost.  Oh, March 2020 Steve, how naïve you were.  This year, unlike last March when these memories rolled through, I found myself feeling a little bit nostalgic for how life slowed down, frustrated with how long it has taken us to get beyond COVID’s disruptions, and hopeful for what the future might hold.  That hope is built upon our ongoing work to bring this parish back to its active and full life.

       Of course, starting back from a standstill takes a while, and it requires us to use muscles that we haven’t used in a long time.  Like getting back into exercise, we are slowing building, being very careful not to hurt ourselves.  For example, the Alleluia banner that will beautifully adorn the nave on Easter Day, still isn’t fully colored in.  We haven’t been stressing about that because people are back in the building most days, and we can get some help from adults who like to color.  Monday night, I got a text from Karen Crabtree as EfM was wrapping up.  Marker had bled through the paper and onto the conference table that was just refinished last year.  I think most of us know Karen well enough to know that she was feeling a little anxious about the mess.   She had checked several times to be sure that the markers weren’t bleeding through, and yet, it happened.  My response, from the comfort of my own living room, was more joyful, “It means our church is alive.  I’ll take messy tables every day of the week,” I wrote back.  Karen, in her wisdom, quickly responded, “Life is messy.”

       Gosh if that isn’t true.  Life, in all its shapes and forms, is messy.  From birth to death and everything in between, life is messy, and while there are several different lessons we could draw from our Gospel lesson this morning, this week, my take is that Jesus knows all too well just how messy life can be.  The lesson begins with a classic question of theodicy.  Why do bad things happen?  More specifically, why do bad things happen to good people?  The Galileans whom Pilate had killed were offering their sacrifices to God.  How could God not have spared their lives?  The eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell, why them?  In our context, I can’t help but think about the 475 families whose homes saw significant damage during the December tornado.  Were they somehow deserving of the heartache and headache while two blocks away, I had internet back the next morning?  Jesus won’t even entertain the question.  Focusing on what others did or didn’t do to deserve the hardships in their lives is futile, Jesus says.  His response is simply a call to repentance lest we too should die unprepared.  If life is as fragile as it seems given the stories of the Galileans killed by Pilate and the 18 crushed by the tower of Siloam, then we would do well to get to work producing the fruit of repentance: showing signs of a life committed to the Kingdom of God rather than self-preservation.

       In typical Jesus’ fashion, he makes his point by way of a parable about something in nature.  This time, it is a fig tree that after three years of growth, has yet to produce fruit.  The landowner, growing tired with a tree that is at least two harvests behind schedule, calls on the gardener to cut it down so that it no longer wastes the good soil in which it was planted.  The gardener, the one who has been tending to this particular tree for three years, knows its potential.  The gardener can see that it needs conditions that are just a little bit better than the other trees around it, and so they ask the landowner for a stay of execution.  Give it one more year.  I’ll dig around it, give it plenty of manure, and hopefully next season it will produce fruit.  The gardener put their money on dirt, manure, and sweat to bring about fullness of life – albeit messy, messy life – to that fig tree.

       I learned a lot about this kind of messy life back in 2008.  The grass in south Alabama is not like the beautiful, lush lawns we have up here.  Zoysia and Centipede might grow in the sandy soil, but they are rough, ugly, and hard to maintain.  So, when my parents moved down there, into a brand-new house with a freshly sodded lawn, my dad wanted to everything he could to maintain it.  He asked around at the Ace Hardware and learned that the best fertilizer he could use on the garbage grass in his yard was turkey manure.  Early in the growing season, so like February in south Alabama, dad spread a few bags of turkey poop on his lawn, watered it per the instructions, and waited for it to do its work.  What the helpful folks at Ace failed to mention was that no matter the season down there, the sun is really, really hot.  Do you know what turkey manure does when it is met by the really hot sun?  It stinks.  It stinks to high heaven.  It makes you want to sell your house and move a thousand miles away; it smells so bad.  While you didn’t want anything to do with that yard through most of the spring, it was as lush and as green as a builders’ grade centipede lawn could be.

Life is messy, and the things we use to bring about abundant life are even messier.  When Jesus uses this parable of a fig tree surrounded by manure, he is affirming the messiness of life and giving us permission to live into the mess.  Like our parish restarting after COVID shutdown, each of us have, in our own lives, gone through fits and starts in our discipleship.  Sometimes, fruit is being produced with ease, but often, our own spiritual lives need to be tended to with great care.  Sometimes, with just a little advice of the helpful folks at ACE, we can make these adjustments on our own.  At other times, like the fig tree, we need someone outside of ourselves to roll up their sleeves, offer their time and talent, and be unafraid to get dirty.

That second route is, I think, what congregations are here for.  We are here to support one another.  By we, I don’t just mean the clergy.  Nor do I mean just the staff.  Nor do I just mean those who are seen as leaders.  It is the job of all of us to support one another in the messiness of life; to pray for each other; and to encourage one another.  It’s messy, this caring for each other thing, but it is the gift of community.  Sometimes, marker will leak through.  Sometimes, the turkey manure might try to stink us out of relationship, but as good gardeners in God’s Kingdom, we are committed to sticking it out in the hopes of producing fruit that endures and becoming the beloved community that Jesus came to build.  Life is messy, but thankfully, we have help in each other to carry us through.  Amen.