Listen to the sermon
Listen to the sermon
All Saints' Sunday November 1, 2015 | "Marked as Christ’s Own Forever" by The Rev. Gabriel LamazaresNovember 2, 2015
Listen to the sermon
October 25, 2015 22 Sunday After Pentecost Proper 25B | “What is the difference between a cry of pain that is also a cry of praise and a cry of pain that is pure despair?” by The Rev. Posey KrakowskyOctober 26, 2015
In his recent prose work, My Bright Abyss, Poet Christian Wyman asks this critical question. Deep into treatment for a serious and potentially fatal disease, Wyman examines his own faith from the perspective of one who could understandably have solid reasons for abandoning it. He continues:
“The cry of faith, even if it is a cry against God, moves towards God, has its meaning in God, as in the cries of Job. (…) A cry that seems to at once contain and release some energy that is not merely the self, that does not end at despair but ramifies, however darkly beyond it, is a metaphysical cry.
Many people have told me how much they were struck by another recent cry tinged with despair. When President Obama spoke in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Oregon, his voice was filled with palpable frustration. Obama stated that “our thoughts and prayers are not enough — they do not capture the heartache and grief and anger we should feel, and it does nothing to prevent this carnage from being inflicted someplace else in America.”
“Somehow,” he continued, “This has become routine.”
Each of these voices, Wyman and Obama, speak from their specific place, time and situation. Each has a particular pressure placed on them: for Wyman — it is the fundamental urge to survive; for Obama — the need to protect the people under his care. And each sounds a unique note of despair — despair born of a sense of helplessness against tides that cannot be held back. And yet — listening carefully to their words, we hear that they are not alone. Wyman and Obama are both speaking within the prophetic tradition — a continuum of voices stretching all the way back to the astonishing words we heard from Jeremiah this morning. Words of anguish in the face of deep and seemingly unsolvable crises. Words that recognize the frustration of the human condition, and yet reach beyond it to find the promise of a God that never abandons us.
Jeremiah, living in the 600s BCE, had every reason to despair. During his lifetime, he watched the little country of Judah pass through a brief moment of autonomy under the young reforming king Josiah straight through to the total destruction of Jerusalem and the horror of the Babylonian exile. Jeremiah saw it all, and he cried out against the injustices he observed. So scathing were his prophecies, that king Jehoiakim, (son of Josiah) burned them in a brazier as they were read to him. The king cut off pieces of the scroll and threw them into the flames with his own hand. Later, Jeremiah was tossed into a cistern and left to die, eventually rescued by friends before he starved to death.
Jeremiah does not limit his commentary to humanity — he also shouts at God with frustration -- why has he been chosen to speak and prophesy at a time when everything is going badly? Why does God allow him to be persecuted by those who hear him, especially when they know he is right?
And yet, despite his despair, within Jeremiah we find some of the most soaring prophecies of God’s promises to us — prophecies of God’s refusal to give us up to the devastation that surrounds us — despite all evidence to the contrary. Even as he watched Jerusalem be utterly destroyed, even as he saw all those he loved die or be carted off into exile, Jeremiah still spoke of the ingathering promise of God.
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. ⁹ With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back…
Such a glorious image - the promise of the return, the promise of the ingathering. God will bind up our wounds and bring us consolation. We will once again be in community.
What is the difference between a cry of pain that is also a cry of praise and a cry of pain that is pure despair?
As Wyman says, the cry of praise reaches beyond itself, asking for, begging for communion, even when it is unsure that the cry will be answered.
Jeremiah’s yearning is so strong — so firmly embedded in his consciousness, that it cannot be denied, no matter what he sees. He reminds us that God’s promise is to always be with us — that we are always in communion with God. Even when all seems lost, we are never alone.
Jeremiah’s trust is so deep that he goes on to tell us, just a few verses later, that we do not even have to do anything to earn this consolation, this gift of saving Grace. God has promised to do it for us -
³¹ The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
The cry of praise is the one which recognizes this communion — acknowledges this yearning within us, even in the face of chaos, loss and crisis. The cry of praise hopes that even when we feel besieged by doubt and uncertainty, our cry will be heard. Wyman writes: “… this is how you ascertain the truth of spiritual experience; it propels you back toward the world and other people, not simply more deeply within yourself.” We can see this same focus on communion in Obama’s assertion that prayer is not enough, because he speaks from his roots as a community organizer — a person who has a deep, abiding faith that change can happen when we reach out to others.
Jesus says: For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them. As Christians, we hear this message of communion most clearly from the cross — God so loved the world that God chose to share our human nature. God chose to live and die as one of us. When Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we recognize his deep yearning for connection. We also recognize his conviction that GOD WAS THERE TO HEAR WHAT HE HAD TO SAY. That searching, that restlessness within us, that desire for communion, is a fundamental part of our being. We are made in God’s image. God created us because God desired to be in communion, and God is there for us always, gathering us in. “With consolations,” Jeremiah tells us, “I will lead them back.” From Jeremiah to Wyman to Obama, the cry of praise will always be heard.
Because no matter where we are lost, we are never, truly alone.
On Thursday, I presided at the weekly School Eucharist, held every Thursday at 8:30am. In the sacristy beforehand, one fourth grader acolyte was asking questions about St. Luke. So, the 4th grader said, was Luke one of the apostles? Well, no. (Sometimes Luke is described as one of the 70 apostles that Jesus appoints (Lk.10:1ff) …but there is no evidence for that, and it is likely pious legend rather than historical fact). Was Luke then one of Jesus’ other friends? Not exactly. The fourth grader persisted: Did Luke ever even meet Jesus? No. The fourth grader was not impressed with St. Luke’s resume so far. So why is Luke so important then, if he wasn’t even around with Jesus? I tried to explain Luke’s significance. Because he is an evangelist; he shared what he knew about Jesus. Luke wrote a book about Jesus - one of the four gospels - that is in the Bible, I said. And he wrote a volume 2, the Book of Acts, which tells us about the very first churches. Imagine how much work that took, in days of pen and parchment? The fourth grader relented a little, and reconsidered Luke’s resume. (I think the pen and parchment was the clincher). He nodded and resumed his acolyte activities.
I remember as a child assuming that every New Testament author was a personal friend of Jesus. Otherwise, how come they would know enough about Jesus to write anything? But in fact, we know that mere proximity to Jesus did not automatically bestow understanding of Jesus or commitment to Jesus. Most people who knew Jesus personally did not choose to follow him (cf. Jn 6:66-67, where even some of the disciples fell away). Luke’s qualifications as an evangelist are based not on physical proximity, but rather on spiritual understanding and commitment.
The particular gift of Luke’s gospel is the emphasis on what today’s Collect calls the “love and healing power of Jesus”. We learn so much about the nature of Jesus’ love from Luke. Jesus goes especially to the poor and outsiders and shunned. To everyone who is in need of second or tenth chances (which is most of us, surely?). Without Luke, there is no Annunciation, no Magnificat (Lk. 1:39-56), there are no shepherds at Christmas, there is no parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk.15:11-32), no healing of the 10 lepers (Lk.17:11-19), no Good Samaritan (Lk.10:29-37), no Pharisee and the tax collector (Lk. 18:9-14), no Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31), or Mary and Martha and the one thing necessary (Lk.10:38-42) or inviting the poor who cannot repay you to your banquet (Lk. 14:7-14). Without Luke there is no road to Emmaus encounter where Jesus is recognized in the breaking of the bread (Lk. 24:13-35). In fact, if we subtract everything unique to Luke from the Scriptures, we lose a lot of the compassion of Jesus. And, without Luke, we wouldn’t know as much about Jesus’ hometown sermon at Nazareth that we hear today. Which sermon people love at first, but then they become so angry that they literally want to kill the messenger, because essentially Jesus is teaching against insider status and they are offended both personally and theologically.
So, why does any of this matter? After all, the gospel seems to matter less and less in our society. Research into generational trends shows that the Boomer generation and Gen X and the Millenials are less and less loyal to any denominational or institutional form of church. Research shows that younger folks keep the hearty questioning the fourth grader acolyte showed. Boomers and younger folks want to give their time and resources to a cause, not an institution. And the fact that churches are where you go to receive the sacraments doesn't hold enough pull for younger folks to come to church just for that, even if there is some residual curiosity - or even some belief - in sacramental grace.
Generations turn over and cultures change, and yet I do believe that churches and what churches try to do will always be essential. I believe this because Jesus is essential, and what churches do is hold a space open for Jesus in today’s world. If we reflect on why we are here, I don’t think the fundamentals change much.
Being Christian is about wanting to be near Jesus. That’s the reason we are here. It is as simple and as profound as that. We want to be near Jesus. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams recently wrote a powerful little book called Being Christian. It is about the shape of the Christian life, the spiritual breathing in and out of following Jesus. Williams describes what Christians do in baptism, Bible, Eucharist and prayer. That is what church is for. To be near Jesus in baptism, Bible, Eucharist and prayer. We are here with others who want to be near Jesus. And I hope that we may in some way already be inviting others to be near Jesus too. We are all God’s guests at this table. There is no insider status. And if we find that Jesus is essential to our life, we have all the raw material for following in Luke’s footsteps as evangelists in our own particular callings and work and relationships in daily life.
There is something else very important. In wanting to be near Jesus, we find ourselves going where Jesus goes. Jesus goes to places of need. And so, church has consequences for our life the rest of the week. We go with Jesus to places of need in others, as Luke understands so clearly. We also discover that within ourselves, we want Jesus’ company in visiting places of need in our own hearts. We discover that Jesus never tires of our company.
Everything else in our life as Christians is commentary on, and consequence of, this essential desire: to be near Jesus. We thank God today that we have a sanctuary named after our patron evangelist where we can come to be near Jesus in Word and Sacrament. And where we can gather strength, courage, and inspiration to go with Jesus to places of need in our suffering and love-starved world.
October 11, 2015 The Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost Proper 23B | "Investment Strategy" by The Rev. Gabriel LamazaresOctober 13, 2015
The parable of the rich young man has been a source of conviction and inspiration for many in the history of the church: Francis of Assisi and Ignatius Loyola are only two examples. In each case, the idealistic young man in question, having endured great disappointments and disillusionment with the pursuits of this life, is sitting in church and hears this story read as if it is directed at him. Francis and Ignatius both came from well-to-do families; they suffered no material deprivation in their youth. Each one heard this story as a call to discipleship, as an invitation to an adventure.
Sure, for every one young person who hears the call of this story and follows, there are dozens if not hundreds who don’t. It stands there as a weathered signpost at the edge of the road, pointing off into a land far from where he or she has grown up and far from the culture’s messages about desirable futures.
How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!
Yet, I think we would be misreading the story if we decided the moral of the story is that wealth is somehow inherently evil and must be gotten rid of in some fit of ritual cleansing. This is not what the story is saying.
Instead, Jesus is asking the rich young man to reconsider his investment strategy. Most of us, especially those with wealth who would like to keep it or grow it, decide what to do with our money with an eye towards our own needs and the needs of those we love today, as well as in the future. With it, we buy products and services not just for basic survival needs, but also for delight and for status and for peace of mind. We invest our money into reducing the hassle in our lives or increasing our comfort and sense of well-being. We invest our money into our children’s education and our shelter and transportation, the food that we eat and serve to our friends. The wisest among us save for a rainy day or give their money to others in various ways in order to make more money.
Yet even as we spend money in order to secure the things we think we and our loved ones need, all of these investments in self (or extensions of self) can anchor us in self-regard and self-protection. It is only at the end of life that some of us realize that we have missed the adventure entirely.
What Jesus is asking the rich man to consider is investing his wealth in “treasures in heaven,” that is, to consider that his possessions might be invested not primarily in the needs and desires of self, but in the needs of a larger world, in which the poor lack for basic needs--food, shelter, clothing, water, medicine. What if he invested his wealth into the well-being of people in poverty or people in trouble? What if his wealth (or my wealth) could produce not just a new iPhone every couple of years, but bring sight to blind people, life-saving medicine to those afflicted by eminently treatable diseases, a full stomach and a safe bed to those living on the margins of society or in our midst?
But what he’s asking this young man to risk is not just some muscular almsgiving, which is enjoined upon all of us who have heard God’s call to compassion. What Jesus is asking is conversion of life, to turn from what was already an ethically good life towards the adventure of discipleship, of following Jesus where he goes with his own two feet. The reinvestment of wealth out of his own hands and into God’s dream for the world also serves to free the young man from what keeps him in place, rather than on the move, led by the Spirit.
I don’t think any of us have trouble seeing how wealth can simultaneously free us and bind us. And I admit that it is difficult to see an alternative to the status quo. But as Jesus says, “With God, all things are possible.”
What comes to my mind when I think of this conversion of life, and the difficulty of doing it if we are committed to what we have, are the times in my life when I have made great changes and needed to deal with my possessions. I first felt like a camel trying to squeeze myself through the eye of a needle when I was sorting my affairs to move back to North Carolina to care for my mother and brother as they got sicker in the late 90s. I had lived in Seattle for years, building up a circle of friends, gathering household things. I really thought I might settle there for good.
But then my brother Tony had a heart attack that left him weak and short of breath. While he was in the hospital, we learned that he had developed cardiomyopathy, a kind of heart failure that can happen in advanced HIV disease. As I watched my 60-something diabetic mother with heart disease of her own try to care for him, I felt a strong call to change everything to spend the last few years of their lives with them. So I decided, in the space of a month, to move back.
But what to do with all these things? I did not want to take them all with me. I saw the narrow gate to a new life and felt as if I had to take all these things off in order to squeeze through the tiny passageway that would admit only me and what I could carry. So I gave away as much as I could. It wasn’t much, to be fair, but it was what I had.
What I needed was not to perform a grand gesture of generosity, what I needed was freedom to answer the mighty and life-giving call that pulled me out of myself.
I can only speak from my own experience. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I never lacked for a single thing after my change of life. And grace upon grace was added to me. Not only was I able to share the last few years of the lives of those I loved, I met my future husband and recovered my vocation. As hard as they were to let go of, I don’t miss any of the things I released. As Jesus said, I gained mothers, and brothers, and sisters, and homes.
This is just a story that reminds me of the challenge of passing through the narrow gate. I am no one’s hero. I did what I did for the people I loved most in the world, who themselves had given me so much. My story is just a finger pointing the way to the real journey, the path of discipleship, following Jesus’ call to follow him without encumbrance.
As each of us look at our own life’s journey and the call to conversion, we might ask ourselves: what keeps us weighed down, unable to answer the call to the adventure of discipleship? And how do we release it in order to undergo rebirth? This parable remains as a weathered signpost along the road, showing the way.
October 4, 2015 The Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost Proper 22B | "What's Love Got to Do With It? Divorce And Becoming A Little Child Of God" by The Rev. Emily Phillips LloydOctober 6, 2015
May I speak to you in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
It comes up every three years. We have a Sunday morning that pairs the loaded creation of woman and domination of earth text from Genesis with Jesus’s difficult interpretation of divorce. It is the elephant in the room. As the scholar and theologian Karoline Lewis writes, “Let's be honest. Few, if any, preachers out there will want to write a sermon on this Gospel text. There's just no way around its challenges and its heartache. And, it's one of those texts in the Bible that if read out loud, you must preach on it. Divorce has touched too many lives to leave a passage like this, especially when Jesus is talking, just hanging out there for all to hear.”
And she is right. It is a minefield. I seriously doubt that there is a single person in this room whose life has not been changed or at least affected by divorce. Whether we ourselves are divorce, our parents are divorced, or we have a dear friend that is divorced, it is a part of all of our lives. It is impossible to approach this text objectively. It carries with it the potential for shame and an intense heterosexist bias. Talking about marriage is hard and divorce is worse. What about folks who are single either by choice or not? What about folks who are grieving the loss of a partner? What about the countless number of people who have stayed in difficult and abusive relationship in response to teachings on this text? This is a text with a life of its own. Preaching it is hard and listening to it is hard. One wrong step and we inadvertently add to the pain. So let’s venture into this text together carefully and hopefully find what the gospel is supposed to reveal; good news for a world that is broken and in pain.
First of all we have to understand the context of this passage. The Pharisees are doing their best to try and test Jesus. They are trying to trick this young upstart prophet. The question they ask is not a fair question. The Pharisees here are not interested in honest discussion. Jesus’s response, while harsh to the ears of a modern audience, is actually expanding the cultural understanding of adultery. According to Professor David Lose, “We need to recognize that divorce in the first century was not at all the same social phenomenon that it is in the twenty-first. There were two schools of thought about divorce in Jesus' day -- both believed a man had a right to put away, dismiss, or divorce his wife. One school was fairly strict -- a man could do this only if his wife were unfaithful; the other was more lenient -- a man could do this if his wife displeased him in any number of ways, including, according to one rabbinic source, "burning her husband's toast." Either way, the consequences for the woman were devastating -- familial and public disgrace, potentially severe economic hardship, and limited future prospects for her and her children. So Jesus' words were likely intended not to set up a standard by which to judge and stigmatize but rather to protect women who were so much more vulnerable before the law then men.” (Lose, Working Preacher)
The Pharisees are pressing for an answer on the legal aspects of divorce and Jesus flips their question. Instead, he points to God’s intended order, which is that people would be in healthy relationships. He is speaking out more against the hard heartedness of people.
It is clear from his reaction to these divorce questions that Jesus believes that our relationships with each other, particularly in marriage, are an important part of our created being. He goes beyond the letter of the law to go back to God’s intended purpose for humanity- to be in loving relationship with each other.
Then, the passage shifts abruptly. Suddenly, we find Jesus surrounded by children. I believe in my heart that the juxtaposition of these two teaching was intentional. Jesus responds to the tough questions and probing of the Pharisees and critics by picking up a child. How perfect is that. In an instant, the true nature of Jesus’ ministry is revealed. Jesus does not see the world the way we see it. Jesus turns messages about shame and exclusion into a statement of love and inclusion. Jesus is, both in word and deed, taking care of those that no one else would support… the alien, the widow and the orphan. While the disciples are busy trying to get rid of the children, Jesus draws the children closer. That is a message of grace, if ever I have heard one. Jesus rejects the norms and the status quo. He does not see the children as a noisy disruption but rather as precious. He takes the children into his arms and blesses them. He reminds us all that we will not enter the kingdom of heaven as Pharisees or even disciples but rather as little children.
It is fascinating that not one word of what Jesus said to the children is recorded in scripture. We will never know exactly what he said that day but his actions speak loudly. He welcomed the little children. He did not just talk to them of God's love. He physically held them in that love. He blessed them with it. . Today’s gospel reading, while painful has a vital message of inclusion and protecting the vulnerable. It is about giving the marginalized (specifically women and children) a place at the table. And that is the good news of today’s difficult passage. Time and time again, God calls us into deeper and more complete relationships. God meets us with grace and pushes us to love and be loved more fully.
September 27, 2015 The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost Proper 21B | “Discovering Gratitude” The Rev. Gabriel LamazaresSeptember 28, 2015
It’s Stewardship Sunday, that Sunday in the year when we traditionally launch our stewardship campaign for the coming calendar year, to reflect on where we’ve been, where we are, and map out our commitments of time, money, and attention for the coming year.
Preachers on the Sunday complain that the lectionary is not always cooperative with this focus. I was tempted to be among them today! But the truth is that, in my heart of hearts, I am convinced that, understood holistically, every sermon is about stewardship. Let me explain.
Human beings began long ago to become aware of all the ways in which we receive from sources known and unknown and spend what we are given. All day long, I eat food that I did not grow or harvest or transport or even prepare. I walk on roads and sidewalks that I did not lay down and do not maintain with my own two hands. I live and work in buildings I did not build and that I do not own. I wear clothes that I did not spin or sew. I listen and am moved by music I did not make.
Even more fundamentally, I speak a language I learned from others, I read because someone taught me to read, I have rights because someone cared enough to struggle for them, I profess and endeavor to live a faith that I have received handed down from countless hands, known and unknown. Even my body is a legacy of others: my very cells and genetic material given to me by my parents, my growth and health in food and clean water and health care year after year after year. The sun continues to put forth unimaginable amounts of pure energy that keeps our planet alive for free. As we follow the thread, we begin to wonder about existence itself, and its graced presence rather than absence. We didn’t have to be here. Why us? Why now?
This radical interdependency, what philosophers call contingency, is not a temporary state, it is our permanent address. As followers of Jesus, we speak about this by saying that we are constantly dependent on the love of God, that everything we have received ultimately comes from God, that God is our origin and our destiny.
How are we to live then? How are we to spend the days and years, the hours of consciousness, the power of attention, the force of love, the calories and dollars and breaths and heartbeats, the steps and words and thoughts and minutes? Given how much we have received, how can we possibly repay?
The debt is absurdly huge, but once we discover gratitude, we must do something. That something is stewardship. Understanding how much we are given moment by moment, we are moved to give back, to give forward, to employ what we’ve been given in the light of the gratitude.
In the church, stewardship is one of our core spiritual practices, derived from our understanding of God and creation, fall and redemption, reckoning and destiny. It is the core of ethics: given what we know, what we believe, what we have experienced, what we hope for, how shall we live, that is, how shall we spend our time, money, effort, talent, attention, vision?
Of course, this contingency means that we’ve been born in a particular place, at a particular time in history, embedded in a particular culture, to a particular family. All of these will affect how we think about stewardship and giving. For instance, I am part of that age segment of Americans who culture analysts call Generation X. We are just now between about 33 and 53 years old, the smaller generation between the many Baby Boomers that preceded us and the Millennials who follow. The demographers say we are smaller because we were born in a time of social upheaval in the 60s and 70s. As we were being born, social movements like the civil rights movement and the women’s movement were reshaping the culture. Assassinations, riots, Vietnam, the Pill, and the legalization of abortion, Watergate, and the 70s oil crisis were the news when we were infants. No-fault divorce became possible in many jurisdictions and our parents divorced at much higher rates than in the past. And we also came to adulthood in a time of great change and threat: the AIDS epidemic shaped our dating lives, we watched the Cold War end seemingly from one day to the next, we grew up with cable TV and began using computers on a daily basis to do our work.
The culture mavens say that these experiences make us, on the whole, more cynical, less trusting of institutions, more pragmatic than idealistic. They say it may make us a bit snarky, that we don’t like to be categorized, that we are wary of attempts to pitch advertising messages at us. They say we don’t like to give for the maintenance of institutions, that we would rather give for tangible efforts, for programs and philanthropy we can see, hear, touch. That may be true, I suppose, if you think we can just be lumped like that(!).
Today’s readings urge us to avoid getting too proprietary about what God is doing in the world. In both the Gospel and the reading from Numbers, we are reminded that all of those who do God’s will or are enlivened by God’s living Spirit (whether they are ‘us’ or ‘them’) are part of God’s plan. We will never have the whole picture. That is an appealing message for Gen Xers: we know that God is working as much through the Church as through non-profit organizations and crowd-rise initiatives. That’s why we like to spread our giving around a bit.
But why, then, do I give to St. Luke’s? I give because I love who we are. I give because this community and our efforts to worship and serve have served as a haven of refuge for hundreds of people for more than a century. I am glad that St. Luke’s to be a beacon of God’s love during the AIDS epidemic and other crises and struggles. And I want to St. Luke’s to be here, healthy and nimble and effective, in the years and decades to come.
The amazing work of so many on the implementation of our strategic plan has done a great deal to secure the coming years. Our windfall and the long-term funding streams generated by our new property relationships will serve this parish for decades to come. But it helps to remember that the windfall is dedicated, as it should be, to catching up on deferred maintenance and making capital improvements in the near term, like building a community center, that will enable us to continue doing ministry in this place long into the future. Our day-to-day expenses are wisely still funded primarily by rental income and your pledges and donations, which represent about a quarter of our yearly operating budget.
But at the end of the day, this cynical Gen X-er gives because I have to do something to give thanks for all I have received and am receiving, moment by moment. I give because I will leave this world without any of these material things I glibly call my own, including my own body and breath, and I want some portion of all that I have been given for now to build a future that echoes and responds to and expresses God’s love for this sad, enraging, gorgeous, surprising, awe-inspiring world. And I especially want some portion of that stewarded bounty to build up the stones and beams and words and deeds of this beloved community, St. Luke in the Fields, by the grace of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Once we discover gratitude, how shall we live?
September 20, 2015 Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost | “The Teaspoon Brigade” The Rev. Caroline StaceySeptember 28, 2015
September 20, 2015 “The Teaspoon Brigade”: Proper 20, Year B
(Readings, RCL: Jeremiah 11:18-20; Psalm 54; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37)
Today we receive a glimpse into the personal ambitions of the disciples. It is a very human picture. They argue about who is “the greatest”. What does that mean? Who has done the most good works? Who is closest to Jesus? It might be that they are placing odds on each other (“Is Peter or James the greatest”?). But more likely, they each think they have a case for the highest honor themselves. I can almost hear them shsssssh-ing each other as Jesus walks up to them and asks what they have been arguing about. They are silent. They know that their argument has been embarrassingly small-minded. They are enmeshed in their own needs for recognition. And their reference point for “greatness” is individualistic and competitive.
Jesus offers a powerful illustration in trying to heal the disciples from their bondage to competition and addiction to comparison. Jesus draws a child into their circle. Jesus honors a child in a culture which did not honor children as we try to do. The least and last are first with God. Jesus upends the sting and shame of being “less than” in this world. Often this passage is interpreted as being about the importance of welcoming children into the center of our community. And yes, children are front and center in God’s concerns. It is essential for us at St. Luke’s to welcome children. We know that our children are not only the church of tomorrow; they are the church of today. And we also know that one day, all our well-being will be in their hands.
Yet there is more for us to reflect on here. I am sure I cannot be the only one to struggle with the usual interpretation of this text. There is this odd dynamic that can be set up in our faith life whereby we may think that if we make ourselves last and least, most the servant of all, most trusting and open to others, that is how we get to be first. But it is still about our ambition to be first! It's competitive servanthood, competitive humility. It is another form of works righteousness.
Have you seen the British comedy “Rev” about a vicar in inner-city London? There is an Archdeacon who is really…obnoxious! In one episode the Archdeacon is sitting in the back of a car reflecting on how humble he is. It is hilarious. “Yes”, he says to himself, as he sits in the back of his car having just visited a really depressed parish priest --- “yes”, thinks the Archdeacon: “I really do humility very well”.
We can see the irony here. But what about us?
One of my oldest American friends is a lay woman in a different denomination. Decades ago, when I was still in seminary, I was visiting her over Christmas break. Over lunch one day, I was talking about some theological issue we were learning about in seminary and trying to decide which point of view I held about whatever doctrine it was. I don’t even remember now. But I remember well what my truth-speaking friend said next: “You are preoccupied with where you’re at. You can’t be that way if you want to be in ministry. You have to be preoccupied with where others are at”. She nailed it. It’s not about whether we are first, last or in-between, more or less right. God puts the us first – the whole of humanity - first, in Jesus. That’s the important thing.
I wonder if Jesus takes the whole notion of human first and last, and where we’re ranked as individuals, and rubs it off the board. In bringing the child into the center of the circle, he undermines our ranking system. He talks about "first and last" because that is where the disciples are at and to surface our issue, all essentially to say - don't worry about how others are doing or about rating yourself. Our rankings have little meaning in God’s kingdom. Just get on with something useful. Grace covers the rest.
What could the disciples have spent their walk discussing?
“Who is the greatest” is not the greatest question! But the life of faith is all about questions…the biggest possible questions of meaning and service. These can feel overwhelming. It’s not surprising we want to make faith questions more manageable (“who’s doing the best?”). Take the refugee crisis. Who among us is not moved and overwhelmed by the sea of human need flowing north into Europe? I wonder if you are thinking as I am that maybe this is just a foretaste of what will happen once climate change really gets going. Huge blocks of people, millions and millions, will migrate to places that are still habitable, where there is enough water. Who doesn’t feel small and powerless and ineffective in the face of these realities? We ask: how can we possibly help?
The late folksinger and activist Pete Seeger spoke at a Diocesan clergy conference several years ago. He told us his parable of the "teaspoon brigades”, which I have shared once before but it bears re-telling. Imagine a big seesaw. Seeger says: One end of the seesaw is on the ground because it has a big basket half full of rocks in it [I think of that as the solid rock of privilege and comfort]. The other end of the seesaw is up in the air because it's got a basket one quarter full of sand. Some of us have teaspoons, says Seeger, and we are trying to fill it up. Most people are scoffing at us. They say, "People like you have been trying for thousands of years, but the sand is leaking out of that basket as fast as you are putting it in." Our answer is that we are getting more people with teaspoons every day. And we believe that one of these days or years -- who knows -- that basket of sand is going to be so full that you are going to see that whole seesaw going zoop! in the other direction. Then people are going to say, "How did it happen so suddenly?" And we answer, "Us and our little teaspoons over thousands of years."
We are wielding our teaspoons at St. Luke’s. Some of our teaspoons right now are: the contributions we make to the refugee relief fund of the Diocese. Collecting food and toiletries each week for those in need. The vestry’s donation towards the UN Gift Box exhibition at the Cathedral on human trafficking. Our Saturday outreach programs. Our Episcopal charities grant of $30,000 to the Diocese earlier this year for parish ministries throughout the diocese, which are happening right now. Many, many teaspoons, and they’re all important. Every teaspoon matters.
Jesus is “the greatest”. We are members of the teaspoon brigade.