Digging Holes: A Sermon on the Parable of the Talents

Digging Holes: A Sermon on the Parable of the Talents

Sunday November 16, 2014, 23rd Sunday after Pentecost

St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Grafton MA

Matthew 25:14-30 

gala and bone

{before digging}

       This the parable of Gala the anxious puppy dog: In a town far away known as Boston, a girl and her dog moved into a home with the girl’s older sister. The dog named Gala was an anxious pet, but the owner didn’t know why or what came before. She was adopted from a shelter. When people saw her on the street, they’d ask “what is she?” but none of us really knew. Maybe a little terrier? A mutt, a sweet, anxious mutt. She ate her food too fast, as if afraid that other dogs would steal it from her. She wore her self out chasing the trains, as if she’d never get another chance to be outside. Most of all, she buried her bones. Any time someone would give her a bone, she hid it somewhere in the house.  I found a bone in the recycling bin. My sister found one in the bathtub hidden under a bath towel. We found bones in the garden under my blueberry bush and bones in the house wedged between the cushions of the couch.  When you gave Gala a bone, she would happily chew it for about 2 minutes, then something changed, like a light went off and she remembered that someone, somewhere, sometime soon might take it. And off she would go to dig a hole in anything she could find to bury her bone. Let us pray…

      This Parable is not an easy text. Your pastor is very wise to invite a guest preacher today! Wailing and gnashing of teeth is not a good sign. Whether this story is Good News depends a bit, I think, on how you approach the parable and who you think is playing what role.  This parable goes by many names. It depends on whom you ask. For generations it’s been known as “The Parable of the Talents.” Some more modern scholars have thought of this as “The Parable of the Righteous Slave.” 
     In this parable though, Jesus tells the story of a man going on a journey with the intention of returning. Matthew 25:14 reads, “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them.” We know the property ultimately belongs to the master. The slave entrusted with 5 talents, traded and made 5 more. The slave entrusted with 2 talents, made 2 more. But the third slave, in verse 19 “But the one who received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.” The first two are rewarded, the 3rd slave is berated by the master and cast into the darkness. 
      There’s a way in which this parable feels to me as much descriptive of 1st century Palestine as our current American economics where the rich get rich and the poor stay poor and the gap between increases exponentially. Income inequality in the US is at the widest gap between rich and poor since 1928. The standup comedian Louis C.K. tells this joke, which I’d play for you if not for few choice words that aren’t appropriate for Sunday morning sermons…http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0rSXjVuJVg

He says:

“You ever get so broke that the bank charges you money for not having enough money? I’m broke, man. Bank calls me up and says “ Hi. We’re calling to tell you you don’t have enough money.” I know. She said, “Sir, you have insufficient funds.” Whoa, that’s a good way to put it too, I agree with that! I find my funds to be grossly insufficient. Thanks for calling. Why are you mad at me? How is it something that’s hurting you? She said, “Sir you only have $20. You can’t just have $20.” They charged me $15, that’s how much it costs to have $20. 
 Louis CK goes on… 
“I was telling the joke in Orange County California before a rich audience all looking at me with their boat tans and their golf shirts and their penny loafers, They’re all looking at me like “Well, yeah. You were financially irresponsible, you have to pay the price.  Frankly, don’t see why you’re angry about it. The bank has the right to accrue a fee, clearly.”  That’s how different it is to be rich, than it is to be poor, because when you are rich the bank pays you for being rich. If you have a lot of money they give you money because you have a lot of money. You have so much money that we should give you some. Here! Take more money! Take the $15 bucks this broke guy used to have.”
           The 1st slave with 5 talents gains 5 more, and also gains the one talent from the 3rd slave. The rich get rich and the broke get broker. If this is the message of the parable, then the Master stands in for an exacting God who will judge us for what we have done with the talents entrusted to us. The parable is a reminder that what we have is not ultimately ours, but like each slave, we will have to account for the ways we spent or expanded the talents God entrusted to us. 
            Maybe you remember the 1984 David Mamet play or the 1992 film version Glengarry Glen Ross, a cutthroat parable of four real estate agents over two days trying to outsell each other. In the film, Alec Baldwin played Blake, brought in by the office owners to motivate the four real estate agents. In the film version, and again with fair amount of choice words that I won’t quote this morning, Blake tells the real estate agents how the economy of the office works
“… ’cause the good news is – you’re fired. The bad news is – you’ve got, all of you’ve got just one week to regain your jobs starting with tonight. Oh? Have I got your attention now? Good. “Cause we’re adding a little something to this month’s sales contest. As you all know first prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Anyone wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired. Get the picture? You laughing now?“
I would also like to declare at coffee hour after church that "coffee is for closers" and prevent anyone who didn't turn in their pledge card from having a cup. // (this is a joke)

I would also like to declare at coffee hour after church that “coffee is for closers” and prevent anyone who didn’t turn in their pledge card from having a cup. // (this is a joke) 

     We read the Matthew parable as Americans who are deeply immersed in a particular economic system. It’s hard to get outside of that. There are winners who get the Cadillac, and losers who get fired. There are servants who are welcomed into the joy of their master and slaves who get cast into outer darkness. There are investors who double their investment with credit default swaps and short sales and bundled assets, and there are those who hide their meager savings under their mattresses and fall further and further behind. Our distorted economy is so pervasive, our current economy has so clouded our eyes that it’s hard to read the Matthew parable in any other way than as confirmation of solid investment strategies and a systems where in order for there to be winners, there must be losers. 

        And yet, this is not the economy of Jesus who came to bring good news to the poor and set captives free. The economy of Jesus is a continuation and expansion of the Sabbath economics of the Hebrew prophets, continuing the prophetic declaration of the Jubilee year when debts are forgiven and the enslaved are set free. The economy of Jesus is one where all are fed, and clothed, and welcomed to the banquet table. 
       We need not have just one interpretation. Parables are designed to be expansive; they invite more interpretation, more meanings, more good news. The Collect from the Book of Common Prayer we prayed at the beginning of the service invites us “to hear [Scripture], read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.” This one takes some digestion. Perhaps another way to read this parable is to see the context of abundance and focus on the third slave. 
            It’s not immediately clear from the text alone how much money we are talking about here. What’s a talent anyway? For the ancients, a talent was first a unit of measure for commercial weights. In the Bible, a talent becomes a unit of value, and it’s this parable that gives us the English word “talent,” meaning gift or skill. But for the 1st century economy, a talent was an enormous amount. New Testament professor Carla Works writes, “A talent is equal to about 6,000 denarii. Since one denarius is a common laborer’s daily wage, a talent would be roughly equivalent to 20 years wages for the average worker. Five talents, the largest amount entrusted to any of the servants, is comparable to one hundred years worth of labor, an astronomical amount of money.” Even the slave who only receives one talent is entrusted with the equivalent of 20 years wages. The context of this story is abundance, not scarcity. To read this parable with the conviction of God’s abundance and Jesus’ then allows us, as author Ched Myers writes, to “read [the parable] as a cautionary tale of realism about the mercenary selfishness of the debt system.” 
            And therein lies the massive leap of faith for us: to live and work and rest and gather as if we live in the context of abundance and reject the “mercenary selfishness of the debt system.” Each of the servants has more than enough, way more than enough. With this parable, Jesus subverts the economics of self-preservation, of selfish gain, because there is enough, more than enough for all. In the context of abundance and Jesus’ subversion, the third slave becomes “the servant who refused to play the greedy master’s money-market games, (and) the hero who pays a high price for speaking truth to power (Matthew 25:24-30)—just as Jesus himself did.” 
      But we dig holes; we bury that which has been entrusted to us to share and enjoy. We get small and selfish, and put fences around our stuff and shout like toddlers “mine, mine, mine, mine, mine.” Our eyes are so clouded by our economic system that tells us there is not enough for everyone. But our faith and our tradition offer another way. There is enough if we share. There is enough if we do not compete with one another where some win Cadillacs and others lose their job. There is enough because God promises there is enough.  Your church knows that there is enough. You completed a capital campaign! There is more than enough. 
      But we still need to read cautionary tales of distorted economies and people digging holes to caution us from doing the same.  This is the parable of the anxious church in a town far, far away. They buried their congregation in a hole in the ground.  They took that mythical, hazy congregation from 1965 when all the Sunday school classrooms were full, the choir was bursting with each section full.  Back when the pastor was tall, straight, white, and male and 35 years old with 40 years of pastoral experience with a wife who wanted to lead the women’s luncheons and two children who adored Sunday School, and they buried it in the ground. They dug a hole so wide you could fit in the entire bell choir, the organ, the good silver and all those beloved hymnals that that other pastor tried to get rid of. They dug a hole so deep that you could fit all the pews that that other pastor tried to get rid of. They crammed all of what they remember of being the highpoints of 1965 into that hole. They buried their ideal church in a hole in the ground, forgetting that even at the peak of mainline Protestant membership in 1965, the kingdom of God was not quite at hand, not everyone was thriving. Civil rights protesters were being beaten in Selma, anti-war protests are drawing tens of thousands, the Vietnam war rages, Watts riots, people are dying along the India/Pakistan boarder, Hurricane Betsy kills 76 in New Orleans, women and people of color not fully human in the eyes of many.  But somehow, this distorted vision of the good old days that never really were, got thrown in the hole for safe-keeping. What will Jesus think of such perfectly preserved church that only people from 1965 want to attend, if he returned now? This treasure is not ours friends, none of it is ours. 
"Uh, no? I didn't go digging in your garden again. Why do you ask?"

“Uh, no? I didn’t go digging in your garden again. Why do you ask?”

We all dig holes. Our dog would rather hide the bone and forego enjoying it or sharing it, than risk the possibility that someone, somewhere, sometime might take it. She is so scared that she digs holes to bury her treasure. Shelter-dog syndrome, they called it. She was inadvertently trained to believe there’s never enough. It’s a condition of scarcity, but we serve a God who vows abundances. But it is hard! It is hard to believe that there is enough when you can’t pay off your car. It’s hard to believe there is enough when your hours are cut again, when you can’t afford the sports and activities fees for your kid at school, when you are worried you’ll never get out of debt, never own a home, never be able to retire. But there is enough for all.  Ched Myers wrote “Discipleship thus means forsaking the seductions and false securities of the debt system for a recommunitized economy of enough for everyone.” Everyone. Even you and me and other anxious people who dig holes and bury that which has been entrusted to us. There is enough. Amen. 

Remembering Mayor Tom Menino, urban theologian

Let us prayRemembering Mayor Tom Menino, urban theologian

Boston’s Mayor Tom Menino, now of blessed memory, was a religiously complex man. He grappled publicly with his tradition even as he was informed by it. He was a devout Roman Catholic who occasionally argued loudly and publicly with the leadership of his church. As the Washington Post recounted, “A Catholic in heavily Catholic Boston, Mr. Menino also drew the ire of traditionalists in the church for his support of same-sex marriage and abortion rights.”  His faith, like his public leadership, was gritty and practical. In 2005, at the Catholic Charities Christmas Dinner, Mayor Menino said, “what moves me about being a Christian is what Jesus taught us about being religious. He did not give priority to piety. He didn’t make holiness the big thing. And he did not tell us to go around talking up God, either.” There are many reasons to give thanks for Mayor Menino’s long and tenacious leadership in Boston. I want to reflect on Mayor Menino as a person of faith.

Vision of the beloved community

Though not always perfect or the fullness of what many hoped, Mayor Menino held strong to a vision of a unified Boston. In the days after the Boston Marathon bombing and despite a broken leg, Mayor Menino checked himself out of the hospital and attended our interfaith service. Shaky but defiant, he clung to the lectern and declared, “We are one Boston. No adversity, no challenge, nothing can tear down the resilience in the heart of this city and its people.”

In quieter days, Menino was a steady witness for a Boston where all residents thrived, clearly inspired by the vision of Matthew 25: 31-46. Again from his 2005 Catholic Charities speech, Menino said “What Jesus said, and what he showed with his life, was that the way to follow him was to take care of people. He told us in the Gospel of Matthew — the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the sick, and yes, the imprisoned.” He added, ‘How much clearer could the Lord have made it?”

In breaking with the teachings of his Roman Catholic tradition, the Mayor framed his support of same-sex marriage in terms of his commitment to social justice and unity. Menino said, “As mayor, you represent all the people, not just some of them. The gay community is part of the city, and I want to make sure the city works for them, just as it does for everyone else.”

Over his long service, Menino reached out to disparate communities in our city. The Boston Globe recalled, “reaching beyond his solid base, Mr. Menino courted disparate constituencies that other candidates ignored or paid too little heed, such as African-Americans, gays and lesbians, and conservatives in East Boston.” In a city of neighborhoods continually divided by race and class, Menino worked hard to build connections between us. In January 1994 at Faneuil Hall as part of his first State of the City address, Menino said, “If, 100 years from now, they look back at my election, I hope what they see is the beginning of a century of inclusive politics. Throughout my whole career I have tried to be an open door to people left out of the mainstream. As mayor, I intend to continue that.” Lord knows we have not yet achieved the vision of full unity in our city, but Mayor Menino laid a solid foundation for reconciliation in Boston.

Public Person of Faith (who laid off the political ‘God-Talk’)

Mayor Menino’s most public reflection on his own faith came at a controversial keynote address in 2005 at the Catholic Charities Christmas dinner. The Mayor said, “Tonight is a rare public event outside of my parish church in which it is appropriate for me to say quite simply — I believe in Jesus Christ,” from prepared text of his comments. But most often, Menino spoke of collective and civic values without explicitly theological language. To shepherd a religiously and culturally diverse city, Menino needed to inspire with a common language. Menino’s Christian faith was particular but his political speech was intentionally inclusive for a wider constituency.

Model of ecumenical and inter-religious flexibility

Mayor Menino was clear in his identity as a Roman Catholic Christian, but open to prayer and visitation with other Christians and other faiths. As Cardinal Sean O’Malley of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston said, “It was not uncommon for the Mayor to attend several church services on a given day, at our Catholic parishes and the churches and worship sites of our ecumenical and interfaith brethren with whom he had very close and supportive relationships.” Mayor Menino was formed by Roman Catholic liturgy and traditions, and yet he learned the patterns and practices of Boston’s Black churches, Hispanic charismatic congregations, mainline Protestants parishes, Orthodox Christians churches, Vietnamese Buddhist cultural centers, Jewish synagogues and Muslim mosques. He visited with us. He worshipped with us. He learned to be a guest in unfamiliar religious settings.  During Menino’s time as mayor, both the New England Holocaust Memorial and the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center were built.

A Pastor among the Flock

Like most good clergy, Mayor Menino knew to show up in a time of crisis; More impressive was his commitment to the grieving after the news trucks drove away. Yvonne Abraham wrote, “His greatness was in the follow-through, in countless quiet acts of kindness and shows of support, offered long after most of the city had moved on. ” Kim Odom, the mother of murdered 13 yr old Steven Odom, recalled Menino’s pastoral tenacity; “When she did not go to him for help, Menino went to her.” To be the beloved community, we must bear witness to the grief and suffering among us. Mayor Menino said, “It goes on and on and on. Odoms. All those folks. But I just did what I was supposed to do. Not to be melodramatic, but if you’re mayor, you should be there.”

Many commentators have noted the wildly impressive fact that Mayor Menino had personally met ~60% of Boston residents (not counting school children!). Menino knew that to change the city he needed to interact with the people directly, hear their cries and complaints. Would all our religious leaders shake so many hands! He attended “almost every wake, school play and retail ribbon-cutting he could find time for.” One of the first verbs in the the Boston Globe story of his passing is “shepherd.” Mayor Menino ‘shepherded’ Boston for decades, admittedly sometimes using his shepherd’s crook with a bit too much force. And yet, Menino was indeed a shepherd among the people, not governing from a distant remove. Pope Francis counseled pastors to “be shepherds with the smell of sheep.” As our Mayor and Shepherd, Menino was in our midst, constantly.

Mayor Menino, Urban Theologian

In popular theology, visions of heaven are full of baby angels, snow-white clouds, and rolling meadows. This may be comforting to some, but it’s scripturally inaccurate. The vision of heaven in the Book of Revelation is decidedly urban. The “new heaven and the new earth” of Revelation 21 is, in fact, a holy city. As a Bostonian, I take great comfort in this vision. God promises to dwell among the people in the city. Tears shall be wiped away. Death shall be no more. God does not flee the city for peace, but instead brings peace to the city. Tom Menino was a sinner and saint, like all of us. He was a pastor among his flock. He was dedicated to a heavenly vision of the city of Boston. I will be forever grateful for his commitment to unity in the city, pastoral care for the forgotten, and a peace among all God’s children. We did not get to the heavenly vision of Boston in his lifetime, but I pray his vision will guide all of us for the work ahead.

What claims ownership over our lives? A sermon on being imprinted

Aldersgate United Methodist Church, North Reading MA

Sunday October 19, 2014- 19th Sunday after Pentecost/Ordinary 29

On Being Imprinted

Matthew 22:15-22

It turns out that buying a couch justly is harder than I thought. All I wanted to do was purchase a simple couch. One of my housemates moved out, and took the couch with her. We thought about buying one on Craigslist, but then everyone got all squeamish about possible bed bugs since they’re not uncommon in upholstered furniture in the city. We looked for a second hand couch through friends, but all of their couches were too big to fit up the stairs to our second floor apartment. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money. But if I bought a cheap sofa, I would be benefiting from other humans paid sub-standard wages working in unsafe conditions make cheap sofas. And I’ve worked on toxic chemical policy long enough to be suspicious of the foam rubber, the toxic fabric treatments and treated woods. And then I missed the tax-free weekend for a better price, but I don’t really believe that tax-free weekend is good public policy. As much as I try to use my money in ways that are just, I am a hypocrite if I say I use money justly Every possible decision seemed morally compromised.. Either expensive and non-toxic and humanely produced or inexpensive and toxic and inhuman. And to think this long about a couch is ridiculous and a waste. It’s all so compromised and boring and utterly intractable.

All our structures are compromised. All our exchanges are tinged with injustice. It is really hard to make just decisions in a broken economic system. The gospel text from Matthew has Jesus showing those around him just how compromised everyone is within imperial economic systems.

It’s the Tuesday of Holy Week, in an occupied land. There’s talk of a Jewish uprising against the occupying Roman power. Jesus has come into Jerusalem in a triumph parade on Palm Sunday that looked more like a circus show and political farce than the royal entry of a savior. Yesterday, he was flipping the tables of the moneychangers in the temple. Tomorrow, he will be arrested. But today, the religious and political leaders are looking to entrap him, to hear him say something so scandalous that he can be arrested. They stand in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Two parties who want nothing to do with one another, two groups that are usually fighting against one another- the Pharisees and the Herodians team up to entrap Jesus. The Pharisees are the Jewish religious leaders who don’t like the Roman rule, but aren’t acting out like the Zealots. The Herodians are Jews who have teamed up with Rome. They find a common enemy in Jesus.

The start with flattery, before they pounce: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” There are other people hanging around listening, Jews from all over the occupied territories who have come into Jerusalem for the Passover. They push forward to hear. Like a zinger question on live tv during election season, this is good theatre.

It’s a trap. If Jesus says it’s lawful to pay the taxes to the Emperor, he angers the Pharisees and the crowd incensed over paying more taxes to an occupying power. If Jesus says it’s unlawful to pay the taxes to the Emperor, he angers the Herodians loyal to Rome. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

“Show me the coin used for the tax,” Jesus says. We translate the word as ‘tax’ here, but in the original Greek it’s κῆνσον or “census.” “Show me the coin used for the census.” Remember that line from the Christmas story? Mary and Joseph heading to Bethlehem because of the census, all the world shall be counted, but as all the people are being taxed by the occupying power. They have to go to their hometown because they didn’t have any land to tax. The census wasn’t just about counting people, it was about finding out how much money there was in the occupied territory and then extracting the money. People too poor to be taxed for their landholdings were called “Capite censi” or those counted by head. These are the lowest class people. The economic system is utterly corrupt that there are people taxed not for what they own or earn, but simply for being. The Pharisees and Herodians are asking Jesus if it’s lawful for the poorest to pay a tax simply for being. Say Yes, and the poor revolt. Say No, and the occupying power crushes you. This kinda question that will get you killed.

But Jesus turns the conversation around, “Show me the coin used for the census,” Jesus says in vs 19. It’s more than a children’s sermon object lesson. One of the Pharisees reaches into his pockets and flips Jesus a coin. (Flip to Rachel?) “Whose head is this?” The Emperor’s, they respond. Jesus asks. “And whose title?” The inscription reads “Ti[berivs] Caesar Divi Avg[vsti] F[ilivs] Avgvstvs” (“Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.” Divine Augustus

Standing in the Temple, the central and holiest place for Jewish religious life, the Pharisee tosses Jesus a Roman coin. Here’s the problem: Jews aren’t supposed to have objects with graven images, remember- it’s in the Ten Commandments! And especially in the ritually pure Temple! They’re stuck. They’re complicit. The Pharisees, the Herodians, they are all caught in the perverse economic system of imperial rule. No decision is a good one in this setting. With a coin in your pocket, everywhere you go, the Emperor goes with you. Every exchange you make, you reaffirm the power of the empire. And the emperor is claiming divinity? What do you pledge allegiance to? God or Empire?

This is how dangerous it is to confront the domination of money and empire in our lives. Jesus is talking about things bigger and more complex than whether or not to buy a couch on tax-free weekend.  After spending a week with this story, I’m less convinced that this is a passage about taxes and more convinced that this is about idolatry and the imperial power money has over our lives. How can you pledge allegiance to God when the empire is calling itself holy?

When I was in 6th grade, a new girl transferred into our middle school from Ohio. She seemed nice, pretty with long brown hair and bright blue eyes. She should have blended in easily with all the other kids trying blend in until we were an undifferentiated mass of beige. But she stood out. When we stood for the Pledge of Allegiance, placed our right hand over our heart and chanted in rhythm- “I pledge allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America…” Rebecca just stood there. Her hand didn’t move. Her lips didn’t move. She stood quietly, looking straight ahead. It took a full decade for me to realize that Rebecca was raised in a community of Mennonites, a tradition of Christians that rejected infant baptism, dating to the 16th century in Europe. Mennonites are so convicted by the Lordship of Christ, about God’s sovereignty over everything, that they do not pledge their allegiance to anyone or anything but God.

Most of us don’t go that far. We just go along with our coins in our pockets that proclaim “In God We trust,” and our hands over our heart. And in a verse that has confused the Church for millennia, Jesus says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” as if the world could be nicely sorted into two baskets: Caesar’s stuff over here and God’s stuff over here.

When Jesus asks, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” in verse 20, another way to translate that is “Whose image?” In Greek, the word is ikon-εἰκὼν . The coins are imprinted with the image of the emperor. Give the things with the Emperor’s image on them back to the Emperor. Icon, image. Same word as Genesis 1:27 where at the beginning of Creation humans are “made in the ikon of God.”

And what is made in the image of God?  Everything. Every human being. Everything imprinted with the image of God, indelibly imprinted with the image of God. You, you, you are the ikon of God. Whatever else has been stamped on you, you are forever imprinted with the image of God. What are the all-encompassing claims of ownership in our own lives? What demands our loyalty, our sacrifice, our allegiance? my calendar? my checkbook? my status? my nation? fear? Whatever demands that you pledge allegiance, whatever power and control the money in your pocket exerts, however your life has become ruled by money or lack of money, you are made in the image of God. Whatever else you have been imprinted with, you are indelibly imprinted with the image of God. In the middle of Jesus’s final week, when everything was on the line, when the temptation to trust powers and idols other than the God who shows him to the cross were at the highest, Jesus said it’s all God’s. All of this is God’s. Give Caesar his cut, fine. But Give God everything. Everything. God the toddler pointing around to all of creation and saying “mine, mine, mine, mine. All mine.”

The temptation is real to place our allegiance in other gods. But there is good news in this story. Whatever else you have been imprinted with, however strong a hold the empire has on your life as we live in broken economic systems, you and every one else in all Creation are indelibly imprinted with the image of God. May it be so for your this day. Amen.



Charge to the Pastor

photo-3Charge to the Pastor by the Rev. Laura Everett

Installation of Rev. Gregory Morisse as Senior Pastor

Plymouth Church in Framingham MA, United Church of Christ

Sunday October 19, 2014

“I have but one single charge to give you. One only, because it is first of all, and comprehends all. My brother, I charge you to be filled with Christ. Among this dear people, with the sentiments of the grandest Apostle, determine to know nothing but Jesus Christ. As you walk these streets, truly say, “I live, nevertheless Christ liveth in me.” As you stand in this sacred place with all boldness say to the people, “In the cross of Christ I glory.” Christ! My brother. Daily, hourly mediate upon Him. Begin every morning with Him, and let the evening dew find you where the morning glories left you. Study to know Christ- feed upon Him, breathe His spirit, digest His words, and be completely absorbed in Him. Be sure before you undertake anything that you are in Christ. Never open a book, nor speak a word, nor perform a duty, until you are sure that you are in Christ. Abide in Christ, and make His spirit and example your whole armor of life. I charge you to be completely filled with Christ, because then you will be perfectly equipped for your work.”

So charged the Rev. E. E. Lamb to the Rev Joel M. Seymour at his installation over the Congregational Church in Brooklfield, MA on October 7, 1873. Rev. Lamb was so convinced that this charge to the pastor was true that he recycled the text and gave the same exact charge to a different pastor again the next year to a Rev. Charles R. Seymour, at his installation over the North Church in Newburyport MA, on October 8, 1874.

My Brother Gregory, we stand in a long line of Congregational ministers in Massachusetts and ministers of the Gospel in every age who charge one another to faithfulness as they take on leadership for the Church. What you do here, in this place, is utterly predictable and totally unique, an ancient practice made new again and again. We inherit the same joys and perils. And to do this work well, to lead well: “I have but one singe charge to give you… my brother, I charge you to be filled with Christ.”

For here is the danger: You can get filled with other things. Other gods can creep in and become Lord of your life. Your calendar can become lord. Your full church program year can become lord. Your busyness and your strategies and your plans can become lord. You can lean on your own impressive understanding. You can be lured into believing that productivity is the same as faithfulness. And you, in particular, run the risk of being so productive and thorough in your ministerial duties that even Jesus Christ himself can’t get a meeting on your calendar until Feb 16, 2015 from 6:45- 7:15pm between the Governing Council meeting and Fall Fair planning team. Gregory, for you to lead well, you must allow yourself to be led by God. You must do what you need to do so that you are on the firm foundation, for all this is first Christ’s work. “On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand; All other ground is sinking sand.” I charge you to guard your time and energy and heart so that you may be filled with Christ.

Presbyterian pastor Euguene Peterson warns, “Before long we find that we are program directors in a flourishing business. We spend our time figuring out ways to attractively display god-products. We become skilled at pleasing the customers. Before we realize what has happened, the mystery and love and majesty of God, to say nothing of the tender and delicate subtleties of souls, are obliterated by the noise and frenzy of the religious marketplace.”(173) “I have but one singe charge to give you… my brother, I charge you to be filled with Christ.”

For some of us, to empty ourselves so that we might be filled with Christ is an unlearning. St Mary Oliver of Provincetown writes “I know a lot of fancy words. I tear them from my heart and my tongue. Then I pray.” To be filled with Christ, you may have to unlearn some things, tear some words from your tongue. I know your Plymouth Church Covenant boldly proclaims since 1701 that you will be “doers of the Word and not only hearers.” Which is all well and good and necessary in a world convinced the intuitional Church cannot bear the gregarious love of God, but guard yourselves that you are not moving so quickly do-ing that the Word of God cannot be heard in you as you wiz by to the next program. We live in a highly competitive state, in a town with lots of ambition, in a time when the Church is anxious, and that stew of anxiety prods us to do, do, do. Brother Gregory, I charge you “Never open a book, nor speak a word, nor perform any duty, until you are sure that you are in Christ.”

For us who pastor, when first we are in Christ, there is such joy and satisfaction in this work. Rev. Lamb again said in his charge: “In your chosen labors you will have nights, but he will give you glorious mornings; you will have frowning storms, but He will span them with rainbows; you will have thorns, but the blessed Husbandman will plant flowers between. Through all the drudgery and suffering of your work He will so dignify it, that you would not exchange this pulpit for imperial grandeurs.” This work is good and holy and glorious when we are set right. Brother, I charge you above all else, before any work or worship or program begins, be in Christ Jesus. The rest will sort itself out.

A blessing upon you this day, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God Mother of us all. Amen

Teaching Twitter skeptics, a template

#FirstTweetToday was an experiment that seemed to mostly work. I often teach “Intro to Social Media” workshops in Church settings. Today, with the Louisiana Interchurch Council Board, I experimented with teaching people how to tweet using a paper template. I figured that folks from a paper generation would be more comfortable drafting their #FirstTweet by hand and then could begin to imagine actually tweeting. It mostly worked. People got the hang of #hashtags and @handles. If you want to try  it in your own setting, here’s a template of 140 character Practice Tweet. If you use it, let me know how it goes!

Practice Tweet


On Studying Torah during War*

On Studying Torah during War*

Jerusalem street art

I am supposed to be listening studiously to a lecture about God and the righteous behavior of Job and Noah. But I can’t keep focused. My eyes won’t stay in my Bible. Pointed to ancient texts, I keep looking for “breaking news” on my computer screen. We are studying Torah during war.

Just before we arrived, the tragically constant smoldering between Israel and Palestine caught fire and spread. Christian leaders from across the United States, professors, deans, and Church executives, have spent the last 10 days at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem studying God and Judaism. The Christian Leadership Initiative invites Christian professionals to spend a year studying Judaism and the state of Israel with Jewish teachers. We have much to learn from one another, and the relationship between some American Christians and Jews has been seriously strained in recent years. I believe it an act of good will and continuing hope in our relationship that American Jewish Committee invited us, and that all 20 of us Christians came, maybe not knowing all of what we signed up for.

But it has been hard to study. Our first day introduction to the Shalom Hartman Institute included a visit to the bomb shelter in our building so we would know where to go should a Red Alert sound. And yet, we studied with the knowledge that in some places, when bombs fall, there are Palestinians and Israelis with no place to go.

Ideas that are abstract in our ancient texts draw uncomfortably near. We study and debate stories about the Israelites as a chosen people, inheritors of a land, even soldiers as are called up to defend the land. Late Thursday night, we learned of a ground invasion of Israeli forces into Gaza. And then next day we were to put on our “Shabbos best” to pray with gracious Shira Hadasha, an amazing”Orthodox, Feminist Congregation in Jerusalem” and greet the holy rest of Shabbat with joy. I found it easy to pray the Psalms with the congregation at Shira Hadasha, but there was no joy in me. I felt like an ungrateful guest to my hosts’s sacred tradition. Saying “Shabbat Shalom” (peaceful Sabbath) seemed like a lie when there was no peace in me or in this contested land.

On one hand, studying Torah during war is an utterly ridiculous thing to do. How self-indulgent to better myself with the safety of a secure shelter when others are struggling just to survive! How privileged to busy my hands with typing up Midrash notes while other hands not far away are bandaging up the innocent wounded!

On the other hand, studying Torah during war might be the most important thing we could be doing.  Again and again when considering the stalemate between Israel and Palestine, we heard how removed each side is from the other’s narratives. Israeli negotiator Tal Becker spoke to us about  the necessity of listening to the other’s narrative. When asked what concessions were needed, Becker felt that Palestinians need to come to terms with the reality of the Jewish connection to the land and the Jewish identity as a people with a right to a nation and not just as a religion. On the other side,
Becker felt that Israelis need to truly hear the Palestinian narrative of suffering and removal, and not correct it. By studying Torah, we Christians were stretching to learn a Jewish narrative, from Jews about the Jewish people. We are working to unlearn centuries of Christian supercessionist readings and take Jewish texts on their own terms.

For Jews, studying Torah is holy work. Studying Torah is worship of God. Studying Torah involves, even requires debate. I have “holy envy” for the Jewish rabbinic tradition that preserves contrary opinions on the very page of the Talmud. It is an honor, a prayerful thing to study Torah. As my eyes wander off the Torah and onto yet another news screen, I am pulled away again from this holy work.

I have no illusions that my prayers sent up from Jerusalem offer peacemaking magic or my Torah study changes nations. On its own, our study of Torah won’t do a thing to bring about peace between two traumatized people.  But even more so during war,  I am convinced that we must learn one another’s narratives from the inside. We may not ultimately believe these narratives, but we need to hear and understand them. We study Torah and learn the Jewish connection to this land and we listen to the Arab cab driver who stops the meter and drives us to the house from which his family was forcibly removed. It is a spiritual discipline to hear and sit with the grief.

I am a pilgrim to Jerusalem, a Christian coming to my holy city for the first time at the invitation of my Jewish colleagues during the holy month of Ramadan. Bishop Suheil Dawani, the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem said “All Christians must come here first and foremost as pilgrims…Pilgrims here do not bring decisions with them. They come here to seek prayerfully the decisions God wants them to make. And God will always surprise us. God has not finished with us or with our Church yet” (Bishop’s address, June 2008). I am doing my best to be here not with decisions or answers, but to listen.


* As of this writing , I haven’t left Jerusalem yet. Our group has been delayed in our departure due to the FAA travel ban out of Ben Gurion.  I’ve been stirred up and need time to settle before I fully understand this whole experience and what God wants me to learn from studying Torah during war. I think it will take years.  But I’m convinced that we need to share our wanderings and not just our destinations. So take these words as provisional, as a “living blog” like a “living Torah,” and grant that I may need to change my thoughts and words on this later. Also, I’m a new student of Judaism, and may have gotten some things wrong here, so I invite your correction and clarification. 

Consider the Sparrow: A sermon on fear & pain

Sunday June 22, 2013 Trinity Episcopal Church, Milford MA


sparrow tattoo by Darlene DiBona at Fat Ram’s Pumpkin Tattoos in Jamaica Plain: http://www.pumpkintattoo.com/darlene/

Matthew 10: 24-39

Even before his team had played a game, the head coach of the US Men’s Soccer team had gotten himself into trouble. Jurgen Klinsmann , a native of Germany, but the US Men’s coach was remarkably candid last week: “You have to be realistic. Every year we are getting stronger,” Klinsmann said. ” For us now talking about winning a World Cup, it is just not realistic. If it is American or not, you can correct me.” And correct him they did. The media jumped all over Klinsmann for his lack of hope, his lack of optimism, his failure to embrace an American ethos of grit and determination. Perhaps the strongest rebuke came from Landon Donovan, a major US player Klinsmann left off the World Cup team. Donovan said, “This will come as a surprise to nobody, but I don’t agree with Jurgen. As someone who’s been in that locker room, and has sat next to the players, we agree with the American Outlaws — ‘We believe that we will win.’ I think that’s the way Americans think. I think that’s the sentiment.” Klinsmann’s words were no accident, no slip up during the interview. Last December, he told the NY Times magazine, “We cannot win this World Cup, because we are not at that level yet. For us, we have to play the game of our lives seven times to win the tournament. Realistically, it is not possible.”

Jesus would have made a horrible soccer coach (or maybe he’d just be a bad American soccer coach). This passage today from the Gospel according to Matthew is essentially a pep talk to the disciples, a pre-game speech to his team. Chapter 10 begins with Jesus summoning the twelve disciples and giving them authority to cast out and heal. He directs them to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of heaven has drawn near. Jesus gets them ready for the game, but tells them there are no extras, no safety nets, no bag for your journey, no extra pair of sandals. And then it turns a bit darker. Klinsmann said to the press, “you have to be realistic.” And Jesus is realistic. He looks ahead, knowing the kinds of subversive, counter-cultural mission of the Gospel, and tells the disciples what to expect.

Jesus begins by telling the disciples that they will be maligned, as he has been maligned. Jesus tells them that there will be those who try to kill the body. Jesus says this mission will not bring peace but conflict. World’s. Worst. Pep-talk. You have to be realistic.

Can you imagine? Can you imagine if we said all the things that we fear are true that we don’t say? That maybe you’ll graduate, but you’ll be in debt and can’t find a job. That maybe you’ll find a job but you won’t be doing what you love, or you won’t be making enough money. Maybe you’ll fall in love, but one of you will die first or your marriage will end with infidelity. Maybe you’ll get married, but you’ll struggle to conceive, or you’ll get pregnant when you didn’t mean to. That children and family and friends will break your heart and disappoint you. That a son will be set against his father, “daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household” (Matthew 10:34). That people you love will make hurtful decisions and you’ll make hurtful decisions too. That people you love will get sick and die before you can get there to visit them and say all the things you meant to say a year ago. That one day, you’ll be the last one alive and all the names of your friends will be crossed out of your address book.

We don’t say these sorts of fearful things when we look ahead. But Jesus does, he points out the conflict and the grief that is to come. And he’s as direct and unflinching as a German soccer coach, saying “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth, I have not come to bring peace but a sword.”

Jesus warns of conflict ahead, conflict between fathers and sons, daughters and mothers, friends and foes. In my experience, when I get fearful, I get combative. When I’m worried that there isn’t enough, I get snippy with those around me. My colleague Courtney withdraws like a turtle into her shell when she gets afraid to avoid the coming conflict. Another colleague told me she gets “controlling and distracted and self blaming” when she’s afraid. We aren’t our best selves when we are afraid. We turn in. We seize up. We arm up. We run away. You know these responses, freeze or fight or flight, when we are afraid. When we are afraid, we do not live as the beloved children of God we are called to be.

These are hard words from Jesus to the disciples. And they are understandably afraid of what awaits them. Maybe Jesus was just having a bad day, and saying all sorts of cranky things after he woke up on the wrong side of the sleeping mat and there was no honey left for his tea that morning. But I’m more inclined to think that Jesus is being realistic- unflinchingly, painfully realistic.

He is preparing the disciples for his capture, humiliation, torture and death. He is preparing them for the possibility of a similar fate. Jesus tells the disciples of his own defamation, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.” And maybe, just maybe by naming their fears outloud, they can be released from their fears.

Three times in this short passage Jesus addresses their fear. In verse 26 “So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered; and nothing secret that will not become known.” In Verse 28 “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” In Verse 31 “So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Jesus’ hard words about the future are not a slip up, or a mistake. And his warnings are not without hope. The strange and glorious part, is that this hope, even in the face of real, hard, fearful words, comes in the form of a bird.

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father,” proclaim verse 32.

Why a sparrow? What’s so special about a sparrow that God would be so attentive? Well, it turns out, there’s nothing special about a sparrow. They are utterly common. Minnesota pastor Debbie Blue just wrote a book called “Consider the Birds: A Provocative guide to Birds of the Bible.” Sparrows were the chicken McNuggets of 1st century Palestine. As Blue describes, “sparrows were stripped of their feathers, threaded onto long strings, or jammed onto wooden skewers and laid out on trays a gray and lifeless to be sold in the ancient Middle Eastern marketplace as cheap food- two for a penny according to Matthew…They are ubiquitous… Field guides describe them as bland, dingy and dull, with songs that are monotonous and grating. The Egyptian hieroglyph based on the sparrow had no phonetic value. It was used in words to indicate small, narrow, or bad. In ancient Sumerian cuneiform writing, the sparrow was the symbol for ‘enemy.” (129).

A bird worth less than a penny, this is the symbol for all that God sees and knows. Blue sees God’s attentiveness to this disposable bird as a sign of “God’s profuse care.” Debbie Blue writes “God cares for what the world considers insignificant. This is all over the text: the weak and the poor, the widows, the broken. Jesus eats with the common people. Our eyes are so often on something with a little more prestige… We desperately don’t want to be common… We are hardly able to convince ourselves that God is unlike us in this. But the Scripture keeps pressing us to hear this: God loves what is ubiquitous. ” Even the sparrow. Even you. Even me. And all of the common, unremarkable, fearful and ordinary things in our lives. The profligate grace of God is so thorough-going, so complete, so all-encompassing that even a fallen sparrow is noticed, so that we don’t have to be afraid of going at it alone.

I had a pretty hard week- A week ago Sunday, one of my mentors died after a very short and aggressive cancer. At 53 and just coming into the prime of her academic career, it seemed especially cruel to have her dead so young. It was a haul to drive to Montreal for the funeral in the middle of the week and disrupted my full work schedule. People were cranky with me for not doing the things I said I would do, but couldn’t get done. But the promise is this: It’s not that we avoid the hard times or the pain of living in line with the Gospel, it’s that we do not go through this apart from God. Not one sparrow will fall to the ground apart from God. Maybe you had a hard week too. Maybe you’ve had a hard month, or a hard year. But not one single sparrow falls to the ground without God’s notice, and you, beloved are of more value than many sparrows.

It is hard to remember, hard to live without fear, hard to live with the assurance of God’s profuse care of even us. My friend has this beautiful tattoo of a sparrow on her arm. It’s her reminder of this promise from Matthew and of the promise of the gospel hymn “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.” I can “sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free. His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me.” It’s her reminder of Hamlet’s words to Horatio in Act 5, Scene 2:

“There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is ’t to leave betimes? Let be.”