The other Good Samaritan

The other Good Samaritan: Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2015

Friday January 24, 2015 Assumption College, Worcester

Sunday January 25, 2015 Union Baptist Church, New Bedford

 John 4: 1-42

Icon of St Photini

Icon of St Photini

It happens now every time I see him. I have a wonderful, kind, and wise colleague. We don’t see one another often, but every time I see him, he seems happy to see me. He opens his arms, and says “Laur….en, how good to be with you again!” Which is lovely, and kind and welcoming. But my name is not Lauren. It’s Laura, not Lauren. Every time. Every time he sees me, he calls me “Lauren.” It’s been going on for a few years now, and I confess I haven’t had the heart to correct him. And the longer it’s gone on, the harder it is for me to say, “that’s not my name.”

Sung:  Will you come and follow me
If I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know
And never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown,
Will you let my name be known,
Will you let my life be grown
In you and you in me?

(Verse 1: the Summons by John Bell)

Let us pray… Holy one who calls each of us by name, stir our hearts again this day. My Lord, I am bold to stand before your people and proclaim a holy word, so send your Spirit among us to give us the Word we need for the road ahead. I claim you as my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ, reverend clergy, I bring you blessings and greetings from the Massachusetts Council of Churches, a network of seventeen Orthodox and Protestant denominations, congregations and individual Christians from across Massachusetts convinced that what binds us together in Christ is stronger than anything that might divide us. I also come to you to prove that someone from Boston can find her way to Worcester/ New Bedford ! Our divisions in the church are not just denominational, but sometimes geographic! Our divisions are not just geographic or denominational, but racial too. There are whole denominations that exist because white Christians refused to worship with black Christians. In Boston, at the old African Meeting House, the freed black parishioners were only allowed to worship in the balcony. A black family tried to do what every other white parishioner had done and purchase a pew for their family. They found a pew in the balcony. Paid for their pew in the balcony. They came back the next Sunday and all the pews were gone from the balcony. For as many times as the Church has gathered as one, we have found ways to separate ourselves- separate men from women, separate white Christians from black Christians, separate Protestants from Roman Catholics, separate ourselves from God. It is good to be together in worship, a foretaste of the unity Christ promises his Church.

As good as it is to be here tonight, I confess that I wasn’t thrilled about the scripture passage this year for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (or the welcome letter from the WPCU team- written by four men). We finally get a Gospel story that focuses on the life and struggles of a woman as a follower of Christ and she goes totally unnamed, so unconcerned were our ancient forbearers in remembering her identity! The Gospel of John gives us this major, countercultural exchange that shouldn’t really happen between a Jew and a Samaritan, a man and a woman, a healing, wandering rabbi and a woman who must trudge up hill to just gather water for her home– and no one could bother to remember a sister’s name? And I confess, that this story from St John troubles me because of the way the Christian tradition has most often characterized this woman as a prostitute. If you want to be very Baptist, I’ll invite you to open up your Bibles with me for a close read of the text- so you can see that in verses 17-18 when Jesus asks her about her former husbands, we could see that there’s nothing in the text of the passage that points to her as a prostitute. We could see that Jesus does not say a word about repenting or speaking of sexual sin. As New Testament scholar and President of Lutheran Theological Seminar in Philadelphia, Rev. Dr. David Lose writes, “She very easily could have been widowed or have been abandoned or divorced. Five times would be heartbreaking, but not impossible.” We know that heartbreak can be that big, that often, that heartbreakingly sad. Or she could have been in a Leverite marriage, an ancient practice where “where a childless woman is married to her deceased husband’s brother in order to produce an heir, yet is not always technically considered the brother’s wife.” Dr. Lose again writes, “There are any number of ways, in fact, that one might imagine this woman’s story as tragic rather than scandalous.” But for centuries the Western Church has left her unnamed and besmirched as a prostitute.

And yet, look at the end of the passage, vs 39-42. Because of this woman’s powerful testimony, many people came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. She is most like John the Baptist, pointing towards the one who would break every barrier and re-connect a splintered people back to God. And no one could remember her name? For a very long time, the Church has thought of this unnamed, widowed woman who proclaims Jesus as the Messiah as scandalous and forgettable rather than tragic, prophetic, and bold.

And yet, as a Christian from the Reformed side of the family, I carry that strong sense that even when we struggle, or perhaps especially when we struggle with Scripture, God has something new to teach us.

When we think of Samaritans, most of us think of the Good Samaritan, the story along the Jericho road in the Gospel of Luke. That Samaritan goes unnamed, but he was deemed “Good.” And even in pop culture, the Good Samaritan is a story most people know and hold up as a model for ethical relationships and the answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” In Luke10, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, the man who stops along a dangerous road to care for a wounded stranger. The Good Samaritan brings him to an inn and leaves some money for the innkeeper to care for him. Christian tradition often makes a helpful distinction between acts of charity and acts of justice- charity is bandaging the wounds of the stranger, justice is challenging and working to change a broken system where so many people are getting hurt on the Jericho Road. When preaching on the Good Samaritan and the Vietnam War at Riverside Church in New York in 1967 Martin Luther King said,

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

The temptation of the Good Samaritan parable is to just give our money and let someone else do the messy work of being in relationship with the stranger, or those other people from whom we’ve been separated.

But this story, our story, in the Gospel of John today of the Samaritan woman asks more of us than just outsourcing our compassion and flinging a coin to a stranger. The scandalous, challenging good news of the Samaritan Woman at the well is this: God doesn’t just ask for our charity towards the stranger, God wants our intimacy as well. Jesus doesn’t just asked to be relieved of his thirst, but wants to know this woman’s life and struggles, to see and be seen, to know and be known. This woman at the well, this woman engaged in a back and forth with Jesus, and her preaching and witness to her village, she is our other Good Samaritan!

I take great comfort in the fact that we are already one in Christ. Despite centuries of division, denominational malaise and sometimes, active hostility towards one another, we who bear the name of Christ are all baptized into the same body. Like it or not, we are brothers and sisters in Christ. There is nothing you or I can do to change this. This is good news. The Church of Jesus Christ is one, already.

Now, we can fail to receive one another’s gifts. We can pretend like the other doesn’t exist, like the priest and the Levite who pass the wounded stranger on the Jericho road. We can treat our particularities as idols, and think our differences are more important than our commonalities. We can forget one another’s names. We can fail to live up to the unity that Jesus prayed for in John 17. We can refuse one another’s gifts. But for all who bear the name of Christ, we are already one. In my frustration over the western Church’s tradition of shaming and then forgetting our other Good Samaritan, I discovered a gift of our Orthodox sisters and brothers- they remembered and named our Good Samaritan woman, Photini.

The Antiochian tradition remembers St. Photini like this “She went and told her townspeople that she had met the Christ. For this, she is sometimes recognized as the first to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. She converted her five sisters (Sts. Anatole, Photo, Photis, Paraskeve, and Kyriake) and her two sons (Victor and Joses). They all became tireless evangelists for Christ. The apostles of Christ baptized her and gave her the name of Photini which means “the enlightened one.” She is remembered by the Church as a Holy Martyr and Equal to the Apostles.”

And for our Greek Orthodox brethren on St. Photine’s feast day on February 26 & following Pascha, they sing “The Samaritan Woman, having come to the well in faith, beheld You, the Water of Wisdom from which she drank plentifully and inherited the Heavenly Kingdom as one who is blessed forever.”

Church, I am so grateful for these Christians who remember and call out the name of Photine, because, to be intimately known requires that we know one another’s names. To be known to one another as Christ knows us requires that we actually know one another, on a first-name basis.

Maybe your name has been forgotten. Maybe someone forgot your family’s name at Ellis Island. Maybe your family name slipped into the sea somewhere in the Middle Passage or your name was changed without your consent on these shores. Maybe people perceive your name as hard to pronounce, like the Patriots tight end Michael Hoomanawanui and so people give you a nickname like H-man, since while we can learn a Russian name like Tchaikovsky but not a Polynesian name like Hoomanawanui? Maybe someone forgot your name as you walked down the street, as they shouted “Girl, why don’t you bring all that over here?” Maybe someone forgot your God-given name as someone shouts “Hey, Hey, Hey you?” Maybe you’ve been called so many other things than a beloved child of God that you have forgotten your own name too?

We need one another to remind us when we have forgotten our names.

Recently, I confessed to an older pastor that I had this colleague who gets my name wrong. She suggested that the next time I see him, after he calls me “Lauren,” that I gently put a hand on his arm and say, “Tom, my closest friends call me Laura.” I promise you that the next time I see Tom, I will tell him my name, so that he can truly know me and we can truly start to repair the divisions in the body of Christ between us. And Church, when you pass the peace, consider this: Tell that other person your name. Say “My name is Laura. The peace of Christ be with you.”

Sung: Lord, your summons echoes true
When you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you
And never be the same.
In your company I’ll go
Where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow
In you and you in me.

May you hear your name called, and follow the Messiah we call by the same name this night, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

The Bicyclist and the Bishop, from the Door Zone

by Rev. Laura Everett

Just the other day, I drove past the "Ghost Bike" for Kent Winberry, a cyclist and human being killed in Durhman NC. Click photo for his story.

Yesterday, I drove past the “Ghost Bike” for Kent Winberry, a cyclist and human being killed in Durhman NC. Click photo for his story.

In urban cycling, there is a section of the road called “the door zone.” If you ride your bike close to parked cars (but out of moving traffic), you are liable to get hit by a motorist opening a car door into you. Conversely, if you ride close to the moving traffic (but out of the way of parked car doors), you are likely to annoy the motorists in the flow of traffic, again risking your own safety.

I want you to hear what I think our conversations about the tragedy of Bishop Heather Cook killing cyclist Thomas Palermo look like from my vantage point in the door zone. I write to you as an urban cyclist, and a loving and invested observer of the Episcopal Church. Our conversations look self-involved.

A man has died. And we have spent the preponderance of our social media conversation talking not about Tom Palermo, but talking about protocols for episcopal elections, proper disclosure of information, and “what this means for the Church.” We say “it is a utter tragedy for all involved,” and then spend 97% of the conversation about the tragedy this is for the Church. Perhaps all this focus on Bishop Cook and the Church is a symptom of the family disease of alcoholism in our family system of the Church. It is good and right and far overdue that we have serious conversation about addiction and recovery in the Church, alcohol in the Church, and how we talk to one another in the Church. But if these are the only conversation we are having, we look and probably are, self-involved.

Each blog post I have read reacting to Bishop Cook’s accident and the arrest that followed has included at least one sentence calling for prayer for the Palermo family. Many blog posts have pointed to a fund for the Palermo children. These actions are right and good, but not enough. If these brief sentences are simply footnotes to “the real conversation,” the Church again looks self-involved, like the biggest tragedy here is a besmirching of an ecclesial reputation. This should be an introspective time, but not exclusively so. Church, if we spent even half as much time talking about Tom Palermo and his family and the cycling community, we would have a wider sense not only of “what this means for the Church” but what this means for the world beyond the Church, the world about which God is as much concerned as ours.

Get as curious about Tom Palermo’s life as we’ve been about Bishop Cook’s. Hear the anger of the cycling community and do not correct it. Simply hear the grief the cycling community at the death of a kind man who learned how to build bike frames and commuted to work daily by bike. Feel the daily anxiety of bike commuters. Palermo was killed on a stretch of wide road with bike lanes, a road considered very safe in North Baltimore; Use your pastoral imagination to wonder how unsafe other cyclists are feeling after his death. Hear the anger of cyclists who learned of Palermo being left to die at the scene of the crime. Imagine what perception of the institutional Church the cycling community has after this tragedy. Hear the disappointment of cyclists that, in the words of Bicycling magazine, “a supposedly moral pillar of the community” flees the scene of a dying man. Listen to the cyclists wondering if class, ecclesial, and white privilege factored into the time delay between the accident and the arrest.

Learn about the ritual tradition among cyclists of memorial “Ghost Bikes,” roadside shrines of white bikes placed at the site of a cyclist’s death. Visit a Ghost Bike memorial, stand with fear and trembling with your car keys and cell phone in your hand and vow before that memorial to the dead you will never drive distracted. Include prayers for the safety of vulnerable road users in your prayers of the people and prayer of confession for distracted drivers. Ask the cyclists in your parish how safe they feel on the road. Send a note of condolences to your local cycling advocacy group or bike shop. Advocate for safer road policies for cyclists.

Bishop Cook's windshield, photo from WBALTV

Bishop Cook’s windshield, photo from WBALTV

On the way out of my apartment, as I take out my bicycle each day, I pass a small icon of Madonna Del Ghisallo, the patron saint of cyclists. It’s dangerous out there on the road in the door zone, and not all vehicles are of the same weight. If I’m hit by a car while on my bicycle (as I was in 2007), odds are the bicycle and the cyclist will sustain far more damage than the car and driver. The larger vehicle bears more responsibility than the smaller, because they are more dangerous. As the Baltimore cycling advocacy group noted, a car is “a deadly weapon when wielded incorrectly.” For as much weight as we’ve given our thoughts on Bishop Cook, I ask you please, give as much consideration and conversation to what this all means for the Palermo family, the grieving cycling community, and your own responsibility as a motorist.

“The Futility of Prophets:” A Sermon on Isaiah 40 & Proclaiming that #BlackLivesMatter

2nd Sunday of Advent- December 7, 2014 at the First Church in Marlborough, Congregational

Text: Isaiah 40: 1-11

Note: I believe strongly that the most prophetic preaching happens with a congregation when you are in a trusting relationship. This sermon was preached at a church I had never visited before, and thus, I did not say as much as I might with a people I knew well. Even still, a parishioner got up in the middle of the sermon, said something about “not having to listen this” and walked out angrily. On the off chance he reads this, I welcome the opportunity to hear what you thought was so offensive you needed to leave. 

Opening (Sung):

photo-3 copy 2

Today I met Messiah at gingerbread making at http://www.giftstogive.org in New Bedford, an amazing non-profit dedicated to tackeling childhood property.

“Comfort, comfort now my people;

tell of peace!” So says our God.

This hymn was originally written in German in the mid-1600s in celebration of the feast day of John the Baptist. Johann Olearius, a Lutheran pastor from Halle, Germany, took the first five lines of Isaiah 40 and verse 34, and made them into hymn verses. He was the chief court preacher and private chaplain to the Duke of Sachsen-Weissenfels. Olearius wrote 302 hymns of his own for his first hymnal, including Comfort, Comfort O My People. But it took nearly 200 years for this hymn to be translated into English, by an Anglican lay woman no less. In 1863 in London, Catherine Winkworth published in her Chorale Book for England, which included her translation of Olearius’s German hymn. Winkworth was herself a pioneer in the rights of women for higher education, reforms she would not see in her own lifetime. In a newspaper article about her at the time a male theologian said, “She was a person of remarkable intellectual and social gifts, and very unusual attainments; but what specially distinguished her was her combination of rare ability and great knowledge with a certain tender and sympathetic refinement which constitutes the special charm of the true womanly character.” Winkworth would write, and organize, and reform, and strategize, but the people of her time were not yet ready to hear the prophetic call for equal education for women. “Comfort, Comfort O my people.” Let us pray…

Holy God, I am bold to stand before your people and proclaim a holy word. So make your Spirit known among us that we might hear the Word we need for our lives this day. Your Word is “immutable and irresistible;” We wait this Advent to hear. Amidst all the impermanence of this life, we claim you as our sure rock and our Redeemer. Amen. 

Here, in the second half of the book of Isaiah, an exiled and deeply flawed nation finally is offered redemption. If you’d like to follow along with me in your pew bibles, I am on page ______ in the 40th chapter of Isaiah, starting with the 1st verse. The forty prior chapters are rough- the people are rebelling, God is angry about how the people have broken covenant, treated their neighbors badly, Jerusalem has been taken captive by Babylon, and some of the people have been exiled. And it’s not just that Jerusalem messed up once, but 40 chapters of rebellion, decades and decades of defiance of God. Isaiah 1:15 describes the people of Judah as a nation with blood on its hands. The sin is communal; the whole nation is flawed. Jerusalem is a repeat offender: a “three-strikes” policy applied here would have put Jerusalem beyond redemption. But beginning at chapter 40, verse 1, the entire book shifts. Instead of judgment, in verse 2 God directs the heavenly council to “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term.” God declares mercy for a people who merited punishment. Gone is the deserved condemnation. Instead of punishment and anger, God speaks to the members of the heavenly council saying, “Comfort, O comfort my people.”

And why shall these hard-hearted people be offered return and redemption? Not because the nation has earned its redemption through hard labor. Judah is a repeat offender. If this were a parole hearing, Judah has not demonstrated that it has reformed its sinful ways. The nation is offered redemption not because of anything they’ve done to deserve it, but because of who God is. God is no longer punishing their wickedness but offering profligate, gratuitous, unmerited grace.

The people have not changed from their corrupt habits. But God seems intent to send a prophet to invite them back into relationship anyway. The voices in this text are a bit confusing. These verses, we think, are dialogue between God and some heavenly council with an individual prophet appointed to proclaim this good news to the people. Look at verse 6. A voice (possibly God) says, “Cry out!” Another voice says, “What shall I cry?” The second voice continues, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.” The prophet is pushing back at God- why should I cry out to these people who are like grass? Why should I cry out to these people who wither and fade? Why bother proclaiming good news to these unrepentant people?

It’s a logical question, really: why cry out to a people unwilling to hear? I understand the frustration of the prophet. So often, so much of what we do, even as we try to live according to the Gospel, seems to be futile.

Maybe what you do in your own life sometimes feels futile in these dark days of winter. Maybe it feels like your house will never be clean, you’ll never find a job, you’ll never have an interesting first date let alone a promising second date. Maybe it feels like you’ll never have a good relationship with your father-in-law, or your sister, or your boss, or your your child. Maybe it feels like you’ll never get out of debt, you’ll never get sober, you’ll never get right with God. Maybe it feels like you’ll never be given equal standing in this country because of your nation of origin, your economic status, your education, your gender, how you present, who you love, or how you speak or the color of your skin. Maybe your protests feel futile. Maybe your Facebook posts feel futile. Maybe your conversations feel futile. Maybe your prayers feel futile.

Last week brought the discordant confluence of the national holiday of Thanksgiving and the renewed national division around race and justice following the Ferguson verdict. Knowing how hard the holidays are to begin with, and grieving the divisions around race raw and exposed again in our country, a pastor friend of mine just south of Boston decided to hold a special service of lament. A time to grieve and pray, to gather with the Body of Christ even as we remain divided. The kind of pastoral innovation we are all striving for in these days. He opened up the sanctuary and waited. No one came. Not a single parishioner from his church, no family member, no neighbor, no deacon, no elder. He sat with his own grief in an empty sanctuary, alone.

At the Ferguson protest in Boston on Tuesday 11/25

At the Ferguson protest in Boston on Tuesday 11/25

Maybe you have been campaigning civil rights for all Americans for decades, calling out our nation with the blood of the civil rights martyrs on its hands, but you still see the fatal effects of racism of the past two weeks and feel worn. Maybe your eyes are just now adjusting to the constant fear people of color feel in this country. Maybe you saw 12-year-old Tamir Rice killed by police while playing outside his home and wonder about the safety of your own children playing outside. Maybe you work in law-enforcement and want the bad cops off the streets that sully the reputation of you and your colleagues striving for good community relations and justice. Maybe you heard Eric Garner say “I can’t breathe” eleven times as as a police officer puts him in a choke-hold and you heard our Savior Jesus Christ gasping for air on the cross, his lungs filling up with fluid as he is crucified in an act of state-sponsored violence.

Maybe street protests following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and John Crawford and Tamir Rice and Rumain Brisbon and a seeming unending litany of black men killed won’t change centuries of systemic racism and white privilege in this country. Maybe Catherine Winkworth showing that women hymn translators were just as competent as men did not prove St. Paul’s words that there is neither male nor female in the Body of Christ. There are days, long days, when our work feels futile. There are days, long days, when it feels like our exile from that hopeful vision of the kingdom of God will never end. There are days when we, the people are like grass, when our cry in the wilderness is met with complete silence, when we sit alone in our grief.

If we stand humbly in the tradition of the prophets, we cry out not because the people are ready to hear it. We cry out because God has given a Word of redemption and reconciliation.

The prophet cries out not because of the consistency of the people but because of the consistency of God. The Methodist reformer John Wesley put it this way, “God’s word is like himself, immutable and irresistible: and therefore as the mouth of the Lord, and not of man, hath spoken these things, so doubt not but they shall be fulfilled.”

[Optional Cut: You know that your donations to Toys for Tots and Our Father’s Table won’t end family homelessness, and yet we do it anyway. Our actions are like shoveling snow at the end of our driveway while the plows are still running. And yet, we act. We proclaim. We aim to show something of God’s love in unjust systems even if it feels futile because that’s who God is. We join the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness and we try to prepare the way of the Lord into this broken world.]

It does not matter if the people are ready to hear it. God is ready to proclaim reconciliation for a broken people. Advent is when we prepare ourselves as a people to receive this proclamation that our God is near. Advent is when we prepare ourselves as a people to receive Almighty God as a homeless infant born to unwed parents in an occupied state. The inconsistency of the people is less important than the consistency of God. As so in Advent, John the Baptist stands in the wilderness proclaiming “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mark 1:3).

And yet, sometimes our holy acts of futility do have an effect in bringing about a glimpse of the realm of God. During his 27 years of confinement in apartheid South Africa, Nelson Mandela treated his jailers with all the dignity he was denied. The warden Christo Brandt was a white Afrikaner tasked with watching over the political prisoner, the black South African Mandela. Christo Brandt was just 18 when he started working as a prison guard on Robbens Island. Even though he was unfairly imprisoned, even though he had every reason to be angry and defiant, the elder Nelson Mandela addressed his younger jailer as “Mr. Brandt.” Brandt began to call his prisoner, not by a dehumanizing prison number but “Mr. Mandela.” Brandt and Mandela ended up talking about their children, talking about their lives. Brandt came to understand why Mandela was organizing against the apartheid system. In an utterly dehumanizing prison system, Mandela defied the logic of oppression by seeing the humanity of his jailer and claiming his own humanity too. “When Mandela became president, he gave Brandt a job at the Capitol. When Brandt’s son was killed in a car accident, Mandela was the first to phone him. “When he phoned me, you could feel he was half part of my family,” said Brandt.” Mandela didn’t end apartheid by addressing his jailer with the respect he was denied. But in that small act of near futile defiance from a jail cell, he carved out a little more space for his own humanity and the in-breaking of the kingdom of God.

And so we proclaim and act even when it feels futile. We proclaim the radical love of God in Christ Jesus available to all. We cry out for a contrite and reconciled nation when all people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. We prophesy that #BlackLivesMatter even though it is not yet fully true. We plead with God to tear open the heavens and come down. We sing “Comfort those who sit in darkness, mourning under sorrow’s load.” We do not wait for the people to be ready, but rely on the readiness of God. Because the Advent promise of Isaiah and John the Baptist is this, we prepare the way for the Lord, because our God is coming to us- ready or not.

Remember & Give Thanks: A Sermon on Deut 8

Remember and Give Thanks: A Sermon on Deuteronomy 8:7-20

Second Congregational Church, Westfield MA Sunday November 23, 2014

Ecumenical Thanksgiving service with Central Baptist, First United Methodist, 2nd Congregational , Episcopal Church of the Atonement and the Ferst Interfaith Center at Westfield State University, Westfield

 

westfield

Decorative Gourd

“I may not here omite how, notwithstand all their great paines and industrie, and the great hops of a large cropp, the Lord seemed to blast, and take away the same, and to threaten further and more sore famine unto them, by a great drought which continued from the 3. weeke in May, till about the midle of July, without any raine, and with great heat (for the most parte), insomuch as the come begane to wither away, though it was set with fishe, the moysture wherof helped it much. Yet at length it begane to languish sore, and some of the drier grounds were partched like withered hay, part wherof was never recovered. Upon which they sett a parte a solemne day of humilliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervente prayer, in this great distrese. And he was pleased to give them a gracious and speedy answer, both to thier owne and the Indeans admiration, that lived amongest them. For all the morning, and greatest part of the day, it was clear weather and very hotte, and not a cloud or any signe of raine I to be seen, yet toward evening it begane to overcast, and shortly after to raine, with shuch sweete and gentle showers, as gave them cause of rejoyceing, and blesing God. It came, without either wind, or thunder, or any violence, and by degreese in that abundance, as that the earth was thorowly wete and soked therewith… Which did so apparently revive and quicken the decayed come and other fruits, as was wonderfull to see, and made the Indeans astonished to behold; and afterwards the Lord sent them shuch seasonable showers, with enterchange of faire warme weather, as, through his blessing, caused a fruitfull and liberall harvest, to their no small comforte and rejoycing. For which mercie (in time conveniente) they also sett aparte a day of thanksgiveing. ~ Governor William Bradford in History of Plymouth Plantation, 1606-1646

 

Westfield Clergy

Westfield Clergy

Let us pray…

If you know this, sing along with me.

“Ooooooh, the Lord’s been good to me/ and so I thank the Lord/ for giving me, the things I need/ the sun, the rain and the apple seed/ The Lord’s been good to me.”

Or maybe you were formed by Roman Catholic tradition and are used to saying “Bless us, O Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty. Through Christ, our Lord.”

Or maybe you are a little more Lutheran, and grew up saying “Come, Lord Jesus, be our Guest, and let these thy gifts to us be blessed. ”

Maybe you are a bit more Wesleyan and your grace goes something like this “Be present at our table Lord. Be here and everywhere adored. These mercies bless and grant that we, may feast in fellowship with Thee.”

Or do you do as my father learned at Boy Scout camp and shout “Good food, good meat, good God, let’s eat. ”

I’m not sure why we can’t seem to say grace over a meal without rhyming, but it’s here, in Deuteronomy 8, where we get the general tradition of saying a blessing over a meal. The tenth verse reads, “You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.”

In fact, this whole section from Deuteronomy is instruction about how to give thanks. We are deep into Moses’s farewell speech here on the edge of entering the Promised Land. 120-year-old Moses, the man has been wandering in the desert for a 1/3 of his life. It might be a bit long winded, maybe like your great uncle at the Thanksgiving table who keeps talking for a few minutes after the last person stopped paying attention, but it also seems like he’s entitled to it after 40 years in the desert.

And, oh, that land they are about to enter is glorious! Thick, lush, verdant ,with good things to eat. After all those years in the desert where the sand was constantly in your hair and between your toes, where the ground was “parched like withered hay,” and the land so dry that your skin cracked from the arid heat, the land of Canaan is “a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills” (Deut 8:7). Governor Bradford, in Plymouth Massachusetts in the summer of 1621, recounted how a great drought that threatened their crops and their very survival prompted a “solemn day of humiliation” to pray to God for relief and rain. When the rain came, “with shuch sweete and gentle showers, as gave them cause of rejoyceing, and blesing God” the Pilgrims and the Indians “also sett aparte a day of thanksgiveing.” In Plymouth, the land was restored and fruitful, like the promised landed for the Israelites.

 

And, oh! The good things to eat in the land! Moses keeps going, talking about all that will grow before them- “a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey.” After all those years of manna, manna, manna in the wilderness, the people will have a diverse menu! Grapes and figs, and pomegranates so heavy with seeds about to burst that they bend the branches down with their weight. These first fruits will be the first fruits that the Israelites bring to God in the festival of Shavuot. A friend told me the story of the Thanksgiving when her sister tried to simplify the meal. There were 9 people coming to dinner, there would be just 9 dishes. And each person would bring the dish that was most important to them. 9 people, 9 dishes, it would be plenty! They showed up on Thanksgiving afternoon to feast only to discover 9 dishes of mashed potatoes. Manna, manna, manna, all those years of nothing but manna in the wilderness. Next year, we’re making a chart and everyone is getting assigned a dish so we don’t end up with an entire meal of potatoes, potatoes, potatoes.

 

There is land fertile to grow in, food varied to eat, stones with which to build, hills to mine and so you give God thanks “You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.” (Deut 8:10).

 

But then, after verse 10, the monologue takes a turn. Moses starts warning the people. “Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God.” Remember, and do not forget. All that abundance and fruitfulness in the land of milk and honey gets really dangerous, really quick.

 

Verse 12 begins “When you have eaten your fill and have built find houses and lived in them, and when your herds and flock have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions.” This is the danger.

 

Moses goes on in verse 17 “Do not say to yourself, ‘my power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, fir it is he who gives you the power to get wealth…” The Jewish commentator Nogah Hareuveni writes “the arduous physical labor involved in clearing the forest land …in building terraces on the mountain slopes, in clearing, plowing and planting the terraced land — all these could lead the Israelite farmer to say in his heart, “my power and the might of my hand have made me successful.”

True thanksgiving is not merely listing off what you’ve got, a laundry lists of objects, and purchases, and acquisitions. In the Biblical sense, thanksgiving has two parts, remembering and giving thanks. Remember what is was like without, and give thanks for what God has provided. Moses, from the edge of the Promised Land, has the vantage point to see the danger ahead. You might have so much, you will live so contentedly that you will forget God. You will forget where it came from. You will fool yourselves into believing that you did this.

And for those of us who are comfortable, or comfortable enough, that’s the danger isn’t it? We rush through our prayers of thanksgiving, running one word into the next (fast) “God is great, God is good. Let us thank Him for our food,” We forget where it all came from. We get confused and think we did this. We confuse God’s blessings with our sense of self-sufficiency. We forget our family history of immigration and start cursing the newer immigrants who come to this good land looking for the same opportunities our ancestors did. We get confident that we pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps, forgetting all those that supported us along the way. …

In his commentary on this passage, the reformer John Wesley spoke of a “common profaneness” from those of us who become inured to the blessing of having sufficient food and drink before us. We expect food in the fridge and water out of the faucet and day after day when they are there, we forget to remember and give thanks to God.

That common profaneness caught me over the last few weeks. I’m so used to having a bed of my own to sleep in, a roof over my head, that I and many others were slow to react to the closing of the Long Island shelter in Boston that displaced again 700+ people without homes and those in addiction recovery programs. We who lived in homes had “eaten our fill and build fine homes and lived in them” and maybe even gave thanks for these blessings. But we failed to remember. We failed to remember that we too could be without, we too could be hungry and cold and worn. Maybe we didn’t say it out loud, but perhaps in the dark corners of our hearts lurked the sneaking suspicion that “my power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth” and that those who did not have such comfort were un-deserving or un-productive. That’s how easy it is to forget, to let the common profaneness of having enough every day slip you into a state where you forget how truly extraordinary it is to have a roof over your head and a meal upon your table. Moses is pretty clear that the way to avoid taking your blessings for granted is to remember. Remember and do not forget, says our God. Here in Westfield, you have remembered how hard it is to be a teenager, and even how much harder it must be to go to school when you have no stable place to study, to sleep, to eat. You have remembered and did not forget and you are preparing apartments high school students without a stable home at Our House. Remember and do not forget, for you too were once teenagers in a strange land.

Maybe this is why we tell the same stories every year at Thanksgiving:

  • Remember and do not forget how the drought threatened to starve us that first year in Plymouth Plantation.
  • Remember and do not forget the year we had Thanksgiving on plastic plates in nursing home with food from the Boston Market in Detroit MI, as my aunt was dying
  • Remember and do not forget the year that my cousin hid under the table the entire meal because there was cranberry chutney and not cranberry jelly
  • Remember and do not forget the year that the neighbor carved not into the turkey but into his finger and spent it in the emergency room, or the year that grandma was so tragically drunk again she fell with the candied yams, or the year that you thought your uncle would make it home from Iraq but did not.
  • Remember and do not forget all the things that we’ve gone through, and give thanks to God that we are alive to breath and eat and say a word of blessing this day.

Here is the invitation this Thanksgiving. When you sit down to the table, try to remember. Maybe you go around the table and tell a story of when you didn’t have enough. Maybe you tell of times when you were strangers in a strange land. Maybe all you do is sneak a breath before you pass the mashed potatoes, but remember and do not forget, the God who brought you out of the land of Egypt. Remember and do not forget, the God who blessed you with good food to eat and good land to grow it. Remember and do not forget the beloved of God who will be without food, without shelter, without a sense of God’s love as the nights grow colder. For the Lord our God has brought us out of Egypt. If this Thanksgiving, you eat your fill, remember and do not forget to bless the Lord. Aen.

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.