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.

 

 

In God we mostly trust: A Sermon on Luke 16

Grace Church, Great Barrington

Sunday September 21, 2013

“In God we mostly trust.” Luke 16:1-13

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. 10“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” 

I want to try something a little different here- I hope you’ll grant me this liberty as your preacher this morning, seeing as your very wise pastor has scheduled me here for what is generally considered the most confusing parable in the Gospels. I’m a guest, and this is an experiment, so just go along with me. I want you to pull out your wallet and find a dollar bill.  I know, no one caries cash. If you can, find a paper bill and take it out. If you can’t find a bill, grab a credit card or a coin. My work is to preach. Your work is to hold onto that bill for the entire sermon. That’s all. Now, what does that bill proclaim? I know you’re Episcopalians, but pretend you are Baptists and you can talk back to me in a sermon. In God we trust. May it be so.

Let us pray….

This is a sermon about money which will NOT include an ask for money. Seriously. We have a dangerously bad habit in church of only talking about money when we want some more of it. We know that Jesus talks a lot about wealth and poverty, taxes and titles, debts and debtors- but we mostly talk about money during the liturgical season known as Stewardship.  In the Gospel of Luke, the parables before this are the lost coin and the prodigal son.  The parable after this is Lazarus and the rich man. We are smack in the middle of an extended set of stories by Jesus about money and our relationship to it. (are you still holding onto that bill?)

And what can only be considered a work of genius by your pastor, I am here to explain to you a passage that just about everyone acknowledges is miserably complicated and universally dreaded in the 3 year rotation of scripture known as the Revised Common Lectionary. One commentator said that even Luke seems unsure what to do with this story. The theologian Rudolph Bultmann called this parable “a problem child.”  First, it’s not entirely clear what is going on: Why is the money manager fired? Are the charges against him true? When the manager goes to cut the debt of those who owe the rich man money, is this an act of wisdom, kindness or blazing self-interest?  Why are we to make friends with the use of dishonest wealth?  What if you gave that dollar bill in your hand to the person behind you- is that what Jesus wants?

We struggle to follow what’s going on in this parable, then we ask WHY Jesus is telling this story! It seems like the manager only reduces the bills of those who owe money so that the manager will have some people to stay with when he gets fired. Is Jesus praising this self-preservation? I don’t have the answers for much most of these questions, but let me add this: Don’t force this to be a perfect overlay faithfulness to God.  Parables don’t have to explain everything; They can teach us something without teaching us everything. And Luke in particular loves a good complex story where the social order is turned upside down. If the most this parable can teach us is that our relationship with money, God and God’s people is wicked complicated, than I think we are being faithful to the text and honest about how confusing this story is set in an economy and social context entirely different from our own.

The most familiar line comes at the end at verse 13  “13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Both demand allegiance. Money exerts power over us. When we have too little, we struggle to feel secure.  When we lose it, we feel adrift. When we have much, we think about it too. That dollar bill in your hand seems to exert power over us, to squeeze tighter, to pay attention. Money demands our focus; Money demands our attention; Money demands our time. We are told again and again, we can’t just let money sit there, squirreled away in a bank account, we have to manage it.  We all become money managers. Money has to be moved, invested, insured, split, taxed, counted, accounted, strategized, pre-paid, banked, borrowed, leveraged, loaned, most of all, increased.  We are like the money manager, moving money that is ultimately not ours, with the illusion of control. Money and the lack of money takes us space in our heads, in our calendars, in our hearts. You know the anxiety of not knowing if you’ll have enough to retire, or send your kid to college, or pay the rent or buy your medicine. You know the anxiety of wondering if you can afford to repair the church building. You know how much space in our minds money occupies. You know that as a nation we act like there is no such thing as enough.  As Americans, this is one of our particular spiritual ailments. Are you still holding onto that bill? Did you start making a list of the bills you still need to pay or the things you need to buy? And when we are thinking of money that demands such attention and commands such fidelity, we are not thinking of God.

In God we may proclaim trust, but in our money we invest. Our money did not always proclaim our fidelity. Our national motto was almost something different entirely on that dollar bill you hold.  In the early 1860’s, in the midst of the religious turn during the Civil War, Americans started to write to the Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase. The first letter came from Rev. M. R. Watkins, a “Minister of the Gospel from Ridleyville, PA, ” asking for the words “God, Liberty, Law” to be placed on our currency, saying “This would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism. This would place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed. From my hearth I have felt our national shame in disowning God as not the least of our present national disasters.”   Secretary Chase had his director of the Mint in Philadelphia James Pollock respond. Pollock wrote, “Dear Sir: No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins. You will cause a device to be prepared without unnecessary delay with a motto expressing in the fewest and tersest words possible this national recognition.” And so we went about trying to craft a national motto.  Pollock proposed “OUR COUNTRY; OUR GOD or GOD, OUR TRUST.” We’ve always had this American impulse to claim Our God, Our Country. To stamp our name and ensure it is ours. And that we would do so on our money simply points to the endless complexity of our complex relationship with God and money. “In a time of immense national chaos, IN GOD WE TRUST first appeared on the 1864 two-cent coin. And in a time on immense national anxiety during the cold war and the state affirmed atheism of USSR, Eisenhower signed the  1956 joint resolution declaring “In God We trust” our national motto and printing it on our paper bills where it’s been ever since.  We may claim our trust in God with every dollar we spend in America, but  our actions as a country betray this trust. We now live with the income inequality between the rich and the poor at the widest point since 1928,The Economist reports that “The most unequal country in the rich world is thus becoming even more so.”  For all our proclamations on our currency, we seem way more interested in worshipping the almighty dollar instead.

After all the complex maneuvering by the money manager, we get the line in verse 8. “8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly;” The master, or in Greek “Kurios” or Lord shows up again in the story and affirms the money manager lessening the debt of the people.  Yes, it may be self-serving, but the money manager is lessening the debts of the people. Scripture is pretty consistent; releasing people from debt is a good and holy thing. And for all of the complexity in understanding this parable, this much is clear: the money manager’s future depends upon the people ‘beneath’ him. Our future as “One nation under God” depends on the people ‘beneath’ us. This obscene gap in income inequality matters not just because we are now letting people in the richest nation in the world go hungry while the House of Representatives cuts food stamps, but because ultimately, our sustainability, our economy, and yes our salvation, depends upon those ‘beneath’ us. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Proclaim release to the captive, proclaim the year of jubilee. You cannot serve God and Wealth. Even as we grip those dollar bills in our hands tighter and tighter as our own anxiety grows and grows, the economy of God upends all of our of our presumptions.

gideon's gardenOn our best days, at our most holy, Church is the place where the screwed up simultaneous over and under-valuing of money in our world is set right. There have been times in the Church’s history, when units of measure were not standardized that the Church was the trusted authority to proclaim weights and measures. This is the place were we calculate true worth. God’s economy is different from ours. Grace is not cheap but abundant, simultaneously free and precious. But in very really and tangible ways, at our best Church aims to set right our relationships with money in ways that are healthy and holy. I see you doing this. You are growing precious food at Gideon’s Garden and giving it to people who could not afford locally sourced, sustainably grown, organic baby spinach greens. The first fruits of creation are being given to God’s hungry people. You should be so proud. This is an act of setting our relationship right with God and wealth. Monastic communities try this, where all things are held in common. Shoot, even Berkshire county tries this with the local currency the Berkshares! Church is where we try, try, try to taste the foretaste of that new economy. In the first reading today, you heard Jeremiah mourn “for the hurt of my poor people I am hurt” and wonder “is there no balm in Gilead?” In God’s economy, we declare “there is a balm in Gilead.” You are modeling so much of this different way of being in relation to money. I wonder what places in this church God is asking you to trust him more with your money, or his money or this money that you are borrowing.My hope is this: when you pull out that dollar bill, a credit card, your Paypal account, I want you to proclaim “In God, I trust. This money, I borrow.” Will you say it with me? “In God I trust, this money I borrow.” We cannot raise our arms in praise if we are clinging to the money in our hands. We cannot serve God and wealth. In God may we trust this day and in the days ahead. Amen.

More than “Boston Strong”

Trinitarian Congregational Church, Concord MA

Sunday April 28, 2013

Image

Chalk drawings on Mt. Auburn Ave, Watertown

31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:31-35

 

After it was all done, with feet back on land, her body temperature slowly rising again, she said “It was one of those rare occasions in life when things turn out better than you ever imagined.” On August 7, 1987, a 30-year-old woman who learned how to swim just up the road in Manchester New Hampshire, began in Alaska and swam across the Bering Strait. For two hours and six minutes, in water that started at 43F and dropped to 38, Lynne Cox swam across the US-Soviet Border for the first time in 48 years. “Experts believe she succeeded because of a combination of determination and her own body fat which insulated her like a seal.“ tactfully opined the BBC.  Swimmers may be unlikely diplomats, but Lynne’s symbolic act cut through the silent glaring of the Cold War. At a signing of a nuclear weapons treaty later that year, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev praised Lynne, saying “She proved by her courage how closely to each other our people live.” Just 2.7 miles. Just that close.  Let us pray…

If you have been to church even once before today, chances are you’ve heard the gospel lesson from John. This is the new commandment, that you love one another. Except that there’s nothing terribly new about it. Love one another. Got it. Heard it in the Old Testament, Heard it in the New Testament.  Not throwing stones at neighbors. Letting those newcomers sit in the good seats in my pew on Christmas Eve, no less. Love one another. This is children’s sermon stuff. Love one another. Let’s sign up for coffee hour duty and call it a day here. We’ve got things to do.

Except, that the weight of this passage is lost by taking it out of the full chapter. We separate ourselves from the strength of this passage. The Lectionary committee did what is so tempting to do, cutting and cropping and segmenting our lives. These five verses are placed right in the middle of denial and betrayal.  Look at Chapter 13. Before these verses in 13:21, Jesus says to his disciples, “One of you will betray me.”  After these verse, Jesus tells Simon Peter “Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”  This love Jesus names in verse 34 is spoken into betrayal and denial by those closest to him.  You who will deny me, you who will betray me: Love one another. It’s a love not contingent on the disciples’ good behavior, but on Christ’s Love. Love one another as I have loved you- without reservation, without condition, without consideration that you will return this love.

And again, the passage turns. In verse 35, Jesus says “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The love is not just for the disciples, but for a public witness to the world. Jesus expects the community of his followers to behave in such a thoroughly different way that people will KNOW that “you are my disciples.” It’s public. It’s perceptible. This love is fierce, and it’s visible.

A friend of mine works in elder services on the South Shore of Massachusetts. She told me once of a man in his 80’s who had kept his loving relationship with another man, his ‘housemate’ a secret for years. When his companion died, there was no community to hold his grief. He drove around and around the South Shore looking for a church to visit, a sanctuary to sit, to pray, to sing, maybe to feel another human’s touch even if just in the passing of the peace. He looked for a church that might be friendly, a church that would not betray his love. He drove past church sign after church sign, none signaling a safe harbor. For love to be visible, it must be recognizable. For a grieving man driving alone in a 1984 Cutlass Ciera who had not walked into a church in half a century, the words “Open and Affirming” meant nothing. He was looking for a visible sign, perhaps a recognizable flag, that the love of God could be extended, even to him.

Jesus is pressing his followers for fierce, visible, explicit love, even in fractured community. My now deceased maternal grandmother had a habit of sending newspaper clippings through the mail, in repurposed envelopes. No note, no explanation. The message was implied. I think I was supposed to infer something like “I read this article and it made me think of you. Love Gran.” Jesus is asking the disciples to send those newspaper clippings and actually write out the implied message. The command is to make a gesture so identifiable that others immediately recognize the love that shortens the distance between us fractured humans- a swim across the Bering Strait to an enemy’s shore, a flag of inclusion, a handwritten note that actually says “love Gran.”  These gestures of visible love aren’t just for the benefit of a closed community, but to show what God is like to the world beyond the community.

Perhaps more than any other time in recent history, our state has been visible these past two weeks. We prepared for a Patriot’s Day weekend when the whole world would watch. Dean Jep Streit of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Boston (who ran the marathon many times) once remarked to a friend that he loved the Boston Marathon because it was a world-class athletic event that anyone, with some grit and preparation, could participate in. The Boston Marathon is high on excellence, broad on participation- which on our best days we aim for in Church too. And then, we became visible in ways entirely not chosen by us. In the midst of all the pain and anxiety of the past two weeks, we have seen fierce, visible signs of love for one another.

We have seen the same hospitals proving medical care for the victims and the perpetrators of violence.  When their churches were still a crime scene, Old South worshipping at Church of the Covenant, Trinity Copley at Temple Israel.  When a Palestinian Muslim woman was knocked down in Malden and young men who look “foreign” on the MBTA were stared at too long, many rabbis and pastors attending Friday prayers this week at the mosques in Roxbury and Cambridge. When he could see police with machine guns from his parsonage window, Fr. Arakel went across the street to St. James’ Armenian Orthodox Church in Watertown to let the police search the sanctuary, make them coffee and let the first responders charge their cell phones to text their own worried families. We have seen powerful signs of fierce love that rebuilds our fractured community.

And yet, we have more work to do.  You know this. Even with a suspect arrested, we are far from done attending to this experience. As Christians, we have an obligation to our common, public life to offer visible signs that acknowledge our pain, not merely mask it. Even if we want desperately to be “Boston Strong,” a win by Red Sox’s can’t save us from our grief.  “Boston  Strong” is not enough to will our way to wholeness. Resiliency is not something we can buy. Sam Adams Brewers have put in a trademark application for a “Boston Strong” Beer. Already 8 other companies have trademark applications in for “Boston Strong;” You can buy “Boston Strong” hats, tee-shirts, bumper-stickers, tattoos, coffee, beer. Almost immediately, “Boston Strong” became something to consume. Six months from now, when we lay awake wondering whether a police siren starts another manhunt, it will not be “Sweet Caroline” we sing to ourselves to calm frayed nerves.  We cannot just be critics of signs, but as Christians we are obliged to be creators.  What are the stories, songs, narratives of grief and redemption that we can offer? Even in our own grief, we have work to do. Scripture offers a vision of heaven like a city. God doesn’t vacuum up the righteous in the rapture, but instead God comes to dwell and redeem our communal living.

You heard it in the text we read from Revelation 21: “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” The heavenly city is not a place of poverty or violence but restored relationships, bursting full and inhabited by that glorious global mix of people you catch a glimpse of on Commonwealth Ave. Maybe one reason that the Boston Marathon is so symbolically powerful is that people run towards a city, not flee from it.

For a part of the country notoriously slow to warm up to outsiders, many, many writers have said over the past few days that we were all made Bostonians by the events of the last two weeks. I feel it too. Those were my streets that were bombed. Those were my neighbors injured. That was my apartment under lockdown. How many of you are not originally from this area? You know how hard it can be to break in, to be a home here in New England where the ‘new church’ was built in the 1800’s and the ‘new family’ has been here for 3 generations. History weighs heavy here.  Places are made sacred by prayer or death, sometimes both. Maybe we have been made one city by acts of death. The challenge next is to be made one by acts of visible love.

It was just 2.7 miles across the Bering Straight between Alaska and the Soviet Republic. For comparison sake, it’s 2.7 miles as the crow flies from the door of this church to MCI (Massachusetts Correctional Institution) Concord. That’s how far. That’s how close. In this place it is entirely possible to live 2.7 miles from one another and keep up our New England stonewalls of silence between neighbors. In this place, it is entirely possible to live just 26.2 miles apart and have entirely different experiences of safety and security, education and opportunity, life and death. Jesus speaks, into the brokenness of community a new commandment of Love.  Look for the place this week where you can offer a visible sign of love. Fierce love. Love not for the lovable, but for those who would deny you or betray you. Offer some superfluous sign of love that rebuilds fractured community. That is just how simple and how hard the Gospel is.

Desire to Gather

Desire to Gather: A Sermon on Luke 13

First Parish Church, Weston Sunday Feb 24, 2013

31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ 32He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me,* “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” 34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when* you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” ’ ~ Luke 13:31-35

The name is misleading: Sempervivum. Sempervivum, “always living.” Except they die. These plants that we often know by the name “Hens & Chicks” really only live for three seasons. Eternal life that’s not quite. The main succulent plant, the “hen” sends off ‘chicks’ loosely attached to the mother plant. Do you have these in your yard? But after three seasons, the ‘hen’ plant sends up a center stalk that blooms, and the plant dies. It can’t be stopped. Blooms and dies. And the baby chick plant lives on: Sempervivum. “How I have desired to gather your children as a hen gathers her brood.” Let us pray….

Jerusalem is not very far from here. Each week we creep closer. The arch of Lent, from quiet darkness of Ash Wednesday to the glaring parade of Palm Sunday moves us closer. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets.” Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city feels like almost every time it is in the news there is conflict and strife. But it’s magnetic. It’s contested. It’s a draw to pilgrims and prophets.  It’s the center of the universe for the writer of Luke and Acts. Luke’s Gospel begins in Jerusalem, with Zechariah at the temple praying for descendants.  The boy child Jesus returns to Jerusalem to preach in the temple.  Later in Acts, Stephen and James will be martyred in Jerusalem. “All told, Luke mentions Jerusalem 90 times in his Gospel, while all the other New Testament writers combined mention it only 49 times. “ Jerusalem, the start of Jesus’ prophetic ministry; Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets who have come before, and this one too… Back through the history of the Jewish people we learn in Deuteronomy 12:5, Jerusalem, after all, is “the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes as his habitation to put his name there” Jerusalem is thick with meaning, but fickle and unfaithful.  Attractive, magnetic, infuriating Jerusalem.

And there, in Jerusalem, before his time has come, Jesus is warned off by some of the Pharisees: Herod Antipas is gunning for you. But Jesus will have none of it. He knows his death is coming. He does not treat it as a separate event, but part and parcel of his ministry: today, tomorrow and the next day. He’s still got work to do, healing to accomplish.  He tells Herod the fox to buzz off.  Suddenly, Jesus’ defiant tone turns to mourning. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. How often have I desired to gather your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you are not willing.”

Maybe it’s anger. More likely it’s lament as Jesus sighs, “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem.” Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world –wings spread, breast exposed — but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.” How I have desired to gather you, says our God.

From May to September 2012, two Boston Globe reporters Meghan E. Irons and Akilah Johnson lived on Mount Ida Street in the Bowdoin-Geneva section of Dorchester. With other reporters, photographers, videographers and data visualization specialists, they attempted to understand this 68 block neighborhood with a murder rate four times the city average. Nate and Trina Davis have already had their youngest, their 14 year old son Nicholas shot dead a block from their house, when their eldest son was arrested for gun possession. Big Nate is tall, large. He’s lived in Bowdoin-Geneva for 40 years. Little Nate is reduced to a voice on the end of the phone line calling from jail. Little Nate was bound for college.  Unseen by their child, Big Nate and Trina stand in their dining room talking to a cordless phone, Trina still in her pink hospital scrubs. They stand with their arms open. How I desire to gather you.

Sometimes the streets of Jerusalem run through Bowdoin-Geneva. Sometimes they run through Weston as we long to gather. The invitation of Lent is to return to God’s open arms, to allow the Holy Comforter to gather up the broken bits of our lives. Jesus grieves not his impending death but the broken relationship with Jerusalem. The Jesus who wearily opens his arms to Jerusalem is the same Jesus who knows our grief as we try to gather up the scattered parts of our lives- a child led astray, a loved one who drinks, an unfaithful spouse, a broken relationship, bodies that will not do as we command. Jesus knows our love for the ones we can’t protect. How I have desired to gather you, says our God.

This is the story of our lives as people guided by Scripture. The story of Scripture is the story of God’s opening arms to a scattered people who are unwilling to be gathered. It’s not just others, we too resist being gathered in. We have many good excuses for staying separated from our God and one another: Our American exceptionalism. Our Yankee independence. Our town lines. Our sports rivalries. Our class divide. Our perceived self-sufficiency. Our denominational particularity. Our very full schedules. How often God desires to gather us and we scatter like chickens. Jesus prays that his followers may all be one, and we’ve created thousands of denominations. We can tell the story of the Church as a story of scattering chickens. But Scripture gives us our story of God’s steady desire and our tendency, generation after generation, to scatter. Lent is the season to examine the scattered bits of our life and place them before God.

Amid his grief over temperamental Jerusalem, Jesus chooses as delicious image to express his love: a chicken, or more accurately a hen. I fear I can’t say anything especially wise about chickens. I live in the city. The closest experience I have to chickens is when one of the neighbors seemed to have some illegal roosters for cock-fighting that started crowing before the hum of the MBTA busses and my alarm. We need our farmers to lead us here. But, we do not need to know much of anything about chickens to notice Jesus’ odd choice for this analogy.  To Herod’s coercive power like a fox, Jesus counters with the gender-bending, open winged image of a hen.

There was in fact a woman named ‘Mother Hen;” not of a fairy tale but on the path to sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church.  Venerable Mother Henriette DeLille was born in 1813 in New Orleans to a French father Jean-Baptiste Lille Sarpy and her mother, Marie-Josèphe “Pouponne” Díaz, who would have been called at the time “a free quadroon” or a ‘Creole of color.’ Mother Henriette was the child of their common-law marriage or ‘left-handed marriage,’ typical between wealthy white men and Creole women. Henriette grew up well educated, speaking French, attending quadroon balls, being groomed for the same arrangement. Yet, her faith was stronger than the social & familial expectations. When there was no religious life possible for women from her background, she founded the Roman Catholic order of the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans, inviting in free women of color. When the Church would not gather these women, Mother Henriette took on the open armed posture of Christ, the mother hen.

Today, on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem, there is a small church named “Dominus Flevit,” or translated from the Latin, “the Lord wept.” The 1950’s architect of the church shaped it like a teardrop. But beneath the contemporary church, the patch of earth where Jesus wept was also a Canaanite burial site and Byzantine monastery, and later on a 16th c mosque. Behind the contemporary altar, a window shows not some stained glass image of the New Jerusalem to come, but clear glass allows the worshippers to look upon that very same Jerusalem for whom Jesus wept.

In front of the altar stands a mosaic of a hen with wings outstretched. The words from Luke ring the top of the Mosaic, “How I desired to gather you….” And even tucked under the feet of the hen and her chicks remain the words “et noluistis” (“and you would not”) in the pool of red under the chicks. Even still, the wings of the outstretched hen embrace the promise to gather even those who would scatter. That is the promise of Lent. May it you receive the invitation this day from Our God to gather again. Amen.

A Balanced Diet of Praise and Thanksgiving

“A Balanced Diet of Praise and Thanksgiving” Joel 2: 21-27

Ecumenical Thanksgiving Service: hosted by St. John’s Episcopal Church, Sutton MA Tuesday November 20, 2012

21Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things! 22Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield. 23O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before. 24The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. 25I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you. 26You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. 27You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.      ~Joel 2:21-27

It was always the same, until it wasn’t. For many years, my family of origin had Thanksgiving at my parents’ home. Same canned cranberry jelly, same mashed potatoes made by my father the same way his father made then- heating up the milk, reserving a bit of the water the potatoes boiled in and then mashing by hand- always by hand. Same turkey served on a hideously tacky giant serving platter that my great Uncle Jim had been given by his work instead of a cash bonus. Same Pepperidge farm stuffing mix that we had had the year before, and the year before that, and probably since 1937 when the company began in Connecticut. It wasn’t fancy, but it was familiar.  One Thanksgiving, we traveled to visit some fancy relatives in Philadelphia. We sat down to a table of individually brined Cornish game hens, brussel sprouts with pancetta and a balsamic demi-glaze, curried sweet potatoes, cranberry chutney with candied ginger and pineapple, and stuffing with such foreign matter as cornbread, leeks and pecans! No green beans topped with Durkee onions, no smooth canned cranberry jelly that could be sliced into pleasing circles of ruby gelatin goo, no Pepperidge farm stuffing. Worst of all, no comforting, plain white mashed potatoes.  There was wailing and gnashing of teeth the entire car ride home. And my younger sister was promised a “proper” recreation of Thanksgiving just as we had known it.  May we be so bold as to invite new experiences and new people to your table of abundance, O Lord. Let us pray…

Rick Bragg grew up among Pentecostals in a town called Possum Trot, Alabama. The Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist was raised by his mother, with his two brothers and the occasional visit by his abusive, alcoholic father. Writing for Southern Living, Bragg tells of Thanksgiving’s “Never-ending Grace” among his people:

            “When I was a little boy, the words seemed to last forever. It seemed like we were walking the Exodus ourselves, one paragraph at a time. Surely, I figured thousands of little boys had starved to death between the words ‘Let us pray…’ and ‘Amen.’ The bad thing was, from where I sat, hands clasped but one eye open, I could see it all, and more than that I could smell it all, this wonderful feast laid out hot and steaming. Thanksgiving… But it would all be as cold as a Confederate statue on Christmas morning by the time we got any of it. Between me and all this bounty stretched what we have called and will always call “The Blessing.’ It consisted, as near as I could tell, of reading the King James Bible front to back, then holding a discussion on its finer points. While I now see the beauty in those words and in this tradition, I was an ungrateful heathen back then, thinking only of my belly and my own little self.”

This is where we live, between “Let us pray…” and “Amen,” between Thanksgiving gluttony and thanksgiving grace, between famine and feast. This is where the people of Judah live as well. Our scripture reading tonight comes from the minor prophet Joel as he speaks to a people in between.  The people of Judah have lived with years and years of famine and plagues of locust. Joel is graphic in the details- if you are interested, or bored by the sermon, go ahead and look for the gory details in Joel chapters 1 &2. The food has been cut off before their eyes, the seeds shrivel, the storehouses are empty because the grain has failed, the cattle and sheep wander because there is nothing for them to eat. The people cry out to the Lord in their despair and then we get to this passage of praise and thanksgiving.

This prayer of thanksgiving from the prophet Joel doesn’t come out of nowhere. This prayer of thanksgiving comes out of struggle and hardship. Those of us Christians gathered here whose lives are structured by the Church calendar know that the other time we read Joel’s recounting of the suffering and famine is on Ash Wednesday, the day we are most aware of our frailty as mortals.  Like the Israelites offering up this hymn of praise, even as we pray with gratitude this night, we know that there are those among us who are without meaningful employment, those suffering in body and in spirit, those who will be without food, shelter, companionship or a sense of hope. It’s not in spite of our suffering that we give thanks. We give thanks in the midst of suffering. From that parched ground of Judah, we offer up our honest, genuine prayer of thanksgiving.

I received an email last week from a friend addressed to “Dear Found Family,” and almost immediately began to cry. Across the ocean from the country he was born in, after divorce in his own life, death of one parent and debilitating mental illness with the other, we on the receiving end of the email were “found family.” This whole holiday season can be complex – a curious mix of gratitude, but some wistfulness too about those family and friends who have died, those family situations that are too toxic to return to, those close ones separated by distance, war, silence, poverty. The prophet Joel re-imagines all who God cares for- not just the nuclear family or the people of Israel. God’s provision is so strong that it extends to the soil. Do you see it in verse 21-22? “Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things. Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green.” And then God turns to us; “O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God.”

The Hebrew prophets are very cautious to remind us that both overwhelming poverty and overwhelming wealth are dangerous to prayer. It is hard to be thankful when your stomach aches from hunger pangs. It is hard to be thankful when surrounded by so much stuff that you pretend there is no lack. The prophets remind us that God has a concern for the material needs of the poor and thus we who have enough to eat this night are called to have that same divine concern for the poor, as you in Sutton do with your generous feeding program.  You are doing holy work. You are a sign of God’s provision and care.

On verse 26, it all turns; “You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you.” Yes, feast and eat. But do not separate the feasting from the praise of the One who provides for you.  We are called to a balanced diet of praise and thanksgiving. It’s a near heretical thing to talk about diets in advance of Thanksgiving. But if we just feast, we are gluttons and we forget the source of the bounty. If we just fast, we are sullen and we forget the joy of gathering with good company and gracious provisions. We are called to a balanced diet of praise and thanksgiving.

Perhaps this is why so many people love Thanksgiving as a holiday. Thanksgiving is hard (though not impossible) to commercialize. We don’t have the social pressure to give massive gifts (though what happens on the Friday following is also a test of our ethics of gratitude and justice). True, Thanksgiving runs the danger of gluttony. Plenteous food should lead to plenteous praise. Thanksgiving is that holiday where we haven’t quite severed the connection between the two: abundant food, abundant praise. It’s hard to commercialize gratitude. Thanksgiving is a holiday without irony. We are earnest, effusive, grateful. Not snarky, commercial, empty. We are full, our gratitude is great, and God’s love is abundant.

Thanksgiving is a holiday we can all (mostly agree on).  All our religious traditions have practices of gratitude and praise. And I am here to tell you this night and this Thanksgiving, whether you are on a diet that is lactose-intolerant, salt-limited, gluten-sensitive, parsley-allergic, cruelty-free or Macrobiotic; If you are an Omnivore, herbivore, locavore, vegetarian, pesticatarian, ovo-lacto vegetarian, vegan, or a freegan. Whether you keep Kosher or strict Kosher, on the South Beach diet, Paeleolithic diet, The Pilgrim diet, you too can be on a well balanced diet of praise and thanksgiving. If you choose. That’s the thing. That’s the hard part, taking the time to pause before this meal, every meal to give thanks for what is before us and remember those who are without. Tonight you can get on the diet of praise and thanksgiving here in this church with these other Pilgrims, but KEEPING on a diet of praise and thanksgiving is the harder part.

When we do it right, and Lord knows we struggle, a diet is something you do every day. It’s a lifestyle shift. A diet of praise and thanksgiving is a daily discipline of giving God, or your higher power or those around you, thanks for the good things in your life, even when it is hard, even when there is sorrow. For us fallen, forgotten, messy people trying to live a life of grace and gratitude, we cling to verse 26. We do not separate our pleasure and feasting from our discipline of gratitude. We do not feast without giving thanks. We resist the urge to open just one eye in the Never-Ending Grace before the meal to steal a drumstick while no one is looking.

This Thursday is an easy day to give thanks. Our whole country is oriented in that direction. The challenge is Friday. And Saturday and Sunday and Monday. What will you do with the leftovers of Thanksgiving? When the turkey is gone and Starbucks moves on from pumpkin lattes to peppermint, will you still keep a diet of thanksgiving and praise?  You know what it takes- that pause, that wait between the start of your meal and the first bite. That space between famine and feast. That acknowledgement of having enough and making do with less so that others can have enough to live. That mindfulness that both extreme poverty and extreme wealth keep us from gratitude. That is where we keep our practice of praise and thanksgiving.  May you keep your discipline well, dear friends. Amen.

“A Level Place:” A Sermon for Election Day Communion

” A Level Place:” A Sermon for Election Day Communion

Tuesday November 6, 2012, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Longmeadow MA 

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. ~ Luke 6: 17-26

To a divided country weary of war, Abraham Lincoln spoke a mere 10 sentences at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg on November 19, 1863. But my ancestor, Rev. Edward Everett, a US Representative, US Senator and former Governor of Massachusetts, Harvard President, ambassador to Great Britain, US Secretary of State, and ordained congregational minister, my ancestor old Grampa Edward delivered the 2 hour speech before Lincoln. The next day, November 20, 1863, Everett wrote to Lincoln, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” Lincoln wrote back that he was pleased to know that the speech was not “a total failure.” At the time, the response was mixed. Everett’s neo-classical speech was the standard of the day, filled with references to Marathon and Pericles- he was a Greek professor at Harvard after all. Lincoln’s tight ten sentences were “deliberately biblical;” In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik writes,  “Lincoln had mastered the sound of the King James Bible so completely that he could recast abstract issues of constitutional law in Biblical terms, making the proposition that Texas and New Hampshire should be forever bound by a single post office sound like something right out of Genesis.” The partisan newspapers of the day gave mixed reaction: the democratic Chicago Times crowed, “the cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads this silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.” Your Springfield Republican on the other hand, printed the entire speech and dubbed it, “a perfect gem… deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression, and tasteful and elegant in every word and comma.”  (Pause)“This nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom- and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Let us pray…

On this day when it is so easy to feel self-righteous, perhaps more than other days, it is good to confess. Beloved, you have asked of me a very hard thing: unplug from the Internet long enough on Election Day to write this sermon and stand before you without checking the polls. I confess I hit “reload” as if up to the minute exit polls of undecided voters in the bell-weather districts of Lake County, Ohio will give me the confidence that only God ultimately provides. You have forced me to step away from the seduction of real-time updates passing as security. The Church father Tertullian says, “In vain do we flatter ourselves as to the necessities of human maintenance.” Do you feel it too? It is so hard to step out of that rushing stream of information. What we do tonight, that we choose to gather here, putting down our smart phones and picking up bread, setting aside our newspapers and standing to receive the cup, are alternate signs, a realignment of our lives away from the seduction of more news and returning to the Author of our salvation. I am grateful for this hard thing you have asked me to do.

And since we’re on the topic, I ask for your forgiveness for taking the preacher’s prerogative and switching the Gospel reading tonight. Matthew inscribes the beatitudes into the “Sermon on the Mount” stretching over 109 verses. Luke writes the beatitudes into the “Sermon on the Plain” packed into only 30 verses- 4 statements of blessing, 4 statements of woe. To Matthew’s 2+ hours of Everett oration, Luke offers Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. And rather than repeat the sins of my ancestors, I decided to aim for brevity- you let me know if I can overcome my heredity. But the other reason to turn to Luke’s version this night is where it takes place- on the plain.

Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes takes place on the mountaintop. But in Luke, Jesus “came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.” You can imagine the campaign rally version of this: The disciple handlers are trying to keep Jesus moving through the crowd, trying to avoid him getting stuck healing one person for too long. They’re trying to avoid ‘gotcha questions” from the Pharisees.  The zealots James and John are heading out to the smaller towns acting as surrogates to drum up the crowds.  The tired, smelly people have been waiting for hours in the New Hampshire cold just to see Jesus. The Roman guards are worried about the size of the growing crowd. Do we have enough Port-A-Potties? And the photo-ops! Let’s get a nice mix of diversity with some people from Judea and Jerusalem, Tyre and Sidon, but please, keep the crazy Syrophoenician outta the picture. And Judas has gone off message again… But it’s not quite like that.

Instead, Jesus is healing all those who encounter him, all. It’s not a handpicked crowd of the beautiful and worthy with a non-threatening mix of ethnic diversity. It’s not a $10,000 a plate fundraiser with celebrities. No, Jesus’ rally is free and for all those needing healing. And he’s delivering a message that no man or woman seeking elected office in this country would ever give if they actually wanted to win. It is a scandal.  Jesus begins by blessing the poor, a group of fellow residents that during this election were at best ignored and at worst demonized for sucking government resources as the ‘dependent class.’ Jesus blesses the poor. In Matthew’s version of the Beatitude, Jesus blesses the “poor in spirit;” in Luke, Jesus blesses the poor. It’s uncomfortable. It’s a lot easier to spiritualize Jesus’ message about the poor in spirit so as not to implicate our own comfort and riches. Matthew says Jesus blesses “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Luke avoids domesticating Christ’s scandalous message and Jesus declares, “blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be filled.” In Christ, God declares a partisan commitment to the poor and the oppressed.

Christ’s words are a scandal to our comfort and our society as it is. During the presidential campaigns, we confuse gaffes with scandals. This year, we pounce on Mitt Romney caught saying that 47% of Americans will never vote for him because they are dependent on government handouts. In 2008, we pounced on Barack Obama caught saying that rural voters got bitter and cling to their guns and religion. The scandal of Jesus’ words is not a slip up in front of supporters or a hot mic left running. The scandal of Jesus’ words is the uncomfortable truth of God’s concern for those who suffer right now, lacking the basic needs to retain their dignity as children of God. The theologian Gustavo Gutierrez writes “God has a preferential love for the poor not because they are necessarily better than others, morally or religiously, but simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God’s will. The ultimate basis for the privileged position of the poor is not in the poor themselves but in God, in the gratuitousness and universality of God’s agapeic love.”

It is absolutely valid to question whether in this country and economy, all stand on a level playing field. NFS Grundtvig, a Danish Lutheran pastor wrote “In Denmark, our hills our not high and our valleys are not low. So too our people … While there are people with more and people with less, no one has too much and no one has too little.” But we cannot debate, cannot question one another on legitimate difference of policy from the mountain tops. We have to come to a level place.

Blessing and woe- all is to be changed, none are to stay the same in Luke. Yet again, a relationship with Christ flips the order of what is before us. This is not about guilt about what you have, but about all of us getting healed. In Luke’s beatitudes, Jesus is expressing a real and primary concern for the materially poor and hungry now. But he also invites all of us to come get healed. And we delude ourselves if we don’t think we are in need of healing too. But we’ve got to come down off of our mountains, off of our bully pulpits to a level place to be changed. We can stay on our mountain tops, shouting across the chasm of our country at one another, but we cannot be changed from there. We cannot be healed from there. Like that mess of clean and unclean people, we come down from our mountain tops to a level place to be healed. Jesus does not heal from a distance, but with hands touching broken bodies, fingers pressed on deaf ears, palms pressed on bent spines, hands lain on bodies wracked by death. For us to be healed, we have to walk down the mountains of our separation and be touched. You can’t taste and see that the Lord is good if you stay on your mountain.

On the day when we are most divided, communion is Christ’s invitation to come to a level place. You know what that act of bi-partisan hospitality looks like? A family member of mine, who shall remain nameless, without power or heat for the past 7 days in New Jersey after SuperStorm Sandy- a family member, an ACLU card-carrying, pro-choosing, gay-marrying, public-educating, liberal Democrat is being housed this night in the home of staunch fiscal conservative Republicans… with power and a spare bedroom.  You know this. You know this is possible. You know that we can rise up to become our better angels. You know it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable. Now, I most certainly have candidates I hope and even pray will win tonight, because I think they will support policies the least, the lost and the lowly. No one is asking you to give up your political convictions. The invitation is to re-member your primary identity at this table.

“The English word ‘vote’ comes from the Latin ‘votum,’ meaning vow or wish.” We think of vows of marriage, vows at ordination, vows before God, but our vote, our vow today is also a promise, a covenant before God and God’s people to stay in community after Election Day. We vow to participate fully in this country, even when we disagree. We vow to name the nameless women and men who fought, were bruised and died for the right to vote. We vow to pray for our country, in the words of Lincoln “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” What we do today is holy.

What you do tonight is prophetic. It may not feel so, but it is. In 1938, a German Roman Catholic priest  Fr. Max Metzger gathered Protestant and Roman Catholic clergy and laity together in Meitingen-bei-Augsburg to pray and study together. The Nazis considered these ecumenical gatherings subversive to their political agenda. Father Max was arrested, tortured and accused of being a spy. At his trial, he declared “I have offered my life for the peace of the world and the unity of Christ’s Church” and was executed at the Brandenburg prison on April 17, 1944.  We are not in Hitler’s Germany by any stretch, but you are participating in that same witness of Fr. Metzger and the ecumenical saints in Selma, and all those nameless faithful throughout history who refused to be divided from other Christians and co-opted for political gain at the expense of their primary identity in Christ. . In a season when churches seem best known in our political life for our impressive skill in dividing, what you do tonight is powerful. And what you do tomorrow and next Sunday and every day after this election when, because of your faith, you choose to treat others like children of God rather than political enemies.

But today, come to this level place, this table set for all. There is no receiving line for Republicans and a separate line for Democrats. There is no line for our Mileage Plus- Executive Class- Gold Star frequent fliers. There is no express check-out line for you with twelve sins or less to confess. No, at this table, there is no Jew or Greek, female or male, master or servant, Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. There is one table, one Church, one Christ. The people shout, “I follow Romney!” “I follow Obama!” “Is Christ divided? Was Romney crucified for you? Were you baptized I the name of Obama?” By no means, St Paul proclaims! You cannot buy a seat at this table, you cannot earn your way to grace. You cannot do anything to separate yourself from the love of Christ Jesus. This is the level place where all things bend towards the One loves us unconditionally. No matter how you voted, or if you voted, Christ welcomes you here. Our unity comes from our baptism in Christ, not the ballot box. All you need do is come down off your mountain, stand in this level place with these other messy, unclean people in need of healing too and eat.

A Prayer for Election Day

On this day, more today, we pray for our country divided and ourselves.

We confess that we pick up our pens and pull our levers without naming the mothers and men who callused their hands demanding, again and again demanding, their right to vote.

We confess that we add to the rancor we despise, presuming the worst, pouncing on gaffs to win an imaginary prize.

We confess that we have turned parties into enemies and election into war.

Forgive us.

Take the malice in our hearts, the venom on our tongues and dispose of our anger.

Convict us to train our eyes on all whom you have called “blessed.” All.

Be with all those who put themselves forward for public service. Equip them in mind and spirit for this holy calling.

Restore us to our better angels, and if not, our better selves.

Guide our feet in paths of justice and peace.

This is my song, O God of all the nations.

Amen.