We Live Tight: A Sermon for Cities

Sunday March 6, 2015: St James Episcopal Church, Somerville MA

Lent 4: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

We live tight. We, who live in cities, live jammed up, crammed up, layered on top of one another. We hear the fighting beneath us and the dog scratching above us. We live with arguments we cannot stop and doors we cannot open.

We live tight. We, who live in cities, live side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, eyes unmet and houses stacked so close together that as I cook in my apartment, I can see a pot boiling over on their stove next door, third floor across from third floor.

We live tight in a stew of euphemisms: We live with garden apartments, without enough sunlight to grow much of anything except mold. We live with half-baths, which means a space so small you’ll hit your knee on the sink about half the time you go. We live with the Craigslist Code, where “historic” means the place has never been updated, and “great location” means your apartment is above a bar.

We who live in cities, live tight on money, tight on space, tight on time. We ride tight in the MBTA car, stand tight in the checkout line, and park tight, wedging our way in and out to squeeze in between yet another yellow moving van and a beach chair space saver, though it is March and there is no snow is in the forecast.

We cling tight to the people who remain, since many of the new who move in will probably be gone in three years anyway. We know the churn and the turn-over and the High Holy Day of all our messy humanity that falls on September 1 every year and spills onto the sidewalks.

We, who chose the city or do not have the means to leave the city, live tight with people who may not look like us, act like us, talk like us, behave like us. How does the Christian story of reconciliation sound different in most densely populated municipality in all of New England? With 19,220.5 people per square mile here in Somerville, the question isn’t “who is my neighbor?” but “who isn’t my neighbor?”

16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view;” St. Paul, a city dweller and city traveler himself, writes to the divided church in Corinth, the very church he founded. Paul, a Jew and a Roman citizen; Paul, a Jew and a Christian; Saul of Tarsus and Paul of Jerusalem, and Corinth, and Rome, and Ephesus.

Paul who defies the easy binaries and Paul who too is a new immigrant and global citizen; Paul, who is in the middle of, yet again, another major disagreement with the Church in Corinth. It is this Paul who writes “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.” Maybe he’s trying to make amends with these disagreeable Corinthians. Maybe he writes it so he too will follow his own rule.

How hard it is in cities to regard no one from a human point of view! We’ve got all sorts of names for reducing complicated, multi-faceted human beings into one, incomplete, identity:

The gentrifiers,

The homeless,

The old-timers,

The students,

The tech bros,

The yummy mommies,

The Brazilians,

The Dominicans,

The Blacks,

The Irish,

The Italians,

The Catholics,

The Jews,

The gays,

The elderly,

The establishment,

The new immigrant,

The refugees,

The faculty,

The workers,

The commuters,

The makers,

The takers,

The gang bangers,

The investors,

The Section 8-ers,

The yuppies,

The old skool Somervillians,

and the priced-out Cantabrigians.

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view” Paul sets the high standard for a Christian life: We regard no one from our short-sighted, human point of view. We aim to see as God sees.

IMG_2653We who live in cities know just how hard this is. A hallmark of the city is anonymity, so many people we do not know and will never meet. It is hard to drop those single moniker identities of our human point of view for something more nuanced, more complex. Our challenge is to see the anonymous guy clipping his fingernails on the Orange Line not a weirdo but as a beloved child of God.

When at 3 in the morning, I wake up to the sound of garbage bins being knocked over because my drunk student neighbors fell into them, I confess, I do not see them as unique children of God. When I go out the next morning to find our recycling all over the road and discover a pile of human vomit on my crocuses, I do not think of my neighbor’s preciousness before God. But Paul says, for you who want to live in this Christian way of life, “we regard no one from a human point of view.” No one. Not even the neighbor who vomits on my crocuses.

And for Paul, it’s not just that we are tasked with seeing people differently, but as we see them differently, we have been given an enormous, momentous task: In verse 18, God “has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”

I’m sorry, what? God has given us the ministry of reconciliation? Has God met us? We’re a mess! Our cities are hopelessly segregated. We inherit division on top of division, on top of redlining and bussing and redistricting and urban renewal, on top of the foundational sins of enslaved Africans, layered on top of the seizure of land from the Massachusett tribe. The Boston Globe just this morning released a major study reporting our surge in income isolation, “with hundreds of thousands living in an economic isolation unlike anything in memory.” I can’t even be reconciled to my neighbor who won’t shovel his sidewalk safely enough, and God has given us the ministry of reconciliation? The alternative title for this sermon is “When God makes bad decisions.”

Why on earth would God entrust something so critical to us? Christianity’s foundational claim is that through the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our broken and divided humanity is reconciled, made whole, restored to the fullness of life abundant. Our brokenness isn’t our ultimate condition; our death is not the end of the story. God decides to give this ministry of reconciliation to a people who can’t reconcile over snow parking space savers?

We who live in cities have been entrusted with ministry of reconciliation, not in the abstract, but with our particular neighbors.

I think, I think the God who knows the number of hairs on our head is invested in the particulars. This ministry of reconciliation entrusted to us is not some cosmic, global reconciliation, but the reconciliation of particular people in particular places. I am not called to begin by reconciling North and South Korea, but begin by reconciling to my careless neighbor, my sister who didn’t take the recycling out again, my work colleague who seems like he hears only every 5th word I say, and the only high school friend who seems only capable of using Facebook for cruelty. This is reconciliation in the particulars. No reconciliation is possible if we do not first try to see as God sees. Reconciliation in this way is not broad and global, but tiny, local, particular, like the first green shoots of spring in that narrow band where the cement breaks open.

The theologian Miroslav Wolf sees God at work in this particularity of reconciliation. In his book Exclusion & Embrace, Wolf says that God is partial. “In a sense, because God is partial to everyone—including the powerful, whom God resists in order to protect the widow and the stranger. God sees each human being concretely, the powerful no less than the powerless. God notes not only their common humanity, but also their specific histories, their particular psychological, social, and embodied selves with their specific needs. When God executes justice, God does not abstract but judges and acts in accordance with the specific character of each person.” (222).

As Paul writes to the Church in Corinth, he gives these cranky Corinthians a new name, a new job description “Ambassadors.” In verse 20 he writes “ So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” It is mighty hard to be reconciled to our odious neighbors if we are not reconciled to God. It is mighty hard to see others as God sees, if we cannot imagine ourselves as God sees us: worthy, lovable, precious, particular.

If you have taken the MBTA Redline into the city, all the way to Downtown Crossing, you’ve probably seen a Business Improvement District Ambassador.


Dressed in bright orange polo shirts & unflattering green windbreakers, these 40 women and men are stationed where the lost and lonely wander. It’s a city program to make the Downtown Crossing area a little friendlier and more manageable.



An out of town tourist wrote about the Ambassadors: “Hello, my wife and I just returned from a wonderful vacation to New England where we spent 5 days in Boston and a couple weeks in NH and ME. We just wanted to say how pleased we were with the assistance from Ambassador Michael. When we approached Michael for directions to the Common, instead of pointing the direction, he actually walked us there himself. We aren’t used to this specialized service. Please let him know again how happy we were with your organization and in particular, Michael.” In Particular. Larry from Pennsylvania was not left alone in the city, but helped, and not by just anyone, but “in particular, Michael.” Michael didn’t just point out the direction, “He actually walked us there himself.” And maybe that’s what it could be like for us to be Ambassadors of reconciliation too- to not just point out the way, but actually walk there ourselves.





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. 

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


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.