Category: Sermons

Whose wisdom

Dan Handschy

Proper 20B (RCL); Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

     When I was growing up, there was a picture that hung in the Sunday School rooms.  I’m sure you’ve seen the picture.  It showed a blond, blue-eyed Jesus, with several children around him.  If my memory serves, many of the children were also blond.  There was a hint of a city wall in the background, probably supposed to be Jerusalem.  Jesus was smiling, and all the children were smiling.

     I say I’m sure you’ve seen the picture, because it was hanging in the Sunday School rooms at churches where I have served as rector.  I haven’t seen it here, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it had hung here at some point.

     When we hear this passage from Mark we probably picture something like that painting.  Jesus takes a clean, well-groomed, well-behaved child, and sets it in the midst of his disciples.  It is a fascinating aspect of modern culture that we have idealized, and even idyll-ized childhood.  Our picture of the nuclear family with the children gathered around the table is a quite recent occurrence.

     My trips to Africa have disabused me of that picture of Jesus with the little children gathered around.  Childhood in Africa probably bears more resemblance to childhood in Jesus’ time than our modern picture.  In South Sudan, the childhood mortality rate is about 50% before 5 years old.  Parents don’t invest a lot of emotional energy in their children until they have some confidence that the child will live past infancy.

     Most children in South Sunday weren’t really named until they had lived several years.  They might be called by the day of the week on which they were born.  Sometimes that name stuck with them even after their official naming ceremony and baptism.  We met Bishop Monday of the Diocese of Mundri.  Or they might be named for a particular trait.  One of my favorite people in South Sudan is called Manyagugu, which means, “Walks with a limp.”  At his baptism, he was named Darius, but few people call him that.  And, he no longer walks with a limp.  That was a childhood thing.

     Everywhere we went, there was a constantly moving sea of children, and because we were white, and therefore really interesting, that knee-high sea was always moving around us, raising dust.  Parents were nowhere in sight.  And the children were without exception dirty.  I suspect they got baths once a week if lucky – water was so scarce.  And their clothes were nearly always in tatters.  Infants too young to walk would be carried by an older sibling, or simply left to sit on the ground and cry until an adult could be bothered to intervene.  Any nearby adult had permission to discipline the whole roiling mess of children, sometimes with a switch.

     It is one such as these that Jesus sets in the middle of his disciple and takes in his arms.  I have to confess I would have never taken any of those children in Africa in my arms.  Their clothes were always dirty, and who knew with what.  Jesus’ action would have shocked his disciples:  Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.  That would have turned their world of expectations and what they thought they knew of God on its head.

     In his letter, James talks about the wisdom from above, and how unlike the wisdom of the world it is.  Following the wisdom from above will not help you get ahead in this world.  We leave out some verse in our reading from James.  In them he says, “Adulterers!  Don’t you know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?”  And his analysis of the conflicts among us is spot-on.  We want what we don’t have, and it leads to jealousy and strife.

     I recoil a little bit when I read, “You want something and you don’t have it, so you commit murder.”  None of us is likely to have ever committed murder.  But then I think about how we collectively behave in the world.  I have a cousin who is a chocolatier.  He has to be very careful where he buys his cocoa.  Much of the cocoa we use in this country comes from Africa, and a lot of the cacao beans are harvested by child labor, even amounting to slavery.  Many children die in the process.

     Ghana has nationalized its cacao forests, and processes its own cocoa.  Even so, most of the harvesters (adults) have never tasted the chocolate made from the beans they harvest.  Something as simple as chocolate, we want it and we don’t have it, so we buy it cheaply, and participate in systems that are destructive.  If we read James just personally, we are likely to say, “Not me! Never!” but if we broaden the scope, we can see he is speaking the truth.

     Both Jesus and James hold up to our attention a different kind of wisdom.  Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be first of all must be last of all and servant of all.”  This kind of thinking is going to be costly.  We will be living at cross purposes to our society and our economy, which suggest that we should have what we want.

     Many were expecting a Messiah, who would put things to rights.  Israel had been subjugated to one empire after another, and was under the boot of Rome.  Surely the Messiah would set Israel back on the throne, and extend its justice throughout the world, paying back all those who had harmed it.  That’s why the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest.  Instead, Jesus is holding up a picture of a very different kind of Messiah, one who would suffer and die.

     The Christian genius was to see in that suffering and death, and God’s acceptance of it in the resurrection and ascension, the self-giving love of God.  God was not going to set things to rights by smiting our enemies, but entering the world with a different kind of wisdom, a wisdom that would embrace a little urchin and suggest to us that we should do the same.  If that were to happen, the world would indeed be set to rights.

     We live in hope of that kingdom, practicing its wisdom here and now to the astonishment of the rest of the world.


Sermon; Sixth Sunday of Easter; 9 May 2021; St. David’s Episcopal Church; DeWitt, NY; Dan Handschy

Easter 6B (RCL); Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

     I’m intrigued by John’s use of the idea of fruitfulness.  It seems the whole purpose of Jesus’ commandment to us to love one another as he has loved us is fruitfulness.  If we follow in his way, fruitfulness will be the result.  And that’s especially fascinating because John never really spells out what fruitfulness looks like.

     I said last week that the vine is a common image for Israel in the Christian Old Testament.  And the fruitfulness of the vine ranges from righteousness and justice, to peace and security and prosperity.  In Isaiah 5, when God looks for fruit on his vine, he looks for righteousness and justice.  Elsewhere in Isaiah, when the prophet imagines the restoration of things to God’s purposes, he imagines every one sitting under their own fig tree, and under their own vine.  No one will plant trees and another enjoy the fruit, or plant vines and be displaced from their vineyard.  It’s a lovely image.

     At the first conference I led in Mpwapwa, Tanzania, Dr. Anne talked to the pastors about planting fruit trees.  Planting trees is a way of mitigating the effects of global warming, and planting fruit trees helps address the food insecurity that climate change brings.  But what really struck me about her talk was the African concept of ‘utu.’

     Utu is an untranslatable Swahili word.  It means something like “I am because you are.”  I read a perfect illustration of it.  This is not likely a true story, but it gives you the idea.  A sociologist wanted to do an experiment, so he got together a class of fifth grade boys, and proposed a foot race.  At the end of the race course was a basket of fruit, a lot of fruit.  The winner of the race would win the basket of fruit.

     He lined the boys up, and set them on their marks.  To his surprise when he shouted “Go!” the boys all held hands and ran to the finish line together, and sat down and begin to eat the fruit together.  When he asked the boys why they didn’t race, they replied, “Why should one of us have more fruit than he can eat while all the rest of us are sad?  This way we are all happy.”

     Dr. Anne said that not only would planting fruit trees help mitigate climate change, and improve food security; it would also increase utu.  No one family can eat all of the fruit a tree produces when it ripens, since it all ripens at once.  If they hoarded it to themselves, much of it would rot.  Therefore, they would share their fruit with other families.  And if other families planted different trees, their fruit would ripen at a different time and they would share their fruit, thereby increasing utu.  It’s kind of like zucchini for us.  We can’t possibly eat all the zucchini our vines produce, so we make zucchini bread and give it away to everyone who will take it!

     Jesus gives us a commandment to love one another as he has loved us.  The result of this commandment is to be fruitfulness, so that the Father will give us whatever we ask for.  And we are to lay down our lives for one another, just as Jesus laid down his life for us.  The only problem here is I don’t think that is good translation.  In the New Testament, John is the only writer to use that phrase.  Literally, the phrase would translate, “No great love has anyone than this, to place his soul over his friends.”  It’s an idiomatic expression used in Greek military poetry.  If a soldier wanted to know if he could trust a comrade, he handed his comrade his sword and stretched out his neck.  He was said to be placing his soul in the care of his friend.  So, I think we should translate this commandment, “No greater love has anyone than this, to entrust one’s life to one’s friends.”

     Entrusting our lives to each other leads to fruitfulness, it increases utu.  Sharing the fruit from our tree is trusting our lives to others, trusting that they will share the fruit from their tree with us.

     In reality, it is the only way we can survive.  We just hide that trust behind money.  When I go to Wegman’s or Aldi and buy fruit, or meat, or bread, or anything, I am accepting a whole network of relationships of trust.  I trust that my money, or more likely, my plastic card, will cover the communal cost of all the farmers, truckers, bakers, grocery store workers, and thousands of others, who have brought this food to the shelves for me to buy.  It’s just that fruit trees in Africa make that network of trust more obvious.  I’m in just the same situation when a pandemic interrupts supply chains as African villagers are when drought causes their trees to produce less than enough.

     As we make our rogation procession today, unlike our medieval ancestors, we won’t be praying for moderate rains and good harvests, because we don’t depend directly on those things.  We buy what we need at the stores just down the street, and don’t ever see the harvest that brings them to us (though we do buy sweet corn and good tomatoes at farm stands nearby).  So, instead, we will pray that we can strengthen the bonds that tie us together as a civic community.

     We will pray that, as the Church, we can take our place in those relationships of trust.  We will pray that we can abide in those relationships, and learn that we do in fact, entrust our lives to one another.  That is what love looks like.  We’ll have a party, eating and drinking in one another’s company, now that the pandemic restrictions are beginning to relax.  And we will give thanks for that opportunity, and pray that we, too, can be fruitful, and add our share to the store of utu that makes the world go round.      I don’t think Jesus is commanding us to do anything that we don’t do already.  He just wants us to open our eyes to see that we are doing it – entrusting our lives to one another, and then extend that trust to more and more people.  That’s what he means by fruitfulness.  Let’s enjoy that fruit, all the while giving thanks to God for it, and share it with all.

Trusty Thomas

Second Sunday of Easter, 11 April 2021, St. David’s Episcopal Church, DeWitt, NY

Dan Handschy

Easter 2B (RCL); Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1 – 2:2; John 20:19-31.

     This Sunday is sometimes called Thomas Sunday.  When we hear this passage, we tend to focus on Thomas, and his interaction with Jesus.  But there is a lot more going on here than just Thomas’ refusal to belief and then his confession of Jesus as Lord and God.

     The collect hinted at some of what else is going on, by stating that in the Paschal mystery, God has established a new covenant of reconciliation.  Jesus’ death and resurrection allow us to live a new kind of life in community, a life of forgiveness and reconciliation.

     Way back at the beginning of the Gospel, John the Baptist testifies to Jesus.  One day, Jesus is walking by, and John calls out, “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”  I’ve said before that in the Old Testament, there is no lamb that takes away sin; it’s only the goat on the Great Day of Atonement.  But John’s Gospel has Jesus die at the exact hour that the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple courts.  Jesus is the lamb of God, but what about taking away sin?

     All through the Gospel, the author has raised the question of sin:  with the blind man, who sinned, this man, or his parents?  With the Pharisees – since they have heard Jesus’ message, but refused to believe, their sin remains.  All too often, John casts the Jews as the sinners.  For John, sin has to do with one’s relationship with God.  Sin is not some moral act or failing, but an inability or refusal to apprehend God’s self-revelation in Jesus.

     But the Gospel never gets around to telling us, the reader, how sin is taken away.  Until now.  Jesus shows up to the disciples cowering in fear, and says, “Peace be with you.”  Notice, Jesus says that three times in this passage.  It must mean the disciples needed to hear it:  Peace be with you.  They would need to hear it if there were conflicts among them, so I think we can assume this is so.  When has it ever not been true of the Church?  Always, we need to hear, “Peace be with you.”

     And then, he showed them his hands and his side.  He showed them his wounds.  No one would expect a resurrected body to have wounds, but there they are.  And then he says, “As the father has sent me, so I send you.”  We, the Church, are to become to the world what Jesus was to the world, the medium of God’s self-revelation.  And then, he breathes on them.  The word in Greek is unusual; we might translate it, “he inflated them.”  It is exactly the same word as for what God did when he blew the breath of life into the nostrils of the first human in the Garden of Eden.

     This is a new creation, a new humanity, empowered with a new Spirit.  And here is the distinctive characteristic of this new humanity:  the sins of whoever you forgive are forgiven them; the sins of whoever you retain are retained for them.  Nowhere in John’s Gospel do we hear of Jesus forgiving anyone’s sins.  In the other Gospels, there is the story of the lame man, to whom Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven,” and then “take up your pallet and walk.”  But not in John’s Gospel.

     So, we are the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  We become in the world what Jesus was – the locus and mode of God’s self-revelation.  We can bring people into relationship with God – or not.  This is pretty heady stuff.  We can remake the world by forgiving sins; or we can hold on to grudges and keep things the way we are.

     No wonder the disciples rejoiced when they saw Jesus!  But Thomas wasn’t with them, and when they told him they had seen the Lord, he refused to believe.  We call him doubting Thomas, but he doesn’t doubt.  He refuses to believe.  In fact, you could translate the Greek, “Unless I see the wounds, I will never, ever believe.”  The Greek duplicates the negative.

     So, the next week he is with them, and Jesus shows up again.  He invites Thomas to touch his wounds, and Thomas cries out, “My Lord and my God” – the highest title for Jesus anywhere in John’s Gospel.  Jesus says to Thomas, “Do not be untrusty, but trusty.”  The translation is really bad right there.  “Do not be undependable, but dependable,” would be better.

     What happened there?  The disciples have been given the power to forgive or retain sins.  We have been given power to forgive or retain sins.  But Thomas demands to see and touch the wounds of Jesus.  I think he is saying to the other disciples, “Not so fast; we can’t forgive sins unless we take into account the harm done, first – unless we touch the wounds.”

     I think in our joy at the resurrection, we want to rush into a world where nothing has ever gone wrong.  Isn’t this America’s problem with race?  We want to live in a post-racist society, we want to think color doesn’t matter.  Thomas would say to us, “Wait a minute.  We have to touch the wounds first.”  What harm has race done?  And notice, Jesus’ wounds don’t go away after the resurrection.  They may be transformed and become revelatory, but there they are.  We will never live in a post-racist society.  The wounds will always be there.  We may be able to forgive sins, but the wounds remain – transformed, but there.

     Think of the Peace and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.  If perpetrators of violence wanted to avoid prosecution, they had to allow the people they had harmed speak their truth.  And once those people had spoken their truth, and it had been heard, the desire for retribution went away.  Only in this way did South Africa avoid a blood-bath of retributive violence.

     Think about it in your own personal experience.  Maybe in your family, or among friends, harm has been done.  And you have forgiven, but never without acknowledging the harm done, and owning up to it.  I think that is why Jesus says to Thomas, do not be untrusty, but trusty.  Trust must be reestablished.  If we rush into forgiveness without touching the wounds, the peace won’t be a real peace, but just a papering over of conflict.      All of our lessons today suggest that the resurrection has real-world consequences.  Jesus’ resurrection isn’t just our ticket out of this world and into heaven.  It means we have to live differently here.  For John’s Gospel, it means we, the disciples, are given the hard work of forgiving sins and seeing the wounds of Jesus transformed into the signs of a new humanity fully alive.

Palm Sunday

Erica Olson-Bang

Today’s Liturgy of the Palms and the accompanying reading from Mark 11 are celebratory. We weren’t able to process with palms this year, but the usual procession with singing and rejoicing feels festive and, well, triumphal.

These celebratory acts come right out of the Mark 11 reading, and is usually referred to as the Triumphal Entry. Jesus, like a conquering king, rides into the city to the cheers and adoration of the people. Cloaks and branches are spread out on the road ahead of Jesus’ colt. Those marching into Jerusalem with him, before and behind, shout: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” This word, Hosanna, by the way, means “Save us now!” and suits the timely arrival of a conquering king. 

It’s clear from the kingly imagery and the references to the coming kingdom of David that those who gathered and cheered hoped that Jesus was the Messiah, that he was the one anointed by God to lead the people. They expected Jesus to rule the way David did–in the here and now–, the way so many other amazing leaders selected by God to lead Israel had. They hoped Jesus was the long-awaited king who would restore Israel to its former glory.

Unfortunately, at least from Mark’s perspective, they’d got it all wrong.

Don’t get me wrong, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is the Messiah.  That’s the whole point of Mark’s gospel. The problem is that the disciples’ expectations for the Messiah (and maybe ours) were all wrong.

The Gospel of Mark opens by announcing that Jesus is the Messiah. It begins,  “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah.” After this very clear opening statement, most of the rest of the gospel is focused on the question of Jesus’ identity (who gets it and who doesn’t) and is full of misunderstandings about who Jesus is and what it means to be the Messiah. The reality is that almost no one in the Gospel “gets it.” Even Jesus’ closest followers don’t seem to understand who he is or what he’s about. 

This dynamic is clearly seen in what I think is the key passage in Mark: Mark 8: 27-33. In this passage, Jesus asks his disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” They answer by identifying some of things that others are saying: like, you’re John the Baptist, Elijah, a prophet, and so on. Then Jesus turns the question on them, “What about youWho do you say that I am?” And Peter answers: “You are the Messiah.”

And for that one moment, Peter was absolutely, perfectly correct.

Unfortunately, this moment of clarity was short lived. Verse 31 picks up again, saying, “[Jesus] then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected…and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” This teaching alarmed Peter, who pulled Jesus aside and “rebuked” him! Jesus was not having this and retorted with a surprisingly strongly-worded response: “Get behind me, Satan!…You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Yikes. I’d imagine that Peter was shocked, even embarrassed, by this rebuke.

I think this surprisingly harsh comment by Jesus signals to us that there’s a significant misunderstanding happening. Peter correctly identified Jesus as the Messiah, but was dismayed when Jesus started to talk about the Messiah’s death. Peter’s idea of the Messiah couldn’t be further from Jesus’ understanding: for Jesus, the number one thing to know about the Messiah is that the Messiah will die.

This equating of the Messiah with death is precisely why the Triumphal Entry seems so out of place in the Gospel of Mark. The image of the triumphant king entering Jerusalem to the praise and adulation of his followers? It has nothing to do with Jesus’ own understanding of the Messiah who will suffer and die!

I wonder if this is why the end of the Mark 11 reading seems so anti-climatic: Jesus just sort of wandered around the temple for a bit and then headed home because no one was there. It feels a little aimless to me. Maybe this is a signal to readers that the story of Jesus-as-King isn’t going to go the way they expected (or we might hope).

We see this in the Mark’s Passion as well. Pilate asked Jesus if he was the King of Jews, and Jesus deflected by saying to him: those are your words. And while there’s a great deal of kingly imagery in the reading as well (Jesus is given a crown and a robe and so on), but it is done in mockery. This leads me to the conclusion that Mark is resisting this narrative of Jesus-as-king throughout.

I think the problem with the image of Jesus as triumphant king (which I think is one that many of us share and is certainly present in the Liturgy of Palms) is that it isn’t really connected to the historical reality of the Jesus we see in the Gospels. Jesus-as-king might be precisely what Peter and all the others were hoping for, but it is very much out of step with Jesus’ identity and self-identity in Mark.

I wonder if we too are hoping for Jesus to arrive in the here-and-now in this sort of kingly way that actually has nothing to do with the Jesus we see in the Gospels. Aren’t we all hoping for someone to ride in on a horse, Prince-Charming style, to save us all? I can just hear us shouting “Save us now!”

But the Jesus of the Gospels is definitely not kingly, and the basic Christian posture, which is modeled on the life of Jesus, is also to be one of service and sacrifice, not kingly triumph. The Liturgy of the Palms, in this sense, feels like an anomaly for the Christian church. Perhaps it’s not very Christ-like at all?

Fittingly, the moment of triumph that opens today’s service doesn’t even make it all the way through the Palm Sunday service. We might start by singing “All glory, laud and power to thee Redeemer King,” but by the end of the service, we’ve turned our sights, like Jesus, to the coming cross. We have joined with the mob to shout, “crucify him,” and we have recognized with the Centurion that this crucified man was “surely…the Son of God.”

Like Jesus who turned his face to Jerusalem, we turn our faces now to Holy Week.

What does it mean for us to be the followers of a crucified man, instead of a triumphant king? What does it look like for us to be a people that gather at the foot of the cross, instead of parading through the streets?

If we turn our back on our misplaced hope of Jesus coming to us in the here and now as conquering king, who do we see? We see Jesus, the one who “gave [his] back to those who struck [him], and [his] cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; who did not hide [his] face from insult and spitting,” as it says in Isaiah. We see Jesus, who “become a reproach to all [his] enemies and even to [his] neighbors,” as it says in the Psalm. Jesus, the one who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of  death – even death on a cross,” as it says in Phillipians. We see Jesus as the humble servant, and we are invited to humbly serve alongside him. 

Following the Humble Servant looks like keeping company with the humble, and not the important. Following the one who hangs on the cross, looks like gathering with those who suffer and mourn, not with the triumphant. Following the one whose resurrection has not-yet-fully come looks like doing the work of the kingdom until it does come, not sitting back as if it were already here.

As our collect concludes: “Mercifully grant [, O God,] that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection.” Amen.


Sermon for Sunday, February 7, 2021

Erica Olson-Bang

We are rounding the bend on a full year of pandemic living, and, lately, I’ve been trying to remember what it felt like when all of this started. When did I first hear about the new coronavirus? What did I think was happening? What were my expectations? (Can you remember back that far?) What did I expect last March when we first went into lockdown? I remember thinking we would be doing this for 2 or 4 weeks. 6 weeks at the most. This seems laughable to me now. How could I have ever imagined that we’d be here, 11 months later, with no clear sense of when this time might end. There IS hope on the horizon in the form of vaccines–which I am incredibly thankful for–, but still we know that it’s going to be a long time until we go back to what used to call “normal life.” Sometimes when I’m reading the news too late at night, I wonder if we will ever get to “normal” again. Or if we’re stuck in what they keep referring to as the “new normal.” 

There was an article that was going around social media during the first weeks of the pandemic, entitled: “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.” The author of the article consulted with a prominent grief researcher and asked if what we were experiencing as a society was grief, and he said: “Yes, and we’re feeling a number of different griefs…The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.” And this was back in MARCH! March: when the daily national deaths were only in the double digits, not the thousands. Our many griefs have only compounded since then. 

As those early weeks stretched into months and soon a year, that statement (That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief) has become even more true. As Dan said last week, all of us have just buckets of unprocessed grief that we’re carrying around with us right now. Moreover, so many of our usual ways of processing our grief have been shut off to us, or so changed as to become unrecognizable. How do you grieve without funerals or hugs or someone to hold your hand or the presence of a warm casserole being held out by a warm body.

I didn’t fully recognize my own unprocessed grief until I watched the coronavirus vigil that was held on the night before the inauguration. I cried a lot during that short memorial service, and my reaction to it let me know that there’s a ton of grief there, just below the surface, grief that I have not tended to. During this time we’re also sharing in Dan’s grief as he is with his mother in her last days. If you’re like me, his grief over the last days has reawaken my own grief–reminding me that it’s still there, just waiting. 

We all have our own griefs at this time, and my own personal grief has been fairly limited, all things considered. Others have faced much more than I have, and still others have lost much more. But I think it’s important for each of us to recognize our own grief at this time–in all the big and small ways it comes. 

I’ll share just a couple of things that are grieving me. Some are small: a new nephew that I haven’t met, for example.

Other griefs are big ones: like the reality that I haven’t seen my parents in 15 months and that my dad’s health is failing. He lives in Minnesota, and he has Alzheimer’s. I fear that the good times with him are slipping away during this interval. I have been grieving those lost times. 

There are many others, large and small, that I could mention. I share these two examples with you because I think that we need to come to terms with our grief: to name it and to acknowledge the deep sense of loss that it brings. 

Today’s lectionary brings together two texts that seek to comfort a people that are grieving. Both the Isaiah text and the Psalm are addressed to the people of Judah during the time of their exile. 

What was their grief? The people of Judah had been defeated, and with them, their god; their cities and homes were destroyed, and their place of worship broken down and desecrated; they had been carried off, far away from their homeland; they lived then in the lands of their captors, under the thumb of their oppressors, and they were full of grief for what they had lost. 

God spoke to them in the midst of their grief, and what message does God have for these grieving people?

The Psalmist says to them: 

The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem; 

he gathers the exiles of Israel.

He heals the brokenhearted 

and binds up their wounds.

And the author of Isaiah writes, 

[The Lord] gives power to the faint,

and strengthens the powerless.

Even youths will faint and be weary,

and the young will fall exhausted;

but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

they shall run and not be weary,

they shall walk and not faint.

God’s message to his grieving people is one of restoration: that in God what has been lost will be restored, that what has been broken will be fixed, that the powerless, weak, faint and exhausted will be renewed. 

Practically, for the Israelites, this meant that God would restore them to their lost land and the destroyed temple and homes would be rebuilt. A very literal restoration. 

But it also teaches us something about God: that God is in the business of restoring the hope of the grieving. 

We see this in Jesus as well, in the passage from Mark that we read this morning:

As Jesus starts his ministry, what is he busy doing? Mark writes, “That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.” Jesus busies himself restoring health and life and community to those who are sick, unwell, and at the margins of society. Like God, he is in the business of restoring the hope of the grieving. 

There’s a little thing that interests me at the end of this passage as well. The next morning, Jesus says: “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” What was interesting to me here is that as far as Mark relates to us, Jesus wasn’t preaching at all. He was healing and casting out demons. So what does he mean when talks about “proclaiming his message”? What message? 

This made me wonder if his message is the healings, is the casting out of demons. The next line in the gospel suggests that this might be right. It reads, “And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.” Again no spoken message, instead we see healings and castings out. Now maybe he was preaching along with healing and casting out, but that’s not what Mark is interested in. For Mark Jesus’ message IS his actions. And his actions look like this: restoring what is broken, healing what is sick, bringing life to the dead. 

I have a favorite theologian from grad school: a Dutch Catholic man named Edward Schillebeeckx. A key aspect of his theology is what he called: “negative contrast experiences.” Negative contrast experiences are those moments where we recognize that things are not as they ought to be. Think for a moment of the photos of immigrant children held in cages. Something in our spirit rebelled against these images as just wrong, an offence against everything we believe about the value of children and how they should be treated. For Schillebeeckx, these moments of “no, this should not be!” this experience of offense or grief teaches us to recognize the places where God’s restoring work is needed. It’s like a big traffic cone marking out a problem in the road.

In this sense, grief is like pain. Pain has an important and useful function: it alerts us to what is going on with our body. Grief operates in this same way. It alerts us to those places where God’s fullness is missing, places begging for restoration. 

Grief then is not just an important emotion that we need to allow ourselves to experience–though it is that. It is also a spiritual process; it has a theological function. It shows us those places in our lives that are just begging for God’s healing work. 

Allowing ourselves to grieve, then is theological work. It is to take note of the need for God’s healing, to allow ourselves to long for God’s fullness, to yearn for restoration.

Our grief is also a sort of invitation to God. It invites God to come and to bring wholeness to what is broken, to restore what is lost, to bring life to what has died.  In this time of grieving, I pray that we have the courage to name our grief and to hold the grief of others. I pray that we have the compassion to comfort others in their grief and to care for ourselves. In so doing, may we pour out to God our longing, our yearning for wholeness. May we invite God to come, bringing with him his wholeness, life, and restoration. Amen.

Learn from these things

Sermon; Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost; 11 October 2020; Proper 23A (RCL); Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23′ Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14.

     Groan.  Matthew ruins a perfectly good parable.  Luke has a version of this same parable.  A man throws a feast, but when he sends his servants to tell those invited that the feast is ready, they beg off, one after the other.  When the servants return, the host tells them to go out into the streets and lanes of the city, and invite those they find.  When they have done that, there is still more room, so he sends them out again, to invite in more, including the lame and the blind.

     Rachel Held Evans used this story in one of her blog posts.  She said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.”  It’s a great image.

     But Matthew needs to throw in some vindictiveness.  The King becomes enraged with those who bowed out, and sends his army to destroy their city.  Matthew turns this story into a story about Jewish unfaithfulness.  Because the Jews refused to come to the feast, God destroyed Jerusalem.  Of course, the story no longer makes narrative sense – by the time he has sent his army, the feast is no longer worth eating.  And then there’s the poor guy not wearing his wedding garment.  Scholars think that Matthew is talking about baptism here.  The way to get in to the kingdom feast is by baptism.  Matthew has to have weeping and gnashing of teeth in the story somewhere.

     The Exodus story also highlights God’s vindictiveness.  When Israel and Judah split after the death of Solomon, Jeroboam, the king of the northern kingdom worried that people would go up to Jerusalem for sacrifice, and the would lose the loyalty of the people of Israel.  So, he built two sanctuaries, on at Dan and one at Bethel, and placed at each of them a golden calf.  He then proclaimed, “Behold your Gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”  The authors of Exodus wrote this event back into the story of the wilderness – it makes no sense for Aaron to say, “Behold your gods, O Israel,” when there is only one calf.  God threatens to destroy the people and start over with Moses.  Only Moses remind God that God is God changes the divine mind.  It seems Moses is better at mercy than God.

     I suppose it’s good that stories like these are in the Bible.  They remind us just how easy it is to think our version of God is the only correct version.  If our God is the right God, then vindictiveness makes sense.  Everyone else must think like us to be right.  But, then there’s a story like Luke’s version of this parable also in the Bible, reminding us that we have to use our own imaginations and sense of justice to come to understand God.  Dorothy Day once said, “I really only love God as much as the person I love the least.”  Ouch.

     So, Paul gives us a different perspective.  I think this is his last letter, written as he was on his way to his death.  Other early Christian martyrs imitated this letter in their final missives, so it seems like they understood it as his last letter.  Last week, we heard him say he desired to stay in the body, rather than go to Christ, so he could continue to teach the Philippians for their joy.  By these lines, it seems like he knows he won’t, in fact, be able to come to them.  So, he gives his final instruction.

     Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I’ll say it, rejoice.  And then my favorite verses in the Bible: “Finally beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, set your mind on these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”

     Our translation said “think about these things.”  The Greek really means something more like “learn from these things.”  Paul can’t teach them anymore, but he is convinced that they can learn what they need to on their own.  They can determine whatever is true and just and good.

     As you are probably aware, I’ve been in Colorado packing up my mom’s house for her move to Bellingham, Washington, to a two-bedroom cottage on my sister’s property.  My parents built that house in Arvada, and we moved in in early 1962.  My mom has been downsizing for years, and my sister and I were out there in early September getting rid of the last bits.  As you can imagine, it was hard for both my mom and me to empty out that house and pack it up.  Fifty-nine years is a lot of memories.

     My mom talked about being a forward-thinker.  Hard as it is to close a chapter, you have to do it to look forward.  We reminisced about all the memories we would carry with us from that house.  When we moved in, there was no development behind us.  We could go right out the back door into wide open fields, and we played in hose fields for years.  The freedom, the exploring, the adventures, were all a part of my growing up.

     We talked about the amazing gift the house had given us, and how we will carry that gift with us as we go forward.  I think that is what Paul is telling his Philippian congregation.  Grief is always hard, but Paul wants them to hold on to the true and beautiful in the world.

     Perhaps we need this in this polarized times.  Matthew wants his God to be right, and in consequence, everyone else to be wrong.  Then God can punish all the others.  Paul, on the other hand, calls our attention to whatever is true, whatever is beautiful, and just, and excellent.  He is confident that he has taught us enough that we can find those things and then learn from them.      As we get closer to this election, I hope we can focus on those excellences and virtues we can all agree on.  I will always treasure the gifts I take from family and from a fortunate growing-up.  I hope to learn from those things, and learn how to share them with others.  That is a much more expansive vision of who God is than Matthew’s vindictiveness.  I think Rachel Held Evans is right:  then kingdom is just a bunch of misfits at the table because they were invited.  My growing-up was just plain lucky, a gift given for no good reason.  When we are given much, I hope we build a longer table, rather than erecting a fence.

Juicy justice

Sermon; Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost; 4 October 2020; Proper 22A (RCL); Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46.

     Oh, dear – another parable about vineyards, and this one has a pretty ugly point to make.  I’ve referred to Isaiah 5, and the song of the vineyard.  This parable makes explicit reference to that song.  In Isaiah 5, the prophet talks about God building a watch tower in the vineyard and digging a wine press.  Matthew includes those details so we can’t miss the connection.

     In Isaiah 5, God looked for justice but found bloodshed, and for righteousness, but heard a cry.  So, the prophet says, God is going to tear down the wall around the vineyard, remove its hedge, and let the beasts of the field devour it.  The vineyard is the people of Jerusalem, who were supposed to work for righteousness, but didn’t.

     So, Matthew has Jesus use this same image, only this time against the religious authorities.  And throughout history, this parable has been used to justify what is called supersessionism; that is, the idea that Christianity has replaced Judaism as God’s favored religion.  The idea of supersessionism has been used throughout history to persecute Jews, and this parable has often been used to justify that persecution.  It’s just what Jesus said should happen.

     We are forced to ask then, just what are the fruits of the kingdom, and who produces them.  Isaiah tells us that the fruits of the vineyard are justice and righteousness – both really slippery words.

     Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, speaks about a righteousness that comes from Christ, so maybe we can start there, and see if we can figure out what these fruits are.  He starts out by saying, “If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more,” and then lists off his credentials: circumcised on the eighth day, of the tribe of Benjamin, as to the law, a Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the Church, as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

     Righteousness, then, has something to do with credentials, and the community status they grant.  We might list off our credentials for being an American just like Paul does his for trust in the flesh:  Patriot, served in the military (not me, but others), native-born, and so on.  We could even list off our credentials for being a member of St. David’s:  pledger, regular attender, volunteer for many years for Celebration of the Arts, and whatever other things earn points.

     Earn points.  Righteousness has something to do with our call on community, the favors we can call in.  I suppose we can see justice in the same way.  Think of the cases we’ve seen of black people killed by police.  Who gets justice?  Who has enough pull in community to be defended in the courts.  Black Lives Matter has called our attention to the inequities of the justice system.

     But Paul says he counts all of this as rubbish compared to the righteousness that comes from Christ.  The word he uses for rubbish is a lot more colorful than that, but translators are a prudish bunch.  Translated literally, it is, “that which is thrown from the dog.”  You can fill it in.  I’ve certainly picked up my fair share of it.

     A righteousness that comes from the faithfulness of Christ.  A community belonging that comes from Christ’s faithfulness; credentials not mine but Christ’s.  That is what Paul aims for. 

God intended the law to establish a just community, but we used it to make distinctions between inside and outside.

     I suppose when we look at it like that, any of us could be the keepers of the vineyard, who do not produce the fruit of the kingdom.  In the system we have, some have a call on the community, and some do not.  We base that call on wealth, on status, on any number of things that Paul would identify with the flesh.  What if, instead, a person’s status in community was given by Christ’s faithfulness?

     I think that is what Paul means when he talks about us dying with Christ in baptism.  We die to any other self-definition we may have besides the self-definition given in Christ.  Thank goodness even Paul says that he has not yet attained this, but presses on to make it his own, or better for Christ to make him his own.  We can take comfort from Paul when we see that we certainly have not arrived yet.  But the prize is clear before us.

     So, I don’t want to use this parable to justify supersessionism – we’re better tenants of the vineyard than the people who came before us.  But I do want to use the image of the vineyard as a metaphor for God hopes for us.  One summer, before I was married, I took a vacation to visit a friend who lived in Washington State.  He had to work some of the days I was there, so I sat in his backyard, and ate the Concord grapes growing on his back fence while I read my book.

     Juicy, sweet, and free for the taking.  I think I made myself sick on those grapes, but I remember them to this day.  As a metaphor for community belonging, could there be anything better?  What if our city was like a vineyard, with plenty of grapes for everyone?  We tend to think of justice is dry terms – equal protection under the law.  What if we thought of it in juicy terms?  Grapes make wine, and wine gladdens our hearts.  What if justice looked like glad hearts for everyone?

     Think of the kinds of things that earn us points in community.  In reference to St. David’s, things like pledging, working for the Celebration of the Arts.  Think of how much richer those things make your life, how much deeper they make your connection to St. David’s.  But, they can also be used to exclude, and make us cliquey.  That’s the distinction.  Can we find ways to extend that righteousness to all?  That makes life sweet and juicy.

     Every city, every nation, every community, does some things well, and some things not so well.  Rather than saying the tenants must be replaced, what if we used this parable to ask what fruit we could produce better?  Clearly the tenants in the parable used the vineyard to exclude some people, and even to kill others.  This is the bloodshed God decries in Isaiah 5 – this is the opposite of justice and righteousness.      No matter how we screw up, God is faithful to God’s promises – that is the righteousness from the faithfulness of Christ.  God gathers us all in to enjoy the sweet, juicy, and slightly intoxicating fruits of the kingdom.  As stewards of that vineyard, we want to make sure they grow well, so there is enough to go around.  That’s what the wine on the altar stands for – God’s superabundance of the good things of life, meant for all.

Who gets in?

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost; 27 September 2020; Proper 21A (RCL); Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32.

     Last week we had the parable of the owner of the vineyard paying all the workers, regardless of when they were hired, the same daily wage.  This week we have the parable of the two sons, one who says he won’t work in the vineyard, and then does, and one who says he will and then doesn’t.  What’s going on here?

     There are lots of parables in the Gospels about vineyards and vines.  I suppose we could just assume that vineyards formed part of the common cultural background of Jesus’ hearers and the readers of the Gospels, so it made an easy illustration – just like sheep and shepherds.

     But, I think there is something more going on here – especially in this context.  The chief priests and elders ask Jesus by what authority he is doing “these things.”  I don’t know why the designers of the lectionary chose to chop things up the way they did, but we skipped over the “things” Jesus is doing.  We’ve skipped over the triumphal entry, when Jesus comes into Jerusalem riding on a donkey’s colt, with the crowds acclaiming him as the David’s son, who comes in the name of the Lord.

     That’s already shocking enough.  No one would have missed the implications.  Jesus is riding into Jerusalem as a king victorious over his enemies.  It’s not called the triumphal entry for nothing.  He is not coming as a conqueror, but as the rightful king of Jerusalem victorious over God’s enemies.

     And then, once he gets into Jerusalem, he enters the Temple and overturns the tables of the money changers, and drives the animals out of the Temple.  We call this act the cleansing of the Temple, and we tend to think of it as ridding the Temple of activities that should not be happening there.

     But really, everything happening is perfectly fine.  It was illegal to carry Roman currency in the Temple, only the Temple shekel.  So, if you came from Galilee or anywhere else, you would have to change your coins.  And, it was unlikely that you would drive a lamb on the three-day journey from Galilee to Jerusalem; instead you’d sell your lamb back home and buy another at the Temple.

     The problem was the graft.  The money changers took their cut; the animal sellers took their cut; and the Temple authorities took their cut.  It was how they could afford to keep the whole affair going, and dress themselves in the best robes.  The revolutionary feeling in the air was directed at the Temple authorities as much as at Rome.  So, understandably the Temple authorities and Rome would be pretty distressed with Jesus.

     So, they ask him on what authority he does “these things” – riding into Jerusalem, creating chaos in the Temple courts.  So, Jesus responds with his own question:  John’s baptism – from heaven or humans?  They’re trapped and refuse to answer, so Jesus refuses to answer their question, and then tells this parable, and connects it to the tax collectors and prostitutes.

     In the Old Testament, the vineyard was a metaphor for God’s people, and the justice they were supposed to live.  In Isaiah 5, the prophet sings a song of God’s vineyard.  God cultivates the vineyard, and it repays him by yielding wild grapes.  The poem ends with God saying, “I expected justice, and instead found bloodshed; I expected righteousness, but instead heard a cry.”  Jerusalem is the vineyard, and the poem is the prophet’s indictment of their failure to live up to God’s purposes.

     So, in last week’s parable the vineyard owner paid the workers a just wage.  We all say, “But it’s not fair.”  Fairness wasn’t what he was going for, but making sure everyone in the village had enough to eat.  And in this week’s parable, one son says he won’t work in the vineyard, and then does; the other says he will and then doesn’t.  The implication is clear.  The religious authorities appear to be the ones working in the vineyard, but aren’t.  The tax collectors and prostitutes appear to be the people breaking the rules, but as a result of John’s preaching and baptism, are in fact working in the vineyard – that is working for justice.

     This stands things on their head.  The tax collectors, at least the little guys, were probably people who had been taxed off their land, and were collecting taxes on their neighbors as a way of working off their own debt.  They had no choice; their families would go hungry otherwise.  Prostitutes were probably women who had been divorced and had no other option to feed themselves and their children.  These are people shattered by the systems of oppression at work around them, doing their best to scrape by.

     And, according to the parable, when they hear John’s preaching, they enter the kingdom of heaven.  That is, they start taking care of one another, helping each other get by.  In the Old Testament there are laws about not harvesting all the grapes in your vineyard, so there would be some left for the widow and orphan, so they wouldn’t end up tax collectors and prostitutes.

     The religious authorities, on the other hand, are benefiting from the systems of oppression.  Jesus’ challenge to them is to see the tax collectors and prostitutes as the son who at first refuses to work in the vineyard, but who then go, and ourselves as the other son.

     To the extent that we benefit from systems of oppression, we are those authorities.  Think of the coca farmers in South and Central America.  They are doing what they have to do to get by.  The international trade agreements limit what those countries can export (mostly oil), so there isn’t much else they can do.  Most of the coffee grown in Central America comes directly to us, and the conglomerates have pushed people off their subsistence farms in order to grow coffee.  The little guys can’t grow beans on that land anymore, so they’re left to grow coca.      The combination of these two parables asks us to rethink justice and our position in the kingdom of heaven.  Maybe those people we find easiest to despise know something we don’t.

Profligate justice

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost; 20 September 2020; Proper 20A (RCL); Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

     As I read this passage from Matthew, I can just hear you saying, “But, wait!  That’s not fair!”  I had a teacher in high school who would reply every time someone said that, “Who promised you life would be fair?”  But this is a parable of Jesus.  Surely we would expect fairness here.

     Of course, the guys in this story who worked the whole day grumble that the landowner is not fair; so even Jesus understands our expectation that life is fair.  I think Jesus tells the story precisely to challenge our understanding of what is fair.  And even more importantly, I think Jesus tells the story to force us to think about the appropriate use of wealth.

     There is a meme that goes around Facebook every so often.  In the first panel, it shows three kids trying to look over the outfield fence to watch a baseball game.  The kid on the left is tall enough to see over the fence.  The middle kid can almost see over the fence, and the kid on the right is shorter still, and is staring right at the fence.

     In the next panel, each of the kids is standing on a peach box.  The tall kid is now really tall.  The middle kid can see over the fence, and the short kid is still too short to see the game.  This panel is labeled “equity.”  All the kids have the same resources.  The third panel shows the tall kid standing on the ground – he can see over the fence.  The middle kid is standing on one peach box, and he can see over the fence.  The short kid is standing on two peach boxes; now he can watch the game!  That panel is labeled justice.  The resources (peach boxes) aren’t distributed equally, but everyone has access to the game.

     Think about this parable.  I’ve never been in the position of looking for day labor, but there were corners in Denver where you could see guys standing out early in the day, hoping to get hired by a landscaping company or for some other manual labor.  A contractor’s truck would pull up, and the contractor would signal two or three of them to get in the truck, and off they’d go.  Of course, there were some days when there would still be guys standing there after the last contractor had hired everyone needed.  You can be sure it would be a hard night for those guys.

     Notice in the story, when the landowner asks the men why they’re still standing there at five o’clock, they don’t say, “We got here late.”  They say, “No one has hired us.”  It’s going to be hard night at home for those guys.  A denarius was not only the average wage for a day laborer:  it was also about what you needed to put food on the table for a day.  There will be hungry families in the village.

     So, the landowner pays the guys he hired at five o’clock a denarius.  Their families will eat.  Think of the good will he buys in the village.  Those guys are going to want to work for him again, even if he hires them at five o’clock in the morning!  And if they ever have a little extra and can afford to buy wine, you can be sure, they’ll buy his wine.  Fair or not, he keeps the village in good shape.  So, what’s fair and what’s just are not necessarily the same thing.

     But even deeper is how the story challenges us to think about the use of wealth.  Last week, when Peter asked how many times he should forgive a brother or sister, Jesus told the parable of the ten thousand talents.  The slave who was forgiven ten years of Herod’s income throttled his fellow slave for 100 denarii, the usual daily wage.  Clearly Matthew wants us to connect one story to the other.

     The parable of the ten thousand talents comes at the end of chapter 18, and this parable comes at the beginning of chapter 20.  We skip over chapter 19.  Chapter 19 contains three basic units.  The Pharisees ask about divorce, saying the law allows a man to divorce his wife with a certificate.  Some of the rabbis after Jesus’ time allowed a man to divorce his wife for burning the stew.  Jesus absolutely forbids divorce except for infidelity.  Then, some people bring some children to be blessed and the crowds try to keep them away.  Jesus blesses the children and says whoever doesn’t accept the kingdom like a child cannot enter it.

     And then, the rich young man comes to Jesus and asks, “What good deed must I do to inherit the kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus tells him to keep the commandments, and he says he has done so since his youth.  Jesus looks at him and loves him, and says, “You lack one thing.  Go and sell everything you have, and give it to the poor.  Then come follow me.”  The man leaves crestfallen, for he had many possessions.

     When a man divorced his wife, she was in deep trouble.  If her father would not take her back, she was thrown on her own resources, which usually weren’t much.  Often, she ended up in prostitution.  So, Jesus forbids treating women this way.  He also treats children, who were equally vulnerable, as if they are worthy of blessing.  And then he sends the rich man away.

     And then tells this parable.  How does anyone amass many possessions?  And note, the word is possessions.  One can amass much only by hoarding what really belongs in circulation.  Origen, an early interpreter of scripture, said about this parable, that the rich only hold their wealth in trust for the poor, and when the poor demand it, the rich must give it back.  The owner of the vineyard understands that he holds his wealth to make the community work – the wages belong to the worker, so they can eat.

     The Old Testament lesson is the story of the manna in the wilderness.  In the next few verses, God will get extremely angry with the people, because they want to gather more than one day’s worth of manna.  Of course, it rots overnight, except on the Sabbath.  Pharaoh hoarded all the grain in Egypt and bought everyone into slavery.  God’s people are not to hoard even a day’s worth of manna, so they don’t become Pharaoh.  In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for our daily bread.

     The king forgave his slave ten thousand talents, so basically everything he owned, even his life and his household, was pure gift from his king.  When he demanded a hundred denarii from his fellow slave, he was trying to hoard what wasn’t his.      When the laborer grumbles in this story, the vineyard owner asks, “Can’t I do what I want with what is mine?  Or is your eye evil because I am generous?”  The evil eye was much more damaging than jealousy.  The evil eye damages community.  The appropriate use of wealth is build community.  What is ours, and what belongs to God and we only hold in trust?  This is not a stewardship sermon, but that is the question of our whole life.  It’s all gift.  And we should be profligate with it.

It’s all gift

13 September 2020; Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 19A (RCL); Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

     On my trip to Colorado, I was being especially careful to avoid contact with people, not wanting to put my mom at any risk.  I took a cooler with food to eat, rather than going into any fast food restaurant along the way.  On the way back, though, I was tired of making and eating ham sandwiches, so one day for lunch, I decided to go through a Dairy Queen drive through window.

     I ordered my lunch, and the woman behind the speaker told me the bill would be ten dollars and change.  I got out a $20 bill, and the appropriate change, since there is a coin shortage going on.  But when I got to the window, she told me that the car in front of me had paid my bill.  I was completely flustered.  I almost drove off with a word of thanks, but then I remembered that this is not how the game is played.

     I asked her how much the order behind me was.  She said $7 and something.  I handed her the twenty, and told her to pay the bill behind me.  And then, I just drove off.  Remember, I was flustered.  I didn’t wait for any change from the twenty.  I hope she used it for other cars behind the one behind me.

     As I got back on the highway, I laughed at myself for being so nonplused by the whole thing.  For half a second, I thought about the change from the twenty that I had just left behind, but then I was grateful that people could be so kind.  Even if the girl at Dairy Queen kept the change for herself, it was a good day for someone, and certainly a good day for me.

     In last week’s Gospel reading, Jesus gave the church the only community rule we find on his lips.  If your brother or sister has sinned against you, go work it out in private, and they listen, you have regained your brother or sister.  If they don’t listen, take one or two others with you, and if they won’t listen to them, then and only then take the matter to the whole church.  And if they won’t listen to the church, then and only then, write them off.

     So, Peter, good old Peter, wants to pin Jesus down.  How many times should be willing to do that with my brother or sister?  Seven times?  No, Jesus says, seven times seventy times.  And then he tells a parable.

     A king wanted to settle accounts with his slaves.  One slave owed him ten thousand talents.  Talent is not a currency we use, so the number doesn’t mean much to us.  Herod the Great’s annual income had been about 1,000 talents a year.  So this slave owed his king ten years’ worth of a king’s income.  Unimaginable!  How does a slave get that far in debt?  We might very well fill in ten billion dollars.  So the king decides to sell him and his family into slavery and all their possessions.  The amount of the sale won’t come close to recouping the debt – maybe a single talent.

     The slave falls on his knees and begs his king for patience.  He promises to repay.  The king of course knows that’s never going to happen, but for a single talent, what’s the point of selling him?  So, he cuts his losses and forgives the debt.  But this same slave immediately meets a fellow slave who owes him 100 denarii.  A denarius was the usual daily wage for a day laborer.  So he owes his fellow slave about four months’ worth of minimum wage.

     Our main character throttles his fellow slave and demands repayment, and when he can’t repay, he orders him thrown in prison – for 100 denarii!  Matthew then adds the tag line that God will throw us in prison if we don’t forgive each other.  But I think the point of the story is much deeper than that – and parables invite a lot of interpretations.

     We can live in one of two ways:  either grateful for the incredible gifts we have been given, or suspicious always trying to figure out what the world owes us.  We are so used to thinking of the world in terms of debt, that it completely flusters us (me, at any rate) when someone out of the blue gives us a gift, or pays what we owe.

     When Jesus begins his ministry, he announces the kingdom of God by saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has arrived.”  That word, “repent,” means literally in Greek, “change your mind,” or better yet, “go back to school.”  It requires training, homework, and a complete shift in mindset.  What if we approached every human interaction asking “What gift am I receiving,” instead of asking, “What can I get out of this?”  How would that change our view of the world.

     As we were cleaning out the house, my mom and I talked about the incredible gift the house had given us.  It provided a place of refuge, of learning, of discovery, of safety, and of love.  We decided that the best way we could move on as we lose this house was to hope that whoever buys the house will receive as much from it as we did, and then find ways to pay that gift forward wherever we find ourselves.  That made the grief bearable, and opens up new vistas for living life to the full.

     Last week I said that I am always troubled in the Old Testament that God’s favor for Israel always comes at someone else’s expense.  This week, we have Pharaoh’s army thrown up on the seashore, so Israel could go free.  But I think the same lesson is buried in this story as in the parable of the 10,000 talents.  Pharaoh could only see Israel as free labor, rather than as a gift.  Remember, Pharaoh (with Joseph’s help) had hoarded all the grain in Egypt, and then bought everyone into slavery by parceling out that grain.

     When Israel gets into the wilderness, they complain that there is no food.  “Oh, that we might return to Egypt, and sit by the fleshpots, with onions and cucumbers in abundance,” they complain.  So, God gives them manna.  They can collect just enough for one day.  If they gather more, it rots overnight.  There will be no hoarding food in the wilderness.  God is going to teach them the hard way that life is a gift.  If you can only collect food for one day, there is no way you’re going to get 10,000 in debt to anyone.

     Paul gives us the same warning.  Don’t look down on anyone.  Money is the way we rank ourselves and our worth.  It allows us to look down on others, or to think we ourselves are not worth as much when we compare what we have and make to what others have and make.  But the parable tells us that there is no difference between 10,000 talents and 100 denarii, but only in the way we look at the world.      Is life a gift, or does it owe us?  That’s the difference.  Even when it’s just ten dollars and change at Dairy Queen, life is a gift beyond imagining.