Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Moral Issue around Who Gets, Who Keeps, and Who Gives

November 19, 2017
Christ Church, Exeter

The Moral Issue around Who Gets, 
Who Keeps, and Who Gives

Let me just come right out and say that today’s parable is not one that is easy to tie up with easy lessons or takeaways.  Nevertheless, like every gospel, we look for good news -- shades of light to help us on the journey.

What we are to make of Matthew’s words put on the mouth of the master at the very end? For to all those who have, more will be given, and they have in abundance; for from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away?  It doesn’t at all sound fair or Jesus like.

In the debate that is taking place in the halls of congress in Washington, which is called both tax reform or tax cuts, people are asking: who would it favor and who would it hurt?  The conversation is so complicated that it is hard to know how it might impact us. We hear often how the rich get richer and the poor are getting poor and those in the middle are being left behind. Rising income equality is in the headlines.  The 1% vs. the 99%.  The Donor Class, the Middle Class, the working poor.   This is a conversation going on “out there.”  What does it have to do with what we do here: who we are, what we care about and how we pray.  

The New York Times reported this past week that in the United States, “the richest 1 percent have seen their share of national income roughly double since 1980, to 20 percent in 2014 from 11 percent. This trend has resulted in stagnant living standards for most Americans.  No other developed nation is as unequal, and none have experienced such a sharp rise in inequality.”

Sounds political.  Edgy.  Should we care?  I believe we should. Does God care?  After spending weeks and weeks reading through the story of the Exodus, this one thing should be clear.  God hears the cries of God’s people. So when people suffer, God cares. About the oppressed.  The harassed. The bullied. The poor.  Victims.  Those abused, forgotten, deported, imprisoned.  When it comes to watching how riches are shared, our faith should tell us that we have a dog in this fight.  It becomes a moral issue.  

Again: For to all those who have, more will be given, and they have in abundance; for from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away?   How is that right?  

A master entrusts great sums of money to three of his slaves.  The five talents the first slave received was worth, in modern terms, about $2 million.  Even for the slave only given one talent, it was an enormous amount of wealth. More than he could ever imagine.   

I mentioned a few weeks back in the sermon that when you hear a cloud mentioned in the Bible, the presence of God is not too far away.  The same if true when it comes to over-sized numbers: our radar should be alerted.  A master gives out more money than anyone can imagine.  5,000 people are fed with a few pieces of bread and some fish. A host opens up a wedding banquet to anyone who would like to come. A shepherd leaves 99 sheep behind to look for the one that wandered away. A message of grace lays behind this tough parable that looks to be about all judgement. 

Poet Mary Oliver wrote this: “You can have the other words-chance, luck, coincidence, serendipity. I'll take grace. I don't know what it is exactly, but I'll take it.”  Writer Anne Lamott puts it another way -- “I do not understand the mystery of grace -- only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”

Let’s play out one traditional way of hearing this story.  If Jesus is the master, it will require us to shake off the images of our Savior blessing children, healing lepers and carrying a lamb around his shoulders.  The long journey the master went on and the eventual return to settle the accounts was the time between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension and his Second Coming that all of the disciples were expecting to come in their lifetime, then the absurdly high currency of the talents have been understood as the many gifts that believers are given to the good of the Kingdom of God. 

So, we have been given many gifts for the good of the faith and the world.  Use them.  Lift them up. Express them.  Give generously. Share. Don’t hid your light under a basket and your treasure in the ground. Give. Risk. Dream. Invest in the future.  When the End does come and with our days numbered, wouldn’t it be better to have made something of what we’ve been given? 

Like the first two slaves who are praised, we will receive our: “Well done.” “Enter into the joy of your master.”  

This view of the parable plays well of course during stewardship season when our challenge is to connect all of this with God’s work in and through us in the world. 

And then there is the rest of the parable.

The master has another side: darker.  More exacting and firm.  To the one who, out of fear, returned only with what was first given, one talent, He said: “you wicked and lazy slave!”

For centuries, the Church spoke of Cardinal, or deadly, sins – the big ones: they were:  envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, wrath and sloth.

Sloth, the animal of the same name who sleeps most of day: the so-called sin that makes the list is one of excessive laziness or the failure to act and utilize one’s talents.  In our country, where the Protestant Work Ethic still dominates, to called lazy is perhaps the worst thing one can say of another person.

We react differently to someone who appears uninterested in using the physical or other gifts given to them: the gift to play music, or run, build things.  The squander or not used one’s gift is seen with much greater sorrow than not having been given anything to begin with.

And that could be the more redeeming message here. 

I commend the book that we’ve been reading here and in town:  $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America. It challenges our stereotypes of those on welfare in this country for putting faces to statistics. Debunks the false caricature of the so-called Welfare Queen of the 1980’s.  It looks into failure of welfare reform of the 1990’s. And it chronicles the lives of real people who cannot find good work or earn enough to support themselves for the low paying jobs they can find.  It shows how millions of people in this country who can qualify for SNAP, or food stamps, exist on little to no cash income. Millions of children in homes living, barely, on $2 a day.  These are people who have not buried their treasure in the ground, but feel buried and passed over by a system that continues to fail them. 

This coming week many of us will sit down at a table to celebrate Thanksgiving Day.  A special holiday in this part of the world as we are only miles away from that first meal shared by the Pilgrims.  The meal we share each week in the Eucharist has thanksgiving to its core.  It is what Eucharist literally means: to give thanks.  Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.  It is right to give God thanks and praise. 

The nature of God is to give in abundance: life, breath, food, water, love: all that is needed to live and be.  How will we respond?

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

All Saints' Sermon: A Great Could of Witnesses

A Great Cloud of Witnesses

A few weeks back I was a witness to a car accident.  I had just loaded up my pick-up truck one morning to take my trash and recycling to the transfer station – like any good NH resident – when on my way I saw a car weaving back and forth to both sides of the road.  It was not going fast at all, but slowly driving erratically.  Something seemed very wrong, so I followed behind at a short distance.  I became more concerned when the car drove up onto the sidewalk.  My first reaction was to try to drive alongside and honk my horn to get the driver’s attention.  Not soon after I started honking, the driver drove head-on to an oncoming car.  Fortunately, this all happened at such slow speed that no one was hurt. The man in the car that was hit was quite stunned and angry to have seen a car coming at him at such a slow speed and then hit him -- so he started to get out to yell at the erratic driver.  I quickly got out of my car to meet him: “I think the driver is confused” I said.  “I don’t think he knew what he was doing.”  The driver, I saw, was an older gentleman, with a walker in the back seat and I began to ask him questions he clearly not aware of where he was.  I convinced him to hand me his keys until the Police came.  My hunch is that that was the last morning drive the gentleman would be taking.  Clearly it could have been much worse.   Since I was the only witness to the accident to see what happened, I was asked to stay behind and wrote up an account for the police report.   

A witness is someone who sees an event take place – sometimes a crime or an accident.  When it comes to faith, a witness can be and see much more.  The Risen Jesus in Act 1:8 told his disciples that they “would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”  This is the grounding for our parish vision to serve the local and global community.  Not either or, but both/and.  Near and far. 

Our first reading is from Joshua.  Moses, the great liberator of the Israelites out of their bondage in Egypt, was dead.  We’ve been reading about Moses for weeks now.  About his birth, his rise to influence, his growing awareness of the suffering of his people. The Burning Bush.  Crossing through the Red Sea.  Receiving the Ten Commandments.  40 long years of wandering with some grumbling and tired people who were tempted to think that the old life had to have been better than what they were experiencing in the wilderness. 

There was no such thing or concept as a Bucket List in the Bible – the list that some people nearing a certain time in their life make to list the places they’d like to see and the things they’d still like to do.    Someone once described to me the 3 stages of retirement: go-go; slow-go; and no go.  One would think that if he could, Moses would have liked to have led his people over the finish line.  But he was a no-go.  It would not be. 

It would be Joshua.  How would you like to be the one to follow Moses?  Even the Lord seemed to know there might be P.R. problems. The Lord said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of Israel, so that they may know that I will be you as I was with Moses.”   Thanks Lord.  I suppose that was a confidence booster.    Yet as mighty a warrior as Joshua would become, Moses was never forgotten – his legacy loomed large. 

Perhaps you have heard the phrase 'Standing on the shoulders of giants'?  It is attributed to Isaac Newton – who is known by lore for a certain apple that fell from a tree and caused his to consider a little thing we call gravity.    The phrase is believed to go even further back to the 12th century to John of Salisbury who wrote: "We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours."

I am drawn to this image and idea of being raised up by others – allowing their stature and experiences – their pains and hopes – to add to our own.  Allowing us to see more and farther out into the world. 

This is why we need and cherish All Saints’ so much.  It is not primarily about the giants of the faith: those who have Saint as a first name (St. Patrick, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Mary) and who have cleared the bar of holiness by acts of healing and mercy.  It is about God’s holy giants and lesser giants -- the known and the forgotten.

I had the opportunity last Sunday to visit an Anglican church in Kingston, Jamaica and after the 2 ½ hour 8:00 a.m. service, visit a church-run home for girls who had been severely traumatized and abused.  The woman who ran the home was with the girls on a rainy Sunday morning and encouraged them to stand next to her, holding their hand, as she coaxed them to introduce themselves to this group of strangers.  More than the rector who ran the parish, the woman who mothered these young girls back to life and dignity was and is the saint whose light was clear to see. 

Celebrating All Saints’ allows us to lift up what we call the communion of the saints, (BCP) which is the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise.

It is like Old Home Week for the church.  Everyone, the living and the dead, gets to celebrate what being a child of God is all about. Being formed, created, loved into being by a Creator who is with us if and whenever we lose our way or make a mess of things.    I so like the prayer we use for birthdays. That is what God does: Strengthens us when we stand.  Comforts us when we get discouraged or sorrowful. Raises us up if we fall and abides with us all the days of our lives. 

A witness is someone who sees an event take place.  I hope you hear these words in the prayer we will pray today at communion: “for in the multitude of the saints, you have surrounded us with a great cloud of witnesses, that we might rejoice in their fellowship and run with endurance the race that is set before us.” 

We are surrounded by a great cloud of God’s people who will not allow anyone’s life to be forgotten.  Anyone’s experience to go unseen or unnoticed.  No one’s life falls between the cracks of this big sometimes anonymous world. 

Pay attention when clouds get mentioned in church and in the Bible – they usually mean that God is near. 

What do we know about clouds anyway?

I had to update my phone a few weeks back because my old one wouldn’t charge anymore and the salesperson asked me if I had updated my data on the cloud.  I really did not want to come across as clueless, but I finally surrendered and said: “I have no idea.”  The cloud, as some of you more tech savvy people know, is the term for a collection of networks and computer servers somewhere – but not in the sky -- where data – such as the photos on my phone I so wanted to recover – is stored. 

What I remember of my childhood when a cloud was just a cloud.  My friends and I spent a lot of time looking up into the sky at clouds.  We would often lay down on the grass in the backyard and look up into the sky at the clouds and challenge each other to find people and objects in the clouds and be the first to point them out.   Hours on end it seemed.

One Christmas years back my children were each given The Book of Clouds by John A. Day by their grandparents.  Dr. Day is a world expert in clouds and known as ‘the Cloudman.’  Before his gets into the heavy physics of clouds, he offers up ten reasons to look up. Among them. 

Clouds are the greatest free show on earth.
Through there are four basic kinds, clouds are never exactly the same.
Many skies are simply beautiful to behold – the graduations of light and color in the late afternoon or the early morning hours.
They are a billboard of coming attractions.   One can get a real sense when a storm is coming.
Clouds makes us more connected to nature.
Clouds are made up of water and a constant reminder of how important water is to life. 
Cloud watching is an antidote for boredom. They are ever changing. 
They are simply a magic show. They are mystery.  Where do they come from and where do they go?   

There are moments when we may need our own top ten reasons to look up. Or believe again. Trust. Forgive.   As we look up and out, we are a part of a whole big family of God that is a part of you and me.    

All Saints’ is a day to remember those who have died over the last year.  In the BCP the question is asked: Why do we pray for the dead?   The answer: “We pray for them, because we still hold them in our love, and because we trust that in God's presence those who have chosen to serve him will grow in his love, until they see him as he is.”  So today we will remember and pray for Ethel, Burt, Chris, Elsie, Birk and others known to you.

I think ol’ John of Salisbury had it right 800 years ago.   This great cloud of witnesses, these saints of yesterday and today allow us to see more. To dream bigger dreams. To see farther and wider.  They raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours."

Yes, Moses was a hard act to follow.  But we’re not asked to be Moses, or Frances or Mother Theresa.  We’re asked to be who God made us, fully alive and a part of the family of God.