Sunday, October 31, 2010

Homily: The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost [October 31, 2010]

Everybody has a pet peeve. Some people can’t stand waiting in line. Others are driven crazy by those unopenable plastic packages that electronic gadgets come wrapped in. Lines and hard plastic packages do annoy me, as do people writing checks for one item at the drug store and folks with extremely complicated drink orders at Starbucks. I mean, a half-caff no foam decaf percent vanilla cream latte? Please, people! It’s just a cup of coffee! Nevertheless, I do nurse one particular pet peeve, and it is one I have pretty much to myself: Daylight Savings Time.

I hate Daylight Savings Time. Chances are, you will agree with my wife, Kathy (who greets the arrival of daylight savings time in spring with joyous observations that it’s 8 o’clock and still light out) that this is a weird pet peeve for a rational adult person to have. Whenever we turn our clocks ahead, I stomp around muttering, “The government just took an hour of my life!” She and the dogs cower in the corner until the spring clock-setting ritual is done. So you can see, Daylight Savings Time drives me crazy. It drove me crazy BEFORE I moved to Michigan to find it still dark outside at 8 a.m. in October. It drives me crazy NOW living in Michigan because in summer here it’s like living in Iceland—it’s 9:30 at night and the sun is still out. As an early to bed and early to rise kind of guy, I want it to be dark when I lie down and light when I get up. Is that too much to ask?

Luckily, for us Daylight Savings Time resisters there is good news on the horizon: the best night of the year is on its way. On Saturday night November 6, next weekend, the government will give us back the hour of our lives they took from us last spring. When we turn our clocks back we will have restored the cosmic balance the universe so desperately craves. Sure, it will turn to night somewhere around noon, but it will actually be light when we’re on our way to work and school. For a few brief shining months we will all live together in the shared Camelot of Eastern Standard Time. If you notice a sharp improvement in my mood, you’ll now know why. And this is all a fancy way of saying: be sure to turn your clocks back one hour before coming to church next Sunday.

One of the ways I’ve been using the long, light nights these days has been to read a book published last year on neuroscience. (How’s that for an artful segue?) The book, by Iain McGilchrist, is The Master and His Emissary. McGilchrist is a brain scientist, a physician, and a professor of literature at Oxford, and his book examines the split between our two brain hemispheres . His theory is that the increasing dominance of the left brain has given us a culture that more and more sees the world as something to be manipulated rather than something to be experienced. For McGilchrist, the left and right sides of the brain construct different versions of our world: the left hemisphere “has its own agenda, to manipulate and use the world" and so treats the world as a machine; the right hemispherehas no preconceptions, and simply looks out to the world for whatever might be." [BBC Radio 4 Today December, 2009 interview] If the left hemisphere construes the world as a machine, the right takes it in as a living, organic whole.

McGilchrist’s larger point is that the left hemisphere (the emissary) has usurped or displaced the right hemisphere (the master) in our culture and given us a shared version of the world that values science over religion, facts over intuition, and things over processes—the “what” more than the “how”. As he says, “the left hemisphere has become so far dominant that we’re in danger of forgetting everything that makes us human.” This book is a hard read (especially for someone who hasn’t taken a science class since 1966), but it’s worth it. I want, though, to focus on one observation he makes fairly early on:

The kind of attention we bring to bear on the world changes the nature of the world we attend to . . .Attention changes what kind of thing comes into being for us: in that way it changes the world.

He uses the example of a mountain:

. . . A mountain that is a landmark to a navigator, a source of wealth to the prospector, a many-textured form to a painter, or to another the dwelling place of the gods, is changed by the attention given to it. There is no ‘real’ mountain which can be distinguished from these, no one way of thinking that reveals the true mountain. [Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary, p. 28]

Now for me the current work on brain science and attention are so important because I believe our difficulty with paying attention lies at the root of many of our social and spiritual problems; and these problems are central to understanding this morning’s Gospel, the story of the tax collector Zacchaeus climbing the tree to get a glimpse of Jesus. Because Zacchaeus is short, we’ve tended to make this one of the “cute” incidents in the New Testament.

I’m sure many of you know the song that calls Zacchaeus a “wee little man”. He may have been a wee little man, but he was also a thug—a tax collector, one who enforced the collection of oppressive taxes by the Romans and who got rich himself in the process. When Jesus accepts Zacchaeus’s invitation to come dine at his house, in our terms it would be like his going to the home of Tony Soprano. So we should not sentimentalize Zacchaeus: he’s a gangster, and his conversion from that life to one in which he can say “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” [Luke 19.8]—is a mark of a radical and life-changing repentance.

So it is a wonderful story about new life, about grace, conversion, repentance, forgiveness. Jesus accepts the invitation to be the guest of a sinner, and in making that connection the sinner is changed to become someone righteous. How does that work?

Again, getting back to this question of paying attention: if you recall the story (or the song), you will remember that Zacchaeus climbed the tree because he wanted to get a view of Jesus. This picture of Zacchaeus in the tree connects with another image from today’s readings, the picture of Habakkuk in the watchtower:

I will stand at my watchpost,

and station myself on the rampart;

I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,

and what he will answer concerning my complaint. [Habakkuk 2.1]

In both Bible accounts we witness a person climbing up high to prepare themselves to receive a message. The prophet Habakkuk ascends the tower to be ready to hear what God will say in answer to his complaint. Zacchaeus climbs a tree in order to get a better view of Jesus. In both instances, each person receives a message or a greeting because they have prepared themselves for it. They have gone up, or apart, to make themselves ready and open for what God will do. In Zacchaeus’s case, Jesus addresses him directly: "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." [Luke 19. 5] In Habakkuk’s, after lamenting the destruction that is coming to his people, the prophet becomes open to one of the most beautiful and assuring oracles in all of scripture:

For there is still a vision for the appointed time;

it speaks of the end, and does not lie.

If it seems to tarry, wait for it;

it will surely come, it will not delay.

Look at the proud!

Their spirit is not right in them,

but the righteous live by their faith. [Habakkuk 2.3-4]

For Zacchaeus, the message is that God can love and bless and accept and transform even the most egregious sinner you can imagine. For Habakkuk, the message is that even though hard times are coming, the righteous will make it through as they live by their faith. In both stories, we have a life-transforming message of hope, and it’s given to someone who has made themselves ready to receive it.

As we move into this darkening time of the year, I believe there is a message of hope and blessing for each one of us in these accounts of a watchtower-climbing prophet and a tree-climbing tax collector, and that message of hope and blessing assumes our willingness to make ourselves ready to hear it. God does want to love, bless, heal, and forgive you. God does want to assure you that, in spite of all the changes and challenges and losses and struggles you may be enduring, all will in fact be well. That message of hope and blessing and assurance is the main thing that God wants you and me to take into ourselves and live from. But the hard truth this morning is that we cannot hear that message unless, like Zacchaeus and Habakkuk, we cooperate with it. Only very rarely in the Bible does God get people’s attention through a miraculous or dramatic act. It is more typically true that God speaks to people who have learned to pay attention, to prepare themselves for God’s presence, to open themselves up to the wonder and depth of God’s love for them and the world.

In the words of the brain scientist, “The kind of attention we bring to bear on the world changes the nature of the world we attend to.” What kind of attention are you bringing to bear on the world? What, for you, would be the equivalent of climbing a watchtower or a tree? God appeared to people in Bible times not because they were better than we are. God appeared to them because they lived in greater balance between the left and right sides of their brains—they lived in a culture that valued reflection as much as action, art and religion as much as practical know-how. They were able to open themselves to God because they didn’t always live out of their controlling left brains. So how can you become more like them? How, on a daily basis, do you find time to step out of all those left brain activities of management and control we all spend so much time at and open yourself to the world using the right side of your brain? How can you spend some time each day in openness and receptivity instead of command and control? What is your way of opening yourself up to creation: a walk in the woods, a trip to a museum, playing with a child, listening to music, reading a poem? The list is endless because our uniqueness and diversity are endless. The point is: God is looking for you. But it will be all that much harder for God to find you if you yourself don’t ascend the tower or climb the tree.

Zacchaeus did climb that tree what he saw there compelled him to and welcome Jesus into his house. Habakkuk climbed the watchtower and heard there a promise of divine deliverance. As we move into these darker and richer nights of the year, how will you begin to make ready a place for God to come and do something good in you? We come now to the Eucharist, the meal in which each one of us is asked to come forward and let God and each other in. That’s as good a place as I know of to start the surprising and gracious process of paying attention to the world, each other, ourselves, and God. Amen.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Homily: The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost [October 24, 2010] Christ Church Cranbrook

A week ago last Wednesday night, Kathy and I, like many of you, sat watching the final stages in the rescue of the 33 Chilean miners from the San Jose Mine in CopiapĆ³. That rescue was a dramatic event in its own right, but for people of faith it was something more: I don’t think any church person could have watched without drawing an unconscious parallel between the ascent of those miners in the capsule and the central act of Christian faith, the resurrection of Jesus. That the impromptu city gathered around the mine took the name “Camp Hope”, and that the rescue vehicle was called “the Phoenix” only added to the religious associations of the experience. These thirty-three men were presumed dead, and now they are alive. All of us felt lifted up and transfixed by this near-miraculous event. What else does a preacher need to say?
As stirring as this story is, though, it is only natural that we now begin to learn that we might have romanticized the miners just a bit, that they are actual human beings with both strengths and weakenesses. One miner emerged to be greeted by his mistress but not by his wife. Others have told stories of conflicts, cliques, and tensions that developed during their time below. There have been hints of violence and aggression between the miners. Though we should not be surprised by any of this, to some extent we are.
One of the problems of living in this culture is that we don’t have a very good way of describing or accepting human nature in all its fullness. Popular culture is sentimental about human nature and seems to hold that human beings are naturally sweet and good, and so it has no way of explaining conflict and aggression in human affairs.
We in the church have always understood that all human beings are capable of both all the virtues and all the vices. But perhaps because the church overstressed the vice and underemphasized the virtue, a modern secular culture has grown up in its place in which people reject entirely the idea or even the possibility of sin. It is our religious tradition’s understanding that people are a a complicated mixture of goodness and sin and need to be accepted as such. It is our culture’s assertion that most people are essentially good and only a “few bad apples” are evil. Hence our outrage when we hear of someone we thought we admired gaming the system, using steroids, or having their hand in the till. I understand the disappointment, but not the surprise.
There are many ways to go through life deluded, but chief among them is to think yourself incapable of selfishness, aggression, or evil. Because our culture rejects the idea of sin, it has no way to deal with failures of human judgment except to characterize those who act badly as somehow “inhuman”. But those who act badly are not inhuman. Nor are we inhuman when we act badly. Human beings are capable of generosity and sacrifice. We are also capable of selfishness and aggression. We are the totality of all those drives and characteristics. God knows and loves us as we are. To be sure, God calls us toward virtue and away from sin. But if God were only to call and love the virtuous, church on any given Sunday would be a very small gathering.
Listen again to Jesus’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector:
"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.'

(Well, there’s nothing wrong with that!)

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted." [Luke 18:9-14]

In order to understand this parable, it helps to realize that the underlying image here and in much of the Bible is of a law court. Both the Pharisee and the tax collector appear in the temple to make their case before God. This conception of God’s presence as a court and our relationship before God as judge is one of plaintiff (if we have a complaint) or defendant (if we ourselves are accused). This is an old idea and has survived even in Christian liturgy, for example in the way the presider at the Eucharist holds up her hands in a way that was used by Roman advocates before Caesar. In this way of seeing things, when you and I appear before God we are making our case much as an attorney would. The Pharisee in this story is like a lawyer who thinks he has an ironclad argument. Look at me, your honor: I fast, I tithe, I’m not a thief, a rogue, or an adulterer. So I’m sure your honor will aggree with me by declaring me innocent!
And then there’s a tax collector. In New Testament times, a tax collector was a Jew who did the dirty work of the Romans, collecting exorbitant taxes through often unsavory means. A tax collector in Jesus’s day would be like a mobster in ours. This man would have been despised by all polite and right thinking Jews. And yet here he is, presenting himself before God with the simple words, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” For Jesus's audience, the startling point of the story, then, is that the judge decides for the low-life tax collector and against the upstanding Pharisee. The one who looks guilty is innocent. The one who presents himself as innocent is guilty, even if he doesn't even know it.
For me, this parable raises the question, “How do you present yourself before God?” It is a temptation to think of God as we think of other people, as One who can be deceived by appearances. But one deep point of biblical and Christian faith is that God sees and knows us human beings as we are, in all our complications and with our virtues as well as our faults. One of the problems of the spiritual life is getting the courage to present yourself as you are, not as you think you should be, in your prayers and conversations with God. So the Pharisee in this story stands for each one of us when we think that we can impress God with our resume. “Here, God, is a list of my recent accomplishments. I’m sure you will be suitably impressed.”
It isn’t that God rejects those accomplishments. It’s more that God does not want us to think of God’s love as something we have to earn by them. When Jesus says of the tax collector, “' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified,” we should hear that as one of the great, comforting moments in all of scripture. God knows us in the fullness of who we are, in our glories and in our limitations, and God wants to be with us in the totality of our being. If you think that you can only approach God when you’re on your best behavior, then you are misunderstanding the depth of the grace and blessing that God holds out before you. If the Chilean miners could greet their President in clothes they’d worn for 70 days without taking a shower, you can present yourself to God as you actually are. And it’s only when you come to God as you are and not as you think you ought to be that the healing light of God’s love can shine into and transform your life.
As it often does, our Collect for today—the prayer that we say at the beginning of the service—puts it better than I can. It asks that God increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity, so that we may obtain God’s promises by loving what God commands. When I’m honest with myself, I know that I don’t really love what God commands. Sure, I love some of what God commands, but I don’t love all of it. I love seven of the commandments, but not all ten of them. I’ll obey all ten of them, but I won’t really like it. I am like the Pharisee when I think of God’s commands as a checklist to be dutifully obeyed. But the hard thing about authentic faith is that it’s not just about obedience. It’s about love. Something in my heart resists the fullness of what God wants for me and the world. Sure, I’ll dress up and follow the rules and obey the law, but God wants something more than that. God wants me not only to obey the law. God wants me to love it. God wants me not to love 5 or 6 of the commandments; God wants me to love all 10 of them. I’m not there yet. And from the fact that I’m not there yet, I learn two things that I’d like to share with you.
The first thing I learn from my inability to love the law is that God is doing something in each of us that goes beyond making us mere model citizens. God wants to convert and transform our hearts, to put a “new heart and a new spirit” into us as the prophet Ezekiel says. God is up to something bigger and deeper in your life than you may realize. God is transforming you into someone who can obtain God’s promises. God is converting you into someone who can love what God commands. This is not a one time experience. It is the long-haul ongoing journey of the life of faith. So one bit of good news this morning: even if you cannot obey, much less love, what God commands, there is hope for you. God is working out a purpose in you that will result in your transformation into the person God made and calls you to be. That may not happen today or even in your lifetime, but God will prevail in this ongoing quest to know, love, and bless you.
The second thing I learn from my inability to love the law is what Paul knew so long ago and is about the nature of the law itself. Obeying the law is a good thing, but it will not finally lead to the kind of transformative, converting relationship with God that Jesus offers us in today’s Gospel. The only thing that will help me get there is an honest assessment of who I am before God. Like the tax collector in the parable, like the dirty, sweaty Chilean miners being hugged by their President, you and I are invited to open ourselves to God’s embrace however and wherever we are in life’s journey. When we do that, God will say of us, “I tell you, this one went down to their home justified.” That work is in God’s hands, but we can cooperate with it. And the best way to begin that process is to start with the tax collector’s heartfelt and powerful words, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'” If you can begin to say that in all its fullness, you will go down to your home justified. Amen.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Homily: The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost [October 10, 2010] Christ Church Cranbrook

I don’t know if this bothers you, but I am becoming increasingly tired of the constant use of the phrase “Thank You” in our culture. It’s not, mind you, that I feel there’s too much genuine gratitude around. It’s rather that in everyday commerce people seem to have come to rely on “Thank You” to express every possible emotion or idea. Just as 50 is the new 40, so “Thank You” is the new “No Problem”. There IS a problem, though: by saying thanks so often and so routinely we lose the possibility of any expression of genuine gratitude.
I’m as guilty of this as anyone else, and I’m thinking here about interchanges in the supermarket. When I pay the checker says, “Thank you.” When I receive my change I say, “Thank you.” When the checker hands me the receipt, she says “Thank you for shopping at Krogers and when I take the receipt, instead of saying, “You’re welcome,” I too say the fourth “Thank You” in the interchange. Do we really mean even one of these rote expressions of gratitude?
What brings this all to mind, of course, is the Gospel for today, Luke’s account of the ten lepers cleansed. Some of Jesus’s teachings are hard to figure out, and some of them are crystal clear, like this one. Ten lepers yell out to Jesus, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” He heals them and then commands them to go show themselves to the priests. Nine of them go on their way; only the tenth, and a Samaritan at that, has the grace to turn back to Jesus and say “thanks.” “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” In this respect, first century Palestine was no different than 21st century America. Do someone a good turn, and they can’t even say a rote, reflexive “Thank You.”
Jesus healed ten people in this morning’s Gospel. Nine of them went on their way, one turned back to say thanks. Here’s the question this story poses: Are you going to be one of the nine, or are you going to be the one who expresses gratitude? And if you want to be the one who says thank you, how does God want you to do that?
Now this is Stewardship season, and I don’t want to suggest that giving to the church is the only way you can say “Thank you.” But it is a primary way, and our readings this morning point us in the direction of how to think about it. Jesus has already spoken for the importance of acknowledging God in the Gospel. But it’s our Old Testament reading, from Jeremiah, that opens us up to how God would have us live.
These last several weeks we have been reading through the book of Jeremiah the prophet. Week after week we have heard his dire message of judgment, and in this morning’s reading we hear that it has come to pass. Jerusalem has been laid waste, the people have been deported to exile in Babylon, and now they are asked to sing the Lord’s song on an alien soil.
Now what is wonderful about this morning’s reading is the surprising advice that Jeremiah, the grumpy prophet of doom, gives to the captive Israelites in Babylonian exile. Here is what he says:

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. . . . [S]eek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. [Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7]

“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Here is Jeremiah, prophet of doom, giving gentle, pastoral advice to God’s people. He tells them: the best way to get along in new and trying and confusing circumstances is to root yourself down where you are. Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Don’t waste your energy lamenting what you have lost. Be present to the life and the community God has given you to live in and to love.
Jesus tells the cleansed lepers to say “Thank you” by showing themselves to the priest. Jeremiah tells the exiles to say “Thank you” by seeking the welfare of the city into which God has sent them—“for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” And so for you and me: we are called to say “Thank you” both by worship and by action. As a praying community, we focus our corporate life on giving God praise and thanks. But how do we seek the welfare of the place where God has put us? In answer to that, I have two thoughts.
First, we seek the welfare of this place by transformative ministry for those near to us. Christ Church has always placed major emphasis not only on worship but on pastoral care. All of the clergy here do pastoral care as part of our ministry. We have one full-time priest, Joyce Matthews, whose ministry is devoted almost entirely to the pastoral care of the sick, the dying, the shut-in, and those who are suffering bereavement, depression, and loss. As part of her ministry, Joyce supervises the wonderful group of lay pastoral and Eucharistic visitors who share in this ministry. The primary focus of this pastoral care goes to our older members who have done so much for all of us and to whom we are so deeply grateful. So one way we seek the welfare of this place is to minister to our own adult members in pastoral and transformative ways, striving to embody God’s embracing love in a myriad variety of actions of care and grace.
But seeking the welfare of the city means caring not only for our adult members but for all those in our community and all those around us. It is the Vestry’s and my conviction that God is calling Christ Church Cranbrook to reclaim its longtime vision of ministry in two vital areas: children’s and youth ministry and outreach.
If you think this is a hard world to live in as an adult, just think of the stress of being a teenager. Middle and High School life have become overscheduled to the point of insanity. Competition both in school and for college admissions is intense. There are all kinds of beguiling bad influences and wrong ideas abroad in the culture. If we are seriously going to care for our teenagers and children, we as a church community need to make them absolutely central to our parish life. We need to develop compelling and engaging educational, fellowship, and service programs. We need to make this church a place where children and teenagers are nurtured, accepted, challenged, and loved. We need to give young people the faith resources to make their way in an ever more challenging world.
So we are committed to expanded, deepened ministries for children and youth. Our other missional focus is outreach. Again, Christ Church does a lot now, but we live in a metropolitan area whose need for healing can hardly be imagined or expressed. There is so much generosity and good will in this parish, but frankly to be effective they need to be focused. We need to develop a vision and a strategy for how we, as one parish faith community, can engage the human needs of our wider community in ways that involve not just our dollars but also our hands and our hearts in ministry and service. If we are going to say “Thank you” to God, the best way to do that is, in Jeremiah’s words, to “seek the welfare of the city.” We in parish leadership believe the best ways to do that are in serving our youth and children here and in reaching out in service to the broken lives and families of our metropolitan area.
And that is why we have brought Beth Taylor to our staff. Just as Joyce has primary responsibility for organizing our pastoral care, Beth now has primary responsibility for organizing our youth ministry and developing our focused parish outreach ministry. She cannot do these tasks alone, of course, and so she will gather around her a group of energetic and committed parishioners as colleagues in this work. I am deeply grateful that God has called and brought both Joyce and Beth here to be my colleagues in ministry, along with John Repulski and Christopher Reynolds in music, Peggy Dahlberg and Jessica Neeper in parish programs and education, Kathy Doyle in administration, Dave Kueber and Rich Waldbott as our Sextons, Pat Hirvonen in the Rector’s Office, Jeanne Bolewitz in Communications, and everyone else on the parish staff who do so much to serve God and God’s people. Together we can continue to make Christ Church Cranbrook both a nourishing and a witnessing community.
Serving our children, our adult members, and the world; worshiping God with beauty and dignity; connecting all ages with the depth and resources of the Christian tradition. These are the elements of the expansive ministry to which God has called us. We seek to be agents of God’s love, blessing, and hope. To be that as an institution requires a staff, and a staff needs to be paid, and that takes money. The founders of Christ Church Cranbrook generously left us with an endowment that provides for much of the upkeep of our beautiful campus. But ministry is almost entirely funded by your giving. We ask for your generous support because that vision, that mission, is the best way for you to express your own gratitude for the blessings God has bestowed upon you. Seek the welfare of the city by giving generously to the faith community that does ministry right here in God’s name.
God has given so much to each and all of us. Our first job as God’s people is to say, in both language and action, “Thank you” to the God who is the author of all this. And our next job is to hear what God says to us in response. Though God is deeply grateful for all you do and give, our God is not a God who will thoughtlessly answer “Thank you” back as they do at the supermarket. Our God is a God who will say, as we should when we give, “You’re welcome.” You are welcome to God’s abundant gifts. God gives you so much because God loves you. God gives you so much because you are worth everything to God. You are precious. You are unique. You are welcome to all the myriad wonders of God’s creation. They are here for you and your care and enjoyment. All you need to do as you receive them is to say thanks and to let God tell you that you are welcome to them all. God will take what you give and use it joyfully for the blessing and transformation of your life, your family’s life, the community, and the world. If that is not a cause for joyous giving and thanksgiving, I surely don’t know what is. Amen.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Homily: The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost [October 3, 2010] Christ Church Cranbrook

Today is Stewardship Sunday, the day we set aside to talk about giving to the church. It’s always a question about how forcefully we should advertise this occasion in advance. When the subject of money comes up, many of us set up the old invisible Gardol shield (you might remember from the toothpaste commercials) around ourselves. It is said that when warriors were converted to Christianity in the middle ages, they often held their sword arms out of the water so that that part of them would not be baptized and they could continue to slay their foes with abandon. I sometimes think that Episcopalians were baptized holding their wallets out of the water. We all approach this subject in what a preacher friend of mine calls “the spirit of pocketbook protection”.
In our Gospel this morning, Jesus says two provocative things. One is that if we had the faith the size of a mustard seed we could uproot a tree and throw it into the sea. The other is that when doing our duty we should not expect to be thanked but rather say, “We have done only what we ought to have done!” [Luke 17: 5-10] It is my hope that Jesus’s words to us in this Gospel might help us loosen the Gardol shield, pull our wallets down into the water, and open our hearts and minds to what God would have us do with our money.
Why do you come to church? Do you come here because your friends are here, because you think it’s a good thing to do, or because you believe that something bigger and deeper is going on? We live in a world where many people think they can get along perfectly fine without a place like this in their lives. Woody Allen has a new movie out, a film called "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger". It’s a movie about faith. Now Woody Allen is pretty much a skeptic. When asked about religion in a recent New York Times interview, Allen said, “To me, there’s no real difference between a fortune teller or a fortune cookie and any of the organized religions. They’re all equally valid or invalid, really. And equally helpful. “ He went on to say, “This sounds so bleak when I say it, but we need some delusions to keep us going. And the people who successfully delude themselves seem happier than the people who can’t.” [“Woody Allen: Director’s Cut” NY Times 9/15/10] As A. O. Scott said in his review of Woody Allen’s movie, the whole message of the film is that “believing in some kind of nonsense is a natural way of coping with the howling void that surrounds us.” [A.O Scott , NY Times 9/21/10]
Now I do come to church, I think, because it is a way of coping with the howling void that surrounds us. But I don’t believe it’s a delusion or on the same level as a fortune cookie. Why I come here has more to do with the mysterious comparison that Jesus makes in the Gospel today between faith and a mustard seed. The disciples demand, “Increase our faith!” And he answers, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.” The disciples, like all of us, feel the presence of the howling void, and their response to it is to ask Jesus to increase their faith, as if faith were some kind of quantifiable product or commodity to be sliced off like baloney. “I’d like half a pound of faith, please, and while you’re at it give me a pint of hope and two yards of charity.” It doesn’t work that way. Jesus hears them and responds with the image of the mustard seed, the tiniest particle then known in God’s creation. If you had even that much faith, he says, you could work wonders.
The point of this story is that what matters is not how much faith you have but what you do with it. Christians are called not so much to have faith as they are to act on their faith. What the disciples seem to want is some kind of cosmic insurance policy, some guarantee from Jesus that God is really in control of the world. Jesus says in response, “Look around you. If your eyes were really open, if you paid attention to the signs of God you see in the world, you would not ask for miracles and signs of assurance. “By choosing the smallest visible element of God’s creation—the mustard seed—Jesus is pointing us both to the abundance of God’s world and to the minimal nature of what we actually need. We all think we would be happy if we had just a little more than what we now have. But in pointing toward the mustard seed, Jesus reminds us of how little we really do need. Everything beyond that reflects the superabundance of God’s generosity.
So here is the first point to think about on Stewardship Sunday: God is the source of everything we are and everything we possess. Our lives, our gifts, our relationships, our sustenance—all of those come from God. God created us out of the sheer abundance of God’s love. Because life is stressful we can become preoccupied and take the graciousness of those gifts for granted. But all biblical religion—both Old and New Testaments—comes down finally to this understanding of God’s world and our life in it as gifts. If we had faith the size of a mustard seed we would see it. But we don’t always see it, and so we have places like this—churches--to remind us, to reorient us to the way things really are. I feel bad for those who believe their lives are complete without a living faith community, just as I feel bad for those who put their trust in fortune cookies and fortune tellers. Because they are living their lives out of alignment with the way the world is. And the way the world is can be summed up in the image of a mustard seed that, in its good time opens out into the abundant flowering plant that covers the hillsides and suggests the wonder and splendor of all creation.
So if God gave us everything, our best response to that is to be thankful. But what does thankfulness mean? If faith is less about thought than action, how do we live it out? That is where the second part of the Gospel comes in. As Jesus says,
“Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, `We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'"
In this parable, Jesus makes an extended analogy between the master and God, between the servants and God’s people. When a servant does his job, he does not expect to get a standing ovation from the master. He was merely doing his job. And so it is with us. There are obligations that go along with living in relationship with God. So because we are doing our duty, we should not expect to be given an award. We are only doing what is expected of us—what is right and appropriate under the conditions of our relationship with God and the world.
To those of us who are used to hearing the open, inclusive, uncritical teachings of Jesus, this saying sounds harsh. But taken in context with the first teaching, it makes perfect sense. God is the author of all that we are and all that we have. And living in faithful response to that God involves more than just our mental assent. Living in faithful response to that One requires our action. That is why Judaism and Christianity have always put stress both on faith and works—we are saved by faith alone, as Paul says, but, as James reminds us, faith without works is dead. God loves and accepts us unconditionally. But living into that love and acceptance puts us under some obligation. We are obliged to love and care for each other and the world. We are obliged to take our part in the maintenance and ministry of the community of faith called the church which gathers and does ministry in God’s name.
So here is why Kathy and I give to the church. To be sure, we give to charitable causes and institutions outside the church, and we give to other church agencies and ministries beyond Christ Church Cranbrook. But our giving to the parish is by far our largest gift and is at the absolute center of our giving, and here is why. We do that first because we are continually striving to align our lives with the reality that God is the author of all we have, that our lives are shaped in grateful response to God’s creating, ongoing generosity. We do that second because—and there’s no other way to say this except to frame it in the language Jesus uses in his parable—because we are only doing what we ought to. Membership in a community involves both privileges and obligations. Following Jesus is both about receiving the benefits of Jesus’s resurrection and teaching and about taking up our rightful share in supporting the community that does ministry in Jesus’s name.
Over the course of this month, as our Stewardship process unfolds, we will make our case that the mission and ministry of Christ Church Cranbrook deserve your generous support. We seek to be a parish that lives out the Gospel in transformative ways, both for our parishioners and for our wider community. But before we make that case, the first case made concerns the importance of giving in and of itself. God made you and gave you everything you are and have. God has called you into a place where you are loved, accepted, nourished, and transformed more and more into the person God made in God’s own image and redeemed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Those great gifts entail some obligations. Meeting those obligations is as important to you spiritually as it is to this parish financially. Giving generously will help you become the person both you and God want you to be.
These are difficult times—more difficult financially for some than for others. Neither the Bible nor the church nor I ever have any fixed dollar amount in mind as a litmus test for giving. The test of generosity will always be a self-corrected one. So ask yourself: in light of the church’s needs and your resources, what is a reasonable pledge? What would be a generous pledge? Given the needs of the church and your resources, how can you respond to God’s generosity with some generosity of your own? It is possible to love a lot. It is possible to give a little. In my experience, it is not possible to do both at the same time.
If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could do miracles. We have done only what we ought to have done. May the truth and grace of those words open our hearts and our minds to the gifts and challenges before us, that we may learn to baptize our wallets and free ourselves from the spirit of pocketbook protection. If we can step up to this moment, God will use us and our parish to accomplish wonderful things for us, our community, and our world. Amen.