Proper 25 2019
This week we mailed to each of you your stewardship cards. I hope you will consider them prayerfully and fill them in. You can mail them or bring them to the church and place them in the offering plate. Over the last few weeks the lessons have been about stewardship. Maybe every Sunday is about stewardship because stewardship is how you offer to God your life. This Sunday is no different. The parable offered by Jesus this morning sets two extremes together; the pharisee and the tax collector. They were about far apart as two people could be. We have been hard on pharisees just as Jesus was. I don’t know what your image is when you hear the word pharisee. Mine is a very bad person, but the people that Jesus was talking to would not have seen it that way. Pharisees were people of great character. They loved the Lord God. They worked and gave for the kingdom of God. The minimum in Jesus’ day was ten percent; they started with that and then they gave more. They prayed all during the day. The worked and hung around the temple. They had good manners. They wore good clothes and followed the rules. If you met one you would have been impressed. You would want them to teach Sunday school. You would want them to lead whatever group you were in. They loved God. They worked hard. They would have been very impressive.
On the other side was the tax collector. He was about as low as a human could go. He was a Jew stealing from Jews, stealing God’s resources and giving them to the Romans; taking what was Holy and giving to the unholy and unclean. He was taking from his own people not just what they owed, but more for himself and then turning that clean Godly gift over to the unclean Romans. He was a carpetbagger. Everyone knew that his sin was so bad that he was condemned, and that God did not and could not love him. He was lost. His sin was unforgivable, even by God. Even he knew that. And Jesus stands them side by side and points to the tax collector and says that he is justified; God is listening to him and God will answer his prayer. Everyone who heard this would have been shocked. Jesus was saying that the unacceptable to the people was acceptable to God and that the acceptable to the people, was unacceptable to God.
What is it that separates these two men? Because, whatever it is, I want what the tax collector had. I want what the sinner had. I want what Jesus lifts as faith; that spiritual insight that changes one into God’s beloved.
The gift clearly held by the tax collector and absent from the pharisee was humility. The gift was in knowing his own sin and then asking to be forgiven. The difference between the pharisee and the tax collector is their ability to recognize their sin. The pharisee came to God proud and confident. He knew how good he was, and he came to prayer to remind God how good he was and that he deserved everything he got and would get. He really didn’t need God. Not really! He came to God to thank God that he was so much better than the sinner over there.
The tax collector needed God. The tax collector knew his sin and sought God out because he knew that he could never know God’s kingdom without God’s mercy.
For almost three years you have allowed me to be priest here, to be pastor and teacher. I have shared with you the joys and pain of life. I care about you and I care about this place; this wonderful Church. I care about the grace of God proclaimed here; this Eucharist shared; this communion offered. I care about you and all God does through you. I hope and pray that the love of Jesus that has been given for and to you means something. I hope it means so much that not only do you want to know it but share it through the ministry of this place. I care that you support God’s ministry through your pledge to All Saints’ and I pray that pledge represents you. I pray that you will give sacrificially.
The question I wonder is; does your pledge have any meaning in your life? Does your pledge represent at all your willingness to trust God? Or is it a second thought? Don’t come to God as a pharisee. Don’t come haughtily. Do not come if all you have to offer is look how good I am, but instead come as the tax collector. Come here knowing the transforming grace of Jesus Christ that has touched your life and that you are being changed day by day. I pray you are transformed by God’s love and that whatever you give, whatever you pledge, it is a response to what you have been given; whatever you give comes because you have a relationship with God through Christ which is transforming.
Don't come to this altar without the humility of the sinner but do come filled with joy. You see, stewardship is not about what's in your head and it's not about what's in your wallet. Stewardship is about a response to something you don’t deserve - God’s complete love for you.
Year C 2019
October 20, 2019
The parable begins with a description of a judge. He did not fear God. He had no respect for people. He was powerful and he thought about himself first. He was the center of the world and so this widow could offer him nothing and he was in the business of being a judge for himself; what could he get out of this deal? There was no decision made that was not to his advantage as a judge or as a power broker in the community. He was not a judge to provide justice; to do what is right; to act as a fiduciary for those who came to his court. He was self-serving.
Now the widow brought her case before this unscrupulous judge. She had a great case. She was in the right. She was owed something. She deserved justice but could not offer the judge anything; no special backroom deal which would give him money or power. She had no political clout. She had no ability to pay him off. All she had was truth.
But she did have one tool. She was irritating. She was unrelenting. Her persistence was an irritation and to such a degree that the judge takes her case so that he can get rid of her. And so, Jesus’ point is clear. If the judge who cares for no one except himself will respond to the widow, then how is GOD, who loves you, going to respond?
What an incendiary concept for Jesus to put forward. We must persist and not lose hope even when hope seems far away. God’s justice will be established.
I think this Gospel is about persistence and the need for us to be disciplined. How do we pray and what is the purpose of prayer? There was once a member of my parish named Barbara who was mentally handicapped. Every time I hear this story, I think about her. One of her gifts was persistence. Once she decided something that was the way it would be. For her birthday one year she decided to have a big party. She told no one at the home she lived so they were not prepared for what Barbara had planned. She took the church directory and called everyone in the parish and invited them to come and to bring a cake for her birthday. One hundred people and 20 cakes ended up at the party.
Barbara also gave to us her desire to pray and to pray unceasingly. Whenever she came to church on a weekday, she wanted to go into the church and pray with me. Most of the time I thought I was too busy. There were things more important I had to attend to. I found out that no matter what was going on or what other, seemingly, important things I thought I had to do, I would soon be in the church praying beside Barbara. Vestry meeting? No, I was going to be with Barbara. Sermon time, staff meeting, bible study, people waiting to see me - it did not matter. She was persistent and she was much like the widow in the parable today. No was not an option. I think she was God’s gift to remind me of the worldliness that at times is so attractive and seems to take over my life and she was a reminder of Jesus’ words in this parable.
I have decided that Barbara probably lived out Paul’s understanding that life is to be prayer. It was and is what we are called to as God’s people; to be in intimate communication with our Creator.
The widow comes with a desire to have justice and it is not a whim. This is her life. She comes to a judge and asks the judge to consider her case. She is not asking for a new car or a better job. She is asking the judge to make a wrong right again. She is asking for what hers is rightfully. She is not asking for more than what she should get. She is asking for justice. But the judge doesn’t care about justice. The judge cares about himself and what he can get out of the deal.
But her persistence is key, and persistence is key to prayer. Be unrelenting. Be like the widow. Be like Barbara. I have been asked ‘can I pray for this or that’? Yes. Pray about anything and everything on your mind. Pray for things which affect you. Pray for things which you ask God to do for others. Pray for your enemies. Pray and give thanks for the bounty God has given to you. Pray for the little things and the big things. You will see prayer is the beginning.
I have known many people in my life whose prayers seemed to do more than my prayers ever did. Maybe they were just more in tune with God’s will. Maybe they understood that prayer is not us trying to change God’s mind, but us seeking to know God’s will and then finding ways to live out that will so that God’s Kingdom, not ours, reigns. We pray as hard as we can and then add, thy will be done at the end. If your prayer is for those who do not have enough food, then pray fervently to God that they will be fed and then go and feed. The work of prayer is our work and we ask, in and through prayer, to be changed into vessels of grace which change the world.
Year C 2019
October 13, 2019
“There but for the grace of God go I”. I have heard those words for most of my life. They are part of southern culture. These words mean ‘thank God we do not have to go through this aliment or this problem in life’. I know it is not meant this way but implicit in those words, if you listen carefully to them, is the belief that we can judge the love of God through the outward and visible gifts we receive. I know that is not what is often meant, but the words are clear. We can know the truth of God’s love for us if we do not have to face adversity. When we face adversity God’s grace is not there. God’s grace, God’s love has kept me from having those problems. It was a relationship with a man in Conyers, GA which changed how I understand these words.
Doug was one of the saints I have had the pleasure to get to know as priest. He graduated from high school and was accepted into college on an athletic scholarship. On his way to share that news, on a rain slick highway, Doug’s car spun off the road and he went backwards into a telephone pole. He was thrown through the back window of his car. His neck was broken, and he became a quadriplegic. He spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair and lived in a nursing home. Doug died when he was 45.
I think I was always amazed at the man. Every Friday I would take communion to share with him. He would be ready for the visit. He had the nurses come and clean him, comb his hair and he had his Prayer Book and Bible in the desk attached to his chair. He shared with me and I shared with him and I was always amazed at the depth of grace he knew.
Doug was the president of the patient’s organization. He visited every patient in the nursing home to make sure that his or her rights were being advocated for. He was a vocal presence for the patients he served. He took the worst life could deal and from it he found a way to serve. I am stilled amazed at his spirit and God’s Spirit in him. I learned so much from Doug.
One week a parishioner went with me to visit. On the way out he said, “there but for the grace of God go I’. I knew what he meant but suddenly, I was overwhelmed. Doug was an outward and visible sign of God’s grace. It abounded in him. I don’t think the man who went with me understood his words. I know he did not mean to imply what the words said.
The wonderful story of the healing of the ten lepers by Jesus has many parts which could be talked about. I want to talk about two; wholeness and gratitude; which are bound together for us if we want to understand what Doug did about God.
Jesus encounters ten lepers. The ten kept their distance as Jewish law required. They must have heard about Jesus and knew who he was. They probably heard about his power to heal and so they chanted to him, again required by law, “Unclean, Unclean” so that everyone would know not to come near them. They cried out to Jesus to have mercy. Jesus’ response to them is to go and show themselves to the priest at the temple which they did, and they were made clean. They were healed; again, acceptable to God. But one turns back and began to praise God and threw himself at Jesus’ feet.
Now comes the interesting part. Jesus says to this man ‘your faith has made you well’. There is a clear distinction between the physical healing which all received and being made well. Healing means more than getting fixed physically. Healing is more than physical perfection. It means more than getting the problems of sickness, disease, broken bodies … taken care of. The healing we seek is wellness and wholeness. We are a nation in need of wellness. We are a church in need of wellness. We are a people in need of wellness. Being healed of every disease and physical problem is not the same as being well in God’s Spirit.
Helen Keller wrote these words in response to walking through the woods with a friend, who at the end of the walk said she had seen nothing note-worthy.
“I wonder how it is possible to walk for an hour through the woods and see nothing of note. I who cannot see find hundreds of things; the delicate symmetry of a leaf, the smooth skin of the silver birch, the rough, shaggy bark of a pine. I who am blind can give one hint to those who can see: use your eyes as if tomorrow you will be stricken blind. Hear the music of voices, the songs of the birds, the mighty strains of an orchestra as if you would be stricken deaf tomorrow. Touch each object as if your tactile sense would fail. Smell the perfume of flowers, taste with relish each morsel, as if tomorrow you could never taste or smell again. Make the most of every sense. Glory in all the facets and pleasures and beauty which the world reveals to you”.
There is a common theme between Helen Keller, Doug and the Samaritan who returned to praise Jesus. Each found a way to give thanks. In the midst of what could have been darkness, they found light and they were made well. If we spend our time clamoring for money, or healing or power or whatever… if your life is always about what you don’t have, then we will never know the truth and joy intended by God for us. It was in this thanksgiving that each found that they were made well.