Monday, January 6, 2020

Epiphanal Whoa's

It was a morning flight, not too early but maybe early enough that I should have had some coffee before negotiating the security checkpoint. Eventually, I got some coffee, went to my gate. Everybody got on the plane We all sat down buckled our seatbelts, and pretended to listen to the safety instructions. As the plane takes off there is a boy in the back row, and what he says something so loudly that I'd be surprised if the pilot didn't hear him. What he shouted was: Whoa! We are flying! This is the best ride ever!

I don't know about you but I've been flying my whole life I would tell you that airplane travel has ceased to amaze me but I am not sure if it ever did. It has been a fact of life. We have these huge metal contraptions thousands of pounds of steel and plastic and humans and by harnessing the power of science and technology it soars through the skies and moves hundreds of people at a time from Philadelphia to something as far away as London in 7 hours. Before the 20th century, everyone would have wondered what crazy wizardry is this?? But it is now 2020, and I just sit there in this awesome invention and sip my coffee.

The easiest definition of Epiphany and the season after the Epiphany Is the expression: whoa.. Whoa - meaning what that boy on that plane meant energetic, excitement, a good kind of explosiveness. But our season also means the other kind of whoa - the ‘whoa - wait a second’, brought up short kind of whoa. The Epiphan-al season starts with these Magi Looking for Jesus. Often the tradition refers to them as kings they're most likely not kings. That connection starts showing up in the 4th century and it seems to be connected to a our psalm we shared today and a verse of Isaiah, where the rightly royal gifts of frankincense and myrrh are mentioned being brought to a King of Judea. The Magi don’t have names, and they're also not really Wise Guys. That idea picks up steam in the nineteenth century, an era of industrialization, one that celebrated bookish knowledge and where weird phenomena we can't explain is swept under the rug or denied. So this wise guy nick name, it smooths things over: ‘Oh you know they were men of science who found Jesus, no angelic stuff, no stars going the wrong way, no funny business.’ 

The word Magi is probably best translated these days as wizard. Because the courses available at the fictional Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry would be quite appropriate to the ancient Magi: astrology, potions, divination. If I was an average woman of Judea in Jesus’s era, I may be a Muggle, but I believe that magic exists and trust that wizards etc are real. Yet, this whole thing, the weird entourage of wizards/magi that comes to find this odd little family of Mary and Joseph and Jesus - it doesn’t seem kosher, I will probably keep my distance. The magi are just as other as the shepherds.

This entire episode is full of mystery and strangeness, and it doesn't match up well with the Lukan version, and it doesn't always mesh well with other historical records. There are a pile of things that invite a mountain of unsureness. Are the Magi connected to the places where gold and frankincense and myrrh are harvested - Africa? Some experts assert the Magi are Zoroastrian - which is still an active religion rooted in modern Iraq and Iran. Other experts say they're definitely diaspora Jewish gnostics. We won’t know because the text doesn’t seem to think this matters. How many Magi - it doesn’t say that either. We tend to fixate on several of the things that the text isn’t concerned about, and perhaps that should give us pause.

I took out a ruler and I measured the birth story in Matthew and this one. The Magi episode is 11 inches of text whereas the baby Jesus episode is only 4 inches (NRSV Oxford Study Bible). In an era when writing materials were precious - this imbalance matters. So if we ignore the accessories we obsess about, hat do we find? Whoa. A frightening and strange moment where the life of Jesus is seriously threatened. Part of what we're supposed to hear in the episode is an echo of the Passion. Secular power gaming with community leaders, evil using hypocrisy and slaughter hold its ground. Our Saviors very life depended on the mercy of strange Magi, who made a long journey, where they found something unexpected, and then daringly defied a dangerous despot, and fled by the risk of a strange route home. The wonderful thing about the inexactness and layers of accessory details Is that they are wonderful tools to help us enter the story. If wise guys with names at the cave helps you connect with the text - then imagine it that way. We learn the sacred kinds of learning through playfulness.  However, when we find ourselves finally in the story, the most prominent question is a hard one: will we go toward Jesus or back to Herod?

For people like us who are encouraged our whole lives to celebrate the technical and the safe and the consumable - of course we focus on the technical and consumable parts. We are also encouraged our whole lives to stifle and distract ourselves from anything that isn't useful or measurable or upstanding - so of course we call them sages or kings rather than magi or wizards. The good news here today is that there is so much we cannot conceive of and even in a reality of so many pitfalls and cruelty, God’s grace and mercy is everpresent, and works through strangers and untrusted sources.

We are not stuck in the spokes of Herod’s manipulations, nor are we alone in a cold clock-like universe. There is more in God’s creation than we will ever imagine, and there is a community of wonderers and seekers and believers that surround Jesus and keep him safe. This same wondrous presence of the Holy Trinity surrounds us too. This Epiphanal season lets have some whoa - excited love and open-eyed questioning. May we never cease to utter whoa whoa whoa in the embrace of the love and mystery and wisdom of God that surrounds us always. And may we know that if we find ourselves in any type of Herod’s web, we can be like the wizards/magi and go home by another way.

January 5, 2020
Christ Church, Ridley Park
Pennsylvania

Monday, December 30, 2019

Word and Word and Word

What is a word? A word is a sound, a speech sound or sounds, that communicate meaning, but can't be divided into little bits of meaningful sound. So for example: mercy. Mercy is a word, whereas mer & Cy are not. Today on the 1st Sunday of the Christmas season, as on Christmas Day, we hear how the Word became flesh and is the person Jesus. The message if we hear it is that Jesus who has been born for us, is the indivisible communication of divine meaning. The Word of God made clear.

What else did we hear about the word of God today? In our psalm we heard that God sends out this word to the creation, and it responds. We heard that this divine word, it moves swiftly. This sacred word can stand up against the cold, and this holy word, it moves as a wind. In the Hebrew, the word for wind is the same word for breath and energy and it is ruach. For us, ruach is the Holy Spirit. This word isn’t text on a page or utterances with no impact. The strange truth uttered this morning is that this word of God is active, from before the beginning began.

Psalm 147 is nearly at the end of the psalter and it is considered to be a part of the closing finale. Behind all its triumphant security is circumstantial evidence of crippling disorientation. This is the celebration of people who have been faced with utter failure, and self-made lostness. Yet what they learned over time and through community discernment is that gruesome reality is not the end of the story. This finale of a Psalm rises into sacred hope and ponders God’s paradoxical endless presence and eternal closeness. It is God who rebuilds who gathers who heals - everywhere. It is God who loves us and calls us by our names - always. It is God who advocate for us, and who lifts up the last and the least - every one of us.

In our translation, the 12th verse of the psalm ends by mentioning God's gracious favor. This is an unusual choice. Other translations choose faithful love or loving kindness or unfailing love orr steadfast love - not a silly sentiment but an active relational promise between God and humanity. The psalms in our prayer book are an unusual work of art. Translating is always a choice and the deciding factor for the prayer book psalms is their chant ability. Furthermore, due to complicated reasons I'll explain some other time, the numbering is a bit different so if you looked up this exact passage of this psalm in most Bible translations you would be looking for verse 11. Anyways, in the word that in our BCP Psalm is verse 12 is gracious favor and elsewhere faithful love: it is In Hebrew one word - hesed. And hesed is one of the 3 Hebrew words That tell the shape and meaning of what We trust are the core characteristics of God. These are mercy, compassion and steadfast love (which in Hebrew is 1 word). Our psalm today only uses one of those Hebrew words, however, the meaning of all 3 words is illustrated in its enchantments. In this vision the one God of the universe created humanity to be in lifegiving community with God and all creation that acts from these bedrock characteristics of God: compassion, mercy, steadfast love.

Then in the Gospel of John, the sacred storyteller opens up with his mind-twisting poetry: Word was God and is God and became flesh Dwelled among us - full of grace and truth. Part of what the sacred storyteller is saying is related to our Psalmic vision - that God's shape and intention is made clear in Christ, this meaning is what is made Human, and while we cannot separate the meaning from Godself, it is also in the same movement made profoundly vulnerable, so to forever transform the dialouge with God’s beloved people.

We have crossed to the other side of the Solstice and from now on this winter the light will grow. The wider world has crossed over from the Winter Wonderland season to the Diet-and-amend-your-ways season. But we here in the church are still in the sacred mystery of Christmas. We are holding dear to us the meaning and intention of all of the words we've spoken and sung through these Advent and Chrismas seasons. Striving to keep the 12 days of Christmas, which are after Christmas: which are right now, striving to keep these as sacred isn't just stubbornness or countercultural. It's letting the newborn word of God breathe in us to shape in us the sacred truth of Christmas, one that is much more than just sweet feelings. Christmas is dialogue between insider and outsider, God and humanity. Conversations that if we hear it make the way of steadfast love - hesed - clear - this child is this clarity. If the last six weeks of study, prayer, and worship didn’t stir in you activity of compassion or steadfast love or mercy, then these last 6 or so days, are a chance to more truly respond to the mystery of Christmas. How will this wonder change you And your conversations, for the better? 

Even now in this time of hatred and division and attacks and atrocities and numbness God's word - God’s meaning and expectation Is made clear, We have a promise to keep and therefore a part to play in this ultimate story. We are called to turn back to the beginning, to be redefined as a part of the sacred mystery of God’s incarnation. As Christmas continues, let us live into God's meaning and God's intention which is summed up in the Word made human: Jesus the Christ: who is mercy, who is loving-kindness, and who is compassion for you and for all. The text does not say that a feeling became flesh. John's gospel says that the Word of God became human. A distinct communication of profound meaning - The Word of God - Was and is this child in Mary’s arms.

December 29, 2019
Christ Church, Ridley Park, PA

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Hold On

As you peer into the cave this night what do you see? Why are you here? What does it mean? As you look into this scene tonight: this isn't a barn no modern stable. It is a gap in the rocks, a cave behind the home of a stranger. The village of Bethlehem is absurdly crowded. This directive from the empire ‘Go to your hometown be counted, but mostly taxed’, it's probably a blessing for this nowheresville; market stands empty; all the rooms rented; extra coins in pockets. Tonight we hear a sacred story we can sing by heart, even the unacquainted. Beyond the ink of the shape of the letters is a white space. It holds the parts of the story, parts the tradition imagines and the parts of the moment that were so every day they weren't worthy of being mentioned.

It's a blip of an ancient town and it is full to the brim. A woman is in the loud process of giving birth. Caring for a woman in labor has almost always been the duty of women. Rest assured, there were unacknowledged women there. And there were other onlookers I imagine. Curious people built for connection and empathy. They heard and they responded. The neighbors who said no when Joseph knocked, but now.... One of the most steadfast rules of righteousness among these people - is hospitality. And you didn't make room, and so in self-judging shame, You go out to find where they landed.

There in that cave, we discover lowlife shepherds Who made it here first. Stinky sheep and grungy people speaking about angels and peace and the redemption of all the world. It is almost morning and you're awake and you're here and you look into this cave - and you wonder: why? This world-changing night it's not glamorous nor cute. It is cold and dirty and guilty while at the same time It is full of love, glowing with redemption declaring a new way for life on Earth. Godly goodness and power is right here in the mess, in the only space it could find In our fractured selfish ways. Here we see that everyday matter can bear God, can welcome God, is one with God. And this child who has been born, this Jesus is born for us - our advocate. What is it he is advocating for? How is he for us?

For me, one of the most potent ways to illustrate the mystery of Christmas is to flip the image. To reverse who holds what. Over by our devotional candles, I have placed a print of an icon that usually resides in my office. The title of the icon is Holy Wisdom. Above fiery and watery chaos a young person emerges from the Sun a person who holds the Earth as we would hold a precious child, but also in a posture that is ready to act - a body in motion. We know it is Christ by the iconography of his halo. The print has grown dark over the years but if you were to look close you might see the scars on his hands. To me the mystery of Christmas means just this - it means both: Mary holding Christ in her hands, and just the same, Jesus holding us in his hands. In both our true brokenness is made clear by our inhospitality to all that God so dearly loves. In both our true possibilities and salvation are also made clear by the deep love and hope that the images together declare. Will we hold every bit of creation as tenderly as Mary holds Our Savior and as Christ holds the world?

If you come here tonight because of a tickle in the back of your mind that there is something more than isolation and anxiety, I'm glad you're here and Christ loves you and welcomes to you. If you come here tonight because someone said you had to, I'm glad you're here and God loves you and welcomes you. If you come here tonight not knowing exactly what we are up to, but it is a tradition that sparks joy in you, I'm glad you're here, and wonder what kind of love the spirit of God is stirring up in you. Whatever reason you are here tonight we welcome you as a beloved child of God.

It is dark, but the dawn of Christmas morning has already shone forth across the earth. Tonight we sit and stand and sing in a quite glorious cave with all who do so now, and in the past, and in the future. As we gather around the Christ child, we also see Jesus the adult who said such wonderful things and did such amazing things that people followed him. Tonight as we peer into the cave at a precious scene we should also be struck by its connection to the cave in which his crucified body will be placed. Tonight as we gather around a desperate woman and a dutiful man with the vulnerable newborn and outcast strangers, we should know that this infant is the One who rose from our death-dealing ways and loves us still. As you go out from this shadowy cave this Christmas night, may the way of Jesus Christ fill your path the light, may it slowly grow and reveal his precious new world in us. Merry Christmas!

December 24, 2019
Christmas Eve Later Service
Christ Church, Ridley Park, Pennsylvania

Monday, December 23, 2019

Too Cool to Be Joseph?

It was a beautiful fall day in Albuquerque. still warm enough to sit outside at lunchtime. my friend Molly and I had gotten together for our pretty much weekly lunch meetup. I was already well into Christmas planning mode - and I was complaining a bit. Mary was cast, Jesus was cast, I had talked one teen into being a fire angel in the Christmas Pageant. But finding a Joseph was like finding someone to scrub toilets. As it happens Molly’s son George was with us that day. I don't have any idea why he wasn't in school because he certainly wasn't sick. It is worth mentioning that George had volunteered to be Joseph twice in recent years. So I asked him why do you think other boys don't want to be Joseph in the pageant? 

He replied quickly: Because they didn't want to act like a caring parent, And they probably thought it was weird and icky to have to pretend that they were in love with Mary. They think they're too cool for any of that.' After a bite he continued, 'Which is dumb,  cause Joseph Is awesome. He's all right with not being the most important person. He was a good dad and had a hard task and the whole scary angel in a dream thing - Yeah he did what he was asked and he didn't complain. Joseph is awesome.' 

Our Gospel lesson today is full of weird and discomfort. We have a grown-up story that's only barely edited in translation. A grown up story that we annually invite young people to pantomime. It's also weird and uncomfortable because the reason for turning the moment of rescue comes from the appearance of an angel in a dream. The world in which Jesus was born into was one that expected the extraordinary other to be interfering in our lives connecting to our brains healing our bodies. There's nothing shocking to the ancient hearer about angels and directed dreams. But us today in our rational conventional norms? These things still happen, but in my circle, they are shared only with trusted friends And even then in hushed voices. 

It may surprise you but we don't have a well-developed official angelology, certainly not the Episcopal Church or most Protestant churches. Most of the common depictions are not what we read of in the Bible, many common beliefs are not and have never been Christian teaching - bells and wings for example. Angels in the Bible are carriers of messages so much so that they are the message. The oldest mentions of angels in the Hebrew Scriptures have almost no description at all We are left with an impression Of strange human like visitors. By the era of the last written texts, the description of angels in Ancient Judaism sounded more like Hindu gods with lots of terrifying wings and eyes, and they act rather like greek gods, and they have names and pronouns that are always masculine. No precious moments there.

I trust that God is the creator of all things that God has made a universe that has little bits I can comprehend and a whole lot more that I'll never be able to manage. For me, Angels are mysterious embodiments of God's communications Between what I can understand And the marvelous mysterious everything else. Today an angel appears in a dream, and to me, dreams are in a similar zone. Whatever happens to some people in that stage of dreaming sleep it can be a powerful space of revelation, and an encounter with the glorious and awe-some things that are going on all around us whether we acknowledge it or not. Joseph's story of The experience of an angelic message in a dream connects this scripture to the primordial epics of Jacob and Joseph.

However, much more important to our dwelling in the sacred story is his example. Joseph makes the courageous choice to step into a strange borderland of the revolutionary thing God is doing in the birth of Jesus. Joseph had every social and legal opportunity to wash his hands and walk away. But he didn't. From the point of view of established Christian doctrine it's easy to say of course he stuck around - because this is the birth of God. But in the moment when so much is still not completely clear to him or to Mary or to anyone else… Savior, messiah, liberator - sure these revelations are proclaimed - but the truth of their promise In Jesus the Christ - no one had the full picture for decades.

So let's be honest Joseph’s choice to follow the dream, to trust the angel, to stand by Mary absolutely led to a lifetime in which he was regularly besieged by murmurs both openly and behind his back. His reputation his standing had to have been diminished - because Joseph chose this strange public duty. Christmas is almost here - but lets take a minute to clear away the mess of saccharine trappings for a minute - What would you do in Josephs’s situation? Or if you were his friend? If it is far from the best ways to live, can you bring that deficit to prayer this week?

Bravery isn't always about running into the fire, sometimes it is the measure of our candid embrace with life as it comes to us. Bravery most often bears the everyday tasks of honesty and fidelity and humility. Joseph’s courage is fullfilling his duty and doing so with a mysterious precious promise to hold at the same time. Joseph is a background player, is barely a supporting role. we see him here then as a refugee heading to Egypt, then he's with Jesus and the whole family when Jesus is about 12, and then nothing is said of Joseph again. There are two millenia of traditions and guesses that have grown up around him, but the biblical texts almost seem to forget about Joseph. What my young friend George didn't exactly say but his young words and emotion did say Is that Joseph is an example of allowing oneself to be faithful to an unexpected duty of welcoming the stranger and to do so wholeheartedly, with no reward and almost invisibly. Joseph is awesome. Let’s be awesome - like Joseph was for Christ our Lord. Humility. Service. Fidelity. Compassion. A prime example of what we now call Christian discipleship. May we be just as brave today, tomorrow and for always.
Christ Church, Ridley Park, Pennsylvania
December 22, 2019

Monday, September 16, 2019

Re-imagined Parables of Finding and Sacrifice

For many years of my ministry, I have given this flashlight to graduating seniors. Actually what I give is a water bottle filled with things like a thermometer and bandaids and this flashlight. Giving books that are never read, or pens that are easily lost seems like a waste. Instead, I give them tokens for the journey of what comes next. Tokens that are metaphors of faith AND items that meet practical needs - hydration, healing, light. 
I like this particular flashlight for a couple of reasons. It has several ways to enlighten: direct, glow, flash. It is lightweight enough to hold between your teeth when you need your hands free, And/or you can put it on a string. The flashing option is clearly intended for emergencies, And it also has a whistle: not melodic in any way, but good for getting found in a desperate situation. In a moment of unknowing and crisis, a light like this is a precious gift. 

It is easy to hear today’s parables and think of them calmly and cutely. Aw, that lost sheep got found, it was like the Poky Little Puppy - just off doing its own thing not even knowing it was “lost”. We have been misguidedly trained to approach most of the not-obviously-difficult parts of the Gospels as if they were marshmallows. However, the other time we hear these two parables of the Found Coin and the Found Sheep is in Lent, and our Psalm is Lenten, and the lamentation of Jeremiah is one to be heard during Holy Week. Jesus is headed towards Jerusalem, the people he is speaking to know that harsh winds are blowing. The powerful are fearful and lashing out, The poor are getting poorer and ready to rebel. 

All these things have happened before... so let's reimagine the parables a bit. Let us say that the shepherd is instead a delivery driver. She has to deliver so many packages in just so much time, Or she gets docked, and she doesn’t get promoted. The powers that be have set up her digital tracker so that it looks like a light-hearted video game, but it feels like the Hunger Games. And a package gets lost. The package doesn’t care that it is lost. It didn’t lose itself. Taking the time to find the lost package is a sacrifice of time and treasure. However, for the person who was expecting that precious package, The delivery driver's determination is everything. 

As for the Found Coin, imagine instead a struggling young man. He works mostly on a

cash basis and doesn’t have a checking account, like nearly ⅓ of Americans. He keeps much of his not cash money on refillable debit gift cards. Most of his ‘liquid assets’ are right now in 10 $100 cards. And as happens sometimes to the most organized of us - one of those cards goes missing. The card didn’t lose itself, It wasn’t wasted on dames and horses. It is simply missing. So he turns on all the lights, which they really cannot afford Because the electric rate went up again. He disturbs his roommates, who have long shifts at a warehouse, and they need their sleep. Yet he searches and searches - until he finds that one gift card. He is so thrilled about finding it he posts on Twitter and wakes his roommates and invites all his friends to a party to celebrate. Which maybe costs about as much as was held on that card in the first place. And this according to Jesus, is good news. It may not be reasonable, but this is a parable. It could be a wild and crazy other-kingdom kind of what ‘God is like’ metaphor where practicality doesn’t matter nearly as much as truth and love. It makes its point by the unreasonableness. Our owning up to our honest to goodness lostness is what invites us to the grace of God. And the way to grace isn’t found through our perfections, but through our imperfections and the cross and the empty tomb. 

So where are you today? Are you the sheep minding her own business? Are you the shepherd in frantic search? Could you be the grumbling scribe? Or are you a tax collector leaning into the word of love you have been denied? 

There is a long tradition that tries to make every parable a ‘God is like’ one of these human characters' lessons. Taken that way, these parables do highlight interesting adjectives when it comes to God, ones we certainly need: persistence and risk-taking and party-throwing. However, I am not so sure that this is certainly one of those - ‘God is like’ parables - at least not in the most obvious way. If we are the sheep or the coin - why are we lost to God by no action of our own? That doesn’t hold water in our tradition at all. The coin didn’t sin, it didn’t lose itself - and human sin - both our own and those of our communities - have always been the measure of failure and needing to find ourselves again in God’s arms. 

If you take the view that this is a parable of grace, and therefore a parable of death and resurrection, Then you might have to try on a different arrangement of the metaphors. Sheep are the backbone of the ancient Jewish economy and well being. And singled out sheep usually a sacrifice. If you don’t have sheep, then you might have coins to exchange for a dove, and so coins are in their own way Also a token of sacrifice. Repentance is the center of this episode - and it is the human who acts in ways that suggest repentance, all that persistent demanding action to restore what has fallen away. Maybe God is the sheep or the coin that is found and returned to human lives, maybe sheep and coin are images of Jesus himself: precious, lost, sacrifice. 

The beautiful thing about parables is that sometimes many interpretations are true. Finding and re-finding God’s awesome presence can be both frightening and enlightening. Let the celebrations of these parables shine a light on our emptiness, let that be filled with the reality that God’s grace is always present, whether or not we have a grasp on God at this moment, and even when we think we are lost from God. 
It is as if Jesus is saying all the things we pursue to try to fill our God-shaped holes, “Give it up already, God is here, ready to throw a party for you." 

I have gathered for you little bits of precious light: glow-in-the-dark beads. Keep them somewhere you choose, somewhere with some light, But perhaps somewhere that you don’t always notice. When you see them glow, remember found sheep and found coins. And that it is God whose precious light will fill the God-shaped holes in our anxiousness. The gift of grace, the token of trust, has been already given in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Look around, look deep, shine a little light. Persist, adapt, stick together, collaborate, celebrate. This is the way of love, the way of Jesus, the way of God’s grace. 

September 15, 2019
RCL Proper 19 RCL C Track 1

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Why Keep Going Jesus: The Awkwardness of the Incarnation

I have to wonder why the aristocracy keep inviting Jesus to dinner parties. Perhaps
they were curious, and maybe they were hopeful, that this would be the one time he would not be at the center of an awkward occurrence, and Jesus wouldn't make most of the guests feel consciously uncomfortable about their way of life. Why did they keep inviting this rabbi and his companions? Jesus who embraces the lowly and he who is of seemingly inferior birth. 

There is a theory in sociological study of religions that the people who support and nurture the growth of new religous movements are the top 5%. People with enough time and resources to learn and explore when the handed down ways don’t seem to feel effective anymore - think Eat Pray Love. Folks living with back-breaking conditions don’t go looking for nirvana. The gospels suggest this same phenomenon - that it was the well-to-do that supported Jesus’ mission and kept inviting him to visit, feast, teach. 

I also have to wonder why Jesus keeps accepting these invitations to the parties of the elite. One would think that it is hardly his comfort zone. Today’s episode comes to us in the Gospel of Luke when Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem. That beautiful city that is supposed to be a beacon of our salvation, but time and again slays the truth-tellers and prophets. The city of David polishes its image on the outside and revels in sin and degradation on the inside. Jesus’ vulnerability is only increasing with each step up to Zion. Did he think there was something he could possibly say at these parties - something so movingly truthful, something that he could say in the presence of the powerful that would turn the tide write a new ending? 

There has been a tendency to imply that Jesus’ divinity made him perfect and suave. I don’t know about that. I would expect a fully human and fully divine Jesus to be well, awkward, out of place. For all the curious among each snobbish crowd, there had to have also been strange looks and overheard insulting whispers. Some people don’t notice that stuff, but research suggests, that most people do. 

You might notice if you look closely at the readings insert that the gospel lesson skips a couple of verses. Jesus comes to dinner, something happens, and then most of what we heard. What was jumped over was another healing. One so tremendously similar to last Sunday’s lesson, that I can excuse the lectionary deciders, this time. 

When imagining the scene it is natural for us to imagine tables and chairs, but that isn’t the case in most ancient homes, not even a host in the top 5%. Imagine rugs and cushions and low tables. There were certainly more esteemed seats, usually closer to the host, perhaps even on a higher platform. This is not a plated supper either, so if the host and esteemed guests are served first, then that means that those who are served last may get the bottom of the barrel nibbles. 

We pay attention differently to the people in the box seats, glance at the folks in first class. Egalitarianism and libertarianism haven’t done away with the human tribal tendencies toward valuing pecking orders. 

When I imagine this episode I imagine Jesus sitting along the side of the room. If I were in a similar situation, that is where I would want to be. Able to watch the people, notice who they are and how they interact. Today I imagine the holy voice of our Jeremiah lesson weaving through his mind as he watches the party. Love and disappointment. People jostling for higher seats like we are not all people who are just trying to find our way though the wilderness. 

What idols of self-importance and perfectionism people have set up for themselves instead of setting heart and soul toward the ways of the one Lord God of the universe. Can you even see and hear yourselves - you are making your own enemies, and sometimes that enemy is you?

Today at this sabbath dinner, at some point, Jesus leaves the sidelines and addresses the whole party. Jesus uses both logic and appeals to the ego and tells us to leave things - like the esteem we have become convinced is our salvation - to leave all that fragile detritus at the door. The only way to the peace and assurance we seek is through losing the pointless trivia we focus on and following Jesus all the way to the cross. 

Jesus, with the sacred storyteller of Luke - are telling a parable about living together within a parable about death and resurrection. That bit about moving up a seat - the word is the same as what is used in the resurrection accounts. That word about being the lowest - in the Greek the word is the same as the word for the last things - the final things - the eschaton. Not just the heavenly union with God part, but the judgment part. Judgement isn’t an in or out thing, it is a I love you and was heartbroken by your behavior thing. 

In this lesson we are invited to look from the edges of our lives and the edges of history with the long loving look of God at our “dinner party”. What Jesus is offering us in this parable of a parable at a probably awkward, but beloved, dinner party. What Jesus is inviting us into is that what we are offered in his life and death and resurrection is the big exclamation of ‘Who gives a crud !’ to all our party pecking orders. 
If Jesus was at the edge of the dinner party that is your life - what would he notice? Is his teaching easy to hear or hard to hear today? We cannot lie or cheat or maneuver our way into the top seat. This will only sink us further into sin and darkness. Our relationship with God and each other and our children’s children - all of whom are at this party with us, is one of the most crucial topics these days, one that we cannot just navel-gaze at. 

Fidelity to God and to the future of creation demands we drop our pretenses and attempts to sweep our sinfulness under the carpet. There were some who left that dinner party offended, God loves them, and waits with eager longing for their humility. There were some who left that dinner party feeling intrigued, God loves them and is luring them toward liberation. There were some who left that dinner party feeling the blessing of peaceful satisfaction and resurrected life, God loves them and sends them to share the same for the last, the least and the lost. As the venerable Robert Earl Keen croons - the road goes on forever - and the party never ends. 

Sept 1, 2019
Grace Episcopal Church
Pemberton, New Jersey

Extreme Adventures in Hyperbole: Carrying the Cross and Assessing our Readiness

I met this guy once in Santa Fe. We exchanged the usual pleasantries, which led to - what do you do and what do you do? I offered my part (minister), and Marco it turns out was an outdoor adventure tour guide. Mostly leading wilderness backpacking trips for tourists through the high desert forests of Northern New Mexico. After a bit of chatter, he said, ‘I have a side project that you might be curious about.’ What he then told me was How he led “premarital extreme adventure weekends”.

What he would do is take three or four couples at a time and they would all travel to a drive-in kind of state park campsite. For that first evening, there was teaching all sorts of wilderness survival skills. How to build a fire, what you can eat, bear repelling strategies, how to make a shelter, etc. They would comfortably camp at the drive-in site for the evening. But then in the morning, he would take each couple to a different spot in the nearby wilderness of the mountains. Marco would give them a bag of very basic and random stuff - shoelaces, gummi bears, a knife, a tin of matches. Then he would leave them there, and return in 24 hours. The couples had to ‘make it work’ for overnight and then some with almost nothing but each other, a gps beacon tracker, and what they had learned. The next day Marco would then pick them up, hopefully at the same spot, and the couples would come back to the drive in camp site to feast and debrief the experience.

I asked him, so what are the results like? He said, I don’t have any real data, and it was chosen by people who are adventurous and/or intentional about their relationship... but the outcome looks like a stop light. About 1/3 come out of the experience saying we got this - ring that bell- green light! Another third come out really clear that they have serious issues and that they should hit the brakes - red lights. And the other third were yellow lights; folks who said - we can see our difficulties more clearly, and we need to work on such things sooner rather than later.

I tell you this story because I think the intention of the premarital extreme adventure and what Jesus is asking all of us today is essentially the same. Are you ready for this? Adoration and idealism and traditions are terrific, but discipleship with Jesus takes so much more than adrenaline and good intentions. Yes, it is a light yoke, a wholehearted resurrection joy. AND It is also a reckoning with humility and a struggle with doubt. God knows how easily we pollyanna the problems, and give up when the moral demands of our commitment to a just and healthy society make us uncomfortable. This question is asked both of the disciples, and of every generation of the Jesus movement since then. Are we prepared to follow Jesus to Jerusalem?

Two of the statements Jesus offers us today are hardly rare sage wisdom. Should you make a plan before you build a building? Yes. Should you count the costs before launching a mission? Yes. The other two statements, however, are dangling the loss of all security through the rejection of your family system, AND suggesting that living in a righteous community in Jesus’ name is to bear the shame of being convicted like a criminal.

I don’t think that Jesus is predicting his fate. His being the perfect love of God made flesh was so against the grain, that it was nearly inevitable that he would be slain by human sin and injustice. Each day of his life in this world was terribly unsafe - much like the lives of so many of the most vulnerable. Manipulatively shameful and excruciating, crucifixion was a regular atrocity in the Roman Empire. The disciples would have known exactly how extreme the example is, well before Holy Week. This lesson whispers to all of us - Is there something that you need to learn - or let go of - before the next stage of your journey with Jesus to and through the cross?

The statement to carry the cross is not a prescription to endure or inflict any type of abuse. Nor is it a trivial inconvenience. That extreme premarital adventure was rather like hyperbole in action. Hyperbole is over exaggerating and intensifying a statement to make the deeper point. The reality of the relationships that Marco's guests were exploring were more complicated than those 40 hours In the wilderness. Our discipleship and lifelong formation Into a life that is the shape of Jesus’ life is a much longer and much more of a multi-hued journey than the striking impact of his gruesome question today. I trust that part of what he is saying is hyperbole: intense exaggeration to make the point.

But I also know from the beginnings of the Jesus movement right down to this day people have chosen Faithfulness and servant leadership that cost them everything. We are in a wilderness, but we are not alone. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are pushing us, are present with us as we pursue new directions to do something creative, truthful, and holy with the sacred Trinity, One God, who is as close as a potter to clay, and a weaver to her cloth.

In the life of the church and the community of disciples, there are moments that resemble that extreme pre-marital adventure. Thank goodness we have the Spirit of God as our guide and are knit together with love and wit and given a bag of Good News. So to rephrase the question Jesus is asking - Who will we be and where will we follow Jesus from here?

September 8, 2019
Grace Episcopal Church
Pemberton, New Jersey