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