Mountain Climbing

Pentecost 23 Year C Proper 28    Isaiah 65: 17-25  Luke 21:5-19    

A sermon from Linda Mackie Griggs     

                                 

                                                                          

Often when I read a book I kind of temporarily obsess over it. I’ll see connections with it in news stories and in conversations, and this keeps up for awhile until I pick up the next book on my stack and find a new obsession. So it shouldn’t surprise those of you who I’ve been chatting with lately that David Brooks’ book, The Second Mountain has been part of my pre-sermon pondering.

In a nutshell Brooks suggests that many of us lead a two-phased life; the first phase is like a mountain, which we climb when we are younger and establishing our unique identities and accomplishments. We strive for the right career, the house, the family, the nest egg, the dog… Summiting that first mountain is a big accomplishment. Later, we may find ourselves questioning those ego-driven priorities of first mountain achievement, acquisition and individual self-fulfillment.

Whether brought on by life transition, financial or health crisis, loss of a loved one or relationship, the journey toward the second mountain involves existential questions like “Why am I here?” “Is this all there is?” “What now?” Confronting these questions, says Brooks, takes us downward into a valley of humility, vulnerability, and often pain that, if we let it, eventually leads us to the new heights of the second mountain, governed not by the ego, but by heart and soul—a new life of generosity, creativity, joy, and renewed relationships.

Spoiler alert: Brooks is telling us that our world is desperately in need of an army of Second Mountaineers. We can possibly intuit this. But lest we need persuading, the facts that he lays out are stunning and stark. 

I only heard the term “deaths of despair” recently, and didn’t know that it’s actually a medical phrase that includes three behavior-related medical conditions; drug overdose, suicide, and alcoholic liver disease, all of which are connected to social isolation. Loneliness. Brooks says that we’ve done too good a job of empowering our individuality—we’ve gotten so hyper-individualistic that we’ve come to think we don’t need anyone—and now, to borrow the title of Robert Putnam’s book, we literally and figuratively bowl alone—emblematic of a serious decline in community and civic engagement. And it’s taking a toll. Here are some numbers: Overall the suicide rate in this country has gone up 30 percent since 1999. Between 2006 and 2016 the suicide rates for those between ages 10 and 17 rose by 70 percent.

Please let that sink in. Ten-year-olds are included in suicide statistics.

Life expectancy in this country has declined for the third year in a row. The last time that happened was early in the last century, and it was influenced by a world war and a global flu pandemic.

I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime…

These words of hope are offered to a people intimately acquainted with despair. The beautiful yearning passage that we’ve heard today was written for the  people of Israel, who had been traumatized by the destruction of their home and a generation spent in exile. The Temple—the center of their faith and icon of everything they trusted, had been thrown down; not one stone left upon another. And now Isaiah writes for a people returned from Babylon, and he is excited.

“…be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.”

Isaiah expresses a vision of complete renewal of Israel; the erasure of traumatic memories and the creation of a world that is safe and just. God will be ever present and responsive: “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.” A world at peace. Beautiful. Achingly beautiful for anyone who has felt that their world was falling apart.

I learned a couple of interesting things when I consulted our wise neighbor Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman about this reading. First, and most important, he confirmed the sense of immediacy in the passage. While it is common to read through a Christian lens and assume that Isaiah is referring to some kind of a heavenly vision of what the world will look like after it ends, this would be wrong. As Rabbi Howard says, “We’re not about heaven.” The Christian idea of heaven is not the “new heavens” that Isaiah is writing about.

What he’s writing about is a world that is to be co-created by God and God’s people together. This passage is a joyful reminder that God’s people, inspired by their Creator, are the builders of the wondrous, just, fair and peaceful world that Isaiah envisions. And then, when that world is created, God will bestow the gift of long life: “for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be…”

The prophetic call is for now. Now, when the world seems to be crumbling around us. Now, when social isolation is killing us. Now, as society retreats into the echo chambers of our tribal fears. Now, as Luke says, among wars and insurrections, famines, plagues, and persecutions. Now, when we are sunk in the valley, is when we are called to look in hope toward the Second Mountain.

David Brooks writes of Second Mountain people as the ones who–neighbor by neighbor, conversation by conversation, potluck by potluck, community action meeting by community action meeting– the ones who are re-weaving the fabric of American society by establishing and re-establishing relationships.

Brooks writes of the importance of “thick” institutions, communities and societies, which are defined by people who are keenly aware of their interdependence and the importance of meaningful relationships. Thick organizations and institutions are centered around a physical location where people meet regularly. They have collective rituals, shared tasks, a creed of some kind, and watch over and care for one another. Brooks continues,

They often tell and retell a sacred origin story about themselves. Many experienced a moment when they nearly failed, and they celebrate the heroes who pulled them from the brink…They point to an ideal that is far in the distance and can’t be achieved in a single lifetime.

Sound familiar? He’s talking about Church! Of course he’s not just talking about church, but if he’s going to posit the need of thick institutions to help reweave the fabric of society, who can possibly be better positioned to do that than the Body of Christ?

If he’s going to talk about the importance of relationship and interdependence as an antidote to fear-based tribalism, who better than those whose life of faith centers on a Trinitarian God who defines the very concept of relationality and interdependence? Who better? We’re already here; we don’t need to be invented. We only need, with the grace of God and the guidance of the Spirit, to be renewed and transformed to meet the challenges that confront us.

We just need to believe it of ourselves. The task is bigger than a single lifetime, but that simply means there’s no time to waste.

Luke’s vision of a world in its last days is not the only thing that confronts us in today’s Gospel. The world is ending for someone, somewhere, every day; the numbers don’t lie. One more number: sixteen. The perpetrator of the latest school shooting in California on Thursday—it was his sixteenth birthday.

We can’t keep losing our children.

We are called—today, now—to testify to the hope that is in us—the hope that is our foundation as the Body of Christ. We are called to testify in word and action to the love of God who sustains us; to hold on to hope; to proclaim it, and most important, to become it.

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox…they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

Church and Church: what’s in a name?

Tonight

Tonight, we gather to honor Martin, our patron. Martin was a man whose life expressed his deep concern for others. Martin believed that violence was against Christ’s call but also understood faithfulness to duty. After a period of military conscription, he devoted the rest of his life to the pursuit of holiness, at first in pursuit of his own spiritual quest but eventually in a wider service of the community. Let us pray for his spirit to infuse us- so that like Martin we may not be found wanting in witnessing to Christ in our own day through lives of holiness in action.

Tonight, we have an opportunity to celebrate the completion of a major restoration of our beautiful church. As we move into the first years of a new century in our parish life, the lot has fallen to us to meet some serious restoration challenges in order to secure the integrity of our church building for the next 100 years. Some might say it’s a piece of bad luck that the need to meet this challenge fell to us on our watch. But God raises up the right people for the task at the right time through the quality of leadership from John Bracken and David Brookhart as Church Wardens, and the professional expertise of Peter Lofgren as supervising architect.

There is a growing realization in the community that without the impetus of a big challenge, would we be able to move beyond our comfortable expectations to forge the foundations of a renewed vision for our future?

What’s in a word?

I have been thinking about church as a word. Is it not odd that we use the same word to speak about the building as well as the community? It’s important to remember that the church (ecclesia) first described the community and only later came to refer to the building in which the church met.

Over the last year we have come to speak of the restoration of the church when referring to the renovation of the physical structure. The greater challenge, however, is to remember that when we speak about the restoration of the church we are also speaking about the renewal of the community. For we have a church, yes. Yet more importantly, we are the church.

Is restoration an expression of our love for God or is it a significant distraction from our primary purpose?

The expenditure of considerable financial resources on the building begs important questions about our priorities. Is it an expression of our love for God or is it a significant distraction from our primary purpose? There is room for disagreement here. However, none of us believe that God’s primary concern is for our building. Nevertheless, we do intuit that our building articulates an ages-old human aspiration to be associated with something greater than ourselves and the utilitarian priorities of our age.

Having a church is only important when it is one of the ways we identify ourselves as being the church.

As history shows, a church as a building can easily overshadow our awareness of the church as a community. While the two go hand-in-hand, they also sit in an uneasy and often confusing tension. The only insight I have to offer here is that we must hold this tension between having a church and being the church. Because, having a church is only important when it is one of the ways we identify ourselves as being the church.

A lesson from history

In 587, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, taking those who lived within the Jerusalem Beltway of Jewish society into captivity in Babylon. In 539, the Persians invaded Babylon and Cyrus I decreed that the Jews could return home and rebuild their city and temple. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of this return and the struggles and successes encountered in the great national restoration project.

In the OT lesson for tonight we heard about the laying of the foundation stone for the new temple. We heard that the older Priests and Levites wept when they saw this while the rest of the people shouted for joy. The fact that priestly weeping seems juxtaposed with popular joy suggests that the priest wept not for joy but because they remembered the glory of Solomon’s temple and perhaps were dismayed by the reduced scale of the envisaged new project.

We are coming to the end of a discernment process that is attempting to map the community priorities emerging from our restoration project as it moves to the next phase in capital campaign preparation. An initial perusal of the notes taken by dedicated scribes at the cottage gatherings reveals a range of both complementary and clashing priorities.

Tonight’s lesson from the book of Ezra is a salutary reminder that restoration projects trigger an inevitable clash between nostalgia for the past and the framing of a vision fit to meet the changing circumstance demanded by the future. The easy part is to restore the building. Much harder is the task of renewing the community with a vision to carry us forward into a future that will bear very little resemblance to our past.

Through a monumental material and human expenditure by the returning exiles a new temple arose from the ruins of the old. Nehemiah the governor had a dual focus. On the one hand he was responsible for ensuring enough supplies of both materials and labor while protecting the building works from the constant attacks from the neighboring peoples. But what interest me more is his request that Ezra, the Scribe of the Lord, read from the Book of the Law before all the people gathered before the Water Gate.

Nehemiah 8 records the moving depiction of Ezra standing on a wooden podium built for the purpose – a kind of pulpit I suppose, reading from the Book of the Law before all the people. As Ezra read the unfamiliar words of the Law, for it had mostly been forgotten by the people at this point, 12 Levites engaged in a kind of simultaneous interpretation of his words so that the people would understand what was being read to them. In this moving scene we hear all too clearly the echo of our own tension between having a church and being the church; the movement from the restoration of stones to the renewal of spirits, hearts, and minds?

It seems it’s never one or the other – church as building or church as community. Both exist in an oscillating tension – a balancing movement, back and forth between the two.

In the tonight’s NT lesson from his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul weaves a wordplay between the material and the spiritual by using an analogy to a physical building to speak about the life of the Spirit within and between us.

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? …. for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.

1 Cor 3:10

I would propose the litmus test for us is when church as building ceases to be an inspiration for and expression of church as community – only then will it be the time to abandon our buildings to decay.

Church as a building – is for Paul really the metaphor for Church as the community. Remember the word first applied to the community and only later to the building where the community met. I would propose the litmus test for us is when church as building ceases to be an inspiration for and expression of church as community – only then will it be the time to abandon our buildings to decay.

There are three key resources that sustain our community life. The commitment and vision of our members, the dedication and skill of our staff, and the quality and serviceability of our buildings. These three key resources are infused by the Holy Spirit – who is always present among us. The Holy Spirit makes her presence known to us when we gather for worship, when in small ministry groups we embed the Bible to continually reshape our vision, and when we reach out to others in acts of solidarity.

Tonight, we gather to honor Martin, our patron. Martin was a man whose natural bent was to care for others. Only reluctantly did he take on the burdens of community leadership. But he fulfilled the responsibilities of pastor and bishop as dual aspects of his response to God’s call. Let us pray for his spirit to infuse us- so that like Martin we may not be found wanting in witnessing to Christ in our own day through lives of holiness in action.

Do You Know Your Need of God?

The image is by James Tissot courtesy of Pinterest

Any attempt to speak about money in the church runs the risk of provoking a cynical and defensive response. However, this is a response that misses the point – money is only a metaphor for values. When we commit to financially supporting an organization, in doing so our hope is to contribute value as well as derive a sense of value -both essential elements for lives of purpose and meaning.

One of the many paradoxes at the heart of Christian life is that spiritual renewal is so much more than money yet, financial generosity is a key outcome of coming to know our need of God.

I continue to experience an anxiety about money which I can trace back to my early experience of how conversations about money were negotiated in my family.  Hence the question I posed in this week’s E-News: What is your first memory of money – is it a positive or an anxious one?

This early experience has left me with a default expectation of scarcity that is in direct conflict with my actual experience of a life of abundance. So which do I beleive? This discrepancy between expectation and experience is a paradox. One I am sure I am not alone in sharing.

In the Old Testament reading for today, through the prophet Joel, writing after a long and devastating drought that had brought enormous hardship to the Israel, God promises an experience of overwhelming abundance.

Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.

Joel 2

God’s promise of abundance is a presumption we must trust. That’s the difficult part. Like the anxiety of scarcity, the experience of abundance is a presumption we have to trust and then act upon accordingly. Otherwise the promise of abundance remains hidden by our default expectations of scarcity.

My fear of scarcity masks my actual experience of abundance. It makes me tight and fearful of being generous. I fear that being generous, I will be giving away the very things I might need. But then I remember that my experience is different from my fears; that despite them I have to recognize that God has been indisputably generous to me in life. Connecting up the dots in my life I come to recognise fears of scarcity, at least in my case, are simply a default state of mind – stemming from early memories in my life.

Until recognised for what they are, early memories continue to distort our present day experience and perception.

America is the most prosperous country on the globe, maybe the most prosperous society in human history and yet it experiences the highest scarcity anxiety. As the land of plenty to overflowing, we condone an unforgivable level of poverty.

We must translate our presumption of abundance into the practice of generosity and a determination to protest in the face of societal inequality and injustice.

If my scarcity fears belie my actual experience of abundance in life? If there has always been, and continues to be enough of what I need, I am frequently left wondering why I keep wanting to tell myself otherwise?

Henri Nouwen, one of the great Catholic pastoral theologians of the 20th-century reminds us that a truly spiritual life is life in which we won’t rest until we have found rest in the embrace of the one who is the Father and Mother of all desires.

The desire of which Nouwen speaks – is to come to rest in knowing our need of God.

What does it mean to come to know our need of God?

To come to know our need of God is in my experience the best way of managing the scarcity-abundance tension that lies at the root of our quest for security. We long for the affluence and prosperity that will ensure our security. Yet, our very affluence and prosperity seriously inhibit our coming to know our need of God, which is Jesus’ point in telling the story about the pharisee and the publican.

This is a story that presents us with two images of human response to God. Most of us intuit that we should identify with the publican, and yet we design our lives to model that of the pharisee – and feel pretty good about doing so. He not only believes he is the author of his own salvation, but loudly proclaims this before the Lord of heaven and earth.

The publican on the other hand, has no basis for making any claims of being in control of his life. He lives a morally dubious and compromised life. But it’s the very nature of his inability to do much about this that brings him to his knees in acknowledgement of his need of God.

Like the pharisee we expend a lot of energy ensuring that we will not find ourselves in a position of needing anything from anyone – so self-assured are we of our ability to make our own way in life we easily confuse our success for something of our own making; that the good things in life are ours to enjoy and not share. The pharisee is very much alive and kicking in all of us.

The source of all our loves in life flow from God’s love for us.

The source of all our loves in life flow from God’s love for us. Only when we acknowledge this can we come to know our need of God. In the coming weeks of the Annual Renewal Campaign, this is the simple truth I invite us all to consider as we are asked to recommit our support for the life and work of this parish community. Through the annual renewal of our commitment to our life together in community, God is reminding us that none of us is an island and that all our lives are dependant on one another’s toil.

Between now and November 24th, I would ask us all to consider the necessity of cultivating our practices of generosity for our spiritual, emotional, and societal health. I would also ask you to remember that the practice of generosity fundamentally involves a commitment to also protest against inequality and injustice. As individuals, our support of our parish community enables us to do more in furtherance of these aims than any one of us can do alone.

Then …. I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
our sons and our daughters shall prophesy,
our old men shall dream dreams,
and our young men shall see visions.

Joel

A truly spiritual life is life in which we won’t rest until we have found rest in the embrace of the one who is the Father and Mother of all desires.

Henri Nouwen

Persistence and Protest

Luke 18:1-8

Image. Parable of the Unjust Judge by Nikola Saric

At the start of each Vestry meeting one person leads a process we call Embedding the Bible. This practice originated as one of the initiatives from the Renewal Works program, which you will remember we participated in, in 2015. This was the first initiative after my arrival to try to understand the spiritual needs and desires of the congregation. From it, we developed three key priorities of which embedding the Bible throughout all aspects of our community life was the first. Embedding the Bible is a practice I commend to all our ministry teams. It has enormously enriched our Vestry experience by helping us to a deeper place of reflection and listening for God’s purposes as we approach the business of the evening.

Last Wednesday evening David Whitman embedded a passage from the Letter to the Hebrews, chapter 16, in which the writer speaks of taking hold of the hope that is set before us. Our following discussion centered on the question – is the hope that is set before us the hope of eternal life? At first sight this may strike most of us as a somewhat esoteric question – especially for a Vestry meeting. But actually, given that we all experience the continued death of loved ones and friends, it’s a somewhat relevant question.

Popular Christianity, particularly of an Evangelical or conservative Catholic flavor answers the question this way. Life is a process to be got through as cleanly as possible, which means not blotting your copybook any more than is necessary and following all the rules you are told to follow, chief of which is all is well if you must confess Jesus Christ as your savior, or if you go regularly to mass. If you do these things you can, at the end of your biological life, approach the heavenly gates without fear because you’ve bought yourself a ticket to ride the heavenly express – destination, the life eternal in heaven with God and all one’s loved ones, family and friends.

However, the New Testament offers a different answer. The hope that is set before us is hardly ever mentioned as destination heaven. The hope that is set before us, as the Letter to the Hebrews phrases it, draws on Israel’s transgenerational hope that God will eventually complete the process of creation not with us all shuttling up to heaven – that is if we haven’t got there already -but with the heavenly Jerusalem descending to become a reality on earth.

The Christianity the flows directly from the New Testament writings understands eternal life not as the life of heavenly bliss, but the renewed life that will come about when Christ returns to usher in new heaven here on a new earth.

With the resurrection of Jesus, God has fired the opening salvo in a process that will come to a final completion with the resurrection of the world. 

As this is not likely to occur in our own lifetime or even that of our children, their children, or their children, down to the 10th generation – a phrase used as metaphor rather than as prediction, why should this matter to any of us?

It matters because it goes directly to the nature of the Christian life we are called to live. Are we called to live a life in which our concern is for our individual salvation, regardless of the state of the world around us? This is the Christianity of feeding the hungry on an individual case by case basis as an act of personal charity or piety but never asking why the hungry have no food?

Or, are we called to live out the promise of eternal life in the here and now time? Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection of the world are the two bookends between which we live the new life that is eternal in that we live out the hope that is set before us as something if it is already fulfilled, is in the process of fulfilment anticipated in our actions.

Although we await God’s renewal of creation we do not wait passively. We live as God’s horticulturalists, planting the seeds and nurturing the growth of kingdom values and expectations found in Jesus’ Gospel teaching. We feed the hungry, motivated not by personal charity or piety, but by protesting the social dynamics that perpetuate hunger and inequality.

What will happen to us at biological death is God’s business not ours. Our attention must be focused on this world and our role for good in it, a role I would sum up as the call to a life of protest.

On Thursday evening at the end of the weekly meditation hour which runs every week from 5:30-6:30pm, I spoke of meditating as a political action of protest. Again, there is a tension in our motivation towards meditation similar to the tensions in the understanding of the meaning of taking hold of the hope that is set before us. Is meditation a personal action we undertake only for the benefit of our own spiritual, emotional, and physical health?

Of course, it has an effect on all three, otherwise psychologists would have little interest in what they refer to as the science of mindfulness. However, what I was getting at with my suggestion to the group of ten meditators gathered in the tranquil setting of the fireplace room on the 3rd floor of the Parish House was that meditation as a political action is a motivation to change the world for the better.

To live mindfully in the here and now is not a pursuit of a Western travesty of Buddhist detachment, but is for Christians an act of political protest.

Luke’s parable of the unjust judge and the persistent widow is another of Luke’s perplexing Jesus parables. It’s about a man who cares nothing for God’s justice or for the plight of the widow who persists in demanding justice from him. Luke employs the image of the widow as a metaphor for the vulnerability of powerlessness. What this widow shows the judge is that while he thinks he can ignore her because of her low social status, he has not reckoned with the ferocity of her persistence as she continues to protest over and over again against his callous indifference to her demand for justice to be done.

Modern English translations like the NRSV like to smooth-out the rawness and roughness conveyed by these stories in their original Greek.

There is a funny translation twist in this story. Modern English translations like the NRSV like to smooth-out the rawness and roughness conveyed by these stories in their original Greek. The judge, foreseeing he will have no peace from this woman says to himself: I had better give her what she wants so she will wear me out with her coming.

Whereas in the Greek he says to himself: I had better give her what she wants otherwise she will beat me black and blue with her pounding. It’s as if modern translator want the parables to behave themselves and fit into our neat world views. But the parables of Jesus will not behave themselves. So much for little old ladies! This widow is certainly is not one of them.

We all know first-hand the experience of powerlessness in the face fears that ill health will bankrupt us; that we won’t be able to afford the college tuition fees to educate our kids; that we have no power in the face of an economy that measures the very things that make us poorer and calls it prosperity and economic growth; that the environment is degrading around us through malign government action that allows our water to become undrinkable and our air unbreathable – all in the service of greed; that in the face of the earth’s rising temperatures government and intergovernmental inaction is tantamount to criminal neglect.

Returning to my original question: what does it mean to lay hold of the hope that is set before us? It means to live a life in which the focus of our endeavors is not to go to heaven, but to live a life where the focus shifts back from the future to the quality our persistence and the ferocity of our protest in real time between the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of the resurrection of the world. 

Are we living lives of quiet complicity with the values of the world and it’s privileging of power and denial of justice for all? Or are we living lives of persistent protest in the face of the world’s denial of kingdom values and expectations?

Are we laying a firm hold on the hope that has been set before us? Now that’s the hardest question!

Columbus Day Musings

Jeremiah 29:1,4-7; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

Have you noticed an odd thing about prophets? Their message seems often out of sync with the outer appearance of things. For instance, when life appears to be going well as far as superficial measurements are concerned – as in the job rate is up, GDP is growing, the stock and housing markets are buoyant, the prophet is likely to sound a message of warning and foreboding. When it appears that the weave of the society around us is unravelling, it’s then that the prophet offers a message of hope and consolation.

As far as I can discern, the distinction between prophecy and other kinds of social analysis or commentary lies in the way prophecy connects the past and the future in order to arrive at an accurate understanding of present time events. Present-time action uninformed by memory and careless of future consequences spells trouble for any individual, group, or society.

A prophet’s commentary on events weaves the lessons learned from the past together with a prediction of future consequences from present time actions.

Remembrance of things past is the most accurate guide to predicting the shape of the future. This does not mean that the future is an inevitable repetition of the past. What it means is that if we want a future different from our past, then we need to understand how to act differently in the present.

We often note a wise individual as someone who clearly learns well from their experience. Yet many of us learning from experience – something so obvious, is the last thing we are likely to do. You remember the definition of madness -repeating the same mistakes expecting different results.

The prophet Jeremiah around the year 587 is writing a letter to the exiles who had recently been taken into captivity in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar following his destruction of Jerusalem. Jeremiah had been prophesying doom and gloom – a thorn in the side of the Court and Temple authorities since around the first signs of international crisis in 798. But all he got for pains was an accusation of treason.

Yet, Jeremiah, true to his calling, had persisted in the face of attempts to silence him. There is that memorable scene in Chapter 36 where his prophecy is being read out to King Jehoiakim, who is so incensed by what he is hearing he grabs the scroll and cuts off the offending lines, throwing them into the fire – believing evidently that out of sight, is out of mind. Well we all know how that normally turns out. Doesn’t this kind of leadership response feel uncannily familiar to us in 2019?

Eventually, the king has Jeremiah imprisoned, which is where we find him as he composes his letter to the exiles.

Having accurately foreseen the destruction which had now arrived, Jeremiah might have reminded the exiles that they had nobody to blame but themselves. Instead, the Lord instructs him to write words of encouragement, urging them to build new lives in the place where they have been taken:

Build houses, take wives and have sons and daughters; multiply there and not decrease – seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

This is a piece of really good advice and the exiles heeded it. It’s the advice that waves of immigrants to America have followed to find success. It continues to be the dream of those who seek to build more secure and prosperous lives for themselves and their families despite currently being the target of unprecedented official persecution.

Over the next 70 years the exiled Jewish Community not only prospered in Babylon, but they undertook a root and branch religious reform that led to a complete reshaping of Judaism into a new kind of religion. In this new kind of Judaism, God communicated not through temple sacrifices or even prophetic utterance, but through the interpretation of a sacred text. For the first time the Jews become truly the people of the book.

By revisiting the past and relearning forgotten lessons, the Jews in Babylon began to chart a new trajectory into the future that would be different from their past.

It was during the Babylonian captivity Judaism developed structures that would equip them for a new kind of future. A future marked out from their past by a renewal of hearts and minds, and a purification of their covenant relationship with God.

As is usually the case however, this was a process of two steps forward and one step back. For when the 70 years were up, and Cyrus freed them to return home many, though not all of those taken into exile would return and try to pick up where they had left off with the rebuilding of a new Temple and a futile attempt to restore the Kingdom of David. Yet, when their rebuilt Temple was finally destroyed once and for all during the cataclysmic rebellion against Rome from 65 -70 A.D., the Jewish people found that the reformation begun in Babylon after 587 had equipped them to at times prosper, but always to survive during the next 2000 years of permanent exile.

Contemporary America seems to have lost the art of learning from the experience of its, albeit short history. To learn from our history would be to remember the countless times when the false narratives of otherness have stoked fear and justified violence. Narratives that for a short time thrive on drawing sharp distinctions between us and them repeatedly rise from the depths of our fear of the other as if we have never trod this road and learned this lesson before.

Yet these periods when the false narratives of fear and division have erupted must be viewed within the overarching trajectory of the building of a different and new kind of nation; one nation forged from the confluence of many nations; a nation in which we are all at the same time both us and them, familiar and other.

Like the Jews of the Babylonian captivity our Founders chartered a new trajectory into the future forged from, and protected by, a foundational text.

The Constitution, like the Bible is a foundational text that invites each generation into an often tense encounter with it. This act of encounter is, by its nature, an act of interpretation arising out of the dynamic tension between text and the specificity of context (time and place). This is a dynamic tension that breathes new life into the dead letters on the page.  

In his letter to Timothy, known to us as the 2nd Timothy (refer back to last week) Paul echoes the central discovery learned from experience:

If we are faithless, God remains faithful – for God cannot deny God’s own nature.

Mounting evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors in the highest echelons of our government; the draconian separation of families at the Southern Border; the capricious lurches in foreign policy that lead to the abandonment of faithful allies and the greenlighting of strongman governments around the world reveal the depths of our need for a renewed soul searching. Unlike God, it seems it’s all too easy for us to deny our own (better) nature.

Columbus Day is a celebration that highlights the complexity of the past. Just which lesson from our history are we celebrating? The lessons of our history should remind us we have been in bad and even more shameful places before. Yet this cannot be used as a justification for finding ourselves in a bad place yet again. Like the Jews exiled to Babylon, we need to ask how have we come to this state? However, more importantly, like them it’s time to act in the present-time to ensure that the trajectory of our future is something greater than an endless repetition of our past sins.

Can we do it? I know we can!

Make Love Our Aim

Image courtesy of Sharefaith.com

Text: 2nd Timothy 1:1-14

Luke reports that Timothy joined Paul and Silas at Lystra while on the journey from Antioch to Corinth, dated somewhere around 49-51. After Timothy joined them, Tom Wright notes that the three of them move on, but without any real sense of direction (pg.174 Paul). Lystra was where Paul had healed a crippled man and thus, been mistaken for a Greek god. Lystra was Timothy’s hometown.

Timothy was probably in his late teens – early twenties and must have seemed like a son to Paul.

Certainly a bond of understanding and mutual trust developed between them of a sort that happened with few others

(Tom Wright in Paul, pg. 175)

Timothy had a Jewish mother, but a Greek father. Paul takes the unprecedented step of circumcising him. This is puzzling because in all other instances Paul vehemently refuses to allow gentiles to be circumcised. Here, the only explanation might be that as Timothy was to accompany Paul as he continually visited synagogue after synagogue, Paul, ever the realist, was giving in to the least line of resistance. Among the Jews, Timothy’s Jewish credentials must also be beyond challenge, as were those of Paul, himself.

For the last two weeks we have been reading from the 1st Letter to Timothy, a text smattered with soundbite phrases like –

We brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out of it; for the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.

1st Timothy 6

Today we hear the opening of the 2nd Letter to Timothy. Among more liberal NT scholars, the Timothy and Titus letters are grouped within a larger set of writings known as the Pastoral Epistles. Although tradition ascribes both Timothy and Titus letters to Paul’s own hand, today most scholars agree that these are much later than Paul’s time as evidenced by the kinds of concerns and theology they address. These letters are concerned with good order, and how people should behave – a theology of larger and more established and respectable Christian communities in contrast to the concerns of the small and edgy house churches to which Paul wrote directly.

Tom Wright, who tends to swim against the prevailing tide of liberal NT scholarship, on this matter tends to agree with them. However, he makes a case for separating 2nd Timothy out as not belonging among these later Pastoral Letters. So, we need to hear these opening verses of 2nd Timothy not as a sequel to 1st Timothy, but actually an earlier expression from Paul, himself, writing at Rome during the period when he was appearing before a number of legal hearings. Paul, lonely and bereft, appears to be pining for Timothy. Where Timothy is, we don’t know. Wright sums up the difficulty as like searching to piece together the small fragments of a jigsaw with far too few pieces to form a coherent picture.

The opening to 2nd Timothy is a loving and intimate expression revealing the depth of feeling when Paul opens his heart.

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, to Timothy, my beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. …I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy.

2nd Timothy 1

2nd Timothy stands out for the quality of Paul’s openness of heart. We cannot escape being moved by his words; words that encourage me to open my heart similarly to you this morning.

I trust that you have all read my e-message to the parish this last week in which I described the preparation process needed to lead us to a successful capital campaign in 2020. If you have not read my E-message you can find it probably still in your inbox, or failing that, you will find it on the website under Visit us/Rector’s Musings, Contact us/Newsletter, or under the newly created Capital Campaign tab and on the St Martin’s Facebook page.

Within days we will launch the discernment phase – a series of facilitated gatherings inviting us to share our hopes and expectations for shaping the priorities for our community direction around a central question: what is God empowering us to achieve at this point in our community life? In the New Year, we will launch a feasibility study – involving a parish wide survey and targeted one-to-one conversations. The information we gather in the feasibility study will be analyzed by the Episcopal Church Foundation to provide us with an accurate assessment of our community’s capacity to meet our fundraising and community development goals.

Prayer is the radical starting point of fundraising because in prayer we slowly experience a reorientation of all our thoughts and feelings about ourselves and others.

Henri Nouwen (pg 56 A Spirituality of Fundraising)

Earlier I mentioned that I was encouraged by Paul’s example in 2nd Timothy to open my heart to you this morning in sharing two concerns I have.

  1. That we will ask too little of our faith. As middleclass Episcopal Christians we have not been taught to expect much from the fruits of living a spiritual life. As middleclass Episcopal Christians we have too strong an impression of our own self-sufficiency. The result is that we often feel we have little need of God. That instead of turning courageously to prayer – for the very act of prayer requires real courage to risk hoping in things yet still unseen -we will slink away from the challenge finding refuge in a self-protected shell of I’m all right Jack – as New Zealanders like to say.
  2. We are a community of highly motivated individuals – who do marvelous things in the wider city and state communities and in doing so lend crucial support to many worthy causes. But if this results in our not having enough time or energy to support our parish community, then we will continue to struggle under the increasing burden of many and conflicting demands.

Our love of God is the source for all our loves in life. Following in the way of love provides the very necessary compass setting, around which the multiple demands that threaten to tear us in a hundred different directions at once, become ordered.

Our love of God is the source for all our loves in life. Following in the way of love that Jesus demonstrated is not another set of demands, it provides the very necessary compass setting, around which everything else – the multiple  demands that threaten to tear us in a hundred different directions at once, then become ordered.

Can we come to see our Christian journey not simply as one more set of demands on us? Can we come to see our membership of this community as an expression of our longing for that indefinable something more in our lives? That indefinable something more is not only an expression of our unrequited longing in life but of God’s targeted longing for us. Can we allow God’s longing for us to flow into our cautious and risk averse lives? That is the question.

Paul reminds Timothy that the faith that first lived in his grandmother Lois, and his mother Eunice, now lives in him. The faith that lived in our spiritual forbears that moved them to sacrifices and service that sustained their common spiritual lives together within these walls and under this roof – that faith now lives in us!

Paul reminds Timothy of the need to rekindle the gift of God that is within him; a spirit not of cowardice but of power, love, and self-control. The challenge and the opportunity we face together is the nudge or push we need to propel us into the next stage of our journey of becoming individually, and communally, more fit for God’s purpose.

Paul instructs Timothy to guard the good treasure entrusted to him, empowered by the Holy Spirit’s presence within the community. We will realize our dreams and achieve our goals not by our own efforts, but through our empowerment by God’s Spirit to become so much more than left to the fearfulness of our own imaginations, we could ever dream of becoming.

Anchored in Hope

Pentecost 16 Year C Proper 21 . Jeremiah 32: 1-3a, 6-                                       

A sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs

On Rosh Hashanah 1944 a shofar was blown, as it always has been, and as it will be tonight, as part of the observance of the Jewish New Year. What made the cry of this particular ram’s horn so significant was that it took place at Auschwitz. The story goes that Chaskel Tydor, a prisoner in charge of assigning work details at the concentration camp, contrived to have a group of prisoners sent on an assignment far enough away that they could pray without being caught by the guards. And apparently, miraculously, someone had smuggled a shofar—a ram’s horn– into the camp and was able to take it with him and blow it for their clandestine High Holy Days celebration.

At Auschwitz. Amidst the terror, the death, the grief and the desolation—the utter insanity of those days in that place; the shofar was heard; the persistent cry of hope.

This is a story that resonates with anyone who has forgotten, or fears forgetting, what hope looks like. When the view of the future appears chaotic virtually into perpetuity, as it does lately, the knots in the stomach seem constant. We each have our own litany of monsters under the bed that keep us awake at night, or distracted during the day. Whether personal, political, ecological, or just generally existential, there doesn’t seem to be enough anesthetic to combat the overall anxiety that many people are confronting in these days. And when you go to the doctor for a physical, as I did last week, and are handed a depression-screening questionnaire as a matter of routine form-filling, you know, at the least (the very VERY least) that you’re not alone.

Someone said to me over coffee one day: “I don’t know if I have hope anymore.” A few days later, another person said, “Please, talk about hope!” Okay. So let’s talk about Jeremiah.

Biblical scholar John Collins writes that Jeremiah confounded everyone because when they were trying to be hopeful he was all doom and gloom, and when they were in despair he had words of hope. Sounds like a prophet to me.

He is one of the Major Prophets, along with Isaiah and Ezekiel, with 51 chapters of compiled sermons, signs and oracles, poems, essays, biographical narrative, condemnation, complaint, and, ultimately, eventually, words of comfort.

As I mentioned the other week, Jeremiah lived and prophesied at a pivotal time, as Judah was being besieged and ultimately destroyed by the Babylonians, with many of her people taken into exile for the next generation. Jeremiah warned, over and over again, that Judah’s worship of idols and disregard for the poor and marginalized would have serious consequences—which, by the way, is what our Gospel lesson emphasizes today. So as Babylon came knocking at the gates, Jeremiah said that God’s justice was being meted out to Jerusalem and Judah.

The thing is, he said this directly to King Zedekiah, and told him that under the circumstances the best thing to do was just surrender. Which would explain why, as our story opens, Jeremiah was euphemistically ‘under the care of the palace guard.’ Less euphemistically, he was in jail for treason.

Jeremiah’s entire prophetic vocation, begun reluctantly as a young man and pursued through years of hardship, ridicule, persecution and depression— had come to a head as Babylon tightened the noose around Judah and he himself was imprisoned.

It looked like a pretty hopeless situation, for both Judah and Jeremiah. But God would not be silent. God’s call is persistent.

God tells Jeremiah that his cousin Hanamel was on the way with a proposition. He would be asking Jeremiah to buy his land in the town of Anathoth. Jeremiah would have understood the nature of this deal because it involved his responsibility according to the right of redemption—when a relative was at risk of losing property the next of kin was obligated to buy it—redeem it—to keep the land in the family. But just because Jeremiah understood his obligation wouldn’t necessarily mean that he would be excited at the prospect.

This is because the saying that a prophet is not welcome in his hometown might actually have originated with Jeremiah. The last time he’d been in Anathoth the people there—these were his neighbors and the folks he had grown up with– had tried to kill him because of his prophecies.

So. He’s in jail. In a city about to be destroyed. Being asked to redeem a parcel of land in a town that despises him. Just another day in the life of a prophet.

“For thus says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”

Does Jeremiah blink? Does he flinch? Hardly. He buys the land, as he has been told to do. He does it publically, according to custom and proper procedure; documented (in duplicate), signed, witnessed, sealed, placed in the equivalent of a safe deposit box, money weighed and exchanged. Signed, sealed, and delivered. Words of hope in spite of all appearances. Punching despair in the nose.

Whenever I read this passage I am both amused and bemused by the ability of a real estate deal to move and inspire. It’s just a land transaction, for goodness sake! But it’s a land transaction with resurrection implications. It is God’s promise to God’s people that life will emerge from the ashes of despair and destruction. Life will win, because God is faithful.That’s Hope.

What makes Jeremiah’s hope more sustaining than wishful thinking, which is what hope is sometimes confused with?

Hope is public. The community around Jeremiah witnessed his act of faith, with their eyes and their signatures. This was not a solitary act; it was communal. It involved accountability. An act of hope will not let you off the hook.

Hope is courageous. Jeremiah’s transaction was undertaken against the odds—a statement that, in spite of evidence to the contrary he was staking his claim on the future rather than conserving his resources for the short term. An act of hope calls you to dig deep and find inner resources you didn’t know you had.  But you do.

Hope is risky. God called Jeremiah to invest his faith in a place that had rejected him and betrayed a lifelong relationship. Not only that, it was effectively in a war zone. Who buys a house that’s on fire? Someone who has faith in rebuilding it from the ashes. An act of hope can look just a little bit crazy.

Hope is incarnational. God asked Jeremiah to do something and to ask others to join him. Writing, witnessing, signing, sealing, enclosing, weighing. Parchment, ink, wax, pottery, silver, land. Physical actions involving tangible things. An act of hope demands skin in the game.

And most importantly and foundationally, Hope is rooted in identity. Jeremiah acted as one who knew who and whose he was. He was the child of a God whose call into renewed relationship comes again and again in spite of humanity’s tendency for brokenness and infidelity. He was one of a people loved into being, liberated and called into covenant relationship with a God who had promised never to fail them. An act of hope is rooted in our identity as beloved of a God who never gives up on his Creation.

Hope challenges us to remember who we are!

It doesn’t have to be a land deal in a war zone. It doesn’t have to be the blowing of a shofar in a concentration camp.

It can be holding a cardboard sign that says, “There is no Plan(et) B” in New York, or Sidney, or Providence while marching with millions of young people worldwide. That’s public.

It can be in the passion and indignation of a sixteen-year-old with her cry of, “How dare you!” calling out the climate change complacency of the powerful in the halls of the powerful, in spite of efforts to sideline, demean and discredit her. That’s courageous.

It can be feeding the hungry homeless in the streets or giving sanctuary to migrants even as the authorities warn of legal consequences. That’s risky.

It is wherever music and art stir the soul, wherever the sound of laughter lifts the heart, wherever an act of kindness heals the broken-hearted. That’s incarnational.

It is whenever two or three are gathered together in God’s name to be fed by word and sacrament. That’s who we are. The Body of Christ; sent into the world to heal and to make whole.

Hope isn’t as easy or as platitudinous as wishing. It requires us to stake our claim against despair and sound the proverbial ram’s horn of renewal. Hope lays claim on our energy, our patience, and our faith.

But, as long as we remember who we are, we choose Hope. 

Loyalties

Luke 16 1-13

The parable of the dishonest manager is perhaps one of Jesus’ most confusing teachings.

A steward, the manager of an entire estate, becomes suspected by his employer of defrauding him. The steward, anticipating the likelihood of dismissal, prepares for the prospect of a grim future in which he will not only become unemployed but because of reputational damage, like as not be unemployable. So, he sets about renegotiating contracts with his employer’s debtors; reducing the amounts owed in one case by 30% and in another as much as 50%. What attracts our curiosity is that these are huge margins for debt relief; perhaps an indication of interest charges that would excite any modern payday lender.

The puzzling aspect of this parable is why his employer commends the steward for his foresighted shrewdness? Can it be that he’s so impressed by the steward’s entrepreneurial enterprise that he doesn’t notice or care that the steward’s actions have reduced his own profit margins?

Jesus then commends the steward’s actions, telling is disciples to do likewise. Further puzzlement. Can Jesus really be advocating sharp practice as acceptable behavior for discipleship?

Having appeared to commend sharp practice: make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth – Jesus then extols the virtues of faithfulness and trustworthiness – culminating in the famous statement: you cannot serve God and wealth –(at the same time).

This is a parable of the dishonest steward is difficult for us to fathom partly because the elegance of the NRSV translation. For instance take: the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their generation than the children of light – elegantly distances us from its core meaning. Eugene Peterson in his translation in The Message gets more to the heart of the matter: Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits.

Jesus is therefore telling his disciples: I want you to be smart in the same way – [but be] smart for what is right – using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.

Peterson’s colloquial directness cuts through the elegance of the NRSV to disturb us even more. Where the NRSV’s elegant translates Jesus words as: you cannot serve God and wealth – in Peterson’s translation becomes: You can’t serve both God and the Bank.

Jesus’ address the complexities of conflicting loyalties. Yet for a community like St Martin’s, his identifying the conflict as between God and the Bank or wealth, is somewhat disturbing in more ways than one. Is Jesus really saying that you cannot be Christian and also have a very healthy bank balance at the same time? With an eye to an eventual capital campaign at St Martin’s, I’ve a very strong investment is hoping this is not what Jesus is saying!

The key to interpreting parables, I think, is to allow them to be as complex as they actually are, and then wait to see what they cause us to wonder about.  This one makes me wonder about how it is that we actually live together.

Richard Swanson

The parable of the dishonest steward reminds us that Jesus was not naïve in his understanding of how the world works. Using Swanson’s idea of parables making us wonder about how it is that we actually live together, we see emerging from this particular parable a realization that avoiding potential and managing real conflicts of interest are central to the way we actually live together. Navigation among conflicting interests is an essential life skill.

None of us lives in a world where we have only one loyalty. We are all torn between competing and conflicting loyalties. As a pastor, I have a loyalty to the members of my community. This loyalty frequently threatens to conflict with my loyalty to God. If I speak the truth – no matter how lovingly I do it, oftentimes someone is going to feel hurt, or judged, or rejected. Do I maintain someone within the community at the cost of turning a blind eye to inappropriate behavior?

Jesus is asking us to let one primary interest, one key relational loyalty, in our case our primary loyalty to God guide our navigation through the other conflicting sets of demands placed upon us.

We are all faced with similar conflicts of interest all the time. Jesus is asking us to let one primary interest, one key relational loyalty, in our case our primary loyalty to God guide our navigation through the other conflicting sets of demands placed upon us.

As a pastor and congregational leader, I strive to be tolerant, understanding, and non-judgmental. I accept a certain level of flack without retaliating. But I also know that sometimes the tensions just can’t be fudged, and I may have to speak my truth as I understand it emerging from within my primary relationship to God. By doing so someone may be lost, which is always a huge personal loss to me.

Being streetwise, on constant alert, looking for the angles that will stimulate us to seek creative solutions always in the interests of what is right – is preferable to being naïve and living life as an exercise of only painting by numbers – only coloring within the lines. Jesus recognized this as simply the reality that confronts us all as we negotiate our way together within complex social and economic systems over which none of us as much control.

In identifying a conflict of interest – am I loyal to God or to my bank balance, the question is not – can we serve God and also be wealthy at the same time? The better question is – how does this parable shine light on how it is we actually do live together in our present-day society?  

Sunday’s O.T. companion reading to Luke 16:1-13 is Amos 8:4-7. Jesus is in one sense the last of the Hebrew prophets. When taken together the gist of both Luke 16 and Amos 8 might be translated into contemporary terms as: the prime duty of a corporation is not to make a profit for its investors but to be an engine for social utility. By extension, investment in the market for financial return needs to be balanced with investment as a support for social good. Investment, you see, cuts both ways. When businesses are engines for the strengthening of social good, their investors benefit in more ways than simply a return on the bottom line. History is testament to the fact that mutual flourishing is a prerequisite for social stability. Unstable markets are an investor’s nightmare.

The young people this weekend rallying with raised voices in the Climate Strike events all over the world; the striking GM workers, objecting to the company’s two tier employment and benefits policies, both remind us that stability results when our flourishing is fundamentally dependent on our neighbor also flourishing.

Amos is clear that greed is seductive, and we are all seduced at least some of the time by it. When we believe that our privilege or our wealth is the result of our own hard-won gains, rather than a combination of luck and hard work, we are being seduced by greed.

When we willfully ignore the way the arrangements in human societies reflect an unlevel playing field not accessible to all, we are guilty of self-serving greed. Because, some of us enjoy an unearned leg up from the start because of our race, our gender, or the fact that we are part of a family system in which wealth has been accumulated and passed on – so that elite education flows into good jobs and fine houses and the spare financial capacity to enhance wealth through prudent investments.  All of these factors help those beneficiaries move more successfully through the complexities of the world. From those to whom much is given, a special responsibility is also required.

In this last week’s E-News I laid out the case for Christian Capitalism, a capitalism guided by Biblical principles of social and economic justice. The conflict between God and the Bank as Peterson interprets Jesus’ words is the conflict the ensues when the forces of the free market are decoupled from the consistent Biblical voice on social and economic justice. From Moses, through prophets like Amos, to Jesus – we hear God’s requirement that we build fair societies. Courtesy of our Senior Warden I was furnished with a wonderful quote from Andrew Carnegie:

This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of wealth: To set an example of the modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and, after doing so, to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community – the man of wealth thus becoming the mere trustee and agent for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.

The Gospel of Wealth 1889

Jesus is warning us that when greed – in all its subtleties makes us oblivious to the reality that what we enjoy is not solely the fruit of our own hard work but is entrusted to us in service of the greater good, we fall into the trap of truly conflicted loyalties.

The final collect at Compline reads:

O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live
in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day,
who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never
forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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