Confronted

Luke 15:1-10

Are we among the lost or the found?  What do these terms even mean? Is finding ourselves the same as being found? Why don’t we notice that the experience of finding ourselves is so completely unsatisfying? The best solution to the experience of being lost is to be found. But waiting to be found is a bit too humiliating for most of us who prefer the illusion that we have already found ourselves.

Luke records two of Jesus parables in the first 10 verses of chapter 15. To anyone who has ever lost or misplaced a cherished object, or heaven forbid, lost a pet these two stories are immediately familiar. We can readily identify with the panic of the shepherd who is willing to leave the 99 in search of the missing one. We have all been the woman who ransacks her house in search of the lost coin; her mind completely fixated on finding the lost coin to the extent that nothing else matters – no food prep or cooking is done, no laundry is washed, the kids are not even picked up from school. We all know how great her relief is when she finds her lost coin. Yet, do we share her gratitude that finds expression in an exuberant celebration of generosity showered upon neighbor and stranger alike? Perhaps not.

It’s so like Luke to pair a story about a male shepherd with one about a female housewife. For Luke the kingdom of God is a place of complete gender equality.

The parable of the lost sheep is a story about the relationship between a shepherd and his sheep. In Luke’s telling it’s clearly an allegory about God’s relationship with us -a relationship that is informed by the intimate connection between the Middle Eastern shepherd and his sheep. B.W. Johnson in his 19th-century commentary The People’s New Testament, 1891 reports and earlier experience:

As we ate and looked, almost spellbound, the silent hillsides around us were in a moment filled with sounds and life. The shepherds led their flocks forth from the gates of the city. They were in full view and we watched and listened to them with no little interest. Thousands of sheep and goats were there in dense, confused masses. The shepherds stood together until all came out. Then they separated, each shepherd taking a different path, and uttering, as he advanced, a shrill, peculiar call. The sheep heard them. At first the masses swayed and moved as if shaken with some internal convulsion; then points struck out in the direction taken by the shepherds; these became longer and longer, until the confused masses were resolved into long, living streams, flowing after their leaders. Such a sight was not new to me, still it had lost none of its interest. It was, perhaps, one of the most vivid illustrations which human eyes could witness of that beautiful discourse of our Savior recorded.

The parable is a form of ancient storytelling – its content instantly recognizable from the everyday lives of the story’s hearers. But while the storyline is familiar from experience, it’s the unexpected twist at the end of the story that leaves the hearers wondering what just hit them. Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep is like all of Jesus’ parable stories – a familiar story from pastoral life that unexpectedly confronts the hearer.

Luke identifies two distinct groupings: Pharisees and scribes, and tax collectors and sinners. If this story is an allegory of our relationship with God, what is the takeaway? For me, the takeaway lies in discovering in which of the two groups I find myself reflected?

1900 years of Christian anti-semitic interpretation of this parable tricks us into too easy an answer which bears closer examination.

Pharisees, Scribes, tax collectors and sinners all are historical reference points in Luke’s world that enable him to sketch the picture of Jesus against a background of conflicting worldviews. I wonder between Luke’s time and ours, has anything really changed much? The names change, but the dynamic of conflicting worldviews stays the same – a conflict at its essence between those who have and those who have not. Yet the deeper question in much of Jesus teaching is – what constitutes having and not having? The answer is not always obvious.

The Pharisees are smug and self-satisfied. They thank God that they are not made as these contemptible others are. They feel confident in a system that makes them the authors of their own salvation. Here’s the rub. Like them, do we not feel we are the authors of our own salvation? We have the power and privilege of being in control of our lives. We are pretty satisfied that we are right with God, or more arcuately, isn’t it that God is right with us? Privilege blinds the complacent.

The Scribes are certainly censorious. Cocooned in a world of religious privilege that insulates them from the necessity of risk-taking. Their legalistic piety leads them into judgement of others. Aren’t we too pretty good at that. But wait a minute, on closer examination, if only we took our spiritual lives as seriously as the Scribes did theirs. Oh, that we cared as much as they did about being right with God and being faithful and regular in our daily and weekly religious observance. Unlike them, privilege breeds in us a worrisome lack or spiritual urgency.

The tax collectors are a wiley bunch. They benefit quite nicely from the fruits of economic and social injustice. They may earn the contempt of their fellow Jews, but sandwiched as the middlemen between their fellow countrymen and the Roman occupation they turn a nice profit. Are we not among the winners in our capitalist system, a system that is fundamentally exploitative? Perhaps its this lack of identification with the tax collectors that lies at the root of our reluctance to understand the need for root and branch change?

And then there are the sinners. Sinner is a technical term for Luke. Sinners does not mean bad people in the sense that we might use the term to describe the morally compromised. Sinners are those who live precarious and risk filled lives on the margins, shut out from both the religious and economic systems. It’s not likely that transported into Luke’s 1st-century scene, we would identify ourselves with those whose poverty grinds them down and puts lives luxuriating in self-satisfaction and respectable guilt far beyond their reach.

We’re probably way too proud to think of ourselves as lost sheep. But the image seems to fit. For have certainly wandered off so that to be found requires God to go in search for us. The problem is that even when God finds us we don’t think we need to be found, because we can manage our own state of affairs, thank you God.

The comfortable have no need of God. Those humbled by worldly circumstances know only their need of God. Now we come to the heart of the difference between Pharisees and Scribes on the one side and tax collectors and sinners on the other. One group stands a little apart in a stance of the self-righteous; judging Jesus because he does not conform to their rules. The other group crowds in upon him — hungrily feeding on the image of a God willing to take considerable risks to go in search of his lost sheep. For those on the outside; those who are considered nothing because they have nothing, Jesus words have powerful effect and their longing is palpable. Longing to be found is also a metaphor for longing to be changed.

Where do we find ourselves reflected in Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep? To be honest with ourselves – it’s not necessarily a pleasant discovery. So how do we change this? Now that’s a question for us to consider.

Restoration

On Homecoming Sunday, we gather to commence a new program year only to find God speaking to us through Jesus’ amazingly poignant and timely words recorded in Luke chapter 14, the gospel appointed for the the 12th Sunday after Pentecost.

For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish it, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying “this fellow began to build and was not able to finish”.

Luke 14

In late January, a significant rainstorm caused significant water damage in the tower, effectively rendering the chapel unusable for the last nine months. The storm highlighted the perilous state of the tower roof and cap stones, together with the deterioration of the leaded windows in the bell chamber, which allowed alarming amounts of water to flood in.

But it wasn’t only the tower. It became alarmingly clear to those of us in leadership that we could no longer ignore the ever-increasing number of leaks, damaging not only the chapel, but appearing throughout the church.

Flashings are the copper interfaces that connect the roof to the stone gables, of which we have three. In addition to the tower roof, it was clear that we had multiple flashing failure points at the west and east ends and the raised stone gable bisecting the church and chancel roofs.

As we began to address this escalating crisis, of course we then discovered other problems – particularly the crumbling state of the Great East Window mullions and other stonework problems. I encourage you all to stop by and view the excellent electronic bulletin board presentation of the issues located in the atrium or visit the website for a fuller PowerPoint presentation of the issues and the scope of the work.

For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish it, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying “this fellow began to build and was not able to finish”.

Although Jesus’ words indicate the prudent approach to undertaking building work, sometimes life doesn’t fit into the logical and sequential planning process Jesus seems to advocate here. As the full implications of the scope and costs involved began to dawn on us, thank goodness we didn’t read Luke 14 at the time or we might easily have felt indicted as fools. For it was imperative that we acted urgently to begin the work before it was clear how we would pay for it; not the normally prudent way of going about such things.

We began this 1.2-million-dollar restoration project in late spring, and we are on course to complete the work by Autumn’s end. The quality and scope of the work done will secure the Church from water ingress for at least another 100 years.

Over the summer the Church Wardens, John Bracken and David Brookhart, together with Peter Lofgren – who thanks be to God – quickly became our resident architectural supervisor of works, have worked tirelessly to oversee this building restoration project. Without these three crucial leaders, I do not know how we would have been able to respond to the urgency and scale of this project, which also involved exploring a viable way in the short term to fund the work.

As the scale and cost of the project dawned on me, I felt like Prissy, the black maid in Gone with the Wind who protests to her mistress: I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ babies, Miss Scarlet. I protested to God that surely God didn’t imagine that church roofs and raising money were in my wheelhouse of skills?

So, God did what he normally does when I complain. He ignored me. Or so it seemed at the time.

Soooo, what does all this now mean for us? I want to share some reflections with you as we come home to begin a new program year.

Jesus’ words in Luke 14 occur within a larger passage which is really about the challenges and costs of discipleship. Throughout the restoration of the building project those of us in leadership positions have learned many things. However, it’s about discipleship that we have learned most.  

We found ourselves becoming transformed from a fearful and anxious state of mind to hold an attitude of courageous and energized confidence.

As rector, wardens, and vestry gradually came to terms with the challenge facing us, something quite extraordinary happened to us. We found ourselves becoming transformed from a fearful and anxious state of mind to hold an attitude of courageous and energized confidence.

At one level the challenge can be reduced to being about stone and copper. Yet, at another level the challenge reignites our affection for buildings as the spaces within which our community flourishes. St Martin’s buildings communicate the warm experience of fellowship and shared endeavor. They also invite and communicate an experience of numinous space that stimulates a sense of being present with God.

After the crucial Vestry meeting in May, the Senior Warden reported to me that when he’d gone home, his wife had asked how the meeting had gone? He was about to say his usual understated way “it went well” when he paused and marvelled that the Vestry had just approved the signing off on the construction contract and one million dollar three-year revolving line of credit from Bank RI – in a spirit of unanimous and confident excitement.

We were indeed surprised to have no doubt that we were responding to God’s paradoxical invitation. By this I mean we understood that this restoration project is not primarily about raising 1.2 million dollars to pay for the physical restoration of the church. It’s about an invitation to move into a new and energizing phase of spiritual engagement with spiritual selves.

At first this invitation was an unwanted one, but it quickly transformed into something we actually welcomed and embraced with enthusiasm; an opportunity to think a-fresh the kind of vision for our community we want going forward.

Sometimes in life we don’t have the option of careful and controlled planning before we have to act. What we discover instead is the source of courage that allows us to confidently set out on a challenging path – not simply do what has to be done, but to become changed in the process by discovering spiritual benefits we could not have imagined.

I find Jesus’ words in Luke 14 more than a little puzzling. Careful planning and controlled anticipation are not the characteristics of either Jesus’ own approach to life or the life of discipleship he called his followers to. Faith, courage, and the quiet hope that propels and nurtures both are the marks of discipleship, not confidence in our own power and strength to be in control of everything. Faith, courage and hope, these have been the discovery among our parish leadership team these past months. Like the crowds who went on their way after listening to Jesus, we are all amazed by this experience.

Brits, Aussies and Kiwis have a rather down to earth expression. We often speak of a situation or person being arse about face, (US English translation ass about face) to mean that things seem to be evolving or they are going about things in a back to front kind of way. Here at St Martin’s we are having an arse about face experience which actually alerts us to the nature of authentic discipleship. In fact, maybe the path of discipleship is always to live in an arse about face kind of way.

In fact, maybe the path of discipleship is always to live in an arse about face kind of way.

That being so, we cannot completely escape our conditioning and so we are about to begin a process of discernment for the feasibility of launching a capital campaign in 2020. We last had a capital campaign in 1996. The result was the building of the atrium and the massive enrichment the atrium has brought to our community life. Getting our face back in front of our arse means inviting you to now share your hopes and vision for St Martin’s with us.

We’ve appointed a consultant from the Episcopal Church Foundation to guide us through the discernment and feasibility study phases that precede any possible launching of a capital campaign. In a matter of weeks, we will produce a discernment brochure outlining discussion points designed to excite a parish wide conversation. There will be a number of cottage meetings – small group get-togethers – that will allow all of us who want to participate to have a voice in sharing what St. Martin’s means to us and what we would like to see as the fruit of a possible capital campaign.

As the parish leadership have already discovered, the real challenge is not to raise 1.2 million dollars. The real challenge is to allow ourselves to become transformed into disciples; an experience the leadership has already discovered is actually amazing, and which we now recognize as being beyond price.

Benedictine wisdom on the nature of community observes a common pattern: young monks are fervent but not holy, old monks are holy but not fervent, and middle-aged monks are neither holy nor fervent. In as much as this might be a good description of our community, let’s rise to the challenge for all us monks to be both fervent and holy.

Carefully Taught

                                                                              

A sermon from the Rev Linda Mackie Griggs

Jeremiah 2:4-13  Luke 14: 1, 7-14

“But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

My most vivid memory of my fourth grade Virginia history book was the chapter entitled, “A Red Letter Day.” Of course the first thing we had to learn was what a red letter day was. Mrs. Hosner said that it was a day that was special—pleasantly noteworthy or memorable. The day in question was in late August 1619, when three things arrived in the little English colony at Jamestown: indentured servants, women, and slaves. A red letter day. America’s original sin of chattel slavery was portrayed to us as pleasantly noteworthy.

Thus began my education, or rather, indoctrination. What I didn’t know until much later (last week) was that the book that I was reading from, studying, and dutifully parroting back on tests, was part of a set of three textbooks for elementary, junior high and high school, created in the 1950s (and used until the late 1970s) under the heavy influence of the segregationist political machine of Sen. Harry Byrd Sr., who wanted to make sure that Virginia children learned proper history, not tainted by any of that Communist or Civil Rights malarkey. And so we learned of red letter days, of how slaves (please call them servants,) were well-treated and content, of the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War (please call it the War Between the States,) and how handsome and gallant Robert E. Lee was as he rode his proud steed, Traveller, and how the reason for the War Between the States was certainly not slavery, but states rights.

As Rogers and Hammerstein noted in the musical, South Pacific, “You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear

You’ve got to be taught from year to year

It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear;

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

And we were.

Those books—that propaganda—affected multiple generations of children, because many of the ones who originally learned it taught it to their children. Look at the faces of the young people who rebelled against the removal of the Lee statue in Richmond two years ago. Hear the people who defend flying the Confederate flag. Heritage, not hate, they say. It’s about tradition and history, they say. Not about slavery.

They have been carefully taught.

When history is written, or rewritten, by those in power, the narrative is theirs to dictate.  Fortunately that is changing, and we have the opportunity to hear the voices of the oppressed more broadly and deeply than before; to hear the stories

of slavery and its repercussions from the perspectives of the enslaved, the sharecroppers; the victims of the Black Codes, the lynchings, Jim Crow and Mass Incarceration. We have the opportunity to ponder the true legacy of that August day in 1619 and to begin to understand that the white European-descended power structure that we have today was built on a foundation of the labor and suffering of fellow children of God who were bought and sold as property.  We are beginning to understand the idea of white privilege; the idea that the benefits in education, healthcare, home ownership, employment, voting and legal rights that the white community takes for granted are generally not benefits accruing to our black sisters and brothers. And the reason for that dates back to August 1619. We have been carefully taught that our rightful place is at the head of the table, and the fact that others are seated lower is their responsibility, not ours.

Jesus told his parables of the wedding banquet to an audience who was aware of the proper etiquette of table seating at dinner parties; that the people with greater power and influence would be granted the privilege of reclining closest to the host, in the places of honor. In offering up the rather ridiculous image, of guests racing and climbing over one another to be the first to the bottom of the table so that they may be asked to move higher, Jesus is encouraging his hearers to think more deeply about entitlement; about the economy of standards that they use to measure themselves against one another. Why does somebody deserve a place of honor? Wealth? Education? Gender? Hometown? Looks? Jesus prompts us to ponder; are these the standards that apply in the Dream of God? He prompts his audience to consider that they might be confusing privilege—the special rights or advantages available to a certain group—with blessing—the favor, protection and care of God. Jesus calls God’s people not to rush to claim the fruits of privilege, but rather to hold their privilege lightly—so lightly that that they can share it with others, thus embodying God’s blessing as members of a beloved community.

Today, 400 years after that dubiously named August day in 1619, might it be that Jesus is asking those who have heretofore controlled the narrative of racial history in this country to take the challenging and humbling step of questioning our place at the table?

The message hasn’t always been so gentle as Jesus framed it in Luke’s Gospel. Abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass didn’t go to the Gospels as the Biblical source for his writings and speeches. He made a beeline for the prophets, particularly Isaiah and Jeremiah. Jeremiah wrote about thirty years before the fall of Jerusalem in 597 B.C.E. and he could see the signs of the looming consequences of Judah’s worship of idols and refusal to turn back to the God who created and delivered them. “I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination.” Jeremiah’s accusations against the powerful and the privileged—the rulers, the priests and the prophets—were the heart of Douglass’s passionate tirades—his biographer calls them jeremiads—his tirades against the slave owners, the church, and the politicians who ignored his cries for justice for his people. The abuse that he suffered, the scars on his back and the discrimination that dogged him even as a freedman—this was his first-hand knowledge of how the white power structure exploited black human beings—sacrificing them to the idols of cotton and tobacco, financial gain and political power. Douglass, like Jeremiah, wrote on the eve of disaster for the country—a civil war/War Between the States that would bring emancipation of our enslaved brothers and sisters, but at the cost of 620,000 lives.

And the costs have continued to mount over the past 150 years as the wounds of racism have festered. Because the power structure that has written the narrative of race until recently would like us all to forget what the marginalized and powerless can’t help but remember. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In a New York Times Magazine piece a couple of weeks ago journalist Bryan Stevenson summed up where we are now: “…[W]e are at one of those critical moments in American history when we will either double down on romanticizing our past or accept that there is something better waiting for us.” He continued, “I realized how important it is to stay hopeful: Hopelessness is the enemy of justice.”

And justice is all of our business. We can’t opt out because we aren’t Virginians. Rhode Islanders—including Episcopal Rhode Islanders, played a leading role in the transatlantic slave trade whose consequences continue to transcend generations. Justice, and hope, are the business of all of us.

Last Sunday afternoon churches in Virginia and Rhode Island, at the encouragement of the Presiding Bishop and in cooperation with the Center for Reconciliation, rang their bells, to remember. To remember 20 African men who were brought to Virginia in a Portuguese ship named for John the Baptist. To remember them and the millions more who were brought later and those who died on the Middle Passage. The bells rang as a wake-up call and a prayer of hope, that we can hear our story anew; listening with open and humble hearts, ready to offer our places at God’s Banquet table to all, so that we may share God’s blessings of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation.

You’ve got to be taught

to be afraid

of people whose eyes are oddly made

and people whose skin is a different shade.

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught

before it’s too late

to hate all the people your relatives hate.

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

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