Dinner Reservations (sermon 8/28/16)

place cards

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 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.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” – Luke 14:1, 7-14 (NRSV)

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Josiah – Joe, for short – was a man with a keen intellect, an ornery sense of humor, and a big heart. At various times in his life, he was a family man, an accomplished attorney, beloved law professor, university president, and a good Presbyterian elder who’d always wanted to go to seminary but never managed to make it. He was a good and gentle man, and for a time, I was blessed to be able to call him friend. He wrote the first letter of recommendation for me when I applied to seminary, and I always valued his thoughts and insights. I got to know Joe later in his life, after he’d retired from the halls of academia, and he and his wonderful wife Joyce began yet another chapter of life as alpaca ranchers.

I remember visiting with Joe and Joyce one evening. The alpacas had been herded up and gotten into the barn, and we were all sitting in the living room. Their dog, Lorna, had found what she at least felt was a comfortable place to rest, flopped on top of my feet while we sat talking. At one point, the conversation turned to a mutual friend, who’d been very successful in the business world. At the time of this conversation, Hummers – those big, boxy SUVs modeled on the military vehicle – had just come out on the market, and they were all the buzz, the new hot thing; it was something unusual and special to see one on the road – and our mutual friend had just bought one. I told Joe that I’d gone out riding around with the friend in his new Hummer just a few days earlier. And I said that I knew that the vehicle was too big, too expensive, an environmentally unfriendly gas-guzzling symbol of conspicuous consumption that no one should ever own, and a sign of basically everything that’s wrong with our wealth-worshiping society. But then, I chuckled and had to admit – it was actually pretty fun. It felt really good sitting up high in that tricked out fancy leather interior, driving around town and having everyone stopping gawking and looking up at you as you went by. It felt good to be what everyone was looking at. Joe  just nodded as I said that, then he smiled and looked at me and said, “Yes, but what were they *thinking* while they were looking?”

And in those few words, Joe had brought me back down to earth. I recognized that I’d allowed myself to get caught up in that same kind of status-through-money mindset that I hated so much when I saw it in others.

It’s easy to do, and I suppose if we’re honest with ourselves, at one point or another we all get sucked into it. And when we hear this passage from Luke’s gospel, we can see that it isn’t anything new, because that’s exactly what’s at play in this story about Jesus having dinner in the Pharisee’s home. The social situation back then was basically the same as it is today. If you were considered someone important, you got one of the best seats in the house at a dinner. If you weren’t quite on the “A” list, you got seated further away from the host, and you probably didn’t get to see the impressive view out the windows. And if you’d just barely made it onto the guest list, you ended up at the cramped little table near the kitchen door, with all the noise and where you’d keep getting bumped by the servers as they went back and forth. There’s really nothing new under the sun; that just was, and is, the way of the world.

But here, Jesus was telling people about a different way – some would consider it an odd way, but it’s certainly a revolutionary way of understanding things. He was making it clear that in the Kingdom of God, none of the rules that we typically use to assign status and importance applied. We’ve come up with all these categories and labels to divide us into groups – and usually, with the purpose of whoever’s coming up with the labels being to identify their own group as superior to the people in the other categories. We’ve done it on the base of wealth or income; skin color and physical characteristics or physical ability; education level or intelligence; gender and sexual orientation; religious profession, and on and on. Here, Jesus is saying that God isn’t particularly impressed with those kinds of distinctions. In a sense, Jesus is saying that God doesn’t really care whether you drive a shiny new Hummer or a rusty old Hyundai, and if you’ve seen what I’m driving at the moment, you know I’m particularly grateful for that. In fact, Jesus’ point here seems to be that God’s love and grace is big enough and broad enough for all of us, regardless of any of those labels.

There’s a special significance to so many of Jesus’ teachings occurring around a dinner table or another meal, because at different places in the scriptures, the Kingdom of God is compared to a great banquet, a feast, featuring the best and richest of foods, and the finest of wines. The scriptures don’t make any particular mention of bourbon, but I’m sure that’s part of it, too. In this story, Jesus is saying that the guest list to this eternal, cosmic banquet is based on God’s standards, not ours, regarding who would be invited to the table and who, if anyone, shouldn’t. The guest list is based on the nature of God’s grace, which is broad and inclusive enough for all of us.

There’s a fairly well-known short story by Flannery O’Connor titled “Revelation.” The story’s main character is Ruby Turpin, who considers herself a proper, upstanding Christian woman, a moral pillar of all good society, and who’s obviously superior to all sorts of other social undesirables. Keeping this story short, Ruby ends up getting pounced on, physically attacked by one of those undesirables. After her attacker is subdued, Ruby is sure that this person would see the error of their ways for attacking someone of her stature and apologize, but when the attacker doesn’t show any remorse at all, it causes Ruby to be shocked, and to ponder the meaning of it all. As she was thinking about it, Ruby had an epiphany of sorts, a vision – a revelation; hence the name of the story. In her vision, she sees a big, broad highway, a ramp, moving upward and leading directly to the very gates of heaven. And she sees a whole long line of all the lesser-than, all those people she considers social undesirables, laughing and dancing and joking as they all joyfully walk onward and upward into heaven – and the really shocking thing was that all of them doing so ahead of her and her like-minded friends, who still in the line, but who are bringing up the rear; all headed soberly, reservedly, maybe decently and in order, but as they did, they were all shocked and confused that all the supposed trashy people were getting in ahead of them – that apparently, God’s way of seeing things was so different, so much broader, than they’d ever dreamt. I think there’s a lot of that kind of subtext going on in today’s gospel lesson.

From the place of social and economic privilege that all of us here this morning enjoy, it’s easy to hear these words of Jesus that Luke shares with us, and to maybe feel a bit of sting in his words. It’s easy to feel like he’s shaking a finger at his Pharisee host, and that it extends across the years all the way to us, too. And undoubtedly, some of that sting is justified. Of course, we really do need to consider that message well, and recognize that we need to work harder, with God’s help, to be more broad in our acceptance of others, regardless of their labels, in both church and society. We need to recognize that that’s a key, fundamental part of what it means to live out the truth of the gospel. So yes, there’s a bit of sting there.

But I don’t think that’s where Jesus’ message ends. The reality is that while in one sense, in the sense of our own definitions, yes, we are privileged. But in another sense, we really aren’t. In God’s eyes, we’re really no better than the ones we consider less-than. But God’s grace – God’s love and mercy and acceptance, welcomes us to the banquet, too. In truth, we’re really just as unlikely to have dinner reservations to God’s great eternal banquet as they are – and yet, somehow, we do.  We are invited. And the gratitude, and thankfulness, and joy that should bubble up within us if we truly grasp that great truth, is what should enable us to be more welcoming to the table toward everyone else, and being welcome on equal terms, not treating those others as second- or third-class attendees sluffed off to the table by the kitchen.

Jesus was using the real banquet, the real table in front of him, to teach something important about the Kingdom of God – the great eternal banquet. This morning, as I think about that great banquet, I imagine myself sitting at the table, laughing and smiling. And I have a big platter of some delicious food in my hands, and after I spoon out a helping of it for myself, I turn, and smile, and offer it to Joe, the university president; who will take some, and smile, and pass it on to Tina, the crystal meth addict; who will pass it on to Roger, the police chief; who will pass it on to Jamal, who was kicked out of his parents’ home because he was transgender; who will pass it on to Stephanie, the homeless working-poor single mother of three; who will pass it on Antwan, who grew up in the ghetto and who knew racial prejudice and discrimination his entire short life; who will pass it to Ruby Turpin herself, who will be sitting there looking very shocked and confused by it all, but finally, very happy; and she’ll pass it on… and on… and on.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

A New Normal (sermon 8/21/16)

normal offramp

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.

But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing. – Luke 13:10-17 (NRSV)

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She stepped into the synagogue along with the rest of them, all headed to the same places on the benches that wrapped around the sidewalls of the synagogue where they sat every Sabbath day. She was doubled over, to the point that she could hardly see who was around her, and even though her infirmity would have made her stick out like a sore thumb to a stranger, to most of these people she’d become almost invisible out of familiarity, like a billboard that you pass on the highway every day that you eventually don’t even notice no matter how outrageous the actual advertisement. She didn’t like that fact, but she’d gotten used to it and made do, and there really wasn’t anything she could do about it, anyway. This was her reality, her normal. So like everyone else there that day, she quietly made her way to her seat, just like every other Sabbath.

But we know this story; we just heard it – in fact, this day was different from all the others, because this day, Jesus was there, and even if most of the people around her didn’t notice her, he did, and he called her over. And after laying hands on her, and blessing her, he tells her that she’s healed. And in a scene faked by countless bad TV preachers in the years since, she actually stands up straight, and gives thanks to God.

I wonder what was going through her mind during all this. She’d long ago accepted living with her impairment. Really – she’d undoubtedly heard about Jesus’ reputation as a healer, but when she got to the synagogue that day, she didn’t seek him out or ask him to heal her; he had to call out to her. I wonder if at first, she had misgivings about even going over to him. I wonder, when Jesus said that her ailment was gone, if her first unspoken thought was “Yeah, right.” I wonder if she’d become so familiar with, and accustomed to, life from her own eye level, from her own vantage point, that she wasn’t even sure, after all this time, whether she’d actually even want to have to define a “new normal.” I wonder if she wasn’t even a bit frightened about the possibility of what changes might lie ahead for her.

Still, she’d heard about this Galilean rabbi – that his words stirred people’s hearts, and that he was a miracle worker. So trusting in him, she slowly, cautiously straightened her back, each moment braced against a pain that never came, until she was standing up straight, looking right into Jesus’ smiling eyes.

Now if this story were a movie, it’s at this point that we hear the ominous, foreboding music. Depending on your age, you might hear heavy music out of an old Western, or maybe Star Wars, or maybe even one of the Jason Bourne movies, but whatever soundtrack you hear in your head, you know this music means that the bad guy is about to appear, and that’s just what happens. In this case, it’s the leader of the synagogue, who’s irate that this healing took place on the Sabbath.

Almost every time a religious leader shows up in a gospel story, they’re the villain, which should give pause to every Presbyterian minister and elder, and this story is no exception to that rule. According to this religious leader’s interpretation of the scriptures, of the Law, healing was defined as work, and so it was considered forbidden on the Sabbath, which was supposed to be a day of rest and giving thanks to God, and when work of any kind was prohibited. So he steps in to put a stop to this outrage. And by the way, ladies, did you notice what he did? Or was it so subtle that it went by unnoticed? When this leader of the synagogue step up to criticize what was going on, he didn’t criticize Jesus, the guy who’d actually done the healing. He did what I suppose the men always did – he blamed the woman! And all she’d actually done was just show up for the day. Typical, I suppose.

In fairness to the leader of the synagogue, he really was just trying to preserve the scriptural teachings and understandings that he’d internalized since he was a young child, and which had been the norm for some 1,500-odd years at that time. He was simply trying to do the right thing, based on what he’d always been taught. But Jesus told him that God’s actual intention behind a Sabbath day of rest was something very different, something much bigger than that understanding – and that in trying to uphold the letter of the Law that strictly, that rigorously, instead of listening for its spirit, the religious leaders had actually ended up missing almost the whole point. In a way, the leader of the synagogue was suffering from a limiting impairment just as much as the woman. The comfortable familiarity and acceptance of his limited way of seeing things had made it just as hard for him to imagine any other kind of reality, any “new normal,” as it was for her.

We can get caught in the same kind of thing, too. We can become set in our ways, our familiar habits and thought patterns and expectations creating a default “normal” for us, a set way of seeing and understanding and making sense of our lives. And when something happens to challenge or question those familiar defaults, it can be just as unsettling for us as it was for the woman in the story and the leader of the synagogue. 

But whether we like it or not, God seems to always be calling us to something new, something different; to some broader, fuller way of understanding the Kingdom of God and what it means to live as its people. This is true for us as individuals, in our personal lives of faith, and it’s definitely true for us together, as this community of faith.

So maybe sometime this week, just as a thought exercise, I want to suggest this: Think about some of the habits or assumptions that you hold onto that help to define your default “normal.”   It’s OK, you can start out identifying simple little things, maybe even insignificant things in the grand scheme of things, just to get the ball rolling. Maybe it’s something like that fact that every morning, when you step into the shower, you always start by washing your left arm. Or maybe it’s that every morning, as you’re making your instant oatmeal, you have to shake the measuring cup twelve times – not eleven, not thirteen – to get all the excess water out of it. And yes, if you’re wondering, I just shared two little examples of my own habits and weirdness with you.  So see, I got the ball rolling; now you try it. But after you think of the little things, maybe think about the more serious things, too. Are there default thoughts or actions that are limiting your experience of the fullness of God’s creation and God’s will for your life? Are there similar self-limiting things that we can identify in the life of the church? And then, if we can identify those limiting things, can we, with God’s help, be willing to accept a new normal?

By now, you’ve figured out that’s why I asked you to move from your normal seats this morning, and to sit somewhere you normally never would. It’s just a very small reminder to us to always be open to hearing and experiencing the Kingdom of God from a different vantage point, from a different eye level. And to always be open to new, exciting possibilities that God has in store for us, and for the church, as God moves us forward.

Just remember, if it was a little discomforting to move your seats this morning, it was discomforting for the woman in our story to move from her seat, too. But look at the new opportunities that were opened up for her because she did. Realize that just because Jesus called her to move out of her seat, and she did, we’re still talking about her, and learning from her, 2,000 years later. Just imagine what seemingly small thing might God be calling us toward that might ultimately cause someone to be talking about us, 2,000 years from now?

Thanks be to God.

 

 

A Family Thing (sermon 8/15/16)

goodbye-airport

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?  – Luke 12:49-56, NRSV

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I’m going to violate a longstanding preacher’s rule this morning – I’m going to tell a story on my own family, in particular, a story on my own kids. But since they’ll never know I told it, I suppose I’ll be able to get away with it this time.

My younger daughter just returned to college in Switzerland yesterday, after having been back stateside for the past two weeks, and I was able to travel up to Columbus to spend a little time with her and her older sister on Friday, and to see her off at the airport. A weird thing – certainly not a unique thing but still a weird thing – happens between her and her older sister when she comes back. In the week or so before the younger one comes home, she’s always homesick, and really ready to come back to family and friends and familiar surroundings, and the two girls are always glad to see each other. But the truth is, the beauty of this Hallmark Moment between the two of them only lasts about a day, maybe two at best. After that, their very different personalities and ways of seeing things, and the fact that they’re living under the same roof in relatively tight quarters, getting under each other’s feet, starts to get at both of them. The friction builds and builds. Then, always just two or three days before the younger one leaves again, their tempers overflow and they explode into a huge argument. The younger one is homesick again, but this time for her *other* home, and her friends there, and the excitement and new experiences awaiting when classes start up again, and yes, having more room to herself, away from her sister. So she really wants to go. But at the same time, she doesn’t. She’s already starting to feel the loss of leaving *this* home again, and recognizing that she’s going to miss Mom, and maybe even Dad, and even her sister, as annoying as we can all be at times. So she wants to get away, but then she feels guilty about wanting to, and the anxiety builds and builds, until boom, here comes World War III between the two girls. “Ohh, you people are crazy!!!” “Well, you’re no prize yourself!” “I swear, I’m going back to Switzerland and I’m *never* coming back here!” “Yeah, well who asked you to?” And on and on, arguing and fighting in that special way that I think only brothers and sisters can. This happens over and over again, like they’re following a script. But then, the two girls y ultimately make some kind of peace. And on the day the younger one leaves the two of them are standing there in the airport, saying goodbye. Sometimes, there are a few tears, and some hugs, and even smile or two; and they’re both already feeling the twinges of missing each other even before the jet exhaust has even dissipated from the runway. And the whole cycle starts again.

Families are weird.

Jesus talks about families, and especially, family divisions, in today’s gospel text. As Jesus-sayings go, this isn’t a particularly feel-good quote of his. And it even seems a little bit out of place, since, if you read through the entire gospel according to Luke, you’ll see that Luke goes to great lengths to portray Jesus as the bearer of God’s peace and reconciliation into the world – even at his birth, the angels sing God’s praises and declare Jesus the Prince of Peace. But in this section of the gospel, Jesus talks in several settings more about the lack of peace, and the divisions that will arise as a result of trying to live out lives as his disciples and people of the Kingdom of God.

The really weird and tragic thing here is that many times in the past, and even today some people have heard these words as Jesus actually *encouraging* this kind of division and dissention and argument on the part of his followers. Some people seem to interpret this as Jesus saying that their creating these divisions supposedly in his name, or God’s, is a sign that they’re being faithful followers of his. These words become a kind of a call to battle.

And so, ever since the days that Jesus called the first handful of disciples, we followers of his have disagreed and squabbled on things large and small. Families, whether literal families or church families, have fought and sometimes have seen the kind of division and separation that Jesus talks about in this passage.

All people disagree and squabble, and seemingly nowhere more ferociously than in church. We’ll fight tooth and nail, as if the fate of the entire universe hangs on what color we pick for the new carpet in the sanctuary, or what kind of coffee is served during fellowship time, or, when we have Communion via intinction, whether you break the bread off for yourself or I break it off for you. And of course, we do the same when it comes to more serious issues; theological issues.

But notice something here. As you read this passage from Luke, notice that Jesus is merely pointing out that because of his entering into the world, and teaching the ways of the Kingdom of God, those kinds of divisions are going to happen. But he isn’t *encouraging* them; he’s pointing out that this is a *bad* thing. The reality is that we should do whatever we reasonably can to avoid these internal family squabbles and divisions. Because Jesus is indeed the Prince of Peace. And we are indeed called to find ways to live, and worship, and serve, and be in fellowship with one another, and to do so when we agree about things and when we don’t – *especially* when we don’t. As much as we can, we’re called to find unity, and ways to continue to hold each other in a spirit of brotherly and sisterly love for one another.

It’s especially in those times of division and disagreement that Christ calls us – *all* of us family members, wherever we find ourselves in the disagreement – to recognize the grace that God has extended to us, and to extend it outward to others in a spirit of love. We’re called to find a way to maybe shed a tear, offer a hug, and a smile or two, and recognize the beauty, the great gift that God has given us in naming us all brothers and sisters, even in all of our own particular, unique differences and weirdness.

The good news for us is that even though that can be very, very hard, we know that God has promised us that the Holy Spirit will work within us, challenging and inspiring us to this kind of family unity and healing, and actually empowering us to make that hard work achievable. And even in the times we try it and fail, even when we really mess it up, we know that we can pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try it again, because we know that our failures are already forgiven – We know that God has already reconciled  with us through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection – that “baptism” with which Jesus says he’s about to be baptized in this passage.

In know that there will come a day when my two daughters will have to say a real goodbye. I don’t mean a totally *final* goodbye of life and death that awaits us all at some point, but I am talking about a substantial goodbye. They’ll be standing together in an airport, or next to a loaded car or a packed moving van, and they’ll know that this goodbye is something more serious. This time, they’ll never again live under the same roof. They’ll never again get underfoot the same way they have in the past. They might not ever live on the same continent again. Real, face-to-face time together will be much more rare. They’ll recognize that this goodbye is serious. And sad. And sobering. But I’m convinced that in that goodbye, in that moment the bonds of love that they have in their hearts for each other will actually deepen.

Sometimes, the church family finds itself in the midst of a similar kind of goodbye. Those goodbyes are just as serious, and sad, and sobering as the one my daughters will experience sometime in the not-too-distant future. But in either of these cases, I’m convinced that God will provide new and expanded opportunities for all the people involved. I’m convinced that in both of these cases, all of the people involved will go forward with the love of God, and not just the love of God, but also the love, and prayers, and warmest wishes, of their brothers and sisters.

Families are weird. And sometimes they’re messy. But despite all that, all really shall be well, because through all of it, each of us continues to dwell in the palm of God’s loving hand. And because of that, we can all say

Thanks be to God.

Hello, Louisville!

The blog has been dormant for several months now, as I was busy transitioning from pastoral duties in Auburn, New York, to a new installed call in Louisville, Kentucky. I’ll get into more of that process later, but for now, suffice it to say that I’m now a happy resident of Louisville, where I’m very pleased to be serving as the new pastor of Springdale Presbyterian Church. For the moment, that’s just to set up the next post, which is the first sermon preached to the congregation on a “normal” Sunday morning.