Sunday, October 28, 2007

Year C: Proper 25 (28 October 2007)

Luke 18:9-14

In a few minutes, we’re all going to confess our sins—no, not our specific individual sins, but the fact of our sinfulness, the fact that we are a community of sinners. Both corporately and individually, we have rebelled against God and done what He doesn’t want us to do and failed to do what He does want us to do. In our words and in our actions, we consistently fall short of the glory of God. We make a collective confession of this sort routinely, more or less at every celebration of the Eucharist outside of festival seasons. Of course, there are also occasions, both formal and informal, for private confession of specific sins. This is a spiritual discipline that enables us to face our lives with a clear conscience, over and over again, on an as-needed basis.

Now, when we think of “sins,” we understandably think of bad things. We think of entering an intersection on a yellow light and leaving it on a red, of losing our temper with a co-worker, of gossiping about a neighbor. We think about lying to our spouse about why we were home late from work, about not being quite straight with the IRS when we fill out our income tax forms, about downloading pirated music and movies from the internet. We think about insider trading and racism and extortion and murder-for-hire. We think about the Seven Deadly Sins of pride, anger, lust, envy, gluttony, greed, and sloth.

The first of these—Pride—deserves some special attention. There’s a reason it’s at the head of the list. Pride is, in fact, the root and source, not only of the other six “deadly” sins, but, through them, pride is the root and source of all sin. What makes the whole thing particularly confusing is that sinful pride is not an altogether different thing from what we might call “good” pride—as in taking pride in a job well done, being proud of your children for their accomplishments, having enough pride to bathe and wear clean clothes and mow the lawn in front of your house. Sinful pride flows from the same source, but becomes lethally corrupted—distorted and disfigured—along the way. The sin of pride is grounded not in our desire for evil, but in our desire for good. The incubator of pride is virtue itself—virtue that is undisciplined by humility. Sinful pride stems from the good things we do, even our practice of Christian religion.

Today, Jesus tells us a very compelling parable to dissuade us from trusting in ourselves and despising others. There are two characters—a Pharisee and a tax collector. Now, as Christians who have read the gospels and heard them talked about countless times, you and I are conditioned to regard Pharisees as pretty suspect characters—full of arrogance and superiority. And tax collectors, of course, are in the class of people that Jesus preferred to hang out with. So, with our Christian eyes and ears, we are likely to label the tax collector in this parable as the “good guy” and the Pharisee as the “bad guy.” But if we’re going to understand it as Jesus’ original hearers did, we’ve got to put on different glasses. To an ordinary Jew in first century Palestine, a Pharisee would have been presumed to be a model of virtuous and godly living. It would have been simply assumed that the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable was upright in his relationship with God and with his fellow human beings. And it would have been likewise simply assumed that the tax collector was a scoundrel—dishonest, conniving, and a traitor to his people. Only when we look at these characters in the light of their native surroundings, then, can we grasp the full power of what Jesus is doing in this brief vignette.

Jesus is standing contemporary Jewish social morality on its head, because, by the end of the parable, it is clearly the Pharisee who fails in his effort to be in a right relation with God, and the tax collector who succeeds. All the religious observances that the Pharisee enumerates in his prayer are good and worthwhile, not vain and empty. Moreover, there is no reason to suspect that he was lying. There is, on the other hand, every reason to believe that he was speaking the truth, that he was, in fact, scrupulous in his prayer and fasting and almsgiving, and that he engaged in those activities with pure intentions. So it is a rather stunning reversal of roles that Jesus is laying on us here.

So where does the Pharisee go wrong? Apparently, he was highly advantaged to begin with. One commentator has remarked that “The Pharisee had enough religion to be virtuous, but not enough to be humble. As a result, his religion drove him away from the tax-collector rather than toward him.” The Pharisee’s major mistake—in other words, the principal component of his own sinful pride—was to compare his health to the tax-collector’s sickness. That was, of course, unfair. He was ignoring both the tax collector’s virtues, such as they might have been, and his own shortcomings. From our perspective, of course, this is pretty easy to see. It becomes more difficult, however, the closer we get to our own situation. It becomes tempting—and, let’s face it, a great deal more fun, at times!—to confess other people’s sins instead of our own, to talk to the doctor about our neighbors’ symptoms, rather than focusing on what’s ailing us. Of course, when we do this, we are indulging in the sin of gossip, at the very least. And, more importantly, we are falling into the trap that the Pharisee fell into.

The example that Jesus commends, of course, is that of the tax collector. In our culture, the social equivalent might be a drug dealer or a junk bond trader or the worst example of an ambulance-chasing personal injury lawyer or an internet spammer. That’s the one who Jesus says left the temple right with God. And what was his prayer? “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” No attempt at spin control or any other form of self-justification. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” This man simply humbled himself before God. His humility was transparent, and his humility was unpresumptuous. And in that state, he was the furthest a person can get from the sin of pride. Transparent humility before God protects us from the deadly sin of pride. If we are humble, we cannot be proud. And if we are not proud, it is all the more difficult to be angry or lustful or envious or gluttonous or greedy or lazy. Humility is like a vaccine that offers us immunity from the grip of the deadly sins.

So, let us continue to abound in good works, but have that mind, as we saw in a parable three weeks ago, that we are only doing our duty, and are unworthy servants. Let us continue to abound in good works, but at the same time see ourselves not as the righteous Pharisee, but as the sinful tax collector. Our Eastern Orthodox friends have an element of their spirituality that we could do worse than to adapt and adopt. It’s called the Jesus Prayer, and you will recognize the gist of it: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (repeat) This prayer is usually said as a sort of Christian mantra, over and over, repeatedly—much in the way that the Hail Mary is used in the western tradition. (repeat Jesus Prayer) Imagine how our lives might change if enough of us made this prayer part of our daily converse with God. Amen.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Year C: Proper 24 (2007)

Genesis 32:3-8, 22-30
Luke 18:1-8a

As I’ve been at St Anne’s now for just over a couple of months, it has been my privilege, little by little, to be allowed into the lives of the people of this wonderful parish. We have already begun, in small ways, to develop a “history” together. Stuff has happened—stuff that has called for that difficult-to-define activity that we call pastoral care. And as I’ve attempted to provide pastoral care, I have, along with many of you, had to face once again some really hard, really critical issues of faith and life: How can I have doubts and still believe? Why doesn't God answer my prayers? How come bad things happen to me when I'm really not such a bad person? These encounters have caused me to realize in a fresh way how much the shape of our lives is determined by the difficulties and the adversities we face. It's a universal human experience: We all have problems. Some seem to have more than their fair share, and some seem to have less, but we all have problems. And most of us, at one time or another, find those problems to be a very important element in our prayers. We pray about the things that bother us. We ask God to fix them, to make them go away, or to give us the strength to endure them with dignity.

The old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes, I think, applies here. We pray, and seek answers to, our personal problems. These usually have to do with matters of health and safety, with household finances, with educational and marriage and career decisions, and the like. We also pray about the things that worry us on a more public and collective level. We pray for our city, for our nation, for peace and prosperity and justice throughout the world. As Christians, we pray for the church. As Episcopalians, we have more than ample motivation to pray for our own church.

We are spending so much energy struggling among ourselves that we are distracted from focusing on the real mission of the church. Many of us pray, "How long, O Lord, how long? How long will it be until we can worship you and proclaim your gospel in peace and with a united voice?" But our prayers seem to be unanswered, because the conflicts continue. After decades of praying for racial reconciliation at a national and local level, we are dismayed to discover just how deep the remaining rift is. How long, O Lord? How long will our prayer go unanswered? Many of you have been bringing the same physical ailments and emotional wounds before the Lord in prayer for years and years. How long, O Lord, how long?

We can only conclude, it often seems, that all these unanswered prayers are a sign of something terribly wrong. Either God is not really all-powerful, or we're praying in the wrong language, or we don't have enough faith, or something. We assume, of course, that the measure of God's love for us is the degree to which our life is "smooth sailing." If we're living in God's favor, he will smooth out the bumps in the road. So if the bumps are still there, that's a sign that something's amiss. If my prayers aren't getting answered, then God must be mad at me, and if God's mad at me, it must be because of something I did, or failed to do.

I wonder whether human beings tend to project on to God the expectations for ourselves that we are unable to meet. Our natural inclination, of course, among those of us who are parents, is to provide our own children with as bump-free a road as we possibly can. We go out of our way to shield them and protect them from the various hazards of life. We desperately want to spare them from pain and heartbreak. But we can't, of course, and we realize that. But God is omnipotent, so we're told, and so he can spare us, his children, from bumps and bruises, and if he doesn't . . . well, that's where we get the idea that something's wrong. We can forgive ourselves, sometimes, for our failures as parents, but we expect more from God. He is, after all, God. We hold him to a higher standard.

In reality, however, I would suggest that God's fatherly care for us is not defined by the standards that we set for it. In many ways, it is more like human parental care than we might think. The ancient and mysterious story of Jacob wrestling with … well, who was it he was wrestling with anyway?

It's hard to tell, at first, but by the end of the narrative, it becomes apparent that Jacob is actually wrestling with none other than the Lord himself. This event took place at a watershed moment in Jacob's life. He was about to be re-united with his twin brother, from whom he had parted several years earlier on something less than amicable terms. He wasn't sure what sort of mood Esau would be in, and he feared for the safety of himself and his family. He went so far as to separate himself from the rest of his household, so as not to provide a united target. And it was while he was thus alone, in the middle of the night, that a shadowy figure engaged him in a wrestling match.

Does it seem strange that God would express his love for one of his children by appearing in bodily form and picking a fight with him? Indeed, it does. The first thing we must acknowledge, of course, is that God was under no obligation to do so. So, even though the experience was a struggle for Jacob, it was an honor, at least, to have God's focused attention for that long a time! But the nature of their activity—wrestling—is also significant.

I am not a particular fan of cats, but, alas, I love and live with one who is, so my home, over the years, has served as a maternity ward and nursery for several generations of felines. I have observed that one feature of feline parenting involves an activity that can only be described as wrestling: wrestling between mother and offspring, and wrestling between kittens. We would probably classify it as "play", and no mortal wounds are inflicted, but it does have the character of struggle; there are winners and losers. It is, course, a rehearsal for life outside the comforts of the living room, practice for the real world of the great outdoors. The wrestling match has a very serious and very practical purpose.

And we realize, of course, that mature parenting resists the temptation to "fix" everything for kids.

Mothers and fathers know that, sooner or later, they will have to give their offspring the freedom to make choices that will result in suffering. Hopefully, this takes place in small doses and in a relatively safe environment. And sometimes this means that parents themselves are the ones who are the source of this perceived, and hopefully minor, suffering. What relationship between a parent and a child does not sometimes feel, to both parties, like a wrestling match, a wrestling match somewhat less playful than that between two kittens?! Yet, to deny children this experience will rob them of the tools which they will need to cope with serious adversity later on in life.

And in this aspect, God's parental care is very much like human parental care. An important sign of God's love for us is that he is available to wrestle with us. I would go so far as to say that a relationship with God that doesn't include wrestling is an immature relationship. Human parents don't wrestle with newborn infants because they're too fragile, and they're not yet capable of learning from the experience. If God avoids wrestling with us spiritually, it may be for the same reasons: We're too fragile and not capable of learning from the experience. Those Christians throughout history whose holiness and devotion was so heroic that the larger church calls them "saints" are invariably experienced spiritual wrestlers. Their walk with the Lord has not been easy or mild or filled with unmitigated joy. They have struggled with God in prayer.

This is the notion behind Jesus' admonition to his disciples to "pray always and not to lose heart", and the parable he told about the woman who simply pestered a government official until he granted her request. God, apparently, doesn't mind if we pester him—or, to describe it another way, if we wrestle with him! He even invites us to do it!

So what are the qualities of a good spiritual wrestler? Looking at the example of Jacob, I would suggest three:

The first is honesty. Jacob was afraid of his meeting with Esau, and he was honest about that fear. It was the whole reason he was alone on the riverbank that night. It won't do to be anything but brutally honest with God. He knows what's in our hearts anyway, so it's not like we can put one over on him! It is best to tell it to him like it is. If you're angry, be angry, and don't disguise your feelings with polite piety that you think God wants to hear. Remember who you are trying to impress; he can see right through you. If you're depressed, be depressed. If you're fearful, express that fear, name that fear. And if you’re happy, don't try to restrain your joy; let it all out! A good wrestling match is an honest wrestling match.

The second quality of a good wrestler is vulnerability. Jacob didn't shy away from the fight. He didn't even know with whom it was he was wrestling, at first, but he got right in there. You can't wrestle unless you are willing to take the risk of engaging in the struggle. You can't just circle the ring; you've got to get down on the mat and mix it up with your opponent. Sure, it's a risk, but it's a greater risk not to.

The third quality of a good spiritual wrestler is tenacity, stick-to-it-iveness. Jacob persisted for hours, well past the point of fatigue. It was the Lord himself who called "timeout" and suggested a way of breaking off the struggle. Tenacity means we don't judge the fruits of our efforts by their short-term results. Too often we quit doing something good and healthy because we don't see any immediate benefits from it. Spiritual growth, whether it's the spiritual growth of an individual Christian, or a parish church, or a segment of the universal church, such as the Episcopal Church—spiritual growth, like organic growth, is rarely a "right now" proposition. There can be long delays between sowing and reaping, between planting the seed and harvesting the crop. If we have the discipline, the tenacity, to stick with what we know is right even when we don't feel any great benefit from it, we will be good wrestlers.


Jacob finally agreed to break off the struggle with his divine opponent when he was wounded; his hip was put out of joint. But before doing so, he managed to extract a concession from the Lord—a special blessing, the blessing of a new name, the name by which his descendants would be known: Israel. So Jacob emerged from his night of wrestling with two souvenirs: a wound and a blessing.

We need to know that if we take the risk of wrestling with God, we will be changed by the experience. It will be demanding of all our resources. It will, at times, hurt. But the experience of Jacob tells us, and the words of our Lord Jesus tell us, that the blessing is worth the pain. God the wrestler is ready in the ring. That's the good news today! God loves us enough to make himself available to wrestle with. There are some hard knocks waiting for us in the match, but we will come out of it stronger, better. Are we going to keep God waiting, or are we going to get down on the mat and mix it up with him? Amen.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Year C: Proper 22 (7 October 2007)

Luke 17:5-10

Several years ago, I, along with many thousands of others, was a dedicated listener to a talk show host who was quite popular at the time and more than a little bit controversial, though I don’t think she’s on the air anymore and I have no idea what became of her. I’m talking about Dr Laura Schlesinger, who was a dispenser of moral advice. I didn’t always agree with her analysis of the issues and problems that her callers presented to her, but I liked her general philosophy, her underlying attitude. Dr Laura was very much about doing the right thing, even when it’s uncomfortable, even when it’s embarrassing, even when it hurts. And, judging from the popularity of her program and books—at least for a few years—there are apparently a good many people who are concerned about how they conduct themselves, concerned about “doing the right think” in their interpersonal and public relationships.

There are, of course, of variety a reasons for wanting to “do the right thing”, some more or less worthy than others, some more or less appropriate than others. These range from wanting to move with the right crowd socially, to climbing the next rung in the corporate ladder, to looking for a source of self-esteem. One motivation that many have for being concerned with “doing the right thing” is the desire—although they might not always phrase it this way—the desire to please God. Now, even the motivation to please God itself has a whole range of submotivations. Some, in the movies at any rate, try to placate an angry deity by throwing a virgin into a volcano. Others try to manipulate an uncooperative God by performing just the right ritual or ceremony.

In our own cultural and religious tradition, a popular motivation for pleasing God has been the attempt to build up a sufficient number of “points”, enough “good deeds”, to secure admission to Heaven after passing from this mortal life.

Any way you look at it, though, the matter of pleasing God, the matter of “doing the right thing” with respect to our creator, is one of the fundamental religious questions that everyone has to some time come to terms with, in one way or another. And this is a question that even someone like Dr Laura cannot always help us with. As we search for the answer to this question, our hope is that by finding the key to pleasing God, God will then bless us, direct his favor onto our lives.

Sometimes this hope for blessing is quite temporal and material. When I lived in southern California in the ‘70s, there was a popular TV preacher who went by “Reverend Ike”. Reverend Ike taught that if you get your act together with respect to God, you'll be wearing mink and driving a Cadillac. And if you were not financially prosperous, that was a sign that you weren't trying to please God in the right way, and if you wanted to get back on track, the place to start was by sending Reverend Ike a substantial check!

At other times, the blessing which we desire is spiritual and eternal. We want the assurance that, on the other side of the grave, we will not suffer the fate of the rich man in last Sunday's gospel parable, but will join Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham.

Doing the right thing. Pleasing God.

Brenda and I feel incredibly blessed that all three of our children were able to get the first rate college education. Having gone through the college selection and application process three times, and having spent nine consecutive years with one or more children in college, I have to say, the whole thing has gotten a lot more complex and subtle since I went through the same process on my own behalf nearly four decades ago. The whole adventure really begins the first time a young person takes one of the preliminary standardized tests. The ones who score even reasonably well are soon inundated with promotional mail—some of it very slickly and expensively produced—from colleges and universities all over the country. It can seem like there's hardly a day that goes by that something doesn't arrive from somewhere. What an ego trip! Even though most of these schools don’t really know the students as anything more than a test score, it's all kind of fun, nonetheless.

And then comes the application process. The first early-decision acceptance letters for those who will start college in the fall of 2008 will begin arriving about three months from now. A few of the brightest and best and luckiest of this year's crop of high school seniors will be accepted everywhere they apply, and will even have colleges offering to pay them to attend. It will be tempting for these fortunate young people with multiple acceptances and multiple scholarships to become just a little bit cocky. It will be tempting for them to adopt an attitude like, “Hey! Look at all I've done. They owe it to me.”

They owe it to me. This is a crucial shift, a crucial move, from humility ... to arrogance.

It is equally possible, and equally tempting, for someone who is accomplished at “doing the right thing,” to make the same move with respect to God. “Hey, God, look at all I've done. You owe me your blessing. You owe me a mink and a Cadillac, you owe me admission to Heaven.” We take our cue from our own litigious society, where justice—what one person owes another—where justice is defined by the law, and interpreted and enforced by the court.

But, believe me, making such a move, trying to tell God what he owes us, is a bad mistake! We can't sue God, we can't hold God accountable to the civil code. We cannot place God in our debt by “doing the right thing”. The parable from Luke's gospel that we read today makes this precise point. Jesus describes a scenario that was presumably common among those who were listening to him on this occasion: Suppose you had an employee whose normal job it was to both work around the property—out in the fields tilling crops or taking care of animals—and also to do domestic chores such as cooking and serving meals. You would expect that person to do his job, and to neither complain nor expect a bonus or a special commendation just because he comes in from the field and serves your dinner before he gets his own.

Now, to our own modern egalitarian ears, this all sounds rather harsh. We'd find it ethically difficult to treat an employee in such a way. We'd be more likely to help cook the meal and then invite him to sit down and eat with us. But it would be a mistake to allow such a cultural difference to keep us from seeing the point Jesus is trying to make. At the very end of the parable, Jesus does a flip-flop. He suddenly turns the tables, and instead of inviting us to identify with the employer who is waited on by his faithful and tired servant, Jesus calls us to identify with the servant! “So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’“

We are unworthy servants. God does not owe us any special praise or commendation or thanks for our efforts to be kind or fair or ethical or law-abiding or generous or even for being religious—for coming to the Eucharist every Sunday, for giving our money to support the church, for saying our prayers. None of this places God in our debt. “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.”

Think of the saintliest, holiest, most upright person you know or know about. Now realize this: God is no more indebted to that person than he is to Attila the Hun or Saddam Hussein! That's the truth—the tough-to-take truth.

But there's also good news in all this, marvelously good news. That which God is under no obligation to give us on account of justice, because he owes it to us, God wants to freely give us out of mercy, because he loves us. What we cannot earn ... is ours as a gift! In the words of St Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, “You are saved by grace, through faith, not by works, to keep anyone from boasting.” To keep anyone from saying, “I got here by doing the right thing.” Now really ... would we want it any other way?

Those of us who are parents know that if we were able to give our children whatever we wanted, it would be much much more than either the law or common standards of decency would require of us. In most cases, it would also be more than our children would even ask. Our God wants to treat us at least that well. This knowledge of God's grace, unearned, unowed, but freely given, enables us to do the right thing, not as a way of earning God's favor or placing him in our debt, but as a response of gratitude and devotion. The knowledge of God's free grace enables us to do our duty—to worship, to pray, to give of our time and talent and treasure—but not because it's our duty. Jesus invites us to get in touch with the Father's love for us, to accept the grace of God shed so generously on our lives, and then, motivated by gratitude, to do the right thing. Amen.