Did you know that it is illegal to take a lion to the movies in Baltimore? It is … I know you were worried about that. It is also required to document the services of a jackass in Maryland … which could mean I’ll be filling out timesheets in 2014. But Maryland isn’t alone in having wacky laws. In Washington DC, “bridges must be clear of sheep between 6 and 10 AM.” That’s right … no driving your sheep to market over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in the morning. Apparently, doing so during the evening rush hour is not a problem. You also cannot operate a surfboard while under the influence of alcohol, marijuana or other hallucinogenic drugs. That should make the Potomac River safe for everyone. But my favorite wacky law from DC was “Manure may not be deposited without a permit.” Somehow I don’t think congress got that message! There are a lot of downright weird laws on the books all over the world and this week’s readings have a lot to do with law and its place in our lives.

Ideally, laws exist so that people can live together and relate to each other in a civilized manner. It’s been said that “good fences make good neighbors” and laws serve as a way to set fences, or boundaries, by which we can live somewhat peaceably. But people being who they are, laws don’t always function that way. Sometimes laws, especially some of these weird ones, are created as a reactive response to a group’s “delicate sensibilities” or as a way of protecting one group’s status or privilege. I’m thinking of things like Jim Crow laws that excluded African Americans from full participation in society in order to protect white privilege. Right now, the Kansas state legislature passed a law saying anyone can refuse to serve LGBT people without explanation because of their religious objections. Really? Can you imagine saying “We don’t serve your kind” to any other group of people in 2014? It sickens me when religion is used as a cover for bigotry and then gets enshrined in law. But we have a track record of doing that, don’t we?

Today we are hearing much about the Law – the Halakah which governs the Jewish people. We are familiar with the “top 10” that were given to Moses on Mount Sinai. But there’s a whole body of rabbinic law which makes up the Halakah and in total, it’s about 700 specific laws. These laws cover all aspects of what it means to be Jewish: what to eat and not eat, proper business practices, who you can and cannot marry, how to maintain purity, judicial procedures including crime and punishment and restitution, temple worship, and more. Admittedly, some of these laws are archaic holdovers from a stone-age people … and they sound as weird as not taking lions to the movies. But if we throw out the Law because of a few oddball pieces, I think we do so at our own peril – even as Christians.

Christians often misunderstand adherence to the law by Jews – it sounds burdensome, and didn’t Paul say in Christ we are set free from the law? Well, not really. Last week, Jesus said he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. The word Halakah actually means “the way in which we walk.” To an observant Jew, this means the law is a gift from God to help them be in right relationship – with God and with each other. So for us, it is not irrelevant. Fr. Richard Rohr speaks about the importance of the Law as giving us a container, or a “home base,” from which to operate in right relationship to God and with each other. In today’s reading from Sirach, one of the apocryphal books of the Bible, we hear that God gives us choices – fire or water, life or death. God made us to be moral beings with the ability make choices – even if we make bad choices. It is a reminder that the law has a place in our lives, even as Christians.

Jesus’ teaching today, which is from the Sermon on the Mount, follows last week’s reading where he says that not one stroke of the law will pass away until all is accomplished. He even commends the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. Today, he is teaching on the law with a very specific kind of rhetoric. It follows a pattern: “You’ve heard it said in ancient times … but I say to you …” In a way what Jesus is doing is challenging his listeners to go deeper into the meaning of the law. In essence, he tells them, “So you’ve heard this and I’m sure you think you ‘got this’ buttoned up and handled … but I say you don’t and here’s why…”

Martin Luther once called this a “second use of the Law.” He used the metaphor that the Law is both mirror and hammer. First, the Law holds up a mirror to us and shows us our behaviors. And if we take a serious and sober look at how we behave, we have to admit we fail … epically. That’s when the second part comes in … the hammer. It falls on us like a judge’s gavel and convicts us of our bondage to the power of Sin. This is what Jesus seems to be doing as he teaches “what I say to you.” The truth is we will never have a handle on Sin and its grip on our souls. Luther said we are in bondage to Sin and cannot free ourselves – sounds a lot like addiction, doesn’t it? It is … we are Sin sick souls and we have no power in and of ourselves to break this hold. But that’s not Gospel, is it? No, not at all … it’s a page out of the book of DUH!

At this point we tend to go into one of two paths when we are confronted by so stark a reality as how much power Sin has over us. The first is to run away and go into denial about the serious nature of our condition. This is the path of rationalization. It sounds like, “I’m really not a bad person” or “This is just a guilt trip laid on us by the Church to try and control us.” If we succumb to these rationalizations, we’ll tend to minimize the very real damage caused by Sin – damage we do to ourselves, to others, and to creation. We’ll ignore the bigger implications of Sin – the systemic Sin of society which can seem too big for us to do anything about and so we ignore it. But do take this path is to reject the truth of our condition and to let Sin puff us up with a false grandiosity blocking our ability to let God’s grace in to heal us.

The other temptation we have is to heap coals of fire on ourselves. We can mistake our bondage to the power of Sin as something which renders us worthless and beyond the saving grace of God. After all, if I’m so terrible, why would God waste time, let alone love, on me? This too is a distortion caused by Sin itself and blocks the grace of God by sending us into a cynical, nihilistic spiral of doom.

Fortunately, there is a way in which we can walk … a way forward out of the mess. First is to let the Law be both mirror and hammer but, rather than take the road of rationalization or worthlessness, let the Law be an agent of the Spirit’s gift of humility. Humility is that place where we walk the middle way with Christ in both acknowledging and naming our sin and trusting completely that the promises of baptism are true – we are marked as Christ’s own forever. Forever beloved, forever belonging to God and nothing, absolutely nothing, can erase this. Our sins are not powerful enough to cause God to reject us … to think so is sheer ego driven hubris.

Last week, I spent three days at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park NY. It is an Episcopal Benedictine monastery and they hosted Fr. Martin Smith, the former superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, who conducted a workshop for clergy on the sacrament of reconciliation which is probably the most underutilized part of the Prayer Book … second only to the Historical Documents in the back of the book! For those of you who are former Roman Catholics, you may have been more accustomed to the compulsory nature of the sacrament of reconciliation as a requirement for receiving the Eucharist. Those of you from more Protestant traditions may wonder why we have this as a sacrament. And those of you who are cradle Episcopalians likely just ignore its presence in the Prayer Book and figure the general prayer of confession before the Eucharist is sufficient. We seem to have an ambivalent feeling about this sacrament.

The Anglican ethos tells us that Baptism and Eucharist are the only sacraments “necessary for salvation” because Jesus commanded we do them; however, we would be selling ourselves short to think the other sacraments “don’t really matter.” They do matter! They are given to us for a reason. The sacrament of reconciliation is important because it gives us a means by which we can avoid the temptations of rationalization and worthlessness as we let go of what Martin called “spiritual congestion” which impedes our ability to accept God’s grace and healing. The Anglican approach to this sacrament is one of healing and proclamation of the Gospel – so that we can receive the good news of our belovedness given to us in Baptism and live in the freedom of Christ as God’s children.

And so, as we begin our journey towards Lent on this Septuigesima Sunday, I encourage you to reflect on your life in self-examination. Take some time in the silence we have before our general confession to recall those things done and left undone this week and be intentional about giving them over to God. As you uncover those things which you may find more troubling, I encourage you to consider availing yourself of sacramental reconciliation. Think of it this way … it’s a place you can dump your spiritual manure and leave it … and you don’t even need a permit!
 
 
Jesus has just moved from Nazareth to Capernaum in the northern part of Israel on the edge of the Sea of Galilee. It’s a fishing village and so to get the attention of the first disciples he calls, it is natural he would use a fishing metaphor. I’m not so sure this language resonates with us in quite the same way in the 21st century, especially for those who know nothing about fishing … like me. I don’t fish. Shocking, I know, but it’s just not something I ever really did. It wasn’t for lack of trying. My husband fishes and grew up on the Chesapeake Bay and spent days going out on the boat with his dad to go fishing and crabbing. When we first were married, he tried to teach me about fishing. It went over about as well as his golf lessons … which is to say not at all. I tried, but when I waded out into the Potomac to do some fly fishing and found myself face to face with a water snake … I was done! Indiana Jones and I have a lot in common – I hate snakes! I tried fishing again from shore but once you get the fish on the hook, getting it off is another thing … and getting my hand barbed trying to get it off the hook just isn’t how I define the words “fun” or “relaxing.”

I grew up on the coast of California with some exposure to commercial fishing enterprises. The Dory Fleet would pull into Newport Beach every night and drop their catch of fresh fish right on the beach. If you got there around 4pm, you could buy your fish right there on the beach. That was pretty much the story in any coastal town. These commercial operations would fish with large drag nets and their fishing enterprise was really made up of two parts. The first was catching the fish and hauling them in and the second was sorting the fish and throwing some of them back. Fishing, sorting, accepting and rejecting. Now there were lots of reasons for fish being thrown back – too small, malformed, not the kind you were looking for, couldn’t sell it in the market.

What has been sticking with me this week with the little I know about fishing has as much to do with what Jesus doesn’t say as with what he does say to Simon, Andrew, James and John. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” is what he says. What he doesn’t say is, “And you’ll sort out the catch and throw the ones back we don’t want.” (#thingsjesusdidnotsay) This made me think about how the Church (writ large) has listened and responded to Jesus’ call to fish for people and resisted the urge to sort out the catch and throw some people back. Since the Church is made up of people who are human and therefore sinners, I’m afraid we have a mixed record on this. Our human nature seems inclined towards sorting and throwing back – accepting and rejecting.

When I was in seminary, I had a conversation with Vic Lawson+. Vic+ is an Episcopal priest who led the Nelson Cluster of churches just across the river in Jefferson County, West Virginia. Vic+ is also African-American. He told me about going to an Episcopal Church in Washington DC back in the days of segregation and being met at the door by two ushers – white men – who told him “his kind” would be more welcomed at the Episcopal Church on the next block … the “black church.” Talk about being sorted and thrown back!

I know some of you have experienced being sorted and thrown back – often in life (that’s the way of the world) but sadly also in the Church. Maybe it was over who you love, or you are told your Biblical interpretation isn’t “right with the Lord” (which means it doesn’t match ours), or that your gender identity isn’t quite as neat and binary as others want to see, or maybe you are remarried after divorce and have been turned away from receiving the sacraments, or you are divorced and have been told you cannot be a leader in your church, or maybe you’re a woman who has been told to sit down and shut up because women are not to speak in the Church. There are an infinite number of ways the Church has put itself in the sorting and throwing back business instead of fishing for people.

Jesus called his disciples to fish for people. To go and tell and bring them into the fellowship of the Church … and get out of the sorting and throwing back business. This is our call and it isn’t easy – it is not without risk. Remember two weeks ago, I told you the font should have the sign “Hazardous waters! Enter at your own risk!” When we plunge into the waters of baptism we accept our call to fish for people and not throw them back … and that is risky business!

One of the risks we take involves what happens after we bring people to encounter Christ here at Grace. We can fish for people and invite them to journey with us but some of them will not stay here. Some may find that our way of worship and common life doesn’t resonate with them. It may seem odd but there are people who do not find the dulcet tones of organ music and the cadences of the Book of Common Prayer stirring for their souls. We are different and what moves me isn’t what moves everyone and so people may leave seeking another kind of church community. Some may come and find that the invitation to transformation the Gospel brings isn’t what they bargained for … it is too unsettling. Now I have to tell you that I’ve been in many churches over the years and Grace has a particular charism of the Spirit when it comes to inviting people to be transformed by Christ. We are a loving, gentle and forgiving community. We do screw ups. We hold the messiness of life gently in prayer. We do “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” and that’s reconciliation. We do second chances … and thirds … and fourths … and fifths … because it is how we do love. This makes Grace a pretty safe place to experience change, healing and transformation into Christ’s likeness. But even as loving and gentle as we make it, some will find this still too frightening to bear and may choose to leave. There are still others who come into this community and behave in abusive or menacing ways. The way of Christ is not a way of abuse or exploitation. As your priest, when I see or hear about abusive behavior, whether it is within these walls, in the community or on social media, you can be assured I will address it because abuse is not of God. And if that person, after being rebuked seeks reconciliation and genuinely seeks an amendment of life, then … we do second chances, right? But if they persist and are not intent on reconciliation, the one perpetrating the abuse will walk apart – not because we have thrown them back, but because they choose by their actions to excuse themselves from the Body of Christ.

Now these are some of the risks with people we fish for not staying here … but we also will encounter risks with those who stay. The risk is that of great love. In living into this love, we create a community where lives are changed and people go from death into life. I have watched in wonder as many of you who have come have found joy, grace, and healing. I have witnessed miracles and I know some of you have too. But within the joy that this transformative love brings, there is another side to love – it sometimes breaks our hearts.

I am keenly aware of where I was one year ago today. After a sleepless night, I was awaiting word on the whereabouts of our sister Sophia Schmidt. Sophia came to us in the end stages of bipolar disorder – a disease which had not responded well to the therapies we have available for it. Sophia had suffered horribly from depressive episodes and had constant thoughts of ending her life for over 15 years. We had reason to believe she had gone through with her plan and I was waiting for a call which came late that night. Sophia was only with us for six months, but she had joined our confirmation class and came to Grace as often as her illness would allow. Even when she felt unlovable, we continued to show her Christ’s love. And even though our hearts broke, we continued to express our love through our grieving together, in planting a prayer garden, and welcoming her family here to dedicate that sacred space to Sophia’s memory. God brought her here by way of two fishers of people … throwing her back was never an option.

Just two weeks later, another woman came to us in the final months of her life. We met Jenny Cabbiness at Ashes to Go at the MARC station. She had end stage breast cancer and began attending Grace. She was convinced God had led her to us and how it was no coincidence that the priest was a former hospice chaplain and a current hospice chaplain was also in residence here. We cheered her on when she was feeling good and prayed and cried with her when she was struggling. And when she died, our hearts broke and God’s love poured out on her family and friends as we celebrated her life with a burial Eucharist for over 250 people here. God brought her here … and throwing her back was not an option either.

You and I are called by Christ through the hazardous waters of baptism to take great risks for the sake of God’s love. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” He is still teaching us to fish for people … to fish and not throw back.
 
 
When I was in college, I spent some time whitewater rafting on the American and Kern rivers. I remember very distinctly the sign that was on the road leading into the Kern River gorge telling you exactly how many people had died on the river since 1974. Like that was going to stop us from running that river … we took it as a challenge. Don’t get me wrong, there were spots where we portaged, taking the boat it out of the water and going around a feature that was just a bit too much for our boat and skill level to handle. We weren’t stupid! But it seems to me if we had let that sign and its ominous message of death scare us, we would have missed out on a whole lot of fun.

There is a similar sign in the Jordan River near the traditional spot where John baptized Jesus. The sign says this: “Hazardous waters! Enter at your own risk!” A friend of mine took a photo of that sign when the Jordan was experiencing a flash flood … the sign partway submerged in raging muddy water.

I think this sign should be posted on top of every baptismal font. Seriously … “Hazardous waters! Enter at your own risk!” is a pretty good description of baptism. When we enter these waters, we do enter them at our own risk! And so did Jesus. Today we hear Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus. Matthew, Mark and Luke (the synoptic Gospels) all give a direct account of Jesus’ baptism. John’s gospel even gives a veiled reference through the testimony of John the Baptist telling about seeing the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove while he was baptizing. It is in Matthew’s account, though, that we get this dialog between John and Jesus. John objects to Jesus coming to him to be baptized saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Some suggest this was to address the question of why Jesus, who was “tempted in every way we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15) would even come to John for a baptism which involved “confessing of sins.” (Matthew 3:6) Jesus tells him to let it be so to fulfill all righteousness – which is kind of a cryptic response, if you ask me.

But this dialog aside, the bottom line is Jesus comes to John for baptism – a ritual washing which is framed by John preaching repentance. Repent is one of those loaded words in theology, but one of its meanings is simply to “turn around” – to change your mind. It is an invitation to turn around and turn back to God – to get back on track with God and God’s will as the center of your life, not you and your own will. Or in other words, to reorient yourself to live the truth that God is God and you are not.

Repentance has another more subtle meaning too. It is the realization that something has profoundly changed in you. Perhaps not such a dramatic 180 turn, but the knowledge that from this point forward life will be different – very different. Repentance can mean the ending of one way of being and the beginning of a new way of life.

We really can’t get into Jesus’ head about what he was thinking when he came to John but I think it’s a fair statement to say something in Jesus drew him to being baptized by John and I think repentance is part of it. Jesus’ baptism takes the shape of that second kind of repentance – the end of one way of being to step into a new life. Jesus will no longer be “Joseph the carpenter’s kid” – he will be the Messiah. His public ministry begins in a very public way – this is no private revelation! Of course, what we don’t hear in today’s gospel reading is that right after he comes up out of the water, receives the Holy Spirit and hears the proclamation, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” … Jesus was lead up to the wilderness by the same Spirit for 40 days and nights to be tempted by the devil. Baptism isn’t going to confer a safe, easy life on Jesus! Hazardous waters … enter at your own risk indeed!

Today’s baptisms won’t be quite that dramatic. I can’t promise the heavens will be opened and the Spirit descending like a dove or anything like that. I can promise that I’m not going to take the suggestion of my Lutheran pastor colleague Bob Ierien and take a SuperSoaker to you en masse. But I can promise today will be a turning point in the lives of Kristine, Kennedy, Emory, Quincy, Callista, Aidan and Scarlett. Today marks a turning away from the powers and forces of Sin and Death which can only lead us down dead ends and towards Christ who promises eternal life.

In a few minutes, we will ask you a series of questions known as the renunciations and affirmations. We ask you six main questions indicating a turning – a turning away from the powers of Sin and Death as they come to us through the world, the flesh and the devil and a turning toward Jesus Christ as savior in whom you will place your trust and promise to follow him. This is repentance – turning around and heading for your true home in God.

But make no mistake – you are entering hazardous waters and at your own risk. It is a big risk to your ego to turn over your trust to Christ and let God’s way be your way. “Thy will be done” is really the only legit prayer a Christian will ever say the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do! Just as Jesus went straight from his baptism to the wilderness to be tempted by Satan, you also will face temptations to return to doing life on your own terms. That’s what it means to be human. You will struggle for the rest of your life to live into the vows you make today. But the good news is we don’t enter these hazardous waters alone! Being baptized means joining the Church – which, by the way, is much bigger than just us here at Grace (although I admit, God is doing some pretty cool stuff here through us!). The Church, across time and throughout the world, is an extended family of sisters and brothers, most of whom you will never meet in real life, who support each other through love, prayer and self-giving so that when those temptations to return to life on our own terms bubble up, we have a community that can help us turn around and back to Christ. You do not enter these hazardous waters alone! You are entering them with two millennia of believers who have gone before you and you enter them just as we have … and we are here for you, to encourage you, to pray with you, to rejoice with you, to grieve with you – to live fully with you as sisters and brothers in the Body of Christ. And that is awesome because we need each other.

Each of us comes to these hazardous waters lacking. We know we are broken in body, mind and spirit … even when we are little kids, we can feel small, helpless and inadequate. I was the dorky, weird kid in my school. I often felt alone and isolated growing up. Brokenness isn’t something that only adults feel. But the promise we have in baptism is that Christ knits us together into a community who can carry us when we can’t carry ourselves. It’s no longer about “me,” it’s about “we.” And when we make our baptismal covenant, that promise of where we will place our trust and what we promise to do as members of this community, the answer to the promises we make is “I will, with God’s help.” God’s help is necessary, not optional. We cannot live into the promises we make in these hazardous waters without asking God’s help … and that help comes through this community. We never go it alone!

So yes, today you enter hazardous waters at your own risk yet not alone … but fear not. Like that scary death sign at the Kern River, if you let that stop you you will miss out on following Christ, which is the greatest adventure of your life.
 
 
“Did you find what were you looking for?” You have likely heard this phrase uttered many times over these past few weeks during Christmas shopping forays. It’s rather ubiquitous, isn’t it? “Did you find what you were looking for?” Most of the time, you likely answered “Yes, thank you” or perhaps you inquired about something you had not been able to find. And in the context of purchasing something, you probably didn’t give your answer much thought beyond the immediate transaction. But right now, on this Christmas Eve, I want to ask you this question again: “Did you find what you were looking for?”

On this night we once again hear an old familiar story. It’s one we all know, even if all we know of it is seeing Linus deliver its words in King James English on A Charlie Brown Christmas. But it is so familiar we often lose sight of the scandalous nature of it. An unwed teenage mother-to-be named Mary and her fiancé Joseph make the trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem under orders to be enrolled, no doubt for tax purposes, from their Roman overlords. No doubt the reason they end up in a stable is because nobody in Joseph’s extended family is going out of their way to welcome the pregnant girlfriend – whose pregnancy is of questionable origins anyway. While they are in Bethlehem, Mary gives birth to a son and we hear that a messenger from God appears to shepherds who get the initial report of the birth of the Messiah. Now this takes the scandal to a whole new level. Shepherds, in first century Palestine, are shady lowlifes who cannot be called as witnesses in a court of law and … well … they smell funny. So our God comes into human form under scandalous circumstances and the news is first announced to a bunch of lowlifes – because that’s just how our God rolls. After getting the news, the shepherds decide to go check this out and they find things just as the angel had reported to them. They found what they were looking for! And while they found what they were looking for, what they did not know and could not fully comprehend in that moment over 2,000 years ago is what this child would mean for them … and for us.

While Luke tells us the events of Christ’s birth, in essence answering the “what happened” question, we are left with another question: “Why did it happen?” Why did God choose to come to us and live as one of us? Part of the answer is found in the three short verses from the Letter to Titus:

“When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy … so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

I paraphrased the passage to clarify the point of the author: the birth of Christ happened to save us. It happened precisely because we could not save ourselves from the mess of living life on our own terms. If we could have done so, we would have, right? But human history has proved that we can’t do it in and of ourselves. So God took the initiative and set about this saving work, not because we earned it in any way, but solely because of God’s grace. What a radical idea this is – especially in light of our capitalistic meritocracy-based culture. We are programmed by the messages of our culture that we need to earn everything – including earning love by being good “little boys and little girls.” Some of us have internalized a message that we are not loveable and that God expects us to get our act together in order to be worthy of God’s grace. And that … is … wrong! It’s not how our God rolls.

Our salvation was a free gift of God’s grace. Grace is that love which God has for all of creation and is poured out on everything and everyone – regardless of whether we deserve it or not! The letter to Titus goes on to say that this grace “justifies” us which means it makes our relationship with God right and balanced. God initiates making the relationship with us right. Make no mistake, we have the obligation to respond to this invitation and participate in a right relationship; however, we do not initiate the action – God does. And the reason God makes this relationship right is so that we might become heirs, that is children of God, with a hope of eternal life. Eternal life is an often misunderstood concept and often posited as “going to heaven when you die” which turns it into some kind of celestial evacuation plan. But that isn’t what the scriptures mean by the term eternal life. Eternal life is living fully and freely in the present now, loving God and each other. This lifetime of loving presence happens right here and now and continues forever.

So when we think about the birth of Christ beyond the story of what happened and consider why it happened, it leads us back to the question “Did you find what you were looking for?” Perhaps you haven’t considered that question in this context but do so for just a moment. You are here, in this church, on Christmas. Why did you come? You didn’t have to come, you know. Oh sure, some of here will give a nod to attending church on Christmas being part of your family tradition, or maybe it was to appease parents or grandparents, and some of you are accustomed to regularly attending church. But regardless of why you think you are here, ponder in your heart for a moment what you are really seeking because perhaps something deeper brought you here. What are you really looking for?

We all have a deep longing – a sense of something missing in our lives. Some call this the “hole in our soul.” It is the nagging feeling that we are incomplete and lacking – which is true. We humans are consciously aware of our fragility, our finitude, our faults and our failings. It is a fearful thing to acknowledge this truth. Most of us spend our lives running away from this stark reality by attempting to fill this hole in our soul with anything which promises to fulfill or fix us. But try as we might, we cannot fill this hole ourselves because it was placed there by God when we were breathed into existence. It was placed there for a purpose: to draw us to say “yes” to God’s free gift of love in Christ. It was put there as a space for God to enter into you – for each and every one of you is an Innkeeper this night and your heart is the place where Christ wants to dwell.

Christmas is the proclamation that God spoke an eternal “yes” to us by slipping through the back door of history as a helpless baby, to grow up and live with us, die for us, and be raised from the dead to prove once and for all that our fragility, finitude, faults and failings do not define us and they do not get the last word! Christ is still renewing, redeeming, and giving life to us – all of us, no exceptions.

No matter what your life circumstances are this day, God called you here to speak a word of eternal life and love to you: a love that you didn’t have to earn or prove yourself worthy to receive. God’s movement is towards us and for us in the birth of Jesus Christ. This love is mystical and it is the only enduring and life giving way to fill the hole in your soul. It comes to us through Word and Sacrament and is present through this community. So come. Come to this Table. Come as you are. Come here this night and you will find what you are looking for.
 
 
Today is Bible Sunday. We call it that because of the collect for the day. It was written by Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer and was originally assigned as the collect of the day for the second Sunday of Advent. Its focus on hearing, reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting the Holy Scriptures that we may hold fast to the blessed hope of everlasting life is a cornerstone of our reformed catholic theology. Art Reid posted a meme on my Facebook page the other day that had a picture of a Bible and the caption “Episcopalians take the Bible too seriously to take it literally.” I love that and it’s a big part of why I am an Episcopalian.

It’s also why we are lectionary preachers. The practice of preaching from a set of prescribed readings really goes back to our Jewish ancestors who read from the Torah and the haftarah (the prophets and writings) on a systematic basis each week and the rabbis would offer commentary on the texts. The early Christians followed this pattern and Archbishop Cranmer codified the one year Sunday lectionary and readings for the Daily Office for the English Church when he wrote the Book of Common Prayer in 1549. The three year lectionary came out of Vatican II in the 1960’s and now we have a Revised Common Lectionary which has been out for a few years. And this is all well and fine … until you get to readings you’d rather not deal with … like today’s gospel reading.

Today I willingly tip my hand and admit that I do not like apocalyptic literature. You know the stuff: that doom and gloom genre about end times. When I read it, I either get REM’s “End of the World as We Know It” or Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries” running in my head and it totally distracts me. But in all seriousness, when I have to deal with Revelation with its destruction and four horsemen of the apocalypse, or parts of the Book of Daniel, or even when prophets start talking about the “great and terrible day of the Lord” … well … I tend to cringe. So when I saw Jesus talking about wars and insurrections, nations rising up against nations, famines and plagues, “dreadful portents and signs from the heavens” … I thought, “Oh no, not that again” (which made me sound like Marvin the Manically Depressed Robot from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). I started looking at Isaiah because there’s some hope going on there. 2nd Thessalonians … nah … sounded like mom nagging about not being a slacker. Hmm … preach the collect … starting to sound good.

But as I was writing thank you notes last night, I kept getting this sense I was supposed to talk about this kind of literature … one of the items on my “10 things I detest” list: its right up there with polyester double-knit, spray cheese in a can, lutefisk aaaand apocalyptic literature. What kept coming to me is that the stuff that irritates me about apocalyptic writing might just be bugging you too. Or not … I’ll take my chance and hope the Spirit was right in moving me towards talking about this. So here goes nothing.

I think the real reason I don’t like this kind of writing is because it has been so terribly twisted and abused in certain sectors of Christianity. One danger is when folks look for “dreadful signs and portents” and start using apocalyptic literature as some sort of Redneck Comedy Tour “Here’s Your Sign” shtick. You know, hurricane hits the Philippines, that’s a dreadful sign and portent of God’s wrath … must be God’s punishment on … {your favorite marginalized group named here}. We hear that stuff from the likes of Pat Robertson who blamed the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina on gays. Yeah, and he used apocalyptic writings to “prove” it! If that’s true, I stand in total awe and wonder at the magnificent power of gay-ness to get God’s attention so much so as to impact weather patterns. We straights can’t seem to pull off that kind of awesome. But in fairness, Pat often will blame feminists too … and abortion providers … and liberals … you name it. But repeatedly Jesus tells us in the Gospels that we are not to know the times and dates that God has set. In today’s reading he warns against those who come trying to show signs of “I am he” and “the time is near.” Jesus in essence tells us not to be fooled by this.

Another problem is when it gets distorted by people trying to take it too literally who are also tempted to “know the day and the hour” of the second coming. It’s a twist on the “Here’s Your Sign” theme. Sometimes they reweave it into something strange and bizarre like John Nelson Darby’s dispensationalism which turned into rapture theology. You know, that Left Behind stuff? The idea that the Second Coming of Christ would be some sort of celestial evacuation plan for those deemed worthy to get zapped out of here and then the rest would be left behind to suffer. That’s not Scriptural at all. The movement of God throughout the biblical witness is coming towards us not us being snatched up and out of here. It also says that as God moves towards us there will be a new heaven and new earth – that’s what Isaiah is talking about!

The other thing that gets me is when people spend their time focused on the scary doom and gloom stuff. Earthquakes, famines, plagues, wars and insurrections … been happening since the beginning of time and still happening. Families turned against each other and fighting? Well … Thanksgiving is coming, isn’t it? Some of us live it at the holidays, don’t we? Dysfunctional families have been around since Adam and Eve’s first two kids. Persecutions and arrests? Well, not so much in this country but definitely in other places. For the record, people who abuse apocalyptic writings also tend to mistake being inconvenienced with being persecuted. You are not being persecuted if you are not allowed to pray in the name of Jesus before your kid’s high school sports event. You are being inconvenienced. Persecution is when you exit the Anglican Church in Peshawar Pakistan and a Taliban suicide bomber detonates his explosives … 95 people killed … THAT’S persecution. But I digress. When Jesus talks about this kind of doom and gloom stuff, he’s really telling us how things are: in essence, “It is what it is.”

So what’s good about this kind of literature? If we pay attention and don’t get sidetracked by the abuses, there is a message of hope here. Jesus tells us that no matter what happens to us, even if we are put to death, not a hair on our head will perish. What is eternal within us, stays eternally held secure in God. Period … no exceptions. It is a promise that when things get scary, and they will get scary at some point in your life, not … a … hair … on … your … head … will … perish. Absolutely nothing can take you out of God’s hands. As Henri Nouwen said in his book “Finding My Way Home,” we are God’s beloved before we were born, throughout our life, and through death – beloved all the way. Our time on earth is a mere brief moment where we are given the chance to say to God, “I love you too.” You are beloved, not a hair on your head will perish, so remember to tell God, "I love you too."
 
 
Arthur Dent found himself in an office building where he really wasn’t present but merely watching a recorded projection of a great event: The Day of the Answer. For seven and a half million years, the mega-computer Deep Thought had been pondering and calculating the answer to the great question of Life, the Universe and Everything. Loonquawl and Phouchg, two severely dressed men, were waiting upon the computer to come to life. They were the two anointed ones who would receive the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything and convey this answer to the expectant crowd gathered in the square below. There was a pause as the computer came to life and its lights settled into a business like pattern.

“Good morning,” said Deep Thought.

“Er … good morning, O Deep Thought,” said Loonquawl nervously, “do you have … er … that is …”

“An answer for you?” interrupted Deep Thought majestically. “Yes. I have.”

“There really is one?” breathed Phouchg.

“There really is one,” confirmed Deep Thought.

“To Everything? To the great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything?”

“Yes.”

“And you’re ready to give it to us?” urged Loonquawl.

“I am.”

“Now?”

“Now,” said Deep Thought. “Though I don’t think you are going to like it.”

“Doesn’t matter!” said Phouchg. “We must know it! Now!”

“Now?” inquired Deep Thought.

“Yes! Now …”

“All right,” said the computer and it settled into silence again.

“You’re really not going to like it,” observed Deep Thought.

“Tell us!”

“All right,” said Deep Thought. “The Answer to the great Question …”

“Yes!”

“Of Life, the Universe and Everything …” said Deep Thought.

“Yes!”

“Is …” said Deep Thought, and paused.

“Yes …!”

“Is …”

“Yes …!!! …?”

“Forty-two,” said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.

It was a long time before anyone spoke. Out of the corner of his eye Phouchg could see the sea of expectant faces down in the square outside.

“We’re going to get lynched, aren’t we?” he whispered.

“It was a tough assignment,” said Deep Thought mildly.

“Forty-two!” yelled Loonquawl. “Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years’ work?”

“I checked it very thoroughly,” said the computer, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem is, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.” [The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams: p. 168-172]

Hmmm … you’ve never actually known what the question is! I couldn’t help but think of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy when I saw the gospel reading today. We’ve entered Holy Week once again – in the fall it’s kind of like sneaking in the back door. We focus in the spring on what happened to Jesus in his last week on earth. In the fall we focus on the teachings Jesus gave during Holy Week – the kind of things a guy might get crucified for saying. Today he is being tested by the Sadducees about the resurrection and its application in a levirate marriage. Now two things are in this story that we have a tough time dealing with: Sadducees and levirate marriage. Let me unpack both of them.

The Sadducees were a theo-political party (remember temple and state were one in the same back then). They didn’t believe in a resurrection of the righteous after death and largely served as scribes in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Pharisees were the rival theo-political party who believed in the resurrection of the dead and largely led the worship in the many synagogues dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. After the Temple was destroyed in 70AD, the Sadducees ceased to exist. Judaism today is a descendent of Pharisaic Judaism – and in his teaching, Jesus was more aligned with the Pharisees in their resurrection theology. Now these two parties didn’t get along but, in a case of politics making strange bedfellows, they could both agree they didn’t like Jesus and both were out to trap him.

The Sadducees set up a question about seven brothers for one bride (not to be confused with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – that’s a musical). The illustration they use is of a levirate marriage law where, if a man dies childless, his widow is to marry the next brother and raise up children for the dead brother. Sounds weird in our culture (and it is in our culture) but back then when children were your social security, it was a way to guarantee some economic security. So they set up the question where the woman keeps marrying all these brothers and they all die childless and then the woman dies. Now if they had stopped there, I would have been all over this story! I mean “Hallelujah It’s Raining Men!” right?? I get to heaven and get seven husbands … and its heaven so I don’t have to do their laundry! That’s awesome!!

But then the buzzkill part comes: “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” The underlying question is “Whose property will she be, Jesus?” After all, women were considered the property of their husbands in that day.

Jesus’ response was much like Deep Thought’s – “You all don’t even know the question!” It isn’t about whose property she is and marriage is something of this world that doesn’t exist in the next. You’re paying attention to the wrong thing!

Notice what Jesus doesn’t do: he doesn’t give us a fully fleshed out answer as to what heaven looks like. He does say we will be different and that earthly institutions like marriage are irrelevant. And then he points out that the voice which came from the burning bush spoke to Moses of his ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob saying “I am” their God. But the verb form of “I AM” is infinitive – which is to say “I WAS” their God, “I AM” their God, and “I ALWAYS WILL BE” their God. Jesus points out that the tense of the verb matters – God will always be our God and we will always live in the present moment with God in the resurrected life.

The good news of this encounter with the Sadducees is that we don’t have to get the questions right in order for God to save us in Christ. In fact, we may get the questions all wrong. God can handle that. The key is to keep searching and reaching out for our loving God who has promised us that nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from God’s love. We probably never really will know what the question is, let alone the answer. But in the resurrected life in God, our questions matter not … what matters is how well we love.
 
 
Last week, we heard two of a series of three parables from Luke 15 about losing and the limits of meritocracy in the parables of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin. I hinted (ok, actually I promised) that we’d get the story of the lost son today. Apparently, the Revised Common Lectionary had another idea! It’s supposed to go: lost sheep, lost coin, lost son. The lectionary says: lost sheep, lost coin … dishonest manager??!! Really? WTF: “Where’s the flow??!!” This is just shifting gears without a clutch! I understand the reasoning behind why the lectionary drops the Lost Son (a/k/a the Prodigal Son) story. They have, of course, rightly deduced that ALL of you were sitting right here on the Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year C) to hear me preach that text … right? Of course … and I know because I can pretty much “take roll” of who is here by where you sit each Sunday. Want to mess with me? Sit in different seats next Sunday … it will totally blow my roll taking system to pieces … which is entirely consonant with the theme of grace in these parables.

Those of you from more Protestant traditions are familiar with pastors who do preaching series where they take a topic, make several sermons on it and weave Scripture into their sermons. I don’t roll like that. I’m a Lectionary based preacher and I start with the readings and work my way back into life. But today … I’m going to make an exception and continue a series … AND … (“But wait! There’s more!!”) weave in today’s Gospel reading too. So we’ll get Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son … and Lost Scruples.

So catching up from last week, we have sinners and tax collectors coming from all around to listen to Jesus and in the background, like a Greek chorus, are the Pharisees and scribes who say, “This man welcomes sinners … and eats with them!” Jesus then launches into three parables claiming how being lost is exactly what is required for grace to find you. He tells of a lost sheep (1 out of 100 – a 1% loss), a lost coin (1 of ten drachma – a 10% loss) and now he tells of a lost son (1 of 2 – a 50% loss). In each parable, the loss mounts. In this last one being both lost and dead come together.
There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’” So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.

Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
One of my favorite authors, Father Robert Farrar Capon, in his book Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment: Paradox, Vindication and Outrage in the Parables of Jesus calls this parable a “festival of death.” I love that! And he is right … pretty much everybody, with the exception of the eldest son, dies … at least metaphorically. It is a parable where the youngest son acts in a shameful way by telling his father to drop dead by giving him his share of the inheritance – and amazingly the father does just that. He divides the wealth between his sons: youngest son getting one third and the eldest getting the two-thirds double portion which was first century Palestine’s version of social security – eldest son would now take care of dad in his dotage. But in essence, the father ceases to be the pater familias – he is no longer in charge, he has dropped dead. The younger son goes off and “squandered his wealth in a wild lifestyle.” The Greek says he “scattered his substance” on a “riotous life.” In essence, he blew it all … and then some. It wasn’t just the money … it was his whole substance. In addiction parlance, we might say he was heading for rock bottom. And then a famine came and he had to take a job … feeding the … pigs! How low can a nice Jewish boy go? Evidently, just a bit lower because looking at hog slop and thinking, “That looks good!” is probably slightly worse. So he has figured out that living life on his terms is over - he's dead. He devises a way to go home by saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” It may sound like he’s still trying to eke out some shred of dignity with that last contrivance of being a hired hand. But I think there is another dynamic at work. Adding that little phrase on to the end gives his father a face saving way of taking him back. Let’s face it, he shamed the old man and the son knows it. He’s giving dad a way to take him back and recover his dignity. He's actually thinking of his father's well-being - getting out of his own selfish head for once. But we know the father’s dignity doesn't matter – he’s dead, remember? When you've died, you don’t worry about saving face. So when this son comes home his father runs to meet him, kisses him and the son gets out, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” That’s it … game over. There’s the unvarnished truth – he’s dead and he knows it. Now grace steps in. His father clothes him in a fine robe, puts a ring on his finger, sandals on his feet and kills the fatted calf for a party.

But then … queue the ominous music … the older brother shows up. Yes, Captain Buzzkill has reported for duty! He’s not dead yet. He’s still in the merit badge business of keeping score. He throws a hissy fit and complains to his father that he’s worked hard, played by the rules and never had a party … “But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”

Freeze frame … hold it right there … let’s admit it … we totally get the older brother. It doesn't matter how prodigal we may have been in our lives, we still see the inherent unfairness of this, don’t we? But the point of the parable isn't fairness – it’s about grace and grace is NEVER, EVER fair. Grace is … that’s all. Grace just is and we never, ever earn it. The older brother thinks we do, and sometimes we think we do … and the Pharisees overhearing this story definitely think we do … but that’s not how it works. What works is being a loser and dropping dead. God can work with that because it gets us and our small, finite, dead egos out of the way.

Which brings us to a really weird parable: the Dishonest Manager. Jesus is now going to use a really smarmy guy as an example … as if the Pharisees don’t have enough of a burr in their shorts already. This manager is brought up on charges he is squandering the rich man’s property – and the word for “squander” is exactly the same as the one in the parable of the Lost Son. Without an investigation or fair trial, the rich man fires the manager – so like the lost son, this manager is dead … or any semblance of his life is over. The manager (who is Jon Lovitz’s Tommy Flanagan in this version) thinks it through: “So … fire me will you? Well … two can play at that game. I’ll give you an accounting … after a few adjustments. Yeahhh! That’s the ticket!” I think he cooks the books for a couple of reasons. First, he ingratiates himself with the debtors who just might look favorably on him when he finally is out of a job (“Hey, you remember when old Tommy did you a favor??”). Second, he may actually have been able to collect some of this debt by reducing it and thus given his boss at least some return on the money and goods owed. The latter might explain why the rich man commends the dishonest manager in the end – not for his dishonesty, but for his shrewdness: his ability to think on his feet and get out of an impossible situation. This guy who flouts the rules ends up exalted for his creative solution to an intractable problem.

And isn't this just what Christ does for us? Yes, I think the dishonest manager is the Christ figure in this story. Who else steps outside the lines of propriety, meritocracy and score keeping in order cook up a clever solution to the intractable problem of our lost, dead lives by getting nailed to a cross? Try as we might, no matter how we try to dress him up, Jesus is not a respectable guy! Remember? This is how the whole narrative starts … “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!” No respectable person would cavort with the riff-raff Jesus does! He has no scruples … at least according to human standards. That’s the point … Jesus is disreputable by the measures of polite society precisely because he blows off the merit badge system of earning “brownie points,” following the rules, and hanging out with the A-listers to dive straight into grace by a dishonorable death on a cross … which in the end is the only thing that saves us.

So for all of us lost sheep, lost coins, lost sons and daughters … are you ready to lose your scruples too and turn your lives over to a shady manager who stands ready to erase your debt?
 
 
Last Thursday marked the 5 year anniversary of the fall of Lehman Brothers – you know, the investment firm that started the domino chain of events resulting in our most recent economic crash; ironic this happened 7 years and 1 day after the attacks of 9/11. Both 9/11 and the market crash of 2008 have produced fundamental shifts in our culture. They both mark the end of a way of life we’ve known: a way marked by our country being a political and economic superpower. Oh, we’re still pretty powerful … but it isn’t the same and our world isn’t the same and if we are honest, it’s left us feeling anxious, vulnerable and even fearful.

And so last Thursday when I was listening to NPR’s Morning Edition, I overheard an interview with an economist from George Mason University name Tyler Cowen. Like most folks on the interview circuit, he’s promoting his new book in which he makes some predictions about our economic and social future. The first thing he says is that income inequality is increasing. Really? How could I have missed that??!! I guess being an economist is like being a priest – a major part of our vocation is pointing out the glaringly obvious (the difference, I suppose, is in the royalties). But he also goes on to say that he believes there will be a different kind of meritocracy emerging in America. Now we are a country founded on the mythology of meritocracy – the idea that one can work hard and get ahead because you are rewarded on your merit. Now in theory, that sounds great, right? Work hard, play by the rules, and get rewarded for it. Slack off, screw up and … well … you’ll get “rewarded” alright … but with a very different kind of reward. Now don’t get me wrong – we are a country where meritocracy does exist to some extent, imperfectly but that’s the nature of human experience. And hey, I’m a parent, rewards and consequences are something we need to teach our children so they can hopefully cope in this world.

But meritocracy has its limits … and the kind of meritocracy that Tyler Cowen sees coming I find profoundly disturbing. He believes that there will be a larger class of people who become “wealthy” (not sure what his definition of wealth is, but that’s another sermon). And he believes we will be recognized on our merits at earlier ages as long as we work hard and play by the rules. But (and this is a big BUT) the information age is creating a very ruthless form of meritocracy because of the sheer amount of data being collected on each and every one of us. And we’re not talking about the government collecting data – we are talking about corporations: JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, TransAmerica, Google, Yahoo, and others who are tracking all your commercial transactions – what you buy, where you buy it, your likes and dislikes, your credit score and whether you’ve declared bankruptcy. Add to this the for-profit insurance companies, doctors and hospitals who know your entire medical history and the legal system who knows whether or not you’ve been sued or arrested. There is a lot of data being collected on you and me … and most of it held by for-profit companies. Cowen’s theory is this data will be used to ruthlessly scrutinize us to see if we “play by the rules” and whether or not we get rewarded … with a job, a promotion, a good interest rate on that next loan, a pay raise. Cowen posits that for those who toe the line, the rewards will be great and for those who fall down, either through their own fault or by circumstances beyond their control, there will be no second chances … let alone third and fourth ones. One screw up and you are … finished. How do you feel about that meritocracy now? Makes me glad I got most of my screw ups out of the way before the internet came along!

But in all seriousness, this Orwellian vision of the future crashed headlong into today’s Gospel reading because it’s all about the futility of meritocracy and finding the lost. Luke tells us how the outcasts (sinners) are all flocking to Jesus to listen to him. This generates grumbling among the Pharisees and the scribes – you know, those guys who toe the line and play by the rules … the “A listers” of religious and political meritocracy. I mean really … this Jesus guy not only welcomes sinners but he EATS with them! Ewwww!! Like being a sinner gives you “sinner cooties” and you can catch them if you get too close. So Jesus, hearing the grumbling, tells two parables about why their merit badge system doesn’t count for much.

Now before we talk about the main point of the parables, I want to deal with what they are not about. They are not about repentance. I know, I know, Jesus talks about there being joy in heaven over the sinner who repents at the end of both stories. But the bulk of the wording of the stories focuses on being “lost” not repenting and the idea that a sheep or a coin can repent is just silly. I’m convinced the closing shot about repentance is kind of a snark-o-rama crack from Jesus aimed at the “play by the rules” gang who think they are not lost (they are, you know, they just haven’t figured it out yet).

Both of these stories focus completely on grace and how being lost is the key to receiving it. In fact, there are three stories in a row about “lostness” in Luke 15: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and next week we’ll hear about a lost son. Jesus, being a good rabbi, asks them a question: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” Now I’m no expert on sheep, but this sounds like a really stupid idea. Leave 99 sheep in the wilderness?? What, so they can wander off and get lost too? In practicality, this doesn’t sound like a “good shepherd” at all … sounds like a dumb one to me. But that’s because I’m not the “Good Shepherd” – God is. And God isn’t worried about the 99 getting lost. So what if they do? God’s best work is in finding the lost. That’s the point! This is the same God who, even if all the coins get lost, will sweep the floor until she finds every last one. The one lost sheep or coin … or the 100 lost sheep and 10 lost coins (it doesn’t matter) … will be relentlessly pursued by God who is both Good Shepherd and peasant woman until they are found. All the sheep and the coin have to do let themselves be found.

You see, being lost is completely counter to the culture of meritocracy. Meritocracy says you can redeem yourself by your own efforts: your own cleverness, intelligence, and rule keeping. Oh, you may even buy into this myth for a time … until that day comes when your rule keeping efforts don’t seem to matter. You get laid off from that job through no fault of your own. You have a serious illness even though you followed the rules of eating right and getting exercise. You make a bad investment and lose your savings. Your spouse cheats on you or a loved one dies. You see, even if you play by the rules, you are still lost … and still dead. Lost and dead are closely connected in the parables. The lost sheep is as good as dead by itself in the wilderness and the lost coin is a dead asset.

The paradoxical good news of this is that no matter how much we want to resist being lost or dead by our merit based games, the truth is that God’s redemptive power can only work with the lost and dead. It is only when we hit that wall and the curtain is drawn back to expose that merit based living is a fraud with no lasting value that we can accept our being lost and dead as a good thing. In giving up the pretense that “merit badge” systems are important to God (which they aren’t), we surrender to being lost and dead and we come to know that getting found and brought back to life is going to happen not through our own efforts, but through the grace of a power outside ourselves.

And this is why these parables are even beyond good news … they are great news. These parables of lostness are not calls to repentance. They are not telling us that we need to have a moral change of heart before God will find us. No! As Paul said in Romans 5:8 – “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” We do not have to get our act together to be found (as if we could … and we can’t!). All God needs from us is to be lost and dead … and we’re actually quite good at that. When we own our lostness and deadness only then can we be found by God and receive the gift of grace. God finds us, not in the garden of merit and self-improvement, but lost in the desert of death; and through the power of the resurrected Christ, God carries us home across her shoulders rejoicing.
 
 
It’s back-to-school time … so that means it is fair game to open a homily with a pop quiz. Fill in the blank: “Six degrees of …” what? … that’s right … six degrees of separation. This is a theory which states that any two living people anywhere in the world can be linked by a maximum of six relational connections. Take me and … Archbishop Desmond Tutu - whom I have never personally met. I have a cousin in England who worked at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and knows the Bishop of London was at Lambeth Conference with Archbishop Tutu. In that case … just two degrees of separation. Then there was the movie by the same name. And eventually someone misheard “Six Degrees of Separation” at a party as “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” which spawned the Kevin Bacon Game where you could take any actor and link them to Kevin Bacon in six hops or less.

Well … it’s my theory (and probably mine alone) that the writers of the Revised Common Lectionary probably played the Kevin Bacon Game somewhere in their seminary careers because I’m not sure you could get more disparate readings than todays … but I could be wrong. First we have this reading from Luke with Jesus talking about hating everyone and even life itself (way to welcome people back from summer!). Readings like this make a preacher think, “Hmmm … wonder what’s in the Jeremiah reading?? Oh … potter with clay … ok. What’s the epistle? Um … runaway slave Onesimus returns. Greaaat!” After wrestling with this all week, I think there is a way these all come together and it has to do with the cost of discipleship and some reassurance when we are asked to give something up to be people of God’s kingdom.

Let’s look at Luke. We are still in the traveling narrative and Jesus is coming near to Jerusalem. I think the key to this passage is that “large crowds were traveling” with Jesus. People are basically herd animals, aren’t we? If there’s a crowd, we tend to be compelled to go over and join the crowd just to see what’s going on, right? And when there’s a crowd around somebody popular, there are a lot of people there for the wrong reasons. Maybe they are just curious or maybe they want to be cool and look good. No matter … it’s pretty clear that this large crowd had a significant bunch of posers in it and I think Jesus is firing a metaphoric shot across the bow about what his message and ministry really means. Hate is sure to separate the believers from the phonies! So Jesus speaks in hyperbole about what the cost of discipleship is. In essence, he’s challenging them with the question, “What are you willing to give up for the sake of the Kingdom of God?” … what are you willing to give up? It’s not that you’ll be asked to give up father and mother … but you might. Are you willing to do so?

He then goes on to tell two parables: one about a tower builder and another about a king. In both cases, each of these characters may be challenged to give up their dream or vision. In the case of the tower builder, if he doesn’t have enough money to build the tower, no amount of vision and imagination will make it happen. He may have to give up his dream. In the case of the king, if he’s outnumbered, he must relinquish the idea of expanding his territory. In both cases, these characters must let go of their plans for the sake of something greater. Jesus ends this passage with an exhortation to sell all your possessions – another bit of hyperbole but one to remind us to hold our possessions lightly and be willing to let them go for the sake of the Gospel.

In Paul’s letter to Philemon, we hear about a very concrete example of the cost of discipleship. This is a wonderful letter and shows not only Paul’s persuasive rhetorical skills, but also his vision of a new kind of family based on faith not blood ties or social privilege. He is taking up the cause of one runaway slave, Onesimus, whom he refers to as “my child.” We do not know the reason why Onesimus ran away from Philemon. However, we do know that under Roman law, Philemon as “pater familias” had the power of life and death over his entire household – wife, children, and slaves. Onesimus’ return would have been frightening for him as Philemon would have had the legal right to put him to death.

Instead, Paul writes this impassioned letter full of familial imagery. He speaks of Onesimus as his “child” and his “own heart.” He implores Philemon not only to receive Onesimus back as Paul’s equal but “confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” Paul is pressing for Onesimus’ manumission. The lectionary writers left out the next verse which says: “One thing more – prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.” Not only is Paul making an appeal, he’s letting Philemon know he’ll be coming to check up on this situation!

In essence, Paul uses the rhetoric of honor towards Philemon to remind him that the cost of his discipleship is that he will give up his legal rights under Roman law. The law of Christ demands love – not beatings or death. The cost of discipleship requires Philemon to be transformed from identifying himself as a Roman citizen to knowing himself as a citizen of the Kingdom of God. This transformation requires change.

And this kind of transformative change is what our faith in Christ is all about. We may not have the power of life and death over others; however, we are still being called to change for the sake of God’s love. At the end of the Gospel of John, Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” In essence, Jesus asks us something similar: “My child, do you love me more than                   ?” … fill in the blank. That is our question and we will each fill it in differently. My attachments and yours are different … but we both have them. One that comes up for me periodically is when Christ asks me, “Do you love me more than … being right?” Oooooohhh! Yeah, that’s a gut punch … but a necessary one at times. Jesus is so like that! But it is a call to relinquish life on my terms to live for God’s terms.

But letting go of things is scary. I mean, if I give up this part of my identity, who will I be? How will I relate to the world around me if I change? This can be disconcerting and … this is where Jeremiah comes into play. Jeremiah is told to go down to the potter’s house. Now I’m sure many of you have made something out of clay at one time or another (think back to third grade art class). When you work with clay, it is malleable. If you make something and you don’t like how it’s turning out, you can squish it all up and start over. And this is the image Jeremiah sees and it becomes a metaphor for God’s reworking of his people through the catastrophe of the Babylonian conquest and exile. But it also is an image for us because even though the form of what the potter made changed it was still made of the same substance: clay. Clay didn’t stop being clay. And this holds a promise for us because when we are transformed throughout our lives and called over and over to give things up for the sake of the Kingdom of God, we need not fear this transformation because the real underlying substance of our true nature as children of God does not change. Our form may change … but our substance is not destroyed.

The cost of discipleship at times feels very high but it is necessary for us to relinquish our way in order to live more fully into God’s kingdom vision. We will be reworked as clay … but it will always be for the purpose of forming something more pleasing and useful to God.
 
 
As a note, my original sermon appears below; however, our youth and adult mission team had just returned from Clendenin West Virginia and planned to flash mob the worship service. In a "first ever at Grace" moment, they flash mobbed the end of this sermon to Audio Adrenaline's "Get Down." Stay tuned ... video to follow!
Today’s reading from Luke’s gospel is one of those ones that make a preacher think, “OK … a familiar parable … OH NO! A familiar parable!!” This story is so well-beloved and so colorful, that is captures our imagination and has become part of our popular culture. I mean, who hasn’t heard of the “Good Samaritan?” There are lots of hospitals with that name (one is even part of Johns Hopkins in Baltimore). We have “Good Samaritan” laws to protect the liability of those who stop to render aid to people in need. There’s even a “Good Sam” RV club – short for Good Samaritan. The problem with this being so familiar is we think we know what this is about … it’s about the Samaritan, right? Well … no … not really.

The story opens in the Traveling Narrative where Jesus is heading to Jerusalem. He encounters a lawyer whose intention appears to be adversarial – he is going to test Jesus. He asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Now Mark and Matthew have a rich young man asking this question – Luke tells us he’s a lawyer. No matter … the question appears in all three Synoptic Gospels. Jesus, being a good rabbi, answers the question with a question: “What is in the law? What do you read there?” The lawyer responds with quoting part of the Shema: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind” and then he tacks on one of the good parts of Leviticus: “…and your neighbor as yourself.” Good answer! Jesus tells him “do this and you will live.” But the lawyer seems to want to parse words and drills down on who is his neighbor … and Jesus launches into the parable.

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho” – This literally was a downhill journey. Jerusalem sits at 2,500 feet above sea level and Jericho about 800 feet. It is a descent to an encounter with “robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.” Jesus then takes a dig at the temple religious system of the day: a priest and a levite (both who are on their way to perform their temple duties), pass by on the other side. Now to touch a dead body would have been to defile them, so they had their reasons. Then we have the Samaritan comes upon the scene and renders aid in a most extravagant way: he washes the wounds of the half-dead man with wine and dresses them with oil, puts him on his animal, takes him to an inn and pays for absolutely everything (I’ll be his wife was thrilled to get THAT Visa bill!). When rabbi Jesus asks the lawyer who acted like the neighbor, he replies, “The one who showed mercy” and Jesus admonishes him to “Go and do likewise.”

The problem arises when we take that closing line “Go and do likewise” and loop it back to the initial question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” We can end up with a troubling conclusion: Just do nice and merciful things and you will inherit eternal life. Whoops! That would be a form of works righteousness – and that’s a big problem because there is no salvation in it! If our good works of mercy could have saved us, we would have been saved about 15 minutes after Moses came down from Sinai. Doing good works and merciful works is not inherently bad – it just won’t save you. Our works need to be understood as an expression of thanksgiving for what God has done for us rather than understood as some “brownie points for God” program where we earn our way into eternal life.

So I want to pick up this parable, shake the dirt off the roots, and look at it from another angle. Let’s just say the priest, the levite and the Samaritan are not the central focus of this story. Instead, the focus, the Christ figure in this text, is the half-dead guy on the side of the road. Now admittedly, this is not a sexy way to market the story! We’d rather it be about a Good Samaritan, wouldn’t we? Besides, if you named your hospital “Half-Dead Guy By The Side Of The Road Hospital,” who would go there??!! “Yeah, I think I’m having a heart attack. Take me to Half-Dead Guy By The Side Of The Road Hospital – stat!” Not going to happen. But I digress…

The reason this is the Christ figure gets more obvious when we think of the story in context. Jesus is traveling to Jerusalem for a showdown. He will be stripped, beaten, flogged and left for half-dead by the political/religious authorities … and then they will finish the job on the cross! The insiders, the priest and levite, want nothing to do with Jesus and they will be part of the power structure that will kill him.

We’re not quite sure of where Jesus is when he tells this story. We know he’s not yet in Jerusalem and, it is not out of the realm of possibility that he is actually in Samaria when he tells this story. That would make it even more juicy! You see good pious Jews consider Samaritans … well … scumbags. Why? Well, the roots go waaaay back … all the way to the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 721 BCE (yeah, these guys know how to hold a long grudge!). When the Northern Kingdom fell, Assyrian King Tiglath Pileser III (what a great name for a king, eh?) deported all of the leadership in the Northern Kingdom to other parts of the Assyrian empire. He then brought foreigners from other conquered lands and Assyria into Israel to run the governmental affairs in Israel and, more importantly, to intermarry with the locals and thus pull off an ethnic and religious genocide. These mixed race people became the Samaritans. Let’s just say, if the TV, and Facebook were around … we’d have a little girl pouring Cheerios on her Samaritan dad and a major flame war online over it!

OK … so the Samaritans are hated by the Jews … but this is why this guy stops and the others don’t. See he’s a loser … big “L” on his forehead. He’s considered scum of the earth and out of his loser-outsider status, he can connect with the half-dead guy by the side of the road. He has compassion because HE is the half-dead guy too! He gets it … from one loser to another.

You see salvation, real salvation, isn’t about how many good works we do, or how gifted we are, or having the right connections, or living in the “right” neighborhood, or driving the “right” car, or having professional success, or anything else this world tries to tell you matters. It … does … not … matter!! What matters is being last, lost, little, least and lifeless … and reaching others who are last, lost, little, least and lifeless too. The saving grace is our Savior took on “loser status” by dying on a cross so that we might inherit eternal life.

This is good news because you and I don’t have to have our act together … not at all. We reach each other out of our loser-ness – not out of our strength. We die, and rise, and die, and rise … and Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, is the one who showed us how. He showed us that we can trust that when things look like they are going down the toilet and we are falling apart and messed up, that God’s economy will use it for God’s glory and that nothing, absolutely nothing, is wasted and it will all be made new.

So fellow losers – welcome to what it means to bear the cross of Christ. Take it up and carry it in your bodies and souls – out those doors into your community. Be the half-dead guys and gals for all the other half-dead guys and gals who need to hear the words of life Christ offers us and them.