Pentecost 23

When I was young, I was friends with a kid we’ll call John; he was the child of friends of my parents, and so we spent an awful lot of time together growing up.  John, I’m sure, had a good heart, but he could be a little, let’s call it self-involved, and that caused him to make some interesting decisions.  One of my favorites was the year, when we were younger teenagers, that for Christmas he gave my parents a framed picture of himself.  Looking back on it, that has to be one of the best and funniest moments of my young life, though the humor of it was wasted on my youth.  If that picture could talk, it would say “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men.”


Pride cometh before the fall, the idiom says; King Solomon wrote it – if he had written in Tudor English – as “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”  Jesus told this parable, the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, in the midst of a bunch of teaching that beat up on the indolent rich, the corrupt powers of Rome, and as usual, the Pharisees.  Not all of the Pharisees were bad guys, of course, but not unlike being a priest, being a Pharisee gave one opportunity to be particularly bad, publicly reprehensible.  Their main problem was pride.


And so the parable introduces us to two men, a Pharisee and a tax collector.  Neither will be the most popular guy at the temple, but the Pharisee does have pride of place, so to speak.


The Pharisee begins to pray.  “Notice that the parable doesn’t doubt the Pharisee’s truthfulness: he does have real moral excellence. And notice too that the Pharisee doesn’t congratulate himself on this moral excellence in himself. He thanks God for it; he gives God all the credit for it.  So what exactly is wrong with this Pharisee?  Think about it this way. Aquinas says that there are four kinds of pride.


(1) There’s foolish pride. You think you have an excellence which you don’t have, like a child who thinks he’s the best basketball player in the world.


(2) There’s the pride of the self-made man. You think you have an excellence you do have, but you think you got that excellence for yourself, without anybody’s help.


(3) There’s the sneakily self-congratulatory pride. You think you have an excellence you do have, and you recognize that God gave it to you; but you assume God gave it to you because he knew that you would make such good use of it.


(4) And then there’s the most self-deceptive kind of pride. You think you have an excellence you do have, and you recognize that you have it because God gave it, and you acknowledge that God gave it because he is so good, not because you are so nice—BUT you are glad others don’t have it and you hope they don’t get it.”[1]

The Pharisee had a mix of three and four: God gave him his gifts because he is somehow worthy of them, and he doesn’t think that God should give others, especially that disgusting tax collector, the grace to power to achieve his kind of righteousness.


What kind of pride do you have?  I’m all too aware of my ownership progression, hitting at least three out of the four I’ve listed.  Thankfully, no matter where you fall on the list – and we all fall on this list somewhere – we’re in good company.  St. Paul was rather forthcoming about his prideful ways, and he did his best to attribute all glory to God, but if you didn’t notice, he wrote the words me, I, or my eighteen times in the four verses we heard today from his letter to Timothy.  Paul probably gave his friend’s parents a framed painting of himself for Christmas.


How do we get rid of pride?  A good start is with the words of the tax collector: “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”  It starts with remembering that no matter how great you are – and you’re all pretty great – as Paul also wrote, we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  From there it’s about humbling ourselves before God and our neighbor, using the talents God gave us for the benefit of His people, and wishing the best for others.  You guys are already pretty good at those things; I’m not worried about any of you having to revise your Christmas gift list.

[1] Eleanor Stump:

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Pentecost 22

So a frustrated young lawyer, fresh from another irrational court ruling comes into a bar.  Angrily he shouts “I think all judges are slimeballs!!”  A slurred response from the back of the bar is heard: “I resent that!”  The lawyer peers into the back and asks “Why, are you a judge?”  “No,” the voice slurs, “I’m a slimeball.”


Lest you get the wrong idea, I actually know more judges than I ever thought I would know, and they are all lovely people, on top of being brilliant and often very funny.  My mother used to have breakfast most mornings at the corner store in Monmouth Beach, and more often than not, among the mostly men who congregated there, was old Judge Horner (names have been changed to protect the innocent).  One morning the judge came in angry because he had gotten a speeding ticket, and another man noted that he got pulled over all the time but never got ticketed.  The judge asked how that was possible.  The man’s reply: “I tell the officer I know Judge Horner.”


Not all judges are honest and fair, of course, and it seems that in the ancient Middle East, just the opposite was expected.  The court system was a disaster, especially if you were amongst the many disenfranchised groups that could be found.


“That widow in Jesus’ parable who kept badgering the judge to vindicate her cause—think of what she was up against.  As a widow in the Ancient Near East she is without resources.  Since the court of law (the city gates?) was entirely a male realm, we are to picture her as a lone woman amidst a noisy crowd of men.  An oft-quoted description of Near Eastern litigation describes a raucous crowd of clients competing for the attention of a judge, who is surrounded by an array of personal clerks.  Some clients gain access to the judge by supplying “fees” (bribes) to a particular clerk.  The rest simply clamor.  The fact that the woman is alone suggests that there is no male available in her extended family to plead her case.  She is very much alone in an intimidating situation.


“What is more, the judge is described as one who neither fears God nor is he capable of shame before men.  Presumably, he is moved only by bribery, and this woman is either unwilling or unable to use that means.  The only strategy available to her is persistence—which finally gets through to the irreverent and shameless judge.  The more recent New American Bible translation (1986) does justice to Luke’s language in describing the frustration of this official: “While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being, because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me [literally, ‘give me a blow under the eye’].”  He knows the woman is not going to give up; so he gives in.  There is no question regarding the point of this story.  Luke introduces it, after all, by saying, “Jesus told his disciples a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.””[1]

But, of course, God is the opposite of an unjust judge, so Jesus drives the point home: “And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him?  I tell you that He will avenge them speedily.”  “In other words, if the unstoppable widow can, by her persistence, win vindication from an unjust and godless judge, how much more will your persistence get a response from a loving God?”[2]


Why the need for persistence in prayer?  Do we need to badger God into doing what we want – can we badger God into doing what we want?  The answers are no and maybe.  Think of time Abraham bargained with God for the lives of those in Sodom and Gomorrah, or St. Monnica praying for years for the healing and conversion of her son, (now Saint) Augustine.  Did God give into Abraham or Monnica in their persistence?  Yes.  Did He give them something that was also good for them?  Again, yes.


There are times in all our lives when it seems that God is, for whatever reason, ignoring our prayers; He can, in those times, come off as an unjust judge.  But as Peter and Paul and James and so many of the Saints have told us, God is neither deaf nor silent; He doesn’t drag His feet just to make us wait.  Rather He waits for our prayers to line up with what is actually best for us and best for those we pray for, and in the right time.


This has been a fairly appalling year in the life our nation; embarrassing, really.  I don’t have to enumerate the reasons from here.  Our parish family has been touched recently by death and illness.  But at the same time, so much good is happening and so much good can come out of the rest, if we stay in touch with our loving and gracious God.  I can’t think of a better time for persistent prayer.




[1] Dennis Hamm, SJ

[2] Ibid.

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Pentecost 21

If you’re on social media, you’ve probably seen a cartoon that’s been going around; in the one and only panel, a child asks “Mommie, what is a Canadian?” His mother responds, “It’s an unarmed North American with health insurance, sweetie.” Of the mother’s answer, two things ring true: Canadians are North American and they have health insurance, kinda, but whoever wrote the cartoon has obviously never been to Canada, as most, most Canadians are armed to the teeth. They are not in the habit of shooting each other, as they would have to say they were sorry, but armed they most certainly are.


Tomorrow is Canadian Thanksgiving. Since my wife has dual citizenship, I’ll probably take her out for French toast with maple syrup, or whatever Canadians do on Thanksgiving.  I’ve got Thanksgiving on my mind, really, because on top of our big Canadian feast, plans for American Thanksgiving have gotten rolling: we’re hosting the Bordentown Community Thanksgiving Service this year, we’re teaming up with the Kiwanis again to feed the hungry in Bordentown and Howell, and I was just encouraged to do another Fill Fr. Matt’s Truck for Thanksgiving event. 


And then came along this week’s Gospel lesson, which is all about thanksgiving, but with the small t.


“The stories of miraculous healings of skin disease in…Luke end with a newly-healed person responding to their experience of God’s grace with deep and loud praise.  Their lives were changed, and while the site of their physical healing was the skin, the change went as deep as their bones, or their souls, for they came to know just that deeply that God is sovereign over all humanity, and that the deepest nature of God is love.


“These readings also deal honestly with the shortcomings of human nature….Of the ten lepers Jesus heals, only one has the presence of mind, and the openness of heart, and the generosity of spirit, to return to Jesus, and thank him, and praise God with all his might.  (This episode) rings true.  We resist grace so easily when it comes in unexpected forms, and we often need help in order to overcome our rigid ideas about how God ought to behave.  And even though God blesses us frequently and abundantly, it feels like giving thanks for one blessing in every ten would be an improvement over our current habits.”1[1]


And that’s a problem.  If God loves a cheerful giver, as Paul tells us, then it makes you wonder what God might think about an ungrateful receiver.  Ingratitude little by little kills those who never receive the gratitude they deserve in life.  But anything that kills others is not exactly healthy for the person who fails to say “Thanks” either.  Failing to express gratitude sooner or later coarsens us even as it fosters an undue sense of entitlement.  (If we live like this), After a time, we don’t deign to say “Thank you” to various workers in our lives because we feel we deserve the service they’ve rendered. We’ve earned it.”[2]


What a terrible way to live.  And yet I catch myself on the edge of that all the time.  It’s getting annoyed at the line for tickets at the movie theater and not giving the poor seventeen-year-old ticket girl a smile, despite her being trapped in a cell of plexiglass.  It’s not waving hello to the cop or being cheap with the tip or being cross with the mayor.  It’s praying for things but not first saying thank you to God for all the things He has already given us.  It’s a terrible way to live.


But we’re not beyond redemption.  Darrell Vigh pointed out to me that just in this Mass alone, we will express gratitude toward God fourteen times.  Point being, gratitude is built in to the Christian life, a life that all of us have to wriggle into at times, but a life that only makes sense when we practice it with gratitude.  For us, for Christians, we have a God who is not always just available but always trying to be with us, to give us every blessing, to give us His life and peace, and so every day is Thanksgiving.

[1] [1]1Fr. Bret Hays, from a sermon given on the Sunday of Proper 23, 2013


[2] Scott Hoezee, This Week.

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Pentecost 20

Almost nobody watched Saturday Night Live in the 1990’s, and for good reason, but there were a few bright spots. Al Franken’s character, Stuart Smalley, was one of my favorites. If you remember, Stuart Smalley had his show Daily Affirmation with Stuart Smalley. He was a caring nurturer, a member of several 12-step programs, but not a licensed therapist. Stuart had lots of advice, things like “It’s easier to put on slippers than to carpet the whole world.” He had lots of affirmations as well, but he always returned to his big three: I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.

Franken used Stuart Smalley to poke fun at the prevalent culture of the time, the overwhelming influence of the culture of self-help. It was the era of motivational posters on the walls of every office building and school cafeteria, of Susan Powter telling us to “Stop the Insanity,” and eventually wondering who might have moved our cheese.

It was not an era that would have taken well the Parable of the Worthless Slave. “So you also,” Jesus said, “when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants (worthless slaves); we have only done what was our duty.’”

Speaking of culture, let’s look quickly at the culture Jesus was talking to at the time. In the ancient Mid East, many families, “even relatively poor ones, had at least one servant. The very poorest families gave some of their children to other families as servants to ensure that they would be fed.” That was just the reality of the world at that time. If you were deep in debt or found yourself otherwise destitute, you likely became a servant, or more like a slave or indentured servant. Paid nothing, but fed, clothed, and sheltered. In so many ways, the servants became part of the household, and took on the duties and expectations of younger family members.

“The master in this parable apparently has only one servant who both tends the fields and does the cooking. The thrust of the story is clear and straightforward. Good servants do what they are told. A master never has to thank a servant for doing what was expected.

“Most translations cause confusion with their rendition of Jesus’ final advice to disciples: “When you have carried out all your orders, learn to say: we are worthless servants; we have only done our duty” “Worthless”? Literally, the Greek adjective means “without need.” The New English Bible captures this sense in its rendition: “We are servants and deserve no credit.”1

We deserve no credit. If we take this one sentence on its own, it appears Jesus does not approve of participation trophies. But there has to be more to it than that; there must be some good news.

“The good news in this image of our life with God is that, in living the life of faith, we come to see that we have a secure role in the “household of God” – an early metaphor for the community of the Church. Like a household (servant), we belong in that household even more than an “employee” would.”2

And so it is with confidence in being part of the family that we can say that we are unworthy servants, that in being faithful members of the family of God, what we do in service to the family is done with gratitude, with thankfulness for just being allowed into the family.

We express this most clearly in the Prayer of Humble Access: We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. That’s the elegant way of saying that what we receive from the Lord, all that truly nourishes us, is not payment for work done or a reward for being good, but rather the free and gracious gift of a good and merciful Father.

As it turns out, we are not good enough, we are not smart enough, but doggone it, God loves us.

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Pentecost 19

So last week I told you all how excited I was about this new year, and I still am, but we also had some unplanned excitement. We were joined at the 8am Mass by a young man, a man troubled by many things, and his behavior caused us to take measures to protect those present, especially our Church School children. It was unnerving, to say the least, but I couldn’t be more proud of how our parish responded. We both contained a threat and cared for a man who needed and needs a lot of help. In the end, that young man came to the right place, the house of God. He was lost, literally: our city’s police officers determined that he was on the Registry of Missing Persons. He was lost, but now is found.

Jesus told us a parable this week, a story about another man who was lost, or really a story about one man who appears to be lost and another who is actually lost. “In the parable, while the rich man is still alive, he is beautifully dressed and eats very well. But at his door there is always a poor man, Lazarus, who is clothed in sores and very hungry. Eventually, both the rich man and the poor man die. But the rich man goes to hell, and the poor man Lazarus is comforted in the bosom of Abraham.

“The thought of going to hell is alarming, and so we ought to ask ourselves this question: what exactly is the sin of the rich man? Once we ask this question, puzzling features of the parable leap to mind.

If the point of the parable is to give us a warning about a sin that can send a person to hell, the parable ought to tell us what that sin is. But it doesn’t.

“We might think that the sin just is the rich man’s failure to feed the poor man. But the parable doesn’t actually say whether the poor man gets any food from the rich man. Notice too that if not feeding the hungry is the sin of the rich man, then the parable could stop near its beginning, when it tells us that the poor man hung around the house of the rich man and the rich man went to hell when he died. But the parable doesn’t stop there. It continues for a good while. In hell, the rich man sees that the poor man is comforted in the bosom of Abraham, and he says to Abraham: send the poor man to bring me a little water.

“Notice that the rich man is talking to Abraham, not to the poor man; and he is asking Abraham to command the poor man. He wants Abraham to make the poor man leave the comfort of Abraham’s bosom, find his way into the flames of hell, and bring a bit of water to himself, even though he will be thirsty again almost immediately. Clearly, the rich man thinks no trouble for the poor man is too much if it brings a little something for the rich man. And now we can see the sin of the rich man, can’t we? The poor man is a human person just like the rich man, but the rich man can’t see it. The rich man doesn’t talk directly to the poor man because he doesn’t see the poor man as a person in his own right. Insofar as he thinks of the poor man at all, it is only to calculate how the poor man could be used to benefit himself.”1

Though it sounds awful, like something none of us could ever consider, the sin of dehumanization is an easy trap to fall into. Our treatment of America’s tribal peoples and American Slavery, our nation’s original sins, began with dehumanizing entire peoples. Hitler, Sanger, the Hutus, they all began with dehumanization. That sin doesn’t always end as badly as those examples, but it always begins the same way: one of us or someone like us refers to someone else, someone of a different ethnicity or gender, perhaps a poor person or an addict, (God help us these days even) a police officer, as “those people.”

What I saw here last week was, I’m proud to say, the antitheses of that. I heard no one refer to that poor young man as one of “those people.” We saw that young man for who he is, Lazarus at the gate, Lazarus begging for God and the people of God to see him, find him, to bring him home.

Did he pose a threat? Maybe, maybe even probably, and our teachers, parents, family members, and parishioners did a phenomenal job of protecting the most vulnerable on campus. Plans have been made and further planning will be needed to insure the safety of all who come through those doors. But the first test was passed: the Baptismal Rite calls it “respecting the dignity of every human being;” Jesus called it “loving thy neighbor as thyself.” The gates of hell will never prevail upon a church like ours.

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Pentecost 18

The name Louis G. Cowan is not exactly a household name, but his creation changed television and added a phrase to the American lexicon. Cowan’s big idea was the game show The $64,000 Question. Almost immediately, The $64,000 Question beat every other program on Tuesday nights in ratings. Broadcast historian Robert Metz claimed U.S. President Eisenhower himself did not want to be disturbed while the show was on and that the nation’s crime rate, movie theater, and restaurant patronage dropped dramatically when the show aired.[1]


We’ve got a couple $64,000 questions this weekend, starting with this Parable of the Unjust Steward. Since it appears to present an immoral person as a model, the story has been used by Christianity’s enemies to denigrate Jesus as teacher. But there is a way of reading it that makes powerful sense.

“It is undeniable that the steward is called unrighteous and that he is also held up as some kind of an example. But just how is he unrighteous and exactly what aspect of his character or action is presented for imitation? Let us read it closely.

“The steward of a wealthy landowner is told to turn in his books when he has been discovered as having squandered his master’s property. Until he hands over the books, he still has authority over the land renters. He moves quickly to “sweeten” their annual rent contracts (paid in kind according to their crop—i.e., in jars of olive oil or bushels of wheat). The renters do not know the steward is being dismissed; they would presume that he has talked the master into these more favorable rates and would be only too happy to accede to the new contract, no questions asked. They would also think highly of the master for being so generous. When the landowner discovers what his steward has done, he has to hand it to him. The clever action of the steward has not only put the rascal in good favor with the renters it has also brought to the land-owner an honor which he would be foolish to try to undo.

“(Jesus then) suggests that the steward is some kind of example: “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” Obviously, to imitate the steward literally, by acting deceptively, would simply be to act as a child of this world. Something else is required of the children of light. Jesus urges the latter, those trying to live the way of the kingdom, to “make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that, when it fails, you may be welcomed into eternal dwellings”. Clearly this draws a parallel with the parable: Jesus urges us to use wealth in such a way as to gain favor with (God), who is both the ultimate client and the ultimate landowner. Jesus spotlights the opportunistic shrewdness of the steward. The application for the “children of light” is that they too are to be clever opportunists, by using wealth in the ways that Jesus elsewhere advocates the use of resources—feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, lending but asking nothing in return.”[2]


Now that we’ve figured that out, I’ve got a couple other $64,000 questions.Here we are at the beginning of another “Program Year” – I hate that term, but this is about the time we leave summer behind, the Church School begins anew, the Choir is back with us, the weekday services come back, and we hit the gas on the activities of the parish.


And so the question becomes, Where is God moving in our lives? In your life? In the life of our church? I can tell you where I see movement: in the lives of the almost two dozen young men and women who will be Confirmed or received into the Episcopal Church by our bishop in a few weeks. What can we do to serve our youth, to help them become better disciples of Jesus? I see movement in the help we are receiving in cooking meals for HomeFront, help from within our church and people coming in from our community. Is God telling us to expand that ministry, to partner with others? I see movement in how many young couples are here and serious about their faith and about making sure their children are raised to know Jesus. What are the needs of our young families, how can we help them continue to model the Faith to their children?


I’m excited about all this movement, about what God is doing in Bordentown, I’m excited about what God is doing through us and for us. And so this fall’s $64,000 question is, Where is God moving in your life?

[1] Wikipedia, The $64,000 Question


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Blessing of the Firetrucks

His name is Robert Franz and his job is to remember. He is 61 years old, and his title is “interpretive park ranger,” which means that his job is to tell the story of what happened in the color-dappled field in which he now works, again and again and again. Robert Franz works at the Flight 93 National Memorial, by far the most removed of the three 9/11 crash sites.

Franz’ job is to remember, and to tell the story of United Airlines Flight 93, bound for San Francisco from Newark. How four hijackers redirect the jet southeast, most likely to crash into the nation’s capital. How many of the 40 crew members and passengers fought back. How this hurtling jetliner nearly flipped before crashing at 563 miles an hour into the soft, strip-mined earth, killing all.1

It’s been fifteen years since that warm, clear, day; fifteen years since the unthinkable happened, and like Robert Franz, it’s our job to remember, to remember the act of terror itself, yes, but to remember especially the lives lost, the sacrifices made; to remember the acts of courage and love made in the face of unspeakable horror.

Remembering gets harder as time goes by, or maybe it just turns into something else. A friend of mine remarked that he saw a few dozen West Point cadets on their morning run this past week and it struck him that most of them were about 3 years old on 9/11. This year we have the first freshman high school class to learn about 9/11 as a historical event that they weren’t alive for.2

Like Robert Franz, the Church is in the business of re-membering, of piecing back together that which was lost and broken. Our chief act of remembrance is at the altar, an act in response to a command of Christ, to take bread and wine, to make sacrifice to the Lord, to re-member His sacrifice, to make that day present to us in the here and now.

My bishop, his Excellency William Stokes is here today as he was just a couple years ago, but I didn’t know he was coming until after I had thought through this next part, so Bishop, I’m not trying to butter you up. That said, our bishop, in his wisdom, tells us often that one of the chief dangers we face as a people is in not remembering our story. In the Church, that means not knowing your Bible, not understanding the Mass, not knowing who we are and what it means to be a Christian. In our country, not remembering our story means not learning (or perhaps being willfully ignorant of) our history, not inquiring about the lives of our neighbors, it means assuming that our rights don’t end where another person’s rights begin.

The reason not knowing your story is so dangerous is because if you don’t know your story, you can’t possibly know how to respond to the world around you. Being a good Christian or a good American is wrapped up in how we respond, how we respond to our God and how we respond to our community.

We’re here this afternoon to celebrate the response of our city’s first, well responders. Firefighters and EMTs put themselves into situations few others have the guts to confront, running in so that others might get out. Some of you here undoubtedly were inspired to sign up or to keep going by what we saw on 9/11, by those images of firefighters, EMTs, and police officers giving everything so that others might live. All of you have stories of your own, stories that mingle and strengthen our collective memory. Share your story, keep living it, because that keeps us all going.

It’s our job to re-member, to piece back together what has been lost and broken. That’s our job because it might be the only way to make sense of the senseless, to bring good out of evil, to have life spring up in places where there was only death. That’s our job because that’s what it looks like to participate in the work of Jesus, who never stops pursuing the lost, who never stops piecing back together our broken hearts, who calls us to remember and respond.

1Dan Barry, A Ranger, a Field of Wildflowers and the Retelling of Flight 93, The New York Times,

2From the Facebook page of Lawrence V. Lewitinn

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