Pentecost +14

So when I was researching today’s Gospel lesson from Luke, Howie Mandel popped into my head.  If that sounds weird, it is, but I couldn’t help think of how Howie, through no fault of his own, really won’t shake hands with anyone.  He “has spoken publicly about having obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which can take many forms, including mysophobia (which is a fear of being contaminated by germs).  Mandel’s anxiety affects him to the point that he does not shake hands with anyone, including enthusiastic contestants on Deal or No Deal, unless he is wearing latex gloves.”[1]  Like I said, this isn’t Howie’s fault, nor do I judge anyone else who doesn’t like to be touched.  My mentor Fr. Doug was famous for always being a good two arms length away from everybody.  But Jesus, apparently, was a hugger.

“In Luke 15:2 we are told that one of the main reasons the Pharisees disdained Jesus so much was because he “welcomes” (receives in the RSV) sinners and tax collectors.  The Greek verb for “welcome” is PROSDECHOMAI from the root DECHOMAI, which literally can mean to bring into one’s arms.  The image here is very nearly of an embrace.  This is not just a polite word of “Welcome” spoken at the front door of someone’s house when a guest arrives but more an active embrace, a drawing in of this person.”[2]  It’s a bear hug.

What kind of people did Jesus tend to hug?  The worst of the worst.  Tax collectors, those rotten scoundrels who were traitors to their own people, in this case Israelites exacting tolls and fees to funnel to their own oppressors.  “Sinners” seems like a broad term, and it is.  All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, after all.  But there were a few groups of people that the Pharisees and other religious rulers considered to be beyond the pale: Jewish money lenders who charged interest on loans to other Jews; business managers who stole wages and deprived workers of what was theirs; degenerate gamblers (think the Prodigal Son, spending his money on games and loose women); and those loose women themselves, prostitutes if you want to boil it down.  And Jesus apparently had a habit of hugging all these people.

The Pharisees did not approve of all this, nor do they come off as big huggers anyway.  And so Jesus tells the Pharisees, and not just them but everyone gathered, the righteous and sinner alike, the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin.

These are not the most difficult of Jesus’ parables to figure out.  God loves us so much that He pursues us.  He puts on His gear and breaks out His tactical flashlight and comes after us, like an old lady searching for a coin that represents the last of what she has, or like a shepherd who’d rather die than lose his favorite sheep to the encroaching wolves.

No, this parable is not difficult to decipher.  But it can be heard in different ways by different people.

The Pharisees no doubt did not like this message.  Theirs is an easy trap to fall into: I’m an upright citizen, I go to church every Sunday, I never break the law, and I’ve never even laid eyes on, say a prostitute; surely God loves me more, maybe He even likes me more, than those sinners.

On the flip side, those same sinners no doubt rejoiced at hearing this parable.  I can’t count the amount of people who have told me that they are beyond redemption, unsavable.  They’ve done too much, seen too much, too much has been done to them.  God doesn’t want them.

Not so, says Jesus.  God loves them so much, wants them so much, that He leaves the righteous where they are – they’ll be fine – to be with the lost, the excluded, the hopeless sinner.  To literally sit down and eat with them, comfort them, bring them back to the fold.

What all of us need to hear, for the first time or for the hundredth, is that no matter if you are the righteous or the sinner, the ruler or the excluded, is that God wants you; He will chase you down; and when you turn to Him, even if you’re really into personal space, He’s going to give you a huge hug.

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Blessing of the Firetrucks

Last month, on August 8th, at 5:50 in the morning, I had a thought, a thought that I would presume goes through the heads of firefighters, EMTs, police officers everywhere.  We got called out the Petro station for what was reported to be a fire at the gas pumps.  And so I found myself in the back of 6015, struggling to figure out how to put my pack on and wear a seat belt at the same time (a new conundrum for me), when I had that thought: What am I doing?  What series of terrible choices have I made in my life to end up where I am right now?  I am not embarrassed (maybe a little embarrassed) to say that I was remarkably relieved to hear that fire was not only not at the pumps, but already handled.

 

We all make choices – all day, every day, whether we want to make choices or not.  Having the freedom to choose one thing or another seems like a universal human right, at least here in the U.S., and Americans are loath to be limited in our choices.  And yet, having too many options to choose from can be paralyzing.  As Barry Schwartz wrote in his book The Paradox of Choice, “though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.”  The classic example is when we go to the Acme and there’s 170 different kinds of cereal to choose from, anxiety sets in: if I choose the Golden Grahams, will I regret not choosing the Special K?  (the short answer to that is a hard no)

 

There are, of course, bigger choices to make.  “See, I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live.”  Moses had a way of narrowing down the choices, possibly to make it easier for his people to choose.  Certainly they, and by extension, we, would choose life and blessing over death and curse.

 

Or…would we?  Let’s remember that the entire Bible is, if read in a certain way, the story of humanity finding all kinds of new and exciting ways to choose death and curse.  From forbidden fruit to golden calf and straight on through to the Cross, God reaches out and we bite the hand that created us.

 

But, of course, there’s a better way, a better choice.  What does that choice actually look like?  Surely God does not care very much if we choose the Golden Grahams or the Special K, but just as surely, there are choices that God cares about very much.

 

Moses said that God wants us to choose “to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws.”  Jesus boiled it down to choosing to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and choosing to love thy neighbor as thyself.

 

The interesting thing about these choices is that you have to keep choosing them.  You can’t just choose one time to love God and neighbor and things go swimmingly; you must choose these things daily, sometimes many times a day.

 

Now we’re lucky, because we all know that in churches and certainly firehouses and squads everywhere, there’s never any fighting; no acrimony or disagreement, right?  We always choose life and blessing over death and curse, right?

 

Perhaps not always.  But I’m inspired and always have been by the choice made by our first responders, that first and continual choice to put the welfare of others ahead of themselves; the choice to sacrifice time and money and effort, more than most will ever know or appreciate; and the choice, as we put it in the Church, so seek and serve Christ in all persons, especially in the times of greatest need.

 

“See, I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.”  The choice is ours.

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Pentecost +8

So I have a confession to make: I like stuff.  I know that’s not particularly shocking; we all like stuff.  If given the choice between more stuff and less stuff, I’d likely choose more stuff.

Thankfully, stuff itself is not bad.  Money, land, goods, whatever stuff you’ve got, is a blessing to you, right up until the time it’s not.

And so the Parable of the Rich Fool, perhaps the funniest of Jesus’ parables.

“The land of a rich man produced abundantly.  Notice that the subject of the sentence is the land.  This reflects the Jewish insight that, whatever may be the human contribution in the process of farming, it is the land, the earth, that is the source of food.  Thus an abundant crop, like the land itself, is a gift of God.”

So far, so good.  But then the fool begins to head down an interesting path.  He looks out and sees not just an abundance of crops but his own future, a future of lazy afternoons and lemonade, of not having to work so hard or pray so incessantly that his land will produce.  He doesn’t even have enough room to store his abundance, so what’s a guy to do?

He will tear down his barns and build bigger ones!  Well, okay, again, so far, so good.  The grain has to go somewhere; he can’t just leave it out to be scattered, stolen, or ruined.  But then the fool begins to lose touch with the first reality, that all he has is a gift from God.  What will be stored in those big new barns?

…there I will store all my grain and my goods.  There’s “no mention of the larger community here; it is a question of “my grain and my goods.”  The fact that this man is pursuing an interior monologue in a vacuum of selfishness” is bad, bad enough that Jesus starts making fun of the guy.

And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’

He’s lost it!  The Rich Fool becomes so caught up in himself that he starts talking to himself as if he’s talking to another person, or really, as if he’s talking to God.

But then, as the parable goes, God, the actual God, steps in, calls the man a fool, and tells him that no matter what goods you have, you can’t take it with you.

In 1627, Rembrandt finished up a painting called the Parable of the Rich Fool.  It’s a masterwork of light, color, and texture, as you would expect, but it’s otherwise a rather simple painting, at least from Rembrandt.  An older man is picture holding a candle, dressed in fine clothing; he is surrounded by ledgers and has a large money purse at his left shoulder, some loose coins floating around on his desk.  What’s absent from the painting is anyone else.  The Rich Fool has everything except any relationship to anyone else.

The man is a fool not because he is rich, but because of his desire to be amongst the indolent rich.  He didn’t see what he had in front of him, not just that years massive crop but also the land that produced it and could produce more, he didn’t see all that as a means of connecting with others, of helping those around him who were in need, as a means of giving glory to the God who gave him all that he had.  Like Rembrandt saw it, he used his riches to build a barrier rather than a bridge.

And still, I like stuff.  I’d rather have more stuff than less stuff.  Because I live here and in the manner that I do, I have way more stuff than most people in the world.  I can’t help but think that this parable has something to say to me.

*All quotes come from Dennis J. Hamm, SJ: http://liturgy.slu.edu/18OrdC080419/theword_hamm.html

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Pentecost +6

So it’s been a little warm out.  The heat reminded my father of a Yogi Berra story.  Yogi was attending a ceremony during which the mayor of New York City, John Lindsay, was to give him the key to the city.  The day of the event was hot and humid, if you can imagine such a condition, and everyone was falling apart a bit, but Yogi was wearing a crisp Cuban shirt and was taking the heat in stride.  Then Mayor Lindsay’s wife, Mary, commented on how cool Yogi looked, and he replied: “Thanks.  You don’t look so hot yourself.”

I don’t know what the weather was like on the day that Jesus and His disciples stopped in to see Jesus’ friends Mary and Martha, but it was probably hot, them being in the Judean wilderness and all.  Mary and Martha (and their brother Lazarus, another name you know), lived in a town called Bethany, which sat at the base of the Mount of Olives, about two miles outside of Jerusalem.  Bethany was a tiny village at the time, maybe twenty families, and it was not a very nice place to live.  The word Bethany actually means House of Misery, which I was sure must be the name of a death metal band, but it isn’t…yet.

So Jesus and the Twelve stop in at Mary and Martha’s, and they’re received warmly.  Martha sets herself to making a meal for her guests and Mary does nothing but plop down at Jesus’ feet.

“Martha grows tired and exasperated, of course, and finally comes over to demand that Jesus tell Mary to stop lounging and help out a little.

Surprisingly, Jesus says, no.  “Mary has chosen the better part,” he explains.

Maybe Martha should have said, “We are not having any food tonight, we are just going to sit and stare at you.”

In truth, Martha’s trouble was not that she was scrambling about, but that as she did so, she forgot about Jesus.  She was not making him welcome, she was constructing a meal.  He even tells her that she was anxious and worried about many things, not the one thing necessary.

What is the one thing necessary?

Relation to Christ.  Real hospitality means a two-way relationship in which host and guest both open to each other and become present to one another in various ways.  Yes, hosts do work on the details, and work hard.  But they always remember the visitor while they prepare.  Excellent hosts manage somehow to get everything ready but also to truly listen and converse with the one who has come.  That is how we are supposed to act every day.”[1]

Because every day, Jesus comes into our lives in one fashion or another.  As C.S. Lewis said, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

Like we talked about last week, neighbors come in all sorts and conditions, and we may not always feel like welcoming them, making time for them, treating them like we would treat Jesus if He stopped by.  Maybe we would want to stick ourselves in the kitchen, doing all the work, rather than having to actually be present to the people around us.

But Jesus tells us today that being present to each other is the better part.  He’s not telling us not to do the work we need to do, not to prepare the meal or clean the house or whatever metaphor we’d like to use, but rather to remember why we do the work, which is, of course, to prepare for Jesus to stop by, in one fashion or another.  When we find that, we’ve found the better part.

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Pentecost

It’s Pentecost, the holy day of the Church year most likely to inspire priests to tie red balloons to the end of pews in churches around the world.  Our own Father Salmon did that once, I think it was back in the late 1980’s, in Riverton.  He did it once because the kids managed to unmoor several balloons, which then made their home forty feet up on the church ceiling before slowly losing their helium and floating down.  Fr. Haynes tells the story of a priest with a very shiny bald head, and the time during that priest’s sermon an old balloon slowly dropped behind him until it was level with his head, two shiny orbs competing for the people’s attention.  Then there’s another story I heard about a preacher describing the sound the Holy Spirit made during that first Pentecost, when a kid slowly let the air out of Pentecostal balloon; that was not the mighty wind he was going for.  For these and for many other reasons, this is a balloon-free zone.

Anyway, as much as we make of the sound of the Holy Spirit coming down from heaven on Pentecost, it always occurred to me that the sound was just a by-product of movement.  The Holy Spirit was moving that day, moving swiftly and powerfully.  Jesus had moved up ten days earlier, and now the Holy Spirit moved down.  And if Jesus was no longer there to move things along, God wasn’t going to just leave it up to mere mortals to get the mission of salvation on the move.

Jesus was moving.  “Jesus moved the Holy Spirit to come down from heaven, in order to move his disciples.  His resurrection had already brought them out of doubt, fear, abandonment, denial, guilt, and despair, and into the greatest joy.  But amazed rejoicing is not the mission Jesus set out for his church; it’s merely the spark that ignites the flame.

“Jesus moved the disciples to become apostles.  In English, he moved the followers to become the sent.  On Pentecost, the followers of Jesus are sent out into the world to share the grace and love he gave us.  And as our sacred story teaches us time and again, God doesn’t set us up in order to let us down.  God doesn’t bring us so far just to abandon us.  God gives us what we need; God’s grace provides for us, and it is sufficient.  The First Mover cannot be stopped.

Whether we know it or not, God empowers us to do great things, to reach beyond ourselves and the boundaries the world sets up.  Luke’s story of Pentecost shows this through the transcendence of national, ethnic, and language boundaries, the wind of the Spirit toppling them like a house of cards.  We experience the same Spirit in a multitude of ways.  Usually more subtle ways, but no less powerful.  Conversations that seem mundane to us can elevate others from despair to hope.”[1]

All the time, I hear about our parishioners changing lives and giving hope, whether through HomeFront or a prayer shawl or at the laundry, or simply through small acts of charity, visiting the sick, even casual phone calls.  Our parish choir obvious is a channel of the Holy Spirit.  Vasu heeding a call to ordination can only come from Holy Spirit.  Here we care for the living and the dead in ways that cannot be just self-motivated, it’s too active, too loving.  God must be moving us.

My friend Fr. Rob Droste is fond of say that we need to look for where Jesus is working and then join Him in that work.  He reminds every congregation he visits that Jesus never stops moving; Jesus is always working on someone’s heart, whether they know it or not.  If we are attentive, if we’re open to the possibility of seeing where Jesus is working, the Holy Spirit will surely push us in the right direction, a steady wind at our back, sending us, moving us, just like those first apostles, on Jesus’ mission of salvation.

If Pentecost is the feast of the Holy Spirit, then it’s also a celebration (or warning) of God breaking every barrier, erasing every boundary, and giving those who put their trust in Him a spirit of victory in all things.  That’s certainly a balloon-worthy event, but what would happen if we lived like all of that was true all the time?


[1] Fr. Bret Hays

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Sunday after the Ascension

So we’re into June, so I know that I’ll be uncomfortable for the better part of the next three months.  Monday was Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer, or as I like to call it, dispersal season.  There’s a feeling that you’re free to move about a bit in the summer: schools are out, maybe work slows down, the expectation is that you’ll take time off, if you can – not everybody has that luxury.  But we’re on the verge of dispersal season – it’s not quite yet.

 

We’re also, coincidentally, in that weird time between the Ascension of Our Lord and Pentecost.  Thursday was the feast of the Ascension, and the Mass that day has one of the starkest moments in the liturgies of the Church.  Right after the Gospel, the Gospel telling us that Jesus has ascended to His Father in Heaven, the celebrant extinguishes the Paschal Candle as a symbol that Jesus, at least bodily, has left.  He’s out, Audi 5000, see ya when I see ya.  That same light we lit so laboriously at the beginning of the Easter Vigil to symbolize that Christ is not only alive but with us, with us to be our light, was snuffed out in a matter of moments, and that huge pillar of a candle even hid from us.  And then we wait a good ten days for Pentecost to come.

 

We mark this in real time so that we can participate in some way in what the Apostles dealt with when it first happened.

 

“You might well imagine the disciples, moments after Jesus receded from view, lowering their gaze to each other, exchanging confused glances, and wondering, “What do we do now?”  I imagine that in that moment, the question of which of them would be greatest was never further from their minds, for no one wanted to be responsible for answering that question.”[1]

 

Who would take charge?  The obvious answer is Peter, but it’s only obvious to us now that we’ve lived with it for 2000 years.  John was smarter, and besides, Jesus seemed to just like him more than the rest of them.  Thomas was bolder, less of a scaredy cat than Peter.  But Peter was the spokesman of the group, not to mention the rock that Jesus said He would build the Church upon, and so Peter is was.

 

Peter had two real jobs to do between the Ascension and Pentecost.  The first one was to fill the spot left by Judas, who was no longer available for the job.  This, to me, is one of the most telling stories in the whole Bible.  Two men were nominated to become an Apostle, Barsabbas and Matthias.  They all prayed about it, of course, but then they did a curious thing: they cast lots to determine who it would be.  They quite literally gambled on it – rolled the dice, drew straws.  They practiced what’s called cleromancy, determining the will of God by way of a game of chance.  What makes that all the more interesting is that episode is the last time they did anything like that – Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, is what made casting lots obsolete.  With the Holy Spirit, we can discern the will of God sans dice or straws.

 

Peter’s second job was to keep them all together, to stop them from dispersing all willy nilly.  Jesus had commanded them to wait in Jerusalem, but then He took off, and there must have been among the Apostles a mixture of joy and despair and wonder and anxiety, not to mention a sense of mission – let’s get this thing going!  Let’s change the world!

 

It was dispersal season – but not quite yet.  They still needed the gift of the Holy Spirit to come; they needed to be together, together to remind themselves that Jesus had not abandoned them when He ascended, but rather was going to be in them in His Spirit; and they needed to remember one of His final prayers, that they all may be one, a united body, just as the Father and the Son are one.

 

It was only after all this was accomplished that they could go out into the world to spread the good news of God in Christ, to fulfill the command at the Ascension to baptize all nations in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.  I think that’s our lesson for today: as much as I like to push myself (and you) to get out there and change the world for Jesus, sometimes we need to wait, to gather together as a body, to listen to the Holy Spirit, and be prepared by the Lord for His mission in the world.  In our times, just as it was in theirs, dispersal season will come soon enough.

[1] Fr Bret Hays

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Easter 6

So about ten days ago or so I watched a little bit of the commencement ceremonies at VTS, my seminary, and though the speeches were good and everyone seemed to know where to sit (always a challenge), the setting for commencement was in the seminary chapel, or should I say the new seminary chapel.  I liked the old chapel just fine, but it burn to almost nothing several years ago.  The new chapel is a bit…disappointing.  From the outside it looks likes the anchor store of a really nice outlet mall, like it could have a Nike swoosh on the tower.  The inside looks like it was designed by Swedish monks in the 1970’s using Playmobile furniture.  Lots of blonde wood and blocky chairs, nothing in particular to focus your eyes on.  The main stained glass window is a circular oculus type thing with a bunch of blobby colors that I think, at least, is supposed to remind us of the Holy Spirit, but really reminds us not to smoke a metric ton of pot before designing stained glass windows.

 

That said, the Holy Spirit is tough to nail down.  Surely we’ll talk about the Holy Spirit again next week, on the feast of Pentecost, but the Church gives us two weeks of gospel readings full of the Holy Spirit, presumably so we can talk about Him more than just once.

 

The setting is once again the Last Supper.  It had been a long night, full of teaching and praying.  Judas was already off to do his thing, and Jesus had begun to wrap up that part of the evening and make His way to the Garden of Gethsemane.  He knew that His disciples didn’t grasp all that He had told them, all that they had seen and heard over the last three years, and He also knew that they knew that, that they were worried about how they would function without Him.  “These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you,” Jesus said, “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”

 

Now, the RSV translates what Jesus said as “Counselor” “but in the Greek of John 14:25 the word Jesus uses is parakletos, or “Paraclete” as we sometimes transliterate it.  Writers must pay attention because Microsoft Word will keep trying to auto-correct that into “Parakeet” and although avian imagery can be used for the Spirit . . . that’s not the bird we’re looking for!  Literally this is the one “called alongside” of someone else.”  An advocate when on trial, a comforter in perplexity.

 

“We’ve all heard various iterations of how to understand this, one of which is an attorney who stands next to her client in a court of law.  But in this context the meaning does feel—as alluded to elsewhere in this set of sermon starters—a bit more like a tutor or a prompter on the wings of a stage while a play is going on.  The Paraclete stands next to us or near us so that we can be reminded of Jesus’ words and teachings as the Spirit whispers those things into our hearts, prompting us to remember what we might otherwise forget.  It’s a dark and difficult world, after all, fraught with sorrow and uncertainty (even as was true in that very room on the night when Jesus spoke these words).  The sorrow of it all can make us lose our place, forget what we know.  So how good to have a Spirit come alongside us to remind us of the dearest things Jesus said and taught.”[1]

 

Without the Paraclete, without the Holy Spirit, there is no peace of mind, no peace in our soul.  That’s why Jesus tells His disciples about the coming Holy Spirit before He says “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.”  The world gives with the expectation of taking something in return, favor for favor, but Jesus needed His disciples (and us) to know that God doesn’t work that way.  The peace Jesus gives is ours forever, we need just remember that we have it.  How do we remember?  Oh yeah, the Holy Spirit!  He will teach us all things, and bring to our remembrance all that Jesus has said to us.

 

No matter how you picture the Holy Spirit, as a dove or as a breeze or as a bunch of blobby colors in a window, it’s really more important that you listen for Him than visualize Him.  The Spirit is in us, alongside us, guiding us toward peace.

[1] Scott Hoezee, This Week: https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/easter-6c-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

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