Archives: Ordinary Time

Charlottesville: When Forgiveness Is a Trap

Today we’re going to talk about forgiveness. We’re going to talk about what it is and what it’s not.

We’re going to talk about when forgiveness is the combination of hard-won humility and the grace of the Holy Spirit, and when it’s abused as a pacifying and dominating tool to cover up legitimate grievance and sweep conflict under the rug.

We’re going to talk about it in scripture, in our own hearts and lives, and we’re going to talk about it in terms of what happened in Charlottesville.

In the gospels, Jesus talks about forgiveness constantly—on 41 separate occasions in Matthew, Mark, and Luke alone.

The word “forgiveness” appears 46 times in the Hebrew scriptures, and 18 times from Acts through Revelation.

It’s a really important topic in the Bible, and in fact, the very first mention of it in the scriptures is at the end of our incident in Genesis today, when Joseph forgives his brothers.

Joseph’s brothers had plotted to murder him, and only at the last minute were talked into selling him into slavery. They tried to ruin his life, and would have succeeded without God’s intervention.

There are some important parallels here in the historical relationship of White Americans to Black Americans.

So what enabled Joseph to forgive his brothers?

How do we untangle our complicated emotions around justice and peace, reform and reconciliation, when forgiveness is holy and life-giving and when it is a cop-out from conflict?

A big part of the problem is that the Church has told us our whole lives to forgive, but has really never explained how to do it.

“Just forgive,” we’re told. Well, how? Continue reading

Here Comes This Dreamer; Come Now, Let Us Kill Him

Even before the events in Charlottesville this weekend, my attention was snagged by the Genesis text , and I can’t let it go.

There’s something powerful and dark about it that is all too easy to let slide when we could let our attention be drawn by this week’s story of Jesus walking on the water or Paul’s beautiful quote, “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.”

Genesis 37 is the story of seventeen-year-old Joseph, innocent, naïve, and oblivious to the toxic jealousy he has awakened in his brothers.

He dons his many-colored coat and eagerly sets out to join them with the flocks, unheeding or perhaps unware of how each bright thread reminds his brothers that they are second best.

Their father loves him the most, and they know it.

It’s not Joseph’s fault that Jacob has apparently failed to keep abreast of all the best parenting techniques on whatever passed for the mommy blogs in ancient Israel.

There is a deep history of complex father-son and brother-brother relationships in this family.

Joseph’s father Jacob feuded with his twin brother Esau, jealously conning him out of his birthright.

Joseph’s grandfather, Isaac, was almost murdered by his own father, Abraham, until the Angel of the Lord stayed his hand and provided the ram caught in the thicket for the sacrifice.

Blood means more than heredity in this family.

They seem to dance around shedding one another’s blood in cycles of conflict invested with deep and tangled emotion.

But today it looks like that in this generation, they will finally cross the line and kill one of their own.

“They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him.” Continue reading

Transfiguring Vocation

Today let’s talk about the nature of call.

When people use the word Vocation, you can practically hear the capital “V.”

There is an all-too-persistent notion in the church the vocation is strictly the realm of the ordained clergy.

That is not true! Why do people think that?

For one thing, it’s the legacy of a clericalism that created and reinforced a false specialness in the clergy and placed them above lay people.

I also suspect that for some folks, denying they have vocation can be a helpful way to escape discerning it.

When we do think about vocation as applying to all people, another trap we fall into is elevating it into some sweeping destiny that encompasses one’s whole life.

It’s a similar phenomenon to the One True Love™ school of thought in which there is One Perfect Person for you who will Make All Your Dreams Come True and you will live Happily Ever After. (This is a damaging and limiting paradigm for so many reasons, but that’s another sermon.)

So when we elevate vocation into a Sweeping Destiny of answering God’s call in a noble, heroic, world-saving way, a task that will remain constant and unchanging for an entire lifetime, we’re setting ourselves up for a lot of problems.

First of all, it ignores the potential for vocation to change and evolve over time.

What you are called to do at eighteen may not be the same thing you’re called to do at eighty.

In fact, in the vast majority of cases, it probably shouldn’t be or we need to start asking if you have really opened yourself up to growth over the last six decades.

Next, the Sweeping Destiny model of vocation puts a heck of a lot of pressure on the individual to get it right.

You’d better make sure you don’t have a headache or aren’t too caught up in speculating on your favorite TV show’s plot on the day you commit to your Vocation.

What if you get it wrong? What if you choose the wrong path? Will the Earth crash into the sun? Continue reading

The Church Is Dying, And It’s the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Us

Average Sunday attendance: down.

Membership numbers: down.

Yearly pledge income: down.

The statistics don’t lie.

For the past forty years, accelerating like a train down a mountain for the last fifteen years, the Episcopal Church and indeed the entire Christian mainstream has been losing strength, losing growth, losing life.

If even the megachurches are hemorrhaging members, what hope do we have?

The Episcopal Church is dying.

It’s no secret. Everyone knows it is happening. Continue reading

Cranmer: The Weedy Field with the Great Harvest

If you’re not aware of this already, let me give you some breaking news: Jesus is awesome.

I love this gospel text. It is a perfect illustration of his subversive wisdom, his undermining grace, his sneak attack on our complacencies and familiarities.

One of my favorite things about Jesus is that he refuses to allow us to believe we have all the answers.

We’ll arrive at a new spiritual understanding and relish and celebrate and benefit from it.

But the minute it starts to contribute to our ego satisfaction, Jesus will rip the rug out from underneath us.

Last week we talked about the fact that however great of a spiritual teacher Jesus may be, to be honest he would make an abysmal farmer.

Thank God the family business was carpentry instead.

But we continue this week with another edition of Poor Agricultural Advice by Jesus Christ, in the form of the Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat.

First of all, who sows weeds? How does one even accomplish that?

Jesus attributes it to the Enemy or the Evil One, and I always have this image of the Devil standing in someone’s newly plowed field blowing the seeds off dandelions with unholy glee.

Then Jesus has the householder tell his servants not to weed the ground, because “in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.”

That’s, um, not how it works.

Every first-grader cultivating his first garden plot in the backyard knows that weeding is an unpleasant but entirely necessary part of the process.

And when you pull out weeds, generally the plants you are trying to grow are not uprooted if you pay attention at all.

So if we conclude once again that Jesus is not giving literal horticultural advice, what does he mean? If we are to take this spiritually, where do we land? Continue reading

Jesus Is a Bad Farmer

This week we have the chance to explore the Parable of the Sower, which honestly might better be described as the Parable of the Bad Farmer.

Remember that Jesus taught in an agrarian society, and what might not jump out at us at first was immediately obvious to his original listeners.

Seeds were, and are today, very valuable.

Jesus tells us that the sower sows his seeds on the path, on the rocky ground, on the thorny ground, and finally on the good soil.

You honestly would have to be a pretty stupid farmer to cast 75% of your seed in places where you knew it wouldn’t grow.

And it was incredibly wasteful.

You know the term “seed money”? It’s exactly what it sounds like.

Purchasing seeds is the most important investment a farmer makes outside of buying the land in the first place.

Sowing seeds on the path, the rocky ground and the thorny ground would be like investing money 25% in rotary telephone manufacture, 25% in blacksmithing, 25% in time travel, and 25% in a respected investment fund.

It’s essentially throwing 75% of your money in places you know will never grow, and hoping for the best.

Once it becomes clear that Jesus’ Parable of the Sower is really Jesus’ Parable of the Sower Who Is Really Bad At His Job, we have to ask ourselves why he told it that way.

Is Jesus the bad farmer? Continue reading

The Adoration and Seduction of Your Soul

This is going to be a great, big, gooey, gushy, schmaltzy sermon, so just brace yourselves.

It is going to be embarrassingly emotional, uncomfortably intimate, and just all around hearts and flowers, so buckle up.

We are going to talk about God’s love today.

We are going to talk about the love of God in all of its extravagance and all of its irresponsible, reckless intensity.

I spend enough time in this pulpit talking about the challenges of life, our struggles to confront darkness both within ourselves and in the world.

Today I’m taking up the challenge Paul articulates in Ephesians: “I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through the Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Do you wake up in the morning and know that your destiny and your purpose is to know that you are filled with all the fullness of God?

Are you reminded at least once an hour that God delights in you?

Do you understand that God has never been disappointed in you?

God may have mourned your choices, grieved your hurting of yourself and others, longed for you to turn toward God in faith and trust, but take this knowledge and write it on your heart: God has never been disappointed in you.

You are God’s favorite, God’s darling, the light of God’s life.

God gets up in the morning to see you, to know you, to work in your life and try one more day to seduce you a little closer.

I’m telling you that nothing, and I mean nothing, in your life is more important that knowing that God loves you.

It sounds so simplistic, but most of us live the majority of our lives with only theoretical knowledge of God’s love, not experiential knowledge.

And thus when we try to love others, from our own spouses, parents and children to our colleagues to starving and oppressed people around the world, we find that sooner or later, our love runs out.

Self-generated love is a limited resource.

We can only love others truly, fully, unconditionally when we let God love us truly, fully, unconditionally.

And “let” God love us is absolutely the right verb. Continue reading

Listen Hard in the Dark

In today’s scriptures we have a tragic story, an absolutely key synthesis of our entire faith, and some very hard sayings.

We begin with the story of Hagar being cast out into the wilderness, driven out by Sarah’s jealousy and Abraham’s cowardice, left to die with her son in the desert.

Then we have Paul in Romans giving the most succinct summation of death and resurrection as embodied by baptism in the entirety of the New Testament.

And finally, we have Jesus telling us he might potentially deny us before the Father in the heaven, that he came not to bring peace but a sword, and that family conflict is 100% a part of following him.

How are we going to put all that together?

We must begin where we always begin—by putting ourselves into the story.

We can start by identifying where we want to turn away with disgust from what’s happening, and that’s with Sarah and Abraham.

It’s a godawful mess.

Sarah could not bear a child, so she told Abraham to “go in” to Hagar, which is Bible-speak for having sex, and Hagar got pregnant.

Hagar had no choice in this scenario, she was exploited twice over, first by being used as a sexual object by her master, and then as a brood mare to produce an heir.

Sarah quickly regretted her decision, but not out of human decency. She was jealous and bitter both of Abraham having sex with Hagar, and also of Hagar’s ability to conceive.

Sarah took it out on Hagar multiple times, until now she goes to the extreme and essentially condemns Hagar and baby Ishmael to death.

She tells Abraham to send them out into the desert, and to his eternal shame, he does.

It’s an ugly, ugly situation, and incidentally, that is one of the remarkable aspects of the Hebrew scriptures. The writers in no way shy away from telling the truth about what happened, no matter how repulsive it is.

These ancient writers are not afraid to attribute reprehensible moral conduct to the ultimate patriarch and matriarch of the nation, Abraham and Sarah.

This reflects a tradition that is able to be self-critical, that is able to see God at work even in human weakness and sin. That is one of the great gifts of Judaism to us, one of their daughter faiths, and to human religion at large.

A great clue as to what lies unredeemed in our own hearts is what causes a strong negative emotional reaction in us.

If you want to see where you’re in denial and where you need spiritual growth, simply pay attention to where you get defensive.

It’s a surefire way to see your shadow.

I think most of us would react against Sarah and Abraham’s actions in this story, and justly so.

But as soon as we say, “I would never do that!” we have to think again. Continue reading

Judas the Healer

Today we see Jesus sending out the apostles to spread their wings and try a little ministry on their own.

He “summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.”

That’s pretty important work, and pretty advanced work for a group of people who much of the time seem to not just have trouble understanding Jesus’ teaching, but often behave according to the exact opposite of what he’s trying to convey.

But Jesus, in a spectacular instance of the risk-taking behavior he so often displays, trusts them with significant power and authority.

And what drew my eye as I read it this time was the last name on the list. “These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.”

Judas.

Jesus sends Judas out with power over unclean spirits and the ability to cure every disease and sickness.

Judas who will betray him, as Matthew takes pains to remind us.

It seems unwise at best to send out a man that Jesus must at least have an inkling or maybe even full knowledge of his tendency to judgmentalism (“This money should have been used for the poor!” in response to a generous woman’s loving anointing of Jesus feet in Matthew 26), greed (“He was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it,” according to John), and of course the betrayal itself, Jesus’ life for thirty pieces of silver.

What kind of person is this to entrust with divine power?

But Jesus does.

What do we make of this?

Well, first, let’s ask what happens. Are the disciples successful in what Jesus has asked them to do?

Matthew doesn’t tell us, but Luke quotes a group of disciples returning from being sent out to minister, writing that they “returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’”

It seems likely that if Judas had not been successful, one or more of the gospel writers would have certainly wanted to rub it in and gleefully point it out, so we’re left with the assumption that Judas completed the good works of casting out demons and liberating people from illness and possession.

We most often only think of “Judas the Betrayer,” but here, right in the text, we have “Judas the Missionary” and “Judas the Healer.” Fascinating! Continue reading

Election: I Will Not Be Moving On, and Here’s Why

I was listening to a book by Jim Finley, the great Roman Catholic contemplative teacher, and he said something extraordinary.

He said, and I paraphrase here, “Great pain is always pointing to great unacknowledged truth.”

I can’t think of a more apt description of how our nation has been feeling this week.

This is not a pulpit sermon. I will not be preaching this to my congregation during Sunday morning worship.

It is instead a very personal reflection on what I have been experiencing in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump as our president, and how I see the scriptures relating to that.

Jesus is right with us in the beginning of our gospel lesson today.

“When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’”

This week many things were thrown down in our lives, first and foremost our image of what we thought America was, how far we thought America had come.

I think many of us really believed that with our first black president and the advent of marriage equality, our nation had really turned a corner.

We were living in a fool’s paradise. Continue reading