Sunday, October 23, 2011

The greatest commandment

A sermon for Proper 25 A on Matthew 22:34-40 
“Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

I have a deep and visceral memory of hearing those words at church every week growing up on Sundays from the priests. Father Chillington, who was an ancient retired priest and read them in a shaking, gravelly voice; Dr. Tourigney, the founding rector, who declaimed them almost as a threat; Dr. Moore, who was an orthopedic surgeon and priest who I remember being very gentle. But no matter who spoke them, I remember that I loved them. The summary of the law is probably the first Bible verse I learned by heart—it’s a toss up between this and some of the “comfortable words” that were also used in liturgy each week.  

And they are our moral compass. We are as Christians fundamentally called to love God, and love our neighbor. 613 laws of the Old Testament are condensed by Jesus into two—and it’s not entirely clear whether that makes it easier or harder to follow. When our youth group was studying laws and commandments last spring, we recognized the advantages of having every aspect of your life clearly proscribed morally in the laws—look at the Leviticus text this morning, which extrapolates from “Love your neighbor” the specifics of how to do that: don’t hate your family, you’re responsible to let your neighbor know when he or she is sinning; and you shall not take vengeance against any of your people. But the very vagueness of the great commandment—and it’s really a single commandment because it’s impossible to love God if you hate your neighbor, and vice versa—requires us to again and again hold our actions, our thoughts, and our practices up against them and ask, “Does this help me love God? Does this help me love my neighbor?”

One of the questionable moral practices we’ve let Nathan do is watch TV. I’m not sure that watching TV helps him love God or his neighbor better, but if means I get a relaxed shower in the morning while he’s watching TV, I know that it helps ME love God and my neighbor better. 

We own only one DVD of a cartoon, and it’s the Pixar movie, “Up.” Nathan has grown obsessed with it and in the last month I have probably watched significant parts of it about 15 times. It’s one of the most amazing movies about love that I’ve ever seen. The first 10 minutes or so tells the love story of Ellie and Carl, from meeting when they’re about 8 until Ellie dies when they’re old and gray. I’ve probably cried 13 of the 15 times I’ve seen those first 10 minutes now. But then the rest of the movie goes beyond romantic love into love of neighbor, love of place, love of nature, and fidelity to all of them, as Carl takes off in his house lifted up by thousands of helium balloons with a young stowaway, Russell, to search for Paradise Falls, the South American icon he and Ellie had always dreamed of visiting. Misadventures ensue, during which Carl’s tag line is “None of my concern…la la la!” regarding the boy, the dog and the bird who quickly come to depend upon him. But it’s when he discovers that it is his concern that he finds joy again.  

Ellie, after her death, ends up becoming the divine character—Carl talks to her, looking up at their house as it floats over them, and reads her holy book, a scrapbook of “Stuff I’m going to do” she began when she was a child. He starts judging his actions by what Ellie would think. And what he discovers is that Ellie wants more adventures and happiness for him than he does for himself. When he is being a curmudgeon and rejecting the love of the boy, the dog, and the bird, he’s not really loving Ellie—Ellie had longed for a child, and seems to have been some sort of zoologist. It isn’t until most of the way through the movie that Carl finally embraces the boy, the dog, and the bird and in addition to giving him the strength for the big comedic finish, it allows him to let go of their house, the icon of the past that he’s been clinging to throughout the movie, as powerful an act of oblation and self-offering if I’ve ever seen. 

So if it’s in loving our neighbor that we truly love God—and Ellie—then who is my neighbor, and how do I love them? When Jesus answers that question in the Gospel of Luke, he does so with the parable of the Good Samaritan—the notion that our neighbors are surprising is part of the gospel. In the “world is flat” culture of the 21st Century, our neighbors are not just those in geographic proximity to us, but pretty much everyone in the world, because what we do here impacts them, and vice versa. Our neighbors are in Mlowa Barabarani, Tanzania, at the Church of the Epiphany in Qatar, and everywhere in between.

But in this vast and impersonal city, I wonder if it might be good to take the neighbor concept in the opposite direction. Who is physically your neighbor right now? If you’re sitting in a pew with a family member, skip over them—who are your nearest neighbors in front of you, behind you, and to your side? In thinking about it this week, I noticed that while at coffee hour people often talk mainly to their friends in the congregation, but when I look out here from the pulpit, I see that people don’t necessarily sit near their friends. Do you know the name of the people around you? Do you know their profession? Do they have children? What drew them to Epiphany? What draws them to God? What is their favorite moment in worship? Their least favorite? Favorite Bible story?

It is one thing to love our neighbors that we don’t know. That’s more of a moral position and an attitude. It’s a lot harder to love people we know, because people we know are imperfect, and it’s risky to love people—they may disappoint us, they may betray us, or they may love us back, which might be the riskiest outcome of all. But Jesus commands us to love, Now even God can’t command our emotions. But God can command our actions. God can command us to make the effort to love—it may not get to our heart, but at least with our mind and our soul we can work at loving.

I think, overall, Epiphany is a very loving church. But it’s time for us to grow. And that means loving new people. I know that some of you will hate this, and I’m sorry, but I beg you to play along for the sake of the community because your presence is a gift to us, maybe more than you know. I would love it if during the Peace today you didn’t just say “Peace” to the people around you. Introduce yourself—even if you think they know your name. And share something with them—favorite Bible story, if you’re up for a challenge, answer Jesus’ question today: “What do you think of the Messiah?”. But make that first act of love, which is to say that you are my concern. Who you are matters to me, and the better I know you, and the better I love you, the more I can love God with all my heart, my soul, and my mind. In these eight years with you, the more I have gotten to know each of you… the more I have loved you, and I have faith that you do—and will—love each other as much as I do. And that will bring us closer to God.

A friend’s preaching today on a quote from Dorothy Day, the Roman Catholic holy woman of the 20th century that I’d like to close with, and let you stew on for the rest of the day: "I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least." Let us love God deeply.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

"In the fullness of time..."

My sermon from this morning, on Isaiah 25:1-9 and Matthew 22:1-14

Let’s spend some time with Isaiah this morning. Welcome to the Ancient Near East, and I want to give a little historical and theological context. In the eighth century before Christ, what we think of today as Israel was divided into two Jewish kingdoms: the northern part, encompassing 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel, was known as the kingdom of Israel and the southern part, centering around Jerusalem, was known as the kingdom of Judah. And in the 8th century BC, the Empire of Assyria conquered the kingdom of Israel. The kingdom of Judah paid tribute to Assyria to maintain its independence. This lead to spiritual and economic conflict, and is the context for the Isaiah reading today, because the tribute to Assyria—at least in how it’s remembered in the biblical account—came not from the wealthy residents of Judah but off the backs of the poor. For 150 years, Judah bounced back and forth between political independence and subservience, between spiritual fidelity to Yahweh and worshiping other Gods, and between following the law and caring for the widow and orphan and vulnerable and oppressing and cheating them. A series of prophets—including Isaiah, but also Micah and Jeremiah—warned the leaders of Judah repeatedly that not being faithful toYahweh would result in the destruction of Jerusalem itself—at least for a while. Faithfulness to Yahweh was defined in two ways: one is faithful temple worship and the other which is sort of the outward and visible sign of faithfulness to the law is justice and care of the poor. Eventually the warnings come true: Babylon gobbles up the Assyrian Empire, and finally conquers Jerusalem in 587BC, sending the Jews into exile in Babylon for 70 years… until the Persian Empire gobbled up the Babylonian Empire and liberated the Jews and bankrolled their return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the temple. Which held up until the Greeks took over… and on and on the rise and fall of empires go. 

But each time, the biblical theological understanding is that the invading army—when they are successful—is acting on behalf of God and as a corrective to the linked fundamental sins of the society: not faithfully worshiping Yahweh by their failure to follow the law and consequently oppressing the poor. 

Today’s passage from Isaiah is a poem celebrating the destruction of a city… but which city? One commentary I read this week suggested that it is deliberately vague so that it could be interpreted as either about Jerusalem or about Babylon. In one case the chosen people of God are the oppressors; in the other they are the oppressed. In either case, the city is turned into a “heap” because of its oppression of the poor, and the promise that follows the destruction is of the restoration of the poor to fullness via a heavenly feast, and the transformation of suffering and death into joy and life. It’s important to remember that God doesn’t just destroy, God also feeds, nurtures, and builds up, always in favor of those who are in need.

But systemically, the renewed vigor never lasts. Rereading the history this week I was struck by how again and again there was this renewed hope that finally Judah and Israel were on the right path—a new king, a renewed interest in scripture, a spiritual and political reformation that brings the people closer to God… but it never lasts. Greed always comes back, and for every King Josiah who rediscovered the book of Deuteronomy and renewed Temple worship, there is another king who lines his pockets with bribes and worships Baal at the high places. Which almost makes me want to despair. But the flip side of that is that the oppression never lasts either. Whether through divine intervention, compassion on the part of leaders, or self-interest, the pendulum always swings back in scripture to liberation of the poor. 

10 days ago I was at my final week at the Clergy Leadership Project up in Connecticut, and one of our speakers was Josh Ruxin, who does development work in Rwanda and occasionally blogs for the NY Times. One of the resources he introduced us to was which is an amazing online resource where you can look at animated graphs depicting the advance—and decline in some cases—of per capita income and life expectancy by nation over the last 200 years. I highly recommend checking it out. There are a lot of variables to look at—child mortality, age at first marriage, number of children per family, HIV rates—it’s fascinating to see the trends by nation and continent. You see the effects of wars, epidemics, vaccines so clearly—and you also see, so clearly, the “gap” of the title of the project: all the nations at the bottom of life expectancy are in sub-Saharan Africa except one and that one is Afghanistan. There’s Sub-Saharan Africa at the bottom, and then a gap, and then everywhere else in the world. 

 But like the saga of empires surrounding Isaiah’s prophecy, the statistics don’t only show bad news. Since we’re talking about Carpenter’s Kids today, I looked specifically at Tanzania’s track on the wealth vs. health graph. Like most African countries, life expectancy increased dramatically after World War II, and then in the 1990s declined significantly as the HIV epidemic took hold. But from 1999 to 2009, life expectancy in Tanzania surged up from 50 to 56 years on average, putting it in the upper tier of Sub Saharan life expectancy, even though was a significant drought in the country during the last two years recorded. It’s still five years below the lowest life expectancy of anywhere else in the world except Afghanistan: next lowest in the world is before-the-earthquake Haiti at 61 years. But it’s better than it was. Life expectancy in the US is 79, for comparison—pretty good, although 79 is also life expectancy in Costa Rica and Cuba, so we don’t exactly tower over the rest of the developed world. There was Good News in Liberia, too from the Gapminder stats—since Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became President in 2006, life expectancy and incomes have risen steadily—they’re up to 59. Peace, education, food and access to health care make life better and longer. 

Here at home, we are finally seeing headlines about poverty more frequently, and I hope you’re reading them and learning about the gap here, so I don’t want to over play it, but just as an example, at our homeless feeding program, which usually sees about 100 people, and for us 120 is a “big” night, 10 days ago we had 152 people show up to eat on a Wednesday, and for the first time, we weren’t able to feed everyone because 10 people left before we could get them down to eat in shifts, so we only actually fed 142. Which is still a record.  

That’s what the Kingdom of this world looks like. The gospel parable today is about the Kingdom of Heaven. But the two are not separated by much. Roman Catholic liberation theology speaks of God’s “preferential option for the poor.” The idea is that because Jesus and the prophets repeatedly speak up on behalf of the poor, culminating in Jesus’command that “what you did for the least of these, you did unto me,” that is the ultimate standard by which any individual and any society are to be judged. That is certainly evident in the Isaiah passage, and it comes through again in today’s gospel reading when those who have been invited to the wedding banquet—the people of power—reject the invitation, and it is literally the people who are on “the streets” who are invited in their stead. The word that is translated “streets” in the Gospel, is the Greek word hodos, which is usually translated “way.” As in “I am the Way, the truth, and the life” or the word that early Christians used to describe themselves: they were “followers of the way”. The people who are brought in to the wedding banquet are both good and bad; rather like people anywhere.

 Our Stewardship theme this year, chosen by John Oudens and Susan Keith (and not by me!), is “In the fullness of time…” It’s a phrase from Eucharistic Prayer B: “In the fullness of time, bring all things in subjection under your Christ, and bring us to that heavenly country where, with all your saints, we may enter the everlasting heritage of your sons and daughters.” It’s the phrase that, the first time I ever celebrated the Eucharist, the day after my ordination to the priesthood, brought me to tears because saying the words made me realize—as if for the first time—that I believed it. As a Stewardship theme, my first thought was that it might be too abstract, but the more I thought about, it, the more perfect it sounded. The fullness of time, the kingdom of heaven is not now—obviously, the wedding banquet is not going on right now, the poor are still poor, both at home and even worse, overseas. Death has not been swallowed up in our earthly lives—people suffer and die needlessly every day. And yet the fullness of time is now: there is no time other than the present moment when we are not just to pray, “thy kingdom come” but to act as if the kingdom is now here so that we may glimpse it and so that the world might believe. Now is the fullness of time when the Church of the Epiphany is showing to the world that it cares for the poor. Now is the fullness of time when we are called to be generous, for those of us who have been given wealth to share it, for those of us who have been given power to use it wisely and compassionately, and for those who are in need to receive with gratitude rather than shame. Now is our fullness of time to act together, with the wisdom and passion and integrity of Josh Ruxin, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the other Nobel prize winners, to care for God’s poor and hungry so that we can say with Isaiah:

It will be said on that day, 

Lo, this is our God;
we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the LORD for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Following Jesus, not leading him

Last week I attended my final week of the Clergy Leadership Project, a four week program designed to foster excellence in ordained leadership in the Episcopal Church.  It's a good program, and I found what I learned in it provocative and challenging. But my reflections on the final week brought me back again and again to a question I asked the very first week, over 18 months ago:  "Shouldn't we have classes on followership?" It was dismissed--an idea that didn't "gain traction" in the parlance of the adaptive leadership model we were being taught.  "Who wants to say they're a follower?  Where's the future (and money) in classes in how to follow?  How will you get a job if you say you prefer to follow?" 

Well, as Christians, our primary identity is to be followers of Jesus.  We don't lead Jesus, we follow Jesus, and when we stray too far on our own, it is Jesus who seeks us out and draws us gently back into the herd.  Clergy and lay leaders walk that deliberate line where we lead human groups and institutions but have to be 1) conscious that we do so while still maintaining our idenity as a follower of Jesus and 2) able to discern when we are called to lead and when we called to support the leadership of others.

Again and again this week, priests offered up ideas to the whole group:  we were a pretty creative bunch, but most of us are used to being the type of person other people listen to. Again and again, the ideas hung out there for a few minutes, and then faded away as the next person offered their idea.  We all knew what it was to be leaders and to initiate ideas--what we lacked was the ability to support someone else's idea and help bring it to fruition.  Does that sound familiar in the global and ecclesiastical context?

It may be true that no church is going to call a priest who does not claim to be able to "lead" a congregation--and it's also true that there are plenty of institutions that in attempting to turn away from hierarchical leadership models have ended up with a morass where no one is in charge and nothing gets done.  I am not in any way opposed to having strong leaders in the church.  But we don't all have to be leaders all the time, and the skills of how to be a good follower are what we are desperate need of learning today. 

The image of the yoke is one that I find very compelling for leadership; I wrote the following definition of leadership the first week of CLP:

"Leadership is bearing the yoke with others. Leading, pulling, stopping, being bound by those to whom we are yoked, and sometimes being pulled.  Listening to the driver who is directing us, trying to discern their commands for our team and follow.  Hoping to reach the barn with our load intact."

So when someone finally offers the "Clergy Followership Project" I will be first in line to sign up. 

All of this is perfectly summed up in the amusing voiceover to the following video: