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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Part of God's Mission?

The Rev. Bob Honeychurch
Proper 12 Year A
July 24, 2011

There’s good news for all of you daytime soap opera watchers out there. But first… the bad news. Last April the ABC network announced that they were cancelling two of the longest-running programs in the history of television. After over 40 years on the air, those staples of daytime drama, All My Children and One Life to Live would be ending their run after a combined total of over 20,000 episodes. Clearly, predictions of the end of world as we know it were coming true.

But earlier this month, a sort of “stay of execution” was announced. All My Children and One Life to Live would… well… live. After they sign off from television this fall, the shows will be migrating to their new media platform to continue the intrigue that generations of viewers have come to rely on. That’s right… All My Children and One Life To Live are moving to the internet, where you’ll be able to continue watching them on your computer or mobile phone or Ipad. Life doesn’t get much better than that.

There is a sort of twisted fascination which holds us spellbound as we watch private family dramas play themselves out before our public eyes. Whether it is fictional families like those we see on television; or real-life families like the Kennedys (including the ongoing saga between Maria and Arnold), or the Kardashians, or the Michael Jackson clan, or Lindsay Lohan and her parents, we all seem to be held emotional hostage to the allure of other people’s familial struggles. Maybe it’s because we can watch those stories, and find comfort in the assurance that they are so un-like the rest of us… or maybe it’s also because we can see a bit of our own stories (even if less extreme) in the stories of others.

I’ve got to tell you, though, that any of the contemporary dysfunctional family situations we might observe don’t hold a candle to the family story that has been unfolding for the past several weeks from the book of Genesis. It is that epic story of the so-called matriarchs and patriarchs of our faith – Abraham and Sarah, and their son Issac and his wife Rebecca, and their sons Esau and Jacob, along with Jacob’s own clan. In any great story there are good characters and bad ones, heroes and villains, and all the good twists and turns that keep us tuning in to the next episode.

A few weeks ago we heard the story of a conniving young Jacob deceiving both his older brother Esau and his father Isaac, by disguising himself as Esau and visiting his old blind father as Isaac lay on his deathbed, just so Jacob could gain his father’s blessing that was rightfully Esau’s to receive. His whole life, Jacob has been gaming the system by whatever means necessary to get ahead, with no regard for who or what might be standing in his way.

By the time we get to today’s story from Genesis, Jacob seems to have finally gotten everything he’s after in life – except for one more thing. He hasn’t gotten the girl yet… the apple of his eye, the joy of his heart, the love of his life… the beautiful Rachel. So Jacob works out a deal with Rachel’s father Laban. Jacob will work for Laban for seven years, in return for the right to marry Rachel. Rachel, apparently, doesn’t even get a say in the matter.

But what goes around comes around, and after seven years of labor, it’s now time for Jacob to get a dose of his own medicine. On his wedding night, with the candles dimmed (and probably after drinking more than a few too many glasses wedding bubbly), old Laban sends his elder daughter Leah into Jacob’s tent rather than the younger Rachel. And by the time the sun comes up, following whatever wedding night events happened in the tent under the cover of darkness, Jacob comes to discover that he’s now hitched up to a woman other than the one he expected. Apparently, just as older sons have certain rights, so too do older daughters – including the right to get married first.

Jacob cries “foul”… but to no avail. What’s done is done. So Jacob agrees to work for Laban for an additional seven years in exchange for finally getting to marry Rachel. And after what is now 14 years of service, Laban finally holds up his end of the bargain, and offers Rachel to Jacob as his bride. Thank goodness (I guess!) for polygamy in the Old Testament, so that Jacob could finally win his long-sought-after prize.

For me to make any sense of this story, the first thing I have to do is to get over the “Ick” factor. You know… that’s the stuff in so many of the stories in the scriptures which just kind of makes me feel like I have to take a shower after reading it. In this account from Genesis we heard today, there is lots of “ick” to be found: the stuff about treating women as nothing other than property to be passed from one owner to another; the multiple marriage thing (and we haven’t even gotten to the part of the story where Leah and Rachel’s two slaves – yes slaves, more “ick” – become part of Jacob’s stable of women who bear his children); and the sub-text in which God seems to tolerate (if not downright approve of) the deceit and treachery among these supposed heroes of our faith.

In fact, maybe the “ick” factor actually helps to make the story make more sense for me. Clearly, Jacob was not the goodest of the good guys in the way he lived his life. Nevertheless it is this same Jacob who continues to be blessed by God that he might become blessing to others. It is this same Jacob whose name is changed by God to Israel. It is this same Jacob who, along with his two wives (Rachel and Leah) and his two concubines (Zilpah and Bilhah), becomes the father of not one, not two, not three, but twelve sons – the twelve tribes of Israel. And I have to figure that if God can work through Jacob, and make good and holy stuff happen, despite all of Jacob’s egregious shortcomings, then I have to believe that God can work through me as well. What made Jacob “holy” was not that he led a blameless life. What made Jacob “holy” was that he believed that God could work through him, he believed that God was working through him, he believed that he was planted in God’s story… and not just that God was planted in his story.

In just a few minutes, we will welcome young Lily Dwight into this community of faith we call “the Church” through the sacrament of Holy Baptism. The good news, however, is that we won’t be doing anything that God hasn’t done already. We will simply be seeing and celebrating, naming and proclaiming the reality that she has already long since been planted in God’s good story. Baptism won’t make her a perfect person (sorry to break that piece of hard news to you, Jennifer and Greg). What baptism will do is to be a reminder to all of us… and hopefully a reminder to her as well in the years to come… that, despite whatever imperfections she might bear, she is as perfect as she needs to be to partner with God in bringing God’s grace into this imperfect creation, to share with God in the work of changing the world.

That’s the same promise that God has made to each one of us… that sometimes through our best efforts, and sometimes despite our worst efforts, God can and God will continue in the work of reconciliation – reconciling us to one another, and reconciling us and all of creation to God. The question isn’t whether God is active in the world. The question is whether we are prepared to be active partners with God in that holy work.

Often you will hear the question asked as to whether a person – or a congregation, for that matter – has a mission. I think, however, that that misses the point. The issue isn’t that God’s church has a mission. The issue is that God’s mission has a church. Jacob – broken, and flawed, and corrupt as he was – understood that… that he was a part of God’s mission. And today, with Jacob and with Lily, we celebrate the reality that we are a part of God’s mission as well.


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Monday, July 18, 2011

Wheat and Weeds

Pr. 11, Yr. A
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

My first reaction as I read this parable earlier in the week was to think of a bunch of teenagers out TP'ing a house, each collecting in advance an armload of toilet paper packages, sneaking around in the middle of the night casting rolls across lawns and over bushes and through trees, and then running off giggling, leaving a mess for the unfortunate homeowner to discover and deal with in the morning. I'd never been struck before by how ridiculous Jesus's example can sound. I mean, seriously…the thought of a nefarious villain collecting and hoarding weed seeds and then sneaking out at midnight to scatter them across an enemy's fields??

Maybe this is a parable solidly rooted in an agricultural society that no longer makes sense to 21st century suburban me in the way that it would have for Jesus's original rural listeners. Maybe it just needs updating! Let's see:
• The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a sorting hat…
• The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a lawn not treated with Scott's 2in-1 Weed ‘n Feed…
• The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a highway system on which one freeway is shut down…

Well, maybe not. But how about this one? The kingdom of heaven may be compared to the internet. Hundreds of thousands of blogs and forums were begun, with individuals and groups expressing feelings, needs, dreams, and ideas; linking people and information and resources in ways that built community and multiplied productivity. But trolls—internet ones, that is, who seek to stir up unrest—and imposters snuck in, starting false blogs, diverting resources from those truly in need, and creating conflict. Some people were hurt, misled, and defrauded, and they became distrustful; perhaps no one and nothing on the internet could be taken at face value. Others stepped in with voices of encouragement, urging users not to lose all the good that had been created because of the deceitfulness of a few…

It's a parable of sorts—I'm not the storyteller Jesus was!—but that doesn't mean it's pretend. Just recently the compelling blog of a gay woman in Damascus was revealed as being authored by an American man in Scotland. Several years ago, many thousands of readers far and wide were drawn into the drama of a young woman with cystic fibrosis struggling through a double lung transplant; people prayed, donated funds, offered help, and worried…until the whole story was shown to be a sham. The community of those living with CF, in particular, was deeply hurt, and many struggled with whether to continue their participation in forums that otherwise had provided so much support, or how to set up barriers and tests to detect charlatans. These sorts of deceptions occur time and again, though maybe not with so much publicity. And with each breach of collective trust, it takes time to remember that trying to weed out the liars and fakes from the genuine participants, or giving up on the entire field and walking away, would result in so much greater loss than what can be inflicted by rogue individuals here and there.

The point is that there always have been, and always will be, those in our midst who make the wrong choice, who seek to return caring with contempt, who operate in the shadows, who sow evil. Those of us—the vast majority—who are not like that, we feel anger, distrust, and betrayal at such behavior, and our first, second, and third instinct is to root it out. We desperately want to rid our field of these weeds, so that there's room for the good stuff to grow and flourish…and probably, in a less-than-charitable spirit of revenge, so that the perpetrators will be punished.

Maybe that would even work if the line between good and bad was completely clear, if we were infallible in our judgments, and if we had the capacity to administer justice perfectly. In other words, there's no way we're capable of doing it! We confuse good and bad, we rush to judgment, and we rarely operate without bias. For better or worse, we try our best, and it's anyone's bet how well we'll do. We may suspect this internet faker from the start, but the next one will catch us totally by surprise, and the story that seems so incredible as to be unbelievable—and thus not worthy of our time, attention, and prayer—can turn out to be absolutely true. Not only on the internet, but in all of our life, in all the people and situations we encounter. We just don't know.

So Jesus says, "Wait. Be patient. God knows people are out there creating petty ills and huge injustices. The field is a messy, dirty, smelly, confusing place…and it's all part of God's kingdom." A radical idea, to be sure; in fact, Jesus's first listeners would've known that the field in the story had been rendered ritually impure by having two kinds of seed sown in it. Jesus is reminding us, once again, that God defies expectations with an absurdly inclusive vision, so contrary to human nature. Rather than being the servants who are eager to root out evil, we're called to be laborers who keep at the task of nurturing, feeding, tending all, Goodness knows, this goes contrary to our instincts; we really want to selectively give our effort to those who deserve it and not waste our resources on those who might turn around and harm us. I suspect we also, as Christians, don't want our God to look like a fool, for appearing to turn a blind eye to that which is wrong.

But still Jesus says, "Wait. Be patient. I've looked like a fool, too; you be a fool for me, a fool for Love." Maybe more people would be drawn to Christ if we worried less about judging the world and concerned ourselves more with simply being like Christ in the world. This isn't justification for failing to name and take action against prejudice, discrimination, and injustice; Jesus did that with all that he had. But we can't just vote people off our personal or community island, we can't judge them to be non-people, we can't stop treating them with the dignity and love due to every child of God. Maybe it's in struggling to find that balance that we begin follow another of Jesus's directions, to be "wise as serpents and innocent as doves."

We may end up hurt or angry, betrayed or taken advantage of. That's the cost of being workers in God's field; if we truly embrace the image of God within ourselves and one another, we'll be vulnerable, even in the midst of our joyful experience of true life. If we're going to be fully human, we can't stay completely safe,. Judgment is God's, not ours, dangerous or foolish as that may feel. Wheat or weed; weed or wheat?...God only knows.

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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Claiming Our Birthright

The Very Rev. Sylvia Sweeney
Genesis 25:19-34, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Some people are just doomed to live their lives in the midst of conflict. Have you ever met someone like that? Someone for whom life was never going to be easy, they were always going to be just a little out of sync with the world around them …perhaps a step ahead of their time, perhaps a step behind but either way …life was not going to be easy. The thing about those people is they also don’t let other people lead easy lives…take for example Esau and Jacob. Esau is a perfectly fine, stable guy, good at what he does for a living, respected by his dad…and yet his whole life long Esau has had to contend with this pain in the neck brother, this brother who through some accident of birth order leaves his mother’s womb literally at Esau’s heels and then spends the rest of his life in conflict and chaos trying to undo the undoable.

To be fair to Jacob at least in the beginning it’s not his fault either. Because his twin was the first to enter the birth canal, Esau will now serve as the inheritor, the leader of the clan, the one who gets to call the shots for the rest of their lives….how fair is that? In what kind of a world is one person born to privilege while someone who is literally his twin is doomed to subservience and second class citizenship. Can you imagine struggling with that and against that your whole life long? What would you do if it were you being told that your whole life story was now going to be mapped out as an inferior, lesser, underprivileged person….just because of some arbitrary set of rules that said that first was better than last, that first led to riches, that first led to prosperity and last to struggle and servitude Could you imagine anyone living in such a world? Well perhaps some of us can. And truthfully can you imagine how hard it would be to be Esau in this story as well?

Imagine spending every day of your life living with the frustration and resentment of your brother over something you also had no control over. Can you imagine how some days when you were tired of sibling rivalry, tired of the unfairness of it all, tired of trying to live up to what was expected of you, tired of being in this never ending wrestling match with your brother…on one of those days when you had come in from a long hard day at work and you were hungry and thirsty and completely done in from life …that yes, on that day you might truly despise your own birthright. On that day you might for a moment want to give it all up, let the younger one carry the baton for a while and see how it really felt to be in charge and the recipient of all those expectations and demands and all that envy. One day you might just be tempted to chuck it all and hope and pray that would be the end of this life of never ending conflict you seem to have been doomed to.

I think for all of us the challenge of faith is to figure out what we are meant to do in the midst of life’s conflicts. How will we respond to a world that stacks the deck against some people and for others without any regard for what’s just or fair. Jacob and Esau were both caught in an unjust system that told them how their lives were meant to turn out before they even lived them. It was a world that pitted father against mother, brother against brother, hunter against herdsman. So much conflict! So many reasons to believe that life is just something to get through, to try and survive. Just keep your head down and try not to get caught in the crossfire. But of course none of today’s lessons are about just surviving life, and all of them are about facing the conflict inherent in life and not giving up, not yielding to lethargy or fear, not despising one’s birthright or allowing one’s self to be defined by it.

Some would say our birthright is unmanageable. We have been born at a time when the world is being turned upside down. We live in an age full of war and strife, ecological crisis, globalized corruption, climatic chaos, and economic superpowers motivated by unfathomable greed. Some would say if ever there was a day in the world that was conflict laden, where we might despise our birthright, where seeds were being sown on rocky soil….this is that day. And yet to say that is, I think, to over simplify the Gospel.

What Jesus promises in this Gospel story is that no matter how things look, no matter how infertile and inhospitable the terrain appears to be, no matter how rocky and hard and parched the ground is….there will always always be those places where the seed takes root and the good soil nurtures that seed into fullness of life in a way that is almost unimaginable.

Jesus of Nazareth…Palestinian, native in an occupied territory, itinerant preacher whose politics and religion enraged the authorities and put him in perpetual conflict with the powers that be. Jesus of Nazareth, witness to self serving political leaders, ruthless military regimes, and legalistic religious institutions that were sucking the life and breath out of his people. This Jesus tells a story about sowing seeds that yield bountiful fruit. This Jesus does not say, “Let’s just lay low and wait for a better day.” He does not say, “Times are hard, let’s sit back and take care of ourselves for a while.” He does not say “the problems are just too big right now to even make a dent in them.” He says, “Be the good earth that the seed falls upon”. Make good earth under your own feet, and then make stuff happen. Make the word come alive…make the rocky place smooth….

Don’t sell your birthright because life is hard. Because your birthright is not this mess of a world we have inherited, it is the world that can be if we dare to make it so. It is the world that grows up from the precious seeds of the Gospel planted deep within your heart when you refuse…refuse! to knuckle under and give up on the world. Our birthright is nothing less than the reign of God not on some ethereal cloud in the sky but here and now in this place, in this time! Make this place a holy place for all people!

One of my favorite writers and theologians of all time is Annie Dillard. Annie Dillard writes, “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead—as if innocence had ever been—and our children busy and troubled, and we ourselves unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, failed, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and involved. But there is no one but us. There never has been.”

What I think Annie is saying and that today’s Gospel is saying is

We have to be the good earth where the seed takes root….if we don’t we despise our birthright.

If we don’t, there may not be another chance.

If we don’t, people will suffer and die.

If we don’t, the poor will remain poor and the rich will get richer.

If we don’t, we will never know all that we could have been and done in our lives, and the world will keep waiting, waiting for the acceptable time when the Gospel seed finally finds its good earth.

Be the good earth that yields abundant fruit, because the days of struggle and conflict are never going away….because we dare not despise our birthright, because there is no one but us. There never has been.

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Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Sound of Joy

Matt Wright, July 3, 2011
Matthew 5:43-48

Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

I want you to listen to the Sound of Joy:

[“Mahogany Hall Stomp,” Louis Armstrong And His Hot Seven]

Eighty-two years have passed since Louis Armstrong recorded Mahogany Hall Stomp in one of the greatest periods of artistic inspiration humanity has ever known. No one alive today can escape his influence – the way he completely reshaped popular music is evident today in every song you hear on the radio or download from iTunes. His voice, which one journalist described as “a wheelbarrow crunching up a gravel driveway,” remains instantly recognizable more than forty years after his death. His face, seemingly never without its million-watt smile front and center, is the very picture of happiness.

As I wrote this homily, I was playing Louis Armstrong’s music in a house full of family members, and my three year old niece, Morgan, who knows nothing of Armstrong or his effect on our times, responded by dancing non-stop around the living room between bites of her Fruit Loops. If you’re trying to make the case for music as a universal language, Morgan is “Exhibit A.”

Armstrong’s story, and American history, could have been very different; the bright light of his life could have remained obscured by hardship and bitterness. No one familiar with the circumstances of his early life would have been surprised. But at every turn, Louis chose not only to love his enemies, but also make them his brothers and sisters. He was not perfect. He was not Jesus with a horn. He was a complicated human being. But In a world where “an eye for an eye” is too often our default setting, his response to life and his vision of his calling illustrates as well as anything I can imagine what can happen when we take Jesus’ charge to heart.

Although he was born August 4th, 1901, all his life, he believed he was born on July 4th, 1900, and it seemed only right for this quintessential American figure. But there were no fireworks in “Back O’ Town” New Orleans when Louis was born to a part time prostitute and a father who abandoned the family in short order. Shifted from relative to relative, he attended the Fisk School for Boys where he was first exposed to Creole music. To keep his mother from prostitution he delivered newspapers, hauled coal, and dumpster dived for discarded food which he then sold back to local restaurants.

Louis knew discrimination from an early age, not only from whites, but also even more from light skinned blacks who made a special effort to separate themselves from their darker skinned brothers and sisters. It was a Jewish family, the Karnofskys for whom he worked doing odd jobs, who showed him that discrimination was not limited to blacks, and how to overcome its corrosive effects: “They were having problems of their own,” he wrote later. “I was only seven years old, but I could see the ungodly treatment that the white folks were handing the poor Jewish family that I worked for.” Their remedy in the face of prejudice was to show kindness to others and better their circumstances through hard work. They gave him his first horn and showed him how to live “real life and determination.” These were lessons Louis never forgot. In tribute to them, he wore a Star of David around his neck for the rest of his life.

Despite this, Louis was often left on his own to roam the streets of Storyville – absorbing music and the lessons of the street. In short order, he was in trouble. He first made the papers when he was arrested for shooting his stepfather’s pistol into the air on New Year’s Eve, and sent to The New Orleans Home For Colored Waifs, along with Karnofskys, one of the two seminal experiences that would help make him the man we know.

If you look at the Home as a kind of antecedent for Homeboy Industries, and Captain Joseph Jones as an early day Gregory Boyle, you wouldn’t be too far off. Jones was someone who saw value in cast offs, and young Louis was his crowning achievement. Jones saw Louis’s interest in the horn, and brought him to the attention of Professor Peter Davis, who put a cornet in his hands and discipline in his soul. Armstrong would never be without either again.

How tempting it is for us to look at troubled young lives in our community today and write off those young faces, just as it was in New Orleans a hundred years ago. The example of Louis Armstrong and the work of groups from the Waifs’ Home to Homeboy Industries show us that we do so at our own peril. Odds are the world should have overlooked Louis Armstrong. Yet, try to imagine the world without him. It is truly unimaginable.

Throughout his life, Armstrong continued to absorb the darkness of racial prejudice, conflicts with mobbed up club owners, and the taunts of a younger generation of black musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, who accused him of pandering to white audiences to make a buck. While Armstrong was far from silent when the occasion demanded, once publicly calling President Eisenhower a “gutless, uneducated plowboy” for trying to limit federal involvement in desegregating Little Rock’s Central High School, most often he responded with the pure light of his horn, the truth in his voice, and the radiance of his smile.

Biographer Terry Teachout points out that, “That smile was no mere game face donned to please the paying customers. It told the truth about the man who wore it. In return for his unswerving dedication to his art, he knew true happiness and shared it unstintingly with his fellow men.”

Late in life, Armstrong recounted this story to a journalist:
“Years ago I was playing the little town of Lubbock, Texas, when this white cat grabs me at the end of the show – he’s full of whiskey and trouble. He pokes on my chest and says, ‘I don’t like niggers!’ These two cats with me was gonna practice their Thanksgiving carving on that dude. But I say, ‘No, let the man talk. Why don’t you like us, Pops?’ And would you believe that cat couldn’t tell us? So he apologizes – crying out and carrying on… And dig this: that fella and his whole family came to be my friends! When I’d go back through Lubbock, Texas for many, many years they would make ole Satchmo welcome and treat him like a king.”

The final paragraph of Teachout’s definitive Armstrong biography, POPS, sums it up:
“The whole story of Louis Armstrong’s life is in that one encounter. Faced with the terrible realities of the time and place into which he had been born, he did not repine, but returned love for hatred and sought salvation in work. Therein lay the ultimate meaning of his epic journey from squalor to immortality: his sunlit, hopeful art, brought into being by the labor of a lifetime, spoke to all men in all conditions and helped make them whole.”

Let us pray: Dear Lord, as we face the challenges of the world we live in, and struggle to truly love our enemies, help us to remember the example of people like Louis Armstrong, who was no different from any of your children, yet found a way to spin joy from pain, happiness from hatred, and light from darkness. Bring us strength and courage to face each day without bitterness, to let old wounds heal, and if the sun truly rises on good and evil alike, help us with each new sunrise to tip the balance in favor of the good. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

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