Serving debt, serving wealth, serving God: A Sermon for Proper 20C, 2019

Debt. We all have at least a passing familiarity with it. Most of us have in the past, or currently have, socially and morally respectable debt like a mortgage. Many of us have other forms of debt—credit card debt, the loans we owe on our vehicles. Some of us have experience with more crushing forms of it—student loans, for example, which have skyrocketed and put many millennials in difficult circumstances. Then there is medical debt, which in too many cases can lead to bankruptcy.

Even if we don’t have direct experience with the sort of debt that can only lead to bankruptcy, it’s very likely that we know people who are deeply affected by it, in many cases through no fault of their own, except perhaps by deciding to get a college education or going to grad or professional school, or having the bad luck of becoming seriously ill. The amounts are mind-boggling: Forbes recently estimated that there is more than $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, owed by some 45 million people. Meanwhile, it’s estimated that more than 1 in 4 Americans struggled to pay a recent medical bill. Continue reading

A God who searches for us … and finds us: A sermon for Proper 19C, 2019

I hate losing things. One of the worst is books. A few weeks ago, I was looking for a book I had used regularly when I was teaching. I went through the shelves in my office several times and finally gave up. I have no idea where it is. Perhaps it’s in a bookcase at home, perhaps it’s in Corrie’s office. It may even be that I lent it to someone years ago who never returned it.

It’s even worse with paper documents. Grace lay leaders and staff know better than to give me hard copies of important documents. It will land in a pile on my desk and stay there, perhaps for years. Much better to send it electronically. Then I will have it, and can easily find it by conducting a simple computer search. Year end financials from 2010? Sure, just give me a second. Still, I remember what it’s like when you are looking for something; you can’t find it. As you keep looking for it, your anger and frustration grow; you start lashing out at everyone and everything. And finally, that moment of discovery—relief and happiness that overwhelm you. It might be a valuable object, a document you need, or some cherished memento of a loved one.

We all have had such experiences, so when we hear stories like the two we just heard in the gospel reading, we regard them as commonplace, ordinary tales, and put ourselves in the roles of the shepherd going back for the lost sheep or the woman searching for the lost coin, and overlook the strangeness of the stories themselves, and the possibilities that there might be other ways of connecting with the stories than by connecting them with our own experiences of search for lost items.

In fact, I think we allow our own experiences of searching for lost things to so dominate our minds as we hear these parables, that we interpret the story about the shepherd in light of the story of the woman with the lost coin, and overlook the introduction to both which might put a completely different spin on things.

Luke’s introduction to the parables strikes one of his overarching themes: sin and forgiveness. The Pharisees were once again complaining that Jesus spent time with tax collectors and sinners. Remember that these two groups were reviled by most first-century Palestinian Jews. Tax collectors, not because they worked for the federal government but because in the Roman system, their profit came by being able to extract more money from the people whose taxes they were collecting than they had send on up the pipeline to Rome. And in this instance, sinners doesn’t mean people who made the occasional mistake, but rather notorious sinners, whose lifestyles put them outside of the community—especially people who were ritually impure.

So think of the people most likely to be excluded from polite society, from our community gatherings, from our church—that’s who Jesus was hanging out with, and if he were among us now, it’s likely we would be the ones complaining, not the ones with whom he would be spending time.

In response to these complaints, Jesus tells two parables, introducing each with a question that invites the listener to enter into the story: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” Now, contemplate the absurdity of that question.

Which one of you would do that? None of us would. We would do a cost/benefit analysis and cut our losses, leaving the one to die while making sure the 99 were safe.

Or the second parable: The parable describes in great detail the woman’s actions, she lights a lamp, sweeps the floor. The narrative almost stops for a moment, heightening tension, so that the discovery becomes even more dramatic. But then what happens? She throws a party, invites her friends, spends what, as much or double the worth of the coin she had lost? We can see ourselves searching for something, but throwing a party, and throwing what we found away in rejoicing? Who of us would do that?

Two people behaving completely unexpectedly, in ways that make utterly no sense by any rational analysis. They were so overjoyed by the finding that it’s almost as if they lost their bearings. Nothing else mattered but that joy, and offering others the opportunity to share in that joy.

It’s clear that Luke wants us to see the point of the story to be God’s extravagant joy in welcoming a repentant sinner. So be it. No doubt it fills us with love and gratitude toward God to imagine ourselves welcomed in such a way. So we should think about it in light of the final sentence in the passage: “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Joy over one sinner who repents.

As important as that is, there is another aspect of the behavior on display in these two parables that might be key to our understanding of God’s nature and disposition toward us. The shepherd abandoned 99 sheep to look for the one lost one. The woman did everything in her power and persisted until she found the lost coin. What if God acts that way toward sinners? What if God does everything in God’s power, obsesses if you will, certainly persists, until finding that lost sinner—until we are once again safely in God’s protective arms? What does that say about our sin and the power and persistence of God’s grace and mercy?

We don’t like that word, sin, although it’s all over our readings today. We heard about the sin of the Israelites, who abandoned their faith in God to worship a golden calf in the wilderness. We heard Psalm 51, that great psalm of sin and repentance. Many of us may have bristled at its language: “

Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, *
a sinner from my mother’s womb.

Even if the Christian tradition has emphasized human sin, we don’t like to think about it. When we go about revising the liturgy as we did in 1979 and are in the beginning stages of doing again, one of the first things we look to remove from our Eucharistic prayers is an over-emphasis on sin; we may even do it with the confession of sin.

But at the same time, in our heart of hearts, we know our sin and brokenness. We know all of the ways that we have fallen short of our best intentions, and fallen short of being and becoming the human beings God is calling us to be.

Confession of sin is the first step. Acknowledging our faults, looking at ourselves with clear eyes, with honesty, and recognizing who we are and what we have done. But of course, it doesn’t end there. That’s only the beginning. The next step is repentance, to ask God’s forgiveness of our sins.

Sometimes, I think we are reluctant to acknowledge our sins and sinfulness because we don’t think God will forgive us. But that’s not the case. True confession, true repentance open us up to receive the grace of God’s forgiveness, God’s overwhelming and abundant mercy.

And that’s where the parables teach us about God as well as about ourselves. The joy expressed by the shepherd and the woman are not just like the joy we might experience when we find something we’ve lost; they are describing the joy that God experiences when we confess our sins and ask God’s forgiveness.

That joy, experienced by God when we approach him as the psalmist did when he confessed his sins and asked God:

Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; *
wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.

9 Make me hear of joy and gladness, *
that the body you have broken may rejoice.

 

That’s the joy we experience, the joy of repentance and forgiveness, a response to our experience of God’s abundant grace flowing in us, remaking us in God’s image, and restoring us to right relationship with God and with our fellow humans. God doesn’t abandon us; God doesn’t give up the search, even when we don’t know we’re lost or we don’t want to be found. God is here, searching for us and the joy we experience when we repent of our sins and are forgiven is nothing compared to the joy God experiences when we are embraced in God’s mercy and grace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sending his own heart back: A sermon for Proper 18C, 2019

In this age of cellphones, it’s impossible not to eavesdrop on others’ conversations. We’ve all had the experience where we’re standing in line and behind us someone is having a loud, perhaps heated conversation. We can only hear one side of it, and even if we’re not paying attention, or doing our best not to listen in, we can’t avoid it. Sometimes we’re drawn in and we begin to imagine what the person on the other end is saying. Intimate details can be shared, the speakers seemingly oblivious to the fact that everyone around them can hear. Such moments can be excruciatingly uncomfortable, as we hear things that aren’t meant for us. But other times, we may be drawn in and begin to imagine the life worlds of the conversation partners. Continue reading

Jesus invites us to the messianic banquet, not the Taste of Madison: A Sermon for Proper 17C, 2019

Outside our doors today one of Madison’s most beloved and popular cultural rituals is taking place. It’s one many of us will be participating in as well, as we make our pilgrimage around the square and sample the various foods on offer. Few of us stop to think about what such rituals mean or signify; for most, if not all of us, the Taste of Madison, like other events such as Art Fair on the Square are fun. In this case, we get to sample food from restaurants we might not otherwise visit, or try new things, or purchase selections that remind us of other times and places—funnel cakes evoking memories of long-ago county fairs.

But such events also reinforce and inscribe our identities—in this case first and foremost as consumers, and they reinforce our place in the capitalist system. There are those vendors who are new or are trying to make a small business succeed as they pursue the fading American dream. There are also the cooks and servers who are working for vendors and likely receiving little more than the minimum wage. And the diversity—the ethnic cuisines that are adapted to mainstream American taste buds, or are being appropriated and monetized by others. Continue reading

Freed to follow Jesus into the future: A sermon for Proper 16C, 2019

As most of you know, later today after the 10:00 service, we will be celebrating the 10thanniversary of our shared ministry at Grace Church. Such occasions are important because they offer us an opportunity simply to have fun together, to rejoice in who we are as God’s people and to give thanks for our ministry here. For it really is a shared ministry. I may be the rector, the visible face of the congregation but all of you are part of it and whatever we have accomplished, we have done with God’s help and through a lot of hard work by a lot of people. Continue reading

Reflections on a decade of shared ministry 5: The growing importance of anti-racism work

As with any vocational transition, beginning a new call as rector brings with it all sorts of expectations and assumptions. There is the usual round of pastoral responsibilities, sacraments, preaching, pastoral care. There are the countless administrative tasks, and there are the unique emphases that are connected to the particular life and charisma of a congregation as well to its geographical location. I expected to be deeply involved in ministry and advocacy around homelessness when I was imagining what my ministry would be like at Grace. I should have expected that there would be a significant civic role as well, although as I point out in my previous post, how that role emerged and evolved over the decade of my ministry at Grace was surprising.

Even more surprising is the emergence of another significant aspect of my and Grace’s ministry: racism and racial inequity. It’s not that racism hadn’t been a concern of mine earlier in life. I had taken courses in African-American history, read James Cone and Katie Cannon, learned from African-American classmates in Divinity School. I had seen racism in Boston, moving there just a few years after the anti-bussing protests when passions still ran high and the effects of racism were obvious to anyone with eyes to see.

When we moved South in 1994, I encountered new forms of racism. At Sewanee, I taught at one of the bastions of the Lost Cause, where the Yankees’ dynamiting of the university’s cornerstone was recorded in the stained glass windows of the narthex of All Saints’ Chapel and a full-length portrait of Leonidas Polk, the “Battling Bishop” in his confederate gray uniform, prayer book in one hand and sword in the other, hung in Convocation Hall, where faculty meetings and important receptions took place. It was also a place where faculty had taken stands for racial justice during the Civil Rights Era, and the entire seminary faculty had walked out when the Board of Trustees refused to desegregate the Episcopal seminary in the fifties.

In Tennessee and South Carolina where I lived for a combined 15 years, II had seen first-hand the deep inequities between black and white, the chasm between the economic achievement, educational achievement, health and mortality. I also saw the segregation of churches, St. Philip’s was the largely African-American, small Episcopal Church that had been founded by the good people of Christ Church who didn’t want to worship with their African-American servants. In Greenville, I saw the sharp dividing line between rich white, and desperately poor African-American neighborhoods, the literal wall dividing them dividing two worlds as completely as the Berlin Wall used to divide that city.

I also dealt with the Episcopal Church’s uncomfortable and inadequate reckoning with its past. Many of those who worshiped at our churches owned the sub-standard properties that were rented to low-income people. Earlier generations had been plantation and slave owners, and their descendants continued to be members of our congregations and generous in their financial support.

I thought I had left all that behind when I moved to Madison. I quickly realized that Madison was deeply divided on racial lines, that African-Americans constituted a much higher percentage of people experiencing homelessness than they did in the overall population. I soon discerned how few African-Americans, other than homeless people were on the streets and sidewalks of downtown Madison. I understood racism was an important issue for the nation, for the church, for our society but there seemed to be other matters of greater urgency.

That all changed in 2013. In that year, the Wisconsin Council on Families and Children (now Kids Forward) issued its Race to Equity report that detailed the huge disparities in academic and economic achievement, incarceration rates, health outcomes and mortality rates between the white and African-American populations of Wisconsin and especially Dane County. Also that year, the Rev. Alex Gee, jr., wrote an article in the Wisconsin State Journal entitled “Justified Anger” in which he shared some of his experiences being an African-American man in Madison. Suddenly, the urgency and importance of addressing racism at Grace Church seemed paramount.

Over the next few years, a task force calling itself “Creating More Just Community” brought together Grace members who have a passion for working on issues related to racism. We brought in speakers; we explored making connections with our close neighbors at the Dane County Jail. We joined MOSES, a coalition of churches and religious communities, black and white, from across Dane County that works on issues of criminal justice. With them we hosted press conferences, even a forum for governor’s candidates during the most recent campaign. We have had a months-long parish-wide dialogue on racism that recently concluded; a program that we are now offering to other congregations.

We have done a great deal over the last six years, but looking back it seems like we haven’t done nearly enough, nor have we accomplished much. The racial inequities in our community are as profound as ever. As a congregation, we are as predominantly white as we have ever been. On top of all that, our nation is more divided than ever.

Still, I don’t regret any of what we’ve done. If I do have regrets, it’s that we haven’t done enough. It is work that must continue on the parish level, in the community, and in our hearts. It’s necessary work that is rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We cannot be faithful followers of him unless we engage with the racism in our nation’s past, our community’s present, and its lingering presence in American Christianity as it expressed and experienced at Grace and throughout the church. What form that work will take will be dependent on the people who lead it, the changing context in which we live, and historical developments that we can’t predict and for which we cannot plan.

The Word of God is like fire: A Sermon for Proper 15C

How many of us, when we’re travelling and making small talk with strangers, or visiting with family out of state, or connecting with friends we grew up with and haven’t seen for several decades, how many of us avoid mentioning certain topics? With whom do we talk about politics, or the news of the day in casual conversation. Even a discussion about the weather can lead to heated conflict. We live in a divided nation, a divided state, a divided community.

Many of us have experienced such division within our own families. In the weeks before Thanksgiving, for example, there are advice columns and essays about how to talk to your relatives who have different political views. Continue reading