Gospel as Comedy not Tragedy

Parker4

In his book, Telling the Truth, the Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy and Fairy Tale, Frederick Beuchner says that if you can’t take a joke you’ll never understand the Gospel. There is a profound difference between tragedy and comedy. In a tragedy the hero pits himself against the gods and is destroyed by the process. Tragedy is concerned with struggles of power. Comedy, on the other hand, is about ambiguity, and the transformation of roles. We think it is one way and it turns out another. Tragedy invariably ends in death; comedy ends in marriage – a criss-crossing of boundaries and limits. One is serious and the other is playful.

The Gospel lesson today is a tragic-comedy. The setting of the readings for today is feasting and partying. Here in the first act, if you will, of today’s production. The prophet Isaiah marches out mid-stage and issues the invitation of God to a party. The aristocratic prophet from Jerusalem in his best prophetic voice proclaims, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this 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.”

This is a to be a lavish party with the best vintage wine and rich food full of fat. This is long before most of the human population had to worry about fat in their diet. This is a time when fat was good news not bad news. Not only will the eats be great, but as a further act of excess God will shallow up death forever. He will wipe away the tears from ALL faces. Not only will the feast be of the finest food full of fat and taste but the shroud of death will be removed. It will write paid to the old saying of eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die. Wrong, eat, drink and be merry for death is swallowed up and tears are wiped from every face. Death is no more. Furthermore, the disgrace of the people will be removed. God’s salvation — restoration and healing will be unveiled to all the guests — to all people: what an extraordinary vision. We can eat anything that appeals to us without remorse for the things that trouble our consciences and with the sure and certain knowledge that death is no more. Not a bad first act.

Now on to the Main act: Jesus picks up the setting of a party in the Gospel reading today. “The Kingdom of Heaven may be compared,” says Jesus, “to a King who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” In the ancient world one received an invitation to a feast by messenger. Then messengers then delivered a second message that the feast will soon begin. The King sent servants with the message; “The ox has become barbecue. The fatted calf is now filet minion. Countless cases of Dom Perignon are chilled. The tables are groaning with everything from Buluga caviar and Italian truffles all the way to MOON PIES and R.O.C. cola. There is some of whatever you want to warp your beak around. (It’s enough to drive the editors of Gourmet Magazine wild.) Come to the Wedding banquet,” they said. BUT — the guests made light of it . . .One went to his farm — One went to his business, while the rest seized the servants, mistreated some and killed others.

The King’s reaction is like a scene out of Rambo or The Terminator: Houses exploding in flame. These are the beautiful people from “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” They are the very folk we admire. They are beautiful people who have everything but the one essential thing, namely, trust — the only, from God’s point of view, that matters. They have everything but lack the one thing essential, namely, trust — faith, the only from God’s point of view required. That is the tragedy. They have trusted themselves when that is the only thing that will not work. They are like the long list of winners who lose: the Pharisees, the Priests, the rich young ruler, they are you and me, they are all of us . . . who live the twin mistaken notions: Our good works will get us into the marriage feast. And that God’s nature will absolve us from having to sit through it if we happen to have other plans. Both are tragic mistakes. As the guests learn they are dead wrong. Salvation is not by works and the heavenly banquet is not optional. We are saved only by accepting a party already in progress and God has paid the price with his own death. He counts only two things grace and faith. Nothing else matters!

The scene changes – Act II, Scene 2, The King says to his faithful butler, “the wedding is ready, but those invited are not worthy (by their unfaith.) Go into the streets and invite those you find to the wedding feast. Out all the uniformed flunkies went. They went out and gathered all they found: good and bad. (Note he does not invite the good and snub the bad, he invited ALL, while we were yet sinners. He simply invites us to trust his invitation. So the poor, the prostitutes, bag ladies, men with missing front teeth and the smell of Thunderbird on their breath, all the ner-do-wells completely overlooked by the beautiful and important are all home free. See the comedy breaking out? So the hall is filled with guests.

Act II, Scene 3: Now, let me admit that what I am about to say is conjecture. Just go with me, here, … you can’t hold it against someone if they are shanghaied to a party and you don’t like what they wearing. So I think . . . the “sudden guests” are provided wedding clothes, suitable clothes — Bill Blass – Valentino — all sorts of designer rags in exchange for their filthy ones. As the King comes by to mingle with the guests he spies a man without a wedding suit. He apparently came in since he was forced but he will not put on his suit. The King said to the man without a wedding suit. Friend (or as Ann Landers used to say, Buster) How did you get in here without a wedding garment?! The man was speechless! And then they threw him out. Even in a comedy some will always insist on tragedy. You might make some people show up, but you really can’t make them like it, after all, can you?

What is this tragic-comedy telling us? Invitation is the principle judgment in this parable. Notice that “Nobody is kicked out who wasn’t already in. Hell may be an option; but if it is, it is only one that we insist on after we had already been invited to the heavenly dance. The first Guests are worthy. They just wouldn’t come. Their unacceptance was the issue. The Replacement guests become guests by accepting the invitation. The man without a garment wouldn’t accept or even speak and out he goes. The King insists on dragging everybody and their brothers to the party. Everyone is a member of the wedding party and is only shown the door AFTER they were invited in.

GRACE is the only basis of entrance into the Kingdom . . .Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus EXCEPT our unwillingness to accept his INVITATION. The difference between the blessed and the cursed in one thing and one thing only: the blessed accept their acceptance and the cursed reject it; but the acceptance is a done deal for both groups before either does anything about it.

Here in the epilogue, [following my device to the end] in the reading from Philippians, Paul writes from the perspective of one who has said yes to the heavenly banquet. “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. … I have learned to be content with whatever I have. [That sounds un-American] I know what it is to have little and I know what it is to have plenty. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

If God accepts us then we no longer take our identity from our circumstances. We begin to relax in the comic “joke” that what we have always been told about who is in and who is out just isn’t so. Let’s relax, this show isn’t a tragedy after all. Yes, Jesus does die, really dead, on the cross. It’s not stage make-up and fake blood. He’s dead, really dead. That would be a tragedy, if that were the end of the production. But it isn’t. God raised Jesus from the dead. That same resurrection is ours, if we’ll just take it. Therefore things for us are not necessarily how they appear. Let us not be defined by circumstances. God is giving a party and all that is required is that we accept the invitation and show up. There is no end to the party he has prepared for those who love him!

Amen

PENTECOST XIX

proper c21  —  Saint John’s Episcopal Church  — Memphis, Tennessee
September 25, 2016 – 5:30 PM

dives

The rich man is usually called Dives (Latin for wealthy). He was so rich that he wore purple, which was so expensive that only the Emperor had an entire garment dyed purple. The wealthy had a stripe or two on their clothing. He also wore linen from Egypt which was so fine that it was worn by those who did nothing much all day.

Out by the gate, which was an elaborate ornamental affair that had as much to do with status as with security, was a man named Lazarus. Lazarus, which means, “he who the Lord helps” was poor and covered with running sores. Lazarus in his condition longed to eat what fell from the rich man’s table.*

*[It was the custom at lavish parties to use bread as napkins. The edible napkins were then thrown to the dogs as an act of extravagance. They did it because they could.]

Lazarus longed to eat those mangled pieces of bread but he didn’t get them. The dogs, however, took pity on him and licked his sores. There is no evidence that the rich man was mean to Lazarus. Apparently he didn’t think about him one way or another.

Both men died and were buried. The rich man went to Hades [the place of the dead], while Lazarus went to Paradise. Apparently these “places” are in sight of each other. In Paradise Abraham presides at a feast where Lazarus is the guest of honor. The rich man saw the festivities from his place of torment in Hades.

He speaks to Abraham, “Father Abraham send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue for I am in anguish.”

Notice that even in Hades the rich man is still trying to order people around.

rich_man_and_lazarus

Father Abraham tells him that there is a great gulf fixed between Paradise and Hades and no one can cross. “Wait,” said the rich man, “Send Lazarus to warn my five brothers.”
Abraham: “They have Moses and the Prophets.”Rich man: “No, if someone comes to them from the dead they will listen.” Abraham: “If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets they will not be convinced if one comes to them from the dead.

What does this mean? Are rich people going to hit hell wide open just because they are rich? Are the poor going to the best table at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb just because they are poor? I don’t think so, although I must admit that in the great big scheme of things we fall in the rich category. So I don’t want to think that…

WHAT DID THE RICH MAN LACK?

1. CONSCIOUSNESS: It is the nature of sin that We are stuck on ourselves and unaware of what goes on around us. We look fine to us, when we are really asleep/unconscious. The truth is that all people are more alike than they are different, but we spend a lot of time, energy, and advertising money convincing ourselves otherwise.

When we are conscious we read the situation not just for facts but also with wisdom like the village idiot who was stopped every day by the townspeople and asked to pick between a nickel and a dime. The idiot always chose the nickel and the residents went away saying, “There, you see what an idiot he is.” Except that the idiot in later life explained: “After all, if I kept picking the dime, they would have stopped offering it to me. This way I kept getting nickels every day.” Wake up and read the signs.

dives-burns

2. IMAGINATION: A man is in the waiting room while his wife is in labor. This
is back in the bad or good ole days depending on your perspective before husbands are in the room armed with digital cameras recording this birth as if it is the only birth to ever occur on this planet.

He is sweating and pacing the floor. Finally a nurse comes out and says, “You have a beautiful baby girl.” He said, “I’m really glad that it is a girl so that she’ll never have to go through what I’ve just gone through.”
We lack imagination. We find it difficult to put ourselves in the place of others. But as

Mark Twain once said, “You cannot trust your eyes if your imagination is out of focus.”

So we cannot trust our eyes blinded like Dives to the poor at our own gates while our dogs know and minister to the very ones we look through as we drive to and fro. Indeed we cannot trust our eyes for the lens of our imagination is badly out of focus and there is a certain fuzziness to reality.

3. GRATITUDE: Lewis Hyde in his book, Gift, writes, “People live differently who treat a portion of their wealth as a gift.” If what we have is a gift when we recognize that it is not ours solely. Hyde goes on to say that, “Gift establishes relationships while property establishes boundaries.”

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Owen Cooper

• If I Had My Life To Live Over— Owen Cooper (the one-time Chair of Mississippi Chemical Corporation)
• “If I had my life to live over, I would love more. I would especially love others more.
• I would let this love express itself in a concern for my neighbors, my friends, and all with whom I come in contact.
• I would try to let love permeate me, overcome me, overwhelm me and direct me.
• I would love the unlovely, the unwanted, the unknown, and the unloved.
• I would give more. I would learn early in life the joy of giving, the pleasure of sharing and the happiness of helping.
• I would give more than money; I would give some of life’s treasured possessions, such as time, thoughts and kind words.
• If I had my life to live over, I would be much more unconventional, because where society overlooks people, I would socialize with them.
• Where custom acknowledges peers as best, with whom to have fellowship, I would want some non-peer friends.
• Where tradition stratifies people because of economics, education, race, or religion, I would want fellowship with friends in all strata.
• And I would choose to go where the crowd doesn’t go, where the road is not paved, where the weather is bitter, where friends are few, where the need is great … and where God is most likely to be found.

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4.  SENSE OF SPIRITUAL REALITY: The world tends to believe that the rich are rich because God likes them better than others. However the Gospel tells us that earthly success does not equal salvation. The life and teaching of Jesus proclaims that the Kingdom of God is not about success as the world calculates such things.

Robert Farrar Capon, “The Parables of Grace” …if the world could have been saved by successful living, it would have been tidied up long ago. Certainly, the successful livers of this world have always been ready enough to stuff life’s losers into the garbage can of history. Their program for turning earth back into Eden has consistently been to shun the sick, to lock the poor in ghettos, to disenfranchise those whose skin was the wrong color, and to exterminate those whose religion was inconvenient. … But for all of that Eden has never returned. The world’s woes are beyond repair by the world’s successes: there are just too many failures, and they come to thick and fast for any program, however energetic or well-funded. Dives, for all his purple, fine linen and faring sumptuously, dies not one whit less dead than Lazarus. And before he dies, his wealth no more guarantees him health or happiness than it does exemption from death. Therefore when the Gospel is proclaimed, it stays light-years away from reliance on success or on any other exercise of right-handed power. Instead, it relies resolutely on left-handed power – on the power that, in mystery, works through failure, loss, and death.

And so while our history is indeed saved, its salvation is not made manifest in our history in any obvious, right-handed way. In God’s time – in that Kairos, that due season, that high time in which the Incarnate Word brings in the kingdom in a mystery – all our times are indeed reconciled and restored now.”

rich-dives-lazarusThis is hard for us to hear. We are weaned on the notion that WE are in charge of our destiny. Jesus has come to break the good news to us that this is not so. He requires not our success but our trust.

Capon continues, “Jesus did not come to reward the rewardable, improve the improvable, or correct the correctable; he came simply to be the resurrection and the life of those who will take their stand on a death he can use instead of on a life he cannot.”

Dives thought that if one came from the dead that people would believe. The Gospel tells us that one did come from the dead: Jesus the Christ. Abraham was right. Belief in the resurrection is not a matter of being convinced, but rather a matter of trust. The question today is, will we continue to rely on our success or will we trust in the words of Jesus, who said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”

Amen.

PENTECOST TEN

July 24, 2016

Lately, I have been listening to an audible book by Ryan Holiday, Ego is the Enemy 

Ryan became breathtakingly successful in 2006, when at the age of 19, he became the youngest executive among Hollywood Talent Agents.  By 25 he wrote a bestselling book, and a TV show was optioned, based on his story.  He began to believe his own script, believing that he had produced all this in the power of his ego carefully editing out his own failures and mistakes. Then in 2014 his 3 mentors who meant everything to him each crashed and burned.

Ryan Holiday

These were the people I had shaped my life around. The people I looked up to and trained under. Their stability— financially, emotionally, psychologically— was not just something I took for granted, it was central to my existence and self-worth. And yet, there they were, imploding right in front of me, one after another. The wheels were coming off, or so it felt. To go from wanting to be like someone your whole life to realizing you never want to be like him is a kind of whiplash that you can’t prepare for.

How did this come to pass?  Ryan continues.

The ego we see most commonly goes by a more casual definition: an unhealthy belief in our own importance. Arrogance. Self-centered ambition. That’s the definition this book will use. It’s that petulant child inside every person, the one that chooses getting his or her way over anything or anyone else. The need to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utility— that’s ego. It’s the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent. It’s when the notion of ourselves and the world grows so inflated that it begins to distort the reality that surrounds us. When, as the football coach Bill Walsh explained, “self-confidence becomes arrogance, assertiveness becomes obstinacy, and self-assurance becomes reckless abandon.”

In this way, ego is the enemy of what you want and of what you have: Of mastering a craft. Of real creative insight. Of working well with others. Of building loyalty and support. Of longevity. Most of us aren’t “egomaniacs,” but ego is there at the root of almost every conceivable problem and obstacle, from why we can’t win to why we need to win all the time and at the expense of others. From why we don’t have what we want to why having what we want doesn’t seem to make us feel any better.

We think something else is to blame for our problems (most often, other people). Especially for successful people who can’t see what ego prevents them from doing because all they can see is what they’ve already done. With every ambition and goal we have— big or small— ego is there undermining us on the very journey we’ve put everything into pursuing.

Hang on to your egos, I’ll circle back in a few minutes.

Following Jesus must have been a heady experience.  Most of the disciples were working class folk with a couple of exceptions, but even then there were no blue-bloods.  Imagine how it was the first time Jesus sent them and others out in pairs and told him to get busy doing what they had seen him do all over Galilee.  They proclaimed the Kingdom of God, they taught, they healed and they cast out evil spirits.  Everybody thought they were pretty important (and so did they).

The wanted to be like Jesus for all the wrong reasons.

So his disciples watching this asked him to teach them to pray and. he taught them what is called the Lord’s Prayer.

 

I.    THE LORD TEACHES HOW TO PRAY — OUR FATHER …

 Robert Farrar Capon, “Parables of Grace” – “It begins, simply, “Father” a term of relationship which is natural rather than earned.  Then Jesus tells the disciples and us to pray for the food they need for each day.  Notice that nothing in the way of human achievement is requested. The heart of the prayer is, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive everyone indebted to us.”  We receive forgiveness because Jesus died for our sins.

And lead us not into trial (insert your most recent one here). Life is a web of trails and temptations, but only one of them can ever be fatal, and that is the temptation to think that by further, better, and more aggressive living that we can have life.  But that will never work.  If the world could have lived its way to salvation, it would have, long ago. The fact is that it can only die its way there, lose its way there.  The precise temptation, therefore, into which we pray we will not be led, is the temptation to reject our saving death and try to proceed on our own living.  Like the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, that is the one thing that cannot be forgiven, precisely because it is the refusal of the only box which forgiveness is ever delivered.”

 II.    THE SHAMELESS NEIGHBOR

friend at midnight

 To make his point about praying clearer, Jesus then tells a story: ”It’s like,” he said, “you are sound asleep in bed when the doorbell rings. You look at the clock and see that it is nearly 2:30 AM.  Peeping through the curtain you see your college buddy, whom you have not seen in years standing at the door.  He needs to spend the night and has not had a thing to eat all day.  You’re glad to see him, but you have not gone to the grocer all week and all that is in the fridge is a head of dead lettuce and a bottle of good champagne.

What to do?  “Well,” you think, “I could go next door to the neighbor.”  So in your robe and bare feet you paddle over next-door and ring the bell. Your neighbor first doesn’t answer the door, no doubt hoping that you will go away.

So you lean into the doorbell and your neighbor’s sleepy and irritated voice comes on the intercom by the door.  “What on earth do you want at this hour?”  You explain your unexpected company.  He says that this is not his problem, and furthermore his baby with the colic has just gone off to sleep in his bed and he doesn’t want to get up and wake the kid.  Off goes the intercom.  You STAND on the doorbell!  If your neighbor will not get up because you and he are golfing buddies, he will get up and get you what you need because of, as the scripture puts it, your PERSISTENCE.

 III.   SHAMELESSNESS AS A VIRTUE.

The word persistence is not really the best translation.  The better translation would be shamelessness or lack of shame.

Capon says, “What is this shamelessness but death to self?  People who lead reasonable, respectable lives, who are preoccupied first and foremost with the endless struggle to think well of themselves – do not intrude upon their friend’s privacy at midnight.  And why don’t they, because that would make them look bad.  But if someone were dead to all that – if he could come to his friend’s house with nothing more than the confession that he was a total loss as a host (or anything else) – then precisely because of his shamelessness, his total lack of a self-regarding life, he would be raised out of that death by his rising friend.”

 IV.  ABRAHAM: A MODEL OF SHAMELESSNESS

 In the reading from Genesis for today God tells Abraham that he is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness.  This is a problem for Abraham because his nephew, Lot, lived there.  “I’m going to nuke’em,” says God.  Abraham said, “Suppose there were 50 righteous men in the twin cities? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked!  Far be it from you!  Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?” [Jews talk to God with an intimacy that few Christians ever muster].  God said, “If I find at Sodom 50 righteous, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”

3 angels of God

Abraham knew the twin cities so he thought to himself, “I’m not sure there are 50 righteous men in the city limits.”  So he begins a shameless negotiation: “What if there are only 45 righteous?”  God agrees; 40 – God agrees; 30 – God agrees; 20 – God agrees.  “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more,” said Abraham peeping through his fingers, “If there are only 10 righteous men, will you not destroy it?”  God agreed and went his way.  (I wonder if God got out there before he gave away the farm.)

Just like the man caught at midnight without a thing to serve his buddy, Abraham is shameless.  Why did Abraham risk such shameless behavior?  Because he knew his God.  As the Prayer Book puts it in the Rite One Eucharistic prayer, “You whose property is always to have mercy.”  This merciful God is our Abba/Father.

V.   GOD’S CALL TO SHAMELESSNESS?

 We can define prayer as an endeavor to behold what is real.

That brothers and sisters is the only antidote to the Ego-centeredness we call sin.

What is real then to those who accept the good news of God in Christ? What is real is that Abraham and the man with the empty larder and, yes, we also are invited into a shameless and bold relationship with the Holy One of Israel.

Paul, writing the Christians at Colossae, spells out the invitation, “When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him though faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.  And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands.  He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.”

 We cannot make it on our own; therefore we are invited into a life of shameless reliance on God.  God desires that we pray not to pester him into doing what he would not do unless we whine long enough. Our shameless – boldness rises from our being dead in ourselves and alive in the power of Jesus and his resurrection.  It is a case of, as the Big Book of Alcoholic Anonymous puts it, surrendering to win.  It is a matter of life and death that we learn that God really loves us.  He promised that He would never abandon us or leave us.

Let’s live like it, maybe?

To him be glory, now and forever. Amen

 

Pentecost XV

James Christensen

James Christensen – The Parables of Jesus

MATTHEW 20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers* for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.

These workers are the best in town. Given a level playing field they come in first every time – often with a bonus! He goes and hires more at 9, noon, 3 and just an hour before quiting time.
8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought [HERE COMES THAT BONUS!] they would receive more;  So here it comes – but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it,

Rembrandt - Parable of the Workers in the Vinyard

Rembrandt – Parable of the Workers in the Vinyard

 • they grumbled [murmured] against the landowner: Where have we heard that before, it began with Cain, Lot & family, don’t forget the poster children – the children of Israel in the desert for forty years, driving Moses crazy. No wonder he kept asking God to kill him, “Just kill me” – You know that original sin is the only doctrine that is so obvious that no one contradicts us. You have a perfectly lovely baby – Dorothy Biedenharn – only yesterday, handing out with Dad at SOULWorks – just glad to be there – but give it 18 months or so and it’s Katy bar the door. You hear it before you see it, the metal piercing whine that grates on the ear and enrages the heart.

They complained, not just about it amount of money… 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’

13 But he replied to one of them, “Friend” or in Southern, “Bless your heart, Bubba , I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”

Is your eye evil because I am good?”Or are you envious because I am generous?’
Envy, the green eyed monster, is always accompanied by its buddies: the sneaky, shifty, sly, Slander and Murder, shadowy, tall and terrible, violence – who is known as much reputation as by presence: whether it be a flash mob at Kroger or ISIS. But the ring leader is Envy – the very vermin that Lucifer the beautiful loosed into the world out of malice and spite.

Here we see the two economies:

•  Economy of scarcity, lack and fear
• Economy of the Kingdom of Heaven, in contrast is abundant, pressed down & overflowing and bullish on the future.

Them There & Then – Us Here & Now

A story from the Chapel of the Cross years is instructive. Robert Farrar Capon, of blessed memory, lectured at the Chapel of the Cross back in the 1990’s.  He was teaching that salvation is Grace plus nothing!  No hedging your bets just straightfoward grace. Robert was ruthless about grace!   I’m telling you, I have learned more about grace from Robert than anybody.

So Robert reinterates, “It’s Grace plus NOTHING.  A lawyer raised his hand and asked, “Why be good?” That’s a fair question of course. Why be good?  With a twinkle in his eye, Fr. Capon replied, “BECAUSE IT’S MORE FUN!”   So, you’re saying, it doesn’t matter how you live, said the lawyer his voice revealing his tension and barely restrained outrage. “I never said that,” Robert said, “Of course it matters how you live! – But it doesn’t earn you anything”

Well that did it! Robert just ripped the bloom off their bush. The Room divided right down the center.  One half of the room were righteously offended, while the other half aroused up in hope. Do I need to say that they righteous didn’t show up the next night?

Well the other half did return and here they cam dragging their friends – the halt and the lame – blind – none physically but of spirit – those abused by the Church of their understanding! So the room was full.  I realized that I had just witnessed what happened when Jesus taught.

You see we are called to a life spontaneous, creative and playful . Jesus promised us that we would be absolutely free, fully joyful and always in trouble. Ready at a moment’s notice speak a good word for Jesus, Therefore as Hunter Thompson put it:

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside/sideways in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow Jesus ! What a Ride!” HUNTER S. THOMPSON.

September 21, 2014 – Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Memphis, Tennessee

JWS

WHAT WE DO AFTER WE SAY WE BELIEVE.

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What does the life of a mature Christian look like to an observer? We ask people to grow in Christ. Actually this is exactly what we tell them when they are welcomed as newly baptized Christian, “We receive you into the household of God, Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” [BCP 308]   That is lovely, but now what? So the next Sunday what would the newly baptized do? In service of clarity, let’s name our brother Arthur.

The first thing Arthur does the next Sunday is that he rolls out of bed and gets ready for Church. This is the day when the largest number of his new community gathers. They do what Christians have done since that first day of the week, when Mary told Peter the Lord is Risen!

July 17, 2013 009

The Holy Thanksgiving is word, read & expounded and the sacred meal feeds the soul and equips Arthur to be a sign for others of what he received. If indeed he encounters the risen Jesus in the breaking of the bread, it is the single most important act of Arthur’s week.

Fed and equipped, now Arthur sets off into the marketplace on Monday morning. He is not a morning person, so he eats a bagel as he drives. He thinks about a report due that afternoon while listening to talk radio. Arthur arrives at his workplace having left parts of his psyche over half of East Memphis.

Having lost his center, he now is off and running; the day is a blur of emails, phone calls and demanding customers on every side. After a late consultation with his boss about a matter, he is on his way home by half past seven. He rushes to the drug store to pick up a prescription before it closes. By eight o’clock Arthur is home, settled into his chair eating a burger he snagged just past the drug store. He is exhausted, so much so that he does not sleep well.

Tuesday is another day, so what might Arthur do differently this morning? He rises earlier this morning, and while he has to get moving he is not as rushed. On the drive to work, the radio off, he thinks, actually he is praying, but he thinks he’s just thinking. He considers the challenges of the day and where the troubles may rise. Asking God to give him grace for the doing, he arrives at his office with almost all his psyche intact.

mission st clare daily offices

Mission Saint Clare

After greeting his co-workers, he goes into his office, shuts the door and fires up his computer. Getting online he surfs to the Mission of Saint Clare. On this site, the good Franciscans (Episcopal, by the way) make praying Morning and Evening Prayer ridiculously easy. Arthur follows the order for Morning Prayer from the prayer book, and all he need do is find the screen and add prayer. Having now centered in only 7 or so minutes, he is off and running. Tuesday goes better than Monday.

On Wednesday he meets with a few men from Saint John’s who meet weekly for lunch and Bible study. Though he is new to the group they are welcoming and clearly care for each other and there is a sense of trust in the room. He decides he will make this group a regular part of his week.

On Thursday he is out of the office on the road all day but arrives back in Memphis in time to make his appointment with one of the priests in their office. Arthur is not sure exactly what this is about but is interested in learning more. The priest explains that he wanted to sit together and see what questions Arthur had since his baptism. Arthur tells about his week and laughs when he tells how silly he felt at first praying in front of a computer screen. The priest tells him that the ancient practice is called constant prayer and quickly adds that all our thoughts are prayers.

“Well, God must have blushed after that driver cut me off in traffic on the Interstate this afternoon at Senatobia.” “I think we believe that God knows everything,” the priest says with a twinkle in his eye. “We are only fooling ourselves if we think we can somehow protect God from our meltdowns and outbursts. Just experiment by accepting that all your stream of consciousness is prayer. That way we can actually pray constantly.” Arthur is not sure about this but is willing to entertain the notion. He and the priest agree to meet one on one every other week on Thursday afternoon. In fact Arthur finds he is feeling a lot more relaxed on his drive home. The priest warned him that it takes more energy to keep the “rocks in the sack,” than to take them out. Maybe he’s right.

Friday is a catch-up day at work. There is a lot to do but Arthur takes time for the Clares. Even 5 minutes is better than nothing. In the afternoon he receives a call from his confirmation sponsor checking on him and inviting him to join him on Saturday morning to gather food for distribution. Arthur cannot do it but promises to help next time.

Saturday is taken up with errands, chores and preparing for the coming week. Arthur meets some of his buddies to watch the game, and even though they razz him for leaving early on a Saturday night, he goes on home, sober. It is much easier to rise on Sunday if you have no hangover.

Arthur particularly enjoys the music at the 10:30 Eucharist, and when the rector finished the announcements and before the peace, he asks if there is anything else. A man gets up, comes to the front and explains that a woman in the neighborhood near the church has broken her hip and needs a ramp built so she can come home from the hospital in a wheel chair. He needs help and it needs to happen immediately. “If anyone can help, I’ll be down by the pulpit after church,” the man said. While he is not all that handy, Arthur can hammer nails so he walked down, introduced himself and offered to work that afternoon to get the ramp ready for Monday.

When he finds the address and walks up to the house, three men are already there getting things together. Before they began to work, they stop and pray for the woman who lives in the house and that the ramp will not be needed for long. They end by offering this work to the glory of God and his work. By the end of the afternoon, the house has a sturdy ramp and Arthur, three new friends. We followed Arthur through a week of his new life as a Christian. This is of course fiction. That is a shame as I would welcome this man with open arms.

WHAT DO WE LEARN FROM SHADOWING ARTHUR?

SHOWING UP IS ALL THERE IS! Arthur has vowed to take maximum responsibility for his own soul. Everything follows from “showing up.” No one besides Arthur can make this happen. Clergy can will people to show up (making ourselves crazy in the process) but willfulness produces the opposite reaction, since protoplasm is perverse that way.

ANCIENT PRACTICES Early in the Christian experience believers discovered that certain practices nourished their vital union with the Risen Christ. One of the promises Arthur made at his baptism came directly from the practices described in The Acts of the Apostles.

Will you continue in the Apostles teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? Book of Common Prayer [304]

These practices serve as a check list of sorts. When Christians put a behavior in each of these categories they grow and mature.

READ THE SCRIPTURES DAILY The literature on spiritual growth stresses the essential nature that reading the sacred texts has for maturing faith. At Saint John’s we are embedding scripture in everything we do.

On the parish website http://www.stjohnsmemphis.org, on the Saint John’s Reads page are Bible reading resources.

  • Also on the website in the archive of sermons.
  • The Libravox Project (free app on ITunes) has free audio Bibles.
  •  www.Amazon.com has free texts of Scripture for free download to your iPad or PC.

The important thing is to get some scripture into your inner life. Just a few verses and the Holy Spirit will begin to enlighten your soul.

CONSTANT PRAYER

Saint Paul tells us to 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

While this seems impossible, it is holy multitasking. It is possible to ask a part of our psyche to take up constant prayer to pray while we are working and tending to business.

The Jesus Prayer is one way to enter constant prayer.

  •  Mysteries of Jesus Prayer – Norris J. Chumley (iTunes).
  •  The Pilgrim (classic work on the Jesus Prayer) – unknown.

The Daily Offices of Morning & Evening Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer has nourished Anglicans for centuries.

The Anglican Rosary

Anglican rosary

Anglican Rosary

Praying constantly requires a shift in consciousness. While it is wonderful to have a period of quiet in the morning before the demands of the day grab us, my suggestion is simple and requires a shift in consciousness. When we realize that our stream of consciousness is a conversation with God, then everything changes. As you go along, you will learn to recognize the different textures of thought and from time to time sense the presence of the Triune God.

SPIRITUAL COMMUNITY (INTENTIONAL GROUP) Find a place where you can be yourself and tell your story with the expectation that it will stay in the group. There are several groups at Saint John’s, and they welcome newcomers. If you can’t find one that suits you, then start one! The clergy can help you do that very thing.

ATTEND EUCHARIST WEEKLY Christians are malnourished. It is a common malady. While carefully planned liturgies are always to be the norm, entertainment is not the point on Sunday. None of us are there to passively watch anyway. The folk up front in Third Century street clothes are not performing for our entertainment; they are not the players and we the audience. In fact all of us are the players and God is the audience, as Soren Kierkegaard once said. Liturgy is literally the work (of the) people, and no one can do your work for you. If you are out of town, go to Eucharist. You can almost always find a parish, and they will be glad to see you.

SPIRITUAL MENTOR It is important to have someone trustworthy to share the thoughts of your heart. Begin by reading about this practice. Thomas Merton wrote a wonderful little book called Spiritual Direction and Meditation. That is a good place to start.

The director is one who knows and sympathizes who makes allowances, who understands circumstances, who is not in a hurry, who is patiently and humbling writing for indications of God’s action in the soul… In a word, the director is interested in our very self, in all its uniqueness, its pitiable misery and its breathtaking greatness {27] – Thomas Merton – Spiritual Direction and Meditation

• Choose carefully. The counsel of one who honors confidences and gives kindly and sensible advice is a rare gift. • Call your priest. Even if mentoring is not his/her charism they can point you in the right direction. • They need not be ordained,

 
Christ of the Homeless  - Fritz Eichenberg

Christ of the Homeless – Fritz Eichenberg

SERVE THE POOR

Ministry to those who cannot repay us is good for our souls. It may or may not feel good and even if does that will not last. I assure you of that. We are not going out to fix the poor. That is not to say that they have spiritual and physical needs that need meeting. We are to meet the poor as we would meet Christ, as he told us we could find him there. There are many opportunities in Memphis (and where you live). • Manna House – radical hospitality for the homeless • MIFA – Memphis Inter-Faith • Emmanuel Center • Hospitality Hub Call the office. Deacon Emma will be happy to help you find the ministry suited for you. I believe that getting our hands into the mire is as important for our souls as anything we accomplish for others. Money is needed. Hands are needed also.

Sir Peter Paul Rubens - The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek, 1626

Sir Peter Paul Rubens – The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek, 1626

TITHE The Tithe (10%) is the Biblical standard for giving. Do you give 10% before or after taxes? That is up to you. Most people cannot give 10% at once so how to get there? The way forward here is to begin to give proportionally. If you are giving to the church already, take the dollar amount you gave last year and turn it into a percentage of your income. Whatever that is, you can move toward a tithe in stages. If you have never given before, decide on the percentage you can give and then move toward the tithe.

It is interesting that our Lord didn’t say, “You can’t serve God and the evil one.” He said, “You cannot serve God and money!” Our Lord knew money was his chief competitor. It is good for our soul to give money a black eye by giving up control of ten percent. It can also do a lot of good.

Bernard preachingSHARE THE GOOD NEWS YOU ARE DISCOVERING There is no necessity for Arthur to set off and assault the unsuspecting passersby in the streets of Memphis with the Gospel. This approach is not generally received as good news.   What will happen is that Arthur will not be able to contain his excitement at seeing his life change for the better. As he feeds his soul, people will notice, and he will share his source of bread with his friends. The Right Reverend John Finney, Suffragan Bishop of Pontefract (retired) in his book, RECOVERING THE PAST: CELTIC AND ROMAN MISSION, warns us to get out of our heads and abandon our conflicts over doctrine. Few outside the church understand the arcane sensibility of doctrinal debate. It is foolish to fight about the hardware of the front door when the house is on fire. Here experience trumps doctrinal “facts”.

“Christians should be more prepared to explain the spiritual life they have already begun to enjoy than to seek to persuade others of doctrinal truth [43]”

GET MOVING It is easier to steer a moving than a stalled car. Walk to edge of the light/understanding you have, trusting that when you reach the edge of the dark there will be more light and further understanding. You will not know this until you move. I know it is true because I experience it almost daily.

John W. Sewell June 26, 2014 – Memphis, Tennessee

 

THE TWENTIETH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

A family was driving in the car on a trip.  The little girl, who I will call Sally, insisted on standing up right behind her father’s head.  Finding this distracting he asked her to sit down.  And she did for a few minutes but then she forgot and hopped up behind his head.   Finally he stopped the car and turned around, sat her down and told her to stay there.   He resumed driving.   In a little while a little voice was heard from the back seat.  It said, “I may be sitting down on the outside, but I’m standing up on the inside.”

Sally points to the dilemma in which all human beings live – that our insides and our outsides do not match up all that well. We can put on a good front (in public) but under our facade – there is pain and brokenness.  That is the human condition.

In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus tells a parable. A parable, by its’ very nature, is a story which contradicts and brings into question a commonly held belief.  Jesus says, “What do you think? A man had two sons.  He said to the first – go and work today.  The son said, ‘No,’ but later he went and worked.  The man said to his second son, go and work today. The son said, ‘Yes, I’ll go.’ But he never go there.  Which one did the will of the father.”  “The first one.”  “I tell you that harlots and tax-collectors will go into the Kingdom of God before you.” That harlots and tax-collectors would make it into the Kingdom at all was a shock. But that they would get in before the good religious folk was a deeply contradictory thought for them.

2 sonsGod’s call to us, as it was to them, is a call to attentive consciousness.  Religious people are qualitatively no different from sinners.  Nobody’s insides really match their outsides. The difference was that the sinners were conscious of their brokenness and the religious folk were not. Frederick Beuchner says that, “the Gospel is always bad news before it is good news.”  The bad news is that the Kingdom of God is not ours on our terms.  The Good News is that the Kingdom’s terms are better. What does this say to us?  We Christians find it fairly easy to make our outsides look good (at least when we think folks are looking).  But that is the easy part.  In our honest moments we admit that each of us is broken – that in us are deep contradictions – the dark and the light, good and evil, sin and virtue.  In the midst of our very best intentions we find the shadow.

St Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians, “ 5 Let the same mind be in you that was  in Christ Jesus,  6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,  7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

Now, to our way of thinking, when we hear the word, “form” we think in terms of shape.  The form of something is the shape it takes.  This was not so for the Greeks.  To their way of thinking, the word, “form” refers to the outward expression a person gives to his or her innermost nature.  This is not assumed or varnished on the outside but proceeds from the inside, so that the outward form is a genuine expression of the inner reality.  What Paul is saying is that the glory of the Father is a genuine expression of Jesus’ nature but that he put aside the outward expression of glory and by his birth as a human being he put on the outward expression of servant hood.  He was not pretending to be a servant, but rather servant-hood was as much a genuine expression of Jesus’ inner nature as glory.

For example, what Paul describes in his letter to the Church at Philippi is the opposite of what happened to Jesus on the Mountain of Transfiguration. Jesus and three disciples went up the mountain.  There as Jesus prayed he was transfigured.  For a moment the outward expression of a servant was replace by glory. In this computer age we might say, his outward form of servant defaulted to the outward form of glory.  The account says that his face and clothing were brilliantly bright. Both glory and servant-hood are genuine expressions of who God is in Christ Jesus.  Jesus was consistent all the way through his being – without contradiction.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

How do we have this mind? The most basic and continuing step is to become conscious of who we are and who we are not. Then the process of integration begins and continues. We must be conscious of our inner contradiction.  This is painful and our natural reaction is to avoid such a state of being.

The story is told by Carl Jung of a pastor who came to see him.  The man was overworked and burned out. Jung told him to work eight hours a day and then spend the evenings alone by himself.  In a couple of weeks the pastor returned no better and perhaps worse off than before.  Jung said he was surprised that there was no improvement and inquired about the man’s following his instructions.  The man said that he had worked eight hours and that in the evenings he had listened to Mozart and read Shakespeare.  Jung replied that the man had misunderstood his instructions.  He was not to spend the evenings with Mozart and Shakespeare but to spend the evening alone with HIMSELF.  The man said that he couldn’t imagine anything worse that that.  To which Jung said, “The very person you can not stand to be with is the very person you are inflicting on everyone else every day!”

When faced with our inner brokenness we often do one of two things:  We ignore or deny our condition. Grace comes not by denial or ignoring. Graces comes when we face our brokenness, acknowledge our shadow.  The tension of facing our contradictions opens a crack in the shell of our ego and grace seeps in. We bring ourselves, the good and bad, to the Holy One and ask for healing.  The process of healing/salvation is that over time our insides and outsides can both reflect the new life that is ours in Christ Jesus, our Lord.

That is what happens at this Eucharist. We come bringing all our stuff with us and present the gift of our lives at the altar.  We, all the parts of us, meet the risen Christ, here in this bread and wine – and we go from here a little more whole than we arrived. The Gospel is always bad news before it is good news. The bad news is we all will die.  The good news is that we don’t have to die sick.  Come risen Lord and be known to us in the breaking of the bread.      Amen