Sunday, October 27, 2013

Another Sermon

Luke 18:9-14

*****

In today's gospel lesson, we are told a parable about two men: a Pharisee and a tax collector.

We are told that Jesus relates this story for those who are confident of their own righteousness and who looked down on everyone else.  We all know those people -- the ones who believe their moral perfection makes them better than anyone else.

The people in our lives who look around and compare themselves to their neighbors, finding fault in anyone but themselves and absolutely certain that they are at least one step ahead of those in their company.

The people who seem to communicate a message that goes like this: sure I make mistakes on occasion, but they're small and relatively insignificant compared to the mistakes that people like them make; at least I'm not so depraved as those people.

And so here we have two men, a Pharisee and a tax collector.

Pharisees were well respected in their day. They were the religious leaders and teachers of the Law. The Pharisees were the elite in Jewish society, primarily concerned with purity, tithing, and keeping the law. They were often wealthy, complacent and satisfied with systems of injustice that kept them in power at the expense of others.

The Pharisees' focus on outward purity and justification speaks to a hypocrisy as they miss the importance of humility, confronting systems of injustice, sharing their food with the hungry, offering shelter to the poor, clothing the naked, and they use tithing as an excuse to ignore the needs of others.

In this parable, the Pharisee seeks to prove his humility by proclaiming that he fasts twice a week -- an activity that is seen to honor God and the intent of which is humility; and he gives a tenth of all he earns.

The purpose of the tithe as established in Deuteronomy 26:12 is to provide for the needs of the priests, the strangers, the orphans, and the poor -- with the exception of the temple priests, these were people the Pharisees staunchly ignored as being beneath them and unworthy of note or care.

The tax collector, on the other hand, is a member of a lower social caste, considered "unclean" by the purity loving Pharisees.

Roman taxation was a system rife with economic abuses. Fraud was common in assessing the value of property and goods. This inflation of value led to higher commissions. The tax collectors were getting rich via the unjust taxation of the poor.

What is more, those who collected taxes for Rome in Jerusalem were themselves Jewish individuals. They were seen as being in collusion with Rome, an empire that is oppressing the Jews.

Tax collectors were often grouped with robbers and sinners. They are despised and looked down upon.

Yet, in our parable, it is the tax collector whom Jesus holds up as having been justified before God.

The tax collector is proved just and right. He is validated by Jesus. He is the one who will be exalted.

Why?

Because whereas the Pharisee sought to justify himself through his good and humble deeds, which he shared freely in self-righteous comparison to the others, the tax collector demonstrated true humility.

The tax collector stood a distance, demonstrating his reverence for God and acknowledging his unworthiness in the presence of a just and holy God.

The tax collector bowed his head, a posture which declares: I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you because my sins are higher than my head and my guilt has reached the heavens.

The tax collector beat his breast, in shame and humiliation, demonstrating contrition for his sinful acts.

Freely he begs, "God, have mercy on me," as he declares himself "a sinner!"

God declares it these on whom He will look with favor:  those who have a humble and contrite heart, who tremble at God's word.

Though the Pharisees are the teachers of the Law, those who have studied the scriptures, it is the tax collector who seems to truly understand what they mean:

Have mercy on me, O God,
     according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
     blot out my transgressions.
  Wash away all my iniquity
     and cleanse me from my sin.


In his earnest attempt to justify himself and prove his righteousness, the Pharisee has committed a sin, he has missed the mark. He loses sight of the truth: it is God alone who justifies us.

The tax collector gets this. The tax collector understands.

Despised though he is, considered unclean, reviled by his own community, the tax collector is in the more favored position. He is the one on whom God has mercy. He is the one whom God shows favor. He is the one declared righteous and justified.

It is easy to read this story and point fingers at the Pharisee, to look around our own lives and declare, "Oh, I know who those people are, the ones who think they're better than everyone else!"

Perhaps we think we are not like them. But how often do we approach God in a spirit of contrition, genuinely mourning our sins? How often do we bow our heads, beat our breasts and declare, "God have mercy on me, a sinner?"

Are we not more often guilty of pointing out the sins of others, seeking to justify our own misdeeds as "not that bad"; seeking to justify our own lives because "at least we haven't made choices like those people," whomever they may be?

I know that far too often, I act more like a Pharisee than a tax collector. Far too often, I want to justify myself. It is a hard truth to accept that what justifies us in the eyes of God is not our righteousness or piety, but rather our humility, our repentance, and our willingness to acknowledge our failures and own our brokenness.

Today, I want to repent of this. Today, I want to seek God's justification instead of my own. Today, I want God's justification only.

Today, I commit myself to living in a way that seeks the honor and favor of God, rather than the honor and favor of humans.

If you find yourself, even on occasion, declaring your own righteousness like the Pharisee, I hope you'll join me and find restoration and new life in God who exalts the humble and declares that His people will never be put to shame.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Deborah Kaye's Cookie Fiasco

After work today, I had to run a couple of errands.

I stopped by the bank. I paid the rent. I got cash for the weekend.

Afterward, I headed to the store and as I had a $10 gift card from work (oh, big winner that I am), decided to purchase things I might not normally spend my own money on.

This amounted to a LOT of standing around the store feeling confused because 1) there is nothing in general merchandise that can be purchased for $10 or less that I would ever have use of and 2) I have issues grocery shopping, since I eat a pretty boring diet.

However, I decided to take this opportunity to purchase something new. I tried. I really did.

I ended up with peanuts, which I eat on road trips and I have a road trip coming up, so yay!

I also purchased cheese, which I eat more often than I ought to, but it was a new brand, Australian, grass fed. Worth a taste.

I purchased a head of cabbage. Which I ate for dinner. 2/3 of it anyway. To the tune of 200 calories. I also ate a bag of spinach for dinner, to the tune of 60 calories.

The last item, which was actually the first item in the cart was a cookie. I do not normally eat cookies, so this qualified as something I would not normally buy with my own money.

It was gluten free. Oatmeal raisin. It contained very few ingredients, a moderate amount of protein and sufficient fat. I was not thrilled with the sugar content, but I thought, "Maybe just this once."

I looked at the back of the single cookie envelope and discovered there were only 160 calories. I was willing to take the plunge.

On the ride home, I tore open the single envelope containing one cookie. I broke off a small piece and began to eat it, small bites, nibbling on the pieces one at a time as I broke them from the larger cookie. It was a bit like eating granola. Or eating a granola bar, as it was quite soft.

It was a tasty cookie, to be sure. I enjoyed eating it. At first.

I started looking at the cookie and calculating in my head how many servings of oats must be in this cookie. It had to be close 1/2 cup of oats per cookie. Well that just didn't make sense. The cookie also contained Sucanat (a brand of raw sugar), canola oil, raisins, coconut, eggs.... But 1/2 cup of oats has 150 calories. How can they squeeze oil, raisins, coconut and eggs into this cookie for an additional 10 calories?

Something did not add up. So, I took a closer look at the package.

Serving size: 1/2 cookie
Servings Per Container: 2

At which point, I finished eating the cookie, feeling more and more disgusted with the company, their packaging, and myself for eating TWO servings of cookie.

320 calories.

Shit.

I tried to console myself with the fact that my yogurt this morning had been 140 calories and due to unforeseen circumstances, I missed eating at lunch.

Still, I had anticipated 160 calories. I had planned to have a snack that put me at 300 calories total. Suddenly I was up to 460. That's not fair!

Besides, who eats a HALF A FUCKING COOKIE from a single cookie envelope that is not resealable!?

So, I decided that when I got home tonight, I would be far more diligent and eat a supremely healthy dinner.

A package of spinach. A head of cabbage.  Roughage bliss.

It was a tasty cookie. But I won't be doing it again.

Because, really, who eats a half a fucking cookie? NOBODY, I tell you. Nobody.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Work as Prayer

Luke 18:1-8

*****

There is a traditional way of our reading our Gospel lesson this morning. This is the reading that you would likely get at most any church in most any city in most any state. It is a good reading. It is even perhaps an accurate reading. And it's the traditional reading, which means it has some power and must connect with people. 

The traditional reading goes something like this: when Jesus tells this parable, we as listeners are to identify with the widow. The widow's incessant approaching of the judge is the way we must approach God. We must keep seeking God, day after day after day. While God may deny for a time, eventually, God will grant us justice. If we cry out to God night and day, God will answer us so that we do not wear God out. So, pray always and do not lose heart, for if the incessant cry for justice can wear down an unjust judge, surely your prayers will wear down God and you'll get what you seek. 

There are a few problems with this traditional reading of this story.

To start, there is a tendency to read this parable and in comparing God to the judge, assume that God is stingy and not eager to grant us justice. And yet, Jesus tells us, God will grant us justice much more quickly than the judge; God will not delay in helping those who cry out for justice.

Secondly, to identify with the widow, we place ourselves in a position of feeling as though we might be able to "wear out" God with our continual pleading. 

Lastly, the traditional reading of this text completely ignores the whole history of Jewish law, and so, I'd like to offer an alternate reading of the text this morning. 

Jewish law stands on the side of the oppressed. Jewish law stands on the side of the downtrodden. Jewish law stands on the side of the widow, the orphan, the poor. Jewish law stands for justice for those who have no power.

Grant me justice. 

Jewish law is God's law. A law which God declares will be put into God's people, written into their hearts. When that law is written into our hearts, we are God's people and God is our God. The law of God which dictates justice for the widow, the orphan, and the poor is our law. 

If God's law is to seek justice, then in this story, it is the widow who most closely reflects the attitude, behaviors, and very nature of God. 

In a world in which self-interest trumps all, we (more often than not) resemble the judge who does not fear God, who does not respect people. Too often we place our own desires before and above the needs of others. Too often we seek our own comforts at the expense of others' survival. Too often we seek to do what is easiest rather than what is right. 

Too often, we are like the judge: with no fear of God, no respect for our fellows, and no desire to see justice enacted. 

It is God, in our lives, who petitions us to do justice. It is God who will wear us out with the cry for justice. It is God who will come to us day after day after day after day insisting that the law of justice be lived out.

In a society that is unjust, that cares not for the widows, the orphans, and the poor, it is God who cries out day after day for justice. 

It is easy to read the gospel lesson for today and identify with the most favorably presented character -- the widow. We all want to see ourselves as good people. It is natural to want to read this story and assume that we are told to pray continually and not lose heart as the widow continually petitioned the judge for justice.  
Helen Prejean who has spent the last 20 years working with death row inmates has this to say: 
I watch what I do to see what I really believe. 

Belief and faith are not just words. It's one thing for me to say I am a Christian, but I have to embody what it means; I have to live it.... 

"Love your neighbor as yourself," Jesus said, and as a beginner nun, I tried earnestly to love my neighbor -- the children I taught, their parents, my fellow teachers, my fellow nuns. But for a long time, the circle of my loving care was small and, for the most part, included only white, middle-class people like me. But one day I woke up to Jesus's deeper challenge to love the outcast, the criminal, the underdog. So I packed my stuff and moved into a noisy, violent housing project in an African-American neighborhood in New Orleans. 

I saw the suffering and let myself feel it: the sounds of gunshots in the night, mothers calling out for their children. I saw injustice and was compelled to do something about it. I changed from being a nun who only prayed for the suffering world to a nun with my sleeves rolled up, living my prayer. 

Helen Prejean gets it. She heard the word of God. The law of God is written on her heart. And the voice of God wore Helen out, until she could no longer sit idly by in the face of injustice, merely petitioning God to do something. Helen, instead, took her place alongside God in seeking justice. 

All of scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. All of scripture equips those who belong to God for every good work. And this is the good work of God: to seek justice. 

We are called to do the ministry of God, to seek justice for the widow, the orphan, and the poor. We are called to be persistent as we rebuke injustice and encourage God's justice. We are called to stand on the side of God who calls out for justice, who wears out those who do not fear God or respect people. 

When we work for justice, we stand on the side of God. 

We need to pray always and not lose heart. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time, we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Let our work be our prayer. And let our prayer be the prayer of God -- seeking justice in an unjust world. 

When we work for justice, our work becomes our prayer. In turn, we have the privilege of becoming God's answer to prayer in an unjust and hurting world. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Difference of a Year

The first time I lost weight, my mother did not recognize me.

I had been in New York City for four months and lost about sixty pounds. I looked different.

Stepping off the plane, I was carrying a backpack, shoulder bag, suitcase, and a dog carrier; being loaded down, I did not act as my mother expected -- as I wanted. I did not run to her.

But when you're carrying 150 lbs of luggage and a small dog, running isn't much of an option.

And while not being recognized by my own mother stung a little, it was not traumatic. And all I can think really accounts for this is that I've never felt known by my family. I've always felt a little out of step, a stranger in a strange group of people, and out of place. It wasn't at all surprising that my mother did not know me.

The fault in this falls entirely on me. I do not share myself freely with my family. We have widely divergent interests and I have trouble connecting with them on things that are deeply important to me and I do not often connect with them on things that are deeply important to them.

A few weeks ago, I emailed a friend who was soon to be getting married.

A wedding in the autumn of 2012
I have not seen her in some time. The last time we saw one another I was in town for another couple of friends' wedding.


Emailing to check in and see how things were coming together, how she was doing as the wedding drew closer. I also told her that she might not recognize me. I wonder, now, if I had shared this with her as much for myself as for her -- trying to prepare myself for that possibility.

As such, it was not surprising to me that, having not seen one another in a year, and having lost 107 pounds, neither the bride nor groom recognized me. (Until I opened my mouth -- because no matter how much my face and body changes, I have this voice).

This, however, was traumatic.

There was this sense of not being known by people who do know me and who love me and who care so well for me. It was like being a stranger to those who know me best.

The reality, however, is that I am known by these people and many others. I am known by my friends who hosted me. I am known by my family to the extent that I permit them to know me.

A wedding in the autumn of 2013
And I am deeply loved by all of them. I am loved well by all of them. I am incredibly blessed by all of them.

Feelings are not fact. They do not provide us with any information beyond what filters are operating and what work still needs to be done.

I am known and I am loved.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Obedience to a Loving God

Lamentations 1:1-6, 3:19-26; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

*****

Today's gospel lesson reads with difficulty. Jesus does not come across as the kind and gentle savior we have come to expect.

Some of this is because Jesus is not the soft and gentle savior we have domesticated through years of watered down theology, the primary focus of which is making people feel good about themselves.

Some of this is because we are two thousands years divorced from the context in which Jesus made his remarks and our own country's history of slavery further colors our understanding of what slavery is. In Jesus day, however, slaves were not individuals abducted from their country, transported across countries and oceans in the most horrific and unsanitary conditions imaginable, to be auctioned off and ultimately "owned" by wealthy, white, land owners in need of cheap, plentiful, and initially disposable labor.

As it regards first century Judaism, slaves were individuals who had voluntarily entered into a mutually beneficial relationship with their employer. This was a legally binding contract in which the slave offered to perform services for the employer who in turn would offer shelter, care, and protection to the employee and after the set term of employment ceased -- a total of seven years, the slave would generally become a member of the employer's household and be treated with the same regard as other family members. This kind of relationship was often the springboard for upward mobility within this cultural context.

The slave, however, had specific obligations during the time of service, however. They were to perform their labor as specified in the terms of their contract. Entering a contractually binding agreement and upholding your end of the contract does not entitle you to special treatment.

This is what is at the crux of Jesus's question, "Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?" The answer is, "Of course not! They have done their job. Period. End of story."

Faith, genuine faith, even faith as small as a grain of mustard, is a contract into which we voluntarily enter. We choose to believe in God and God becomes our master. This faith makes us slaves to God, and we are expected to be obedient as our faith is a choice to serve to God.

We are called by God who offers to become our employer, caring for our needs and treating us a member of God's own household, and in return, should we choose faithfully to accept God as our master, we serve. This call to serve God is a holy calling. We are called according to God's purpose and God's grace. We are not called because of our goodness or righteousness or suitability. We are called for one reason and one reason only: it pleases God to do so.

This is good news!  For it pleases God to call us and to partner with us simply because God loves us. God does not love us because we have demonstrated that we are in some fashion good enough to have earned God's love.

God calls us because God loves us. We cannot earn God's love or merit by being obedient. Neither does God's love for us lessen should we be disobedient. When we respond in faith to God's call in our lives then, we choose to be obedient to God, not to earn favor with God, but rather because that is what we are commanded to do when we enter in such a relationship.

Sincere faith is a relationship with God, who graciously gifts us with a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. This means we can do all things God calls us to do without fear of failure, without concern for the outcome, with worry about the end result. So long as we are faithful to God's call, we can stand confident that God's purposes will ultimately prevail, whether we see it in our lifetime or not.

Faith, itself, is an inheritance we pass on. We see that in our epistle -- Timothy received his faith via his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois. The same is true of us. Even today faith passes through us to those whom we entrust to God whether we ever see the fruit of our labors or not.

God is faithful and we can have full confidence that what we entrust to God will be guarded until the final days.

Even in Jeremiah's day, almost 600 years before Jesus, we see the prophet's trust in God's faithfulness. Jeremiah mourned greatly for Israel, for God's people. Seeing their faithlessness, Jeremiah prayed for them and strongly warned them that they would reap the fruit of their faithless labors.

God, however, is bigger than our mistakes or failures or disobedience. God's steadfast love never fails; God's mercies never come to an end. God, who is faithful, showers us each morning with new mercies and enduring love.

The love and faithfulness of God is most clearly demonstrated in our salvation.

Salvation comes through a God who loves us no matter what; salvation that is life and immortality.

Our choice to be obedient to God may never win us accolades or reward in this life. In many ways, it may invite the scorn of others.

We can hold to a promise, however, that at the end of our days, having fulfilled our duties as slaves of Christ, that we will be welcomed into God's household as a member of Christ's family. Our reward comes at the end of days in the resurrection and in eternal life.

A clear example of this can be found in Saint Francis of Assisi who, in the influence he had on others, continues to live on even today. Francis, who endeavored to respond obediently to the call of God in his life, following the example set forth by Christ.

We, too, will live on in the influence we have in the lives of others. Let us seek to be obedient to the call of God in our lives, let us seek to follow the example set forth by Christ, let us seek to influence others in love.

Though not written by Saint Francis, the Prayer of Saint Francis sums up this idea beautifully:

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, the truth;
Where there is doubt, the faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.