Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Unloading Burdens to Give

PROPERS:          PROPER 25, YEAR C  
TEXT:                 LUKE 18:9-14

ONE SENTENCE:        Shedding burdens is an integral step in the practice of                                         giving.        

            Years ago, when I was first out of seminary, I was serving a small congregation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  The congregation was much smaller than Holy Trinity is today.

            I was invited to offer the invocation at a luncheon meeting of economic development representatives from across Mississippi.  There were probably 100 people in attendance.

            The speaker at that luncheon was Steve Forbes, publisher of Forbes Magazine, and son of the late billionaire, Malcolm Forbes.  As it turned out, Steve and I were seated next to each other at the head table. Steve and his father were noted for their yacht, which was named Capitalist Tool.

            He and I had a pleasant visit during lunch, he gave a very good speech, and we went our separate ways. I gave it no further thought.

            A couple of weeks later, I was working in my church office alone.  Due to security concerns, I kept the outer door locked.

            I heard a knock on the door and went to open it.  It was a UPS deliveryman with a package for me.  After I signed for it and took it back into my office, I noticed it was addressed to me, with a return address from Forbes Magazine.

            I opened the package and inside was a note from Steve and a tie… with a pattern of the words, Capitalist Tool.  I chuckled, and thought about the gift.

            A few days later, I told my secretary that I had an idea:  I would write Steve a thank-you note and tell him that he obviously had misunderstood me.  What I had asked for was a tithe.

            I never wrote that note.

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            Today’s gospel is auspiciously timed – right in the middle of what most churches observe as stewardship season.

            Jesus describes two people going to the Temple in Jerusalem – one a highly-respected religious leader, a Pharisee, and one a despised sinner, a tax collector.

            You know the story.  It is very familiar.  The Pharisee ostentatiously beats his chest, proclaiming for all to see that he – unlike this tax collector – is righteous and follows the jot and tittle of the Mosaic Law.  His purposes are to proclaim his own righteousness in a very public way and, using today’s terminology, to cast shade on the tax collector.

            But the tax collector – a despised person among the Jews – stood off to the side and begged God: “Be merciful to me, a sinner.”

            Jesus proclaims that the tax collector, rather than the pious Pharisee, stood justified before God.

            So often, this story is conflated in our minds with a similar passage, the Widow’s Mite, the story of the rich man who gave generously to the Temple treasury, and the poor widow, who gives only two small copper coins.  Jesus proclaims that the woman – and her meager offering – are much greater than the rich man’s gifts, because she gave out of her poverty.

            Today’s passage is, indeed, about that selfless, humble giving.  And it is about so much more.

            Hear the opening words of this passage again: “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt…”

            The challenge Jesus lays before us is that we should not rely on our own righteousness, and that we should be humble in all that we do.

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            There is another story from scripture which illustrates this point well.  It is the story I grew up calling The Rich Young Ruler.  Hear it again:

17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is[a]to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him,[b] “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:17-27)

            We tend to think we know this passage well.  If we take it literally, we see the tremendous difficulty associated with a person “of means” entering the Kingdom of God.  There would have to be some sort of intervention.
            But there is an ancient interpretation of this passage, dating back to at least the ninth century.  That interpretation shed some significant light on this passage – and has a strong resonance with the Gospel lesson today.
            Jerusalem, of course, was – and is – a walled, fortified city.  It was built that way to protect against invaders.  There were several gates in the city walls, which allowed travelers to enter.  At night, those gates would be closed, to secure the walled city.
            But… but… so the interpretation goes, at least one of the massive gates had a small, narrow door which could be opened for those wishing to enter the city at night.  That small door was called the eye of the needle.
            It seems that in order for a camel to enter that narrow door, all its burdens had to be taken off its back.  Only when all the burdens were removed could the camel come through the narrow door.
            The same is true for us. That is what the gospel lesson today is saying to us.  When we approach this altar, when we say our prayers, when we listen to someone else’s stories, when we reach out to connect with another person – we are to set aside our burdens, our cares, our presumptions about ourselves, our pride – and become vulnerable as humble Children of God.
            When you offer your gifts – whatever they may be – with such a sense of reliance on the grace and mercy of God, they are like a fragrant offering to the Holy One.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Superficial Divisions

PROPERS:          PROPER 23, YEAR C  
TEXT:                 LUKE 17:11-19

ONE SENTENCE:        Many of our “enemies” are not our enemies, but                                                 individuals with whom we share much.

            The gospel lesson today is a familiar one, but there is much texture and history to it.
            Jesus heals 10 lepers and sends them to the priests to show their healings and, one presumes, to have their ritual purity proclaimed.

            Only one of the lepers returns to Jesus to give thanks.  Jesus notes, that lone returning leper was a Samaritan.

            Therein lies the texture and history.

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            Luke likes to focus on Samaritans.  There is a reason.

            A more familiar story is Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke, chapter 10. In that parable, a man is stripped, beaten, and left for dead by bandits along a road from Jerusalem to Jericho.  Various people of faith – including a priest – pass by, walking on the other side of the road.  They turn a blind eye to the wounded man.

            And then along comes a Samaritan.  The Samaritan takes the man to a roadside inn and pays to have him nursed and returned to health.

            Again, it was not a member of the covenant people – the “good people” -- who tended this victim of crime, but a Samaritan.

            Jesus poses a question:  Who was the wounded man’s neighbor?

            Jesus is turning the tables on history.

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            In the days which followed the reigns of Kings David and Solomon – a combined rule of 88 years – the United Kingdom divided.  Judea became the nation to the south, with its crown jewel of Jerusalem.  The northern part of the country became Israel, with its own kings and queens (think of Ahab and Jezebel).

            That was nearly 1,000 years before Jesus.  And the animosity between those two countries grew.

            The locus of faith for Judea was Jerusalem and the Temple located there.  For Israel, the shrine of faith was at Mt. Gerazim near Shechem – in a section of the land known as Samaria.

            The two peoples shared much – especially devotion to Torah, the law.  But they were divided by their devotion to separate holy places.

            The animosity grew – despite their shared roots.  Both lands were ultimately conquered and occupied by foreign forces – Israel first, Judea second.  But the suspicion and distrust lingered.

            Some two-hundred years before Jesus, most of the people of the area known as Galilee became Jewish.  That left Samaria pinched between two areas hostile to their existence. People traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem would frequently by-pass Samaria, even though it added miles to their journeys.  They wanted nothing to do with Samaritans – these “foreigners.”

            It was to this well-aged animus that Jesus spoke.

            He noted that the one leper who returned to give thanks was a Samaritan.  Where were the other nine?

            The irony must have struck Jesus. It must have struck his followers, as well.

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            In the two stories – the Good Samaritan and the Ten Lepers – we see two truths which should prompt us to think.

            In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, we see the Samaritan as an example of a good neighbor – someone who will care for another.  The Good Samaritan is modeling loving behavior – contrasted with the priest and the Levite. Someone who exemplifies the spirit of the Law – Remember the second part of the Summary of the Law:  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

            In today’s gospel, we have another dimension: a model of godly love for the Samaritan and the response from him.  God does not differentiate between a member of the covenant community and a foreigner.  In response, the Samaritan shows a heart full of gratitude for God’s movement in his life.

            So, in these two passages, Jesus shows us the breadth of God’s grace.  It typifies his mission, which is to all people.  And he tries to open the eyes of those who see the other – the foreigner, the leper, the tax collector, the sinner – as someone to be looked down on. 

            That mission takes on broader emphasis in Luke’s second volume – the Book of Acts.  In the first chapter, just before his ascension, Jesus tells his followers, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” We see the efforts of Paul, Peter, and others to take the gospel to the wider world.  The gospel and God’s love are for all people.

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            There is a more immediate lesson for us, though.

            There was a deep division between the Jewish people and the Samaritan people – in spite of the fact that they had common foundations, shared much in-common, and were joint heirs of God’s love.  They looked past all that and recognized, instead, their divisions. They saw each other as enemies.

            Who do you see as an enemy – even though you may share much in-common with them?

            That which separates you may be superficial – school allegiance, race, ethnic origin, political views.  Or it may be deep and broad – an approach to life, different faiths, profound beliefs or ethics.

            Ronald Reagan famously said, The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally.God is even more generous than that.  We are to look at ourselves and others and see the bond of God’s love – that transcends our feeble humanity – and view one another not as enemies, but as brothers and sisters and fellow children of God.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Ougiving the Giver

PROPERS:         PROPER 22, YEAR C           
TEXT:                 LUKE: 17:5-10

ONE SENTENCE:        Our striving is to no avail; it is in freedom that we find                                        joy.    

            I want to talk with you this morning about two things: An approach to life, and an approach to giving. There can be joy and freedom in both.

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            Three years ago this coming February, I retired after serving 16 years as Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Mississippi.

            I did not know it then, but I had been living a heresy.  It had to do with what I was giving to the job. For those of you who care, my approach violated the 14th of the 39 Articles of Religion found in our Book of Common Prayer.

            Now, after quietly sitting in a screened-in back porch, gazing out on the eighth fairway of Rock Creek Golf Course, I see my pride and heresy more clearly.

            For those 16 years, I had over-functioned.  I had tried to prove my worth, my value, to find esteem, and to earn God’s love by giving all that I had to the job.  I traveled.  I met with Vestries.  I conducted search processes.  I led mutual ministry reviews.  I met with clergy and laity. I devised and executed new programs. I sought to be indispensable.  I was trying to manufacture blessings.

            I was gripping the controls of life too tightly. I tried to give more than I was given.

            Perhaps like the servant mentioned in Jesus’ words today…

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            I was practicing works righteousness – thinking that giving relentlessly of myself would settle my accounts.  I thought I alone could make the world right and earn my blessings.

            I was wrong. No matter what I might tell myself, I could not make myself independent. I could not put myself in the place of God.  And I could go beyond what God had given me.  

            I could strive and strive, but I could not become self-sufficient. I could not outgive the giver of all things.  Jesus makes that clear in the gospel lesson today: So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, `We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'"

            Like you, I suspect, I do not want to be considered a “worthless slave”.  We want to be fiercely independent.  But, we need to be mindful of that theological truth of our giftedness as we approach our discernment of the question: What percentage of my income is God calling me to give?  We cannot become self-blessers – no matter how hard we try; no matter how hard we grip the controls.

            The answer is this:  We can recognize our blessings, our abundance.  We can give generously out of thanksgiving and joy – both in exercising our vocations and in offering our gifts.

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            I believe there is a direct correlation with our Christian giving.  We stress ourselves over our level of giving.  There is a temptation to feel we have made ourselves and that we owe no one anything. As a result, we blanch from examining the issue of giving, from talking openly about it, and in having direct focus on the subject.

            We should be aware, though, that it is in reflection, open conversation, and self-examination that we find freedom from old taboos and guilt.

            That is precisely what I am encouraging today.  Thoughtful, prayerful reflection on the source of our blessings and giving from those blessings.  By virtue of doing that, I am saying you can find joy and freedom.

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            I have referred to gripping the controls. I am reminded of a lesson a friend, who is a pilot, has told me.  If a pilot grips the controls of a plane tightly, the movement of the aircraft will be sudden, stiff and erratic. But if the pilot grips the controls lightly, the plane’s motions will be more smooth and fluid.

            An example: In cinematic depictions of Neil Armstrong’s descent to the moon’s surface in Apollo 11, you see him gingerly nudging the controls of the lunar module, delicately guiding his fragile craft in its final moments.  The results stopped the world.

            Our approach to life and its challenges can make a huge difference. Tight versus loose. Stress versus freedom.  Joy versus requirement. Giving freely versus giving under duress.

            The answer is to be loose… to recognize the blessings… to recognize we are not on our own… to act out of joy… to act out of freedom.  Both the giver and the gift are transformed. And recognize, as Jesus inferred, no matter what you, you cannot outgive the giver.

            I hope that frees you.  It should disclose to you that life – all aspects of it – is a gift. You are not owned or controlled by your possessions.  They are gifts.

            You are released from negative voices of past experiences. You are free.

            Freedom from compulsions – and recognizing my true abundance – helped me find joy. 

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            Like many of you, I have touched the various stages of giving – giving out of requirement, giving out of obligation, giving to a budget, giving as a “dues payer”. But then I learned giving as a percentage of income, and then, finally, giving out of joy. Bit-by-bit, step-by-step. I took free steps in giving.

            It did not happen overnight. Over time, I shed those voices of shame and judgement. I recognized that the wolf was not at the door.  The provisions with which I was blessed came not from being a self-made man, but from God. My life, my being, my family, my vocation, my world were all gracious gifts from God.  And out of that sense of givenness came a desire to give back a portion of those blessings.

            It was at that point that giving moved from being an obligation to being a joy.

            I cannot tell you where that point will be for you.  It is a very personal point. You alone can name that time.  You will make that decision.

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            I know of some wonderful stories of how lives have been transformed by recognizing the grace of God in people’s lives.  Some are like Osceola McCarty, a housekeeper at the University of Southern Mississippi.  She retired after earning a meager wage for many years, and she left a charitable gift of $250,000. She had what she needed.  She gave from her sense of abundance.

            Or there is the seminary professor, whose privacy I will respect.  Having been so profoundly moved by her relationship with God, she lives a reverse tithe: Living on 10 percent of her income while giving 90 percent away. She has been blessed and transformed; she now blesses and transforms others.

            Neither of these people give out of compulsion.  Nor are they controlled by their possessions.  They are freed and they give out of joy and gratitude.

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            I am told that in some areas of the country there is a season called fall (maybe we will encounter it at some point).  During that season, the trees take on remarkable colors, and then let go of their leaves.  They release their burdens.

            And in a few months, they find new life.  I hope you can find the same.