The Invisible Among Us

Sermon Given on October 13th, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23.

It’s tough being on the outside, to be excluded from the group.

 We don’t choose to be excluded most of the time, except for those moments of principle:  it simply happens to us.  We get sick; we become part of the class of people who is unhealthy.  Sometimes we are quarantined; and then we feel contagious, so we avoid others; or deserving so we are ashamed.  If not, we ask, “how did I become such as one of these, a leper, an outcaste?”

We’ve been a part of the tribe;  we begin to notice the way people avoid our faces, who stop returning our phone calls, who quickly end their conversations with us.  Or there are the voices of pity and feigned concern, just enough time to assuage their guilt and truncate the relationship.  We become lepers.  Continue reading

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Sermon Notes, Proper 17 Year C

Author’s Note:  Each week I usually look over the text and consider a couple questions that help me think over the following week.  This is not meant to be exegetical or comprehensive – there are plenty of stronger sites for such research.  This week’s readings can be found here.

Jeremiah 2:11 Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.

What is beneficial about a Chrstian pattern of life, if anything?  Jeremiah seems to indicate that the faith of Israel is simply ineffective – the other Gods do not work.   Worshiping other Gods is inefficacious, like using a cracked pot to carry water.  In this sense faith is practical.  This should assuage the scientist and even the agnostic.  What we do works, even if the reasons seem obscure or imprecise.

Usually people worship other Gods because they seem effective.  So what are those Gods, and what do they bring?  How are they mistaken?

Hebrews13:1 Let mutual love continue. 13:2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 14:14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Sometimes I think that we could learn a lot about how church life should be from going to three *** restaurants (like this one I went to, when I got my doctorate).  Jesus refers to himself as the server – as if he’s the waiter who ensures that the wedding feast moves without a hitch.  To some extent He is invisible, making the plans.

Do our congregations do the work of hospitality?  It’s not easy.  Hospitality forces us to get out of ourselves and attend to the visitor.   Being an effective server also requires technique, skill and discipline – there are many ways to render a visitor invisible or uncomfortable.   Our “discipleship” is not just about formed thoughts but about the work of providing a space for others to experience the Sabbath.   We underestimate the preparation that requires.  Perhaps we should study church plans the way restauranteurs plan restaurants.

The Gospel inspires me to wonder what do we value?  When do we insist on taking credit?  What does it mean to be recognized?  Why would we be recognized?   To be seen is a deeply human need; and when we are not the humiliation can be too much.  But perhaps a deeper trust diminishes that need enough so that we can still be effective agents in the world though the only person who knows us is the one who made us.

Sermon Notes for Proper 16 Year C

  • First reading and Psalm
    • Jeremiah 1:4-10
    • Psalm 71:1-6
  • Alternate First reading and Psalm
    • Isaiah 58:9b-14
    • Psalm 103:1-8
  • Second reading
    • Hebrews 12:18-29
  • Gospel
    • Luke 13:10-17

The passage from Jeremiah is intriguing.   I can’t quite imagine that a boy would, or should, have confidence to speak God’s word.  He is certainly challenging the powers, reminding us that all organization is reorganization. We have to build anew: is this a question for the church?

Perhaps building an infrastructure takes years, so we often begin as children and must learn along the way.

I wonder if being a child is akin to being in a state of emotional “flow:” constantly learning and challenging, the slow building of mastery over a particular task.  In this case: learning how to speak.  But there many places we must simply do the work in order to learn, making mistakes along the way.  I wonder if our current society allows kids to just make mistakes enough.

Isaiah reminds me of Heschel’s statement that the Sabbath is God’s Cathedral.  In some way, the Sabbath restores a human economy, when we are not counting the goods we have, but simply enjoying them.

The gospel raises a few questions:  what does it mean to be set free from the bondage of Satan?  What are the steps to be free from envy or pride?  How do we pray this?  Is Satan here the same as sin?  It does not imply that the woman is a bad person; rather, she is burdened.

So to be free – can it mean free from self-delusion?  Do we become newly confident?  Or is that also an error.   Or does it mean being able to clearly see our mistakes, and to humanize our flaws and strengths, without thinking they’re judged by God.  I’ll be thinking about  what does it mean to be crippled

Sometimes I wonder about the ways we create our own obstacles.  We say mantras to ourselves that we inherit from other people.  We believe everything the media says.  We’re told we can’t sing; that we’re not worthy; that only through hard work on the Sabbath do we deserve to live.

But the touch of Jesus is simply this:  there is nothing you can do to deserve life; there is nothing you can do to deserve what you have.  By simply being a live you may shine in God’s glory.  Echoing Jeremiah, you have been made.  That’s all.  That’s enough.

Sermon Notes Proper 14 Year C

So it’s Monday, which means prepping for the coming Sunday.  Here’s what I’m beginning to think about.

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20.  I’ve got to choose between Isaiah and Genesis.

First, I cringe at the sentence, “incense is an abomination to me.”  Fortunately, we still have the Book of Revelation to trump that.

So Isaiah makes me consider that “learning to do good” is what is pleasing to God.  The “Learning” is interesting to me more than the task.  Admittedly, I think a risk here is to be vague without being concrete about what oppression, defense, and “ceasing to do evil” means.  Are Christians oppressed?  If so, how?  Is oppression about being shut out of economic networks?  It is not knowing how to plan for the future?  Most of the time, when my colleagues talk about “oppression” I sympathize, but then I’m not sure what it means.  Getting threatened – sure.  Just feeling bad about yourself?  Not convinced.

When God says, “Let’s argue it out” I wonder about how we talk to God.  What if argument is not about a war of words, but a way of learning how to think through the necessary tasks of doing good and seeking justice.  It mitigates the perfectionist, puritanical impulses of the utopian, making justice about a process of working through the problems.  Also “argument” prefigures the divine “logos” as logos, in Greek, can mean argument.  Jesus is the divine argument.

And then:  there is obedience.  I love preaching about obedience because it’s truly countercultural.  How is obedience different than being oppressed?  Sometimes it’s just easier and more liberating to just do the work you are told to do.  Can you imagine every musician in an orchestra demanding their own voice when rehearsing a symphony?    As the abbot of my order remarked to me:  Obey me in all the small stuff; argue the big stuff.  It makes life a lot simpler.

In Genesis (15: 1-6),  Abram seems a little disappointed in God.  Someone else will inherit his wealth because he has no children.   I think about how “inheritance” works – and what we do inherit from our families – cultures, traditions, wealth.  Those who inherit little are at a disadvantage in the US.  “What do you inherit” and “what will you pass down to your children?” are questions I might ask myself this week.

The passage in Hebrews references Abraham.  I’m struck by the kinds of characters God chooses:  it seems random, and not based on merit.  Rather, he’s the one who is chosen for absolutely no reason, except by faith.  But even that faith is the kind of argumentative sort.  Abraham is not exactly “obedient” but petulant and resentful.

What makes a “home,” a home and where do we find our home? What identifies the heavenly city, and can we find it here – even in NYC, or in the cities where we make our lives.  Perhaps in the school, our libraries, our Saloons, churches, are they places where we have already experienced the kingdom?  How so?

The gospel this week invites reflection about the apocalypse; or what would you do if you knew you were going to die tomorrow?  A month?  A year?  What if you knew that a planet was going to hit Earth (say,  like the movie Melancholia).   I’m also interested in exploring why Jesus says “sell all your possessions and give alms” and why I’m decidedly not going to do that.  Is it because the selling possessions and the end of the world are tightly linked?

I might explore the difference between a human economy and a commercial economy.  A human economy, as I would define it, is one where exchanges are not counted because trust between the different participants is assumed.  A commercial economy, by nature, requires a calculation of goods that are exchanged between strangers.  In both cases, the question is:  why do we trust our families?  Or our coworkers; or our commercial institutions?  What happens when they fail?

Sermon Notes, Proper 13 year C

Just a couple thoughts about preaching this Sunday.

I was wondering about the relationship of the brothers. Is there a way to talk about rivalry and resentment here? Jesus response about greed invites my thinking about Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street where he tell students that “greed is good.” How do we express an alternate ethic, and why – when and if greed gives us all sorts of pretty things?

I was thinking about how the purpose of money is, in part, to circulate, to share. This is in contrast with hoarding. The rich man hoards – invests – in food he will not eat to day but in some unspecified date in the future. Instead, Jesus says “eat now.” Bring tomorrow today. It reminds me how I often think that tomorrow is the best day to start a diet, rather than now.

The body needs blood to circulate; the economy needs money to circulate. So what is it that we hoard? What kind of hoarding stultifies our lives? Is it about sentimentality? Is it a critique of attachment? Or is it a warning that we are always idol making creatures, to easily collecting burdens we don’t need to have. Perhaps the message is “keep moving.” Or die.

Sermon Notes Proper 28c

Isaiah 65:17-25  “The former things shall not be remembered or come to mind”  and offers a vivid description of what was normal:  precarity; death; calamity.    God will create “But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.”

It’s an opportunity to discuss memory – how it prefigures and affects how we live into the future, our hopes and desires.  Can we ever see things anew?  I may spend time reflecting on precarity itself.  God looks forward to a time without sorrow; and this means a mitigation of the everyday calamities in biblical culture.   One paradox is when we are so distant from precarity, we forget God.

Thessalonians is an exhortation within Christian community.  How might Christians work with one another?  Some Christians are lazy.  The exemplars live by example, seeing to do well through encouraging imitation – rather than, perhaps, by diktat.    I’m instinctively wary of the rigor of the command, but perhaps Paul reminds us of our obligation to each other.   They seek avoid idleness but to work so that they might not be a burden.  That said, what of people who are truly burdens?   Within a community we share the work; but we still serve others who are destitute.  We are still called to serve the poor; but we have high expectations of ourselves

“All will be thrown down.”  Jesus gets apocalyptic here.  He denies those who claim the world will end, and yet also giving instructions about what to do.  Luke clearly thought Jesus understood that the end of the world was impending.   This may be an opportunity to talk about transformation, and that we have nothing to fear.

The Bent Lady; or Having a Really Bad Day

(A general summary of the sermon given August 22nd, 2010, Proper 16)

Sometimes we have really bad days.

Start off with a lack of sleep and nightmares about the apocalypse, being
naked in public, or realizing you never should have graduated high school.
Wake up.  There’s no hot water.  You cut yourself shaving.  Then there’s a
leak from the floor into the ceiling of your living room onto your cherry
table.

There’s no more juice or milk in the refrigerator.  Someone in the house
finished the eggs and the cereal.  You get dressed, but you’re in a rush so
you rip your pants.  You try on another suit, and you notice a little grease
stain.  The next suit is too tight.  You take everything off and weigh
yourself, and you’ve gained ten pounds.

You can’t find your keys.

After you find them twenty minutes later, you speedily back out of your
driveway, hitting a parked car that isn’t usually there.

You’re late for a meeting with your biggest client.

As you drive, you smell a horrible odor.   You wore this shirt dancing a
couple days ago and forgot to place it in the hamper.

When you stop at a red light, a car pulls up next to you and a five year old
gives you the finger.

At work you’re handed divorce papers.  After your secretary quits, your
daughter calls and tells you she’s marrying her one true love, a musician
who has a long criminal record, who you caught smoking pot in your back
yard.

He hadn’t even offered to share.

When you come home, you discover there isn’t a single glass of booze in the
house.  The dog opened the refrigerator door and ate the steak you
were marinating.   You smell a strange odor of burning wood coming from
somewhere in your house before the alarm goes off.  In the distance you see
a volcano erupt.

That’s a bad day.

Now imagine having a bad day for eighteen years.

Some take the optimistic view.   _There’s always someone with a worse day.
_ “I have cancer, but it could be stage four melanoma.  That would really
suck.”  Or “I have a terminal disease, but I’ve always wanted to die before
my husband and kids.”

Others become like zombies, their sensitivity to pain so reduced they can’t
feel anything.  Some of those are so calloused themselves, they can’t feel
the pain of others.  Some become bitter, outraged at the injustice around
them, the needless victimization, they shake their fists at the absurdity of
a God or a world that would make suffering so ubiquitous and ordinary.
They become pillars of resentment, with such a chip on their shoulder they
can’t make friends, alienate their family and routinely insult police
officers and babies.

In one parable, a woman who’d been sick for 18 years, bent with a serious
form of arthritis, asks Jesus for healing.   The scene has the indignant
priest, upset that Jesus is ignoring the holiest of God’s laws – don’t work
on the Sabbath.  He represents the enforcer against Jesus’ libertine
sensibilities.  But they are also indignant because they complain because
she’s a woman, an old woman, one who is not seen or allowed much power or
voice in a patriarchal society.

Jesus sees her; she stands.  He chastizes the rule-makers.  Even they would
free their animals on the Sabbath to get them a drink of water.   This
woman, isn’t she also a child of God?  Shouldn’t she also be liberated?

After 18 years, she could have been defined by her bad days.  This was the
sick woman; who others thought she may have deserved her plight; her identity was confined and bound by the fears around her.  Jesus sees her differently, instead as a child of Abraham, a person who could be free.

It wasn’t sympathy he offered; nor did he erase the past.  Rather, he saw her as a human being worthy of love, interrupting the cruelty of the habitual pieties that
rendered invisible the ones who always have a bad day.