Monday, October 31, 2011

Theology 101--Worship

This has been a very fruitful week for me theologically speaking. I am preparing to teach a Bible Study on of all things, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. In doing a Bible Study on Amos for the last 2 months, I found that I had not learned enough about Jewish worship practices to understand the underlying theology to the ancient understanding of the Judeo-Christian concept of honoring the Divine and I needed to dig a bit deeper. Of course I went to Walter Bruggemann’s works. His Ancient Hebrew Worship was a good place to start.

Worship in our tradition began as ‘just showing up’. Three times a year there would be a pilgrimage to worship all together. There was nothing you had to believe except the Shema—“Hear. The Lord your God is one.” It was the gathering of the community—the coming together of people for the purpose of being with God that was important. The Qahal Yaveh—the gathering of the people for the express purpose of standing before God characterized the early liturgy of the Hebrew people. It is the biblical understanding of what worship is about.

All too often I find people who say: “ I can worship better sitting alone on the mountainside, or seaside, or wherever”. But they never quite get the point of worship—it is a group thing. It is about coming together with other human beings before God that makes worship sacred—set apart for the Holy One. It is when we, truculent beings that we are, must come together in God’s name and leave all our quarreling, all our grumpiness, all our human pettiness behind that we find the shalom of God. It is our greatest offering. It is the most precious gift we have to offer God and we cannot do it alone.

Now that I am retired I don’t have to go to Church. But I try not to miss services. It is when I am most alive. To come together with others in the name of Christ is truly a joy for me. I don’t care if the service is high, low or in-between. It can be any of those and be dry as a bone or as alive as the body of the individuals there makes it. I have found wonderful worship in the small and the great places of worship in the world just because there were others there who were single-mindedly there to be before God. Was God in that place more than God is on the solitary mountain retreat? No. But I was there with others who wanted to stand before God too.

That mere coming together with others demands from me a kind of ethical response that sitting under a tree on the mountainside does not. It demands of me a willingness to live within the conventions of the community. I must act in ways that being alone does not. It calls me to a kind of mindfulness of the others around me—an awareness and compassion for others that my solitary prayer does not. It gets me out of myself and while I am focused on God, I am also mindful of the whole of humanity represented by those sitting in the pew.

When I was in the convent one of the more profound experiences of community was going to the chapel for meditative prayer (a silent and profoundly individual hour of prayer before Matins or Morning Prayer) with the entire community sitting silently in their pews. Nothing was said. No one caught the other’s eye; there was not even an acknowledgement of the other’s presence. But it was the community gathered before God, all wrestling with whatever personal or communal issues interiorly. We were alone but we were all together for the same purpose--to give thanks, petition for ourself or others, or merely stand in the presence of God in awe.  That hour of daily intense community formed me in faith and compassion.  It formed me even when I was restive or sleepy (after all it WAS 4:30am!).  But it formed me in a way that made me more mindful of my responsibilities to the women in my community, the people with whom I was in contact each day and my place in the whole scheme of God's saving grace.

Humans are gregarious creatures by nature. We are not a solitary animal such as the cheetah. And if there is anywhere we learn more of what it means to be with God, to take upon ourselves those God-like characteristics of loving-kindness and compassion, it needs to be in our worship. Worship has to do with my offering to God that which is most profoundly mine—my will. It is in worship that I can practice the progress to live into the image of God in whom I am made.

Worship is not just a service that makes ME feel good. Worship is a process that calls me from my baser selfishness to live more as God would have me live. It requires me to pray cheek-by-jowl with those that I may not even like or even quarreled with the day before. And that is why worship is such an important part of our faith. We cannot ignore those around us, those who are even on the periphery of society if we are to truly offer to God our ‘bounden duty and worship.’

As we come out of this “time of anger” in the world and especially the Church, I know that it is through the gathering of the people of faith that we will once again be the “Qahal Yaveh”. I await Diana Butler Bass’s new book to see how she finds worship in this new Reformation. Because worship is what we human’s do in the face of the Holy. And we do it together because that is where we must—call it God’s desire for us, call it a natural inclination—whatever. But it is where we are the most alive. It is where we know how inextricably we are part of that great Holiness of God. It is where we can touch the totally “otherness of God” and the infinite inwardness of humanity and we too can utter “Hear! The Lord your God is One.”

Friday, October 28, 2011

Friday, October 28, 2011What lifts you? - Friday Five

Sally is in the dumps. I have been there so many times that I feel I should pay rent to the landfill. In fact I just got an appointment with a new shrink yesterday. I have taken medication since the early ‘80’s and I am so thankful for it. I know that my symptoms come from being a ‘quart low’ of serotonin, as were my father and, I think, my grandfather. I also think I have a niece who struggles with it but refuses to get help.

Sally writes:

Over the last few weeks I have been struggling with depression, I know that from reading other folks blogs that I am not alone in this, and from time to time if not suffering from depression that everyone feels down. With that in mind I wonder what lifts you? So I'd like you to share 5 things:

1. Scripture : My all-time verses come from the book of Ben Sirach in the Apocrypha: Chapter 2—the whole chapter. It calls me to my toughest self—one who can stand up to the challenge of Christ’s call. It gets my juices going to fight the enuni that is so much a part of a pastor’s life. We often pick up all the troubles of those we serve and keep them rather than give them to God. I used to have a green rug in the rectory (where I met with parishioners) and tried to remember to leave their problems on my green rug so that it would fertilize it!

2. A piece of music: I am a classical music hound. I listen to Gregorian chant to meditate, or listen to some major work that I like that fills me with purpose and strength like: Mahler 7th or the Brahms’ Requiem. I was a music major in my undergraduate days so music runs around in my soul. There is the 2nd movement to Ravel’s piano concerto that is so lovely that it makes me cry—and that is one of the things that helps me when I am down—the gift of tears is God’s way of helping me cope with the ‘stuff’ in my life.

3. A place. There are ‘thin places’ in my life. As a Celt through and through, place is important to me. There are few churches that become that place but out of doors is important. I have not found any new places here in FTW. Some of our revgals came over and helped us organize the office in our home while J was so sick. I now have a quiet office to think and pray. I also love to be near water or on it.

4. A person/ group of people: As an extrovert, people are so important to me to keep my spirits up even if they are on the internet. I can’t tell you how many times it has been one of the revgals who have said the right thing on one of their blogs, or an email from a friend that has helped me get out of the doldrums. Meeting with colleagues –often women not of my own denomination have been a boon. Just the vocabulary of ministry is just enough different to bring me some new view of faith, ministry, family, whatever is often just what I need.

While I do not solicit this, every once in a while I will get an email from a former parishioner who lifts me. But the all-time lift I got was when I wrote Bp. Jack Spong whom I had never met and asked him what he did to not give up when the arch-conservatives were trying to take over the Church. He wrote me and asked me to “come die with him for the salvation of the Church and for Christ Jesus.” I have never been so challenged to ministry in my life. I find that when people I respect challenge me when I am down, I am able to respond better and more fully than if I am coddled or comforted.

5. Something you do...There are several things:

Exercise. And this is probably the hardest to do when I am down. I am not normally a ‘movable object’ and this contributes to the depression.

Talk: If I have to, I find a therapist. When J was so sick, I found I needed someone who was a professional who could help me sort out my thoughts and fears, my whines and whimpers, my uncharitable thoughts and grumpies, own them and forgive myself so that they wouldn’t overtake me in dealing with her. It just took a few sessions, but it did the trick. I find that introverts tend to process it differently but just being willing to look at our fears is a big step to recovering from depression. For me, depression is God saying to me that I am hiding from something in my life that God wants me to look at. Sometimes it is a spiritual issue, sometimes it is a personal issue, but I am always better when I allow myself to name the fears I have and turn them over to God. The therapist or spiritual director can often help me ask myself the right questions so that I can get clear. Fear is the biggest impediment to my ministry—and I don’t think of myself as especially fearful. And most of my friends would see me as rather bold. But it is those temptations to think of ourselves as incapable or not worthy that sometimes sneak into our thinking that erodes our confidence and faith. I would ask all revgals and revpals: Do you have a pastor?

Rest: Often my depression comes on when I have allowed myself to over commit, or over do. Since over-doing is in the gene pool of us clergy types, I have to give myself permission to really rest—sleep, read some dumb who-done-it novel and forget the parish, the world, the family for a few hours.

Eat right: Depression and eating often go hand-in-hand with me. If I can be intentional about eating good food, well-prepared and healthy even if I have to eat out, it helps.

Being Nice to Myself: There is such a temptation to beat myself up while depressed and that it makes it worse. When I recognize that depression is an ILLNESS, not just a failure to cope, it makes a bit more sense. Then I can treat it like a common cold rather than a defect of character. If we have the sniffles, it is not difficult to go to bed early with a hot toddy. When we see depression as a normal part of living and that we ‘catch’ depression from our families, parishes, the world, just as surely as we do the flu then we can deal with it a bit better and without the guilt that we often lay at our feet.

Don’t Sweat the Big Stuff: When I am really depressed it is really hard to ‘find’ God. It feels like I am looking for God from the wrong end of binoculars. I have learned not get upset and fear that I am going to lose my faith. God IS there; you aren’t. Depend upon the support of the prayers of those who love you. Ask for those prayers and trust that they are there when you cannot pray.

Feel free to contact me—anyone who has problems with depression. Us depressive types need to stick together to remind ourselves that we are not alone and that the world, our lives, our parishes, our families or our careers are not coming to an end.

Friday, October 21, 2011


There is nothing like retirement and illness to make someone experience their powerlessness. I read a facebook post this morning encouraging me to speak out—to take to the streets with Occupy Wall Street. And it has dawned upon me that I no longer have a voice that speaks loudly. It is one of the consequences of being retired. Even though I get to preach now and again, I don’t have that chance to develop theological ideas over a period of time with a congregation that makes for good communal response. And with the internet, most of the time I don’t know if my blog gets read by a group of people who can bring change in their respective areas. Most of the time, I feel like I am talking to the wind. Very frustrating to a preacher.

In the ‘60’s you knew who you were working with. You knew when your back was covered. You knew who your friends were as you confronted the evils of society. The evils of society were the same ones as they are today, but we are all a bit faceless to one another now. We often walked arm in arm to show our solidarity.

On the No Anglican Covenant web, we have done some amazing work to help people see the flaws in the Anglican Covenant. But there is not the feeling of camaraderie that we had back in the 60’s. I am sure that is why my friend Elizabeth decided to go down to the OWS group in NYC to celebrate her ordination anniversary.

The women’s movement in the 70’s and 80’s was definitely a movement of women together—face to face, arm and arm to meet the white, straight, male establishment. It was the convent strangely enough was the first place I began to understand the power of women united, that incredible intuitiveness of women of faith working together to better the world. Then it was the Women’s ordination movement and the work for parity in the workplace.

What I often find in the lgbt efforts is less a desire to address the inequities in life as it is for gay men to get parity with straight men. In some efforts I do find the linking of lesbians and gays to work together but it is a difficult yoking. Lesbians on the whole are some of the poorest of the poor in our nation and there are more of us in prison than the normal population. I don’t have any statistics; I am just speaking of what I personally have seen.

So for the first time I am in the majority in life—I am a part of the 99% but it doesn’t get me anything. It should garner me at least some solidarity but because I have white hair or because I can’t get around like I used to or because I have a colleague that needs care or because I am retired from a system that is fairly generous but not enough to live on with medical expenses, my voice is quieted. I can’t buy the gas that gets me to the rallies or afford the plane ticket to events. I am silenced. AND THE ONLY PLACE I CAN SHOUT IS HERE!

Friday Five: Stages of Life

Jan has stung me again—we must both be Scorpios! She has gotten to me with stages of life! I am not willing to do 7yr increments, however—it would take me all week!

Jan says:

Since it is almost my birthday and because my spiritual direction peer group is reading Living Fully, Dying Well by Edward W. Bastian and Tina L. Staley, I am thinking of my life in stages. For the latter group, we filled out a form dividing our life into 7-year increments, documenting "significant moments," then "people who guided and influenced me," and ending with the question, "What did this phase contribute to the continuum of my life?" This was a life Review Exercise devised by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

For today's Friday Five, I am suggesting that we each divide our age into 5 sections. You don't have to say your age or ages for the different parts, unless you want to. In each of the 5 points, please describe a memorable and/or significant event, either good or unpleasant.

1. Chilli Days—Ages 1-4 I lived in Chillicothe, IL (affectionately called ‘Chilli’). I don’t remember much about that time, of course but I remember snow and I remember my sandbox out under the little cherry tree and most of all I remember the train ride to TX when we moved in 1949. (you do the math, I am too sleepy!)

2. French Horn Days—I started playing the trumpet in 5th grade but I really wanted to play the French horn. Then in 7th grade I switched to Fr. Horn.  It was too heavy to carry and bulky but I carried it back and forth every day to play in the band and orchestra all through school and undergraduate school. I started as a music major but added a history degree ‘in order to make a living’—as if a teaching career could make a living. I played well enough to get a scholarship to one of the largest music schools in the country and then went on to play professionally with various music organizations in and around the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. Music was my soul until I met a French horn playing RC nun who changed my life by teaching me to pray.

3. Teaching Days—Some of my teaching days and my French horn days over-lap. I began teaching in the little town where I now am on non-stype staff of the church I serve. I taught music my first year and had every child in the single elementary school in the little ranch community it served. Now it is one of the fastest growing cities in the US and has 23 elementary schools. Then I went to Dallas and taught History and English in the public schools. This was right in the middle of forced integration in Dallas and was a difficult time for me and for the kids. I had been raised with an open mind about Blacks and to watch how they were treated by other whites made my blood boil. The Jr. High I taught in was predominately Black with some Hispanics and only a few White kids. The halls were often a war zone because the principal was redneck. I finally left public school to teach in parochial schools where I finally got to teach religion. It saved my life and my mind.

4. Jesus Days—I came to know Christ while teaching at that Jr. High in Dallas. Here in Ft. Worth I tell people I “came to Jesus by teaching in Dallas public schools during integration” (There is a big rivalry between FTW and Dallas. And everyone laughs.) But I did. It has led me to parochial schools, to the convent, out of the RCC to the Episcopal Church and finally to the priesthood. These days have led me from FTW to Galveston-Houston, Mexico, New Orleans and St. Louis. I have been called to Syracuse, Bainbridge in NY, Suburban Washington, DC, Berkeley and Watsonville, CA, Binghamton, NY and even into the ELCA Lutheran community.

5. Sitting Days—Now I am retired from parish ministry but I still serve a middle-sized parish as non-stype and get to do the priestly work that I love—teaching Scripture and sometimes preach and celebrate. My calling at the moment is to take care of J and I am not doing a very good job. I find myself grumpy and footloose. I would rather be doing parish work than helping her with the burns from radiation, cooking meals ( I generally love to cook), and driving her to daily therapy. It is much harder to take care of a loved one who is sick than it is to be sick, I think. Her illness scares me. I read and sleep and blog and feel lifeless. But she will be finished next week on my birthday. But it has been so costly! What the recession hasn’t taken, chemo has. I am now definitely a part of the 99% and wish I could be sitting in Zucchetti Square protesting the unfairness of the greed of Wall Street.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Sermon I Should Have Preached: The Hindsight of God

[Photo:  Libby Hedrick]

Exodus 33:12-23

Moses said to the LORD, "See, you have said to me, `Bring up this people'; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, `I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.' Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people." He said, "My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest." And he said to him, "If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth."

The LORD said to Moses, "I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name." Moses said, "Show me your glory, I pray." And he said, "I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, `The LORD'; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But," he said, "you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live." And the LORD continued, "See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.

I have never preached on this passage of Exodus. I remember reading this incident and being somewhat perplexed by this passage since just a few verses before this, Moses is sitting and talking face to face with God. It is most likely a different strain of the Mosaic tradition but that isn’t the purpose of this story.

The purpose of this story is to remind God of his covenant with the Hebrew people and for God to remind Moses that he is God.

Quibbling seems to be part of the Hebrew character: The snake quibbles with Adam and Eve, Abraham quibbles with God re. Sodom and Gomorrah. It is a wonderful literary device to show that God interacts with humanity. In this passage it is Moses who reminds God of God’s promise to be with them in the desert. And Moses goes on and wants God to show him his glory—[Heb.] Kabowd. It can also mean God’s face. And God responds with being willing to show all God’s goodness but the face of God is too much for Moses to see and live. So he hides Moses in the cleft of a rock and ‘walks past’ and only his back parts are seen.

I have known the presence of God in my life but I have never seen God’s ‘face’ either. I could never know the entirety of God—it is beyond my comprehension. But most of the times when I have experienced God in my life, it has nearly always been in hindsight. Sometimes I have known ‘a presence, or something motivating me to do the right thing, say the good thing, be the just person when in sticky situations, but generally I am only aware of God’s presence in the aftermath of a particular situation.

And now those moments, those experiences of Divine Presence have an iconic place in my life. They become the ‘Stones of Witness’ in my life that remind me of God’s holy presence that are downright palpable today.

I can remember quite clearly the evening when I finally surrendered to the love of God although it did not feel so overwhelming at the time. But I can look at that moment in my memory and claim that as God’s addressing me face-to-face. I did not hear any voice from heaven. I did not see any vision. But afterward, I knew something had happened. I did not go weeping out of the church. I did not go home utterly changed. But I was changed over time. Part of that change was by my own hard work. But the desire to change was rooted in that evening’s prayer. I no longer wanted to be angry at the world. I no longer wanted to blame the world for whatever was wrong in my life. And I began to see my life as much more blessed just as it was. It was the change from being half-empty to being half-full.

Hindsight is the way that we know the presence of God in our lives. We like Moses, may quibble with the Lord; we may even be able to see the goodness of the Holy in our lives. But we seldom really know the power of God in our lives until we look back.

Like the disciples after the Resurrection we say “were our hearts not burning as we open scriptures and broke the bread?” We often see someone helping us and not realize it was Christ until many years later. I can claim a lot of those ‘christs’ in my life over the years, some of them sitting next to me and some of them writing emails to me across thousands of miles.

I always laugh when people call me liberal—I am one both politically and theologically, but all people of faith are at heart conservatives because we look back. We stand in history because it is the past that confirms our future. It is in hindsight that we know the power of God in our lives. And contrary to being stick-in-the-mudds, we are people of vision because God has been allowed to be a part of that past-present-future walk.

Moses saw the glory of God and saw the back of the Lord. And so it is with us all. It might pay to just look back upon our lives and find those places where God has walked with us in our deserts and give thanks. AMEN

Friday, October 14, 2011

Friday, October 14, 2011Friday Five: Scattered!

Revkjarla has posted an ‘all over the place’ FF for us. Since this fits my personality type and the adult-onset ADD that one therapist said I had, this type of FF is right down my alley.

So, I don't know about you, but I have had quite the scattered week. Sometimes, life is that way, right?

In the spirit of Scattered-ness, I offer you a scattery kind of Friday Five:

1. I lose my keys all of the time. Even if they are in my hand, I still am looking for them. Sigh!

What is something you chronically looking for, if anything?

It is just part of life. I am constantly looking for stuff: keys, billfold, shoes, phone, glasses. I try to plan a bit of extra time before I have to do anything to allow for lost essentials. But I can’t tell you how many times I have truly lost stuff.

2. What movie are you looking forward to watching sometime in the future? (me, the new Footloose!)

I am not much of a movie fan—except Harry Potter. But I generally want to see stuff with Julia Roberts, Helen Mirrin, Judy Dench.

3. What is one of your favorite comfort foods? (me, pizza. hands down).

Pizza isn’t a comfort food—it was generally Sunday night fare because I was too tired to cook. Pot roast in the winter. Chicken salad with grapes and walnuts during the summer. Iced tea, year round—after all I AM a Texan! (but I drink it unsweetened) Potato and leek soup either hot or cold. And PASTA at any time. I spent too much time in Mafia country to not love ‘Sunday gravy’!

4. Story time. Tell us a story of one your favorite people that has touched, blessed your life.

My last parish was a small Lutheran congregation in the country. I loved that bunch but their cultural background was quite different from mine. They had never heard of a rhetorical question and would simply answer the questions from their pews. So I finally realized that my sermons would be ‘dialog homilies’ whether I liked it or not.

I had a veterinarian in the parish—very smart but who was less likely to pick up on the allegories that I was trying to paint in my sermons. I was preaching on one of the healing stories. My mother in her last year could not see, hear, or speak but loved my touch and I was sharing how our touch, like Jesus’ touch is so important. I shared how my family was ‘stiff-upper lip British stock and hugging and holding hands was not part of our skill-set. But in the past years I had learned to be ‘touchier’ because of mom’s need.

I even said “our animals even need our touch, don’t they Dr._____?” She replied in true Germanic form: “Actually it is only the predator animals who like to be touched. Prey animals like sheep, cattle and horses find it difficult to be touched.” Well, that didn’t quite fit into my sermon so I tried to salvage my sermon by making a typical Anglican smart response—“I guess that would make us British stiff upper lip types prey, huh? Then one of the Swedes in the choir just chortled and said: “To us Vikings they are!” Here ended the lesson, I can assure you!

5. What do you do to focus or calm or center yourself? (please, I need ideas!!!)

There are several things: One is mental, centering prayer—a repetitive chant or phrase that I can use until I can calm. Big breaths—sighs that allow me to get enough air to calm down, a phrase that I can chant or run through my scattered brain. I found that meditative prayer was the vehicle that could allow me to attend to anxious moments in ministry without being overwhelmed by them. My natural tendency is scattered too so learning ways to control my anxiety or defuse it has been very important. Sometimes I had to walk away (especially in angry moments) in order to regroup, calm myself so I could re-enter the conversation.

BONUS: Share the first thing (or second thing) that comes to your mind after your read this!

When I read this I said “Ah, revkjarla is an ENFP just like me.”  (see below)There are a lot of us in this business but there aren’t too many of us in the pews. Just remember being scattered means that we can also multi-task. Scattered is when we are anxious—Multi-tasking is what we are able to do when we aren’t anxious because we can think of many different things at the same time. We are awesome!

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Sin of being 'Nice'

My friend Jim Beyer has written a great response to a post by Bishop Victoria Matthews' of New Zealand
support of the Anglican Covenant.

In American parlance especially in the South the term 'nice' is what boys and girls are taught from first breath.  'Nice' becomes the be-all-and-end-all of all social engagement.  Nice is more important than truth, 'nice' is more important than kindliness.  It is more important than agreement, compassion,  meaningful exchange, or even love.  'Nice' is a plastic expression of pleasantry that usually masks integrity. 

In the South for a girl growing up in the 50's, nice was what girls were supposed to be.  But catty was what really evolved.  We could be 'sweet' to the adults but to one another, nasty was the real outcome.  I got out of the South as soon as I could to escape the 'niceities' of my surroundings.  I moved back last year and lo and behold I found a Texas that is not 'nice'.

I don't know if it has been all those Yankees who have moved down here or those pick'em up trucks or the Republican politics, but the 'nice' Texas of the '50's is no more.  A little ole lady is just as likely to get a one finger salute driving Ft. Worth streets as in NJ and the F word is as common on the streets of NY.  It has become just as crass as the rest of the world but somehow it has become a great deal more honest.

It is only when you get out into the smaller towns or the rural areas do you find people pulling over when a funeral cortege passes by or the old Southern 'drop by' still in effect.  There is still respect for those 'texasism'--terms that have deeply subversive yet funny meanings like:  "He's all hat and no cattle" or "she's as confused as a goat on AstroTurf".  But that phony 'nice' is giving way to a more genuine set of feelings and behavior that one can depend on as being real.

With regards to the Anglican Communion, perhaps what we will have as time moves on is a group of churches throughout the world who can speak honestly to one another, who can discuss important elements of the faith without fear of 'losing face', losing faith' or some other kind of loss.  The loss of 'nice' may actually help us clarify what we mean rather than using arcane theological terms that are not understood alike.  "If Christ be with us, who can be against" comes to mind.  It makes us a bit 'tougher' to face the discomfort of differing opinions or different aspects of what it means to be Anglican.  I makes us a bit bolder to address the hard issues of what it means to be a disciple of the One who calls us to peace, not just nice.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Sermon: Ten Words of God

Exodus 201-20, Philip. 3:4-14, Mt. 21:33-46
I have been reading a book called Speaking Christianity by Marcus Borg. And in it Borg points out that many of the words that we have from the Bible do not mean the same today as they meant when they were first written and don’t even mean the same as when they were translated into English 400 years ago in the King James Version of the Bible. We need but see how the word gay or the word bite has been changed in just the last 30 years and I won’t go into all words that have been co-opted by technology. But if we consider how much has changed in the past 5,700 years of Jewish history, we can begin to understand how difficult the whole issue of translation of the Bible is.

But I want to talk today about the meaning of just one word: MERCY. In today’s dictionary it is described as “forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one's power; also: lenient or compassionate treatment “

It implies that: 1. there is an unequal relationship between the one giving and one receiving mercy and 2. That there is some sort of misdeed that is being forgiven. Now the idea of tzadakah—or righteousness does not mean just being ‘right’ it means going beyond the law—being compassionate.

The word chesed in Hebrew is usually translated “loving-kindness” and the word mitzvoth is usually translated law. But neither of these words really catch the meaning. Today’s reading from Exodus set out the 10 Mitzvoth which we translate as “Commandments” but that too doesn’t quite get what it means either. It was the relationship that God had with the people of Israel that determined what law meant. Mitzvah is an act of kindness. And obeying the law was not out of the value of obedience, but out of being in relationship with the Holy One.

The best word then, for what is translated in our Bibles as Mercy is better translated as ‘compassion.’

Our adherence to the law and the random acts of kindness are part of being in relationship with God. They are not hard and fast rules to follow to maintain order. They are part of participating in the holiness of God by taking on the greatest quality of God—chesed—loving kindness. We do not do the things enumerated in the 10 commandments because they would damage our ability to understand the compassion of God.

In the parable we hear from Matthew we hear one of the strangest tales that Jesus tells. It is a story that is hard to hear because we know that Jesus is telling this story at the end of his ministry and he is telling a story about himself. It isn’t like some of the other ‘kingdom parables’ that he has told in recent weeks. This one has to do with all of the people of God and is foretells the destruction of the temple and all of Palestine by the Romans in 70 AD. Jesus is speaking like a prophet here, not just as rabbi—a teacher. It is a fierce condemnation of the people who have colluded with the rich and powerful to rob the lands of the poor.

I am teaching a class on the book of Amos at the moment and the same reasons that God brought the end of Israel some 700 years before are the same reasons that Jesus is outlining in this parable. Everyone who heard this parable knew that Jesus was talking about the Jewish people. Everyone knew that this had happened before. Jesus is not talking to a group of his followers. He is talking to the wealthy politicians and scribes of Jerusalem who have colluded with the Herodian and Roman governments to fleece the poor of the nation. They have been like the tenants in the parable who have tried to steal the land of God from the rightful owner. They have failed in their compassion and their following of the mitzvoth of God. They have misused the law of Moses to the benefit of themselves. And even though they had been shown mercy—shown compassion by the landowner repeatedly, they kill the son.

There is a little point here that I want to point out. Who pronounces judgment in this story?

“Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants? And it is the crowd—those who are trying to find fault with Jesus who condemn the tenants. It isn’t Jesus’ condemnation and it isn’t God’s condemnation. It is the people themselves who condemn themselves. They know what is to come because they have not followed the mitzvoth of God. They have coveted, slain, lied, failed to give honor to their own families, they have not lived out the compassion –the chesed of God simply because it was ‘good trade’ to lie, cheat and steal. It was good business to cheat others out of their inheritances. It was good politics to play one country off another. It was loan with high rates of interest and misuse the old and the weak than it was to work and honest day.

Jesus was not pronouncing dire consequences that were going to happen to the people of Jerusalem. He was observing what had already happened to Palestine society. He could not help but see in the great city of David what had happened when the people did not try to live within the compassion of God.

And if there is any parable in the Gospel that is more prophetic to our own generation, I don’t know of it. When government colludes with business to insure greed at every level, when dishonesty flows from the lips of every politician on either side of the aisle, when they dumb down education so that industry can make more, when they take from the poor and give to the rich, when gamesmanship and polls are more important that feeling the poor---we are not living the compassion of God. We are not following the 10 mitzvoth of God. And “when the Owner of the vineyard comes what will he do to those tenants?” Let they who have ears…Listen. AMEN