Monday, September 29, 2008

Looking Good? Or being good?

Proper 21A

Matthew 21:23-32

Like all good Vestry meetings, St. Alban’s begins with bible study – using the gospel for the following Sunday. At the last church I served, this morning’s text was the text that was reflected upon at the Vestry meeting. I remember that there was a long, lively discussion on this story of the two sons. Some of us admitted that it is sometimes difficult to sustain our faith in hard times. With all the troubles in the world, where is God’s love and care? Some of us thought that there was a weird break in the middle of the text – first a story about two sons and their father, then a jump to tax collectors and prostitutes. Some of us found some practical advice on parenting – give your kids space and they might actually go and clean up their room.

But no one sat back confused wondering what Jesus was talking about.

It’s a pretty good straightforward story. One that it isn’t hard to identify with. I’m guessing we’ve all been in the role of the father, requesting action and getting lip in return or getting a great response but no action. And I’m sure we’ve all been in the place of both sons – saying no – and then ending up doing the right thing. Or more painful to admit – not backing up our polite responses with real action.

I’m guilty of this. And I’ve got a lot of reasons. If you ask me to do something, I want to make you happy – and the easiest way to do that is to say yes. Also, I want to be a good person – and it looks like the easiest way to do that is to say yes.

But the question really is – do I want most to be a good person – or do I want most to look like a good person? The truth is our culture values looking good, looking young, looking successful, looking happy – more than it values the actual thing itself. But growing into our actual self is what life is about – not what our mother wanted for us, or what our school wanted for us, or what we just thought was supposed to be – but what God intends for us.

There is a great story I’m sure you’ve heard before but it bears frequent repetition:

“When you die, Zushya,” the rabbis taught, “You will not be asked why you were not Moses. You will be asked why you were not Zushya.” The rabbis knew that being yourself is the best gift you have to give to the world. To be other than yourself is to have failed creation.

And that, my friends, is most challenging. Because it means being able to say no – when no is the thing most true to yourself. Or yes, when yes is the thing most true to your self. “Being entirely honest with oneself,” Freud wrote, “is a good exercise.” Because once we admit to ourselves why we are really doing what we are doing, we can choose, if not to leave it, at least to do it for different reasons.

Jesus told the church leaders that they were like whitewashed cemeteries – looking beautiful on the outside, but inside full of moldy dead bones.

In plain old church language – it’s called hypocrisy. A clergy friend said that a parishioner told her that he did not go to church any more, because there were nothing but hypocrites in there. She said she told him there was always room for one more; he didn’t like that. She admitted that she was stepping on his toes a little bit. But really she was just trying to let this man know that it’s only when we can’t admit that we have a bit of lie inside that we are in real trouble. When we don’t know that we cast a shadow that we are in danger. Because the truth is that in all of us there is something to be overcome. As Billy Graham put it “There is a bit of Watergate in all of us.”

But there is hope. The little white lies and the big fat black ones are not the end of the story. The phrase that drew my attention most in this gospel passage was: “changed his mind.” It occurs three times. The first son “changed his mind” and went and did what the father had asked of him. The tax collectors and prostitutes changed their minds and believed. But the church authorities to whom Jesus is speaking, even after they saw, did not “change their minds.”

I was interested in the Greek word that was translated as “changed his mind.” Normally, the Greek word used for changing one’s mind, or repenting is metanoia – meta meaning change and noia meaning mind. But this Gospel text used meta melo mai. Meta – change. Change is definitely involved. But melo is not about mind – it is about caring. So the more literal translation would be “changing what one cares about – or changing what one is most concerned about.” The first son changed what he most concerned with – he changed from being most concerned with himself to caring about helping his father. The tax collectors and prostitutes changed what they most concerned with – they changed from being concerned that they were outcasts to caring more that they were loved and accepted by God. But the church authorities didn’t change what they were concerned with – which was most likely keeping hold of their power and authority.

So, what are we most concerned with? With what other people think? The hard truth is we do not become ourselves by being what other people want us to be. When we are driven by the expectations of others, it is, as Anais Nin put it “To live on the reflections of ourselves in the eyes of others.” It is, in other words, not to fully live.

Or are we most concerned about growing up into the person God created us to be? And it is a growing up. At every major stage in life there is a moment when we outgrow what we were. Then, as Joan Chittester writes, I discover that, “I am not at all the sort of person you and I took me for.” At that moment, we come to new understandings about life, we make new decisions, we become new again, we grow.

Of course, growing in honesty is never an excuse for being less cultured, less gentle, less holy than we should be. It is not an excuse for brutality or meanness. Growing in honesty means growing more fully into the image of God that is stamped into each one of us. And while that is at times a bumpy road, it is never an excuse for behaving badly towards one another.

Because growing up into our most whole selves means, ultimately, growing into the way of the cross. Into the way of Jesus. Into the way that Paul so eloquently sings about in his letter to the Philippians – the way of humility, the way of service, the way of love. Growing up into our most whole selves means changing what we most care about – changing us from caring most about looking good to caring most about being good.

Resource: The Monastic Way, September 2005, Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania

Monday, September 22, 2008

Dawn Patrol

Pentecost 20A

September 21, 2008

The Rev. Linda Campbell

"Dawn Patrol"

Have you heard of the Dawn Patrol? Well – if you have ever been part of the Dawn Patrol – would you stand up? These people are heroes!! I don’t know what time they actually show up – but it’s really early – it’s still dark! And these guys – because I think it’s mostly a guy thing – came before the sun came up – and when I left at 5 PM yesterday, most of them were still here, cleaning up.

But then, there were all the people here Friday night. I was away – but I’ve heard it was really hopping!

And Leslie and Carol spent Friday roasting tomatoes out of Talbot’s garden, peeling the skins, and chopping them up, along with all these other ingredients, to make the best salsa.

And Karen, of course, overseeing the entire production! So, who can say when the work really began – it’s been going on for over 30 years, annually – this St. Alban’s Bazaar – this community building barn raising fundraiser.

But back to yesterday. I know Chuck was here before dark, and still here at 5 PM. And I know Jeff showed up around 3 – true to his word to the clean up crew – that he would be here to help clean up. And he, along with others who came towards the end of the day – brought the magnificently new energy. Having cared for his children and his classroom earlier in his day – now here he was, with the energy of the newly arrived – to move furniture, pack knick knacks, make decisions, and do the awesome work of clearing the hall.

Wow! Thought I. All of this – on the day before we hear the parable of God’s idea of fair wages! Jeff gets paid first – a good wage. And Chuck looks at Jeff getting paid and thinks, oh boy. I was here before it was even light. I’m going to get paid really well! And then, when Chuck gets to the pay window – he gets the same as Jeff.

Well ok – I don’t think they would get really upset – because, after all, we love each other- and Chuck knows that Jeff has other obligations – and that, in the end, it all balances out.

But anyone know who Mark McDonald is? Mark McDonald was the 1st employee of Microsoft. And he cashed all his stock options in when the company hit 400 employees, because he said, it was just getting too big. He cashed out rich. How do you think Mark McDonald would feel, if the 52,112th employee, the one hired just a month ago, got paid what Mark was paid when he cashed out? I think Mark would be steaming mad. I think that 52,112th employee would go home hugely happy. I think the company would go broke.

God’s ways are NOT our ways. Companies can’t run on this vineyard owner’s model – well – come to think of it- Jesus may be a better economist than the one’s crashing the markets right now - but I don’t think Jesus is really talking about this kind of economics.

One of the classes I led during the 1st Lent I was here – was a class called Talking about God and Money. Not many of you came. I don’t think you really knew how to put God and Money together in the same sentence! But some people from outside the church were really interested – and they came. And this parable was one of the one’s we read. After I read the parable – one of the women, from outside the church, said – well that’s really awful. That is totally unfair. Where did you get that story! I said that it was one of the stories that Jesus told – and she had a very hard time believing me. I don’t think she ever really did – what kind of Bible did Episcopalians use??!!

Will Willimon tells a very similar story. When he was Chaplain of Duke, he led a service in which Matthew 20: 1 – 16 was the lectionary text. When the service was done – a college student came up to him and said that she really enjoyed all his uses of stories, but the one he told about the wages was a really bad one. She didn’t like that one at all. Will asked her about her church affiliation. She said that this was the first time she’d been. Her boyfriend was in charge of the ushers, and one of them couldn’t show up, so she’d filled in to help him out. Will said – well, it is a really outrageous story – and I think you’re the only one who really got it!

I grew up with it – so I’m kind of ok with it. God does stuff like that. But you know where it really starts to rub with me? It really starts to rub in the whole arena of forgiveness. I know God forgives – that’s his specialty – forgiveness and mercy. But I want for some people – and I could name a few- to hurt - a lot - first – then when they’ve paid off a bit of their penalties – well, then maybe. But the idea of getting off, scotch free, is just really a pretty bitter pill for me to swallow sometimes. And I don’t believe in cheap grace- God doesn’t just let people off – I mean you have to receive and accept his forgiveness. But that doesn’t seem like enough. I want for there to be punishment and some revenge. How much? I don’t know. But when you show up at the last minute, at God’s mercy seat, after hurting a lot of people, I don’t think you should get the same goodies as the people who showed up early on, and spent a lifetime practicing forgiveness and goodness.

But you know what? I’m not in charge! The Universe doesn’t operate according to my principles!

The story we didn’t read this morning is the story of Jonah. You might remember Jonah because he tried to run a way from God and spent time in the whale’s belly, before he finally decided to go God’s way. Well – do you know WHY he tried to run away from God? God said he needed someone to go and try to get through to the Ninevites. Now the Ninevites were not nice people. They were war like, they skinned people alive and nailed them up to their walls to die and in some years after the Jonah story, they would conquer Jonah’s people and treat them really badly. And the Ninevite City, to which God was sending Jonah, was very large, very metropolitan, and very mean. Not a place any sane person would go, preaching repentance. But the other reason Jonah didn’t want to go was because he knew God. He knew God’s mercy. He knew that if those Ninevites showed an ounce of repentance and sorrow – that God would actually have mercy on them – would forgive them. THAT’s the Real Reason Jonah ran from God. And after they do indeed respond to Jonah’s preaching, and repent, and vow to change their ways – God does indeed forgive them. Jonah is just outraged. He goes outside the city walls and sits in the sun, waiting to die. I KNEW you would forgive them – he shouts out to God. God causes a tree to grow up to shade him. Then the tree withers and dies. And then Jonah gets it. God’s in charge. It’s God’s world. And God is a God, not only of justice, but of extravagant mercy. The kind that is not only wide – but thoroughly wild. God’s mercy isn’t just a polite drip drop from the garden hose – it’s like water from a fire hose open to full. Full force.

And we need that kind of mercy! There are fires raging in the world – fires of injustice, fires of war, fires of poverty, fires of depression and anxiety, fires of fear. And God’s love and mercy IS our salvation. Whether you have been called to man the fire hose for a long time, or whether you’ve just showed up – believe me, God can use your help – and so can we – and so can all of creation. Welcome to you old timers! Welcome to you new comers.

God is about boundless love for the world – lavished indiscriminately, upon you, upon me, upon others. And it’s up to you whether we view your own work in God’s vineyard, or God’s firehouse, or God’s household – whatever metaphor you want to use – whether you view your work as a gift from God or as mere endurance of the scorching heat. I invite you to understand your work – whether it’s with the Dawn Patrol, or the Clean up Crew, whether it’s in the classroom, or in the kitchen, whether it’s taking chemotherapy, or running triathalons – whatever work God has given you, I invite you to understand it as a gift, a fulfillment of your created purpose, and not merely as endurance of the scorching heat of day. The work itself is the gift. And trust that the God who called you – will also amply and fully reward you.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A Way Forward

Pentecost 19A

A Way Forward

The Rev. Linda Campbell

The scriptures say that the pillar of cloud came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. Putting these two armies together in the same sentence almost makes you think that they were comparable. But the army of Israel consisted of rag tag slaves, men, women and children, oppressed by years and years of massively hard work, intended to cow them into utter submission – while the army of Egypt consisted of battle hardened soldiers, equipped with the finest and latest weaponry the Empire could afford – and as it was a very rich Empire, it could afford the finest and most modern that were available.

While we may read this as a metaphor for spiritual battle – spiritual freedom from fears or addictions – for the slaves – this was no metaphor. There was real water in front of them and a real army behind them and no way of escape – no way through. Can you imagine the terror? The mother’s with their babies and toddlers, the men who had nothing to fight with, the weeping of this people who were now certain of their death.

This morning’s reading continues the central organizing story of Judaism – the exodus from slavery into freedom, THE STORY of protection and power wrought on their behalf by God.

The account began when Pharaoh ordered the slave boy babies killed because he was afraid of the growing strength of his slaves. But one baby’s mother hid her baby and set him afloat on the water, hoping for a miracle. A miracle did happen – and the boy lived and grew up in Pharaoh’s courts. As a man, he awakened to the plight of his people, became enraged and killed an overlord and then escaped into the desert – trying to put all the misery of slavery and ill fortune behind him. But God would not let him go – he called him back from the desert to lead his people. Then the multiple disasters of pollution and death befell the Kingdom and there was much mourning throughout the Empire – but these disasters opened the way for Moses and his people to escape. God inspired and God protected they hurriedly packed what they could carry and lit out, in the dark of night.

But they did not get very far before they hit a stone wall – which is where they are in this morning’s reading - the sea in front of them and the pursuing army of their captors behind them. The raucous joy of their escape must have died in their hearts when they saw the impossibility of their situation.

There is nothing about our lives or our nation’s life that comes close to approximating this position – or is there? I visited this week with Michael Barlow, who is the Diocesan staff person in charge of congregational development – and he said that he had just had a conversation with Bishop Marc in which the Bishop said that we had about 100 months left in which to address global warming before the planet reached a tipping point in which nothing we do will stop the disastrous effects. 100 months. And the headlines that grab the news have to do with lipstick and moose hunting. Does this make you feel crazy? Does it make you feel doomed? Honestly, sitting in the beautiful offices at 1055 Taylor Street in San Francisco, with a fellow Christian, and hearing him say this - I wanted to reach over and say, well, Michael, that can’t really be the case. Surely the Bishop didn’t actually mean 100 months to doomsday. And of course, at one level, he didn’t. Doom doesn’t usually arrive all at once –

unless you are in Haiti living in cardboard and a wall of water washes over your island – or you are in a marketplace with your friends in India or Baghdad or Kandahar and a bomb goes off and you are left standing, but you cannot find your friend anywhere. Or you are one of the 90,0000 Iraqi non-combatants killed in the last six years, or one of the 4,000 American soldiers ripped apart by a roadside bomb or mortar fire. Doom can arrive suddenly and swiftly.

As it is about to for these Israelites.

But then, “The angel of God moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night.” Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea – and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land…The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground…”

A way opened. A way where there was no way. A path where there was no path. A road to freedom where there had been no road, no way, no path, no escape. God acted, intervened, on behalf of an impoverished, powerless people. God acted before they were a people, before they had been formed in faith. God acted on their behalf before they were even capable of praising him. Their response of faith and praise would come later. First, they were only able to put one foot in front of the other, carrying their children along with them as they took their first steps forward, driven as much by fear and the impossibility of going back, as by anything else.

That God acted on their behalf before they could properly respond has been the good news carried forward for millennium by the Judeo faith. It is a gospel that cannot afford to ever, ever be lost. It is the Gospel that Christ carried forward in his own body as it was nailed to the cross. “Father, forgive them because they do not know what they are doing.”

I have no idea what to do about the 100 months left to stop the rapid warming of the planet. I have no idea what to do about moose hunting headlines rather than substantial debate on issues. I have no idea what to do about terrorist bombings or massive civilian casualties. What I do know is what I am fed on week by week – the Word of God carried in the people of God, the scriptures and the sacraments. I am fed by the Gospel that God acts on behalf of the poor and powerless. And that I am called to do so as well. That God, through Christ, forgives us poor sinners who can’t tell our right hand from our left. And that I am called to do so as well. I am fed by the Gospel of praise and thanksgiving that the people of Israel sang on the far side of the sea. And I am called to do so as well.

We belong to a beloved community that follows whatever pathway God opens up into what looks like an impossible future. We belong to a beloved community that forgives because that’s what Jesus did. We belong to a beloved community that sings in faith and praise trusting in God’s overarching goodness and salvation.