Saturday, November 26, 2011

Advent is like an alarm clock...

Sermon for Yr B Advent 1

Advent is like an alarm clock.
Advent is the liturgical season that will cry out to us week after week,

We don’t really have to make a point to set this alarm clock,
it just happens.
Every year.

We do have to make a point to pay attention when the alarm clock rings,
when we hear those words to WAKE UP or to KEEP AWAKE,
to pay attention to the message of the Advent season.

Advent does not say
Freak out

Advent says
Slow down
Pay attention
Be mindful
Expect with joy.

First the facts.
There are four Sundays in Advent.
To determine when Advent will start,
you find Christmas Day and then count back 4 Sundays
and there you have it--Advent 1.

The word “advent”
comes from the Latin “adventus”
which translates “coming”--
Advent is a time of waiting
and expectation for what is coming.

The baby Jesus is coming into the world.
This is the most obvious--Christmas will soon be here!

But Advent also sounds the alarm
that we are also waiting for Jesus
to come back agian.
Every week we say some form of this
in our Eucharistic Prayer--
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.

None of us really know what that coming again looks like
but we know it is one of the cornerstones of our faith--
it is something Jesus promised would happen.

To some it means that Jesus will literally come back
and walk upon this earth with us again.
In person. In human form.
To others it means that Jesus will come back
but we don’t really know
what that coming back will look like.
And to still others,
it means that every time we love one another, do good to those we love and to those who persecute us,
that Jesus comes in those acts, in that love.

Whatever we might believe about Jesus coming again,
the truth is
God comes into our lives every day in so many, many ways.
Advent is the alarm that sounds
and calls us to pay attention, to notice God at work in our lives and in the world.

Our altar hangings and vestments have changed to this rich purple color.
We use the same color for Lent
but do not mistake Advent for Lent.
Advent is NOT penitential.
Advent is a time of expectation and hope.

If you feel like you could use a good dose of hope in your life right now,
I say a welcome to Advent, the season of hope.

We have special candles for Advent.
We see them here in the Advent wreath.
(We’ll hear more about the Advent wreath at the Episcopal Moment).
We light one candle each Sunday of Advent.

One candle each week.
Because Advent is a time of waiting
of moving slowly,
of sitting with expectation and hope.
A time of looking forward with joy to all that can and will be.

The world around us
encourages us to put the pedal to the metal
and race into full Christmas frenzy--
shopping, planning, partying, stressing.
Advent sounds the alarm and sayds: Don’t do it.
Just don’t.
Just say NO says Advent.

Take it one candle at a time.

Imagine that every day for the four weeks of advent
an alarm clock would go off every hour--
we’ll make it every waking hour--
not a 24/7 sort of torture routine.

And when the alarm clock rang or chimed or beeped or whined..
we would take a moment and remind ourselves--
Keep awake.
We would remind ourselves to treat this hour, this day
as if it were our very first day on earth.
Treat it with the kind of wonder that a little child sees
in even the smallest things.

And when the alarm clock rang or chimed or beeped or whined..
we would take a moment and remind ourselves--
Keep awake.
We would remind ourselves to treat this hour, this day
as if it were our very last day on earth.
Live this hour, this day
as if there will be no more after this.

Advent is like the alarm clock
that wakes us up to what really matters.

I was in Ingles a few days after Halloween and I turned down the aisle
that for weeks had been overflowing with orange and black
and bags and bags of halloween candies.
I expected to see boxes of stove top stuffing and turkey roasting pans
but instead,
everything was already full blown Christmas--
candy canes and red and green.

But you see,
Advent is not red and green.
Advent is purple and pink.
Advent is waiting and hoping and expecting all that is to come.

Advent? says the mall.
You think it’s hard to selll Thanksgiving--
try selling Advent!

But Advent is the alarm that wants to wake us
to what the coming of Jesus means.

It is not about what you can buy and wrap and put under the tree.
There is nothing wrong with giving gifts or receiving gifts.
We all have fun with that.

But there is something wrong when we start to believe
that the only thing that matters are our material possessions.
There is something wrong when we start to obsess about “stuff”
instead of other human beings.

Advent reminds us that life is short and precious
and beautiful in so many, many ways.
Advent reminds us that if we slow down and look,
we just might see the face of Jesus
in some very unlikely and amazing places.

Advent is like an alarm clock.
There is no snooze alarm.
The time is now.
Wake up.
Keep alert.
Give thanks.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The little sermon that wasn't...

Every so often I don't have to write a sermon. Now for some clergy at large churches, this is more the norm than the exception--when you have multiple clergy on staff, you usually take turns in the pulpit. But when you are the only clergy person in a parish, more likely than not you are writing a sermon every week. I don't really mind this. I love to write. I love to write sermons.

But every so often it is nice to have a break. Tomorrow will be one of those days--only this Sunday is much much better than just a "break." Donna Marie Todd will be at St. John's tomorrow and she will offer a story sermon. Donna Marie is a phenomenal storyteller that I met several years ago at the summer conference of the National Association of Biblical Storytellers.

This is the third year Donna Marie has come to St. John's. It's become a tradition really. Her warm, personable style of storytelling and her beautiful voice always remind us that we stand on holy ground--not just at or in the church, but in the world. An added delight is that Donna Marie brings a different musician with her each year. This year Will Straughan who plays steel slide guitar (dobro) will join Donna Marie. Will is part of the group Red June.

So I won't be posting a sermon for Christ the King Sunday but here's the contact info for Donna Marie Todd and also a link to a YouTube video of Will playing with Red June. We'll have a lot to be thankful for tomorrow at St. John's. Sometimes it's good for the usual preacher to take a seat and listen.

Here's her website:

Will playing with Red June at the Grey Eagle in Asheville.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Waddle or fly?....Sermon for Year A Proper 28

Matthew 25:14-30

Jesus said, "For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, `Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' His master said to him, `Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, `Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' His master said to him, `Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, `Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' But his master replied, `You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' "

Waddle or Fly?

Here we are.
Merrily reading or listening to this parable
..for the kingdom of heaven is as if...
and we’re thinking,
okay, another parable, another teaching story.
We get this.
Now we do feel a little uncomfortable with the talk about slaves,
but it’s not too bad we think,
because after all this sounds like a pretty good master,
trusting this slaves,
giving out little bags of his gold to them.
Hey! he’s not such a bad fellow is he?
Then off the master goes on his journey
and the slaves--at least the good and faithful ones--get to work.
Investing. Wheeling and dealing. Trading.
Multiplying the wealth.

And then the master returns
and he’s pleased as punch with the slaves
to whom he gave the five talents and the two talents.
They have invested well.
His trust in them was well-placed.

But then there’s that other slave--the one who got one talent.
He did not double his one into two.
He dug a hole and buried his talent--
and he had a few things to say to the master upon his return--
“I knew you were a hateful, mean and self-centered fellow
so I figured I was in trouble no matter what---
so I just didn’t do anything.
Here’s your lousy one talent back at you.”

The master is none too happy.
But we’re not prepared for the explosion that follows.
The next thing we know
the slave who was the poor money manager
is being tossed into the outer darkness
and then...
then we get the statement--
and it’s credited to Jesus, friends---
then we get the statement:

For all those who have,
more will be given
and they will have an abundance;
but from those who have nothing,
even what they have will be taken away.

To our ears
that sounds a lot like the rich will get richer
and the poor will get poorer.
Maybe that’s good news for the folks who are already rolling in money,
but what about the rest of us.

So how do we react to a gospel like this?
We can drop kick this gospel out into the back forty and ignore it, skip it.

Or we can say, “Well, I don’t believe Jesus really said that!”
Or we can go deeper, look more broadly, try to understand it,
both in parts and as a whole.

First let’s look at the parts.
First let’s talk about the money.

True, some people don’t think this parable is about the money at all.
They believe what the slaves are given are spiritual gifts.
But let’s look at it first on the straightforward level of cold, hard cash.

A talent was an extraordinary amount of money.
One commentary I read said one talent
would have been the equivalent of 15 years annual salary at the time!
So five talents would be like winning the lottery--
75 years worth of your annual salary!
Wow! Imagine!

This one slave who receives the five talents doubles his investment--
he has just super-sized what the master entrusted to him.

The second slave doubles his as well.
Not as much money as the first slave,
but still an amazing return on an investment.

Even the slave that got only one talent---
that’s still 15 years of the average annual wages!
Not bad, eh?
Most of us would welcome that!
Imagine if he had done something with that talent
instead of burying it in a hole.

So the bottom line in regards to the money is
that all the slaves received good and abundant gifts.

We do need to remember--
these really weren’t gifts--
they were loans.
It all belonged to the master.
The talents they were all given
were loans--investment capital.
Generous investment capital from a generous and trusting master.

Second, let’s talk about the words.Specifically, two of the words.
The word slave and the word master.
These are “loaded” words for us in this time and this culture.

The word slave makes us squirmingly uncomfortable.
So substitute the word disciple instead.

And substitute the word GOD or Jesus--you can pick-- for master.

So we have a story about God giving generously to three disciples.
The disciples do not receive equally--
but they all receive generously.

Let’s be upfront--we’re all a bit like the third disciple--
bothered when we don’t receive equally.
So why did he get more than I got?
What’s so special about her?
Some people get all the breaks!

And finally let’s look at the image of the master, of God, in this parable.
How do the slaves, the disciples, see their master?
How do they see the God?

This is probably the heart of this parable--
because how we see and envision God says a lot
about how we live our daily lives
and a lot about our current relationship with God.

The three slaves--the three disciples--
seem to have a very different image of God.

We don’t really know--at least not verbatim--
what the first two disciples think about God.

But we do know that they feel blessed with what they have been given
and they go and try to expand and multiply and do God’s will.
They take what they are given
and they get to work.
They want to please God, to do right by God,
to live in to the trust they see that God has placed in them
with such generosity.

The third disciple is quite clear that he doesn’t feel blessed
and he doesn’t think highly of the master, of God.
He sees God as harsh.

More of the finger wagging, tongue lashing, you better watch out
sort of God.
He does not see God as a generous giver--
but more as an unfair task-maker who makes life miserable.
The third disciple sees himself as the one who does all the work.
He sees God as an unfair, harsh judge.
There doesn’t seem to be an ounce of love for God--
and certainly no trust--from the third disciple.

Perhaps this parable is not about money
and not about spiritual gifts either.
Perhaps this story
is about what we do with all that has been given us,
most especially with the gospel.
Jesus is telling this parable because he wants the disciples
to not be dependent upon his presence---
but to be committed to sharing the good news, the gospel.

Some of us have been at our annual Diocesan Convention
for the past 3 days.
The keynote speaker this year, the Rev. Dr. David Gortner,
focused on evangelism.

Evangelism means asking ourselves the question
“What are we doing with the gospel?”
What are we doing with what we hear and learn from Jesus?
What are we doing with what God has entrusted to us?

Do we go out and spread the good news
like the treasure it really is?
Or do we just tuck it into our pocket,
and keep it where it won’t offend, won’t challenge,
won’t excite, won’t upset.
A tidy little gospel.

Are we like the third disciple who keeps his treasure in the dark?
Hidden away? Buried?
Good news is not worth much
if it is not shared.

We heard a story during one of the meditations at Convention
about a church that was made up of geese.
That’s right---geese.
And every Sunday the geese waddled into church
and the pews were filled with fluffy, feathery, honking geese.

The the preacher--also a goose--
every week stood up in the pulpit and said,
“You are an amazing congregation!
Because of the generosity of God’s love,
we can do anything. Absolutely anything!
In fact, we can fly!!
Yes! It’s true!! Seriously, my friends,
God created us so that we can fly.
Thanks be to God--we can fly!!!!”

And the geese in the pews would get all excited
and start honking and flapping and shouting out,
“We can fly! We can fly!”

And then the service was over, the final hymn sung, the dismissal given
and the geese all waddled out the door
and walked--waddled-- all the way back home.

They forgot all about flying.
They waddled home, waddled through the week, and next Sunday,
they waddled back in the door and into the pews..
for more good news which they promptly forgot,
which they buried, week after week...
and so it went...on and on and on.

Do we really believe that all things are possible with God?
If we believe we can fly, then why are we still waddling?

The first two disciples believed in a God
that had blessed them with good
and they went out and did more good with what they had been given.

The third disciple saw God as harsh, life as difficult and unfair.
That third disciple did nothing--
except perhaps complain and blame.

We have to ask ourselves
how can God build a relationship with someone committed to misery,
to resigned to waddling through life?
If we see God and life, as the enemy,
they will stay the enemy.

If we reject the true riches of life,
the inexhaustible abundance of God’s love, the real treasure--
then we have cast ourselves
into the outer darkness.
into a life of exhausting and self-pitying waddling.

There is good news.
But we must receive it and we must live it
and we must give it away to others.

Jesus calls us to fall in love
with a good and generous God--
to receive with open arms what God offers
and to invest deeply in God’s love--
so that we too might become rich--
wealthy in love and mercy,
generosity and compassion,
justice and kindness.
God creates us to fly.

So maybe this parable we hear in Matthew’s gospel today
is a mathematics parable.
Divide that group of three disciples into thirds.
The bad news is
the world is filled with 1/3 complainers and hoarders.
The good news is
we can choose to be part of the other 2/3--
those disciples who see what they have been given
as pure blessing.
Those disciples who are already heavily investing
in flying lessons.

Fly or waddle?
Once again,
Jesus is teaching us about choices.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Diocesan's coming!

On Thursday I and two delegates and two alternates from our parish will head to Kanuga Conference Center for our Diocesan Convention. Now Kanuga is probably the best location for any diocesan convention in the USA. I realize that most dioceses must meet in hotels or the large-large-largest church in a diocese. So I am very grateful that we get to go to Kanuga for ours. It's a beautiful place (plus there is that fabulous Kanuga toast--which I love. I really do.)

And I know that I said in my ordination vows that I would participate in the councils of the church..and I have and I do.

BUT (you knew there was bound to be a BUT didn't you?!?)...I just wish we could do the business of the church faster, quicker, more efficiently. Could we not have Diocesan Convention every other year instead of every year? I wish there was more Jesus and fewer resolutions about who's not paying their fair share and how do we craft a resolution to twist their collective little arms behind their backs and say "Pay up!" Full disclosure: our parish does not meet the 10% minimum. We are working towards it...inch by inch, dollar by dollar...and we have come a long way but we are not there yet. We know it. I know it. The vestry knows it. I think maybe the congregation knows it. So I guess I feel like maybe we don't need a buffet of resolutions about giving to the diocese. I like what a friend and colleague of mine said yesterday in our pre-Convention gathering of the Asheville deanery:"Ten percent is the biblical tithe. We know this. We don't need an assessment or an appeals board or any more layers of bureaucracy. We need to tithe. Period."

David Gortner is our speaker this year--he'll speak about evangelism. Seminarian friends at VTS (where he is on the faculty) say he's a good teacher and a good man. I look forward to what he has to share. Maybe I'll even share some of his thoughts on this blog.

And it is always wonderful to see folks that I don't get to see very often, though now that I live in Asheville--the center of the Diocesan universe--I see people much more often than I did when I lived in the high mountains of Valle Crucis (though no place on earth compares to Valle Crucis).

There's worship,too. I always love worship. I don't have a burning desire (or the requisite gifts that prevent one from losing their mind) to go to General Convention as a delegate but I'd love to go just to worship with thousands of other Episcopalians. Did I mention I love worship?

I guess I just wonder if maybe we would grow the kingdom of heaven here on earth a little stronger and more beautiful if we took the three days we go away for convention and actually did a work project together. Or did a walk about in different parts of the diocese--those places we aren't familiar with--to see the good works being done.

Okay, so I am a little lukewarm about Diocesan Convention this year. I will most likely change my mind once I park my car at Kanuga, lasso my neck with a name tag and see the first smiling face of someone I love (and there are many here in this diocese). So, a few more days to get things done in the parish and at home before hi ho hi ho it's off to Convention we go.

For All the Saints

Sermon for Year A
All Saints Day

Did you know you can go to iTunes
and for just $ 1.99 you can purchase a PATRON SAINTS APP?

Now this is “app” as in “application”--for your iPhone or iPad--
not “app” as in Appalachian State University
which is often the first thing that comes to the minds
of those of us who live in this part of Western North Carolina.

Technology apps make something easily accessible,
helpful in every day situations.
The Patron Saints app can help you find the saint you need.

Do you want to sell your house?
You need to pray to St. Joseph
and then bury St. Joseph (only a statue)--head first--in your front yard.
Always losing your keys?
Prayers to St. Zita might help.
St. Isidore of Seville became the patron saint of the internet--in 1999.
If you’re worried about whales (as in the animal, not the country),
prayers to St. Brendan might help.

I found out there is no patron saint of drummers
but there are quite a few patron saints for musicians--
Benedict, Cecilia, Dunstan, Genesius, Gregory the Great, even
St. Paul--I take it musicians must need a lot of saintly help!

Of course we have our own saint--most Episcopal churches do--
ours is St. John.
Not St. John the Baptist
but St. John the Apostle and Evangelist.

Now our St. John is considered the patron saint name just a few...
Patron saint against poisoning
(and to my knowledge no one here has ever been poisoned here at St. John's--
so St. John must be doing his work, right?)

Also John is patron saint for art dealers, authors, writers, bookbinders, booksellers, engravers, friendships, lithographers, painters, printers, publishers, papermakers, theologians and ...well, you get the idea.

St. John the Apostle and Evangelist keeps busy!

We can certainly look at saints as extraordinary people.
Unsurpassed examples of holiness and faithfulness.

But the New Testament calls us to see saints
as all those who believe in Jesus Christ and strive to follow.

Believers past and present and future.
We remember them all today
as we celebrate All Saints Day.

The altar hangings, the vestments have all been changed to white--
that tells us that today is a feast day,
even more of a great celebration than the great celebration
we celebrate with Holy Eucharist every week.

I read a wonderful story this week by Richelle Thompson
about a woman named Faye.
Faye was known for laundering money.


At her small, rural church
Faye’s job was to collect the offering.
After the service, Faye took the collection home to her house
(Now this is a BIG BIG no! no! in our modern day audit-conscious churches!)
but it’s what Faye did--
and she hid the collection--cash and checks--
in her laundry hamper
until she could make the drive into town to deposit the collection
in the church’s account at the bank.

On occasion Faye would accidentally wash the collection
with the rest of her laundry.
The ink would run off the checks.
But Faye would just call and ask how much someone had given
and then she would fill that amount back onto the check.
Small town. Small church. Small bank.
But big, big love and trust.

Even when Faye was in her 90‘s,
she kept up with the collection
and she never failed to help with the dishes after a potluck dinner
and she knew the name of not just the adults,
but every single child in her church.

Faye did not martyr herself to lions
or reform the worldwide Anglican Communion.

She simply showed up
to love and to serve.

A saint is a person of exceptional holiness.
That holiness may be recognized by the entire world,
by the church,
or just by us.

A saint is a person who has made a difference in our faith journey.

Today in celebrating All Saints
we celebrate that great cloud of witnesses--
those who have gone before us,
those who still surround us,
and it is just fine,
to even celebrate
even our own little witness amongst the crowd.

A reporter was assigned to do a story on Mother Teresa.
For several weeks he followed her,
shadowing her from morning until night--
sometimes into the night--
as she went about her work.

At the end of his time with Mother Teresa,
as he was preparing to leave,
the reporter thanked her and said to her, quite honestly,
“I wouldn’t do what you do for a million dollars.”

To which she quickly replied, “Me neither!”

The saints of God are not motivated my money.
The saints of God are motivated my overwhelming, unconditional love.

Love for God. Love for one another.

Take time today to give a shout out to the saints in your life.

For those saints we love but see no longer,
say a prayer of thanksgiving.
Remember them always in your prayers.

Oh, how our lives have been blessed by the saints of God!

And if any of your saints are still alive,
make time today
to actually say thank you.
Tell them what their witness of faith has meant to you.
How it has changed your life.

Call them on the phone.
Send them an email or a Facebook message.
Write them a letter.
Go knock on their door this afternoon and tell them.

Give a shout out to the saints.
To the saints throughout history
but especially to the saints
that have surrounded and blessed your own life.

Today we also need to celebrate the saints that planted this parish,
the saints who have nurtured it for over 100 years,
the saints that still plant and prune
and tend this little plot of holy ground.
The saints that made a place and a space for us to grow as witnesses
to God’s love.

For all the saints,
may we give thanks.


Lily Pad or Launch Pad?...Sermon for Year A Proper 26

I want you to keep two images in your mind.
The first is a lily pad.
That’s right--a lily pad--floating peacefully on the water.
Crystal clear water with this beautiful lily pad.

The second image is the image of a launch pad.
That’s right the kind of launch pad that shoots a rocket into the air.

Lily pad. Launch pad.
Hold on to those images.
We’ll get back to them in a moment.

Now some of you may remember the hit song by
country singer Mac Davis that starts...

..O Lord, it’s hard to be humble
when you’re perfect in every way.
I can’t wait to look in the mirror,
‘Cause I get better lookin’ each day....

Now you may not care for country music
but Mac Davis captures the essence
of what Jesus is telling his disciples
about the scribes and the Pharisees.

These people are in love with themselves.
They do all their deeds to be seen by others.
Even their prayers and their worship are for show.

They like to have the seat of honor and be greeted with respect.
But they don’t lift a finger to help.
They let everybody else do the hard work
but they like to do the hard bragging
about all they do.

Jesus reminds us that God knows the humble.
Jesus sees clearly
 and tells us very very clearly:
The ones
who like to show off to others,
they really don’t have that much to show.
The greatest among you will be your servant.

The greatest among you will be your servant.

This is our call--to be servants.
Servants to one another.
Servants to creation.
Servants to our church and our communities.
Servants to God.

jesus does not disagree with what the Pharisees are teaching.
Not at all
in fact, Jesus says, do whatever they teach you and follow it.

But then he adds
...but do not do as they do for they do not practice what they teach.

Jesus is proclaiming to his disciples
about how to be a community of faith,
how to be the church in the world.

You know the church is not a building.
The church is the people of God.
We are a little community of God’s people
named St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Now back to those two images you have been holding
in your mind:
Are we a lily pad or a launch pad community?

Is Church a beautiful place to come
and just sit and rest and soak in the colored light
from the stained glass window?
Or is church a place to be inspired,
to be launched into the world as a servant?

Lily pad or launch pad?

Paul says to the Thessalonians,
lead a life worthy of God.
A better translation of that word we hear as “lead” might be “walk”--
walk a life worthy of God.

n other words,
“Walk the walk that the gospel teaches you.”
Walk and behave and do in the world
the good news you have heard from Jesus Christ.

Walk the walk.

Jesus is not critical of what the Pharisees are teaching.
He is critical of the fact that they are not walking the walk.
He is critical of the fact that they are walking AWAY from what they are teaching.

Lily pad or launch pad?
Are we called as Christians to sit and be eye-candy--
or are we called to go out into the world and serve?

Serving does not wear one face.
You can serve with a Habitat hammer in your hand
and you can serve with a loaf of bread
delivered to someone who is suffering.
You can serve by offering your time to someone in prison
and you can serve by offering your time and transport
to someone who needs a ride to church.

Gandhi said:
I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.
Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.

I think Gandhi was talking about lily pad Christians--
not the launch pad Christians Jesus calls us to be.

For most of his life Albert Einstein had portraits of two scientists,
Newton and Maxwell, hanging on the wall of his office to inspire him.
But as he grew older he took down those portraits and hung two others:
Albert Schweitzer and Mahatma Gandhi.
EInstein said he needed new role models--
people who were not models of success,
but people who were models of humble service.

O Lord it’s hard to be humble...
And not because we are perfect.
(Sorry, Mac Davis!)

It is hard to be humble because the world around us
tells us in so many ways
that what we need is a beautiful new lily pad.
The world around us tells us that what we need is to be the best,
to beat out the competition, to win,
to get the best seats, the fastest car, the biggest paycheck,
to impress people.

I don’t think the Pharisees started out
turning their back on the launch pad.
I think they started off really trying to walk the walk.
But they got distracted by all the bells and whistles
and false truths of the lily pad.
And they wandered so far away
and felt they had so much to lose
that they just could not walk their talk.

Oh, they kept preaching and teaching and pretending to be holy.
But they probably feared and hated Jesus
because he revealed to them
the harsh truth about whom they had become.

Lily pad or launch pad?
Two thousand years later
we are still faced with choosing.

Who will we be as Christians?
Who will we be as the Church?

There is a story that many of you may have heard.
It is credited as a story told by a Cherokee Indian chief.

The old chief told his young grandson about a terrible battle
that was raging.
His grandson asked,
“Where is this battle?”

His grandfather replied,
“This battle is inside you. Inside me. Inside everyone.
This battle is between two wolves.
One wolf is Evil.
It is anger, envy, greed, arrogance, self-pity, resentment,
lies, apathy.
The other wolf is Good.
It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy,
generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

“But Grandfather,” said the young boy, “which wolf wins?”
The grandfather looked at his grandson and replied,
“Which wolf wins?
Whichever wolf you feed.”

We are called to walk a life worthy of God--
to feed the good wolf,
to leave the lily pad
and launch ourselves into the world
proclaiming the love of God
loving and serving one another.

Taxes to pay? What do you say?....Sermon for Year A Proper 24

Ben Miller and Michael Watts,
both professors in Economics at Purdue University,
wrote a paper back in 2009 titled,
“Oh, the Economics You’ll Find in Dr. Seuss.”

As the paper’s title indicates,
it’s about a variety of economic concepts
that one can find in the books
by children’s author Dr. Seuss.

I thought about Dr. Seuss and this paper on economics
as I read Matthew’s gospel this week.
There is much about economics in the gospels.

In today’s gospel
those trickster Pharisees
are out to try to entrap Jesus once again.

They send out their eager young disciples--
this time with some Herodians--
government officials.

I thought if Dr. Seuss had written this gospel scripture
it might start something like this:

Oh, Rabbi!
Could we ask you a question?

Taxes to pay?
What do you say?
Big emperor, little emperor?
Big God, little God?
Tell us, Jesus, what you think.
Help us throw you in the clink.

The disciples and the Herodians are pretty thrilled with their question--
They believe they have Jesus just where they want him--
with this lose/lose question.
Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor--or not?

Jesus is getting sick and tired of their foolish games.
And he tells them so:

Oh you silly hypocrites.
Oh you make me lose my wits.
Coming up with tests for me
As if I’m too blind to see.
What you want is rid of me--
Your questions are just foolery.

But Jesus takes a deep breath and asks:
Do you have one of those coins used to pay the tax?

Oh. Ooh. They’ve got him now.
They hand him a denarius.

And Jesus asks them.
Who’s head is on this coin?

They reply “The emperor’s.”

Alright, says Jesus. Tossing the coin back to them.
Then give to the emperor
what belongs to the emperor
and give to God what belongs to God.

The disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians were amazed.
Because they realize their little plan has not worked.
In fact their little plan has worked against them.
Their little plan is now a large dilemma.

Because essentially Jesus has trapped them.
Jesus has left them with a far bigger question than the one they asked.
What belongs to God?

They have already failed the test.
Just by having that coin in their pocket,
they have broken the first two commandments:

Commandment 1: You shall have no other gods before me.
Commandment 2: You shall not make for yourself an shall not bow down or worship them.

The commandments, given to Moses,
were not just words to be put on a bookmark
or memorized in Sunday School--
this was the covenant they had made with God.
This was their rule of life.

The Pharisees and the Herodians
have shown themselves to be compromised--
by having a pagan god--the emperor--
right in their own pockets.

Jesus is not talking about separation of church and state here.
First of all,
in the time of Jesus there as no ideology
that separated civic and religious life.
The concept of separation of church and state
originated with Thomas Jefferson in the late 18th century.
We have to be so careful
that we do not project our own modern culture
onto the culture of Jesus’ time.

You see the Emperor--or Caesar--was not just the head of state.
He was--by his own self-proclamation--proclaimed to be a god.
And if you didn’t worship the emperor as a god,
you were in serious trouble.

Now we can say, well, we don’t have an emperor any more,
so I don’t have to worry.
I’m down with Jesus.

What belongs to God?
That is the question Jesus is asking--then and now.

There is a lot about economics in the gospels.
Jesus taught more about money than any other subject.
27 of his parables--out of 43--have to do with money and possessions.
1 our of every 10 verses in the gospels deals with money.

The Bible includes 500 verses on prayer, less than 500 on faith,
and more than 2000 verses on money.

In the church today
we really do not like to talk about money.
Talking about money makes some of us uncomfortable.
It makes some of us mad.
it makes some of us guilty.
It makes some of us sad.
We feel “our” money is nobody’s business.
“Our” money.

The truth is
our relationship with money
is often very reflective of our relationship with God.

Jesus does not let us escape.
Jesus wants us to ponder and struggle and become more clear
about whom we really worship.

Jesus is asking a much more powerful and difficult question:
What really belongs to God?

It is rather amazing what happens
when we are willing to acknowledge that everything belongs to God.
When we are willing to live with that as our guiding principle.

Teresa of Avila lived in the sixteenth century in Spain.
It was a time when women had little voice, little influence, little power.
And yet...and yet..
she reformed her Carmelite order,
she founded 17 new communities,
she wrote 4 books
and she confronted and challenged many people--
both women and men (including John of the Cross)
about their relationship with God.

Teresa of Avila was very clear that all this was possible because of God.
Not because of her.

She wrote:

“Remember that you have only one soul; that you have only one death to die; that you have only one life, which is short and has to lived by you alone; and that there is only one glory, which is eternal. If you do this, there will be many things about which you care nothing.”

What belongs to the emperor?
and what belongs to God?
This is still the question with which we struggle.

And to close, in the tradition of Dr. Seuss:

You'll look up and down streets. Look 'em over with care.
About some you will say, "I don't choose to go there.
With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet...

You’ll encounter the emperor prowling his beat.
When will you bend? To whom will you bow?
What really belongs to God?
Pray upon this right now.

Pray upon this right now.