August 4, 2019
Eigth Sunday after Pentecost
But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
Ten years ago, almost to the day, on August 17, 2009, a reality show premiered on the A & E network. It soon became the most-watched series premier in A & E network history among the coveted demographic of adults between the ages of 18-49 and tied for the most ever in the 25-54 demographic, with the premier drawing 2.5 million viewers.
The show won a Critics Choice award in 2011 and, after a brief hiatus in 2013, was renewed and is now in its 10th season. The name of the show is “Hoarders”; and it depicts the real-life struggles and treatment of people who suffer from “compulsive hoarding disorder,” which shares several symptoms with the better-known “obsessive-compulsive disorder.” In today’s parable from Jesus, however, we discover that hoarding, an unhealthy attachment to one’s possessions, was apparently alive and well 2,000 years ago; and, while not an official disorder, as it is now with the American Psychiatric Association, was clearly a behavior that did not find favor with Jesus.
In helping to resolve a family squabble over an inheritance, Jesus tells the two brothers the parable of a rich man who had been blessed by God with an abundant crop. In the face of this unexpected bounty, instead of sharing his God-given crop with the less fortunate and pledging an increased tithe to the Temple, the man, we are told, apparently in a conversation with his own soul, decides to tear down his existing barns and to build larger ones to “store all my grain and my goods.” The man then concludes this flight of selfish fancy by announcing that once these new larger barns are filled to capacity, he will then say to his soul words which are familiar to all of us today as the first half of a familiar saying--which is typically used to justify a lavish, selfish, and wasteful life-style, presumably on the theory that, if you really can’t take it with you, then why not spoil yourself now before you die leaving others to enjoy your bountiful possessions. You’ve all heard the saying, “Eat, drink, and be merry; for tomorrow you may die.” But who knew that its source is the Bible; and that the second half of the saying not only comes from Jesus, but comes with a strong warning to those who would lavish such treasures on themselves while leaving God and the needy empty-handed.
Not only that, but the stakes are raised considerable by Jesus in the parable when, instead of simply having the rich man converse with his own physical self, the conversation takes place between the man and his “soul.” While we all, of course, face a physical death, the soul is an entirely different matter. While our physical bodies return at death to the dust they came from—as we are reminded every Ash Wednesday--the soul is the part of us that may be elevated to eternal life, if we are granted entrance to God’s Kingdom in Heaven.
Had there been a 1st century reality show on Hoarding, this rich fool in the parable would no doubt have been its star attraction. While I’m sure that probably all of us here this morning are thinking something like, ”Well, while hoarding certainly may be a problem for some people, thank God that by any definition, I am not one of those people.”
While that may well be true in the extreme sense, meaning that none of us here this morning is likely to qualify for a leading role in the “Hoarders” reality show, we would still do well to remember that developing an unhealthy attachment to one’s possessions—something often condemned by Jesus—doesn’t just happen overnight. I mean it’s not like we wake up one morning only to discover that our garages, basements, and attics are suddenly filled to overflowing with possessions of limited value or utility; and we’re forced to go rent a storage unit—a modern version of those larger “barns.” More often it begins innocently enough, often following a move when you discover that while you’ve moved comfortably into your new home, your garage is still filled with those unopened, ubiquitous cardboard boxes. It’s not so much an unwillingness to part with material possessions we no longer need; it’s just not wanting to go through the boxes to sort out their contents and make decisions. So there they sit; and before you can say, “Hoarder,” they’ve followed us through other moves, and we have added to their numbers--until there’s no room in those garages for our cars! Why ? Because it’s just easier to buy more boxes than it is to invest the time and the effort to sort and dispose of those no longer needed possessions.
Before we know it, we have become de facto hoarders, while outside our doors are those to whom our no longer needed possessions might be able to change their lives in significant ways. This is but one reason why Jesus found hoarding—clinging to those excess possessions—so repugnant. And lest we forget, the only person in the four Gospels who refused Jesus’ invitation to follow Him on the disciples’ road was the young ruler. The reason given for turning his back on Jesus? Because he had many possessions.
Hoarding, clinging to possessions, many of which we no longer need, is insidious. It starts innocently enough, but then slowly insinuates itself into our lives until it becomes a way of life, affecting our attitudes toward letting go of anything that belongs to us: money, possessions, even our precious time—those waking hours which, along with our possessions, could be put to good use by the church in any number of ministries of outreach to those less fortunate than we are.
Of course there is one figure, prominent throughout the Bible, beginning in Genesis, who sees nothing whatsoever wrong with hoarding and the consequences it can lead to. In fact, he’s quite the hoarder himself—but only of one particular thing, of which he’s acquired so many that he’s constantly building his unique version of larger barns to accommodate them. Just who is this ancient hoarder, and what is it that he’s been collecting since the beginning of time? You know the two answers: Satan and Souls. Satan is a master at convincing us to take those first, seemingly harmless steps on that slippery slope which, unless we change our behavior, will one day take us straight to his barns--barns which are always under construction, ever expanding to hoard the souls of those who fail to understand that you really can’t “take it with you.”
While God never condemns money or possessions, per se, what God does take issue with is one’s unhealthy love of money and attachment to those possessions. Notice, if you will, the number of first person pronouns in the rich man’s conversation with his own soul: I, I, my, I, I, my, I, my , my, I. Six “I’s” and five “my’s.”
Ironically, this passage, as I mentioned earlier, is often quoted out of context to urge us to lavish things on ourselves now, lest death come unexpectedly, “Eat, drink, and be merry; for tomorrow you may die.” What this self-centered quote doesn’t reveal is that not only is it from the Bible, but that the part about dying tomorrow is raised by God in calling the man a fool while warning him that those who hoard things for themselves while on earth and are not rich toward God, put their very souls in jeopardy. Simply being rich and having possessions is not the problem. The problem arises when we lose sight of the truth that everything we have or ever will have, comes to us from God. God is the source not only of life, but of all things.
We are reminded of this at the offertory when we sing or say, “All things come from thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” All God asks of us as we navigate our lives in His Kingdom on earth is that we do so with an attitude of gratitude toward God and our fellow human beings, an attitude that leads us to joyous and generous giving. Yet God and Satan know that an abundance of possessions, which are gathered, stored, loved, and hoarded can lead us instead to incubate an attitude, not of gratitude, but of greed.
The rich man’s selfish words, so loaded with first person pronouns, led him and will lead us, should we follow suit, to forget God, forget our own mortality, forget that we really can’t take it with us. This “I” and My” mentality can easily cause us to miss the point being made by French philosopher Teilhard de Chardin when he wrote, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Greed makes us forget that we are spiritual beings, created in the image of God; makes us forget that we were not created to become barn-building fools, but rather to be what St. Paul referred to as, “Fools for Christ”—disciples who, with God’s help, are willing to go against the grain of conventional behavior, especially when that conventional behavior would counsel stinginess toward God and our fellow spiritual beings having that human experience. Especially when conventional behavior promotes a fear in us of never having enough, even though God has promised always to meet our true needs. Instead of building new barns, may we regularly clear them out. May we then distribute long-forgotten and no longer needed possessions to places and to people where they could be life-changing; to where they might make a difference in someone’s life, sowing seeds of love, justice, inclusiveness, and equality in the world.
Heavenly Father, in this reality show that is our life, bless those possessions we may have innocently stored away in long-forgotten barns. Guide us through your life-giving spirit as, whether they consist of things, time, or treasure, we sort them out to send them into the world in such a way that they might help others honor you and create in us a spirit of generous giving that will not only bring joy into our lives on earth, but will prepare us when our time comes to be welcomed into your Kingdom in Heaven.
August 18, 2019,
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my now 28 years as a priest, it’s that our God has a very--how can I say this and not be disrespectful--a very “interesting” sense of humor. On this back-to-school Sunday, when we are basically celebrating families—parents and their children preparing together for that annual late summer ritual of bidding farewell to those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, and facing early rising, hastily prepared lunches, deadlines, and of course, homework. What Gospel reading do I discover has been assigned for this family Sunday? How about Jesus telling us that He’s come, not to bring peace to the earth, but division: “Father against son and son against father. Mother against daughter and daughter against mother . . . . “
As I said, a very interesting sense of humor has God. Thankfully, the Episcopal Church, in its wisdom, gives us several choices from the Bible to preach on each Sunday. So if you came here this morning expecting a sermon on divided families who are at each other’s throats . . . well, you’re in the wrong church. What I do have, with “2020 Tokyo,” the games of the 22nd Olympiad now less than a year away, is a remarkable tale of courage and perseverance, which echoes our lesson from the Book of Hebrews. It’s a story that comes from the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.
It was 7:00 p.m. on what had been a blisteringly hot Sunday afternoon. Out of 74 participants, 17 had been unable to finish the Marathon race, which had started at 3 p.m. The winner from, where else, Ethiopia, had finished more than an hour before. Suddenly, a lone runner wearing the colors of Tanzania entered the stadium, accompanied by sirens and police blowing whistles. His name was John Stephen Akhwari, and he was quite literally hobbling. He had suffered a bad fall and seriously hurt himself. His right leg was bloody, and his knee had become dislocated from the joint. He had been repeatedly asked to quit the race, but refused to do so. He fell, dragged himself, ran in between, and hobbled painfully around the final 400 meters. When he finally staggered across the finish line, the crowd rose as one, cheering wildly as if Akhwari had actually won the race. When asked by a reporter why he had not simply dropped out and quit, following his severe injury and having no chance to win, John Akhwari gave this answer for the ages: “My country did not send me 7,000 miles to start the race. They sent me 7,000 miles to finish it!”
It’s been said of long-distance running that “to finish is to win,” and certainly John Akhwari embraced that message. The anonymous author of Hebrews may never have run a marathon, but we find sports images woven all through our second reading. It’s a continuation of the author’s great testimony to faith that started last Sunday, as today we’re exhorted to run with perseverance the race set before us. Since the New Testament Greek word for perseverance, “Hoop-om-on-ay,” is most often translated as patience, it’s clear that for Christians, winning the race of life—which in our culture seems to equate with dying with the most “toys”—is far less important than how we have participated in that race, as we reach the finish line.
We might also want to look to the Apostle Paul who, near the end of his life, wrote to his friend, Timothy, from a jail cell: “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” This emphasis on patience and on finishing tells us that for Christians, the race of life is not about being born, living a life of no real accountability, and then dying.
This idea of finishing the race being more important for Christians than winning the race is reflected throughout scripture. Seeing the marathon of life in this way, allows us, like the Good Samaritan, to be on the lookout for those who have fallen along the way and to provide road service when we find them broken down, beaten up, or wandering aimlessly along the highways and biways of life. If one’s only focus is on winning the race of life, there’s never time to stop and give aid to those in need that we encounter on the way.
Of course aside from helping those in need, Jesus makes it clear that if we persevere, running with patience the race set before us, there will come times when we are called to make tough choices. Times in our lives when, like John Akwari, we’ll find ourselves bruised, bloodied, and sorely tempted to simply drop out. Jesus refers to such times in today’s Gospel when He warns that following Him will likely pit family members against one another, as Gospel truths clash with the temptations and the demands of the culture that surrounds us. We were not washed in the waters of Baptism simply to start a new life as disciples. It’s God’s intention that we finish what was started within us when we were “cleansed from sin and born again” at Baptism, that we might continue forever in the risen life of Jesus Christ. But for us to continue in that risen life and to persevere in the race set before us, there will be times of trial, times of crisis, times when dropping out or taking an easier way out will seem a lot more attractive than making these hard choices to keep the faith by taking just one more step on the path laid out for us by God. It’s at times like these in our lives that we need to call upon the rallying cry from Hebrews to keep us on the path, to remember our goal, and never to forget who’s awaiting us at the finish line.
Speaking of finishing lines, did you realize that church architecture in most traditional churches, is designed to remind us of that whenever we come through these doors? Notice that our Baptismal font is situated intentionally at the rear of the church to remind us all that in Baptism we are born anew to begin our new life as disciples. The aisle represents our journey as disciples in the marathon of life at the end of which, we find the Altar and the Cross. The Altar, representing the simple table at which Jesus shared a last supper with His friends, introduced the Holy Communion, or Mass, assuring all future generations of disciples that if we but stay the course, finishing the race in faith, that a place has been prepared for us in His Father’s house. As we journey up the aisle week after week to receive the spiritual food of His Body and Blood, we are visibly reminded of His sacrifices as we are refreshed and renewed to continue to run the real journey of life awaiting us outside these doors.
We are strengthened to persevere when we face hard choices which test our endurance; and we are encouraged whenever, like John Akhwari, our knees are bloodied by a culture which increasingly ridicules our faith, while urging us to take the path of least resistance, instead of that road less traveled.
Just how well are we doing in this ongoing struggle between the pressures of our culture and of Satan, the great tempter, to have us look upon life as a sprint race to be won rather than a marathon to be finished—stopping along the way to put our faith into practice? One kind of litmus test I’ve found helpful is to periodically ask yourself, “When was the last time in my life that bloody knees, figuratively speaking; sacrifices; or taking stands resulted from some conflicts between the ways of the world and my faith—the ways of Christ?” If the answer comes back, “I can’t really remember,” maybe you’ve become a little too comfortable with those ways of the world that God has called us to change. I’m hardly suggesting we must face the extreme examples before us this morning in Hebrews: torture, stoning to death, sawn in two, or killed by the sword, if we are truly and actively seeking God’s will for our lives. But if we are today doing our level best to finish the race set before us, then sacrifices will eventually be called for as the messages and the values of the secular culture collide head-on with Gospel truths and demands. No worries; take heart because when those times come, the author of Hebrews has gifted us all with a locker room speech for the ages—one worthy of the legendary Knute Rockne, whose name came up here a few weeks ago. The author tells us that when we face those inevitable times of conflict between the ways of God and the ways of the world, recalling all of those biblical heroes and heroines who have blazed the trail for you on this marathon of life, you must
“Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees and make straight paths for your feet. So that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but healed! Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
Now, let’s leave here today and win one for the Gipper!”
August 25, 2019,
It happened one Sunday morning in a traditional mainline church when, 15 minutes or so into the service, a man entered and began looking for a pew to sit in. While no one had paid any attention to his arriving late, it wasn’t long before several members of the congregation started to notice him for an entirely different reason. He just didn’t seem to belong. He was scruffy in appearance, his clothes were ragged, and he smelled strongly of spirits that were clearly not of the Holy variety; and, judging from his lurching walk, he had no doubt consumed large quantities of these spirits before coming to church. A concerned usher approached the man and tried to steer him toward a pew well in the back. Ignoring the usher, the man weaved his way to a pew in the front where he plopped down next to a suddenly nervous family, where he sat quietly.
“So far, so good,” thought the usher. And so it was, at least until the priest began to deliver her sermon. A couple of minutes into the sermon, the newcomer suddenly sat up straight and let loose with a rousing, “Halleluia!” The priest gave the man a stern look—and moved on. But a few minutes later, her sermon was again interrupted with a resounding, “Praise the Lord!” earning him another withering glance from the now visibly flustered preacher. But the last straw came just a few moments later when the man suddenly stood up and let loose with a resounding, “Amen, Sister!”
The usher hurried over to the man and whispered, as politely as he could, “Sir, we just don’t do that in this church.” “But,” said the man, “I’ve got religion!” “I’m quite sure you do,” replied the usher, “but you certainly didn’t get it here!”
“The more things change; the more they remain the same,” goes the saying. We certainly see it in this story, as Jesus had quite a few moments like this in his travels around Jerusalem, typically in his frequent encounters with the pharisees, and especially when His actions were seen as threatening to one of their precious traditions or their unhealthy devotion to the strict letter of the law which, according to Jesus, had replaced God at the center of their lives.
The synagogue leader in our Gospel passage today represents a 1st century version of many of today’s church leaders and members, people who, often with the best intentions, cling stubbornly to traditions and to the strict letter of the law, placing them above grace, mercy, and love, while wagging their fingers in judgment at anyone who dares to stray from “the way things have always been,” telling them, like the usher in the story, “We just don’t do that here.”
I have no doubt that Jesus would have sided with the inebriated man in the story who was clearly fighting his own demons—quite likely that “demon rum,” to borrow an old Salvation Army term. Whatever it was, he too was bent over—perhaps not physically like the poor woman in the Gospel who had been physically crippled for years by a spirit of Satan, but bent over and impaired nonetheless. For some reason the man in my story had been drawn to this particular church that Sunday morning. Maybe he was hoping to find there a calm port in the out-of-control storm his life had become. Maybe even healing that would free him from his bondage to Satan through his addiction.
We’ll never know because what the man encountered instead in that church was judgment, prejudice, and the same brand of hypocrisy encountered by Jesus and the crippled woman in Luke’s Gospel. It must frustrate God to no end to see churches building their religion around a graceless trinity of rules, doctrines, and traditions—rather then around the “Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.”
While the 4th Commandment’s injunction to “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy,” was at the center of today’s confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees, by the 1st century the Pharasaic tradition had multiplied all ten commandments into a confusing array of thousands of petty rules. For example, to ensure that no work was done on the Sabbath, the “Halakah”—the collective body of Jewish religious laws—prescribed what might be or might not be saved if one’s house caught on fire. This is a paraphrase of actual quotes:
“Only those clothes that are absolutely necessary may be saved; but one could put on a dress, save it, and then go back in the burning house to save another dress by putting it on. The point being that one could not carry extra dresses out, because that would be work and clearly prohibited by the 4th Commandment.
Or, one could hire a Gentile to do the chore for them, and this would not violate the 4th Commandment. Actually, this was and is still a very popular way to get things done on the Sabbath—hire a Gentile or “Goy.” This practice actually has a name, “Shabbas Goy”—look it up on Wikipedia, where it’s defined as, “A non-Jew who performs certain activities which Jewish religious law—the ‘Halakha’ prohibits a Jew from doing on the Sabbath.” Clearly there’s a good reason those Pharisees were often dubbed the lawyers of first century Judaism.
It’s been said that “Minutiae is the devil’s playground,” and nowhere was it more evident in the jumble of silly rules and regulations which, in Jesus time on earth, were threatening to all but obliterate God’s simple Ten Commandments. This silliness did not end with the advent of Christianity—far from it! The same elevation of law and what’s considered proper church behavior over grace, love, and compassion continues to infect and to threaten Christianity today.
Which takes us full circle to the poor fellow who cried out, “I’ve got religion” in that “proper” church, only to be told, “You didn’t get it here.” An interesting word, religion. Typically, we associate it with churches, synagogues, people of faith, and so on—but the derivation of the word may just surprise you. It comes from a Latin word, ligare, meaning “to bind together.” Think of the function of ligaments in our bodies, to connect bone to bone. One of the primary functions of religious organizations like churches is, or should be, to bring people together in communities of faith and to then bind them together as the Body of Christ; to then go into the world to fulfill the Great Commission given to us by Jesus before ascending to Heaven. This is basically to take our faith out into the world, as we did so well last Sunday when we put the word out there. Seven new people, including four children, came to receive school supplies. That’s a concrete example of what a community that is bound together by Christ can accomplish in the world out there. I expect to see more of that in the future as those same ligaments bring us closer to organizations like PADS and the YMCA with church ministries to help them in their missions in Dixon.
If we are not doing things like this as a church, we have no business calling ourselves a religious community. Churches who do fail to create an atmosphere where their members feel bound together by a common faith and have programs to take that faith outside the church walls, are nothing more than weekly gatherings of separate individuals who enjoy each other’s company, coffee hour, and hearing a nice message. While that’s all well and good, it’s not why Jesus come to earth to be crucified for our sins while opening to the faithful the way to eternal life.
The downward slide from a true religious community, bound together by a common purpose and grounded in Christ’s Great Commission, to just a weekly social gathering, a place where members are either discouraged or given no opportunities to get religion, typically begins with small, seemingly harmless suppressions of God’s Holy Spirit—shushing small children for making children’s noises or in other ways making them feel not welcome during worship. Frowning at laughter in church, at applause, or other ways in which people express positive emotions or letting an exuberant newcomer know that he’s looking for religion in the wrong church. Thanks be to God, that’s not this church. If you ever witness that kind of Pharasaic minutiae trying to creep in here—please give a shout! Because we’ve got religion at St. Luke’s! You see it at our announcements, in the sharing of our lives, praying for birthdays, anniversaries, and other significant life events. You see it in the way we’ve lately been extending our ligaments into the community—giving all of us ways to connect both with our faith and with things going on outside these walls. Places where we are given opportunities to invest either some sweat equity, our God-given gifts and treasures, or both in ministries like PADS, the YWCA, and others we hope to add soon
We are helping places which are ministering seven days a week, mainly to women and their children who are bearing heavy burdens, bent over like the woman in the Gospel by the pressures of life. By extending our religion, our ligaments, out to such worthwhile ministries in our community, we are letting everyone know that St. Luke’s is a beacon in an often dark and threatening world; a place where they can come as they are every Sabbath and leave with a lighter load because they have shared their lives with others and with God.
There’s a popular Christian camp song, often sung at Cursillo and on retreats that captures well what getting religion is all about, and where the word itself comes from:
“Bind us together, Lord
Bind us together with cords that cannot be broken.
Bind us together, Lord,
Bind us together, Lord
Bind us together with love.”
But Jesus, I think, provides for us the best closure in what have come to be called “The comfortable words.” They are said just before the Peace in our Rite One service and are found in Matthew’s Gospel:
“Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden,
And I will refresh you.” Amen.