Sunday, October 15, 2017

19 Pentecost

October 15, 2017

Isaiah 25.1-9; Matthew 22.1-14

+ I believe I’ve shared this with you before, but in case you haven’t heard it, I’ll tell it again. When I was finishing up my Master of Fine Arts some twenty years ago, I did my critical thesis on my view that there were two types of writers.

There were those writers who were on the inside looking out.

And there were those who were on the outside looking in.

If you think about it, it’s actually quite true.

Think about your favorite writer or poet or playwright or novelist or theologian. Think of about their perspective on life or the world.

And you can guess about where your favorite poet-priest is on that spectrum (it’s not hard to guess)

If you examine them closely you will see that they are either on the inside looking out, or on the outside looking in.  

And since the writer’s perspective is all-important to literature, these perspectives are vital. Essentially then there are the “insiders” and the “outsiders.” It was fun for me to explore these two perspectives in literature for that thesis.

But, later, as a priest, I have discovered that these perspectives—literature itself—truly does reflect reality. As you look at your own life, you no doubt think you have a pretty clear understanding of where you stand on that spectrum. You probably think either that you are the outsider or the insider.

But, I always caution people on this. Don’t be quick to claim one or the other, because this perspective might change in your life. Circumstances might often put you in the opposite perspective. Or sometimes, your own choices put you in that perspective I’ve seen it happen again and again.

And I see it very clearly in our Gospel reading for today—a reading that caused a great amount of personal struggle this past week.  And “struggle” is definitely the right word for this reading.  It’s a weird story, to say the least.

It’s just such a pointless story isn’t it? I know, I shouldn’t be saying that about one of Jesus’ parables. But, to be honest, I just don’t like it. The structure is so off. There’s almost nothing, at face value, worth redeeming. I just don’t like the story.
But…let’s not throw it out yet. Let’s not completely abandon this story just because we find it unpleasant. If we did that every time we read the scriptures…well...I’ll just leave it there.

First of all, it definitely seems that Matthew has an agenda in this story. Obviously Matthew is directing this at the Jews. And when we see it from that perspective, it kind of starts making a bit of sense.

So, let’s reframe the story a bit:

The first guests, as we discover, are Israel.

The first slaves represent the prophets, who were also beaten up and killed for trying to tell them what God wanted.

The second slaves are the apostles. And, if you notice, the second group of people are very different than the first group.

At this point, “everyone” has been invited.  “Everyone” is a very important clue to this story. “Everyone” means everyone.

So, what Matthew is trying to have Jesus tell us is that Israel ignored God’s message, and as a result, the Kingdom was given to others. Last week, I preached about how sobering that thought is—the fact that the Kingdom of God can be given to others. The Kingdom can—and has been—given to others

So, we have these slaves going out and inviting.  They were called to invite everyone—not just the elite. Not just the best guests. Not the fancy wedding guests. Everyone.

To echo my original thought: for Jesus, everyone is invited to be an “insider” in his Kingdom. You don’t have be on the outside looking in to his Kingdom.
That’s great. That’s wonderful.  But, what happens next in the story is the real pivot here. The second coming happens. This is the “final judgment.” The King arrives! Now, that sounds great. We’re all looking forward to the Second Coming. We’re all looking forward to the King—God—arriving.

But wait….

It’s not all pleasant and beautiful. Why? Because someone gets thrown out. This poor guy who isn’t wearing a wedding robe gets thrown out.



Didn’t Father Jamie just say that Jesus invites everyone to be an “insider” in the Kingdom? So, what’s this now? If everyone gets invited, who cares if someone is wearing a robe or not?

Now it sounds terrible to us.

But, but, but…

Let’s keep it in the context of its time. At that time, not wearing the wedding robe that was provided to the guests was an insult. It was essentially a way of saying that, Yes, I’m here at the wedding, yes I’m going to eat and drink, but I’m not really going to participate.

I’m going to get what I need out of this, but once I do, I’m gone. I’m not really going to make a commitment to this feast. I’m going to be a bad guest.
And this is the real gist of this story.

Now, we’ve all known bad guests. Maybe we ourselves have been bad guests ourselves. We’ve seen them at weddings. We’ve had them at parties. We’ve seen them here in church.

They’re people who come and take and take and take, and expect the host (or hosts) to do everything for them, but then don’t participate. They stand off to the side, and complain, and backbite and fold their arms when something doesn’t go THEIR way. They refuse the wedding garment—they refuse the gifts that have been given to them.

Now, the good thing about this is that, it’s all about choice. We all have a choice. We choose to go to “the wedding.” We choose to be a good guest or a bad guest. God did not make us into mindless robots.  But there are ramifications to what we choose.

My motto for life, as you have heard me say a million times, is this:

the chickens always come home to roost.

The fact is, by not wearing the robe, we’re not really present.  We’re saying no to the King. For us, it’s kind of the same.

We can be here. We can sit here in our pews. Or up there in the presider’s place. But we don’t have to be a part of it all. We can be obstinate. We can cross our arms and critique everything about the sermon or the liturgy or the music or the way the altar is set up, etc. And not that anyone here has done any of these things (at least I haven’t heard), but we can imagine that people might complain about the capital campaign, or about the new windows or about all the changes that are being made or about how there are so many people in church on Sunday.
We can close our minds and hearts and be bitter and complain. We can nitpick or backbite or stomp our heels because we don’t like it.

We can “choose” to be the outsider.

We’ve all known those kind of people in the church.  

You know what, sometimes I am that person in church. Sometimes I am obstinate, and I complain about things.  

I’ll confess: I pride myself on being the “outsider.” After all, I’ve been an outsider for a long time.  But it’s a choice I made. And there are consequences to that choice. I can be continue to stand aloof, my arms crossed and frown at everything. 

 Or I can be a part of it all.

And not just here, in church on Sunday. As we know, it’s a lot more than just church on Sunday that makes us Christians—that makes us good or bad Christians.

Ultimately, it is about what we do out there. If we are jerks to people, if we are close-minded, if we judgmental, if we’re sexist and homophobic and mean-spirited, then we’re not really doing a good job as Christians.

If we refuse to love, we’re refusing the wedding robe.

The fact is, everyone is invited to the banquet. I say it again and again. We’re all invited. And, here’s the rub:

it really isn’t hard to get in.

At all.

But sometimes it is really hard to be a good guest at the banquet. Sometimes, we really just don’t want to participate. Sometimes, you know what, I just don’t want to be a part of it. Sometimes it’s just easier to cross my arms and pout in the corner. Sometimes it’s easier to not love and respect others. Because, we’ve so often not been loved and not respected by others.

Sometimes, we’re just used to being on the outside looking in. And sometimes it’s just hard to make the transition to being an “insider” after being outside for so long. And that’s our choice to react like that.

But it’s not what is expected of us. We’ve been invited to the banquet! We have an easy “in” to the banquet! We are invited, finally, to be an “insider.” We should be glad! We should be excited. We should don that wedding robe and do whatever else needs to be done to be a good guest.

Because, here’s the other stark reality of it all:

It’s not fun being the outsider.

I can tell you that by first-hand experience. It is not fun being all by one’s self on the outside of the party, looking in at everyone who’s there.

But, that’s sometimes where we put ourselves.  That’s where we often go to pout and feel bad about ourselves.

Luckily Jesus, who truly does love us, who truly does want us at the banquet, never lets us stay out there—outside the party—for long. Jesus does not let us stay the “outsider” for very long. The invitation from Jesus keeps coming.

“Come in,” he says to us. “Come in from the cold. Come in from the dark. Come in and join the party.”

Because, it IS a party. And all he have to do accept the invitation.  All we have to do is put on the wedding garment. That’s all the bad guests had to do to rejoin the party.

So, let’s do just that. Let’s put on the wedding robe. Let us not cast ourselves off into the exterior. Let us not alienate ourselves with our bitterness and anger.
But let us join the banquet in love. Let us heed the invitation. Let us celebrate, and be joyful and be glad. That’s what our Host wants from us.

And when we do, we can truly echo those words we hear today from Isaiah:

“This is our God, the one for whim we have waited…
Let us be glad and rejoice in our salvation.”

Sunday, October 8, 2017

18 Pentecost

Matthew 21.33-46

October 8, 2017

+ I’m sure you’ve noticed, but there is a lot of zealous people out there, especially recently. There is no end of people giving very impassioned opinions. Especially in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting one week ago tonight, people on both sides of the issues are giving very clear and defined opinions about gun control and politics.  Just take a quick perusal of Facebook.

And, for the most part, being zealous for something is not a bad thing by any means.  I would rather have someone zealous for an opinion with which I might not agree than know someone lackluster. At least the discussion will be interesting.

But this morning, I am going to ask you a very important question:

What are you zealous for?

For what do you have real zeal, real passion?

I know. Yes, some of us have real zeal for sports. And certainly, here at St. Stephen’s, I know there is a lot of zealousness for political opinion and causes.

As am I.  I am very zealous politically, and theologically, and spiritually, and poetically. You all know that. If I have an opinion on something, you’ll probably know it in no time at all, even if you might not agree with it.  Trust me, I am full of zeal!!

But zeal is a word we don’t use too often anymore. And, at least in this part of the country, we are, for the most part, uncomfortable with zeal.  Zeal equals emotion for any of us. And certainly zeal involves an emotional attachment to something.

Now, as I said, it is not a bad thing by any means to be zealous.  It’s good to be challenged occasionally (respectfully, of course).  It keeps us on our toes.  And it humbles us.

Well, this morning we definitely have one of those parables that challenges us, that keeps us on our toes.  It may even make us a bit angry and that definitely forces us to look more closely at ourselves.

Let’s face it, it’s a violent story we hear Jesus tells us today.  These bad tenants are so devious they are willing to kill to get what they want.  And in the end, their violence is turned back upon them.

It’s not a warm, fuzzy story that we can take with us and hold close to our hearts.

The Church over the years has certainly struggled with this parable because it can be so challenging. At face value, the story can probably be pretty easily interpreted in this way: The Vineyard owner of course symbolic of God.  The Vineyard owner’s son of Jesus. The Vineyard is symbolic of the Kingdom.  And the workers in the vineyard who kill the son are symbolic of the religious leaders who will kill Jesus. From this view, we can see the story as a prediction of Jesus’ murder.  

But there is another interpretation of this story that isn’t so neat and clean and finely put-together.  It is in fact an uncomfortable interpretation of this parable.  As we hear it, we do find ourselves shaken a bit.  It isn’t a story that we want to emulate.  I HOPE none of us want to emulate it. But again, Jesus DOES twist this story around for us.  

The ones we no doubt find ourselves relating to are not the Vineyard owner or the Vineyard owner’s son, but, in fact, the vineyard workers.  We relate to them not because we have murderous intentions in our heart. Not because we inherently bad.  But because we sometimes can be just as resolute.  

We can sometimes be just that zealous. We sometimes will stop at nothing to get what we want.  We are sometimes so full of zeal for something that we might occasionally ride roughshod over others.  And when we do so, we find that we are not bringing the Kingdom of God about in our midst.

Zeal can be a good thing.  We should be full of zeal for God and God’s Kingdom.  We too should stop at nothing to gain the Kingdom of God.  But zeal taken too far undoes the good we hoped to bring about.

The most frightening aspect of our Gospel story is the fact that Jesus tells us that the kingdom can be taken away from us.  It can be given to others.  

Our zeal for the kingdom has a lot to do with what we gain and what we lose.  Our zeal to make this kingdom a reality in our world is what makes real and positive  change in this world.

At the same time, zeal can be a very slippery slope.  It can also make us zealots.  It can make us fanatics.  And this world is too full of fanatics.

There are plenty of good examples of fanatics in this world right now, from the far right Evangelicals to ISIS to those poor people in North Korea who are held hostage to a brain-washed religion-like ideology.   This world is too full of people who have taken their religion so seriously that they have actually lost touch with it.

This story we hear Jesus today tell us teaches us a lesson about taking our zeal too far.  If we become violent in our zeal, we need to expect violence in return.  

And certainly this is probably the most difficult part of this parable for most of us.  For those of us who consider ourselves peace-loving, nonviolent Christians—and we all should be that kind of a Christian—we cringe when we hear stories of violence in the scriptures.

But violence like the kind we hear in today’s parable, or anywhere else in scriptures should not just be thrown out because we find it uncomfortable.  It should not be discarded as useless just because we are made uncomfortable by it.

As I have said, again and again, it is not just about any ONE of us, as individuals.  It is about us as a whole.

If we look at the kind of violence we find in the Scriptures and use it metaphorically, it could actually be quite useful for us.  If we take some of those stories metaphorically, they actually speak to us on a deeper level.  If we take the parable of the vineyard workers and apply it honestly to ourselves, we find it does speak to us in a very clear  way.

Our zeal for the kingdom of God should drive us.  It should move and motivate us.  We should be empowered to bring the Kingdom into our midst.

But it should not make us into the bad vineyard workers.  It should not make into the chief priests and Pharisees who knew, full well, that they were the bad vineyard workers.

A story like this helps us to keep our zeal centered perfectly on God, and not on all the little nitpicky, peripheral stuff.  A story like this prevents us, hopefully, from becoming mindless zealots.

What it does allow and commend is passion.  What it does tell us is that we should be excited for the Kingdom.

True zeal makes us uncomfortable, yes.  It makes us restless.  It frustrates us.  True zeal also energizes us and makes us want to work until we catch a glimpse of that Kingdom in our midst.

This is what Jesus is telling us again and again.  He is telling us in these parables that make us uncomfortable that the Kingdom of God isn’t just some sweet, cloud-filled place in the next world.  He is telling is, very clearly, that is it not just about any ONE of us.  It is not about our own personal agendas.

The Kingdom of God is right here, in our midst.  And the foundation of that kingdom, the gateway of that Kingdom, the conduit of that Kingdom is always love.

Love of God, love of neighbor, healthy love of self.

This is what Jesus preached. That is the path Jesus is leading us on.  This is the path we walk as we follow after him.  And it is a path on which we should be overjoyed to be walking.

So, let us follow this path of Jesus with true and holy zeal.  Let us set out to do the work we have to do as workers in the vineyard with love in our heart and love in our actions.  And as we do, we will echo the words we heard in today’s Gospel:

“This is what the Lord is doing; it is amazing in our eyes.”

Friday, October 6, 2017

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Today is the feast day of St. Placid, whose name I took when I became an Oblate of St. Benedict 25 years ago.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Monday, October 2, 2017


October 2, 2017

Dear Members and Friends of St. Stephen’s

In the wake of the violence of October 1st in Las Vegas, I ask your prayers for Las Vegas, for the victims who died, for those who are injured, for those who survived. For family and friends and all those affected by this violence. 

Please pray. But, please don't stop at prayer. Rather, let prayer be the motivating factor in our lives at this time.  Prayer should ignite the fire within us to stand up and act. 

And so, I also ask at this time for your actions as well. 

I ask for your action as followers of Jesus and peacemakers for the Kingdom of God.

Speak out!

Work hard in any way you can to prevent violence and counteract hatred.

I ask you not to let your anger win out, because anger caused this violence.

I ask that you not let your fear win out, because fear fed this violence.

Speak out loudly and clearly. And let the whole world hear you.

The people of St. Stephen’s represent a wide spectrum of political belief. In this divisive time, those beliefs often separate us from each other. However, in this moment, we are united. 

I ask you to do anything and everything you can to bring about real change in this moment of darkness, hatred, violence and fear. This is what it means to be a follower of Christ in this world. 

And may the Peace of God which passes all understanding be with us and remain among us now and always.

O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen


Fr. Jamie+