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+

Sunday, October 1, 2017

17 Pentecost

October 1, 2017

Ezekiel 18.1-4;25-32; Matthew 21.23-32

+ Anyone who knows me for any time knows how I LOVE cemeteries. I know. It’s weird. It’s morbid.  But they sort of obsess me to some extent.

I love to think about all the stories contained in a cemetery—all the stories that are untold, all the stories that are just mysteries. I love also how each cemetery is unique in its own way. Each has its own characters, its own “feel.”

Of course, we now have our own memorial garden here at St. Stephen’s, which also is unique in its way.  But, what few of us know is that, just a few blocks north of this church, there are two cemeteries.  Unless you actually get out of your car and walk into the actual cemeteries you wouldn’t even know they’re there.  

And I do invite you to go and visit theses cemeteries.  If you do, you’ll see, in each, a large boulder.

In one cemetery the boulder is inscribed COUNTY CEMETERY #1.  The one is located at the end of Elm Street.  Where the road forks, one to the Country Club and the other to the former Trollwood, right there, on the left fork toward Trollwood, is the cemetery.  You’ve probably driven by it countless times and never had a clue.

County Cemetery #2 is located on the other side of the old Trollwood, just within
sight of where the old main stage stood.  Back along  an oxbow in the Red River, there is a stretch of grass and another boulder.  This one says COUNTY CEMETERY #2. My great-grandmother’s third husband (talk about an interesting story!!) was buried in this cemetery in 1936.

A third County Cemetery was located on north Broadway.  In 1984, those graves were moved to Springvale Cemetery, over by Holy Cross Cemetery, near the airport, because they were falling into the Red River through erosion. One of my great-uncles, who died in 1948, is actually buried in that cemetery.  

For the most part, many of the graves in Springvale are marked.  But in the first two cemeteries, there are no markers at all.  No individual gravestones mark the graves of the people buried in the first two cemeteries.  In fact, if you walked into them, you would have to force your mind to even accept the fact that it is a cemetery.

But there are hundreds of people buried in those graveyards. Hundreds.

These are the forgotten.  These were Fargo’s hidden shame.  Beginning 1899 and going through the 1940s, this where the prostitutes, the gamblers, the robbers were buried.  100 years ago next year, in the Fall of 1918, the Spanish Flu hit the world hard, and Fargo was definitely not spared. Many of the unclaimed victims who died in the epidemic were buried in the County Cemetery #1.

This is also where all the unwanted babies were buried. There are lots of stories of unwanted babies being fished out of the Red River in those days.  This is where the bodies of those unnamed babies were buried.

And when one walks in those pauper cemeteries, one must remind themselves of those words we hear from Jesus this morning in our Gospel reading.

“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you.”

There, in those cemeteries, lie the true inheritors of the Kingdom of God.

Last week in my sermon I quoted the great Reginald Fuller, who said:

“[This] is what God is doing in Jesus’ ministry—giving the tax collectors and prostitutes an equal share with the righteous in the kingdom.”

That—and those words of Jesus we heard in this morning’s Gospel reading—are shocking statements for most of us.  And they should be.  It should shock us and shake us to our core.  It’s a huge statement for him to make.  Partly it does because, things haven’t changed all that much.

OK. Yes, maybe we don’t view tax collectors in the same way people in Jesus’ day did.  But, we do still have a similar view regarding prostitutes—prostitutes are still looked down upon by our society in our day.  Jesus uses these two examples as prime examples of the “unclean” in our midst—those who are ritually unclean according the Judaic law.

We, of course, have our own versions of “unclean” in our own society.  They are the ones in our society that we tend to forget about and purposely ignore.
 But we really should give them concern.  And I don’t meant from a judgmental point of view.

I mean, we should give all those marginalized people we ourselves may consider “unclean” by our own standards our compassion.  We should be praying for them often.  

Because to be viewed as “unclean” in any society is a death knell.  It is a life of isolation and rebuke. It is a life of being ostracized.  The unclean are the ones who have lived on the fringes of society.  They are the ones who have lived in the shadows of our respectable societies.

The “unclean” of our own society often live desperate, secret lives.  And much of what they’ve have to go through in their lives is known only to God.

These are the ones the so-called “alt-right” religious in our society view as “unclean.” (And yes, there ARE alt-right religious people, closer than most of us want to admit. These alt-right religious bullies have essentially destroyed the Church and been a bane to my existence from early on).

These victims of alt-right religious persecution need us and our prayers.  They need our compassion. They definitely don’t need our judgment.

As uncomfortable as it is for us to confront them and think about them—or to BE them—that is exactly what Jesus is telling us we must do. Because by going there in our thoughts, in our prayers, in our ministries, we are going where Jesus went.  We are coming alongside people who need our thoughts, our prayers, our ministries.  And rather than shunning them, we need to see them as God sees them.

We see them as children of God, as fellow humans on this haphazard, uncertain journey we are all on together.  And, more importantly, we see in them ourselves.

Because some of them ARE us.

Some of us here have been shunned and excluded and turned away.  Some of us have been bullied by the alt-right religious. Some of us have been treated as less than we are by these established religious people who smugly claim to be doing the “right” thing.

So we can understand why prostitutes and tax collectors were viewed with such contempt in Jesus’ day.

The point of this morning’s Gospel is this:

The Kingdom of God is not what we think it is.

It is not made up of just people like us. It is not some exclusive country club in the sky. (Thank you, O God, that it is NOT some exclusive country club in the sky!)  And it is certainly not made up of a bunch of “alt-right” Christians who have done all the right things and condemned all the “correct” sins and sinners.

It is, in fact, going to be made up people who maybe never go to church.  It will be made up of those people we might not even notice.  It will be made up of those people who are invisible to us. It will be made up of the people we don’t give a second thought to.

As I said, in our society today we have our own tax collectors, our own “unclean.”  

They are the welfare cases.  

They are the homeless.  

They are alcoholics and the drug or opioid addicts and the drug dealers.  

They are the lost among us, they are the ones who are trapped in their own sadness and their own loneliness.  

They are the gang leaders, they are the rebels.  

They are the ones we call pagan, or non-believer or heretic.

They are the ones we, good Christians that we are, have worked all our lives not to be.

This is what the Kingdom of heaven is going to be like.  It will filled with the people who look up at us from their marginalized place in this society.  It is the ones who today are peeking out at us from the curtains of their isolation and their loneliness.  They are the ones who, in their quiet agony, watch as we drive out of sight from them.

They are the ones who are on the outside looking in.

They are the inheritors of the kingdom of God and if we think they are not, then we are not listening to what Jesus is saying to us.

When we think about those county cemeteries just a few blocks north of here, we need to realize that had Jesus lived in Fargo, had he lived 1900 years later and had died the disgraceful death he died, that is where he would’ve ended up.  He would have ended up in an unmarked grave in a back field, on the very physical fringes of our city.

In fact, Jesus is there.

He is wherever the inheritors of his kingdom are.

Those cemeteries for me are potent reminders of who inherits.  They are potent reminders to me of who receives true glory in the end. It is these—the forgotten ones, the ones whom only God knows—who are in glory at this moment. 

Of course, we too are the inheritors of the Kingdom, especially when we love fully and completely.  We too are the inheritors when we follow those words of Jesus and strive to live out and do what he commands.  We too are the inheritors when we open our eyes and our minds and our hearts to those around us, whom no one else sees or loves.

So, let us also be inheritors of the Kingdom of God.  Let us love fully and completely as Jesus commands.  Let us love our God.  Let us love all those people who come into our lives.  Let us look around at those people who share this world with us.  And let us never cast a blind eye on anyone. Let us do as God speaks to us this morning through the prophet Ezekiel:

Let us “turn, then, and live.”

Sunday, September 24, 2017

16 Pentecost

September 24, 2017

Matthew 20. 1-16

+ I recently came across a big, black three-ring binder that I called my “Commonplace Book.” About 20 years this binder contained all the copies of the documents I needed when I was going through the process of ordination.  There was even a checklist inside the cover, with dates as I progressed toward ordination.

I have to admit: as I look at it now, all these years later, it all seems so…cut and dry. It seems so effortless when I look at it now. But, let me tell you, anyone who knew me then and knew the arduous journey I took during that time knew: there was nothing cut and dry or effortless about any of it.  It was often an uphill struggle. It seemed for every step forward there were two steps backward. And there were a few times when I had to say to myself,

“This is all so unfair!”

Now, that’s not a very adult thing to say. Any of us who have made it to adulthood have learned, by now, that none of it is fair.  One of the biggest things we learn as adults is that life is not fair. And no one promised us that it would be.

Still, we do still cling to that belief.  Things should be fair. A perfect world would be a fair world.  

And when it comes to our relationship with God, fairness takes on even more of a meaning.  God should be fair, we think.  And it seems that when God is not fair, what do we do?  We rage. We get angry.

God should be on our side on this one. Right?

But, it seems, not always is God on our side on some things.  The scale of fairness is not always tipped in our favor.

To put it in the context of our Gospel reading today, I often feel like one of the workers who has been working from the beginning of the work day.  The parable Jesus tells us this morning is, of course, not just a story about vineyard workers.

The story really, for us anyway, is all about that sense of unfairness.  If you’re anything like me, when you hear today’s Gospel—and you’re honest with yourself—you probably think: “I agree with the workers who have been working all day: It just isn’t fair that these workers hired later should get the same wages.”

It’s not fair that the worker who only works a few hours makes the same wages as one who has worked all day.  Few of us, in our own jobs, would stand for it.  We too would whine and complain. We would strike out. 

But the fact is, as we all know by this time, life is not fair.  Each of here this morning has been dealt raw deals in our lives at one point or another.  We have all known what it’s like to not get the fair deal.  We all have felt a sense of unfairness over the raw deals of this life.

But, as much as we complain about it, as much as make a big deal of it, we are going to find unfairness in this life.

Of course, our personal lives are one thing.  But the Church—that’s a different thing.  What we find in today’s parable is exactly what many of us have had to deal with in the Church. The story of the parable is that everyone—no matter how long they’ve been laboring—gets an equal share.  And in Jesus’ ministry, that’s exactly what happens as well.

As one of my personal theological heroes, the great Reginald Fuller, once said of this parable: “[This] is what God is doing in Jesus’ ministry—giving the tax collectors and prostitutes an equal share with the righteous in the kingdom.”

The marginalized, the maligned, the social outcast—all of them are granted an equal share.  To me, that sounds like the ministry we are all called to do as followers of Jesus.

To be a follower of Jesus is strive to make sure that everyone gets a fair deal, even when we ourselves might not be getting the fair deal.

And there’s the rub. There’s the key. Being a follower of Jesus means striving to make sure that all of us on this side of the “veil” get an equal share of the Kingdom of God, even if we ourselves might not sometimes.  That is what we do as followers of Jesus and that is what we need to strive to continue to do.

But…it’s more than just striving for an equal share for others.  It also means not doing some things as well.

What do we feel when we treated unfairly? Jealousy? Bitterness? Anger?

It means not letting jealousy and bitterness win out.  And that’s probably what we’re going to feel when others get a good deal and we don’t.  Jealousy and envy are horribly corrosive emotions.  They eat and eat away at us until they makes us bitter and angry.  

And jealousy is simply not something followers of Jesus should be harboring in their hearts.  Because jealousy can also lead us into a place in which we are not striving for the Kingdom.

Those of us who are followers of Jesus are striving, always, again and again, to do the “right thing.”  But when we do, and when we realize that others are not and yet they are still reaping the rewards, we no doubt are going to feel a bit jealous.

We, although few of us would admit it, are often, let’s face it, the “righteous” ones.  We the ones following the rules, we are the ones striving to live our lives as “good” Christians.  We fast, we say our prayers faithfully, we tithe, we follow the rules, we do what we are supposed to do as good Christians.  Striving for the equal share for people, means not allowing ourselves to get frustrated over the fact that those people who do not do those things—especially those people whom we think don’t follow the rules at all, those people who aren’t “righteous” by our standards—also receive an equal share.

It means not obsessing over the fact that, “It’s not fair.” Even when it is unfair. Because when we do those things, we must ask ourselves a very important question (a question I ask a lot):

why do we do what we do as Christians?

Do we do what we do so we can call ourselves “righteous?”  Do we do what we do as Christians because we believe we’re going to get some reward in the next life?  Do we do what do because we think God is in heaven keeping track of all our good deeds like some celestial Santa Claus?  Do we do what do simply because we think we will get something in return?  Do we do what we do so we can feel good about ourselves at the end of the day?

Or do we do what we do because doing so makes this world a better place?

This is the real key to Jesus’ message to us.  Constantly, Jesus is pushing us and challenging us to be a conduit.  He is trying to convince us that being a Christian means being a conduit for the Kingdom of God and all the very good things that Kingdom represents.

In us, the Kingdom breaks through.  Without us, it simply will not.

We do what we do as Christians because whatever we do is a way in which the barriers that separate us here from God and God’s world is lifted for a brief moment when we do what Jesus tells us to do.  When we live out the Law of loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves, the “veil” is lifted and when it is lifted, the Kingdom comes flooding into our lives.  It does not matter in the least how long we labor in allowing this divine flood to happen.  The amount of time we put into it doesn’t matter in the least to God, because God’s time is not our time.

Rather, we simply must do what we are called to do when we are called to do it. Jesus came to bring an equal share to a world that is often a horribly unfair place.  And his command to us is that we also must strive to bring an equal share to this unequal world.  And that is what we’re doing as followers of Jesus.

As we follow Jesus, we do so knowing that we are striving to bring about an equal share in a world that is often unfair.

We do so, knowing that we are sometimes swimming against the tide.  We do so, feeling at times, as though we’re set up to fail.  We do so feeling, at times, overwhelmed with the unfairness of it all.

And just when we think the unfairness of this world has won out—in that moment—that holy moment—the Kingdom of God always breaks through to us.  And in that moment, we are the ones who are able to be the conduit through which the God comes.

So, let us continue to do what we are doing as followers of Jesus.  Let us strive to do even better.  In everything we do, let us attempt to lift that veil in our lives and by doing so, let us be the conduit through which the Kingdom of God will flood into this unfair world.  And let us do together what Jesus is calling us to do in this world

Let us love—fully and completely.  Let us love our God, let us love our selves and let us neighbors as ourselves.

As we all know, it’s important to come here and share the Word and the Eucharist on Sundays.  But we also know that what we share here motivates us to go out into the world and actually “do” our faith.

As followers of Jesus, we are full of hope—a hope given to us by a God who knows our future and who wants only good for us—God who really is a fair God!  Let us go forth with that hope and with a true sense of joy that we are doing what we can to make that future glorious.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Sunday, September 17, 2017

15 Pentecost

September 17, 2017

Matthew 18.21-35

+ I am going to ask you a question this morning. Do you have any “bad” friends? Or maybe the better term is “frienemies.” I’m not saying murderers or criminals or Nazis. I mean, do you have friends who might not be very loyal or faithful or even nice to you, but whom you still consider a friend?

I think we all do.  I know I do.  And, I have to admit, sometimes they drive me crazy. I want to be loyal to them. I want to like them. But sometimes, it’s really hard.  And sometimes—sometimes!—I just don’t have to have anything to do with them. I want to distance myself from them and be done with them.  Those people who claim to be friends, but who hurt us, sometimes do so unintentionally.  Sometimes I seem to have inordinate amount of them in my life at times.

So, of course, those are the people who come to mind when I read our Gospel reading for today.  It is not my “enemies” I think of when I hear the Gospel. It’s my “bad” friends or “frienemies.”

In our Gospel reading, we find Jesus challenging us on this issue. He is telling us, once again, maybe something we don’t want to hear.  Today we find Jesus laying it very clearly on the line.

Peter has asked how many times he should forgive. “Seven times?” he wonders.

But Jesus says,

“Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

In other words, we must forgive those who wrong us, again and again.

Yes, even those bad friends, those friends I really sometimes just want to give up on.

It has taken me a long time to learn the power of this radical kind of forgiveness. And it has not been easy for me!

But, the problem here is that, as hard it is for me with my bad friends and with this radical forgiveness, I have to remember something very important.

I have been, at times, a bad friend to someone. I have been a “frienemy.” Probably to too many people.  I am the person who sometimes has caused issues. I am the person that has caused those people distance themselves from me in turn.

And I have to own that.  I have to face the fact that what I do matters to others and to God.  Being a jerk people has consequences.  And, I realize, on top of all that, I still retain the wrongs that I felt had been done to me and I cannot  sometimes get around what had been done to me.

I harbor sometimes real anger at people—and not righteous anger, you know, like toward Nazis.  Petty, selfish anger.

And all this causes me to be in a state of almost constant war and conflict with those people, whether they are aware of it or not (most of them are not).

I am not proud to admit any of this—to myself or to anyone else. But, I am a fallible human being, like everyone else here this morning.

All this led me to another sobering thought.  A few weeks ago I preached about being a life-long pacifist.  Being a pacifist is something I am very proud of in my life.   My pacifism, at least at this point in my life, is anchored squarely in our Baptismal Covenant in which we promise, with God’s help, to “strive for justice and peace among all people.” I have tried very hard to live that out in my life—all my life.

I have been very quick to speak out and protest wars and invasions. I have no problem standing up and saying “no” to wars that happen “over there.”

But to be a true pacifist, to be a true seeker after peace, we all must cultivate peace in our midst. When we say that we will “strive for justice and peace among all people,” that means us individually as well. We must be peaceful in what we do and say. And peace begins with respect for others. Peace begins with responding to Jesus’ commandment to love others as we love ourselves.

Or, as our Baptismal Covenant asks of us, we strive to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” loving our neighbor as ourselves.

Peace also involves with loving ourselves, with making peace with ourselves.  With forgiving ourselves 77 times or more.  And that is the first step.

I hate to admit it, but I am often at war with myself. And that war often overflows into my relationships and the world around me. If we are truly going to be seekers after peace, we must start by making peace with ourselves.

We must forgive ourselves seventy times seven, and we must forgive others.  In seeking and serving Christ in all people, in loving our neighbors as ourselves, we must forgive. In striving for justice and peace among all people, in respecting the dignity of every human being, we cannot retain the sins done against us, but must work to forgive them.

As Christians we must actually grant forgiveness to those who have wronged us in whatever way. That is what all of us, as baptized Christians, are called to do.  In a practical way, we can just simply their name and say, “I forgive you in the name of Christ.”

Sometimes, if we are fortunate, we may be able to forgive some of these people to their face.  More often than not, we never get that chance. On very rare occasions, those people will come to us in repentance asking for forgiveness.

But more often than not, they will never ask for our forgiveness.  And they probably will not change their behavior.

Which brings me to one side note: Forgiveness does not equal taking abuse from others. We can forgive what people have done, but we are not called to just go back to old ways of abuse. If someone has abused us physically or emotionally or psychologically, we must protect ourselves and not allow that behavior to continue.

But we can still forgive even those people.  Forgiving does not mean forgetting.

But forgiving does mean that when we forgive them—they are forgiven. It is just that powerful! When we forgive, those wrongs done against us are forgiven.  What we loose of earth—what we let go of, what we forgive on earth—is truly loosed in heaven.  And when we realize that, we then must move on.

We must allow true peace—that peace that we, as baptized Christians, strive for—we must allow that peace to settle into our hearts and uproot any lingering anger or frustration that still exists there. We must allow that peace to finish the job of forgiveness.  This is what it means to forgive.  This is what it means to forgive again and again—even seventy-seven times, or a hundred and seventy-seven times, or seven hundred and seventy-seven times.

As I have said, we must forgive ourselves too! That is the forgiveness of ourselves.  We sometimes have to forgive ourselves of the wrongs we have committed against ourselves and others.

When I talked earlier about allowing the anger and the pettiness in my life to control my life, in those moments, I was wronging my own self. I failed myself in those moments. And often, when we fail ourselves, we wallow in that failure. We beat ourselves up. We torture ourselves unduly. Let me tell you, I have done it on many occasions.

But in those moments, there is no peace in my heart either.  I am allowing the war against myself to rage unabated within me.

Only when we are able to finally forgive ourselves, will we be able to allow true peace to come into our lives. And while I have forgiven others many times, the only one I have ever had to forgive seventy times and much, much more is myself.  And again, it is as easy as I saying to myself, “Jamie, I forgive you, in the Name of Christ” and to allow that absolution to do its job of absolving—of taking away the wrongs I have done.

So, let us forgive. Let us forgive others.  Let us forgive ourselves.  And in doing so, let us let the peace of Christ, with whom we are intimately involved, settle into our hearts and our lives. And let that peace transform us—once and always—into the person Christ desires us to be.