Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I don’t think it speaks particularly well of human nature or our current discourse, that we seem to take such glee in seeing arrogant people hoisted with petards of their own hubris. Schadenfreude is not, as the youngsters say, a “good look.” I am not immune. I took some perverse pleasure in watching one of the recent documentaries about the Fyre Festival, the 2017 music festival “planned” (to use the word very loosely) my con-man Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule. It was, I confess, rather cathartic seeing shallow people with more money than sense having to go through some discomfort and knowing that McFarland was sent to prison. So, I get it. I get how people feel giddy about Michael Avenatti getting locked up or watching Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes moving toward the same fate. This is understandable, but it is not good for our souls, I assure you. Schopenhauer thought it was the worst trait in human nature, “an infallible sign,” he said, “of a thoroughly bad heart and profound moral worthlessness.” If you’re not a fan of Nineteenth Century German philosophers, I’m not either for what it’s worth, but you should be a fan of Scripture, which says essentially the same thing in Proverbs 24:17 and 18

Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth, lest the Lord see it, and it displeases him, and he turn away his wrath from him.

I say all this as a way to caution us as we consider Jesus’ rebuke of the disciples for their argument about who was greatest.

When we read Scripture, I think it is important to take note of whom we are identifying with. This is one of those questions that, at least in my day, ordinands were often asked by bishops and Commissions on Ministry and Standing Committees and the like. “With whom do you particularly identify in the bible?” I suppose one is asked this question to weed out those whose God complex might be revealed by answering “Jesus, of course.” It’s worth asking ourselves, too. With whom did you identify in the Gospel lesson we just heard: Jesus, the petulant disciples, or the child whose simple faith is sufficient to inherit the Kingdom?

If our immediate response is “boy, I really loved how Jesus took those disciples down a peg!”, as it usually is for me, we’ve got to be really careful. I’ve got to be really careful, because probably most of the time I’m more like the haughty disciple than I’d like to admit. Most of the time, probably, I’m the one who needs to be taken down a peg.

We might not recognize the full force of this “take down” in today’s Gospel because of an important cultural difference between contemporary culture and that of the First Century. We tend, these days, to both romanticize and privilege childhood. We wish we could see the world through the curious eyes of our kids, and we appreciate that they need support to grow, and parents (I’ve been told) can spend a great deal of time, energy, and money curating the early years of their progeny. This is neither altogether good nor altogether bad, of course, but it is certainly very different from how a bunch of first century Palestinian Jewish dudes would have seen it. To them, and to most people until relatively recently, children would have been seen as little adults who weren’t terribly good at being efficient members of the household; they might well die, so one shouldn’t get to attached, but eventually the kid might grow into a good farmer or fisherman or whatever. I’m not making a normative claim here; that’s just how it was. If I were to make a normative claim, I might suggest that there is a happy medium somewhere between the putatively benign neglect of the ancient world and the helicopter parenting of some contemporary societies, but not having children it is very easy to get dangerously out of my own lane here.

The point is that when Jesus pulls the child into the scene, his audience, the disciples, would not have been been put in mind of some idealized view of innocence and simplicity. Instead, they would have seen a figure whose place is society was considered rather marginal and who, at best, had merely the potential of being considered useful or important. And even that’s a long shot. Jesus, I think, is saying, this kid has so little social status that it wouldn’t occur to him to be arrogant or presumptuous. That’s what a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven is like.

You’ve all heard me say that it’s not our job to build the Kingdom of God; that presuming we can is like the hubris of the disciples or, for that matter, of Billy “Fyre festival” McFarland. Thank God, because I was promised mansions and feasts and King David leading the choir, not FEMA tents and cold cheese sandwiches and rock bands that cancel last minute. Even so, as a people set part, whose primary citizenship is in heaven, we are called to try to live a little bit like we’re already there. I think Jesus is telling us today that this means trying to live without hubris and the will to power and everything that makes us feel like we might somehow be greater or more important in the grand scheme of things than the least of our brothers or sisters. St. Gregory of Nyssa put it this way:

Let vanity be unkown among you. Let simplicity and harmony and a guileless attitude weld the community together. Let each remind himself that he is not only subordinate to the brother at his side, but to all. If he knows this, he will truly be a disciple of Christ.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It is remarkable to me how much time some people in the church spend worrying about issues given so little attention in Scripture (namely, the matters which serve to set the dividing lines in the current culture wars) and so little time on those moral issues on which scripture is consistently clear in its moral demands. This is not to suggest that these hot button issues of the day are entirely unimportant questions, but rather that Scripture doesn’t seem to emphasize them, and it takes some rhetorical hand-waving to elevate said questions to the level of being worth dividing the church over.

On the other hand, there are several matters on which Scripture, taken as a whole, seems unequivocal. More than any other issue, the obligation of the community (whether that be Israel in the Old Testament or the Church in the New Testament) to support the poor. God’s greatest wrath in the prophetic books is leveled against those who oppress the poor, whether through shady business dealings or blatant abuse. Over and over again, Jesus calls our attention to “the least of these my brethren” and his strongest condemnations are leveled against the indolent rich. Jesus says all of about about three things regarding sex, but he’s constantly bringing up issues of economic disparity.

Perhaps the second most popular sin denounced in scripture might not be one you think about too often, either. While you’ll hear foolhardy preachers like me bringing up the preferential option for the poor from time to time, this issue is even less commonly discussed, perhaps because so many of us might be convicted by hearing it. It is a pretty safe bet, though, that if one were to take all the moral issues broached by scripture and rank them by frequency, second only to issues of economic justice would be gossip.

So the tongue [James writes] is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue — a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

While James might have been a bit optimistic about humanity’s ability to domesticate wild animals (I’ve been trying with mixed results to do so with house-cats for some years now), I don’t think he’s underestimating the degree of harm that can come from an unbridled tongue. Back in the Second World War, as some of you will remember, there was a pithy bromide which warned “loose lips sink ships”. James goes even further. Loose lips can set the world on fire!

I recall an incident not too many years ago when an influential New York Rector had irritated the wrong people in his rather well-to-do parish, and a rumor was started that said priest was using church funds to by cat food. By the time all was said and done, this little bit of gossip had blossomed into a much larger scandal, with ridiculous accusations being reported in the now-defunct, muckraking broadsheet, the New York Sun.

It happens here, too, folks. Malicious gossip doesn’t only effect public figures. It is, I dare say, even more of a problem in small-town life. This is the point when (as I’ve heard some say) “the preacher stopped to-preachin’ and started to-meddlin’.” Gossip is a problem in Findlay, Ohio. It often doesn’t begin as malicious gossip. It’s easy to tell ourselves we are sharing information out of the most Christian of concern.

“Well, bless his heart, I think he’s running around with the wrong crowd.”

“Bless her heart, I think she’s taken up the bottle again, poor thing.”

Do you see how hard it is to figure out what is shared out of concern and what is shared because we love sharing juicy information? Of course, rarely do we ask ourselves what would seem the most germane question: Does sharing this tidbit with this particular person or group of people actually help? Perhaps someone with some influence over John Doe’s choice of friends or Jane Smith’s love of sloe gin could be of some help, but the other dozen people in the coffee klatch couldn’t.

St. James’ warning about the potentially infernal nature of speech should give us pause. We’ve no idea what effects a cross-word or a lie or a bit of juicy gossip might have when it escapes our mouth. James’ assessment and its implication is simple: “My brethren, this ought not to be so.” But for additional confirmation, an example occurred to me from literature (children’s literature, in fact!) and it is with that example I close.

In the third volume of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, The Horse and His Boy, we are introduced to the eponymous boy, Shasta. He is an orphan on a journey to Narnia, escaping from the harsh fisherman who raised him. After a harrowing journey, being pursued by an apparently vicious lion and an evil army he finds himself lost on the trail. Shasta begins to feel sorry for himself, believing himself to be the unluckiest boy alive, when he is frightened to hear a creature sneaking toward him in the dark. As he feels the warm breath of the lion on the back of his neck he believes himself to be doomed. The lion admits that he was the beast who was chasing him, but that it was all to push the boy forward to his heroic fate:

“Who are you?” asked Shasta. “Myself,” said the Voice, very deep and low so that the earth shook: and again “Myself” loud and clear and gay: and then the third time “Myself,” whispered so softly that you could hardly hear it, and yet it seemed to come from all round you as if the leaves rustled with it.

The Lion, it turns out was Aslan, “the High King above all kings” who stands in Lewis’ allegory for God. The boy then asks Aslan why He had wounded his traveling companion and the Great Beast answers “Child… I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.”

I tell no one any story but his own. Nor should we tell anyone’s story but our own. It is not ours to presume to do so. Doing so does violence to the other, for it is a grasp for power over the other. That unrighteous world among our members, that deadly poison in our mouths is nothing less than the power to curse more easily than to bless, to dominate rather than to lay our lives down for the good of friend and enemy alike. My sisters and brothers, this ought not to be so. Let us pray for discernment in speech and for the grace to refrain when it does anything other than bless and console and speak in truth with love to God’s people.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

First world problem, alert: one of the things I have missed during the pandemic was going to see live theater and opera. Thus, I was excited that Annie and I were able a few weeks ago to attend the Fort Findlay Playhouse’s production of Life With Father- a play about a New York family, the Days, and their experience with their irritable, domineering husband and father in the late-nineteenth century. “Father” is a stockbroker, and demands that his family’s affairs be run on a “business basis” and he is driven to distraction by what he perceives as the profligacy of his wife and sons. The central conflict of the play arises when the eldest son, Clarence Jr., falls in love with a girl named Mary Skinner whose religion is just too far afield for them to imagine the families involved consenting to a marriage. You see, the Day family is Episcopalian and the girl is (gasp) a Methodist. In trying to find a loophole in one family or the other (an Episcopalian among the Skinners or a Methodist among the Days, to set a precedent) it comes out that “Father” (Clarence, Sr.) had in fact not been baptized as a child; it had simply been an oversight on the part of his parents. Anyway, this leads “Mother” to spend the rest of the play trying to get “Father” to agree to be baptized, even if it means taking a coach uptown on a weekday morning to another parish, so nobody finds out about it. Fortunately, Mrs. Day finds an ally in the family’s Rector, who has been coming over to examine the youngest son on his catechism before presenting him to the bishop for Confirmation.

Now there is a lot I loved about this play, if you hadn’t guessed. I must admit it gave me some nostalgia for an era in the church which none of us have experienced, particularly (and this, I know I should not harbor sentimental thoughts about) the degree of deference everyone shows the rector. The child is expected to memorize his catechism (as many of us did in the olden days) and there was no sense that his parents were going to lobby the rector to let him just slide through. The Days’ maid makes certain to bring the rector’s tea promptly. And, here is the most shocking part– the parish is in the middle of a capital campaign, and the priest has determined what each family ought to contribute, and everyone just seems fine with this!

Everyone, that is, except for “Father”. And then, finally, came the line which reminded me why I should be glad that we are not the Episcopal Church of 1890. In complaining to his wife about how much the priest expected of them, “Father” says something like “by God, that’s more than we paid for our pew!” Oh yeah… it used to be common for Episcopalians to rent or buy their pew.

In some places this practice continued until shockingly recently. When I was in seminary, we had a guest lecture in one of our pastoral theology classes who had been a long-time rector of a prominent Manhattan parish; he said something about accepting the call to serve there on the condition that they abolish pew rents. I looked around and could tell all of us were doing the same math in our heads. This man had served a long time, and he was retired but he couldn’t have been that old. We figured the earliest this could have taken place would have been the mid-1970s.

So, this is all to say that we Anglican/Episcopalian Christians have an unfortunate history of doing precisely what James tells us not to do in this morning’s Epistle:

My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man with gold rings and in fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while you say to the poor man, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

Thank God we no longer do things like sell or rent pews, so the wealthy literally have better seats in church than the poor. That said, I suspect we still harbor some of those old habits in our hearts which lead us to make distinctions among ourselves, if not in policy at least in practice.

This struck me during the last year-and-a-half particularly profoundly. I am not saying we never needed to do things like suspend church activities for a time; you all know I believe we were required to do so for too long, but that’s an issue on which good-faith people can have genuine disagreements. I mean, rather, that some of the assumptions which attended those decisions was shockingly out of touch with the lives of those who are not in the comfortable, connected middle class. “Everyone can join virtual offerings until we can reassemble!” Well, no; I know a lot of folks who simply cannot afford high speed internet and a device which gives them access to it. “Everyone is working from home, so we can expect them to worship from home!” Well, no; people with white collar jobs were fortunate enough to be able to do their part in protecting themselves and others when that was necessary, but the vast majority of people don’t work at those kinds of jobs. You’ve heard me question this one before: “the church hasn’t closed, it’s gone out into the world in service!” Well, what about those whose lives are so out-of-control that they had nothing to “give” but their prayerful presence within the community of the faithful? We are not, after all, the Junior League or the Rotary Club; we are a body whose primary purpose is to mediate the offering of worship to Almighty God, rich and poor alike making the one and equal oblation.

Now all that, I pray, is largely in the past, but I do think our recent experience is rather revealing, and it calls us to focus on those ways in which we might need to be a bit more sensitive going forward to how we welcome people into our midst. I think we’re pretty good at Trinity at being hospitable to all sorts and conditions, but each of us may have blind spots in this regard, whether in our church lives or our personal lives.

In the interest of full disclosure, and a bit of confession, this is an ongoing struggle for me. Do I interact with folks who are less stable and put-together and “socially acceptable” (whatever that means) primarily as beloved children of God with whom I should relate on an equal basis, or do I primarily see them as objects for charity? I try to do the former, but I know I can easily slip into the latter, and it would be a lie if I said there was not at least a tiny piece of my soul infected by a subconscious feeling of superiority which affects my approach.

All of this is to say that I think each of us needs to do some serious interior work–some prayer and meditation and discernment–about how we approach those people in our lives who have struggles which are not our own. How might this cause our relationships with them to be affected by the distinctions which the world, the flesh, and the devil use to separate us one from another? How might we interact in such a way which makes manifest the truth, which is that we are all the same in the body of Christ?

This isn’t just about being nice and egalitarian. James goes on to tell us that we miss an important spiritual teacher: “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?” Those old-timey Episcopalians in their private pews, seen in the places of honor, could not see their sisters and brothers in the cheap seats who may have been the most faithful of the congregation. They certainly didn’t build relationships whereby they could see the power of God working in those often stressed and hard-scrabble lives more than they in their wealth could ask or imagine. For our own sake, for our own slow growth in holiness, let’s pay attention to those whom we may otherwise dismiss. We may be surprised at how powerfully we see the grace of God in a pew in the back or on a street-corner or on the “wrong side of the tracks.”

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.