The Good Old Days (Proper 20, Year A)

The good old days.

When I was in high school I worked in a deli with an old school butcher. The sort that stored a couple huge carcasses in the freezer, where behind the counter the owner made his own sausages and ground his own beef. He cooked and spiced his own roast beef, which was always a perfectly cooked medium rare. The radio tuned to a golden oldie’s station that played a lot of Frank Sinatra.

“Those were the days,” he’d say. “When singers could sing and songwriters wrote.” Billy Strayhorn and Cole Porter, they wrote, and Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald sang. The Beatles? They lacked depth. Even Bob Dylan was a disaster.

“He can’t sing. What is this? Who wants to listen to that voice?” He’d say this in his thick German accent. The good old days, when songwriters wrote and singers could sing. Way before Autotune made Katy Perry a star.

There’s the story of Pete Seeger getting so upset at Bob Dylan’s use of the electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival that he just went up with an axe and cut through it. It actually never happened; and the reason was probably more because of poor sound overall than a hostility to the electric sound. But when people tell the story, it’s to reflect the feeling of some time being more pure and unadulterated. A previous time, and a fear about the future.

And so the Israelites are busy thinking about the good old days. Yes, they’d been enslaved; yes, they were busy nursing other people’s children; and perhaps life was hard and difficult, but they were fed. While they are now free, they are also starving, and deeply insecure because they’re entering foreign territory. Security usually trumps freedom when you don’t know where you’re next meal’s coming from.

Sometimes hope requires a full belly.

We construct narratives, stories of our past in part to survive. Who wants to remember the bad times, the times we were hurt and abused and bullied? And those who always remember, who wants to hang with those guys? Get some therapy, keep your chin up, and endure! Ideally we learn to talk ourselves out of the resentment, fear or the simple feeling that we’re damaged because of what we’ve inherited. But our faith says we cannot avoid the truth, no matter how hard it was, is and will be.

Those narratives can be misleading. Was life great in the 1950’s? Well, for some, yes; for some, no. It’s great that families may have eaten together; but then, who was doing all the cooking? Some people wish we could return to some of those glory days, but do you remember how high taxes were during Nixon? We trusted government, but then, what of the Gulf of Tonkin? Not a lot of African-Americans want to go back to the 1950′s, but on the other hand, some would argue there was a stronger black middle class. So let’s talk about the good old days without idealizing them. We can admit they made us who we are, but who we can and will be, that’s another story.

So the Israelites create this story – life was better in the old days. But they don’t see how, even in the wilderness, there are resources that God provides. One woman in recovery once said to me, when I gave up the drink, I then had to find an inner strength I didn’t know I had; but I also had to look around me and learn about what I really wanted in my life. I wanted good friendships, so I started calling people; I wanted to read more and I learned to value a cup of tea instead. They were all there beforehand, but I just overlooked them.

Around us we have what we need. We just don’t see it.

And so in our own wilderness, part of what we do is to find what has been placed there all around us that can feed us. If we seek transformation, the work will be difficult; because we are like novices, or children, at being free. Nobody just grows up learning to be free in any society; that’s work that requires formation, in an environment where it’s also alright to get things wrong and make mistakes. It’s easier to live a liberated life when you have some security around you.

But the gospel today does not say, “it’s tough to be free, so, if you make a mistake, then go back to Egypt.” It says, you can keep going. It doesn’t matter when you begin the journey. Some have been around a long time. They had their spiritual vision and insight when they were 20 and still organize their lives around it, and God Bless Them. Others won’t get there until they’re 85, when they suddenly realize, “wow, I’ve been an Episcopalian all my life, and I’m only now realizing how wonderful the daily office is!” When the landowner rewards the worker who came late, it may seem like the eldest child who suddenly finds the youngest getting more attention; or even like a newcomer who the rector spends most of their time cultivating. Te youngest will not know what the good old days were like, except through fantasy and legend; the newcomer only intuits what has gone before, and has no desire for the fleshpots of Egypt.

So some people have come late to the party. It may have been a tough road for them to get through the door. That just as some of us have been here a long time, in this church, on this planet, our work in the wilderness also requires the ones just arriving. Perhaps also, we’re the newcomer, we’re the ones who got to the vineyard at 5pm, and we’re benefitting from all that has been given to us from before.

Whoever has come late, the truth is that we need as many hands as possible, because there remains plenty of manna around, for us to discover, for us to gather and for us to eat.

Original Sin and the Apple

Sometimes I wonder if it’s human nature to feel like Eve.

If I’m told, “you really shouldn’t have another bite,” I want to eat it. It gets worse if it’s from a thin person, because I resent their slenderness. If it’s from a big person I ignore it because, what do they know?

Unsolicited advice?  Why not respond, “thank you, but I intend on doing the exact opposite.” It’s instinctive. Instead, the person who encourages us to rebel, to take matters into our own hands, that’s the person really on our side.

Admittedly, when I get the advice, the warning, the friendly feedback, I take a breath and remind myself the person has my best interests at heart. I consider if there is any truth in what they say. I play with the alternative – what if I took the advice? What if I ignore it? Continue reading

On exile and dancing

I have heard some funny responses to giving up things for lent. The cold. Bad Weather. Republicans. Church.

What I do know is that I hate daylight savings time. It just means I lose an hour of sleep and get cranky.

Today the scriptures say: You have turned my wailing into dancing. (Ps 30:12) and I sent them into exile among the nations, and then gathered them into their own land. I will leave none of them behind.

It makes me think of that quote: you can’t go home again. Decades ago, Tom Wolfe wrote: “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”

In other words, once you’ve gone beyond the comfort of the familiar, to return seems confining. Pandora’s box has been opened. The old ways just don’t work. The technology is obsolete. It is the insufferable who insist on vinyl.

We are exiled the past; and they were often not as pleasant as we might remember them. We can’t assume our lives will be safe and satisfying. But we carry home with us. My theology professor once offered the image of people singing hymns around a piano as true communion, being with God. It’s a pleasant sentiment, rarely experienced. I wonder if that’s what we try to emulate when experience mass culture: something shared. We get exiled and scattered, but the work of the church is to gather people again, even when there is suffering all around us.

In such a case I wonder if where two or three gather to sing and dance, God is with them. Let us not worry about what they are listening to, but hope that we can dance with them as well.

 

 

Jesus, Survivor

From a Sermon, Christmas II, Matthew 2:12-19

Jesus was a survivor.

The wise men had reached Herod.   They are about to tell him that Jesus has been born, the Messiah, and this makes Herod, and all Jerusalem – hipster central, where all the good restaurants and cool kids reside – nervous.  For Jesus is a country kid who might challenge the king.    Herod asks the magi to find the child and tell him.

But after the magi visit, Joseph and Mary are warned.   And when the magi skip town, he is enraged.  And in the verses the lectionary skips over, Herod, infuriated, slaughters the children in and around Bethlehem.

It evokes another story: the child Moses escaping the law of the Pharaohs.    But also the other stories of destruction and survival.  Jesus would have remembered that story of survival.  He would have remembered the prophet Jeremiah.  And he would have remembered the scattering of the people of Israel after the Babylonian captivity.  Continue reading

Holy Cross Day Sermon Prep

Holy Cross Day

I think of Moses’ serpent as a vaccine, a way of inoculation.

One rule is to just stay away from snakes.

But then another rule is when in the midst of snakes, stay focused.

How do we become inoculated in the world?  What do we seek to be inoculated from? Where are our contemporary snakes?

Moses’ snake is a form of power.  It is a form of grace. Grace is a way of talking about power: God’s power and our harnessing of it.

Or salvation, which may be a way of talking about having some space, some breathing room, some margins to move around in.  Making a little more room; not so much we lose a sense of integrity or lose our ability to act clearly, but enough so that we can see more clearly.

In Numbers, people can’t stand the change.  Who died?   Moses makes a symbol which seems to say:  take a look at the real thing here!  Don’t avoid the problems.  21:9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

In Corinthians it is written:  “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

I think of all the pundits writing about Syria.  Even the ones I like.  When we talk about signs and wisdom, we seem to be avoiding the problem of our own passions.  Christ Crucified is the clue:  how our passions make it so easy to kill our neighbor.

We’re reading John 3:13-17.  Most people emphasize 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  In order to protect their being elected.  You believe, you go to heaven.  But the next sentence is the kicker:  3:17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  Salvation, not condemnation.  Once it happened, the world could change.  One person at a time:  do you love or hate?  Can we be inoculated from the varieties of hate that destroy the lives around us?  Can you handle the truth of the passion and then choose eternal life?

Sermon Notes, Proper 17 Year C

Author’s Note:  Each week I usually look over the text and consider a couple questions that help me think over the following week.  This is not meant to be exegetical or comprehensive – there are plenty of stronger sites for such research.  This week’s readings can be found here.

Jeremiah 2:11 Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.

What is beneficial about a Chrstian pattern of life, if anything?  Jeremiah seems to indicate that the faith of Israel is simply ineffective – the other Gods do not work.   Worshiping other Gods is inefficacious, like using a cracked pot to carry water.  In this sense faith is practical.  This should assuage the scientist and even the agnostic.  What we do works, even if the reasons seem obscure or imprecise.

Usually people worship other Gods because they seem effective.  So what are those Gods, and what do they bring?  How are they mistaken?

Hebrews13:1 Let mutual love continue. 13:2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 14:14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Sometimes I think that we could learn a lot about how church life should be from going to three *** restaurants (like this one I went to, when I got my doctorate).  Jesus refers to himself as the server – as if he’s the waiter who ensures that the wedding feast moves without a hitch.  To some extent He is invisible, making the plans.

Do our congregations do the work of hospitality?  It’s not easy.  Hospitality forces us to get out of ourselves and attend to the visitor.   Being an effective server also requires technique, skill and discipline – there are many ways to render a visitor invisible or uncomfortable.   Our “discipleship” is not just about formed thoughts but about the work of providing a space for others to experience the Sabbath.   We underestimate the preparation that requires.  Perhaps we should study church plans the way restauranteurs plan restaurants.

The Gospel inspires me to wonder what do we value?  When do we insist on taking credit?  What does it mean to be recognized?  Why would we be recognized?   To be seen is a deeply human need; and when we are not the humiliation can be too much.  But perhaps a deeper trust diminishes that need enough so that we can still be effective agents in the world though the only person who knows us is the one who made us.

Sermon Notes Proper 14 Year C

So it’s Monday, which means prepping for the coming Sunday.  Here’s what I’m beginning to think about.

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20.  I’ve got to choose between Isaiah and Genesis.

First, I cringe at the sentence, “incense is an abomination to me.”  Fortunately, we still have the Book of Revelation to trump that.

So Isaiah makes me consider that “learning to do good” is what is pleasing to God.  The “Learning” is interesting to me more than the task.  Admittedly, I think a risk here is to be vague without being concrete about what oppression, defense, and “ceasing to do evil” means.  Are Christians oppressed?  If so, how?  Is oppression about being shut out of economic networks?  It is not knowing how to plan for the future?  Most of the time, when my colleagues talk about “oppression” I sympathize, but then I’m not sure what it means.  Getting threatened – sure.  Just feeling bad about yourself?  Not convinced.

When God says, “Let’s argue it out” I wonder about how we talk to God.  What if argument is not about a war of words, but a way of learning how to think through the necessary tasks of doing good and seeking justice.  It mitigates the perfectionist, puritanical impulses of the utopian, making justice about a process of working through the problems.  Also “argument” prefigures the divine “logos” as logos, in Greek, can mean argument.  Jesus is the divine argument.

And then:  there is obedience.  I love preaching about obedience because it’s truly countercultural.  How is obedience different than being oppressed?  Sometimes it’s just easier and more liberating to just do the work you are told to do.  Can you imagine every musician in an orchestra demanding their own voice when rehearsing a symphony?    As the abbot of my order remarked to me:  Obey me in all the small stuff; argue the big stuff.  It makes life a lot simpler.

In Genesis (15: 1-6),  Abram seems a little disappointed in God.  Someone else will inherit his wealth because he has no children.   I think about how “inheritance” works – and what we do inherit from our families – cultures, traditions, wealth.  Those who inherit little are at a disadvantage in the US.  “What do you inherit” and “what will you pass down to your children?” are questions I might ask myself this week.

The passage in Hebrews references Abraham.  I’m struck by the kinds of characters God chooses:  it seems random, and not based on merit.  Rather, he’s the one who is chosen for absolutely no reason, except by faith.  But even that faith is the kind of argumentative sort.  Abraham is not exactly “obedient” but petulant and resentful.

What makes a “home,” a home and where do we find our home? What identifies the heavenly city, and can we find it here – even in NYC, or in the cities where we make our lives.  Perhaps in the school, our libraries, our Saloons, churches, are they places where we have already experienced the kingdom?  How so?

The gospel this week invites reflection about the apocalypse; or what would you do if you knew you were going to die tomorrow?  A month?  A year?  What if you knew that a planet was going to hit Earth (say,  like the movie Melancholia).   I’m also interested in exploring why Jesus says “sell all your possessions and give alms” and why I’m decidedly not going to do that.  Is it because the selling possessions and the end of the world are tightly linked?

I might explore the difference between a human economy and a commercial economy.  A human economy, as I would define it, is one where exchanges are not counted because trust between the different participants is assumed.  A commercial economy, by nature, requires a calculation of goods that are exchanged between strangers.  In both cases, the question is:  why do we trust our families?  Or our coworkers; or our commercial institutions?  What happens when they fail?