The Story of the “Grateful Leper” as seen through “Queer Eyes.”

On this “National Coming Out Day,”
October 11, 2019,
I share a reflection based on the Gospel for this coming Sunday
Luke 17: 11-19.
The story of the healing of
“The Grateful Leper.”

 O God, you have made of one blood all the peoples of the
earth, and sent your blessed Son to preach peace to those
who are far off and to those who are near: Grant that people
everywhere may seek after you and find you; bring the
nations into your fold; pour out your Spirit upon all flesh;
and hasten the coming of your kingdom; through Jesus
Christ our Lord. Amen.

Grateful Leper 1Any LGBTQIA person who lived through the unfolding AIDS Crisis of the late 20th Century will most likely have their ears “perk up” whenever they hear the word leprosy. I think that it would be impossible to forget those images of emaciated gay men—often accompanied by lesions from Kaposi sarcoma. While not actually images of leprosy—it looked much like a form of leprosy to many of us. The memory of those painful stories of the unimaginable way that so many of our Brothers were treated in those days will haunt us forever! Fear! Fear of the disease, fear of the unknown, caused hospitals to refuse treatment and then even funeral homes to refuse service. It might be a projection of my own fears, but I seem to recall photos of people dressed in hazmat outfits when around some of the earliest victims—something like I recall seeing more recently in the Ebola crisis. And I certainly recall words like “gay cancer,” or “gay disease.”

Associated with all this was not only fear but revulsion! It brings to mind the response of people like St. Francis of Assisi who were disgusted and revolted when they encountered lepers in medieval Tuscany. Of course, after his conversion, he kissed the Leper and the earliest Friars are remembered for their loving care of those afflicted with this fatal and contagious disease. I remember so well the same kind of revulsion being expressed when it became apparent that AIDS was somehow mysteriously connected to gay sex. For many gay men of that era, it meant a “forced expulsion from the closet.” Because of the nature of the disease there was no hiding that fact that they were, in fact, gay, and that they had been sexually active.

So, for gay men of my generation—who are also persons of faith—it is easy to identify with those afflicted with leprosy. The story of the “Grateful Leper,” though, is even more meaningful, powerful, and useful for us. Because this Leper is called, by Our Lord a “foreigner.” He is labeled and identified as an “other,” a “stranger,” an “outsider.” And then, unexpectedly and shockingly—he is presented as a person of tremendous faith. He is held up as an example of what it means to be a faithful disciple. What an unanticipated and delightful twist!

The great irony, is that, as so many of us have come to prayerfully discern, being LGBTQIA is not an illness at all—nor is it a choice. It is just who we are! We have come to believe that it is the very way that we were created by a loving and compassionate God.

Yet, we know, that–even had HIV not come along–for millennia, other “people of Faith,” viewed our “queerness” as a kind of moral disease. While they might not have singled us out as the only notorious sinners, we were to be “loved” at the same time that our “sin” was to be “hated.” We were warned that if we acted on our “disordered” and “unnatural” “inclinations” we were in danger of hellfire. Being LGBTQIA was viewed as a kind of “moral leprosy.” And yes, it was thought to be largely fatal and contagious (the words of Anita Bryant and others like her made this clear). Or else, it was dismissed as something which was “silly” (I was actually told that once by a medical doctor!) and which could be easily laid aside like any other “sin” if we repented and turned to Jesus!

This powerful story which is found only in the Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke is worth looking at more closely. It has much to say to the LGBTQIA community—and to all who are “grafted into” the Jesus Movement.

It is a story of communities in tension and conflict.

There is the community of Jesus and his closest friends. They are on their way up to Jerusalem. In the context of Luke’s Gospel, we know that Jesus is heading to Jerusalem to suffer and die. This is a farewell journey—though Jesus’ friends either do not really know that—or understand it. They are in denial. Despite the warnings of the coming passion, they do not really believe it is true. They may well hope that Jesus is wrong–mistaken. They desperately long to believe that is true. So here they are on a journey with him to Jerusalem-to the Holy City, to the Temple, into God’s presence. That is their destination. Later, in looking back on that last Passover Pilgrimage, they will remember everything which Jesus did and said—and in those words and actions will find meaning which they were not able to see, hear, and understand at the time. They will realize that God was pulling back the curtains and allowing them to see what was “really happening,” though at the time they were quite clueless.

There is the community of Samaria and of Samaritans—the place where this story takes place. Jesus and his disciples, we are told, are travelling from Galilee to Jerusalem—and that journey takes them through Samaria. How ironic. They can not travel from one “home enclave” to another without stepping outside their “own” reality into another. In recent years scholars have suggested that Galilee may have been far more diverse and Hellenized than believed previously (after all two of Jesus disciples, Andrew and Philip, have Greek names). But both they—and the Samaritans—would have viewed “Galilee of the Nations” as basically Jewish.

Of all the “other” communities, first-century Jews had the most contentious relationship with the Samaritans. Perhaps it is because they had far more in common than separated them. As is often the case, those differences were highlighted and intensified (as an aside, I remember from my childhood how careful the Southern Baptists in rural Appalachia were to stress their distinctness from the “Holy Rollers.”). I am not entirely sure that the Samaritans would have chosen to focus on the few differences—had they not been excluded, abused, and mistreated by the Jews of that era. Which wrongs and hurts came first? Who knows? But it is clear that there was a  mutual distrust, fear, and a reciprocal hatred.

The Samaritans are the “lost tribes,” the “Northern Kingdom of Israel” which had been conquered by the Assyrians. As a result, they had ceased to be “racially pure,” as viewed through a literal reading of the Law of Moses. They were viewed by first century Jews as “mongrels and muts.” They could not claim to be authentically Jewish—and yet they did! They believed in the one “God of Israel.” They accepted the Torah as God’s word (though not the oral law—odd that they had that in common with the Sadducees!). They had a Temple on Mount Gerizim (until the Maccabees destroyed it) in which the Tamid (offerings of spotless lambs, wine and bread) were offered twice daily. The Samaritans claimed to be descendants of Abraham—in fact, they claimed that the binding of Isaac had happened on their holy mountain and not on the Temple mount in Jerusalem (it is interesting that in Islamic belief it was Ishmael and not Isaac who was bound and that it might have taken place in Mecca).

So, there is very little, if anything, from their perspective, which ought to differentiate Samaritans from Jews. This would presuppose, though, that being Jewish could be a faith of choice and not only something into which one was born. It would mean that, the Jewish authorities would have to welcome the Samaritans as coreligionists—even if they actually viewed them as Gentiles. It would have to mean that room was made for them at the table. To the Jewish leaders of that time this was unthinkable, unimaginable, and unwelcome.

And so, the people of Samaria had to endure the horrors of tourist season—at least three times a year. Huge traveling groups of Jews passed through Samaria—coming and going on the way to and from Jerusalem each Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. It was a reminder that the people of Samaria were excluded from those pilgrimage festivals. Were those Jews traveling through Samaria viewed as “Ugly Americans?” Perhaps! But clearly, over generations, the two groups had come to a level of open hostility and acrimony. Samaria was viewed as a dangerous place, a rough area, as an obstacle through which one had to pass before entering once again into the safety and “home” of the Southern Kingdom—of Judah and Benjamin.

The Gospels—especially Luke and John—present a much more nuanced view. Luke’s parable of the “Good Samaritan” suggests something which many in the audience would have thought impossible-even oxymoronic. A “Good Samaritan!” There aren’t any! Like the “Good Shepherd,” one could say, “I never met one!” Is there anything good that comes out of Samaria? And John’s story of the Samaritan Woman at the Well (a most effective early missionary and disciple—perhaps even the Apostles could have learned from her methodology) shows that the Jesus movement—from the very beginning was of importance, significance, and value to those “outside” of Judaism. This was not an accident or a mistake of history, but actually part of God’s plan.

In the Gospel of Luke-written for a Gentile audience-this makes perfect sense. The Acts of the Apostles (volume two) takes us from Jerusalem to Rome. It shows the astonishing inclusion not only of Samaritans but even of Gentiles who could claim no connection to Judaism at all! So, these early positive interactions between Jesus and Samaritans are intended to prepare us for what is coming! In Christ there is neither Jew nor Samaritan nor Gentile!

But there is a third community—the community of lepers. Almost nothing is said of them! The Book of Leviticus reminds us that this community existed even during the time of the Wandering in the Desert—part of the Exodus. Lepers apparently traveled from Egypt through the wilderness and into the Land of Promise. The Laws which laid out a detailed procedure for their detection, expulsion, and potential re-integration (Leviticus chapters 13 and 14) show that they had always been a part of the experience of the People of Israel. On the margins, sick and struggling, depending on the charity of others, these unfortunates were popularly believed to have been punished by God for some sin—either their own or that of their parents. Forced to cry out “unclean” when they came into contact with those unafflicted by their malady, they lived on the margin, on the fringe! They were viewed with fear, revulsion, and loathing.

The Gospel of Luke offers a surprising possibility. They were a community of love and support for each other. All of the things which had mattered before ceased to be of importance when one was declared to be impure and cast out. The rich, the poor, the educated, the illiterate, the powerful, and the weak were equalized by the disease. The only thing that mattered now was that they were a “leper,” that they were “unclean.” And so, in this new equality, the only thing that really counted was functionality—and mutual support. All recognized that as the disease progressed, they would become totally incapacitated and then would die a horrible and painful death. Digits, limbs, and features would be eaten by the disease and body parts would rot and fall off. If those who were relatively well did not care for those at the end of the disease, they had no reason to expect that anyone else would care for them when their time came to suffer and to die.

It is fascinating that this particular community of lepers was multi-ethnic. It was composed of Jews and at least one Samaritan. And yet, there is no indication that this was in any way a source of concern or division for them. They were united by the plague of leprosy. It made them into Siblings—into family! To those who did not suffer from leprosy—“all lepers are the same.”

A few details from the story stand out. United as one community, the lepers collectively called out—from a distance, as the law required–to Jesus–to beg for mercy, compassion, healing, love—and acknowledgement. Jesus could have ignored them and gone on his way (that is what we most often do when accosted by beggars and homeless people on the street). He did not. He heard them, acknowledged them and helped them (though I am not sure that they really appreciated that fact at first-had I been a leper, I would probably have thought that Jesus instruction to “go and show myself” to the priest was either naïf or else actually cruel—return to the very people who had cast me out for another dose of abuse and rejection?).

It is fascinating that in Luke, the lepers used a title for Jesus which is only found in Luke (and there apparently used seven times), “epistata.” Not one of the usual titles which one would expect, neither “Rabbi,” nor “Lord.” It is translated as “Master,” but a word search reveals that “master” is a weak translation.

The Epistata was the “number two person.” Literally, he was the person who stood immediately behind the person who held power. The word literally seems to suggest one who “stands in power over” another. I think that the English political term “Viceroy,” might be a good fit. This title recognized that Jesus was a representative of God. Jesus spoke with God’s voice and with God’s power. His orders were to be obeyed as if they came directly from God. What an affirmation of faith in Jesus! Wow! He did not seem to receive this kind of respect and obedience from his “own people”!

When Jesus told the lepers to show themselves to the priest (in Jerusalem and perhaps for the Samaritan on Mount Gerizim), they obeyed without hesitation or question—even if it made no sense to them! Jesus could have touched them and healed them (as he did with another leper in Luke 5: 12) or said a word and healed them. He did not! He asked them to follow the procedure laid out in the Law of Moses. He obeyed the Law and asked the lepers to do the same. He asked them to take the risk of being willing to give God another chance. We are later told that it was this faith which was the locus of their healing, “your faith has made you whole.” After all, they were not healed when they began the journey and only discovered that they had been healed along the way!

It was at this point that the story takes an unexpected turn. Nine of them continued on (to Jerusalem) to complete the order which Jesus gave them. At this point, the community which they had shared came to an end. After they were “re-integrated” into the People of Israel, the lepers returned to their “status quo ante bellum.” They, we imagine, returned to their families, and perhaps to their professions. They “resumed” their lives where they left off. All the differences and distinctions: cultural, social and economic, which divided them, were reinstated. They no longer had anything in common—except the experience of having at one point been lepers—and one can only imagine that they may have wished to quickly put that memory behind them.

For the “now-healed Samaritan,” this engendered a crisis of identity. To what community, if any, did he now belong? For whatever reason, he came to realize that the only community which mattered to him was fellowship and discipleship in following Jesus. And so, he turned away from Mount Gerizim—or to whatever destination he had been headed and went “home” to be with the Epistata, with the ‘Master.” His response when he saw Jesus is amazing. He first rejoiced and gave thanks to God (in a loud voice—this certainly sounds like a Post-Pentecost experience to me). He then gave thanks to Jesus (literally he “eucharisted” the ‘Master.”). And then he threw himself at Jesus feet in worship, love and praise. Talk about an example of love and devotion coming from “out of the blue.” A Samaritan, possibly even a gentile, at a time when not even those closest to Jesus expressed such love, devotion, and gratitude.

A final thought. Jesus called the Samaritan a “foreigner.” The word which he uses in Greek is allogenes—and this too is a word used only in Luke. It literally means to be “begotten other.” What a fascinating concept. The Samaritan may not be born of a Jewish mother—and so was not viewed by Jewish authorities as being Jewish—even though he may, in fact, have worshipped the one God of Israel. He was “other.” And yet, in Jesus, he found welcome, inclusion and community. Does he now follow Jesus? Does he return home and spread the good news there (like the woman at the well). We do not know. But we recognize that he was a tremendous person of faith—and was just the first among millions who chose to follow Jesus and to be “grafted into the Jesus movement.”

For those who are LGBTQIA, the word allogenes is a powerful one! We have not chosen a “lifestyle,” “sexual orientation,” or “gender identity.” We are “born this way.” Our birth has been labeled as “other.” But in Christ we are “reborn,” and made very members of the household of God. In Holy Baptism, we too are “sealed as Christ’s own forever.” Some may consider us to have been born or created as “different.” But, even if that were true, it would no longer matter “in Christ.”

Interestingly enough, Jesus did not ask the “Grateful Leper,” to change, to convert–to become Jewish—or even to become “Christian”. Neither does Jesus ask LGBTQIA persons to give up or surrender our being–to change and become something or someone else. He only asks that we become ever more fully who we have been created and are called to be. Now that is good news indeed!

Grateful Leper 2

“What is needed is trust.”

A Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

Preached at
Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania
October 6, 2019

 
O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and
light rises up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all
our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what you
would have us to do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save
us from all false choices, and that in your light we may see
light, and in your straight path may not stumble; through
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

If you had faith
Small as a mustard seed within you,
So says the word of the Lord.
If you had faith
Small as a mustard seed within you,
So says the word of the Lord.

Then you could say to any mountain,
“Get up and fly, get up and fly.”
Then you could say to any mountain,
“Get up and fly, get up and fly.”

And then the mountain would fly away
Fly away, fly away.
And then the mountain would fly away
Fly away, fly away.

“Si tuvieras fe, If you had Faith.”
Translated by Rory Cooney

Just in case you are paying too close attention, please ignore the fact that the Gospel of Mark speaks of the “mountain” and the Gospel of Luke of “a tree.” Let us not allow a small detail like that to prevent me from using a great song to illustrate a point. After all, I hope that it grabbed your attention!

Sycamore roots

The disciples approached the Lord and made a request of him, “Lord increase our faith.” What a fascinating request! It tells us two very important things. First that they were aware of faith—and they had it, at least in some form, and appeared to understand how very important it was for them. They liked it and wanted more of it! Secondly, they had reason to think that Jesus had the power—and even the willingness to help them.

Jesus did not respond in the way that they expected. He did not perform an act of magic. He did not wave his hand or snap his fingers and say “There, I just increased your faith by 1,000 percent.” Instead, as he often did, he gave them a confusing and unexpected response. It is another of those sayings which caused them to ask, “What does this mean?” It forced them to do the hard work, to search for meaning and for direction. In responding to them in this way, Jesus showed himself, once again, to be the best of teachers. He gave his students the tools which they needed to find an answer for themselves.

As anyone who has served in the ministry of educator knows, students will always remember answers which they discover for themselves—even if they remember nothing of what the educator shared with them. Why? Because they do the work. Because they look deep inside themselves. Because they reflect on their own experience. Because they have an epiphany, a breakthrough, a moment of insight or revelation.

What were the building blocks which Jesus gave his students? He used a primary concept or tool, “Faith.” He then added a qualifier to that primary tool, the “mustard seed.” He then gave them a challenge or an insurmountable obstacle, “the tree.” He concluded by giving them a shocking outcome, “uprooted and planted in the sea.”

Jesus intentionally turned the tables on them by starting out with the very term they had used, “faith.” He appears to have used that term in a way that they were not expecting! In fact, he challenged them to explore what the word even meant for them in the first place.

A casual reading seems to suggest that they were looking for “answers.” Their poor heads were exhausted from too much thinking. They wanted an easy out. They wanted a kind of reference source, like a book, that would make things easy for them. “Tell us how to know what to do in every challenging situation that we find ourselves. This is a hard test and we want the answer book. We want the sheet that gives us the answers—not so that we do not have to do the work to solve the questions (as truly lazy students wish) but so that we will know that we have come up with the “right answer.”

But were they thinking of faith as a kind of intellectual check list? Were they thinking of a statement of faith or a creed? Yes to A, yes to B, yes to C. Check the items off the list one by one. The correct answer is “E:” Yes to all the above! Were they thinking that faith is a matter of intellectual consent? “Much of this does not make any sense to us, help us to agree to this list of things which we should believe!”

Jesus presented “faith” in a new way. Rather than viewing faith as an “intellectual assent” to a laundry list, Jesus described something which sounds much more like “trust.” Now that is a surprise! “Faith is trust.” Imagine for a moment the look of consternation on their faces as they reframed the question in this new way, “Lord, increase our trust!”

They no doubt remembered a comment which Jesus had made at another time, “Fear is useless, what is needed is trust.” They might have also remembered that question Jesus posed to someone who asked him to heal a family member, “Do you believe?” It would be hard to forget the reply which that question provoked, “Yes, I do believe, help my unbelief.” Jesus challenged his disciples to ask themselves hard questions. “Do I trust? How deeply do I trust? Am I willing to trust? What will it mean for me if I really trust?”

They examined the first tool, “the mustard seed.” In that time and place it was an ingredient which suggested the “tiniest visible thing” that one could imagine. Without a microscope, it is hard to imagine anything smaller. The mustard seed is so tiny that it has to be looked for carefully to even find it. If one has a handful of them, they seem visible. But an individual mustard seed, a single mustard seed! Without my glasses, I doubt that I would see one at all—and even with them, it might be a challenge!

The mustard seed could seem inconsequential. It could seem so small and insignificant that it would be useless. What value could a single mustard seed have? It would be easy to dismiss it! That is just the point. If one has even the tiniest amount of trust that one can muster (pun intended), it might just be enough.

Here is the rub! Rather than allowing his disciples to continue thinking that the trust that they had was worthless, Jesus invited them to think that it might amount to something after all. He presented them with a challenge. “What do you have to lose by giving trust a chance?” It is an infinitely pragmatic question. “Why not give it a try? If you try trust and it does not work, you will not have really wasted much time, energy or effort. But what if you try it and it does work?” Wow, that could be life-changing!

Trust–especially at the beginning, can be fragile. It can feel like a tiny mustard seed. It can easily be overwhelmed by the obstacle of fear! It can be so easy to think (even if we never say the words out loud), “My trust is too tiny and too small to ever amount to anything. When I find myself if difficult situations, it will not be adequate. It will not sustain me. I am afraid that if I trust I will be hurt and disappointed. It also means that I have to give up control! I have to admit defeat. I have to say that I am not able to solve problems on my own. I have to turn it over to God. How do I know that God will come through for me? It means that I have to make a ‘leap of faith.’ I do not know if I can trust—or if I want to trust! I may be too afraid to really trust! What will happen to me if I risk trusting?”

To drive home the point, Jesus gave them an obstacle! Some scripture scholars suggest that the best translation for the “tree” is sycamore rather than mulberry. So, a tiny insignificant seed is contrasted with the tallest and strongest tree that one can imagine! Even worse, sycamore trees have the strongest and most fully developed root systems. To grow so tall, they have roots that may be twice as long underneath the ground. In fact, the Rabbis commented on this in Mishnah 7: “A tree may not be grown within a distance of twenty five cubits from the town, or fifty cubits if it is a carob tree or a sycamore tree.” The explanation seems to be that if a sycamore tree gets too close to a well, the roots will cause the wall of the well to collapse!

Try to uproot a sycamore tree? It is almost impossible! Was that tree referred to in the first Psalm a sycamore? “Like a tree planted by the water, I shall not be moved.”

What an illogical comparison this must have seemed to those disciples! Jesus told them that something which they thought was useless, worthless, and inconsequential was actually so powerful that it had the capacity to move what they thought was an impossible obstacle—and to do something even more incomprehensible—to plant it in the sea!

I can imagine what they might have thought when this became clear to them. “Well, that is not me! I do not have that kind of faith. I do not have that kind of trust. I am not that kind of a person. That rules me out. If the sycamore trees in my life need to be planted in the sea, I am out of luck. Someone else will have to do that.” I think that this is the reason that so few people are able to view this saying as an affirmation  of hope rather than a put down–they think that it might possibly be true for a few exceptionally holy people–but not for them. So, it is no surprise that some people explain this passage as a way of Jesus “putting the disciples in their place” because they did not have enough faith.

What if there is another possibility? What if this passage was intended to be a powerful word of encouragement—and not a “put down?” What if this is Jesus way of telling us, “Your faith, your trust is stronger than you think. You think it is worthless and inadequate. What if you are wrong? What if your faith, your trust is more than sufficient for any situation, for any problem, for any crisis that you encounter?”

What if we removed that “if” at the beginning of the sentence—and changed the rest of the sentence into an unabashed affirmation “You already have faith, even if it appears to be small as a mustard seed. You can say to this sycamore tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”

But there is an important caveat. Our faith, our trust is like a muscle. No one from the outside will be able to make it stronger or to increase it. Only we can do that! It is by trusting and by choosing to believe–over and over again–that our faith and trust increase. If we begin by turning small things over to God, we will quickly progress and will soon be able to turn ever bigger things over to God. In doing this, we will discover the power of God at work in our lives.

Rather than encountering happy “coincidences,” we will see God acting in our lives. Why? Because we will come to realize that God loves us, that God cares for us, and that God truly wants what is best for us. That is the message which Jesus addresses to us-and not only addressed to those clueless disciples some two thousand years ago.

It is not magic! If we ask God to uproot a sycamore tree, God will probably give us a saw to cut it down, and then a spade to dig up the roots. God may ask us to borrow our neighbor’s donkey to help yank up those thick roots out of the ground! God may challenge us to reach out to others for guidance, love and support—experience, strength, and hope. God may remind us that we are not alone—but rather are part of a community of faith. God may invite us to realize that we, in turn, are able to assist others with our time, talents and efforts. We may be called to be part of the solution for someone else—or for our community at large.

If we are willing to take the risk of trusting in God, though, as the Spirituality of the Twelve Steps tell us: we will come to realize that “God will help us if we ask.” We will discover that God is, in fact, “doing for us what we are not able to do for ourselves.”

There is another hymn which I remember from my childhood. I will not sing it to you but will conclude by sharing the lyrics of the first two verses:

‘Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just to take Him at His Word
Just to rest upon His promise,
Just to know, “Thus saith the Lord!”

Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him!
How I’ve proved Him o’er and o’er
Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus!
Oh, for grace to trust Him more!

I’m so glad I learned to trust Him,
Precious Jesus, Savior, Friend
And I know that He is with me,
Will be with me to the end.

Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him!
How I’ve proved Him o’er and o’er
Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus!
Oh, for grace to trust Him more!

“Religion, Politics, and Money.”

“Religion, Politics, and Money.”

A Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
August 4, 2019

Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
In Easton, Pennsylvania

Heavenly Father, we remember before you those who suffer
want and anxiety from lack of work. Guide the people of this
land so to use our public and private wealth that all may find
suitable and fulfilling employment, and receive just payment
for their labor; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I remember hearing as a young person in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina that “there are three things one ought to never discuss in polite company: religion, politics, and money.” Later, I came to realize that those were the very three things that people in the mountains enjoyed discussing most. Of course, the context there was one of extended family or close community. In such a case, I am not sure that it could be accurately described as “polite company.”

So, there, the cat is out of the bag. Today, I want to reflect with you about money. In particular, I want to ask for your patience as we explore, together, what it might be that God would like to communicate with us through Sacred Scripture and Tradition. We will then conclude by asking how we can apply whatever that message is–in a way that makes God’s love real, present, and effective in the various worlds in which we live, move, and have our being.

I am often surprised by strange notions we hear when the worlds of faith and finance collide. The first is that “true followers of Jesus” are not concerned with money at all. Whenever I hear the ways in which this is played out, I am tempted to wonder what planet these people are on. To give one example, I remember hearing someone say that “money is the root of all evil.” That person had not read the First Letter to Timothy clearly. The actual text is that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” It does not say anything at all about the morality of money–in itself. It points out that the “love” of money is a kind of addiction. And those who are addicted to money will never really be satisfied. They will never have enough money! As with any addiction, the acquisition of money satisfies only temporarily. Jesus warns us about this: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

There is also an unimaginable fear—the money could be lost of taken away. And that thought impels the money addict to protect their lucre by any and all means necessary. If ever they come to feel that their wealth is threatened, violence is not an unimaginable option. My grandparents lived through the Great Depression. They never overcame the fear that the banks could fail and that they would lose their money and would be forced to make do without it. We used to hear about people from that generation who were so fearful of bank collapse that they hid their money in odd places in their homes. This was often discovered by their families who, after their death, cleaned the house.

Our Lord spoke about this in subtle and not so subtle ways. He spoke about a kind of naiveté which Christians can have, “the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.” But he also told us that “You can not serve God and money.”

It does not make sense to pretend that money does not matter or that we can live without it. Every person has basic needs—food, clothing, and shelter. Those needs are essential and non-negotiable. Somehow, we have to provide for those needs.

There was a crisis in the very early Church. Some people had become convinced that since Jesus was going to return almost immediately, there was no point in worrying about doing anything as mundane as working for a living. In fact, they thought that work might be a distraction!

Saint Paul dealt with them very directly. He told the Community at Thessaloniki not to enable this irrational behavior, “if they will not work, they shall not eat.” Now the important thing to note here is that they were capable of working, that they could have worked if they chose to do so. There is the suggestion that these people were taking advantage of the generosity of others. Like that beautiful song from Jesus Christ Superstar said, “they had too much heaven on their minds.” This passage must never be taken out of context, as some have, to suggest that we should not care for the needs of others. Saint Paul went on to suggest that, for whatever reason, the return of the Lord has been delayed. So, while hoping for the fullness of God’s reign at some point in the future, we must all work tirelessly to make it a reality in the here and now.

The second surprising idea is that everyone is called to Apostolic poverty! Nothing could be further from the truth. The advice which Jesus gave to the rich young man, was advice to the rich young man! Jesus recognized that for him, wealth was a distraction which kept him from answering his own calling. So, Jesus told him to sell what he had, to give to the poor, and to then come follow. Sadly, this passage has been used to make most others feel that they are second-class Christians. Those who are called to poverty, chastity, and obedience should say yes. But not everyone is called to these vows. If one is not called to the Religious Life, then one should have a different approach to money.

What attitudes should “regular” or “every day” Christians have? The first thing that occurs to me is the famous “attitude of gratitude.” We should be thankful and grateful that our needs are met. At the same time, we must acknowledge that oftentimes this is a result of “privilege.”

Most of us came from a background in which we were more likely than not to live a comfortable life. We are natives of this country. We came from families which were able to provide for our basic needs and for our health care.

Until the recent past, most of us received an education or professional training which prepared us for a successful career–without having to incur an insurmountable and enslaving debt. We fit into the culture in such a way that we were given opportunities for growth, advancement, and promotion. We are able to negotiate the various “systems” to obtain what we need.

In most cases, those basic opportunities were provided for us because of who we are, and not because of anything we have personally done. Very few of us received great inherited wealth. Most of us have had to work to make a living—and at various points in our lives, may have had to work in jobs which we did not enjoy and may even have found demeaning and exploitative. But we were able to earn a living and to have our basic needs be met. That is not true of everyone! And so, we truly should be thankful that we did not know abject poverty, were not homeless, and were in generally good health.

A more helpful attitude is to view money as a tool rather than as an end-in-itself. I remember encountering what I think is a very healthy attitude towards wealth and possessions not long after I entered the monastery. The monks used a fascinating expression about things which others might think “belonged to them.” They said that they held the item “ad usam.”

This literally meant that they claimed to have the “use” of the item but did not “own it.” I came to understand that what they were saying was that they had the use of the item–it did not have control or ownership of them. There was an understanding that they should only hold onto the item so long as it really was useful. If at some point they no longer needed it, they should pass it on to someone else who could make better use of it. They did not want to permit any “thing” to become useless clutter, a distraction, or a stumbling block. If they did discover someone else who needed it more than they did—or who could make better use of it than they could–they had an obligation to either share it—or else to see if there was not some way that they could use it to help provide for the obvious need of the other person.

The Christian understanding is that we are stewards rather than owners. We use things over which we have control to provide for our needs, the needs of those for whom we are responsible, and for anyone else who is in need. Thus, we are called to practice stewardship! We are called to be good stewards.

The third idea is that we must recognize the various levels in which we find ourselves. St Bart’s, in Manhattan, used to speak of three primary communities: the city, the nation, and the world. They recognized a need to be light, salt, and yeast in each of those three places. I think that this kind of view challenges us to recognize that we are invited to use money responsibly on all these levels. I suspect that most of us contribute to Church, and/or to various charities. We also pay taxes which are used for various things locally, on a state level, and nationally. Through our elected representatives we have a say in how those funds will be allocated.

What do we do to provide for the needs of the members of our own parish family? What about poverty and need in Easton and in the Delaware and Lehigh River Valleys? What about Pennsylvania? What about the United States of America? What about the Americas? What about the world? We play a role in allocating funds and in determining policy in each of these communities. How do our values and priorities as People of Faith impact those decisions?

Can we choose to ignore things which disrupt our world? Can we ignore prejudice, poverty, injustice, violence and oppression? Can we ignore earthquakes and floods and heat and cold? These things create confusion, chaos, and uncertainty. Can we hide our talents or bury them in the ground? Can we turn a blind eye to those in need? Not if we are followers of the Jesus who made it clear that whatever we do the “least of these,” we do to Him.

The final idea is that there is some magical formula, percentage, or proportion which applies to everyone. This is not true! Each of us has a unique context and situation-in-life. The ideal that we find in that model Christian community depicted in the Acts of the Apostles is that everyone was so generous with what they had that the needs of all were provided for. Some people have more–they are in a position to share more. Some people have less—they are able to share less. But each of us can give something. Each of us can make a difference. While we can all give of our time and talents. We can all also give of our money.

My Grandmother Storie was an amazing, and often quite unconventional person. She lived on a fixed income and other people would probably have considered her to have been poor. She was amazingly generous! Anyone who was hungry would have been received with joy at her table (and the food was delicious). Later in life, after a time of prayer, she made the decision to stop giving her tithe to her Church. She saw that so many people there were giving and that the Church was able to do all the things that they needed to do. She came to feel that she was called to share her tithe with several of her grandchildren who lacked essential things. For years, while I was in college and in seminary, she sent me her tithe each month. This made a huge difference in my life! I am not in any way suggesting that is what any of you should do. But that is what Mammaw felt that God had called her to do. I was powerfully helped, supported, and upheld by her loving and generous giving.

Jesus talks about families fighting over money and possessions in the passage from the Gospel According to Saint Luke which we heard today. This is so common that I can’t think of more than a few families of which this has not been true. How sad! As a result, families are torn apart. Relationships are destroyed. And, in the end, no one is happy! It only leads to anger, resentment, and alienation. Surely this is not what those who left the wealth ever wanted or intended!

What challenging words Our Lord speaks, “And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Dear Ones, may we learn ways to use our treasures wisely, and in doing so to become truly rich toward God and toward others. Whether or not we are in “polite company,” let us not be afraid to discuss ways to better use our personal and collective resources to make a positive difference—in our families, in our parish family, in our community, in our country, and in our world.

“Your Kingdom Come.”

“Your Kingdom Come.”

A Sermon for Pentecost 7C
July 28, 2019

O God, the creator and preserver of all mankind, we humbly
beseech thee for all sorts and conditions of men; that thou
wouldest be pleased to make thy ways known unto them, thy
saving health unto all nations. More especially we pray for
thy holy Church universal; that it may be so guided and
governed by thy good Spirit, that all who profess and call
themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and
hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in
righteousness of life. Finally, we commend to thy fatherly
goodness all those who are in any ways afflicted or distressed,
in mind, body, or estate; [especially those for whom our prayers
are desired]; that it may please thee to comfort and relieve
them according to their several necessities, giving them patience
under their sufferings, and a happy issue out of all their
afflictions. And this we beg for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.

“So be like lights on the rim of the water
Giving hope in a storm sea of night
Be a refuge amidst the slaughter
Of these fugitives in their flight
For you are timeless and part of a puzzle
You are winsome and young as a lad
And there is no disease or no struggle
That can pull you from God, be ye glad”

Be ye Glad by Glad, The Acapella Project

If we are praying the Lord’s Prayer at least once a day—and perhaps more, if we are praying the Divine Office–it seems fair to say that it is the single most important prayer in our lives. That is not to suggest that we are only praying liturgical prayers, but of the liturgical prayers that we pray, there really is nothing else that could compare to this one prayer.

This makes perfect sense to me, because this prayer is the one—and the only one—which Our Lord Jesus Christ taught us and asked us to pray. So, it certainly should have an exalted status in our prayer lives as individuals and community.

There is a serious danger, though. It is so easy to fall into the routine of “rattling off this prayer” without hearing it, or without taking time to think about the words which we are saying. I know that this is very true of me! It seems that it takes something to jar us out of our complacency. In the past few years there has been a good deal of controversy surrounding the translation of this prayer. The problem, it seems, is that many of the translations appear to be derived from secondary languages (like Latin) rather than Greek. There is also somehow a conception that this prayer is “inviolate” or “so sacred” that it cannot be re-translated—or better translated. Pope Francis discovered this when he requested that the formula “and lead us not into temptation” was a poor translation—both linguistically, and theologically. Since I do not think that even the Jesus Seminar would guarantee the exact wording, it seems to me to be a very good idea to look at the language.

I can not help but wonder if that very translation is the cornerstone on which the idea that God is “constantly testing us to make us better and stronger” is derived? If so, then—please change it immediately. As someone involved with pastoral ministry over many years, it would be impossible to describe how painful and destructive that interpretation has been. No, that is not the way that God chooses to interact with us. If anything, God is with us in our trials and difficulties—loving us, supporting us, encouraging us, empowering us. Not testing us! In my own tradition, the newer translation is “Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil.” That makes far more sense to me!

Whole volumes have been written on each of the lines of this prayer. In a short time, not too much can be said. However, there is always something to say, and hopefully it will be of use to someone who may read these words.

I began with a quote from a hymn by a favorite group of mine, Glad. In a very confusing and frustrating world, there lyrics speak of hope and resurrection. They remind us that God is in control. And yet, they also challenge us to remember that as the old Carmelite saying has it, “We are God’s hands and feet.” If we expect anything to change, we must become agents of change and transformation.

In my Lectio today, I reflect on the first three ideas contained in this prayer: “hallowed be your Name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” After addressing God in the most intimate personal way, “Daddy,” Jesus sanctifies or blesses God, “the name,”; prays for the coming of God’s kingdom; and prays that God’s will may be done here and now. Each of those ideas should be fully developed, but for today, I want to reflect with you on what God’s kingdom is all about.

In the United States, we pride ourselves that we are citizens of a Republic—not subjects of a kingdom. We have elected officials, not a hereditary monarchy based on “the divine right of kings.” And yet, many of us also claim dual citizenship—we are also part of “God’s kingdom.” We may prefer a less patriarchal word like realm, but whatever word or term we use, the reality is the same. More and more, I prefer the term “The Jesus Movement,” which has been proposed to us by our Presiding Bishop and Primate in the Episcopal Church, the Most Reverend Michael B. Curry.

The Jesus Movement has a way of disarming fears and worries—and perhaps even disagreements. It avoids fights over differences in theology, polity, and ecclesiology. It is a lovey invitation to “return to our roots” and to get rid of unnecessary and unhelpful ideas like “The one true Church,” or even more perplexing, “Christendom.” Like the writings of the Hebrew Prophets, it holds up a mirror to us to ask how faithfully our current reality reflects God’s values, priorities, and plans. It challenges us to let go of structures and constructs which limit, compete against, and even struggle against God’s hopes and dreams for us.

Many years ago, I remember hearing a powerful comment from a sermon which a Roman Catholic Religious Sister, “When God’s Kingdom comes, our kingdoms must go.” While I believe she was speaking about us as individuals, the same is true of our concepts of nationality—and of nationalism.

What would God’s reign be like—if it was revealed in its fullness–and what would it be about? The first hint is that it would be a reversal of the wounded world which resulted from the actions of Adam and Eve. The result of sin, they discovered, was three forms of alienation: alienation from God, alienation from other humans, and alienation from creation. In God’s kingdom there would be reconciliation, healing and reconnection of these three primary relationships. Humans would work together in cooperation with God to complete and fulfill the healing of creation.

The second hint is the reversal of Babel. Because humans would be working for the common good and for the glory of God, instead of for personal glory and in competition against each other, they would be united rather than divided. The military industrial complex and prison for profit would be replaced with a banquet table in which all would dine in peace and unity. Everyone would be fed.
The Passover gives another hint. The very concept of slavery and oppression would be unthinkable. So there would be no need for the death of the firstborn, for the slaughter of a paschal lamb, or for fleeing before the bread has time to rise. And the competition between peoples would end.

The Hebrew prophets give a hint. The relationship between God and humans would be so intimate that hearts would be turned from stone to flesh. And everyone would be invited to God’s presence—all the ends of the earth. No one would be excluded or treated as a second class citizen.

Perhaps the most important hint comes from the preaching of Saint Paul. In God’s reign all the binaries collapse: female and male; slave and free; people of a particular faith and people of none; people of any ethnic or cultural background, and those of the “in group.” We could take this farther: LGBTQIA and cis, and native and foreigner. In short the distinctions between “us” and “them” whatever and whenever those terms are used.

The final hint is from the words of Our Lord, “fear is useless, what is needed is trust.” One way to analyze the actions and words of politicians and of people which are incongruous with the Jesus movement is the degree to which those actions and words are motivated by fear. They operate out of a mentality of scarcity (and of greed). If we freely share there will not be enough for everyone. If I share, I will go without. Trust in God reveals that there is an abundance-even a surplus. Five loaves and fishes are enough for everyone to have all that they want and there is still more than enough left over after everyone has eaten their fill.

Borders would cease to exist. Everyone would be provided the opportunity to learn, to grow, to contribute, to love and to dwell in peace and security. Not only would the lamb and the lion cuddle in peace, former enemies would make peace. We would have a vested interest in helping others succeed and be happy, because in so doing we would make the world better. And in serving the needs of others we would find our greatest fulfillment.

Internment camps would be a thing of the past. The stranger would be welcomed as family. The most vulnerable would receive the greatest care and support. The gifts of every language, culture, and faith would be celebrated and shared. “They” would all be “our” mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, and “our” children. “We” would look for ways to welcome, receive, and fully integrate “them.”

This is not a fantasy or a dream. God’s reign will come in its fullness—but with our work it will come sooner. Even now, we can choose to live as if though it was fully present. In doing so, we become yeast, light, and salt.

I conclude with those words from Glad:
“So be like lights on the rim of the water
Giving hope in a storm sea of night
Be a refuge amidst the slaughter
Of these fugitives in their flight.”

If we do these things, God’s will shall be done here and now, as in heaven.

Lectio Divina reconsidered and freshly applied

Lectio Divina reconsidered and freshly applied (thanks to the Reverend Deacon Fran Hlavacek)

It is easy to become complacent, or even worse, “smug” and “comfortable” with things which we decided that we know well. Even worse, we might make the mistake of thinking that we have mastered them. There is a reason that professionals like doctor and lawyers are said to “practice” their profession. It is a subtle reminder that there is always room to grow and to become better at what one does.

In the novitiate at Saint Vincent Archabbey, I was introduced to the concept—and to the practice of Lectio Divina. This traditional Benedictine spiritual practice (we were taught) has three stages: lectio, meditatio, and contemplatio.

Lectio, the beginning stage begins with choosing a very short passage. That was the suggestion which Saint Benedict made in the Holy Rule—and I quickly found it to be a wise one. While he seems to have envisioned the passage as one which came from the Sacred Scriptures, I learned that a practice which some monks had used through the centuries was to choose a small excerpt from the daily reading of the Holy Rule (in earlier times, this chapter was read aloud to the monks in a special room designed for that purpose called the “Chapter Room.” It also served as the space for the community meetings—and so the assembly of the community was called the “monastic chapter.”). And so, for the rest of the novitiate and at times in the juniorate I would practice Lectio with a reading from the Holy Rule as well as readings from Scripture. It is interesting that this came to serve as a tool of discernment for me at various times—when at a moment of confusion or crisis I would try to decide which choice to make.

The interesting thing about lectio, or this initial stage, though, is that one was asked to read the passage aloud. In that way, it was thought, one would “consume the word” both visually and orally.

Meditatio, the second stage used a term which was not especially helpful to me! I was not sure then, and remain unsure even now what “meditation” was. I suppose that it might be something about which Merton wrote in greater detail, but I was confused by the word because I had encountered so many different (and conflicting) ideas about it.

Having come from a fundamentalist evangelical background, I suspect that I was unduly suspicious of the concept. I remember hearing at least one sermon which warned us to beware of “Satanic” practices which were practiced by “Eastern Religions.” While that was long in the past by the time I came to Saint Vincent, I was still impacted by the prejudice, no doubt.

I continued to consult monastic sources which discussed Lectio, and in one of the scholarly tomes I discovered some author (I do not remember which it was) who said that an alternative word which had been suggested was ruminatio. Ruminatio sounded far less “mystical” and far more practical to me.

The very clever analogy which the author used was that of a cow “chewing its cud.” What a fascinating idea! In lectio, we consume the passage and in ruminatio we chew it and chew it and chew it until we have extracted every vitamin and mineral which it possessed. We then allow it to break into essential parts in our interior until we begin to absorb into our being all the rich treasures which it had to offer.

Now here is the interesting idea. The first two stages involve our action. We pick the passage, we read it aloud, we hear it proclaimed. We take it in. We slowly, carefully, and methodically chew it and begin to digest it. But then something wonderful happens. As we begin to absorb it and to be finally fed by it, the process passes beyond our control or our ability to influence.

Where the nutrients go into our system, how they impact our muscles, bones, and cartilage is not something that we control. That is something which God has organized for us. Had we not done the work thus far, we would not be fed. And yet, the “magic” of the chemical and organic process is in God’s hand.

It is like those beautiful barakah prayers at the offertory prayers during the Liturgy of the Eucharist which celebrate the collaboration between the human and divine. “Blessed are you, Lord our God for this bread and for this wine which we offer; fruit of the earth and the work of human hands. They will become for us the bread of life and the cup of salvation.”

Contemplatio, the third stage, or contemplation. After we have finished our work, we wait in silence, like that “Man of God,” the Prophet Elijah. We turn our efforts and the whole process over to God. Just as we can not control what happens when the crushed grapes begin fermentation, or what happens when the kneaded dough is placed in the oven—we can not control what happens in this stage.

This stage is not about us at all. We rest. It is a Sabbath for us. And in quiet, peace, and trust, we wait for the movement of God—for the still small voice. Above all, we are called to listen! It is no mistake that the first word in the Holy Rule is “listen.”

Perhaps the most important virtue at this stage is that of patience. God moves as God wills, how God wills, and at what time God wills. At times there are moments of insight, and even revelation. At times, it seems that nothing happens. Though, experience has taught me that insight often comes later in the day—or at some later time. For many, the take-away, is to hear a word. What word is God giving me in this time of prayer? What does that word mean to me?

This past Sunday at the Forum at my home parish of Trinity in Easton, the Reverend Deacon Fran Hlavacek led us through a new variety of Lectio. I was both delighted and fascinated by her take on the practice.

It must be said that Deacon Fran is currently a Fordham Ram. While she has not been a student at the Jesuit University of the City of New York for a long time, I began to wonder if she has “Jesuitical” leanings or tendencies (I hope that she does!). I will certainly watch going forward to see how they manifest.

The life-professed Jesuits may make a fourth vow—to accept any mission which the Pope may ask them to undertake. And the method which Deacon Fran introduced to us had a fourth step—how do I use or apply this going forward?

Although I do not honestly think that this addition to the traditional method is derived exclusively from Jesuit spirituality, I believe that one of the goals of the Spiritual Exercises is to discern God’s call in one’s life. That provides a very practical application for Lectio which I had not previously considered in this focused way. In other words, I now see a very practical way in which Lectio may be applied as a tool for discernment—both individual and collective.

One of the joys of the Forum last Sunday, was that as a gathered community we engaged in Lectio together. In my own personal practice over many years, it had been a solitary discipline. I did have a very few experiences of Centering Prayer in which it was used in a communal fashion. But, for the most part, it was just me. Certainly, in the monastic experience, I do not recall the intentional use of Lectio as a communal practice.

In the Episcopal Church, though, we are much more accustomed to thinking of group discernment—though primarily, as I have seen it, in the context of vocational discernment. Suddenly, I am able to conceptualize other interesting ways in which this practice could be applied. I pray that I will be given the opportunity to pursue that.

I conclude by thanking Deacon Fran for opening the door to this new idea. Perhaps it is possible to teach an “old monastic” a new application for Benedictine Spirituality after all!

“Tell her to help me.”

“Tell her to help me.”

A Reflection for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
July 21, 2019

Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole
body of your faithful people is governed and sanctified:
Receive our supplications and prayers, which we offer before
you for all members of your holy Church, that in their vocation
and ministry they may truly and devoutly serve you; through
our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with
you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Amen.

Martha and Mary

It was claimed that the author of The Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke was a physician. Historians could easily claim that he (and I suspect that the author was most likely male because of the era in which the work was written) was a historian because the Acts of the Apostles in the second volume of this opus (and the two works together present the history of salvation in three stages: the stage of Israel, the stage of Jesus, and the stage of the Church).

In recent years, I have come to feel that Luke is equally gifted as a psychiatrist. Now I do not use this term in our modern sense of the word any more than those who call Luke a doctor or a scholar would use it. And yet, there is clearly the understanding that the way in which the information is presented to us comes with an insight and perspective which resonates with the talent and skill of one who is experienced—and even gifted with a more than ordinary level of knowledge. I would not have the audacity to suggest that the Gospels were “written by a committee.” However, it does seem likely that each community remembered and celebrated unique stories about Jesus. If there was a redactor who, at the end, wove all of this together, then there might well be strands which he drew from oral traditions told from various perspectives–and then made his own contributions as well.

A theme which interests me is that of persons who believed themselves to be doing the will of God and who were then confused and unhappy when others who, from their understanding, were not doing God’s will, and who appeared to be rewarded. The most obvious case in Luke is the elder brother of the Prodigal Son. Another fascinating example, though, is Martha—who is the protagonist in the unusually brief Gospel passage we hear today.

The context of this passage is an interesting one. The tenth chapter of Luke is a very busy one! The Mission of the 72 “Apostles.” The Parable of the Good Samaritan. And then the story of a domestic scene between Jesus, Martha, and Mary.

In each of these cases, Jesus interacts with people who want him to do something. They are unhappy with someone or something and expect that Jesus is going to agree with them. I suspect that they are all surprised, and perhaps even shocked, to discover that does not happen. Why is that?

Perhaps it is because Jesus chooses to challenge them—and I intentionally avoid words like correct, or scold. Jesus cares about them as deeply as about anyone else. He chooses to dialogue with them and to suggest that there might well be a deeper insight which they have not yet realized. He listens to what they have to say. He often asks probing questions—both to prove to them that they have been heard and understood, as well as to invite them to consider an alternative perspective. In each of these passages it seems to me that one possible common theme is that we really do not know or understand other people, places, or things as clearly as we might imagine that we do. While we might be willing to dismiss or write others off, God wil not! God will not concur with our own prejudices or preconceptions and will invite us to conversion-to see, to love, to value each and every person as God does. Even presented in a caring and loving fashion, this can be a “hard pill to swallow.”

Of all the people whom we encounter in the Gospels, three of the most significant are the residents of the home at Bethany. The three siblings: Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, are perhaps the closest that Jesus ever comes to having a family of choice. Their home is a refuge for him. A place where he can come and get away from the demands of ministry. It is a place where he can truly be en famille, as the French say. It is his home too. As a result, there is an intimacy here, a connection, which is amazingly profound. These four people know each other very well.

Consequently, Luke does not give us any background. He does not need too. We see at various times how close these bonds are. At various times each of the family members expresses deep emotion as does Jesus—who is even moved to tears at the sadness which comes to this family later.

It is interesting that Lazarus is not mentioned in this passage. It could be that he is so accustomed to the bickering between Martha and Mary that it just goes over his head. Or, perhaps, he is just relieved that Jesus is getting dragged into the squabble, rather than him. Perhaps he is smiling on the side, wondering how Jesus is going to “get out of this one.”

Clearly, both Martha and Mary are so comfortable with Jesus that they feel free to say exactly what they think. Clearly, they both have a close relationship with him. Clearly, they both know that they are important to him. The problem is that they are unique persons and show their love in different ways. They do not understand each other! Like siblings who have lived in the same homes all their lives, tensions and-–perhaps unresolved—conflicts lead to “flair ups.” It is fair to say that Martha is probably not just complaining about Mary not helping to cook the meal or set the table. There are most likely deeper issues here. And these issues often come from a failure to really understand each other. I suspect that Martha and Mary are actually quite close. They may well have a deep and loving relationship. And yet, there is a level of mystery in which they do not quite “get” each other. Sadly, we do not hear Mary’s words here, but really we do not need to. Because this story is about Martha more than it is about Mary.

From a patriarchal perspective, Martha is depicted as a whiner and complainer. She is cast as the villain of the story. Mary is the “good girl,” the person with the “higher insight.” And Martha is threatened by her. In a very extreme attempt at exegesis, this story was used to describe the tension between two competing vocational lifestyles. Mary allegedly represented the “contemplative vocation” and Martha the “active” or “apostolic.” Thus it was argued that a religious calling was superior to a lay one. Even within the world of the religious life, there was a clearly defined hierarchy, with the contemplative cloistered “nun” being “superior” and the active “Sister” being “inferior.”

Is that what this passage is really about? Seen from another lens, Martha seems to ask important questions. Isn’t hospitality an essential ministry? If so, how is it to be accomplished? Shouldn’t everyone be expected to contribute of their time, talent, and resources to contribute? The fatted calf is not going to cook itself, after all. Doesn’t Jesus want supper? Isn’t he hungry? If we all kick in and do the work, we will all be able to enjoy the good meal together. Is Mary “hogging” Jesus? And, of course don’t even get me started on that lazy Lazarus who never does anything around the house. Because he was a boy he was always Momma’s favorite and got away with murder. Now he expects to be waited on hand and foot!

Yes, I admit that I am putting words into Martha’s mouth. Perhaps I am projecting? Martha sounds to me a lot like an elder child, Mary like a middle child, and Lazarus must be the baby of the family! As the “baby” myself, and as the younger brother of two older sisters, I have some idea what that is like.

What is the interaction with Martha all about, then? Why is this story recalled? It would be easy to say that it is to set the stage for the later passages which relate the Raising of Lazarus from the Dead and the Anointing of Jesus’ feet in preparation for the passion. There is another possibility.

Jesus could be inviting Martha to let go of her need for perfection. It will not matter what is served, when it is served, or who serves it. The important thing is that the friends are spending time together. If the fatted calf is over-cooked or under-cooked the world will not end. The house does not have to be spotless. Martha does not have white gloves or a vacuum cleaner after all. This is a family gathering, for goodness sake, there is no need for formality—no need to use the good china and silver! Relax. It will all be fine!

Jesus could be inviting Martha to relax. It sounds as if though she is so agitated and frustrated that she is about to have a break-down. Jesus is really concerned about her. His words are not at all dismissive. He recognizes that she is worked up, and his answer is actually intended to calm her down. Time out, Martha, sit down here with us for a few minutes, don’t worry about anything else. I have an idea that I would like for you to take a minute and consider. Can you take the time to do that? Ok, take a deep breath.

Jesus invites Martha to avoid unhelpful comparisons. The danger with comparisons is that someone has to come out on top and someone has to come out at the bottom of the heap. There is always a good and a bad. There is always a better and a worse. There is always a right and a wrong. In order to feel justified, Martha has fallen into the trap of “odious” comparisons. As a result, she has shifted her attention from what she is doing to what someone else is not. I suspect that Martha may well have been the “Martha Stewart” of her day. She probably threw the best party in Bethany. But, she paid a huge personal price for her success. It takes a toll on her. Because she wants this meal to be the best one that Jesus has ever had, she is unhappy that Mary isn’t following her orders! Mary is wasting time and slowing things down. Let Lazarus entertain Jesus for a few minutes until things get under control. When Mary doesn’t meet her expectations, she calls her out.

Jesus is not comparing the responses of Martha and Mary. Could it be that he is asking Martha to stop comparing too? Mary has chosen the part that is better for Mary. Martha has chosen the part that is better for Martha. Both choices should be valued, affirmed and supported. If Martha tried to be Mary, she would be miserable. If Mary tried to be Martha, she would need Prozac. And if Martha continues to try to force Mary to be something other than what she truly is, she will never understand the unique and beautiful things which Mary alone is able to offer. Hospitality and love can be shown in many different ways. Each is essential. Each contribute to the total experience.

We do not know what happens after this conversation. Based on what we read later, it sounds as if though not too much changes. That is sad. But then, we do not know what happened to the lawyer after Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. We do not know what happened to the elder son in the story of the Prodigal son. Perhaps we come up with an ending that makes sense to us.

The lesson to be gained from all this is that God is far more loving, encouraging and inclusive than we are. We are called to grow and change and become more like God. That is conversion—and is an essential part of the Christian vocation. In a balanced life, in a whole and complete life we are all called to be Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. May we be willing to let go of our own way of thinking and trust that God truly knows and wants what is best—for us individually, for our families, for our communities of faith, and for our world.

God’s hospitality makes room at the table for everyone. God’s hospitality needs everyone, in every way, in every place and time in order to be made real, present and effective.

N.B. Because I am not preaching in community today, this is really a reflection more than a sermon. And yes, I am aware of the dangers of psychoanalyzing the people mentioned in the Scriptures.

Do we have the right to use the word “America” to self-identify?

I recently shared a thought on Facebook which, to my surprise, engendered a good deal of interaction—some of it rather heated: “It is disappointing to hear so many people speak of “America” and “American” when they clearly mean U.S.A. and citizen of the U.S.A.”

The comment was a response to some of the “bashing of the four” which I had read recently suggesting that “if they did not like America they should leave it.”
Until then, I had not actually been willing to buy into the fact that for the U.S.A. to use the word “America” as an “exclusive” label which “belongs to us” was that big a deal. I did realize, of course, that for so many Latinos, it is a hurtful and offensive term. And yet, like many others, I thought that the circumlocutions were too time consuming and burdensome. I guess that I do have to admit that in this thinking it really was “all about me.”

When confronted with the claim that “that is what the dictionary says,” I came to realize that this is a serious problem. It is a problem because the dictionary in question (and I suspect it was written in English and published by a major Northeastern U.S. company) is making an arbitrary decision that this word may be primarily claimed by one country out of all the other countries of the Americas—and I would certainly include the islands of the Caribbean in that mix as well—and that all the other countries will just have to accept the loss of something which equally describes them. That sounds like imperialism to me. In such a case, I am forced to confront the unpleasant truth that something which ought to be an impartial and unbiased source of knowledge (a dictionary) is clearly biased. And to insist on such a claim certainly seems to be a case of “grab and conquer.”

It is also a problem because the mere raising of the issue caused a desire to shut down the discussion by appealing to an “authority.” The dictionary was being used to shut me up and to end the argument.  Roma locuta causa finita. This does not often happen to me. Friends who are Women, who are Black, who are Latino, or who are Indigenous, tell me that this happens to them all the time. It certainly helps me to understand their experience more fully. And that is a good thing, indeed.

One of the blessings of having earned advanced degrees in theology and in history is that the educational formation opened my eyes to the reality of the “biases contained in source materials.” Any author goes to the trouble to write because she has something to say that she thinks is important and well-worth hearing. Her life story, her experience, her “world view” influences her perspective.

Or, perhaps his research is funded by persons who want to have certain information presented in a specific way. In most cases, scholars are able to maintain a certain level of objectivity–or else their peers will call the work into question. However, donors do not always fund research out of a purely altruistic desire to expand the knowledge base. More often than not, there is some other more self-serving reason for wanting a scholarly opinion to be published and circulated. That is just the way things work.

But, make no mistake, even “reputable companies” which publish texts do not always go the additional step to make sure that all opinions are included in the mix. This is truer of reference works that just about anything else I can imagine. There are many marginalized and oppressed groups who find that their story and experience are excluded (intentionally or unintentionally) from these sources. Or if included, it is sometimes not in the best of ways. If they attempt to challenge negative images, stereotypes, or perspectives which only tell part of the story they find themselves attacked because they call the predominant paradigm into question.

As a gay man, for instance, I am going to read anything written about the LGBTQIA experience carefully. If a source does not resonate with my own lived experience, you can be sure that I am going to call it into question. That is a relatively easy thing for an adult man of mature years to do. I have grown accustomed to encountering push back when I raise these issues. But what about LGBTQIA youth who consult these sources, desperately looking for answers, for help, and for hope (as I did back “in the day”). What do they do when they find sources that demonize them or only support and reinforce negative stereotypes, bias, and prejudice?

Even there, I have to admit that the majority of pro LGBTQIA things written are done so from the perspective of the gay male. Lesbians, Bisexuals and Trans persons are rarely given a voice. My own community is as imperialistic and exclusive as any other. This became especially clear to me in the recent commemorations of the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall. The heroes of that revolt were people of whom the “mainstream” gays of that era were ashamed—“drag queens,” “gender benders,” and persons whom we now know to have been Trans. They were the ones who stood up for our rights when their cis gay Brothers primarily wanted to be assimilated and accepted. And yet, there was little mention of them!

These days I am increasingly troubled by language and rhetoric which is used to justify the mistreatment and exclusion of Blacks, Latinos, Indigenous Peoples, Foreigners–and especially the members of those groups who are women! These attacks use seemingly innocent words but twist them to decide who will be included and who will be excluded. This is vicious, malicious, and cruel.

The most obvious example is to suggest that Latinos on our Southern Border should be prevented from coming to “America.” They left other parts of America which are in chaos, largely as the result of actions by the U.S. government. As Malcolm X suggested, it really does seem that these are our “chickens coming home to roost.” If there is political instability, repressive regimes, violence, and abject poverty in those countries, we have been a huge part of the equation. We seem to be unwilling to admit the role that we have played or to do anything to try to make amends. Even worse, racist and xenophobic language has been used to dehumanize these refugees—and from the highest levels of power in this country! This is accomplished through a sly and cunning distortion and co-opting of words. Language matters!

Why are we so afraid and unwilling to even listen to the experiences of vulnerable minorities? What words do they find troubling? How are those words used to hurt them, to exclude them, or to attempt to “keep them in their place?” It is especially important to consider that words and symbols which to us seem “harmless” have a radically different meaning for them. They invite us to let go of our power and privilege and to understand their lived experience—which will prove to be profoundly different from our own.

I grow weary of being accused of an unrealistic “political correctness.” I would prefer to think that because I care about other people and because I find them to be worthy to be treated with dignity, respect and love, that I make an effort to use language-words—which make that more likely to happen. And, that I make every effort to avoid the use of words and symbols which for others undermine or even render impossible the ability for those goals of inclusion, welcome and respect to take place. Isn’t that what people of faith are supposed to try to do?

I invite you, dear reader to please be willing to listen and to consider what they say before just trying to dismiss them or shut them down.

A final thought, I have not devoted much energy here in speaking of symbols and of their power. I hope to do so soon.