20 November 2014

THE WAY WE BELIEVE IS THE WAY WE ACT

(a sermon for 16 November 2014 --Proper 28A)

I Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, "Master, I knew you to be a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours." …And the master said, “ As for this worthless servant, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

There’s an old story about a wise priest listening to the rants of a young atheist. The young atheist claims that he just doesn’t believe in a god with a white beard sitting on a high throne judging everybody, and deciding who gets a reward and who doesn’t. He just doesn’t believe in a god who is severe and mean and casting people into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The wise priest gazes back at the young atheist, and the priest says, simply, “I don’t believe in that kind of god either.” And so the old priest begins to explain the kind of God he does believe in, one who is life-giving and grace-giving and encouraging.

That old story represents a critical principle, for me, of the spiritual life. The kind of god we believe in will determine, very much, the way we behave in the world. People who believe in a loving god generally try to be loving. People who believe in a forgiving god are generally forgiving. But people who believe in an angry god are generally angry themselves. People who believe in a punitive god are generally punitive themselves. People who believe in a discouraging god are discouraging. People who believe in an encouraging god are encouraging.

Which kind of God do you believe in this morning?

My first impression of the gospel parable from Matthew this morning always shocks me. I am accustomed to think that the “Master” in this parable represents “God.” Maybe we all make that assumption. And so I am shocked that the God I believe in call would call a servant “worthless” and throw him into outer darkness.  But I want to interpret this parable differently this morning; I want to claim something else about this parable. This parable is not about the Master! Instead, this parable is about types of belief, types of faith. One type of faith is encouraging and leads to fruitfulness. The other type of faith is discouraging.

Let me talk about this discouraging faith, as represented by the miserable servant. I am saddened by this guy. For I know this poor fellow who received the one talent, and who was so afraid, and who hid the talent in the ground. This poor fellow who received the one talent is the person who believes in a fear-provoking god, a stern and rigid god, a god who makes people afraid, a god who whose grasp is so tight that one is afraid to take risks in life.

While the first two servants, who had received the stewardship of five and two talents, are out trading and investing and making their talents profitable, this third servant is absolutely miserable. He cannot risk this small talent, this tiny resource which has been entrusted to him.

He is afraid that he will fail. He is afraid that he will be exposed to the world as an inept, inefficient, and generally useless fellow. Deep down, he feels worthless. Thus, when others say harsh things about him, those words agree with his innermost feelings: "You are lazy. You are not conscientious. You cannot think. You are a disgrace."

He believes those words. And the more he believes those words, the more they come true. For, again, the way we believe about ourselves is the way we act in the world.

What a tragic parable this is! When this poor and bedraggled servant arrives with the one hidden talent, he actually declares his creed, his statement of belief: “Master, I knew you to be a hard man,” he says. That’s what he believes! And, thus, the master he believes in has no mercy. His kind of master tears into the servant and fulfills exactly what the servant feared. Yes, the master is a harsh man, reaping where he does not sow. Yes, the master takes even this one talent from the poor servant and orders the servant to be cast into the outer darkness. The master behaves in exactly the way the miserable servant expects the master to act. The servant, in his mind, expected the master to be harsh and mean-spirited, and so the master was.

The way we believe about God will be the way we experience God. If we believe God to be harsh and mean-spirited, God will be.

I daresay there is not one person in this room, including myself, who has not felt afraid, like this third servant. Given what we feel is a small talent anyway (what's one talent compared to our neighbor's five?), every one of us has had occasion to just give up. “Why don't I just take this talent and go hide? I'll bury the talent in the ground so it will be safe, and I won't have to risk anything.” We've been afraid before.

I believe that our fear is directly related to our sense of community. Those who do not belong, somehow, to a caring and trusting community, are usually those who are afraid. On the other hand, those who accept community, and who are willing to be vulnerable to that community -- because they trust it --  are usually able to gain courage over fear.

We learn, most of us, the value of a trusting and caring community very early in life. When we began to walk on two legs, we trusted those hands which held us up. And when those hands let go, urging us to go on, we still trusted that voice. We fell, but we knew we could also continue unashamed. We were vulnerable, but we were loved and cared for. We were thereby given courage to take risks.

But we have grown up hearing a myriad of other voices. Somewhere along the line, maybe the voices we gather around us grew harsher and more uncaring. Maybe folks around us lost confidence in us; then we lost confidence in ourselves.

When we act out of our fear and anger, then what we say usually becomes true. Our resources look very meager indeed. Others do strike us as mean-spirited. The master does act harshly and impersonally.

Today, friends, we are called to be part of a community which overcomes fear. We are called to be part of a community which trusts, and loves, and blesses each other.

Yes, we are called to be a blessing community, blessing one another with words of courage and care. It does take courage to live in this world; it does take courage to risk our resources and talents. It takes courage to be vulnerable and trust others with our weakness. That courage can come only from the deep inner belief that someone loves us. God loves us.

Ultimately, the third servant is wrong. His talent is not meager and unsubstantial. The master is not hard and mean-spirited. They both turned out that way only because that is what the servant deeply believed. The way we believe affects the way we act! What we believe affects our talents! What we believe affects our experience of others!

But he is wrong, that third servant. Someone does love him. And it is up to us, the community of faith to prove it. Will we bless and encourage the servants around us? Are we a blessing to those people we say we love? Will we take our place in this blessing community, the Church?

This Church exists to tell the world that the Master is not harsh, that our gifts are not meager. Our God is not harsh, and our gifts are not meager. The Church exists for blessing and encouragement.

This is why so often St. Paul exhorts his churches to encourage one another. He urges encouragement to the Thessalonians in today's epistle reading. The Church exists for encouragement. "En-courage" said St. Paul. Put people "in courage"; don't put them in fear. "Encourage one another," he said, "and build one another up."

Encourage, and every one of our talents will multiply in joy. In courage, every one of our talents will multiply in joy!


AMEN.

20 April 2014

SUPPOSING HIM TO BE THE GARDENER?

(a sermon for Easter Sunday, 20 April 2014! see John 20:1-18)
 Alleluia!

You!

You are a beautiful sight to behold! Seeing you this morning is like seeing the resurrection of Jesus!

Actually, the first person to see and behold the resurrected Jesus was Mary, Mary Magdalene. And what a sight that must have been! Imagine seeing Jesus standing right before you! Imagine what you would feel like, when you –and everybody else—knew that Jesus had died, that he had been enclosed in the grave; and then, suddenly, he was standing right before you. Imagine the heavenly light you would see, and the divine joy pumping your heart!

But No. The Gospel of John is very clear that this was not the scenario in which Jesus appeared to Mary. Mary, who was the first witness to the resurrection of Jesus, did not actually recognize Jesus.

What?

Yes, Mary looked up on that first Easter morning and saw Jesus there, but she mistakenly thought he was the gardener. She has a conversation with him, “supposing him to be the gardener” (John 20:15).

How in the world did that happen? How could she have not recognized Jesus? She had been with him for several years, very close to him. (Some have speculated too close to him!) She might have been the one to have washed his feet with her hair. Mary was as close to Jesus as anyone. How in the world did she make that mistake?

One of my favorite paintings of the resurrection is a painting by Rembrandt, which shows this very scene. There is Mary, weeping in the early dawn. And there is someone with her, but it doesn’t look like the Jesus we usually see in religious paintings. When I have shown the slide of that painting to my classes, out of the blue, it is very rare that someone identifies that other person in the painting as Jesus.

They don’t recognize Jesus because Rembrandt painted him wearing a large broad-brimmed hat, a sun hat! And he is clearly carrying some sort of shovel, a gardening spade. He looks like a common ordinary gardener in the painting, just as Mary Magdalene is said to have spotted him.





Yes, Mary mistook Jesus for the gardener on that first Easter, and how could she have made that mistake? She had travelled and ministered with him, maybe for three years. She had witnessed Jesus’ behavior in both hard times and easy times.

She had admired Jesus tenderly picking up children just like … well, just as tenderly as he might be coaxing a young seedling from the ground. She had listened to Jesus carefully explain some stories just like ….well, just like he might be tilling and preparing good soil. In fact, many of Jesus’ stories were about the soil, and seeds, and vines and weeds and rocks.

Yes, that has to be the reason Mary saw a gardener before her! She had witnessed Jesus being a gardener throughout his ministry! Mary had seen Jesus tear into people, especially the Pharisees, just like a gardener might tear into some overgrown thicket, cutting away the old growth. Mary had seen Jesus cut into new growth, too, training and trimming the branches that were his disciples.

Mary thought Jesus was the gardener, because Jesus is a gardener!

I have a friend who is a delightful gardener. In one of my classes last week, I asked people to share a moment recently when something good had happened to them. My gardener friend shared her simple and wondrous surprise as she went outside to check on her garden after the winter cold, to see what was coming out of the ground. She naturally did not know which plants would make it, and which would not. But then, she began to recognize her old plants, one by one emerging in the Spring ground. She exclaimed, personally, to each one, “Oh, you made it!”  “Oh, you made it!” She was delighted at each new sprout.

Her remarks reminded me of the line that Tom Key uses in his musical, Cotton Patch Gospel, the musical drama shaped by the New Testament translations of the Georgian, Clarence Jordan. In that musical, after the pain and suffering of crucixion and death, suddenly there is Jesus on stage, resurrected and back to life. And he is smiling! His smile is as broad and delightful as a Spring flower. In fact, his smile is one of sheer astonishment itself. Jesus himself is surprised at his own resurrection, and the first words out of his resurrection mouth are, “Hey! It worked!” (It sounds wonderful when Tom Key says it!)

Gardeners get delighted when life blossoms forth from the ground. In the garden of life, there is no one more delighted than Jesus when life springs forth. Jesus wants to delight in us today. The gardener Jesus wants to see us grow.

Yes, Jesus is a gardener. It is Jesus who is the one tilling and turning soil in our lives. Sometimes that tilling is painful. He digs into us. He breaks up dirt clods. He turns over the earth below and exposes it to the sun. Those activities are not always comfortable for us.

But if you are having some earth turned over in your life, and if you thought it was just a hindrance, a burden, an obstacle, maybe you are mistaken. Maybe you are mistaken like Mary was mistaken. Maybe the plowing in your life is being done my Jesus. Maybe it’s the gardener Jesus plowing up new soil.

Jesus is the one who plants new seeds in our lives. And sometimes we don’t recognize those seeds. The plants that emerge are unknown and strange to us, and often frightening. Again, don’t be mistaken. Those new seeds might come from Jesus.

And Jesus weeds, too. He casts out weeds and pests just like he casts out demons and illnesses. That’s why Mary thought he was the gardener; he had cast seven demons, seven pests, from her own life!

Jesus is the also the one who cuts back dead limbs; he prunes. Hey, sometimes what is being pruned looked perfectly good to us. What is that, some kind of mistake? No, it isn’t a mistake. It is Jesus. It is Jesus, pruning, grooming you for new life.

Yes, for new life. That new life confuses us just like it confused Mary on that first Easter morning. She mistakenly identified Jesus as the gardener, just like we mistakenly identify the sources of weeding and pruning and tilling and turning in our own lives. We think those travails come from somebody else, or something else.

No. The source of that tilling and pruning is Jesus. It is Jesus cultivating, and preparing you and me, for new life. Jesus is not content merely to be resurrected by himself. Jesus is preparing us for resurrection, too.

Mary, the first witness of resurrection, did not recognize Jesus at first. She remained confused until something else happened, when a holy moment occurred. That moment was when Jesus spoke her name to her. He called her by name. He said one word, “Mary.”

That is when the glory occurred! When Jesus called her by name, she knew that he was the one who had cast out demons and pulled out weeds in her own life. He was the one who had loved and coaxed new seeds out of the ground of her life. He was the one who had pruned her life into shape. Jesus was the gardener, out watching the soil in the Spring, ready to call each new plant by name as soon as it poked its sprout out of the ground. Jesus knew her personally!

Jesus calls each of his new plants by name, and he delights – he delights! – when  we emerge from the darkness of the earth! Jesus says, “Sam!” and “Mary” and “Billy” and “Bubba” and “Juan” and “Maria” and “Mohammed” and “Fatima” and “Chang” and “Ying.” And he calls every single one of us by name.

Jesus knows us like a gardener knows us, like a holy gardener who tends to resurrection in the Spring, like a gardener who knows that seeds don’t die when they slip into the ground and into the darkness of the grave.

Whoever you are, and whatever you have been going through lately, Jesus speaks your name this morning. We may look like the same old people this morning. We may look like we did last year or last season.

But we have been transformed. We have been turned and tilled. We have been weeded and pruned. We have been transformed in these past few days, when we were blinded by crucifixion pain at noon, when we slept in the darkness, and when we wept in the early dawn. When we fall into the ground, we live!

Yes, I am delighted this morning by Easter, delighted by the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus lives! But my delight pales in comparison with the Master Gardener, Jesus the Gardener, who is even more delighted with the resurrection that occurs in each of the plants in his garden.

God wants to share Easter with us today. God wants to delight in us, we who pop our heads up out of sleep and darkness and winter this early morning. “Welcome happy morning,” age to age shall say, and God says it, too.

“Hey, you made it!” “ Hey, it worked!”

Welcome! Christ is risen! We are risen! Alleluia!


The Very Reverend Samuel G. Candler
Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip


20 March 2014

A FRIEND OF THE DEVIL IS A FRIEND OF MINE

(a sermon for the First Sunday of Lent, 9 March 2014)

“After he was baptized by John, Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” 
–Matthew 4:1

I know that rock music is not a bad thing, just like I know that alcohol is not necessarily a bad thing. But sometimes, people have to give them up for a while. Some folks have to give up alcohol for Lent, or maybe forever. For me, it was rock music. I had to give it up for a while.

One year, I actually gave away all my rock music albums, because they were controlling me. Some of you know that I also play music; I once played piano and keyboards for all sorts of music. But way back then, I stopped playing rock music for a while.

Only gradually did I resume the old songs, when my life was steadier. But there was one song, one song in particular, that I never played. Many of the bands I played in knew the song. They all played it. But I did not. 

In fact, I did not start playing that rock song until only a few years ago, when I actually played it at a Shrove Tuesday Mardi Gras party. The song was by a great old band called The Grateful Dead. What a name, right? 

Maybe, by now, you know the name of the song I am referring to. It’s called “Friend of the Devil.” The chorus goes like this: “I set out running but I take my time; A friend of the devil is a friend of mine.” It’s really a great tune, but I refused to sing it. How could a Christian sing that? I could not bring myself to say that a friend of the devil is a friend of mine.

Then, on the First Sunday of Lent, I read this gospel again, from the fourth chapter of Saint Matthew. Those of you who show up for church every First Sunday of Lent surely know the story. It is the story of Jesus, being led out into the wilderness by the Spirit, where he was tempted by the devil, for forty days.

Here is what I realized that year. In the space of forty days, Jesus and the devil developed quite a relationship. Not that they didn’t know each other already. But they sure got to know each other as Jesus went on a forty-day retreat of self-examination and prayer and contemplation. 

I hope we all know that the devil is not the long-tailed fiery-red creature we see caricatured. The devil does not sit upon our shoulder with seduction and a pitchfork. We know that the devil does not fit all those stereotypes. But, on the other hand, most of us do not imagine either that the devil might just be a rather healthy conversation partner.

When I read this passage from Matthew, this marvelous passage of Jesus’s conversation with Satan, it seems to me I am hearing the conversation between two wise and cagey spiritual sages. I think I am hearing two veteran rabbis, two religious scholars, swapping bible verses, and making points with each other.

Listen to them! The devil says, “Hey, you’re hungry; that’s a natural need. Turn the stone into bread.” Jesus responds with a citation from scripture, “One does not live by bread alone.” Point, counterpoint. They are having a religious debate.

Remember, the devil uses scripture, too. He responds with his own biblical reference, “The bible says that God will command his angels to protect you; throw yourself down from the temple, and let God save you.” And Jesus, again, makes the counterpoint; “it is written, do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Finally, the devil takes Jesus to see in an instant all the kingdoms of this world. They apparently belong to what Satan represents. “Worship me,” Satan says, “and all this will be yours” Apparently, that is not a lie; the devil has real power in the kingdoms of this world. Jesus again responds with a reference from scripture: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

This conversation is a spiritual debate. The suggestions of the devil were actually legitimate suggestions. After all, they would not have been temptations unless they made sense! “Earthly sustenance; making sure that God loves you; and material satisfaction.” Those are the legitimate offers.

The first temptation: Bread. One always needs bread. One always needs food and earthly sustenance. But my sense of this first temptation was that Jesus was being tempted to exploit his power.

Each of us has some position, some power, even the very least of us. And each of us is tempted to use that power for our own appetites. What do we want at the moment? Do we really need this or that? The tyranny of the urgent tempts us to exploit our power for something less than God.

Sure, Jesus was hungry. He had fasted forty days and forty nights. But he did not need food in that time of anxiety. He didn’t need a new car, or a new set of clothes, or a new house, or a new church, or a new loaf of bread, or a new cup of coffee, or a new something else. He needed the steady humility of the Word of God.

The second temptation was to turn the tables. The second temptation was to tempt God. I especially sense this temptation in our world today. Let’s just see whether God really likes me. Let’s just see whether God will protect me. Let’s just see. 

Oh, if it’s not God we are testing, then we are sure testing one another, aren’t we? We are sure testing each other’s love. Let’s just see if she loves me. Let’s just see if he notices that I have changed. Let’s just see if they really care.

Is that your temptation today? To put others to the test? Who are you putting to the test? Your spouse? Your lover? Your family? Ah, your school, your church, your country? Watch out: chances are, the person we are putting to the test is the very person who loves us the most.

Jesus said, “Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

The third temptation was to use the kingdoms of this world for material satisfaction. There sure are a lot of kingdoms in this world. I belong to a lot them myself. I belong to a family, for instance, and to a neighborhood. I belong to good and honorable institutions; they lay a claim on me. I volunteer at all sorts of wonderful organizations. I belong to a city and pay taxes here. I belong to an honorable and incredible country and pay taxes to it. 

These are kingdoms, and they are very fine ones. But none of them is worthy of our worship. Jesus says, “Away with you Satan! Away with you, you tempter. It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’” That is the great commandment. Our ultimate devotion is God alone, our ultimate allegiance. Every other reality, even the best of them, is only secondary to this great God, the God above all. That’s the way Jesus answered the third temptation. And as soon as he did, “the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.” Yes, Jesus faced down his Tempter. And when he did, the grace of angels appeared.

I imagine that Jesus and the devil knew each other quite well. They knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They probably knew what each other was going to say. Jesus knows the devil. On another day that they were not having an argument, one might think they were friends.

Many of the great depth psychologists, the great psychoanalysts, follow Carl Jung’s advice about knowing our shadow side. “Get to know your shadow side,” they say. “Get in touch with your dark side.” To put it simplistically: get to know your dark side so that it doesn’t jump up and surprise you. Get to know your dark side so that you don’t act out on those urges subconsciously. Maybe even make friends with your dark side. 

In other words: get to know the devil. Maybe even become friendly with the devil. Take forty days, and go out into the wilderness. Stop your usual patterns of life, and explore who you really are for a while. That’s what the forty-day wilderness experience was for Jesus. That’s what the forty days of Lent are meant to be for us.

For a long time, I could not sing the song, “Friend of the Devil,” and “A friend of the devil is a friend of mine.” I let Jerry Garcia sing it. 

But I do sing it these days. I sing it very seriously. The person who has been through the wilderness is someone I trust. That person is a friend of mine. The person who has got to know his dark side, his weaknesses, his vulnerabilities, his sins: that man is a friend of mine. A person who has become friendly with temptation and trial: that person is a friend of mine. The person who has battled through point and counterpoint in religious contests: she is a friend of mine. A friend of the devil is indeed a friend of mine.

Yeah, like Jesus. Jesus is this very sort of person. Jesus is a friend of mine.

AMEN.


(a sermon for the First Sunday of Lent, 9 March 2014)

04 March 2014

YOU ARE THE ASHES TO GO

For the past several years, some media outlets have used “ashes to go” as the most interesting thing they could find when they looked for an angle on the news that people might actually read or watch. “Ashes to go” has come to be the name given to that practice whereby some priests, on Ash Wednesday, have not only imposed ashes upon the foreheads of those who come to church, but the priests have also gone out to the streets and sidewalks of their communities and offered the imposition of ashes to anyone walking by who desired it.

The practice is fine with me. I find it neither astonishing nor irreverent, nor even unadvisable. If it works to spread some part of the Christian gospel, that is a good thing. In light of the continuing coverage of Ash Wednesday people, however, I want to suggest two things to Christians, and to anyone, who is drawn to the latest story.

One suggestion is this: Let us, the church, be careful about allowing other organizations to tell our story, especially when those organizations –some media outlets—merely want to check off the “Let’s see if the Christians are doing anything new or titillating this year” box. The way the ritual is administered is not the most important thing.

Which leads to my second suggestion: On Ash Wednesday, the real “ashes to go” are not the ashes themselves; the real ashes are the people. The real ashes are us, those of us who take the time, even if only for a moment, to acknowledge that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

Whether we receive our ashes in church or on the street, whether we even accept the name “Christian” or not, I urge us to see ourselves –not the ashes—as the most important sacramental sign of Ash Wednesday.

A holy Lent begins with humility, which is a deep word. The word “humility,” comes from the Latin word, “humus,” which means, of course, “organic earth,” or “dirt.” I think humus is actually “good dirt.” For Christians, to be humble does not mean getting stepped on like a doormat; it means being “down to earth” like good and honest soil. Humility means being real, being authentic about who we are, not thinking more about ourselves than what we really are. Humility means being the fertile soil which allows great things to grow.

The ash smear on our foreheads, then, is not designed to be a media spectacle. It is a reminder to us that we are to be in the world as humble people, people of good dirt, fertile people who have something honest to offer the world.


Indeed, Ash Wednesday people are supposed to go out into the world, not so much with ashes, but as ashes. Something wonderful happens around us when we lower ourselves, when we trust our true selves and not some exalted notion of ourselves. What happens is that the real gifts of the world, and the people around us, actually come alive and grow. When we become fertile for others, then others grow and flourish! This year, then, let us ourselves be the “ashes to go,” the “good dirt” sent into the world so that others may grow.