Sunday, September 30, 2007

Sanctuary: A Sermon on Psalm 91

Psalm 91
September 30, 2007

A funny thing happens to you when you become a minister. Actually, it started happening to me long before I darkened the marble cloisters of The Best Seminary in the World. People started asking me to pray a lot. You know, grace at the potluck supper, an invocation to open a meeting… things like that. And much of the time, I have to be confess, I ended up sounding a lot like Whoopi Goldberg’s character in Sister Act. You remember this story. She plays Deloris, a night-club singer on the run from murderous mobsters, and she ends up hiding out in a convent. When asked to pray on her very first night at the nuns’ evening meal, the brand new “Sister Mary Clarence” says,

Oh. Yeah. Yeah. I can... I can do that. Uh. Sure.
Uh. Bless us. O Lord,
for these Thy gifts which we're about to receive.
And. Yea. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of no food,
I will fear no hunger.
We want You to give us this day our daily bread...
and to… the republic for which it stands…
and by the power invested in me.
I pronounce us ready to eat.

To which all the nuns politely respond, “Amen.” You may have noticed that there is a snippet of a psalm hiding out in Sister Mary Clarence’s otherwise nearly incomprehensible prayer, the smallest fragment of Psalm 23. And if I had thought about it, back when I was a nervous public pray-er, I would have realized that all the prayers I could ever need were right there, in just about the center of my bible: the Book of Psalms. Every day, all over the world, people open their bibles and prayer books, and they pray the psalms. And there is a very good reason for that. The psalms present us with a panoramic view of the human condition. In the preface to his five-volume commentary upon the psalms, John Calvin says this:

I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;” for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men [and women] are wont to be agitated.

No matter the emotion we are experiencing… whether that be joy, rage, fear, doubt, sorrow, a sense of national pride, a sense of betrayal… no matter what it is, Calvin seems to be promising us, we can open the psalms and find that emotion mirrored somewhere. And this tells us something powerfully true and vitally important to the spiritual journey of every one of us: here scripture tells us that we can bring to God in prayer the people we truly are, with all our chaotic jumble of human emotions, and not merely idealized versions of people we are hoping and striving to be. The psalms constitute our invitation to get real with God. To get real. To be who we really are. So I invite you to join me as we enter the world of one psalm, Psalm 91, and explore this one snapshot of a very human relationship with God.

Imagine something with me. Imagine having a sense of confidence in the protection of God so that is complete, so thorough, that nothing could ever cause you to feel fear again. Imagine facing the challenges and even the dangers of life with a glorious sense of joy and peace and well-being. No worry, no anger, no anxiety can penetrate the mantle of peace that surrounds you. When you pray, the words of this psalm rise naturally to your lips:

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,

will say to the Lord,

“My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” ~ Psalm 91:1-2

This is the kind of assurance many of us are quietly hoping to find in our religious faith: something to equip us, to help us to meet the challenges of our lives in a way that is both confident and joyful.

Now imagine that you feel all these things even as your country has been invaded and you are living under the occupation of a hostile, enemy superpower. Imagine feeling this even though your political and religious leaders have been killed or carried away to far-off lands, your family has been split up because some of them have, likewise been carted off. Imagine feeling all this when your Temple, the place you call your religious home and that of your ancestors, has been reduced to rubble, despoiled, desecrated.

This is the exact situation of the writer of Psalm 91. This is a psalm from the time of the Babylonian Exile, when all the conditions I’ve been describing were facts of daily living. The leaders of the people had been carried off into captivity. Families had been torn apart. The Temple, so lovingly built by King Solomon, had been destroyed, its lavish appointments desecrated and scattered and taken into the Babylonian treasuries. The sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, the place that was believed to shelter the very presence of God, was no more.

And yet, some Hebrew poet/ musician was moved to write these words:

“My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”
Those who love me, I will deliver;

I will protect those who know my name.

When they call to me, I will answer them;

I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honor them.

With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.
~ Psalm 91:2b, 14-16

How do we even begin to reconcile these disparate realities? On the one hand, we have the joyful confidence of the singer of the psalm. On the other, we have the terrible reality of the life he or she was faced with at the time of exile. And we don’t have to have lived in the time of King Nebuchadnezzar to have an understanding of exile. We have only to open the paper or watch the evening news to be reminded of very real situations of exile. Since 2003 as many as 2.5 million people have been displaced from their homes as a result of the tribal and military conflict in Darfur. And there are other kinds of exile people experience… people like us… when we feel estranged from family, from friends, when we need to leave our homes, exile, even, from our own bodies, when we feel they have betrayed us through the processes of aging or disease. Terrible, painful things happen to good people. Surely the composer of the psalm, of all people, knew this. How is the lyrical joy and confidence of the psalm a possibility? How does one get from there… the world with all its cruelty and danger… to here… peaceful contentment dwelling in the shadow of the Most High God?

I think one key lies in that word, “sanctuary.” When the psalmist talks about “living in the shelter of the Lord,” or “abiding in the shadow of the Almighty,” it is a reference to the sanctuary, the innermost part of the Temple, the place where God’s very presence was believed to reside. It was an ancient tradition that individuals fleeing danger were able to hide in safety in the sanctuaries of temples…there are stories in our own scriptures as well as in the history of Europe, and even, in recent US history, in which political refugees were hidden in the sanctuaries of churches, temples, synagogues. Remember that astonishing scene in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” when Quasimodo snatches the gypsy Esmeralda from the flames (and you know, the Romani people still live in exile all over the world, even right it our midst), takes her to the top of the cathedral, and cries, “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!” The holy place of God, it was hoped, was a place that no soldier dared to defile.

But soldiers become daring, and they dare to destroy holy places, and then believers look at the rubble and realize something. They realize that the holy place, the temple, or the church, the mosque, cannot hold the presence of God… it never could. They realize that the presence of God needs a more dependable dwelling place… and that dwelling place is, strangely, fragile, breakable human flesh. Paul says, in his letter to the church in Corinth, “Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?”

There is a praise song, 25 years old by now, but a perennial favorite all the same:
Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary, Pure and holy tried and true With thanksgiving I’ll be a living, Sanctuary for you.

If our bodies are the sanctuaries of God, then we can begin to get a tiny glimmer of understanding about the confidence of the psalmist. We can begin to fathom why she or he can sing, “You will not be afraid of the terror by night, or of the arrow that flies by day” (Ps. 91:5). We are taken beyond the realm of physical well-being and comfort to the place where Job arrives, when he says, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God…” (Job 19:25-26). If the psalms are an invitation to get real with God, the writer of Psalm 91 has arrived at a place of real relationship. It is the deep maturity of one who trusts God, even while his or her flesh is failing. It is the knowledge that a God who inhabits human flesh is a God who will not fail or leave us, even when our flesh does. It is the knowledge that, holy and beautiful though our sanctuaries of stone and mortar might be, God chooses to live still more intimately with us, God is our refuge, even as we, mysteriously, shelter God within us.

There is another possibility of how the psalmist makes the move from terrible reality to joyful confidence. And, frankly, this is the one to which I cling. It is possible that the words of the psalmist are a kind of glorious attempt at self-help, self-coaching, self-talk. It is possible that the psalmist is just as frightened as any of us might be at the terrible circumstances of life in exile, as some of us are. But the words of this psalm are a vision of what might be, and as long as the psalmist can keep singing them, that joyful confidence begins to seep in, and eventually, claims the ground of reality.

One psalm. Psalm 91. One snapshot of a relationship of maturity and grace, or perhaps of one poet’s attempt to envision the joy that has fled and make it a reality once more. Maybe this psalm is part of the anatomy of your soul, maybe it tells your story. Maybe not. As I’ve already said in my newsletter article this month, I want to extend an invitation to you to join me in reading all 150 psalms through the month of October. It’s not as hard as it sounds: 5 psalms a day, one upon rising, one each at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and one before bed. Spend a whole day with psalm 119, because it’s mighty long. But throughout the month, I invite you, explore this treasure of a prayer book right in the middle of the bible. The story of scripture is our story. The prayers of the psalms are our prayers. The sanctuary of God is within us. Find the psalm that speaks to you, the truth of your life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


For nearly four weeks my office has been lined with framed diplomas, photos, artwork, plaque-mounted memorabilia, and one very beautiful wall hanging made for me by a friend when I was ordained. None of these things was on the wall, mind you. They were propped around in places where I hoped not to injure them in my comings and goings.

Last night, in the half-hour before a Worship committee meaning, I hanged* many of my favorite things. I am so excited. It's starting to look like me in there.

* My daughter tells me, most emphatically, I mean "hung." OK then: I hung 'em.

Image: Rev. Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping, Copyright Fred Askew Photography

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Taking It Personally

I have just been flamed in an email by a woman I know casually, because I am on the board of an organization that, to put it simply, told her, sorry, no. As in, no, the work you are doing won't work for us. (There's an application process; some are accepted and some are not). And I was the spokeswoman for the board, and said no as graciously and kindly as I knew how, AND invited her to resubmit with other work, gave her suggestions as to what we were looking for.

And I have just read an email that made me flush with anxiety and anger. She accuses me of lying to her (I did not). She says over and over she is fine, she is a big girl, but her fury made my hair stand on end.

I thought it was about the work. She seems to have thought it was about her.

This is a common problem for all of us, in every walk of life. Take pastors. We can be told a sermon is too long, too short, not quite right, and absolutely perfect... all at the same coffee hour. That alone should help us not to take things personally. But damn, it is hard sometimes.

There is someone on the governing board of my new congregation who seems depressed. In fact, I would say this man functions like a black hole for the energy in a room: everyone else pours out copious amounts of energy trying to make up for this man's absorbing and disposing of it. (This is a first impression. I am ready and willing to change my mind.) Today someone told me this man doesn't believe women should be pastors.

Oh! That could have something to do with what I'm picking up, if he's sitting there stewing or having an existential crisis over my very existence.

After I heard this I decided to walk a couple of blocks to the post office. It was such a beautiful, balmy day... not many of these left, of course.

As I walked I thought about this man, and wondered whether he is having an existential crisis over the presence of the congregation's first installed female pastor (moi). I wondered if I might be causing him to rethink all that (because of, you know, how I rock and all). Then I wondered if the information I had been given was even true. I am becoming sensitive to the presence of the odd axe.

20 minutes later, my walk over and time for lunch, I decided it's too early in our relationship for any of this. I decided to not let the person who told me this ever do anything like that again. I decided, this time, to try not to take it personally.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Petra Reacts to the Sermon

"Great sermon Mom! But hey, who doesn't love being the voice of God?"

Shrewd Maneuvers: A Sermon on Luke 16:1-13

This sermon owes a deep debt of gratitude to Sarah Dylan Breuer's Lectionary Blog (see sidebar).

“Shrewd Maneuvers”
Luke 16:1-13
September 23, 2007

Think for a minute and remember with me, what it was like as a child to be… caught. Caught in a bad or thoughtless or careless act, one which resulted in damage, hurt. Let’s take the classic example: Janie is up at bat in a sandlot baseball game. She swings, gives the baseball a nice, hard smack, and it sails through the neighbor’s window, smashing it to smithereens. Let’s think of excuses together… you know we’ve all done this. What might Janie say, when questioned by her mom or dad or even the irate neighbor? She might say…

~ What baseball?
~ Tammy did it.
~ The sun was in my eyes.
~ It’s this new bat.
~ I didn’t see the house there.
~ A bird grabbed the ball and dropped it through the window! I saw it!

You get the picture. The child who is confronted with her own guilt can be incredibly creative in trying to wiggle her way out of it. She is persistent. She is relentless. She is single-minded. Hopefully, as in every sitcom from “Andy Griffith” to “Two and a Half Men,” she learns a lesson about honesty in the end. But her natural impulse… all our natural impulses, at first… is probably to try to stave off the inevitable.

Which brings us to today’s parable from the gospel of Luke. I must say, this may just be the world’s least favorite parable of Jesus’… that is, if the chatter among preachers is any indication. And I have to admit… in terms of looking for life-lessons from the gospels, the parable of the dishonest manager is not promising. Let’s look at the essentials. A rich man has a manager who is in charge of all his accounts, and his manager is cheating him. Charges are brought to the rich man. Evidence is marshaled against the manager. The rich man, understandably irate, summons his manager and says, in effect, Game over. Bring me the books. You are out of here.

The manager has been caught. And he has been caught, not in a thoughtless or careless act, but in a long-standing pattern of bad acts, dishonest behavior and thievery. Like Janie, he immediately begins to think, to try to imagine what to do next. There is a crucial difference between Janie and the dishonest manager, however. All Janie’s responses demonstrate that she knows she has done something wrong, something that might incur some kind of punishment. The dishonest manager begins planning to manage his punishment, and gives no sign of remorse or acknowledgment of the nature of his actions. He knows he is about to lose his job. But he also knows that he is too physically weak for manual labor and that he is too proud to become a beggar. So he decides to enlist the goodwill of the community by going to all those who owe the rich man money.

If we had only read up until this point in the parable, we might imagine the ending to be something like this: the dishonest steward decides to come clean, and asks those with whom he did business for loans so that he can repay his employer. Or, the dishonest steward decides to do one honest thing before departing, and collects all his employer’s debts. Or, the dishonest steward forgives the debt of someone who owes him money, thus impressing his employer with his generosity and humility. We might imagine an ending like one of those… something that shows the possibility of grace, forgiveness, a change of heart, a change of path.

Jesus offers us no such thing. Jesus offers us an ending that is worthy of a David Mamet play, of the back room at the Ba Da Bing. The manager goes to all those who owe money to the rich man, and essentially aids them in stealing from his employer. They cut every bill in half, forgiving significant portions of the debts of the whole town by the sound of it. By bringing the debtors in on his crime, the manager ensures that they are now in his debt. As he puts it, “I have decided what to do, so that… people may welcome me into their homes.” You bet they will. They owe him.

At this point, the hopeful reader is waiting for Jesus to tell us why this is the most despicable thing imaginable, and that the manager will now be cast into the outermost darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth—or at the least, that he will be plunked down in the county jail for a spell, so that he can think about what he’s done.

Again, we are out of luck. Instead, Jesus returns to the rich man who is… impressed. He is impressed with what his manager has done. He slaps him on the back. He congratulates him on his shrewd maneuvers.

I think this is a terrible parable. I do not want to teach this parable to my children or to yours. And do you want to know something? Luke thinks it’s a terrible parable, too. Why else would he offer explanation after explanation? He sounds like Janie, stammering out her excuses for the smashed window… well, here’s what happened. Actually, this is what happened. No, really, it was that. I challenge you to make all these statements agree with one another. First, he has Jesus say, “… the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of the light.” Then he adds, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Then he offers something that seems to completely contradict the parable. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?”

There’s more. He ends up with a saying that is familiar to us, from another story in Jesus’ life where it seems to make more sense: “You cannot serve both God and wealth.” Well, I would give an “Amen” to that. But I don’t actually think that is what this parable is saying at all.

This parable is useful to us in several ways. One way it is useful is that it is a pretty revealing example of the words of Jesus making people so uncomfortable that even the gospel writer is scrambling to make sense of them. These are what we call the “hard sayings” of Jesus. I believe that what is most likely is that Jesus truly spoke the parable, and then gave either one explanation or none. That is the Jesus we know from the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke: Enigmatic, concise, encouraging us to figure it out for ourselves.

Here’s another way in which this parable is useful. It disabuses us of the notion, once and for all, that Jesus always says things that are nice. He most emphatically does not. He says things that are true. He says things that are challenging. He says things that are downright painful, even scandalous. But he almost never, ever concerns himself with being nice.

All the evidence gathered thus far would seem to suggest that this is not a nice parable. It is a nasty one. It is about a crook who gets caught, and not only does not reform his ways, he actually continues to steal as a way out of his self-made dilemma, and then wins the admiration of his victim. What on earth is Jesus talking about? What and how can this story teach us?

It has been said that scripture is like a beautiful gemstone: we hold it up to the light, we turn it and turn it and see the various facets, shining, glowing. We see different colors, clarity as we turn it. Here is what I see this week.

The manager does at least two things that are worth our notice. First, he displays a kind of single-mindedness that might be considered admirable. He attacks his problem with a kind of logic and determination that, in the end, appear to solve his problem. Remember Jesus’ words: “… the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of the light.” Jesus respects the single-mindedness, the whole-heartedness with which the manager deals with his dilemma. And he contrasts it with what we might guess is the half-heartedness of the “children of light.” That’s a phrase that was used in the early days of Christianity to refer to followers of Jesus, also called “followers of the way.” There is something in the manager’s actions that Jesus wants the children of light to follow, to imitate, to emulate. I don’t think it’s the stealing. I do think it’s the relentless pursuit of an objective… but what objective?

That brings us to the other thing the manager does. One commentator I read this week posed this question, and offered this answer: “Q: What, precisely, is it that the [manager] does, albeit without authorization and with deception? A: The [manager] forgives debts.” The commentator goes on:

The [manager] forgives. He forgives things that he had no right to forgive. He forgives for all the wrong reasons, for personal gain and to compensate for past misconduct. But that's the decisive action that he undertakes to redeem himself from a position from which it seemed he couldn't be reconciled…

So what's the moral of this story, one of the stories unique to Luke?

It's a moral of great emphasis for Luke: FORGIVE. Forgive it all. Forgive it now. Forgive it for any reason you want, or for no reason at all.

The manager forgives debts. It doesn’t much matter in Jesus’ mind why he forgives those debts, or that he had, in a very real sense, no “right” to forgive them. The manager engages in relentless, single-minded, laser-focused acts of forgiveness. It doesn’t matter why, it doesn’t matter how. He forgives debts. He probably ends up reconciling a community… the rich man now has the goodwill of all those people who owed him all that money.

I said earlier that this was not a nice parable. I stand by that statement. Forgiveness is not nice. Forgiveness is not easy. If we have been injured, if we have been hurt, if what we have to forgive is anything substantial at all… we will not find forgiveness nice. Look at the rich man. He has a laugh at the end of the day… significantly poorer at the hands of the thieving manager, and he forgives him. Look at the thieving manager, forgiving right and left though he has no right to do so, relentless in his pursuit of forgiveness.

What would it mean for us to be relentless in our pursuit of forgiveness? What would it mean for us to have a kind of single-mindedness about forgiveness? It kind of makes you shudder, doesn’t it? I don’t know about you, but if I haven’t forgiven someone a grievous injury, or even a casual slight, it means I don’t want to do it. So a relentless pursuit of forgiveness would involve something pretty distasteful to me: forgiving when and where I don’t want to. And sometimes God seems to speak to us loudly about these things.

Years ago I had a pretty unhappy parting with an employer. I wasn’t the thieving manager, but I was the unhappy camper who couldn’t work in an unhealthy environment any more, and I quit my job. And I want to say that leaving that job was the first step to my finding myself on the path to ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA). So I know that leaving was the right thing for me.

But I held on to my anger. About half a year later someone I didn’t know gave me an unexpected gift: two beautiful, handmade Russian Pysanky eggs. All the stranger specified to me was that I should give one of them away. I discussed this with my daughter, who was 5 at the time, and already a repository of deep wisdom. Without pausing, she said, “You should give it to…” and she named my ex-employer, my nemesis, the woman who’d made my life miserable for two years. “Uh, that’s a nice idea,” I said, all the time thinking, “Yeah, right.” I didn’t give my former employer the egg. And you know what? A few months later a man working in my home knocked both eggs off the shelf, smashing them to smithereens. And I looked up at the heavens and said, “OK. I hear you.”

Forgiveness is not nice. It is not easy. I cannot claim to be a flawless practitioner of it, or an expert of any kind. But God expects us to be relentless in our pursuit of it, so much so that Jesus tells us uncomfortable terrible parables to goad us into it. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Dateline: Big City U

Larry-O has got a part. In a play. At the greatest acting school in the greatest city in the country.

I'm not too excited about this.....!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Where I Was

I slept through September 11, and I was actually in New York City.

That may be an overstatement. Judge for yourselves. Here are the facts:

On September 10, 2001, I was back in NYC for my second year at the Best Seminary In the World (back when its motto was "The Church's Rule-Breaker for Over 150 Years"). I was a hard working student in seminary. I was older than many of my classmates, and I was (and always am) absolutely enthralled with the learning process. So I wasn't partying hearty... mostly. But at the beginning of the semester, the night before classes began, it seemed like a nice opportunity to let down my hair. So I went to the pub (loosely defined) and had some wine with my good, good buds. And I think I shot some pool (reeeeeeeeallly badly). And I went back to my room and probably surfed the internet for too long. So I probably collapsed into bed at about 2 AM.

In the morning I was able to sleep in... no classes for me until the afternoon. I did notice an awful lot of sirens, though, and the sound of fire trucks barreling down Broadway. It was loud, really loud. Finally at about 10:45 AM I walked out of my room to find my roommate and her 24 year old daughter sitting, stricken, in front of the TV. I could see their faces, though not the TV screen.

My roommate said, "We're under attack."

I think I said "What?"

She continued, "Planes have been flown into both towers of the World Trade Center, and both towers have collapsed."

I paused, then looked at her and said, "I'm still dreaming. I'm dreaming."

She said, "I wish you were."

It was only then that I walked far enough into the room to see the screen of the little TV, with its endless loop of the impacts of the planes, first one and then the other, and the collapse of the towers, first the other and then the one. I ran to the shower, where I sobbed loudly for about two minutes. I wondered whether my children were afraid, so far away at home... were they thinking I was in danger? I wondered about my (then) husband. Would he be angry if something happened to me as I pursued this calling to ministry?

As one, the entire student body and every staff faculty member-- the whole seminary community-- migrated to the chapel, where we prayed and sang songs of lament for several hours. People from the streets wandered in, looking for a place to pray, and we welcomed them into that mourning community. As the impromptu service ended we poured out onto the streets to join the long queues at the hospitals, opening our arms to give blood that was never needed. As we did ash started falling-- even where we were, 6 miles uptown from Ground Zero. Bits of charred... we didn't know what, exactly. Paper, fuselage, bone. It fell around us. It settled in a light layer on the seminary quad.

The city was shut down, and shut off from everything. The bridges were closed, the tunnels were closed, there was no way out and home for those so inclined.

Over the next weeks, I witnessed a tenderness among my fellow New Yorkers (because I was no longer a commuting seminary student, you see, I was a New Yorker). We looked at one another instead of looking away, on the buses, waiting for the subway trains. We looked at one another with tenderness and love, and thought, "We have been through this thing."

Mine is not one of the big or important September 11 stories. I was just one of 9 million people who lived, who saw.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Church in Your House: A Sermon on Philemon

A few random thoughts about this morning:

We had communion. Remember about the triple warnings about the decency and order crowd? I must have taken that to heart, big time, because I awakened in a semi-panic at 3 AM, 5:37 AM, 6:41 AM... each time, obsessing over the service.

It wasn't just communion: we also dedicated our teachers this morning, using a lightly adapted resource from the denomination. There were also announcements vital to our ongoing lives together, Rally Day festivities, Petra's Birthday!!!! (That last was not observed at Church). So I had many pieces of paper, many things to keep in my head, and not my favorite sermon I've written. But one that was mmmK. I was a wreck on the inside, reasonably energetic and upbeat on the outside.

And it was all fine, all was well, and all was well, and all manner of thing was well. Phew.


“The Church in Your House”
September 9, 2007

It’s not often on a Sunday morning in a Presbyterian Church that we have the ability to read an entire book of the bible. But that is just what we have done this morning, in reading Paul’s letter to Philemon. It’s the shortest book in all of the Christian scriptures, but it’s packed with information about what life was like for the earliest Christians. It is a little jewel. And it seems appropriate to me for a season in which we have homecomings all around us—homecomings in our schools, and on this day that we call Rally Day, but which really functions as a kind of homecoming in our church. This is a day when, after a time of being more scattered and distant in the summer months, we come together once more. We affirm that this is our home.

The earliest followers of Jesus didn’t have beautiful churches such as our own, this one hundred year old treasure in which we meet, have Sunday School, worship God and share the sacraments. The earliest followers of Jesus had no church buildings. But they had homes, and that is exactly where the Christian community gathered… in ordinary houses, places where people ate and slept and made love and fought and made up. In these homes they would gather, mostly, around tables. The heart of their worship was sharing the Word of God in scripture and witness, and fellowship around a table.

I’d like us to stop right there and ponder: what would that be like? Maybe there are people here who already know the answer to this question because you have participated in small groups that met in homes for prayer or bible study. What does it feel like, when church comes home? When you sit down for breakfast at a table that had bibles open on it the night before, or at which people were served the Lord’s Supper? How does it feel to study scripture in a room where you had a massive fight with your spouse or children just a few hours ago? What does it feel like when the dirty laundry of our lives… literally and figuratively… is on display for the community of faith? This was the only church the earliest Christians knew. This was the way church was done. Church and home were one, with no boundaries between them.

The greeting of the letter tells us several things about Paul. First, he is writing from prison, or perhaps under house arrest, probably in Rome. Second, he is not alone… he tells us that Timothy is with him, his companion in spreading the gospel. And third, he makes it clear that he knows Philemon, Apphia and Archippus, the ones to whom the letter is written. These three are leaders of a house church. It is their home in which the Christians of their community gather each week. And it is their home from which a slave named Onesimus has left. We don’t know how or why he left, but we do know that, for a time he was a member of the household, and now, at the writing of the letter, he is gone… or, more specifically, he is with Paul. And from Paul’s letter we can infer that the parting was unpleasant, or difficult, or perhaps even illegal. Maybe Onesimus ran away. Maybe he had good reason to run away. We don’t know the details. But we know that he has gone, and he needs help returning.

Paul knows something else about Philemon, Apphia and Archippus. He knows some fundamentals about them, some basic principles that he values highly: he knows that they have shown love for “the saints and faith towards the Lord Jesus.” The translation I read in the Message is slightly, subtly different, “I keep hearing of the love and faith you have in the Master Jesus, which brims over to other Christians.”

As for Onesimus, we don’t know exactly how he and Paul met each other. Maybe the fugitive slave came to Paul for help in reconciling the situation with Philemon’s household. If so, he made a good choice, because listen to how artfully Paul negotiates this delicate situation.

Paul is fully aware that he is an authority figure to Philemon and company, to the members of this house-church. He could easily order them to do the right thing by virtue of his status as an apostle of Christ, and he would know with some certainty that they would obey him. But he doesn’t do that. He makes a request. He makes it graciously. He shows trust in them, in their faith and love. He simply states the fact that, now that Onesimus is a fellow believer, he is a brother in Christ over and above any other relationship that existed in the past. Rather than playing the heavy, Paul reminds Philemon of the debt every one of us owes to God… and he leaves it at that. He says, “Do me this big favor, friend… I know you well enough to know you will… You’ll probably go far beyond what I’ve written.” By the sounds of it, Paul apparently thinks Philemon and family will not only welcome Onesimus back with open arms; they will probably give him his freedom as well.

Paul is trusting here that Philemon and his household are capable of taking a fresh look at themselves and their relationships through the lens of their faith. Paul is talking about the kind of thing that happens when our faith comes home. He is talking about how people behave when they allow their lives and their relationships to be transformed by their faith. On this Rally Day, I wonder how those of us who are entrusted with the task of teaching might allow our faith to come home to that relationship. Talk to a good teacher… or better still, ask a student to tell you about a good teacher, and you will invariably hear things like, “She really cares about her students,” or, “He always makes time for us.” The teachers who make a lasting impact are the ones who transcend their role, who are not simply dispensers of knowledge, but are, in fact, whole human beings with and for their students. Those of us entrusted with teaching on matters of faith find our teaching is transformed when our love and faith in the Master Jesus brims over to others.

What would it be like, if our love and faith in God were able to brim over into all parts of our lives? What would it be like for us as mothers, children, fathers, siblings? What would it be like for us as employers or employees? What would it be like for us as members or chairs of committees, or matriarchs and patriarchs of the church? What would it be like, if all our relationships, partnerships, marriages, memberships were transformed by that love and faith, brimming over into every nook and cranny of our day-to-day existence?

As Paul wrote to Philemon, Apphia and Archippus, with greetings and news and requests for gestures of mutual support, so we in our modern day Presbyterian Church reach out to one another. Sometimes we even do so by writing letters. You may not know that each week our Wonderful Executive Presbyter sends a reflection in a newsletter to all the churches in the Presbytery. I would like to share some of her words with you, from this past Thursday’s edition. She writes:

Dear Friends in Christ

It’s here! September is back! As congregations begin another year of church school, prepare for the Fall activities and look forward to Advent, it is a good time to ask the questions, “What is it that we are doing and why are we doing it?” It is really easy to be busy with activities and sometimes lose the spiritual significance of our activities. Believe me, I know this! I have experienced this!

I invite you to focus on your spiritual life together as congregations and individuals. Where do you hear God’s still, small voice? Then, where do we hear God’s still, small voice together as a larger community of faith?

I believe God is calling us all to a time of discernment throughout the church. And, we are called to discern together. How do we do this? What is required of us? For the next couple of weeks, I would like to focus on discernment and then look forward to seeing you at our next Presbytery Assembly!

Grace and peace,

Wonderful Exec

What is it that we are doing, and why are we doing it? Where do we hear God’s still small voice, both as a congregation and as a part of the larger community of faith? How do we bring our faith out of the sanctuary and into our homes and community? How will our lives be transformed as our faith in Jesus Christ and our love of one another brim over into all our relationships? These are all excellent questions as we begin our time together, pastor and congregation, getting to know one another. These are all excellent questions for us this morning, as we gather around this table, joyfully trusting that God has sustenance for us, that we will be fed, body and spirit, in this church that is our home. Amen.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Maternal Instincts: 1

I have been getting up every morning to walk with a good friend. It is getting to the point where I miss it if I don't do it... it makes me feel wonderful, sets me up for a good day physically and psychologically.

Today I decided to stay home. It was Petra's first day of high school.

It was a good move. My very bright, reasonably organized daughter lost her schedule. She also lost her key (with which she let herself into the house last night). She had a mini meltdown. Then she said. "I'm sorry Mom, that I've been so... you, know... this morning." She said this with an earnest, plaintive gaze and tone.

I love this girl. She is off, with a healthy lunch she made herself, the schedule (Mom found it) and a key (Mom's key). She got into a car with BFF and NIB (Best Friend Forever and Nearly Invisible Boyfriend... though he does kind of look like Harry Potter), and BFF's dad drove them off into a brave new world.

I love this girl.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Jan Asked

... "How was your day?"

I started the day with a walk. Always good.

I met the secretary. She is cool... high energy, new to church work, has never worked with a pastor before, so I told her we will learn everything together.

I met the pre-school director, ever so briefly. She was wearing adorably crisp three-quarter length summer trousers, and has spiky hair. We will sit down soon.

I met the treasurer, and both the maintenance man and the sexton (not sure how the jobs are divided up). Everyone was eager to chat, in some cases to put in a word for this or that position on a slightly contentious issue. (Issue #1: There is a "Staff Only" bathroom, which I find a bit embarrassing. I mean, really? Do we need to cling to our privilege even unto the john? Anyway, things have gotten a bit lax, what with the Senior's Group preferring a bathroom on the same level as the room where they meet, and so... don't I think we should put a lock on that door, so that just the staff can use it? "Uh, nah, it's ok, I mean... nah." What a gospel witness was there.)

I did my bulletin for Sunday. I was warned, double warned and triple warned that "people are pretty particular about Communion." A real decency and order crowd exists, evidently. Shoot. And I was going to try the Fries and Coke communion this month.

I started to empty my 16 gazillion cartons of books into my shelves. As I looked at my titles, I thought, A), "How I've missed you my darlings!" (they've been cooling their heels in my hallway, rendering the front door nearly impassable); and B), "I am so liberal someone is going to literally have a stroke reading my titles!" To wit: "The Muslim Jesus." "God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality." "Sexuality and the Sacred." "The Five Books of Miriam." I might be too liberal for me.

I changed the message on the church answering machine (actually, the secretary did that, I just wrote up the copy).

I ate the healthy lunch I packed for myself.

I called all the people I hope will be on my installation commission, and they ALL SAID YES!

I also called my accountant to tell him, Hallelujah, I'm working, what taxes do I pay this month?

I raced off to a Presbytery committee meeting.

I got home approximately 12 hours from the time I left. I'm spent. But I'm so, so excited.


My pencils are sharpened. My new black patent leather shoes are shiny. My bookbag is packed. My lunch is packed.

I'm going to the office!

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Place of Honor: A Sermon on Luke 14:1, 7-14

“The Place of Honor”
Luke 14:1, 7-14
September 2, 2007

After we reach a certain age, I think we can all point to moments in our lives when we have been in one of these situations: situations wherein we are called upon to “play the game.” Which game? The game of prestige, honor, status, position… whatever you want to call it. And, oh my, it starts early, doesn’t it? Jostling for position on the playground, the terror of waiting to be picked for teams at kickball, the moment when the person we think is our best friend turns their back on us ever so slightly to sit at the table with the “cool kids”… of whom we are, most decidedly, not one! Or, even if we are the cool kids, the constant vigilance we are called upon to keep that status, the subtle signals we are always striving to receive with our still-developing antennae, the strain of knowing one wrong move could cause the whole house of cards to come tumbling down on our heads.

Perhaps I exaggerate. But I don’t think so. Years ago I met a young man on a train who talked about his experiences—still fresh in his mind—of interviewing for a job with several prestigious law firms. He had deduced that one of the ways of playing the game applied to the rules of ordering food in restaurants, when he had a lunch or dinner interview. He noticed that there was often a culture of food that expressed itself on these occasions … everyone ordered salads, or everyone ordered fish, or everyone ordered sandwiches. He felt it would be a good idea to take care to order something similar, to signal that he was able to blend in with the culture of the firm, even to the food he ate.

One time he was with a group of attorneys who took him to a steak house, and proceeded to outdo one another in ordering the biggest, most impressive pieces of meat. When it came his turn, the young man ordered prime rib with horseradish. As the meal progressed, he continued to pick up signals that there was a definite culture of toughness and, for want of a better word, manliness, at work around the table. As they asked him questions he became more and more convinced that he needed to do his best to appear manly and tough.

The food came. He cut a big piece of prime rib and slathered it with horseradish. He put it in his mouth. And just at that moment, one of the lawyers asked, “So, Dave, tell us why you are looking at a firm so far from your home.” And at that moment, tears sprang into his eyes, because he had a mouthful of horseradish. He spent the next several minutes trying to wipe away what was now a stream of tears, to choke down the food in his mouth, and to convince this table of tough guys that he was not crying at the thought of leaving home. He did not get an offer from that particular firm.

When I look at this week’s gospel text, it’s hard to believe Jesus isn’t in some sense telling us how to play the game. Jesus is at a dinner party. Someone has said that, in Luke, “Jesus is always going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal.”(1) And here we have one of those passages. Jesus is not only at a dinner party, he is at a dinner party thrown by a “leader of the Pharisees,” who would be one of highest of the elite of the religious establishment. At least that’s what the scholars think. And while he is at the party, Jesus takes note of the way in which people are jockeying for position, seeking to have the places of greatest honor around the table.

Let’s take just a minute to envision the table around which the guests of the Pharisee are sitting. In Jesus’ day, in Palestine, tables at a feast were low to the ground, solid blocks, in the shape of a “U.” All the guests would recline on low couches around the table. At the bend of the U would be the host, in this case, the Pharisee. The place of greatest honor would be the seat immediately to the host’s right. The next place of honor would be immediately to his left. The next would be the second seat to the right, and so on, until we reach the places of least honor, the no man’s land of the outermost seats at the end of the legs of the U. (2)

The kind of scene which Jesus witnesses and which Luke describes was apparently pretty common. Apparently, people who were eager to get a better seat—and they would, typically be those with less status, the more common people, those who were absolutely thrilled to be invited—they would arrive earliest, and try to judge where it would be safe to sit, in order to avoid the humiliation of being asked to give up the seat for a greater luminary. On the other hand, the Really Important People would and could arrive as late as they liked… fashionably late, making a grand entrance, and confident that their host would boot anyone who had been so foolish as to take the seat that was rightfully theirs. (3)

It was a brutal arrangement. And the insults didn’t end there. Letters written at the time talk about what we would consider a shocking difference in the quality of the food between those in the places of honor and the rest of the table. The host and his honored guests would get the elegant dishes, the choicest morsels, while the rest of the table got food that reminds me of that old joke—“This food is terrible.” “I know! And such small portions!” (4)

Jesus watches all this. And he offers advice to the guests in the form of a parable, according to Luke, but guess what? It is an adaptation of a few verses from Proverbs. It always helps to remember that Jesus is a Jew, steeped in scripture, and he offers that scripture for the consideration of his fellow guests. In Proverbs it says:
Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble. ~ Proverbs 25:6-7

To be put lower in the presence of a noble. To be seated at a table in the cafeteria all by yourself while the cool kids laugh at another table nearby. To feel that you’ve made an utter fool of yourself in front of the people you were hoping might hire you. Humiliation. Jesus watches as people set themselves up for the risk of humiliation. And you know, I think his heart goes out to them, he has compassion for them. So, apparently, Jesus offers advice on how to play the game. Right? That’s how it feels at first glance. The way to get honor is to humble yourself. The way to be invited into the better seat is to take the worse seat.

Only, Jesus goes a step further—many steps further—in his words to the host. As we hear these words, we realize that Jesus isn’t advocating playing the game… Jesus wants to see an end to the game entirely. He turns to the Pharisee and, to my mind, does two things. First, he gently reproaches him for offering the playing field for the game in the first place. After all, the Pharisee is the one who has invited people of varying social ranks to a feast, he is the one whose guests are, apparently, a little bit panicked about where they will sit. He is the one who, by inviting all those guests, will undoubtedly receive lots of return invitations… and, given his position as leader of the Pharisees, he will surely be in the place of honor at all those feasts. Jesus calls him on this: the hidden agenda of the host, the desire to be the center of attention at his own dinners and at the others to which he is invited. Jesus calls upon the host to stop the game altogether.

The second thing Jesus does is to offer a truly radical alternative. Jesus says, forget your usual guest list. Forget the “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” usual way of doing things. Do something entirely different. Invite those of no social rank whatsoever, those entirely without the means to return the honor with an invitation of their own. Jesus urges the Pharisee to invite the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame, those whom no one invites.

It’s hard to overstate just how shocking this suggestion is. There are religious communities in Jesus’ day where those very people, the poor, crippled, blind and lame, are specifically not permitted to enter the place of assembly. The reason for this is that they are all considered to be ritually impure. (5) Jesus is addressing a Pharisee. The Pharisees, with their hyper-vigilance regarding the laws of ritual purity, would be appalled at the presence of these people. Money is required for the offerings at the temple in order to be made pure. Therefore, to be poor in Jesus’ day means to be in a constant state of impurity. To be crippled, blind or lame is a guarantee of poverty… therefore, Jesus is encouraging the Pharisee to invite precisely those people whom he probably spends his days avoiding. If the Pharisee takes Jesus’ advice, he will certainly become ritually impure himself by virtue of his contact with these people. (6)

As I said, Jesus’ suggestion is radical. Jesus is taking a hard look at his society’s notions of honor and shame, who’s in and who’s out, who’s up and who’s down, and he’s turning it all on his head. Here’s who you should have at your dinner parties, he says: the people you least want to see in the whole world. Here’s how to be exalted, he says: try finding yourself a quiet little spot at the very bottom of the heap.

Of course, as I’ve already said, Jesus isn’t advocating playing the game at all. Jesus is offering us a vision of a fresh start, a new world, one that has nothing to do with the game. Jesus is offering us a vision of a table at which no one has a place of honor, because everyone is in the place of honor. It is a completely circular table filled with most honored guests, because it is God who extends the invitations.

There is glorious good news in this passage. There is glorious good news for everyone who has ever felt like the proverbial fifth wheel. There is glorious good news for all who have felt the sting of humiliation, from the lunchroom to the boardroom. The glorious good news is that the table is open, and every seat at the table is a place of honor.

And there is hard, challenging good news in this passage. There is hard, challenging good news for those of us who have been sure we knew who was on God’s A list or B list (or Y list or Z list!). There is hard, challenging good news for those of us who have enemies… people we can’t stand, whether they are in our families, in our offices or in the newspapers. The hard, challenging good news is that the table is open, and every seat at the table is a place of honor.

And there is heart-stirring, exciting good news in this passage. There is heart-stirring, exciting good news for everyone who has ever belonged to a community of faith, or longed to belong, or who is even mildly curious about the whole enterprise of religion. There is heart-stirring, exciting good news for everyone who has great hopes of a genuine journey of faith together, for you and me, as we set our feet on this new path. The heart-stirring, exciting good news is that the table is open, and every seat at the table is a place of honor. Good people of My New Home Church, honored guests, and those who can’t hear me, beyond our doors: the table is open, God has invited each and every one of us. Every seat is a place of honor. Amen.


1. Robert J. Karris, Luke: Artist and Theologian, Luke’s Passion Account as Literature (New York: Paulist, 1985), 47.
2. William Barclay, The Parables of Jesus (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1970), 213.
3. Ibid.
4. Letter of Pliny the Younger, quoted in R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. IX (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 286.
5. Op. cit., 287.
6. Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again For the First Time, Ch. III.