Thursday, October 28, 2010

Down on Our Knees

Pentecost 22, October 24, 2010
16-18, Luke 18:9-14

A week and a half ago the world watched with awe as thirty-three Chilean miners were rescued one-by-one by a little caged capsule that looked remarkably like a suspended egg. The images caught on camera were iconic.

One man jumped around in glee and led the onlookers in a Chilean cheer. One playfully balanced a soccer ball on his foot. One dropped down to his knees and began to pray. The world took a collective breath and watched in silence as the man prayed. Even the reporters stopped talking and the silence allowed us at home to pray with him.

The praying miner’s picture was in the New York Times the next morning and you can see this surreal moment frozen in time. Mario Gómez, bent in prayer, with the empty egg cage swinging behind him. The onlookers bow their heads and appear to pray with him. A few of the workers sneak a look at Gómez with big grins on their faces.

It was a beautiful sight. Seasoned reporters were speechless and had tears streaming from their eyes. Mario Gómez was the oldest of the miners and was suffering from pneumonia. The day of the rescue operation he had begun to hear loud explosions in the shafts surrounding him, and feared another cave-in was imminent. He began to have panic attacks, growing more certain that the rescue operation had come too late.

There is no telling what was in his mind when he opened the door of the rescue pod, but we saw that he was unable to get off of his knees without help. His wife rushed over to him and lifted him up to meet her embrace.

I’d like to use this moment to help us understand what is important about today’s Gospel reading. Something momentous happens to one of the men in the parable. The Pharisee and the Tax Collector – a story we’ve heard so many times before we think we know what it’s telling us:

“Don’t be full of pride like the Pharisee, and gloat over your own accomplishments. But be humble and prayerful, like the tax collector. Beat your breast for good measure. And then you will go home justified by God.”

But we know from experience that nothing Jesus teaches, especially in his parables, makes sense at face value. If we think we know the lesson then it is not doing its job.

The parable works by poking and prodding us to change our habits. Everything Jesus teaches, especially in his parables, is designed to make us squirm uncomfortably and recognize that we have a lot of work to do.

We must look deeper into this little parable to see what is so important that Jesus has to teach this same lesson throughout Luke’s Gospel. Keep your focus on the tax collector. He is the one whose example we are to follow and whose words mimic those of Jesus and his followers.

The tax collector cries out, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner!” He knows that the money he collects from the poor goes directly into the hands of the oppressor. In order to feed his family he must break Jewish law. He is caught in a no-win situation. Be merciful to me!

In the Beatitudes, Jesus teaches, “[You must] be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36)

From Mary’s Magnificat we hear: “And [God’s] mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation. “(Luke 1:50)

From the Song of Zechariah: “And you, Child, through the tender mercy of our God…will give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, [and will] guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79)

From the parable of the Good Samaritan: “Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?" The answer? "The one who showed mercy on him." And Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise. (Luke 10:36-37)

Our mercy is to match God’s mercy. We receive mercy, so we must give mercy.

Shortly after this Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, Jesus passes a blind beggar who cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Told sternly to be quiet, the beggar cries even louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Luke 18:38, 39)

The blind man who is reduced to begging is able to see the Son of God for who he really is. Jesus rewards him by giving him his sight and declaring that his faith has saved him.

Lord be merciful to me, a sinner!

We are to understand from all of these stories that God desires to give us tender and abiding mercy, but first we must yearn for that undeserved mercy as if it is the only thing worth living for.

The God of Luke’s Gospel is a God of mercy, who comes to his people to set them free from oppression, poverty, blindness, illness, and death. If you think you are doing just fine and are self-sufficient, you have no need of this merciful God.

The Pharisee is a parody of the God-fearing Jews, just as he is a parody of the 21st Century Christian who knows she is on the winning side. And I’m not talking about Christine O’Donnell.

The Pharisee says his prayers. We say our prayers. He fasts and tithes. We fast and tithe. He goes to the temple. We go to church. He pays his taxes and sends his children to school. He is a righteous man just as we are righteous.

But Jesus doesn’t come to save the righteous. So how can we be saved if we can’t get down on our knees once in a while and admit that we mess up? It’s really not a very politically correct thing to do. But is exactly what Jesus asks us to do… again and again.

It is the theme of the Lord’s Prayer. Give us this day our daily bread, we pray, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. We beg for mercy as we promise to give back mercy. God forgives. We forgive. It is the breath of God that wants to breathe in us.

It could be a daily practice or a moment-by-moment attitude of prayer.
Lord be merciful to me, a sinner! These words are an ancient breath prayer. A prayer short enough to say in one exhalation. If we learn nothing else about the Gospel we can be assured that we have the main idea with this one prayer.

And how does it interpret itself within us? Well, let’s see, I forgot an appointment with a friend. I forgot to thank my mom for the card she sent me. I didn’t give God the credit for the beautiful day we had yesterday. I forgot to be grateful!

Lord be merciful to me, a sinner! We all mess up. We can learn to have an attitude of humility. But it takes practice and perseverance.

People in 12-Step programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous, are asked to “take a searching and fearless moral inventory” of themselves and then admit to God, and another human being, the exact nature of their wrongs.
Only then do they ask God, humbly, to remove their shortcomings.

Alcoholics know, as few others do, what it means to be completely unable to stop a behavior which is killing them and ending all their relationships.

Remarkably, it is through this practice of confessing their faults that so many alcoholics achieve sobriety. They take the focus off of themselves and focus intently on the God who can save them.

Lord be merciful to me, a sinner!

Our own Episcopal liturgy emphasizes the tax collector from today’s parable. Listen to this excerpt from our Rite One Eucharistic prayer:

“And although we are unworthy through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses, through Jesus Christ our Lord…”

Priests are taught to mimic the tax collector’s beating of the breast as they say these words, in order to remind the people of the Parable of the Tax Collector.

The intent of this Eucharistic prayer is to accept our responsibility as frail human beings. What do we really have to offer to a God who gives us a gift as eternal as Jesus? What can we give to a God who gives us everything we need?

It is certainly not a recitation of our merits (not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses.) All God wants of us is to see us as we really are – every bump, pimple and faux pas.

As we open our hands to receive the bread and the wine we are opening our hands in a gesture of helplessness. Like hungry baby birds we admit how frail we are and we seek to be filled with the abiding grace of God.

“Show me who you really are,” says God, “and I will love you with tender and abiding mercy. Your faith in me will save you. But you need to get the clutter out of the way. Admit how frail you are, and then you will crave only mercy.”

God knows, this is not something the human race is very good at. Jesus told this parable to those who trusted in themselves and regarded others with contempt. (Luke 18:9)

That could be our congress. But we are the ones sitting here and struggling with this story, so we need to keep the focus on ourselves. We can save congress for another day. What should we take home with us from this parable?

I know that when I catch myself sounding arrogant, or bragging about my own accomplishments, (like the Pharisee) I can always find a trace of fear. I boost up my struggling sense of self-esteem by listing my accomplishments. It’s childish and silly, but I do it all the time. I brag because I am afraid that I am not good enough.

It was in the convent that I really learned how to catch these moments and let them rise up to the surface so I could take a good look at them. Convent life is good for that. I hated what I found. It made me feel small and petty and immature.

It became the most difficult task of all just to sit and feel the remorse and embarrassment of blowing my own horn and not to try to fix it or make it go away.

This was brand new behavior. I had never practiced feeling healthy remorse for anything I’d ever done. I grew up in a family where shame was used to punish. Healthy remorse was not a skill I possessed.

What allowed me to sit and feel the remorse of saying something stupid and self-centered was the conviction that a loving God desired a freer life for me. The more I could practice admitting my own shortcomings the more
I was ready to receive the grace that was offered to me. This was not toxic shame, but honest remorse.

God wants us to grow into the image that is reserved for only us. We can’t become free if we don’t see the bars that imprison us. The message we take away from the parable today is this: there is always an attitude of the Pharisee lurking about our happy-go-lucky face we shine on the world.

Find your inner Pharisee and drop him down on his knees. Let him feel a touch of remorse and then share the Good News with him. Christ came to set us all free (including our inner Pharisee) and to prepare us for the tender mercy of God.

Mario Gómez had nothing to offer his God. He was a skinny shell of his former self. Ravaged by starvation for the first seventeen days after the cave-in, the miners were allowed to eat only liquid diets until their bodies slowly remembered how to absorb nutrients again.

When people are in life-threatening situations they begin to exhibit certain predictable behaviors. You see your life flash before your eyes. You see how inevitable death is for everyone. And you vibrantly appreciate what life has given to you up to this moment.

With months spent in the damp, hot darkness of the desert subfloor, the miners had time to reflect on their lives. Their desire to come back to their lives someday in the future forced them to cherish the things they had taken for granted before the ground gave way.

We could all sense their awe and gratitude as they were set free from their underground grave. They were born again and we yearn to feel the same release. We are hard-wired to be born again. But we can’t get there without an attitude of complete surrender to God’s mercy. It takes practice. But I thnk we can accept the challenge.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Travelling Along the Way

Pentecost 6, July 4, 2010
Galatians 6:1-18, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Deborah Magdalene, OSH

When I was a speech therapist in California I travelled from one school to another with my bag of toys and games and my charts of goals and progress notes. I also made house visits. The objective was to teach the parents how to play with their children in a way that encouraged more language and better speech.

I was not always well received. In fact, most often the parents saw me as a free babysitter who would play with their children long enough for them to escape into a soap opera.

But I remember one family who not only stayed in the room to watch me work with their little boy, but offered me food and gifts. This was a very poor family of Hmong immigrants who had been living in Laos for generations after being forced out of China.

The Hmong are a travelling people, used to roaming the mountains because they were systematically persecuted and driven away from any established settlement. They have no written language of their own, and depend upon an elder in the family learning Mandarin so that they can know what is going on in their world.

When Hmong families immigrated to Eureka, California the transition was very abrupt and complicated. But when I was in the home of my one Hmong family they were the ones who offered me their unique hospitality.

They had no furniture, but squatted on the floor and ate from bowls. They raised their own food, including a yard full of chickens, and they were not at all sure about our dependence on indoor plumbing.

Their culture drew me in as my play with their child drew them in. We made an exchange of trust, using pantomime and play as a universal language. I ate their strange food and they learned to play with their child.

Eventually we went our separate ways but the peace they gave me remains with me to this day. I think this is exactly what Jesus had in mind.

“Go on your way,” says Jesus, “to every town and place that I intend to go.” The operative word in this reading today is Go. The Jesus we meet in Luke’s Gospel is always going somewhere. He is on a journey. Jesus is constantly moving toward Jerusalem and inviting friends to either follow him or go ahead of him. It is a grand processional. And it is one that we all know will end in death.

Last week we heard the prologue to today’s reading. Jesus and his followers were moving along the road to Jerusalem when several would-be followers asked to join them.

“I will follow you wherever you go,” says one. And Jesus answers, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” In other words, to follow Jesus is to take up a new way of life – a life that is in constant motion, always moving toward the completion of God’s will.

Jesus then asks someone to follow him who says he must first go back and bury his father. But Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” To walk with Jesus is to join an urgent walk headed in only one direction – we’re going to Jerusalem. We are all travelling together toward Jerusalem. There is never any turning back.
Another hopeful prospect says, “I’ll follow you, but first let me go say farewell.”

And Jesus tells him that if he even pauses to look back he is not fit for the kingdom of God. Keep your eyes on Jerusalem and move, always move, toward the goal in Jerusalem. And what is it we see when we strain our eyes to see into the distance? Well, it is a cross. A transformational cross at is what is waiting for us.

Just as in our processional every Sunday, we move forward in song and harmony behind a travelling cross and toward the cross of our redemption. We are always turning and following the cross, wherever it leads. Jesus teaches us that the Kingdom of
God is not a passive, restful place, but a moving processional, gathering followers and building up strength through the love of Christ that we carry within our midst.

Jesus picks seventy of his choice followers – disciples who don’t turn back for anything but move as one unified body with, and for, and because of Christ. He sends them out, as he sends us out, moving ahead of him. This little phrase is extremely important. For the first time in the Luke’s Gospel Jesus is following his disciples. He is following them because they are now preparing the way for Jesus.

And that is our message. Two thousand years later we are still moving along “the way.” We are making way for Jesus, who we know without a doubt is coming. What happened long ago on a cross in Jerusalem was a death to sin once and for all, and the birth of a new way of life. We are walking the new way of life that has never stopped moving since the morning Mary Magdalene ran from the tomb and cried out to her friends, “He is alive!” To be a Christian is to move.

In Paul’s passionate letter to the Galatians he is very clear that we are to invite everyone to join our procession: this new way of life is available to all because Christ lived and died for all. It is an all-inclusive Gospel. We gather up followers from everywhere, and the only prerequisite is the desire to keep moving closer to where God wants us to go.

The big argument that Paul is refuting throughout this letter is whether each new Christian convert needs to become a Jew before he can qualify as a Christian. Now to become a Jew in the first century was a whole lot easier for women than it was for men. Paul was aware that the men who had bitten the bullet and allowed themselves to be circumcised were now bragging that they were the better Christians. This is why he writes so passionately against this kind of bragging.

And it wasn’t only bragging: these newly circumcised converts were also escaping persecution by fundamentalist Jewish Christians. If you refused to be circumcised and yet called yourself a Christian, you opened yourself up to criticism and persecution.

These persecuting Christians were a large group in the early Church. They argued that since Christ first came to his own people, the Jews, you could only become a true Christian by way of Judaism. Those who chose this way began to persecute the growing numbers of Gentile Christians – the ones that Paul dedicated his entire life and ministry to.

Paul argues that it is through our works, not private scars on our bodies, that we will be known as true Christians. We will reap eternal life, says Paul, if we do what is right and never give up. We are to work with gentleness for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.

Paul warns us that we are not to brag about what we have borne in our flesh, nor to persecute one another, but rather to “Carry one another’s burdens, [so that] in this way [we] will fulfill the law of Christ.” The only law that we need worry about is the law to love one another as oneself and to love God as Christ loved his Father God.

If we feel the need to boast we are to boast only “in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to [us,] and [us] to the world.”

These are powerful words that still carry a potent message for us today. Paul believes that the only thing we need to worry about is the new creation which Christ birthed into the world through his death, resurrection and ascension to heaven.
Paul says that this new creation is everything to us.

Picture us back in that processional with Christ. We are walking along the way, carrying one another’s burdens. That means we must listen to our fellow travelers with ears that don’t try to cover up the pain or, worse yet, to not really listen but instead mentally rehearse ways to fix real crises with easy solutions.

But it is extremely difficult to carry one another’s burdens when we all have burdens of our own. How do we share our own pain if we are staggering under the weight of other’s painful and heavy loads?

Paul’s answer to this dilemma is explicit: we are all to carry our own loads by testing our own work. This sounds like it is more work, but it is actually the way towards real freedom.

We test our own work by rigorously examining ourselves and by regularly confessing our sins against God and our neighbor. It is only through the act of self-examination and confession that we can let down the heavy burden of guilt on our backs and experience the freedom of forgiveness and new life.

But this is where many of us run into road blocks. I, for example, have huge trust issues. I have inappropriately shared my personal burdens with people who couldn’t listen, or who worse yet, used my confession as a tool to have more power over me.

I had to learn that some people are not safe, in spite of calling themselves Christians. Some that abused my trust were even ordained. This can be very confusing for those of us who are trying to build trust within a Christian community.

But thankfully, truth and wisdom are powerful magnets. In every Christian community that I have ever belonged to I have found people that were worthy of being followed and who could hold a confidence with loving compassion. We Christians are a mixed bag. If others are to know we are Christians by our love then we have work to do in our own communities.

A healthy Christian community depends on our ability to listen to each other and to honor one another’s journeys. We are to bear one another’s burdens by listening to them with compassion and understanding – without trying to hurry and fix it so it will go away. The loads on our backs are eased by being heard with the heart of compassion. We are supported by knowing we are not alone in our troubles.

There are some days when I find this particular part of my Christian call to be next to impossible. Where do I get the energy to support others with this deep sincerity when my own load feels so heavy?

Let’s go back to the Gospel for a minute.

The seventy disciples are sent out in pairs to prepare the way for Jesus. They travel in pairs so that there is always someone there to carry the other’s burden. No Christian should every travel the way alone. We desperately need each other to share and to care for the precious gift we carry together – our faith in a God of Love, who bears our burdens and sets us free.

The only time Jesus tells us to stop constantly moving along the way is when we find a home that receives the peace that we give them. Jesus says, “If anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not it will return to you.” This is the kind of peace I received from the poor Hmong immigrants.

In the first century, the church began in believer’s homes. They were called house churches. We are allowed to stop the constant travelling, take off our dusty shoes, and enjoy the fellowship of faith when we enter a house of worship.

Like the early church, we listen to our shared story in Scripture. And like them, we confess our faith in Christ, sing His praises, and join together in confessing our sins before we are free to receive the gift of the Eucharistic meal.

The travelers are finally allowed to rest in the knowledge that Christ is within us and among us, nourishing us for the journey that waits for us outside these doors.

We leave refreshed, and nourished with the knowledge that we have a home here. These is where we stop, every week, and share our peace with others who give us back more peace. Peace flowing like a river among us.

But this is not a passive, quiet peace. The peace of Christ is a lively spark that starts us moving again. We are sent out from the Eucharist to start the hard work of listening to each other and offering to carry another’s load for awhile. The journey doesn’t end until Christ comes again.

On this Independence Day we can be grateful that we aren’t persecuted for our faith. We live in a country that was founded on this belief: that all of us are created equal, that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

As a Christian, I would add to this declaration that our happiness rests in doing God’s will. The road we walk is a difficult road, but our life, liberty and pursuit of happiness depends on knowing that we are trying to please God through our actions of love with and among one another.

Lost and Found

1Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10
The Rev Deborah Magdalene, September 12, 2010

It’s an interesting exercise to take a look around our worship space and notice the images that are meaningful to us. Many of us have been coming here for years and are so used to this space that we have stopped noticing the particulars. We identify this space as our spiritual home. This is what ‘church’ looks like.

We sit here, or here, or over there, and from our particular vantage point we see various symbols of our faith. Much of the symbolic richness of this particular church has become comforting and familiar.

But what does a guest see? Try to see this space as if you are visiting St Alban’s for the first time. Mentally choose where you would most likely sit.

Now, find the image, symbol, or object that is most meaningful to you. Look over at the windows, look up at the altar, at the ceiling, the candles, the crucifix, look at the altar rail. Look behind you and see if you can find the baptismal font, or see the organ loft. Look at the doors, the pews, and the lights.

Find one image that stands out to you and really look at it. Then see what it has to tell you about your own faith. Why is this symbol meaningful for you? Why do you find it comforting, or enlightening, or central to your worship experience? What do you suppose this object has to say about what we do here on Sunday mornings? What would a Christian archeologist in the next millennium conjecture about your item as a relic? What does it say about your faith?

When we go back in time and look at the earliest images adorning Christian worship spaces we learn a lot about how they practiced their faith. We find some images that are familiar, and some that seem strangely out of place, and we notice the absence of many important symbols.

For instance, there are no crucifixes, and very few pictures of Jesus. There are altars, and baptismal fonts. There are frescoes painted on the walls, and beautiful handcrafted mosaics on the floors and walls. If we catalogue the images we find in the earliest Christian worship spaces we find several recurring themes.

There are many images of Jonah inside the whale – the important Hebrew Testament story that prefigures the three days Jesus was swallowed by the whale of death.
There are pictures of loaves and fishes – signifying the feeding of the five thousand – a central symbol for the Eucharistic feast.

Then we find the recurring image of a shepherd carrying a lost sheep on his shoulders. The belly of the sheep is resting against the back of the shepherd’s neck and his hands grasp the feet of the lamb to comfort and stabilize it for the ride back to the flock.

This image, so central to early Christian worship, is the theme of today’s gospel message as well as the pivotal energy behind the Apostle Paul’s conversion.

Lost and Found – the story of how we come to believe in a God who seeks us out again and again and again – never tiring of bringing us home to God. It is the rhythm of our faith. And until we learn to accept our various roles in the repeating pattern of the Lost Sheep story, the story so central to the early Christians’ experience of God, we will not fully grasp the power of being carried home to God.

At any point during our lives we can identify ourselves as the lost sheep; or maybe we are helping the shepherd to find the lost one; or, my own personal favorite, we are one of the faithful 99 sheep who is not happy to wait for the shepherd’s return but feels indignant, bent out of shape, and jealous that the shepherd abandons me in order to go off find that stupid sheep who wasn’t working hard enough to keep up with us smart, savvy, and grumpy sheep.

In the first letter to Timothy Paul writes of his own experience of coming home to God. Paul describes how he considers himself to be the foremost, or the most striking example of, a sinner. Then he tells of how Christ sought him out in order to bring him home to God. In fact, Paul says that the reason that Jesus came into the world was to save people like him.

Paul believes that he was found and brought back to God because of how far away he had strayed, because God had another purpose for his life, and because of how deeply incapable he was of finding his way home on his own.

Paul writes that he was the epitome of a sinner and, “…for that very reason [he] received mercy, so that in [him], as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making [him] an example to those who would come to believe in [Christ Jesus] for eternal life.”

In other words, if Jesus can bring that sorry sheep Paul home then he certainly can bring one of us home. Paul persecuted and stoned the early Christians, and did so with a hatred and self-righteousness that he will remember for the rest of his life.

But he does so with full confidence that he has been completely forgiven.

That is the point that Jesus makes with the parable of the lost sheep. The action of coming home to God is a process of gaining a right relationship with God. Paul was out of alignment with the God of his ancestors. To sin is to be out of alignment with God’s purpose for our lives.

It is in Paul’s complete acceptance of the tender forgiveness he receives from Christ that his relationship with God is restored. Paul writes, “I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”

This point is so important for our faith. When we go off and act out our anger in a hurtful and self-righteous fashion, we often do so in complete ignorance of how we can do otherwise.

Throughout my 18-year marriage I failed to protect my children from their father’s unpredictable outbursts of anger and abuse. At the time I felt as terrified and helpless as my children did. I didn’t know I had a choice.

I needed God to send a shepherd to find me and bring me home to a place where I could see the errors of my ways with the same compassion and tenderness that Jesus had for me.

I had been fueled by self-hatred and resentment for so many years that there was no way that a God who acted as a fierce disciplinarian would ever make any headway with me.

No, it was in the awareness of feeling forgiven for my ignorance that I wept for joy. Because of how long it took for me to find the Jesus who had been looking for me all along my long-awaited conversion was profound.

The moment I realized that I could learn another way of being in the world – that it was possible to learn how to make better choices in my life – was, and remains, the pivotal moment of my life. Like Paul, I felt profound gratitude that I didn’t have to act out of ignorance any more.

Luke sets up the parable by separating the Pharisees and the scribes from the inner circle.

The Pharisees and the scribes are not there to listen to Jesus. They are there to see for themselves that Jesus not only welcomes sinners, but he actually eats with them. They are the ones left behind, and they feel critical and judgmental about it. They came to judge, not to listen with their hearts.

This reference to a meal is code for the Eucharistic feast. It is the lost sheep who are welcome to join the Eucharistic meal in thanksgiving for being found, and forgiven, and carried home to God across Jesus’ shoulders.

The irony in this parable is the value of the one sheep when compared with the rest of the flock. Jesus explains that the 99 sheep are left completely on their own so that the shepherd can quickly go and find one lost in the rocks somewhere.

What happens to sheep without a shepherd? Don’t they wander in countless different directions, getting lost and confused without their leader? Aren’t they sitting ducks, so to speak, for wolves and predators?

Well, yes, that is exactly what happens. In real life it is crazy to endanger the lives of an expensive investment in living bodies of wool on the hoof. No one in the ancient world would leave 99 sheep to go after one. They wouldn’t do it today either. This story makes absolutely no sense to a crowd familiar with sheep behavior.

Unless the crowd understands that Jesus is talking about God’s kingdom this parable is foolish. In God’s kingdom everything is governed by different laws. In God’s world the shepherd knows that the sheep left on their own will be cared for and protected in the arms of God.

The Pharisees and scribes are the 99 sheep left behind because they have no need of God’s redeeming love – they already have it. They are already in right relation with their God, or at least they know the steps necessary to regain their right relation. They are always invited to confess their sins and turn to God. They do not need to be found.

It is the shunned, the ignorant, and the ritually unclean who have been excluded from God’s inner circle that need to be found and brought back into the flock.

When the early Christians heard this story they related to the one little sheep who was lost. Each of them had a story of being found by God and brought back home to the family.

God sent his only son to be the Good Shepherd – the shepherd who finds the most unlikely lost and forsaken sheep to bring back to the fold. It was this parable that became a symbol of the early Christian experience of being born again.

Instead of a processional cross and a giant crucifix behind the altar they were drawn to pictures of a beardless Christ, illuminated by a halo around his head, carrying one little lamb back to God.

The parable ends with an image of all of heaven rejoicing at the return of one little lost sheep. Included in that rejoicing is a great banquet that they will all eat together. Christians never tire of hearing this simple tale because it says so much about the joy of discovering you’ve been found and a feast is prepared just for you.

We come to the altar to receive the body and blood of Christ after we have made our communal confession. We are kneeling down to partake in the feast of heaven where angels and archangels and all the company of heaven join us in our celebration.

The parable of the lost sheep is one of three parables designed to teach the same point. You will find all three in Chapter 15 of Luke’s gospel. After ‘The Lost Sheep’ comes ‘The Lost Coin’ followed by ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son.’

Three lost and found parables all pointing to one basic fact about God’s Kingdom: God never stops looking for us because that is what God does. Our job is to let ourselves be found, or else sign up as a shepherd and help bring more lost souls in to the feast. If we feel abandoned and left behind it is not the truth.

God is always holding us
God is always seeking us
We can choose to be found
And we can always learn more
We can change and move where God wants us to be

A Life of Integrity

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 12:49-56
August 15, 2010
Deborah Magdalene, OSH

In the summer of 1972 my family fell apart. My 17-year-old sister became a Mormon, my parents were having serious fights, and I dropped out of college and moved in with my boyfriend.

It was a time of great upheaval. With the backdrop of the endless war in Vietnam, and in a culture of protest and resistance I began my own journey of truth-seeking.

Of course my parents didn’t see it that way. My sister and I were on opposite sides of a protest against our parents. She took the road of a conservative religion and I chose the road of the love-struck hippie.

Mother against daughter
Sister against sister
Daughter against both parents
Both parents against both daughters
And the United States at war with itself.

My family mirrored the chaos of the country we lived in. We were divided and at war with each other, and we each dreamed of a completely different outcome.

My dad wanted his family back together. My mom wanted to rescue my sister from unseen forces. My sister wanted a safe family religion where people lived what they believed. And I wanted to create a new world of love – with my beloved and me in the very center of it.

What we each desired, in our own distorted and confused points of view, was to be seen as we really were – to be acknowledged by someone, anyone, as honest and good people trying to live lives of integrity and honesty. What we all really wanted was to be loved and accepted as only God could love and accept us.

All I remember of that time now is how messed up my family seemed to me and how perfect my own little life with my chronically unfaithful and angry new boyfriend, who soon became my husband. I fell in love with a young man who embodied the exact problems that I thought I was leaving behind.

The next eighteen years of my life were spent in a prolonged state of denial. I denied that I was unhappy while choosing to believe that my marriage and new family were worlds away from the home I had grown up in.

But God has a way of teaching us lessons that will lead to greater understanding, broader perspectives, and the courage to change the things we are capable of changing.
God has a way of cleansing us with fire.

Jesus shouts at his closest companions, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”

His words are not for the faint of heart. This is no gentle shepherd or humble servant washing his disciple’s feet. It is always a challenge to our faith to come to terms with the Jesus who overturns tables and shouts, “Hypocrites!” to the crowds.

But this is the Jesus we read about today and I believe that the angry power of this Jesus is something we Episcopalians must claim as our own, and not just the property of our Pentecostal neighbors. We need to understand what exactly this fire is that Jesus came to light. We have all been baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. It is part of our call as Christians to carry Christ’s fire along the way as our Olympic torch of faith.

This isn’t the first time we hear about fire in Luke’s gospel. John the Baptist told his followers, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Luke3:16)

We are to understand from these words that our own baptism brings the Holy Spirit into our lives as well as the fire of Christ. We too easily associate New Testament fire with damnation and judgment. Today’s reading does refer to significant judgment. It is the judgment of the coming age. The age that Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension bring to pass. It is not the fire of damnation and hell.

Earlier, Luke quotes Jesus teaching that the vineyard owner will cut away the branches that do not bear fruit and throw them into the fire. (Luke 3:9) There is judgment implied in both this parable and today’s Gospel. But who or what is being judged?

There are two answers to this question that help explain why Jesus is so exacerbated. First of all we have the disciples. They are on their way to Jerusalem where Jesus has told them repeatedly that he would suffer and die. But they still don’t believe him. Jesus knows that his death will be the cause of the greatest division among Jews that the world has ever known.

It is the shame of the cross that keeps faithful Jews from accepting that Jesus is the Son of God. It is only after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ that his own disciples fully grasp who this man was and what his coming to them continues to mean. Those who believed were, and are, transfigured.

The “signs of the present time” that Jesus calls the crowds hypocrites for not seeing – is HIM. Jesus is the ultimate and final sign that the world as they know it is about to end. They are hypocrites because they daily recite the words of the prophets who warned them that these things were coming, that God would send a Messiah, and that God would purify Israel.

In the words of Mary’s Magnificat, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever." (Luke 1:52-55) The Magnificat promises division.

Jesus is the one who divides those who believe from those who don’t. His disciples believe what they have seen, but only up to the point of their own denial. When truth hits denial it takes a jarring experience to knock the truth into our consciousness.

The second answer to “who is being judged” is the inner life of the disciples. More importantly, it is our inner life that we are meant to examine. Are we brave enough to allow Jesus to tell us the truth about our own faith, or lack thereof? Are we willing to accept the whole truth of who Jesus really is? We know how hard it was for the disciples.

Peter denies Jesus three times in spite of being one of Jesus’ closest companions.

It is no coincidence that during his denials Peter sits in the courtyard of the high priest’s house warming his hands at the fire.
He is much more comfortable sitting next to the flame than he will be when he finally accepts the burning shame of truth that he abandoned Jesus in his time of greatest need.

It is the burning flame of compunction that the gospel calls us to today. A very out-of-date word, compunction was one of the favorite words of the desert fathers and mothers. They called it ‘penthos.’ For them, “penthos was a Godly sorrow, engendered by repentance.” (Saint Cyril of Philea)

And that is what eventually washed over Peter. As he sat next to the warming fire he was flooded with shame and remorse that Jesus had predicted his denial. Jesus knew that Peter did not fully comprehend that the world as he knew it was about to come to an end through the wrongful persecution and death of Jesus.
There is nothing like shame to burn the truth deep into one’s soul.

The truth of who Jesus really is and what he accomplished for us through his death, resurrection, and ascension continues to divide families and friends just as it did in the First Century. But it is the division that lies deep within each one of us that causes Jesus to cry out, “Hypocrite!”

How many of us have said lightly to our children, ‘Do as I say, not as I do?’ How many of us have criticized and shunned someone for their behavior only to discover at some point that you yourself have exhibited that same behavior? We all criticize with clenched teeth and pinched face the behaviors that are most repellant to us.

They are repellant for a reason. I was terrified of my mother’s temper so I secretly ridiculed my husband’s outbursts. I am better than that. I don’t scream at the children. I will be the better parent. Hypocrite.

I had to face the shame eventually when I realized that my inability to speak up and face my husband’s wrath full on meant that my children grew up in fear. I wasn’t there to protect them in the way that I could have if I had known the truth.

It was the burning compunction of my own complicity in an abusive marriage that led me finally to ask God for help. I knew after my marriage ended that only God could gently teach me how to live a better life. And I also knew, deep within me, that I would continue to face layers and layers of denial once I began the deep journey with Christ.

It was too late to give my children a peaceful upbringing, but it is never too late to repent and turn to God for help.

There is one more concept for which Luke uses the image of fire. We are told that we will be baptized by the Holy Spirit and with fire. This fire is not just the truth of who Jesus really is; or of our compunction when we realize we never trusted him as fully as we could have.

In the continuation of Luke’s work, in the Book of Acts, we hear what happened to the first Christians on the day of Pentecost, “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” (Acts 2:3-4)

This fire danced on the believer’s heads as they spoke in strange languages that all could miraculously understand. This fire, the fire of the Holy Spirit, is what was released through the power of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension.

We are meant to see these acts of God as the ushering in of the present age. We are no longer alone, but are continually reminded of the truth through the workings of the Spirit of God who will never abandon us.

We are guaranteed that we will mess up, live in denial, ruin relationships, and make fatal errors, but we can always turn to Christ in repentance and ask for God’s will to be done. We must let go of the outcome when we repent, or the repentance doesn’t take. We can’t modify and correct God’s abundant compassion for our human predicament.

God’s beneficence is totally beyond our control. But self–examination and true repentance are ours to use as frequently as we desire. Peter didn’t wallow in self hatred and remorse. He went on to become a leader in the Church. At the end of his life, his final act of compunction was to be hung upside-down on the cross. He did not feel worthy to die in the same manner as Christ. His manner of death shows how deeply his shame affected him.

We do not need to do our soul-searching alone. Christian community is meant to be a place where we can bear our souls and receive forgiveness from our God and from each other. We invite this integrated way of life by listening to each other’s stories. We all have burdens. In our call to follow Christ we are asked to listen to each other and bear one another’s burdens for them. It is what the fire is telling us to do.