Tuesday, October 18, 2011

It's God's world

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I start to worry about things.  I worry about all the things that I have to do for my work.  I worry about all the things that need to be done on my house.  I worry about my family and my health and my finances.  I worry about you, about the problems you’re having, if I know about them, or problems I imagine you might be having.   I worry about the world and the nation and politics and the news.  Sometimes this can go on for hours, running and re-running the same worries over and over again in my mind.  And I’ve found over the years that the best antidote to this kind of worried mind is prayer. 
I’ll repeat the Lord’s Prayer silently in my mind, and when I find I’ve lost my way two or three lines into it and have started thinking about the cracks in the  brick walkway in front of our house, I’ll start again at the beginning.   Or I’ll use the “Jesus Prayer”, silently saying “Lord Jesus Christ,” with my inbreath, and “have mercy on me” with my outbreath.  And my breathing will get deeper, and I’ll let out a sigh or two, and I’ll start to relax, and pretty soon I’m asleep.  
Sometimes, though, these kinds of prayer are not effective.  The worry-wheel will just keep churning along, rolling over everything I try to put in its path.   And on these occasions I have to get a little firm with myself.  I remind myself of some words of wisdom that I came upon once but can’t remember where.   What they said was how arrogant we are to think we can’t take a little break, even in the middle of the night, from managing our lives.  The hours of night, and of sleep, are the time when we get to let go, and let God take care of everything. 
I’ll remember this and then as each worried thought comes up I’ll give that thing, that person, that problem or situation over to God, entrusting it to God for the night.   I’ll do this over and over,  acknowledging that every particular thing in my life, and my life itself, belong ultimately to God, who can take better care of them than I can, and I will give them back to their rightful owner.   And in this way I can gradually let go of the need to worry, and drift off to sleep.
There are lots of places in the Gospels where Jesus encourages us to trust God and not to be anxious about earthly things.   The story we heard today is not really about that theme, but it does contain a pointed teaching that all those earthly things belong to God.  When Jesus says, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's,” he is not setting up two separate spheres of influence.  He is not saying that there is one arena of life, the political and economic, where Caesar reigns supreme, and another, the “religious,” where God’s rights are paramount.  Any devout Israelite, including the Pharisees’ disciples, would know Psalm 24, which extols the sovereign power of God, and begins with the words “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and all who dwell therein.”
But the division into rival spheres is what is assumed by the question “is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”, and the ones who ask it hope to trap Jesus in the contested boundary region where the two spheres meet.  If Jesus answers by saying “no, it is not,” his enemies will denounce him to the Romans as a teacher of rebellious sedition.    If he says that it is lawful, they will discredit him before the Judean masses, who rankle under the rule of the idolatrous pagans.    In short, while they flatter him as a sincere religious teacher, who cares more for God’s truth than pleasing people, they want to lure him into choosing which people to please.  They are pressing him to take sides on a political question, as if one side or the other encompasses the position of God.
Some commentators make a big deal about the fact that Jesus has to ask the Pharisee’s disciples for the coin for the tax, as if he is somehow better than them and us because he doesn’t carry money.  But I don’t think that’s the point.   When he holds up the coin, and asks “whose picture is this, and whose title?” he does point out absurdity of opposing the Emperor on religious principle when you’re passing his image from hand to hand all day long.   But he’s not saying the problem would be solved if we just didn’t use money.    He is saying that Caesar has his place and we owe him his due.   But he’s also reminding us that Caesar’s place is not eternal, and that Caesar also owes a debt, one he must someday repay.  Because everything Caesar has, no less than everything we have, belongs to God.  
It is to remember this that we have our stewardship season.  There’s a reason why we take some time every year to ponder what we’re doing when we make a commitment to give to the church.   Because it’s not about the hard sell, gradually wearing down every bit of resistance, until that final form is completed and returned.   But then why make such a big deal about it.   What about it is so important that we spend a month  thinking about it, talking about it, and praying about it?  I think the answer is that if we look carefully at our practice of giving to the church, it can teach us a profound truth, one that all the other contractual exchanges that we engage in every day try to conceal.
The other transactions that go on in the world all promise to give us something we don’t already have, to do something for us we can’t do for ourselves, or make us feel something we can’t feel any other way.  And all those same promises come into play here, too.  After all, this is not some separate sphere, as if when we come within the walls of this room we are now in “God’s world.”  It’s all God’s world.  
But there is something about our giving to the church that is unique.  Because the essential truth about the transaction that happens here is that the church does not promise us anything we don’t already have.   Or to put it another way, anything we receive from the church that is of the essence of what the church really is, comes to us purely by the gift of God.  Here is a giving and receiving that is completely free.  God does not need your giving, as if to supply some deficiency in him.   Everything you give, your money, your time, your talent, your mind and heart and your life itself, already belongs to God.   And every gift that God gives you, she gives in love, expecting nothing but love in return.                
And so this mundane exercise of St. John’s annual pledge drive, which can feel ever so slightly tawdry, actually connects us with the sacred mystery at the heart of the church.  The faith of Christ, who gave the whole world back to God on the cross, invites our giving.   God’s giving Christ back to the world, in his resurrection, is everything we hope to receive.  But for all the glory of that redeeming exchange, we don’t need to look askance at what we have to offer.  As much or as little as it is, as tainted as it may be by the world’s sharp practice, our giving participates in that free transaction of love that is the true life of the world.  Everything that is given for Christ’s sake belongs equally to God.  And so do we.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Going to the wedding feast

In its essence this parable of the great feast is a likeable story, with the wry, subversive message of so many of Jesus’ parables.  If we associate ourselves with the random and gratuitous guests who make it into the feast in the end, we feel quite nice about it.   Or we would, if it weren’t for all the violence.   Luke’s Gospel gives us the same story, only it’s not a king and there’s no wedding and no son.  But there’s also no murdering or destroying or burning, or binding hand and foot, or weeping and gnashing of teeth.  So what is Matthew up to?   
One way of understanding the bloody mess that Matthew makes of this  parable is as a struggle to understand  how the coming of Jesus, which was meant to be the renewal and fulfillment of God’s saving acts in history through his people Israel, was met not just with indifference,  but with violence.  The community out of which this Gospel emerged likely had first-hand experience of that violence, which began with the murder of Jesus but did not end there.   It did not end with the Jewish War of rebellion that came later, or when the armies of Rome recaptured Jerusalem, massacred the population, and burned the city to the ground, an event to which this text probably refers.  The violence did not end when some Jews were forcibly expelled from the synagogue for their insistence on acclaiming Jesus as Messiah.   And it did not end when the church moved from the persecuted margins to the center of power and began to use texts like this one to justify wave upon wave   of violence against Jews. 
It still goes on, the needless, absurd violence of history, when God’s only desire is to call us together into the wedding feast of his Son.  And that, in some sense, is why we are here today.  We come at God’s invitation to remember and to celebrate the promise that there is a meaning and purpose to human history deeper than the clash of religions and empires.    In Christ we find that deep purpose of God, and when we come to his table we experience just a taste of his wedding feast, where all divisions and disagreements are forgotten and we are reconciled with God and one another in the abundance of mercy and love.   
Sound nice, doesn’t it?   So why, then, does Matthew have to go and spoil everything?  Why, when we’d begun to relax and feel like the tension in the story is resolved, does he have to ratchet it back up again by putting in this bit about the man who got thrown out of the party for wearing the wrong clothes?
To answer that we have to understand another use of the rhetoric of violence in Matthew’s Gospel.   You can actually see the same thing in lots of places in the Bible—like in the story of the golden calf that we also heard this morning.  In these cases, this language is not a reference to literal, historic violence, but is meant to convey the power of emotion.   It is a way of speaking of the intensity, and vulnerability, of God’s love.   Anger, jealousy, vengeance are metaphorical ways of saying that here is a place where, if we’re not careful, we are liable to betray God’s trust.  But it’s also a point about which God is not indifferent, not lukewarm, or just kind of interested.  
Modern bible critics, especially feminist ones, have questioned the implied equation between love and violence in this kind of theological metaphor, but that’s a topic for another day.   What I’m suggesting now is that this little episode of the man without the wedding  garment is Matthew’s way of saying that God’s promise, what’s really going on in history, what we really  should be orienting our lives toward, in  spite of  all the ambient craziness,  is a wedding feast— and this  promise really matters  to God.   We shouldn’t think that just because we were invited to the feast graciously and at random, we can just slide in for the free food and beer.   It’s the king’s son we’re talking about here, and we need to show up with our best.
My cousin Joui, the San Francisco fashion  designer,  who got married in August,  sent out  wedding invitations that included instructions on what to wear.  It was kind of a head-scratcher—as I recall there was something about “think  Great Gatsby meets Bollywood”—but  as near as  any of us could figure out what she was really  trying to say was  “be creative.”   Don’t just reach into the closet and  pull  out that suit you keep there for weddings and funerals.  Have some fun.  Make me happy and show up with some flair.  Well, we stodgy older relatives kind of grumbled about it and rolled our eyes, but then we set to work on our costume because we knew it was important to her.  And we did end up looking quite colorful, I must say.  My eighty-year old dad took the prize by showing up at his niece’s wedding in drag.  When we asked him why, he said that he went  to the thrift store  to try to find suitable attire,  but nothing on the men’s rack fit the bill, while there was lots of glamorous ladies’ clothing just his size.
Today we kick off our annual  pledge  season at St. John’s.  It’s a time when we celebrate the generosity of God in calling us all together into the banquet.   We’re marking the occasion with a kind of party in the Parish Hall where we show off for one another about all the good work we’re doing and all the fun we’re having doing it.    Over the course of the next four  weeks  we’ll  be  hearing from representatives of our congregation  about what a difference it makes in  their  lives  to respond generously to God’s invitation—to come to the wedding dressed to the nines.   And we’ll have inserts in the bulletin each week that invite us to share in a reflection on the themes of abundance,  gratitude, and generosity that is taking place across the Episcopal Church.
Those of  us who  planned this stewardship program want it to be a low-key and enjoyable affair.   Whatever form your participation takes will be welcome, even if it comes off the ladies’ rack.   But  as  much as we insist that  giving  to the church is good for our health (which it is), and that St. John’s is worthy of our support (which it  is),  and as careful as we are to  keep the tone upbeat and encouraging and positive (which  we should) there is still that little bit of  tension  that  inevitably  comes along with  pledge season.    At  least  there  is  for  me.   When  I look  into it and try to understand  what that tension  is  about, I find  that Matthew’s Gospel,  that reliable guide to what is simultaneously so sublime and so challenging about  the Christian life, has an answer.  
The first explanation for that inevitable tension is that we can’t accept the invitation  to the wedding feast without also thinking  about all  the  things  going on in the  world  that make us afraid and hinder our generosity.   We  can’t help it—we think about the  wars and the economy and gas prices and how will I educate  my kids and what about my retirement, and will the crops fail and what happens when the fish are all fished out of the sea?   When we commit ourselves to give such and such an amount of our money and our time to St. John’s in the coming year, we have to push through all those anxieties and say, “God—I’m coming to your feast, because that’s the world that I believe in.”  That’s not easy, it takes faith, and hope, and love, but it goes to very  heart of what it means to follow Christ.
And the second reason why there’s always just a little tension around this pledging thing is that we can’t escape the nagging suspicion that it matters to God.   There’s this little voice deep down, when I get my pledge statement and see how much I’ve given (or how little), or when I’m relaxing at the end of a long week of hard work, that says, “was that your best?   Is that your wedding garment?”   It’s not about being guilty, or feeling inadequate, or fearing God’s wrath.  It’s not even about how much I love St. John’s Church, and want it to succeed.   It’s about knowing how much God loves St. John’s Church.   It’s about how deeply God yearns for us, here, to live in the kingdom.  It’s about feeling in my heart how passionately God wants to use us to invite anyone who will come to the wedding feast of Christ the Son.       

About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.