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Practicing Love Sermon 4: Practicing Love Series 9/25/2016

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Sermon, Proper 21C                                                                Jeffrey B. MacKnight    
25 September 2016 Lazarus and Dives                                   St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda                                                                                                                  

One of the oldest sermon stories in the book involves a Baptist, an Episcopalian, and a Methodist meeting in hell.  They begin to compare how each of them ended up in that fiery pit. “I once danced a jig at my daughter’s wedding,” said the Methodist. “I once drank a pint with my buddies,” admitted the Baptist.

The Episcopalian paused, and then confessed, “I once ate an entire meal with my salad fork.”

We Episcopalians do like our formalities and rituals! But Jesus’ parable today leaves no doubt what is truly important. Poor Lazarus and the rich man known as Dives – such a graphic story, so easy to picture in our mind’s eye: the purple robe of the rich man; the sumptuous food and drink arrayed on the dining table; the sores covering the skin of Lazarus, skinny and malnourished, lying at the back door. Not surprisingly, this parable is often depicted in art. In our sermon series on Practicing Love, I see this story as a teaching moment about practicing love with our wealth.

First, a question: Is the parable – and Jesus - saying that wealth is evil? No, in fact wealth can be very good, although it clearly presents us with challenges. God does not wish people to be poor! What this story is about is compassion – something the rich man sorely lacked. 

This weekend, as a great new museum opens on the National Mall, I can well imagine Dives as a white man, dressed in the finest clothes, sitting in his grand house, feasting. I picture great white columns, like the plantation house at Twelve Oaks in Gone with the Wind.  In my mind, Lazarus is a poor old black man, enslaved, dying, no longer useful to his master. As a slave, he was not permitted to share in the wealth of the land on which he toiled….

We know how the story goes. Both men died, death being an equalizing factor. Lazarus goes to heaven and rests, finally, in comfort in the bosom of Abraham … (hence the spiritual song, Rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham).

Dives goes to torment in hell…. burning up, tormented with thirst, in absolute agony. The whole scene is dreamlike, bizarre. Dives can look up and somehow see Lazarus with Abraham in heaven. Dives calls out to Abraham to send Lazarus down with a drop of water to cool his tongue. But Abraham says no: Dives and Lazarus are both receiving the just deserts of their lives on earth.  Again, you may know the negro spiritual: 

Old Father Abraham, pray let Lazarus come:
Dip his finger in the water, come and cool my tongue,
Cause I'm tormented in the flames!  (by Brother Claude Ely)


Then something happens in the story. Dives prays for mercy for his brothers, that they will not share his fate. Presumably, they are living the life of wealth and ease that Dives lived, without any compassion for others. This is a positive sign for Dives: for the first time, he is thinking of others, not himself (even if they are just his brothers). Perhaps there is a germ of mercy and compassion in him after all. 

Dives prays that someone be sent from the dead to warn them. Still, Abraham says no. If they didn’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not listen to someone who rises from the dead. 

We should note the way this parable pulls together the entire biblical history: the patriarch Abraham, the great liberator Moses, who led the Hebrew slaves to freedom, and finally Jesus, the one who did rise from the dead. Wow! All these figures are central to the Christian faith of enslaved persons in our own American history. By telling these stories  and singing their songs, slaves found hope :

When Israel was in Egypt's land, let my people go;
oppressed so hard they could not stand, let my people go.
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt's land;
tell old Pharaoh to let my people go.

I began speaking about wealth, and lest you think I’ve taken a strange turn to the history of slavery in America, slavery was all about wealth.

French economist Thomas Piketty has shown that the monetary value of enslaved human beings in the U.S. was greater than all its industrial capital in that era combined. Slavery was all about wealth: creating wealth, accumulating wealth, and concentrating wealth among a few white people. We’ve come a long way from those benighted times, but we have a long way to go. 

One of the bright lights in our own day is the new Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened yesterday on the Mall. I’m told that the museum tells this story chronologically. Visitors begin on the lower concourses, experiencing forced African emigration to America, and the descent into enslavement. Later, the era of Jim Crow segregation and rampant economic oppression. One older black gentleman seeing the museum for the first time, was viewing black sharecroppers toiling in a field. He was heard to comment, “This is depressing…. revisiting those days….” 

A museum leader responded: “Yes, it is very depressing. But imagine being able to tell that man, in that condition, that in 2016 a handsome museum in Washington D.C. was just opened by an African American president…that would bring him joy.”

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day.  At his gate lay a poor man, Lazarus…” The inequity between rich and poor has dogged human civilization throughout history. The problem is not wealth; the problem is how we use wealth, and misuse wealth, and hoard wealth when God wants it to be shared. Nobody need be hungry or homeless in our land. Nobody need be enslaved and forced to labor solely for the enrichment of a master. Finally, thanks be to God, we are learning these lessons. And for us here today, who live comfortable lives, who may even dress in purple and fine linen sometimes! There are no better words to leave with than these from the first letter to Timothy:

“As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty…they are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share….” Amen to that.  


 

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Practicing Love Sermon 3- Practicing Love Sermon Series 9/18/2016

Posted 1:09 PM by
Sermon, Proper 20c                                                                    Jeffrey B. MacKnight
18 Sept 2016                                                                           St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

My part time job in high school was working in a grocery store as a checker, or cashier. No bar codes then; every price was entered by hand. There was a great chance for error. I was a steward, responsible to both the customer, and the grocery store. We handled a lot of cash, and I remember the dressing-down I got a few times when my cash drawer was short at the end of my shift. 

Since then, now and then I notice a store cashier has made a mistake in my favor, or given me too much change, and I know his cash drawer will be short as a result. He’ll get in trouble, as I did. So I point out the error. People suffer when we are not honest. 

That’s kind of what today’s parable is about: a steward, or property manager, has to give an account of his management, his stewardship, to the owner.  We’re told he had “squandered” his master’s goods. He was at best sloppy, and at worst, a thief.   

So he makes a plan – not to amend his ways, but to cover his derriere.  Remember Andrew Carnegie: How to Win Friends and Influence People?  This property manager must have taken the course!  He was a pro…but not in a good way. He decided to swindle his master even as he curried favor with the master’s debtors, writing off their debts so they’d be kind to him in the future.  Not a very admirable guy.

But strangely, Jesus finds one thing to admire: the steward’s cleverness, shrewdness, resourcefulness. He told his disciples they would need to be every bit as shrewd and resourceful, if they wanted to make any progress for the Kingdom of God in this world. Preaching God’s Word is countercultural; it requires care and street smarts to be effective. 

Our sermon series is on “Practicing Love,” and today we’re looking at how to practice love with our money. Both Jesus’ parable, and our reading from Amos, lead the way here. Throughout the Bible, wealth and money are part of our relationship with God, part of our spiritual and religious life. There's no separation between what we earn and own, and how we practice love in the world. 

There are several levels of interpretation here in this story. 

  1. The literal – doesn’t take us very far: how can Jesus commend a dishonest man?  That’s certainly not the meaning here. 
  2. The underlying point – shrewd, smart, effective actions are required to reach a goal.  We can’t be lazy or naïve and expect to make progress.
  3. The deepest truth – God wants God’s stewards to be faithful and careful, whether we are given a little or a great amount of wealth.  Wealth is a seductive force in our lives; it’s easy to end up worshipping our possessions instead of our God. 

We are stewards in the same way as this manager: what we have is not really our own, it is God’s – it is what God gives us to do good in the world. And in some way, God will make an accounting of us in the end. This is a call to all of us to take care of what we have been given, and to use it as God intends. Your leaders here at St. Dunstan’s work very hard not to squander what God gives us through you – your pledges and offerings…. We are thankful for your gifts, because they allow God’s work to be done here. 

Here at St. Dunstan’s, we are also frugal – a good word, in my book.  “Economical in use or expenditure…not wasteful.” Frugality is not about denying ourselves all pleasures or even extravagances. It is a thoughtful approach to what acquisitions will bring us true joy over time, rather than a short burst of pleasure that fades quickly. This usually means buying less, but buying carefully, buying quality that will last.

The prophet Amos cries out against people who build their own fortunes as they exploit poor people, who “trample on the needy…” He rails against the selfish and greedy behaviors in his own day. The old words may be confusing. But Amos is denouncing the rich who are rushing through the sabbath so they can get back to selling their goods, who are shortchanging the measures they sell (“make the ephah small”) and overcharging their helpless customers (“and the shekel great”); making slaves of poor people because they owe small amounts (“buying the poor for silver…[or] a pair of sandals”). Yes, this kind of debt slavery really did exist.  Not the kind of management that the Lord God wants!  Amos is one of the greatest prophets against greed and exploitation of poor and weak people. He hated it when people kept up religious practices, but exploited the poor around them. You may recognize Amos’s most famous words: “I hate, I despise your feasts… [and] your solemn assemblies! But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5)

When it comes to our relationship to money, there are two areas for Christians to watch out for. One is practical: how we handle the money that we steward in this life? Are we careful, honest, not wasteful, frugal even? Do we exploit other people’s weakness or ignorance in financial dealings? 

This leads to the spiritual side of things. Do we love money and what it can give us, more than we love our neighbors, or more than we love our God? Do we see our wealth as gift from God, to be used for God’s will? Do we use our money to practice love, or do we gather and hoard our money, building ever bigger barns to house our wealth?

If you survey all of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels, I believe you will find that Jesus hated two things most of all: greed, and hypocrisy. (I think he got this from his spiritual grandfather, Amos!) Greed, and hypocrisy – these are the two greatest spiritual diseases that afflict us. Why? Greed, because it offend against God’s generous creation, which is meant to be share by all creatures.  Hypocrisy, because it prevents us from spiritual honesty – seeing ourselves as we really are – as God sees us – which must be the first step towards becoming what God calls us to be: generous, honest, humble people, who seek to practice love every way we can. 

Breaking free of our love of money allows us to worry less, and share more.  Becoming spiritually honest about ourselves allows God to work in us, to bring more grace, more serenity, and more integrity to our lives. God doesn’t seek to guilt us, or punish us, but to transform us into new people. Are we ready to let God work his miracles in us?

 

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Practicing Love Sermon 2- Practicing Love Sermon Series 9/11/2016

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Sermon, Proper 19C                                                                     Jeffrey B. MacKnight

11 September 2016

Homecoming Sunday St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

Practicing love, by Seeking the Lost

A priest, a minister, and a rabbi were very competitive. Lost in the woods, they decide that each will find a bear, and attempt to convert it. Later they get together to compare the results. The priest begins, "When I found the bear, I read to him from the Catechism and sprinkled him with holy water. Next week is his First Communion." "I found a bear by the stream," says the minister, "and preached God's holy word. The bear was so mesmerized that he let me baptize him." They both look down at the rabbi, who is lying on a gurney in a body cast. "Looking back," he says, "Maybe I shouldn't have started with the circumcision."

As we start a new church year, I’ll try not to start with circumcision! I’d rather go with preaching God’s holy word. The Gospel of Jesus is the strongest medicine we’ve got for this old world, so we’ll start with that. So welcome back, on this Homecoming Sunday. Welcome home.

Now please think back to a time you were lost….

Perhaps as a child, in a huge store, or in the woods – you may remember feelings of fear, anxiety, even terror or panic. 

Another kind of lost – as a teenager who doesn’t fit in, as a young adult who hasn’t found her niche - her path in life, as an older person who has lost a significant other through death or separation and feels bereft - lost without the anchor of another human being. Feelings of sadness, even despair can well up in us at these times. Last week, the New York Times ran a big article on how feeling lost and lonely can actually damage our physical health. 

Think of the lostness of the survivors of 9/11 deaths…one 9/11 widow we know bought Leslie’s parents’ big old family home in Summit, NJ… maybe to try to recover some sense of love and connectedness in a place that had teemed with children and life and love. Our nation still aches from that horrible act of wickedness 15 years ago. 

In today’s Jesus story, tax collectors and sinners gather to listen to Jesus. Why? Jesus didn’t condone their bad behavior, but he made them feel included, welcome, despite their past lives.  Less lonely, perhaps. Less lost. 

The self-righteous Pharisees appear, and grumble as usual, about Jesus befriending sinners.  They seem to resent the fact that Jesus welcomes them. But the Pharisees still come and listen to Jesus. I always wonder why they come….

Jesus responds with a parable: a shepherd and his flock of sheep – 100 sheep, a nice round number. One of them gets lost in the wilderness. What does the shepherd do? Does he give up on the lost one, and protect the ninety-nine? No. He leaves the many, and seeks out the one who is lost. He brings her home, and gathers friends to celebrate. This is a recurring theme in scripture. 

Jesus talks a lot about the lost – parables of the lost sheep, the lost coins, and most of all, the lost son…the parable we know as “The Prodigal Son.” That son, a rash young man, chooses to leave home and family, ask for his inheritance, and go live a wild life. What did he hope to find?  We don’t know, but we do know that he was soon a very lost young man….

The choices that father made have always fascinated me. In this case, his son was an adult.  The father granted him the freedom to travel, and even gave him his legacy in advance.  The father did not chase him down. But the father did lament his son’s absence, and watched every day for his boy to return. How long, we don’t know. But eventually, he came home: weary, destitute, and regretful.  His father was overjoyed!  He gathered his friends to celebrate, just as the shepherd did for his lost sheep.  “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see.” 

Our cat Chandler was feral when Maggie rescued him in a snowstorm.  Once he got out the door and ran for it.  We looked everywhere. 

I gave up on finding him, but Leslie put food out every night.

She sat on the stoop some nights, waiting with treats…. After 30 days, hesitantly, fearfully, Chandler came home.  He was caked in dirt, thin as a rail: a sad bedraggled kitty. But he was home.  And we celebrated!

So how do we get found? 

The solution to the lostness and loneliness we all feel at times is community, and ministry – actual service to another.  I learned long ago that for me the best antidote to a general sense of ennui, listlessness, or discontent is to get up and go do something for somebody – make a visit, make a phone call, feed somebody, write a note (remember when we did that?), volunteer for a good cause, shovel the neighbor’s sidewalk, you name it.  Guaranteed, I’ll feel better. 

If one lonely person reaches out to another, the result is two people who are now connected, less lonely than before. When we visit someone who is sick or lonely, we don’t just benefit him or her, we find community, and purpose, and love ourselves. The world becomes a little warmer, a more loving place. Everybody wins!

For us, people of faith, the deepest way to be “found” is to be found by God – to realize that God has loved us since our birth, rejoiced with us in good times, and suffered with us in bad times. Even when we wander far away from God, like the prodigal’s father God is waiting, watching for us to come back.  It’s hokey, (and this certainly dates me!), but I think of Glenn Campbell’s old song: “It’s knowing that your door is always open and your path is free to walk…that keeps you ever gentle on my mind.”  God’s door is always open; God’s path is free to walk. That’s great news. 

Our door at St. Dunstan’s is open, in the name of the God of Love, to all who come. And we need to go out into the “highways and byways” to invite people in.  In the modern world, that’s our neighborhoods, our schools, our workplaces, the gym, the club – everywhere we meet people.  Many of those people are lonely, feeling lost. We have a lot to offer to them.  Of course we are Episcopalians; we are allergic to being pushy! We don’t start with circumcision! We start with invitation, with listening, with sharing ourselves, and welcoming the lost sheep home.  That’s what “Homecoming” is all about. Let’s renew our commitment to practice love in this world.  AMEN.  


 

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Practicing Love Sermon 1- Practicing Love Series 9/4/2016

Posted 4:00 PM by
Sermon, Proper 18C                                                   Jeffrey B. MacKnight
4 September 2016                                                       St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

 

Practicing Love…in your family

An Amish boy and his father went to a shopping mall. They were amazed by almost everything they saw, but especially by two shiny, silver walls that could move apart and then slide back together again. The boy asked, "What is this, Father?" The father responded, "Son, I don’t know; I have never seen anything like this in my life!” While the boy and his father were watching with amazement, a grumpy-looking lady moved up to the moving walls and pressed a button. The walls opened, and she walked into a small room. The walls closed, and the boy and his father watched the small numbers above the walls light up, rising one to eight.  Then the numbers came back to one.  Finally the walls opened up again and a gorgeous 24-year-old blonde stepped out. The father, not taking his eyes off the young woman, said quietly to his son ... "Go get your mother." J

Families are easy to poke fun at…there’s so much material!  We live in close quarters…we’ve got history together…we know how to push each other’s buttons….

How is it that families, where love seems such a natural thing, can be so difficult, so unloving, so destructive sometimes? 

Jesus had hard words to say about family.  His own family situation is a bit vague, but the Bible tells us about his mother Mary, his father Joseph (at least his earthly father), and some brothers and sisters.  But Jesus was often at odds with his family.  They tried to shut him up when he started preaching, and he rebuffed them.  He said the words we heard in the Gospel today: “Whoever …does not hate father and mother, wife and children…cannot be my disciple.”  What did he mean by that? 

Jesus was speaking in hyperbole, of course.  We aren’t meant to “hate” anybody – not even our enemies.  But clearly Jesus was saying that his Gospel values outweigh even our devotion to our families.  If our families prevent us from following Jesus, we must choose Jesus.  Following Jesus was (and is) countercultural, and in his day, the choice to be his disciple was a radical one.  Families would not approve! 

Families can bring us such joy and laughter and just good fun!  But sometimes our families ask too much…. They can try to control us, shame us, and place unfair burdens on us.  Boundaries are so important in families…  For instance:

  • One relative of mine was so disruptive that I finally had to limit visits to a couple of hours, and not allow overnight stays at our house.
  • My cousins have rampant substance in their family, and they had to watch as their brother destroyed his body with substance abuse and finally died at an early age – not because they didn’t try to help, but because their brother would not, or could not, accept it.  We’ve all heard of “tough love,” knowing when to step back and detach.  It’s the hardest kind of love to practice, in my experience. 

But not everybody has a family, and that can feel like a big void.  My mom and dad were good at welcoming individuals into our family circle, when they had none of their own.  Leslie and I try to practice love that way too….  And of course our church congregation is a natural place to create family – not by blood but by adoption into Jesus Christ.  People who have no family, or who have been ostracized by their families, or who are far away from family…all can find a home here at St. Dunstan’s.  That’s who we are – a core value here.  All are welcome.  No exceptions. 

Last week someone here asked about practicing love with our adult children.  I tell you, I’m learning about that as I speak!  We want the best for our children…and we hate to see them make choices that seem unhelpful, or even destructive.  And yet, the emphasis has to shift from “children” to “adult.”  Adults have freedom to choose, to find their own path.

Jesus didn’t have any adult children (I don’t think), but he did show us his responses to adult persons who were making life choices.  I think of the story of the rich young man – a young man who, I believe, Jesus already knew.  This young man had a lot going for him; he had many choices and opportunities.  He asked Jesus what was the most important choice for him to make: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” 

He had the right question.  Jesus looked at him answered him.  “Follow all the commandments.”  “Done.” And then Jesus looked at him in love and said, “Go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.” 

Jesus set a clear choice before the man, but he didn’t want to make it.  Jesus knew what that young man needed to do to have a full, beautiful life, and Jesus practiced love by telling him. 

Unfortunately, the man loved his possessions too much, so he went away sad.  (I’ve always imagined that that young man came back to Jesus later, when he was a little older and wiser, and found his true calling as a disciple.  But we’ll never know.)

In this story, Jesus is fathering the young man; he treats him as a beloved son.  But Jesus does not force his will on him.  Jesus does not force his will on anybody, really.  He leads, he offers, he suggests, he persuades, sometimes he entreats us.  But he does not force us.  That’s how he practices love.  (The father of the prodigal son acts in a similar way.  He lets his son go and seek his fortune; when the young man comes home, destitute and weary, his father welcomes him home.)

So families provide us with some of our greatest blessings, and also some of our greatest challenges in practicing love.  It’s complicated.  One of my best teachers on human nature and human relationships was a rabbi named Edwin Friedman.  He studied family systems and made some remarkable discoveries about how families work.  If you are interested, we could talk more about all of this. 

But for now, this family of St. Dunstan needs to gather with our founder Jesus, around his supper table, and renew our familial bonds with each other, and with others in our lives.  Next week, we’ll focus again on practicing love…with those who are lost, like the lost sheep that Jesus went after.  It’s Homecoming Sunday, and a time to pause and remember the anniversary of the Sept. 11 tragedy, too.  Brunch at 10 a.m. Please come.  AMEN.  


 

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