Sermon Archive

SERMON: Pentecost 23 (Nov 16)

Category: News, Sermon Tags: November 16, 2014 @ 9:00 am

The Rev. Brad Pohlman

The Rev. Brad Pohlman

Readings

Zeph 1:7, 12-18
Psalm 90:1-12
1 Thess 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

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Pentecost 22 (Nov 9)

Category: Sermon Tags: November 13, 2014 @ 10:13 am

The Rev. Eric Jones

The Rev. Eric Jones

Readings

Amos 5:18-24
Psalm 70
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

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All Saints Sunday (Nov 2)

Category: Sermon Tags: November 3, 2014 @ 9:00 am

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

Readings

Joshua 3:7-17
Psalm 34:1-10, 22
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

Text

“…the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap…”
“…we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…”

 

Listen

Dayton Street has been of late a locus of revelation.  It happened again on Thursday.  This time, it wasn’t a student picking up trash, but a brand spanking new SUV, sparkling white, pure as the driven snow.  The bumper caught my eye—to be more precise—the bumper sticker: “Do not Mistake Authority for Truth.”  “Yes,” I thought.  “Yes, I agree with that.”  But, then, I thought, “No.  No I don’t.  I don’t agree.”  I mean, it depends, doesn’t it?  An authority may or may not be true.  Some authorities are true and others false; the trouble is, it’s often difficult to tell the difference.

My initial reading of the words sprung from my undergraduate days when we repeated the oft-quoted, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.”  No student I knew then would even remotely have mistaken authority for truth; chiefly because we only trusted ourselves, and (Thank God!) we were not in Authority.  In our minds, we were truth tellers demonstrating to Authority the error of its ways; in some sense, I guess I still think that Authority in those Namish days was, to some degree, mistaken.

But, reading the sticker a second time, I realized this isn’t Nam, there are rules:  it’s not 1969, I’m no longer a student trapesing to class.  Looking in my rearview, I saw “authority” staring back: black shirt, clerical collar, grey hair, wrinkled face, and tired eyes.  Given what I know of myself (and more frightening still, what I don’t know of myself, which is probably most of myself), I wondered, “Am I wise to wear signs of antiquarian authority?  Is it wise to vest frail human beings in authoritarian garb?”  No wonder sparkling new SUV’s bear confident warnings on their immaculate bumpers:  “Do not Mistake Authority for Truth.”  The pure white SUV made me think of the Pope Mobile, and I thought what if Pope Francis were to place that particular message on the Pope Mobile’s bumper.  What if the Vicar of Christ on Earth were to warn against mistaking Authority for Truth.

We human beings have a difficult time with both authority and truth: we generally rebel against authority and doubt there is any truth beyond our selves.  Oh, we may assent to the possibility of someone “telling the truth,” or, at least, a person telling the truth “as they see it.”  But we will likely doubt the possibility of universal Truth—that is, we will have learned to view truth as a culturally conditioned construct imposed by human beings on the tabula rasa of the mind—whatever that is.  In other words, we will have been trained to consider truth in merely subjective terms—and, of course, there is some truth to the subjectivity of truth, but not the subjectivity of all Truth.

Today’s readings—and in fact, the Lutheran tradition —would agree that some truth is subjective.  But subjective truth only exists in relation to and in light of objective Truth.  Subjective truth is the stuff of our every day lives, the truths to which we testify, for instance, in a court of law, or the truths we seek in a scientific investigation—the so-called “truths” of the material universe, mathematics, and why we call red “red,” and black “black.”  By all these lights and data, truth will depend to some degree on subjective point of view, context, and all manner of contingent “facts.”

But, what about objective Truth?  Consider Joshua’s story:  preparing Israel to re-enter the Land, God instructs Joshua, and does so, “that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses.”  God goes on to tell Joshua that he must command the priests carrying the ark of the covenant to stand still when they cross the River Jordan, and that when they stand still at the river’s edge, their feet touching the water, “the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap.”  As the water obeys God’s presence, so also the resident tribes will be driven out, and the land returned to Israel.

The story may be read in a number of subjective ways; but it may also be heard as witness to Objective Truth, and its authority.  The story isn’t merely a lesson in dubious hydraulics, nor a primer in ethnic cleansing (though it might be read as such), nor only an example of antique cult rubrics.  It’s also a witness to the objective authority and truth of “the living God,” an authoritative truth so obvious as to make “the waters stand in a single heap,” and enemies flee.

Of course, absent extended periods of freezing temperatures, gale force winds, or obstructions (natural and otherwise), waters “do not stand in a single heap.” Waters either lie flat (as in a lake), form multiple waves (as in an ocean), flow (as in a river) or form vapor (as in fog).  The ancients knew these things as well as we: waters do not stand in a single heap.  Unless, of course, they encounter the living God—himself a single Trinitarian heap.  Then, as in the Exodus passage through the sea, the waters honor and obey the objective truth of the living God’s singular authority: they stop doing what they naturally do, and behave as one.  The waters obey, as we seldom do.

So, at All Saints, we mark graves of the saints with baptismal water, in anticipation of that day when once more the authority of objective Truth will be made manifest: the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come—the waters standing in a single heap.  Then, as First John says, “We will see God as he is, and we shall be like him.”  John goes on to say, “And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”  It’s a different kind of “pure”—God’s purity—not ours, the plural many as one.

Last Sunday, following evening prayer, as confirmation began, the confirmands gathered at the font.  We began then as we begin each week, reciting words from the baptismal liturgy: “In holy baptism our gracious heavenly Father frees us from sin and death, by joining us to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  We recalled the confession we say each Sunday.  I told them that I’ve lately been confessing that I myself am the problem; that I ask to be forgiven of myself.  One of the confirmands then asked, “Do you hate yourself?”  And I replied, “No.  That’s the problem: I love myself more than I love God, and my neighbor.  I, myself, am the problem.”   It’s a depressing thought, but it bears witness to the authority of God’s objective truth, and my essential objection to and of him.  Therefore:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  At All Saints, we confess the subjective truth of our self-love even as we celebrate the objective truth of the God who forgives all the saints.  We are the problem, Christ the solution.  In Christ, “The waters [rise] in a single heap.”  This Authority—this Truth—forgives all our mistaken authority, forgives all our self-love.  Put that on your bumper: in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Reformation Sunday (Oct 26)

Category: Sermon Tags: October 26, 2014 @ 9:00 am

The Rev. Scott D. Anderson

Readings

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 46
Romans 3:19-28
John 8:31-36

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Pentecost 19 (Oct 19)

Category: Sermon Tags: October 20, 2014 @ 9:00 am

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

Readings

Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 96
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

Text

“…I am the Lord, there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and I create woe; I am the Lord who do all these things.”
“…And you became imitators of us and of the Lord….”
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Listen

Given that today is Pledge Sunday, you may think that I, or the Staff, or the Council, or the Administration/Finance Committee, or the IRS chose today’s readings.   They didn’t; nor did I.  They’re simply appointed in the Revised Common Lectionary—the tri-annual series of readings appointed for seven participating Christian traditions.  Nor did we (as we probably should have) choose this day as Pledge Sunday based upon the appointed readings; to my knowledge we didn’t even look at the Lectionary.  It had more to do with the Fall schedule:  Pig Roast, Confirmation Retreat, Reformation, All Saints, and the like.  The Badger’s Football schedule may have come into it and, for that matter, the Packers as well.  They usually do.   So, miracle of miracles:  here we have Jesus—on the Day we ritualize our Fall Stewardship emphasis—here we have Jesus saying, “Give to the Emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

I suppose stranger things have happened.  For instance, last Thursday morning at 8:46 as I was driving to work on Dayton, approaching the intersection at Park, just as I was cresting the rise with Gordon Commons to my right, I saw a male student pick up a piece of trash, take a few steps, stoop, pick up a second larger piece of trash (an empty Natural Light case?), walk deliberately to the trash bin at the corner of Park and Dayton, place both items in the bin, and then continue down Park toward Johnson.  I was stunned.  It was the first time in six years at Luther Memorial that I could remember seeing a student pick up trash and not one pieces but two!  I said out loud to myself, “Mark this day: a student put some trash in a garbage bin!”  As I rolled to a stop at Park, pondering what I had just witnessed—another male student walked through the crosswalk taking the last bite from an apple.  Baseball cap in reverse, ear buds pounding entertainment, Badger shirt- flip-flops flapping, he proceeded through the crossing, went out of his way, and (as though in routine) calmly dropped the apple core into a trash bin at the corner!

I was astonished.  For the second time in less than a minute, I had observed two events I thought impossible.  Two thoughts entered my mind.  The first, and more obvious, was that I’m stupid:  if all 43,000 students on this campus behave as I routinely imagine, there’d be so much garbage on the ground we couldn’t see streets, crosswalks or sidewalks.  Judging by the trash room in the bottom floor of where I live, students behave no worse than people my age, and probably better.

As I reviewed the course of events, a second thought appeared:  “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord….”  That’s Paul writing to the Thessalonians.   Imitators.  Was the second student imitating the first?  Was the first imitating somebody else?  A teacher?  A parent?  A custodian?  A city employee?  Another student?  Of course, I realized he probably wasn’t imitating me, as I had (only a few yards back) tossed a used piece of chewing gum out the window of my ancient Volvo, the car I proudly drive as a not so subtle sign of my faux humility and pseudo environmental concern.  The car probably gets fewer miles to the gallon than the late-model Audi for which I lust—the silver one past which I drive on my way to my parking place on the third floor of our condo garage.

Lest you think this is all about the latest issue of Car and Driver or merely an old man’s simplistic view of a complex world, I should probably come out of the closet and admit it’s all about stewardship—everything from the moment we are baptized until our funereal ashes are safely tucked away in the columbarium—is all about stewardship, our care (or lack thereof) for that which belongs to another.

And who is the “Other” to which all things belong?  Isaiah the Prophet reminds us as he tells the ancient Persian emperor, Cyrus: “From the rising of the sun and from the west… there is no one besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other.  I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things.”

The LORD is the owner, and whether we put our trash in the bin or toss it from a moving car, we are his stewards—managers of that which belongs to another.  We are answerable to him as we are to none other.  Oh, the campus police might rightly cite me as the lazy slob I am, and some day they probably will, even as I look down my nose at the younger members of our community who occasionally either in a fit of youthful joy or drunken despair toss their cookies or an empty pizza container on the ground for someone else to clean up.  But the truth is, like it or not, we are all stewards; whether faithful or unfaithful remains to be seen.  Even Cyrus, the pagan emperor, is called to serve the one LORD, even though he does not know the God of Israel!  Stewards do not choose their master, but their master chooses them.

“I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things.”  In the age of Ebola, and ISIS, drone strikes, starvation, global warming, droughts, earthquakes, and storms, this word of the LORD is a terrifying message.  As it is now, so it was in the age of the Plague, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and countless crucifixions—of which our Lord’s was but one brief example.  “I am the LORD, and there is no other.”  What can it mean?  Is it possible the LORD does all things?  And, if so, why?

“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  Is anything not God’s?  As Isaiah indicates, even the emperor belongs to God.  Giving to the emperor is giving to God. Generosity’s the point—not ours, but God’s, the unmerited generosity of the God who gives his only Son for the salvation of the whole world.  And generosity comes, of all things, not merely through information and knowledge, but by imitating the God of all who gives without end.  Like a student who gives a little time picking up trash on the way to class.  In such a world, even a pledge card imitates the one God who creates out of nothing.  After all, there is none other, and we are his—everything is.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Pentecost 18 (Oct 12)

Category: Sermon Tags: October 13, 2014 @ 9:00 am

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

Readings

Isaiah 25:1-9
Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Text

“On this mountain the LORD of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples…he will swallow up death forever…”
“Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Listen

It strikes me as extraordinarily fitting that these readings should be appointed for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, a day when we gather as a parish for the Holy Communion and a pig roast— the Feast followed by a festive meal.  Of course, in biblical terms, a pig epitomizes uncleanness— pigs embody all things unclean, koinonos, or common—the very term St. Paul employs to describe the Bread and Cup of the Holy Eucharist.  We rejoice in the image of Christ the Lamb.  But what about an unclean Christ who rules Sabbath law from below, his incarnation via the body of an unmarried woman, his birth in an animal’s feedbox—visited by shepherds, eating with outcasts, his crucified-criminal death, his life laid down for sinners, himself made common in bread and wine.  The unclean Christ is our holiness, our life, our hope, the most intimate encounter we shall ever have—an intimacy exceeding all things sexual, emotional, and personal.  His unclean identity is the holiness we bear for all eternity:  Christ, the Pig of God, who takes away the sin of the world, has the ring of offense.  It bears the grace God, our life, our hope, and our salvation.

Isaiah 25 and Matthew 22 each foresee a feast.  Isaiah tells of rich food and well-aged wines—Israel dines like royals; but at this feast, the LORD devours a universal shroud—God swallows death forever.  Matthew’s banquet is a royal wedding feast the invited guests refuse to attend. They choose instead to snub their king by going to work, or visiting a farm.  So, the king invites others. We hear echoes of last Sunday’s parable: would-be guests seize the king’s messengers, mistreat and kill them.  Less deranged, perhaps, than last week’s tenants who kill that they might gain an inheritance, this week’s characters are nonetheless crazy: they snub a king, abuse and kill his servants, thinking to avoid his wrath.  But they’re wrong: [The king did what angry kings do…] “He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.”

The parable twice displays God’s wrath: here in the destruction of murderous guests, and next when a man appears in the banquet without proper dress.  The text says, “But when the king noticed the man not wearing a wedding robe he asked, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’  And he was speechless.  So the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’  For many are called, but few are chosen.”

It’s a bizarre tale.  In the first place, who refuses a royal wedding banquet?  Are you kidding?  I know countless people (myself among them) who have failed to attend a wedding, but almost none who refuse a feast, and especially one given by a king.  People stand in line to attend a banquet like that, the sort of party people scheme to crash.  Anyone who’s ever seen the movie Wedding Crashers knows what I mean: two juvenile men crash countless weddings and wedding receptions in order to enjoy both the “fabulous finger food” and the women.  Nobody, I know would turn down a royal banquet to visit a farm or work—not when crab cakes and romance are on the line.

There’s something fishy about this story.  It just doesn’t smell right.  And nothing smells more suspicious than the improperly dressed guy among the last batch of guests—“Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.  But when the king came in to see the guests, he noted a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe….”  He’s the one bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness.   Because he wasn’t wearing a wedding robe?  Are you joking?  According to the experts, at that time and in that culture, wedding robes were given out for free—as a gift—to all the guests.  You didn’t have to buy a tuxedo or rent an evening gown, you got one for free.  So why doesn’t this guy have one?  It can’t be a moral issue: the text says the guests were both good and bad.

Robert Farrar Capon says it’s a case of perverse silence: in refusing to answer, the man snubs a king who prepared a banquet for him, gave him a tuxedo, and let him come to the feast even though he has bad manners.  Who would possibly behave in such perverse fashion?

When was the last time we heard of someone in the New Testament (in Matthew’s own gospel!) who refused to speak when addressed by authority?  Who else could have got themselves off the hook by saying a little “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I made a mistake.  Give me a second chance. I won’t do it again.  I promise.”?  It happens in Matthew 27:  “Then Pilate said to him, ‘Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?’  But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge; so that the governor wondered greatly….”

Who is the guy without a wedding garment?  Who refuses to say a single word?  Who makes no effort to defend himself?  Who, even when they bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, refuses to struggle or complain?  Of course, it’s our Lord himself—it’s Christ Jesus common as a criminal, unclean as a pig, all the holiness of God, the very of Life of life, he who swallows up our death in order that we might live his life—the life from below, the life of service, the life of generosity, the life of mercy, the life for others.  He’s the Bridegroom tossed out of his own party so that all the riffraff might come in.

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise….”  Well, of course, there is.  The unclean Christ is all these things.  He appears as the opposite of purity: unclean, ugly, godless, and deadly.  He comes a pig roasted to perfection—goodness itself—the crucified and risen Lord.  He is tossed out in silence that we might be brought in—singing—Arise, my soul, arise!  In his silence, we sing forgiven, and we live!

Pentecost 17 (Oct 5)

Category: Sermon Tags: October 5, 2014 @ 9:00 am

The Rev. Brad Pohlman

The Rev. Brad Pohlman

Readings

Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:7-15
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

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Pentecost 16 (Sep 28)

Category: Sermon Tags: September 29, 2014 @ 10:57 am

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

Readings

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Psalm 25:1-9
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

Text

“Turn, then, and live.”
“Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

Listen

There’s a reason Jesus tells religious people that tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom of God ahead of them: the tax collectors and prostitutes believed John the Baptist—they repented and were baptized, confessing their sins.  They turned, but the religious people did not.  They didn’t believe John, didn’t repent, and refused John’s baptism.  Religion’s a curious thing: it often exposes in itself the very sin it opposes in others.  The corollary is also true:  public sinners often display more genuine piety than religious folk who live within the bounds of decency and respectability.  It may be trite to say, but it’s nonetheless true that I hear more of God outside the homeless shelter at Grace Episcopal Church than I ever hear within the precincts of Luther Memorial or, for that matter, within Grace.   There’s something about public sin that invites personal faith; conversely, there’s something about public righteousness that stimulates personal hypocrisy.

Before joining Alcoholics Anonymous, Junior had never been in a church.  However, it must be said that, on account of alcoholic blackouts, he couldn’t honestly say for certain.  The only thing he was sure of was that he couldn’t remember having been in a church before attending AA at St. Paul’s.  But, even then, they met in the church basement, and always entered through the “red doors,” just off the parking lot on the building’s back side, about as far from the “nave” as you could get.  So while technically Junior had been in a church, he had never “been to church.”  That is to say, though he had been to Lambeau and other religious sites, he had never worshipped in a Christian liturgical space.  Good though they are, brats and beer do not a Eucharist make.

Junior attended weekly 12-step meetings at St. Paul’s as required by court order.  Not that he had to go to St. Paul’s, but he was required to participate in an AA group following prison; it was part of his parole, and the St. Paul’s meeting was nearest his apartment.  As he was prohibited from driving, St. Paul’s was easiest to reach on foot.Truth is, Junior had probably driven drunk since God was a child.  So far as he knew, he’d been born drunk and his drunken behavior was merely the working out of his DNA—his family inheritance, you might say. His father and grandfather before him had been alcoholic, as well as some uncles and an aunt.  One of his cousins, Milton, had died drunk in a car crash, killing not one, but two women into the bargain.  It was only sheer luck Junior hadn’t inflicted the same pain and suffered the same fate.It’s not like he hadn’t tried.  The fact is, he’d probably lived a harder life than, Milton, his dead cousin.  At 47 he’d run through more women, insurance policies, citations, lost jobs, junked cars, and ruined marriages than Sherman’s army burning its way to the sea.  It’s not so much that Junior’s luck ran out, as he simply spiraled down to a drunk hermit’s existence; he almost never drove anyone anywhere; least of all a woman.  When he finally hit a bridge abutment at two in the morning on his way home from the bar, there was no one around but the State Patrol to document his near demise:  driving without a license, with no insurance, no sobriety, and no seatbelt.  His only companions were an empty bottle of Jim Beam and a crushed carton of Camel studs.  Of all the car crash cost him (including three years of freedom), he most lamented the lost Camels.

Prison’s certainly no picnic.  But, if you manage to keep your nose clean, tend to business, and fly beneath the radar of inmate violence and guard retaliation, you can make a decent life out of an intolerably indecent situation.  And Junior did: his small job in the kitchen enabled him to buy cigarettes, and that was about all he either wanted or needed.   He had no one to write to, so paper, envelopes, and stamps were of no value; and he’d never seen the purpose of toiletries beyond a toothbrush.  Shampoo and soap he thought silly, to say nothing of deodorant.

Junior wasn’t dumb.  He saw instinctively that cooperation with authority was his ticket out.  And so he cooperated: he did his job, joined a twelve step group, volunteered in the chapel, and even began going to Bible study.  He hated it.  But the more he hated it, the more he pretended to love it.  The chaplain was an easy mark—well meant, but readily taken in by sentiment, pretentious weakness, and emotional manipulation—the kind of stuff Junior lived, breathed, and thrived on.  Junior did his three, and was paroled early for good behavior.

That’s when St. Paul’s entered the picture.   He’d gone to meetings for nearly a year when, one night, the group took a smoke break and, after cigarettes and conversation in the parking lot, they couldn’t get back in.  The door had locked behind them.  Junior volunteered to walk round to the office door and ring the bell.  After a while, a rumpled woman in a pink clergy shirt, jeans, and Birkenstocks came to the door.  She listened to Junior’s story while they walked through the building and downstairs to unlock the door.  She asked him to come back the next day and check out a key in case it ever happened again.  The next day, he went, got the key, and saw a sign saying “Sunday service, 11:00.  Coffee following.”  He asked the woman what that was about.  Her name was Roberta, and she told him in a way he found strangely moving.

It was the first time anyone had ever said anything like that to him, and it played on his mind:  “Our church needs you.  You should come.  You would be good for us.”  The words stuck in his mind and would not leave.  They addressed him over, and over again:  “Our church needs you.  You should come.  You would be good for us.”  He didn’t go that Sunday; but, the following one, he did.  It was there he heard a sentence he couldn’t forget.  It said, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”  He also heard, “Turn, then, and live.”  Never having been there before, Junior returned—he lived.  Roberta had been right.  It was good for them.  But they didn’t like it.  Being last, Junior got there first—ahead of them.  There’s nothing worse for self-righteous religion than sinners who truly repent: Jonah all over again.  The public sinners are going in ahead of us.  But, then, it may be a greater gift that we’re getting in at all!

Pentecost 15 (Sep 21)

Category: Sermon Tags: September 22, 2014 @ 12:28 pm

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

The Rev. Franklin Wilson

Readings

Jonah 3:10-4:11
Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

Text

“When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind….”

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Listen

Roberta was a self-described “change agent.” It was her way of letting you know she was a pain. As a “change agent,” Roberta could be rude, and you were supposed to take it. For instance, she liked to schedule meetings for 7:00 and then show up at 7:20—just to irritate people like George who compulsively arrived a half hour early just to shame Roberta’s disorganized delinquence.

George lived behind a mahogany desk ten feet long, four feet wide, and polished brighter than Titanic brass: you could see your reflection floating in the glossy finish. It would be a severe understatement to say George liked his executive playing field neat: he liked it hyper neat. There hadn’t been a stray paper clip, redundant memo, or untended envelope on George’s desk since Nelson Rockefeller was Governor of New York.

George despised all things tardy, disorderly, and uncivil. Anyone who arrived at a meeting fewer than fifteen minutes early was a slacker who couldn’t be trusted—and wasn’t. Anyone who came wearing an unkempt shirt was no more respected than someone who came to worship without a proper jacket and tie or (in the case of women) without an appropriate hat. Incivility! In George’s mind, proper decorum knew no bounds: grammar, subject/verb agreement, adverbial modification, modest superlative use, prepositional propriety—civilization depends on these things!

It was not a good day when George met Junior, though it did count for something that they met in a V.A. hospital. George was known to cut some slack on account of military service, though the exact character of Junior’s service remained uncertain: he had undertaken training as an Air Force pilot, but (due to motion sickness) had failed to qualify, and had thereby been discharged before noon on the 90th day of his service—which technically meant he did not qualify as a veteran—though on occasion he nonetheless found himself in the V.A. Whether by dint of bureaucratic blunder, medical necessity, or both, we were never sure.

In any case, Junior was dying—critically ill from a lifetime of alcohol, firearms, and tobacco—he chased women too, though that doesn’t come into this account. Now, near the end of his life, Junior’s emphysema and liver failure had converged to number his days on two hands at most—more likely on one. Having no family to speak of—at least none who would acknowledge him—Junior had asked Roberta if she might find an attorney to assist in the disposal of his modest estate: a two room shack on the edge of town, a ’69 Oldsmobile Delta 88 (with vinyl top and an 8-track player!), and an ancient Harley-Davidson motorcycle Peter Fonda would have found quaint.

Roberta was Junior’s pastor. George was also a parishioner, though that modest statement hardly tells the tale. George had been born into the parish, the only child of the congregation’s single wealthy family, a lawyer who had inherited significant (if not vast) wealth, a (three-time) past president of the parish, lifetime chair of the congregation’s foundation, and an acknowledged benefactor to the wider community. To say the least, George was respected.

Junior was not. He had joined St. Paul’s as a participant in the AA group that met Monday nights in the church basement. It’s not that Junior was particularly spiritual, but his addictions had somehow led to religion, though not in any conventional sense. Like his pastor, he was chronically late, disheveled, unkempt, and poor. In fact, Roberta had got the Twelve Step group going, and it was Roberta who had welcomed Junior to the church, baptized him, and visited him in the hospital.

Figuring he’d likely be out of the office for lunch anyway, Roberta had asked George to come by the hospital at noon, saying: “A poorer member of the parish is near death and could use some legal advice. Would you be willing to help?” How could he say “No”?

George arrived at 11:30. Roberta got there about 12:20. George looked as though he’d stepped directly out of a Brooks Brothers catalogue, Roberta from the aisles of Goodwill. Her pink clergy shirt bore signs of a hasty breakfast; her Levis were none too large, and her Birkenstocks had seen better days. When Roberta came tripping into the hospital room without so much as an “I’m sorry,” it was all George could do to control his fabulously wicked tongue, an effort he had been making since arriving at Junior’s room only to find it empty. Junior was evidently out for some sort of procedure, and would be back “shortly.”

Roberta didn’t appear to mind. Generally oblivious to time, she sat and made irritating small talk, while George paced the tiny room, asking occasional questions about Junior’s state of mind, what preparations had (or had not) been made, names of kinfolk, and the like.
At length, they wheeled in Junior, his jaundiced body emaciated, oxygen tubes askew, eyes glassy, and wandering. George bent immediately to his task, asking precise, earnest questions: “Do you now desire to record your will? To whom do you wish to bequeath? Have you any documentation?” But the more George inquired, the more obdurate Junior became. His pulse was irregular, his blood pressure dangerously low, and his breathing erratic: he was plainly dying, and more than a little confused. In response to George’s questions, Junior mumbled, “He don’t talk English good,” and turned his face away.

Roberta touched water, laid her hand on Junior’s forehead, and asked George to do the same. He did. She made the sign of the cross and recalled Junior’s baptism into Christ, his death and resurrection, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
George was stunned. “He don’t talk English good.” “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Pink-clad and jumbled, Roberta had prayed and nothing much had happened. Yet, George felt he’d witnessed a miracle. Maybe for the first time, George had changed his mind. He was suddenly glad to have been stood up by a dying man. He was gladder still to have stayed late, seeing that in staying late he was finally on time. “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Change agent, indeed. “He don’t talk English good.” It no longer mattered.

Holy Cross Day (Sep 14)

Category: Sermon Tags: September 14, 2014 @ 9:00 am

The Rev. Eric Jones

The Rev. Eric Jones

Readings

Numbers 21:4b-9
Psalm 98:1-4
1 Corinthians 1:18-24
John 3:13-17

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