In our daily prayers God was every manner of image and metaphor and meaning, and always, "God the Father." We never ever prayed to "God our Mother." What were women in the economy of God? The answer was only too painful: We were invisible. I had given my life to a God who did not see me, did not include me, did not touch my nature with God's own....Joan Chittister, "Called to Question"

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Reflection on Proper 20A

Matthew 20 & Psalm 1
September 21, 2008 by The Rev. Crystal Karr

Matthew 20: 1-16

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Psalm 1

Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
2but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
3They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

4The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.

In today’s scripture, we have a landowner who hires workers throughout the day. But when it comes to the end of the day all of the workers are paid the exact same wage—some of them only worked for ONE hour! That hardly seems fair. And when the workers who’ve worked long and hard—through the hottest part of the day—call the landowner on it, they get chewed out. And this is what the kingdom of God is all about?

In parables like the workers in the vineyard and the prodigal son, many of us usually relate to the one (or ones) who have been working all along and yet seem to receive no reward for it. As a woman and a mother, I know this feeling all too well. There are many things that I am simply expected to do—clean the house, laundry, cook the dinners for my family and yet no one ever makes a big deal about it. However, if my husband, Joel, does just one of these things he is praised for being generous and a terrific husband. I’m sure I’m not the only woman to have experienced this or something like this. I imagine that most of us, men and women have had these kinds of experiences where we have been working diligently—doing what is expected of us—yet we receive no rewards, no kudos, no thank-you’s, and then along comes someone else who receives the highest praises for doing just one piece of the work we’ve done. It’s frustrating and it is unfair. No one likes to be taken advantage of; no one likes it when they are simply expected to do something rather than having a choice or receiving at least a hearty thank you.

Expectation and obligation seem to zap the joy from our lives. How do we bring the joy back when it feels like we are simply fulfilling obligations? Yes, the workers who had worked long and hard hours in the heat of the day were miffed—perhaps after seeing the others receive far more than their share of their daily wage they began to imagine the increase they were going to receive and then were greatly disappointed. Rather than understanding and remembering that it was the end of the day, that they had received what they had been working for—they were caught up in what the others were getting. There was no stopping to rejoice in the extra blessing that the others had received. There was no stopping to rejoice that their work was done and the time for celebration had begun.

This week while watching the video for the Psalms’ Bible Study, the scholar pointed out that in Psalm 1—it reads, “their delight is in the law of the Lord.” She went on to talk about the differences between our understanding of the Law of God and the Jewish understanding of God’s Law. I’m guessing that most of us would cringe thinking about “the law” or “the rules.” Those of us who grew up or are growing up in the United States tend to get upset if witness anything that doesn’t seem fair or democratic. After all, our country rebelled against the Motherland of England because we were being taxed without representation and that simply wasn’t fair! It seems that a rebellious streak is part of our social DNA. I know that this is true for me. I was a rather rebellious child, some would say that I still am. If my mother told me not to do something, I would immediately try to figure out how to do it. All she would have to have done to get me to eat broccoli or spinach would have been to tell me that I couldn’t eat any—if she would have known about reverse psychology she probably could have turned me into a well-behaved child.

I had never considered that I should “take delight in the law.” That is a foreign concept to me. However, what if we were to take delight in the law? If we were to take delight in following God’s path—understanding that God is not the ultimate party pooper, instead understanding that God offers a way for us to find the most joy and meaning in our lives. Really, when you think about it, do you really want to steep yourself in envy, kill another human being, make statues to worship, dishonor your parents, work 7 days a week, spend your time wishing you had what your neighbors had rather than enjoying the stuff you do have? Why should the law feel like a burden when it simply offers a guide to keep us from doing things that hurt ourselves and others? God’s law simply keeps us out of trouble and free to live an abundant life. Man’s law, government’s laws, may not always be just or helpful but God’s laws are a different story—they simply boil down to loving God, loving our neighbors, and loving ourselves.

Envy and obligation are an ugly beasts. They prevents us from enjoying our lives, our friends and family, and the stuff we have. Envy, like obligation sucks the joy out of our lives. The only cure I know for envy ands for obligation is gratitude. If we are grateful for the people and things that are in our lives—envy and obligation has less of a chance to roost in our heads and hearts. Thanking God for the gifts we have received helps us to appreciate what we have.

This is a story about God’s grace, God’s generosity and I am certainly glad that God isn’t keeping score on how long I’ve been a Christian, how many times I’ve made it to church—or not, and that I don’t have to work in an attempt to earn salvation—we’ll all receive that—there is enough salvation to go around. The story isn’t so hard to understand or to take joy in when we think of salvation as the daily wage. Most, if not all of us, realize that we couldn’t make it on our own—we would all be in big trouble if we were ever received what we actually deserved, to have our just desserts.

Perhaps, if I remembered with appreciation and gratitude the gifts that God has already generously given to me, then my first response to the story of the workers in the vineyard wouldn’t be “that’s not fair!” Perhaps then I would see that just as God has given me a promise of salvation, a hope that my life clings to not based on the works I’ve done, it’s been granted and promised even though I have not and could not ever earn it, the workers who came late to the vineyard were given a free gift to take care of them and their families—they were given what they needed rather than what they “deserved.” Perhaps then I could simply rejoice that we have all been offered and promised something we could never earn, a gift that we should not take for granted, a gift for which we rejoice and praise God whenever anyone accepts it. Amen.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Reflection for Proper 19A

A reflection on Matthew 18:21-35 by The Rev. Dr. Kate Hennessy

On October 2, 2006 a man entered a schoolhouse in Nickel Mines Pennsylvania and killed five young Amish girls and seriously wounded five others. Like all of the others acts of senseless violence in our country, this made headlines. The response of the Amish community of Nickel Mines soon became just as newsworthy. They were extending forgiveness to the shooter! Within hours of the shooting, community members went to the killer’s family members and offered statements of forgiveness and condolence for their loss. Members of the Amish community came to the gunman’s funeral, and perhaps most amazingly of all, they voted as a community that his family should share in a fund that was set up to aid the victims. Some of them even contributed personally to this fund. This Amish forgiveness is so striking to the outside world that it has drawn the attention of theologians and sociologists. The Amish are being asked over and over on what it is they base this “extraordinary” forgiving. And what they repeatedly say is two things…the Lord’s prayer and Matthew 18:21-35.

Jesus is teaching the disciples about how to be community. That hard task of being God’s kingdom here on earth. In our Gospel last week we heard about what we are to do when our brother or sister “trespasses” against us….to go to them, at first alone, with the intent of bringing them back, and how it is always about bringing them back. And that even when we take witnesses with us, or bring in the community, it is always about love and justice and always about recapturing the lost ones. It’s that larger vision that God has for reconciling to God and to one another. That countercultural vision that is challenging for us as humans. Today’s Gospel simply continues the lesson. Peter, in all his glorious humanity may have thought he was going to the head of the class on this one when he asked Jesus, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" a symbolic number that signified enough or completion. But Jesus, as always, taking it to an even greater vision, the kingdom vision, to God’s vision, says, “No, that’s not quite enough Peter…” In God’s kingdom even our usual understanding of what is enough is not enough.

In God’s kingdom vision, we must do the kind of forgiving that does not count at all… a kind of forgiving that is extravagant. The parable tells us that the slave owed the king “ten thousand talents” a huge amount which was more than the national debt of the Roman Empire at the time. It was so large that even if he were “to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions” there would still be no hope he could pay it back. When the king took mercy on him and released him from the debt completely, he was practicing the kind of forgiveness that Jesus was talking about. But then what happens? The forgiven slave turns around and does not forgive the relatively small debt another slave owes him, an equivalent of about four months’ wages for manual labor, and has him thrown into debtor’s prison. Hearing of this behavior, the king is outraged that this man to whom he has shown great mercy and forgiveness has not extended forgiveness in kind. He says to him “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” and throws him into prison “until he would pay his entire debt” – which, of course, can never happen! Here was a vision of the Kingdom. The king forgave abundantly without keeping count of the cost. Forgiveness, Jesus may have been saying, like God forgives. But then the slave withheld forgiveness, and found himself imprisoned, Here is God’s kingdom where there is forgiveness and mercy, but also judgment and justice.

Forgiveness. Clearly it is held before us as a standard of living a life as followers of Jesus. But what does it really mean? Can we do it? How do we do it? Do we have to be Amish? As you might imagine, this is an issue that comes up frequently for the people I encounter in the other part of my life. Many of the people I see in my clinical practice have been deeply wounded by the acts of others, and they struggle with this question of forgiveness. Sometimes we have conversations about what it does mean to forgive, and in those conversations we talk about what forgiveness is and what it is not, and sometimes that turns out to be a useful thing. So I thought maybe spending a few minutes thinking through that together here this morning might be helpful for us as well as we try to find ways of being faithful followers of Jesus.

One of the things we know is that forgiveness is a choice. Someone always can choose to forgive or not. Often when we have been wronged by someone what we hold onto most tightly is our resentment about the wrong that was done towards us, usually toward the person who committed the offense. In forgiveness, we freely choose to give up the right to carry that resentment. And we do so in essence as a gift to the offender who may or may not have done anything to deserve that gift. In forgiveness we make a choice to replace resentment toward the one who has harmed us with compassion. This does not mean that we change our minds about the act. We recognize that as the victim of an offense we have a moral right to anger, but we choose to release the anger—in essence as a pure gift to someone who may be completely undeserving, and indeed who may be completely unaware of the gift. But we choose to release them from a debt that they could never repay anyway. Just because we can….and not count the cost.

Forgiveness is not about the event. We do not say the offense did not happen, or that it was not serious if indeed this was case. We do not pretend we were not hurt by the act. We do not condone or excuse the behavior that was done. We still take it seriously. We still uphold its wrongness, its unfairness. We do not condone it or excuse the behavior. We do not forget it or sweep it under the rug. All of this does not preclude forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not the same as pardon. Pardon implies repentance on the part of the wrongdoer. Forgiveness is only about the forgiver. In forgiveness the wrongdoer is not absolved of consequences for his or her behavior. Justice takes it course if that is to be the case. That does not preclude forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. That is about restoring a relationship which might involve developing trust or communication between the person who was hurt and the one who offended. This may never be possible or even desirable. It does not preclude forgiveness.
Forgiveness is decisional as well as emotional. Decisional or intentional forgiveness is a commitment to control our behavior not to act in revenge or avoidance towards someone who has hurt us even if our emotions have not yet caught up to the point where we feel less unforgiving. Emotional forgiveness often is a much longer process than decisional forgiveness. The two of course can be related. The decision to forgive and the commitment to act in a forgiving way does not magically make emotions change, but it certainly may make it more likely that the emotional transformation will happen.

Why forgive? Is it indeed about “forgive or you won't be forgiven?” This is not the way the God I know operates. The parable tells the story. The people I know who are having the hardest time with forgiveness, the ones who are holding on to the biggest resentments are often in a great deal of pain. Like the forgiven slave, the illusion of control given by holding on to their resentments locks them in the prison of their own creation. Freedom was granted him and his to pass on. The example was there before him but he could not make the choice for forgiveness, and it was his own inability to make that choice that imprisoned him. God’s kingdom is one of mercy and love, but also of justice. Forgiveness is granted in great measure, we are asked to pass it on as it has been given to us.

And fortunately, as with all of these hard things we are asked to do as followers of Jesus, we are not alone with this one either. We have the Incarnate One as God with us, both to show us who God is and to show us how the Kingdom here on earth can be lived out and who we can be what we are truly capable of at our best and most authentic. We have Jesus’ ongoing spirit alive with us, in Word and Sacrament and in community to strengthen us for the task, to remind us who and whose we are. May we forgive as we are forgiven and be forgiven as we forgive. Amen.

Contributions from Amish Grace by D. Kraybill, S. Nolt, D. Weaver-Zercher

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Seeing Things as We Are...

A reflection on Romans 13:8-14 and Matthew 18:15-20 by The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski

A woman, studying the spontaneous remission of cancer, placed an ad in a local newspaper looking to interview people who felt they were in remission. She tells this story from one of the people she interviewed: There was a farmer with an advanced case of the disease and a challenging prognosis. Nonetheless he was doing quite well and seemed to be in remission.

About the disease and possible remission he said, “I didn’t take it on.”

By this he meant that he knew that his illness was advanced, he just didn’t let it determine how he went about living his life. He understood his doctors and this prognosis the same way he regarded the government soil experts who analyzed his fields. The farmer listened to the experts and respected them as they showed him findings in their tests that said that corn would not grow in his field. Like the doctors who gave him the diagnosis and treated him, he valued the opinion of the soil experts.

But, he said, “Nonetheless a lot of the time corn grows anyway.”

In other words the diagnosis was one thing, but what it was going to mean to him and his life, remained to be seen. (Kitchen Table Wisdom: Rachel Naomi Remen)

This story reminds me of a Jewish saying from the Talmud that goes like this: we do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.

So, who are we?

Well, for starters, I think we are living, broadly speaking, in a time when the world is deeply broken. All around us we see disease, anger, war, divisiveness, and people polarized by this issue or that. We argue over who is right and who is wrong when human life is at stake. We are so inundated with images on television of violence and poverty that we have become numb and fail to see the brokenness when it is right in front of us. We live in a world where each one of us thinks we are entitled to having things our way, and lose sight of the needs, hopes, or desires of another person let alone, of community. In the 21st century we are, broadly speaking, a people who are: self-centered, quick to judge, opinionated, and demanding. We hurt others and rather than apologize we justify our actions, why we are right and why they got what they deserved.

You may not feel this way in your life, but we see it all around us, in the newspaper, on television shows, and in our politic, locally, nationally, and globally.

It reminds me of a story of the leader of a monastery named Abbot Moses, a desert father who lived in the second century and who spent much of his earlier life as a thief:

One day a brother of the monastic community offended some of the other brothers. So a council meeting was called and Abbot Moses, the brother in charge of the monastery, was asked to come to the meeting and mediate, but he refused to go to it. Eventually the monastery priest sent someone to get him, ‘Come,’ he said, ‘everyone is waiting for you.’ So Abbott Moses got up and headed toward the meeting. On the way he picked up a jug that was cracked and had several small holes. He filled it with water and carried it with him, the water trailing out behind him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, ‘What is this, Abbott, what are you doing?’ The old man (who had been a thief in his younger years) said to them, ‘My sins run out behind me but I do not see them, and yet today I am coming to judge the errors of another.’ When the brothers heard that, they said no more to the brother who offended them, but forgave him. (Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.)

We do not see things as they are. We see things as WE are.

Our reading from Romans reminds us that how we live our lives matters. As Christians we are called by Jesus to be a people of reconciliation. We are not called to judge others. Judgment, when and how it happens, is God’s decision. Rather than judge we are called, by God through Christ, to bring forth God’s love into the world, heal the brokenness, restore relationships, be the face of Christ. As Christians we know that loving our neighbor matters. Loving ourselves matters. Loving God matters. How we do this, how we love, matters. With this kind of love, when our neighbor suffers we suffer. When our neighbor is joyous we are joyfilled. Love like this is not some warm fuzzy, but a challenging call in which God will use us to do God’s work in the world.

Who we are matters.

Paul tells the Romans: Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.

He continues by saying: "You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet"; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, "Love your neighbor as yourself."

In her book, “The Hiding Place,” Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch Christian holocaust survivor who helped many Jews escape, tells this story about encountering, many years later, one of the former guards from the concentration camp where she spent 4 months:

It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former SS man who stood guard at the shower room door in the processing center at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And sudden it was all there – the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, the pain-blanched faces….

He came up to her after her speech, as the church was emptying, and said how grateful he was for her message. “To think,” he said, “that as you say (Jesus) has washed away my sins.” Then he thrust his hand out to shake hers. But Corrie could not respond. She, who had preached so often about the need to forgive, kept her hand at her side. Inside an anger boiled and vengeful thoughts popped up. She knew that these thoughts were sinful, that Jesus had died even for this man, this awful guard and all the horrible things he had done. Corrie would not ask more of Jesus, so she prayed that Jesus would fill her heart and help her forgive the guard.

Corrie tried to smile and struggled to stretch out her hand. Then, as she took the guards hand the most incredible thing happened. From Corrie’s shoulder, down her arm, and through her hand, a current seemed to pass from Corrie to the guard. And into Corrie’s heart sprang a love for this guard that could only be from Christ. The forgiveness she felt that night was the forgiveness of Christ, the grace of God. Corrie says, When God tells us to love our enemies, and we do so, God gives us that love itself.

God calls us to be a people of reconciliation. Who we are matters. It’s not about simply “being nice.” It’s about the ability to love even under the most challenging of circumstances…loving through the most difficult of challenges by loving as God loves.

Women often have real first hand experience of this, loving under the most challenging of experiences. For centuries women have been encouraged, by society and even the church itself, to stay in abusive marriages. Women have been subjected to second class citizens, forced by circumstances to push down and deny our intelligence, gifts, and skills, because they didn’t fit the paradigm of women’s work and role in society. Often women have taken on the role of mediator in family disputes; for better or for worse women have been in the position of healers and nurturers for a multitude of ills.

There is nothing wrong with women taking on this role, except when taking on that role comes at the cost of the woman herself. It isn’t really love when it comes at the cost of the woman living through pain and suffering and abuse and losing herself in the process. Paul’s Letter to the Romans reminds us that we are called to love our neighbor – but first we have to learn how to love God by letting God love us, and then to love ourselves.

You might say that heaven comes down to earth when two people, previously alienated, are brought together in relationships of dignity, respect, hope, love. And, in the case of women, it may also be that heaven comes down to earth when we, preciously alienated from ourselves, are brought into an authentic sense of self. From this place of authenticity we really can love.

In order to do this it is helpful to remember that first we have to reconcile our own sin. Women, in particular, suffer less from the sin of pride than from the sin of self-doubt, less from humility than from a lack of self worth. Over and over Jesus reminds the disciples, and therefore us, to worry about the log in our own eye….And so it’s helpful to remember that we do not all define sin the same way.

To get at this we can begin by looking at the baptismal covenant as found in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. In this way sin can be defined as those occasions when we fail to live into the covenant: when we fail to respect the dignity of others, fail to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ, fail to seek and serve Christ in all persons, fail to strive for peace and justice.

And for women, in particular, it may be our failure to respect the dignity of ourselves, failure to see how the Good News of Christ is alive in us, and failure to see the need for justice that reconciles the ways women are contained and confined by the bias of a misogynist society.

Sadly, one thing (among many) that the Presidential election process in this country is pointing out is the disparity of how we view power, especially when a woman is in the role of power.

So, begin with yourself, myself. In what ways do you, do I, struggle to live the baptismal covenant?

We do not see things as they are. We see things as WE are.

So hwho are we?

Portions of this reflection were influenced by John Shea "On Earth as it is in Heaven" Matthew Year A and Jan Richardson at The Painted Prayerbook.