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A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:8-14
Luke 20:9-19

Death and Taxes

It's that time of year again -- I spent about 12 hours yesterday with the tax forms. And at the end of that time I felt kind of like the tenants in today's gospel: I worked hard; the harvest is mine; if someone from the IRS shows up I'd like to throw him or her out if not kill them.

There are some familiar presumptions going on in today's parable about the "wicked tenants." One is based on our sense of fairness. Another presumption is about ownership or that we deserve something for our hard work. But this is God we're dealing with here. Remember: "All things come of thee, O Lord; and of thine own have we given thee."

Everything belongs to God and God doesn't seem to work according to our sense of fairness. God throws all our neat accounting out of the window. We are all totally indebted to God. Nothing we have really belongs to us.

The Apostle Paul, in his own accounting , reminds us that everything is a loss compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus, our Lord. Compared to Christ everything -- our accomplishments and our failures -- is "rubbish" -- Paul uses a crude word for what ends up in the sewer. What Paul longs for, he has not obtained for himself; he tells us that instead it is Christ who has made Paul his own.

There's where the wicked tenants are mistaken. No matter what they do, they can't get the inheritance or even the harvest for themselves. It can only be given to them by the owner or the son.

God really is doing a new thing here -- a new accounting:
Everything is nothing and Christ is everything.
Jesus comes along and all our debts are paid in full.

God's accounting seems unfair -- even a bit irritating -- that it everyone's debts are paid when some of us try to pay back those debts in praise and thanks, in love and good works, while others play golf or recklessly break God's law. It's hard not to keep accounts especially when we think we deserve a refund or at least fair wages.

There's the hitch again -- we all owe it all to God. The account books don't belong to us. Jesus is the one who balances the accounts and it seems that his records ‘justify' -- straighten out -- everyone's account. "Justification" is a concept familiar in theology and in accounting. It means to straighten things out -- the same word a computer uses to describe straight margins: they are justified.

Justification is there for everyone. When Jesus restores the fortunes of Zion not only do those who have sowed with tears reap with songs of joy but also tax collectors, murderous wicked tenants, and even the IRS are offered forgiveness. Our debts, our trespasses, our sins are paid in full.

But this parable is not about who owns the harvest or the vineyard or even about what we owe God. It is about recognizing Christ. That surpassing value of knowing Christ that makes everything else insignificant.

The only one who is left out of this new accounting is the one who fails to recognize Christ.

But even for the tenants and those of us like them who blindly reject the cornerstone and who kill the Son there is hope. God takes even their act of rejection and murder -- even our crucifixion of the Son -- and does a new thing.

The irony and glory of the story is that killing the Son, the heir, gives everyone the inheritance. And the inheritance is life.

Our debts are paid in full. And there's a glorious rebate.
Recognize the Son, even in his death, and the inheritance is yours.

Then is our mouth filled with laughter and our tongue with shouts of joy.

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A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

Joshua 4:19-24; 5:9-12
Psalm 34
2 Corinthians 5:17-21
Luke 15:11-32

Delete & Eat?

I have a computer that can do the most amazing things with just the touch of one key. All those function keys. Keys to move the action around the screen. The ‘Alt' and ‘'Ctrl" keys that make ordinary letter keys do astonishing things. The big "Enter" key that causes most of the action. Keys that can take you to the "End" and back "Home" again. But the most amazing key looks relatively insignificant -- the "Delete key." It's really the most powerful of all because it can get rid of almost anything.

Kinda like God. "Take it all to Jesus!" preachers shout. "Leave it at the foot of the cross!" Our pain, our sins, our shame, our waste of the gifts that God has given us. Hit the Jesus key and they are all deleted.

"The LORD said to Joshua, ‘Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.'" Zap. Delete. Gone. The Israelites are literally home free.

"If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation, everything old has passed away." Presto chango. Delete. God strikes again. The disappearing sin trick. And "see, everything has become new!"

The kid takes off and blows everything. "I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son." Dad hits delete -- "Kiss your sins goodbye, Son, welcome home." New clothes, big party. "This son of mine was dead and is alive again!"

Most of us have "been there, done that" -- recognized our sin, dragged it home with us, and been blown away by God's graceful forgiveness. We can identify with the prodigal son. That's part of what brings many of us here -- the suspicion that no matter who we are or what we've done, when we turn to God, God runs out to meet us. Zap. Delete. Home free. Thank God!

So home begins to look pretty good and we stay around. Maybe we prodigal younger sons grow up a bit. And we start to look like the elder brother. We work hard at doing what we believe God wants us to be doing. Sometimes we do such a good job that we even forget about the delete key. And then when we see someone else's major mistakes being deleted. And more than that -- a fair amount of fancy celebration filling up the place where the mistake was -- we're shocked by the scandalous unfairness it all.

If we in the church look closely enough at ourselves, it's usually the elder brother with whom we must identify ourselves. Newcomers, latecomers, people who are different from us, people who want to change the rules, all unsettle us from the nice secure place we worked so hard to get. If we let "them" in, things will be different. They might even sit in "my " pew. So, what's to celebrate?

"Been there, done that" we can say about the elder brother. But if we recognize it, there's grace and forgiveness there too. The elder brother doesn't run as far away from home, but he too rebels, sulking outside the party. And again the father goes out to meet him and pleads for him to come home. The father is ready to delete the shortcomings of both sons and welcome them both to the party.

Neither boy really trusts thier father's love. Both boys need to grow up, to become more like their father. So do we. Our baptismal calling is to grow into the full stature of Christ, to show every more clearly in our lives that we are made in the image of Christ

Most of us can at one time or other identify with each of the sons. Trying to put ourselves in the father's place may be more difficult. Try as we may, that kind of love just isn't humanly possible. Can God really be expecting that of us? Much as we might like to "forgive and forget," our delete keys often misfunction, and our forgiveness is shallow or temporary.

In the today's parable we identify Jesus with the father -- because we know Jesus as the one who welcomes everyone with unconditional love, with unlimited forgiveness -- prostitutes & pharisees, good Jews & unclean Samaritans, saints & sinners, you & me & the homeless guy in the street.

But sometimes I wonder, if we asked Jesus which character in the story best fits his own experience, whether Jesus might not identify with the elder son?

Jesus, after all, is the only Son who has always done the Father's will. Jesus watches all of us prodigals make messes of our lives and sees the Father's love for us. And it is to Jesus that the Father says, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours."

Fully human child of the Father, Jesus IS our "Elder Brother." It's easier for us to identify with him than with the Father. Jesus is our Elder Brother. But there is one crucial difference to what happens when we younger siblings turn prodigal. Jesus, unlike the elder son in the parable, keeps his focus first on the Father -- on his own relationship with the Father -- instead being distracted by sibling rivalry.

The Bible is full of stories of sibling rivalry -- Cain & Abel, Rachel & Leah, Jacob & Esau, Mary & Martha. Stories where people are worried about someone else's relationship with the one whose love they want instead of their own relationships. Stories where the focus is shifted from God onto one's own anxiety.

But there is one Elder Brother who doesn't make that mistake. One who reminds us of that first and great commandment: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart, and with all thy, soul, and with all thy mind." And only then do we become a new creation able to love our neighbor as our self.

Only when we put God first do we become able to love our neighbor as God does; because then God loves through us. Only when we look first to God's welcome and love for us are we able to welcome those who are different from us.

Whether we've just returned home from riotous living and feeding the pigs or whether we've been dutifully at home all along, if we are to grow more like our Father we all need to follow our Elder Brother home and sit with all our brothers and sisters and to be fed at God's table.

Come to the party. "Taste and see that the Lord is good!"

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A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

Exodus 31:1-15
Psalm 103
1 Corinthians 10"1-13
Luke 13:1-9

"Why me?"
I got asked the question again last week: How can this happen to a Christian? Over and over again, I hear it: What did I do to deserve this? I lost my job. My two-year-old daughter is dying. The tower of Siloah fell on my brother. He was a good man. It isn't fair. Why does it happen?

It's a question religious authorities, whether twentieth century priests or first century rabbis, get asked regularly: Why do bad things happen to good people? God knows. We don't. There isn't an easy answer -- besides Rabbi Kushner's with the same name, hundreds of volumes have been written. And the question remains.

The underlying fearful question is usually, "Why me?" Even when it's not us, we hope there is an answer that will give us control of our lives. If we know what "they" did to deserve it, we can avoid it and save ourselves from the suffering.

The thinking in much of the Hebrew Scripture goes like this: God is good. God hates evil. God punishes evil. There is suffering. Therefore someone must have done something evil for which they are being punished. The assumption is that there is a cause and effect; we just can't always figure it out.

We want to know what those Galileans did wrong so we that we won't do it and perish like they did. We want to know what those eighteen at Siloam did too, so no tower falls on us. We want to have some control over the outcome of our lives.

Then along comes Jesus. "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than other Galileans?" Wrong Question! And the ones the tower fell on? They're no worse than you."

Jesus comes along and shatters the neat little cause and effect theory. Suffering is not always the result of sin. But not only that, Jesus adds the scary stuff: "but unless YOU repent, you will all perish as they did."

Repent. Turn around. Turn toward God. Maaybe we should even turn our question around: Ask instead "Why not me?"

We're all sinners, even if our "sins" are only ones of omission like the fruitless fig tree -- "Things left undone that ought to have been done." We're all broken and imperfect. If we think we are not we deceive ourselves and harden our hearts so there is no crack to let God in. Those who know their sin and can admit those cracks can simply turn and invite God inside.

But for some of us it may take a real heart-breaker to open us to God. We work at beign good. We struggle so hard not to do anything that we may do nothing but protect ourselves. Only the when the suffering shatters our well protected, hardened hearts or Jesus the vinedresser digs (usually painfully) around our toughened roots are we able to let God inside.

The cause of the suffering is not the point. When we focus on whether it is our sin or the sin of another or a "natural disaster" or simply beyond our understanding because "God's ways are not our ways" we miss the center where God is. Continually asking "Why me?" turns us toward ourselves and away from God.

As the psalmist reminds us "God has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our wickedness." If God did that, we'd all have perished already.

The point is that given half a chance God takes our sins and our sufferings -- those broken, cracked places in our lives -- and slips through the cracks into our hearts. Jesus reminds us to give God that half a chance -- to repent, to focus on God instead of on ourselves, to turn the broken places of our lives toward God.

Because the cross tells us that God works miracles with brokenness.

Those who know their brokenness and, like Moses, ask "Who am I that you should choose me?" and those who turn aside from their own lives to look at a burning bush are the ones whose lives God enters most powerfully.

It is the world that tests us with temptations and suffering. It is the world that looks at the fruitless fig tree and says "Cut it down!" We, who are the world, are the ones that judge and condemn so easily. Then God is the one who picks up the pieces. God is the one who digs around out roots and fertilizes our sufferings. God is the one who says, "Let's wait a while, let's try again."

When the world condemns and wounds us, it's God who will not let us be tested beyond our strength and who provides a way out of our suffering. God is the one who is faithful, who slips quietly into the broken places of our lives.

So that we do not perish but bear good fruit.

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A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent

Genesis 15:1-12, 17- 18
Psalm 27
Philippians 3:17-41
Luke 13:22-35

Narrow Doors & Teachers' Wings

Ann Hutchins was a school teacher in the Texas frontier. There was not really a town, only farm houses and ranches, so the school sat out by itself. One day there was an Indian attack on the school. By the time the residents got there, all the children were gone and Ann was found dead at her desk. When they moved the desk and lifted the trap door under her feet, out came the ten children.

"How often have I desired to gather you children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings . . ."
Protecting her children. It's a primitive instinct; as Jesus reminds us, birds do it. Even today we still hear these ‘mother hen' stories: After a recent barn fire, the cleanup crew found the charred remains of a hen still on her nest. When they removed her dead body, there were live chicks underneath.

Birds do it instinctively. But most humans "rise above our instincts" and few of us humans would sacrifice our lives for others. Yet some teachers, like Ann Hutchins and Jesus, do it. They shelter their loved ones even at the cost of their own lives. They reflect God's protective love that we heard about in today's psalm: "For in the day of trouble he shall keep me safe in his shelter; he shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling."

But the beginning of today's gospel seems very far from that kind of shelter. What if we are among those who are not able to get through the narrow door? What if the door is shut and we are greeted with "I do not know where you came from"?

I try, I really do, to listen when Jesus teaches in our streets, and to eat and drink with Jesus. And that makes this reading really frightening. Do all my efforts count for nothing? Will I be outside weeping and gnashing my teeth while others are feasting in God's kingdom?

I want to ask, as Abram did, whether God's promises are really true: "How am I to know?" Abram asked. And in response God sends a terrifying darkness. Abraham had to go into the darkness before he could see the covenant light and promise that answered his question.

Today's lessons have some hard questions, clouded and dark. In the gospel, someone asks: "Lord, will only a few be saved?" Jesus replies: "Strive to enter through the narrow door . . ." The Greek word that is translated "strive," comes from the same root from which we get our English word "agonize" -- it means to struggle, as in an athletic contest. Our English translation continues to tell us that "many will try and will not be able"; but the Greek might better be translated "will not be strong enough."

"Struggle to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try and will not be strong enough."
Few of us are strong enough to mirror God as clearly as Ann Hutchins. Few of us can be mother hens like Jesus. Does that mean that we will be shut outside that "narrow door"?,P> Perhaps we don't reflect God's image as clearly as Ann. We are not Jesus-like mother hens. But we are all images of that Mother, images of Christ. We are the "brood of God" -- not the Mother Hen, but Her tiny reflections, frightened chicks, looking for safety.

Jesus asks us to "strive" -- to struggle, even to agonize with him, to grow stronger our ability to mirror Christ. But even so we can't save ourselves. We cannot get through the narrow door by our own efforts. We are among the many who are "not strong enough." We are helpless like chicks or children in the dangerous darkness.

What could chicks or children do? Run to the Teacher. That's not always a place of light and joy: It was smokey and hot for the chicks during the barn fire. It was dark and scary for the school children during the Indian raid. It may be that sometimes that dark and scary place is our hope.

We are not strong enough. We are standing outside the door in the darkness. Our natural tendency is to panic and run around like chicks in a storm. We cannot save ourselves. All we can do is trust in the Teacher to save us.

Then our trust -- our feeble faith -- like that of Abram, is "reckoned to us as righteousness" and the narrow door is opened wide.

It doesn't take much. Don't be afraid. In the scary darkness of our lives, there is a safe place of light and life. Come to Jesus He's still waiting with wings outstretched.

"The LORD is our light and our salvation; whom then shall we fear?"
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A Sermon for the Beginning of Lent

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 91
Romans 10:5-13
Luke 4:1-11

Life is a test; it is only a test.
If it were your real life, you'd have been given better instruction.

That's a "signature quote" from an Internet acquaintance (The Rev. Ted Neuhaus). Jesus is being tested in today's gospel. "Temptation" & "test" are translations of the same word in the original text. Jesus knew where to find good instructions -- he continually quotes Scripture.

So we do have some "instruction" for the tests that Life sets before us. We look to the Bible, and as Episcopalians, also to our Tradition and to our own Reason and Experience. To prepare for the test, we sit on the Anglican "three legged stool" -- Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. It seems that there is a "reasonable" connection between the "tradition" contained in our Prayer Book and today's scripture readings.

There is a parallel between Jesus' three temptations in the wilderness and the instructions we heard for a Holy Lent on Ash Wednesday -- prayer, fasting and almsgiving . If you fast, it's tempting to turn stones or almost anything else into bread. If you give away much, possessing kingdoms becomes more tempting. And if in prayer you surrender everything, how tempting it is to show off your spiritual powers. What we are asked to do in Lent looks like a setup for temptation.

The prayer, fasting, and almsgiving of Lent sends us into the wilderness, where, like Jesus, we can experience hunger, letting go, and surrender. The actions of Lent send us into the wilderness, where we will be tempted.

The gospel tells us that it is the Spirit, not the devil, that drove Jesus into the wilderness where he was tempted. This is the Spirit testing. That puts one phrase of Jesus' prayer in context "Lead us not into temptation" or "Do not put us to the test." Jesus knows what happens when the Spirit does that.

There in the wilderness, where there's nowhere to hide, we face ourselves only too clearly. And we meet the tempter: not some guy in red tights carrying a pitchfork, but the emptiness and powerlessness of our lives and our desire to fill that desert with anything that comes along: with stones turned bread, with alcohol or overeating; with the latest book or toy or kingdom or bank account; with control or sex or people who flatter us.

When the Spirit drives us into the wilderness we usually run really fast away from it, looking for relief. We "ascend to heaven" and try to bring God down to our level, filling our lives jam packed with "good things" and "hard work." Or we "descend into the abyss" of abuse, alienation, or addiction, and claim "the devil made me do it."

We may search everywhere and work hard to fill the deserts of our lives. But the Letter to the Romans suggests another route to fill that emptiness: Slow down. Be still. Stop searching heaven and hell for Christ. Remember "The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart."

We are not alone in the desert, the Word is there with us. We cannot face the leading of the Spirit or the tempting of the Devil on our own.

Why do you suppose the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert to be tempted? Why do you suppose the Church sends us int the wilderness each year? Is it an unfair temptation? Is it a test of strength? Or is it, as the best tests are, a learning experience? Perhaps it is only when we are empty that we can discover that the Word is indeed nearby, on our lips and in our heart, waiting to fill us.

We think of Lent as a time of "letting go" but the reason to let go, to give things up, is to make space to be filled, to "take something on."

When the Spirt leads us into those Lenten empty wildernesses fasting, alms giving, and prayer are natural, good and holy. But they are not enough. We need to do something to fill up the empty places they leave behind: When fasting, feast on scripture; when giving alms, reach out for and rejoice in the gifts that others offer you; when praying and surrendering to God, be empowered to act on your prayers .

You don't have to go very far to be filled to overflowing:

"The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart."
Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.

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