Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Proper 23 A

Rejoice always! Come to the wedding banquet! Invite others.

Proper 23 A
Transcribed from a sermon given
By Valerie Ann Hart
October 9, 2011
St. Barnabas Episcopal Church

Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Rejoice always, again I say rejoice. This is one of the most wonderful things that I think Paul wrote. Rejoice always! Always!
Paul was already at the wedding banquet. He knew that his relationship with Christ meant a joyous celebration, and he invited all of his readers to live a life of celebration knowing the joy of the relationship with God. To know that the kingdom had come near and was part of them. Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.
We are at the wedding banquet. The wedding banquet is an image used over and over again in scripture to describe the relationship between God and God’s people.
The imagery of wedding is so rich and full and complete. After all, what is a wedding but a celebration of a relationship. The celebration of a relationship of love and mutual commitment. A celebration of the whole community. It is a welcoming of everyone.
We don’t do wedding banquets the way they did back in Jesus’ time. They knew how to do a wedding banquet. A wedding banquet back then was not an afternoon affair where you had some cupcakes and tea. These lasted for days, sometimes over a week of feasting. They had meat and food and drink and song and celebration and dancing and everything joyous. It was a time when the whole community came together.
It served a number of purposes. One of the purposes for the wedding banquet had to do with feeding. People at that time, even the rich, did not have an overabundance of food. The poor lived on very little, and they didn’t get to have meat very often. So, when you had a wedding banquet it was a chance for the wealthy or even the not so wealthy, to share what they had with others. It was feasting and sharing and bringing together of the community, of the whole clan.
In fact, it was the bringing together of two clans because often it was the matter of the husband and wife representing two different clans coming together to make one. Especially if it was the wedding of the leader of the clan, which is what this king probably was. The king in this parable doesn’t sound like a high king in charge of a whole area, like David or Solomon. What Jesus is probably referring to is a king over a couple of cities, a clan, or an area. We need to remember that the Palestine of this time was a tribal area. It still is a tribal area. Sometimes when we see what is going on the news it is hard for us to wrap our minds around it because we don’t live as tribally. But the relationships and interweavings based on blood relationship was extremely important then. If a leader of an area, lets say a tribal leader’s son, is getting married often that was used to cement a relationship, to make a treaty. The son might be marrying the daughter of another tribal leader and then the two tribes would become one, would have a relationship. If you remember your European history, that’s what the kings in Europe did for many years.
So this wedding, this wedding that Jesus is talking about, is much more than just a celebration. It’s about relationship, its about bringing people together, bringing the whole clan together. It’s a time to see people you haven’t seen for a long time. It’s a time to reconcile with people you haven’t talked to.
Maybe you have been to a wedding where there was some cousin you hadn’t seen for a long time and you weren’t too sure you wanted to see him, but if you have several days of eating and drinking there is a good chance you are going to find a chance to make up. It’s about that relationship, that celebration, that joy.
One of the ways that scripture has been thought about, meditated upon, is by taking all the characters in the story and imagining yourself as each one of the characters. Now I’m going to ask you to think about how you might be each character and I’ll reflect upon my thoughts.
First there is the king. I have had two children get married. I know what it is like to send out those wedding invitations. You go through who do we invite and who do we not invite. Sometimes, if it is a small wedding, you only have a certain number of invitations as you try to decide who to invite. So, from the point of view of the parent it is a very special thing to invite someone to come to your child’s wedding. You are so happy when people say yes and you are disappointed when they so no. Now sometimes they have a good reason for not being able to be there, and you understand that, but there is still a disappointment. But then if there is a friend or a cousin that doesn’t come and doesn’t explain why, maybe doesn’t even respond to the RSVP, that relationship is weakened. You feel like that person doesn’t really care about you. Maybe you aren’t as close as you thought you were.
So for this king to send his servants to invite these people was an honor. It was something special. Please come. Join in the celebration.
The next ones to consider are the first two people invited. They are too busy. One has to go to her office the other has to go to his farm. They can’t come to the wedding. I think most of us have at least once in our life been invited to something that had to do with relationship. Even though we were in a good relationship with that person we decided that we were too busy. That we just don’t have enough time to go and be with this person. We have all had to make those choices. Sometimes its hard. Sometimes we really want to spend time with this friend or relative or child but other things are calling us and we feel torn. We know what that is like.
We also know what this is like in terms of our relationship with God. Do we have enough time to go on retreat, because there is all the business to do? My to-do list is too long to take the evening off for a special service. We are behind at work and don’t come to church on a Sunday morning. We all have to make those decisions about relationships and our responsibility.
It is interesting that these first two are not condemned. They have just chosen not to be in relationship with the king.
The next group of people that are invited are ones who get angry at the servants that are sent to them and they beat them up and they kill them. Now imagine that you are the head of the clan and you run a couple of cities and perhaps the reason people from a certain city have been invited is that your son is marrying a daughter in that clan and you are inviting the whole city so you can establish a deeper relationship. They make light of you. They make light of you so much that they even kill the servants you send. The are saying, “We don’t think you matter.” Can there be a more direct way of saying “You are irrelevant to me? You are weak. It doesn’t matter. We don’t owe you anything.” So you can understand that the tribal leader who sent his servants now has to show these people that he is powerful. But it was their choice not to be in relationship.
And then the next thing the servants are told is to go out and invite everyone, good and bad. Everyone. Everyone!
What a generous welcoming thing to do. To say, “I have all this feast, come and share it with me. I don’t care, I want a relationship.” That’s the action of someone who really wants relationship with everyone and everyone is invited. Imagine being invited and not expecting to be invited. It would be like a few months ago when there was that big royal wedding in England, one day going to your mailbox and having an invitation to the royal wedding. Wow!! I’m invited. It would be exciting, you’d be thankful. You’d be all set to go.
Which brings us to the next character, the one who showed up at the wedding without a wedding garment. Now a wedding garment back then was not something real fancy. A wedding garment was basically clean clothes. Generally, if you had two sets of clothes, one you used for work and the other you used for special events. To show up at a wedding without a wedding garment would be like going to a wedding on Saturday afternoon and beforehand changing the oil in your car. You now have oil all over your hands, you have overalls on and you haven’t brushed your hair yet you show up at the wedding. What does that say about how you feel about the person who is hosting the wedding? What does that say about how much you value the relationship? It’s obviously not terribly important to you. You didn’t even brush your hair. You didn’t even put on some clean clothes.
Now if I had been invited to that royal wedding you darn well know that I would have gone out and bought something new. I might have needed to go to the thrift shop to find it. And I might even have gotten one of those silly hats. I wouldn’t show up in my jeans or my short shorts, or whatever. God help me if I showed up in short shorts.
But this last one chose not to take the wedding banquet seriously. In the imagery of scripture, the wedding banquet is not between two people, the wedding is between God and the person who shows up.
At the end of the parable Jesus says that many are called but few are chosen. I would put that a different way. Many are called but few chose to be in relationship. You will notice in these stories, the ones who aren’t there all chose to not be in relationship with the king. There were good ones and there were bad ones who were there because they chose to come. It is the ones who chose not to be in relationship that are not at the wedding.
There is one more character or group of people in the parable that I haven’t mentioned. Anybody think of who it is? The servants. The Greek word is doulous. Doulous has often been translated as servant. In the New Revised Standard Version, it’s translated as slave, and that is probably a more accurate translation because what it means in Greek is someone who has given themselves totally to serve someone else. They have given themselves up totally to the other person. Which a slave would do.
What the servants do is they go out and they invite people. I would say that here we are, all of us were invited to the wedding banquet and we showed up. Showing up is a large part of being in relationship. And how did we hear? Someone invited us.
Now that you are part of the wedding banquet, now that you are able to rejoice and celebrate the great joy of your relationship with Christ, the next step is deepening that relationship. It is about offering oneself wholly to serve the other, to become servants of Christ. And what is it that the servants do? They go out and they invite everybody to come to the wedding.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Proper 22A, with a mention of St. Francis

How would Jesus' parable of the vineyard be told today. I gave it a 21st century twist in this sermon I gave in 2011. We were also celebrating the feast of St. Francis that Sunday, so toward the end I relate it to Francis' love of animals and constant praise of God.

Proper 22 A
Transcribed from a sermon by
The Rev. Valerie Ann Hart
At St. Barnabas Episcopal Church
October 2, 2011

I’d like to tell the parable that Jesus gave us today in the manor that it might be told in the 21st century. Let’s image that Bill Gates has discovered an area that is very poor and a town that has absolutely nothing. He goes there and builds a factory, he drills wells, he builds houses for the people who will work in the factory, he plants a large garden so the people can be well fed, plants fruit trees for the future and sets everything up for this town to thrive. The people of the town are so thankful, so appreciative of what they have been given.
Then Mr. Gates picks out a few of the more intelligent or sophisticated of the people and tells them they will be the managers who will oversee what happens. They are to send him a certain percentage of whatever is make so he can reinvest it other places and they are to see to it that everyone has a good life. Then he goes off to another country in another part of the world to help them out.
At first the people are extremely thankful to Mr. Gates for having done this and helping them out, so when it comes time for them to add up how much money they made that year they have no trouble sending the percentage that was expected back to Mr. Gates. They have more than enough now, with enough food and housing and so forth.
A few years down the road the managers realize that they haven’t heard back from Mr. Gates. There is no way for Mr. Gates to know how much money they are making, so they begin to wonder why are we sending him his whole percentage. They can send him less and he would never know. So each year the managers send a little bit of a smaller percentage of what they have made. They take what they aren’t sending and keep it for themselves. The managers begin to enjoy a few extra privleges. They build new houses that are a little bigger than the other houses, and they feel they need even more extra money to take care of them.
This goes on for a few years and then comes the rumor. The rumor is, I think they read it on the internet, the rumor is that Mr. Gates has died. Well, they think, if Mr. Gates has died then this is no longer his factory. It’s ours, right, so we don’t need to send him anything. We can just enjoy it. And the mangers discover that they need more and more. They believe they work harder than everybody else so they need to have more than everybody else. Some of the people are starting to be a little poor, but that is their choice that they don’t have as much because they don’t work as hard.
Well after a few more years, Bill Gates says, “How come I haven’t gotten any money from that one town? It’s been several years now. I’m going to send one of my chief aids to go and figure out what is going on.”
Well this chief aid of Bill Gates is a little smarter than the one’s in Jesus’ parable and he goes there but doesn’t tell them who he is. He just tries to figure out what is going on. Then he says, “This isn’t right. This isn’t yours. This was given to you to use, to take care of. And you shouldn’t be treating some people as less than.” Now some of the people hear and try to work for change and some people don’t things to change. The representative goes back to Mr. Gates and says “I’m really concerned. I’m hoping they will change their ways, but there is no guarantee.”
A few more years go by and there Mr. Gates is still not getting his share of the profits, so finally he sends his son. When they find out it is Bill Gates’ son they think, “Well if Bill Gates is truly dead, and if we kill the son it will be ours. We’ll inherit it.”
What do you think of those people? Those people were given a great gift. They were given the gift of a new life. They were given such an opportunity but they forgot it was a gift. They forgot it didn’t belong to them.
What would happen to such a people? What will happen to us, because after all everything, everything we have, is a gift from God. The sunshine isn’t ours. The rain isn’t ours. The seeds that are planted and grow up to make food aren’t ours. Our bodies were created by God and are a gift from God. Our intellectual capacity is a gift from God. We didn’t make ourselves smart. We didn’t make ourselves talented. Our hands with these wonderful opposable thumbs which mean we are able to create all this amazing technology - are a gift from God. We didn’t will and decide that we would have all of that. It is all a gift.
The Old Testament reading today is the Ten Commandments. It is always good to remember what those basic commandments are. The very first one is “I am the Lord who brought you out of slavery in Egypt you will have no other God before me.” The very first commandment is a reminder that God gives us everything. Our freedom, our lives, all of it. We are supposed to keep God as number one. That’s the foundation. That’s the first commandment. No if ands or buts. No I am number one except when there is a good football game on. Not I am number one but make as much money as you can. Not I am number one and if you make me number one then I will give you something. It’s not a deal. It’s not an exchange. I am number one period, end of that first commandment.
And when we make God number one, when we appreciate and realize that God is the source of everything, how can we not live a life of thankfulness and praise? All the time. And that is St. Francis. St. Francis praised and loved God all the time. No matter what. He chose poverty because he knew that everything he had was God’s anyway and he gave away all. And he wrote some of the words we have been singing in some of the songs about praising God.
One of the last things he wrote was a wonderful ode to God, the poem of praise which is hymn 406. So if you look in the hymnal for hymn 406 you’ll recognize, I think, the words.

Most high omnipotent good Lord
To thee be ceaseless praise outpoured.
And blessing without measure.
From thee alone all creatures came
No one is worthy thee to name
My lord be praised by brother sun
Who through the skies his course doth run

And it goes on that everything in creation should praise God. It is a joyous hymn of praise, a poem of praise, and you would expect that someone who could write that sort of praise for God was probably feeling pretty good at the time. But the truth is that this was written near the end of Francis’ life. The last few years of his life he was in excruciating pain constantly. His feet were in so much pain he couldn’t walk, so when he wrote this he was in great physical pain. He was also in emotional and spiritual pain because the order that he had founded based on the idea that they would own nothing was now under the control of some of his followers and was starting to buy property, which he was against. He could see that his order, although still doing good work, was not living up to the deepest commitment that he had. The absolute poverty of Francis was too much for even the Franciscans. He was in anguish about that. Imagine being in constant pain and seeing your life work going in a different direction than you’d intended it  to go and being able to write such wonderful praise to God. That was St. Francis.
We bless animals around the time of St. Francis’ feasts day because it is said that he loved animals. There’s a story of him with a wolf and there are stories he so needed to preach the love of God that if there were no people around to hear it he would preach to the birds.
I have sometimes tried to imagine what Francis might have said to the birds and I imagine that Francis said to the birds, “You beautiful creatures of God. Creatures created by the loving God. Sing God’s praise all the time.”
And I imagine that if Francis was here today and saw the wonderful creatures we have here. These great dogs who are being so very, very good, he would say, “Animals, you are beloved creatures of God. Created to praise him. Praise and serve God with every breath, with every pant, with every bark. Sing God’s praise.”
And I think that Francis might say to us two legged creatures  who are gathered here today, “You wonderful creations of God, you blessed of God, know that God loves you and praise God with every breath.”


Tuesday, September 26, 2017

St. Francis Day Sermon

What do you think St. Francis preached to the birds?
Here's what I preached to people, dogs and cats during our celebration of St. Francis day in 2009.

Transcribed from a sermon
Given on the feast of St. Francis
October 4, 2009
By Rev. Valerie Ann Hart
At St Barnabas Episcopal Church
Arroyo Grande, CA
Matthew 11:25-30

One day St. Francis was walking along and saw a huge flock of birds.  Now, Francis couldn’t help himself, he had to preach the Good News.  So, he preached it to the birds and he said to the birds, “Oh birds, you are so loved by God.  You are so special in God’s sight. God knows everything about you.  God cares about you, and loves you, and thinks that you are wonderful.  And, oh birds, sing and praise God because that’s what you are made to do.  Praise God because you are so loved and so cared about.” 

This is what Francis preached to people as well - that we are incredibly loved by God.  Now, we’re not sure that he actually preached to the birds.  That is one of those stories that you’re never quite completely sure of because saints develop stories around them.  But it is a wonderful story.  And we know that Francis loved creation -all of creation.  So, we can imagine him preaching to the animals. 

He also loved what he called ‘sister poverty.’ It is a way of living a simple life while owning nothing.  Of course he didn’t start out that way.  This was a choice he made.  His father was a wealthy entrepreneur.  He was a merchant in the city of Assisi and sold cloth.  They had a huge home, wealth, power, beautiful clothes, everything you could want growing up.  His father was a little worried about Francis because he was a dreamer and his father wanted him to be brought up to take over the business. On the other hand, his mother, who also had a spiritual dreamer side, encouraged her son and his dreaming. 

But, he was a pretty typical wealthy young man. He was handsome. He played the flute very well. And the girls loved him. The young men followed him for he was obviously very charismatic. He had a group of young men that would follow him around and they would do whatever he wanted to do.  He had it all.  He was at the top of his form. He was what every young man in our culture would say they would want.  Then he decided he wanted adventure and glory.

So, in order to get some adventure and glory, he joined the army.  His city was in an ongoing constant war with another city. So Francis got some armor to become a kind of knight.  He went off to war, to this glorious thing.  What he discovered is that war was not that glorious an adventure. He saw the pain and the suffering. Then he was taken prisoner.  He was in prison for a number of months in a small cell at the bottom of a castle where he was ill and miserable. When he came out, he had a different attitude about what was important and what wasn’t important. 

He was trying to figure out what he was going to do with the rest of his life.  He was praying in a church where some of the walls had tumbled down, a very old church.  As he was praying in front of the crucifix, he heard the crucifix saying to him – “rebuild my church”.  Francis took it literally, thinking that Christ wanted him to rebuild this physical structure.  He started rebuilding it and put all his money into it.  He used up all his money.  Then he started taking money from his dad and his dad got tired of paying for rebuilding this church.  So Francis started begging for bricks.  And even though he had never done physical labor before, he was physically rebuilding the church.

Then he went a step further, realizing that he needed to renounce his wealth.  But, I get ahead of myself… He had a choice between living the life that the culture said was good and living a different kind of life. 

On Friday night this week, I went to see the Michael Moore film, Capitalism: A Love Affair.  Whatever you feel about Michael Moore, I’m not going to go into the politics of it - but there was one thing that I found very interesting.  He was asking the question – “Is capitalism Christian?”  And, “What would Jesus think of capitalism?”  He made his point by taking some clippings from a movie about Jesus. These clips present different images of Jesus.  We have the rich young man coming up to Jesus and saying, “What should I do?”  And, Michael Moore dubs in a different statement then you’d expect.  Then, the young man says, “How do I have eternal life?”  Jesus goes up to him, takes his face in his hands, looks directly in his eyes and says, “Maximize your profits.” 

I think that made the point very clearly that Jesus is probably not concerned with our profits.  Jesus actually said, “Sell all you have and give it to the poor.”  Jesus is not concerned about our profits.  He’s not concerned about our 401K.  He’s not concerned about our retirement.  He’s not concerned about our new car.  He’s not concerned about any of that.  That’s not relevant. 

Now, Francis heard this story of Jesus and the young man, where Jesus said, “Sell all you own and give it to the poor.”  Once again, Francis took it literally and went out and sold everything he had.  He went to his father and his father was upset.  So, he said to his father, “Here take all my clothes.” and he stood naked.  He gave it all up and embraced poverty.

I remember when I was in high school and I read my first book about St. Francis.  I got to that point and I was very disheartened because I knew I wasn’t about to give it all away.  I still haven’t gotten to the point where I can give it all away.  There aren’t too many saints like Francis.  And, even the Franciscan brotherhood, by the time Francis died, had given up absolutely poverty, the idea of owning nothing and had started to own their own homes.  Francis’ ideal of absolute poverty frees one, but it takes a very special kind of person to do that. 

In the reading that we have today in the gospel, Jesus says, “Come ye who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, for I am gentle and humble of heart.”  This is an animal image.  When two animals are yoked together, they do everything together.  They eat the same food.  They go to the same watering hole.  They pull the same load.  It is all shared. 

So, if we yoke ourselves with Christ, Christ shares our burdens and helps to carry them.  All that Christ has, and all that Christ is, becomes ours.  Christ, the creator of the universe. If we are tied in with him, what is there to worry about?  What is there to be afraid of?

Those of you who have been in the church for a long time and used to use the “old prayer book”, the 1928 prayer book might remember growing up and hearing these words every Sunday, “Hear what comfortable words our savior Christ says to all that turn to him.  Come onto me, all that ye who travel and are heavy laden and I will refresh you.”

When we trust Christ, when we offer ourselves to Christ, our burdens are lightened and our worries are less.  We may not be saints like Francis who can give it all away, but, when we are yoked to Christ, our priorities change and it’s easier to be generous, and to be fearless, and to be joyous.  Amen.