"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

For All of Us Wise and Foolish Travelers through this World of Woe

          I think that Jesus' strange story in today's Gospel needs a little update. I'm going to re-tell it, and while I do so, I challenge our children and youth to find at least two situations in this story that are unfair. OK?
Instead of virgins with oil lamps, let's say there are 10 travelers down at gate B-26 of the Louisville airport. They are there to take a 5 p.m. plane out of town. Five of these travelers are foolish, and five are wise.
          The foolish ones brought carry-on bags but didn't pack any food to take with them. The wise, however, are prepared. They have sandwiches in their carry-ons.
          As you can imagine, there are thunderstorms somewhere over Atlanta, and the plane is delayed! The travelers sit and sit at the gate, as each new promised arrival time comes and goes. Exhausted, they begin to dose, slumped over in their chairs.
          By 8 p.m., hunger pangs wake them up. It's way past dinner time. The airline representative at the counter says that their plane could land any minute now! The wise travelers pull out their sandwiches and start munching.
The foolish travelers plead, "Hey, could we please have some of your food? We're too hungry to last much longer."
The wise travelers grumble, "No way! We may not have enough if we share with you. Just go down the concourse and buy some food at a restaurant."
They head off as fast as they can down to the nearest fast-food joint. But while they are on their way to buy food, the plane arrives!
The travelers who stayed at the gate board the plane, and the attendants shut and secure the door with big metal bolts.
Just then, the foolish travelers also come running up, MacDonald's bags in hand. "Please, please," they shout, "Open the door for us! We need to go home!"
But the airline official refuses, and the plane taxies off down the runway. They are left behind.

          That's the story. So now, what is unfair here? (Get answers.)[1]
First, is it fair that the supposedly "wise" travelers get rewarded for hoarding their food? They don't share, and yet they're the ones who get on the plane.
Secondly, is it fair that the plane is late? That's what causes the problem in the first place, right?  If the plane had just been on time, then everyone could have gotten on without waiting or needing any supper. Flights are supposed to run on time.
Also, is it fair that the attendants bar the plane door so quickly? Couldn't they have waited on the passengers who go to get food? After all, it is supper time, and they have been waiting for so long.
          As usual, Jesus is messing with our minds in telling us such a bizarre and unfair story. He's shaking us up, trying to get us to see God and one another differently. As soon as we decide that God is calling some travelers wise and others foolish, we remember the words of St. Paul: "if you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools … for the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God."[2] As soon as we tell ourselves that God rewards the ones who pack a dinner and refuse to share, Jesus says, "many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first."[3] As soon as we decide that the attendant who shuts the doors of the plane on the late arrivals is supposed to represent Christ, we hear Jesus say: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in [people's] faces."[4] Instead of trying to make sense of this crazy story, let's enter into it.
          I bet that we have all been in the situation of waiting for hours for a delayed flight, hungry and tired and bored and upset. Can you imagine yourselves back there in that place? It's a spiritually dark and desolate place to be. You're uncomfortable in body and in spirit. You get rather hopeless and desperate sitting there, maybe even angry. You feel captive. You're not in control, and nobody seems to care.
          The world we live in can make us feel like that, too, sometimes, can't it? In his Convention address yesterday, Bishop Terry read us a list of statements that our youth wrote down at last month's Fall Gathering. They were asked, "What is true about the world?" Listen to the words of our 13-18 year-old Episcopalians, verbatim:
          "We can't control the world." "Cheating is fine if it gets you ahead." "Money equals power." "Sometimes you can do everything right and still fail." "Not everyone has a voice." "Women are not equal to men." "Sex sells." "Cheating can bring success." "A lot of what you know isn't true." "Everybody dies but not everyone lives." "We live in a crazy world."
          The world that our young people describe so painfully here is indeed like sitting trapped at a gate at the airport. It's like sitting in the darkness of midnight, with no oil to light your lamp.
          When we find ourselves in this dark world, we often try to deal with it on our own. We're told that if we can just be prepared for it, then we can survive it. We haul around bags and bags of stuff that we think will protect us from want. We're encouraged to buy weapons or build walls that we think will keep us safe. We run around in panic like the foolish travelers, thinking that we can buy our way to comfort and security and contentment. Or we turn inward like the so-called wise travelers, bent on looking out only for Number 1. Or, like the airline employee, we trade in compassion for strict rules, barring the door and refusing to welcome the wayward traveler on board with us.
          What our youth did at All Saints' that weekend with Father Bill and Mother Katherine and Bishop Terry was a different response, however. They each went outside and gathered an armful of rocks, with one rock to represent each care or worry that weighs them down. They lugged these stones into their sacred place and sat down together on the floor. After talking about their burdens, they brought the rocks forward and laid them on the altar together. They laid their cares in the lap of God, and they prayed together and shared Eucharist together. They found solace in God's presence and in mutual support and understanding. They got a glimpse into the Kingdom of God.
          In a few minutes, we are going to come up to the altar with our pledge cards and lay them down. I invite us to follow the lead of our youth. Lay down your burdens here, as well as your gifts. Give and receive and take a peek at God's Kingdom in this place. We may all be waiting for God, but in Christ, we don't play a zero-sum game. In Christ, we carry one another's burdens and lift up one another's joys. We share what we have, and everyone has enough. Like Christ, we welcome those among us who have made mistakes and those who have wandered. Our doors are always open. We have no need to run off somewhere to get our own food, because we receive Christ himself in bread and wine, and he is inside of us, loving us and building us up from within.[5] This is the vision of God's Kingdom that Jesus brings to our troubled world.
 Image found at https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-images-sign-all-gates-airport-direction-to-image32744594

[1] My interpretation of this parable is based on a sermon by David R. Henson, "The Breaking of the Bridesmaids: Rethinking a Problematic Parable." Found at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2014/11/the-breaking-of-the-bridesmaids-how-scripture-undermines-a-parable/
[2] 1 Cor. 3:18
[3] Matt. 19:30
[4] Matt. 23:13
[5] John Shea, On Earth as it is in Heaven: The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers , Matthew, Year A (Collegeville, MN: Order of St. Benedict, 2004), 317.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Please, God, a New Kind of Computer Game: A Family Homily for a Celebration of St. Francis in Violent Times

          My eldest son loved computer games when he was growing up. He's a successful professor of computer science today, so parents, take heart—gamers can end up with interesting careers! Anyway, he loved computer games so much that he would invent new games and draw them out with a pencil and paper when his "screen time" was up. Actually, many a church bulletin ended up full of little people running around and jumping over obstacles or collecting jewels.
Today, I invite the children among us to draw two computer games for us during the service. You can use your bulletin, or the paper that's in your worship bag. First, I want you to draw, as a computer game, the story that Jesus tells us in our Gospel lesson.  It totally reminds me of the games my sons used to play. In Jesus' story, the game creator first sets up his world, his "lands," choosing what the playing field will look like and what buildings and people and defenses it will contain. Here, the world is a vineyard, a place where they grow grapes to make wine. The creator gives it everything you need for making great wine, including lots of skillful workers who live there. Once the land is all set up, people from the outside start arriving to collect the harvest for the landowner. This is an opportunity for the little workers inside to start running around and squashing the outsiders with a variety of weapons. They feel like they have to protect what's theirs at all cost, until all of their lives are used up. The creator sends in more and more of his agents, and those get attacked, too. Finally, he sends in his top weapon, his own son, the boss with the most lives and power. But the determined workers even kill the son. The creator is going to have to come up with something even more powerful to win this game.
          This is a game based on violence. It's a game based on keeping others out, on keeping everything good for yourself, on the survival of the fittest. It sounds like so many of our computer games. Sadly, it sounds so much like our world. Already in Matthew's day, Christians saw the Jewish people as the violent workers, and they put themselves on the side of the divine landowner. They turned Jesus' story into a story about vengeance. Later Christians used this text to justify their own violence against the Jews.  And these days … these days … I don't know about you, but I'm O so tired of violence. I'm O so tired of a world of walls and defenses and threats and looking out for number one.
          I think we need to join in another kind of game. Children, I'd like you to draw it for us. This game is going to be harder to draw, though, because it's a lot less familiar to us. To imagine this game, we have to look again at the Creator who set up the game. How the Creator loves the world that he has created! He provides it with all the best tools and buildings and plants, and he puts workers there with the capacity to give it the best of care. Even when the workers forget his loving care and turn violent, he keeps reaching out to them in peace, again and again. He even sends his own Son and heir to them. And when they kill his Son, does he really rain down violence upon them? No, not our Creator. As Christians, we know that the Son, crucified and dying, prays to the Creator, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do." And the Creator gives us resurrection, new life in the place of death, and forgiveness in the place of vengeance and violence.
          Children, the Creator in God's new game loves each game character like the dogs who sit with us today in church love us. The one who makes the rules in this game is always ready to run to us like a puppy, wagging his tail with joy whenever we come through the door, even if we have been gone forever. He brings us the ball to play with him, over and over again. He licks the tears from our cheeks when we cry and reads the sadness in our hearts before we ever say a word. He will bark and bark until he gets our attention. He would even jump in an ocean full of sharks to pull us to safety, and he would walk a thousand miles to find us if we were lost. Children, can you set up a game for us where the rules follow from this kind of powerful love?
          St. Francis, whom we remember today by bringing our pets to church for a blessing, would be a great model character to include in our new kind of game. Francis believed in a God of peace. During the Crusades, Francis went on a peace mission to Egypt. The Crusades were a low point in Christian history. European Christians were sending wave after wave of soldiers into the Middle East to convince Muslims to convert or die. Francis thought that by talking to the Muslim leader, he could perhaps convert him to Christ in a non-violent way and stop the fighting. What happened was that humble, bare-footed Francis and the powerful Muslim Sultan made friends. Talking and spending time together, they came to understand and respect one another. The Sultan didn't convert, but he and Francis drew up a peace treaty, and both pledged to put an end to the violence. Unfortunately, the Christian war-makers didn't want peace, and they condemned Francis and his new game, and he was forced to flee.
          That didn't stop Francis from playing his new game of peace, however. You perhaps know the story of Francis and the wolf of Gubbio? The villagers of Gubbio were at war with a big, mean wolf who prowled around their town, killing their sheep and frightening their children. Like the workers in the vineyard story, the villagers only knew to use threats and violence to chase the wolf away, but he just kept coming back. So Francis headed out barefoot into the forest to talk with the wolf and to find out what was really going on. What Francis found out was that the thin, shaggy-haired wolf just didn't have enough food to eat. He was starving, in fact. So Francis promised the wolf that the people of the village would leave some food out for him every night. And he made the wolf promise not to bother the villager's sheep or scare their children any more. The wolf and the people of Gubbio became friends, and they took care of one another from then on.[1]
          Children, we adults long for a game where people work together to solve problems. Where they tear down walls and build trust. Where the characters give away riches that never run out. Where they help one another to open a treasure chest brimming with peace. We long for the game that the barefooted Son was carrying into the vineyard when they killed him. We long for the game that St. Francis played so faithfully. The one where the 3 main rules are to console, to understand, and to love. The one where winning lies in giving, and living lies in dying to self, and forgiveness lies in forgiving. Please, draw that game for us, and teach us how to play.
 Image found at http://nightflight.com/an-animated-one-tin-soldier-remembering-an-early-70s-anti-war-hit/

[1] The idea of using these two stories together comes from Don Richter's book, Mission Trips that Matter (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2008), 101-103.