Monday, October 20, 2014

our lives as currency

Proper 24, Year A, 2014
St. Thomas, Whitemarsh

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

Here we are: fall is in full swing, which means that midterm elections are right around the corner. Seems like a great time to talk about taxes! It’s like the people who put together the lectionary planned this or something…

In today’s Gospel we find Jesus in the midst of Holy Week. Jesus has triumphantly processed into Jerusalem riding a donkey, cheered on by a loud, excited crowd (Matt 21:1-11). He makes his way to the temple and becomes enraged, throwing over tables because the temple has become a place of commerce rather than a house of worship (Matt 21:12-13). The religious leaders are less than thrilled at this behavior, because Jesus is making them look bad. From this moment on, they begin plotting to get rid of Jesus. 

Jesus is considered such a threat by leaders that it brings together opposing groups. The two groups of leaders mentioned in the passage are the Pharisees and the Herodians. The Pharisees are working-class religious leaders, mostly lay people and scholars. They are unhappy with the leadership of Rome and consider the tax to be unfair and exorbitant. Even more than this, since the emperor considers himself to be a deity, any support, monetary or otherwise, could be seen as deference to someone who isn’t God. But the Pharisees are wary of protesting too loudly, because Rome, powerful and organized, will come sweeping in and put down a rebellion. 

We don’t know too much about the Herodians, but their name suggests that they are okay with Herod, appointed by Rome to be the leader of the Jews. After all, his dad built them a brand new temple, so he can’t be all that bad, right? 

These two groups of leaders have completely opposite goals: one wants to keep the status quo and the other hates being under Roman rule. But the one thing they can agree on is that Jesus has got to go. So they team up together and sidle up to Jesus. Their voices dripping with sarcasm, they approach Jesus with mock flattery. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality” (Matt 22:16). “So, since you’re so smart, answer this question.” Smug, they then pose a question without a right answer, “Should we pay taxes, or not?” The question is a trap: If Jesus says they should pay the tax, it means that Jesus approves of supporting Rome. If Jesus recommends they should refuse to pay the tax, it will be considered subversive, that he is trying to start a rebellion. The Pharisees and the Herodians believe they’ve got Jesus backed into a corner—problem solved! 

But Jesus is onto them. He senses their sarcasm, he recognizes the intent behind their compliment. "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” (v. 18). “Someone show me a coin. Whose head is on it?” They look around at each other, wondering where Jesus is going with this. “Uh, the emperor’s” they respond. “Excellent. So give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor and give to God what belongs to God” (v. 21). Boom. Drop the mic. Stunned, the leaders walk away. 

As Jesus points out, on the Roman coin is the image of the emperor. The emperor has the currency made, and the emperor expects a portion of it in return for services like roads and protection from enemies. 

But what bears the image of God? We do. Genesis tells us “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27). We are made in the image of God, so therefore we belong to God. 

In this passage Jesus is not actually making an argument about taxes or even wealth. Our lives and our spirituality are about more than what we possess. In just a few verses we see what Jesus considers the priority: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (vv. 37-40). Jesus is most concerned with how we treat one another and how we relate to God. Jesus is not influenced by the amount in people’s bank accounts or the number of employees they are in charge of; wealth and power do not impress him. In the kingdom of God, our lives are the currency, and so everything we do should be for the glory of God. 

Jesus is telling us to put our money where our mouth is—and if our lives are the currency, then we put our money where our mouth is by living our lives following Jesus’ teachings. If we say we are Christians, then we must recognize that we belong to God, and give back to God what belongs to God. How do we do this? By spending time in prayer: thanking God for the many blessings in our lives, asking for healing and guidance for ourselves and others, and listening for God’s direction. Prayer is, after all, a great way to build a relationship with God. Reading devotionals and religious books, and participating in Bible studies can also help us to deepen our faith and our relationship with God. And there are myriad ways to strengthen relationships with others: service comes in many forms, but the best way to help is to spend time getting to know others. Today’s Harvest Fest is a great example of this. Once we have heard someone’s story, they move from feeling like strangers to feeling more like neighbors. 

This weekend our neighborhood of Chestnut Hill was transformed into Hogsmeade, one of the magical towns in the wizarding world of Harry Potter. The local businesses worked together to transform the town, adding to the fun atmosphere by really getting into the spirit with their decorations. There were crafts and games and public readings and delicious magical foods. Local artists used their skills to create magic wands. Local restaurants and bakeries had Harry Potter- themed foods. People of all ages, from babies to older adults, walked the streets in costumes. There were even buses to Chestnut Hill College, where there was a Quidditch tournament, the sport based on the popular sport in the books that involves brooms and dodge balls and volleyballs and three hoops for goals. The best part of the festival was that it brought people of all ages and races and genders and orientation together for a common purpose. In a way, it was a preview of the kingdom. People were using their gifts to bring joy to the people around them. 

If we can come together and do all this for a fictional book, think of how much more we are able to accomplish for our faith! Imagine if, like the Harvest Fest, we were able to come together and serve one another in the name of God each and every day. Jesus is calling us to dedicate our lives to God. May we follow in his footsteps and give to God what belongs to God. 

Waiting for the Hogwarts Express to arrive!

Local artist who made beautiful wands

Delicious Harry Potter-themed foods (look at those golden snitches!)

Quidditch Tournament at Chestnut Hill College

Check out my Harry Potter swag!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

feast of st. francis

Feast of St. Francis, Year A, 2014
St. Thomas' Whitemarsh
preached at the Blessing of the Animals service

"7 Praise the Lord from the earth,
   you sea monsters and all deeps...
Wild animals and all cattle,
   creeping things and flying birds! 
12 Young men and women alike,
   old and young together! 
13 Let them praise the name of the Lord,
   for his name alone is exalted;
   his glory is above earth and heaven."
(Psalm 148:7-14)

Welcome to the wonderful chaos that we fondly know as the blessing of the animals! Each year we bring our beloved animals, both stuffed and alive, with us to church. Not only do they receive a blessing, but they share with us in worship, adding their voices to ours to "make a joyful noise unto the Lord" (Psalm 98:4). The joy their presence in our lives bring us is without comparison, and in loving them we experience a microcosm of God's love for us and all creation. 

Daniel and I have enjoyed watching our puppy, Becket, play in our yard. He loves to gnaw on sticks and proudly prances around the yard with them in his mouth. He appreciates the satisfying crunch of leaves--both underfoot as well as in his mouth. As Becket explores the world around him we are made to pause and look around us, which reminds us of the simple joy of this amazing creation we are privileged to be a part of. 

Last Wednesday we brought Becket to the church to introduce him to the Alle*gro & St. Francis choir. We let him loose and the kids chased after him and he chased after them all around campus. The children's squeals of pure, unadulterated glee were beautiful songs of praise to the Lord. 

Some of you might remember that the blessing of the animals always coincides with the feast of St. Francis. Francis is well known for his love of animals and nature. You may have noticed statues of the beloved monk with a bird on his shoulder or arm decorating many people's gardens--in fact we have two on campus: behind Church Hill Hall and in the chapel. Francis was kind of a pied piper of all creatures; the legends surrounding him and animals are pretty bizarre. In one, he notices birds in the trees and begins preaching to them. At his encouragement they begin to flap their wings and sing their praises to God. When he finishes preaching, they fly away. In another tale a bunny comes up to him to be petted. Francis takes him back to the woods and lets him go, but the bunny follows him and climbs into his lap. This is repeated a few times before Francis has one of the brothers take the bunny back. The final story is the wildest. A wolf has been terrorizing a village, eating not only beloved pets but people as well. Several valiant efforts have been made to kill the wolf, but to no avail. St. Francis hears of the village's problem and decides to help them out. He and another brother and some villagers venture into the woods, responding to their warning of danger with the affirmation that God will protect him. After a little while the villagers get freaked out and tell Francis they're not going any closer. So Francis and his companion continue in pursuit of the wolf. Suddenly the wolf jumps out in front of them, snarling. But he can't hurt them because his mouth has been shut by God! St. Francis calmly speaks with the wolf and asks him not to hurt the people anymore. The wolf promises by shaking on it--literally. Then the wolf follows Francis and the brother back to the village, where the wolf again shakes on a deal with the villagers. They agree to help provide food for him and he agrees not to terrorize them. The wolf stays with the villagers for two years, and when he finally dies from old age, the villagers mourn him. 

St. Francis is known for his love of animals, but there is so much more to him than just that. He starts out as the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, and by all accounts, as a young man he is a spoiled brat. But much like Robin Hood in "The Prince of Thieves," he comes back from war (as well as an illness) a changed man. Sitting in church one day, Francis thinks he hears God telling him to rebuild the Church. He takes this to mean he is supposed to literally repair the church building. So, he goes back home, grabs a huge load of his father's expensive silk, and sells it at the market so he can give the money to the church. Well, his father is not too happy about this, and they get into a public argument. His father disowns him, and Francis is so disgusted that he gets rid of everything his father ever gave him...including the nice clothing he's wearing. Yep, you heard that right; St. Francis walks away from the crowd naked. He takes a vow of poverty and proceeds to work odd jobs in exchange for food and stones so that he can repair the church without his father's help. He also begins to take care of lepers, endangering his life, much as the healthcare workers today taking care of patients with Ebola. Francis becomes well-known for his preaching, and young men begin joining him in living a life of simplicity and poverty. Together they form the order of Franciscans, spreading the love of Christ with their words as well as in the way they treat others. They care for the sick, the outcast, and the animals; they care for those considered the "least of these" in creation. Francis early on makes the same mistake that many of us make when we think of church as a building; over time he comes to realize that church is broader and more far-reaching than just a building--it's people that make up the Church. 

In a letter written by St. Francis to Christians, he said, "O how happy and blessed are those who love the Lord and do as the Lord himself said in the gospel: You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and your whole soul, and your neighbor as yourself. Thereofore, [sic] let us love God and adore him with pure heart and mind." 

While you and I might not be called to a life of total poverty, I think we can learn a lot from St. Francis about caring for all of God's creation. We are blessed to live in this glorious and dangerous and heartbreakingly beautiful world. May we have the grace to praise God by taking care of the least of these among us, both two-legged and four-legged. 

Becket making friends with the St. Francis & Alle*gro Choir