Sunday, October 20, 2019

Pentecost 19C - Sunday, October 20, 2019

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. John Forbis
Pentecost 19C - Sunday, October 13, 2019

Genesis 32:22-31
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

Click here for an audio version of the sermon.

Well, I have come to this morning to preach this sermon, and I’m still wrestling with this parable.  Nothing like a deadline to bring some kind of truce between me and Jesus … even if it is an uneasy one.

I just have to come out and say this:  This parable infuriates me.  I find it confounding.  I’ve heard it used in so many destructive ways.  The primary one is, well, you’re not getting what you want or need because you’re not praying enough for it.  Such a damaging interpretation gives Christianity a bad name.  And those who do think that way, against them, I would like to have justice.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where too often justice involves a widow with little power and influence losing her decorum and dignity to attack an indifferent, unjust judge who only cares about himself and his friends  She has to attack him because she’s desperate.  Perhaps what she’s asking of the judge is for her own survival.  The NRSV, the translation for this morning, tones down the full intensity of what is happening.  The judge does not rule in her favor just because she won’t stop bothering him.  The judge’s ruling comes from a fear that he might receive a black eye from her as the Greek expresses the action.

Although, she may have already given a black eye to his reputation.  She perhaps remembers one thing that the unjust judge forgets.  The Hebrew scriptures insist that widows, orphans and the poor are to be given particular care and preference.  So if we were to imagine Jesus’s disciples listening to this parable, they were likely scandalized by the man’s behavior.

As she keeps coming after him tenaciously; she is exposing him for who he really is.  To save his reputation, he will have to grant her wish.  This world’s justice often provokes anger and violence to come out of one who has become desperate enough to pummel even a man who has the power to rule over her life or death.  It also compels a judge to rule in one’s favor just to preserve his own skin and reputation.   

In this brief passage, the word justice appears four times.  So perhaps the question, I have to ask myself is the following:  What am I praying for exactly?  If I challenge Jesus and his parable about God, I better be clear about what I want before throwing God over for my own righteous indignation.  Such a righteousness becomes nothing more than self-righteousness, much like the unjust judge who has no fear of God or respect for people.

So what do I want?  Well I want the widow heard and given justice the first time.  I want an end to racism, sexism, xenophobia, anti-semitism.  I want those who perpetrate it to have to pay some consequences, certainly be removed from their jobs, from positions of power and influence, to be thrown in prison or even be killed if necessary.  Then, the victims can take over and bring justice to this earth.  It’s time for some payback, for them to get a taste of what they themselves have dished out, for them to get what’s coming to them. 

Oops!   Well, now I’m exposed.

It’s so human.  We see justice as punitive, payback, who wins, who loses.  But God’s justice is about forgiveness, peace, healing, reconciliation and love.  It unites us, helps us to see who we are, human, God’s own children.  No one wins, no one loses.  In God’s justice we’re all one, persecuted AND persecutors, victims AND victimizers, just and unjust, all unified by love, a love that would go as far as to endure inhumanly cruel torture and a horrible, shameful death as a criminal to expose the horrors and atrocities resulting from our version of justice.

Jesus once said, if you do it or don’t do it to the least of these his children you do or don’t do it to him.  This saying gives some precedence to the possibility that there’s much of the widow in God.  She is trying to bring us to not just cry but act for justice as well … His justice that will prevail, that has prevailed again and again and again.

Just recently, I viewed the testimony of Gwen Carr, a widow and the mother of Eric Garner who was choked to death by a police officer, at a judicial hearing on police oversight.  She appeared in a large room before many people in power, probably some just and some unjust, and expressed her experience of losing her son.

Her outcry was strong, forceful and persistent before and after that hearing.  Yet, all she asked for was for that chokehold to be made illegal again and for the police officer who did it to be removed from his job and to face criminal charges in court.  It took a long time, but eventually the officer was removed from his job.  She relieved her community of at least one killer who swore to serve and protect.

Against tremendous opposition, heartache and anger, she spoke and kept on speaking, and people throughout the world heard her.  Her granddaughter was doing the same thing until she died of a heart attack at the age of 27.  Their cry was not calling for vengeance but just simply safety and accountability.

They have become a galvanizing symbol to expose the violence and injustice of police officers who abuse their authority looking for scapegoats.  They have become the women who stood up against unjust judges in New York who did not charge the police officer for murder.  They are the voice of God who so longs and desires for a home where love prevails and not suspicion, racism and violence.

“They have taken my son’s voice away, but his mother still has a voice, and I’m going to use it as long as I have a voice.”

When the Son of Man comes, will he still find faith on earth?

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Pentecost 18C - Sunday, October 13, 2019

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Josép Martinez-Cubero
Pentecost 18C - Sunday, October 13, 2019

2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

Click here for an audio version of the sermon.

Br. JosepYesterday at dinner, some of you were asking me what I did before I entered the monastery. I said I ran a children’s theatre in NYC. It was a theatre I founded in 1999 and the mission was to teach children and adolescents, through the art of theatre, values such as self-discipline, teamwork, commitment, cooperation, and leadership. We produced great and impressive productions. When you teach youth about self-discipline and hard work, you don’t have to concentrate so much on talent. Great productions will happen! And I have to confess I was not an easy teacher. Teenagers were used to hearing me say somewhat controversial things like: “No whining aloud, please. It is very unattractive.” Or “A little dose of ‘get over it’ with a good measure of gratitude will take you a long way.”

Needless to say that when I found out I was preaching on the Gospel story about the ten lepers, I was delighted. I thought: “Oh how lovely, a gospel lesson about gratitude. I can say a few things about that!” Well, since God has a sense of humor, this Gospel lesson has pushed my every righteous indignation button.

On the surface, it is a Gospel lesson about thankfulness, and yes, there is that. On his journey to Jerusalem, Jesus comes upon ten lepers. He heals them and tells them to go show themselves to the priests. One returns to express his gratitude to Jesus and experiences salvation. So being truly thankful blesses, and restores us. The leper’s enormous show of gratitude and Jesus’ response to it teach us that we are to recognize life as a divine gift, and to find our salvation at the feet of the Giver.

But before I go on let me get those things that bothered me out of the way. “Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?’” What?? As someone who is all about following instructions I can picture myself in this scene saying: “What do you mean where are they?? You just told them to go and show themselves to the priests. They are following your instructions, thank you very much!” And then he continues, and this is the statement I found quite annoying: “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" Who says that, especially while traveling through a border region that was surely full of these foreigners?!

Perhaps having Jesus ask such a preposterous question is Luke’s way of getting our attention. I can tell you he got mine! You see, in order to get to Jerusalem, Jesus has to cross the region between Galilee and Samaria -- the borderland that marks the boundary between the land where he was raised and the land he was raised never to go. It is the borderland that marks “us” and “them”.

By the first century, the hatred between Jews and Samaritans was old and entrenched. They disagreed on how to honor God, how to interpret the scriptures and where to worship. They did not socialize, mistrusted each other and expected the worse of each other. That’s why the story of the Good Samaritan must have been such a shocker in its time. What, a good Samaritan?? My neighbor is a Samaritan??

So this story is about more than gratitude. It is about the gratitude of a foreigner who receives welcome. It is about exclusion and inclusion. It is a story about the reign of God- about who is invited, who belongs, and who thrives in the realm where God dwells. As Latin American children decay in cages at our border and experience a sense of being less than human and total isolation; as thousands of LGBTQ adolescents live on the streets in NYC and LA and experience utter and complete non-belonging; as racial and religious minorities are in constant fear of being attacked in their own worship spaces, neighborhoods and schools, what does this Gospel lesson have to say about belonging and about our ongoing responsibility to the stranger, the alien, the other?

The lepers in this story also live in the shadows. In ancient Israel, leprosy was a dreaded disease considered the picture of sin. It rendered a person ceremonially defiled. Once healed, the person still had to go to the priest and carry out an extensive ritual of cleansing before being accepted back into the religious community and worship. While the physical disease was horrible, the terrible social consequences in ancient Israel only added to the misery. The Mosaic Law prescribed that lepers be cut off from society, including their family. They had to wear torn clothing, have their head uncovered and their hair disheveled, cover their lips and shout “Unclean! Unclean!” wherever they went, to warn others to keep their distance.

Jesus tells the ten lepers to go and show themselves to the priests without any evidence of having been healed. In this, their situation was similar to that of Naaman the Syrian, whom, by the way, is a foreigner, and whom Elisha told to go and bathe in the River Jordan. There would be no point in such action unless they were cleansed of their leprosy, and yet at this point they were not cleansed. They had to act with obedient faith. And that is one of the important messages of this Gospel story. Faith means we trust God. And most often God is calling us to move before we can indulge in what seems to have become the American privileged obsession of endlessly analyzing what are my best options and what am I going to get from this. Faith reminds us that our ego is not God.

Those lepers are cured because of their faith. And when Jesus heals their leprosy he doesn’t merely cure their bodies; he restores their identities. They can now return to all that makes us fully human: family, community, companionship, and intimacy. They can feel again, embrace and be embraced, worship in community. They can reclaim all that leprosy stole from them. So the response of the tenth leper to Jesus is an expression of gratitude for healing, yes.  But it’s also the expression of a deeper belonging because that tenth leper is a Samaritan, a “double other” marginalized by both illness and being a foreigner.

This is the only time that phrase is used in the New Testament, but it is everywhere in the Old Testament. Foreigners are always showing up in the Hebrew Scriptures stories at key moments to challenge our thinking about the lines between “us” and “them” and where exactly we are supposed to cross those lines. Naaman the Syrian, Ruth the Moabite, Hagar, Jethro, Rahab, all of them had been “this foreigner” and have challenged our ideas of who gets included when we talk about the people of God.

The foreigner is a Samaritan and what, through his otherness, is he able to see that his companions do not? Ten lepers are healed.  But only the foreigner whose kind of gratitude is able to see God’s inclusive welcome, receives salvation. Only the foreigner whose kind of gratitude takes nothing for granted and notices how rare and singular grace is when it comes to the borderlands and says, “come on in; yes, you,” is made whole.

If we find gratitude difficult, maybe we need to examine the places in our lives where we feel most comfortable, most confident, most complacent, most privileged. Maybe we, too, could use a trip to the borderlands of our heart, and step into the places where we are the outsiders, alone and afraid. Maybe we need to sit honestly with our most profound hungers. Maybe we need to recognize once again how desperately we need Jesus to welcome our vulnerable souls and say: “Your faith has made you well. Yes, your way, whatever faith and whatever path led you to meet God. Come on in. You, the one I just called foreigner.”

¡Que así sea en el nombre del Padre, del Hijo y del Espíritu Santo! ~Amen+ 

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Pentecost 17C - Sunday, October 6, 2019

Holy Cross MonasteryWest Park, NY
Br. Bob Pierson, OHC
Pentecost 17C - Sunday, October 6, 2019

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

Click here for an audio version of the sermon.

When I read the words of the prophet Habakkuk in today's first reading, I thought perhaps he had been listening in on my personal prayer time.  His words closely mirror my own sentiments:
“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?  Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?  Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble?  Destruction and violence are before me, strife and contention arise.  So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.”
I will admit that these words may overstate our current situation just a bit, but I think many of us really wonder what's going on in our world today when our nation's leaders seem to be using their power illegally to investigate political rivals, innocent refugees are being imprisoned at our borders along with their children, gun violence continues to be reported in the news almost weekly, and nothing seems to be happening to deal with any of it.  To quote the psalmist, “How long, O Lord!”  So, as Habakkuk continues, he has my attention:
“I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.  Then the Lord answered me and said:  Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.  For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie.  If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.  Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.”
“The righteous live by their faith.”  What does that mean?  Perhaps an answer lies in our other two Scripture passages today.  The gospel passage from Luke has two curious sayings of Jesus.  In the first, after the apostles ask Jesus for an increase of faith, he basically tells them, “You don't need MORE faith.  If you had just a tiny bit of faith, you could do amazing things.  And then Jesus goes on to tell the apostles that they shouldn't expect God to serve them as a reward for their good deeds.  Instead, they need to realize that whatever good they do is simply what they ought to have done as God's servants.  What I hear God saying in Luke today is:  “Plant your mustard seeds, and let me bring them to fruition.  But don't expect me to do it all for you.  You need to be involved in what you are called to do.”  So, the righteous live by their faith, and do what they are called to do, as small as it might seem.

Paul, in his second letter to Timothy, also has something to say about what it means to “live by faith.”  Paul reminds Timothy of his “sincere faith” which he inherited from his mother and grandmother, and asks him to “rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands.”  God did not give Timothy “a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”  Paul tells Timothy not to be ashamed of his testimony about our Lord, but rather to join Paul in “suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling.” For Paul, living by faith means using the gifts of power, love, and self-discipline that God has given us, even if it means we get to share in Christ's suffering as a result of living our call.

So as we return now to the prophet Habakkuk we recognize that we are called as God's servants to share the gifts that we have been given and to plant our “mustard seeds” of power and love so that God can use our efforts and help us right the wrong of the world.  Yes, we may feel overwhelmed by the amount of pain and suffering around us, but we don't need to do it all.  As Sister Helen Prejean, from Dead Man Walking once said, “We aren't called to do everything; we are called to do our one thing.”  And if our one thing seems tiny and powerless, we need to remember the snowflake.  All by itself, it is almost nothing, but if we get enough snowflakes all moving together in the wind of God's powerful love, we have a blizzard that cannot be stopped.  I guess the question is “do we have the faith to believe that?”