“Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There” Sermon by the Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D. | Nov. 16, 2014

Judges 4: 1-7; Matthew 25: 14-30

The Rev. Dr. Paul J. CarlingI love a good story, but sometimes, when I’m right in the middle of telling a great one, Cherise will interrupt me and say, “Wait a minute, that’s not what actually happened,” to which I’ll respond, “But sweetheart, it’s so much more entertaining my way!” Maybe that’s why, as a people, we seem to love re-writing our history. Take Rosa Parks’ story, for example. We know that her refusing to move to the back of a Birmingham, Alabama bus in 1955, changed the entire course of the struggle against the social sin of racism in our country. But we like to picture her as an anonymous woman, worn out after a long day, after a long life of hard work, just too tired to move when she was ordered to give up her seat for a white man.

But in her autobiography, Parks explains what really happened: “People always say I refused to give up my seat because I was tired,’ she says, ‘but that isn’t true. I wasn’t tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I wasn’t old, although some people think I was an old lady then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”1

In today’s Hebrew Scripture reading, once we get past all the unpronounceable names – it’s sort of like a Dostoevsky novel, isn’t it? – we find another extraordinary woman, Deborah. Deborah, a judge in Northern Israel, is simply doing her job – hearing the day to day complaints and conflicts of her people, and mediating just solutions. She’d kept her job when the Canaanites enslaved Israel, as long as she agree not to challenge their iron rule.

I imagine Deborah sitting there, shielded from the scorching desert sun by her palm tree. In between appointments, she’d get a little drowsy, and begin dreaming about a better time for her people, about what it might take to set her people free. But it wasn’t the hot sun, so much as listening for God’s voice, that made her realize, just like Rosa Parks, that what was making her really tired was giving in to this kind of slavery.

Deborah was no soldier; she was a counselor and a legal advisor. So she went to Barak, Israel’s military leader, and told him about God’s plan. Then she used her mediation skills to get all of the tribes of Israel to work together, for the first time. And Israel rose up as one, and took back its freedom.

Which brings us to today’ gospel – the story of a master who entrusts his fortune to his servants while he’s away. We like to re-write this story as a kind of seminar on prudent investing, where God is the master and we’re the servants, who are given talents we either invest successfully or squander. We all know who the good guys are here, right?

Well, the message about using our God-given talents wisely is right on, isn’t it? But a more careful reading shows this particular master is anything but God. The text says he “…is a harsh man. He reaps what he doesn’t sow and gathers where he didn’t scatter seed.” In other words, he makes his wealth by exploiting other people. Off on a junket, he asks his servants to manage his nasty business while he’s away. Two of them invest his funds successfully, while the third buries them in the ground.

When the reckoning comes, the nameless third servant, who’s apparently as tired as Rosa Parks was at participating in this kind of situation, simply speaks the truth, and of course pays the price. Just like a friend I talked with recently who lost her job in financial services because she refused to go along with an unethical demand from her boss. Three very different people – three courageous moral choices.

This is pretty explosive stuff for the people listening to Jesus. They still believed that God, and everything sacred, resided in the Temple. But Jesus is announcing that the sacred lives not in church, but in our everyday lives, and in the day-to-day choices we make to either advance the kingdom of God or to go along with the status quo.

Which is the whole point of our baptism, where we promise to pay attention to God’s voice in our lives, and not just the demands of other people. If you look at the Book of Common Prayer, you’ll remember that in our baptisms, we promise to:
“Continue in the apostles’ fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers” – that’s what we’re doing right now – why? So that from Monday to Saturday, we will: “Persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord; Proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves; and Strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

The truth is that Deborah, the nameless third servant, Rosa Parks, and that friend of mine in finance, are just like the rest of us – cruising along, devoting our time and talents to doing our jobs, taking care of our families, going to church; reading the news headlines each day about how the world is going to hell in a hand basket, and struggling to figure out how that has anything to do with us. But on one crucial day each of these four came face to face with a terrible injustice and they realized how tired they were of being silent. They listened for the voice of God, and they chose to live the gospel.

Devoting our God-given time and talents to living the gospel is never the easiest or the most comfortable thing to do. We all struggle to stay aware of God’s presence in the ups and down of our lives. But remember, we’re never asked to do this alone. In baptism, we promise to remind each other of God’s presence, to discover together the courage and the hope and the joy we need to make it through our messy lives, to bring God’s reign just a little closer – one day at a time, one courageous decision at a time.

Retired Bishop Barbara Harris of Massachusetts, a modern prophet, explains the great paradox of how, as Christians, we’re able to face into such an ocean of human need, such a sea of human injustice, and still proceed with hope and joy. It’s because, Bishop Harris says, “We are an Easter people, living together in a Good Friday world.”2

 

 

1 Parks, Rosa (1992). My Story. New York: Penguin Books.
Harris, Barbara (June 15, 2001). Sermon at the ordination of Transitional Deacons, Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Boston, MA.

Open Minds, Open Hearts | Sermon by the Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D. | November 9, 2014

Wisdom of Solomon 6: 12 – 16; Matthew 25: 1 – 13

I have a confession to make. Some of Jesus’ parables give me a headache.

The Rev. Dr. Paul J. CarlingTake today’s story about the ten bridesmaids – Jesus makes a distinction between five who are foolish and five who are wise. Well, that sounds like us, right? Except that most of us are both wise and foolish at the same time, and Jesus isn’t usually given to either – or thinking. When the foolish ones realize they don’t have enough oil, the wise ones refuse to help, saying they won’t have enough if they share. Surely Jesus isn’t saying this is the way we should behave – he’s all about abundance. Then the Lord of the manor, even though he selected the bridesmaids, when some arrive late, says he doesn’t know them, and casts them into the darkness. Is this an image of God? It’s certainly not one I recognize.

I officiated at a wonderful wedding yesterday. Not only ALL the bridesmaids, but ALL the groomsmen, were late. I missed a cue and was late starting the procession. We all had a great time anyway. And I think God thoroughly approved. Well, as a priest friend of mine once remarked about this parable, “You know Paul, maybe understanding every single one of Jesus’ parables is simply above our pay grade.”

But the takeaway for me lies in the last sentence. “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

The truth is we’re all capable of behaving like the forgetful foolish bridesmaids, and like the cheapskate wise ones, to say nothing of the insensitive Lord. And we all know that the world can be a pretty unforgiving and dangerous place when we’re not prepared. But we also know that when we are prepared, by living our lives with open hearts and open minds, miracles can happen.

Our dearest friend from London, Mike, was visiting last week, and on Monday, he asked me to show him around Manhattan. Remember what a beautiful sunny day it was? Well, I was delighted. What I forgot is that Mike, who lived for many years in Scotland, is what they call a Munro Bagger.

There are 282 mountains in Scotland over 3000 feet, called Munro’s. And the crazy people who vow to climb every one of them are called Munro Baggers. So Mike’s plan, revealed to me only very gradually, was that we would spend a solid 12 hours walking the length and breadth of Manhattan, including two trips across bridges to Brooklyn and back.

At about the midpoint, Mike commented that I seemed, well… a little peaked. “No kidding,” I thought. A few minutes later, I failed to notice a particularly high curb, tripped over it with both my feet, and made a solid face plant on the pavement.

Fortunately, I didn’t pass out, but before I knew it, there was a large pool of blood forming under my face. And that’s when the first miracle occurred.
Out of the crowd of passing New Yorkers, five individuals, none of whom knew each other, immediately stopped to help.

One well-dressed fellow who I imagined to be a hedge fund manager by the size of his wristwatch, pulled out a cell phone, ready to call 911. A harried looking woman took one look, rushed off, and reappeared with a bag of ice (“Where do you get a bag of ice in a minute,” I wondered, “much less a New York minute?”). A third woman produced a roll of paper towels, and a fourth a fresh bottle of seltzer she’d bought. The fifth man, apparently homeless, gently repeated, over and over, “Don’t worry, it’ll be all right.”

And the second miracle? Every one of the five stayed for about 15 minutes while we held the ice to my face, got my nosebleed under control, got me all washed and toweled off, helped me sit up, and finally stand. They only left when Mike declared me absolutely fit to resume our hike.

What was it about these five New Yorkers that made them immediately suspend everything they were doing, silence all the “shoulds” and the “to dos” in their heads, break apart from the pack, and interrupt their lives to help a stranger? Most others just walked past, but somehow these five were awake, they were prepared.

They had a clarity of purpose, a priority for being people of compassion, that stopped them in their tracks when they saw a fellow human being in trouble. They were living with open minds and open hearts.

And isn’t this exactly what Jesus is calling each of us to – to stay awake, be prepared, keep our minds and hearts open, so that we can act without hesitation, when one of God’s people need us?

We usually associate being prepared with being cautious, avoiding risk, keeping ourselves safe, making sure we have enough, right? Just like the five so called “wise” bridesmaids in today’s gospel. But for Christians, maybe that’s the opposite of being prepared. The reason we’re asked to be prepared is so, when the call comes, we’ll have the courage and the faith to actually risk living Jesus’ good news. And the way we stay prepared is to do the hard work of staying connected to God and to the shared wisdom around us that keeps our minds and our hearts open.

Christians understand that God is always creating opportunities for us to be God’s eyes and ears and hands in this world. But as Martin Luther King reminded us, we’re only aware of these opportunities when we stay open to the “fierce urgency of the now.” And it’s only when we act on that awareness that God’s kingdom breaks through into the world.

So let’s be prepared – let’s keep our minds and our hearts open – and we may just get to play a part in God’s next miracle!

Holy Habits: Sermon by the Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D | October 19, 2014

Exodus 32: 12-23; 1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10; Matthew 22: 15-22

The Rev. Dr. Paul J. CarlingA professor of mine once remarked that the central dilemma in being a Christian in America, is that it’s just too easy. In spite of our chronic social problems, like income inequality, an endless series of wars, and the virulent hatred that chalks swastikas on the walkway in front of Durfee Hall, as Christians, we’re often too distracted or overwhelmed to figure out how to respond. And frankly, part of the problem is today’s text from Matthew’s gospel.

The conventional wisdom about this text is that it creates a sharp divide between social concerns, labelled as “politics,” and our faith, which is seen as private and personal. And we all know there are two places where politics are never discussed – at the dinner table and in the pulpit. After all, didn’t Jesus say, “… give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”? This text has been used over the years to justify anything the government deems legal – slavery, women as property, and homophobia to name a few.

What a contrast with Paul’s letter to the community in Thessalonica. He’s writing to his fellow believers in prison, jailed because they broke the Roman law that allowed you to worship any weird God you’d like, so long as you continued to accept the official Roman gods. In fact, Paul himself is writing from prison, jailed for the same reason.
Apparently these early Christians found it natural to spend time in jail – sort of like the cost of doing business of speaking truth to power. They would have resonated with William Sloan Coffin’s famous challenge to his congregation at Yale, “If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

I wonder if the Pharisees get the delicious irony in how Jesus responds to their trap. By saying “Give to God what is God’s” he echoes one of the major themes of Hebrew Scripture, put most succinctly in Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything that is in it.” In other words, everything belongs to God. What we do have has been temporarily given us to steward according to God’s values, not our own. And if everything is God’s – our intelligence, our networks, our relationships, this fragile earth, everything – how should we treat what we’re given?

This can be a pretty tough lens to view reality through when we’re busy pursuing social, academic and financial success, or simply our own happiness. Understanding that all the resources at our disposal really don’t belong to us, and really can’t be used any way we‘d like, can make things not only inconvenient, but scary – upsetting whatever stability we have, the reputation we enjoy, the future we hope for.

But what’s the alternative? We could stay numb, and grow into adults who acknowledge a smaller and smaller God, one who occasionally inspires us to be kind to family and friends, to pursue a modest level of community involvement and charitable giving.
I have a dear friend, a monk, who grew up that way. “It was in the Midwest,” he quips, “where our version of Christianity could be summed up as, ‘Be nice to others, and they’ll be nice to you.’”

Unfortunately, this is the same God who seems to develop laryngitis when it comes to integrating our faith into a competitive corporate culture focused on personal gain; a God who falls into a deathly silence when we scan the news about the horrors we humans are inflicting upon one another.

That’s why we have to be careful about listening to scripture with our eyes and our hearts wide open – we might be changed by it. We might come to believe that such a private faith, and such an autonomous life, make no sense in light of the essential interdependence of all creation. We might even start to feel like we’re actually part of the larger Body of Christ around the globe – each person beloved of God – and so integrally connected that when one hurts, we all hurt, and when one is victorious, we all have reason to rejoice.

We might come to believe that the Christian invitation to live in a spiritually healthy relationship with ourselves, with each other, with creation, and especially with God, is only possible through opening ourselves to how much God loves each and every one of us – and that this love is the only constant, the only foundation that makes sense out of the day to day complexity and confusion of our lives.

Depending on the day, your time at Yale may feel like a burden, a mass of confusion, or just a yawn, but in truth, it’s an extraordinary gift; an opportunity to move through each day with intention, staying aware of the sacred within the ordinary, remaining attentive to God’s claim on you. It’s what we Anglicans call “incarnational living”, and it offers a depth of appreciation and purpose that can make you feel utterly alive.

The laboratory for living with this kind of consciousness lies in developing what we might call “holy habits,” ways of nudging ourselves to be aware of the sacred all around us; of the spiritual significance of what occurs in our everyday lives; of the implications of our faith for each of the choices we make every day, large and small. Holy habits – like spending time each day deepening your relationship with God – through meditation, a long walk, time for yoga, whatever works for you. Holy habits – like surrounding yourself with people who will affirm your counter-cultural values; maybe deepening your connection to a faith community like this one – where you’re welcomed just as you are, wherever you are. Holy habits – like finding opportunities – near and far – to be of service in this hurting world.

Last week, Mike Angell preached a wonderful sermon about how much Yale, this ECY community, and the world beyond this campus, all need your gentleness and joy. But to offer these gifts to others, you need to find ways to stay connected to the sacred in your own life, a set of holy habits in which you are restored, and nurtured, and loved. It’s never too late to start building those, and then to wait and watch… and see how they transform your life.

Freedom From Slavery: Sermon by the Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D. | October 5, 2014

Exodus 20: 1 – 7; Matthew 21: 33-46

O God, may we know you as eternal life, and may we serve you as perfect freedom.

The Rev. Dr. Paul J. CarlingHave you ever heard of Judge Roy Moore?  He made national headlines a few years ago when he was removed as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court after insisting on displaying a replica of the Ten Commandments in his courthouse.   As I looked over the reading from the Hebrew Scripture this week on the Ten Commandments, I went back and re-read Judge Moore’s story, and it seems that this practice of his went back a long way. When he was a circuit judge, travelling to his various local courts, apparently he would carry this replica on the back of a flat bed truck.

The thing weighed 5,280 pounds – just over ¼ ton per commandment!  It required a yellow 57 – foot steel I – beam crane just to lift and place it into position each time.  As I read, I thought – that’s how so many people see the Ten Commandments today; as either just so much historical dead weight or, if we take them seriously, like the heaviest burden of our lives.

Maybe they’d be easier if they weren’t so… well, specific!  Most of us do all right with the “Don’t murder” part, but it gets pretty dicey after that.  So how about we each do what folks in A. A. call “taking a fearless moral inventory?”  How do each of us do in living out the Ten Commandments?  Ready?

First there’s, “I’m God and you’re you – don’t get seduced by all those glitzy substitutes.” Or, “If you have to curse, fine, just don’t drag my name into it.”  Or, “Take a full day off, every week, and really and truly rest, regardless of how that affects your career prospects, or your chance of getting into the best graduate school.”

Hmmm, how are we doing so far?  How about, “Stay connected to your parents, no matter how difficult they can be?”  Or, “Don’t sleep around – physically or emotionally – no matter how empty you feel, or how attractive the alternatives.”  Or, “Don’t steal, even if it’s legal.”  Or, “Don’t lie, even when it really makes you look good… or if it gets you a really big tax refund.”  And how about, “Don’t envy other people for what they have, that you don’t?”

Now let’s be clear.  We don’t do this inventory to feel guilty, but to remember, that what all of these commandments have in common is our human inclination to worship idols instead of God. The Ten Commandments just describe the most popular ones.

There are obvious idols – like accumulating wealth at other people’s expense; using other people for our own pleasure; or misusing God’s creation.  And more subtle ones – like spending most of our waking hours thinking about our own happiness.

Either way, they all eventually fail us – either in some dramatic “crash and burn”, or simply in that dull ache in our stomachs that they can never quite fill.  Whatever the outcome, idols do a pretty good job of distracting us from God.  Remember the Volvo commercial that promised, “a car that will save your soul?”

The sad truth about idols is that they force us to work harder and harder first to acquire them, and once we do, to hold on to them.  In the process, they keep us numb, moving too fast to think, and if we are able to feel anything, feeling isolated, both from ourselves and from those around us.  And they affect more than us.

Chris Hedges, in his book on the Ten Commandments, Losing Moses on the Freeway,1 explains that idols keep us disconnected from the larger world, which cries out for our attention.  He says, “Our idols are typically built around exclusive communities of people just like us – whether that means race, or class, or sexual orientation, or religion, or even nation – and they inevitably carry within them the denigration of others whom we exclude.  They divide us from the rest of God’s children.  That’s why the more we listen to ourselves, the more we create God in our own image, until God becomes an idol that looks and speaks just like one of us.  But, the good news,” Hedges concludes, “is that the more we listen to the voices of others, voices unlike our own, the more we experience God trying to save us from idolatry.”

He tells this story to illustrate.  “It was 1983 and I was visiting a United Nations camp in Honduras for Guatemalan refugees who had fled the awful violence in their country.  Most had lost family members.  When I arrived on a dreary January day, the people were decorating their tents and wooden warehouses with colored paper, to celebrate the flight of Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus into Egypt, to escape Herod’s slaughter.  ‘Why,’ I asked one of the men, ‘is this such an important day?’  He answered, ‘It was on this day that Christ became a refugee.’  And though I knew this Bible passage by heart,” Hedges confessed, “it was only in that refugee camp, so far from home, listening to a man who couldn’t even read, that I finally understood what it meant.”2

That’s why, before we get too hung up on how hard it is to resist idols and be faithful to this laundry list of commandments, I suggest we relax and listen again to how this Exodus passage begins.  God says, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

Somehow, I don’t think God, who goes to all the trouble of liberating us from physical and spiritual slavery, is about to turn around and enslave us once again with a finger-wagging set of rules and regulations that control every aspect of our lives.  Instead, I believe God is in the business of freeing us from whatever slavery we imprison ourselves in.

If you think, like I do, that God practices truth in advertising, you just might imagine God saying, “Here’s the deal I’m offering you.  With one hand, I give you complete freedom.  With the other, I offer you a set of guidelines on how to live with me, and with each other.  It’s these guidelines that will keep you from becoming enslaved once again, but this time by your own freedom.”

The real question the Ten Commandments asks then, is,  “How are we to live faithfully together?”  And St. Augustine gives us a wonderful answer. “In the end,” he says, “…human love is always directed toward God, or toward the self.  There are simply no other choices.”

1-  Chris Hedges (2005).  Losing Moses on the Freeway: The 10 Commandments in America. New York:  Free Press.

2- Op. cit., p. 5.

Walking the Walk: Sermon by the Rev. Paul J. Carling | September 28, 2014

Exodus 17: 1-7; Philippians 2: 1-13; Matthew 21: 23-32

The Rev. Dr. Paul J. CarlingIf we were sifting through the evidence of what got Jesus killed, this parable of the two sons would be one of the “smoking guns.”  In Matthew’s gospel, it’s Monday of Holy Week, Good Friday’s just days away, and Jesus has had a whale of a week.  He’s triumphantly entered Jerusalem on a stolen donkey, chased the money changers from the temple, cursed and withered the fig tree, and healed all sorts of undesirables.  Now, just as one of the priests is getting ready to start the weekly service, he marches into the temple and begins to preach.   No wonder they come after him.  “By what authority are you doing all these things?” they demand.

Of course, Jesus never gives people an answer when he thinks they can figure it out for themselves, so he tells a story about two sons – the first who refuses to work in the field, but then changes his mind and does; and the second who says he will, but doesn’t.  “Which of the two,” Jesus asks, “did the will of his father?”  I don’t think it was the question that got to them – it’s a pretty easy question?  How would you answer it – the first, right?  And you’d be correct.  No, the problem was Jesus’ answer.

Because what Jesus was really asking was whether they believed in talking the talk or walking the walk, whether they came to church, said elegant prayers, and sang gorgeous hymns, and then treated people miserably the rest of the week.  In fact, Jesus tells them, it’s the most despised sinners – the prostitutes and the tax collectors – the ones who never even went to church, who said no to God – maybe for most of their lives, but then finally repented and followed Jesus – those are the people who are right up front when the line forms for the kingdom of God.  “Single file behind the prostitutes,” Jesus tells the religious leaders.  No wonder they wanted to kill him.

Today, Paul exhort us to “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” and reminds us that this is not just an intellectual assent; it requires action – one choice at a time.  It’s fine to say we believe in striving for justice and peace, it’s fine to tell others we seek to serve Christ in all persons, but if all we ever do is talk about it, then we’re just like the second brother who says ‘yes’ but doesn’t follow through.

Soren Kierkegaard put it this way.  “It’s well known” he says, “that Christ consistently used the expression ‘follower.’ He never asked for ‘admirers.’ The difference between an admirer and a follower is that the admirer never makes any true sacrifices. He always plays it safe.”  Kierkegaard continues, “Though in words, phrases, songs, he is inexhaustible about how highly he prizes Christ, he renounces nothing, gives up nothing, will not reconstruct his life, will not be what he admires, and will not let his life express what it is he supposedly admires.  He fails to understand that what he admires is actually making a claim on him.”1  Hard words for anyone who has ever had trouble walking the walk – which means every one of us.

It’s often not even a conscious process of pretending.  We want so much to do the right thing that sometimes we even imagine we have.  One of my favorite writers, Barbara Brown Taylor, puts it this way, “Maybe we have such good imaginations that we actually believe we’ve done things we really only thought about doing.  Have you ever thought about visiting a friend who was having a hard time; rehearsed what you wanted to say; then decided on a phone call, then a text, then a tweet; then considered what a nice gesture that would be; then congratulated yourself on your thoughtfulness… and then promptly forgot about it?”

“I hope I’m not the only one here who’s done that,” she says.  “I’ve even had a hard time later remembering whether I’ve sent that e-mail or not.  I believe I’m the kind of person who does things like that, but sometimes I don’t actually do them.  I just roll the ideas around in my mind until I’ve sucked all the sweetness out of them and then I swallow them.  It’s so easy,” she concludes, “to get our rhetoric mixed up with our actions.” 2

A college chaplain I know loves telling a story about a young man he met who was adamant about not coming to church.  When asked why, he explained, “Because everyone at church is a hypocrite.”  The chaplain smiled and replied, “Well, why don’t you come on down and make it one more?”

The real question may be, “How do we live faithfully in the midst of our own hypocrisy?” Well, there’s some very good news in today’s lessons.  First, no matter how long we’ve been away, it’s never too late to come home to God.  And second, the choice to embrace the claim God makes on us – no matter how many times we have to make it, or how much we screw up before or after each choice – is not the burden it sounds like.  Actually, it’s the doorway to a life of meaning, full of gratitude and peace.  After all, why did Jesus bother telling us all these parables?  Listen to his words in the gospel of John, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”3

 

1 Kierkegaard, S., & Moore, C. E. (2003). Provocations: Spiritual writings of Kierkegaard.  Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis, p. 336.

2 Barbara Brown Taylor (1999).  The Yes and No Brothers.  Home by Another Way.  Cambridge MA: Cowley Publications, p. 189.

3 John 15: 11

The Bible Tells Me So: Sermon by the Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D. | September 21, 2014

Exodus 16: 2-15; Matthew 20: 1-16

The Rev. Dr. Paul J. CarlingListening to today’s gospel, you might think, “It would take a brilliant theologian to make sense out of that parable.”  Someone like the famous Swiss scholar, Karl Barth, whom Pope Pius XII described as the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas.  He was amazingly productive, turning out volume after volume, each one so popular that he was deluged with invitations to do lecture tours.  But Barth always refused.  You see, he had a terrible fear of flying.

Late in life, Barth finally published his magnum opus, a 13 – volume work titled Church Dogmatics.  The clamor for a tour was greater than ever and his editor was ready to pull out his hair, until he remembered that Barth had an absolute passion for American Civil War history.  He approached him and said, “Dr. Barth, if I promise to take you to every significant Civil War monument and memorial, will you do a US lecture tour?” and to everyone’s surprise, he agreed.

The tour was successful beyond the editor’s wildest dreams, with great press coverage and overflow crowds in every hall.  The final lecture was scheduled at Union Theological in New York, and it was packed with folks who felt they’d probably never have the chance to hear him speak again.

After the lecture, a young man raised his hand and said, “Dr. Barth, you’ve had an incredibly successful career as a theologian.  You’ve written about all of the most important questions of the ages.  If you had to summarize the core of your theology, what would it be?”

Barth thought deeply, paced, started to speak, stopped, paced some more, started again.  Finally, he sighed and said,“ Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

Which leads me back to today’s readings.  On the surface, they couldn’t be more different. In the reading from Exodus, God’s people are wandering in the wilderness, exhausted, hungry… and of course grumbling.  In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells a strange story about several groups of laborers, each one working a different number of hours, but all getting paid the same wage at the end – to our modern ears, this seems grossly unfair, doesn’t it?

But if you think about it, maybe these two stories are trying to make exactly the same point.  Let’s look.

In the first, the way the Israelites respond to their dilemma is to complain, “Where are you God when we really need you?”  But when they stop complaining long enough to realize that God is actually with them every step of their journey, when they finally figure out that they simply need to acknowledge God’s presence, to ask God for help, what happens?  The heavens open up, and down flows all the food they’ll ever need, a veritable feast of quail and manna.

And the laborers in today’s gospel?  Jesus is saying that whether they spent the whole day working in the hot sun, or just the final hour; whether they spent their whole life going to church and praying, or just darkened the door for the first time last week; whether they’ve been doing good deeds since they were first cuddled on their grandma’s knee, or just discovered yesterday they had a heart; no matter how hard we try or how many times we fall, God rewards each of us with the same abundant love.  Manna from heaven and unconditional love – God gives us everything we need, if only we open our arms and welcome it in.

Apparently God’s economy is vastly different from ours.  Maybe it’s less about pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, or defining our worth by how hard we work, and more about everyone having what we need simply because of our inherent worth.  It’s about rejoicing when we see someone’s needs met, rather than resenting them because we didn’t get more.

This image of an extravagantly loving God is what our baptism is all about, an acknowledgement that from the moment we are a mere idea in our parents’ heads, God loves each one of us so much, as St. Augustine famously said, it’s as if there’s only one of us.  Or like a priest friend, Ed Bacon, once described God’s love, “It’s like the entire volume of the Amazon River, the largest river in the world, flowing all the way across South America, in order to water a single flower.”

That’s why God’s love can be so healing, so nourishing – so fortifying, as Winnie the Pooh would put it – that if we dare to open ourselves to this love, it will fill us up so abundantly, we’ll have no choice but to give it away – through loving those around us, through welcoming strangers into our lives, through working for peace and justice for all God’s people.

And whether we behave that way every day, or wander far from God for years at a time, God just keeps on tilling the soil of our hearts – patiently walking beside us, and loving us every step of the way, not because of how hard we’ve worked, but just because of who we are, each of us God’s beloved.

So maybe Karl Barth had it right.  If we had to sum up what our faith is all about, maybe it’s all right there in that simple song – let’s try singing it together –  “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so, little ones to him belong, they are weak and he is strong.  Yes, Jesus loves me, yes Jesus loves me, yes Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so.”

Fresh Start: Sermon by the Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D. | September 14, 2014

Romans 14: 1-12; Matthew 18: 21-35

The Rev. Dr. Paul J. CarlingGood evening, I’m Paul… or Rev. Paul – or whatever else you’re comfortable with – and I’m just filled with joy being with you tonight.  I’m the new “Provisional Interim Chaplain” of the Episcopal Church at Yale, and I think this title expresses both the reality of where we are as a community, and some real spiritual wisdom about how we might move forward.  First the reality.

I know that this has been a painful and challenging period for the ECY.  And the time of deep discernment we’re entering is fraught with uncertainty.   So it’s completely normal that while some of you are ready to move forward, others may be feeling more hurt than hope, more disappointment and even despair, than determination.  That’s why situations like this demand first and foremost a response of the heart to each other.  Those of us who form the body of this vital and sacred ministry are being invited to transform our relationships with the only real tool we have – love – so that they align with whatever new thing God is calling us to in this place, on the Yale campus, and in the world, and it starts by honoring where each person is right now.  That’s the reality.

And the wisdom?  First, let’s remember that throughout history, God has offered us, sometimes dramatically, a series of fresh starts – to clear the decks; to turn us from regrets and recriminations about the past, or from anxieties about the future; and to settle us into the present moment.  After all, this is the only moment any of us can really influence.  Changing the past is impossible; control of the future an illusion.  But each present moment contains infinite possibilities.

Buddhist meditation teachers suggest that, whenever our “drunken monkey” of a mind wanders away from the silence, we simply return to the breath, and begin a fresh start.  In the same way, whenever my wife Cherise and I succumb to some time-tested dance of conflict, one of us usually has the wisdom to say “”Fresh Start” and we agree to pretend that the last few sentences simply never happened.  Believe me, life can be a lot easier when we live in the present moment.

A second word of wisdom: Jesus never envisioned following him as a bunch of lone rangers.  In times of uncertainty – which means always – he sends us companions; asks us to huddle close and pray for collective strength; and until things get clearer, to simply keep on doing the next right thing.  Laughing – mostly at ourselves – also helps… a lot.

And a third and final piece of wisdom:  the book of Deuteronomy reminds us that every present moment offers us blessings and curses, and if we’re smart, we’ll choose to bless each other, we’ll choose love over fear, and life over death.  And the reward?  “So that we may live…”  Even if that’s just for one more day, it will be worth it.  It may turn out to be the best day of our life.

It’s when we practice this spiritual wisdom – living in the present moment, sticking with our community, and choosing life – that we experience the presence of God – in a surge of hope, a profound sense of gratitude, a sudden understanding, a rush of compassion, feeling understood and loved.  It’s God’s presence, in so many different forms, that heals our past, and helps us face into the future with hope.  It helps us to trust again; to risk in a radically new way; to set our eyes on what makes our hearts sing; to choose right relationships over being right; and to include others in our community, no matter how different or disturbing.  Why bother?   Because this is the only way to keep on learning how to love.

So we offer an extravagant welcome to each of you tonight.  Welcome just as you are, with all of your dreams and doubts, all your hopes and hesitations.  Wherever you are on your spiritual journey, your presence blesses and enriches us.  If this is your first time, and you’re seeking more meaning and joy in your life, you’ve come to exactly the right place.  We’re a vital community, each of us is a new creation, gifted and flawed, and together we’re called to co-create with God a more caring world, one person at a time.

My prayer is that, during this time of transition, the Episcopal Church at Yale will become even more of a haven of refuge and respite for each of you, a place of doubt and discovery, an oasis of journey and joy.  And if it already has become that for you, I pray that you’ll take on the mantle of bridge builder, guiding others to this place, where we all can be still and know that God is.

In that spirit, let’s close with one of my favorite blessings.  “Life is short, and we do not have sufficient time to gladden the hearts of those who share this earthly pilgrimage with us.  So be swift to love, and make haste to do kindness.  And may the blessing of God who made us, who loves us, and who walks with us, be upon us all, and remain with us forever.  Amen.”