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.”