Creation – Cosmos Sunday

Cosmos sunday

10/27/19

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable in your sight O Lord my strength and my redeemer.  Amen.

If there’s one sunday I wish we had a projector and screen, this would be it.  Cosmos sunday is an invitation to indulge in some wonderful photography courtesy of the Hubble telescope, which has now shown us remarkable images of the far reaches of our galaxy.  Some of the photos are beyond spectacular, they are awe inspiring and serve to ‘put us in our place’ as it were, when it comes to the universe.  

Cosmos Sunday is also the only time in Creationtide that we get to consider the earth from a completely different perspective, from the outside in.  For all our scheming and dreaming, for all our praising and posing, for all our cynicism and rationality, and sometimes even nobility, we are small potatoes in the wide, wide universe.  Right outside this planet, our island home, is a whole vast expanse of interstellar space of which we know very little.   

Of course the Earth, or better yet, its earthlings have never really understood their place in the universe.  We know that for centuries it was believed that we were at the center of it all. And why not? Why not have the sun, moon and stars revolve around us? It took scientists, explorers and students of the natural world, and even monks and mystics, to disabuse us of our own importance.

For all our human potential, there is also the flaw of pride that makes living on Earth an interesting place, to say the least.  The Earth is a very particular place in the cosmos, and may have a unique importance in it, being favored by the willingness of Jesus to dwell among us and to die that we might be saved and the entire creation, cosmos included, be redeemed.  But, for all we know, Earth could be the New Jersey of the universe: a small, misunderstood place, kinda stinky, but lovable once you get to know it.

Becoming aware of our place in the cosmos is to remind us of our “createdness” as well as the hubris that sometimes propels our efforts to deny our created nature and its consequences. Hubris is a character flaw often seen in the heroes of classical Greek tragedy. Hubris is defined as extreme pride and ambition so great that they are offensive and ultimately lead to someone’s downfall.  We know this story well, because it is our own, though we call it “sin.” Have you ever thought about the impact we have on the universe? I know, it sounds crazy but we have already changed things not only in our world, but in the cosmos itself.  

Here’s the thing: for a tiny planet we produce an incredible amount of space trash.  Now, “Initially, the term space debris referred to the natural debris found in the Solar System: asteroids, comets, and meteoroids. However, with the 1979 beginning of the NASA Orbital Debris Program, the term also refers to the debris from the mass of defunct, artificially created objects in space, especially Earth orbit.”  According to National Geographic, “Space junk has been amassing since the first human-made satellite, Sputnik 1, escaped Earth’s gravitational pull on October 4, 1957. The momentous event heralded the start of the Space Age as humans began to explore ever further away from our home world, a feat that has been repeated in more than 4,700 launches around the globe. But that also means we’ve left our mark on space in the form of trash.” space trash.  Can you imagine it? If that’s not hubris, I don’t know what is.

Well, maybe there’s even a better or more pointed example of our hubris.  With the 50th anniversary of the Lunar Space program, more and more details have been revealed about events on the moon.  One especially perturbing fact is how much stuff has been left behind by various expeditions. Of course there are flags and other mementos, but also parts of rockets and landing arrays, equipment, tools, and so forth.  That is to be expected, I suppose. The missions are planned so that much was jettisoned to make the return possible.

Unexpected, is the fact that part of the items left behind include human waste.  Yup. Apparently several –96!– bags of it. Talk about offensive! In the name of science and exploration we’ve converted the moon into a dump. Think about that the next time you look at it. If you are really curious, there’s a detailed map of where these bags have been left.

So the question begs, can humanity ever overcome the hubris that it doesn’t matter what we do, what we leave behind, as long as we get there? That the means always justify the end. Can we ever be saved from our sin, the propensity to alter, pollute and perhaps even destroy creation?  What would a space program look like that didn’t depend on disposable, wasteful infrastructure?

Brian Resnick, writing about the positive aspects of the waste left behind, says “Again, this is the most extreme place we’ve ever left life — possibly the most extreme place [human] life has ever been. We need to see how resilient (or not) it is in that environment…Life is a precious miracle — even the life contained in our feces. Let’s stand in awe of the fact that some of it might be alive on the moon. It would mean life seeded on a dead world, however small…”  (Apollo Astronauts left their poop on the Moon. Brian Resnick. VOX.Updated Jul 12, 2019)

I wonder if that’s how we thought we’d conquer the  universe. Talk about being taken down a notch. Humiliating or humbling?

Still, I’m intrigued by Resnick’s awe in the potential for life –and redemption.  And it reminds me that in God’s economy, nothing is wasted, as St. Paul writes, the whole of creation waits with eager longing for the time of redemption. (Romans 8:19 ff)  And we live in the hope that even our waste and pollution are to be redeemed. That is because “The cosmos is God’s home, God’s definite place, the theatre of God’s selfhood, in cooperation with God’s neighbour, and in a caring relationship with nature…”(Joseph Sittler, “Called to Unity:  Redemption within Creation,” in World Council of Churches Meeting. New Delhi, India: 1961, reprinted 1985, p. 3).

Blind ambition, hubris, sinfulness doesn’t get us as far as we think.  It is only when we allow ourselves to be moved out of the center, that we make true progress.  It is only when we are part of that divine cooperation with God and nature that we find our true place in the universe.

Only when we believe that we are not greater than the maker of heaven and earth, can we feel the love that creates and sustains us.  Think of that the next time you look at the moon.

In Jesus’ name.  amen.

Creation: Storm Sunday

Luke 8:22-25I wonder if you have noticed a recent phenomenon: the weather has changed and expanded my vocabulary.  We used to joke, Dave and I, about folks who would make inane weather comments that sounded like “a lot of weather we’re having…” because other than the seasons, the weather was the weather.  Some winters were harsher than others, some springs wetter, but that was to be expected, right? Now I’m not so sure. When words and terms like bombogenesis, polar vortex, derecho, microburst, gustnado, haboob, supercell, thundersnow, fire tornados, and so forth are used to describe what’s happening weatherwise, there’s a sense that something is different.  Is it that we are just being more precise with our language or that we actually know more details about what’s happening around us? Perhaps both. One thing is for sure, knowing that one of these weather events –and I picked only storm-related words in honor of today’s theme– we now know to prepare for them.  Weather reporters and storm chasers have achieved a new respect because so much of our lives depends on the information they provide.  I am still amazed how well the forecasters have become at interpreting conditions. Just this week one day was perfectly sunny and the next, boom! The nor’easter had us in its grip. That is essentially what is happening in the gospel today.  Jesus and the disciples set out on a boat in Galilee. No significant weather is reported until a storm abruptly changes everything.  They go from sailing so smoothly that Jesus falls asleep, to a storm so rough that they begin sinking.  In this extreme weather event, everyone is in a panic.  Whatever they were contemplating, whatever plans they had for that day or any other, it all will be wiped out by the storm. Seemingly at the last minute, or maybe because it’s so improbable that he’s still sleeping, they wake Jesus up.  Jesus who is unperturbed by the storm. Jesus, who seems to take no more than two seconds to set things in order, as if he were blowing out a candle. Jesus who also includes the disciples in the same rebuke: “where is your faith?”Storm Sunday invites us to think and reflect not  about a feature or creature of nature, but about the phenomena encompassed by the words ‘weather’ and ‘climate.’ there is something compelling when we think about them, because for all our efforts, we simply can’t control the weather.  At least not to our advantage.  We can, however, contribute to climate change –and that almost always to our disadvantage. In other words, we can’t make it stop raining, but our actions can impact the quality and/or quantity of rain in a particular area.When it comes to storms, it seems that something has happened to the quality and quantity of storms of all kinds –they have become more frequent and more extreme. My most recent encounter with a weird strange storm and its aftermath happened this past summer in Mexico.  Maybe you saw the reports about it. It was a freak overnight hailstorm that dumped about two feet of hail in an area of about 8 city blocks.  The hail almost filled an overpass.  It looked like snow.  We were incredulous as we passed through the area in the morning.  Since we didn’t know about it, we got caught in the traffic. The hail had stripped the trees, it damaged homes and vehicles. There were some injuries because people there aren’t used to navigating mounds of ice. It was gone in less than 48 hours because the weather in the rest of the city was around 80 degrees.  I don’t know if there’s a word yet for freak hailstorms like this. Here is what the storm does for us: it sharpens our focus. If we know about it in advance, we prepare.  If it overwhelms us or we’re caught in it by surprise, we respond to it with all we have: from bailing water to calling on the Almighty to save us.  But once it starts, the one thing we can’t do is control it.“What is a storm? Is it a test, a challenge, an obstacle? You never really understand a storm until you are in one, but the other side of the storm, that is another thing altogether. The storm is going to cost you something, there is no getting around it. Whether it gives something back is entirely up to you.” (author Rick Delmonico, The Philosophy of Fractals). Whether a storm gives something back is entirely up to us, may be a different way of asking, “Where is your faith?”  we may want the wind and the water to obey us, and in many ways they do, harnessed for agriculture and commerce, but we also need to think about how that can change the landscape of the earth so drastically that extreme storms are the result.  As a dimension of our faith, I’d like to think of a storm as an exclamation point in the language of nature. Something that brings us to an arresting stop forcing us to deal with it.  A storm does not let us evade our responsibility of being stewards of creation. It can  help us prioritize, organize, be aware, change.    Think about the people in Paradise, California who lived through the hellish firestorms last year.  Think of the people in the ruined paradise of the Bahamas.  What do you think their priorities are like now?We can’t sit placidly in the boat hoping the consequences of our actions are all going to float away.  We have to respond, as we would in a crisis. We are not called to conquer storms, but neither are we called to create or augment them. Where is your faith? Jesus asks.  Are we expecting him to bail us out? Are we hoping that the Second Coming is near, so we won’t have to worry about what happens to our planet? Are we thinking, this is just how nature is; it will heal?  Where is our faith in the face of climate change? Again, storms may be the exclamation point in an existing weather pattern, but woe to us if they become regular extreme weather events.  Nature may heal itself in some form or another, but humanity may not be able to survive it.  Could it be that earth’s destiny is to become barren and brittle like Mars or super toxic and endlessly stormy like Jupiter and Saturn? Where is our faith? That question is OUR wake-up call. May the storm not find us asleep in the boat. In Jesus’ name. Amen. photo credit: Getty photos

Creation – Flora and Fauna

Several years ago I went to a conference at a facility in Richmond, Virginia located near the James River.  I had the opportunity to get up early and walk the trails a little before the full sunrise. It was a peaceful meandering in a lovely setting.  But then the sun rose and all of a sudden there was this intense sound coming from all directions. It was the birds, singing a full-throated welcome to the morning.  It’s a phenomenon appropriately called “the dawn chorus.” It lasted only a few minutes, it was beautiful as it was fleeting, I was awestruck. It was truly divine.

It is great to be able to pause like that and have a change in perspective. A change in perspective is part of what we are trying to accomplish in the Season of Creation. This is an opportunity to look at scripture in an entirely different angle. One of the things that comes through when you change your perspective is that Creation Season leads us to consider a “positive theology of nature.”  That is, nature, as we saw last week, not just as the backdrop of human endeavor. Nature with its own divine purpose. This is not to say that we worship nature, rather, that we should respect it as part of God’s creation. A positive theology of creation invites us to care, enjoy, discover, the presence of God in the world around us.  

But it may take getting out of our concrete habitat to be able to appreciate this perspective.  A positive theology of nature would inevitably conclude that the dawn chorus I heard was a hymn of thanksgiving, a  song of praise, a tribute to the Almighty, rather than just birds signing in pavlovian reaction to the light or some other instinctive trigger.  It would mean that the birds are aware, at some level, of their Creator. It would mean that the Creator cares for them like he cares for us.

Isn’t that what we heard in the gospel today? Jesus tells us that God cares for ravens and lilies.  A beautiful metaphor to remind us that everything has value in God’s creation. We may be at the top rung, but that doesn’t mean that we can step on other species.  In fact, it may mean that it takes a whole lot of other parts of creation to prop us up. The dawn chorus reminds me that in God’s grand scheme of things, we are all “marvelously made.”

Do you know what the official State bird is for New Jersey?  It is the goldfinch. It was a bit alarming to read in the Daily Record yesterday that we might lose our state bird. According to an article in the journal Science (American Birds in Crisis, Sept 2019) research shows that since 1970, bird populations in the US and Canada have declined by 29 percent, or a loss of almost 3 billion birds.  

  For the Goldfinch apparently, the warming of its natural habitat is making it seek cooler breeding areas. If our temperatures rise one more degree or so, we will have to look for another bird to represent us at the national level.  The article mentioned the bird’s distinctive plumage and song, and I realized that I don’t think I’ve seen or heard one in a while.  

That should concern us.  It’s one thing to say that the goldfinch might just have to move elsewhere to survive.  It’s another to realize that finding a new habitat and thriving in it, may not be possible.  How do we respond to this news? How do our actions reflect a positive theology of Creation? We have to become convinced that the life of the goldfinch matters.  

“Consider the ravens:” -Jesus says- “They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them…”  trying to get us to focus on what has real value, on what matters. 

Are we listening? We have been at a similar crossroads before.

Way back in 1962, the seminal environmental book, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was published.  It was a real turning point in how we looked at nature.  The book documented the effects caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides.  Carson brought to the attention of the public, but especially politicians and policy makers, the results of her research. And “It spurred a reversal in the United States’ national pesticide policy, which led to a nationwide ban on DDT for agricultural uses, and helped to inspire an environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”  (Wikipedia)  We know these policies work because bird species, such as the American eagle, which were on the endangered list, have made a remarkable recovery.

It’s interesting that all these years later, we are again faced with the prospect of a silent spring.  The issue is different now, it’s not pesticides but climate change or global warming. The challenge again is for us to make enough lifestyle changes in order to save them and perhaps us. The birds aren’t the only ones. Many scientists believe we are on our way to a mass extinction. That is, when major environmental change happens worldwide that threaten entire species at the same time.  

It is believed that previous mass extinctions were due to cosmic events, like an asteroid hitting the earth and the dinosaurs died. This  time is different, though, this time it directly attributed to human activity. Put simply, our choices from what we eat to what we drive to the clothes we use, all contribute to this potential disaster.  So perhaps we need to take a page out of 1962 and do all we can to reverse this trend before it’s too late.

Thinking positively, or believing positively, the Gospel today reminds us that God provides for all his creatures, ourselves included; so for all the dire warnings it is important to remember that God is on our side.  

Of all God’s creatures, we alone have the capacity to ask questions, and even to worry about what’s going to happen next.  But, since Jesus’ time we seem to be more preoccupied by what we are to wear and what we are to eat, than we are about what we are destroying.  If we want to stop worrying then we need to heed the warnings and act. We alone have the ability to change our perspective and imagine other outcomes.  We are to trust God’s providence, yes, but we also need to learn our place among God’s creatures in the divine ecology.  

This Sunday is an invitation to consider inverting our assumed dominance in the created order, we need to shed that sense of entitlement that comes from being at the top of the food chain, and accept the responsibility of ensuring that future generations will be able to hear the birds sing.

I, for one, look forward to the dawn of a new chorus where all God’s creatures join together in a single song of praise.  In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Photo: (c) Audubon Society

RESOURCES

Audubon Society – audubon.org

World Wildlife Federation – worldwildlife.org

The Nature Conservancy – support.nature.org

BirdLife International – birdlife.org

Creation – Ocean Sunday

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord my strength and my redeemer. Amen.

I feel I always have to start Creation season, or Cretiontide as it is now being called in England, with a caveat: we are jumping off the regular lectionary cycle and jumping on another that  focuses us exclusively on God’s creation and our relationship to it. This cycle of readings was developed by the Church in Australia and follow a thematic approach, and so today is ‘Ocean Sunday.’ There is more information in the bulletin about Creation Season for you to read.

The gospel text takes us to the Sea of Galilee, Gennesaret in Luke. I’ve been to that sea, it’s really a freshwater lake, at 64 square miles large. But in antiquity, all bodies of water — salt seas and freshwater lakes — were viewed as a part of the same great subterranean reservoir that fed springs, rivers, lakes, and oceans.  For all their ignorance in these scientific details, their understanding of the interconnectedness of all things on this planet is to be admired. 

On ocean Sunday, rather than just the usual call story, we are asked to consider the thing itself, how do the themes of creation, ocean, discipleship and vocation come together? What do we see with the ocean in the foreground? 

Galilee is beautiful. A sight for sore eyes because much of the surrounding area is so arid.  It is the lifeblood of the area. It is a key area for bird migrations and, along with fishing, it has developed much agriculture around it.  It’s an obvious tourist destination now and much is invested in keeping it pristine. So much of life depends on keeping it that way.

If Galilee, then and now, is the model of how our oceans should be kept, then it’s probably fair to ask if this is the case, and what are we doing, how are we investing in keeping the seas, oceans and waterways as pristine and life-giving as Galilee?

I think we know the answer to that question. We are not doing well when it comes to caring for our oceans.  It may be a question of ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ since we don’t live by the shore; it may be that we don’t think what we do has an impact on our oceans; it may be that because the oceans are so vast, we believe our actions don’t matter.  But they do.

Just this week I learned that there’s something called the Pacific trash vortex.  (NOAA) This vortex is a garbage patch of debris, mostly plastic, that swirls from one place to the other caught in currents from one end of the Pacific to the other. It is a spectacular sight –not in a good way.  Where does it come from? 8000 metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean every day. It is mostly single-use plastic, everything from bottles to bags. This plastic trash makes its way to the sea and the currents push along, making it a swirling island of debris.

Obviously, it chokes everything it comes into contact with. Birds try to feed on it and die.  Turtles and other sea creatures become entangled in it, The plastic, as it breaks down, becomes microbeads that fish consume.  Because plastic really doesn’t biodegrade. It will be here forever.

As I was writing this, something popped into my mind that I couldn’t get rid of: a line in the old movie “The Graduate,” when the character Ben who is trying to figure out his life, is approached at a party by someone who is in the know and says: “I want to say one word to you. Just one word…are you listening? He says for emphasis.  “Plastics… there’s a great future in plastics…” At one point, we really believed that, but we can’t anymore.  

The rise in plastic packaging is exponential as Dave and I found out when we went to a WRWAC event recently.  The presenter, who was from the EPA, talked about how plastic is stifling the life of our waterways. We have to figure out a way to live with less of it. And to me, that means walking away from things that are disposable, favoring things that are reusable and recyclable, and we make this an act of discipleship

Usually, when we read this passage, the focus Jesus calling his first disciples from among the local fishermen.  This gospel gives us that wonderful quip at the end, where Jesus, with an artful change of phrase, gives Peter and the rest, a new vocation and mission.  “From now on… you will be catching people…”  

In this gospel story, we are accustomed to viewing the role of the sea as mere background, as the stage on which the human drama of Jesus and the disciples is played out. But the Gospel writers did not make the distinction between spiritual and material well-being that we do. For them, Jesus’ ministry was not about an escape from this world but a transformation of it, a world in which all would experience both physical and spiritual wholeness. We are being called to help make the world whole.

Sylvia Earle, Author and former Chief Scientist of  the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 1990-1992, writes, “The living ocean drives planetary chemistry, governs climate and weather, and otherwise provides the cornerstone of the life-support system for all creatures on our planet, from deep-sea starfish to desert sagebrush. That’s why the ocean matters. If the sea is sick, we’ll feel it. If it dies, we die. Our future and the state of the oceans are one.

So it turns out that plastic wasn’t our future at all.  Can we imagine life without it? Not really. But less of it? We must.

It’s interesting that Peter, an experienced fisherman, corrects Jesus when he’s sent out again into the deep.  He goes, even though he thinks it’s a waste of time. The catch is so surprising it brings him to his knees. Something miraculous has happened and Peter knows it and he’s not sure he’s worthy to be a part of it.  

But Jesus, who loves him more than he will ever know, has full confidence in Peter and invites him to join in this work, this making of miracles with him.  We are asked the same. Jesus chose regular people as his disciples…that means you and me get to work with him.

Surely, we could use a miracle to undo some of the damage that has been done to the oceans.  Jesus seems to be saying it will not happen without us, reassuring us “Do not be afraid, from now on…”  

So what from now on are we willing to do, to live without, to clean up to show we care? On the bulletin board in the back there are resources and suggestions, and also with post-it notes so you can add yours.  

Make this a commitment, make restoring the oceans part of your vocation, make using less plastic an act of your discipleship, make restoring the earth the beginning of a miracle.

Jesus says to Peter,”from now on you will be catching people. And they left everything  and followed him.” amen.

“Who is at the gate?”

Lazarus at the gate

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord my strength and my redeemer. Amen

Let me start by  confessing to a guilty pleasure: this week I went to see the Downton Abbey movie. If you didn’t follow the TV series, it follows the pattern of the similar very popular “Upstairs/Downstairs” drama series: the lives of English society, divided by where the owners and the servants spend their time, set at the turn of the 20th century.

Don’t worry, im’ not going to tell you the plot other than what’s already out there: the king and queen are coming for a visit!  As you can imagine, the fictional household of the super rich Crawley family is all atwitter at the prospect.  

It is with images of ballgowns and diamonds and white-gloved butlers in my head that I read the lessons for today.  Sorry folks, there’s no way around it. Today every passage of scripture points us to one theme: wealth. There is scorn form Amos, advice from Paul to Timothy, and a very dramatic parable from Jesus.  

All focused on the same thing. This isn’t something new.  The lectionary, especially the gospels, has been pointing this way for several weeks now, having us reflect on what role wealth plays in our lives.  There’s an urgency in Jesus’ message about what wealth does to our lives and our relationships, about how it gets in the way of being faithful servants to the one true Master.

I want to focus more on the parable .Again, you know the plot already.  Lazarus and the wealthy man have been dealt very different cards from the beginning. More “Inside and Outside,” than “Upstairs, Downstairs.” There’s no background story here: the poor are poor; the rich, rich.  But it is a study in contrasts: the rich come and go, the poor are firmly stuck in one place. The rich have a multitude of things, houses, servants, food…. The poor only their infirmities and dogs. The rich have options… the poor, hopes. The wealthy man, despite his status in this realm, is unknown by name.  Lazarus, despite his status, is known to God.

Then comes the part where they are both finally equal: like all human beings before and after, they die. In one of the few times that Jesus talks about what happens at the end of natural life, we find this amazing reversal, the roles of rich and poor have been switched. 

And it begins at the very moment of death: the rich man simply dies; Lazarus is lifted to heaven by angels. Now the rich man is tormented and in pain, Lazarus refreshed and in the good company of Father Abraham.  A just reward for each of them. The story might have ended there, but Jesus has more for us to ponder.

For the rich man, it seems not even the fires of hell will turn him to repentance.  Amazingly, he feels entitled to ask for more. A drop to drink, a warning to his loved ones… “Just sent Lazarus…” he pleads, as if he was still the master of his own affairs, sending a servant to do his bidding.  “Not going to happen,” Father Abraham tells him. Where in life there once was a gate between them, now in death, there’s a chasm. His wealth is of no use, he no longer has any influence over matters, he is now the beggar on the street.  Jesus leaves the story right there for us to grapple with. 

We have been warned how wealth interferes with relationships, we have been told how corrupting it can be, we have been taught that we cannot serve two masters, God or wealth.

But we try.

The problem with the rich man, and the characters in Downton Abbey is that everyone is fine upholding the status quo. You can’t overcome the life, the cards you’ve been dealt.  If providence gave you ball gowns and tiaras, so be it. If you were born into undignified poverty, too bad. If you wanted to get ahead or change your circumstances somehow, well, how American of you!  It’s not that this fictional family does not endure the slings and arrows, the ups and downs of life, it’s that it’s so much easier to do with fine china and when everyone knows their place.

Just this week I read about  new data published about the issue of income inequality, which is growing.  Income inequality refers to the gap between the richest and the poorest members of society.  This issue isn’t limited to the United States. 

But here, because we believe we are a just and fair country, because we subscribe to the Horatio Alger philosophy that says I can –and must!– pull myself up by my own bootstraps.  This line of thinking does not take into account privilege, gender, race, economic opportunities, education and so on. For every self-made millionaire, there are people, who no matter how hard they work, will never overcome some of the obstacles life presents them. 

The real problem with income inequality –beyond the obvious– is that we add a moral dimension to wealth or the lack thereof.  We tend to blame those less fortunate for their own misery and we give a pass to those who have done well. Often, to the indignity of poverty we add shame.  To the anguish of illness, we add fault. To the distress of unemployment, we add contempt. To the anxiety over the lack of opportunity, we add disdain. “Work harder,’ we think.  “Work smarter!” “What’s wrong with you!” as if someone’s economic condition were a moral fault. 

In a society where income inequality is the norm, the chasm between rich and poor is as high as impenetrable as the one between Lazarus in heaven and the rich man in Hades.

I thought it interesting that the rich man never acknowledges Lazarus in any way during life, yet recognizes him immediately after he dies. So it’s not like he wasn’t aware of him.  And now that the tables are turned… it’s too late. Another ironic twist: now Lazarus can see the rich man, but not help him. There’s this great chasm between them and no gate.

That’s the important part for me.  The gate. The rich man does not live inside an impenetrable fortress.  There’s a regular fence, or wall, but it has a gate. A go-between, which represents an unmistakable opportunity, not just for him to come and go but to do something different with his wealth. Perhaps something as simple as opening it up to welcome someone inside for a bite to eat. Or something really difficult as going outside to feed and take care of those like Lazarus.  

The Crawleys of Downton Abbey are not necessarily bad people, but they are clueless.  

Unaware, they buy into the perks that society bestows on them, and they can see no other way to live their lives.  And their wealth blinds them to the idea that they bear any responsibility to improve the lives of those who are not so fortunate. Only on a few occasions does this moral dilemma really surface in their collective consciousness.

We are not so lucky.  We are not fictional characters in a magical world.  We have the hard messages from scripture to wrestle with, along with bills to pay, bosses to please, and all sorts of people demanding our attention.

Yet Jesus is urgently asking us, “never mind all that, have you noticed who’s at the gate?”  that is, who is the unseen, unloved, unwanted one that escapes your attention over and over? 

Who is the one you blame because they can’t get their act together and is a drain on society?  Who is the one who asks for more than you think can or should give? Who is the one that will make you change your life?  “Who is at the gate?”

Before we dismiss him thinking we are so poor we  have nothing to offer, remember we can always be generous, loving, compassionate, forgiving, kind, we are rich indeed.  

“Who is at the gate?”  if we dare to look we may  find not just the poor, but the King himself.

In Jesus’ name. amen.

Proper 21 C 2019

Susan Saucedo Sica

St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church


Image: Lazarus at the Gate by Laura Jeanne Grimes

No One Can Serve Two Masters

Proper 20 C -2019

Luke 15:1-10

Years ago I took Tory and a couple of friends to a local carnival. You know the kind  that takes over a church parking lot with rides and games and funnel cake. It was a splendid evening in the early fall.  My charges ran around from ride to ride, stall to stall, wasting money but having fun. Me, not so much. Carnivals are not my kind of thing: The chaos, the noise, the abundance of sugar and fat, shrieking kids, is all a bit overwhelming. And, there’s a fakeness about carnivals that I find off-putting.

If you’ve ever been to the shore, you know what I mean.  

Rows of  stalls on the boardwalk filled with games of chance,  misnamed as games of skill. The deck is stacked against you that the odds of winning are slim. If you do win, the prizes are… less to be desired. There’s a lot of time, money and effort that goes into winning chintzy toys and cheap gifts, and somewhere in your brain you know that you can just go to a store and buy the item for less. But caught up in the moment, people plunk down their money to see if they can win something. It begs the question, if the game is rigged, why do people play? Because it’s there, it’s a distraction, it’s just fun, no real harm done.  Or so we think.

At this particular carnival two things happened to confirm my distaste.  The first was a game in which you had to complete a task with accuracy. The girls were so fixated on doing this that they didn’t notice the attendant shaking the bar every so slightly, making them miss every time.

The second was worse.  At a stall run by an organization that shall remain nameless, the adult making change shorted them by a quarter. I can still see this man turning that quarter over in his hand, deciding what he was going to do. The girls, in their excitement, scampered away.  Then he realized I had watched it all. Before I could say anything he winked at me.

Today Jesus tells a rather puzzling parable today about a dishonest manager.  

The manager, about to be fired upon being found out –rather than repentant– becomes very resourceful.  Notice he doesn’t try to appeal to his boss, he doesn’t try to make amends or ask for forgiveness or another chance or the opportunity to make restitution.   Rather he assesses his situation in realistic but cynical terms: “I’m not strong enough to dig and ashamed to beg.” 

So he devises a plan to secure his future: manipulate the accounts so that  people now owe him. These are favors he will gladly call in once he’s terminated. Problem solved.  No job? no matter. With a nod and a wink, it’s all taken care of. Surprisingly, when he puts his plan into motion, he ends up being commended by his boss rather than reviled.

Though it seems disturbing that the manager would be praised for his dishonesty, actually he’s being praised for knowing how to work the system. You see, he knows the people are going to go along with his fraud rather than turning him in. He knows he can get away with it. He knows that people will respond to his proposition because it’s advantageous to them, and in the end, they are no better than he is.

So Jesus is not congratulating the manager for his dishonesty.  What he is saying is that we should put just as much effort at being honest as we are at being deceitful.  He adds, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?”

Honesty and trust. Neither of them are for sale.

The sad truth is that there are people who will put a lot of time and effort into making the world run like a carnival, fun and appealing and wonderful under the bright artificial lights.  But it’s all a show, a con-job of sorts, trying to reel you in: “Don’t think about how much it costs, just enjoy the ride.” And often we play along, losing not just our dignity, but our very souls.

Think of the man at the carnival.  An upstanding citizen, I imagine, a volunteer trying to raise money for a cause, a father, yet here he was willing to put everything on the line for a quarter.   I imagine him thinking, “it’s only a quarter.” not realizing that it was really so much more. What kind of adult is willing to steal a quarter from a kid?

How do we value honesty, integrity, community?  Today we are being invited to be a part of something totally different. Because  “no one can serve two masters.” and we need to figure out which one it is we want to serve.

What if we pursued other things, godly things, the ‘true riches’ with the same enthusiasm and commitment as we pursue wealth? What if we were creative as opposed to manipulative in our relationships? What if we invested energy and devotion to doing good the way we invest our wealth? What if our efforts were less self-serving and more community oriented? What if we tried to live as “children of light”? 

Jesus knows that the world is corrupt and that people are dishonest. He’s not so much condemning it as trying to help us see where our actions lead. We think we can get away with it.  We think that nobody notices what we do. We think that -wink, wink- everything is going to be just fine, we go along to get along.   

What we fail to take into account is that when we do this, we’re creating an increasingly self-centered culture where good deeds are only measured by “what’s in it for me,”  and “I take care of my own,” and “what have you done for me lately,” and “charity starts at home,” and on and on.

Where is God in all those statements?

I can still see the man flipping the coin in his hand. I wonder how it felt. I wonder how he made up his mind: “serve wealth,” turn, “serve God.” “Serve wealth.” “Serve God.” Caught up in the moment, under the glare of the lights and the din of rides drowning out the crowd, he made his choice and put the coin in his pocket –not even in the till! It was then that he looked up, saw me, and winked. I walked away, angry. It was only a quarter, but still!  

The great irony is that if you decide to serve wealth, a quarter is all you need.

In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Herding Cats

What did we ever do before we had travel apps, google maps and Wayz?! One of the ways in which Dave and I are really different, is our sense of direction. He doesn’t have one. He will readily admit that. He can get lost even if he’s been to a place several times before. Me, on the other hand, once I’ve been someplace, the directions tend to park themselves in my brain and I can usually get back there, sometimes even by different routes. What we have in common though, is that we both hate, I mean hate, being lost. It causes me tremendous fear, anxiety and consternation.

We were talking about that the other day, can’t recall where we were going, but we didn’t get to the end of the driveway before plugging in the GPS. We talked about how it was in the old days, when we had to consult maps and how fun it was to get a ‘trip-tick’ if you were an AAA member, a little booklet of individual maps each pointing to a different leg of a trip. Now, getting lost seems like a thing of the past. The GPS makes us feel invincible, giving us courage to wander, be free to roam without worry.

It’s interesting to use a GPS when you are walking. I like to see myself represented like a little moving dot on my phone screen, letting me know I’m going in the right direction, it lets me be aware of my destination, if not my destiny.

All this came to mind because of a comment I read about today’s gospel, featuring the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. The writer made the following statement:
“I’ve never known a sheep to be lost. The sheep knows exactly where it is, and is quite delighted to be there [–provided it’s not in danger]. It’s joy may be in being in that ‘wrong’ place, like a dog whose favorite place is simply running with ti’s nose in the wind or on the ground, delighted just to be on the run. Most of my own lost sheep have no interest in being found and even less interest in repenting. Yet great is the delight whenever they return…”(Comment, Working Preacher 9/10/2019)

This made me consider something I hadn’t before. That it isn’t the sheep intention to get lost (it isn’t the coin’s either for that matter! It’s just something that happens when sheep are most like sheep. The smell of the air, a sprig over here, something that sparks curiosity over there… and suddenly, “hey, where did everybody else go?” sheep, dogs, animals, people… wander.

We have a cat that visits the church sometimes. Her name is Bella. I got to know her because her owner was parked here while Bella was in the memorial garden. I thought it was a bit much to drive your cat around, but then her owner explained that Bella is pretty much an outdoor cat that really likes to roam. So they put a GPS tracker on her collar, and when she gets too far away from her home base, or too close to the highway, then they go looking for her to bring her back.

Bella comes here, apparently, “because of the birds.” See, Bella isn’t lost; Bella is just being a cat. She is not aware of the distress she causes. When she’s gone for a while, the owners check in on the GPS to find her. Once found, her owner will scoop her up with joy. There’s not wagging of the finger, to reprimanding, no shaming. Bella’s owner doesn’t scold her either… remember, she’s a cat. Wouldn’t do any good. Her owner goes out of her way to bring her home, because Bella, like her name, is precious in her sight.

How much more precious are we in the sight of God?

That’s the point that Jesus is trying to make to the scribes and Pharisees who are grumbling and complaining about how he eats with tax collectors and sinners, the great wanderers of their time. With their comments, the scribes and Pharisees reveal that they are aware of the faults of others, but not at all aware of their own actions. You see, they’ve already written them off as lost, not worth their time and effort. Why would you go out of your way for them? Why even acknowledge them? You risk contamination. You risk guilt by association. You risk condemnation.

So Jesus tells them a couple of parables about being lost and found, to answer for his choice of companions. He does this to let the sinner now knows that he matters; so that those beyond the pale can hold their heads high, he lets the prodigal know he can come home. The tormented can now have hope, and the ignored can now be heard and seen, not just reviled.

No longer cast into the shadows of prejudice and shame, the lost can come forward into the light. He does it because even wanderers are precious, even the lost have value, even the despised are worth redemption. Jesus goes to them because, once the lost are found, it brings God tremendous joy.

Of course, as we know, Jesus’ message will be received with scorn and skepticism. Jesus’ actions in reaching out to the lost are deeply disturbing to the rest of the flock —and no wonder: he is upsetting everything they’ve stood for, the rules, the regulations, all those things that keep polite society going, making a mockery of tradition. Those who are committed to preserving the status quo find everything Jesus does is an affront. His behavior Is outrageous. Well, no more outrageous than putting a GPS tracker on a cat!

That’s what you do for those you love. Keep track of them, provide a way for them to get home, a way to stay in touch and when all else fails, and commit to going to get them, rescue them, when they are lost and in danger, even if it takes you all the way to the cross.

I know that when I wander, when my lack of self-awareness turns into selfishness, when my self righteousness blinds me, when I think I can and must control the universe, when I lose my sense of direction, when I am anxious and afraid, I am deeply grateful that I can count on a way to get me home. Kind of like Bella, I, too, have a GPS.

Not trying to be overly cute when I call it a “God pointing system”? The cross I wear around my neck reminds me of God’s love for me. It has the power to bring me home no matter how lost I am.
In Jesus’ Name. Amen.