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99 Sheep and a Wedding Headband

September 15, 2013 Leave a comment

The Gospel in today’s lectionary tells the tale of Jesus once again being scorned for eating with sinners.  It’s here we find Jesus doing what Jesus does; he’s making his way through the towns, sitting down with the common people, talking about his Father.  Luke calls these common people “sinners” here, and customarily includes “tax collectors” among the group.  It’s been said these sinners were pretty much anyone who was uneducated.  They didn’t follow all of the rules because they didn’t know about them.  They were cast in positions below the priests and business people of the towns. The tax collectors are included with the sinners because they made their living off of other people’s income, often being accused of taking more than the going tax rate dictated.  So here we have Jesus, who has been teaching in the synagogue, healing the sick, and gathering quite a following, sitting around with people who, in other people’s eyes, don’t coincide with his standing in the community.  I’ve often thought it possible that the Pharisees and scribes were becoming jealous of his notoriety.  Whatever the case, someone who taught on the Sabbath would surely not lower themselves to hang out and eat with the likes of street people.   As the one who is always completely aware of his surroundings, Jesus hears the grumbling.  And as is his style, he gives them a parable; this one with two parts.

If ever there was an example of the perfect leader, the epitome of excellence in the field of being in charge, this parable has it covered.  Every time I hear about the person who loses one of his one hundred sheep and goes off looking for it, leaving the other 99 in the wilderness, I’m more drawn to what might happen to the 99 left behind than whether or not the one that is lost is found.  Look at it from this perspective.  How many of you have ever felt the uneasiness of leaving a large number of youth unsupervised while you attend to something else?  I’ve encountered that in both coaching and scouting.  I know there are teachers and scout leaders in here who can confirm what that feels like.  Perhaps that is why my mind goes there.  It takes a great deal of trust – and a bit more than a large amount of prayer – to have enough faith to make a decision that involves leaving large groups on their own.  That’s what draws me to this parable.  Not the action of the leader, but the reaction of the group.   The story not only says a lot about the group, it speaks volumes about the leadership.   Not only are they left alone without supervision, they are left alone in the wilderness.  Yet not one runs off.  If there are any class clowns in the bunch, they’ll be showing off for the others.  Some of the loners might stick to the edge of the crowd.  A bully might even try pushing some of the smaller members to the brink.  But they all stick together.  Maybe it’s something about the feeling of family.  Whatever it is, there is cohesiveness within the group and a united front that keeps them together.  Let’s hold on to that thought for a minute as we look at the second part of the parable.

We know that times can be hard and every dime counts.  And a silver coin, no matter what day or age, is something to be concerned about.  But when you start calling in the neighbors, turn on all the lights and move the furniture around to sweep the floor, it says this is not just about hard times.  Something is a bit more valuable than we think.  Scripture doesn’t always explain every detail, just what is necessary for the reader of the times to understand.  If we lived in that age, or had a Jewish heritage, we’d know that a bride’s dowry includes a headband made of ten pieces of silver.  It’s the equivalent of today’s wedding ring.  So yes, it would be a big deal if a piece of the wedding band was missing.  Who wouldn’t want to tear the house apart searching for it?

So after these two pieces of the parable are told, we now have a lost sheep with 99 others left in the wilderness – and a lost coin from a wedding headband that in its own right makes the rest of the coins worthless.  How can we weigh in our situation with either part of this parable?  Well, we can talk about how we are working together for a common goal; our experience and lessons learned from the past, combined with some very good teachers, is being placed in the limelight as we go through the process of searching for our next rector.  We can talk about doing what is necessary to save someone that is lost or has gone astray.  We do this every time we help someone through one of our outreach programs – the results might not be evident to us now but the effects of helping those in need can be deep and long lasting.  And we can talk about how barriers we create such as working classes and education levels don’t matter and we need to eliminate these barriers from our lives.  We do this every time we greet a newcomer that walks through the doors of this church and welcome them back with a personal note and thank you card.

But doing these things doesn’t mean we stop once we’ve achieved a portion of them.  The biggest and best is yet to come.  Will we ever be finished with the process?  Probably not.  There will always be some portion of something that is missing from our lives.  There will always be a need to work together to make something complete.  What we can’t forget is what we are instructed to do each time we succeed in this process.  After the lost sheep was found, the neighbors were called to celebrate the joy!  And when the bride had finally found the lost coin from her headband, everyone rejoiced!  They celebrated and gathered the community together.  So often we miss this.  So often we keep right on going with life and not stop to acknowledge the advances we’ve made when it comes to our spiritual achievements.  We throw parties for children graduating from kindergarten but barely make enough time for coffee and cake after a baptism.  We don’t think twice about what we’ll spend on a sweatshirt or hat when our favorite sports team wins a championship, yet balk at the cost of necklace or ring when we are confirmed or received into the church.  According to St. Luke, nothing is worth celebrating more than one person’s return to the church.  We need to stop, give thanks, and rejoice in these moments.  A few weeks ago I mentioned that we need to start the healing process and come together in community.  I mentioned how we need to reach out to each other in good times and bad.  We have begun our journey forward and we are making strides.  Yesterday we had five of our parishioners attend the required training for Visiting Eucharistic Ministers and when we receive their licenses we’re going to celebrate, give thanks, and rejoice.  Rejoice that these people have heard the call to tend to the ill and homebound of our parish.   And as we continue to grow in other areas that have vacancies such as Sunday School Teachers, we’ll continue to reach out to more, and we will continue to give thanks and rejoice.  Rejoice!

Deacon Pete Gdula

Scripture ref:  RCL Year C, Proper 19

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Forgiving Grace

June 16, 2013 1 comment

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I’m pretty much on the fence when it comes to using the saying “What Would Jesus Do?”  We may also add “What Would Jesus Say” to the mix of these slogans.  They are designed to make us stop and think about the actions we take in life’s challenges.  Some argue we don’t know what Jesus would do because he never encountered some of the situations that occur in our modern world.   Still others hold the question relevant and adaptable to any and all situations.  Take for instance the story of a family who had two young children in the house.  One evening after supper Mom heard the two boys arguing in the kitchen.  She went in to find out what the commotion was all about and as she got closer she heard the younger one say, “but you had the last piece of chocolate cake last week!  It’s my turn and I should get the last piece of this one!”  And the older brother was saying “I’m the oldest, so I get what I want!”  Mom entered the room and says, “Boys, what do we do when we start arguing about things?  Don’t we ask ourselves ‘what would Jesus do?”  Well, the older brother stops and drops his head in apparent guilt, and the younger one says, “Jesus would say “here, you have the last piece of cake.”  Mom said, “Very good, now work it out between the two of you without fighting.”  She turned and walked out of the room with a smile thinking she had finally gotten through to her sons when she hears the older brother say “Okay, I’ll let you feel important, you be Jesus!”

That scenario may not be exactly like the story in today’s Gospel, but what it does is start the conversation of how we decide who in society is relevant and who isn’t.  Obviously, in the joke, the older brother maintains that his age gives him a status that places him above anything the younger one might think, even the option of taking turns.  What we have with Luke’s story is someone who is recognized as an authoritative figure in society; a Pharisee who expects his position in the community to give him an excuse for neglecting certain customs and courtesies.  He was a poor host and a prejudiced one at that.  The Pharisee has lost sight of the big picture.  He is so drawn into keeping the laws he has lost his compassion for humanity.  He fails to see God’s unending Grace and forgiveness being poured out to all regardless of wealth or status.  The focus is on Jesus allowing a sinner to fuss over him.  He doesn’t care that she is tending to the needs of his guest that he had neglected to provide for him.  Instead of noticing the good that is being done, all the attention is drawn to what could be wrong with the woman’s actions.

How often do we recognize this situation in the world around us?  We can become so concerned about who others are, what they have, what they don’t have, or what they are doing, that we lose sight of the bigger picture; or more importantly, lose sight of the real nature of how we are supposed to live with each other.  God’s grace was flowing abundantly and freely with the forgiveness that Jesus was giving to this caring soul yet few knew it.  The host was so full of himself he failed to offer the common courtesies of the times; a welcoming kiss, a bowl to wash up in, and a towel to dry off.  Simple things, of course, but it took a common person from the streets to notice this and willingly and compassionately do for the host what he himself failed to do.  We know the love that Jesus gives, so maybe you can imagine beginning there in person, being able to provide for his personal needs and having that love given directly back to you?  Love so deep the tears of joy could not be held back.  So many tears you wouldn’t need water.  Perhaps it would be in this moment that we see God’s grace in both the simple and complex issues in our lives.  Apparently this is nothing new.  We see examples of it throughout 4,000 years of recorded history.  We see it in our first reading with David’s want of another man’s wife.  Again it appears as a Pharisee’s jealousy over Jesus’s attention to a sinner.  And we find it in today’s world in a modern day greed that disregards all the beatitudes and the tenth commandment (you shall not covet … anything).  It may be difficult at times to grasp what it takes to see the big picture, to be fully human and see God’s grace given without distinction of class or culture.  That’s what the Gospels do.  That’s what the Good News is.  That’s what Jesus is teaching us:  How to be fully human.  The laws and commandments are there to guide us and provide everyone the foundation and framework to care for each other, but He says “Don’t stop there.  Don’t stay in the box.”  Boxes are restrictive and confining.  The host of this dinner, Simon, who knows the laws, has put all his energy into living by the law, putting everything into a tiny, neat box.  How unfortunate for the many people around him who could use his help?  And how unfortunate for him that he doesn’t recognize this gift that he can’t see?

He has taken the law to the point of making it his idol and has forgotten how to be human.  He segregates, judges and divides people based on their obedience to a code instead of their spirit and ability to be transformed.   Jesus sees beyond the structure, removes the barrier and sees the person in their true human nature.  He knows that we make mistakes.  For the text to mention that this woman was a sinner means whatever she had done, it was done with the public’s knowledge.  Everyone knew about it.  But it doesn’t keep her from recognizing who was in her midst.  We are also shown that Jesus recognizes when someone is genuinely sorry and he knows we are capable of making those mistakes more than once.  He knows this because he knows the world and knows temptation because he, too, is human as well as divine.   I recently had a discussion where we were talking about how hard it is not to confine God to our expectations where we say “this is what God is and this is how we are supposed to worship.”  That method is perfectly fine for starting out in life because we need structure and discipline to form us, and it takes practice to make sure we don’t keep falling back into bad habits.  But growth doesn’t happen when we resign ourselves to placing people in categories by our own errant judgments.  We ignore the human and put people in their places based on what side of the street – or river – they live on, where they got their degree or whether or not they have one, and even how they pronounce words or use words that don’t really exist like some of yinz do.

Personally, the more I read and reflect on the Gospel of Luke, the more it becomes central to the decisions I make in my life and the more I refer to it as a model of how to take the Good News out into the world.  Mainly, I’m drawn to Luke’s Gospel because of its inclusiveness and ability to bring the most neglected people into the picture.  He allows those on the fringes of society that are generally left out of so many important texts; the poor, the sick, the children, and the women to assume the actual roles they play in society.  I also believe there is a connection between those who are a part of our parish and the naming of our church as St. Luke’s.  I always tell the other deacons I know in and outside of our diocese how you make my job easy.  A big part of the work of a deacon is to take the gospel into the world and identify the needs of the people, taking those needs back to the church and moving the people towards those needs.   I’m overwhelmed at times by the number of you who have come to me, letting me know who needs help and attention.  The church and the community are much better because of it.  Perhaps that’s why I like this particular reading and how it adds the beginning of chapter eight to the end of it.  Luke doesn’t present a Jesus that does one kind thing for someone and goes back to being on top with the “in crowd.”  He starts at the bottom, with those who have been declared the least, and spreads his good news upward.  He prepares the way by showing the world that the way to salvation is not through laws and good deeds but through forgiveness, love, and grace.  His followers don’t stop with twelve men.  He gets support from women he has healed like Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and others who have been called sinners.  What was once denied to many by a few is now free to all from one.  Still today, as we follow Him we are also blessed by the grace received through it.  The love continues on.  The forgiveness never ends.  The grace never stops.  Amen.

RCL Proper 6 (Luke 7:36-8:3)

All Things New Again

April 27, 2013 1 comment

“I am making all things new again.” With these words from Revelation, the Lord has reaffirmed that creation is an ongoing event. He didn’t say, “I’ll go ahead and make some changes now” or “after this you’re on your own,” but He says “I am making…all things new…again” What comes out of the old, out of the used, out of the unwanted and yes, even out of things destroyed, something new is emerging and we need to take notice. In our times these events might not be as magnificent as rebuilding a temple or raising someone from the dead, but God is constantly at work renewing everything around us. Life goes on whether we pay attention to it or not. And just as in our day, in the times these books were written there was a great deal to pay attention to. Christianity was new and there were small sects forming everywhere the apostles went. And of course there was Paul who had just begun converting the Greeks to Christianity. Rome was keeping an eye and ear out for challenges to their dynasty. Many of those people who believed that Jesus was the Messiah were in disbelief that He even died the way He did, and could barely comprehend Him rising from the dead. And not only were they struggling with the idea that it could even happen, Luke tells us in his narrative in the Acts of the Apostles that even those who did believe, struggled with the thought of the Good News being intended for people outside of their own faith and culture. Because when someone who is different from you claims to have received and benefitted by the same blessings – without going through the customary rituals and trials that you have; well, we think something has to be very wrong with this. Still we find one of the most important events that helped make Christianity universal and indistinctive to cultures or countries right here in this text.
What had started out with one small group of Jews was now being made new and was spreading throughout the region. The stories of Jesus were being heard. The Holy Spirit was moving through the land. So it was only a matter of time before word reached out on the country roads apart from the villages and cities to these outsiders. I’m sure it was a tough decision for Peter who was given the vision and tasked with going to meet the Gentiles – and let’s be reminded that the word Gentile means “people living in the country” – that they were just as worthy as those who celebrated the customs and lived by the laws of Moses. I know this Peter; right here would have been a bit more confused with the issue at hand in the vision. After seeing everything on the sheet that came down from heaven and being told “eat”, I might have said, “finally! Pass the bacon and shrimp, please?” But as we know, the symbolism of the dietary restrictions being lifted meant those who didn’t abide by these laws were also worthy, and so Peter makes the visit and sees first-hand what the power of the Holy Spirit can do. He knows at that moment what was being made new again and saw that the old covenant was no longer: a new one had been made in and through Christ. Who was Peter, to oppose what God had ordained and make his own determination as to who was worthy or not? This displayed the faith that Peter was noted for but it goes deeper than faith. It takes great courage as well. To see beyond our self-imposed boundaries and the boundaries established by governments, religions, and corporations, and see that others are truly worthy of these same gifts of the Spirit – and that we are all created by the same God – is a gift. It was this gift that allowed him to see how God was “making all things new.”
This gift was also special because it carried with it hope that they were accepting these changes for the good, because there is always the chance that along with change come challenges and confrontations can escalate quickly in times of stress and trouble. Sudden change can create fear and for some, fear may be a constant factor in never dealing with new things.
So which direction do we turn when confronted with change? Do we walk in faith or turn away in fear? Do we condemn others and ignite violence? Or do we turn and face the situation head on? Can we honestly search out what we can to find the hope within the situation and seek out what God can make new again? In events such as the bombing at the Boston marathon we observed similar responses and types of thought. One response was to begin searching for reasons and profiling subjects that weren’t even known, planning out retribution and how to get even. Yet another response showed the compassion of bystanders – rushing into the blast area, even before the smoke had cleared, to see what help they could provide to the injured. They assessed the situation, and used all their available resources to save lives. Peter’s situation wasn’t a bomb exploding, but it held the same tensions and contained similar attitudes when he returned from meeting with the Gentiles. New territory had been reached in communicating the work and words of Jesus with people outside of their group. Not only were they Gentiles, not only did he meet with them; but he ate with them as well. If you know anything about the care taken not to contaminate a kosher meal, you can understand how much of a shock this was to the disciples who had just heard the story. A meal was sacred and all Jewish faithful did what they could to follow the laws. There was finger pointing and probably some name calling. But Peter calms them with his explanation and they are beyond satisfied; they are silenced and awed by the result.
As the apostles and other disciples slowly began to accept others into their fold, we can begin to see the words of Jesus in John’s gospel take shape within them. Something was being made new again. Jesus was gone from their sight, but His words were still fresh in the minds of His followers. “I give you a new commandment.” He wasn’t parting with the ways of Torah, but rather refreshing it. He wasn’t destroying something old and useless, He was re-enforcing it. He wasn’t denying anyone the love of God, He was multiplying it. And to this end, we have the answer to everything we need to know about how to handle every change we face. “Love one another.” There’s a story that the apostle John, who had lived longer than any of the others was in his final days, being cared for in Ephesus. As was the custom, when it came time for the sermon, John would be carried in on a mat where he would preach to the crowd. He always ended his sermon with the words “Love one another.” As he became weaker and his strength began to fail the last several times they carried him out, all he said was “Love one another.” After a few times of doing this, someone asked him, “John, why do you no longer speak the way you used to? Why do you keep reciting the same words over and over?” John replied, “Because I’ve come to realize that those are the only words that matter. Love one another.”
And so as we leave here today and begin to think about the changes in our lives and around us – let us pray we understand that by being presented with changes, God is making all things new again. And may we also have the faith and courage to react and respond to God’s actions with the only words that matter; “Love one another.”
ref: 5th Sunday of Easter, RCL year C. Acts 11:1-18; Rev 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

Deacon Pete Gdula