Sermon from September 24, 2017
Communion Meditation from September 24, 2017
September 24, 2017 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
You have made them equal to us. Them and us in today’s Gospel. The all-day workers complaining that the one-hour workers received the same pay. There’s a television show called Undercover Boss, perhaps you’ve seen it. It’s a show where the owner of a business or company, the boss, goes undercover with the help of elaborate disguises to do the work that his or her employees do to experience what it’s like to work in that place.
The best part is when the boss gets to know her employees and what life is like for them. And in the end one or two of the employees is rewarded in some way. In one episode the boss was a franchise owner of a popular fast food restaurant. He put on his disguise and uniform and went to work. He was shocked by how difficult the work was - the unrelenting orders, the standing all day, the noise, the monotony, the crabby customers.
He was trained by a young woman who really wanted to continue her education, but she couldn’t because she spent all her money supporting her younger siblings. Her mother had been killed in a tragic accident. In another episode, the owner of a manufacturing plant in northern Illinois joined workers on the line in his plant. Again, he was shocked at how hard they worked, how limited the breaks, how unforgiving the supervisors were if they were late. The owner met a man who couldn’t spend much time with his children because he had a two-hour bus ride, each way.
A third show was a hotel chain owner who went undercover to work as a housekeeper and then in the kitchen. Many of her employees were immigrants working long hours cooking and cleaning. She got to know them, the difficulty of the work, their worries about their status.
The shows always end with the bosses reflecting on how little they knew about their employees and the work they do. Some bosses vow to raise pay, to provide benefits, and change working conditions, and in the show, the bosses reward an employee or two.
The fast food owner paid for the education of the young woman raising her siblings. The manufacturing plant owner bought a car for the guy who rode the boss. The hotel owner began to use her influence to work for immigration reform. All of them had their eyes opened, their hearts softened when they got to know the people who worked for them.
What happens is it’s no longer them and us. They’re no longer just cogs in the machine, but people. People with struggles and hopes and dreams and challenges who want a better life for their children, just like the bosses.
Today’s Gospel paints a picture of a common scene in the ancient world and today. Day laborers hanging out in the town square waiting for someone to hire them to pick grapes, or tomatoes, oranges or strawberries. Some are hired at the break of dawn, after they agree to the usual daily wage. In Jesus’ day it was one denarius, enough for a man to feed his family for one day. Enough to provide daily bread.
Throughout the day, the landowner hires more workers, agreeing to pay them whatever is right, not fair, but right, all the way to 5:00! The landowner hires some who’ll only work one hour. We might wonder why some workers come later or why they weren’t hired earlier. Perhaps they were caring for children or an elderly parent. Maybe they were not as physically or mentally able as the others. Perhaps the landowner could see this, or maybe he knew their stories, their struggles.
Regardless, the landowner pays them all a daily wage, gives them all enough to feed their families. What do the all-day workers say? Thank you? We’ll have enough to eat? No, “when they received it, they grumbled.” They complained like the people Israel in the wilderness in today’s first reading who receive daily bread in the form of manna from the sky. They grumbled and made the claim that shows us that this is a parable about the difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man.
You have made them equal to us. Them and us is how things work in the kingdom of man, the earthly kingdom. In the kingdom of God, all are beloved; beloved children of a God who loves us all equally. In the kingdom of God we are known, we are unique and gifted, we have our story, our own ups and downs, joys and challenges, and we all share the same dream of being valued and respected and loved knowing that we are part of the Beloved Community that Christ came to usher in.
The kingdom moment in that television show happens when the bosses hear their employees’ stories and get to know them as fellow human beings. They are no longer just employees, they are people with struggles and hopes and dreams. This is how it is in the kingdom of God. No them and us, only beloved children, paid equally, loved equally.
In our world of them and us may we work to break down the walls, to hear the stories, to challenge the stereotypes and judgments. May we work to respect the dignity of every human being so that God’s kingdom will come. Amen.
September 17, 2017 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
When I was sixteen years old, I smashed my father’s brand new car. He hadn’t had a new car for years. It was a Jeep Wagoneer and it had about thirty-four miles on it when I took it out that bright, summer day. I asked him to use it because it was much cooler than my mom’s cruddy, brown Honda Civic.
We lived in the country so there was very little traffic. I came to the stop sign where the other direction had the right-of-way. I thought I looked both ways, but truth be known I was fiddling with the radio and thinking about the girl who lived up the road, thinking how cool I was. Perfectly bright sunny day, I pulled out, smash, that heart-stopping sound of metal on metal. I was hit in the rear quarter panel, hard; it spun me around.
Regaining my senses I realized I was okay. I rushed out to see about the other car, he was okay, thank God. I felt some relief but now. . . I was given a citation, the other car was towed away and I limped my father’s car home. What now? I know I’ll pay for it, so he won’t have to submit a claim. My mom came out into the garage and gave me a hug, happy that everyone was okay.
She surveyed the damage. I said, “I have almost a hundred dollars, do you think it will cost more than that?” She looked at me with pity and quietly said, “I think it might be more.” “Alright, I’ll pay for it, no matter how long it takes. I’ll take care of it.” And then she said something we heard a lot as kids, “Wait till your father gets home.”
Oy, words that struck fear in the hearts of Van Oss children. My mom was the nurturer, my father the enforcer. He had few words, but always clear. It was a long, long day waiting for him to get home. I had my plan, I’ll pay for it, even it if takes a lifetime.
Finally, I heard the sound of his tires crushing gravel on the driveway. I walked out into the garage. He pulled the cruddy brown Honda Civic in next to his shiny, new, but deeply wounded Jeep. He slowly got out of the car holding his briefcase, came around the back of the Civic, and stood surveying the damage. I wasn’t even breathing.
Then he looked at me, put down his briefcase, came over and put his arm around me. He said words I’ll never forget. “It’s just a thing, it can be replaced. What’s important is that no one was hurt.” Then he picked up his briefcase, walked into the house and never spoke a word about the accident again. Forgiveness is grace. I received great grace that day.
Great forgiveness in today’s Gospel. The first servant is forgiven a debt of ten thousand talents! Scripture scholars tell us this would have been 150,000 years-worth of income for a laborer at the time; three thousand financial life sentences. Clearly, Jesus uses hyperbole to make a point. It was a debt he had no chance of ever paying back, like a teenager with a smashed car. It was absurd, hyperbole again, for him to say, have patience, and I’ll pay you everything. Impossible. Yet the king forgives him, gives him a gift of grace, he wipes it away.
And what happens? He refuses to forgive a fellow servant who owes him a tiny fraction of what he owed the king, a hundred denarii, which was a payable debt even though his fellow servant made exactly the same plea, have patience and I will pay you.
The great sin of the unforgiving servant is his refusal to live out the grace he had received. He was given a great gift, forgiveness, and he refused to share that gift with someone who owed him. We can only speculate why. The Gospel does not tell us, but it is likely he was not grateful for the gift. Perhaps he thought he was entitled, or that he had put one over on his boss. Either way, his refusal to live out the gift of grace that had been given to him ended up costing him in the end.
I have tried, since the day of that accident so long ago to live out the grace my dad showed me. I have tried to be grateful for that gift and give it back so that when something goes missing or gets damaged or broken, I can say, it’s just a thing. What matters is people, what matters is relationships. I have not always done this perfectly, but I like to think I try.
Because when I see people on the news who have suffered loss of property due to hurricane, flood or fire, I feel sorry for them, but when I hear them cry, “I have lost everything,” I think, no, if you can say those words and it’s only stuff you’ve lost, you haven’t lost the most important thing.
Take some time to remember that God has forgiven everything, everything you’ve ever done, every penny forgiven and look back on your life, go back to a time when someone forgave you for something you said or did. Take a moment to say, “Thank you,” for forgiveness, for the gift of grace, and make a promise to try to live out that gift each day.
September 10, 2017 Rally Sunday The Rev. Bill Van Oss
There have been so many inspiring stories of generosity and compassion in the wake of Hurricane Harvey in Houston and now with Irma in the Caribbean and Florida as I speak. So many people doing something; doing what they can to help others in need including the good people of St. Cuthbert’s Episcopal Church in Houston.
I was really touched by the story of a man known as Mattress Mack. Mattress Mack’s real name is Jim who is the owner of a number of large furniture stores in Houston. (You might have seen him on the news.) Immediately as people were being flooded out of their homes, Mattress Mack put out word that they were welcome in his furniture stores. Hundreds of people poured in. He put them up on display beds and sofas and on piles of rugs. People filled his furniture stores. A family was interviewed who was sleeping on a $5,000 sectional. Not only that, Mattress Mack brought in food and water for his guests. He sent his furniture trucks out into the streets to pick up people to bring them to the store.
Each time he was interviewed on TV it was clear Mattress Mack wasn’t looking for praise, he just wanted people to know they could come to his stores for shelter, food and water. A kind, generous man, not counting the cost but simply seeing suffering and doing what he could to help; heroic generosity.
As I saw Mattress Mack’s smiling face on the news encouraging displaced people to come to his stores, I thought, I bet this isn’t the first time this man has been generous, so I did a little research and discovered that Mattress Mack has been supportive of causes and people in need for a long time. One person he helped eight years ago said, “I wasn’t surprised at all (to hear he opened up his stores); he hasn’t changed a bit since he helped me out all those years ago.”
This is a pattern in his life, being generous and compassionate; seeing suffering and responding. Was he born this way? Was it programmed into his genes in the womb? Perhaps, but it’s more likely he became generous through practicing generosity in small ways over and over so that he was ready when the big one hit. It was a reflex he developed through practice.
If you decide today that you want to run a marathon and you are not a runner it’s best not to just strap on shoes and try to run 26.2 miles. You might want to begin with brisk walking followed by jogging a few blocks, then a mile, and so on because you have to build up your muscles, and the best way to do that is gradually. Short distances, light weights at first, doing that over and over until you can run a bit longer, lift a bit more. You are building up your muscles. The same is true with spiritual practices, like generosity.
If you tend to be tight-fisted, you can build your generosity muscles by finding small ways to give. Over and over your generosity muscles will get stronger. Mattress Mack didn’t decided to be heroically generous overnight, it took a lifetime of practice building his spiritual muscles.
The same is true of forgiveness which Jesus speaks of in today’s Gospel. Jesus presents a kind of formula for reconciliation. When someone hurts or offends you, don’t run around telling everyone else, approach the person directly and work it out. If that doesn’t work, take someone else and try to work it out with the help of someone you trust. Jesus acknowledges that sometimes reconciliation is not possible, the relationship cannot be restored. If someone is unwilling to change, unwilling to do the work, forgive and let it go.
As with generosity, with practice forgiveness and reconciliation is something we can get good at. We can build our “forgiveness muscles” by forgiving small offenses, over and over, by approaching someone we have harmed directly and saying “I’m sorry”, and by accepting the apology of someone who has harmed us for even small things so that we develop our spiritual muscles. Forgiveness becomes a reflex and we become good at reconciliation so that when the hurricane hits, when we are deeply offended or betrayed, we can forgive even then.
Being community is hard work whether that community is family, school, work, neighborhood, or church. There are times that we blow it. We say or do things that hurt others, even those closest to us.
Mattress Mack became heroically generous through a lifetime of practicing generosity, in small and big ways. When we practice forgiving and reconciling over and over for small things our spiritual muscles are strong when the heavy lifting is required.
September 3, 2017 The Rev. Dr. Barbara Elliott
Bad things happen. This past week Hurricane Harvey caused deep pain and suffering. Steve Charleston observed that we have watched “Image after image of things being washed away. Image after image of lives being rescued from the storm. These events have repeated one of the oldest and deepest spiritual messages of our human story: what we count on in our human lives can be washed away; life alone remains of value, fragile yet enduring.”
Experiences like this natural disaster remind us that we humans have two ways of knowing our world: our human approach (using our ego or false self) values our possessions and tries to control and be successful in life. The other approach uses a larger perspective (using our soul or Spirit, sometimes called the true self). When we look at life through the eyes of our ego, our human rules make the losses and suffering we experience very painful. Those are our human eyes—and the suffering is real! Using our Spirit’s, or our soul’s eyes, we begin with the knowledge that we are all connected, and that another’s pain is our pain, too. Compassion and assistance to aid those who are suffering become the foundation for our ‘loving one another.’
It does amaze me as I review the readings for each week that the message in the Gospel specifically opens our understanding of what is happening in today’s world, 2000 years later. That is true this week too.
Today’s Gospel begins to tell the story of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and his death. This is the first of three times that Jesus tells his Disciples that his death is coming. They don’t want to hear that Jesus will suffer and be killed. As we read today, Peter even said to Jesus that “This must never happen to you!”
However, Jesus then goes after Peter—telling him that he is “a stumbling block…for setting his mind on human things” (not divine things). Clearly, Jesus was trying to move Peter and the other Disciples to using their Spirit eyes to understand and have compassion for what lay ahead.
Like Peter, and perhaps like you, I have things I have wanted to happen in this life and I have worked hard to make them true. I have learned the hard way, repeatedly over the years in fact, that I am not the one in charge…and that is the big lesson that Jesus is exasperatedly trying to convey Peter in this Gospel.
Fortunately for us, the Hurricane didn’t happen here. When is the last time you were reminded that you are not the one in charge or control of your life and experiences? Maybe it was a recent accident, or a pregnancy, or job change, or maybe a diagnosis. There are lots of ways the ‘two-by-four to the forehead’ reminds us of that we are not in charge.
An important lesson in this Gospel is that Jesus was emphasizing that our lives do include suffering and pain…believing in God or Jesus doesn’t make the pain and suffering go away. Instead, that is what it means to “take up the cross and follow” Jesus. Another more nuanced part of this Gospel is recognizing that Jesus also uses this experience to show that his life story is as important to the Christian message as his teachings.
Knowing the story of Jesus’ life and death is essential in our understanding what it is to be Christian. We know there is pain in this life—that bad things happen. We also know that being there for each other as we encounter these hurts is part of how we “love one another and love God.” As Jesus observes in this Gospel reading, when we try to avoid the pain and deny the suffering, we are living by our human desires or our false selves, and we lose access to the life that the Jesus’ story offers us.
Jesus died on the cross, showing us that human life includes the horrors of being demeaned, hurt, and even killed. As we walk the human part of Jesus’ story, we experience how God’s love is always with us. Nothing can separate us from God’s love, even—and maybe especially—our hardest times. That is God’s grace, an amazing grace.