Eyes opened to gratitude and joy

It was the kick-off Sunday for the annual stewardship campaign at a large evangelical church.  Fifteen or twenty minutes into the preacher’s sermon, just as he was getting revved up, the preacher yelled to the congregation, “If this church is going to serve God, first it’s got to get down on its knees and crawl!”  And the congregation yelled back “Make it crawl preacher, make it crawl!”

Feeling the positive energy flowing back to him, the preacher then yelled: “And once this church has learned to crawl, it’s got to get up on its feet and walk!”  To which the congregation yelled back “Make it walk preacher, make it walk!”

Then the preacher yelled, “And once this church has learned to walk, it’s got to begin to learn to run!”   The congregation, now feeling the movement of the Holy Spirit in the room, replied boisterously, “Make it run, preacher, make it run!”

Finally, the preacher hollered with inspired conviction, “And in order to run, this church has got to reach deep down into its pockets and give, give, give!”  Upon which there was a pregnant pause before someone in the congregation yelled back, “Make it crawl preacher, make it crawl.”

Another time at another church, during a particularly long stewardship sermon, a frightened little girl leaned over to her father and asked, “Daddy, if we just give him all our money now, do you think he’ll let us go?”  There is, indeed, a fine line between a stewardship sermon and a hostage situation.[i]

Why is that, do you think? Well, maybe it’s because of the Gospel passages the sages who created the Revised Common Lectionary always assign during stewardship season.  This week, for instance, we have Lazarus and the Rich Man.  This story includes the Gospels’ most extended portrait of hell, complete with tormenting flames and bottomless pits, and that hell is populated not by Hitler or the Unabomber, but rather by someone not a whole lot different from many of us: an affluent man with a comfortable lifestyle, who enjoys the finer things in life.  His worst crime, it seems, is that he wears nice clothes.


Lazarus and the Rich Man

And so, it becomes clear why we have a flight response during stewardship sermons.  The focus during stewardship season—whether it’s the emphasis of the sermon or the strategic choice of Gospel text, or both—seems to be on guilt.  The idea appears to be that making parishioners feel miserable enough about their material things and guilty enough about what they so far haven’t given to the church is the key to a successful Every Member Canvass.

But here’s the problem: Guilt doesn’t work, at least not in the long run.  It doesn’t draw us closer to God.  It doesn’t render us more generous.  It doesn’t enliven and sustain the work of the church.  You know this.  Indeed, very many of you who weren’t born and raised in the Episcopal Church found your way here after leaving some prior church community that used guilt as a cudgel.  Guilt does not give life.  Guilt leaches life, until all joy is replaced by self-loathing.  That’s the hellish torment.  That’s the bottomless pit.  And, in this priest’s humble opinion, as we seek to solicit our contributions for God’s joyous mission for the coming year at the Cathedral, such guilt has no place here.

How, then, do we apply the Gospel story of Lazarus and the Rich Man on this Stewardship Sunday?  How might it inspire in us generous hearts instead of wracking us with guilt?

The key, I think, is in the recognition of the rich man’s error.  There is no indication that he wished Lazarus ill.  There is no inkling that he defrauded Lazarus, or fired Lazarus from a job while taking a huge bonus for himself, or even kicked Lazarus as he walked by.  The affluent man in the parable actually could not have done any of these things, because, upon close reading, we sense that the rich man never saw Lazarus at all.  That is his error.  The rich man has goose stepped his way through life with blinders on, failing to see the evidence of grace and opportunities for goodness all around him.  As he passed through his gate day after day, he never saw—really saw—Lazarus sitting there in hunger and pain.  The rich man wasn’t evil, he just couldn’t see.  Or, more accurately, he chose not to see.

Let me tell you a story.  Last summer I led twenty-five Cathedral parishioners on a pilgrimage to Ireland.  Halfway through our trip, we were supposed to take a small boat from the southeast Irish coast to Skellig Michael, a steep, rugged island that was home to ancient Irish monks and has recently been made famous by the new Star Wars movie, in which it appears.  I’d wanted to visit Skellig Michael for years.  I felt certain that, if I could just get there, I would encounter God.


Skellig Michael

Well, the morning in question the weather was bad and the sea was choppy.  The boats couldn’t make the trip.  Instead, as a consolation, we took a day-long bus ride around the Ring of Kerry.  No one in our group other than my wife Jill knew that my disappointment was really fury.  I stewed on the bus all day.  Jill did her best, in her gracious way, to keep me from interacting with our fellow pilgrims, because she knew in my extreme irritation at the circumstances I might say or do something I’d regret.  And so, I did not see the Ring of Kerry.  In my blinding anger, I did not see the beauty of God’s creation or the wonder on the faces of my twenty-five friends as they did gaze out at God’s glorious landscape.

When we arrived back at our hotel in Killarney, Jill suggested that she and I go for a walk so I could cool down.  We walked the path for almost a mile, and a cold spitting rain began to fall.  “Just great,” I mumbled, as the rain boiled off my steaming ears.

The path ended at the ruins of fifteenth century Muckross Abbey, a creepy and death-haunted ruin that some say inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula.[ii]  As we approached, Cathedral parishioner and pilgrim Kay Pieringer emerged from the abbey.  “You have to see it!” Kay said, “In the cloister.  It’s amazing.”

“One more ruin,” I thought, “Nothing to be all that excited about.” But as we walked through the abbey and into the cloister, I stopped short.  There, growing up through the ruins—strong, proud, and emitting life—was an enormous yew tree, one of the largest yew trees, in turns out, in all of Ireland.

The yew tree has been regarded as holy since pre-Christian times.  Ancient tales tell of druids’ staffs and wizards’ wands being made from yew wood.  And for Christians, the yew is a symbol of resurrection because of the unique way its branches grow down into the ground to form new stems, which then grow up and around the original trunk, giving the tree renewed life.  There are yew trees alive in England that were planted when the Normans invaded almost one thousand years ago.


The Yew Tree at Muckross Abbey

I’ve never seen a tree more glorious.  Growing up from the ruins of that dead place, it was as sublime an earthly manifestation of God as I’ve ever encountered.  It was as impressive as Skellig Michael.  It was holy.  In an instant, my mood changed.  My hellish anger melted.  My eyes opened.  There was a twinge of regret—not guilt, but regret—as I realized the glimpses of grace I’d likely missed all day, when I failed to see.  And in that moment the chasm that throughout the day had prevented me from meeting God was bridged.

That is what stewardship is about.  It’s not about imparting guilt, but about seeing and responding to grace.  Eucharistic Prayer C asks God to “Open our eyes to see [God’s] hand at work in the world about us [and] make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in [God’s] name.”

That’s why we pledge our gifts to the Cathedral, because once our eyes are opened to glimpses of God’s grace, we also see where there are opportunities for us to be agents of God’s grace.  We see where there are needs we can meet and where there is joy we can share.  We see Lazarus sitting at the gate.  And we know, once our eyes are opened, that we cannot pass blithely by.  Our hearts are too grateful not to give.

On Wednesday of this past week, I filled out my pledge card for 2017.  Again this coming year I will tithe, I will give back ten percent of my income to the instruments of the church.  It was with eagerness and not hesitation, gratitude and not guilt, that I filled out that card.  I pray you will do the same, as we catch glimpses of God’s grace this very day, all around us, and as we empower the grace-filled ministry of the Cathedral for another year.


[i] Both of these jokes come from the internet, where else?

[ii] http://www.ciaranmchugh.com/?pagid=yew-tree-at-muckross-abbey


Sam Houston and the Dishonest Steward

The dishonest steward in this evening’s parable is in the practice of gouging his master’s clients for his own gain.  If someone owes his master $100, he demands twice that and keep the excess for himself.  He’s like our modern-day payday lenders, preying on vulnerable people by charging crippling interest for his own gain.  He’s making himself his master, in other words, using and abusing the position in life his true master had granted him.  Only when the steward falls from grace—and only then, when he’s at the bottom—does he give up the pretension to be his own master and let go of those self-serving portions of his collections, asking instead from his master’s clients only what they genuinely owe.  He finally becomes an honest servant, and his life is redeemed.  Remember that, as I switch gears for a minute.

There is no character in the story of Texas more interesting than Sam Houston, the old “Raven” himself.  Houston was one of those nineteenth century Americans incredibly blessed with countless gifts.  He was enterprising and smart.  He was a gifted leader.  At age thirty he was elected to Congress from Tennessee, and at age thirty-four became that state’s governor.  But it is also true that Sam Houston was crassly self-serving—like the steward in Jesus’ parable—throughout the first half of his life, always calculating what any action would do for him, always seeking to control and mold every circumstance for his own gain. And as a result, in 1828 his life fell apart.  His fall from grace, also like the steward’s in Jesus’ parable, was swift and steep.  Houston abruptly resigned as governor, lapsed into a devastating dependence on alcohol, and taking scarcely more than a bottle with him, disappeared into darkest Arkansas, suffering banishment from all he’d known and loved.


The young and self-serving Sam Houston

It took years for Sam Houston’s repentance and redemption to occur, but occur it did.  Houston eventually became a star so bright that his later accomplishments— leading the Army of Texas, serving as President of the Texas Republic, and ushering Texas into the United States—eclipsed everything he’d done before.  These later things were the result of a wife who taught Sam Houston what it meant truly to know the God who both loved him and called him to account.  As Houston came to know this God, he became a self-giving rather than self-serving man.  He gave up his pretension to be his own master and became a servant.

There is more to the Sam Houston story, an added blessing that could only have happened because of the redeemed man Houston became.[1]   It is near-miraculous.  In 1854, during an emotional slavery debate in the United States Senate where Houston then served for Texas, a group of Northern abolitionist clergy petitioned the Senate to be allowed to speak.  They were ridiculed, humiliated, and laughed down by some Southern senators, but Sam Houston rose to support them.  By all accounts he spoke with passion, even though he took an unpopular and risky position by speaking, especially among his Southern colleagues.

Eight years later, the Civil War had broken out, and Sam Houston’s son was far from home, fighting in the Confederate Army at Shiloh.  During an advance, the boy took a mini ball to the thigh and lost much blood, and he was left for dead on the battlefield.  That evening a solitary Union chaplain walked across the field and came upon Houston’s groaning son.  When the chaplain leaned down to offer a dying prayer, he checked the boy’s knapsack and found a Bible with the inscription, “Sam Houston, Jr., from his mother, March 6, 1862.”


The Battle of Shiloh

The chaplain immediately was taken back to eight years before, when as a young minister he had been shouted down and humiliated in a crowded Senate chamber, until Sam Houston, Sr., had risen from his chair in the ministers’ defense, not for self-gain but as a servant of grace.

The chaplain remembered, and because of that speech he dropped all other duties and carried the wounded Texas boy in his arms from the battlefield.  The boy lived.  Sam Houston’s son was nursed back to health and returned safely to his father.

The old, self-serving Sam Houston never would have made the speech in 1854 that saved his son’s life in 1862.  That speech, like the steward’s action in giving up his commission, was self-giving, made without thought of personal stake or gain.  And yet, it resulted eight years later in nothing less than saving the most important thing in Houston’s world.  It was redemption to be sure.


An older, wiser, and self-giving Sam Houston

Whenever we fool ourselves into believing we are the masters of our lives, whenever we use the gifts we’ve been given as self-serving tools rather than self-giving blessings, the result is harm to others and, eventually, to ourselves.  We’ll find ourselves fallen from grace and all too often alone.  It is when, sometimes in a moment of reckoning when life seems to fall apart, that we give up our pretension and decide by grace to live differently—with the loving God as our Spirit and guide—that we find our lives given back to us anew, often in the most surprising and wondrous ways.  It is then that we truly find redemption.  It is then that we truly become the children of light.


[1] See Sam Houston by James L. Haley, pp. 403-404.

9/11, fifteen years later

This is an auspicious evening, and it’s one in which there is some tension.  On the one hand, we gather for the first time in this style of worship, which is both ancient in our tradition and new to Christ Church Cathedral.  We sing, pause, and pray in ways that intend to remind us of God’s deep peace which runs—like water from a sacred well—beneath all of the things on the surface of our lives that would disrupt God’s peace.  On the other hand, we observe today the fifteenth anniversary of that singular event of our lifetimes which spoke so powerfully that we had—and still have—difficulty finding words to counteract the horror of September 11, 2001.


In 2005, Richard Lischer wrote a book entitled, The End of Words.  His thesis is that our world has become so violent, so unpredictable, so chaotic, so insane that words have lost their inherent meaning.  Words are now but tools in the hands of those who wish to manipulate other people.  As a lover and crafter of words, it pains me to agree with this notion.  But too often today, publically and privately, words are combined to fool, frighten, or whip into frenzy, and each time this happens we feel, like the hundredth sheep in Jesus’ parable, a bit more lost.

Religious words can be among the most manipulated, and perhaps never more so than on and immediately after 9/11.  Some, during those days, invoked the Prince of Peace to sound drums of war.  On the opposite extreme, others utilized the Gospel to suggest that we’d brought terror on ourselves, as if we deserved that awful day.  Both extremes felt emotionally like being cast ever further from the sheep herd, more and more lost in some strange wilderness.

But the most abused religious words of all spoken on and around 9/11 were those of the hijackers themselves.  On United Airlines Flight 93, the terrorists were recorded saying—as they killed the pilots and ultimately crashed the plane in a Pennsylvania field—“In the name of God, the most merciful, the most compassionate…O, God, the most gracious.”[i]

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says, “[These] religious words are, in the cold light of day, the words [of] murderers [used] in order to make a martyr’s drama out of a crime.”[ii]

In a world where the most holy and sacred words are used so cynically, so dishonestly, how can we ever put our faith in words at all?


But, lest we forget, there were other words that day.  From airplanes and from the Twin Towers, dozens of trapped people telephoned family members, friends, and sometimes mere strangers on the other end of the line.  Invariably, the words spoken on such calls are words of love.[iii]  It isn’t surprising that some of these calls express panic.  What is surprising is the large percentage of them that evidence a remarkable calm, even as steel collapses in wrecked buildings or hijackers scream in the background.  The recipients of the calls have fear in their voices.  But the callers are more often steely and intent:

A newlywed says to her father, “Dad, you have to find Sean and tell him that I love him.”

A young professional says to his mother, “I love you no matter what happens.”

The voicemail message a woman leaves for her husband records, “There’s a lot of smoke, and I just wanted you to know that I love you always.”

These words overpower those other words of war and blame and terror.  Archbishop Williams says of those trapped in the Twin Towers and on the planes, “Someone who is about to die in terrible anguish makes room in [his] mind for someone else; for the grief and terror of someone [he] loves.  [He] does what [he] can to take some atom of that pain away from the other by the inarticulate message on the mobile [phone]…These nonreligious words are testimony to what religious language is supposed to be about—the triumph of pointless, gratuitous love, the affirming of faithfulness even when there is nothing to be done or salvaged.”[iv]

Perhaps never have we felt more like lost sheep than on September 11, 2001, when the planes crashed and the towers crumbled.  But we know that love never stops seeking the lost sheep.  We know that love will not give up.  We discover again in those telephone messages that even lost in the wilderness, even on the smoky 89th floor, even nose-down on a doomed airplane, love abides.  And what is love, but God, and specifically the Incarnate Jesus over whom death has no power?  With love—with the Christ of God, with that Word—we can emerge from any wilderness, found and embraced by the Well of life.

In my memory, the word “triumph” was used too often around 9/11.  But what would it mean if we said, with Archbishop Williams, that love triumphed that day?  Pointless, gratuitous love: love that does not panic; love that does not run away; love that seeks the lost; love that is faithful in the face of any threat.  As we prayerfully reflect on this fifteen years past, and as we look forward into the wildernesses ahead, we’ll know which words are those of the God of love, and when we hear them we’ll remember that we are never lost.

[i] http://www.mishalov.com/wtc-flight-93-transcript.html

[ii] Williams, Rowan.  Writing in the Dust: After September 11, 3.

[iii] http://archives.cnn.com/2002/US/09/03/ar911.phone.calls/

[iv] Williams, 5 & 3.