This one was hard: Luke 16:1-13

I’m finally back in the parish, at St. Andrew’s in Marblehead, Mass. My first week preaching there finds the lectionary giving me one of the worst Gospels to preach on (read it here: Luke 16:1-13). I did my best. Here’s the link to the video (on my Facebook):

Before we start, I want to clarify one thing. I have read a lot of different translations of the Bible, a lot. And the word that is translated as manager, is a horrible translation. It is not manager. It is slave. The word translated as manager is slave. So please, every time you see manager, think slave. It could be steward, but we have a different understanding of the word steward today. The word is slave. This is not the parable of the dishonest manager, it is the parable of the dishonest slave.

Ok. That’s done. Let’s go!

I must confess something to you all. I was really looking forward to showing off a bit this week. Maybe not showing off, but definitely giving you a glimpse of what I can do as a preacher.

And then I looked at the readings.

I looked at the readings and remembered that God has a wicked sense of humor. And likes to occasionally check my ego.

Because really, what am I supposed to do with this?

What am I supposed to do with a story that at first glance makes it seem like God is rewarding wasteful, deceitful, and potentially illegal behavior?

And then, I had a realization. If I can help this story make sense to a modern audience, that might actually be a better way of showing y’all what I can actually do.

So, here is what we are going to do today: I am going to set this story into its historical context. I’ll also explain some of the things the ancient audience would have known that we today don’t.

And then once we have a stronger understanding, we’ll have some fun. Or, at least I will.

Are you with me? Good!

To begin, please remember one thing: this story takes place pre-Capitalism. What we now know as capitalism didn’t really get started until the 16th or 17th century. We view everything through the lens of Capitalism. The ancient audience, did not.

I think the capitalism reminder is important. For a variety of reasons. But Jesus wasn’t speaking to a world that was designed to favor private citizens making money at the expense of other private citizens. That happened, but it wasn’t the basis of the political and economic system.

With that in mind as we go forward, I want to ask a question. Whose side are we supposed to be on?

As I see it, there are 4 actors in this parable:

Slave owner/landowner

Slave/Steward

The debtors

Mammon – the god of wealth and possessions, which recently has been translated as simply “wealth”

God is also floating around in this story, but honestly, as a modern reader, it’s difficult to tell where.

While capitalism didn’t exist yet, Predatory Lending definitely did. Very high interest rates (think in the neighborhood of 25% for money and 50% on goods), coupled with a mostly illiterate group of borrowers made for a perfect storm of taking advantage of people.

Disingenuous lenders would often place interest in with the principle borrowed, but the common borrower who couldn’t read, didn’t know.

People were taken advantage of.

The lending itself would be a bit different than what we are used to today. Debts were often for land rental and exchanging goods based on the coming harvest, not just for borrowing money.

In this story, let’s say debtor number 1 paid for his land from his harvest. Now, his rent would be 40 jugs of olive oil, but yet he owes 100. Wrapped up in that amount, are 10 jugs for Roman taxes, 40 jugs for the landowner, and 10 for the slave.

The modern version of this is student debt. Where, for example, I will end up paying more than 2 times what I borrowed for law school and seminary. But I digress.

But back to the olive oil guy – he had no idea this happened. He just thought he owed 100 jugs for his land. So he is overjoyed to only pay 50. Same for the wheat guy, who now owes only 80.

Wheat guy doesn’t get such a good deal, probably because the slave only cut his portion of the proceeds from the wheat payment.

So to summarize, the slave is forgiving the portions of the debt that are above what was borrowed anyway – either by giving away his share or by forgiving all of what was borrowed over the original cost.

While predatory lending is frowned upon today, it was illegal back then, and, more specifically, it’s against the law as prescribed in the Torah. Still is. You are not supposed to profit from lending to your neighbors in need. Ever.

God is against this practice. Which is why I don’t think God is portrayed by the slave owner in this story, as has been the common interpretation.

But, regardless, we have a slave who is rewarded for acting shrewdly and being rewarded for this behavior. Even though all he is doing is forgiving the illegal part of the debts.

And! This guy isn’t doing this out of the goodness of his heart. He’s renegotiating to help himself. He wants to have the possibility of life after his punishment from his Master.

The slave has done the most he could with what little he had. He has bet on his future at the expense of his present. I like that. When I think of this parable from that perspective, it’s more tolerable.

It makes more sense that Jesus would want us to take away that we need to do what is right, even if it doesn’t mean doing what is best for us.

And there was a lot of shady dealings that got us to this point. So I don’t think God is being played by the slave in this story either.

I think, honestly, that God in this story is when the guy got scared and did what was right and then all of the good that happened after.

Because, and I think this is important, what God cares about is your heart and if you are right in your relationship with God.

The slave could also have called the debts as due, taken his share, and ran. But he didn’t. He forgave the illegal portions of the debt even though that meant he would leave penniless.

God, to me, is in the doing of the right thing.

I like this; a lot – God is in the doing of the right thing.

But here is what I don’t like:

This Scripture has been used for hundreds of years to justify slavery. I don’t like that. At all. I don’t like how this Scripture just glances by slavery, and assumes it to be ok. I don’t like it. You shouldn’t either. I want all of you to go home and think about this. Please.

Think about how the condemned in this story is the slave, not the slaver, not the predatory lending. The slave, for looking out for himself instead of putting his master first as was required of all slaves, means the slave is the bad guy.

God is in the good that the slave does. But, I really dislike what is skipped over by Jesus here.

However, this is not a sermon on race, racism, and slavery. There will be time for those sermons. Plus, racism, believe it or not, is easier to talk about than what I’m about to say.

Money.

At the end of the day, this is a text about money. The Roman god of money, Mammon, is an actor in this story. And honestly, Mammon is still alive and well today.

The god of wealth and possessions.

And the rare clear teaching that you cannot be a slave to God and to Mammon.

Now, I know it’s hard to envision ourselves as being a slave of any kind a slave, but go with me on this. Because the reality is, we either belong to God or we belong to money.

Are we doing what is right, even if it isn’t what’s best for us? Or are we doing what’s best for us, even at the expense of others? The basis of Capitalism is to get monetary benefit at the expense of others.

I think, at the end of the day, this Scripture is warning us to not be slaves to our money; to not let money control and dictate our lives. Don’t miss life by chasing money. Don’t enrich yourself by preying on those in need.

Because a person in need will do just about anything to make sure needs are met.

I don’t know you all well yet, but I want to tell you something about myself: I’ve been homeless. When I was in 7th grade, my house burned down. And we were homeless. My single mother, and me.

Family and friends got us through that time, others doing things out of the goodness of their hearts.

If you have never done without, if you’ve never been desperate, I am truly happy for you, but you don’t know what that’s like. I was a child, and this was a very short period in my life, but I will never forget. And if you’ve had this experience, you won’t either.

The way we are treating asylum seekers infuriates me, the assumption that these are people seeking a better life in the US. When the reality is that these are human beings, seeking a way to live. They are desperate, vulnerable people, acting on pure survival instincts. And we are taking advantage of them – gaining political leverage (on both sides of the aisle), instead of actually helping.

We wonder why women stay in abusive relationships – but where will they be able to go and be safe? Is it better to be abused but alive, or risk death to leave?

The same is true of the debtors in this story. They are seeking ways of having basic needs met – food and shelter.

And they are being taken advantage of.

God, explicitly, tells us not to. It’s in the Old Testament, frequently, not to lend at interest. As is the Jubilee – all debts are to be forgiven every 7 years. God doesn’t like taking advantage of people.

Jesus tells us in this story that God is in the actions when we treat each other with kindness.

This isn’t a story about doing bad and good things happening.

This IS a story about getting right with God, and about actually living out the commands of Christ.

Love the Lord your God above all other things, especially money. Love one another the way you love yourself. Treat each other the way you want to be treated.

You can’t follow God and the dollar. One of those things will lead you astray, everytime. The other, will stay with you no matter what you’re going through.

I will end with this, and if I’ve lost your attention, come back to me because I’m almost done and this is important: It’s the way that I have developed to test if I am acting for myself or for the Will of God:

Will this thing I want to do hurt other people? Does this belief I have hurt marginalized and bullied people?

It’s a fairly easy rule of life that I’ve started trying to follow: does this hurt people? This belief, this practice, this business deal, this insistence on not using a blinker? Does this hurt someone?

If the answer is yes, you are not following God. Period.

If you follow this rule, you have a good head start of following God.

And yes, for those of you who are paying attention, I did just equate God with using your blinker, but I think that God really likes blinkers and we should all use them.

Amen

Hindsight

(I posted video of this one on Facebook! And I honestly, if anyone ever asks for an example of my preaching, I think I’ll send them this:
https://www.facebook.com/cara.rockhill/videos/10156335384868174?s=504808173&v=i&sfns=mo )

I really like sports. I do. I used to love playing sports, but have had to essentially retire from my not in anyway professional sports career because of injuries. As I’ve aged and matured and not been able to play anymore, I find myself more intrigued by the strategy of team building. I appreciate the skills required to coach a team, but I’m more interested in the general managing of a team.

How do you actually put a team and system together in order to be successful?

This weekend is a high holy day for arm-chair general managers like me – this weekend is the NFL Draft. I haven’t heard of most of the players taken after round 2 of the draft (it’s 3 days and 7 rounds long). But I watch anyway.

It’s also really fun to look back after a season or two, and see which picks worked well, which flopped spectacularly, and which ones were amazing, but no one saw coming.

And of course, there’s the drama. There’s the drama of what will happen and when and why, and sometimes, like this year, the drama is more fun and interesting than anything available on Netflix.

So, here’s the scenario for those of you who aren’t as glued to the draft as I am: There’s a football team in Phoenix, the Arizona Cardinals. Last year the Cardinals drafted a quarterback with the 10th overall pick in the draft, Josh Rosen. But the team, was simply not good. They were very not good. They fired their entire coaching staff, and hired a new one. And have the first pick in this year’s draft.

The new coaching staff said they loved Josh. That Josh fit with what they wanted to do, that Josh was their quarterback.

But the new head coach of the Cardinals, he had been trying to recruit a young quarterback to play for him for years, a guy named Kyler Murray. Now Kyler is pretty short for a football player, he’s only 5’10, and was also drafted to play professional baseball.

Kyler won the Heisman trophy this year. Kyler is a very good quarterback. An incredible athlete. And potentially the best possible fit for the offense the new coach, Cliff, wants to run.

So the drama leading up to the draft became: will the Cardinals take Kyler or stick with Josh, and if they take Kyler, what do they do with Josh?

Thursday night rolls around, and the Cardinals had the first pick. They chose Kyler, and on Friday traded Josh to the Miami Dolphins.

And now the drama becomes: who will be better? Which team made the better decision? Will Josh be good in Miami? Will Kyler be good in Arizona? Will either of them not suck?

We don’t know! And it’s only by looking back that we’ll be able to assess if the right decisions were made! And who made them!

We’ll use hindsight to look back over the draft. Only in hindsight will we judge what we would’ve done in that situation. Who we would’ve picked. Whose side we would be on.

Hindsight. But our hindsight in situations that we weren’t actually in tends to be a bit skewed.

Sticking with football, look at Tom Brady. A truly great quarterback. He was picked 199th in the NFL draft. We can claim we would’ve chosen him higher, but we’d be wrong. Very skilled professionals and amateurs alike didn’t think he’d amount to much.

We were wrong.

Today I want to talk about hindsight. I’d like to do so because the reading from Acts and the Gospel both made me think about how we tend to look back at things and decide who we would believed & what we would’ve done with modern eyes and with 2,000 years of storytelling.

We have 2,000 years of calling the Apostles heroes for preaching when they were told not to. We have 2,000 years of calling Thomas “doubting Thomas” because he could not believe that something impossible had happened without proof.

We have 2,000 years of being told who was right & whose side we should be on.

But honestly, I have always been on Thomas’s side of this story. I can’t blame him. I would have done the same thing in his position. And, AND!!! Everyone else, saw Jesus or had an angel tell them what was going on. The others had already gotten proof of the impossible thing. Not Thomas though. And so he gets called doubting Thomas because he wants the same proof the others got.

But I digress. I actually want to talk about what’s going on in Acts.

In Acts, a group of Apostles have been teaching and preaching in the Temple in Jerusalem, against the direct orders of the ruling religious elites, this time the Sadducees. It’s important to remember one thing: the Sadducees were the priests of the Temple in Jerusalem. They were tied to Jerusalem. The Pharisees were spread around. This is why after the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the Sadducees disappeared. But the Pharisees kept on.

But back to the Apostles. With hindsight and 2,000 years of hero making, we look back on these Apostles as being so brave! Following the call of Christ, emboldened by the angels!

We skip that they were rabble rousers, breaking the law, social outcasts who people would not be publicly associated with. They stood up for what they believed in. They made a scene. The government tried to shut them down.

They were beaten – that’s actually how this stories ends, they were flogged – and almost all of the Apostles would eventually be executed by the state.

Today, when someone behaves like this, we cast them aside as being wrong, rabble rousers, our for their own needs over the common good.

The most immediate modern corollary that comes to my mind is the Black Lives Matter movement. They are challenging the status quo, and being criticized from many sides. An immediate narrative of “All lives matter” popped up in response; the protestors now being beaten, arrested, persecuted, discredited, and killed.

Or the water protectors at Standing Rock. Those who stood on the side of the planet and their beliefs, even while being discredited, disparaged, lied about and to, beaten, killed, and ultimately ignored completely.

Or the #MeToo movement.

I feel very confident that history will be on the side of the Black Lives Matter protestors, those who stood up at Standing Rock, those who vulnerably and bravely declare #metoo. Just as history will be on the side of all those who stood up on the side of love, to abolish slavery, for civil rights, for the right to worship Jesus.

But this is my projection. I’ve made my selections. I’m on the side of love, the side of equality, the side of trying to save what is left of this beautiful but complicated planet that we all call home.

I made my choices based on my research, my understanding, my struggle to understand what my God is calling me to do and who God calls me to be.

Perhaps you understand differently. If you do, that’s ok. I just ask you to have a firm understanding of where you get that belief from. Is it a belief that you came to on your own based on studying scripture and learning about Christ? Or is it something someone in a position of power told you? Someone with their own agenda?

Said as a person with an agenda, right? My agenda as a priest is to challenge people to believe things not because society tells them to. And these two readings show me how important it is to believe things on your own. And if you believe, be willing to risk everything for it.

Be willing to risk your reputation and becoming a 2 century long joke, like Thomas. Be willing to risk alienating everyone, being jailed, beaten, killed, for doing what God calls you to do.

We are to believe with all our hearts, and with all our minds, and all our strength.

There’s good news though! If we take an honest look and realize that we were not exactly where we are called to be, God will forgive us and help us start over.

It’s kinda like what the Cardinals did in this draft: we have something that works, but maybe there’s something that just fits better.

If so, if we and we believe enough to make the change, even though it’s risky, and even though it costs us something – time, pride, money – then we need to make a change. Because if the risk pays off, it would be worth any price.

The question is: are we brave enough to bet everything on God, or would we rather bet on ourselves?

When I was younger

I wrote this for BraveSpace, a faith community I’ve been tasked with creating in my adopted home of Providence. The original can be seen here

I’m white, I did something when I was younger I now know was wrong. I’m ashamed. What do I do now?

Rev. Cara Rockhill

I’ve read enough Brene’ Brown to know that shame is an incredibly powerful emotion. As Brene’ says, shame traps us, forcing us to stay where we are.

I’ve been thinking a lot about shame in the last few days, since news of the Ralph Northam med school yearbook picture broke.

And specifically as a Christian and an Episcopal priest, I’ve been thinking about what faith calls us to do in these moments. And here is what I have come up with.

Our faith calls us to be accountable for our past, and to be more than the things that we have done. In some moments, and this is one of them, our faith requires us to be honest and vulnerable about the choices we have made and the actions we have (or have not) taken.

If I were Governor Northam, or on his team, I would have stood up and said: the world was different in 1984; I was different in 1984. I did something for a joke that in this modern world, and with who I am in this world, I now know to have been wrong, racist, and horribly offensive. I am sorry and ashamed for what I did. Here is who I am today. Here is what I did to become who I am today. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, and that I lied about it, I am deeply ashamed of who I was back then.

I’m using Gov. Northam as an example, but I think a lot of us have things like this in our past. And I know that we as a church, both all of Christendom and specifically as the Episcopal Church, have things in our past that we are deeply ashamed of.

Maybe Gov. Northam isn’t going to do this, but we as a church are. But much of what we are focusing on is just trying to figure out how to move forward from the past.

But it is an absolute folly to skip the admission of being wrong, and to further skip the genuine apology that allows you to show you have changed and are different.

In many ways, I think we as a society have forgotten how to genuine apologize for having hurt someone. And so instead of having to be vulnerable enough to say we were wrong, or apologize for hurting someone’s feelings, we just avoid having difficult conversations.

In Church we talk about God’s love, but skip over the fact that God called us all to be in community with one another, not even if we disagree, but BECAUSE we disagree. God calls us to be vulnerable in relationship, and to be willing to stand up for what is right, even if we know others will disagree.

For example, I’m pro-choice, but I understand the position of being pro-life, and appreciate that those who are ardently pro-life are willing to stand up and say so. I disagree with many of the tactics and think they could show God’s love for all involved much better, but there’s no denying that pro-life protestors will show up even though they know there will be dissent.

It is time for us as a Church, as the Episcopal Church, to stand up and admit what we have done; to go through the history of our role in slavery and racism. Because we have one. We have a huge role. I have been researching this over the last few years, and in the coming months will be sharing with the world my understanding of how we are responsible.

I’m doing this because it is what God calls me to do. I am deeply ashamed, but if we as denomination are to lead towards reconciliation, we must first be willing to stand up and atone for what we have done. We must atone for our role in the sin of slavery and the sin of racism. Atonement is not merely saying I’m sorry and moving on. True, deep, repentance, a true return to God, requires owning what we have done.

But first, I’m going to start with myself.

I’m from a small town in Maryland. So small, that generally, I share the county I’m from (Calvert) instead of the town. Now, when we think of Maryland, many people think of a very liberal state, and parts of it are. But not my part.

There were still a lot of tobacco farms when I was growing up, and a huge amount of racial division. It’s a very conservative area. Where “Southern Pride” is as ingrained in us as the acceptability of the name of the Washington Football Team.

I was not immune to this. I grew up thinking the Confederate Flag was cool, and not thinking twice about it, because that’s just it was like where I grew up. I was taught state’s rights as being part of the basis for the Civil War (to be fair, slavery was also taught as part of the basis).

I was never overtly or intentionally racist, but I was absolutely blinded by my own privilege and the way that race plays a role in everyday life.

And then I grew up. I learned a little about the civil war, and the civil rights movement, and then I made an effort to learn. I educated myself on the truth of the myths I had been taught. I started talking to others about what I learned. I started to say that the civil war was fought over the state’s rights to an economic system predicated on owning humans.

I became ashamed of my former embracing of the confederate flag and of my blindness to the reality of racial inequality in this world.

I was awoken, my eyes were opened, and I have never let them shut again.

I understand the role of privilege and accessibility in racism and how I have both benefited and played a part.

I am different from the teenager and young woman I was. Today I engage in difficult conversations and am doing my best to teach others to do so. I use my privilege to help those with less or without.

I make an effort to understand all sides of an issue. I use my faith to guide my beliefs instead of my beliefs to guide my faith. I stand up for what I believe in. Even if I know it will offend others. Even if I know there will be real life repercussions for my actions, and believe me, there have been repercussions.

I call others to do the same. To know what they believe, to know why they believe, but to be certain it is what they believe, and not what some person, some culture, some society, some church, has told them to believe.

I am sorry for some of the things I did. Truly. I am sorry enough that I made a genuine effort to change.

It’s time for us as individuals, as Christians, and as Episcopalians to do the same.

Let us be more than our history, by first knowing what our history is. And then finding ways to show we have changed, and engage in the difficult work of being different.

Esther

In the Bible, there are certain things that when they happen, you should pay attention to them. For example, when God says directly something that we should do. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself. Or, my favorite, from the Book of Micha, the Lord requires us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

Another time you should really pay attention is when a woman is mentioned by name. And when a book of the Bible is named after a woman! That means the woman must be incredibly important! Because it only happens twice, here, with Esther, and in the Apocrypha, with the book of Judith.

Or, at least the story must be important. And that’s what I’d like to talk about today, the overall story told in the book of Esther.

Because our lectionary really cuts this story in an odd way. In fact, this odd cutting of this one part is all we have of Esther in the lectionary. Which is too bad, because this really is an interesting story. So, if it’s ok with everyone, I’d like to take you on a story through the Book of Esther!

I think at the outset it’s important to mention that Esther is almost certainly just a story. Much of the Old Testament is a capturing of the stories that were told, the stories of the Hebrew people. Some stories are believed to be true or at least based in truth. And some are understood to be just stories. Important stories, that capture many different people, places, and stereotypes into fictional events, places, and people. Esther, like the Book that immediately precedes it, Job, is such a story.

Important stories, conglomerations of things that were passed down from generation to generation, to help explain to the Hebrew people who they are, where they come from, and why their identity as Jewish is important to hold on to.

And now, to the story! Esther is King Ahasuerus’s second queen. She is selected after a nationwide search because she’s beautiful and chosen by the King from among all of the most beautiful virgin women in the kingdom after each spent a night with him (before they were married). Had she not been selected as Queen, she would have joined the other women who had the honor of being considered but not selected as part of the King’s harem of concubines. Because, she would have been spoiled goods. Spoiled by the King, but spoiled nonetheless, and thus no longer of value to other men in society.

But the first Queen, Vashti, was still alive. She had recently been deposed because she did not come to the King while he was drunk and wanted to show off how beautiful she was to some of his friends. The King’s noblemen convince the king to depose her so that other wives do not begin disobeying their husbands. The king agrees, and Vashti is never heard from again.

Esther, was raised by her uncle Mordecai after her parents died. Mordecai was very well respected in his community, Jewish, and a very shrewd man.

After Esther was made queen, Mordecai would hangout by the gate of the kingdom to wait for times that he could see Esther. Because he did this, he heard two of the kings Eunuchs talking about a plot to kill the king.

Mordecai got word to Esther, Esther told the king, the allegations were investigated and found to be true, the eunuchs were hung, and the King was very happy with Mordecai.

Around the same time, the king promoted one of the members of his court, Haman, to be the highest ranking official.

Haman really liked being respected and his position of honor being recognized. He required everyone, other than the King, to bow down to the ground before him. Everyone did, except Mordecai. Why he doesn’t put himself on the ground whenever Haman came by isn’t said, but, it was a common practice later, much later, for the Jews to not lower themselves before the Greek authorities.

Haman is absolutely enraged at Mordecai, but won’t lower himself to actually strike Mordecai, because that would be below a man of his stature and importance. Instead, Haman decides to brutally murder all of the Jews in the kingdom as punishment to Mordecai. The king agrees in large part because Haman pays the king 10,000 Talents to be able to do so. A Talent was the equilivent of a years wages for the average person.

Mordecai and all the Jews, except Esther, put ashes on their faces and put on sackcloth in mourning. Somehow, Mordecai gets word to Esther about what’s going on, and tells her to go to the King.

Except that Esther can’t just go to the King, she must be called to court, and the King has not called her to court in more than 30 days. Going to court without being called was required to be punished by death. The only way around being executed was in the King held out his golden scepter to you. Esther gathered her courage and went anyway.

Fortunately for Esther, the King really is quite fond of Esther and holds out his scepter to her. He offers Esther anything she wants, up to half the kingdom.

And all she asks for is a private dinner with the King and Haman.

The king and Haman come to dinner and greatly enjoy it, the king again offers Esther whatever she wants, up to half the kingdom, and she asks for the king and Haman to come to dinner again tomorrow night. Everyone agrees.

Haman goes home, he calls his wife and his servants and his children to share with all of them how amazing he is! They all agree that he’s great. Haman again brings up that he really hates Mordecai, and Haman’s wife suggests that Haman build a 50 cubit high gallows to hang Mordecai on, and to get the king to let him hang Mordecai the next day.

Haman thinks this is the best idea ever! Orders the gallows built, and the next morning goes off to see the King, certain that the king will grant his wish.

The king looks at Haman and asks how Haman thinks a man who had done an incredible honor to the king should be honored. Haman, thinking the King must surely be speaking of him, says the man should be dressed in royal robes worn by the king, and paraded around the city on one of the King’s fancy horses while the person leading the horse shouts how wonderful the honored person is.

The king says “you’re right! That’s great! I never honored Mordecai after he saved my life, go honor him this way, yourself, now.”

Haman does this. And after, Mordecai is returned to his place at the gate, and Haman goes home, absolutely furious. And his wife warns him, if Mordecai is Jewish, be careful, because the King seems to really like him.

While he’s still seething, the king’s eunuchs arrive to summon Haman to dinner.

Haman goes, expecting another lovely and calm evening to help rejuvenate his spirits after such a bad day.

The dinner is lovely, and after, the king again asks Esther what she would like, anything at all, up to half his kingdom.

Esther asks the king to save her people, the Jewish people, to save them from the hand of Haman who has bought the right to execute them.

The King is furious at Haman for ordering the death of the Jewish people, which includes Mordecai and his wife (which the king had apparently not realized of before). The king goes out to walk in the garden to calm himself. Haman stays to beg Esther for his life. Esther isn’t swayed and reclines on her couch for a calm after meal moment. Haman throws himself on the couch (which is how they said bed in those days), and the king walks in, sees Haman in bed with his wife, and doesn’t even need to question what has happened.

He believes his wife. Believes Haman is capable of raping her. Has caught him in a position that looks like Haman is forcing himself on his wife.

It is at this point that the eunuch points out Haman just built gallows to hang Mordecai on. The king, in a moment that I can only imagine is filled with cool and pure disdain, says simply “hang him on that.”

Now, what we have today makes it seem like the end of the story. But it’s not. Next, we hear of how the Jewish people are allowed to arm and protect themselves, how they kill 75,000 people who came for them, and how Haman’s wife and sons are also hung from the gallows. The story also talks a bit more about how great Mordecai is.

And that’s it. That’s the book of Esther.

The book of Esther, the story these few pages tell, is the story of the festival of Purim. A festival that celebrates being alive.

What I think is the most interesting about the Book of Esther, honestly, is how little of it is actually about Esther. It’s the story of Mordecai, a story of survival, and story of the abilities of the Jewish people in battle.

Esther risks her life, but only at the insistence of Mordecai. She is brave and courageous throughout. But we don’t know much about why she did these things other than because Mordecai told her to.

We don’t know how Esther felt about giving up the one thing she had to offer, her virginity, to a man she had never met and potentially impoverishing herself for the rest of her life by doing so. She didn’t have a choice. All of the most beautiful women were required.

I love that a Book in the Bible is named after a woman. Truly. But this isn’t her story. Her voice isn’t heard.

This Book is an example of a woman being used for what a society thinks are her best virtues, her looks and her virginity.

I enjoy reading this story. It’s fun. It’s action packed. It’s short. It’s literarily excellent. The way scenes are started and ended with banquets and festivals, the way the role of honor comes back and forth, the book ending of people being hung, the king blindly agreeing with his advisors (first to depose Queen Vashti, then to allow the murder of all the Jews in his kingdom). It’s a well told story. I recommend it to everyone.

But my question today is: why isn’t Esther’s voice heard? I’m not going to answer that. I’ll just point out that this is common for women throughout history. It’s part of why so few women are named in the Bible. It’s part of why Mary Magdalene, who was clearly close to Jesus and important among the Disciples, it’s part of why history has vilified her and made her out to be a whore.

Why women are unimportant throughout history is not something I seek to answer today, but in the interest of learning how to love your neighbor as yourself, I encourage all of us to consider why this is.

I encourage us to consider this because it is part of how we can actually get closer to the humans that God created us to be, and who Christ calls all Christians to be.

In the interest of explaining the rhetorical tools I’m using today, I’m book ending this sermon with things in the Bible that we should pay attention to. And using the one book in Scripture named after a woman to better point us towards the commands that God has given us on how to live.

It’s up to us to live into and up to those commands.

Amen

Knowledge and Wisdom

I was honored to be invited back to St. Andrew’s by the Sea, in Little Compton, RI this weekend (and a few more times in the coming weeks). The readings can be found here; I focused mostly on the Proverbs reading and the Gospel.

 

One of my closest friends is a guy named Chris (that’s his real name; this isn’t an incriminating story). Chris and I grew up together. After high school, I began what would be a rather long journey through college, grad school, law school, and seminary. College wasn’t for Chris. He joined the Army, did a few tours in Iraq, was injured in a massive explosion, lived to tell the tale, and two weeks ago got engaged to a wonderful woman.

Chris and I are very close friends. We know each other well and have talked about a lot of diverse and incredibly complicated things. Chris is a smart person. I am a smart person. But the way that we understand and process information is very different.

The best way that I can describe this is in how Chris and I have studied and can discuss the Civil War. Chris knows a lot about the Civil War, far more than I do. He knows about the generals, the battles, the troop movements, and the military reasons for the success and failure of different campaigns.

I tend to view the world on a systemic level. And so my work on the Civil War has focused more on the systemic issues that were at play in causing the South treasonously leave the Union, what the actual reasons for the Civil war were for both the North and the South, and most importantly, the systemic issues and ramifications from before and after the Civil War that we are still dealing with today.

Spoiler Alert: Chris and I agree that in the south, the civil war was fought over the state’s right to have an economic system predicated on owning other humans. While the North had moved away from a slavery-based economy to an industrial economy that thrived by providing goods to the Antebellum south. But the soldiers on the Northern side didn’t fight to abolish slavery, as is commonly believed. The North fought to preserve the Union.

But that was just an aside. The real point of this story is to show that Chris and I are both very smart, and the two of us are able to have difficult conversations because we respect one another, even though we occasionally speak about the same things in different ways. We do, however, listen to one another and learn together.

I tell this story because I think it’s important to point out that intelligence comes in different forms and expressions. Some people are great at math. Some are great at remembering historical facts and figures. Some people are good at languages. Some people can fix machines. Or make things. Or understand children. Or dogs. Some people are organized. Some people can view the same issue from multiple angles and share what they learn. Some people can write beautifully and creatively. Some people can make art. Some can make us laugh

And we are all intelligent in our own ways.

Being intelligent, being smart, those are things that can be learned and developed, often in classrooms, but not always. I am filled with knowledge because of my time in classrooms.

I have come to appreciate a couple of things about knowledge. First, the more you know about something, the more knowledge you have in a field, the more you realize what you don’t know. And, also that there’s a big difference between knowledge and intelligence, and between knowledge and wisdom.

I’m an intelligent person. But my knowledge of the facts of the Civil War is small. That doesn’t make me unintelligent, it just makes me not an expert on the troop movements and the battles of the Civil War.

My buddy Chris is a smart guy. That he didn’t go to college doesn’t change that he’s a smart guy. And some of the things that he has seen and experienced have given him a wisdom beyond anything that I would be able to learn about in a classroom.

Readings like the ones we have today really make me consider the difference between intelligence and wisdom.

Readings like these encourage me to take a deep breath, and really consider the places where I am relying on my own intelligence instead of trusting the wisdom of God.

This is complicated because it can be really difficult to discern the wisdom of God. It’s difficult for a lot of reasons. But the biggest struggle for me is to figure out when it’s my knowledge talking, or God’s Wisdom. Or when it’s the world talking, instead of God’s Wisdom. Or a combination there of. Or one of those rare, blissful moments, when I’m actually on the same page as the Wisdom of God!

What the world says we should be doing is incredibly blinding. Especially when what the world, or society says is right aligns with what we want to do anyway!

There’s an example of this in the Gospel today. Jesus says that he will have to suffer and die, and Peter pulls Jesus aside to tell Jesus not to say those things.

I really appreciate the audacity of this scene. A guy, who is following Jesus to learn how to be more like Christ, is pulling Jesus aside to tell him he’s wrong.

I laugh at this scene. Until I remember that it happens every day. Every day.

Humans, every day, attempt to correct God about what is right, or best, or needed.

There are a lot of ways that we do this. A lot. I’m sure that as we sit here, a few thought bubbles of this are happening.

Throughout history, there has been an attempt to claim that God ordained something that humans wanted to do. The wars that Kings waged in Medieval Europe to expand empires. The Crusades. Manifest Destiny. Colonization. Slavery. Racism. Violent Jihad. The Prosperity Gospel. Violence against LGBTQ identifying people. Refusing to bake a cake for the wedding of those LGBTQ identifying people.

My point, is that this has been happening for as long as there have been humans trying to figure out the difference between what God wants and what we want.

I have a proposition. I propose that we, the humans who are alive now. I propose that we be the ones who finally, truly, honestly, and vulnerably, spend time to actually figure out the difference between what we want and what God wants.

Here are a couple of useful road signs, courtesy of Richard Roar: if something is violent, warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, or vain, it’s not of God.

Now, note, I’m not saying that we always have to do what God wants. I would suggest that we should. But what I’m suggesting is to be honest with ourselves and others about why we’re doing something; that’s actually all I’m looking for. You can still occasionally be greedy, or selfish, not violent or warlike or racist – let’s just get rid of those things, but I will be the first to admit, I’m vain at times.

But let’s own that it is us and our will, not us doing what we think God wants, when we are greedy, selfish, or vain.

For example: You’re against immigration. Fine. But why? And I ask that as a person who has spent a lot of time gaining knowledge about God and Scripture, and that knowledge leads me to believe that what Jesus said in the Scriptures is what I should be aiming for, and Jesus says to welcome the stranger. To treat everyone the way we would want to be treated.

You think being Gay or Trans is a sin. Fine. But own where that comes from, and that it is something within you, and not God. Because the word “Homosexual” wasn’t even invented until the last century. And God still looks at each of us and thinks we are perfect, including those who are born trans and those who are born gay (and believe me, you are born trans or gay, it’s not something one just wakes up and decides to be one day).

Think the races should be separate? Fine. But own the racism and hate within that belief, and don’t claim that God made it so. Because God made this beautiful rainbow of humanity. Every single color.

“Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: ‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?”

How long do we need to live this way? How long do we need to ignore God, as she stands at the gates, waiting to be invited in. How long do we, as a collective we, not just individuals, how long will we leave God waiting?

How long will we set our minds on human things instead of Divine things? How long will we mistake our knowledge for the Wisdom of God? How many Civil Wars must be waged until we are finally able to admit when it is our will instead of God’s Wisdom?

How long until we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Christ?  For if we want to save our lives, we must lose them. Because, really, what do we actually gain if we gain all the things in the world, but forfeit our lives, and the reason we live?

What would you be willing to give up to follow Christ? Anything? What’s the one thing you would give up everything for? Does that point to love? If it points to love, it points to God.

And if it doesn’t, well…

The Words We Say…

When you are in my line of work, you spend a fair amount of time thinking about words. I attempt to spend a bit of time every day thinking about words, specifically the words of Scripture, their ancient meanings, the ancient contexts, and what those ancient words mean today.

Because over time, words lose their meaning. Or better said, meanings evolve. Meaning evolves as time goes by. Just as human beings have evolved over time.

Quick side note: if you don’t believe in evolution, you are in the wrong church! Evolution is settled as truth in the Episcopal Church. But, this is actually a really good illustration of my point. Because, it wasn’t until 1859 when Darwin published the Origin of the Species that we had any idea of what evolution really was or that it exists.

It wasn’t too long before Darwin published Origin of the Species that humans figured out that the earth revolves around the sun. And before that, humans had to figure out that the earth was round.

It was within the last hundred years or so that science figured out that the woman is more than just an oven in reproduction.

Things evolve. Understandings change. Humans evolve. And we have come to understand more, and more of those changes that humans have undergone.

And words, cultures, meanings, those have evolved much faster than humans have.

Now, if at this point, you are thinking back over the texts for today and wondering where I am finding the inspiration to talk about words and evolution, I would like to say simply, I’m not. Because today, I’d like to spend a little time discussing the Confession of Sin. And more specifically, some words within the Confession.

I’m afraid that over time, a lot of those words have just become words. Hopefully not for all of us, but for many, we repeat these words, but don’t spend a lot of time thinking about them.

I first became aware of these words becoming just words after the Sandy Hook school shooting. As I said the words of the Confession the afternoon of the shooting, tears poured down my cheeks.

And the day following the news of each mass shooting, when saying the Confession, the same tears flow down my cheeks. I could list all of the shootings, but that would take most of the time left today and get away from my point.

My point is that I noticed these tears and decided that I should spend more time with the words. Because clearly, these words have a deep, deep meaning and impact within me, even if intellectually they had become words i merely repeated. And my guess is that for some of us gathered here today, the same is true.

“Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of our Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.”

Notice, that it’s we. It’s not I. It’s not me admitting to God that I have sinned. We, as a collective group of people, we are saying to God, that we have done wrong, that we have sinned, in how we think, in how we speak or stay silent, and in how we act, or don’t act.

We admit that we love and value things more than God.

We admit that we do not love our neighbors as ourselves. And for evidence of this, look at all that is going on at our borders, and in the conflict about immigration, how we are treating those with different viewpoints. Or in the way we have come to immediately distrust those with a different political affiliation.

We say we repent, but over time the word repent has come to mean merely “I’m sorry”. But to repent, means so much more than words, it means to physically turn away from something, and back towards something else.

To forgive, is so much more than an acceptance of an apology as though nothing has happened. Forgive has become conflated with forgetting. And nothing, nothing could be further from the meaning of forgive than to forget.

These words, the way we use them, these things matter. We can’t merely say these words.

Over time, Christianity has somehow evolved away from the idea that what Christ taught is how to live in the world we are in, and towards a focus on eternal life.

But Christ didn’t merely teach us a way into Heaven. Christ taught us how to live the lives that we are intended to live, and the Confession of Sin is the way that Episcopalians stand, or kneel, in humility before their God to admit that we have strayed from God’s plan for us. To admit that we don’t stand up for our neighbors, we don’t love them as we love ourselves, hell, often we’ve forgotten how to love ourselves.

We remember how to love our things. But have somehow come to confuse accumulating things with actually loving ourselves.

Loving ourselves, loving our neighbors as ourselves, loving God, walking in God’s ways, those are things we’ve started to say, but have all too often forgotten how to do. These words that we repeat in the confession, these words have in and of themselves become things done and left undone.

The words we say, how we say them, WHY we say them, these may seem like trivial things, but they matter very much to God. Our intentions matter.

Think about the stories we tell. The Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is a story. It’s the story of the Israelite people. Each word is intentionally used and placed. Each Gospel tells the same story, but they tell the same story very differently. The Epistles are all letters to specific people addressing specific things.

These words matter. A lot.

Today is my first trip to Little Compton. And before I arrived this is what I knew: Little Compton is a particularly wealthy and very old community. The wealth of the community having been built in large part on profits either directly or indirectly accumulated as a result of the slave trade.

So I did some research on Little Compton before I came. I wanted to see how the story of Little Compton is told.

The story that Little Compton tells glosses over that this land was taken from the Natives who lived here, the Sakonnet people, and taken because the settlers of the Plymouth Colony wanted to expand their holdings. The most highly regarded founder is Benjamin Church, who is so regarded because his role in conflicts with other native tribes, the Narragansets and Wampanoags.

There is no mention of slavery. There has been a fair amount of research done on Little Compton and slavery, but the main narrative of Little Compton leaves out these parts of its history.

In 1904, Little Compton resident Roswell Burchard gave an address and said of Little Compton “When however, we come to line these stories up against the measuring stick of history, we find that like many of the oft-told legends, they do not coincide with the facts.”

The way we tell our stories, the parts we avoid, the parts we acknowledge, this is important in understanding what is most important to us. But this is also how we line up against the measuring stick of history.

The story we tell, the way we tell it, it avoids that this nation was built on a foundation of white supremacy, of white Christian supremacy, and that it was literally built with the blood, sweat, and lives of native peoples, and African slaves.

With that in mind, how different does the confession of sin feel today?

How different does it feel to think about the things we think, or avoid thinking about? The things we do, or don’t do? Those things we acknowledge or ignore? The people and causes we stand up for, or the moments we choose to remain silent?

We say the confession, but how do we live it out? Have we repented for the sin of slavery? Have we truly returned to the path of God in response to the sins committed in the colonization of this very land?

We say the confession; how do we come together to discuss these sins, and figure out how to heal the harm and return to the will of God?

I don’t have an exact answer to this. But my instinct is that we must educate ourselves about the real stories, our histories, and then come together to talk, to heal, to learn. These conversations will be difficult, but they must happen. Visit the Little Compton historical society, where they have a more full history of this lovely town. Check out what the Center for Reconciliation is doing and become involved in what we’re doing over at your Cathedral.

We must use our words as more than just things we say. Let’s engage our words to be the things we say and create the things we do, rather than allowing our words to represent the things unsaid, and undone.

Otherwise, our words are just words.

Christians, gathered followers of Christ, hear me, we are called to be more than mere words. Every part of us is called to follow Christ, our hearts, our words, our actions, our beliefs. All of us, mind, body, and soul, we are all called.

God wants all of us. All our hearts, and all our minds, and all our bodies. Our words are one of the ways we show our hearts and our minds.

We as Christians need to find words and a way to truly repent, to truly return to the path of God, because how we say the words of the confession show the intentions of our hearts.

God sees our hearts. What do you want God to see?

The 0’s and 1’s of Equality

I happily returned to an Episcopal Church this week, to St. Paul’s, Pawtucket! And I was able to honor the amazing Pauli Murray (seriously, google her)!!!

This week, I learned about Binary in a mathematical sense. Basically (I think), everything is broken down into 1’s and 0’s. And it is the combination of those 1’s and 0’s that make up everything. Roughly. I think. I’m a great priest and was a decent lawyer, but math was never my strongest subject. But I did check with the amazing math person, who says this is correct.

In the world today, there are a lot of things that have been broken down into binaries, but in the sense of if you’re not 0, then you must be totally 1. There’s a constant sense of us v. them: black v white; gay v straight; male v female; cisgender v transgender; citizen v migrant; republican v Democrat; good v bad; strong v weak. The world and people tend to be viewed this way, instead of in the more accurate sense that each human, each of us is a unique combination of 0’s and 1’s. We are all made up of the same stuff, the same 1’s and 0’s.

In this world it seems like we’re all different, but we’re not. We’re all made up of the same stuff, just individually organized and packaged!

As the world has started to evolve, and communication has made the world seem smaller, it makes it seem like we’re all so radically different. And so what I think is happening is that we are tightening our circles around “us” and “them.”

We are focusing on what makes us different, instead of how we are the same. At the same time that people who have always felt a bit different, like outsiders, and marginalized, we are starting to see that there are a lot of people like us.

And so we are celebrating our differences, embracing the unique patterns of 1’s and 0’s that make up each of us.

It makes it seem like we’re breaking out of our binaries. And in some ways, we are. We are now embracing our uniqueness rather that trying to squeeze into boxes designed around someone else’s unique makeup.

The world has been organized around the boxes acceptable boxes to those in power. But what this organization system is now reacting against is that humans can’t easily be categorized! We’ve always been made up in unique combinations.

We just talk about it now.

As uncomfortable as it may be for many, and I admit there was a learning curve for me as well, both for how I understand and view myself, and also a learning curve in recognizing that the world, and humans, are not only one of 2 things, but instead are instead a combination of things. This view of the world, one that recognizes that the world and humans are not us and other, this is getting closer to the will of God.

Because the will of God is for us to honor and respect each human, not despite our differences but because of them.

And we have come a long, long way. Work remains to be completed, but to be sure, we have come a long way.

And on this day, this day that the Episcopal church has set aside to celebrate and remember the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, this day is a perfect day to talk about binaries, and the will of God.

Has anyone here today heard of Pauli Murray?

It’s okay if you haven’t. It’s quite common for the women important in various movements to be less well known than their male counterparts. But Pauli is a person worth knowing about. Or else, honestly, she wouldn’t be a saint.

I’m going to jump ahead in the story of Pauli’s life. To when she was in her late 60’s. In 1977, Pauli was one of the earliest women ordained in the Episcopal church. She was ordained in the National Cathedral, next to our very own Canon to the Ordinary (and honestly the best boss I have ever had), Linda Grenz.

Pauli was the first African American woman ordained in the Episcopal Church.

Pauli is considered to be the first lesbian ordained in the Episcopal Church, even though she wasn’t able to be out at that time. But sexuality isn’t the full story of what Pauli represents.

Because what we know now, but what we didn’t know then, is that Pauli was also the first transgender person to be ordained in the Episcopal Church.

Pauli grew up and lived in a world where gender and sex assignment, those were binary things. It was a world where the word transgender didn’t exist. Where gender, which is cultural, and sex, which is biological, were conflated into the same thing. Pauli’s was a world where if you believed or behaved in a way contrary to the gender assigned at your birth, you were considered to have a mental illness, and often people who struggled with gender identity ended up in mental institutions. As Pauli did at various points.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, and making Pauli seem far to one dimensional.

And Pauli Murray was so much more than 1 dimension.

Pauli fought, scraped, and demanded her right to live, to be a black woman, to be a black woman from the south, and for her right to be educated. And she was very, very educated.

She struggled through her undergrad degree, worked for human and civil rights, became a good friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, went to Howard Law School, became very active in civil rights and nonviolent resistance, and while at Howard, Pauli’s senior thesis was the first to challenge the separate in separate but equal – and was referenced in Brown v Board of Education. Pauli became a Dr of law, Wrote what then became a seminal paper on housing discrimination and different ways to challenge discriminatory housing laws and practices. Pauli then worked as a professor at Brandis. And at each step and stop, she was badly discriminated against because of her race, gender, or both.

She was an early member of the National Organization for women. She was an incredibly active member of the Civil Rights movement, and hers was a voice that constantly pointed out the important work black women were doing in the movement, but that women were not in leadership within the movement.

And throughout her life, Faith was incredibly important to Pauli. A lifelong Episcopalian, Pauli often sought and found refuge and strength for the battles of her life in her faith.

Pauli became part of the movement for the Ordination of Women in the Episcopal Church, and while her voice wasn’t the loudest or the best known, her presence was felt. Pauli was discriminated against in Seminary, both for being a woman, and for being black. It didn’t seem to matter that Pauli was an important figure in civil rights and women’s rights. In seminary Pauli once again became only a black woman. Not a black woman who was better educated and more accomplished than even her professors.

Pauli’s sexuality and gender identity were so deeply buried and unacceptable at the time that discrimination for those were not overt issues. Other than raised eyebrows & whispered comments that followed an unmarried woman at the time.

And then, even after being ordained, Pauli struggled to find a church that was willing to have her, and non that were willing to pay her.

Pauli’s struggles, and battles, they aren’t widely known. But the reverberations of her work, and struggles, those are still widely felt today.

And Pauli’s importance, as we move into a world that is finally dealing with the fact that life and people are not easily categorized, cannot be understated.

Especially for us as a church.

The church model that we operate out of was developed in the 50’s and 60’s. And the world has simply changed a lot since the 50’s and 60’s.

Look at this world today, we are no longer merely white and black. We are no longer gay and straight. We are no longer men and women.

But what we are, and what we have always been, are the people of God.

It is time for us as a church to learn to appreciate the beautiful rainbow of humans that exist on this planet. And I mean rainbows of all different kinds!

The colors of our skins! Our sexualities! Our nationalities. The languages we speak. Our gender expressions. Our immigration status. Our religious beliefs.

This is the time to do this. The movement has started, and just as the Corinthians reading says, it’s time to finish what has already been started. We must seek to accomplish equality!

And the best part is, when we do this difficult work, when we learn to see and value everyone, it doesn’t put any additional pressure on us. It doesn’t change our position in the world. It doesn’t harm us in anyway. Instead, just as Paul said, our abundance will match their need. Our love and acceptance will create a balance of love in this world.

It will take effort. But God is with us. This is the will of God.

It is time to get out of our own ways and find a way to be in line with the will of God. If we do this, then we will find the reconciling love of God, and offer true freedom to others, and especially to ourselves.

We will find the freedom of life in the knowledge that while all things may be made up of 1’s and 0’s, all things are a unique blend of 1’s and 0’s.

And we are all beautiful.

Amen