Sunday, September 25, 2005

Sermon, St. Bartholomew's Burnley

I really don’t know if it’s true: but I cannot forget the story of how to trap a monkey. They say that you take a coconut, punch a smallish hole in it, empty it, tie it to the ground and fill it with a few pieces of good food. Then the monkey comes exploring, sees the food inside the coconut and puts his hand in. He finds he can’t grab hold of the food and get his hand out at the same time. And he won’t let go. Supposedly a monkey will try to hold onto the food even when the people with the nets come ‘round, even when he’s going to get trapped, lose everything, he’ll still try to hold on.

I find this a chilling story because there is something in me that often wants to hold on, to an old idea, to an old idol, to an old pain, even at the cost of losing the gift of the present moment. But what is more important than saying yes to life, saying yes to God? Why would I say yes, and then turn away? Like the son who was asked to work in the vineyard in the lesson we just heard, why would I first say yes then say no, when I am asked to work for the harvest, when I am asked to join in the feast?

What keeps any of us from joining in, from fully saying yes and following through with the chance of this amazing celebration? What are we trying to hold onto? Is it an old idea of failure or success? Is it a worn out list of people we tried to impress when we were younger? Is it an old idea of our religion, of how to act it out and live it out? What are we holding on to that holds us back, that can trap us, trip us up, keep us from turning around to say yes to the present reality of God when that is what matters most?

A Buddhist teacher named Shunru Suzuki writes about “Beginner’s Mind,” which is the chance to do something like you’ve never done it before, to wake up what is new, right in front of you, like you’ve never seen it before. It sounds easy, but it often is not. Still it is crucial to wake up to the choice that is in front of you.

The funny thing is that it’s often those of us who’ve been around religion, around the church for a while, who can most easily fall asleep. We’ve prayed the prayers, read the lessons, taken the class, bought the t-shirt. We’ve shown up Sunday after Sunday and gotten the shape of it into our bones. But after awhile it gets old, dry, formulaic, like something we can bank on. And that’s when what we believe turns from something we live, that lives in us, turns from a living faith to a dead certainty. That is when yes can turn to no.

This shows up pretty regularly in my own faith journey, for there is always a part of me that wants to say, Can’t I take it easy for a while? Don’t I get something from all that work? With all this effort, where in God’s name is my equity? Was all this work for nothing?

And I do know better: know that the practice is good, time well spent. I am convinced, most days, that nothing is lost: that all the work, the effort, the prayers, the bible study, books read and plans made, the parish work-days, vestry sessions, choir rehearsals, meetings met. That showing up for those times can bring us more deeply into the present moment. But we need to let go of who we think we are and what we think we’re about, what we’ve accrued! We need to come to the moment and go to the altar with empty hands and no expectations, so that we can be open to grasp – if only for an instant - how big God’s love and grace can be, how far it will go, how close it will come. We come here – time after time – simply to begin again!

Go back to two other men in another Gospel story. Like the workers in the vineyard they were brothers of the same father. One, who is the prodigal, finally comes back to his senses in a very foreign country, finds himself willing to return, repent, turn around and go home to find charity. The other, older brother, so careful, so right at doing the right thing, stands at the door of the house where the celebration for the returning wastrel is just starting, saying, “What about my equity, what I did right, when I showed up? What’s it worth? What does it matter?

Can you see his hand, his life, caught in the trap of trying to get what he wanted, what seemed to be bought and paid for already, while all the while so much love, forgiveness, renewal, is waiting to be known, received, celebrated? Can you hear the father calling?

Just come into the rich opportunity of the present moment. Don‘t save your life just to lose it, while love is opening the door wide to everyone. When forgiveness opens the door, when the father comes to call you to the party, don’t let your standards, your judgement, your idea of what is right and wrong, good or bad, keep you from joining in this great celebration.

One more story. When I was in seminary in the 1980s there were a couple of TV shows iabout what would follow were a nuclear holocaust to happen: I still remember the pictures of the light and the wind and the fire that would follow the dropping of the big bombs. I was living in Berkeley then, and whenever I would hear the bells in the campus tower striking the hour I would stop what I was doing and look at the possibility that it all might end. Looking around while the bells were ringing in the cool spring morning air and the soft light and think: "It could all be over, vanished, finished." And when the bells stopped ringing and the sounds of everyday came back I would look around and think; "There is a chance, we are not dead yet."

We need to wake up, wake into the grace, the deep hope and opportunity of the present moment, because we are not dead yet. And there is a chance that [in a not quite-easily-understandable way] that we are somehow, by grace, newborn, like children, full of possibilities, full of innocence and promise, full of beginning. So it is time, with empty hands and open hearts, to join with everyone, known and unknown, worthy and unworthy in the great party, the final feast, taking part in, celebrating the harvest, because we are there even now, coming home and waking up to take up this amazing gift of life.

In the name of Christ.


Julianne said...

Thank you for more uplift, Rob. I was ready to jump in halfway through and protest that I STILL don’t understand why that first poor son who stays at home, does the right thing, still doesn’t seem to be rewarded. I was thinking, “What else does the poor guy have to do to prove he is good and worthy of his father’s love? It’s just not fair.” Then I reread “…stands at the door of the house” and it dawned on me:
He should smile all the way from his heart, go through the door, embrace his father and brother and thank God for his brother’s return, realising that until his brother had returned, his father’s house was incomplete, no matter how much he, the first son, tried to make up for it. We must all return to the fold to make our Father’s house complete. And it ties in with the idea, mentioned elsewhere, of God having a warehouse full of blessings for us, just waiting for us to ask for and accept them. There are many more blessings waiting for us than we are asking for and the first brother sees that even though their father gave his brother everything he seemed to have a right to, when that was gone and the boy asked for more, there was still more and more to be had that grew out of the father’s love.
Hmmm… I wonder what happened next. Did the first brother go through the door with his smile, or did he pack his bags and head off for a few years of fun and debauchery, then come back…

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