Posts Tagged ‘grace’

Hell’s Vestibule, Investments and a Hard God

Matthew 25:14-30

Daniel J. Ott


The parable of the entrusted money is a really tricky one.  I’m not real sure who the good guys and the bad guys are here.

Well of course we know who the baddest bad guy is.  That must be the one who is called a “wicked and lazy servant.”  But I have some sympathy for the poor guy.  First of all, he’s the underdog, and I always want to root for the underdog.  When the boss doles out the cash at the beginning of the story, he gets the least. One gets five bags of gold, another two bags, and to the last one bag of gold.  Now it sounds like all of these are pretty goodly sums, but still, the last servant kind of gets the shaft.  And what’s more, the parable tells us that the boss gives to each of the servants in proportion to his abilities.  So, the boss from the start doesn’t expect much from the poor guy.  Why is he judged so harshly, then?

Well, we might think it’s because he takes the money out and buries it.  Who just buries money, right?  I’ll tell you, I’ve been thinking about burying a few bucs the way the stock market’s been lately, but never mind that.  It actually was pretty acceptable practice at the time to burry money.  Banking wasn’t as sophisticated as it is today and it sure wasn’t insured by the government.  Any kind of investment, even with ‘the bankers’ wasn’t a sure thing.  And evidently this boss is a hard case.  The last servant is scared.  He’s probably already been flayed by this guy a time or two.  So the poor schlep goes the easy rout and finds a good hiding spot in the back yard.  Who can blame him?  Not me.

But the guy telling the story and the boss in the story sure let the last servant have it:  “You wicked and lazy servant!  Take the money from this servant and give to the first servant. I don’t care if does already have ten bags of gold.  And throw this useless servant into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  Ouch!

This reminded me of a couple other passages where the not-so-bad go in for pretty harsh treatment.  You might remember John the Revelator’s message to the church in Laodicea.  “I know your works; you are neither the cold nor the hot.  I wish that you were either cold or hot.  So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”  Ancient writers didn’t like people who play it safe, evidently.

And neither did medieval writers.  Dante reserves a special place in hell for the lukewarm or those who lived life with no blame or praise as he calls them.  Actually, they’re not quite in hell, but in the vestibule.  He writes, “these wretches have no hope of truly dying, and this blind life they lead is so abject it makes them envy every other fate.”  So, they might rather be in hell, but instead they’re in the vestibule caught in a rushing, whirling wind chasing a banner that never takes a stand.  Get it? – never takes a stand?  Dante describes them as “an interminable train of souls, so many that I wondered how death could have undone so great a number… These wretches, who had never truly lived, went naked, and were stung and stung again by the hornets and the wasps that circled them and made their faces run with blood in streaks; their blood, mixed with their tears, dripped to their feet, and disgusting maggots collected in the pus.”[1]  Perhaps I should have read this last week for Halloween.

But the message is clear, if overstated in all three cases, to take the easy road, to be lukewarm, to never take a stand, really is to not live at all.  The one who buries his treasure will never gain anything.  The one who is neither hot nor cold, really has no temperature at all.  Only the one who does nothing with her life can avoid all blame or praise. If I were going to play it safe with this parable, I would tell you simply not to play it safe and end the sermon here.  But there is some sort of irony here that begs me to press on.

Let’s consider the first two servants for a minute.  We’re clearly given a clue that these are the good guys in the story.  The boss praises them, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.  Enter into the joy of your master.”  We’ve all heard these beautiful words at the funeral of a faithful loved one.  What fitting words they are on such an occasion.

But what did these servants in the story do to earn such praise.  Well, they took the money they were given and put it to work.  And they did so quite eagerly.  The first servant “began immediately to invest the money and soon doubled it.”  The second servant “went right to work” and doubled his too.  Surely this is good service.  This is certainly the kind of behavior we want in a financial advisor or a stockbroker.  Put that money to work!

But does it translate easily or well to the life of faith?  Should we be looking for a return on our spiritual investments?  Should we expect the boss to reward us for faithful service?

I have known people who think about service and giving in this way.  I’ve had more than one person tell me that they truly believe that when they give generously to the church, God will bless them.  And they mean financially!   The more money they put in the plate, the more money God will put in their pocket.  Unfortunately, I’ve never had the heart or the guts to tell them that I think such a philosophy is at best wrong-headed, and at worst delusional.  This is not why we give to the church.  We give to give, not to receive.  We give because we have already received so much, not because we have expectations of reciprocity.

And even if we translate the giving into giving of our time and talents – after all the word talent finds its origin in this story – even then the theology is all wrong.  Surely we don’t mean to say that those of us who preach, or make soup, or serve on the session, or come to church every Sunday, have any corner on God’s blessings.  Surely nothing that we do earns us God’s blessing, right?  God’s commendation, “Well done, my good and faithful servant” is not reserved for the ones who gave the most money, or had the most talent, or spent the most time at church.

I’m not at all sure that God and the boss in our story tally up the sheet in the same way at all.  In fact, I think we better hurry up and say that the boss of this story and God cannot be the same person.  The third servant describes the boss as a hard man, who “harvests crops he did not plant and gathers crops he did not cultivate.”  That sound like not just a hard man, but a thief to me.  And the boss makes no effort to deny it.  In his rebuke of the “wicked” slave the boss exclaims, “You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?  Then you ought to have invested the money I gave you and brought me the interest.”  And then he says the most damnable thing, “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”  God cannot be the hard man that says that.  God is not a hard God.

God does not reap where he does not sow.  God sows and sows and sows some more.  God does not harvest a crop for which he doesn’t care.  God cares and cares and cares some more.

God does not say, “To those who have much more will be given.”  Instead God says, “The last will be first and the first will be last.”  God says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  And blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”  God is not a hard God, like some suppose, blessing the noble and damning the wretch. God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God is ready to pardon our iniquities and forgive our transgressions.

In the end, surely it will be the lowly servant, the humble and mean slave to whom God says, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.  Enter into the joy of your master.”

[1] Mark Musa, trans.  Dante, The Divine Comedy:  Volume 1:  Inferno, (Penguin Books), p. 90-91.

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“No Bargain At All”

Matthew 20:1-16

Daniel J. Ott

We’re all looking for a bargain, aren’t we?  My father-in-law and I are big internet shoppers.  We often compare notes when we get together.  “I found a universal remote for twenty bucks that lists for $89.99.”  “I got some new speakers for my computer – 70% off.”  We’re all looking to pay less and get more, right?

Maybe we’re even looking for a bargain when it comes to work.  Sure we say that all we want is a fair wage for a fair day’s work, but working a little less and earning a little more wouldn’t hurt.  You have to haggle a little when you take a new job.  You have to ask for a raise now and again.

The first group of workers in our story knows this.  They may be a little down on their luck.  They’re trying to scrape things together as day laborers, but they’re far from stupid.  The landowner comes around and they know that they should agree on a price ahead of time.  They’re about to work a twelve hour day and they want to make sure that they get what’s coming to them… or maybe a little more.  So they bargain a little, but I guess the landowner was better at the bargaining game, because they settle for the usual day’s wage.  Can’t blame them for trying, though.  Give less – get more.  That’s our motto.

I have the impression that some people live by that motto even when it comes to religion.  Their religion starts with one simple prayer that earns them a spot in heaven.  They like churches where not much is required:  Just go hear the band, a sermon that’s easy to understand, and slip out the back.  They like to hear the preacher talk about forgiveness and grace, not so much holiness or service.  Religion for them is a private matter, a personal affair.  Just a little talk with Jesus now and again and everything will be alright.  Give less – get more.  Who can blame them?  We’re all looking for a bargain.

But if we can’t get a bargain, then I guess we’ll settle for what’s fair.  That’s what the next sets of workers do.  The landowner keeps going back to the marketplace every three hours to get more workers.  I guess the harvest was plentiful that year.  And unemployment must have been up, too, for all those workers to be standing around.  Perhaps that’s why they don’t bargain.  The landowner simply tells them that he will pay them what’s fair and they go quietly to get to work.

That’s a good Midwest mindset, right?  We like a person who just keeps her head down and does her job.  We all just kind of expect that if you work hard, things will work out in the end.  Just do your job and take care of your business and everything will be alright.

And this mindset can bleed over into religion too.  He says, “I’ll be alright.  I never drank much or gambled.  I’ve always put food on the table for my family.  I went to church when I could.  I’m sure the Lord will be alright with me.”  She says, “I’ve always tried to be nice to people.  I’ve helped out when I could.  I took care of Mom when she got old.  Surely, God will see that I’m basically a good person.”  It’s just what’s fair, right?  We live a pretty good life and God should give us what’s coming to us in the end.  There’s no reason to bargain or haggle.  Just give us what’s fair, God.

Well, amazingly, the landowner goes back to the marketplace one last time, just an hour before quitting time.  And wouldn’t you know it, there are still some poor schlepps standing around.  He asks, “Why are you standing here all day.”  They state the painfully obvious, “Because no one hired us.”  And he sends them out to work in the field.  These must really be some desperate folk.  Maybe they figured the landowner might at least feed them supper for doing a little clean-up work.  I guess when you can’t get what’s fair, you’ll take what you can get.  Maybe they’ll at least get a scrap or two.  An hour’s work is better than nothing.

During my time teaching at St. Andrews in North Carolina the make-up of my classes became pretty predictable.  I would always have pretty similar sets of students.  I would have the religious studies majors and the students planning to go to seminary.  I would have a handful of zealots, who were often new to their faith and wanted to learn more about religion.  Of course, there were always some who just needed to fill in a space in their schedule and thought that a religion course might be interesting or easy, or both.  But for a couple of years I had another group that were following me around that left everybody wondering, including me.  I called them my motley crew.

They weren’t bad students, but not the cream of the crop either.  It was well known that several in the group probably smoked a little too much weed.  None of them had any interest in majoring or minoring in religion.  They were far from churchy or even religious, really.  At first, I thought it was just that they enjoyed a little banter about God and my conversational teaching style.  Then I began to learn their stories.  One of the young women had lost her brother at a very young age.  Another was in the process of coming out of the closet and dealing with a family that wasn’t very accepting of her sexuality.  One of the young men had a very difficult relationship with his father.  They all had big questions and lots of them.

Thinking about them through the lens of this parable, I think they were just looking for a few scraps.  The church was offering way too much and not nearly enough all at the same time.  They weren’t looking for any churchy bargain.  Some of them also probably thought that they weren’t worthy of a fair deal.  So they took a few religion courses.   Slowly they started asking their questions and wrestling with them.  They spent their hour in the field and were happy to do so.

Back in our story, when the last hour was up, the pay was doled out.  They lined up last to first: the one-hour laborers in front looking for scraps, next were the the three, the six and the nine, looking for a fair shake, and last the twelve-hour laborers ready to get what they bargained for.  Everybody looked on as the drama unfolded.  The one-hour laborers were given a full day’s wage!  Can you imagine the surge of energy in the room?  The motley crew must have been bowled over.  I’m sure they sheepishly collected their pay and disappeared as fast as possible, before anyone had any opportunity to change their mind.  The other workers must have been a buzz too.  “If these schlepps got a full day’s wage, what’s in store for us?”

Well, we soon find out.  The three-hour laborers come forward and receive a full day’s wage, too.  The six-hour laborers – a full day’s wage and the three-hours received the same.  We’re not told what, if anything, these laborers had to say, but I’m sure they went away murmuring something.  You certainly cannot call this ‘fair.’  But which way does ‘fair’ cut here?  That those who worked nine hours received the same as those who worked three is certainly an injustice.  But can you complain if you receive twelve hour’s pay for nine hours work?  Isn’t that a bargain?  Those promised fairness were left to wonder just what fair is.

Finally, the first laborers come forward and they probably could imagine where this was headed.   True to form they received what they bargained for – one full day’s wage for one full day’s work.  But they were indignant.  “This, decidedly, is not fair!  These last schlepps worked only an hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”  They’d forgotten about what they bargained for and now they were all about what’s fair.  And we can’t blame them, can we?  Obviously this is bad business.  You can’t pay people the same who don’t work the same.

And it’s bad religion, too.  Does this imply that the old drunk who makes a confession in the eleventh hour will be rewarded just the same as us?  Does that mean what we do in this life doesn’t matter?  Maybe we should live it up.  Why labor in the field and make sacrifices and work so damned hard at being faithful and living a decent life if this is how it comes down in the end?  Wouldn’t we be ticked, too, if this is how it worked?

Well, what comes next in the story is probably the most startling part.  The landowner fights back.  “I’ve done you no wrong.  I gave you what you bargained for.  Take what belongs to you and go.”  In effect, the landowner says, “If you don’t like it, get out.”

Now throughout the sermon we’ve been making the analogy explicit in its application to religion, so it wouldn’t be fair to stop short here.  Imagine it:  We get ticked and start wagging our fingers at God about the fairness of this whole exchange.  “This is no bargain, God, no bargain at all.  We labor all day and the one who comes in the eleventh hour gets the same reward.  It’s just not fair.”  And God responds simply, “If you don’t like it get out.  I do what I want with what’s mine.  Go on.  Get out!”

I thought about ending the sermon there.  That’s where the parable ends.  But I’m convinced that it’s not where the message ends.  You see, it really is no bargain at all.  In the end all of this talk of transactions and fair wages falls on its head when what we’re trying to talk about is grace.  Grace is no bargain at all.  There’s no hiring and haggling, no bartering and bargaining.  Grace is a gift, it’s not a wage.  Grace isn’t measured in more or less or when or under what conditions.  Grace is immeasurable.  Whether we’re looking for a bargain, or a fair shake, or just a few scraps, when grace comes we get much more than we bargained for.  Grace is the air we breathe and the life we live.  It’s the love we share and the forgiveness we’ve been given.  Grace is a precious, precious gift – no bargain at all.

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Thank You Note

His black hand was rough, really rough, when I took it in mine after he had asked for prayer.  The sun was shining warm upon us as we sat together on the steps of my church.  He stops by to see me every once in a while.  He’s never asked me for more than a little food, although I can tell by the color of his eyes and by the way his hand shook when I held it that food wasn’t the only thing his body was craving.  I prayed my heart out for this man, my friend, and wondered if it made any difference.  Afterwards he thanked me and said, somewhat apologetically, that he wouldn’t come back for a while.  I told him I was moving and that I hoped to see him again before I left.  He was surprised and sad.  Then he said, “I’m really going to miss you.”  And I could tell he meant it.

What have I done for this man, I thought to myself, except give him a bag full of canned goods every now and then?  But I imagine it was about more than the food for him.  It was certainly about more than the food for me.  There is something so incredible, so awesome, so grace-filled, about two people sitting and talking on sun-drenched church steps when those two people live lives that are worlds apart.  I don’t often rub shoulders with people like him.  I don’t often get the chance to talk to and know someone whose life is so different from my own, whose life is such a struggle.  But when I do I know God is there.  And I know that I have so much to learn.

So thank you, my friend, for coming to see me.  Thank you, for holding my hand while I held yours.  Thank you for sharing your life and your struggles with me.  Thank you for bringing God to my sun-drenched steps.  I’m really going to miss you too.

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Practicing Gratitude

Thanks be to God for this beautiful day!  What follows is the sermon from the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time.  I will be on vacation next week, then back to the blog for Sunday, October 24th.

“Practicing Gratitude”

Luke 17: 11-19

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

October 10th, 2010

“To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything [God] has given us—and [God] has given us everything.  Every breath we draw is a gift of [God’s] love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from [God.]  Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God.  For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience.  And that is what makes all the difference…”  Thomas Merton.

I started this week off in a bit of a funk.  I was tired, didn’t feel good, stressed, and just generally off-balance.  I had already planned on preaching on gratitude this Sunday.  But I wasn’t feeling particularly grateful.  My mood just wasn’t right, which was ridiculous because I have so much for which to be grateful.  So I said to myself, “Teri, just make a list.  Make a list of everything you have to be grateful for.”  And I did.  I wrote a list in my journal.  And I added to the list every day this week because doing so brought me back to life.  It awakened me.  It renewed me.  It improved my funky mood.  It brought me back to the grace of God that is constantly embracing me.

In today’s scripture passage Jesus meets ten men on the road to Jerusalem who are in a serious funk.  The life of a leper in 1st century Palestine was a life of misery.  First of all, just imagine contracting a disease that disfigured your face and limbs in such an alarming, grotesque way that people looked on you with horror.  You and your monstrous appearance were the stuff of nightmares…your own and anyone who happened to meet you along the road.  If the disease itself wasn’t bad enough, though, your community, then, by law had to evict you until you could be made clean.  Any person with a leprous disease was required to live on the outskirts of their camp, or village, or community, and they had to cry out, “Unclean, unclean” if anyone accidentally came too near.  To say, then, that the ten lepers Jesus met along the road to Jerusalem were in a serious funk is obviously an understatement.  These men were miserable.  They had no life.  They had no love.  They had no grace in which to enfold themselves.  Leprosy had claimed their lives and marked them for dead even though they were still living and breathing.  Can you imagine?

But then along comes Jesus, a man who wasn’t afraid of those deemed “unclean,” a man who wasn’t afraid to approach the unapproachable.  The ten miserable men called out to him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  When Jesus saw them, he said, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”  And as they went, they were made clean.

I wonder how far they had gotten from Jesus before they realized what he had done?  I wonder at what point they realized that they were no longer lepers?  Maybe they knew it immediately.  Maybe they didn’t know their flesh had been made whole until they stood in front of the priests who had to give their stamp of approval before they could go home to their families again.  Well, wherever they were in their journey, it is interesting that only one of the ten found his way back to Jesus to say thank you.

I don’t think it would be fair to label the nine who did not come back as “ungrateful.”  I’m sure they were very grateful, they just didn’t think to say thank you.  They just didn’t think to express their gratitude.  Haven’t we all done this at times?  Haven’t we all failed to express our gratitude, even though we were grateful?

One did return to Jesus, though.  One did think to say, “Thank you.”  And this one, a Samaritan, got more out of that simple act of gratitude than he could have ever imagined.  He returned to Jesus, kneeled at his feet, and thanked him for caring enough to heal.  Jesus seemed surprised that the other nine didn’t return as well.  But he quickly turns his full attention to the man kneeling at his feet and he says, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

To understand the full significance of these final words of Jesus, you need to know that “Your faith has made you well,” can also be translated as “Your faith has saved you.”  Ten lepers were healed on the road to Jerusalem that day.  Ten lepers were cleansed of a disfiguring, horrifying disease.  But only one, one of those lepers was saved, was made well, was brought back to life by faith and by gratitude.  We may all be grateful, but those who express their gratitude or practice it are the ones who are brought back to life.

It really is amazing how practicing gratitude can transform your life and your perspective.  Practicing gratitude changes how you see the world and the context in which you live.  Practicing gratitude awakens you to all that you already have and to all that God has given you.  Practicing gratitude opens you up to life and to the beauty that can be found everywhere if only we will notice and give thanks.

I recently read a prose poem about the gratitude Dietrich Bonhoeffer practiced while he was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp.  As a political prisoner who had dared to speak out against Hitler, Bonhoeffer knew he would eventually be killed by his captors.  He knew what his fate would be.  So to survive such knowledge and to survive each day he lived imprisoned, Bonhoeffer intentionally practiced gratitude.  He practiced giving thanks for every little thing.  And by doing so, Bonhoeffer was awakened to beauty even in a place of death and he was awakened to the undying graces of God that saved him when no one else could.

The prose poem, written by Robert Cording, is entitled simply, “Gratitude.”

In his prison letters, Bonhoeffer is thankful

for a hairbrush, for a pipe and tobacco,

for cigarettes and Schelling’s Morals Vol. II.

Thankful for stain remover, laxatives,

collar studs, bottled fruit and cooling salts.

For his Bible and hymns praising what is

fearful, which he sings, pacing in circles

for exercise, to his cell walls where he’s hung

a reproduction of Durer’s Apocolypse.

He’s thankful for letters from his parents

and friends that lead him back home,

and for the pain of memory’s arrival,

his orderly room of books and prints too far

from the nightly sobs of a prisoner

in the next cell whom Bonhoeffer does not know

how to comfort, though he believes religion

begins with a neighbor who is within reach.

He’s thankful for the few hours outside

in the prison yard, and for the half-strangled

laughter between inmates as they sit together

under a chestnut tree.  He’s thankful even

for a small ant hill, and for the ants that are

all purpose and clear decision.  For the two

lime trees that mumble audibly with the workings

of bees in June and especially for the warm

laying on of sun that tells him he’s a man

created of earth and not of air and thoughts.

He’s thankful for minutes when his reading

and writing fill up the emptiness of time,

and for those moments when he sees himself

as a small figure in a vast, unrolling scroll,

though mostly he looks out over the plains

of ignorance inside himself.  And for that,

too, he’s thankful: for the self who asks,

Who am I?—the man who steps cheerfully

from this cell and speaks easily to his jailers,

or the man who is restless and trembling

with anger and despair as cities burn and Jews

are herded into railroad cars—can

without an answer, say finally, I am thine,

to a God who lives each day,

as Bonhoeffer must, in the knowledge

of what has been done, is still being done,

his gift a refusal to leave his suffering, for which,

even as the rope is placed around his neck

and pulled tight, Bonhoeffer is utterly grateful.[1]

Practicing gratitude can save us each and every day.  Practicing gratitude awakens us to that which we cannot see or know unless we are grateful.

It worked for me this week.  Practicing gratitude worked me out of my funk.  Inspired by the grateful Samaritan and by Dietrich Bonhoeffer I made a list this week of all the things for which I am grateful.  Here are just a few…

I am grateful for…

A new day

A new day that begins with a son who likes to cuddle in the morning

My daughter’s infectious and toothy smile


I am grateful for…

A long morning run on a soft trail

Reading something that inspires me

Work that I find meaningful

Opportunities to be known and let my voice be heard

I am grateful for…

A husband who inspires me and challenges me to be more than I thought I could be

Parents who support me

A church who loves me through all the ups and downs of life

I am grateful for…

The God I know and experience

In you

In the countless graces I receive every day

In the beauty of this amazing world

In the knowledge that love exists

I am grateful.  Each and every day, I am grateful.  Even for those days when I am in a funk, I am grateful because the funk reminds me that I am human, that I have limits and limitations, and that I am alive.

So what’s on your list?  For what are you grateful?  Let’s practice gratitude together today so we might all be awakened, and renewed, and saved.

Now to the God from whom all blessing flow, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] Robert Cording, “Gratitude,” published in The Best Spiritual Writing 2001, edited by Philip Zaleski, (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), pgs. 42-43.

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A Story of Grace

I am not preaching on a lectionary text this week.  So instead of my usual reflection I thought I would share a story about grace that touched me this week.  This is an excerpt from an essay entitled, “Grace Notes” written by Brian Doyle.

“When have I been filled with grace? One time above all others when my son was under ether.  He was born with a broken heart, an incomplete heart, part of a heart.  Not enough to keep him alive.  Twice doctors cut him open and cut into his heart.  Twice I waited and raged and chewed my fingers until they bled on the floor.  Twice I sat in dark rooms with my wife and friends and savagely ate my skin.

The first operation was terrifying, but it happened so fast and was so necessary and was so soon after the day he was born with a twin brother that we all, mother father sister families friends, staggered through the days and nights too tired and frightened to do anything but lurch into the next hour.

But by the second operation my son was nearly two years old, a stubborn funny amiable boy with a crooked gunslinger’s grin, and when a doctor carried him down the hall, his moon-boy face grinning at me as it receded toward awful pain and possible death, I went somewhere dark that frightens me still.  It was a cold black country that I hope never to see again.  Yet out of the dark came my wife’s hand like a hawk, and I believe, to this hour, that when she touched me I received pure grace.  She woke me, saved me, not for the first time, not for the last.

As I finish writing these lines I look up, and my heart-healed son runs past the window, covered with mud and jelly…

We think of grace arriving like an ambulance, just-in-time delivery, an invisible divine cavalry cresting a hill of troubles, a bolt of jazz from the glittering horn of the Creator, but maybe it lives in us and is activated by illness of the spirit.  Maybe we’re loaded with grace.  Maybe we’re stuffed with the stuff.  Maybe it’s stitched into our DNA, a fifth ingredient in the deoxyribonucleic acidic soup.”[1]

May we all know grace and share our grace with others.

[1] Brian Doyle, “Grace Notes,” in The Best Spiritual Writing 2001, edited by Philip Zaleski, (Harper SanFrancisco, 2001), pgs. 55-58.

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Losing Our Way — Luke 15: 1-7

Grace and peace, everyone.  What follows is the sermon from the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

“Losing Our Way”

Luke 15: 1-7

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

September 12th, 2010

Maybe I am more neurotic than most, but I think it’s natural for mothers to get a little nervous when her child is out of sight in a public place.  Recently, I went to Camelot Park with my children.  It was the first time I had taken them to this park by myself.  If you haven’t been to Camelot, it is a fantastic playground for kids, a wooden castle with all sorts of twists and turns, slides, and jumpy-things.  The kids have a ball whenever we go there.

But it’s a big playground and sometimes it gets crowded and a parent can’t always see her child because he is in some tower or some tunnel somewhere.  So…I get a little nervous.  But on our way to Camelot, I explained all of this to my 3-year-old son.  I told him it makes Mommy nervous when she can’t see him.  So he needed to be careful and try to let me know where he was.  Well, believe it or not, my son got it.  He ran and he played all over that playground but he seldom lost sight of me and when he did he would call out, “Mommy!  I’m over here!  I’m right here, Mommy!”  What a good boy!!

I remembered this playground scene as I was reading Jesus’ parable for us today.  I remembered it because I don’t think we ever intend to get lost.  Isaac didn’t want to get lost on that playground.  He wanted to stay connected to me, stay connected to what he knew.  Getting lost is scary.  We don’t want to get lost.

I got lost once while driving to my parents’ new place in downtown Chicago from my seminary in Kentucky.  By the time I reached the city I was tired and it was getting dark.  My dad had given me good directions but I accidentally got off on the wrong exit.  I drove around for a while, trying to find my way, but I just got more and more confused.  Then I realized that I was not in a safe part of town, it was dark, and I was afraid to stop to ask anyone for directions.  (This was before I owned a cell phone.)  To add to your mental picture here…I also had my adopted greyhound with me in the car.  I had put the back seats down for her to have more space, so while I was driving around lost in the streets of Chicago, my greyhound was standing right over my shoulder, trying to see what was going on for herself, and also completely blocking my view in my rearview mirror.  So here I am swatting at my greyhound, trying to get her to lay down so I could see, driving around and around and around and just getting more and more lost.  It would have been a ridiculous, hilarious scene (me and my greyhound) if it weren’t totally scary.  Finally, I saw a police car patrolling up ahead of me.  So I blinked my lights and pulled up alongside of her.  When we rolled down our windows to speak the police officer took one look at me and my funny looking dog, shook her head, and said, “Girl…you are in the wrong part of town.”  Then she led me back out to the highway and I was on my way again.  Phew.

Getting lost is scary.  We don’t want to get lost.  But sometimes we do.  Sometimes we take the wrong exit and get all turned around.  Sometimes things happen, things that we cannot control, things that leave us swimming…in deep water…with nothing solid to cling to. Sometimes we wake up and realize that something is off, something is wrong, something is not right in our life.  “Why can’t I get myself together?” we ask in the midst of feeling lost.  Why can’t I figure this out or find my way or get my life on the right track?  What is wrong with me? I feel so darn lost.

Well… for those who are feeling a little lost, Jesus has a parable for us today.  Speaking to the Pharisees and scribes who were grumbling over the fact that Jesus was eating with the lost, Jesus said, Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?  When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. Jesus’ parable is actually quite absurd.  It’s absurd because what kind of responsible shepherd would leave the ninety-nine to go after the one who was lost?  A good shepherd just wouldn’t do that.  But Jesus’ parable isn’t supposed to be a “how-to” on good shepherding.  It’s a story meant to teach us about our relationship with God.  So the parable’s about us, when we get lost, and the God who searches for us and finds us when we are.

The series of parables that Jesus tells here in the Gospel of Luke are among our most favorite.  The series begins with this parable of the lost sheep, moves to the parable of the lost coin, and concludes with the parable of the lost son, or the prodigal son.  These parables are among our favorites because they vividly describe the amazing grace of God.  They vividly describe that once we were lost, but now we are found.  Now we are found!  We don’t like to get lost.  We want to be found!  So it’s no wonder these parables are some of our favorites.

But as I reflected on the parable of the lost sheep this week I began to wonder to myself if God didn’t have a hand in all of this ‘getting lost’ in the first place.  I wondered to myself, could it be possible that God left the gate open?  Could it be possible that God allows us to get lost? In this parable of the lost sheep a celebration ensues when the one who was lost is found.  The shepherd hefts the beast onto his shoulders and carries him home, rejoicing with each heavy, effort-full step.  What a moment of joy for that sheep!  What a moment of joy for that shepherd!  Was it meant to be so?

Sometimes I think it takes us getting lost to realize that we are found.  I read an interesting essay this past week entitled, “Strategic Withdrawal: A Tool for Restoration.”  In this essay the author suggests that it is actually good for us to get lost every once in a while, to withdraw strategically, to take an extemporaneous walk to a destination unknown, to step from a why into whylessness, to move toward formlessness through silence, stillness, emptiness, to lose track of the possible in order to take rest in the impossible. Getting lost every once in a while, this author suggests, can disorient us away from ourselves and reorient us back towards God.  This author concludes his essay with a prayer:

When I’m lost, God help me get more lost.  Help me lose me so completely that nothing remains but the primordial peace and originality that keep creating and sustaining this…love-worthy world that is never lost for an instant save by an insufficiently lost me.[1]

Is your life swirling out of control?  Are you having trouble figuring out which end is up?  Are you dizzy with grief?  Do you have no idea which way you should turn?  Take a moment.  Breathe.  Go inward.  Let yourself get lost.  Let yourself let go…of all your needs, all your desires, all your expectations, all your fears. Then, pay attention.  Listen.  Do you hear that grass being broken and trampled just over the next hill?  Do you feel the ground trembling beneath you as footsteps approach?  Do you smell the sweat of the shepherd who is searching for you with the determination and the anticipation and the conviction of someone who is searching for that which is most precious?  Go ahead.  Call out to him.  Let yourself be found.  Because only then will you realize that you were never really lost.

Now to the God to whom we are never lost, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore, Amen.

[1] David James Duncan, “Strategic Withdrawal: A Tool for Restoration” in The Best Spiritual Writing 2001, Edited by Philip Zaleski, (Harper SanFrancisco, 2001).

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Lost and Found

Did God leave the gate open?  In Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep a celebration ensues when the one who was lost is found.  The shepherd hefts the beast onto his shoulders and carries him home, rejoicing with each heavy, effort-full step.  What a moment of joy for that sheep!  What a moment of joy for that shepherd!  Was it meant to be so?

Sometimes I think it takes getting lost to realize that we are found.  Is your life swirling out of control?  Are you having trouble figuring out which end is up?  Are you dizzy with grief?  Do you have no idea which way you should turn?  Take a moment.  Breathe.  Pay attention.  Listen.  Do you hear that grass being broken and trampled just over the next hill?  Do you feel the ground trembling beneath you as footsteps approach?  Do you smell the sweat of the shepherd who is searching for you with the determination and the anticipation and the conviction of someone who is searching for that which is most precious?  Go ahead.  Call out to him.  Let yourself be found.  Because only then will you realize that you were never lost.

May the words of my mouth, the meditations of my mind, and the feelings of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.

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Eating Bread in the Kingdom of God

Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  What follows is the sermon from the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time.

“Eating Bread in the Kingdom of God”

Luke 14: 1, 7-15

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

August 29th, 2010

A good dinner party is difficult to pull off.  The host bears most of the burden.  He or she needs to make sure the food is good and the drinks don’t run low.  He or she also has the responsibility of keeping the conversation going among the guests who may or may not know each other.  You don’t want the conversation to run dry because quiet moments are deathly moments at a dinner party.  So a good host will keep things lively and keep things going.  But the guests also bear responsibility for the party’s success.  A good guest will mingle, engage others in polite conversation, and avoid topics that might get heavy or too controversial.  A good guest knows the unspoken rules, knows what he or she is supposed to do and not do, and follows those rules to a tee.

So keeping in mind how difficult a dinner party is to pull off, and keeping in mind that the guest bears a lot of the responsibility, why on earth would anyone ever invite Jesus over for dinner?  Jesus, of all dinner guests, really had a knack for creating awkward social moments.  In this week’s text, for instance, Jesus was invited to the home of a Pharisee whom I imagine had no idea what he was in for.  Jesus sat back and observed for a while as the guests did what guests do at a party in 1st century Palestine, they jockeyed for the best, most honorable seats (that’s where the good wine was served, after all).  And the host did what hosts do, he welcomed all the elite whom he hoped would reciprocate with invitations and introductions.  So Jesus observed all of this for a while…until he decided it was time for a “parable” or a much-needed lesson on what he believed was good party etiquette.  I imagine the room got very quiet as Jesus broke all the unspoken rules and began to speak.

When you are invited to a wedding banquet, Jesus said, do not sit down at the place of honor.  Sit down at the lowest place, so your host may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’  And when you give a dinner, do not invite your friends, or your family, or your well-to-do neighbors.  Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.  For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Who invited this guy?  I imagine the guests mumbling under their breath as their host busied himself in shame.  Words of truth don’t go over very well when all you’re trying to do is have a good time.

Did Jesus ever relax?  Did he ever go off-duty and just have a good time?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  I imagine it was hard for this Messiah-in-the-making to ever really cut loose knowing that his every word, his every action would be so timeless.  And Jesus’ words here, in the Gospel of Luke, are timeless.  They were not just meant for those Pharisees and dinner guests on that one unfortunate Sabbath evening.  They were meant for all of us and for all of those who are in search of the Kingdom of God.

Through Luke’s storytelling, Jesus’ goal here was not to create an awkward social moment, but a timeless vision of what God’s banquet, God’s feast, God’s Kingdom is to be like.  It’s a place where the humble are exalted and the exalted are humbled.  It’s a place where you and your friends and your family members rub shoulders with the poor, and the sick, and the lame.  It’s a place where seats of honor are not reserved nor highly sought because all are equally held in the love and grace that extends from the table.

We need to be reminded of this vision.  We need someone willing to stand up and make a scene about this Good News-God ordained-party-for-all.  We need Jesus to tell us this story again.  So that’s what Jesus does.  Time after time after time in our scriptures he reminds us of what God’s Kingdom is like.  Apparently he thinks we might forget; that we might lose the vision; that we might miss the point.  And our human history affirms that Jesus is right.

Flannery O’Connor was a native of Georgia, a devout Roman Catholic, and a genius writer.  Her stories frequently shed light on the fears and prejudices we human beings hold as she artfully contrasted such human sins with the mystery of divine grace.  This is what she accomplished in her short story entitled, “Revelation.”

“Revelation” opens in a doctor’s waiting room where Ruby Turpin is waiting with her husband, Claud. As she often does, Mrs. Turpin passes the time by categorizing the other waiting-room inhabitants by class—there were “white trash” people, middle class people (like herself), and so forth. The story takes place in the segregated South, so there are no black people in this doctor’s waiting room, but Mrs. Turpin is happy to judge them, too.

She identifies a pleasant-looking woman as one of her own class, and they begin an idle conversation that centers first on their possessions and eventually on their disapproval of civil rights demonstrators. They conclude that it would be a good idea to send all black people back to Africa. During this conversation, the other woman’s daughter, Mary Grace, an obese college student with severe acne, has been making faces directly at Mrs. Turpin. At last Mary Grace cracks entirely, throws her book on Human Development at Mrs. Turpin, and then physically attacks her. When Mary Grace has been subdued, Mrs. Turpin begins to think that the crazy girl has a message for her, and when she moves closer, Mary Grace calls her a warthog and tells her to go back to hell where she came from. [1]

Well, Mrs. Turpin is deeply shaken by this attack and by the message her attacker had for her. Later on, at home, while hosing down the hogs, she grows indignant, and then furious, as she questions God about why God sent her such a message when there was plenty of “trash” in the room to receive it. ‘Go on,” she yells at God, “call me a hog!  Call me a wart hog from hell.  Put that bottom rail on top.  There’ll still be a top and a bottom!”  Mrs. Turpin’s fury shook her and she continued to roar in anger at God.

Then…the color of Mrs. Turpin’s world suddenly began to change.  “A red glow settled all around the hogs and she lifted her gaze to the horizon.  There was a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of highway, into the descending dusk.  A visionary light settled in her eyes and she saw a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire.  Upon this bridge to heaven was a vast horde of souls.  There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black people in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.  And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom Mrs. Turpin recognized at once as those who, like herself, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right.  She leaned forward to observe them closer.  These people like her were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior.  They alone were on key.  Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that their virtues were being burned away.  Mrs. Turpin lowered her head and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead.  In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.”[2]

The vision of God’s Kingdom as a place for all, a place where the humble are exalted and the exalted are humbled, a place where seats of honor are not reserved nor highly sought because all are equally held in the love and grace that extends from the table, is an immobilizing vision.  It is a vision that stops us in our tracks, a vision that calls us to account, a vision that challenges us to see ourselves and those who are different from us as equally held and equally loved in the Kingdom of God.  This vision is invaluable.  We are in need of this vision.  We are in need of this vision of God’s Kingdom for all.

In a day when we are currently debating how to be sensitive to the families and victims of September 11th while also honoring the dignity, the religious freedom, and the rights of Muslims living in that community who are in need of a place to pray, we are in need of this vision of God’s Kingdom for all.

In a day when our politicians are wrestling with the complexities of our immigration laws, and in a day when the state of Arizona has made it illegal for Christians in that state to love and serve their neighbor, we are in need of this vision of God’s Kingdom for all.

In a day when ageism, and classism, and racism, and sexism, and xenophobia, and homophobia still determine the contours of our life, our culture, our world, we are in need of this vision of God’s Kingdom for all.

In a day when we are careful to follow all the unspoken rules, and to host a good party, and to be good and polite guests at the table, we are need of.…Jesus…to bring things to a halt, to speak words of truth, to break up that which needs to be broken up, and to replace it with a new and better ideal, with a new and better table, with a new and better party meant for all of God’s children.

I imagine Jesus created a really awkward social moment over dinner at the Pharisee’s house.  I imagine a lot of the guests and perhaps even the host didn’t appreciate the way Jesus ruined their fun.  But, interestingly enough, one of the guests didn’t seem to mind at all.  One of the guests really seemed to get Jesus and get what he was trying to tell them.  One of the guests caught Jesus’ vision for himself and said aloud for all to hear, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God!”

As we gather around our Lord’s Table today, may we be such a guest.  May we be the ones to catch Jesus’ vision and celebrate it aloud saying for all to hear, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God!”

Now to the God who offers us this bread, and this Kingdom, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.


[1] Ann D. Garbett. “Revelation.” Magill’s Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition. Salem Press, 2007. eNotes.com. 2006. 27 Aug, 2010 <http://www.enotes.com/revelation-salem/

[2] Flannery O’Connor, “Everything That Rises Must Converge: Revelation” in O’Connor: Collected Works, The Library of America, New York, NY, 1988, pgs. 653-654.

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Mistakes and Failures

Mistakes and failures.  They plague our lives.  We can’t go 24 hours without making some sort of gaff, slip of the tongue, or outright betrayal.  We’re human; therefore we often fall short, failing others and ourselves.

But what do we do with our mistakes once they are made?  Do we learn from them, seek reparation, and move forward?  Or do we dwell in them, linger over them, replay them, and suffer through them again and again and again?  Do we allow our mistakes and failures to define us?  Or do we arise from failure’s constrictions in order to follow a higher, nobler path?

At the beginning of John 21 Peter appears to be a mess.  He doesn’t know what to do with himself so he decides to go fishing, at night, without any clothes.  Now I’m no sailor, but going out on a small boat at night sounds pretty scary to me.   Naked night fishing sounds even scarier.  But maybe that scary, dark, naked place feels good to Peter.  Maybe that scary, dark, naked place resonates with Peter because that’s how he feels inside.  The last thing Peter did while Jesus was still alive was betray him.  Peter betrayed Jesus around a hot charcoal fire not once, not twice, but three times.  And it wasn’t until the cock crowed that Peter realized what he had done.  It wasn’t until the cock crowed that Peter realized he had made a mistake….a big mistake.

Think about it.  You’ve been in Peter’s shoes.  You know what it’s like to realize you’ve just made a huge mistake.  Your face gets instantly hot.  Your palms sweat.  Your breathing gets rapid and your heart thunders in your chest.  What was I thinking?  You say to yourself.  But the problem was you weren’t thinking.  And now the consequences of your mistake are messing with you physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.

But then along comes Jesus waving to Peter and calling to him from the shore, beckoning him to get his naked butt off the boat and back where he was always meant to be, in the presence of his Lord.  Jesus offers Peter a way out of the mess.  Jesus offers Peter a way out of his mistake and his failure.  He meets him on the beach with another hot charcoal fire and another chance.  Don’t let your mistakes define you.  Jesus seems to be saying.  Don’t let your failures fill your life.  Follow me.  Not your mistakes.  Feed my sheep.  Not your sense of failure.

May the words of my mouth, the meditations of my mind and the feelings of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and  my Redeemer.  Amen.

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Extravagant Grace

I have been the beneficiary of God’s extravagant grace this week.  I’ve pondered many different angles from which I could write this week’s sermon.  But ultimately (and especially during this tiring week) I have to preach from where I am and from what is going on in my life.  That’s the only way I’m going to pull this off with my son still home sick.  It’s also the most genuine, honest approach I can take to a task that so often calls upon me to tear myself open from the pulpit and reveal my own struggles, my own darkness, my own life of faith.

So this week I’m going to focus on Jesus’ act of changing the water into wine at the wedding in Cana as an act of extravagant grace.  Jesus’ miracle was an act of grace because he didn’t have to do it.  No harm would come to Jesus if the wine ran out at this wedding.  Jesus’ miracle was an act of grace because he didn’t even want to do it.  “What concern is that to you and me?” he says to Mother Mary who not-so-subtly suggests that he save the party.  Jesus’ miracle was an act of grace because it really wasn’t worth his time and his talent.  He really did have more important things to be doing…more important signs and miracles to be performing.  But, in spite of all these good reasons not to save the party…and save the hosts from social shame and embarrassment….Jesus did it anyways.  Grace.

Grace really doesn’t make much sense when you stop to think about it.  It isn’t fairly or rationally distributed.  Remember the laborers in the field?  We receive it some times (miraculously) when we absolutely need it.  But other times God and God’s grace seem to pass us right on by.  And it really is quite extravagant…meaning lavish, expensive, and even wasteful…as my online thesaurus says.  120 – 180 gallons of wine, Jesus?  Now that’s lavish, expensive, and yes, even wasteful (a couple of wedding parties would be needed to drink all of that wine!)  So grace doesn’t really make much sense.  Which is perhaps why it feels so darn amazing when we receive it.

This week I was the recipient of extravagant grace.  I don’t want to go into all the details….but let’s just say it was a bad week.  Certainly, there are others who are having worse weeks.  Certainly, there are others who are more deserving of God’s grace than me.  (Again, grace doesn’t make sense.)  But I received it this week.  And I can’t thank God enough.

The tragedy (in my mind) of John’s story is that the bride and the bridegroom and the chief steward don’t ever seem to realize how Jesus saved them and their party.  How often we don’t recognize God’s extravagant grace when we receive it.  Or how often we recognize it but don’t appreciate it like we should….appreciate it for all its extravagance…appreciate it for the way it fills us and frees us like 120 gallons of really, really good wine.

May the words of my mouth, the meditations of my mind, and the feelings of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.

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