Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Sermon for Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, "Parables of Jesus: The Virtue of Shrewdness"

Sermon 9/19/10
Luke 16:1-13

Parables of Jesus: The Virtue of Shrewdness

            There are many parables of Jesus that I find challenging, difficult, because I know exactly what Jesus is asking of us, and what he’s asking means changing my life in a way that is hard. For example, when Jesus teaches about our life not consisting of our possessions – well, that’s some pretty direct language that I can figure out. Our lives are filled with stuff that we value too much, more than we value people, sometimes! But I consider today’s parable to be the most challenging of them all – not because what Jesus is saying is so hard, but because it is simply to confusing. This is, to me, the most mind-boggling parable of them all. It’s called the parable of the Shrewd Manager, or sometimes, the parable of the Dishonest Manager.
Jesus directs this parable at the disciples, his close followers, although the scribes and Pharisees, to whom he told the Parable of the Lost Sheep that we heard last week, they’re standing close enough to listen in to this parable too. So tells the disciples that there is a rich man who has a manager or steward of the rich man’s property, a fairly typical arrangement in Jesus’ day. The person was usually a slave or a former slave, but they had a great deal of power, too. They were responsible for all the affairs of the master’s household. They oversaw all the finances, and had authority over all the other household slaves, and sometimes even over the children of the master. The Greek name for them is oikonomos, and that’s where we get our English word economy.
Someone reports to the rich man that the household manager has been squandering his property. We’re not told exactly what that means, but probably, the manager was using the rich man’s property, money, and possessions for himself and his own benefit – acting as though what he was simply in charge of was actually his. So the rich man calls the manager in to give an account. The manager is worried – he realizes that if he has to present the accounts, the rich master will figure out that the manager has been mismanaging. So the manager acts shrewdly, frankly, sneakily, to protect himself. He calls in each of the debtors to the rich man, and slashes their bills, sometimes by fifty percent, so that he will ingratiate himself to them and find favor with them – maybe he’ll be able to secure a new position after he is fired by the rich master. He’s thinking ahead and trying to make sure he lands on his feet. Mosaic law didn’t allow a lender to collect interest, and so it seems perhaps this rich man got around the law by charging for more than was actually given. Essentially, then, the steward cancels the interest on everyone’s bills, which will result in a lot less profit for the master of the house.
            Now, we expect the manager to be fired for his actions, for his sneaky behind-the-scenes maneuvering. But instead, and this is where things get confusing, his master commends him – because he has acted shrewdly, a word that means astute or sharp in practical matters. And most surprising of all: what Jesus tells us we should learn from this story. “The children of this age are more shrewd than are the children of light . . . Make friends for yourself of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Jesus holds the shrewd manager up as a model for us to follow. Does he want us to behave like this? Are we meant to be sneaky like this? Will God reward us for this kind of behavior?
Parables are not always easy for us to understand and interpret with our contemporary ears. We try to solve parables like a puzzle, and figure out what each thing means, what each piece represents. But parables are not always “this equals that.” But they’re really not meant to be picked apart that way. Instead, they’re meant to be read as a whole, and gleaned for what they tell us about the kingdom of God. In his parables, Jesus is always telling us what it is like in the kingdom of God – not what it is like in heaven, but what it is like if we live here on earth as if God’s kingdom is already here. That’s what the good news was for Jesus – God’s kingdom being here already. So, what does this parable tell us about what the kingdom of God is like?
About forty percent of the stories in the gospel are about money, our stuff, our material possessions, and what we should do with them. That tells us something – what Jesus has to stay about this stuff is super important to him. He talks about it all the time. It’s a big issue. So what is Jesus saying here? First, he’s telling us that a manager had responsibility over a lot of resources, and he misused those resources. They weren’t his, but he used them like they belong to him. Second, we learn that when he was called on the carpet, the manager acted quickly – shrewdly – to make amends, which had the good result of helping others, clearing his own name, and pleasing his master.
           Still, what does this tell us about how we should live? We try to plan for our future don’t we? Even though I hope to have thirty-something more years in the ministry before I retire, I’m already contributing to my pension plan and trying to choose what is best for my future. Most of us do that – think about retirement, think about our Social Security income, think about our benefits, plan for our future. Do we take as much care with our resources when it comes to wisely investing in and for our relationship with God? Are we good stewards, good long-term investors, when it comes to discipleship? Jesus says that people seem to act shrewdly when it comes to matters of business, but disciples, children of light, don’t seem to act with the same sharpness when it comes to matters of discipleship. Disciples are managers – all that we have responsibility for is not our own, but are things put into our care by God. And we, like the manager, have been caught in the act – we are squandering what God has given to us. Now what will we do? Can we act shrewdly?
I think I’ve told you that John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, very early in his ministry, fixed a budget for himself to live on, setting aside a certain amount to save, an amount to give to the poor, and so on. Over the years, his resources expanded. He had income from preaching and teaching. But his budget – the amount he would spend on things for himself and his personal needs – never changed. He used what he needed to meet his expenses, and the rest, he gave away. He always said that if he died with any money or possessions to speak of, he should be considered a robber, because those things would not rightly belong to him. How truly remarkable was his position! I wish I followed his example. I find that it is so easy to squander what I have for nothing.
These days, I seem to carry less and less cash with me. Everywhere you go, you can use your debit card for purchases, and have money deducted directly from your checking account. I find it so easy to hand over my card, and pay very little attention to what I’m actually spending on what. A swipe of the card is all it takes. There’s something about paying with actual currency, with cash, that makes me pay more attention to what I’m spending. But as I use my debit card more frequently, I find that it is easier and easier to squander and spend carelessly.
But I think Jesus is thinking even deeper than that. Don’t we sometimes squander ourselves? When we think about ourselves, all the gifts we’ve been given, all the ability and potential we have, all that we could be making of ourselves, don’t we often squander ourselves? Waste what we have? Don’t we squander our time? Don’t we squander our relationships? Don’t we squander our energy? It is so easy to squander our resources, isn’t it?
            Jesus says that we are good at handling business, but disciples aren’t good at handling what they have been given responsibility over. So, what have we been given responsibility for? Are we squandering what God has given us? Using it for our own benefit? John Wesley wrote in his sermon, “The Use of Money,” that this parable means for us “"Render unto God," not a tenth, not a third, not half, but all that is God's, be it more or less; by employing all on yourself, your household, the household of faith, and all [humankind], in such a manner, that you may give a good account of your stewardship when ye can be no longer stewards . . . Employ whatever God has entrusted you with, in doing good, all possible good, in every possible kind and degree to the household of faith, to all [people]!”
Jesus says that we can’t serve two masters. We can serve our ourselves first. Or we can serve God first. We have to make a choice, because if we try to do both, we’ll find ourselves in trouble when we are called by God to give an account of what we’ve been doing with all the abundance we’ve been given. I wish I could work out all the puzzles of this parable – when all is said and done, I still do find it confusing! But I think that we can take away some things. First, we need to be a little shrewd, a little smart, about what God has given to us. We have so much. I’m not just talking about things and money and possessions. I’m also talking about our other resources – our gifts, our talents, the things we do well, the people in our lives, the time we have and how we use it – these are all resources we have responsibility for. And they are resources given by God to us – we are the stewards, the managers, of what God has brought into our lives. We may not have a good management record so far. We might have been squandering what God has given us. But now is the time to be shrewd. It isn’t too late for us to start taking better care over what we’ve been given. Second, we can understand that God is endlessly forgiving. What boss would forgive a manager as sneaky and underhanded as the one in the parable? Only one brought to us by Jesus. Only God could forgive such behavior, and try to turn it into a blessing for us. God knows our hearts, knows that we’re anything but perfect, knows that more often that not, we outright ignore what God has asked us to do. But God loves us anyway, and is so eager for a relationship with us. We try. We fail. We do less than we’ve promised for God. We squander the good and precious gifts we’ve been given. But God loves us still and always, and is ready to bless us again and again.
            Have you been a faithful steward of what God has given you? Faithful with the blessings you have? How have you cared for the money, the time, the talents, the family, the friends, the faith, the love that God has worked in you? Chances are an honest assessment mind find that you haven’t been managing too well – that you’ve been squandering, even, what you’ve been given. Now is the time to take action. Why pass up a chance to make things right when we know that God is ready to forgive, ready to help us try again? Be smart! Be shrewd! Be forgiven! Be loved!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Sermon for Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, "One of One Hundred"

Sermon 9/12/10
Luke 15:1-10

Parables of Jesus: One of One Hundred

            Have you ever been lost? I’ve told you before that my mother has a horrible sense of direction. This has resulted in many stories over the years of her being totally and utterly lost. For example, there was the time when she was driving home from visiting me in New Jersey, and she accidentally ended up in Massachusetts. Or, how whenever she was trying to go someplace in the greater Utica area, she would always end up at Hapanowicz’s meat market. When she used to come visit me at college, I would simply have her meet me at the campus center, because it had a bright green roof that you could see from anywhere in town. I knew she couldn’t get lost, but that she would never make it to my dorm if I tried to steer her there directly.
            Have you ever lost something or someone? When I was a child, I had an experience where I didn’t think I was lost, but my mother thought she had lost me! I had gone to deliver my newspapers – I had a small share in my older brother’s paper route, and then I had gone to ride my bike in the cemetery next door to my house – it was a popular bike-riding location in the little town of Westernville. I’d told my mom of my plans, but she’d thought I would stop home in between, and then she saw a little girl in a van that drove by the house that looked like me. She thought I’d been kidnapped. She, of course, freaked out, making calls, and generally panicking. Meanwhile, my big brother rode his bike into the cemetery, looking for me. To this day, I can exactly picture the expression of urgency and alarm on his face as he approached me. We raced back to the house, and all was well, when my mother realized I was safe.
Our gospel lesson today is about losing things too. Jesus shares two parables with the scribes and the Pharisees, one about losing a sheep, one about losing a coin – two parables that are probably fairly familiar to you. Jesus describes a shepherd who has a hundred sheep, and discovers that one has gone astray. He searches for and finds the lost sheep, rejoices, and lays it on his shoulders to carry home. Arriving home, the shepherd calls friends and neighbors together so that they too can rejoice in his good news – “I have found my sheep that was lost.” In the second parable, a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. She lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and searches carefully until she finds the lost coin. She, like the shepherd, Jesus says, would rejoice at her find, calling together friends and neighbors to rejoice that she has found the coin that was lost. In both of these instances, Jesus says the parables – the rejoicing that takes place by all involved in each story – are like what happens when one sinner repents and is found by God who is searching and seeking.
Have you ever been lost? Do you remember what it felt like to be lost – really lost? Jesus, in his teaching of these parables, is not only trying to get us to see how much our loving God will seek us out, but he’s also trying to show us how painful and scary and alone it can feel to feel like you are lost from God’s sight, wandering on your own path, turned away from where God wants to lead you. How many times in your faith journey have you wandered away from God? How often do you feel like you are just going through the motions of life, living each day without a particular purpose or direction? These parables are for us, to comfort us, to remind us that God never stops looking for us, and to remind us that we can, should, always seek our way home again.
            But beyond knowing that God always seeks for us, beyond knowing that we can be found by God even when we feel completely lost, Jesus actually tells this parable primarily for another reason. This isn’t a parable about being lost as much as it is a parable about losing things. We have to go back to the text and remember why Jesus is telling these parables in the first place. What made him tell these stories? When he sets the scene to tell these parables, Jesus is responding to the grumbling of the Pharisee and scribes. They’re upset with Jesus, because everywhere Jesus goes tax collectors and sinners seem to surround Jesus. And not only do these sorts follow Jesus, but Jesus even sits and eats with them – he welcomes them, makes them feel important. In Jesus’ day, the act of sharing a meal with someone was a personal, intimate event. You wouldn’t eat with just anyone, and the scribes and Pharisees, religious leaders in the community, certainly wouldn’t want to be seen eating with tax collectors and other known sinners. And let’s face it: even today, we’re not so different. How many meals do you share with those who are not part of your family, your workplace, or your place of worship?  
When we read the gospels, I think we should always remember that Jesus is talking to us. But in this case, I think we can get confused. Jesus isn’t leading us to see ourselves as the ones who are lost. Instead, Jesus is asking us to move ourselves as the one who has lost something. So Jesus uses one of his favorite tactics in the teaching of this lesson. When he describes the woman and her lost coin, the shepherd and the lost sheep, he begins with a tone that says, “who would not do it this way? Who would not react like this?” “Which one of you would not,” he begins. He sets us up to feel that if we don’t react like he has indicated, that we’re not acting as a normal person would respond. In this situation, Jesus says: who wouldn’t go out and have a search party for a lost sheep? Who would let the poor sheep wander lost and alone? Who wouldn’t rejoice at this sheep being found, and call up friends and family to let them in on the good news? Well, the answer is: we wouldn’t, his audience wouldn’t have, shepherds probably wouldn’t have! What shepherd would have left the 99 sheep open to attack just to seek out one stray? He says, “who wouldn’t call together friends and neighbors to rejoice over a coin that was lost but is now found?” The answer is: we wouldn’t! We wouldn’t be so excited; we wouldn’t bother our neighbors with this kind of news. But Jesus challenges us to set a new norm. The old norm is to reject people when they stray or when they behave differently than the rest of the fold. The new norm is to seek out those who are lost and alone, and to welcome them back with open arms, with celebration. We tend to see ourselves as the lost victim at the center of all these stories – it always us that God is seeking after. But Jesus wants us to be filled with the sense of loss at not having those who are thought of as less-than as part of our lives. Jesus is implying that when we don’t widen our circles to include everyone, we are missing out. We’ve lost something essential, worth seeking with all our energy.
Jesus, by directing his story at the Pharisees and scribes, he is talking to people who already consider themselves faithful, who already see themselves at the center of the fold. If he was telling the parable today, he’d be talking to us – the church regulars, the people who have already been ‘found’ or who never strayed from the fold to begin with. He’s not talking to the lost sheep – it is the very people the scribes and Pharisees look down on that are the lost ones Jesus seeks after. Our presence here today, for most of us, signifies that we are more like part of the 99 sheep than like the lost one.
The real question Jesus wants to push on in these parables is not a question of why or how we stray from God, but of how we respond when others find themselves outside of the sheepfold. How does Jesus respond? In the gospels, he simply goes where the lost sheep are, and settles in. Notice that Jesus isn’t trying to convert the lost sheep or tell them how sinful they are. In fact, Jesus’ teaching and preaching: he directs most of that at those who already claim that they’re in the know. Jesus has to spend most of his time preaching and teaching to the religious folk who are already supposed to know how to treat one another. Jesus doesn’t spend so much time preaching to those who have found themselves outside the acceptable places. Instead, he heals, forgives, love, and simply builds relationships with those no one else even wants to see. Jesus says that there are sheep lost from the fold that should create a void so deep in our lives that we cannot rest until we’ve found them. We’re not the lost. We’re the ones who are losing out, every time we exclude someone, overlook someone, or judge someone.
“And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’”

Sermon for Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, "Hymn of Promise"

Sermon 9/5/10
Jeremiah 18:1-11
Hymn of Promise

In a summer when we’ve been learning about and singing our favorite hymns, on this day when we conclude with our tied-for-favorite hymn, Hymn of Promise, it seems only appropriate to talk about a few other songs this morning. We just heard a reading from Jeremiah where the prophet sees God acting as the potter at the wheel. We love this imagery – it shows up in many of our songs: “Have thine own way, Lord! Have thine own way! Thou art the potter; I am the clay. Mold me and make me after thy will, while I am waiting, yielded and still.” We also have “Spirit of the Living God,” where we sing for God’s spirit to melt us and mold us, or the contemporary worship song, where we sing about putting things in our life “In the Potter’s Hand.” We also sang this morning, “Change my heart, O God”, which includes the words: “You are the potter, I am the clay. Mold me and make me. This is what I pray.”
These songs draw this ‘God as Potter’ imagery from the text from Jeremiah that we have shared today, a passage that is well loved – God calls Jeremiah down to the potter’s house, and there Jeremiah watches the potter working a vessel. I wonder, though, if we look at this text more carefully, why it is we like this passage so much? We have, I think, in our minds these peaceful images of a God who gently molds us into this wonderful vessel that we have the potential to be. Well, I don’t know if you’ve ever watched a potter at work, but when a vessel goes wrong, the process of correction is usually anything but gentle. The clay pot may be completely smashed down, until it resumes a non-descript clay lump form. If things have gone too wrong, if the design is too far off from what was planned, the potter may simply start over again. If we really want God to be a potter, and if we really think we are clay to be molded, then it means that we’re saying we are giving God control over who we are and what we will become. Is that what we’re saying? “Have thine own way, Lord! Have thine own way! Hold o’er my being absolute sway!” Absolute sway! Are we giving that power to God? Do we want to? Are we able to?
I don’t know about you, but I’m a planner. That’s not to say that I’m particularly organized, or neat, or detail-oriented, because I’m not. Right now, since I’ve just been unpacking into my new home, I can pretend that my house is a disaster area because I’ve just moved in. But since you’ve seen my office here, you perhaps already know that my desk is almost always messy, and I always have as many important papers on the floor next to my desk as I do on the desk. But still, I am a planner. I like being prepared, and I like figuring out what will happen, what I want and hope to have happen. I remember getting my course catalog when I started college, and immediately I sat down and mapped out which classes I would take each semester for every semester of my entire college career. This was all before classes actually started my freshman year. That’s what I mean when I say I’m a planner.
Of course, even for those of us who are planners, real life, real life events have ways of breaking in. I did take a lot of the courses on my map for college, but some of them I took at different times than I expected, some I just never took at all, and some classes I never dreamed of wanting to take I took and loved. And my life is richer for those unplanned experiences. Are you a planner? Even if you don’t think you are, I’m guessing that you’d rather be responsible for planning your own life than letting someone else do it for you. My roommate in college, for example – her mother had a copy of the course catalog, and I remember vividly my roommate on the phone with her mother while her mother tried to pick classes for her. It’s one thing for circumstances to have made some classes unavailable for me. It’s another for someone else to want to make my decisions for me. That wouldn’t sit very well with me.
And yet – God is the potter, we are the clay. As people of faith, one of the things we actively seek to do is to let someone else make decisions for us. We say – we sing, we claim – that when it comes to plans and futures and hopes, that we’re letting God guide us, show us a path to follow. As people of faith, we’re committing to hand ourselves over, as unformed lumps of clay, into the Creator’s hand, asking God to shape us and mold us, because we believe and trust that God can draw out of us something more beautiful than we can imagine and plan for ourselves. Do we mean it? Do we really want God to be the potter that shapes us?
I think people of faith are always making such wonderful plans. Church people make great plans – we have committees to make plans, and conference about our plans, and teams to figure out how to plan. We plan all these different ways that we will serve God, share God’s love. And plans are important, they really are. We wouldn’t go very far without them. But I wonder, how often do we do what we think is best, what we have planned, and then ask God to bless our work instead of letting God decide what we should do and so already knowing we’re blessed in the path we’re taking. If we’re the clay, and God is the potter, then we need to stop asking God to be with us where we are, and start trying to follow where God is going, where God is calling, where God is leading.
When I served in Greater New Jersey, all churches were asked to read a book called Power Surge by Michael Foss, a pastor. I confess it wasn’t my favorite book. But it had one theme that I thought was right on. Foss said that churches must move from being making members, to making disciples. Too many churches, he said, are on a membership model, instead of a discipleship model. To me, that phrase says: churches need to move from trying to be the potter, to remembering that God is the potter, and we’re the clay. A membership church is a church that can function well-enough as its own potter. A church that has plans that keep it going on the same path like clockwork, a church that is more of a social organization than anything else – that’s a membership church that can take care of itself pretty well, and invite God to join in sometimes. There are many churches that can be successful for quite a long time doing that. But Jesus never mentions membership. Instead, he calls us to be disciples. The word disciple means students, pupils. It signifies people who are ready to learn, to be taught, to follow, to take instruction. A student doesn’t write the curriculum or create the lesson plans. A student learns and is shaped by the teacher.
What we want to do is be disciples. That’s starting off in the right place, because we’re signaling that we’re trying to be open to God’s will for us. And who better to set a path for us than Go, who created us? No two vessels a potter creates with his or her own hands are exactly alike. Each detail has come from the potter’s own touch. Each curve and pattern and shape is a result of the potter’s work. If we are clay, and God is the potter, then we are intimately known by the one who has created us, and all that we can be is there in God’s creative, creating mind. And when we fail – and we always will struggle and stumble – if we are clay, if we are open and flexible and moldable, God can always and will always start over with us, create again from us, rework us into something new.
            Our hymn for today, Hymn of Promise, was written in 1986 by Natalie Sleeth. Sleeth was born in 1930 in Evanston, Illinois. She was a gifted musician and organist. She wrote many anthems and hymns, and one other is in our hymnal: a benediction song called “Go Now in Peace,” and another, based on an anthem, “Joy in the Morning,” appears in our hymnal supplement. Sleeth wrote Hymn of Promise in 1985 as a choral anthem, at first, and later adapted it into a hymn. Sleeth said that she was “pondering the death of a friend (life and death, death and resurrection) pondering winter and spring (seeming opposites), and a T. S. Eliot poem which had the phrase, ‘In our end is our beginning.’” These seemingly contradictory ‘pairs’ led to the “thesis of the song and the hopeful message that out of one will come the other whenever God chooses to bring that about.” Her husband, Dr. Ronald Sleeth., a professor of preaching, requested only this hymn for his funeral when he died.
            The beauty of this hymn – or one of its many beauties – is that it speaks of the mysteries of life, the miraculous way life unfolds, and trusts that things are revealed in time, according to God’s vision, known to us only as it comes. And yet, as the title suggests, as the words suggest, there’s a promise to us: beginning, infinity, believing, eternity, resurrection, victory. Those are the promises, even though the journey is the mystery. “From the past will come the future; what it holds, a mystery, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.”
            I know, it’s hard, being the clay, when we are so used to be being potters, so used to being in control and in charge. It’s hard to be the created, the bulb, the seed, the cocoon, instead of the creator. But God draws out of us, as only God can, the flower, the tree, the butterfly, the beautifully crafted vessel. It is the only way I know of that we can be disciples. And in God’s hands, we’ll find much love, revealed in seasons, and much grace, as we let God shape our lives. Amen.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Sermon for Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, "Let There Be Peace on Earth"

Sermon 8/29/10
Luke 14:1, 7-14, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Let There Be Peace on Earth

"Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me; let there be peace on earth, the peace that was meant to be/ With God our creator, children all are we. Let us walk with each other in perfect harmony. Let peace begin with me; let this be the moment now. With every step I take, let this be my solemn vow: to take each moment and live each moment in peace eternally. Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me." This short and simple hymn takes seventh place in our congregation's top-ten hymn list.
According to their company, Jan-Lee Music, “Sy Miller and Jill Jackson were a husband and wife songwriting team, who, in 1955, wrote a song about their dream of peace for the world and how they believed each one of us could help create it.” Jill was a former actress, having starred in many Westerns in the 1930s, and Sy was a composer for Warner Brothers. Jill wrote lyrics. Sy composed music. “They first introduced [Let There Be Peace on Earth] to a group of teenagers selected from their high schools to attend a weeklong retreat in California. The young people were purposefully from different religious, racial, cultural and economic backgrounds, brought together to experiment with creating understanding and friendship through education, discussion groups, and living and working together in a camp situation.” Sy Miller describes how it happened:
He said, “One summer evening in 1955, a group of 180 teenagers of all races and religions, meeting at a workshop high in the California mountains locked arms, formed a circle and sang a song of peace. They felt that singing the song, with its simple basic sentiment – 'Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me,' helped to create a climate for world peace and understanding. When they came down from the mountain, these inspired young people brought the song with them and started sharing it. And, as though on wings, 'Let There Be Peace on Earth' began an amazing journey around the globe. It traveled first, of course, with the young campers back to their homes and schools, churches and clubs. Soon the circle started by the teenagers began to grow. Before long the song was being shared in all fifty states – at school graduations and at PTA meetings, at Christmas and Easter gatherings and as part of the celebration of Brotherhood Week. It was a theme for Veteran’s Day, Human Rights Day and United Nations Day. 4H Clubs and the United Auto Workers began singing it . . . It was taped, recorded, copied, printed in songbooks, and passed by word of mouth. The song spread overseas [and around the world.]” (2)
For Jill Jackson, the song had a more personal meaning. According to, Jackson spoke of her early life—how she became an orphan as a young girl, and her difficult journey through foster care, that led her into despair and attempted suicide. She describes that it was then that she realized the presence of a higher power in her life and how she eventually came to [develop] the song. She said, “When I attempted suicide and I didn't succeed, I knew for the first time unconditional love—which God is. God is unconditional love. You are totally loved, totally accepted, just the way you are. In that moment I was not allowed to die, and something happened to me which is very difficult to explain. I had an eternal moment of truth, in which I knew I was loved, and knew I was here for a purpose." (2)
Let There Be Peace on Earth was awarded the George Washington Honor Medal by the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge for “Outstanding achievement in helping to bring about a better understanding of the American Way of Life.” It also received a Brotherhood Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews.” In Sy Miller’s words again: ‘This simple thought, 'Let There Be Peace on Earth, and Let It Begin With Me' first born on a mountain top in the voices of youth, continues to travel heart to heart – gathering in people everywhere who wish to become a note in a song of understanding and peace—peace for all [human]kind." (1)
So today we have this peace song, and we also have our gospel lesson from Luke. Jesus is giving something of an etiquette lesson, with, of course, his own unique spin. He’s at the house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees, eating a Sabbath meal, and we read that he’s being closely observed by those who are there. No doubt, some of the religious leaders are just looking for Jesus to do or say something that they can criticize. But Jesus is also closely observing the guests. We frequently see Jesus at meals in the gospels, and he often uses mealtime as a teaching time. He watches how the social hierarchy plays out at meals. He sees people wanting the seats of highest honor. People sit according to status, and everyone seems eager to show off how important they are by where they’re sitting.
But Jesus tells people to do just the opposite of what they would normally: When you're invited over to a wedding banquet - don't choose the best place - choose the worst. Why? Well, you don't want to be embarrassed and asked to move to a lower place so a more important guest can take a seat! Those who exalt themselves are humbled, but those who humble themselves are exalted. In the next example, Jesus advises that those who host a dinner should not invite relatives, friends, and rich neighbors, but should instead invited the poor, crippled, lame, and blind, those unable to return an invitation. Don't look for repayment from humans, Jesus urges, but from God, whose rewards much more valuable.
Jesus' advice, as usual, goes against some traditional understandings his dinner guests would have had. His suggestions might sound to us just like savvy suggestions for maintaining a good public image. But actually, behaving as Jesus suggested - choosing the lowest seat at a meal, missing an opportunity for recognition by inviting less-than-classy people to a meal - these actions would have made a person seem quite odd if not altogether offensive. It's hard to find something to compare this to today - our culture and customs are so different. But actually, maybe we can relate. At today’s wedding receptions, guests are often seated at numbered tables in assigned groups. The wedding party sits at the front table. The other guests are seated usually based on relationship to the bridge and groom. Family and close friends are at tables close to the front table. Those who are acquaintances are likely to be farther away from the action of the reception. Perhaps we can connect to Jesus' words after all.
But what does this parable have to do with peace? Well, what I like about Jesus’ teachings is that what he teaches is something you can do. Conversely, we should also note that Jesus never instructs you to tell someone else how to do it to do it right. Jesus tells you to go sit at the lowest place, you to humble yourself, you to invite the poor and the lame and the blind to your meals. He doesn’t tell you to tell others to do it. He tells you how to do it, live it. Now, I don’t mean that what he teaches isn’t challenging, that it doesn’t require us to change our lives. But what I mean is: what Jesus teaches is always within our grasp to do. It doesn’t require committee meetings or organizations or institutions. If we actually just did what Jesus said to do – well, the world would very quickly be a different place. But what Jesus says to do doesn’t require some special skill set. It doesn’t require a certain degree or level of education. You don’t need training to follow Jesus’ instructions. You don’t need to be a certain age – you won’t be too young or too old to follow Jesus’ instructions here. You just have to listen to what he says, and do it. And here’s the thing: if everybody did it – well, imagine what might happen, what might be possible.
For me, the key to our hymn this week about peace on earth – well, it’s the second part of the first line that’s so important. “Let it begin with me.” When my brothers and I would get into arguments growing up, (which we never do anymore, of course) my mother would often say, “How can we expect there to be peace in the world, if we can’t have peace in our home?” Of course, this would induce some secret eye-rolling in us – at least we agreed on that – but I’ve always remembered it. How can we have peace in the world, if we can’t have peace in our home? In other words, why would we expect the whole world to do something that we’re not willing to do ourselves? When Sy Miller and Jill Jackson worked on this hymn, they did it with a group of teenagers who were ready let peace begin with them. And so they were able to transcend all the differences in their group – different religions, genders, races, classes – and together, because each person was committed to the task – they made a space of peace, and shared a song of peace that truly has spread around the globe.
I’m generally not a fan of saying that something is “between me and God.” What’s between me and God, according to Jesus, is all of our neighbors. But here’s one way we can be self-centered: Let it begin with you. It is to you that Jesus is talking when he teaches. It is only you that you can change. It is only you who can make you follow Jesus’ teaches. Let there be peace on earth. Let there be disciples who follow Jesus. Let there be people who humble themselves so that others might finally be exalted. Let there be those who reach beyond all that boundaries and barriers we create between ourselves. And let it begin with you, with me. Amen.