All sermons given by the Priest-in-Charge, the Rev’d Dante A. Tavolaro, unless otherwise indicated.
Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent (29 November 2020). The Scripture readings can be found here
Greek icon of Second Coming, c. 1700, Public Domain
As I scrolled through my social media feeds over the last few days, I have noticed that as soon as the plates were cleared from Thanksgiving tables the Christmas trees went up. Last week I found myself driving behind people with fresh cut tress atop their cars days before Thanksgiving. I have seen friends who are self proclaimed “Advent police” already putting up their decorations. All this falls under the rubric, “because it is 2020 and you have to take joy wherever you can get it.”
I totally understand. This year for some, maybe even many, joy is hard to come by. I know this holiday season has not been and will not be as it once was. Many of our beloved traditions are not possible this year. Many of us have just experienced Thanksgiving dinners in quiet homes not surrounded by family and friends due to the pandemic. I am all in favor of claiming joy wherever and whenever we can find it. So if putting your decorations up now, if blasting Christmas radio stations, if watching Charlie Brown Christmas, Elf, Love Actually, and Die Hard on repeat is what you and your household need to find joy then go for it.
And . . . because we are both/and not either/or people . . . and . . . I wonder if by placing our focus on starting Christmastide now we miss an opportunity to hear God speaking to us in this moment. I wonder if this year, what we really need, right this very minute, is to keep Advent.
The season of Advent is often characterized as a season of preparation. If you polled 100 people who have heard of Advent before, I would hazard a guess that 98, maybe even 99, of them would say that it is the season of preparation for Christmas. But this season is more than just four weeks of turning up the volume on Christmas cheer. After this Sunday, the next two weeks will tell of John the Baptist coming and preaching repentance. It is only on the 4th and final Sunday of Advent that we hear the announcement of the birth of Jesus.
The latin word from which “Advent” is derived means “coming.” In this season we prepare for the Lord to come amongst us. We prepare for the glorious feast of the Incarnation on Christmas, and we prepare for the second coming of God on the day of judgement.
A moment ago, we prayed the Collect of the Day, that prayer which collects the themes for the day. Today we prayed this:
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (1)
This collect was written for the very first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. For nearly 500 years Anglicans have been praying this prayer, it has set the tone for the entire season that follows. From 1662 until the introduction of the current Prayer Book in 1979, this collect was prayed every day through the entire season. Every day, for the whole of Advent, people prayed that God might imbue us with God’s grace that we might cast away the works of darkness, that we might be clothed and protected with the light of God, that following in the footsteps of him who came to us in great humility we might share in the glorious resurrection of God. As another Advent prayer puts it, that we might, without shame or fear, stand before the judgement seat of God. Advent is about more than preparing for Christmas. It is also about preparing ourselves for the coming of the Son of Man in all majesty and glory.
Today we hear from the 13th chapter of Mark’s Gospel. This chapter is often refereed to as “the little apocalypse” and it is situated between the Sermon on the Mount and the Passion Narrative. The apocalyptic genre while common, is not easily understood. Many try to use these writings to foretell a specific and exact moment. These passages can be used as a tool of manipulation and fear. When we hear things like, “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken,” (2) we might be inspired to do whatever necessary to not be left behind. But this cosmic imagery is not meant to terrify and control us through fear. Cosmic imagery, in apocalyptic writing, is used to describe that which is indescribable.
Mark’s audience would have understood exactly what this imagery was all about. You see Mark is lifting this apocalyptic scenario from the Book of Daniel, which lifts from a previous era of oppression under the Babylonian empire. Each in own their way reaching to the past to create a framework for the present moment.
The basic message of apocalyptic visions, like what we hear from Mark today, is this: The rebellion against the reign of God is strong, as the wicked oppress the righteous. Things will get worse before they get better. But hang on just a little longer, because just when you are sure you cannot endure, God will intervene to turn the world right side up.
Each and every generation takes these visions of the indescribable, and recycles them to the situation of the present. The point is not to predict specific events in the future, but rather to understand God’s mighty acts in the past as a framework for understanding how to respond now. They provide hope and reassurance. For as it was true in ages past, so it will be true again. When it feels like all is lost, when it feels like we cannot endure any longer, God will intervene.
We do not know when, maybe “in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,”(3) maybe a week from now, maybe next month, maybe next year, only God knows when – all we can do is keep awake.
We wait not as if we are journeying through a predictable countdown to a date circled on a calendar, but with the longing and expectation and uncertainty of those who waited for the first coming of God all those centuries ago. By focusing our attention on the return of the Son of Man here, at the beginning of Advent, we wait in the same way those who lived before Jesus was born waited, not knowing the day nor the hour, but always ready at a moment’s notice.
As we deck our halls and string our lights waiting for Christmas, let us also keep awake and prepare our lives for the coming of the Son of Man. By keeping awake and being alert, by living our lives in accord with him who came to visit us in great humility – with him who has already come, and died, and been raised, we will not only be prepared for the future coming of God, but we might even experience some of what is to come now.
God is coming again. We do not wait in vain.
When Jesus returns, he will come as judge. But the judgment of God is not unadulterated wrathful punishment that is the stuff of horror movies or taken from the pages of Dante’s Inferno. God judges us not to destroy us, but perfect us. We are tried just as silver is tried, being purified of everything that prevents us from living into the fullness of who we are; everything that has clouded how we were made in creation. We can stand before the judgement seat of God without shame or fear, because when we stand on that day all the false layers and masks will be stripped away. When the Son of Man comes with the clouds the world we will be purified as well. Jesus is the judge who destroys the oppressive power of evil, sin, and death. He judges us whilst bearing the scars of his Passion in his resurrected flesh, and he seeks to redeem us and our scars as well. God judges in love, so that we can follow Jesus to the place that has been prepared for us.
The apocalyptic imagery we hear today is not meant to scare us, it is meant to comfort us. It is the reminder that no matter how bleak things might seem, no matter how bad things get, God is coming to make all things new. It is up to us to hold on, to keep awake, to prepare for that great and glorious day. Christmas is not a distraction from the present moment. The once and future coming of God is not a distraction from the loss and pain and suffering and anxiety and death of the present moment, it is the answer to it.
Advent helps us settle into the unknown. Advent prepares us to explore the depths of darkness. Advent equips us to wait trusting that what we experience now will come to an end. Advent offers refuge from the sentimentality that is a source of pain for many struggling through the secular season. Advent welcomes everyone in, even those, especially those, who feel the world has forgotten them.
Advent begins in the dark, and it is not a season for the faint of heart. It requires courage to look into the heart of darkness, especially when we are afraid we might see ourselves there. For as Isaiah says in today’s reading, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.”(4) Isaiah recognizes that we have not always lived in ways that accord with the will of God for our lives. Advent is a time when we cry out to the words of Isaiah, “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity for ever. Now consider, we are all you people.”(5) Advent is the season when we remember who we truly are.
Advent prepares us for that authentically hopeful Christmas spirit, the one that does not look away from darkness, but directly into it; the one that does not look away from death, but shouts into the tomb “unbind him and let him go.”
Advent begins in the dark, and slowly as we journey through this season, as we face darkness and death and things unknown, light is revealed: the forerunner cries out from the wilderness, the way is prepared, an angel makes a world altering announcement. We prepare our hearts and our minds and our souls and the fullness of our lives to receive the coming of Christ – not as some calendar holiday, but as the very completion of existence.
On this First Sunday of Advent, as we set out on our preparations, this is the announcement we bring: God will come, and God’s justice will prevail. God will come, and God will destroy every evil and pain in all its forms. God will come, and all will be made well.
We live in the time between. In the time between the first coming of Christ, that babe born in a manger stall, and second coming of Christ, when God will come to judge the quick and the dead. Advent contains for us the crucial balance of the now and the not yet that our faith requires; the already and the not yet of the kingdom of God. Advent is more than just another liturgical season, it is a microcosm of what the entirety of Christian life is all about.
We need Advent this year, because we need, the world needs, the joy and hope that will far out last the smell of our greenery and the twinkling of lights.
The moment we are in now feels a lot like Advent. We are between what we once knew, and what we hope is coming. For the last several months and for the next several months we watch and wait hoping to be set free from this “new normal.” We look out on a nation ravaged and divided by a global health pandemic, violent white supremacy, and bitter partisan politics. Each person searching for that one thing to place their hope upon. Whatever earthly thing we might cling to: politicians, court rulings, laws, policies, vaccines; deep down we know these are not the answer.
For all of those things, they too will pass away, and we will be left searching for something else temporal to cling to. The world as we know it is coming to an end, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday. R.E.M. got it right, “it’s the end of the world as we know it.” Something new is coming, and we will be fine. We wait in joyful hope and expectation for the once and future coming of God to set us free from everything that plagues us.
As we enter this season of Advent, hang your lights, bake your cookies, do whatever is meet and right for your household. Then sit with an advent wreath, light a candle, read Scripture, pray. Be not afraid to look directly into the darkness and uncertainty, the pain and suffering, the depths of your own being. Be honest with where you are right now, and trust that God is there.
Trust God to hold us in God’s almighty hands of love. Trust God to guide us through the wilderness and protect us through the storm. Trust that God will see us through the pandemic, this white supremacy and racism, this time of division and strife. Trust that God is very much present in this time between, even when it feels like God is absent. Trust that God is coming to gather us to God’s self.
Keep awake. Watch. Wait. For lo he comes, with clouds descending. God will tear open the heavens, come down, right every wrong, setting us free from all that holds us captive, ushering us into the kingdom God has prepared for all God’s beloved children.
Today we begin our journey again. Not just into this season of Advent, but the journey of being Advent people. People who faithfully carry out the work of God in this time between. People who are ready to greet the Son of Man at a moments notice.
(1) The Book of Common Prayer, p. 159.
(2) Mark 13:24-25, NRSV.
(3) Mark 13:35b, NRSV.
(4) Isaiah 64:6, NRSV.
(5) Isaiah 64:8-9, NRSV.
Sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost (22 November 2020). The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here
One of my favorite people from American political history is Harvey Milk. Some might recognize that name because of the 2008 award winning film “Milk” staring Sean Penn. For those not familiar with Milk’s story, he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 making him the first openly gay elected official in the history of California. Milk was assassinated after 11 months in office on November 27, 1978. He was 48 years old.
A few months before his death, on June 25, Milk gave a speech on the steps of San Francisco City Hall, that is now known as “The Hope Speech.” Milk concluded his remarks with these words:
The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope, not only the gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the us’es, the us’es will give up . . . . and you and you and you, you have to give people hope. (1)
Milk was seeking to inspire those gathered that while it might seem like people have given up, while it might seem like the nation has given up, a few people can make a difference. A few people doing the right thing, can offer hope to every person who feels forgotten. A few people can open the door of possibility to everyone. A few people can become a beacon of hope for the nation and even the world.
I have been thinking a lot about this speech in recent days. For as the seasons change, as the days grow colder and the nights grow longer; it seems the flame of hope has dimmed with the daylight hours. In the midst of all the stresses and pressures and restrictions and uncertainties of this moment we might find it hard to hold onto hope.
Harvey Milk was right. Without hope people will give up. So the question is where do we find hope? Where do we find hope for a better world, for a better tomorrow, for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great? Where do we find hope that we can pass along to all the us’es of the world?
To paraphrase the words of Hymn 665, “all [our] hope on God is founded.” Our hope rests not in the powers and principalities of this world; not in politicians and political candidates; not in possessions and creations of humanity; but in God. And this hope, will never let us down.
Our hope is not just some emotion or aspiration. Hope for us is a way of life and it is our calling. As the author from the Letter to the Ephesians writes in today’s epistle, “so that, with the eyes of your heart enlighten, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.” (2)
The hope to which we have been called is the promise of the reign of God.
Today is the last Sunday of the liturgical year. The Book of Common Prayer calls this day the Last Sunday after Pentecost. It is the liturgical equivalent of New Years’ Eve. This week bridges the long stretch of Sundays after Pentecost and the coming of Advent. The hinge which aids us in making this seasonal transition, the thing that the Scripture readings calls our attention to is the reign of God – the Kingship of Jesus.
We can enter into the hope to which we have been called because of the great power, because of the reign God.
The Letter to the Ephesians tells us that after being raised from the dead, Jesus now sits upon the throne at the right hand of God. As the King of glory, “all things [are] under his feet.” (3) As King, Jesus reigns over absolutely everything that ever was, that is, and that will ever be.
The key to understanding the hope to which we have been called, is understanding who Jesus is as monarch. And no, binge watching the new season of “The Crown” on Netflix is not going to help you understand who Jesus is as King . . . trust me I’ve tried. The only similarity that Jesus has to earthly monarchs is the expectation of complete obedience.
To understand who Jesus is as King, we must look at his path to the throne. Before Jesus sits on the heavenly throne, before Jesus ascended into heaven, before Jesus is raised on the third day, before Jesus is buried in the tomb, Jesus dies.
The second person of the Trinity, the Divine Son of God, Jesus willingly dies for us on the cross, subjecting himself to shame, humiliation, pain, suffering, hatred, and the very worst that humanity has to offer. Jesus’ path to the throne, is not won by military might or political coup, it is the path of taking on the form of a servant, the act of self-emptying, living in complete obedience to God. That which is the opposite of everything earthly kings stand for is the very thing that achieves the greatest victory of all. For when Jesus, our King, dies on the cross, when Jesus, our Messiah, is raised from the dead, the power of death is obliterated and abolished once and for all.
Through the waters of Baptism we have been marked as Christ’s own for ever. Through the waters of Baptism we have been claimed as subjects of God. Through the waters of Baptism we share in God’s victory over death. This is our hope.
We must pledge our loyalty to the “crown of glory that never fades away” (4) As God’s loyal subjects we are called to live our lives following the path set by Jesus’ earthly ministry. We must walk that way of love, that demands everything of us, and promises even more.
Today’s Gospel offers a glimpse of how we are to live as we walk the path of God.
What we hear today is the only account of judgment that is contained in the entirety of the New Testament. Jesus says, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.” (5)
As the passage continues we are told what rubric is used to sort out the sheep from the goats. Jesus goes on to say, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (6) What sets the sheep and the goats apart is how they treat those in need.
What I find most interesting about this passage is what comes next: “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food?’” (7) Those declared righteous, the sheep, are surprised by what is said. They have no idea Jesus is talking about. Jesus answers their question, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (8)
The righteous did not set out to care for others because it would win them favor with God. They did not set out thinking that if they check all the right boxes they will earn their place at the right hand of the Son of Man at his coming in great glory. They set out to live their lives by doing the right thing. They followed the way of love. They recognized that every person no matter their station or circumstance is deserving of love, care, and compassion.
The passage from Matthew continues with the account of judgement for the goats. The Son of Man “will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” (9) The goats did not care for the “least of these,” the goats did not serve Jesus. Their sins of omission, those things left undone, lead to harsh judgment. For their lack of action they are excluded from eternal life. They must absorb terrifying words that chill the heart.
We do not know why the goats neglect to care for those in need. No excuses or attempted justifications are offered. There is no verbal maneuvering to absolve them from failing to see Christ in those for whom justice, and care, and access have been denied.
This passage should set us on edge. These words should call us to attention. For neither the sheep nor the goats knew what was going on. The sheep were astonished to find out they were serving Christ, and the goats were astonished to discovered they had failed to do so. As theologian Fleming Rutledge writes:
The coming of Jesus Christ as judge of the world calls every single person’s existence into question. There is no human merit anywhere to bail us out. We cannot rely on any known good deeds; the complete astonishment of the redeemed and the shattered confidence of the condemned are clear evidence of this. The works of mercy done by those on the right hand were spontaneous acts performed without any thought of reward. They do not even remember doing them. (10)
The point of this passage is to remind us that the judgment of God is not about totaling up one’s good deeds. It is not about making sure we give enough money, host enough fundraisers, donate enough pounds of food, provide enough bags of clothing, make enough pastoral visits to have the scales of judgement tip in our favor so that we are sorted with the sheep instead of the goats. The passage is about living in such a manner that serves Christ always, even when we do not realize we are doing so.
All that we do should be for the glory of God, not our own glory. All that we do should be in service of God, not service of ourselves. The way we are called to follow is not about us, it is about God.
This Gospel passage sets before us the way we are to live until Jesus comes again in glory. We are to be awake, preparing for his return. We do this by caring for those in need. For in serving them, we are serving Christ himself. We do this by looking into the face of someone who is hungry, thirsty, sick, or imprisoned and recognize we are looking at the face of Jesus – for Jesus, for the Divine, is in each and every person. We do this by giving of our earthly treasure, and making a pledge to the parish. We take a portion of the blessings we have been given and commit them back to God – offering them to the Church for the benefit of mission and ministry. We do this by giving freely and generously of all that we are and all that we have in response to the awe and wonder, the amazement and gratitude, in thanksgiving for all that God has done and continues to do for us.
When the Son of Man comes in his majestic glory, surrounded be the whole hosts of heaven, to separate the sheep from the goats, he will say to those at his right hand, for whom the kingdom has been prepared, “Come for there was a pandemic and you wore a mask, practiced social distancing, and only spent time in-person with members of your own household. For there was violent white supremacy and you educated yourself on implicit bias, spoke out when friends and family made racist jokes, practiced antiracism, and stood with those struggling to breath. For there was national division and you advocated for truth and justice, refused to degrade those of differing political opinion and affiliation, and worked for a still more perfect union.”
How we live matters. Not because of a reward that awaits us, not because we fear some perceived wrathful image of God, but because how we live makes a difference. How we care for those in need, how we set an example by living lives of humble loving service, how we show up as Christ’s hands and feet in the world can be the difference for someone struggling to hold on to hope and giving up.
We are the inheritors of an amazing promise, a promise won for us by Jesus our King, a promise that enables us to hold onto hope no matter what. It is our task to live in such a way that this hope is passed along to all the us’es of the world. You and you and us, we have to give people hope.
(2) Ephesians 1:17-18b, NRSV.
(3) Ephesians 1:22, NRSV.
(4) 1 Peter 5:4, NRSV.
(5) Matthew 25:31-33, NRSV.
(6) Matthew 25:34-36, NRSV.
(7) Matthew 25:37, NRSV.
(8) Matthew 25:40, NRSV.
(9) Matthew 25:41-43, NRSV.
(10) Rutledge, Fleming. Advent (p. 234). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.
Sermon for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost (8 November 2020). The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here
We are living in a moment, and what a moment it is.
Between the pandemic and politics there has been an intensity to these days that is unlike nearly any other moment in our nation’s history.
We have watched this pandemic surge across the globe. We have been filled with anxiety as the days march on. Then when it seemed as if we had turned a corner, when we thought we could breathe a bit deeper, relax the tension in our shoulders, the numbers started to soar. Be it nationally or locally not a day goes by where there is not a headline that tells of a new daily record.
We know grief because of this pandemic. We grieve for our neighbors who have died: our more than 1.2 million neighbors around the globe, our more than 237,000 neighbors around the country, our 1224 neighbors here in Rhode Island.
There is also the uncertainty and fear for the increasing number of people who test positive for COVID-19. Will they recover, and what does that look like in the short term and in lasting consequences? Our grief continues in the face of all the others losses we endure: canceled plans, friends and family who go unvisited, celebratory occasions that have been postponed, the inability to gather together as community, and the anticipatory grief of recognizing that Thanksgiving and Christmas will not be celebrated in the ways we have grown accustomed.
As we struggle to hold on in the midst of this pandemic, for nearly as many months we have been on a political rollercoaster that has left scholars stymied. For months we have been subjected, and at times even succumb ourselves, to divisive and hateful rhetorical. We have stopped seeing each other as fellow citizens, and started treating one another as enemies. Instead of listening and learning from those who stand across the political, ideological, and theological divide from us we have been filled with anger and hatred. We have dimmed our vision from seeing the belovedness of God in our neighbor, we attempt to extinguish the spark of the Divine in all living creatures, so that our consciences are alleviated from any and all guilt resulting from our sinfulness.
What a time this has been.
As I stand before you this day, wondering what awaits us in the days, weeks, and months ahead, there is one conviction I hold that grows stronger by the moment. I believe with every fiber of my being, in spite of everything that swirls arounds, that there is Good News.
No matter what the headlines say, no matter the debates that rage on, no matter the daily statistical reports, there has been, there is, and there will always be Good News. For there was Good News even on that darkest of days – Good Friday. On that day that saw the absolute worst that humanity had to offer, on that day that darkness cover the whole land. Good News won that day – for at that hour the cruciform light of God shattered every darkness, even the darkness of death.
There is Good News for us today and every day because we have a Savior who has set us free. A Savior whose name is not President Trump, whose name is not President-Elect Biden, but whose name is the sweetest name of all – Jesus. There is Good News for us today and everyday because God, not mortals, is in control. There is Good News for us today and everyday because our true citizenship is not of this world, but resides in the Kingdom of God, the Heavenly City, the New Jerusalem. All our hope on God is founded, and that is why we can believe the Good News no matter what headlines, and pundits, and grief tries to tell us.
Friends, no matter where you stand on the response to the pandemic, your emotional response to the election results, today we must rejoice for we are people of the Good News of God. No matter what happens next, God is in control.
Around us there are glimpses of what is possible. In recent days as national attention has focused on a few vote counting locations and the protests around them, stories have started to pop up about what is happening inside those well watched walls. Poll workers, Republicans and Democrats, have started to let down their guards. They have started to stop seeing each other of oppositional political operatives, and have begun to see each other through the lens of their humanity. Relationships are being formed, new bonds of friendship are being established.
Yesterday at our Diocesan Special Convention, Bishop Knisely drew our attention to glimpses of Good News closer to home. He raised up our resilience: the way we have worked, and struggled, and toiled to discover new ways of being the Church; in our devotion to continuing the worship of God; in our willingness to try new things and take risks for the sake of the Gospel; in our dedication to caring for our neighbors; even in our willingness to be a bit silly and offer distractions of joy. Good News is all around us if we dare to open our eyes.
No matter what lies ahead, if you only remember one thing I say, let it be this: there has been, there is, and there will always be Good News. That is the very promise of God.
As we traverse the stony road of this moment our task is to be prepared for whatever comes next.
“The kingdom of heaven,” we hear from Matthew today, “will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps” (Matthew 25:1-4, NRSV).
Today we hear the parable of the ten bridesmaids. We hear of five wise and five foolish waiting for the bridegroom to come. As the parable unfolds the bridegroom is delayed. The hour is late and the bridesmaids start to fall asleep. But then, at midnight, the announcement is made. The waiting is over, they can see the bridegroom coming. The bridesmaids awake from their slumber, and get themselves together so they can go with the bridegroom to the wedding banquet. As they trim their lamps the five foolish bridesmaids discover they are out of oil, so they go off to buy more. In so doing, they miss the arrival of the bridegroom and the door was shut on the wedding banquet.
We are still in the long stretch of the Sundays after Pentecost, but this is an Advent story.
This is about watching and waiting and making ourselves ready for the once and future coming of God. This section of Matthew’s Gospel, is all about orienting our attention towards the triumph of God in the second coming of Christ. This is a section crying out to us, “people get ready!” God is at work making things right. The bridegroom might be delayed, but the bridegroom is coming.
We, the Church, are those bridesmaids awaiting the coming of the bridegroom. We must decide if we will wait wisely or if we will wait foolishly.
The arrival of the bridegroom is intended to signal the beginning of the feast: There will be unbridled joy, feasting beyond comprehension, a party to end all parties. As the wait begins, the air is filled with effervescent energy like those nervous butterflies that linger in our stomachs. But the longer we wait, the more our energy goes flat, the more doubt and worry come to the forefront of our minds. Waiting is hard. Waiting can be dispiriting. When we wait too long, we might be tempted to give up hope feeling as if we have been stood up. But our faith allows us to never hope in vain.
The promise that the bridegroom comes, the promise that the Lord will come, sustains us in our waiting. It keeps us going through the night even as we sleep, because God always fulfills God’s promises.
Though it is hard, we continue to wait. God understands our weaknesses, our frailty, God never asks for perpetual alertness. God does not ask us to literally stay awake henceforth and forever more. That would turn us in to a bunch of over exhausted zombies with the inability to actually carry out our ministries. What God asks of us is to be prepared, to come with reverses just in case, to store up what we need as we await the day of God’s coming.
We must think about what it means for us to be ready. It might not be Advent yet, but we are always an Advent church – we are always about the work of making ourselves ready for the coming of God.
Like the bridesmaids we do not know when the bridegroom will come. We do not know how long this journey will last, nor do we know when the Kingdom of God will break forth in fullness. But we know the day will come when “justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24, NRSV).
There is arguably no prophet with a stronger voice for justice than Amos. Throughout the book which bears his name, Amos is unrelenting and uncompromising in his indictment of those who “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” (Amos 2:7, NRSV) and those who deny the dignity and personhood of others. Amos is brilliant with his use of rhetoric to get his message to the people, and he does not shy away from the prophetic role of warning of the coming judgment of God. As The Rev’d Dr. Carolyn J. Sharp writes in her book Old Testament Prophets for Today, “Amos is a terrifying prophet of judgement whose uncompromising call to spiritual integrity leaves his audience no place to hide” (Carolyn J. Sharp, Old Testament Prophets for Today, p. 34).
The prophecy that Amos declares today is the promise that God’s righteousness is coming, and we better look out if we refuse to seek the Lord and abandon living with integrity.
God’s justice will one day roll down, not like a gentle flowing stream through peaceful and serene woods, but like a flash flood. God’s justice is a perpetual, unstoppable, flood of righteousness that will sweep away every callous indifference to poverty, every narcissistic act, every mark of injustice, every lie and falsehood, every stroke of violence against them whole of the created order. The day is coming when God will make all things right.
As we awaiting the coming of the bridegroom, as we awaiting the flood waters of God, as we await the end of this pandemic and political cycles that seem to never end, we must get ready. It is our role, our task, to keep our lamps burning, to figure out how to ride the tide of God’s righteousness and share in the work that will “move every human heart, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace.”
We are in a moment, a moment that is filled with Good News if we dare to believe it.
In a moment, for our postlude, Jean will play Hymn 607 “O God of every nation.” I offer you the words of this hymn as our prayer of preparation to follow God into that great and eternal banquet:
O God of every nation, of every race and land,
redeem the whole creation with your almighty hand;
where hate and fear divide us and bitter threats are hurled,
in love and mercy guide us and heal our strife-torn world.
From search for wealth and power and scorn of truth and right,
from trust in bombs that shower destruction through the night,
from pride of race and nation and blindness to your way,
deliver every nation, eternal God, we pray!
Lord, strengthen all who labor that we may find release
from fear of rattling saber, from dread of war’s increase;
when hope and courage falter, your still small voice be heard;
with faith that none can alter, your servants undergird.
Keep bright in us the vision of days when war shall cease,
when hatred and division give way to love and peace,
till dawns the morning glorious when truth and justice reign
and Christ shall rule victorious o’er all the world’s domain.
Sermon for All Saints’ Day (1 November 2020). The Scripture readings can be found here
From My Book of the Church’s Year by Enid M. Chadwick http://anglicanhistory.org/children/chadwick_year/Pages/40.html
Growing up I sang in the children’s choir at the parish my family attended. One of the most prominent memories I have from this time was the song we would sing each and every All Saints’ Sunday. Maybe you have heard it. It begins something like this, “I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true, who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew” (The Hymn 1982, Hymn 293). There we were lined up in front of the church in our bright red robes, looking oh so adorable. Then in the middle part of each verse when different types of saints are named, we would hold up little cartoon images on popsicle sticks as we sang the words corresponding to the images. This was a carefully choreographed moment to make sure that the visuals lined up with the words. After all it would be embarrassing if you held up someone slain by a fierce wild beast when you were supposed to be holding up a queen.
As fond as I am of this memory, from where I stand today, I fear that by reducing Hymn 293 to something children’s choirs sing once a year allows us to focus more on the cute factor than the story being told. It enables us to reduce the saints of God to cartoon characters dancing around to a catchy tune.
The words of this hymn are nothing to make light of. They are a serious proclamation of the life of discipleship, and a prayer that God would help us follow in the footsteps of the saints in all virtuous and godly living.
It is meet and right that we sing a song of the saints of God. It is a good and joyful thing to remember and celebrate the ministries of those who stand in that great cloud of witnesses. It is absolutely necessary for us to follow in their footsteps attempting to live our lives as exemplars of the faith as well.
So who are these saints of God, these patient, brave, and true individuals who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord the loved and knew?
One was a doctor, like St. Luke the Evangelist. Tradition tells us that blessed Luke was a physician. His telling of salvation history focuses prominently on healing and expanding the understanding of who is deemed worthy of inclusion. Luke’s Gospel prominently features the role of women and people on the margins. The very first people to hear of the birth of Jesus are the shepherds, those living figuratively and literally on the margins of society. Luke’s story reminds us that we are called to the work of healing. That healing work is not just about curing illnesses, it is about healing the bonds of affection that have been broken between us, it is about healing the divisions in our communities, it is about working for the healing and wholeness of those who have been excluded by virtue of their identity.
One was a Queen, like blessed Margaret of Scotland. Margaret was discouraged by the lack of seriousness people had for their faith. So she set out to renew the commitment to faith in Scotland. She insisted on the observance of Lent, and that on the Lord’s day people devoted themselves only to prayer. Her devotion was not only about a life of prayer, she founded schools, hospitals, and orphanages, and she used her influence to improve the quality of life for the most isolated people. She and her husband even rebuilt the monastery on the island of Iona. Margaret’s witness reminds us of the need to have prayer and devotion to God at the center of our lives. Her life is a testament to what happens when we allow that prayer to transform us. Following her example may we use whatever power and privilege we have to improve the quality of life for those around us.
One was a soldier, like blessed Martin of Tours. Martin was a member of the Roman army, and the story goes that one day he was approached by a poor man who asked for alms in the name of Christ. Martin, drew his sword, cut off part of his military cloak and gave it to the beggar. The next night, Jesus appeared to Martin half clothed in his cloak. Martin goes on to become a monk and much to his dismay is elected Bishop of Tours in the year 372. Martin was not the most popular amongst his fellow bishops, because of his advocacy work to cease any violence in the name of Christ, and because he was always a staunch defender of those in need. The life of blessed Martin of Tours reminds us of the need to stand up to empires of oppression, to lay down the sword, and to always remember Jesus’ words, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40, NRSV).
One was a priest . . . okay lots of people on the calendar of saints are clergy. There’s George Herbert and Florence Li Tim-Oi, there’s John Mason Neale and Thomas Cranmer, to name a few. There is one person, with a local connection, I think we should include in this category. You see he never was actually ordained, but he was a seminarian. Jonathan Myrick Daniels was born in 1939 in Keene, New Hampshire. He was a student at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. During his time as a seminarian Daniels work at Christ Church in Providence, Rhode Island. On March of 1965, Daniels heard the call of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr to go to Selma, Alabama and help secure the right to vote for all citizens. Daniels would end up taking a leave of absence from seminary to go work in Alabama, having the conviction of his calling deepened by the the words of the Magnificat he heard each day at Evening Prayer. On August 14, 1965 Daniels and others had been released from jail and were walking to a general store. When they arrived they were greeted by a man with a gun. Daniels pulled sixteen-year old Ruby Sales out of the way, and in doing so was shot and killed.
Jonathan Myrick Daniels is not some person from a far off time and place. He spent most of his life living in New England, he worked in Rhode Island, and there are still people around today who knew him. Daniels reminds us of the cost of discipleship, he reminds us to make no peace with oppression; he reminds that we are called to give everything for the sake of the Gospel. And I cannot help but think of him as we are in the final days of voting in this current election cycle. If you have not voted yet, please do. Too many people died securing that right and responsibly for us to ignore it.
I could go on and on about the saints. The Church has a calendar full of them. These stories are just snapshots of the lives we celebrate today; glimpses into the life that we profess we desire when we sing, “I mean to be one too.” Maybe some day we will find ways in our liturgical life here at St. Thomas to keep these saint days throughout the year so we can be inspired to be more like them.
All Saints’ Day is the day we remember the valiant deeds of those who are the exemplars of our faith. This day is about those who gave absolutely everything, the entirety of their beings, their hearts, minds, souls, and sometimes their final breath to follow Jesus and proclaim the Gospel in word and deed.
Tomorrow, on All Souls’ Day, we will remember the blessed dead of our own lives, but today we must hold fast to saints of the Church. As we celebrate them today let us be reminded of our destiny and unity in the body of Christ which cannot be destroyed, not even by death.
From the Book of Revelation, we hear the story of those who have come out of the great ordeal. We hear, “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9, NRSV). Just as they professed with their lives, now they proclaim in one voice “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Revelation 7:10, NRSV)! After the struggles and trials and tribulations of this life, they now rejoice for all eternity sounding the throne of God. The work of their lives was a preparation for this very moment. Finally they have received their reward, and rest in that place where “they will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of live, and God will wipe away ever tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:16-17, NRSV).
The promise they now enjoy, is one that is prepared for us as well. This is the assurance to enable us to withstand all that this world will throw at us; to preserve when the forces of wickedness do everything to try to stop the work God in our midst. We too have the opportunity to dwell around the throne of God when the hour comes because we are children of God.
Today’s epistle reminds us to stop and look and pay attention to God’s abiding presence in our lives: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are” (1 John 3:1, NRSV). We have been claimed as God’s, we are heirs of the promise. Through Baptism we are marked as Christ’s own for ever, we are united with all those who have gone before; through Baptism we share in the death and resurrection of Christ, and are commissioned to follow the example of the saints from ages past. We do not know what will happen next, we do not know what lies ahead for us on our journey of faith, but “what we do know is this: when [God] is revealed, we will be like [God]” (1 John 3:2, NRSV).
We are called to be saints. That is the journey set before us, the mission we have been given, as children of God. Jesus’ inaugural sermon, which we hear Matthew’s version of today, might give us a hint to what saintly living is like.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus claims that the poor, the mournful, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure-hearted, the peaceful, and the persecuted are blessed. They are the ones whose lives are aligned with the heart and character of God. They are the ones who will enter heaven, experience comfort, inherit the earth, be filled, receive mercy, see God, and be called children of God. This is what God declares as normative. But, you and I know this is not what is seen as normative around us.
We live in a world where the loudest, strongest, wealthiest, and most privileged people prey on the less fortunate. We live in a world where greed and selfishness pay big time, while meekness, mercy, and mournfulness earn little more than contempt. We live in a world where securing my own ease and comfort is my right – no matter the impact on anyone else.
Jesus’ inaugural sermon announces that his ministry is going to topple and overturn the way things are and bring about a new normal. The establishment of this new normal is the work of God and God’s people in every time and place.
All the saints on the Church’s calendar participated in the transformational work of the Gospel. They did whatever they could to make the Kingdom of God more real than it was the day before. They used their power to help establish God’s new normal. That is what we are called to do. We are called to make God’s normal, the normal of our lives.
Let us therefore be like blessed Luke and work for the healing of the world. Let us be like blessed Margaret and capture a zeal for our faith. Let us be like blessed Martin and put down the weapons of war. Let us be like blessed Jonathan and stand up for justice in the face of violence and oppression, let us make sure everyone has the opportunity to make their voice heard, that everyone is treated as the beloved child of God that they are.
I wonder what our lives, and the lives of the world around us, would be like if we started thinking of Hymn 293, “I sing a song of the saints of God,” as a commissioning instead of a good hymn for children’s choirs. The world is filled with saints today, the question is, do we really mean to be one too?
Sermon for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost (25 October 2020). The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here
“What is love? / Oh baby, don’t hurt me / Don’t hurt me / no more” (Haddaway, “What is Love?”, 1993). The 1993 smash hit by Trinidadian-German Eurodance artist Haddaway tells in a few words the story of gut-wrenching heartache. Amidst the upbeat tempo and repetitive refrain, the artist tells of the pain when love is freely offered, yet not reciprocated. Haddaway does not answer the question that titles this song; though, a picture is painted that love requires us to be vulnerable and exposes us to the possibility of anguish and suffering.
Now that this ear worm is firmly planted in my head and maybe in yours too, let us consider that profound question which titles the song: What is love?
Discerning the nature of love is one of the most important quests we embark on as human beings. Love is one of the necessary pillars of our lives. But what exactly is it?
I can think of no word in the English language that we have reduced, deflated, and ruined more than the word love. Take a moment and think of all the times and ways this word gets used. “I love this TV show,” “I love ice cream,” “I love cozying up with a good book,” “I love you,” and so on and so forth. Do we really mean love, when we say all these things? As much as we might enjoy a good book or a delicious meal, do we really feel the same way about them as we do about our families chosen and biological? Should we really be using the same word upon which “hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40, NRSV) to describe our fondness for a television program?
How do we define love?
If you are the Oxford English Dictionary you define it as “senes relating to affection and attachment” or as “a feeling or disposition of deep affection or fondness for someone, typically arising from a recognition of attractive qualities, from natural affinity, or from sympathy and manifesting itself in concern for the other’s welfare and pleasure in his or her presence” (https://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/110566).
I do not know about you, but as fond as I am of the OED, that definition does not do anything for me. I feel like I know more about love from watching the movie The Princess Bride and hearing Miracle Max, played by Billy Crystal, say, “True love is the greatest thing in the world – except for a nice MLT – mutton, lettuce, and tomato sandwich.”
The world around us defines love in so many and varied ways that it can be used to describe our feelings about anything and everything. Our faith on the other hand, is a bit more disciplined when it comes to the concept of love.
We hear in Matthew’s Gospel another test question for Jesus. This is a further attempt to trap Jesus as the saga to build a case against him continues to unfold in these early days of Holy Week. Matthew tells us that having heard that the Sadducees were unsuccessful in trapping Jesus, the Pharisees gather together to see if they can be more successful. So “one of them, a lawyer, asked [Jesus] a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest’” (Matthew 22:35-36, NRSV).
This lawyer is asking Jesus to pick just one law out of the more than 600 laws contained in the Torah. He is asking Jesus a question with significantly more consequence than when a child asks a parent, “which child is the favorite.” I imagine members of the crowd wondering how he could even begin to answer this question. How do you pick just one law as the greatest?
As his answer, Jesus quotes Judaism’s most fundamental, ancient, and widely recited bible passage taken from the book of Deuteronomy. Jesus answers with the Shema: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your [mind]” (Deuteronomy 6:5, NRSV). Jesus declares this is the first and greatest commandment.
Not allowing himself to be manipulated or tricked Jesus adds to what he says. He does not just offer one commandment, he offers two. Jesus goes on to say, “And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:39-40, NRSV). This second commandant Jesus quotes, is not something he pulled out of thin air. He pairs the Shema with a quote from the Book of Leviticus. When asked which commandment is the greatest, Jesus answers by summarizing the entirety of the law. Jesus does not pick one answer, he picks them all.
In this exchange at the end of Jesus’ earthly life, Matthew takes us back to the very beginning of his teaching ministry. In the midst of what is arguably the most beloved sermon of all time, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17, NRSV). In Jesus’ response to this last question he not only summarizes the law, he summarizes what his ministry and mission is all about: Love God; love your neighbor. Everything that matters in the entirety of this world, hangs on these two commandments. Everything that matters hangs on this one single word: love.
It seems to me that if everything in the world hangs on love, than maybe we need to expand our vocabulary a bit and come up with other words to describe our affections and passion for food and popular culture.
Shaped as we are by our contemporary society, we tend to think of love as a feeling. Blogger Debie Thomas describes this feeling as, “a spontaneous and free-flowing feeling that arises out of our own enjoyment, our own sense of kinship and affinity” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, “The Greatest Commandments,” https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2792). But that is not how Jesus defines love. Jesus defines love as a commandment, the greatest commandment, and last time I checked, we cannot manufacture feelings on command.
Love is not a matter of personal affinity, feeling, or preference. Love is about obedience to the one we call “Lord.” Love is not a feeling. Love is a way of life.
If Jesus’ answer to today’s question is the recapitulation of his ministry, than we can look back on his example to see what love as a way of life is all about. Biblical love, Jesus’ love, is about being vulnerable, it is about trust, it is about breaking down barriers and margins. It takes time, effort, discipline, and transformation. Love means going to places and interacting with people that society tells us to ignore and avoid. Love means being willing to give of ourselves for the safety and wellbeing of others – even if that comes at a great cost to us and our privilege. Love requires urgency and action. It requires that we practice and cultivate a depth of compassion that’s gut-punching. The love upon which hangs all the law and the prophets requires that we train ourselves to hunger for justice so fiercely that we rearrange our lives in order to purse it.
We are called to love the way God loves: indiscriminately, unabashedly, and with absolutely every fiber of our being. We are to love God with all that we have and all that we are, and we are to love our neighbors the exact same way.
This morning, paired with this lesson on the greatest commandment from Matthew, we hear from the Book of Leviticus the very words that Jesus quotes.
Chapter 19 of the Book of Leviticus, is the climax chapter of the book. It is the one most often quoted and read (Torah Commentary, 889). This is a section all about the holiness of life. But this holiness is not about individuals, it is addressed to the entire community of Israel. This is not personal, it is communal.
These are instructions for how a community is to live together. These are instructions about how God’s people are to live in response to their relationship with God. Notice the number of times in today’s passage humanity’s call is connected to God: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy,” “You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD,” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18, NRSV). Everything the community is to do is done out of obedience to God, it is all rooted in love of God, it is this response to God’s love and generosity towards us. We live in this way because God requires it of us. Or to put in the words of one of the prophets, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8, NRSV).
What is love? As St. Paul writes, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8, NRSV). By the way, despite its popularity at weddings, these words are not about the love shared between two people. These words, much like the words from Leviticus, describe how a community established upon the love of God is to live together.
Love is the very nature of God. Love is the way that Jesus trod. Love is the way we are invited to follow.
Love, true love, is the greatest thing in the whole word. Jesus tells us the summation of the entirety of the law mere days before he demonstrates what love looks like in action. For the way of love that Jesus walks ahead of us, is way that forces us to confront the very worst of humanity. The way of love goes directly to the heart of Good Friday.
On that most solemn of days God takes the very worst that humanity can do, God takes a means of shameful death, and transforms it into the most amazing source of life for the entirety of creation. As Jesus hangs on the cross, the cruciform light of love covers the whole world. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16. NRSV).
That, my friends, is the very definition of love, and we are called to do likewise. We are called to nothing less than to love the way that God loves. For our lives are to be a mirror of the love we have received from God, a mirror reflection love out on the world.
My personal hero and greatest influence for ministry, George Herbert, that great 16th-17th century English priest and poet, captures rather profoundly the nature of divine love in his poem “Love (III)” which also happens to be the text for one of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Five Mystical Songs.”
Love bade we welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d anything.
A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
There is absolutely nothing we can to do, no merit great enough, to earn God’s love. Some might even argue that we, in our sinfulness, are not deserving of God’s love. Sometimes we might even wonder if we are worthy of it: for love bade us welcome, yet our souls drew back. But the beauty, the power, the grace of God’s love, is that God takes our hand, God smiles at our reluctance and any sense of unworthiness we have, and says none of that matters. God draws near to us and says please accept this most ultimate gift, the gift of my love.
When we are commanded to love God with all our mind, soul, and strength; when we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves; we are commanded to love like this: to love God and our neighbor no matter the cost. There is nothing sentimental about this love. This is not some fleeting feeling, it is the firm foundation upon which we stand.
Jesus has answered all of the questions set before him, now it is time for us to submit our answers. How will we live in accordance with the greatest commandment? How will we love God and our neighbor today?
Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (18 October 2020). The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here
The Tribute Money (c. 1610-1615) by Peter Paul Rubens, Legion of Honor, San Francisco. Public Domain.
If upon hearing today’s Gospel passage you were hoping to find biblical warrant and precedent to not pay your taxes, I have some bad news for you. I am sorry to say that when you go to pay your taxes next year, you cannot claim the Bible as some massive exemption to get out of paying your tax bill.
In truth, the heart of this passage, has little to do with our connection to political and governmental entities. The lesson in this passage, what we are supposed to take away, is this: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21, NRSV). Even more specifically, it is important that we focus in on the second half of that quote. For what matters most, is that we give to God the things that are God’s.
Obviously this begs the question – what things are God’s? How do we distinguish God’s things from the things of others – say, for instance, just off the top of my head – the things that are the emperor’s. Well here is a hint, the answer to that questions requires that we look back – that we look way back.
But before we get to the answer, we have to look at the question.
For the last several weeks we have been hearing Matthew’s account of the early events of Holy Week. Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he has cleansed the temple, and has told three parables of judgement illustrating that the religious leaders have failed to see the new thing God is doing in their midst.
To say that the religious leaders are less than thrilled with what Jesus has been up to, would be an understatement. Matthew makes clear throughout the three parables of judgment, the parables we have heard over the last three weeks, that the religious authorities desire to arrest Jesus. After the second parable Matthew tells us, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.” (Matthew 22:45-46, NRSV). But, after a third parable of judgment, the religious leaders have had enough. We enter the story today by hearing, “Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.” (Matthew 22:15, NRSV).
Matthew sets up for us that anything else these religious leaders ask should be viewed through the lens of their nefarious intent. This next stretch of engagement between Jesus and the religious authorities is often described by scholars as “controversy dialogues.” In these exchanges the dialogue partners vie for honor through conversational combat. As one commentary puts it, “These exchanges are more than mere dialogues; they are duels: the speakers thrust, deflect, counter-thrust. This is a war of words” (https://yalebiblestudy.org/courses/the-gospel-of-matthew/lessons/stories-of-the-end-study-guide/). In this verbal skirmish Jesus begins with a defensive posture.
In setting up their question, the Pharisees address Jesus with mocking, insincere, “compliments.” They are attempting to use flattery to trick him. They attempt to use one of his own techniques and favorite questions against him. They ask, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one, for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us then, what do you think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (22:16-17).
In a not so surprising turn of events, Jesus does not fall for their trap. Jesus knows their intentions are sinister. Their very identity tips their hand.
While little is known about the Herodians, their name suggests that they were a secular political party that supported the rule of Herod the Great. One commentary points out that they were, “supporters of Herod and his successors as puppet kings, appointed by Rome” (The Cambridge Annotated Study Bible). These were pro-Roman supporters with approval of the empire. The Pharisees, on the other hand, have a bit more complicated relationship with the Roman empire. They resented the Roman occupation, but accepted it as a necessary evil. They advocated for submission to Roman rule as long as that did not interfere with their religious practices. So bottom line, these two groups come together, with varying degrees of pro-Roman support. Jesus would have known all this, thus allowing him to see right through their trickery.
As this verbal skirmish goes on, Jesus answers the questions of the Pharisees and the Herodians on his own terms. He asks for the coin used to pay the tax, and one is provided. This Roman currency bears the image and title of the emperor, as the crowd easily identifies.
Then, Jesus offers an ambiguous “both-and” sort of answer: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (22:21). As Debie Thomas writes, “How typical of Jesus – not only to respond to a challenge with an even greater challenge, but to insist that the relationship between faith and politics is too complex to reduce to platitude – or tweets.” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, “What belongs to God” https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2787).
So there, in all its ambiguous glory, is Jesus’ answer to the question presented him today. He does not give a simple yes or no answer to the question of taxation. And, it is important to note what Jesus does not say. He does not say that there are two distinct realms, one secular and one religious, that require equal respect and fidelity from us.
What Jesus says is far more complicated than that. The coin is already the emperor’s, so give it to him. We must also give to God that which is already God’s. Jesus’ answer begs a much harder question: What belongs to God?
Earlier in this sermon, I offered a hint as to the answer to this question. I said that we have to look back, way back, to find the answer. I wonder if you have figured it out what I was referring to?
I wonder if these words sound familiar: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1, NRSV). Or how about these, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (Genesis 1:26, NRSV).
From the very beginning of Scripture, from the literal first words of the Bible, it is clear that everything belongs to God. In the creation account recalled in the first chapter of Genesis we are told that humanity is created in the image of God. So if a coin which bears the likeness of the emperor belongs to the emperor, than each and every human being belongs to God for we bear God’s likeness.
God has stamped us, and all of creation, from the very beginning. By virtue of our Baptism we have been “marked as Christ’s own for ever” (BCP p.308). Therefore, if we are to give to God the things that are God’s we must give God everything. We owe God the entirety of ourselves. We cannot indulge the fantasy that somehow we can divide the secular from the sacred. We cannot separate Caesar’s realm from God’s realm when everything – without exception – belongs to God. For “we believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen” (Nicene Creed, BCP p. 358).
Giving God the things which are God’s requires that we offer God unparalleled devotion for we have been commanded to love God will all our heart, and soul, and mind (Matthew 22:37, NRSV). Or, in the words of my favorite Eucharistic prayer, “here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee” (The Book of Common Prayer, 336). We owe God nothing less than the absolute fullness and totality of who we are.
The Scriptural record supports the supremacy of God over all else.
Today we hear the psalmist declare, “As for the gods of the nations, they are but idols; but it is the Lord who made the heavens” (Psalm 96:5, BCP). And from the Book of Isaiah we hear, “I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:4-6, NRSV).
There is no power in heaven, on earth, or under the earth that surpasses the power of God. There is one Lord, one God, besides whom there is no other.
So let us give God the glory. Let us “Ascribe to the Lord, you families of the peoples; ascribe to the Lord honor and power” (Psalm 96:7, BCP).
But besides worshipping “the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Psalm 96:9, BCP), what does it mean to give to God the things which are God’s? How do we bear forth God’s image while our families, communities, and churches splinter over political and cultural differences that seem unbridgeable? How do we live into the all-encompassing reign of God while a scorched-earth, ideology-driven, “the end justifies the means” divisiveness reigns within American Christendom?
We must recognize that we are to see all people as beloved Children of God. We must recognize that all people are loved and claimed by God and we must treat them accordingly. We must “seek and serve Christ in all persons” and love our neighbors as ourselves (The Book of Common Prayer, 305). We must love as God loves. Extending care and compassion to all. That means we cannot demonize, vilify, or hate those who are different from us. It seems that every day we are assaulted by images of hate, and there is no lack of encouragement to have disdain for those who disagree with us on the political, theological, ideological, and every other divide. As a nation we are divided, anguished, bruised, and broken. We are in the midst of a bitter time, and seem to be on the brink of existential crisis. We give to God the things that are God’s, by not succumbing to the hate filled temptation around us. We give to God the things that are God’s, by making God’s love incarnate in our time.
This is what it looks like to offer God the entirety of ourselves right now. We wear masks and practice social distancing. We offer care, support, and compassion to the sick, the friendless, and the needy. We find pandemic appropriate ways to carry out our outreach ministries. We check in on others and offer to help shoulder the burdens of life so no one has to carry the weight alone. We give of our resources – our time, talent, and treasure – to our parish and to ministries and organizations that support the work of God in the world. We educate ourselves and fully participate in the civic life of our communities and our nation. We vote faithfully and get souls to the polls. We actively engage in anti-racist work and the dismantling of white supremacy. We demand justice for those to whom justice has long been denied. We pray without ceasing, we unabashedly proclaim the Good News of God, and we present ourselves fully to God always listening and discerning to what God is calling us to do in this time and place. We give God that which is God’s when we claim our God given identity and live as who we truly are – bearers of God’s image, bearers of God’s light in a dark and hurting world.
Jesus’ declaration today not only demands much from us, it also offers a word of comfort. If everything belongs to God, then everything is under God’s authority. That means that the challenges of this pandemic, this election season, the economic uncertainty, the rampant bigotry, hatred, violence, racism, sexism, heterosexism and homophobia, cisgenderism and transphobia, classism, and ableism will not have the last word. The rulers of this world, the powers and principalities of the kingdom of earth, will pass away. One day God’s love will reign supreme. One day the Kingdom of God will be fully released.
Until that day, let us hold fast to the love of God. Until that day, let us persevere in resisting evil and all the spiritual forces of wickedness. Until that day, let us faithfully commit ourselves once more to giving all that we have and all that we are to God.
Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (11 October 2020). The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here
Parable of the Great Banquet by Brunswick Monogrammist (circa 1525), location: National Museum, Warsaw. Public Domain.
For the past two Sundays we have been sitting with Jesus in the final days of his earthly life. Beginning two weeks ago, we heard the encounter Jesus had with the religious leaders, with the chief priests and the elders of the people, on the day we now call Monday in Holy Week. In this encounter the religious establishment challenges Jesus on the source of his authority. They want to know who gave him the power to do all that he is doing. They want to know who does he think he is, challenging the status quo and upsetting the delicate balance of, “we’ve always done it this way.”
So the leaders ask him, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority” (Matthew21:23, NRSV)? The leaders are effectively asking, “Who do you think you are?” All that we have heard two weeks ago, last week, and today begins with this question. This a very loaded question, meant to trap Jesus and fuel the fire of the case mounting against him. For the people asking this question will be the same people who find Jesus guilty and sentence him to death.
Instead of answering the question about authority, Jesus poses a question of his own. He asks the religious leaders about John the Baptist, and if John’s ministry has come from God or humanity. In the same way the religious leaders are trying to trap Jesus, this question sets them up. From where they sit there is no right answer, so instead they hedge their bets and feign ignorance. Jesus then replies, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things” (Matthew 21:27b, NRSV).
In other times in the Gospel narrative Jesus uses moments such as this as occasions of evangelism. But here, maybe recognizing the hour has come, Jesus chooses words of judgment instead. He immediately launches into three parables, one right after the other.
After the second parable, the one we heard last Sunday, the religious leaders pick up on what Jesus is doing. After the second parable it all starts to click, and they realize Jesus is speaking about them.
In these parables, Jesus is pronouncing judgment on those who question the authority of God. Jesus is pronouncing judgment on those who refuse to see the new thing God is doing in the world. Jesus is pronouncing judgment on those who have claimed power and authority over others, on those who have demonized people on the margins and fringes of society, on those who claim a false sense of moral superiority over their neighbors. Those whom Jesus pronounces judgment upon, will have to sit back and watch all those they have labeled as outsiders, all those they have labeled as unworthy, enter the Kingdom of God ahead of them.
Today’s Gospel passage begins, “Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables” (Matthew 22:1, NRSV). I wonder if those who have followed Jesus into Jerusalem and hear him say, “The Kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son” (Matthew 22:2, NRSV), think to themselves, “here it comes, Jesus is really going to give it to them now.”
We would be wise to always be mindful of those moments when we find ourselves thinking such thoughts. For as this parable of the wedding banquet makes clear, no one gets off the hook easy with Jesus.
New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, in the introduction to her book Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi talks about the power of parables for us today. She writes:
What makes the parables mysterious, or difficult, is that they challenge us to look into the hidden aspects of our own values, our own lives. They bring to the surface unasked questions, and they reveal the answers we have always known, but refuse to acknowledge. Our reaction to them should be one of resistance rather than acceptance. For our own comfort, we may want to foreclose the meaning rather than allow the parable to open into multiple interpretations. We are probably more comfortable proclaiming a creed than prompting a conversation or pursuing a call.
Religion has been defined as designed to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. We do well to think of the parables of Jesus as doing the afflicting. Therefore, if we hear a parable and think, “I really like that” or, worse, fail to take any challenge, we are not listening well enough (Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: HarperOne 2014), 3).
I often find myself wondering, to use Levine’s words, if we listen well enough to Jesus’ parables. I wonder if we open ourselves to these teachings in a way that allows them to become more than beloved stories to adorn children’s bibles. I wonder what happens when we approach this parable – the parable of the wedding banquet – with eyes, and ears, and minds, and hearts wide open.
In this parable, the king gives a wedding banquet for his son. When the preparations have been made, and all is ready, the king sends his slaves out to gather those who have been invited, but they do not come. A second time the king sends out his slaves, giving them a message to tell the invited guests, but they still do not come. Some guests go off indifferent to the invitation, and others capture the slaves, brutally mistreat them, and kill them. Just like in the parable of the wicked tenants the messengers in this parable are violently rejected, but whereas in the previous parable the judgment for those actions is merely predicted, here it is part of the story.
The king is enraged by the behavior of the invited guests, and therefore sends his army to destroy their city. There are some who say this part of the story is a latter addition. But as Douglas R. A. Hare points out, “the narrative makes more sense if they are omitted. How bizarre to conduct a war while the roasted oxen wait to be eaten” (Douglas R. A. Hare, Interpretations: Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 251)! While this seems to be an odd narrative note, and does not make sense in the story, it is part of the allegorical nature of these parables. It is part of the message that there are consequences for rejecting the messages of God.
As much as we might wish to soften this parable, as much as we might be tempted to gloss over this part of the story and skip to the end, we cannot do that. This is a harsh, hyperbolic story, steeped in violence. There is a danger of trying to smooth out the ragged edges of what Jesus has to say.
For centuries in an attempt to sanitize this message, and make it more palatable for Christians to hear, we have neatly put all of the characters in boxes that fit our agendas. As Debie Thomas writes of this interpretive strategy:
There is no question about it; this is a convenient interpretation. For us, I mean. No discomfort or affliction to speak of – just one heck of a party. What could be better? The snobs who renege on their RSVPs get their comeuppance – they die – but we who have the good sense to say “yes” to the king end up snug and cosy in his palace, feasting on wine and caviar while the world burns. (Debie Thomas, “The God Who Isn’t.” Journey with Jesus. https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2777.
It is a dangerous thing for us to view all of these parables in a way that makes the Jewish leadership the villains and the followers of Jesus the heroes. It is dangerous because that attitude has lead to centuries of anti-Semitism, of violence against the Jewish community, all in the name of Christ.
We cannot become comfortable and complacent with these parables of judgment for lives are indeed on the line both in this life and the life to come. It is not our place to judge others, that power belongs to God and God along. For if we start condemning others, how are we behaving any differently than the behavior Jesus condemns in these stories. When we start consigning people to enteral punishment and damnation we are attempting to usurp God’s power, claiming it as our own, and blinding ourselves to how God is actually working in the world.
We cannot skip over the violence in this parable, because of all the violence and hatred Christianity has birthed into the world from generations of interpretive softening of this text and others like it.
If we are tempted to become too comfortable with our inherited interpretations, if we are tempted to share in the violent judgment of declaring who the invited guests represent, then this final installment of the Monday in Holy Week trilogy of parables has a message for those of us sitting comfortably at the wedding banquet.
While not the original guest list, the wedding hall is finally filled. The king is walking around seeing all the people there, and he notices one guest improperly dressed. The king says to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe” (Matthew 22:12, NRSV)? The man was speechless. “Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:13-14, NRSV).
This is a reminder to all who follow Jesus that we are by no means exempt from the judgment that fell on those who rejected Jesus and the gospel. This warning comes lest we get too comfortable with seeing the judgment of others as our justification. Following Jesus is about more than just saying the right things and showing up occasionally. Following Jesus is about living our lives in a very particular way – it is about conforming our lives to the teachings of Jesus.
Instead of seeing this parable as some sort of transfer of status from the Jewish community to the followers of Jesus, we should see this as a lesson about the age to come. The required garment is not about messing up on party dress code – it is not showing up in a suit when black tie was required, the required garment is righteousness – it is how we live our lives. The man who is cast out of the banquet is cast out because he accepted the invitation but refused to conform his life to the gospel.
There are consequences for our actions, and no one is exempt from the judgment of God. We must therefore be mindful of what we have clothed ourselves with. Are we clothed with Christ, or with the world? For what we put on, determines our place at the table.
This banquet imagery representing the fullness of God’s kingdom, representing the age to come, is also found in our reading from Isaiah and in the Psalm appointed for today. The prophet Isaiah declares, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-ages wines strained clear” (Isaiah 25:6, NRSV). At this amazingly stunning and sumptuous banquet God will fulfill God’s promises, “he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25:7-8, NRSV).
Then we hear the Psalmist say, “You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over. Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever” (Psalm 23:5-6, BCP). This most beloved Psalm reminds us of the banquet that awaits, that allows us to trust there is nothing for us to fear for God is with us to comfort, and guide, and protect us.
The comfort and promises afforded us in these readings assure us that we have nothing to fear, especially in death, as God is with us always. It is for this reason that these two lessons are appointed for the use at funerals. What that liturgy and our faith remind us, is that as we have been united to Christ in our Baptism and share in his death we will also share in his resurrection as well – “for to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended” (The Book of Common Prayer, “Preface: Commemoration of the Dead II,” 382).
If we are intentional about how we clothe ourselves, if we put on Christ, if we hold on to that garment of righteousness, if we persevere through the difficult task of fighting our human impulses and desires, if we refuse to wear the garments of this world, then by the gift offered to us in God’s grace, we will dine at the wedding banquet. If we “keep on doing the things that [we] have learned and received and heard and seen” (Philippians 4:9, NRSV) through the prophets, apostles, martyrs, and all those who stand in that great cloud of witness who have gone before, then we will be prepared for the heavenly feast of God. We will be on that mountain top where “sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting” (The Book of Common Prayer, “The Commendation,” 499).
Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (4 October 2020). The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here
If we were not currently in the midst of a pandemic, and were able to gather together in person, today would be a day of particular note. During the 10 o’clock service this morning our voices of prayer would be amplified by barks and meows and chirps of praise. Today would be that one day a year where our animal companions great and small would have the opportunity to join us for worship. For today we celebrate the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, that late 12th century – early 13th century Italian monk and patron saint of animals.
Francis’ reputation is well deserved as he had a robust theology of creation. In the few writings we have of Francis’ we learn that he believed that all living things – plants, animals, humans – were meant to be in relationship with one another and in relationship with God. In his writing known as “Canticle of brother Sun and sister Moon,” Francis makes clear that the way creation praises God best is by living fully into who God has created it to be. Francis whole heartedly believed that we praise God best when we are being the authentic and full versions of our selves. God is best praised when dogs be the best dogs they can be, and cats the best cats they can be, and horses the best horses they can be, and fish the best fish they can be, and us the best people we can be. God is best praised when we recognize our interconnectedness with all of creation and live in harmony together.
This is why on this day, in non-pandemic times, we gather with our furry and not so furry friends to recognize and celebrate the relationship between creation and humanity and pledge to care for and support each other.
In one biography of Francis, it is written, “Of all the saints, Francis is the most popular and admired, but probably the least imitated” (Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006, p. 404). It seems to me this is because it is easy for us to love our pets, but far more challenging to follow the full example of blessed Francis.
Francis grew up in the aristocratic class in Italy. He had everything, all that he could desire, the best that money could buy. His early years were spent in harmless revelry and fruitless attempts to win military glory. As he got older, Francis began to notice the people living in poverty around him. The encounters he had with beggars and lepers heightened his awareness and planted seeds of conversion.
One day Francis was sitting in the local church, a building that was literally crumbling, and he heard a voice – a voice he understood to be God’s. The voiced called out to him, “Francis, fix my church.” Francis heard these words and took them literally. He went off to his father’s warehouse, took a massive bundle of silk, sold it, and used the proceeds from the sale to fix the church. What an amazing response to the call of God.
Francis’ father was less than thrilled with his son’s generosity. The two end up in an intense argument in the middle of town. Here is where those seeds of conversion planted by witnessing the suffering of others come to harvest.
The story goes that Francis, when confronted by his father, disowns his family, throws his purse at his father’s feet, and even takes off all of his clothes and throws them at his father before walking away completely naked. Francis strips everything away, quite literally, that put a barrier between him and God.
From that moment of conversion, Francis goes on to found an order of Friars to live a life of extreme poverty focused on caring for everyone society places on the margins. He cared for the poor. He cared for the lepers – he bandaged their wounds, ate with them, kissed them. He does what no one else is willing to do.
In time, the monastic order grows and expands, they start to get a bit too fancy for Francis’ taste, they start to actually own things, and few are willing to live the life of extreme poverty that Francis tried to cultivate in the community. So Francis leaves the order and goes on to live this call to strip away everything for the sake of the Gospel.
Francis travels to Jerusalem in the midst of the crusades to try to bring about peace. He built relationships with the Muslim community, they came to trust him and admire him for his dedication to his faith. He got them to agree to a ceasefire. But unfortunately, Francis could not get the Christians to do the same.
In every aspect of his life, beginning with that conversion moment on the street, Francis takes bold and daring action to embody what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Francis lives fully into who God has created and called him to be.
I do not think anyone would suggest that what Francis did, how he lived his life, was easy. I do not know about you, but I am not getting on a plane anytime soon to try to single handedly broker a peace deal in the Middle East; nor am I keen on the idea of selling all my possessions and living in extreme poverty. As much as I want to say, well that is why Francis is a saint and I am not, the scripture appointed for today makes clear that is not a distinction worth holding on to.
The lessons we hear this morning are the lessons appointed for this Sunday, not the lessons appointed for the feast of St. Francis. Even so, these lessons compliment Francis’ life rather well.
The model we witness in Francis’ life, the words we hear from Paul in his letter to the Philippians, and the image of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, remind us that if we truly want to be in that most intimate relationship with God, then we have to set aside everything else.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul is using an important rhetorical devise to make his point. To modern ears it sounds like Paul is bragging or being arrogant, but that is not what he is doing. In the minds of first century hearers, Paul’s personal story authenticated his message and gave his voice authority. They would have heard his passion, and recognized that he knows what he is talking about because he has lived it.
Paul achieved great status in his life prior to his conversion – he was in a place of great privilege. After enumerating his accomplishments he goes on to say, “yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:7-8, NRSV).
Paul articulates here, what Francis literally did in the street with his father. Paul casts off every achievement he had, every marker of privilege he was given, because those amount to nothing, they do not even begin to compare to the treasurer that is relationship with God.
When we celebrate people like blessed Francis. When we place statues of him in our yards, or take his feast day as an occasion to give thanks for our animal companions, we must also hold on to the fullness of Francis’ life and witness. We must refuse to look a way from Francis’ embodiment of Paul’s words to the Philippians. Because what Paul and Francis have in common is this: The very foundation of their lives, the cornerstones upon which their identities are built, is Jesus.
In today’s Gospel passage from Matthew, we hear another parable – the parable of the wicked tenants. This is the second parable in a set of three that rebuke the chief priests, the elders of the people, and the Pharisees for not recognizing the new thing God is doing in their midst.
At the end of the parable Jesus asks this question, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants” (Matthew 21:40, NRSV)? The religious leaders answer, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time” (Matthew 21:41, NRSV).
Jesus goes on, using Scripture they will undoubtedly know, though he asks if they have read it, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Matthew 21:42, NRSV). The leaders get exactly what Jesus has said. They realize he is speaking about them – that they are the wicked tenants. Jesus is clear. Those who do not recognize the new thing God is doing, those who reject God’s work in the world, will miss out on the amazing benefits of being participants in the vineyard – participants in the kingdom of God.
Building upon the first parable in this set, Jesus declares that status means nothings, that authority bestowed by humanity does not compare to the authority of God. As the chief priests, and the elders of the people, and the Pharisees build their case against Jesus; Jesus builds his case that when you refuse to see the new thing God is doing, when you reject the invitation to conversion of life, then you must prepare to face the consequences.
As the beloved hymn, and postlude for today, reminds us, “Christ is made the sure foundation, Christ the head and cornerstone” (The Hymnal 1982, Hymn 518 v. 1). When we build our lives upon the foundation of God. When we rid ourselves of every barrier, when we forsake the privilege society places upon us, when we count as loss the achievements we think we have earned ourselves, we recognize that the true calling, the true prize, the true thing worth striving for, is the wholly gratuitous gift of relationship with God and the unimaginable life that follows.
In this moment in our life together, we need a whole lot more Francis’ in our midst. And, as nice as it would be, I am not talking about selling some possession to donate the funds needed to restore our building. Though, I will not object if someone does.
We live in an age where society tells us that we must have the new and latest things, where it is a grave faux pas to be caught with last seasons fashion trends or anything short of the latest generation technology. Greed is lauded as a virtue instead of the sin we know it to be. When the world says more, Francis reminds us of our call to less.
Our world is plagued by a global health pandemic. In the United States alone over 7.3 million people have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, members of our own community have tested positive. Each day the death toll rises, precious lives lost, as we pray – as we hope – that those currently fighting will not be added to that number. Francis reminds us that it is our duty to care for the sick, the friendless, and the needy. Francis reminds us, that it is our responsibility to care for those in need – especially the ones society casts off. We must constantly be discerning and acting how God is calling us in this moment to do what others refuse to do, making sure that our neighbors in need have the food and medical care and access they need not only to survive but to thrive.
We all suffer from our national sin of white supremacy and systemic racism and violence. Francis risked his own life to travel to a distant land to try to broker peace. We do not need to go far to be brokers of peace and justice ourselves. If we truly want all lives to matter, and I believe that they do, then we have some very serious work ahead to make all truly mean all. People of color are in crisis in our nation – they bear the scars and wounds of centuries of justice denied. How can we say all lives matter when there is no justice for Breonna Taylor and so many whose names are unknown to us? Let us be imitator of Francis, let us be imitator of Christ, and go stand side by side with those fighting for their lives – let us use our privilege in a way that benefits those who do not look, and think, and act, and believe like us.
The favorite part of Francis’ story is his love for creation. I wonder what Francis would say about humanity’s relationship with creation today? Be it those examples of inhumane factory farming to the blatant disregard for this fragile earth our island home. The extreme storms and unrelenting wildfires cry out to us as we teeter on the brink of ecological catastrophe. What do our actions say about the value we place on our relationship with creation? How do our actions prohibit the creation from being the best it can be? How do our actions stifle and silence the prayers and praise of God?
I wonder what the world, what our nation, what our communities would look like if St. Francis was not only the most popular and admired saint, but the most imitated as well?
The seeds of our conversion have been planted, and it is time for them to be harvested. It is my prayer that individually and collectively we can all be a bit more like Francis. That we will take up our role as workers in the vineyard of God. I do not have all the answers about how we do this, but I trust that together we can discern God’s call for our community.
Our patron, blessed Thomas, once inquired of Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way” (John 14:5, NRSV)? To this Jesus answered, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6, NRSV).
This, my friends, is our cornerstone. This is what we must build our lives upon. This is the Lord’s doing. May it be amazing in our eyes.
Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (27 September 2020). The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here
One of the things that really grinds my gears is when people get written off, labeled as outsiders, deemed unworthy of respect and love because of where they live, what they believe, who they love, or how they understand the world working around them. It drives me nuts to hear people summarily dismissed because of things like living in a part of the state the is deemed too conservative or too liberal, or for holding particular liturgical and theological points of view – people dismissed for being in an opposite place from the one doing the dismissing.
We see this constantly in our civic arena. I have a hard time thinking of any major political leader, regardless of party, this is standing on a platform of ideas and a model of governance, instead of one built upon the “we are not them” argument.
We see this in the ways we talk about the communities in our state. In my own life I have come to recognize that I describe where I live differently depending on whom I am speaking to. For some I have no problem saying, I live off of Camp Street in Providence, while for others I know it is safer to say I live off of Hope Street. It is true that I live between those two streets, and I know there are some who will take me more seriously if they think I live at the top of the hill as opposed to the bottom.
Similarly, our parish sits in a region of the state that some dismiss without even getting the chance to know it. All because northwest Rhode Island leans more to the conservative side of the political spectrum. This is not okay, and I know I am not alone in being angered by the way our communities get written off.
Unfortunately, we see this too in the Church. Too quickly we write each other off for where we stand on the liturgical and theological spectrum. Too often I have been dismissed as a “traditionalist” who spends too much time reading early church theology, and too often I have done the same to those who occupy a different place in our Anglican heritage.
As humanity we do a really good job of labeling who is in and who is out. As humanity we do a really good job of determining who is in the know, and who is clueless. And isn’t it interesting that the people who are in, the people in the know, are always the people who agree with us?
We are really good at being human – about creating narratives that put ourselves in superior places over those who disagree with us. Thanks be to God, that we have God to open our eyes to a more expansive world view. One way this happens is through questions.
We hear God asking questions of the Prophets, and Prophets questioning God back. We hear God’s people crying out why, and God asking why in return. The disciples are constantly asking questions. Our own parish patron, is brilliant at it. Throughout John’s Gospel blessed Thomas asks the questions no one else is brave enough to ask, questions that often lead to Jesus revealing something powerful about himself.
Jesus too is no stranger to questions. Jesus is constantly asking questions of those around him. And unlike the questions that we are most likely to ask, Jesus’ questions are seldom about right answers. Jesus’ questions are about calling his followers and his hearers to be transformed. The Gospel passage we have this morning is a prime example of this.
Matthew tells us that Jesus has entered the temple. This is not just any casual trip to the temple. This arrival happens right after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem – this is after the day we now call Palm Sunday.
Upon Jesus’ arrival, after the coats and palms are scattered on the road before him, after the shouts of Hosanna, a few things happen. First, Jesus cleanses the temple. Jesus goes into the temple and turns over the tables of the money changers. Jesus declares, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers” (Matthew 21:13, NRSV). After this, on the evening of that Palm Sunday, Jesus heads out to Bethany the village of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, to spend the night. The next morning, on the day we now call the Monday in Holy Week, Jesus heads back to the city. On his way he see a fig tree but discovers that nothing is on it, and he curses the tree. The fig tree instantly withers and dies.
So when Jesus enters the temple that morning, the chief priest and the elders of the people, knowing all that has transpired in the last twenty-four hours say to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority” (Matthew 21:23, NRSV)? This is the question that opens our Gospel passage today. But let’s be clear there is a very particular motivation behind this question. This is not one of those times where someone is amazed and transformed by something Jesus has done, so much so that they want to know who he is so they can follow him and become his disciple. This is a question meant to trap Jesus. This is an ominous question as it is posed by the very people who will constitute the court that will sentence him to death.
As these leaders build a case against Jesus they want to know the nature of the authority he has, and they want to know if it comes from God, Satan, or if it comes from himself. This is an exercise in legitimacy. This is an exercise meant to maintain the authority of the leaders, and trap this country rabbi, stopping him in his tracks.
Jesus does not fall for it. Not only does he refuse to take the bait, he does not seize this as an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel. As Douglass R. A. Hare writes, “The hour is too late for evangelism” (Hare, Interpretations: Matthew, p.246). The case against Jesus is being built, the next time they encounter each other will be at Jesus’ trial, so Jesus uses three parables to pronounce judgment against these leaders. We hear one of those parables today, and we will hear the others in the weeks ahead.
The parable we hear this morning, the parable of the two sons, is only found in Matthew’s Gospel. In it Jesus asks: “‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first’” (Matthew 21:28-31a, NRSV).
It appears that the chief priests and the elders of the people answer this question fairly easily. Obviously the one who did the will of their father is the one who actually went out and did the work regardless of what they said. It is clear saying is not the same as doing.
Then, “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him”(Matthew 21:31b-32, NRSV).
Jesus makes clear – actions speak louder than words. It does not matter if you say all the right things, it matters what you do, it matters how you live.
These questions that Jesus asks are meant to make his hearers then and now stop and think. Are we quick to say one thing and then do the other? Are we quick to say things that appease, and then turn around and do something else? Or are we quick to change our minds and do what is asked of us?
According to this parable, those who are seemingly “in the know” are not the ones who are doing the will of God. The question at the heart of the story does not seem centered on what is the will of God, but on the deeper question of who belongs in God’s kingdom.
Jesus’ words after the parable sound incredibly harsh to the chief priests and the elders of the people because according to the worldview they have constructed they should be the first to enter the kingdom of God, and those others – those tax collectors and prostitutes – should be left out. But Jesus declares that those the leaders deem as outsiders are the true insiders. They are the ones that recognized God’s work in the world, they are the one’s that followed. They are the ones who recognized their need, and ran after God. They are the ones who flocked to the wilderness and repented in the waters of baptism that John prepared to make way for the coming Messiah of God.
These leaders – these chief priests and elders of the people – saw all this happen. They saw and heard of everything John did and Jesus was doing, and still refused to change their minds. They were set in their ways, closed off to transformation, and therefore they will watch those at the bottom of their hierarchical creation enter God’s kingdom ahead of them.
We would be wise to heed this warning. We would be wise to pay attention to the distortions of the hierarchies we create that determine who is in and who is out, and look instead for those who are leading the way in running towards God. Who are the leaders showing what it means to name the needs, the brokenness, the helplessness we all have that can only be restored by the loving embrace of God? We would be wise to recognize that the ones we have cast aside because of where they live, who they vote for, or what and how they believe might be entering the kingdom of God before us.
The question Jesus asks us today is, “having seen all this, are you willing to change your mind?” Jesus asks us, “are you willing to be transformed, to give up your understandings of who is worthy, and right, and deserving and take on my understandings as your own?”
In his letter to the Philippians Paul writes, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5, NRSV). Paul is writing about the true source of authority and power. One of the radical ideas that Paul sets fourth, one that the secular and religious authorities found objectionable, is that the source of power comes from God, not from the principalities of this world. Paul reminds us that Jesus takes the powers structures of this world, Jesus takes the hierarchies we create and turns them on their head.
True power comes from how we treat one another. True power comes from how we live into the work we have been given to do. True power comes from our willingness to put our own egos aside and live in full service to others.
This passage from Philippians contains a brilliant hymn that conveys the central paradox of Christianity and our life of discipleship – that humility leads to exaltation. Paul writes:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11, NRSV).
Where does our power and authority come from? It comes from stepping away the false authority and power that we have claimed for ourselves at the expense of others. It comes from taking on the humility of the Messiah who came into this world “not to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28, NRSV). It comes from recognizing that there is only one authority and hierarchy that matters – God’s. The authority and power that focuses on setting people free, that is rooted in love and recognizes that each and every person is a beloved child of God. The hierarchy that places God is the position of power and all of us on the level plain below.
Jesus followed the course that was set before him. He lived fully into his vocation as the Messiah with integrity and authenticity, and we are called to do the same.
Jesus asks, “are you willing to be transformed?” Are we willing to give up our twisted constructions of value and power that always seem to place us in more lauded positions than our neighbors? Are we willing to empty ourselves, so that God might fill us entirely?
As the prelude for today’s service, Jean played Hymn 435 “At the Name of Jesus.” As we go forth pondering the questions Jesus asks of us, let us hear the words of this hymn and claim them as our own:
At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow,
Every tongue confess him King of glory now;
’tis the Father’s pleasure we should call him Lord,
who from the beginning was the mighty word.
Humbled for a season to receive a Name
from the lips of sinners, unto whom he came,
faithfully he bore it spotless to the last,
brought it back victorious, when from death he passed;
bore it up triumphant, with it’s human light,
through all ranks of creatures, to the central height,
to the throne of Godhead, to the Father’s breast;
filled it with the glory of that perfect rest.
Name him, Christians name him, with love strong as death,
name with awe and wonder and with bated breath;
he is God the Savior, he is Christ the Lord,
ever to be worshiped, trusted and adored.
In your hearts enthrone him; there let him subdue
all that is not holy, all that is not true;
crown him as your Captain in temptation’s hour;
let his will enfold you in its light and power.
Christians, this Lord Jesus shall return again,
with his Father’s glory o’er the earth to reign;
for all wreaths of empire meet upon his brow,
and our hearts confess him king of glory now. (Caroline Maria Noel, The Hymnal 1982, Hymn 435).
Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20 September 2020). The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here
Parable of the workers in the vineyard from the Codex Aureus Epternacensis. Public Domain.
One of the most neglected parts of our worship – be it Morning Prayer or the Celebration of the Eucharist – is the Collect of the Day.
The Collect of the Day is that short prayer that collects all the themes of the day. It is that prayer that captures the heart of what the day’s Scripture lessons have to teach us. When we celebrate the Eucharist, the collect of day comes at the very beginning of the service – tuning our ears for what to pay attention to. When we gather for Morning Prayer as we do today, the Collect of the Day comes at the very end of the service. It gives us that token to hang on to as we set out to meet the week ahead.
The collect appointed for today is a much needed guidepost for our time. Hear these words again:
Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 234).
This collect dates back the fifth century, and is from one of the oldest surviving liturgical books of the Western Church. It reflects the tumultuous times of the barbarian invasions of Rome (Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book, 192). It was written in a time of great uncertainty, of immense anxiety; where people were surrounded by death and destruction. It was written in a time when the civic and social structures were collapsing – that time we now refer to as the fall of the Roman Empire.
I wonder if any of those descriptions, resonate for you and the times we find ourselves living in today?
While we might not be facing Germanic tribes and the Huns invading our shores, we have our own challenges to face.
We are in the midst of a global health pandemic. For six months we have been living with various restrictions and limitations as we work together to fight the coronavirus and protect our communities from COVID-19. We have sacrificed much, there is plenty to grieve, and we have no idea when this will end and we can return to the way things were back in late February, early March. There is indeed great uncertainty and immense anxiety for it has been a century since our nation has faced pandemic conditions such as these. As articles from the Spanish Influenza tell us, second waves are possible if not likely, and when we stray from our vigilance, when we move too quickly as if this is all over, there are deadly consequences. We to know death and destruction in our time from this pandemic as the national death toll approaches 200,000 people and globally over 950,000.
That is not the only reason why we know death and destruction these days. It seems not a week goes by without learning another name of a person of color who has died at the hands of police. The #SayTheirName list continues to grow. We have watched peaceful protests turn violent and buildings destroyed, as the flames of justice are kindled around us.
And there is still more.
We face the uncertainty of the economic fallout from the pandemic. We have seen businesses and restaurants close, religious institutions and non-profits struggling to continue their work and ministry, and without federal orders banning evictions for most people we would already be in the midst of a housing crisis beyond comprehension – a crisis that can only be kept at bay for so long without significant, dare I say radical, action.
And if all that were not enough, we are now a mere 43 days away from the November general election. We are witnessing astounding division in our civic life. No matter the outcome of the election, commentary after commentary speak of the increasing fragile nature of our democracy. Option pieces come out daily wondering if we are at the breaking point. We have a system that is already stretched and strained, and now with the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg we must also contend with a vacancy on the most important judicial bench in this country.
We might not be dealing with the invasions Rome faced in the fifth century, but my goodness we have more than a few things on our plate these days.
I do not know about you, but today I need this collect. I need this reminder to keep my eyes on things heavenly. I need the assurance that the ways of this world will not last forever. I need to know that the promises of God will be realized. I need help holding on to hope so that I can continue carrying on doing the work God has given me to do. I would hazard a guess, that in this, I am not alone.
As I said, the collect of the day collects the themes of the lessons. To put things in social media terms, it takes all that we hear and turns it into something just barely longer than a tweet. So when we turn our attention back to the Scripture passages, we are able to dig a bit deeper into how God is calling us to live in this moment.
Our lesson from Hebrew Scriptures finds the prophet Jonah in one of the lesser known parts of his story. Most of us will know Jonah as that person who tried to run away from God’s call and ended up in the belly of a massive fish. Once there, Jonah spends three days and three nights inside the fish, until he prayed to God for deliverance, at which point God speaks to the fish, and the fish spewed Jonah out upon the dry land (Jonah 1:1-2:10, NRSV).
Once Jonah is on the dry land, God calls him a second time. He has learned his lesson, so he does not run from God. This time he sets out and goes to Nineveh to proclaim the message God has given him. Scripture tells us that as Jonah entered the city, “he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4, NRSV). One might expect that the people of Nineveh might have some feelings about this proclamation that tend towards the more critical, less positive end of the spectrum. But in fact, the people of Nineveh, including the King listen. They believed in God, and immediately began to repent of their ways. The King made a proclamation which concluded in these words, “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish” (Jonah 3:8b-8, NRSV).
As we have heard from other parts of Scripture, that is exactly what God requires of us and desires for us – that we might turn towards God and live.
This is where we pick up Jonah’s story. God sees what the people of Nineveh do, and God changes God’s mind, and does not bring calamity on them.
Jonah should be thrilled that the people actually listen to him. But instead he is so angry that God did not destroy them that he wishes to die. Instead of rejoicing, he starts to camp out hoping that God will change God’s mind and that he will see that great city destroyed.
Now it is time for Jonah to be given a message, and we hear of the creation and destruction of this bush. When Jonah sees this bush has been destroyed he again cries out, “It is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:3b).
Here in the final verses of the Book of Jonah, God has the last word. God says to Jonah if you are concerned about this bush which came and went in a night, should I not be concerned about the people of Nineveh? God emphasizes God’s sovereignty over all of creation. This is not about what humanity deserves, it is about what we need – compassion.
This story is a reminder to us of God’s steadfast mercy and loving kindness, of how God is always quick to forgive when we repent and return towards God – even though we will fall short again. This story is a reminder to us that revenge is never the answer, mercy always wins.
We do not need to be anxious about earthly things, and can love things heavenly because we are in relationship with God whose compassion knows no bounds.
God’s mercy and generosity towards humanity is on full display in the parable we hear from Matthew’s Gospel.
Jesus says, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard” (Matthew 20:1, NRSV). The landowner goes out and hires laborers at the start of the day and agrees to pay them, “whatever is right” (Matthew 20:4, NRSV). The laborers agree and they go into the vineyard. The landowner then does the same things at noon and three o’clock in the afternoon. At five o’clock the landowner went back out and found others standing around, because no one hired them. To them the landowner says go and work.
At the end of the day, all the laborers are brought in to be paid and this is where things get interesting. “When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage” (Matthew 20:9, NRSV). Upon seeing this, the people hired earlier start getting excited. By human logic, if the people who worked for about an hour got the wage usually given for a whole day’s work, then the people who actually worked the whole day deserved ten times more. But when those hired first stepped forward to be paid, they too received the usual daily wage and they were not happy about it.
They grumble at the landowner, they feel they have been given an unfair deal. The landowner says in reply, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:13b-15, NRSV).
This parable is yet another reminder to us that God’s values and standards of justice are foreign to human standards. This parable picks up that consistent message presented throughout the entirety of Scripture that God’s people are to live according to these standards instead of the ones presented by the world around us.
In telling this parable, Jesus reminds us that is does not matter when you start following the ways of God. It does not matter if you were the first out into the vineyard or the last, all will be inheritors of the promised glory of God. What truly matters is the gift of being called to the service of the Lord.
We do not need to be anxious about earthly things, and can love things heavenly because God extends that invitation for inclusion in God’s vineyard as many times as it takes us to accept it. God does not give up on us.
Beloved of God, one of the greatest dangers in times of anxiety, uncertainty, conflict and strife is loosing sight of our privilege – the privilege of being called as laborers into the vineyard, the privilege of being called the people of God, the privilege – as St. Paul reminds us in today’s epistle – “not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well” (Philippians 1:29, NRSV).
The work of the vineyard is hard, it asks much of us, and at times comes with a hefty price tag. The world tries to do everything it can to stop the work of God. It tries to tempt us away from heavenly things, to focus on earthly things. Unlike the world, with its three strikes rule, God offers us unlimited mercy, unlimited grace, unlimited love. The promise of God is always there for us. God is always there for us, most especially when we face turbulent times be it from invasion, global health pandemic, the sin of white supremacy, or election cycles.
We do not need to be anxious about earthly things, and can love things heavenly because we have been given the greatest gift of all – the gift of God’s love, the gift of being God’s people.
The task before us in this and every age, is to live our lives “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27, NRSV). The task before us is to extend the same mercy to others that God extends to us, to extend that same generosity, and most importantly to extend the divine love of God to each and every person.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, of blessed memory, once said, “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” Those are words that collect for us what this life of faith is all about.
We are to fight for the Gospel, we are to go forth as laborers in the vineyard of God, we are to faithfully carry out the work and ministry God has placed on out hearts. And we are to do all of this rooted in God’s love, we do all of this in such a way that invites all to labor with us – that extends God’s invitation to the ends of the world.
Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (13 September 2020). The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here
One of the great privileges of my seminary career, was going on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, England. The senior class pilgrimage is that climactic moment during the final semester. During our pilgrimage we took a day trip from Canterbury to Coventry. It was a four and half maybe five hour bus ride away. We knew, or at least hoped, that all that time on the bus would be worth it. Coventry, England, as we quickly discovered, is indeed a very special place worthy of a few hours in a cramped bus.
One night in November 1940, Coventry was bombed. Like much of the city, the great Cathedral was devastated. The day after the bombing the Provost of Cathedral was walking amidst the ruins, amidst the broken glass and burning timbers, surveying the scene. After some time, he called out to one of the people with him and said, “Write the words ‘Father forgive’ on the east wall of the cathedral.” Write the words “Father forgive” above where the altar once stood.
The people with him were confused. They asked him, “Do you mean, ‘Father forgive them’?” Forgive them for what they have done to us? The Provost said no, “Father forgive” for we all stand in need of God’s forgiveness. “Father forgive” because we all fall short of the glory of God.
From that posture of profound faith, the Provost avoided the temptations of anger and revenge, and stayed true to the call of the Christian faith – the call to forgive no matter what. From his witness in that place, something amazing has emerged out of Coventry: a ministry of healing, reconciliation, and forgiveness, that is quite literally transforming the world. It all began with two words, “Father Forgive.”
Today those words have been carved into the stones of the cathedral ruins, they have been painted over in gold, so that the moment you step through what would have been the great west doors of the cathedral your eyes are drawn to them. Those words preside over that space in such a way that no one can miss them.
That witness is the Church at its best. That is what the Church is all about, and that is the charge we receive through this portion of Matthew’s Gospel.
The 18th Chapter of Matthew is all about what it means to live faithfully together. It is about what it means collectively to be the church and not just individual follower of Jesus.
The Gospel passage we heard last Sunday and the passage we hear today make up two-thirds of this chapter, and their core is forgiveness. These two passages inform one another, and must be heard together.
The passage appointed for last Sunday, focuses on what happens when there is conflict in the community. It is all about what happens when one person harms another. First the individual who has been harmed, approaches the one who has harmed them to see if reconciliation is possible. If the one doing the harm does not repent, then the matter is brought before a few other members of the community. Still if the offending member does not acknowledge their sin, then the matter is brought before the whole community. If that doesn’t work, Matthew makes clear, that the one who will not acknowledge their wrongdoing, the one who refuses to seek forgiveness, the one who refuses to atone for their sins, will face severe consequence.
From that exchange, Peter asks the question that begins what we hear today, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times” (Matthew 18:21, NRSV)? This is such a human question. Peter is trying to work out that arithmetic of forgiveness. Peter is trying to figure out when he can stop forgiving. He wants to know if he really has to forgive someone over, and over, and over again.
To Peter’s human question, Jesus gives a divine answer: “Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times’” (Matthew 18:22, NRSV). This response could also be translated, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven times.” What the people hearing this exchange, what the people reading Matthew’s words would have understood is that Jesus is not pushing back the forgiveness countdown numbers. These numbers would have signified that Jesus tells Peter, you must forgive an infinite number of times. Jesus tells Peter, there is to be no limit to the amount of times you are willing to forgive others. Jesus is inviting Peter to embody the divine forgiveness of God. For just as many times that God forgives us, we are called to forgive others.
This is a tall order, and no simple task. To drive the point home, Jesus tells the parable of the unforgiving servant. This is a parable filled with hyperbole, and it is meant to shock and startle the listener.
At the outset of the parable we learn there is a servant who owes the king an outrageous sum of money. It is a sum so vast that it would be nearly impossible for him, his children, or his children’s children to actually repay.
This servant is summoned before the king who is demanding immediate repayment. The king is harsh and declares that unless he is paid, the servant, his family, and all his possessions will be sold off so repayment can be made. In the face of this threat, the servant begs for forgiveness. He “fell on his knees before [the king] saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt” (Matthew 18:26-27, NRSV). Just as quickly as the king was willing to punish, he is quick to forgive. And the servant goes off on his way set free from that debt.
Now, you might think that if you are the receipt of that sort of abundant grace and forgiveness, you might act a bit differently in the future. It might transform how you see others and behave in the world. But, that is not the case here.
The first servant comes across another servant who owes him money – a rather meager sum. The first servant is merciless. He grabs the other by the throat and demands immediate repayment. The second, struck by fear, begs for mercy and forgiveness. And what does this first servant do in response? Does he extend the same forgiveness that was extended to him? No. He has the man thrown into prison until he can pay the debt.
Word gets back to the king, and he is furious. He once more summons that first servant, and lets out his anger. He calls him out for not extending the same mercy that was shown to him, and he has him sent off “to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt” (Matthew 18:34b, NRSV). He has him tortured for what will amount to the rest of his life.
This is shocking and startling and maybe even leaves us a bit uncomfortable. Hearing the words, “so my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:35, NRSV) might just leave us wondering, is this what is going to happen to me if I refuse to forgive?
While this might not be the literal punishment for us if we refuse to forgive, we should be very clear that there are severe consequences for the unforgiving.
The forgiveness we hear about throughout this section of Matthew’s Gospel is not about some surface level, sentimental kind of forgiveness where we shrug the offense off and say, “don’t worry about it, it will be better next time.” This is deep stuff. This is hard stuff. This is costly stuff.
I do not know about you, but this leaves me with a few concerns and questions.
To pick up on what Peter asks, if someone is harming you, is someone is abusing you, if someone is hurting you, do you really have to go on forgiving them? Is that not just letting the behavior go on unexcused? This passage makes clear the answer to that first question is yes. Yes we are called to go on forgiving that person. But the answer to the second question is no. This is where last week’s passage and this week’s passage come together. It is the responsibility of the community to hold one another accountable for our actions. As the one who has been harmed forgives, it is the role of the community to hold the offered accountable so their behavior does not continue unchecked. It is the role of the community to make sure that one is not allowed to continue causing harm, and it might just be the role of the community to remove that one from amongst them.
When we have been harmed we have to forgive; for that forgiveness is as much for us as it is for the other person. When we allow those wounds from that hurt to go unresolved, when we allow that un-forgiveness to remain, we end up doing more harm to ourselves. We become bitter, we become angry, we become closed off. Most importantly we allow that other person to maintain that hold over us, to retain power over us. The power of that deep and true forgiveness is that is sets us all free. It sets the offender free, and is sets the one harmed free as well. For when we release ourselves from that burden, from the shackles of our pain, deep healing can actually begin.
This is about are collective calling to be the Church. Standing together, standing up for one another, holding each other accountable, and making space so that true forgiveness and healing can happen. We stand together supporting one another, helping one another seek this life of forgiveness – seeking this life of healing and restoration.
In the course of this healing work, we might be tempted to use some popular societal phases to make things seem better during this healing process.
Maybe you have heard, or even said yourself, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” or, “God does not give you more than you can handle,” or, “this is all part of God’s plan.”
We must be very careful with the words we say. In our attempt to make things better, we might actually make things worse.
In today’s passage from Genesis, we find Jospeh speaking with his brothers after the death of their father. These are the same brothers who plotted to murder him, but instead fold him off to slavery. On the surface it might seem that Jospeh is using one of those societal phrases. Joseph says to his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20, NRSV). It sounds like Jospeh is saying to his brothers, “don’t worry about it, it’s all part of God’s plan.”
After hearing these words we might be tempted to think that God caused this to happen. We might be tempted to think that we can interpret God’s will in the world. It is a very dangerous thing for us to declare that we know the ways of God. As is declared in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9, NRSV). We do not know why God acts the way God does. But Scripture also reminds us that God’s desire is that we all should be saved, that we should all return to God, and rejoice in God’s love. As it says in what was appointed last week from the Book of Ezekiel, “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live” (Ezekiel 33:11, NRSV).
I cannot tell you for certain that God did not cause Joseph’s brother to send him into slavery. But I know that when we write off pain and tragedy as part of God’s plan we do a whole lot more harm than good. So maybe instead of being so quick, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle,” or “it’s all part of God’s plan” or whatever else, we should point to what we do know that God does. We should point out that God is very much in the midst of our pain. We should point out that throughout the course of human history God takes what is evil, takes that which was intended for destruction and reshapes it into something that is meant for redemption.
The most profound example of this is when God takes the means of a shameful and humiliating death, when God take the very worst that humanity can do, when God take Cross and turns it into a means of life and redemption for all. This is what it means to be the Church. To forgive and to love.
In the midst of all the extremes that surround us: extreme violence, hatred, oppression, racism, partisan divides that bring our civic life to a halt. In the midst of all this we are called to be extreme ourselves – extreme in love, extreme in mercy, extreme in forgiveness. We are to be extreme so that we might help turn this world turn from the nightmare it often is to the dream that God intends.
As we think about the work and ministry set before us, we must recognize that in our speaking, in our listening, in our prayer and reflection, in our action we have a choice to make. We can be overcome by the temptations of the world to shut people out, to be taken over by anger, to be taken over by the temptation for revenge, or we can live the forgiveness of God. While it is the harder choice, we are called to have no limit to our forgiveness. We are called individually and collectively to say, “Father forgive.”
Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (6 September 2020).
The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here
James Tissot, The Exhortation of the Apostles (between 1886 and 1894), The Brooklyn Museum.
I wonder if you have ever said or heard someone comment, “this would be great if it weren’t for that,” of course substituting “this” and “that” for descriptive markers of the specific context. For example, “school would be great if it weren’t for the students,” or “camp would be great if it weren’t for the campers,” or “this job would be great if it weren’t for the customers.” Though I’m sure no one has ever utter the phrase, “church would be great if it weren’t for the people.”
All of these phrases articulate that emotional response to the complexities of being in community. People are complicated, they do not always act as we think they should, they do things they might come to regret, relationships can be really tricky, and all of that makes being in community, at times, really hard.
While there may be moments where we become frustrated or aggravated to the point where we find ourselves wishing that the students, campers, customers, or even parishioners were not there, we all know deep down that if the people were not there our beloved communities, our schools, and camps, and congregations would cease to exist. For what is a school without students, camp without campers, or church without the people?
This means that we have to figure out how to be in community together, how to be in relationship with one another. We have to figure out how to maintain those bonds of affection when it is easy to be together, and more importantly, when we struggle to stay connected. We all have to put in the hard work of restoring relationships when we hurt one another, reconciling after conflict, and renewing our commitment to continue to grow together. For if we fail to come together in the midst of adversity, things will begin to fall apart and that could prove disastrous for our relationships with one another.
There is a misconception that to be a Christian means always getting along with other people: that being a Christian means never arguing or fighting with our neighbors. While we are Christians, we are also human. And human beings, no matter what their faith tradition, hurt each other. We all sin. All of us have times when we act in a way contrary to how we know we should behave. What makes us Christian is not whether or not we fight, disagree, or wound one another, but how we go about addressing and resolving these issues.
When someone hurts us, when they sin against us, the world has a very clear way of responding. We are to get back at them. We are to get even, and then go a bit further. We are to respond in retaliation. When someone hurts us, we might be inclined write them off, and never interact with them again. We are to respond by dissolving the relationship. When someone does something wrong, society tells us they must be punished.
But today, in what we hear from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus makes it clear that is not how we are to behave. The prime motivation for us is never punishment but alway reconciliation. So here Jesus clearly articulates a way of responding to conflict in our communities where restoration, not retaliation, is the goal.
When one member inflicts harm on another, the person who has been hurt is to go and take it up with the offending member. Jesus says, “if another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone” (Matthew 18:15, NRSV). Jesus tells us that when we are hurt, we are to go to the other person and try to reconcile and restore the relationship. We do this privately, not slandering the other person. The aim it to protect the dignity of all those involved. To be clear, the reconciliation that is possible happens where there is repentance and forgiveness. The person who caused the harm must acknowledge their sin and repent of it. The interaction must be more than that trite societal phrase forgive and forget. Unless there is true acknowledgment of the harm, reconciliation and restoration is impossible.
If the person refuses to listen, then more members of the community get involved. One or two others join in the conversation. The small group works together to see if restoration of relationship is possible. If that does not work the whole church is made aware of the situation. This is a reminder to us that this is not just about individuals, but conflict between members impacts the whole community. At this point if the offender refuses to listen, then they are removed from the community. Someone who causes harm, who refuses to acknowledge their sin, who will not repent, is not allow to stay and continue to inflict harm on the community.
The consequences of failed reconciliation are so severe, because Jesus is talking about behavior that will destroy communities. Therefore when we entered into this process of accountability we must do so seriously and prayerfully, for much is on the line. At the end of this passage Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathering in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20, NRSV). Every step along the way, Jesus is present in these conversations. It is because of the sustaining power of the presence of our risen Lord, that our communities, that the Church of God, will survive the strains imposed by human failure (Douglas R. A. Hare, Interpretations: Matthew (John Knox Press, 2009), 215).
It is up to each and every member of a community to ensure that all are living the ways of God. We are all accountable to and for each other.
The conversation that God has with Ezekiel in today’s passage from Hebrew Scripture adds to this idea of collective responsibility, and an invitation to forsake the trap of individualism.
God says to Ezekiel, “whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked ones, you shall surely die,’ and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand” (Ezekiel 33:7b-8, NRSV). God says to Ezekiel, if you do not share my word, if you do not look out for others, if you do not call their attention to their wicked behavior, and they perish because of it, you are responsible. God makes clear that Ezekiel will only be saved if he shares the word of God and warns the wicked. Ezekiel will only be saved by showing care for the community.
After the warning to Ezekiel, God gives him a message to share. The people of Israel have transgressed, they have sinned, they have turned away from God. All of this weighs heavily upon them and they have cried out wondering how they can live. God tells Ezekiel, “Say to them, As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live” (Ezekiel 33:11, NRSV).
The message from God is this: If the house of Israel turns back towards the ways of God, they shall live. If not, they shall die. But, God is clear. God takes no delight in the death of the wicked. God’s desire is for all of God’s people to have life and have it more abundantly.
Just like Ezekiel, just like the process outlined by Jesus, we are to call out to those straying from the path of God and encourage them to turn back. To repent and return to the Lord. To reconcile ourselves to God and each other. My friends, this is the mission of the Church, and I mean that literally. In our catechism, found in the back of The Book of Common Prayer the mission of the Church is described this way, “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (The Book of Common Prayer, 855). It is our mission to constantly be working for the reconciliation of all people, and sometimes that means having these really hard and difficult conversations in the midst of pain and conflict.
By the way, lest we loose sight of this, we must always be mindful that sometimes we are the ones who need to be called out. Sometimes we are the ones who stray. Sometimes we are the ones in danger of being cast out of the community. There is not one amongst us who has not hurt someone else, there is not one amongst us who does not stand in need of repentance. For we are all human, we all sin, we all fall short of the glory of God.
Each and everyone of us must let go of the world’s focus on individualism. By virtue of our relationship together we must be concerned with and for each other. For we are all members of the one body, we cannot say to anyone that you do not matter, that you are not needed, every part of the body is need, and if one member suffers, all suffer together with it, to paraphrase St. Paul from the First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 12:12-26, NRSV).
Being in community is hard work. But the reason we continue to labor together, can all be boiled down to one word – Love. As St. Paul reminds us in his Letter to the Romans, all of the commandments are summed up in these words, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Romans 13:9, NRSV).
We fulfill the law, we fulfill the words of the prophets, we fulfill the Gospel mandates and the very intention of all creation when we love one another. Therefore “let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light,” (Romans 13:12, NRSV) let us “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” (Romans 13:14, NRSV) let us bathe in the very love of God that Jesus makes incarnate in the world.
It is important for us to be honest about the difficultly of being in community. It is important that we prepare ourselves for difficult conversations, and recognize it is possible we will get hurt along the way. Conflict is inevitable, but what makes us Christian is how we respond when conflict and hurt and pain come about. We must be clear that those who continually harm members without repentance, without genuinely working towards reconciliation, may no longer be able to stay in the community. That sort of bullying cannot go unchecked in Christian communities.
That being said, the doors of our communities are never shut forever.
Jesus says in today’s Gospel passage, of the one who refuses to listen, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17, NRSV). It seems to me, that Jesus is saying two things here. In addition to that person no longer being part of the community, Jesus is also saying redemption is always possible. Time and time again throughout the Gospels, Jesus welcomes the Gentile and the tax collector. Jesus is continually reaching out offering the gift of God’s transformative love. If the one who has been removed from the community is able to have a change of heart, there is the possibility of regaining that one to the household of God.
It seems that Matthew is on to this hope as well. Today’s passage is sandwiched between the parable of the lost sheep and the unforgiving debtor – it is framed by stories that demonstrate God’s desired that the sinner be saved not condemned (Hare, Interpretations, 214). When the time comes for us to do this hard work of reconciliation in community we can do so knowing that God’s desire is the salvation of all. That the ultimate gift of God’s love is that redemption is always possible. We can journey through the heartache and pain of human sinfulness trusting that if there is hope for that sinner over there, there is hope for you and me, sinners as well.
As we go forth continuing to grow as a community let us take up the words of the psalmist as our own. Let us pray that God teaches us the way of God’s statues that we might keep them to the end. Let us pray that God gives us understanding that we might keep God’s laws with our whole hearts. Let us pray that God makes us go in the paths of God’s commandments. Let us pray that God inclines our hearts to God’s decrees, that through our longing and in God’s righteousness, God will always preserve our lives.
Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (30 August 2020). The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here
Image by Raheel Shakeel from Pixabay
Everything changed in a moment. Four simple words meant things would never go back to the way they were before.
Matthew begins today’s passage with these words: “From that time on.” That narrative note is the hinge on which everything moves. For in the scene that unfolds today we begin to shift from Jesus’ Galilean ministry to his passion. From this time on everything will be about preparing for the cross.
The conversation we drop in on today, is the second half of the Gospel passage that was appointed for last Sunday (Matthew 16:13-20). While gathered together Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They tell him, John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. Jesus then wants to know what his closest companions have to say. So he asks, “But who do you say that I am?” To this Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” To Jesus’ question Simon Peter makes that profound confession of faith. For that proclamation Jesus blessed him, gives him the name Peter, and declares that he is the rock on which the Church will be built.
In the first half of this transition moment, Peter’s confession is part of a divine revelation. Jesus’ identity as the Messiah is proclaimed. But what exactly does that mean? What does Peter think he is actually saying in his confession?
Peter and the other disciples have clear expectations of what the Messiah will do. They have heard the words of the prophets, they know the tradition that has been handed down, they have a deep longing for the promises of God to finally be fulfilled. The Messianic image they had was of a great and powerful warrior. The Messiah was supposed to come and restore the Jewish kingdom by overthrowing oppressive empires. The Messiah was supposed to gather people together, raise up an army, conquer the occupying powers of Rome, and then claim his rightful seat upon the throne of David.
With this understanding in mind, after making his confession of faith, I wonder if Peter assumed that what came next would be preparing for this ultimate battle for liberation. I wonder if Peter assumed that from that time on, Jesus would be training them as warriors, telling them to sharpen their swords because it is time to go. But instead, “from that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering . . . and be killed.”
It is completely understandable that Peter does a double take. He believes he knows what the Messiah will do, Jesus affirms that he is in fact the Messiah, so therefore, since A+B=C, Jesus must be about to defeat the mighty Roman army and claim the throne for himself. This is the moment generations have been waiting for. For anything else to happen would be anathema.
When Jesus says he will suffer and die, all the hopes of the disciples come crashing down. From their perspective there was no future in a Messiah who dies. So Peter, who has just been given this new role and authority, steps in and declares that Jesus’ suffering and death must be prevented, “God for bit it, Lord,” Peter cries out, “This must never happen to you.” From where Peter, and the rest of the disciples sit, if Jesus suffers and dies then how can he really be the Messiah?
It might be worthwhile for us to pause here. To sit with Peter and the disciples in the shock and grief of Jesus’ passion prediction. They have spent their whole lives waiting, hoping, dreaming, for this moment, and in a breath they are told that it will not be so. Those hopes and dreams and expectations will not be filled in the way they think they should be. I wonder if there is grieving we need to do for dashed dreams, eviscerated expectations, and hopes unfulfilled? I wonder if we need to name the difficulties, challenges, and heart breaks of life and ministry?
It is through the gift of our faith, through the privilege of knowing the end of the story, that we can persist through whatever pain or grief we carry. Not pretending as if it does not exist, nor forgetting it was ever there, but growing through it, allowing God to guide us through, and being transformed along the way.
It this moment, however, Peter does not get the space to pause. His rebuke of Jesus, his trying to control how God will work in the world, is met with an intense rebuke of its own. Jesus turns to Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Earlier in the conversation, what we heard last week, Peter gets it profoundly right, and here just a few moments later he gets it spectacularly wrong. He goes from being the rock upon which the church is built, to the rock which is the obstacle to Jesus’ vocation as Messiah.
It might be worthwhile for us to pause here, and consider the times when we have been stumbling blocks. It might be good for us to recognize that from time to time, in our desire to control God and have things go our way, that we created unnecessary obstacles for God’s work to happen in the world – we have made it more difficult for others to carry out their ministries. There might just be times when we need to hear Jesus say to us, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
The second part of that rebuke is what we really need to pay attention to. Peter’s reaction is based upon the ways of this world, in this case the understanding that the only way to prevail is by military might. In calling him out, Jesus is saying to Peter, stop thinking the way the world thinks and start thinking the way God thinks.
The rest of what Jesus says in this passage are words to recalibrate the minds of the disciples so they can start setting their minds on the things of God: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
It is necessary for us to stop here, for we need to be recalibrated by these words as well.
I think it is a real shame that the phase “it’s your cross to bear” and the plethora of variations thereof are so casually used in our cultural vernacular. Too often at the first sign of inconvenience or annoyance, when there is something we really do not want to do, we pull out this phrase as a way of saying, “get over it,” “you’ve got no choice” or, “we all have things to do that are not pleasant and we’d rather avoid.” That is not what Jesus is saying here. The crucifixion is not some small inconvenience for Jesus. Taking up our cross is not about a slight momentary affliction, it is about choosing to die so that we might truly live.
Twentieth-century German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book The Cost of Discipleship writes about the costly nature of following Jesus and what it actually means to take up the cross. He writes:
If our Christianity has ceased to be serious about discipleship, if we have watered down the Gospel into emotional uplift which makes no costly demands and which fails to distinguish between natural and Christian existence, then we cannot help regarding the cross as an ordinary everyday calamity, as one of the trials and tribulations of life. We have then forgotten that the cross means rejection and shame as well as suffering. . . this notion has ceased to be intelligible to a Christianity which can no longer see any difference between an ordinary human life and a life committed to Christ . . . The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world . . . As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death – we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die (Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p.88-89).
Taking up our crosses is about setting our minds on heavenly things. It is willingly choosing to forsake the ways of this world in order to live by the way of God. It means accepting whatever rejection or suffering might come as a result.
This is exactly what we have been talking about during our book study of James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. This past week in considering chapter 3 we talked about Martin Luther King Jr. and his willingness, though not eagerness, to sacrifice his life for the furthering of the Gospel. He accepted the call to suffer shame and rejection and violence so that God’s people might be liberated from oppression.
The cross is a sign of hope, the source of courage and strength. In it all those who suffer at the hards of oppressive ruling powers, can see their own suffering, their own wounds and scars, their own bodies. There is solidarity in the Cross of Christ. The cross is the most profound and amazing source of love, it is God’s “No” to the world’s obsession with violence and power. It as the ultimate sign of liberation, for in the work God accomplishes on the cross the greatest enemy of humanity, death, is destroyed once and for all. As James Cone writes about Martin Luther King, “The cross protected King from the paralyzing fear of death, giving him the courage to fight for racial justice, no matter the cost” (Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, p.82-83). We take up our crosses, not counting the cost, but joyfully accepting our role in the work of God in the world.
We have been called to no less a task than the disciples, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, and all those who surround us in that great cloud of witnesses.
If we are truly to claim the mantle of disciple then we too must be willing to sacrifice, to suffer shame and rejection, to deny ourselves. To be clear we are not called to suffering for the sake of suffering. Denying ourselves is not about self-abnegation or self-deprecation. It does not mean submitting ourselves to others in a way that deny’s our own personhood. This is not encouragement to stay in abusive relationships under a false banner of “sacrifice.”
This is a call to subordinate our will to God’s. It is giving up everything to follow the way of God. It is the process of self-emptying so that God can fill us entirely.
In a commentary about this Gospel passage, writter Debie Thomas wonders what it means for us to deny ourselves in our current national and global context. She writes:
Right now, I am asking myself these questions in the context of a global pandemic that shows no signs of letting up. I am asking in the context of police brutality, white supremacy, racial injustice, and gross economic inequality. I am asking in the context of global warming, mass extinction, droughts, and heat waves. I am asking in the context of fires destroying forests and towns . . . so the question becomes this: where do I locate myself amidst these crosses? What am I willing to lose in these times? What do I stand to gain? (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2733)
There is so much in our contemporary culture that encourages us to avoid suffering and death at all costs. Our society is more like the misguided Peter, than it is like Jesus. I cannot help but wonder what rebuke Jesus would offer to the world today in the face of violence, greed, poor environmental stewardship, and the notions of personal liberty over collective responsibility.
To take up our cross means to stand in the midst of the world’s suffering. We are called to more than occasionally glancing in the direction of pain, or simply catching it on the evening news. Jesus calls us to dwell there. To identify with those who are aching, weeping, screaming, and dying. We are called to sacrifice our comfort until everyone is able to share in it as well. We need to ask ourselves where do we stand in the midst of all these crosses?
Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem. From here on out everything is about preparing his disciples for what Jesus will face and for the crosses they will have to bear as well. From this time on, everything in our lives should be focused there as well. The cost for everyone will be different, some will be called to sacrifice more than others, but the call is the same. We must die to the ways of this world, we must give up the false promises and expectations of the kingdom of humanity, so that we might live the ways of the kingdom of God – so that we might have life and have it more abundantly.