All sermons given by the Priest-in-Charge, the Rev’d Dante A. Tavolaro, unless otherwise indicated.
Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent (28 February 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
James Tissot (1836-1902), Rétire-toi, Satan (Get Thee Behind Me, Satan), 1886-1894, Brooklyn Museum, Public Domain
A group of us are gathering together on Thursdays to read the latest book written by our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, Love is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times. By the way, if you have not yet joined, please know you are most welcome to do so. This past week we considered chapter 3, “Making Do and Making New.”
In one section of this chapter Bishop Curry lifts up the importance of making do. He writes:
Making do is not the same as giving up or giving in to the status quo. It’s a way of figuring out how to both survive and thrive. Making do is like the potter and the clay in the Bible. The Bible describes this way of engaging life and existence as nothing less than the creative work of God expressed in humanity . . . Making do is about molding and making, taking what is old, what is given, what is, and making something new. It’s about taking an old reality and creating a new possibility. (1)
Framing making do as a recipe, Bishop Curry goes on to say that this recipe has three ingredients: tradition, imagination, and God. He writes that tradition is the, “treasure chest of wisdom gleaned from human beings who have dared . . . to walk with God.” (2) Imagination he says, “can move from the given reality to a creative possibility.” (3) And of that third and most important ingredient he writes, “When God – that loving benevolence behind creation, whose judgment supersedes all else – is factored into the reality of life and living, something changes for the good.” (4)
This is what is required for making do and making new: tradition, imagination, and God. The treasure chest of wisdom of those how have walked this road before us, the openness to seeing the possibility ahead, and God who does in fact make all things new.
Between the Lenten season and this particular moment in history, we are in a time that is all about making do and making new. Beloved of God we have been given the ingredients, the recipe is before us, all we have to do is get in the kitchen and start cooking. As we pull out our pots and pans we can look to Scripture for inspiration and guidance from those a bit more seasoned than we are.
We hear this morning of that great ancestor of the faith – Abraham. This is a powerful portion of the Abraham saga, for this is the episode in which he receives that name. As our story opens, he is still Abram.
“When Abram was ninety-nine years old,” Genesis tells us, “the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’” (5) From the outset it is time to set imagination at work. Here Abram is, ninety-nine years old, and God is saying “I will make you exceedingly numerous.” When was the last time you knew anyone who was 99 years of age becoming exceedingly numerous?
But the thing is, this is not the first time that God makes this promise to Abram. This is the third time God pronounces this covenant. It happens the first time when Abram is 75, then again when he is 86, and now at 99. For 24 years God has been enunciating this promise; for 24 years Abram has been waiting.
There is a reason Sarah laughs while she eavesdrops on the conversation between Abraham and the three angelic visitors. As Paul puts it in today’s epistle Abraham was so old, his body “was already good as dead.” (6) And yet, they remained faithful to God for these near two and a half decades – a vision of the faithfulness they will have for the rest of their good long lives. When Abraham breathes his last he will have reached one hundred and seventy-five years of age. (7)
Things are about to change for Abram and Sarai. God defying all human expectation, is about to make good on God’s promise. As a sign of this promise, of the Covenant God establishes with Abram, God gives him a new name. No longer is he to be known as Abram, which means exalted father or ancestor, he is now to be called Abraham, meaning father or ancestor of a multitude. God gives him this new name, signifying his new role and purpose in the world. His name becomes the promise itself.
Not only does Abraham get a new name, so does Sarai – now to be known as Sarah. While her name does not have the same meaning assigned as Abraham, by renaming her as well God claims Sarah as a full part of this new covenanted relationship between God and God’s people.
The full Abraham saga is a colorful one; Abraham and Sarah are far from perfect. But what they lack in perfection, they make up for in faithfulness. In their faithfulness hope and imagination are allowed to thrive, not suffocated by the rubric of human logic. The reality of their old age, was transformed into the creative possibility of God.
These faithful ancestors anchor us in the tradition of faithfulness in the midst of uncertainty and impossibility. They anchor us in the truth that nothing is impossible for God. They keep us in the tradition that opens our minds to what untold horizon God is about to reveal.
In a time of uncertainty such as this, when hope and optimism are cradled in the fragility of their newness, when danger lurks in the guise of virus variants, we look to tradition. We look to Abraham and Sarah and see that God makes a way out of no way. That through faithfulness, through trust in the promise of God, making do becomes making new.
In Abraham and Sarah we see tradition and imagination met with the equation changing, life altering power of God. That equation changing, life altering power is in full force in today’s Gospel – and this episode is no laughing matter.
This is arguably one of the most difficult Gospel passages we encounter. It contains an earth shattering rebuke, and Jesus’ declaration, “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (8)
To fully understand the startling nature of these word we need to take a step back, and remind ourselves of what just happened. These are the four verses that precede what we hear today:
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. (9)
Immediately after that encounter Jesus begins to teach those with him something new, something that changes the equation of life completely.
Peter’s articulation of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah is a powerful moment: the first time this title enters into the story. Instead of a some glorious revelatory moment, with clouds opening and the chorus of angelic voices singing out, Jesus sternly orders their silence. Instead of reveling in triumphant glory, the tone shifts, and another first occurs. The first time Jesus foretells his fate.
Moments after Peter declares Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus says to his followers that he is going to suffer, be rejected, killed, and after three days rise again. I do not know about you, but if I were to imagine myself in this story, I am fairly confident that the whole rising again thing, would have been lost to the sheer terror of those first word.
This is not how things are supposed to go. When Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah he has a very particular vision in mind. The Messiah is a royal figure coming to destroy the oppressive empire and reverse the fortunes of Israel. As the Messiah, Jesus is supposed to usher in an era of liberation from the tyranny of Rome, claiming his rightful place on the throne of David. Instead of affirming what they have always believed to be true, Jesus gives them a new understanding.
There is no subtlety, just life altering clarity. In case anyone gets the wrong idea, thinking they can control the work of God in the world, that Jesus can be forced into operating within human expectations and understandings, Jesus makes himself clear. In response to Peter’s rebuke, Jesus turns towards the disciples and shouts, “Get behind me, Satan!” (10)
Jesus has just shattered every Messianic expectation, and any delusion that disciples can control what happens next.
To make matter worse, Jesus does not just say that he will be hated, suffer, rejected, and killed. Jesus says, if you really want to be my disciples, the same must happen to you. Disciples must be willing to meet the same fate. This must have been shocking if not devastating to those followers, for the word “cross” is far more loaded for them than it is for us.
Today we laud the cross. We have hymns like “Lift high the cross.” We keep festival days like Holy Cross day. We carry crosses of gold and brass. We wear them around our necks. In first century Palestine there is nothing glorious about the cross.
The cross was a tool of execution used by the empire, reserved for those who question the power of Caesar. It was reserved for those who have loyalty to anything or anyone one other than state and emperor. This was a death for enemies of the state. When Jesus tells them to take up their cross, this is what they hear. The terrifying image they have witnessed countless times is what Jesus is calling them to now. This is not optional, but required.
The God factor changes everything they thought they knew about the Messiah, discipleship, and what it means to follow. This is making do in a way never before conceived.
This begs the questions, how do we, not faced with deadly persecution for our faith, take up our cross?
While there is indeed plenty of good in the world, we do not have to look hard or long to see a world that is troubled and confused, scarred by acts of evil and greed, filled with an obsession for violence. It is into this world that we are called to carry our cross – we are called to make do and make new.
Our call to follow means looking at the suffering, despair, and grief of the world and carry our cross directly into the heart of that pain. We are to seek out the core of despair and do whatever is in our power to alleviate even a modicum of that suffering. We must be willing to sacrifice ourselves, to let go of our privilege, to give up some of our so called freedoms so that others can be set free.
We are called to do what Jesus did: willing to suffer, be rejected so that we can stand in solidarity with those who are rejected today, those who are cast out and tossed aside. We carry our cross, the ultimate sign of love, to wherever we find pain.
We live in an age that has coopted this most powerful articulation of discipleship. One the one hand this call has become so trivialized that we use it to describe any minor inconvenience we face. And on the other, this has become a dangerous weapon to delay, if not out right stop, the work of justice for people of color, women, LGBT individuals, and all others on the margins of society. This passage has been employed to tell those longing for liberation that they must wait, that enduring unending suffering, rejection, and oppression is what God destined for them. It is time to reclaim this passage for what it truly is: that which brings the ingredients of tradition, imagination, and God together.
In the midst of the magnitude of hearing these words in context we can face Jesus’ articulation of discipleship and say, “Yes Lord, I will follow,” because we know what comes next.
We can say yes because we stand in the depths of tradition: walking the same road traveled by those in that great cloud of witnesses. We can say yes, because we have gleaned the treasured wisdom of all those who have dared to follow God.
We can say yes because our imaginations have been illuminated by the resurrection morn that comes across the horizon of our hopes and dreams. We have stared into the depths of the empty tomb, gazed upon the risen Lord, proclaimed Christ is alive, we have seen the prize. We have the same imagination as Abraham and Sarah, one that lets us know God always defies human expectations, doing that which is seemingly impossible.
We can say yes because we have been invited into the most intimate and amazing relationship there has even been and ever will be – relationship with God.
Taking up our cross, in the true fullness of what that means, is how we make do in this moment: in the face of war, natural disasters, poverty, supremacy of every kind, and a global health pandemic that is not done with us yet.
Our Lenten journey is one that equips us to make do and make new: refocusing our attention on the ingredients that matter, and getting rid of the ones that spoil the recipe.
On Good Friday, we will offer a prayer that captures what making do and making new is all about. While we are still a ways off from that solemn day, I offer this prayer as strength for the journey.
Let us pray:
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. (11)
(1) Michael Curry, Love is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times, p.55-56.
(2) Ibid., 59.
(3) Ibid., 60.
(4) Ibid., 60-61.
(5) Genesis 17:1-12, NRSV.
(6) Romans 4:19, NRSV.
(7) Genesis 25:7, NRSV.
(8) Mark 8:34, NRSV.
(9) Mark 8:27-31, NRSV.
(10) Mark 8:33, NRSV.
(11) The Book of Common Prayer, p.280.
Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent (21 February 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
Christ in the Wilderness by Ivan Kramskoy, 1872. Public Domain
I wonder if you have ever played one of those word association games. Those activities where you have to respond with the very first thing that comes to mind after a particular word or phrase is said. For example, someone says “snow” and you immediately respond “wonderful,” or someone says “sun” and you say “burn.” I wonder what would happen, what words we would come up with, if we played a liturgical word association game right now.
Now I know this is virtual church, but that does not mean we can’t still have some fun. So let’s give it a try. In a moment, when I give you the word, go ahead and say back to your screen the first thing that comes to mind. For those of you watching through Facebook, after you shout it out, be bold, and put your response in the comment section for this video. Are you ready?
Take a deep breath in, deep breath out, and clear your mind. Remember the first answer is the best answer, the crazier the better. Here we go. The word: Lent.
I hope you were just talking back to the screen, and I really hope some of you will share those words in the comment section.
I believe it is important to never ask a congregation to do something I am not willing to do myself so here is my answer. Whenever I think of Lent, I instinctively think about wilderness. I wonder if anyone else had the same thought.
The reason I cannot help but think about the wilderness when I think of Lent, is because every year, on the First Sunday in Lent, we follow Jesus directly into the wilderness. Each year the evangelists tell us about Jesus’ sojourn and confrontation with temptation.
Today we hear Mark’s telling of this experience. As with everything else in Mark’s Gospel the details are few. What takes Matthew 11 verses and Luke 13, only takes Mark two: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” (1)
Mark’s brevity does not render this passage devoid of meaning, rather it provides a broader entry for us to engage. Not restricted to specific temptations, we can take an expansive view of this scene.
Location in Scripture is about more than just geography. Location has meaning. Last week, for example, when we heard the story of the transfiguration, we were up on the mountain top with Jesus, Peter, James, and John. (2) The setting of that story was not merely to paint a narrative picture, a backdrop to inspire artistic imagination. Mountains in Scripture are where God is revealed. Like in the story of Moses and burning bush which happens as Moses is keeping his father-in-law’s flock on Mount Horeb. (3)
When Mark tells us that Jesus was in the wilderness that location signifies something as well. The wilderness, just like the desert, or even a deserted place, are locations commonly associated with the spiritual life.
Time in the wilderness is not about self-care or cultivating the proper work/life balance. When we think of wilderness we should not imagine a lovely retreat center tucked away in the trees somewhere; a time to relax and reconnect with creation. That is important, to be sure, but that is not what the scriptural wilderness location is about. Jesus is not off on some sort of camping vacation having a little me time.
The wilderness, the desert, is a dangerous place that lays bare the realities of the spirit. To go out into the wilderness, to step away from whatever else is going on, to leave behind the comforts of life, established routines, to steps away from crowds and community, is to enter an incredibly vulnerable and honest place. Most often, it is a place not eagerly sought after.
Mark does not write, “After his baptism, Jesus was feeling great, and looking to get away to do some reflecting.” As one commentator observed, “Jesus didn’t schedule a National Geographic expedition, or plan a desert marathon to improve his cardiovascular fitness.” (4) Mark tells us that after Jesus’ baptism, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” (5) Jesus did not choose this wilderness time, he was sent there. The Spirit of God drove him, compelled him, forced him to go into that desolate, wild, and unsafe place.
Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, harkens back to another wilderness episode; another sojourn not made by choice – Israel’s forty years in the desert.
Following the Exodus story, the people of God journeyed for 40 years on their way to the promise land. This journey takes as long as it does, because of the lack of faith of the people of Israel. As soon as they began their journey the whole company of people complain against Moses, saying they were better off in Egypt as slaves. In the book of Numbers, we hear the people lament, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish, we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” (6)
All they could focus their minds on, was what used to be. They struggled to be in that liminal space of the desert. This was not an ideal time, nor was it always a holy or prayerful experience. There was significant suffering, beyond missing fish, cucumbers, and garlic. While the people of God could not see it in the moment, tradition looks back to see this as a time of deep intimacy between God and Israel. The desert exposed the dependence God’s people have on God in an indisputable way.
We do not know what Jesus discovered in the wilderness, what truths were laid bare. In Mark’s account, we only know that Jesus was tempted by Satan, with the wild beats, and was waited on by angels. In these few words scholar see a battle between good and evil. Satan and the wild beasts seek to draw Jesus away from the path set before him, away from his vocation as Beloved of God. Jesus resists that temptation as the angels care for him. We discover through this story, that in the wilderness temptation must be confronted; and can only be overcome by the very grace of God.
The wilderness, the desert, deserted places, are connected to the spiritual life because they are places of clarity: free from distractions, void of excuses to refuse to see the truth being told. They are barren, lonely, dangerous places we are called to out of necessity, not by choice. Where as God is revealed on mountain tops, humanity is revealed in the wilderness.
Our tradition of Lent, this 40 day liturgical season (remember Sundays do not count, they are in Lent not of Lent) is a wilderness season. During this time we are led by the Spirit to strip away all distractions. We are called to honestly examine our lives, to name the ways we have succumb to temptation, strayed from the path, neglected our vocation as Beloved of God. This is a time to step beyond the what we have always known, into that space of transformation.
This is no ordinary Lent. This is yet another Lent in a time of pandemic. It might feel like the Lenten season of 2020 never ended. We might even find ourselves facing the temptation to resist the call of Lent this year.
Let me be so bold as to suggest that Lent is precisely what we need in this moment. Like those Scriptural wilderness times from which our Lenten tradition is drawn, these are dangerous and deadly times. This is a wilderness time where truths are being laid bare, where opportunities of clarity are unfolding, if only we are willing to be driven out, letting go of the tight grasp that clings to the way we have always done things.
In this wilderness our humanity is being revealed. We have discovered that some are depressed and lonely, struggling to maintain health and safety. Some are struggling to keep peace in their households; conflict, pain, even violence escalating at staggering rates. Some are finding new ways to connect with others, new ways to serve and care for neighbors. Some are discovering the deep inequity of our national life: the death sentence poverty can be when health care is tied to employment; the systemic violence of white supremacy as the murder of black and brown bodies unfolds on social media; the danger of alternative realities which reject fact and scientific inquiry. As is always true in biblical wilderness, our wilderness has revealed how profoundly dependent we are on God.
We have been driven into this place for a purpose. We may not know what that purpose is yet, we are certainly not here by choice, but perhaps this Lenten season will help provide the needed clarity for our lives individually and collectively. We can open ourselves, stripping away the barriers, freeing ourselves of distraction, trusting that as God guided the people of Israel, as the angels waited on Jesus, we too will be met by the loving care of God.
Wilderness seasons do not last forever. Storms come to an end, water recedes giving way to dry ground. We hear from Genesis the ending of one such season and the beginning of something new. God makes a covenant with Noah and his sons, sealing it with the image of that bow in the clouds. That great sign of the new relationship with God and God’s people, the promise they can move forward together.
Jesus comes out of the wilderness ready to get to work. Mark tells us that Jesus is in Galilee, “proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news”. (7)
Jesus emerges from the wilderness, triumphant over the temptations of Satan, confirmed in his vocation and identity as the Beloved of God, and now he begins the work before him: calling disciples, casting out demons, healing the sick, challenging the status quo, inviting people to let go of what was, dream of what is to come, and share in the building of the Kingdom of God. From time to time, Jesus will go back to those deserted places, listening, discerning, preparing for whatever comes next.
In this Lenten season, as we sit with Jesus in the wilderness, let us not resist where the Spirit is driving us. Let us accept the call of Lent to enter into a time of penitence and confession; to practice giving alms; fasting, denying worldly temptations and cravings. Let us remove those things which prevent us from disciplines of prayer and study of God’s word. Let us embrace the silence, listening for the voice of God. Listening for the invitation, listening for the promise that we can move forward together.
Thomas Merton, American Trappist monk, in his book Thoughts in Solitude, offers what is now known as the Merton Prayer. It is for discernment when the future is uncertain. He writes:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. (8)
I think it would do us well to take Merton’s words as our own.
We do not know what lies ahead for us. But in time, we will emerge from the wilderness. This pandemic will come to an end. Things will go back to something that feels like normal, but things will never be the same. We have been brought to this place for a reason. May our Lenten journey guide our discernment to discover why we are here, and where we are being called to go next.
Turning our lives towards God, acknowledging that without God we can do nothing, accepting our utter dependence on God, let us journey on without fear, trusting that God will never leave us to face the perils of this age alone.
(1) Mark 1:12-13, NRSV.
(2) Mark 9:2-9, NRSV.
(3) Exodus 3, NRSV.
(5) Mark 1:12, NRSV.
(6) Numbers 11:4b-5, NRSV.
(7) Mark 1:14b-15, NRSV.
(8) Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, Part II.II.
Sermon for Ash Wednesday (17 February 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
Trail marker, Roger Williams Park, Providence, RI. Photo taken by The Rev’d Dante A. Tavolaro, 19 February 2018.
A few weeks ago I was talking with a friend who also happens to be a priest. As we talked the question was asked, “So how do we do Ash Wednesday without ashes?”
This is one of those days that is deeply rooted in ritual, that requires us to be together; that requires us to be close to one another. It is a day that requires us to do that which crosses the boundaries of protocols set to keep us safe during this time of pandemic. So the question remained what do we do to keep Ash Wednesday during a time of pandemic.
More than any other time in our liturgical life during this pandemic, this is the day that I have not wanted to think about. I did not want to contemplate another Lent in Coronatide. To be honest, as colleagues have called to talk and share ideas, there were even been moments where I flat out refused to do so. It was all just too much. The grief was too strong.
But here we are.
Like it or not we are entering the season of Lent, approaching the first anniversary of our suspension of in person worship, contemplating another season kept with all pandemic restrictions.
So, how do we do Ash Wednesday without ashes? Can we even do Ash Wednesday without ashes?
Well, obviously, we are still doing Ash Wednesday. And maybe, as has been true at other moments, there is a gift and opportunity to keeping this day in the way we are forced to this year.
Sometimes we can become so focused on the rituals, the actions themselves, that we forget the meaning and reasons behind them. We can become so focused on going through the motions that we forget why we started doing them in the first place. And it turns out we have put all our focus and attention on the part of the liturgy that is completely optional. The imposition of ashes is not a required part of what we do this day. So if the ashes are not what Ash Wednesday is all about, then what is?
Church of England priest, theologian, and artist Maggie Dawn, in her book Giving it up: Daily Bible readings from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day, writes this in her reflection for Ash Wednesday:
Lent is in part about the recognition of our own humanity, but the words ‘dust to dust’ put us squarely in the same territory as a funeral service. They can seem a dour and punishing declaration of sinfulness, making it hard to see the overriding sense of redemption that the gospel should always carry. Acknowledging both the sinful nature of humanity and our own particular flaws may be essential if we’re to escape the arrogance that makes the human heart leaden and ugly, but there’s a fine line between that an an over-emphasis on sinfulness, which so easily transforms the lightness of the gospel into the straitjacket of religiosity . . . I think, though, that a lightness does emerge from the process of facing down our own demons. When we look our mortality in the face, the inevitability of our own death asks of us, ‘What are you going to do with the life you have? (1)
The ashes we bear on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday are a sign that points to our mortality. The fact that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. I do not think this year, we need to be reminded of the ever present fact of our mortality.
We are in the midst of a devastating global health pandemic. While numbers are trending in the right direction, and the vaccination roll out continues offering hope for the future, more than 480,000 people have died from COVID in this country alone. Two of those dead were beloved members of this community. Every day the pandemic forces to confront the mortality of our friends, family, and fellow community members – we are forced to confront our own mortality. Smudging ashes made from last year’s palms will not invite us to think of anything we are not already aware of.
What this day does, no matter the year, is invite us not only to remember our mortality, but to consider the question “What are you going to do with the life you have?”
We keep this day year in and year out not to check off a box of ritual obligations, but to make a right beginning for the Lenten journey we are about to embark on.
Today is a solemn day rooted in invitation and promise, rooted in hope and mercy. This day sets the tone for the rest of this holy season.
If you have ever been hiking you might be familiar with the signs at the head of a trail. They often contain maps of the route you are about to set out on, they offer descriptions of the terrain that lies ahead, they may even offer advise, pointers, or helpful tips to remember along the journey.
Ash Wednesday is the marker at the beginning of the Lenten trail. This day is that reassuring sign, letting us know what it so come, offering helpful tips before we set out to climb that holy hill. Today gives us the advantage of knowing that at the end of this long, sometimes difficult path, we will discover God reveled to us in a very unique and particular way that is only seen at Calvary.
In a few moments I will have the privilege of inviting us to begin this journey with these words:
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer. (2)
These are the tasks, the guides, the work of Lent. These things, each in their own way, invite us to strip away all that separates us from the love of God. Each of these things invites us to let go of all that we cling to that is not life giving.
St. Augustine of Hippo once wrote, “you have made us for yourself [O Lord], and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” (3) Blessed Augustine was keenly aware that each and every person has a God shaped hole in their heart. Places that can only be filled by God. No matter how hard we try, no matter the amounts of money we amass, no matter the quantity of our possessions, no matter the vast expanse of our power, nothing else will ever fill that void. Until we yield to the power of God, and the need for God to fill that place in us, we will remain restless.
The work of Lent, the work we are invited to now, is the work of clearing out all the things we have tried to substitute for God. We follow in the footsteps of Christ and seek that self-emptying posture, that we might become vessels for God to fill with light, mercy, and love. This is the aim of those spiritual practices the Prayer Book enumerates.
Lent is not some liturgical equivalent of a self-help book. It is not about getting a boost on the new diet we have wanted to try, or getting a jump start on our spring cleaning. Lent is about preparing ourselves to be set free from all that holds us captive by the abundant, unceasing, incomprehensible love of God.
As Maggie Dawn goes on to write:
Pausing to contemplate our mortality on Ash Wednesday is not for the sake of making us bleak, but to startle us into an awareness of the gift of life. We’re neither perfect nor immortal: we are merely and yet wonderfully human, and we need to know who we are in our imperfections as well as our gifts in order to live every day as if it counts for something. The call to repentance isn’t supposed to leave us dour or morbidly obsessed with our failing. Instead, it’s a call to turn away decisively from what keeps us from God, alienates us from other people and stops us from living well. (4)
This is how we keep Ash Wednesday without the ashes. Being mindful of our mortality, we focus on how we live our lives going forward – knowing tomorrow is never promised. We focus on making a right beginning, recognizing that we have strayed from the path God has set before us, and reorienting ourselves back to the trail God invite us to walk.
The Gospel passage appointed for this day, is one that we hear every year. In non-pandemic years, I think the passage appointed for this solemn occasion is humorously ironic. On the day we mark our foreheads with ashes, we hear Jesus say, “Beware of practicing your piety before others.” Insert classic, “of all the passages, in all of scripture” joke here.
This year, instead of getting lost in the juxtaposition of our liturgical practices and the surface level understanding of Jesus’ warnings, we can look for something deeper in what Jesus has to say.
I do not think that Jesus really has a problem with public ministry and professions of faith. After all, this is Jesus who tells the disciples to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. This is Jesus who works miracles, heals the sick, casts out demons in very public places. This is Jesus, who says just a few chapters from now, “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.”(5) And, by the way, the words we hear today, are taken from the heart of the Sermon on the Mount.
I am not just trying to create some sort of job security or ensure the future or our liturgical tradition. This is not some sort of smoke and mirrors justification to keep doing what we do. Given all that we know of Jesus, all the Scripture tells us, it seems to me that Jesus is not warning us about carrying out public ministry and acts of faith in general, but rather we are being warned about the reasons we carry out such things.
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them . . . So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. . . And whenever you prayer, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others . . . And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. (6)
We are called to pray, to proclaim the good news of God, to be generous to those in need, but we are not to do those things to make ourselves look good. We are not to do those things so that others say, “look how holy they are, look how pious they are, look how generous they are.” We are to do these things, and every else in the entirety of our lives, for the glory of God. We pray and proclaim the good news of God so that other might know something of how God is present and active in our midst. We are generous as a response to the generosity of God. We are to love and act the very same way that God loves and acts.
At the heart of this day, at the core of this season, is the profession and proclamation that try as we might, we are not God, and that without God we can do nothing. We are mortal, formed of the earth and to earth we shall return.
But that does not mean we are without hope. For we can face our mortality, we can let go of any fear, because we know the end of the story. We know what awaits us at the end of the journey. We know the glories of the resurrection. We know there is another way: the way of hope, the way of love, the way of God that leads to eternal and everlasting life in the kingdom which shall not pass away.
It is time for us to make a right beginning. To take up once more the work of Lent. This is how we keep Ash Wednesday without the ashes. This is how we embarked on another Lenten pilgrimage during this time of pandemic.
One of the guide posts I cling to every year as we journey through Lent are the words of Hymn 145, “Now quit your care”, written by Percy Dearmer. I share these words with you, hoping they help guide us on the road ahead:
Now quit your care and anxious fear and worry; for schemes are vain and fretting brings no gain. Lent calls to prayer, to trust and dedication; God brings new beauty nigh; reply, reply, reply with love to love most high; reply, reply, reply with love to love most high.
To bow the head in sackcloth and in ashes, or rend the soul, such grief is not Lent’s goal; but to be led to where God’s glory flashes, his beauty to come near. Make clear, make clear, make clear where truth and light appear; Make clear, make clear, make clear where truth and light appear.
For is not this the fast that I have chosen? (The prophet spoke) To shatter every yoke, of wickedness the grievous bands to loosen, oppression put to flight, to fight, to fight, to fight till every wrong’s set right. to fight, to fight, to fight till every wrong’s set right.
For righteousness and peace will show their faces to those who feed the hungry in their need, and wrongs redress, who build the old waste places, and in the darkness shine. Divine, divine, divine it is when all combine! Divine, divine, divine it is when all combine!
Then shall your light break forth as doth the morning; your health shall spring, the friends you make shall bring God’s glory bright, your way through life adorning; and love shall be the prize. Arise, arise, arise! and make a paradise! Arise, arise, arise! and make a paradise! (7)
(1) Maggi Dawn, Giving it up: Daily Bible readings from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day, p. 13
(2) The Book of Common Prayer, p.265
(3) St. Augustine, Confessions, 1.1.1.
(4) Dawn, Giving it up, p. 15
(5) Matthew 10:27, NRSV.
(6) Matthew 6:1-6,16-21, NRSV.
(7) The Hymnal 1982, Hymn 145, words by Percy Dearmer (1867-1936).
Sermon for the Sunday after the Epiphany (14 February 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
Pietro Perugino: Collegio del Cambio (Trasfigurazione), 1496-1500. Public Domain
Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. It is a day sometimes referred to as Transfiguration Sunday. A titled given due to the fact that on this Sunday, every year, we hear the story of the transfiguration. But I fear we do ourselves a disservice by exchanging the title given by The Book of Common Prayer, the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, for this more colloquial title.
You see, Transfiguration is a day already on the Church calendar. The Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ is a holy day and it falls on August 6th. When we call today Transfiguration Sunday we risk conflating these two days, diminishing the opportunity to hear how God is speaking to us in this moment. For this Sunday is about more than giving us the opportunity to celebrate the Transfiguration every six months instead of once a year.
The difference between today and that holy day sixth months from now is more than a matter of semantics. The substance of this difference is encapsulated in the collects of the day for these two occasions.
Hear the words of the collect for the Feast of the Transfiguration:
O God, who on the holy mount revealed to chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty; who with you, O Father, and you, O Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (1)
This is a beautiful prayer, with fabulous poetic language. I love that phrase, “your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening.” This prayer draws our attention to the resplendent majesty of the revelation of God on that mountain top. The glory of God revealed to the disciples, revealed to us, as we behold our King in his beauty – the unmatched beauty of God.
As wonderful as that prayer is, as meet and right it is to praise the glory of God, that is not the prayer we have today. I know we just prayed these words a moment ago, but hear them once more:
O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (2)
There it is. There is the difference between what we do this day and what we do on that holy day in August. There is the difference between the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Last Sunday after the Epiphany.
Today there is no talk of raiment white and glistening, no King in his beauty. In the middle of that prayer after we acknowledge the radiance of God, before we get to that part where we are changed from glory to glory, we have to go through the cross.
We have come to the end of the season that stretches from the Feast of the Epiphany until the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. Over the course of these last several weeks we have been hearing about how God is manifest is the world: how God is revealed in our midst. This season began back on January 6, just over a month ago, as we recalled the journey of those travels from a far off and distant land coming to pay homage to the new born king.
In the course of a week we go from infancy to adulthood. On the first Sunday after the Epiphany we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord. That day where Jesus stands on the banks of the Jordan River, is immersed into the living waters of Baptism by John, and begins his ministry. In that inaugural event, which we actually hear again next Sunday, as Jesus comes up out of the waters the heavens are torn open and a voice declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (3)
This revelatory moment, this epiphany, proclaims Jesus’ identity, and displays the interconnectedness of that identity with Baptism. Identity questions constitute the theological core of Mark’s Gospel. These questions are central to the good news which Mark tells: Who is Jesus? Who are we? Who does Jesus say that we are? Who do we say that Jesus is?
Throughout this season, week after week, story after story, as we hear God made manifest, the foundations of identity are being laid. Identities of disciples as we heard the call stories of Philip, Nathanael, Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Identity rooted in preaching, teaching, and healing as Jesus taught in the synagogue on the sabbath, cast an unclean spirit out of a man, healed Simon’s mother-in-law, and began his public ministry of healing and casting out demons. This journey of manifestation, of revelation, brings us to today; always concluding with this story of yet another marvelous epiphany, as the identity of Jesus is revealed in a new way.
In this Gospel passage, just before Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the high mountain, there is a brief narrative note. The passage begins, “six days later.” Those three words draw us back to what came before.
Six days earlier, after healing a blind man, Jesus travels with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. As they are walking along Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” They answer: John the Baptist, Elijah, some other prophet. Then Jesus asks them, “But who do you say that I am?” To this Peter replies, “You are the Messiah.” (4)
Peter names the identity of Jesus, and that identification is followed by the first of three passion predictions in Mark. Moments later Jesus says to his disciples, “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (5) Jesus’ identity cannot be separated from what is to come.
By the way, after that passion prediction, Peter pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him, to which Jesus responds with that memorable line, “Get behind me Satan!” (6)
So here we are, six days after that, up on a mountain top with Jesus, Peter, James, and John. While they are there, Jesus is transfigured, they behold his raiment white and glistening. There is something other worldly, something beyond the capabilities of humanity, in Jesus’ appearance. Not only that, Elijah and Moses are there as well: connecting Jesus’ identity to the great lineage of the Jewish tradition. Moses, the liberator – the one God calls to lead God’s people out of bondage in Egypt. Elijah, who we heard about in our first lesson. Elijah, who does not die but is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind in a chariot of fire. Elijah, that one of whom it was believed, that his coming again would signal the dawn of the Messiah.
Here Jesus is transfigured, with these pillars of the faith beside him, revealing that he truly is the Messiah. What an awesome sight; and I do not mean awesome in the contemporary use of the word. What an amazingly daunting, inspiring, fear provoking sight.
Peter, always that first one to jump in, responds to this sight by saying, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” (7) Peter does not want to come down off the mountain. He wants to remain there, showered in the glory of God, removed from what happens at the foot of the mountain. As he makes this suggestion, “a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (8) And with that, things were as they once were. Moses and Elijah are gone. They were alone on the mountain with Jesus.
This is the second time in Mark’s Gospel that a voice from heaven speaks. This time, that voice is directed at the disciples. That voice declares to them that their rabbi, their teacher, is the Son of God; and they are commanded to listen to him. There are numerous occasions in Mark’s Gospel when the disciples, especially Peter, try to control and manipulate Jesus. They want Jesus to fit into their understanding and expectations of the Messiah. They want him to forget about this whole suffering and dying thing. No matter how hard they try, nothing can stop what is coming next. All they can do is listen to him.
We do not get to stay on the mountain top, basking in the glow of Jesus’ transfigured glory. Jesus’ identity requires that he comes down from the mountain, sets his face towards Jerusalem, and begins that long walk that leads to the cross. Our identity requires that we listen to him. For it is from that place, atop that other hill, that Jesus’ identity is revealed again. It is from that place where we are changed into his likeness, where we are changed from glory to glory.
It seems to me that we hear this story today and on every Last Sunday after the Epiphany because it is time for us to come down from the mountain and begin the next phase of our journey as well.
Today as we behold the glory of the transfigured Lord we are not allowed even a modicum of delusion that glory can be separated from suffering – that resurrection can come without the crucifixion; Easter without Good Friday. Today we are reminded to listen to all the things we are about to hear.
It can be easy to listen to Jesus when he is preaching marvelous things, casting out demons, and healing the sick. It is easy when our Scripture lessons are filled with inspiring words that lift us up and bring us joy – those passages we might find ourselves quoting, or that might make good fodder for a bumper sticker. But in the weeks ahead we are going to hear some things that are a bit more challenging. We are going to hear rebukes, we will witness Jesus get angry, we will hear of the death and suffering that is to come. We might just find that in the weeks ahead, instead of being inspired by miracles, we are called up short. For when we hear Jesus rebuking those around him, we can hear him rebuking us as well. We can hear the ways we have fallen short, the ways we have not lived into our potential, the ways we sin – all those things, those barriers, we put between ourselves and others, between ourselves and God. We are on the cusp of entering into that season that invites us to face this reality head on.
The season of Lent invites us to repentance and self-examination. It invites us to prayer, fasting, and study. It invites us to be honest with ourselves and name those things we might not be particularly proud of – those barriers we have set up along the way, those times we have refused to let the love of God into our lives.
We take on this work of examination and repentance, we seek to amend our ways, not because we have to appease an angry and wrathful God set on punishing us into oblivion. We do this so that we might be who God has created us to be. That we might experience the fullness of all that God intends for us.
Lent is not about beating ourselves up; Lent is about love. Love that seeks to transform us, love that seeks to transfigure our lives that we might live more fully into all the covenants and promises we have made with ourselves, with each other, and with God.
Lent is going to require hard work and difficult things from us. If we get to Easter and the only sense of relief we have is that relief which exclaims, “Yay! I get to eat chocolate again!”then we have missed something – we have squandered the opportunities of this season.
The relief we should feel on Easter is the relief that we have made the journey. We have examined those things we might be ashamed of, we have named those things we wish were different, we have honestly and intentionally looked at all the barriers we have set up in our lives; and we have laid those burdens down, laid them at the foot of the cross. We have placed them in the hands of God, that God might redeem them, transform them, and set us free. That is the relief of Easter; the relief we have when we have been liberated from the shackles of sin, the burden and weight we cling to. The relief is basking in the cruciform glow of the cross, the emptiness of the tomb, and hearing God say to us “You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
As we come to this day, let us not get stuck on the mountain top. Let us be brave enough to come down from the mountain, no longer frozen in the terror of amazement. Let us march on, following the path that has been illuminated by the transfigured glory of the Lord. As we set out on this journey we have no reason to be afraid of. This is a well-worn path; worn by the foot steps of Jesus, paved with the love of God.
Just as Jesus’ identity is revealed in Baptism and rooted in the cross, so is our identity. As we stand beholding the the light of God’s countenance may we be strengthened for the road ahead – to make it to that place of the cross, for it is from there that we too will be transfigured. It is from there that we will be changed into Jesus’ likeness from glory to glory.
(1) The Book of Common Prayer (1979) p. 243.
(2) Ibid., p. 217.
(3) Mark 1:11, NRSV.
(4) Mark 8:27-30, NRSV.
(5) Mark 8:31, NRSV.
(6) Mark 8:33, NRSV.
(7) Mark 9:5, NRSV.
(8) Mark 9:7, NRSV.
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (7 February 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
Healing Peter’s mother-in-law by John Bridges, 19th century. Public Domain
Jesus “came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” (1)
This is one of those passages for which it is meet and right for all male identified preachers to approach with caution. For far too long Scripture passages like this one have been used to promote the sexist belief that the woman’s place is in the kitchen. For far too long preachers and teachers have used passages like this one to say the proper role of women is to serve men. After all Peter’s mother-in-law, upon being healed by Jesus, gets up and begins to serve Jesus and those four fishermen turned disciples: Simon, who will later be called Peter, Andrew, James, and John.
This poor interpretation, this dangerous interpretation, is rooted in the shortcomings of the English language and the pervasive sinfulness of the patriarchy – the system that places men in the position of power and authority over women who, must assume the subservient role; the system that lauds masculinity as the pinnacle of achievement and femininity as something to avoid if not outright degraded.
This reading of the Gospel is rooted in the profound misunderstanding of the word “serve.” The Greek here, the word being translated as “serve” is diakoneín – sometimes rendered as diakonía which means “service.” I wonder if those Greek words sound at all familiar?
Now when this word diakoneín is used outside of the New Testament it carries an undignified meaning. For the Greeks service was undignified. The goal was to be served not to serve. But as with so many other things, Jesus takes human understandings, turns them upside down, a gives to us a new definition.
In the Gospel, actually in all of the New Testament diakoneín is something to be exalted, it is connected and related to love of God. Jesus, in redefining this word, does not present a hypothetical definition plucked out of obscurity; a contrarian view simply to be countercultural. Jesus points to his own life and ministry. As we will hear later on in Mark’s Gospel, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” (2) In redefining diakoneín from the secular Greek understanding to a new Gospel understanding, Jesus institutes a new pattern for human behavior and relationship, which leads to those acts of humble loving service – acts of waiting on tables and washing feet – acts which Jesus commanded us to do when calling us to love our neighbors.
There is nothing subservient, demeaning, or degrading about what Simon’s mother-in-law does after being healing. What she does is the most exalted behavior, the most Christ-like way of being in the world. In response to receiving the healing power of God in her life, she immediately goes forth to extend that same service to those around her.
I wonder if any of this, these traits and attributes, these calls to service rooted in love of God, love of neighbor sound familiar? I wonder if your brain is searching for the English word which is related to that Greek word diakoníen? I wonder if you have been thinking about the word, the role, the ministry of deacon.
Simon’s mother-in-law, this woman whose name we sadly do not know, responses to God’s love, responses to God’s presence in her life, by taking on the role and ministry of a deacon. And I pity the person foolish enough to say there is anything demeaning about diaconal ministry.
This ministry, this way of life, is not reserved solely for Simon’s mother-in-law, or St. Stephen, a deacon and the first martyr of the Church, or those individuals we know today who have been called to the specific vocation and role of Deacon. Nor is this way of life reserved for the ordained more broadly: for to be a Bishop you have to be ordained a Priest first, and to be ordained a Priest you have to be ordained a Deacon first. Or to quote a popular saying in the Church, “Once a Deacon, always a Deacon.”
This call to diakoneín is the call of every person who claims to be a follower of Jesus; every one of us who takes on the identity of Christian; every one of us who shares in the life of the baptized, who has been washed in those same baptismal water from which Jesus emerged when the heavens were torn opened and God declared, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (3) Simply put, there is not one of us who is called to anything less than lives of humble and loving service, live following the very example of Jesus, lives actively responding to the presence of God in our lives.
As the ministry of Jesus unfolds, as the Gospel goes on to tell the story, diakoneín begins to expand from the table service exemplified by Simon’s mother-in-law. This idea, this way of life, broadens to included every kind of sacrificial activity on behalf of others. It is another way to describe the freedom we have in Christ, the freedom we experience as we take on lives of service, the freedom we experience when we sacrifice for the sake of others. This is exactly what we heard about last week in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. This is exactly what Jesus’ life and ministry is all about, a ministry that will require him to walk that long and winding road to the hill of Calvary. This humble, loving service is the very foundation of our salvation.
Anyone looking down upon this call to servanthood, anyone exploiting those who serve, anyone thinking they are above these so called “menial tasks” is dancing on the doorstep of blaspheme.
This first healing story in Mark’s Gospel follows on the heals of Jesus’ first exorcism (which we heard as the Gospel passage last Sunday). These two miraculous occasions serve as a preview of what is to come.
Whereas Jesus’ inaugural act happened earlier in the day in a very public place, in the synagogue on the Sabbath, this healing happens in the privacy and safety of Simon’s home. Later on in the passage we hear that Jesus begins his public healings “that evening, at sundown;” in other words when the Sabbath is over. As community organizer and theologian Ched Myers writes, “His action implies that there might be something controversial about openly healing on the Sabbath.” (4) Indeed there is something very controversial about Jesus’ work of healing on the Sabbath. For it is after such a public healing, that the religious authorities will begin to conspire together against Jesus. (5)
What we heard last Sunday, that exorcism Jesus preformed in the Synagogue on the Sabbath, and what we hear this Sunday, come together to amplify the subversive and dangerous nature of Jesus’ ministry.
This new thing God is going to shake the very foundations of the established order. Jesus will come head to head with the establishment of his day. For whenever established systems of power are threatened, those who hold that power will go to any lengths necessary to maintain it.
Jesus dares to heal people in a way that goes against what had been deemed proper. He dares to heal when people need it, not delaying until society says it is appropriate to do so. It is that boldness, that commitment to fulfilling the will of God for God’s people, that God’s people might be healed and made whole, that insistence on recognizing the worth and dignity of everyone, especially those whom society marginalized, it is for daring to proclaim in his preaching and teaching and healings (which should be understood together and cannot be separated from each other) it is for this that the powers of this world determine that Jesus must be destroyed.
While the authorities are threatened by Jesus, there is a clear longing for what he has to offer the world. Mark tells us, “that evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city gathered around the door.” (6) Crowds are seeking after Jesus. There is a longing to experience God’s ability to restore people to wholeness.
This is a deeply profound theological statement. This is about more than curing a few illnesses and casting out a couple of demons. The longing and desires of the crowd represents the longing of all of humanity to be made whole, to be reincorporated into the community, the longing to be set free.
Conventional wisdom of Jesus’ day spoke of illness as God’s punishment for sin. Even the disciples held to this understanding. In John’s Gospel, when Jesus heals a men who has been blind since birth, the disciples want to know, “who sinned, this man or his parents.” (7) But Jesus does not see things that way. Illness, infirmity, being differently abled is not some sort of divine punishment.
The act of healing is an opportunity for restoration; reclaiming that which has been broken or lost. Often people were excluded from the community due to their illness. Exiled because they were deemed “unclean.” The healing that Jesus brings, is one that allows those who have been cast off to be brought back into the life of the community.
More broadly speaking, each and every person stands in need of the healing power of God. These healing stories are a reminder to us that God seeks to make us whole, whatever that means for each particular individual. God waits for us to open ourselves up to receive the gift of God’s love that we might live into the fullness of who God has created us to be.
At the outset of his public ministry, we learn that Jesus will not shy from broken bodies or demonic spirits. Jesus is not afraid to reach out and touch humanity to heal us and make us whole. Jesus is there waiting to take us by the hand, lifting us up, just like Simon’s mother-in-law.
The restoration of Jesus’ ministry is not simply for the benefit of individuals live. God is about the work of healing the systems and structures of society as well.
Every time Jesus casts out a demon, every time he heals someone who is sick, he is casting out the demons and illnesses of society. Illness for day laborers was a life threatening thing. Just as is true today, in Jesus’ time illness and disability were an inseparable part of the cycle of poverty. Without work laborers, and their families, would have been subject to near instant impoverishment. Healing illness is not just about a person’s physical health, it is about healing the inequities of a socio-economic system.
The same principle is true of casting out demons. When we hear stories of exorcisms preformed by Jesus, like what we heard last Sunday, we should not get lost in trying to prove the believability of these stories or impose contemporary understandings of mental health on Biblical narratives. When we hear these stories, particularly in Mark’s Gospel, we should look for the deeper socio-political context. Mark is not presenting a biographical, historically accurate, scientific narrative of Jesus’ life; Mark is painting a theological portrait of what happens when God stoops to humanity in the incarnation.
Jesus comes to cast out the demons that plague society. Systems of violence, oppression, and inequity. I am reminded of Martin Luther King Jr’s 1967 speak “The Three Evils of Society,” where Dr. King names the evils of militarism, economic exploitation, and racism that plague society. These are the demons that Jesus seeks to destroy. These are the demons we are called to name and cast out so that all people might be liberated – that all God’s beloved children might be loved, honored, and cherish.
What Jesus does for one; Jesus intends for us all. Healing, wholeness, liberation from the demons of this world.
Jesus says to Peter, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” Nothing will stop God from accomplishing God’s purposes on earth. No matter how hard Peter, and the other disciples try to control Jesus’ movements, there is nothing they – or anyone else – can do to stop the work of God.
God is on the move. The loving, liberating, life-giving power of God is unfolding before the eyes of the disciples, just as it is unfolding before our eyes here and now. Let us show the world the power of God’s love in our lives. Let us claim our ministry of diakoneín. Let us recognize the new thing God is doing in our midst, the societal demons God is casting out, the systems of oppression being torn down, and share in the work of God in this time and place.
(1) Mark 1:31, NRSV.
(2) Mark 10:45, NRSV.
(3) Mark 1:11, NRSV.
(4) Ched Myers, ”Say to this Mountain” Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p.15
(5) Mark 3:1-6, NRSV.
(6) Mark 1:32-33, NRSV.
(7) John 9:2, NRSV.
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (31 January 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
Eleventh century fresco of the Exorcism at the Synagogue in Capernaum. Public Domain
There is a collect in the service of Morning Prayer that I am particularly fond of. In the scheme I follow for selecting collects, it is a prayer appointed for use on Tuesday mornings. Over the past few months, I have found this prayer shifting closer to the heart of my prayer life – no longer reserved for Tuesdays alone. For me, the words of this prayer echo the deep need associated with this season of our life together. The prayer is titled “A Collect for Peace.” The Rite II version of this prayer is found on page 99 of The Book of Common Prayer; and for those who prefer Rite I, you can find it on page 57. Hear the words of the Rite II version of this prayer:
O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom: Defend us, your humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in your defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (1)
I treasure the way this prayer declares God as the author of peace; I value the cry for defense; I am reassured by the call for us to place our trust in God; and most of all, I am thankful for the clarity of the way of life expressed in this prayer when we say, “to serve you is perfect freedom.”
The word freedom is a powerful one in our secular culture. It is arguably at the very core of the identity of our nation. Freedom, some might say, is synonymous with America. Defined as, “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint;”(2) freedom can be understood as a license to do, within reason, whatever we want, whenever ever we want, without fear of consequences. Great anger arises when people feel their freedom is being impinged upon, and we have seen the lengths people will go to in that fury.
I say all this to provide a baseline for how freedom is commonly understood in our current United States context. I say this to demonstrate just how radical this prayer for peace is, in light of the contemporary cultural understanding.
The freedom this prayer highlights, the freedom of our Christian faith, is not a freedom that says I can do whatever I want, whenever I feel like doing it. It is a freedom that comes from sacrificing of ourselves for the benefit of others. It is the freedom that comes from turning our lives over to God, accepting God’s invitation to break the shackles of sin that bind us. The perfect freedom we are called to in this prayer is that which is articulated in those words from Matthew’s Gospel:
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.(3)
The way of life for us as followers of Jesus is one where we say our yokes fit well. We only understand true freedom when we believe that our lives do not belong to us, they belong to God.
When we accept this call, this sacred trust, we can begin to recognize that our lives are intricately connected with that of our neighbor. So much so, that we are responsible for one another. This is exactly the point that Paul is making in today’s epistle.
We hear this morning from the First Letter to the Corinthians. Paul writes, “Now concerning food scarified to idols,” (4) and then goes on to talk about meat. Now before you start to worry, Paul is not advocating that everyone become a vegetarian. Paul is advocating that the people of the Church in Corinth change their behavior out of care and concern for their neighbors. Paul is concerned about the division in the community that is centered around the consumption of meat.
The social life of the upper classes in Corinth revolved around frequent feasts, banquets, celebrations, and public events held in dining spaces of temples. The well-to-do patronized the meat markets connected with the temples both for meat used at these parties and in their own homes.
For those Christians in this category they knew that there was no issue for them in eating this meat. They know that there is only one God, one Lord. So to eat meat sacrificed to these co called gods and lords was not an issue, for they had the knowledge that no such gods and lords existed. Eating this food was not a risk or a potential stumbling block to them in their faith. But as Paul warns, “take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” (5)
The members of this social class were not the only people of the community. There was another group. These individuals were not financially privileged and were often less educated. They did not have the means to eat meat at home. Many of them converted to Christianity from the very groups sacrificing meat to idols – the meat the wealthy would purchase for themselves. For these members of the community, eating meat associated with the temples threatened their faith. They did not have have the knowledge that allowed the others the freedom to consume this meat without worry. Their new faith was fragile, vulnerable to the temptation of returning to the groups they just left behind. So eating meat sacrificed to the gods they recently followed was too great a risk.
Paul reminds them that food has nothing to do with salvation and it will not bring us close to God. Now where I come from those are fighting words, but to the larger point Paul is exactly right.
What matters is that we live our lives in a way that invites others to follow, that helps others live faithfully. What matters is that we do not do anything that might cause another person harm. What matters is that we are willing to sacrifice what we perceive as our freedom for the health, safety, and well-being of our neighbor. What matters is that we love our neighbor.
Knowledge does not build up community, only love does that. In this spirit, Paul advises those certain in their knowledge, those who eat meat, to consider the other members of the community who do not possess that same certainty. For the well-being of the community, for the benefit of their neighbor, they should stop eating meat.
There are times when every Christian must accept the call to yield and sacrifice for the benefit of others. Paul is clear: to cause another person to stumble is a sin against Christ. “Therefore,” the passage concludes, “if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.” (6) Paul understood the perfect freedom that comes from service to God.
This same freedom is at the heart of Jesus’ miracle that we hear in today’s Gospel.
This episode is Jesus’ inaugural public appearance in Mark. He has just been out on the docks calling Peter, Andrew, James, and John, and now they move from the margins to the heart of the social order – the holy time and space of a synagogue on the Sabbath.
Almost immediately in this passage conflict is revealed. Mark tells us, “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (7) A clear distinction is being made between Jesus and the scribes on whose tuff he stands. This conflict is not just for this moment, but is the essential conflict throughout all of Mark’s Gospel. The conflict between the new thing God is doing and the established order.
Before I say another word, I want to make something very clear. All too often Christians can fall into the trap of anti-semitism when considering the ways that Jesus clashes with the Jewish authorities of his day. The scribes and the Pharisees should not be understand and the “bad guys” of the Gospel. These religious leaders were doing everything they could to carry out and continue the traditions that had been passed on to them. The scribes and the Pharisees and the other religious leaders of the Jewish community were doing exactly what I, and every other priest, have been called to do. To honor the traditions we have inherited, to abide by the rules we have vowed to obey, to pass along that which has been entrusted to us. The new teaching of Jesus is indeed different from what the people are accustomed to, but in no way is that comparison meant to indict Judaism as a whole.
The fact that Jesus’ healing miracle – the exorcism of the unclean spirit – is sandwiched between the astounded claims of Jesus’ teaching, clues us in to an intentional frame that Mark is placing around this story. To focus solely on the healing narrative, misses the profound political impact of the passage.
Miracles, healings, exorcisms were all fairly common in this era. These acts alone would not make Jesus stand out or apart from any other healer. Mark goes to great lengths to deter us from seeing Jesus as a mere popular magician. Mark frequently has Jesus discouraging people from fixating upon the acts of healing, and at times Jesus directly exhorts his disciples, and by implication the reader, to look into the deeper meaning of the action. In this instance, Mark’s frame, is where our focus should be placed.
Theologian Ched Myers, in his book “Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, writes of how Mark’s frame draws us in to this story. He writes, and I quote,
Who is the “we” on whose behalf the demon speaks? The function of Mark’s framing device suggests that the demon’s voice represent the voice of the scribal class whose “space” Jesus is invading. The synagogue on the Sabbath is scribal turf, where scribes exercise the authority to teach the Torah. This “spirit” personifies scribal power, which holds sway over the hearts and minds of the people. Only after breaking the influence of this spirit is Jesus free to begin his compassionate ministry to the masses. (8)
This is not a healing story for the sake of exhibiting the healing power of God. This story, is part of Mark setting the stage, building the narrative of what Jesus’ kingdom campaign is all about. Whereas the normative function of healings and miracle-workers was to maintain the status quo, gospel healings challenge the ordering of power. The healing in this passage, and every healing story Mark describes, are about more than healing the infirmities of individuals: They are about healing the infirmities and sin of the oppressive nature of the entire social order. (9)
Jesus’ ministry is about inviting people into a way of freedom that can only be achieved when the whole of society is reordered; and that can only be achieved when individuals and communities are willing to give up their power for the benefit of others; are willing to sacrifice for the well-being of those on the margins; are willing to claim love as the founding principle of our lives.
These days we hear a lot of question along the lines of “what will it take for us to get back to normal.” There is no going back to the ways things were. The world is different. We are different. But there is a way to go forward.
As the waters of chaos swell around us, in this time of deep division, when COVID safety protocols become markers of political partisanship, when raising concern about marginalized members of society is met with hateful backlash, when some will go to any length necessary, with little regard for the common good, to have their personal agendas fulfilled and their power solidified, we are called to follow a different way. We are called to see others as God seem them. We are called to love as God loves. We are called, at times, to sacrifice what we feel entitled to so that we might experience a depth of freedom beyond our wildest imaginings and deepest comprehension.
We are a community that posses the knowledge of God’s love. We are a community that posses the knowledge that we need God, not that God needs us. So let us claim our freedom. Let us turn our lives fully over to God. Let us serve God with all that we are and all that we have, with absolutely every fiber of our being.
Let us pray.
O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom: Defend us, your humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in your defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord.
(1) The Book of Common Prayer p. 99
(2) Google Search, Oxford Languages Dictionary
(3) Matthew 1:28-30, NRSV.
(4) 1 Corinthians 8:1, NRSV.
(5) 1 Corinthians 8:9, NRSV.
(6) 1 Corinthians 8:13, NRSV.
(7) Mark 1:22, NRSV.
(8) Ched Myers, ”Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p.14.
(9) Ibid., 14.
Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany (24 January 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
Calling of Peter and Andrew by Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308-1311. Public domain
As a Church we often talk about good news. We think about the good news of our lives, the good news of our community, and most importantly the good news of God. In fact, our 2021 Stewardship Campaign was rooted in the Good News of St. Thomas Church. We have highlighted through this campaign that no matter what is unfolding around us we are always Good News people. As an aside, I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to say if you have not already made a pledge for this year, I hope you will prayerfully consider doing so.
Once again good new is at the heart of our worship. Today’s Gospel passage from Mark is all about good news. Now in fairness, all Gospel passages are about good news, as that is actually what the word Gospel means. But today, we do not hear some generic good news, we hear Jesus’ definition of what good news is. Mark tells us, “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.’” (1)
What a densely packed saying from Jesus. It is fitting that Mark would render unto us such a rich, powerful statement. Mark is the briefest of all Gospels, significantly shorter than the work of the other three Evangelists. This means that for Mark there are no throw away words. Every verse, every phrase must carry significant meaning, for Mark has much to say, and not much time to say it.
That phrase, that pronouncement of good news that Jesus gives is one we could break down word by word, we could preach sermon upon sermon, write book upon book, but I would rather not give you reason to change the channel or start scrolling to the next worship service you can find here on Facebook, so I will avoid the temptation at hand.
But there are some things that warrant our attention. Jesus’ words here can be separated into two components: words about the kingdom of God and words about our response.
The first half of what Jesus says is this, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” The Greek that gets translated as “come near” is slightly ambiguous. There are different meanings and understandings we could assume.
We could understand “come near” as in time. We could hear these words as that which was from long ago, that which has been long anticipated is near at hand: it is just days, or hours, or even minutes away.
We could understand “come near” in terms of geography or location. We could hear these words as saying the kingdom of God is close by: it has broken forth in Providence, Johnston, in Chepachet, the kingdom of God is at the door step of Greenville.
We could understand “come near” in terms of accessibility. We could hear these words saying that which we have hoped for, longed for, prayer for is within our grasp.
As we come to the end of Mark’s prologue, as we hear these words with which Mark sets the stage for everything that follows, it is important for us to hold these understandings lightly and together. For the fullness of Mark’s narrative brings together these strands of time, location, and accessibility.
The second half of Jesus’ words are all about how we respond to the good news – to the kingdom which has come near. Jesus tells us to do two things: repent and believe.
Repent is a word with a complicated past. When we hear the word repent we might immediately think about repenting of sins, seeking forgiveness, that act of confession be it corporate or private. When we hear it, we might call to mind televangelists shouting for people to repent, using it as a way to control and manipulate behavior. If you are anything like me, you might see in your minds eye the ending of the 1985 cinematic classic “Clue” where the undercover FBI agent stands at the door warning that the souls of the dinner guests are in peril.
As colorful as those images might be, that is not what Jesus is talking. That is not what biblical repentance is all about. Biblical repentance is about reorienting ourselves. It is about turning around, it is about changing our minds focusing them back on God. Biblical repentance is all about the Greek word Metanoia – the transformation of our lives, giving ourselves over to God once more.
When Jesus says we need to repent, he might as well be saying. “Hey friends, something amazing is happening, you have to turn around and look. You have to reorient yourself so you can see what God is doing in the world around you.” When we reorient ourselves, when we turn ourselves towards that kingdom view, we can actually believe that the realization of the kingdom of God is possible.
Mark uses the word “kingdom” very intentionally. He could have written: the reign of God, or the order of God, or even the way God meant for things to be from the beginning has come near. But instead he wrote the kingdom of God, and in so doing he was informing his readers that what God is doing is different than what earthly kings and rulers are doing. Mark was making clear that the ways of the kings of the earth, how they governed and led their people, is not how God leads and governors God’s people. God’s kingdom is illumined by the dream that God has for all of creation – For God governs in peace and justice and mercy and love; not greed, hatred, and lust for power.
When we reorient ourselves towards this kingdom life we reorient ourselves to say that the peace and love and justice of God, the reign and rule of the kingdom of God, might happen here and now. That is what Jesus is calling us to in these first words he utters in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus is saying, God is doing something new, turn around, pay attention, trust and believe that what you have been told is unfolding before your very eyes.
In the verses leading up to this declaration from Jesus amazing things are happen. Mark is building an intense narrative – things are moving fast. Mark begins by saying “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (2) Then he immediately moves into retelling the words of the prophet Isaiah, that great prophecy of the coming Messiah. Then we meet John the Baptist, he preaches, he baptizes, he baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River, Jesus sees the heavens open and God declares to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (3) Jesus goes off into the wilderness for forty days, mirroring what the people of Israel did for forty years. John is arrested. Jesus comes out of the wilderness, makes this declaration . . . and then just when we expect something huge to happen there is a major narrative let down. After all of that Jesus goes and hangs out on the docks.
Jesus is walking along the sea of Galilee and he calls his first disciples: he calls four ordinary fishermen to follow him.
The call of these disciples is, for us, pretty miraculous. Mark, the Evangelist of few words, gives barely any detail to this scene leaving us with an incredibly clear message. Jesus sees them, Jesus calls them, they get up and go. There must have been something particularly amazing that they saw in Jesus to inspire them to leave their trade, their families, their social standing behind to follow a complete and total stranger. Think about it. Can you imagine any circumstance by which you would give everything up to follow some random person who showed up at your place of employment saying, “follow me”? That is a miraculous banner of faith, to drop everything you have ever known to go and do something new – something unknown.
This is not the only noteworthy detail about this call story. As Mark’s original audience would have know, but what we might not necessarily realize, the fact that these four are working as fishermen, and are not already disciples of a rabbi, means that they did not make the cut.
In this time young Jewish men would approach their local rabbi to say, “rabbi I want to be your disciple, I want to follow you to learn from you.” The rabbi would decide if the person would be a good fit and if they deserved an invitation to follow. If they made that first cut they would go and study with the rabbi. Along the way there would be test after test after test until only the best of the best of the best remained. Then these few would go off and become rabbis themselves. So the fact that Jesus finds Peter and Andrew, James and John out on the docks means that they were not deemed worthy. They were not the best of the best of the best. It means they did not make the cut. I do not know about you, but for me that is a great source of comfort.
God does not go after those the world deems the best of the best of the best, God calls those who were left out, those who were cast aside, those labeled as unworthy. God follows God’s standards, standards which proclaim that all people are worthy, all people are beloved, especially those the world looks down upon. So if God can call these four fishermen, then God can call you and God can call me. God seeks after each and everyone of us to do great and profound things in God’s name because the truth of the matter is, there is nothing special about John, about James, about Andrew, and Peter – the one with the keys to the kingdom, the rock upon which Jesus will build the church, the one who makes that glorious confession, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (4) – well there is nothing special about him either.
Jesus, in starting this new movement, in recruiting his first followers after making this declaration of the kingdom of God, goes to people the world least expects. He goes to those who we might think are the worst poster children there could be. They have no power, no authority, and yet God, in God’s grace uses them to do amazing things. Just like them, God can, and does, do amazing things through our lives.
Here, as Mark sets up all that will follow, we hear what the good news is, and we hear who is called to the ministry of sharing that good news with the world: people who have every reason to doubt, people who have every reason to think they are not good enough; it is a call for ordinary people, people like you and me.
When Jesus calls this disciples, he is speaking to the core of their identity. This discipleship adventure is not some task for your to do list, it is a way of life. As such, because they are fishermen, Jesus calls them to fish. Jesus says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” (5) I will use the fullness of who you are, the completeness of your identity, all of your gifts, to work marvels for the kingdom of God that has come near.
When we hear this call story, we can hear Jesus calling us to use our gifts. So the engineer among us can hear Jesus calling, “Follow me and build my people.” The teacher can hear, “Follow me and instruct my disciples.” The nurse can hear, “Follow me and restore my people to health.” The dancer, “Follow me and dance in the Spirit.” The artist, “Follow me and paint with all the colors of creation.” To each and everyone of us, “follow me in the fullness of who you are, with everything that you have and participate in proclaiming the good news with me.”
There is great need for good news in our world. Our nation mourns the more than 417,000 individuals who have died from COVID-19. While a new presidential administration begins, we are still a deeply divided nation where partisan politics threatens the collective good. The sin of racism and white supremacy rages on. In recent days we have seen this come close to home, as young people from this town spray painted racist and heterosexist graffiti along the Stillwater Scenic Walkway.
God is calling us to respond to this moment. To believe that the kingdom of God has come near. To believe that life giving and liberating transformation is possible. Jesus is no longer on the docks, he is walking down Putnam Pike.
So let us be like the people of Nineveh, who heard the prophecy from Jonah, changed their ways, and believed God. Let us heed the words of blessed Paul, that the appointed hour has grown short, to live as if God’s promises will be fulfilled any moment.
We do not need to wait for someone else, someone who the worlds deems more important or special to come along and make things better. Each and everyone of us has been called by God. Each and every one of us has a role to play in participating in God’s work in the world.
If anything made Peter, Andrew, James, and John special, it is that they immediately said yes to God.
The kingdom of God has come near, it is already and not yet. We only receive glimpses of what is to come. But when we say yes to God, when we take that first step on the discipleship adventure, the journey of a life time, in the moment of that yes the kingdom of God is fully realized.
As the household of God in this place, let us step together. Not waiting for another time, not waiting for other people to do the work instead, but claiming the call God has placed before us. Let us say yes to God, and behold the kingdom realized in us.
(1) Mark 1:14-15, NRSV.
(2) Mark 1:1, NRSV.
(3) Mark 1:11, NRSV.
(4) Matthew 16:16, NRSV.
(5) Mark 1:17, NRSV.
Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany (17 January 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his famous, “I Have a Dream,” speech during the Aug. 28, 1963, march on Washington, D.C. Public Domain
This weekend our nation celebrates the life and witness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: a man of profound faith, deep passion, a martyr for the cause of justice, righteousness, and love.
It seems that Dr. King’s legacy is often reduced to a single quote: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” (1) All too often we skip over the rest of that speech, we skip over everything else that Dr. King said, and focus on the idilic outcome of the dream. Today, some use Dr. King’s legacy to criticize those naming the injustices of our nation; saying that calling for accountability will only bring further division. When we invoke Dr. King’s words today as a way of erasing racial identity, we erase the profound depths of his dream – a dream still yet to be realized.
At the beginning of that iconic speech Dr. King said:
In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” (2)
Nearly three score years later, that check has not been fully cashed. There is still work to be done to ensure that all truly means all. Just like Dr. King articulated on that August day in 1963 we should not and cannot be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Dr. King often spoke about what would happen when his dream was realized – he told of the Beloved Community. On the occasion of the Supreme Court ruling in favor of the desegregation of Montgomery’s buses, he said:
the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.” (3)
This is what we are striving for, the building of the Beloved Community – building of a world in which exuberant gladness will reign, where love will triumph, where miracles will fill hearts of humanity, where God’s victory will finally be know in full. This is our call.
We are in the season after the Epiphany. In these weeks we experience the revelation of the true nature of Jesus, the Son born of Mary, that baby from Bethlehem.
Last Sunday we heard of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan. When the heavens were torn open as God declared, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (4) As the manifestation of God is made known to us, as these epiphanies happen, we are invited into the story. We are called to follow, claimed as beloved our selves.
We hear this morning of Jesus calling his disciples, specifically Philip and Nathanael.
John tells us that Jesus decided to go to Galilee, and once there “he found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’” (5) From the very outset of this passage we can see John’s foundational theme, that, contrary to all human expectations, God’s eternal Word, incarnate in the person of Jesus, is made available to humanity. God is made available to us, God is made known to us, because God has decided. Throughout the entirety of this Gospel, Jesus is always in control, directing and guiding all of the action. Our call to follow Jesus does not happen carelessly, by happenstance, or as an after thought. God decided to come to us. God found us.
After being found by Jesus, Philip in turns finds Nathanael and shares the revelation with him. John tells us, “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’” (6)
Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Come and see. What perfect words for the life of discipleship. Come and see.
Now Nathanael’s skepticism is understandable. Nazareth was seen as some two-bit town. It was economically dependent on the nearby city of Sepphoris, and Hebrew Scripture never mentions it, thus taking it out of consideration as the home of the promised Messiah. Given what Nathanael knows about Nazareth, not only is he certain that the Messiah cannot be from there, he is not convinced that anything good can come out of that place.
How many times have we been skeptical about something – filled with disbelief, writing off any possibility or potential because of our preconceived notions? I wonder if there have been times in your life where a situation has presented itself and you found yourself responding, “Can anything good come out of that?”
Hopefully in those moments you had someone like Philip by your side saying, “Come and see.” For how many times have we been grateful, experiencing a change of heart, discovering we actually like that which we assumed we would not? How many times have our assumed dissatisfactions been turned into something good when we only open our eyes to see?
When Philip invited Nathanael to come and see, he was also inviting him to come and be seen.
As Nathanael approached Jesus, Jesus exclaims, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (7) Nathanael is surprised by Jesus’ comments. How can Jesus know anything about him, they have never met or interacted before. “Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you get to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’” (8) Nathanael is astounded by this revelation. He is blown away that Jesus could actually see him, that Jesus could truly know who he is.
When we accept the invitation to come and see, we are also accepting the invitation to be seen; for when we stand before God our true identity is revealed.
Jesus’ call of Philip and Nathanael is not so much a call to mission as it is an invitation to an epiphany. In this passage they are not told to go out and preach, to heal the sick, or to proclaim the Good News. They are invited to see and be seen.
The passage ends with Jesus revealing to Nathanael what will be shown to him along the path of discipleship. After Nathanael’s proclamation that Jesus is “the Son of God,” Jesus replies, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these . . . very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (9)
Come and see. Come and see God made manifest in our very midst.
Sometimes it might be a bit more difficult to discern God’s invitation – to hear God calling.
In our lesson today we hear of the call of Samuel, the young boy ministering to the Lord under the priest Eli.
One night Samuel hears someone call his name. So he gets up and runs to the priest. He hears his name and responds without hesitation. He presents himself to Eli, but it was not Eli who called him. So he goes back to lie down again. This happens a second and a third time. It is only after the third time that Eli understands what is going on. This time he tells Samuel to, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” (10)
Once more God calls, Samuel responds the way Eli instructs him to, and God shares a message that will “make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” (11) God entrusts Samuel with an important, difficult warning for Eli. The next morning, at Eli’s request, Samuel shares with him everything that God told him. Thus begins Samuel’s vocation as a prophet.
I wonder if sometimes it is so hard for us to hear God calling because we have written off the possibility: after all “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” (12) Maybe we have shut God out with our preconceived notions, that say God no longer acts the way God once did – that there are no more signs and wonders; voices from heaven, burning bushes, and angels appearing.
But what if we could let go of all we think we know, let go of our certainty, and stand on the brink of all that has yet to be revealed to us. I wonder what we might hear then.
Samuel’s prophetic ministry begins with a candid reflection of the failures of Eli and his sons. Scripture tells us, “the sons of Eli were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priest of the people . . . Thus the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the Lord; for they treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt.” (13) Eli’s sons, the young men who were supposed to take over for Eli, would steal from the offerings brought to the temple, they would threaten those who tired to stop them. When Eli heard of this behavior, he talked to his sons but was not able to get them to change their ways.
This new beginning, this transition of priestly leadership away from Eli, happens not because of evil acts committed by Eli, but because of Eli’s aversion to act; because of his failure to discipline his scoundrel sons for their corruption.
Let us hear this first prophecy from Samuel as a warning to us as well. For we will be held accountable for the things done and the things left undone: for our actions and are aversion to action. We must call out corrupt behavior when we see it. For to stand idly by, to choose silence and inaction, is to become complicit ourselves.
These call stories invite us come and see, to stop and listen, to step out into the unknown that we might be truly seen for the fullness of who we are – who God has created us to be. They invite us to claim our high calling as bearers of the Gospel.
There is so much that is unknown about these days. We do now know when we will be able to gather together again for in person worship, we do not know when we will be able to resume our favorite pastimes and actives, we do not know what lies ahead for our nation during this tumultuous time. Just like Nathanael, we might find ourselves asking, “Can anything good come out of this?”
We standing looking out on an uncertain future. There is much for us to discern about what happens next in our lives, this community, and our nation. It seems to me that the witness of Dr. King, might offer us a guide for how we move forward together.
Dr. King’s vision of the Beloved Community, his dream, is the hoped for destination – the conclusion of the struggle before us. In his first book, Stride Toward Freedom, Dr. King describes the foundational tenets, the six principles of nonviolence, that guide the path toward becoming the Beloved Community.
Hear the words of these principles:
Principle One: Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It is active nonviolent resistance to evil. It is aggressive spiritually, mentally, and emotionally.
Principle Two: Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding. The end result of nonviolence is redemption and reconciliation. The purpose of nonviolence is the creation of the Beloved Community.
Principle Three: Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people. Nonviolence recognizes that evildoers are also victims and are not evil people. The nonviolent resister seeks to defeat evil not people.
Principle Four: Nonviolence holds that suffering for a cause can educate and transform people and societies. Nonviolence accepts suffering without retaliation. Unearned suffering for a cause is redemptive and has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.
Principle Five: Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate. Nonviolence resists violence of the spirit as well as the body. Nonviolent love is spontaneous, unmotivated, unselfish, and creative.
Principle Six: Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice. The nonviolent resister has deep faith that justice will eventually win. Nonviolence believes that God is a God of justice. (14)
Dr. King called the people of this nation to build the Beloved Community, becoming a people called by God to live by love, rejecting violence, and opposing injustice. Just as God has called generations past, God calls us now. Let us always be about the work of God in this place – being a community that lives by love, sharing in the humble and loving service of Jesus. Let us not be silent, but proclaim the message that has been given to us for this very moment.
Can anything good come out of this time? I do not know, but I am grateful that we get to discover the answer together.
(2) Ibid., 1.
(4)Mark 1:11, NRSV.
(5) John 1:43, NRSV.
(6) John 1:45-46, NRSV.
(7) John 1:47, NRSV.
(8) John 1:48, NRSV.
(9) John 1:50-51, NRSV.
(10) 1 Samuel 3:10, NRSV.
(11) 1 Samuel 3:11, NRSV.
(12) 1 Samuel 3:1, NRSV.
(13) 1 Samuel 2:12-13, 17, NRSV.
Sermon for The First Sunday after the Epiphany (10 January 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here
Baptism of Christ by Leonardo da Vinci, 1470-1480, Public Domain
At the outset of the pandemic, like many others, I found myself saying that, particularly for those of us who remain healthy, have access to adequate health care and resources, and are not faced with the death of loved ones, there is an opportunity not to be missed. This time has afforded us the opportunity to evaluate our lives: to take stock of all the things we have prioritized, the way we behave in the world, to discover who we really are. Without the limitations of our usually hectic schedules we can seek out God in ways previously unavailable to us.
Little did we know what was actually on the horizon.
These last ten months have been a reckoning of sorts. Staying home has enabled us to see what is truly happening in our collective, national life. No longer rushing about, keeping a frenetic pace, our excuses of distraction have been eliminated and we are forced to see the landscape before us.
Almost immediately this pandemic forced us to witness the inequities of our health care system. We saw food insecurity soar as those with financial means stockpiled and hoarded food leaving bare shelves for those with limited resources. We witnessed the most vulnerable amongst us having the few securities at their disposal cut away. Jobs were lost, access was denied, and hope seemed a distant luxury. Each time we thought things were getting better, each time we set a date for things to go back to normal, the finish line was pushed farther and farther away.
Then on May 25 we witnessed the horrific murder of Mr. George Perry Floyd Jr. The last moments of his life captured on a smart phone camera: the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Mr. Floyd’s neck suffocating the life out of him.
In every state and through the world, people began protesting against the excessive use of force and tactics of police brutality. Eyes were opened to the evils of white supremacy and the sin of racism. For the first time, it seemed that the people of the United States were ready to begin a conversation about race and seek after the work of justice and anti-racism.
The summer witnessed more murders, more protests, more violence. Many of us began, and continued, the work of educating ourselves. Learning our history, discovering our implicit biases, discerning who God is calling us to be in this time and place. I still cannot fully articulate the emotion and depth of gratitude I have for the fact that on my second day as your Priest-In-Charge, thanks to a phone call I received on my first day, our vestry committed to the work of racial reconciliation in this community. Committed in a new way to seeking and serving Christ in all persons, striving for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human being.
As all this was unfolding the coronavirus pandemic was ravaging our world. On June 1, we kept A National Day of Mourning and Lament for the more than 100,000 people who have died from COVID-19 in this country. As the vaccine rollout continues, today more than 370,000 people have died – with Black and Brown communities being disproportionally affected.
And this says nothing of the experience of the 2020 Presidential Election. For months we watched political partisanship tear at the fabric of our communities, whilst being encouraged to treat those who disagree with us not as fellow citizens but as enemies.
Storms, natural disasters, lock downs placing us in unprecedented and extraordinary times, watching and waiting to see what happens next. These last months have shown us who we really are as a nation. The phrase 20/20 vision will never be the same.
Then came the holidays. Due to restrictions from the pandemic many of our beloved traditions were not able to happen. We did not gather here in this place to worship together, we were not able to host parties, and share meals with friends and family. There is grief in all that could not be.
But just as has been true with our life together, there is a gift, an opportunity, for us in having to keep Christmastide, the Epiphany, and these Sundays after the Epiphany differently this year. The pandemic has stripped away all the sentimental, nostalgic, sometimes even superficial trappings of these holy days, leaving us with the raw reality, and honest reflection of what it is that we celebrate.
Christmas Day fell on a Friday, thus bringing to light the eternal connection of the incarnation and the crucifixion: revealing that the wood of the crib becomes the wood of the cross.
We heard the soaring rhetoric of the prologue of John’s Gospel, revealing the power of the Word that was made flesh and dwelt among us. The omnipotent, the almighty, stooped to take on humanity that we might know God more fully; be redeemed from all that holds us captive; and be transformed into who we were created to be. We beheld the formerly unknowable God, which no human being could gaze upon and live. We rejoiced that the Messiah has come to us in a helpless, vulnerable, tiny baby.
On the tenth day of Christmas, the Second Sunday after Christmas Day, we heard the story of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. That text of terror, the story of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents; as Herod, that insecure and terrified ruler, did whatever was necessary to retain his power – even going so far as to order the murder of a generation of young children.
Stripped of the distractions of the season this past Christmastide displayed for us the true reflection of our faith. That God comes into the world to set us free. That a single birth would lead to our redemption. But that is not a simple or easy thing, nor is it a gift the world readily received. That sweet little Jesus boy would grow up to live a life of humble and loving service that leads directly to the cross. The Gospel stories appointed and the holy days that fall during Christmastide remind us in a devastating way that the world Jesus is born into is not unlike our own: where violence is praised and insecure rulers will go to whatever lengths necessary to maintain their power.
What was true then, is still true today. The empires of this world, the forces of evil and wickedness and death, will stop at nothing to destroy that which is good, holy, which brings light and life, that which is of God.
What was revealed then, is also revealed now. Nothing will stop God. There is no darkness powerful enough to quench even the smallest amount of light.
On January 6th the Church celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany. That day when we remember those travelers from a distant land who followed a star to Bethlehem. The wise men, set out not knowing where they were going but trusting that something life changing awaited them at their destination.
The word “Epiphany” comes from a Greek word meaning “showing,” “appearance,” “revelation,” or “manifestation.” This feast day and the season that follows celebrates God coming into the world not just for one particular people, but for all people. The manifestation of God breaks forth into the world saying, no matter who you are, no matter where you are in your journey, you are welcome in the household of God.
The Feast of the Epiphany is the day when we, the Gentiles, are incorporated into the saving work of God in the world. To paraphrase the poet Malcom Guite, it is the day we are given the courage that gives our questioning hearts a voice to seek, to find, to worship, to rejoice. (1)
God’s manifestation was not the only thing revealed to us on January 6th.
Through the afternoon and into the evening we watched a deadly attack Capitol Hill, acts of domestic terrorism that claimed the lives of five individuals. Images were broadcast of an angry mob, fueled by lies, some even carrying symbols of the Christian faith, attempting to tear the very fabric of our democracy. We were shown just how at odds the state of our nation is from God’s intentions for us. What was made manifest in Washington could not be more different than what is made manifest in God.
This was yet another example of how our world is not radically different than the world into which Jesus was born. Jesus’ earthly life was bookended by political leaders doing whatever necessary to maintain power and control. Insecure and terrified rules intent on inspiring violence, destruction, and even death to keep their power alive.
No matter how hard some have tried, in the early hours of January 7th, Congress resumed the constitutionally mandated work of our nation. And if congress can persevere in the midst of destruction, how much more will God?
All of this brings us to today. The First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord.
Mark’s telling of Jesus’ baptism provides the indispensable context for everything that follows. God’s dramatic announcement makes clear that through the life and ministry of Jesus, the world encounters the incarnate intentions of God. It all beings in baptism.
From this moment, after this day, the message of God will spread throughout all the world. The healings, miracles, the works of resplendent glory, the teaching and preaching all start here.
When Jesus steps into the River Jordan the entirety of human history, the entire work of God, is united in a single moment. It is in those waters that John proclaims the baptism of repentance. It is in those waters that the great prophet Elijah ends his ministry and passes his mantle to Elisha, it is through those waters that the Israelites travels out of slavery and into freedom, it is through those waters that the whole of creation comes into existence – birthed out of chaos.
The saving act of God in the world, the whole of salvation history, comes together in the moment of baptism. All that God has done, and continues to do, is revealed in the person of Jesus.
When Jesus steps into those baptismal waters, when John submerges him into the river, when Jesus comes up out of the waters the world is different. The heavens are torn apart and God says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (2)
Who this person is, who that baby born in Bethlehem will grow up to be, is not just some good guy or great teacher. He is not just another rabbi. This man is the divine Son of God. This man is God. This revelation, this showing, this manifestation, this Epiphany happens in the waters of baptism.
We need this revelation to happen in these waters because it is Jesus’ baptism that gives our baptisms meaning.
Our ministries begin as the baptismal waters still drip from our bodies. As we emerge from those mighty waters we are sent forth to heal, to preach, to teach, to care for those in need, to be about the work of setting right all that has gone wrong.
If we were not in the midst of a pandemic, and able to gather together in person, today would be sprinkled with those waters, renewing our Baptism Covenant: to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowing, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers; to persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord; to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourself; to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. (3)
This baptismal life, these vows we have taken, looks squarely at the darkness, sin, evil, and death of this world and says you will not win – you will not destroy us – we shall overcome. For we stand with the company of the household of God.
We know this way is not easy. We are called to follow the road that Jesus walked: the road that will confront the powers of this world, that will challenge the status quo, that will infuriate some and terrify others. It is the way that will make Jesus take that long walk through Jerusalem to the hill of Calvary.
These waters we share in will cost us something, they will demand much from us – they will demand all from us. We can face these waters because, in the beginning, when God, including the Word incarnate in Jesus, spoke creation into being, when the Spirit, the very breath of God moved over the waters of creation breathing life out of chaos, God pronounced it good. Because when Jesus came out of those waters God proclaimed, “You are may Son, the Beloved” Because through our own baptism, God claims us as God’s children, God names us beloved. We can face these waters, because God has gone before; leading the way that does not end at the cross, but goes on to the tomb, to the resurrection, to redemption, and eternal life with God.
Poet W. H. Auden, in his poem “Leap Before You Look” written in December 1940, captures what we are called to do as we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord and approach these might waters once more.
In the first stanza of this poem, Auden writes:
The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap. (4)
This life is not about dipping our toes into the water – it is about diving in head first. It is about taking the risk, not knowing what lies ahead, trusting that God will see us through.
These first few days of 2021 have made clear that when the clock struck midnight on New Years’ Eve things did not magically get better. These last 10 months have revealed to us some hard, even terrifying truths about our life together and who we really are. Today we have the opportunity to leap into the waters of baptism: to stand with Jesus at the hinge between a troubled past and an unprecedented glorious future. It is okay for us to go forward and face whatever comes, no matter how daunting and dangerous it seems, because we do not go alone. We go together. We go with God.
It is time for us to decide who we will be and what we will make manifest in the world. It is time for us to leap.
(1) Malcolm Guite, Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year, “The magi,” Kindle Location 656.
(2) Mark 1:11, NRSV.
(3) The Book of Common Prayer, p. 304-305.
Sermon for The Second Sunday after Christmas Day (3 January 2021). The Scripture readings (Gospel Reading: Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23) can be found here
Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Luc-Olivier Merson, 1879, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Public Domain
We do not have to search long or hard to find difficult or bad news these days. The last 10 months have been so overwhelming that people have created 2020 bingo games, wrote musical parodies, produced comedy sketches to manage the weight of this time. One local store even sold 2020 dumpster fire ornaments for Christmas. Over the course of the last year we have witnessed devastating wild fires, a global health pandemic, police brutality, and acts of terror great and small. We are not strangers to images from around the world of men, women, and children being oppressed, starved, and rejected as they are subjected to brutal regimes, and seek places of safety outside the boarders of their home countries. We watch as people around the world fall victim to acts of unimaginable terror. Many of us have altered our practices of news consumption as the bombardment of bad news is just too much.
As all this goes on around us, we are in the midst of celebrating the 12 days of Christmas. Today is the 10th day of Christmas, but maybe you knew that already from seeing the ten lords a-leaping down your street. For these last 10 days we have surrounded ourselves with beloved carols, been captivated by images of angels and shepherds, found ways either in person or over video calls to share time with friends and family, and have proclaimed with great joy that Jesus – the Christ child – has come among us.
I do not know about you, but in the midst of these celebrations, there have been moments when I have been able to forget and ignore all together the problems that face us. I am aware of the privilege I have that allows me to camp out in my apartment, block out the world around me, and keep these twelve days in many of the ways I typically do.
Yet, we are not able to block out the pain of the world for long. This morning we hear a biblical text of terror that snaps us back into reality.
The Gospel passage we hear from Matthew this morning is commonly referred to as “The Flight into Egypt.” It is the story of Mary and Joseph leaving Bethlehem and going to Egypt because Herod is out to destroy Jesus. Then, when Herod is dead, they begin their journey back only to be told that their home country is not yet safe, and so the Holy Family goes to Nazareth. The way the lectionary gives us this text, the way this story is often taught in Sunday school, is as a very matter-of-fact itinerary that forces us to focus on the seeming heroic nature of Mary and Joseph. Taking this passage on its own, it seems that we hear this for the sole purpose of proving that Jesus is the promised Messiah. In these eight verses we hear twice that what is happening to the Holy Family is happening so that what was spoken by and through the prophets might be fulfilled. With this understanding, we can simply check the box that proves the messianic nature of Jesus, in light of Jewish tradition, and move on. But that is not the whole story.
The passage that the lectionary assigns for today, actually skips over three verses. These verses drastically change the tone and experience of this story and give us a very different image of the life and times of Jesus. In these omitted verses Matthew writes:
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’ (1)
In what the lectionary gives us, we hear in passing that Herod was out to destroy Jesus, but in these verses we hear the true horrific and violent nature of Herod’s actions. We hear the work of an insecure and terrified ruler who desperately wants to retain his power – so much so that he will go to any length necessary to destroy any possible or perceived threat against him.
When we put these three verses back into the passage we heard this morning, a fuller experience of reality is revealed. No longer is this simply a fulfillment quotation, no longer is it used to prove that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophet’s message, no longer is it just explaining how the Holy Family ends up in Nazareth, it is not a text of terror in which the saving nature of God is revealed.
Jesus was born into a very difficult and dangerous world: a world torn apart by violence and strife, where violence ruled the day, and rulers do whatever they want no matter the cost to human life. In a devastating way, the world into which Jesus is born is not unlike our own.
Like Herod, dictators and rulers around the world use violence and fear to maintain their power. Just as the Holy Family fled, so do unknown numbers of families flee today in hopes that they might find a safe place to hide – that they might find a safe place to live our their lives in peace. As a result, for the last few years we have been witnessing the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War. As millions of people are fleeing around the world shrouded in terror we are witnessing the darkness of humanity.
This is why these omitted verses are so important: they speak to those whom Jesus came to serve: the lost, the poor, and the oppressed; they speak to the world Jesus came to save. Matthew does not present a sentimental infancy narrative. There are no shepherds, no angels singing, there is no manger scene with a babe wrapped in bands of cloth. Matthew presents the birth of the Savior in the midst of the turbulence of a very violent history.
Matthew dares to see things as they are and still affirms that God is working even in the worst that humanity can do.
In the omitted verses, Matthew quotes the prophet Jeremiah, “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”(2) In doing so, Matthew is recalling the great matriarch Rachel and her reaction to the Babylonians overtaking Jerusalem and marching families off into exile. Rachel’s weeping, Rachel’s lament, signifies a key turning point in Jeremiah when the prophet shifts from declaring God’s judgment to declaring God’s promise of hope and redemption. This shift is what we hear in our lesson from Jeremiah this morning.
We hear the prophet Jeremiah proclaim God’s promise that, “with weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back,”(3) and “then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.”(4) From the lamentation of Rachel, from the darkest days of Israel’s history, God promises to redeem them. Matthew, by using these words from Jeremiah is clear; this redemption of God has come in the person of Jesus.
Through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of this new born baby, weeping will be turned into shorts of joy, sorrow will be turned to gladness, and darkness will be turned to light. Through Jesus the world will be turned upside down, which is really right side up again. No wonder why Herod was so afraid.
We celebrate these twelve days of Christmas because through the birth of the Messiah, through the birth of Jesus, the end of the violence and vicious cycle of our world has been made flesh. It is through the promises of God in Christ that we know light will over come darkness. It is through the incarnation that God takes on human flesh so that human flesh, the whole of humanity, might be redeemed.
There is plenty of darkness around us, but the light that enlightens everything has come. I know many have longed for the arrival of this new year, but let us remember that the year 2021 is not our Savior. Let us not set ourselves up for greater disappointment when this year is not able to live up to our expectations. Let us remember where our salvation and redemption truly lies.
This passage from Matthew’s Gospel not only shows a truer reflection of the reality of God, it also demonstrates a broader expression of the capabilities of humanity. In the actions of Joseph we see the potential for humanity to be compassionate, trusting, and obedient to the word of God. In the actions of Herod we see the ability to be oblivious to grace and we witness the power that fear yields both in individuals an in systems of military and political power.
These actions, and every action in this passage, are predicated by commands. Mary and Jospeh flee to Egypt because an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph and commanded him to go. The slaughter of the innocents happens because Herod commands it out of fear. The Holy Family comes out of Egypt and settles in Nazareth because the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. These images of humanity, combined with the commands to actions, have a significant message for us today.
When we allow fear, anger, and hatred to shut out God’s grace from our lives, when we follow not the commands of God, but the commands of systems of violence and oppression, then we make incarnate the worst of humanity. But if we are courageous enough to follow the commands of God, if we are strong enough to live lives that proclaim the Good News of God in word and deed, then we make incarnate the best that humanity can be. When we do this we become reflections of how we were created to be – reflections of the very image of God.
Thomas Troeger, retired preaching professor at Yale Divinity School, reflects on today’s Gospel passage through the lens of a crèche. He writes:
It is the custom in most homes and churches that set up manger scenes to take them down after Christmas and store them until the season returns the next year. Matthew’s account of the Holy Family’s trials suggests that this is wrong. Perhaps we should put away the shepherds (Luke) because they returned to their fields, and put away the magi because they returned to their distant home, but we should keep out Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Just the three of them, all alone, facing the terrors of a brutal despot. No visitors. No sheltering barn. No cuddly looking sheep. No friendly oxen. Then we should move the Holy Family to another location in our church or our home. Perhaps to a window looking out on the larger world, the world where there is still violence and repression and terror, and where there are refugees fleeing, needing protection, human beings in whom the Christ is crying to us for protection.
In this reflection Troeger captures our call in this Gospel passage. We, like Joseph, are to listen to the commands of God and protect those in greatest need. We are to reach out and care for those whom Jesus came to serve: the lost, the poor, the oppressed, the scared, the hungry, and the refugee. We live in a world that can be incredibly dark and scary, but the light that ends all darkness – the life that ends all pain, suffering, and death – has come into the world.
In a few days our celebrations of Christmastide will come to an end. Christmas lights will be taken down, trees will be undecorated, and carols will so unsung until next year. But we have the opportunity, maybe even the responsibility, to keep the Holy Family present in our midst as a sign of hope and light for the world – as a reminder of our call as people of God in this time and place.
God asks us, implores us, begs us, God commands us to make that hope, to make that light, known to all the world.
(1) Matthew 2:16-18, NRSV.
(2) Jeremiah 31:15, NRSV.
(3) Jeremiah 31:9, NRSV.
(4) Jeremiah 31:13, NRSV.
Sermon for The First Sunday after Christmas Day (27 December 2020). The Scripture readings can be found here
In February 1923, during a speech given to the Royal College of Surgeons in London, Rudyard Kipling uttered what is now one of his most famous quotations. On that occasion he said, “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.” (1) These words were spoken at the beginning of his speech to show the persuasive effect words can have. He goes on to say:
Not only do words infect, ergotise, narcotise, and paralyse, but they enter into and colour the minutest cells of the brain, very much as madder mixed with a stag’s food at the Zoo colours the growth of the animal’s antlers. Moreover, in the case of the human animal, that acquired tint, or taint, is transmissible. (2)
Kipling, in these words, is describing the ability of a person to use words to change the way another person thinks and feels; to influence that person to do or feel things that are not typical for them – just as drugs would do. Some have speculated that Kipling was thinking about Europe and the rise of the Nazi party when he wrote these words. No matter his influence, one thing history has taught us is this – Kipling was right: words are, of course, the most powerful drug ever used by humanity.
Despite the abundance of words we encounter on a daily basis – in television, radio, books, magazines, blogs, Facebook, texts, emails, letters, and so on and so forth – despite this over saturation, words have overwhelming power.
Throughout history people have used words to spark revolutions, to craft nations into existence, to emancipate peoples from the shackles of slavery. Words have also been used to strike fear into the hearts of millions, to cast doubt on systems of government, to scapegoat people, to command individuals to carry out heinous acts of genocide and holocaust. As the saying goes, “the pen is mightier than the sword.”
Even things we say without much thought carry great meaning. Think about the phrase “Merry Christmas.”
How many times have you heard and said these words in recent days? How many more times in the days to come? For us as Christians, these words mean something particular to us. These words embody for us the joy, hope, and holiness of the incarnation. The phrase itself is a shortened form of “Christ mass” as in the celebration of the Eucharist for the feast of the Nativity of our Lord. Even though there are other things we could say to convey the same meaning, “Joyful Christmas,” “Holy Christmas, ” “Blessed Christmas,” or any other variation, we stick with “Merry Christmas” as if these words themselves have been canonized. It has become so important for expressing what this season means that these words have in a sense become holy themselves. But what happens when these words are taken and used for other things?
Sometimes when words are twisted, when the meaning is changed, they become even more powerful: they can even attempt to erase the original meaning and intent. “Merry Christmas” is a phase that has been taken over, not by Churches and faithful worshipers, but by commercialism and consumerism. See how the words “Merry” and “Christmas” change when used in a commercial advertisement. “Make Christmas more merry. One day sale at fill-in-the-blank department store.” Make Christmas merrier by purchasing more things. By participating in the myth that we do not have enough – that our own personhood is defined by what we have. The “Merry Christmas” uttered in shopping malls means something rather different than the “Merry Christmas” we are greeted with in sacred spaces.
Words matter, for they are the most powerful drug used by humanity.
This morning in the prologue to John’s Gospel we hear of another word, or more accurately, we hear of the Word. John writes:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (3)
These magnificent words from the prologue to John’s Gospel remind us of the magnitude of God’s initiative in the incarnation. John tells us, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” (4) Eugene Peterson, in his biblical paraphrase The Message, writes that the Word, “moved into the neighborhood.” The Word – the most powerful of all words – comes to be amongst us. The Word comes to dwell with us not to destroy or punish, but to restore us to life. To bring us back to the heart of what we have been called to. This Word above all words, moves in next door, to change the way we act, the way we think, what we feel, how we understand the very meaning of life.
The almighty, eternal, omnipotent God stoops to put on human flesh. The very author of all creation, everything that has ever been and will ever be, becomes incarnate, taking on tangible, vulnerable, humanity. God comes among us to heal us, to bring light where there is darkness, to bring wholeness where there is brokenness. The Word comes to transform the entirety of creation.
This is what we celebrate in Christmastide, this is what “Merry Christmas” is meant to convey. That God, that Love incarnate, comes among us – that the Word has moved into the neighborhood.
John tells us that, “in the beginning was the Word.” In the beginning there was God and the Word together – creating, forming, molding the entirety of creation into being. In the beginning there is God’s love toward the world that God creates, and God’s plan for that creation. In the beginning there is an image of humanity that dwells in the realms of justice, peace, freedom, and love. From the very beginning, all of creation is imbued with the Word and Wisdom of God.
But this is not the beginning. We do not live in a realm of justice, peace, freedom, and love. We live in a world ravaged by war and poverty; where this fragile earth of island home is exploited; where people are treated as objects; where a global health pandemic has cost us more than we could have ever imaged. It is as if a shadow has been cast over the beauty of creation: over the wonders of justice, peace, and freedom – the wonders of love and praise. It is as if the world has forgotten that most amazing Word.
But what if things could be different?
In today’s Gospel passage, we not only hear about the Word, we also hear of the one who prepares the way. Just when you thought we were done with Advent until next year, our quintessential Advent character has returned. Today we hear once more of John the Baptist.
John, that man sent from God, that voice crying out in the wilderness, the man who witnessed to the Word, returns to us in these early days of Christmastide. Maybe we should see this as an invitation to consider John as something more than the voice of Advent. Maybe things could be different, if we all tried to be more like John.
We hear that John “came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” (5) If we desire things to be different, we must begin by asking our selves, what do we testify to? What do our lives, our witness, lead others to believe in? Do we speak empty words, or do we proclaim the true Word which has been made known to us? For how we live our lives, what words we use matters – especially if we claim the word Christian for our identity.
Throughout history people have used Christianity to point towards something other than the Truth and Light of God. Christianity has been manipulated to speak something other than the Word. The faith we have inherited has been used as a tool of violence. It has been used to justify slavery, subjugate women, oppress LGBT people, cast aside those who are considered social outcasts, and demonize those unwilling to conform their lives to a societally approved normative narrative. Throughout time – and still today – the Word is twisted and exploited to suit political gains. The light and truth that is the Word is changed to bring darkness and falsehood. This most amazing Word is used to erase that which was made incarnate: light, peace, grace, truth, and love.
We are called to witness in the same way John did. John testified to the truth of the Word. John called out anyone who refused to see the work of God in the world. John put everything on the line to make sure that as many people as possible knew the light that was coming into the world.
If we want things to be different, then we must ask ourselves: what word do we intend to speak? Will we speak like John or will we speak like those who seek personal gain from the gift of God in the incarnation?
Speaking this Word is not always easy. We might find ourselves feeling inadequate and not up to the task. For sometimes our faith requires us to act, to speak, before we fully feel or understand that which we have been called to do.
Each and everyone of us is created in the image and likeness of God. All of us, and all of creation for that matter, have come into being through the Word. From the very beginning of creation we have been infused with the Word – the Truth, the Light, the Wisdom of God. No matter how dark the world seems, no matter how much we might struggle, we contain within our very beings the ability to proclaim the Word. We contain deep within our souls the light, which casts out all darkness. We are heirs of God’s promise, and as such God will always give us the Word we need.
So when we hear the world altering the meaning of the Word, trying to use the power of the Word in dangerous ways, it is our responsibility to join our voices with the heavenly host, to join our voices with the great cloud of witnesses which surround us, to join our voices with John the Baptist and testify to the truth of the Word we have experienced and known.
This is the most central claim of our faith. God became one of us, that we might know God more fully. That we might come to know and be transformed by God’s nature and God’s love. As that great Early Church theologian Athanaisus put it – the divine becomes human so that the human can become divine. God humbles God’s self to be born of a virgin taking on human flesh, so that we can be redeemed.
This is the gift we are given in the incarnation; the gift of God’s love freely given. There is nothing we have done or could ever do to merit or earn God’s love. It is through this love incarnate that everything is changed and made new. The only response we can make to God’s unfathomable love is to love God in return. To live our lives according to that love.
God comes among us to share in the fullness of our lives, God comes to share our stories, to join our lives with God’s that we might be strengthened and sustained to continually speak the Word. That we might, as much as our feeble selves can handle, participate in the building of the Kingdom of God – that we might bear the light and truth of the incarnation in our lives; and pass along the light of Christ to the deepest and darkest corners of the world. That we might speak the Word into the silence.
Rudyard Kipling was right, “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.” We have been given the gift of the most powerful Word of all eternity. We have seen and experienced the transformative power of the Word of God in our lives and in this community. We have been taught how to speak this Word – this gift freely given to us through God’s abundant generosity.
This morning we prayed, “Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shire forth in our lives.” (6) This day, and every day, may it be so.
(2) Ibid., 1.
(3) John 1:1-5, NRSV.
(4) John 1:14, NRSV.
(5) John 1:7, NRSV.
(6) The Book of Common Prayer p. 213.
Sermon for The Nativity of our Lord: Christmas Day (25 December 2020). The Scripture readings can be found here
A few years ago a friend invited me to his home for dinner during the Twelve Days of Christmas. At one point in the evening, I heard something on his Christmas playlist that caught my attention. I recognized the tune, but the words were in German so I could not be certain. After a few moments of puzzlement I looked at my friend and said, “Is this ‘O sacred head, sore wounded’?” I was totally baffled, this was the last person I would expect to have a liturgically confused playlist with Holy Week hymns slipping in amongst Christmas carols.
With a playful smirk on his face my friend responded, “No . . . this is Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.” After a moment of enjoying the perplexed look on my face he went on to say, “and this Chorale happens to have the same tune as ‘O sacred head.’”
My friend and I then proceeded to have a theological reflection on this chorale and what it means to be reminded of Holy Week as we celebrate the incarnation.
In recent days I have not been able to stop thinking about Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and that powerful theological statement of hearing “O sacred head, sore wounded” in a cantata meant for Christmas Day. This connection has everything to do with the fact that today is Friday.
I wonder if you heard anything, as we prayed the collects a few moments ago, that surprised you? I wonder if you heard words or themes that you did not anticipate hearing on Christmas Day?
As is probably not surprising, there is a system to help choose the three collects used at the end of Morning Prayer. The first is the Collect of the Day. So today, in what I am sure will be a mind blowing revelation, we used one of the collects for Christmas Day. The other two collects were chosen because they are the ones used on Fridays. It is because of these two collects that I have found myself humming “O sacred head, sore wounded” and thinking about that Bach chorale.
Here is what we prayed a moment ago:
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen. (1)
And, we also prayed this:
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen. (2)
So here it is, the Nativity of our Lord, and our prayers draw us nearer to the cross of Christ.
It might seem at best an odd thing, or at worst an off-putting liturgical choice, to use these prayers, but the more time I spend with the Scripture readings appointed for this day, the more I think that maybe – just maybe – we should use these prayers every year no matter what day of the week Christmas Day happens to fall on.
The Book of Isaiah, with its poetry and prose, has the ability to speak to the complexity of human emotions. This book spans several generations, it recounts the life of the people of God during a time when they were unable to live into the promises they made with God, it recounts the generations God’s people spent in exile, and it recounts their restoration and return home. As each movement unfolds the emotional experience is carried forth influencing whatever comes next. Because of this, it is often the case that in passages which speak to the darkness, glimmers of light break through; and, in passages of joy the backdrop of despair can be seen, if only we have eyes to see and hears to hear.
Today’s reading is no different.
It is hard to miss the sheer exuberance of this passage, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” (3)
The prophet is proclaiming that peace is coming. God is being faithful to God’s promises, and will restore God’s people. The victory of God is about to be made known before the eyes of all the nations. It seems the prophet can barely contain the excitement.
While there is great joy in these words, it is set in the midst of long held despair. The prophet is speaking here to an Israelite audience living at the end of the Babylonian exile. This is a nation that has witnessed and lived with the stories of the destruction of that great city Jerusalem. The peace that the prophet announces, the peace we hear of this morning, is the announcement that God is about to restore the people of Israel to their own country – they are about to go home.
Knowing all this, the prophet cries out: “Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem.”
Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem. The city that has crumbled under foreign occupation can now rejoice. The people are returning home, God has redeemed Jerusalem, the city will be restored, the community will be made whole. So the prophet calls on this people standing in the midst of rubble, amidst broken dreams, disappointments, and shattered lives to break forth together – as a community – with songs of praise to God. For God has come to set them free. God has come to liberate them. God has come to redeem them. God has come.
The Gospel passage appointed for Christmas Day is radically different than the passage we heard last night on Christmas Eve. This passage is stripped of all the images we have come to associate with Christmas. John’s prologue says nothing about crèches and shepherds; there is no babe wrapped in bands of cloth; there is no Angel announcing good news, or heavenly hosts singing “Glory to God.” This morning all distractions have been erased. This morning, John tell us that Jesus is Word and Life. John tells us that there is darkness and that the Word will be rejected by some – the Word will be rejected by his own people. In the midst of joy we hear that back drop of pain and rejection.
We have come to believe and know, that this Word comes in the midst of our darkness and light, in the midst of our pain and joy. To be among us: To be one of us. So this morning, we come together into the presence of our Lord and Savior, wherever we might be, bringing all the particulars of our lives – our hurt, our pain, our joy, our gladness, our hopes, our dreams, our love. We do so trusting that God takes on all of these things: God participates fully in the drama of humanity that we might be made new. For God has come to set us free. God has come to liberate us. God has come to redeem us. God has come, so “break forth together into singing you ruins of Jerusalem,” for the Word has been made flesh.
Isaiah and John both show the complexities of humanity – that joy and sadness, despair and hope, life and death, are linked together. But it is in today’s passage from the Letter to the Hebrews that makes explicit the connection between the incarnation and crucifixion, the link between Christmas and Holy Week.
The author from the Letter to the Hebrews writes:
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.(4)
Like a stunning display of fireworks, the author creates a collage of claims about the Son. He is heir, creator, reflection, exact imprint, sustainer, purifier, superior, and most excellent. In these words the author is articulating, to the best of the writer’s ability, the fullness of who the Son is that has come into the world.
The Son is present at the very beginning of creation and will be present until the end of time. The Son is present as the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. At the incarnation, the Son enters into history uniting everything that has happened with everything that is to come. Christmas Day therefore takes on cosmic and redemptive significance.
In the incarnation, in the brith of Jesus, creation and redemption are fused together. The Word through whom all things came into being, and without whom not one thing came into being, takes on human flesh and thus the Son becomes our Savior. The birth of the Son marks the beginning of our rebirth – the beginning of our redemption. For God has come to set us free. God has come to liberate us. God has come to redeem us. God has come, so “break forth together into singing you ruins of Jerusalem,” for our King and Savior has come near.
As we enter into the Twelve Days of Christmas, as we rejoice and celebrate the season of Christmastide, we cannot pretend we are experiencing this miraculous event for the first time. We cannot pretend we are bystanders in Bethlehem watching a birth, traveling with shepherds, dazzled by the heavenly hosts singing “Glory!” We know what this babe born for us has come to do. We know how his earthly journey will end. We know that our King reigns from a tree. As we celebrate the Nativity of our Lord we are also celebrating his passion and our redemption.
Liturgical scholar Nathan Mitchell captures the heart of what it is we endeavor to do this day as a community that has pledged itself to be in relationship with the incarnate and living God. He writes:
What the parish celebrates during this season is not primarily a birthday, but the beginning of a decisive new phase in the tempestuous history of God’s hunger for human companions. The social concerns of the season are thus rooted in Jesus’ proclamation of God’s reign: the renunciation of patterns that oppress others (holding, climbing, commanding) and the formation of a new human community that voluntarily embraces those renunciations. It is an adult Christ that the community encounters during the Advent and Christmas cycles of Sundays and feasts: a Risen Lord who invites sinful people to become church. Christmas does not ask us to pretend we were back in Bethlehem, kneeling before a crib; it asks us to recognize that the wood of the crib became the wood of the cross.
As we rejoice in the gift of the Incarnation let us remember that our hope in this new beginning is illuminated by the light that comes into the world, beams brightly from the cross, and points the way to the glories of the Risen Lord – the one who came, the one who comes, the one who will always come to set us free. Therefore, my friends, let us break forth together into singing for the Word was made flesh and dwells among us.
(1) The Book of Common Prayer p. 99
(2) Ibid., 101.
(3) Isaiah 52:7, NRSV.
(4) Hebrews 1:1-4, NRSV.
Sermon for The Nativity of our Lord: Christmas Eve (24 December 2020). The Scripture readings can be found here
Master of Vyšší Brod, Mistr Vyšebrodský, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
There are great debates about the traditions for this season. It seems that people feel more passionately about how Christmastide is kept than they do about any other time of year. Intense debates commence as people advocate for their way of doing things, and great pontificating is on display as people present their case for why their favorite fill-in-the-blank item or category is the greatest of all time. One such contested ranking, one debate of immense significance, is what is the greatest Christmas movie of all time.
Some might cast their ballot for A Christmas Story or It’s A Wonderful Life or the Fred Astaire narrated Santa Clause Is Comin’ to Town. Others might look to more contemporary blockbusters like Love Actually, Elf, Home Alone, or Jingle All the Way. All of those are excellent candidates . . . and . . . I am sorry to say they are all the wrong answer.
Clearly, the greatest Christmas movie of all time is the brilliant 1965 cinematic icon A Charlie Brown Christmas. This is a purely scientific perspective and has nothing to do with my personal feelings towards this film . . . okay . . . I happen to really love this movie. I even have the peanuts Nativity Set and a talking Linus doll dressed as a shepherd.
There are many reasons why I believe this is a classic, truly one of the greats, but there is one scene that I love more than any other. It is the scene that my talking Linus doll quotes.
The gang is in the auditorium, Charlie Brown presents his Christmas tree to his friends, and they all burst out laughing. After nearly everyone walks away, Charlie Brown says to Linus, “I guess I really don’t know what Christmas is all about.” He then shouts, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?!”
“Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.” Linus replies. After asking for the appropriate stage lighting, Linus then proceeds to share the meaning of Christmas. He says:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not:
At this point Linus intentionally drops his security blanket before going on to say
for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
Linus then picks up his blanket off the ground, walks towards Charlie Brown and says, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
It does not matter how many times I see this movie or watch clips of this scene on YouTube, I am continually astounded to hear Linus recite the King James Version of the Gospel passage we read this night. I am continually moved to hear Linus preach the Gospel.
At long last our Advent journey has ended, and we have arrived at the feast of the Nativity of our Lord. It is finally Christmas.
And it might feel more accurate to say “is it finally Christmas?” I know, for some amongst us, it does not feel very much like Christmas at all.
So many of our beloved traditions are not possible this year: We are not gathered together in this place singing carols, telling the story, watching children put the crèche figures in place. We are not attending parties, hosting dinners, gathering with friends and family to celebrate. Some of us will even find ourselves home alone during these days of Christmastide. Over in the UK headlines for the last few days have declared “Christmas Canceled” as new pandemic restrictions are put in place.
I have heard it suggested that we should delay Christmas, and keep it whenever it is safe for us to gather together and observe all our traditions – so it can feel like Christmas.
As I read the headlines, scroll through social media posts, listen to people commenting on what Christmas is “supposed to be,” I cannot help but call to mind that wise shepherd Linus, offering a message of what Christmas is really all about.
The Gospel passage appointed for Christmas Eve is what Christmas cards are made of. It is from Luke’s Gospel that we hear of angels and shepherds, mangers and bands of cloth. No other Gospel has a nativity narrative that translates into crèches and the images in our minds when we think of the birth of Jesus.
Over the years, because of this picture perfect portrayal we have in our collective imagination, we have built up this night on the pedestal of nostalgia and expectation. We remember all the Christmas Eves of the past. We remember being in pageants. We have come to expect so much of this night because it is what movies are made of. We want the same idyllic sense that floods greeting card aisles selling boxes of the ideal Christmas.
But is that really what Christmas is all about? I wonder if there is actually something dangerous about approaching this night in such a way.
If this is what Christmas is all about, where does that leave the people who have lost loved ones, who have received difficult diagnoses, who wonder if this will be their last Christmas together with beloved friends and family?
If this is what Christmas is all about, where does that leave us when we find ourselves celebrating Christmas in the midst of this global health pandemic – forced to sacrifice so many of the things that make it feel like Christmas.
If this is what Christmas is all about, maybe we have created something that leaves many people feeling as if they do not belong at our celebrations, because they are in a difficult place, or because things are not perfect in their lives, or because they cannot manufacture the prerequisite joy.
If this is what Christmas is all about, then maybe we should cancel it.
I truly believe that God is present and active in every situation, in every place, and in every moment in time. That for all of eternity God is bestowing humanity with God’s grace, love, and mercy. I know that God is present with us in this time of pandemic, and maybe one way God is present to us now, is by inviting us to think differently about our answers to Charlie Brown’s question, “isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
For as another Christmas movie reminds us in the lesson learned by the Grinch: Christmas doesn’t come from a store, it isn’t about presents, or food, it is about much much more.
Now do not get me wrong, I love the traditions that come with this season: singing carols, visiting with friends, exchanging gifts, and the fabulous cooking and baking of these days. As wonderful as all these things are, they are the externals of this season. They are not ultimately what this sacred feast is all about. Behind the delicious smells wafting through the air, the melodies of carols ringing in our ears, the festive decorations on display is a deeper story, something so profound that it changed the course of human history.
The way Luke the Evangelist tells the story of the birth of Jesus helps remind us of what Christmas is all about. For, as with everything else in Luke’s writings, this is about the great reversal and restoration of life.
Luke begins by placing the birth of Jesus in a particular moment in history. “In those days,” we hear, “a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” (1) These are the powerful rulers of the day. Luke etches their memory in the record of history, to be remembered henceforth and forever more. These details are not just random facts, they remind us that Jesus was born into a particular time and place.
As we continue reading this passage, we discover that these men, and all they represent, do not play staring roles in the Nativity pageant that is unfolding for the very first time.
We hear next of Mary and Joseph. Mary that young woman, great with child. Joseph her husband-to-be, brave enough to honor their relationship and accept Mary’s pregnancy. This couple could not be more removed from the sources of power and authority and might – they could not be more distant from Emperor Augustus and Quirinius. And yet, they are the ones chosen by God to bring God into the world. They are the ones chosen to help bring God’s gift of hope, and the fulfillment of God’s promises into human history.
As Luke continues to tell of Jesus’ birth the characters become even more removed from places of earthly power and might. For you cannot get much farther away from governors and emperors than shepherds.
Shepherds lived on the literal and figurative edges of society. They were deemed men of questionable morals and ill repute. Yet it is to these that the Angel of the Lord appears. The shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night are the first to hear the Good News of the Savior’s birth. The have the privileged place of knowledge and experience.
Then there is the Angel. The messenger announcing this glorious occasion. Just as we heard on Sunday with the story of the Annunciation, the Angel says once more, “Do not be afraid.” The Angel begins these earth shattering, life changing messages, with words of comfort. Something unbelievable is happening, God is acting, and you have nothing to fear.
That’s why Linus intentionally drops his blanket during that scene in A Charlie Brown Christmas. God is coming into the world, so we can let go of our fear. We no longer need objects of security for with God we have no reason to be afraid.
When God enters into human history, when God humbles God’s self to take on humanity – to become fully human and fully divine, when God is born of Mary, humanity is turned upside down, which is really right side up again. For the almighty, omnipotent God comes and breaks into this world not as an emperor or governor, not as the rich, powerful, and famous, but as a defenseless, tiny, baby. With this single birth, the words of Mary’s song – the Magnificat – come to life.
God comes into the world to set us free from any fear or anxiety we have. God comes into the world to remove all the masks and barriers we set up that separate us from each other, from ourselves, from creation, that separate us from God. God comes into the world to free us from sin and even death itself.
God comes into the world to cast down the might from their thrones, to lift up the lowly, to fill the hungry with good things, to send the rich empty away. God comes to liberate us, God comes to bring life, God comes to show us how to truly live.
From the moment Jesus is born, he lives and experiences the fullness of humanity. He witnesses pain and suffering and illness, he experiences joy and happiness, he builds intimate relationships with friends, he experiences the deep grief of death. In the full experience of human life, Jesus shows us what it means to be fully human: to love fully, to live the abundant life of God.
This is what Christmas is all about: for unto us is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
The true gift of this season is that Christmas comes no matter what. Christmas comes each year not through our efforts, not because of anything we do or do not do, not because life feels Christmasy. Christmas does not come because of presents, and carols, and dinner parties. Christmas comes because of what God does. Christmas comes because of the gift God has given us – the abundant love of God to humanity. Love incarnate in the person of Jesus.
The gift that matters most this night is the gift that defies our comprehension and shatters every expectation we have. For this holy night God came down, put on human flesh, entering into human history in the most humbling way possible – a way that is nothing short of scandalous to the world, and maybe even a little uncomfortable for us too. For the once unknowable, untouchable God who no human could look upon directly and live, can now be seen, and touched, and held, and known.
In a season unlike any other in our lives, we find ourselves celebrating the most singular night in all of history. Maybe the grace of this moment is that we can stop, hit the reset button, and remind ourselves what Christmas is truly about. Maybe this is the year to begin new traditions, new experiences, new ways to remember the profound story behind all the trappings of the season.
My friends, do not be afraid, for see this day we have been brought Good News of great joy for all the world: for to us is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
Do not be afraid. God has come amongst us. God has shown us a still more excellent way. God has set us free.
And that, is what Christmas is all about.
(1) Luke 2:1-2, NRSV.
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (20 December 2020). The Scripture readings can be found here
The Annunciation (circa 1472) by Leonardo da Vinci from the Uffizi collection. Public Domain
A couple of days ago I received a text message from a friend of the parish. They were writing to ask a question that is going around the neighborhood: Why are the bells of St. Thomas not playing Christmas music?
As I read the message a smile crept across my face. I chuckled, wondering how many of our neighbors think the lack of seasonal tintinnabulation has to do with the new priest not fully knowing what he is doing. Like how it took him about a month to figure out how to adjust the bells for the time change that came with the end of daylight savings time.
After enjoying that amusing speculation I wrote back, “because it’s not Christmas yet,” and went on to explain that the shift will be made on Christmas Eve and carols will ring out for the twelve days of Christmas.
This was yet another reminder for me, of the stories that we find ourselves between. While Jesus has been out in the town creche for a few weeks, currently covered with snow and certainly suffering from frost bite, the stories we have been telling as of late paint a different picture.
Throughout the first three weeks of Advent we heard some rather intense, not so meek and mild, Gospel passages. We heard about the Son of Man coming out of the heavens with clouds descending, in great and glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead. We spent two weeks with John the Baptist as our constant companion. John, that wilderness man, clothed in camels hair, snacking on wild honey and locusts, calling us to repent – calling us to turn back towards God. We have been with John on the banks of the Jordan River as he has proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. We have witnessed him fulfill the words of the prophet Isaiah, “prepare the way of the Lord.” In all of this we have been invited, or maybe it is better to say commanded, to prepare for the glorious promise of God that will be revealed at the second coming of Christ.
As we mark the Fourth Sunday of Advent, as we celebrate the final Sunday of this liturgical season, the story we tell here begins to catch up with the story that has been swirling around us since the day after Thanksgiving when halls were decked and the melody of carols began to dance through the air.
We begin our Nativity journey with that beloved story, that iconic image, that muse for artistic spirits; we begin with the Annunciation.
Luke tells us, “in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.” (1)
In majestic glory, the angel Gabriel from heaven came, announcing unto Mary that she will convince and bear a Son, Jesus the holy child of God.
Now I want you to be honest, how many of you were relieved when I began reading today’s Gospel passage? How many of you were elated to discover that we have made the shift from focusing on the second coming of Jesus in glory to his first coming as a babe born in Bethlehem all those centuries ago?
Do not worry, it is okay to be excited. There is something powerful about these stories. Our yearly telling of the birth of our Savior provides needed balm for weary souls.
As we seek comfort in these familiar words, let us not lose sight of how they speak to us afresh each year. But before we get to Mary, let’s talk about David.
Today’s lesson from Hebrew Scripture is taken from the Second Book of Samuel. This passage tells of how King David wants to build a house for God. We hear David recognizing the differences between his dwelling place and the dwelling place of God when he says, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” (2) In David’s mind if he has a house, then so should God.
There has been speculation about David’s motivation here. Some wonder if David seeks to build God a house for the honor and glory of God, in response to the great things God has done for David; while others wonder if he has this desire so that he will forever be remembered as the king who built a fitting dwelling for God. Whatever his intentions, God rejects David’s plan.
The word of the Lord comes to the prophet Nathan, and Nathan is given a message for David, “Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I bought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.”(3) This message is a reminder to David that God has been and will continue to be on the move with God’s people.
Since God delivered God’s people out of bondage and slavery in Egypt, God has been on the move. The Ark of the Covenant, is described in the Book of Exodus as containing the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. It is understood that this wooden chest, covered in gold, contains the very presence of God. So as the Ark of the Covenant journeys with God’s people, God’s very presence journeys as well – traveling with the people, guiding and guarding them through the wilderness.
From the time of the Exodus to the reign of King David when the people were not on the move, a tent was set up for the Ark to dwell in. God does not seek to be tied down to one place, confined to one building – no matter how glamorous it might be. God’s dwelling is one that is always ready to pick up and move as God’s children are marching on.
God’s rejection of David’s plan to keep God situated in one place, is also a statement about the relational dynamics between God and David. Having won peace and stability with God’s help, David is determined to do something for God in return. This rejection is a reminder that God is principally the provider rather than the recipient. God is in control, not David. For “thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth . . . Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house . . . Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.”(4) God has brought David to this place, and rather than David building a house for God, God will build a house for David – though this house will not be built with cedar, but with many generations. Thus the throne of David is established. God’s promise is made.
God will not be contained by human creations, and God will not be restrained by human expectations. God continues to be on the move, this time breaking into a particular moment in history, shattering human understanding once more.
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”(5)
The Angel Gabriel brings to Mary the message that the eternal God, the author and source of all creation, is about enter into human history by taking on the limitations and frailty of human flesh. God the omnipotent, God who no human can gaze upon directly and live, is about to enter into the world in a way that can be seen, and touched, and known. Gabriel tells Mary that she will be the one to birth God into the world. This poor, young, unwed woman – this person who could not be farther from the sources of power and authority and might in the first century world – is to be the God bearer. Talk about shattering expectations.
God is on the move, God cannot be contained, God is doing the unexpected. No matter how hard we try, no matter what houses we think we might build, nothing we do will stop God from coming to us in unexpected, incomprehensible, mind-blow ways. God cannot be domesticated or controlled by humanity.
For as long as people have been in relationship with God, some have claimed to know the very mind of God. But as we read from the Book of Isaiah, “for my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are 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.”(6) When we think we know God’s mind, God acts in a way that upends our assumptions.
When the people expected a great and powerful military leader, God came into the world as a defenseless baby. When the people expected God to take up the throne of David, giving rest from their enemies once more, God comes to reign from a tree. When military might was expected, God showed up in humble loving service. When the people thought God was dead, they discovered an empty tomb that shattered the darkness of death once and for all.
As we have been watching and waiting and preparing these last several weeks, have we been expecting the same familiar things to keep happening? We know the story of the Annunciation, but are we expecting God to continue speaking in the same familiar ways?
The Fourth Sunday of Advent invites us to open ourselves in heart and mind and body to the voice of God breaking in to this particular moment in history. This Sunday invites us to prepare for the unexpected move God is about to make.
As we hear these stories we are invited to consider who we are in relationship to God and God’s work in the world. Mary is clearly caught off guard by God’s word to her. She ponders “how can this be?” and then she responds in the only way that is consistent with who she actually is. When God calls us, do we respond in ways that are consistent with our vocations, with who we actually are?
Have we written off the possibility that God might be calling us to particular vocations and ministries? Have we written off the possibility that God might be calling us to be God bearers in the world? Have we resigned ourselves to thinking that God only speaks to other people, in other more prestigious places?
The Annunciation challenges us to reorient our expectations and assumptions about God. For if God can call a poor, young unwed woman in some out-of-the way place, than God can call us here in Greenville too.
God breaks into particular moments in history to do that which is beyond our comprehension, to do that which human understanding labels impossible. But we must always remember that “nothing will be impossible with God.”(7)
For the last nine months we have been living through unexpected and unprecedented times. We have been living in time between what once was and what will be. This year our celebrations of the Nativity of our Lord will be different. Maybe there is a blessing in that. Maybe by being forced to do things we have not done before, our eyes and our hearts will be opened afresh to what new this God is doing in our midst right now. God is breaking into this particular moment in history, most likely in ways we cannot even begin to understand or imagine.
The season of Advent might be coming to an end giving way to Christmastide, but we must remain vigilant in the work of watching and waiting. We must prepare ourselves for God to do the unexpected in our lives. Since we do not yet know what God is doing, we prepare by making ourselves ready to say yes to whatever God asks of us, just as Mary did. We must build houses for God, not ones made of cedar, but ones made in our very lives – mansions prepared in our very beings for Christ to dwell. We must transform our souls and bodies to be living tents carrying God on the move with God’s people.
The light is growing stronger. God is breaking in. Our King and Savior draweth nigh. It is almost Christmas. Let us prepare the next chapter of our story. Let us prepare our song to ring out through our lives and into our community.
(1) Luke 1:26-28, NRSV.
(2) 2 Samuel 7:2, NRSV.
(3) 2 Samuel 7:5-6, NRSV.
(4) 2 Samuel 7:8-9, 11, 16, NRSV.
(5) Luke 1:26-30, NRSV.
(6) Isaiah 55:8-9, NRSV.
(7) Luke 1:37, NRSV.
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent (13 December 2020). The Scripture readings can be found here
Brooklyn Museum – Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees (Saint Jean-Baptiste et les pharisiens) – James Tissot. Public Domain
There is something different about today.
Can you feel it?
Advent begins in the dark. Two weeks ago we set out on our Advent journey lighting a single candle. The darkness was pushed aside by a solitary flame. As the weeks have gone by, the light has grown stronger. Today we light the third candle on our Advent Wreath. The darkness is being pushed aside even further as the light increases. The light which enlightens everyone and everything is coming into the world. Our King and Savior draweth nigh!
As the light continues to grow, the themes of Advent begin to shift. Today we do not hear any apocalyptic visions, there is no call for repentance. Today we hear about the one who is coming. Today we rejoice.
We return today to the banks of the Jordan, and for a second week we find our companionship with John.
Today’s Gospel reading tells us, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.”(1)
When we think about this man John, we might find ourselves tempted to call to mind everything that we know about him from all of Scripture. We might recall the description we heard last week from Mark’s Gospel of a wilderness man clothed in camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. We might recall that scene from Luke’s Gospel when John rebukes the religious leaders with that great insult, “You brood of vipers!”(2) We might recall Matthew’s account of the Baptism of our Lord, when John, right after baptizing Jesus, witnessed the heaven’s open and heard the voice of God declare, “this is my Son, the beloved in whom I am well pleased.”(3)
Maybe we think about when Mary visits Elizabeth, both of them pregnant, and John leaps in his mother’s womb when he senses Jesus near by. Or maybe we think of the end of John’s life. When he sat in prison wondering, seeking confirmation, desiring certainty that the one he committed his life to is in fact the promised Messiah of God. When we hear of this man sent from God, whose name was John, maybe we think about the guy who begins by crying out in the wilderness and does not stop crying, even when it will cost him his life.
All of these stories and images give us a rich picture of this man. But through the intricacies of these strands woven together, we might miss something hiding in plain sight.
While it might be tempting to refer to this man, the first human we encounter in John’s Gospel, as “John the Baptist,” that is not the narrative that John the Evangelist is trying to tell. John the Evangelist’s understanding of this man John’s unique vocation as a holy human, “sent by God” to bear witness to the Word and to point to the Light, is different than the other Evangelists. In this Gospel, John is not introduced by family name or place of origin. He is not principally a baptizer, a prophet, an exhorter, or even a messenger from God. He is a witness.
John’s role as a witness, is to recognize the true light when it appears, and to call attention to it so that others may recognize it and believe – that others might recognize it, trust it, and commit themselves to the light. John is the star witness in this Gospel’s prolonged trial about the person and nature of Jesus.
John’s witness, makes the religious authorities nervous. Today we hear, “This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’”(4) It is important to note that when John’s Gospel refers to “the Jews,” be it here or in the Passion Narrative, he is not talking about the entirety of the Jewish people. This Gospel uses the phrase “the Jews” to describe the religious authorities.
So it is the religious authorities who are concerned about this man baptizing people in the river Jordan for they have no idea who he is. The authorities send some priests and Levites to go and interrogate him. They ask, “Who are you?” They want to know who he is, where he came from, and by what authority he does what does. Effectively they are saying who do you think you are stepping in on our religious territory?
What a fabulously loaded, complicated question. Three words, nine letters, yields one of the most difficult questions of life. John’s answer is brilliant because he knows exactly who he is and exactly who he is not.
We hear this morning, “This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’”(5)
John is clear. He is not the Messiah, he is not Elijah, nor is he the prophet. As we listen to this exchange you can feel the blood pressure of the priests and Levites increasing, you can hear their frustration growing. After all of John’s noes they say to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”(6)
John answers them, using the words from Isaiah which we heard last week. He says, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”(7) John knows who he is. He is a witness. Everything he does points beyond himself. Nothing is for his own glory. He has given the entirety of his life to serving the one who is coming after him.
This whole exchange begins with that one question, “who are you?”
It seems to me, that is the perfect question for us to consider during the season of Advent. As we dwell in this time between the first coming and second coming of God; as we dwell between the stories we tell as a community of faith and the stories the world tells; as we dwell between the already and the not yet; we must ask “who are we?”
John is a man sent by God to witness in history to Jesus who was present with God at creation and who will be the eternal presence of God within history. John testifies to what was, what is, and what will always be. John understands, and he wants the authorities to understand, that his actions are only preparatory in relation to the one whose identity they actually seek, but will not acknowledge. This is who John is. This is his answer.
Smack in the middle of Advent we are invited to consider who we are? These verses remind us of our identity and our role as witnesses who must share in the testimony of John. We too must testify to God’s abiding presence in this moment in history. We too must bear witness to Jesus who was present at the moment everything came into existence and who will be present until the completion of time. We must confess who we are not and proclaim the One who is. As we testify to the light, to the Word made flesh, to the One who is to come, we must embody the light which casts out the darkness so that our very lives become a beacon to the life and power and love of God.
The light of God which reflects from our lives is a manifestation of deep joy – the joy of Advent. The joy of this season is not an emotion. It is something more than the joy which lights up store displays and greeting cards. It is more than mere sentimentality and nostalgia. This joy we know from the light that is coming into the world is the very foundation of our lives. It is rooted in the promise that God is with us, that God loves us, that God dares to claim us as God’s own. It is joy rooted in God’s promise that God’s love will sustain us in the most difficult of times. This is the Good News of God that allows us to celebrate God coming amongst us even as we mourn all that afflicts us, even in the midst of a global health pandemic.
This is why St. Paul can say to the Thessalonians, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”(8)
God is faithful. God always fulfills God’s promises. So let us rejoice. The light is growing stronger, the darkness is being pushed aside. Our King and Savior draweth nigh.
How do we witness today? If John was out by the Jordan River baptizing people, are we supposed to be out at the Blackstone?
We are called to situate our witness in the realities of this moment in history. So our witness happens on social media. Social media platforms are often harshly criticized as places of division, pain, and conflict. But these platforms are tools, and it us who decide how these tools will be used. So instead of amplifying voices of pain, and conflict, and strife, let us witness in the digital realm to the power of God we have known in our lives. Jesus said preach the Gospel to the ends of the world, and these days our world includes the virtual realm. Go witness there.
Our witness happens in how we respond to this pandemic. The way of discipleship is rooted in sacrifice. So we witness to the One who comes, who’s path leads directly to the Cross, by wearing masks and social distancing. We witness to the depths of love we are called to make incarnate when we willingly make sacrifices in our own lives for the protection, health, and safety of others. We witness by worshipping virtually, staying home, not mixing households, limiting our travel, by taking advantage of curbside pick up, and doing what we can to support local businesses and community organizations. We witness by making the difficult sacrifices now so that more people will stay heathy and survive this pandemic.
Jesus beings his public ministry in Luke’s Gospel by worshipping in the synagogue. While he is there he stood up to read, and the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Jesus unrolls the scroll and reads the very words from Isaiah that we hear this morning: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”(9) This is what we are witnesses to. This is the work our lives are to point to. This is what we preparing for – the liberation and restoration of humanity; the liberation and restoration of the entirety of creation. So let us rejoice!
We do all of these things. We witness right now, in this very moment, because of who we are. We, like John, are witnesses.
Earlier this week, Bishop Rob Wright, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta posted the following status on Facebook, “John The Baptist is not the wild religious zealot some in the church have made him out to be. John is the faithful believer most of us are afraid to be.” It is time for us to stop being afraid.
John knew exactly how to answer the question “who are you?” During this season of Advent we must ask: “who are we?” “Who do we hope to be?” And “who are we becoming?” The way we answer these questions is just as important as the way John answered his.
There is something different about today.
Can you feel it?
More importantly, will you witness to it?
(1) John 1:6, NRSV.
(2) Luke 3:7, NRSV.
(3) Matthew 3:17, NRSV.
(4) John 1:19, NRSV.
(5) John 1:19-21, NRSV.
(6) John 1:22, NRSV.
(7) John 1:23, NRSV.
(8) 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, NRSV.
(9) Isaiah 61:1-2, NRSV.
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent (6 December 2020). The Scripture readings can be found here
St. John the Baptist Preaching, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Mattia Preti (1613-1699). Public Domain
How we tell stories matter.
Have you ever had the experience of telling a story, or hearing someone tell a story, and in the middle of a sentence someone interrupts by saying, “You’re not telling it right?!”
If your experience is anything like mine, that interruption is not calm and gentle, there is no timid, “umm excuse me, but I think you might be mistaken.” The interruption bursts forth with emotion, maybe even accompanied by wild gesticulation. The interrupter must stop the storyteller immediately in order that the “true” version of events can be told. After all, how a story begins is incredibly important, it sets the foundation for everything that follows.
This time of year, more than any other, I find myself thinking a lot about how stories are told, and what stories are told.
In early December we find ourselves located between two different stories. Stories that are rooted in divergent ideas and experiences.
We are located between an ending and a beginning. Outside these walls the countdown to the end of 2020 has begun. Programs, and emails, and specials are coming out under the banner of wrapping up 2020 or 2020 the year in review. As the world around us brings the year to a close, here we have already begun our new year. Today is the Second Sunday of Advent, the second week of a new liturgical year. We have already turned that calendar page setting out emboldened by the hope that is coming.
We are located between light and darkness. Outside these walls, Christmas has exploded. If your neighborhood is anything like mine, then the day after Thanksgiving the darkness was eradicated by thousands of twinkling lights, by light up inflatable Santas and snowmen. But here, Advent begins in the dark. Last week we lit a single candle on our Advent wreath. Today we light a second, and slowly week by week the darkness is pushed aside to make room for the light that is coming into the world.
We are located between frenzy and stillness. Outside these walls, even with all the restrictions of our pandemic pause, shopping centers are buzzing with activity. Here, we slow down and listen for God in the stillness of the morning. Beyond these walls people blast Jingle Bell Rock and Dominic the Donkey (which is, in my humble opinion, a significantly under-valued Christmas song). Here, well this year virtually, we listen to “Lo! he comes with clouds descending” and “There’s a voice in the wilderness crying”.
We are located between two stories; left to hold together the tension of these competing narratives.
The stories we tell, how they begin, matters: for that is what sets everything in motion.
The Gospels are no different. Each one begins in a particular way, laying the foundation for that evangelist’s telling of the story of the good news of God.
Matthew begins with genealogy and the birth of Jesus. Luke begins by foretelling the birth of John the Baptist. John begins with soaring rhetoric to articulate the very beginning of time. And Mark . . . well Mark interrupts all those beloved beginnings to get right to the point.
Here we find no angels announcing unto Mary, no shepherds in the field watching their flocks by night, no manger filled with animals, no babe wrapped in bands of cloth. Mark begins with the prophets.
The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Mark begins thus:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’” (1)
Mark’s telling of the good news of God is rooted in the history of the people. He recalls the words of that great prophet Isaiah, bringing to mind the oppression that the people of God faced whilst in exile. He draws upon the memory of God’s saving work in history to offer hope for his audience suffering from the oppression of the Roman occupation. Mark draws a line between what the people of God experienced in ages past, and connects it to the present moment. Mark locates the good news of Jesus Christ between what was and what is, while keeping his gaze on what is to come.
Our first reading, from the Book of Isaiah puts these words into context.
What Mark quotes comes from what is arguably the most beloved section of the Book of Isaiah, if not in the entirety of the Old Testament or even all of Scripture.
This section of Isaiah has the Israelites living in exile in Babylon. These famous words are the announcement that the end of their exile is near for the day of deliverance is dawning. The prophet announces the word of the Lord that provides comfort and encouragement to hang on just a little longer for home is not far away.
The message of these words is good news about God’s promise of redemption for a people who have lived in exile for 150 years. The opening verses of this reading serve as the hinge between what was and what is to come. In the first section of the Book of Isaiah, the Israelites did not live into their covenanted relationship with God. They turned from God, they sinned, and because of that they must face God’s judgment – they must be held accountable for their actions.
What we hear today, the beginning of this new section in Isaiah, the very same words that Mark quotes, speak to what the judgement of God is all about. God’s judgement always serves the more encompassing purpose of God’s forgiveness and redemption. As we hear these words, we cannot forget what comes before. We cannot separate God’s grace and forgiveness, God’s restoration and redemption, from God’s judgement on human sin. To do so renders God’s grace and forgiveness cheap and renders God’s judgment on sin sheer retribution. And there is nothing cheap about God.
The people of God have faced God’s judgement, and now they receive God’s forgiveness. They are on the cusp of redemption, the cusp of returning home.
This is the foundation Mark sets by beginning his story with these words from Isaiah.
Then, without a hint of transition, John the Baptist makes his entrance onto the Markan stage.
Here comes this curious man right out of the desert, wearing animal skins, eating insects, and proclaiming a baptism of repentance. Let’s be honest, John is one of those biblical figures we still do not know what to do with. After two thousand years, he stands there, gaunt and unruly, utterly out of sync with his age, our age, and every age in-between. There is a reason why John is left out of every Advent calendar ever created – who wants to open the daily window and see an alarming man shouting “repent!” as they grab their piece of chocolate?
While Mark’s telling of John’s entrance is unlike any other, all four Gospels agree that there is no gospel story without John the Baptist at the opening. For John is located in the tension between what is and what is to come.
Mark’s quick pivot from the prophet Isaiah to John is not the result of sloppy story telling. Those opening versus link John to the message of the prophets. Mark is laying the foundation that John is the new Elijah.
We read about Elijah in both the First and Second Book of Kings. Elijah, that great prophet, who calls the people to account for abandoning their faith in God. It is from Elijah that we learn that God is found in the still small voice – in the sound of sheer silence. When we come to the end of Elijah’s story, we learn that he does not die. Instead he is taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire.
The Jewish expectation for the coming of the Messiah focuses around the figure of Elijah: for when Elijah returns, that will be the sign that the promised Messiah of God is coming.
In the beginning of his Gospel, Mark pairs the words of Isaiah with an oracle from the prophet Malachi. For Malachi declares, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me.” (2) This oracle is about the return of Elijah at the day of the Lord’s coming. By pairing this verse from Malachi and the prophecy of Isaiah together, Mark is making the connection, telling the story in such a way, that his readers will understand what this wild man John is all about. John, the one who behaves just as Elijah did, is the voice crying out in the wilderness, he is the messenger preparing the way, thus the one who comes after is indeed the promised Messiah of God.
How we tell stories matter.
The beginning of Mark’s Gospel sets out to tell a story that God is not done with us yet. What God did for our ancestors, God will do for us, and even more so – it is what God will do for every generation until the end of time.
There is urgency in Mark’s message, there is no time to dwell in the sweetness of the manger, because his community was suffering. They needed to know that a new day is dawning, that things are changing now.
Mark’s birth narrative, is not about a baby, but about a new world order in which paths will be made straight, valleys will be lifted up, mountains and hills will be laid low, rough places made plain, where the afflicted will be comforted and the comfortable will be afflicted. This is the way being prepared, this is where we are headed. It all begins with John proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Just as you will not find John on any Advent calendar, you will not find seasonal greeting cards branded with the word “repentance.” But just as John is the quintessential Advent character, repentance is a quintessential Advent word.
Repentance is not about beating our breasts and shouting “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” It is not about tormenting ourselves through self-deprecating rants for all the ways we have sinned and fallen short.
The Greek word which gets translated as “repentance” is “metanoia.” While repentance means sincere regret or remorse, metanoia means to change one’s mind. Metanoia is about turning around and conversion of life.
So this repentance that John is proclaiming is an invitation to transformation, to change course, to reorient our lives back towards God. Advent, with these quintessential characters and words, invites us to honestly name before God all that is not as it should be. It invites us to lift up the brokenness and suffering, trusting that God is coming to heal and redeem us. Advent stands in the tradition of the prophets naming the injustices of our world, offering comfort from God to the people, expecting that God has acted, is acting, and will always continue to act as we await the promised day of God.
Metanoia is like God interrupting the stories of our lives to say, “you’re not telling it right!” and then proceeding to redirect us back to the truth.
We are located between two stories. One that is filled with light and inflatable snowmen, and one that is demanding, rigorous, and requires self-examination and vulnerability. One story is being used to distract us from all that this year has been, and one story seeks to comfort us with the assurance that even now, God comes to us in the fullness of our lives, just as God entered into human history two millennia ago.
I understand the desire to seek distractions and cheer. For many this year has been hard. This year has been radically different than we hoped. But in a few weeks when the lights come down, and the radio stations go back to their usually scheduled programs, and the trees are tossed to the curbs things will not magically be better.
While the promise of vaccines being available soon is encouraging, we have been warned that the next three months will be the worst and hardest of the pandemic. As of this morning, according to The New York Times, we have the highest per capita rate of COVID cases in the country. We are averaging over 1000 new cases a day. It seems to me that we do not need distractions right now, we need Advent. We need the hope that God is present in the fullness of our lives. That God is with us as we worship virtually, that God is present as we socially distance and isolate from one another, that God is present with the sick and dying in our hospitals and our newly opened field hospitals in Cranston and Providence.
How we tell our stories matter.
And the story we have to tell in this moment, is that God is coming to set the world aright. God is coming to heal what is fractured and broken, to relieve misery, to give rest to the weary. God is coming to offer us the greatest gift of all, abundant and everlasting life with God. Not even death will stand in God’s way of welcoming us into the joys of what has been prepared for us.
We might be more comfortable with the story being told beyond our walls. The trimmings of secular Christmas might be more attractive than a wilderness man snacking on locusts. But, if I might be so bold, I wonder if the signs of the times are trying to interrupt us, shouting that we are not telling the story the right way. Maybe what the world needs now is a deeper, longer lasting, hard wearing story. We have something worth proclaiming, a story worth telling, if the people flocked to John the Baptist from the countryside and the city, why should we think they will not flock to us as well.
This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This is our story.
(1) Mark 1:1-3, NRSV.
(2) Malachi 3:1, NRSV.
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.