St. Thomas Episcopal Church

We are a welcoming community following Christ through loving service and joyful worship in the Episcopal tradition.

Sermons

All sermons given by the Priest-in-Charge, the Rev’d Dante A. Tavolaro, unless otherwise indicated.

 

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.  

Amen. 

 

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.” 

Amen. 

 

Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (6 September 2020).
The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here

Public Domain
James Tissot, The Exhortation of the Apostles (between 1886 and 1894), The Brooklyn Museum.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Exhortation_to_the_Apostles_(Recommandation_aux_apôtres)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

 

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. 

Amen.  

 

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.   

Amen.