The Suffering God and the Changed Community (Sermon for Good Friday, 2017)

A reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah (52:13-53:12)

See, my servant shall prosper;
he shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high.

Just as there were many who were astonished at him
–so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of mortals–

so he shall startle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;

for that which had not been told them they shall see,
and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.

Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;

he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;

and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.

Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;

yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,

and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;

like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.

By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?

For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.

They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,

although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.

When you make his life an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;

through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.
Out of his anguish he shall see light;

he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.

Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;

because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;

yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

This past Palm Sunday marked a horrific act of violence in the Middle East. We were hear, getting our palms setup and prepared. The vergers were working through the details of the procession. I was arranging books and sermon notes… but a world away our sisters and brothers were reeling. A bomb was set off in a Coptic church in Tanta, Egypt, a city about sixty miles from Cairo. Twenty-five Christians gathering for Palm Sunday worship were killed. Another seventy-eight were injured. Then, just a few hours later, a suicide bomber struck the church in Alexandria, Egypt, where the Coptic Pope has his official seat, his cathedral church. They did not succeed in killing the Coptic Pope, but they did kill eleven more people, including three police officers, and injured another thirty-five.

Thirty-six. Thirty-six Christians gathering for worship… now dead.

The photo I cannot get out of my mind is of a small child, dressed in what I think must be acolyte clothes in the Coptic tradition. He is wearing a crown made of folded palm branches, carrying a cross of folded palm branches. The photo is not a professional one, it looks like it was taken by a parent before the service started. He seems to be no more than eight years old. He looks so excited, like any child serving as an acolyte at an important church service. Now he joins the ranks of martyrs… and we are left here, confused, angry, unsure of how to deal with more death.

Of course, it’s not just that child. This week we have dealt with the aftermath of a saran gas attack on civilians in Syria. This was followed by a strike by our own missiles upon the aircraft base. But just days later, planes were taking off again. The violence seems unconquerable, something that we cannot stop. Each attempt seems only to pour fuel upon the fire.

And I must tell you, I stand here today as your priest, but I am bereft of answers.

Good Friday is not, it seems, a day that offers many answers to anyone.

When I was reading through the lessons appointed for today, I was deeply struck by verses two through three of this reading. “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.”  This reading is actually appointed in the oldest lectionary we have on record, from the fifth century. It was used at the noon liturgy on Good Friday in Jerusalem itself. They would read chapters forty through fifty-five, in their entirety, at the three-hour long liturgy. But then they would repeat this section from chapter fifty-three later in the day, finding something potent in these verses, something that points to what we believe happened on the cross.

One of the key points of this text from Isaiah is that the Suffering Servant of whom Isaiah writes is someone from whom people hide their faces, someone who people didn’t think was worth much. This description opens the Suffering Servant up to a myriad of connection in our own time, anyone who society—who we—would rather not look at. People whose value we see as… less than our own.

That could be the person holding a sign asking for help, from whom you avert your eyes. It could be the conservative Christian, whose views you find offensive as a progressive… or vice versa. It could be the child from that photo, a minority in country that does not protect religious minorities. It could be a child in our own community, whose parents live under threat of deportation. It could be the Syrian children who we will refuse as refugees, even while the death of Christian children pulls at our heart strings. Any of these suffering people could be the Servant in Isaiah. Any one of these suffering people from whom we look away, who don’t have the same value as others, any of them could be the one Isaiah holds up as an image of God’s coming salvation.

Perhaps most unsettling is what Isaiah says about this Suffering Servant, about the suffering and pain that the servant undergoes. “He has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases… he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities.” That is, you and I see the suffering of this world and want to point the finger at all kinds of other people. But the prophet Isaiah tells us that this suffering is our own doing. Our sins lay upon the Suffering Servant because we are always willing to scapegoat, we are always willing for someone else to pay the price for our wealth, for our comfort, for our safety. But this, beloved of God, this Suffering Servant, these people from whom we look away, these people whose pain we ignore, whose pain we often cause… this Suffering Servant is who we discover each year on Good Friday.

We think Jesus is coming to bring peace, to make us feel better, more spiritual, more whole, to give us some kind of spiritual shot in the arm. And instead, when God comes in Christ, God takes his place with those we have rejected, with those who are suffering.

The answer to the problem of suffering and pain in this world is not an easy one. The answer to the death of that child in Egypt or those children in Syria or those children seeking a new life with their parents in the United States but finding the doors closed… the answer to all of this suffering isn’t to fix it. God refuses to make us be people of justice.

Instead, God takes the place of the oppressed. God says, I will be here with you. I will suffer here with you. I will be rejected here with you. I will die here with you. We religious don’t see this because it’s not how we see God. But this is how God comes to us in Jesus Christ.

And we should feel sadness on this day. We should feel sadness for the brokenness of this world, for the unanswered suffering all around us. We should feel sadness that we have not done more to bring peace to this world, particularly to those places in the world we tend to ignore, those communities we tend to push to the side.

We should feel sadness, but we should also feel a profound lift of hope by knowing Christ meets us here, in the darkness of our own failures and violence. We are complicit in the death of Christ, but God does not abandon us in this sin. God takes on the suffering you and I have inflicted and yet remains, persists, here with us. Every drop of blood we have drawn through our sharp words or through our callous inaction, every drop of blood is mingled with the blood of Christ… and somehow, we find ourselves forgiven.

So we should find confidence on this day as well. That’s what the Preacher says in the Hebrews lesson says, “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”

We come today in the presence of God not only acknowledging our sin, not only acknowledging our grief that our failures have resulted in the suffering of so many, a suffering that finds its focal point in the suffering of Christ. We come here also for another purpose. Finding ourselves forgiven for our many failings, in the words of Hebrews, we are called now to “consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” We come together renewed with the knowledge that in Christian community we will find ourselves made uncomfortable at times, but we will also find ourselves called to love more, to love better. Amen.

Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Who the Fight is Really With (Sermon for Lent 3A, 2017)

Below is the audio of today’s sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year A, 2017.

 

The full text of the sermon is available below as well.

A reading from the book of Exodus (17:1-7)

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

The text for this morning from the Hebrew Bible is an unbelievable text, one in which the people of Israel behave in a way that we certainly find shocking, hard to imagine. They are in the midst of their wilderness wandering, their long journey from Egypt to the promised land. They become thirsty in the wilderness, and they begin to grumble and murmur.

Shocking, I know.

The people of God grumbling and murmuring when things have become difficult. What is the most shocking is that the text says the person with whom they quarreled with was Moses. I know—I can hardly believe it either. Surely the people know that their true leader is God, Moses is only a servant, seeking to do his best. But the people find the journey difficult and they complain about Moses. They want Moses to fix it. “Give us water to drink!”

This is not how God’s people ever behave, right?

God’s people never grumble and murmur.

God’s people never blame their human leaders when they turn out to be… human, unable to produce miracles in their sight.

I’m so glad this text has nothing to do with our own lives today as believers.

Amen.

Now, of course, we know that the struggle of the people of Israel in today’s lesson is indeed one we see over and over again throughout Scripture, throughout history. Moses, though, is wise. Moses calls out the people’s misdirected anger, saying, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” Moses is, in the words of today, very “self-differentiated.” He knows that he is not the problem… just the easy target. And he clarifies with the people that they need to look to God for the answer to their pain and struggle and thirst because Moses is no miracle worker.

And as easy as it is to poke a little fun at the people of Israel in this text, as easy as it is, hopefully, even to poke a little fun at ourselves (if we can have a bit of sense of humor about who we are), to acknowledge how today we struggle with the same struggles of the people of Israel… As easy as all of that is, that struggle of the people of Israel, our struggles, are still valid and real—even if we tend to misdirect our anger at others.

Thirst is thirst, particularly if you are in the desert.

Pain is pain. Struggle is struggle. Frustration is frustration. Disillusionment is disillusionment. Anger that the community seems not to be doing what you would hope… that anger is real. Sometimes it is even fair. After all, it is good that we desire for more in this world, that we long for more in and from our community.

The question is whether we recognize the source of our thirst.

Do we know that the discomfort we may feel at times in our lives, in our family, in our work, even in our church, this discomfort is a sign, generally, of our longing for God. God is the one we are looking for.

This is the reality that becomes clear at the end of today’s reading. Moses named the place Massah and Meribah, “because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’”

Is the Lord among us or not?  Is the Lord among us in our community? Is the Lord active in our church? Is the Lord active in our family… in our nation… or not?

Because sometimes we do feel like we are all on our own down here. So we lash out at one another. We lash out with our leaders or at those we think are our enemies. We fight and quarrel with one another when our quarrel is actually with God, more often than not. Our struggle is with God.

God is the reason our hearts are restless. And the sooner we realize this, the sooner we stop attacking others—or hoping others will stop screwing it up and give us what we think we need—the sooner we realize that we have been chasing false answers, that God is the only one who can answer our pain… the sooner we do this, the sooner we will find our thirst quenched.

This question of whether or not God is with us, this is a persistent question throughout Scripture, particularly in the Hebrew Bible. Moses sees God face to face, at first, but everyone else only sees Moses. Whether it is Pharaoh or the children of Israel, they have to trust in the signs of God’s presence. They don’t see God in the same way Moses does…

But even that doesn’t last.

Eventually, even Moses cannot see God face to face anymore. We’re in chapter 17 of Exodus today, but by the end of Exodus 33, Moses can only see the backside of God’s glory, he can only see where God has been. After this with Moses, the people turned their attention to the Ark of the Covenant as the sign of God’s presence, they believed God was there, dwelling with the ark as it rested in Shiloh. Then, that changed as well. Solomon constructed his glorious temple. It was believed that the name of God dwelt there. The temple, however, eventually fell to the Babylonians… leading the people to ask once more, where is God now? Where God was in this moment of destruction and pain, of uncertainty and doubt?

It’s interesting, this question of where God is, this is also the question of the Samaritan woman in the Gospel reading for today as well. She is at the well at noon, the time when no one would come to a well, it’s too hot. You come at the beginning of the day or the end of the day. But here she is, at noon. We find out the Samaritan woman has seen her share of pain. She’s been divorced several times—something a woman couldn’t initiate in that time. So that means she has had five husbands give her a certificate of divorce and send her on her way… five times. And now the man she lives with won’t even give her the dignity of a marriage.

So I kind of get why she is at the well at noon, even though the sweat must pour as she carries that water. It’s much better than the grumbling and murmuring of others.

Jesus finds the woman here and he asks her for water. She expresses surprise that he, a Jew, would do such a culturally inappropriate thing as ask a Samaritan woman for a drink. Jesus tells her gently that he knows she is actually the one who is thirsty. She is the one longing for more… and she knows that’s true.

That’s why I actually don’t think she is deflecting or changing the subject when she asks Jesus where God is. She knows that this is the true question, this is the basis of one of the key arguments between Jews and Samaritans. Is God at Mount Gerizim, like the Samaritans believe, or is God at Jerusalem? Where is God, she says, given the pain of my life? If you know so much, can you tell me that?

In the Hebrew Bible reading, Moses found the answer to the question of where God is by crying out to the Lord in prayer. Moses knew that prayer is not about pious words. Prayers is about honestly being present with God in all your anger and hurt, your doubt, confusion and frustration. Moses knew this and so cried out… and God met him there. God showed him how to find water to fill that thirst.

Jesus does a similar thing, in the Gospel reading. He says that the location is not as important in the coming reign. True worshippers are those who worship the Father in spirit and in truth. And just a few verses before that, Jesus had commended this woman for her truth with him about her painful marriage history. She’s already halfway there, he says.

And so he whispers a revelation to her. When she sighs and says that the Messiah is coming to fix everything, that God will show up eventually, Jesus looks at her and says with what I imagine must have been a smile, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

God is here in the hot noonday sun with you in your pain. I’m right here.

Are you sometimes frustrated in life? Do you find yourself angry at others? Are you tired or struggling or unsure of God’s presence in your life? Are you thirsty for something more? Be present with that hurt. Don’t hide from it. Stop attacking other people, maybe—they are just broken humans doing their best. Even the worst enemy you can think of is just a broken human being doing their best.

Realize that the deep pain you feel is your longing for God. And pray. Stand honestly before God. Take your time with it.

If you do this, you will find the answer of John’s Gospel in the person of Jesus Christ. In Jesus, John tells us, God pitched his tent among us just like that tabernacle so long ago. In Jesus, God wrapped himself with our brokenness and our pain, so that we would know that we are never as alone as we feel, that God is never actually absent.

It’s interesting, in the crucifixion narrative of John’s Gospel, Jesus generally seems in control. Except for one moment. The cry of dereliction in John’s Gospel is different than all the rest. It’s the same cry of the Israelites in today’s reading from Exodus. It’s the same cry of the woman at the well. At the end of John’s Gospel, do you remember what Jesus cries out from the cross? “I am thirsty.”

I know what it is like to be thirsty like you, Jesus tells us. You are not alone in your thirst.

Come. Be present—honestly present with God in prayer—and discover that God is not absent. God’s never been absent. God is right here in a crucified Lord, bearing your sins in his body, and whispering back to you that it’s OK. Your flailing fists that have wounded those you thought were your enemies have fallen upon him… and it’s OK. He is still here. He still loves you.

Your search has ended if you will just open your eyes. Stop staring at your water bucket, at whatever it is you think will make you happy.

The living water is here in this broken body and blood. Amen.

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Time to Leave Haran

The audio from today’s sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year A, 2017, is available below:

 

The full text of the sermon is available below as well:

A reading from the book of (Genesis 12:1–4a)

The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Have you ever had to leave a place that you really loved?

These are the questions on my mind. This past week, Bethany and I moved from the first home we owned together on Robinwood Court to our new home out on Oak Grove Road, just off of Lakeshore Drive. I truly detest moving, so maybe it was an appropriate Lenten discipline for me…

But as I walked through Robinwood Court one more time, after all the beloved items and clutter and pieces that had made it mine and ours had been removed, I remembered the many good memories Bethany and I made in that home. I remembered the day we arrived, with a family friend on his knees in the living room putting in the new flooring we had ordered, installing it for us as a surprise gift. I remembered the stream of parishioners—many of you—who came by in those first weeks, bringing Bethany and I food as we unpacked and began making our life here. I remembered staff Christmas parties and fall open houses during which many of you blessed us with your presence. I remembered walking up the stairs behind Bethany as she carried that small little bundle, Lucy Elizabeth, as we walked to the nursery we had so carefully prepared for her.

Don’t get me wrong, we were ready to leave, ready for a new home closer to Holland (where Bethany works), one that would be better for hosting you (hopefully many more times!), better for raising our daughter… but it was still hard to leave the place, a place we loved, a place we had turned into our home.

I imagine you know what that feels like, right? To leave a place that you love?

Of course, leaving a place you love doesn’t just have to be about geography. I remember the feeling when I left the Christian tradition in which I was raised to become an Episcopalian. I remember those members of my family who said I was a false teacher… and I remember those members of my family who didn’t understand my new love for these strange Episcopalians, but who came to my confirmation nonetheless, putting their hands on my shoulders as the bishop prayed for the quickening of the Holy Spirit in my life. It was hard to leave one belief structure, particularly one so rooted in family… because it’s hard to leave anything you love.

We find the great patriarch Abram—later called Abraham—in the first lesson for today, as he receives a message from God, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Abram is called to leave all that he knew and go to a strange country, a strange place, to obey this strange God who was not known at that time.

Terah, Father of Abraham

It’s an interesting thing, though, because Abram actually wasn’t the first one who was called to leave Ur of the Chaldeans by our God. Just a couple of verses before today’s reading, we heard about Abram’s father, a man who was named Terah. The text in verse thirty-one says, “Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there.” That is, the first one who was called to leave Ur of the Chaldeans, our modern-day Iraq, was not Abram. It was his father, Terah.

No one knows why the journey stopped for Terah. The language in verse thirty-one is vague, simply saying, “But when they came to Haran, they settled there.” According to Jewish rabbinical tradition, Terah was an idolatrous priest who made idols and sold them to people, much to the disagreement of his son, Abram, who was developing very different set of religious beliefs. This seems to be supported by a short verse in Joshua, chapter 24, verse 2, in which Joshua describes Terah not only as the man who began the journey to the promised land, but also as an idolater who worshipped other gods.

There was a lot of that, a lot of that sin, before we got to the story of Abram in Genesis. We’ve heard some of it last week in the story of Adam and Eve in the garden. Then after that story, their son, Cain, killed their other son, Abel. Then humanity got so wicked that God wiped it out with a flood, only saving one righteous man, Noah. He then exited the ark after the flood and promptly got involved in his own sin and foolishness… and on and on it goes in the book of Genesis.

But Abram is called to go from all that. He is called even to abandon his aging father in Haran, a father who began a journey but found himself unable to complete it. Abram’s no young buck himself. At the time he leaves Haran, Abram is in his mid-seventies. But he knows he is called, nonetheless. He knows he is called to leave his father’s family and to begin a new journey to the promised land. Even old age can’t help you escape the call of God when it comes upon your life.

It’s interesting as well, the word for that city, that city where Terah decided to settle, the city where Abram found himself called to leave his family behind… the name of that city, Haran, has its own interesting meaning. It comes from an ancient Akkadian word that means road or, at times, cross-roads. Abram’s father, Terah, arrived at a crossroads and couldn’t go on… so after some unspecified period of time, Abram left him there at the cross-road and journeyed on anyway.

But it must have been so hard, so very hard.

It’s hard to leave a place you love—even when you know the people there have wronged you or wronged your God. It’s still hard to leave.

It’s harder still when you don’t know where you are going next, just some promised land that God says he will show you… someday.

Maybe you find yourself at a crossroads of your own sort during this Lenten season. Do you get a sense that God might be inviting you somewhere new in your life during this holy season? Do you get a sense, perhaps, that God is calling you finally to leave something behind, to let it go? Or maybe you started a journey somewhere with God a long time ago, but you’ve gotten comfortable where you are, comfortable in Haran, comfortable in the crossroads?

In today’s reading, God reminds Abram that his journey is not just about him. None of these journeys are just about us. This is not some personal quest Abram or you or I are on, this is no Robert Frost and two roads diverging in a wood. God says to Abram, “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Abram’s journey, the reason he needed to move on, the reason he needed to leave his dad behind… Abram’s journey has to do with his call to be a blessing of others, with his call to be a blessing to all the families of the earth… with his call to be the one through whom you and I are blessed. Because he made that hard decision so long ago to leave a place and a people he loved and to journey into the unknown with God.

So, I guess what I want to say to you is don’t stay comfortable in Haran. In some ways, Nicodemus seems to be like that in the Gospel reading for today, doesn’t he? Nicodemus, kind of a halfway believer, coming at night, afraid people will find out he is talking to Jesus. After Jesus dies, Nicodemus shows up again in John’s Gospel, wanting to help with the burial… I would imagine wracked with guilt that he couldn’t do more, that he couldn’t believe more, because he couldn’t bring himself to commit to Christ.

Make no mistake. The inclusion of Nicodemus in the Gospel of John indicates that even those halfway believers will find themselves loved by the Jesus who is bringing in thisnew kingdom. Nicodemus and loved and is a part of the story… but we don’t know if he ever gets to see the full riches of the story intended for him, the full riches of the invitation to follow Christ.

Because this isn’t about whether or not God loves you if you find yourself somehow stuck in Haran. This isn’t about whether God loves you desires to be close to you. All of that was decided long ago, when God killed animals to make clothes for Adam and Eve despite the fact that they had just betrayed him. The fact that God loves sinners was made clear when God protected Cain and his descendants even though Cain committed the first murder when he killed his brother, Abel. God loved poor Terah, settling in Haran because the journey became too much for him. God loved Nicodemus, sneaking off at night to see Jesus.

This is not about whether God loves you. God loves you abundantly and there is nothing you can do that will make God love you more—not even leaving Haran to go forward will make God love you more.

What this is about is the journey upon which God is inviting you. What this is about is the things God is calling you finally to leave behind, to walk away from. What this is about is the new goodness that is right in front of you… if you can just have the courage to walk forward, to stop facing behind at what was and start facing in front into the strange unknown, where you will find God’s grace and mercy and joy abundant in your life… if you can just take those first steps out of Haran.

If you can find that courage to trust God’s grace and to walk forward, you will discover the many ways that God wants to use you to be a blessing to all people. You will discover that the journey ahead of you, the journey after you leave Haran, is about you blessing others. Who knows how many people God is wanting you to bless while you are staying comfortable in the place you are.

Children of God, what are you waiting for in Haran? There is so much more God has for you. Amen.

O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

A Long-Nosed God (Sermon for Ash Wednesday, Year C, 2017)

The audio for today’s sermon for Ash Wednesday is available below:

 

The full text of the sermon is available below as well:

A reading from the book of the prophet Joel (2:1-2, 12-17)

Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy mountain!

Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near–

a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!

Like blackness spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful army comes;

their like has never been from of old,
nor will be again after them
in ages to come.

Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,

with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.

Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.

Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
and leave a blessing behind him,

a grain offering and a drink offering
for the Lord, your God?


Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sanctify a fast;

call a solemn assembly;
gather the people.

Sanctify the congregation;
assemble the aged;

gather the children,
even infants at the breast.

Let the bridegroom leave his room,
and the bride her canopy.


Between the vestibule and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.

Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord,
and do not make your heritage a mockery,
a byword among the nations.

Why should it be said among the peoples,
`Where is their God?'”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

There are many powerful images to draw from when reflecting upon the readings and the liturgy for Ash Wednesday. The church is bereft of many of our normal ornamentations, simple sack-cloth now hanging on the altar. This is a symbol of our mourning. It is a symbol of the sins we know that we have committed, the way that the evil we enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil in which we are complicit grieves our God even as it wounds our fellow humans. We know how our sins have hurt others, and so we come on Ash Wednesday, kneeling, covering our beautiful church with sack-cloth, expressing the sorrow we truly feel for our sins, the sorrow we better feel for our sins. Sack-cloth and mourning are a powerful image for this day.

Yet, there are other images as well. In the midst of our mourning, we are greeted with the joyous image of the blessed sacrament. The way we have treated our fellow humans means we are complicit in the killing of Christ. Every thoughtless word we have hurled, every lie we have told, every bit of gossip we have spread, every person we used for our own ends, every enemy we sought to defeat… Christ chooses to become all of them, to become all of the cost of our sin, to bear that cost on the cross, and to whisper back to our flailing fists that even the worst of our sin cannot overcome the love of God. And so we bring humble bread and humble wine, we join it to the sacrifice of a Christ who took the brunt of our sins, and the bread and wine is given back to us as grace, as the body and blood—a body and blood that do not condemn us, but that tells us the blessed truth that we are forgiven. The grace of the blessed sacrament… this is also a powerful image for Ash Wednesday.

And, of course, the most dominant image of the day is the ash itself, a two-fold symbol really. The priest or the lay minister smudges the ash on our forehead, saying, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” In being reminded that we are dust, we hopefully feel the lift of grace. We are dust. We are not as strong as we think we are. We are dust. We are a collection of the elements of the universe. Admittedly, we are dust that is blown through with the very breath of God… but we are dust. The second half of the image is in the words, “and to dust you shall return.” Our mortality is real. We seek to compile possessions and relationships, an image and a legacy, as though somehow we think that this will give us a bit more importance on this earth, a bit more permanence, a bit more security. We forget that we exist and always will, as blessed Julian of Norwich taught us, because we are loved by God…. Not because of our accomplishments or our family or our possessions. In the end, we are only mortal but it is the eternal love of God that will hold us, our dusty, broken, prideful and faltering selves, through the reaches of eternity. “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Yes, dust and ashes are also a powerful image for Ash Wednesday.

But none of those images are really the one that captivate me today, truth be told.

The one that captivates me is the nose of God.

Right now you are probably thinking, wait. I do not recall anything about God’s nose in the Scripture readings or the liturgy for today. And you would be right. Because if you didn’t hear this whole thing in Hebrew, you did not hear any talk about God’s nose. But one of the first things I remember learning when I learned Hebrew back in college was the Hebrew related to the first lesson for today. In fact, Joel 2:12 was a required memory verse for freshman Old Testament survey in my college. And if you’ve never memorized Scripture, Joel 2:!2 a great one to start with. I can almost still recite it in the New American Standard Version our professor preferred, “‘Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘Return to Me with all your heart, And with fasting, weeping and mourning; And rend your heart and not your garments.’ Now return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and relenting of evil.” Our professor taught us that if you want to understand the Old Testament God, memorize those verses.

In Hebrew, the key part of that verse is,

The key is in that phrase, “ephek aphim.” It is translated in most translations as slow to anger, but that’s not what it means. It actually literally means “long-nosed.” You know how when some people get angry, their nose gets red. The text is saying that God’s nose is very long. That it takes a long time for it to get red, a long time for our God to get angry.

Our God is long-nosed. Our God is slow to anger.

I don’t know why this is the image that captivates me most this Ash Wednesday, this image of the length of God’s nose as a metaphor for his patience with us.

Maybe it is because as a new daddy, though I have yet not really gotten angry at my daughter, I know that day is coming when she will do something that will frustrate me. Maybe it’s because I know that as a priest my passion sometimes gets the best of me. Maybe it’s because I know that for years, since I was a child, I have struggled with a bit of a short fuse at times, that my nose can be rather short. Maybe it’s my own sins, my own brokenness that makes me grateful for that long nose of God, makes me grateful that he is so very patient with me, that he is so very patient with us.

Hopefully, as you hear the Ash Wednesday invitation for today, you are considering your own Lenten disciplines. I hope you are not just giving something up or taking something on, but that you are doing all that the prayer book invites you to do. I hope that you are planning on finding times for self-examination and repentance. I hope that you will practice specific disciplines of prayer AND fasting AND self-denial. I hope that you will find sometime to read and meditate on God’s holy word.

I hope all these things for you… because I know what they will do. If you really try to do this, to practice Lent fully, it will break you down into the dust you really are. You will find success and failure. You will find holiness and you will find your own persistent sin, hiding in the dusty corners of your life. The Lenten disciplines are almost circular in that way, if you engage deeply in prayer, fasting, and self-denial you will inevitably find yourself called to repent of all sorts of sins you thought you had beat a long time ago, along with new sins you hadn’t even realized you struggled with.

But if you also read and meditate on God’s holy word, you will find how many times Scripture talks about the long nose of God—a dozen times actually in the Hebrew Bible… including one painful time in the New Testament, in the book of James when the author says you and I should be like this, too. The author of James says that we are called to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” We are also called to be long-nosed.

Beloved children of God, beloved dust that is filled with the very breath of God, I do hope you will find cause to turn away from your sins in this holy season. God knows the pain you and I inflict upon this world and upon others because of our sin is something we could all stand to be a bit more ashamed of sometimes.

But I also hope that as you walk these forty days, you find the long nose of God right there next to you. I hope that you discover that the angry God of your childhood or of your background… that was a cruel lie, a lie that comes from the depths of hell. That God does not exist. That God is a fiction.

The true God, the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of Isaac and Rebekah, the God of Jacob and Leah and Rachel, the God who became human in Jesus Christ… that God has a really long nose. That God is slow to anger. And that God loves you more than you will let yourself believe. And that God invites you to find grace in the ashes of this season. Amen.

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Transfiguration (Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C)

The guest preacher this Sunday was Alicia Hager, nominee to the Sacred Order of Deacons from our parish.  The full text of her sermon is below.

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew (17:1–9)

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

I have a confession to make. I am not an extrovert. I am an introvert who has learned how to pretend to be social, but truly, I  know that I am happiest in my little cottage, content to have my children bickering in the next room and my cats lazing on the sofa, surrounded by my books. I hide sometimes. I don’t volunteer, I don’t watch the news, don’t put myself into conversations that will take thought and energy. I think that I hide because sometimes I am overwhelmed by the enormity of the work that I, we, are called to, by the clamor and the sorrow and the rapid fire harm and injury that surround us. By how insurmountable the mountain of human misery seems.

Far easier to double down on what we think is right, to close our ears to other opinions, to build walls that somehow keep us safe within. Somehow though, the spirit speaks, not from outside my walls, but inside, right behind me, a shadow in the corner of the room I had been trying hard not to see.

Peter, James and John know now what will happen, the plot hangs in the air before and around them, and yet, like us, in the face of the death of a relationship, a dire medical diagnosis, a world that seems to be falling apart — with people placing their kids in rubber rafts and braving the seas to escape warfare, veterans huddled under bridges, folks who can’t buy medicine, little children living in cars – we try to backtrack, we try to retreat, we hide, we try to reason our way out or to bargain with God. We try to find a way to escape risk and suffering and pain, we try hard not to cry.

As we move into Lent, we move into the inescapable contemplation of death, of suffering and pain. We wonder how we can teach these horrors in Sunday school, how we can bear another trip down the dusty to road to Jerusalem with our friends, knowing that death lies at the end our path. Jesus tells of his death and resurrection directly before our reading today, the first of three times that he will try to prepare his friends for what comes next.

On the mountain, in verse 4, Peter offers to make Jesus, Moses and Elijah little houses, dwellings, but the voice of God interrupts like the great Oz behind the curtain and suddenly only Jesus is standing there and he tells them to not be afraid. The way of the cross isn’t about building buildings, not about dwellings or churches or walls, places where we can hide, where we can be safe, turning off the noise that threatens to overwhelm us. Jesus apparently never wanted a house, though we keep trying to give him one, keep trying to assign him a nice little place to live, a garden to putter in, as if to create a way for him to stop dragging us up mountains to be shouted at by God, to be overwhelmed with glory, as if we could fence him in too, so we could pronounce our journey at an end, feel that we have finally arrived somewhere.

I’m sorry to tell you, the way of the cross is out there on the road. Jesus never wanted the house that we made for him, he doesn’t live in a walled in garden, floating among the roses and deep in prayer.

I would challenge you though, inside the walls that you’ve made to keep your heart safe: where there is suffering there is holy ground, and there is light, always light. God prepares the disciples on the mountain for the fact that there is nothing they can do to escape their pilgrimage, but God also asserts again the divinity of Christ, a thread to hold on to in the very dark days that are coming.

Jesus has been a man, up to this point. Preaching, teaching, healing and working miracles. It is easier to see him this way, far easier to see him as a rebel rabbi, a failed subversive, another apocalyptic voice on a street corner, easier to be friends with someone when you know they don’t plan to die very soon.

It had been perhaps difficult, for the disciples, and for us too, to see Jesus also as fully divine, not just a man, not just an historical figure, but as the wholeness of God present in our broken humanity. God shakes all of this away, Jesus is suddenly robed in white, his face shining like the sun and he almost holds in his hands his fulfillment of the law and the prophets by appearing with Moses and Elijah. Not one thing, not one title of the law or the prophets will pass away, we see now what we heard on the Sermon on the Mount, that Jesus, like prophets before him, calls for greater faithfulness to the law, greater faithfulness to being the divine- the God breathed – in the world.

God seals the deal when he commands James, John and Peter to listen.

Listen to what Jesus has said to us in the weeks leading to now, to what he will say to us in the weeks ahead, listen to a call to follow Christ. Because we are called just like the disciples to be transformed, transfigured, to undergo a metamorphosis, a change in character and thinking, a change of heart. We are called to open ourselves to God so that our humanity can be filled with his divine love.

We have to know that not every day can be Easter, there cannot be resurrection where there is not death. We are a band of friends, pilgrims, travelers, disciples. We know that after we stuff ourselves with pancakes on Tuesday we will be told that we are dust on Wednesday. We know the journey that is ahead of us, just as the disciples knew, but it can be more than giving up or taking on, it can be a journey of transformation.

But before we figure out what to give up, what to take on, how to transform, we must decide what we will bring with us.

What will you bring on this journey? Forty days is a long time to be away, a long while to be on the road. Close your eyes. Picture, if you will, like luggage piled in the driveway to be loaded into a car, all of your heartbreak, all of your ideas and your notions of what is right, all of your own history… Look how large the pile is. You cannot carry it all, your journey of transformation means that you let some of that luggage go. If we seek transformation there are things in our lives that we will have to let go of.

Because you see, the call to transformation is real, the opportunity is there. But I fear there cannot be change without vulnerability, without walking away from some of our baggage. There cannot be new life until death has had her say.

On the Great Vigil of Easter we will gather here, in not very many more weeks. We will come into this room, this house that Jesus didn’t want, in the dark, and we will bear small and flickering lights. We will be near, very near, to the end of our journey. The day will dawn and the morning star will rise again in our hearts as the organ plays a fanfare and we shout, alleluia, he is risen!

But not yet, friends.

The glory of Jesus has been revealed to us, we are called to listen. And now to walk these 40 days in hope that we too can be transformed, that we can scale our own mountain and witness the glory of God in our lives,  in the knowledge that death does not win, but that it transforms and changes. Allow yourselves to be changed. Open the gate in the wall that you would build around yourself, around your country, and peer out. See how Christ is manifest in the world, how he is standing right there, as he was for the disciples, see the holy ground you stand on when you choose to stand in the midst of uncertainty and fear. Allow the blinding love of a living God into the dark corners of your heart, let this 40 days journey be a renewal.

There is this little gem of a book called The Soul of the World, and the very last sentences are these: “The everlasting vision passes now, passes and yet abides, for on earth the Christ is born anew, day after day. Ah, ye who here have watched us, hold the light, and in the dust and warfare of the world follow the kings and shepherds – to the cross.”

Journey well. Amen.

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.

Pursuing Perfect Holiness (Sermon for the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A)

Today’s audio of the sermon for the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany is available online below:

 

The full text of today’s sermon is available below as well:

A reading from the book of Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:

Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.

You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.

You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.

You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. 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 not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

How holy are you feeling today?

You may have begun today feeling at least somewhat holy. After all you got up and went to church. That right there is more than most people can say on any given Sunday morning. Maybe before the service started you knelt down in the pew and said some prayers to center yourself, to bring your heart and mind closer to the presence of God in this place.  Maybe you have already been thinking about those for whom you will pray during the intercessions of the prayers of the people later in the service.

But I have a hunch that the readings for today have perhaps diminished your sense of holiness.  In the reading from Leviticus God says, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” The rest of that reading laid out some very specific ways you should live your life if you are truly going to be a holy person.

Maybe when you participated in the psalmody for today, you winced a little when you sang, “Behold, I long for your commandments.” I would imagine that perhaps when you think of the commandments of Scripture, the word “longing” for those rules is not generally what comes to mind.

In the epistle reading St. Paul tells you that you are actually the very temple of God, that you are the place where the holiness of God is meant to dwell in the world. Sure, I’m confident that is how you feel every day.

And then in the Gospel reading we were all told once more that we should love our enemies, that we should  always turn the other cheek, always be the sort of people who go the extra mile. All of this was sort of summed up in the last line of the Gospel reading, a Scripture verse that probably very few people memorize for inspiration (you don’t see it on posters anywhere), “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

So how holy are you feeling today?

If you’re like me, maybe a bit less now then when we all got started.

There is one approach in Christianity that seeks to get around all this difficulty. This is this approach that says the Law and the Sermon on the Mount, all of these uncomfortable rules and expectations in Scripture, they only exist really to show us how impossible it truly is to be the people we should be.  All of this only exists to make us grateful that we are forgiven for our failings, grateful for the grace and forgiveness we find in the person and work of Jesus Christ, what Jesus did on the cross, In this line of thinking, is to sort of let us off the hook.

And though there are Christian traditions who follow this line of thinking, this has never been the approach of Anglican Christianity, not for the 1600 or 1700 years that it is been around. Anglican Christianity is always taken the sort of verses we have today very seriously.  Don’t get me wrong, the reformed catholicity at the core of Anglicanism since the Reformation has indeed insisted that we are of course only saved  by the gracious work of God in Christ, that salvation truly is a gift freely given, undeserved by all… absolutely. But our tradition in Anglicanism has also insisted that the grace we receive in baptism and through holy Eucharist not only forgive us our sins but also enables us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to live differently, to progress in holiness throughout our lives.

You are called to live your life differently, to progress in holiness.

You are called to open yourself, particularly the very scared and vulnerable parts of yourself, to the grace of God, and to allow the grace of God to transform you so that you live differently. It’s the line we get in Eucharistic Prayer C that we are using right now, “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this table for solace only, and not for strength, for pardon only, and not for renewal.”

Because the call to live holy lives has always been one given to all of God’s people. When chapter nineteen began today, it was quite clear, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.’”

Not just the priests. Not just the Levites. Not just Moses or the leaders. Not just those who find themselves called to special holiness. Every single member of the community of God is called to be holy. That’s why Paul says you are the temple of God in the world, the place where the holiness of God is meant to dwell. That’s why Jesus urges us to strive for divine perfection… not to earn our salvation or forgiveness, but because the grace and forgiveness of God is compelling us forward.

And yet, we must be clear as to what that holiness of life looks like. Because unfortunately much of what has passed for holiness over the years has actually be a rather vapid moralism. That is, holiness was primarily about you not breaking the rules we are going to list out for you. Holiness is about staying away from drugs, sex, and rock and roll because God didn’t like any of that stuff.

Now, I actually have some opinions about what God might think about drugs, sex, and rock and roll, I think he has different views about each one of those, but that isn’t what this sermon is… and that’s certainly not what holiness is about.

Holiness in Leviticus, holiness in the New Testament, holiness in the Sermon on the Mount that we’ve been hearing for these past several weeks, holiness is about how you engage with other people—in particular, how you engage with the people you may find the most difficult. That is where holiness is found.

Holiness is not actually primarily about grand and profound acts of sacrifice, like what we saw in Mother Theresa or St. Francis. To be sure, they were holy people. They were inspiring examples of what it can mean to entirely open your life to the grace of God. But holiness a it is actually described in Scripture and by Jesus Christ is much more… practical than that. It is much more mundane, much more about the everyday.

Holiness is found in how you treat your enemies… more so than how you treat your friends. Holiness is found in your willingness, when someone mistreats you, instead of proving them wrong or debating them, to choose to see the brokenness behind their choice to mistreat you, choosing to love them and to ask what you might do to help heal that brokenness.

Holiness is about when a soldier in the Roman empire forces you to go with them one mile. You heft that bag even higher up on your shoulder after that mile and you look at the soldier and you say, “This must be awfully hard for you to treat me this way. Let me carry this bag just one mile more.” You thereby remind the soldier of your own humanity.

Holiness is found when somebody smacks you across your face, you stand right back up and look at them—not with eyes of hate, but with eyes of love—saying, “I am a human.” Thereby inviting the person to reconsider their actions, inviting the person to likewise be changed even as you forgive them despite the fact that they likely do not deserve your forgiveness.

This is where holiness is found for the people of God.

It’s true, of course, that the Apostles and the early church is very clear that the specific cultic aspects of the Law were no longer required because of Jesus Christ. There is no sacrificing of goats here this morning, for instance.

But the holiness of the law… that was something Jesus himself talked about. We see that when last week Jesus said that even your anger at another person can be just as bad as murder when your anger destroys or denies the presence of God in the. We see that today’s Leviticus reading, which could have come from the Gospel, “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin.” Indeed, the very summary of the law as taught by Christ, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” is not New Testament language. It is found right here in this reading from Leviticus 19.

The call to holiness flows throughout the totality of the Bible and it is a call that you and I must heed if we are going to be more than admirers of Jesus Christ, if we are actually going to be disciples of Jesus Christ.

Further, it is very important, I think, for us to we hear who the call to holiness is talking about today. God says in Leviticus, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.”

This section from Leviticus 19 is actually at the root of the Biblical understanding of the importance of tithing in the life of the people of God, the idea that you and I should live on 90%, not to hold it all for ourselves. And that is underscored in the following verse, when it says you shall not steal. It makes it clear that when you and I keep everything we have for ourselves, we are actually stealing from God, stealing from the poor, stealing from the work and ministry of God in the world.

Because none of what we have is truly ours. It is all a gracious gift.

Yes, holiness has something very specific to do with how we use our money. That message is not just true in stewardship season every fall. That message is true throughout our lives. Because if all of us chose to live on the 90%, there would be no debate or question about how we are going to pay the bills to keep the church running while also generously funding mission and outreach. If all of us lived on the 90%, we would have more than enough to give to the work of God in this world.

But even more than that, the example given here for the importance of tithing is interesting because it relates to God’s love for two classes of people: the poor and the alien. The alien. That is a Hebrew word, gar, one that can also be translated as a foreigner, sojourner, stranger, a temporary inhabitant, a newcomer lacking rights… to wit, an immigrant.

The way in which you treat an immigrant is indicative of the holiness of your life, God says here in Leviticus. And if you think this is just about the nation of Israel, that we are all let off the hook somehow, then you need to read Matthew 25 again, where Jesus says to those who are saved, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

When Jesus says stranger, he is not saying someone you just happen not to know. The Greek word is xenos, this the Greek word used to talk about the immigrant and the foreigner. This is the word we get xenophobia from, fear of the foreigner. “I was a xenos, a foreigner, an immigrant, and you welcomed me.”

We spend so much of our lives looking for Jesus in this world and often Jesus is standing right here, waiting for us to notice him.

Don’t get me wrong. I am most definitely not saying that liberals are all right here on their views on immigration. Neither am I saying that conservatives are all right—or all wrong. This is not about that at all. This is about the fact that Scripture is abundantly clear that the way you treat the immigrant, the way you talk about the immigrant, this will reveal how deeply you have allowed the love of God to permeate your life.

And whatever political positions you choose to hold with regard to immigration, no matter where you are on the political standpoint, if you are going to hold those positions from a Scriptural standpoint, the first thing you will believe is in the importance of loving and caring for the well-being of the immigrant. If you don’t start from there, you cannot claim a scriptural and biblical sense of holiness.

So, how holy are you feeling today?

I hope that you hear these words of Scripture as in invitation—not as a condemnation—as an invitation to reconsider the way you live, the way you act, the way you talk about other people, the positions you choose to hold. I hope you see it as an invitation for the love of God, for the holiness of God, to invade those places of your life you’d rather keep to yourself, you’d rather God didn’t bother with.

And if you’re sitting there, not feeling very holy, after hearing the Scripture of today, then take heart. The time for Lenten repentance fast approaches. And those who will turn toward God and their neighbor… and their enemy… and the poor… and the immigrant… for those who will turn to those with no rights, no voice—precisely because it is your job is to be their voice, to give them the rights any human being made in the image of God should have—for those who will do that, for those who will turn and repent, the love and forgiveness of God is waiting to transform you just a little bit more into the person God is calling you to be in this world, to make you a little bit more holy for the tomorrow that will come than you woke up today.

You can be holy. You can be holier tomorrow than you are today. You can… if you are first willing to repent. Amen.

O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Grown Up Christians & The Demands of Love (Sermon for Epiphany 6A, 2017)

The audio of the sermon for today, the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A, is available below:

 

The full text of the sermon is available below as well:

A reading from the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians (3:1-9)

Brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew (5:21-37)

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

This past week my daughter, Lucy, celebrated her six-month birthday—very exciting things going on in the Cramer household. This means that the time came when we could start introducing solid food into her diet. We started with a delightful oat cereal mixed with a little breast milk, just… wonderful… stuff. I missed the first attempt, as I was already gone at work, but I caught the second attempt and got to watch the expression on her face as she pondered these new textures and flavors, as food began to mean something entirely new to her.

So, when I listened to the epistle reading for today, from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, I heard it very differently than I probably ever have before. In that epistle, Paul writes to the squabbling and bickering church at Corinth, saying, “Brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh.”

I’ll tell you what, you can say one thing about Paul as a preacher, he really knows how to butter a congregation up. “You’re a bunch of babies!” he basically says.

Paul’s reasoning for this claim is that their fighting and quarreling underscores their immaturity in Christ. Some in Corinth claim to be from the party of Paul and others to be followers of the gifted rhetorician Apollos. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad to know where you come from or to have leaders your life. Paul is clear on that matter. Paul did indeed plant the congregation. Apollos did indeed nurture the congregation. The problem is when we become too attached to our leaders, or to our traditions, or to our own particular religious heritage. We are too attached to leaders, traditions, and practices if they become a cause for quarreling, for arguing, for suggesting we are somehow better because those other people are clearly wrong. That’s the sort of thing that immature Christians do.

We are, all of us, servants, Paul says. Whether a great apostle or a simple Christian, we are all servants. And as Paul says later, the only thing about which you and I should boast about is the grace we have found in the cross of Jesus Christ.

There is, though, a bit of a question raised by Paul’s rhetoric in this letter. You and I should wonder what it is that would constitute simple milk in Christian teaching, what it is that constitutes more solid food. Hopefully we listen to Paul’s word and consider what our diet as Christians spiritually consists of. Hopefully we ask if we are still content with milk that kind of makes you feel warm and happy… or if we are seeking more solid food, that is harder, more difficult, that will help us to grow up in Christ. Because if you and I wish to grow up in Christ, we need to be finding mature nourishment for that task.

One of the problems in Jesus’ time was that the Torah, the law, had ceased to be the governing principle in the life of God’s people, one that was helping them grow up in God. What had been intended to be a tool to help God’s people resemble God in their own daily life, instead became either an obstacle to weasel around or, even worse, the law became a weapon with which to attack others.

We have to remember what we heard last week in the Gospel: the torah, the law, was meant to be followed. It’s what we heard in the reading from Sirach today—you can choose to do good, despite the protestations you might make that it is so hard. You can choose to do good, to reach out and grab the baptismal waters.

Because, as we heard last week in the Gospel, Jesus didn’t come to abolish it. Jesus came to fulfill it. And, through the Sermon on the Mount, from which today’s Gospel is taken, Jesus invites us to reconsider what it means to live in such a way that the torah, the law of God, actually contributes to our own growth, actually makes you and I people who resemble God in our own daily life and work, who truly are able to go out and be the mature body of Christ in this world.

And so, in the Gospel for today, Jesus attacks the rather infantile misuse of the Torah common in his own time. He does this in the hope that a mature following of God will yet be found in the lives of his own disciples.

So, for example, the Torah says that murder is wrong. Excellent. Glad we are all clear on that. But that doesn’t mean that if you don’t murder you are OK, you are a good person. That doesn’t mean there is only one way—murder—to destroy the image of God in another person. Jesus points out to those of us who might like to grow up that anger, insult, even calling someone a fool… all of this destroys and attacks the image of God present in that other person.

He says that if you are on your way to worship and preparing to give your offering, but you remember you are holding a grudge against a fellow believer, you should stop in your tracks and go make that relationship right—as best you can on your own end. He says you should not offer your best to God, if you won’t  also give your best to your neighbor, if you won’t also give your best to your enemy who also bears the image of God on her or his soul. Grow up, Jesus says.

The Torah says that adultery is wrong. But that doesn’t mean that adultery is the only way you can misuse someone, the only way you can wound someone, the only way to turn someone into a tool for your own pleasure is through adultery. This doesn’t mean that sexual sin is only that which occurs outside of marriage—as though there is not sexual sin within marriage when people are treated as tools instead of God-breathed creatures.

So Jesus says anytime you look at another human being only with a desire for the pleasure you can get, with no regard to who that person is, to the goodness of image of God within them, anytime you do that you are in the wrong.

And let’s be clear—though a lot of what has seemed to pass for talk about avoiding sexual sin in our time tends to blame women, for Jesus, it’s the one who would lust who is responsible. As feminist biblical scholar Amy Jill-Levine says, “By collapsing the distinction between thought and action, this extension of the law against adultery to include lust suggest that no one should be regarded as a sex object. The burden here is placed on the man: women are not seen as responsible for enticing a man into sexual misadventures.”

So, whether you are a man or a woman, don’t treat others as objects. Make whatever radical changes you need to make to your life so that you won’t do that, so that you won’t use other people as tools for your own end. Gouge out your eye, if you must, Jesus says. Make hard decisions about your computers, about the way you live, the way you act, what you look act… make hard decisions. Because when you turn someone else into a tool for your own pleasure, it is also your own soul and body that becomes warped and twisted. Grow up, Jesus tells us.

Likewise, the Torah says that as long as you follow the rules, you can have a divorce if you want one. But that doesn’t mean people are disposable. In Jesus’ time, when a woman was “put away” through divorce, she was often left destitute.

At the same time, we need to be clear that to use Jesus’ teaching in this Gospel to tell someone that they must remain in a marriage that is clearly broken, that is not following Torah either. It’s just like a certificate of divorce—it might get the letter of the law right but it entirely misses the point of the law. The question is what will honor the presence of God in the other person.

What will honor the image of God that is present in the person you married? To discard that person because things have become hard or commitment has become inconvenient is wrong, a clear violation. But as well to remain married to that person when the relationship has become so destructive to you and to them… that is not honoring the image of God either.

And I cannot tell you the right thing to do when your marriage is hard. The Gospel does not give us an easy checklist so we can feel better.

You and I tend to want Christianity and religion to tell us what is right and wrong, to give us an easy and clear list so we can know what we can do and what we cannot do. Don’t get me wrong, rules exist, we see them in the Torah. We see them in Jesus’ teaching. We see them throughout Scripture. But rules don’t exist to excuse us from thinking about what is right in this particular situation with this particular person.

Parents know this, they know that children sometimes have a remarkable ability to twist a rule into a way of getting something they want. When Christians take the rules of Scripture and twist them to provide cover for actions and behaviors that hurt others… then those Christians—then we Christians—have completely misunderstood the nature of the law.

We have demonstrated that we are still babies in Christ. We have demonstrated that we are unwilling to try and grow up.

When you use your religion to denigrate someone else, even someone you are sure is wrong in what they are doing or who they are, when you do that, you are failing at the law of God.

When you use your religion as an excuse to use someone as a tool, you are failing at the law of God.

When you use your religion to discard someone who is hard in your life—or to force someone to stay with you no matter how destructive that might be—when you do that, you are failing at the law of God.

A good rule of thumb is that if your religion is making you feel very righteous as you attack or wound or criticize other people… well, you’re probably doing your religion wrong.

In another one of his letters, Paul wrote to another fighting church, another group of Christians who thought they were absolutely right about what they believed but whose self-righteousness was causing them to attack their fellow believers, Paul wrote them and said something else about the law. He said that the law was only ever meant to be a paidagogos for us, a Greek word that means “teacher.” The law, the whole of religion, is meant to teach you to grow up, to teach you to make good decisions, to teach you how to see God in the other person and then consider carefully what love demands of you.

We want a list, a clear articulation of what we can and cannot do. But Jesus does not give us this.

What Jesus wants is for you who who follow him to look at every person they encounter—whether friend or foe—and to see the image of God on their soul, an image that is already damaged enough by the sin and brokenness of this world… why would you try to damage it more? Jesus wants us to see the image of God in the others—and then to ask ourselves very carefully, “What does love demand of us?” Amen.

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Salty Christians (Sermon for Epiphany 5A, 2017)

The audio of today’s sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany is below:

 

The full text of the sermon is below as well.

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew 5:13–20.

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

“You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.”

These statements from today’s Gospel reading are likely among the most well-known of Our Lord. If you meet someone who is good, trustworthy, humble, and simple, you can describe that person with the words from this Gospel, you say they are really salt of the earth. Everyone loves good old fashioned salt of the earth people.

And light of the world? I know that upon hearing that phrase, my mind immediately goes back to the consecration of our bishop, the Rt. Rev. Whayne Hougland. The preacher at the consecration was Michael Curry—then bishop of North Carolina and now Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church. Bishop Curry told us at the consecration to go out and be the light of the world, to be an evangelistic people. He even got a room full of Episcopalians to sing in the sermon, as we all sang along, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”

Be simple. Be salt of the earth. Let your light shine.

Sheesh, this will be an easy sermon to preach… right?

Well, it would be a relatively easy sermon, if that was all Jesus said. But you know preachers, once they get going, sometimes don’t know when to be quiet. And Jesus keeps going in today’s Gospel. At first it starts out OK, as he continues, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” Well actually Jesus we had been kind of hoping you were coming to abolish the law and the prophets, because they are a lot of work. Grace was going to be a delightful thing to get. Through grace, no longer to have to deal with the law and the prophets… but… yes… please go on. “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Well, flibberty-gibbit. So much for an easy sermon.

Of course, to be fair to Christ, he did have a tough task in front of him with his audience.

You might think, given his criticism of the scribes and Pharisess, that it was to them he preached these stern words… but you would be wrong. Matthew describes the audience of the Sermon on the Mount in the end of chapter four, the previous chapter, as “great crowds… from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan” The people who have gathered around Jesus for this sermon were, according to Matthew 4, crowds filled with the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics.

See, this is  why last week Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are those who mourn… blessed are the meek.” He didn’t say this to tell people like you and me to be more like that. He said this because he was talking to people who are actually poor, who are actually mourning. He said this to actual poor, mourning, meek, and oppressed crowds all around him would know that though the world might see them as worthless, they are immeasurably blessed and beloved of God. You, even though you may feel at times worthless, you are immeasurably blessed and beloved of God.

So, what Jesus had done is he saw saw these crowds and called his first disciples to come and sit around him and he offered these Gospel words. He began to preach to them. Beginning with the beatitudes and then continuing to tell them the shape of the lives that they must lead, if they were going to be a part of rebuilding the kingdom of God which had become so broken. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is telling his disciples—and us!—what it truly means to follow him.

That’s why he wants to be clear at the beginning that the problem was not with the law and the prophets. The problem was that the religious had forgotten the meaning and purpose of the law and the prophets. This sermon is his grand redirection, his calling people back to the true meaning of the law and the prophets—and calling them back to it not just at any time, but at a time when Roman oppression remained high, when the scribes and Pharisees  were seen by the populace as generally worthless. He is speaking to a time when people no longer trust the government at all, at a time when the religious institutions seemed to fail entirely.

So maybe, perhaps, this might be a sermon the church really needs to hear right now, this Sermon on the Mount.

The questions that crowd faced were myriad. How can Jerusalem be the Holy City when it is occupied by pagan forces? How can our God be the great God if the forces of evil seem so powerful in this world, seem to overwhelm us? How can we believe this is a manifestation of the reign of God when so much seems broken among us?

Yes, I think this is a sermon that the church very much needs to hear right now, the Sermon on the Mount

Because there were two other dominant answers to these questions in Jesus’ time.

The first was the answer of the Zealots. The Zealots were a political movement in the first century who believed that the answer to the problems of the time was violent revolt and rebellion against the evils of a crooked government. The Zealots believed in religious purity (like the Pharisees with which we are more familiar) but the Zealots also believed that their liberty was the most important thing and anything that stood in the way of their religious liberty should be overcome—by violence, if need be, that they would bring goodness into this society, no matter the cost.

But to the answer of the zealots, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers a strong rejection. “You have heard that it was said,” Jesus says in the verses following this reading, “‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Enemies, according to Christ, those who do wrong, are not to be hated and attacked and beaten… they are to be loved. When you find yourself persecuted, you are to pray for the person who persecutes you. Later in the Sermon the Mount, Jesus expands on this idea. He says that when somebody takes your cloak, you give it to them. When they force you to go with them one mile, you go two. In the words of one author, for those who follow Christ, “enemies are to be met with astonishing generosity.”

The Pharisees disagreed with the Zealots as well, just like Jesus did. The Pharisees believed that violent overthrow was impossible. Instead, the Pharisees said that what God’s people should do is retreat into their religious communities, their communities of perfect religious practice. If they lived today, they would say you should simply unfriend anyone who makes your blood pressure rise. You should just tell yourself how wrong they are, you should feel very good in your self-righteousness, and then click the delete button.

This was the answer, though, of the Pharisees. 

But Jesus isn’t interested in this answer either. After all, self-righteousness won’t actually make the world a better place. In fact, a bunch of self-righteous people—be they self-righteous liberals or self-righteous conservatives—have a nasty history of doing tremendous damage. The law and the prophets, the practice of religion was never about you getting it perfect so that you could rain fire and brimstone on those who were clearly wrong.

The law and the prophets was about God calling you to make right that which is broken in your relationship with your neighbor. The law and the prophets was about you realizing that you are responsible for brokenness in this world, that you are called to stand up and to heal that which is broken.

Don’t get me wrong. Something must be done. Something must be done in Jesus’ time, in our own time. That’s where today’s Gospel comes in, where Jesus tells us precisely what we should do. He tells us to be salt, that what the world needs today are some salty Christians.

I’ll be honest, you’re probably not surprised to know that I am not nearly as good of a cook as my wife, Bethany, is. Shocker, I know.. I lack the ability to taste a dish and then know precisely how much salt must be added to bring out the flavor. My experience with salt was as an employee at McDonald’s here in Grand Haven, where salt existed to make French fries that much more irresistible. But as any good cook knows, salt, used properly, isn’t actually tasting the salt, it isn’t about it’s own flavor. Salt instead has the property of bringing out the flavors of a dish.

That’s what Jesus is saying. This is what those who follow Christ do, they bring out the goodness and belovedness of those who might seem like their enemies. They don’t defeat them, like the zealots wanted. They don’t simply become more holy so they point out how wicked they are, like the Pharisees wanted. No. Neither of those heal the relationship.

Followers of Christ bring out goodness. That’s what this whole Sermon on the Mount is about.

So, for example, when a soldier of an oppressive army takes away your cloak away from you, leaving you cold, the follower of Christ smiles and says, “Bless you, why don’t you take my shirt as well.” You don’t say this to guilt them, but to show them what goodness looks like, to bring the goodness that’s been warped inside of them, as they’ve been a tool of the empire, to bring that humanity back to the surface. When a solider forces you to walk with them one mile, you hold on to their pack and say, “This is awfully heavy, why don’t you let me carry it one more.” The follower of Christ treats all people in such a way that their goodness is called out of them, their belovedness which has become so lost to the failings of this world.

Yes, Christianity is about doing something. Christianity must be about doing something or our religion is worthless.

We hear that call clearly in the Hebrew Bible reading for today, where the prophet Isaiah tells us that God is uninterested in our religious practices if we do not go out and work for justice in this world. Isaiah offers God’s answer to those Christians who don’t want to do anything in the face of evil and injustice, those who thinks politics is just not the realm of the church. The prophet Isaiah writes, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

The question, blessed and beloved of God, is not whether we are called to fulfill the demands of the law and the prophet, the question is how we are called fulfill the demands of the law and the prophets. Because you notice what Isaiah did not say in this reading, he did not say, “Your call is to go and defeat the empire.”

Your call is to heal the empire.

Isaiah’s vision at the end of the book is a place where all people are reconciled and brought together around the throne… and “all” means “all.”

You are the light of the world, church. As one author notes, “In order for the light to be seen, we must be willing to go to where the darkness exists, to engage and walk through it, so that, in time, the light can overcome.” This is what the brave civil rights protestors in the middle of the twentieth century knew. They knew that the police man with the firehose and the dog was not an enemy to be beaten, but was another child of God who had become enslaved to the powers of this world.

So they met hate with loving, non-violent resistance until the police and the soldiers and the government and the powers and the people of this nation simply could not keep doing what they had been doing because it became so obviously wrong.

They called goodness out of those who seem to have forgotten what goodness means.

So go out. Be salt. Be light. Ask yourself if the way you are living your life right now, the way you are talking, the way you are acting, is it making a difference? Are you increasing the goodness and the love and the mercy in this world? When you engage with those with whom you disagree, are you bringing goodness out of them? Are you bringing goodness out of yourself?

Are you working for justice… while also seeking to bring the belovedness of the oppressor to the surface so that the oppressor as well can be freed from slavery to darkness?

Be salt. Be light. Through your actions, through the way you choose to live, the way you choose to talk, to engage with others, through all that you do, make the blessedness of God overflow in this world of ours. Amen.

Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

God’s Wisdom and Our Foolishness (Sermon for Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, 2017)

The audio for the sermon from today, the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A, is below:

 

The full text of the sermon is available below as well:

A reading from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians (1:18–31)

The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Hulsey Episcopal Center, Lubbock, TX

I still remember the day very clearly. It was actually nearly ten years ago exactly, which is so strange to think. I was sitting in a conference room in the Hulsey Episcopal Center in Lubbock, Texas—that bastion of Anglicanism—being interviewed by the Commission on Ministry of the Diocese of Northwest Texas as a possible postulant to the priesthood. One of the members of the Commission asked me, “Why in the world you would want to join the Episcopal Church at a time like this, when there was conflict and division over so many issues, particularly over the question of LGBTQ Christians?” Actually this had been a significant issue in the Diocese of Northwest Texas, they had a church that had split from the diocese over this question. “So why, why would you want to join this fighting church,” he asked. I smiled and I told him quite honestly, “Because you all are having the arguments that Christians should be having in the world today.”

I think the member of the Commission was a little embarrassed about the Episcopal Church. It was like inviting someone over to your home for a family dinner and then watching uncomfortably as they watch your family duke it out with one another. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that happen. The conflict over sexuality seemed, to the member of the Commission, to be a stumbling block, something that an earnest young aspiring minister like me would want to avoid.

But it wasn’t a stumbling block for me. Because was an argument, a conversation, over the very nature of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—and it was an argument that needed to be worked out faithfully, honestly, and fiercely at times, if the Christian Church were to have a leg to stand on. It may not have been a very good message, not one honed by communications strategists… but the fact that this tradition was engaging this question honestly, albeit in a way that became very messy… It made me think that this was a Christian tradition worth being a part of.

And so, here I am today.

We sometimes forget, you and I, heirs of nearly seventeen hundred years of Christian dominance in culture… we sometimes forget that Christianity was originally a very counter-cultural and unsettling message. As Paul writes in the epistle reading for today, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” Paul looks out on his audience, either Jew or Gentile, and he knows that the message of a religious leader who wound up tortured or killed… this is not going to win people over. And so he writes, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”

We have to remember, you see, that Jewish law cursed anyone who hung a tree, that Jesus was clearly not what the religious had hoped for. Jesus was a profound disappointment to the religious.

Mass Crucifixion on the Appian Way

And we have to remember as well that crucifixion was used as a political method of execution, where a political opponent was nailed to a cross buck naked—not to die from the wounds of the cross, but to die of suffocation as they tried to breathe while suspended in the air for everyone to see. Watching someone suffocate on the cross, as their naked body simply could not raise itself up for another breath any more, that was intended to underscore the utter powerlessness of anyone who would stand up and challenge the empire.

So, to say that God came and all those who knew about God decided God was not righteous enough, this is not a good message. To say God came and that the powers of this world rather easily overcame God, tortured God, and killed God… this does not make for a good opening invitation to a new religion.

But Paul wants the Corinthians to remember that this is the heart of the Gospel. Paul wants the Corinthians to remember that when God came, God did not come to the religious but rather to those the religious thought weren’t good enough. When God came, he did not defeat the powers of this world. He did not make everything right in the world, though his people wanted him to, so badly, Instead, he allowed himself to be tortured and killed just like every other failed revolutionary. In this strange message, Paul tells the Corinthians, is our own salvation.

Ancient Corinth

Corinth was actually a strange place, if you don’t know. Corinth had actually been destroyed by Rome about two hundred years before the time of St. Paul. Julius Caesar rebuilt it as a colony for freed slave and other poorer people shortly before he was assassinated. It developed a large city with a mixed population of Romans, Greeks, and Jews—a very multicultural sort of place, filled with people no one thought was terribly important. There was no old money in Corinth. There was no strong religious history in Corinth.

The church in Corinth was just as diverse… but it had also become factious. Different groups in the congregation believed that their own way of doing it, their own approach was clearly the best approach. But interestingly enough, when Paul writes to the church in Corinth he doesn’t take sides. He refuses to say which group is right and which group is wrong. Instead, Paul tells them to remember the cross. Focus on the message of the cross and then reconsider the sort of things you are doing in the church. Ask if you are really being who you are called to be in this world.

Everyone in Corinth wanted to point out all the good things they had done, the stuff their group, their side, could boast about. But Paul didn’t believe in boasting, in anything other than the cross. What Paul wanted to know was whether or not they were people who were shaped by the cross of Jesus Christ.

Because boasting will always destroy the church in the end.

This is the most fundamental point I believe we learned, those of us who attended the Healthy Congregations workshop last Spring. The key to a healthy church is not to learn how to win (unfortunately!). The key to a healthy church is not to prove your point or get others to listen to you to find a great new program that will finally rescue us, bring in all the young families. The key to a healthy church is to learn how to disagree and yet remain in relationship with one another. This is the most essential part.

People want signs. That’s what the Jews demanded in Paul’s time. Show us what your Christianity can do, they would say. Show us how many mouths you can feed, how many lives you can change. Show us your signs, signs that demonstrate you are right. Then I’ll believe you.

But God doesn’t offer signs. God offers the cross.

Or people want wisdom. That’s what the Greeks desired. Tell us how well-thought out your theology or your spirituality is. Show us the well-crafted path to inner peace. Take Scripture and explain it perfectly. Help us understand God… so that we can package God up and put God on the shelf next to my other favorite things. Show us wisdom that demonstrates you are right. Then I’ll believe you

But God doesn’t offer wisdom. God offers the cross.

And if you stake your sense of religion on whether it’s really doing great things, or whether it’s really really smart, that you must know that you are probably going to miss God when God shows up in Jesus Christ.

Don’t get me wrong, signs are important. It is massively important that Christianity produces concrete action for justice in the world. That’s just not the starting point. That’s not what our faith is founded upon… if it was, we could all just hang it up now and support the United Way.

Likewise, wisdom is important. Christianity must invite us to engage questions of faith with all the resources of science and philosophy, all that the mind can bring. But that’s not the starting point. That’s not what our faith is founded upon… or we could all just take extra classes in theology.

And I think we need to hear this in the Episcopal Church. Because we are a church that likes to show people are signs, that likes to show people how smart we are compared to those other Christians… and this is not the cross. It is not.

The church is not about signs and wisdom—though we hopefully have our share of both signs and wisdom. The church is about inviting people to pattern their lives after the cross. The cross, which is foolishness. The cross, where a middle-eastern political and religious fanatic wound up naked and bleeding, just so that everyone in his time could feel a bit safer about their world.

The cross is the Muslim being waterboarded. The cross is the suspected terrorist, hooded and terrorized by an attack dog. The cross is the African-American mother wondering if her child will ever really have a chance in this world. The cross is a six-month old baby crying and crying and crying in an airport, because his parents (one of whom is a citizen and one of whom has a green card) are not being allowed entry right now.

The cross is always found in those people we attack so that we can feel a little more safe, whether they are in the world, or whether they are sitting right next to us in the pew of the church.

This is the cross. This is where God entered this world.

Paul writes, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?”

These places in our society of which we are ashamed—of which we better be ashamed—these are the places where our God waits, hoping that we will come, that we will give up our wisdom, give up our signs, and return to the first question: Are you willing to love those of whom you are afraid? Are you willing to consider their lives of more value than your own? Are you willing to give yourself up so that others have a chance, have an ability to find something more….?

And until we can love all people, until we can love those who we think are our enemies, signs and wisdom are worthless. Because you can lose, you will never win. Until we are willing to let go of our need for control, our need for our group to best… until we are willing to die, we will never live.

What is the way of the cross look like?

The prophet Micah tells us: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God.

If you cannot do that first, stop messing about with signs and wisdom.

Find the cross in the world today, and let yourself be shaped by that. Amen.

Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.