Division is nothing new

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Sermon for October 25th, 2020

Readings:

Leviticus 19:1-2,15-18
Psalm 1
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

Division is nothing new. 

People have been divided from one another almost since they first walked the earth. We love to separate ourselves into factions, into parties, or clans, or races, or cultures, or nations; we divide ourselves up into groups and then we look for and find easy ways to sort people into one group or another. Are you using the right words or the right language? Do you look like someone that I might like? Are you hanging out with the right people? Are you supporting all of the same causes that I support? Very often we will find out one thing about someone and we think that that tells us everything we need to know about that person. Humans have always been prone to doing this; it seems like division is a terrible problem right now, and it is, but it’s not new. 

There is real division going on in the background in today’s gospel passage. You may not immediately recognize it, the names of the parties may be unfamiliar, but Jesus is preaching to people that are divided. And I’m not talking about division between the Jews and the Romans, I’m talking about division within the Jewish people. Jesus’s own people, people of the same race and the same religion are divided amongst themselves. There were different parties of Jews in Jesus’s time and the two main parties were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. 

Now we aren’t a church where people generally take notes or write things down during the sermon, but please at least make a mental note of this distinction, because the conflict or the division between the Pharisees and the Sadducees is going on in the background throughout the gospels, and Jesus and his followers are often getting caught in the middle of it. You need to understand who these people are.

The Sadducees are Jews that take a very strict narrow reading of scripture and they are really only concerned with the Five Books of Moses. The prophets, the histories, the wisdom literature, the Sadducees don’t care much about those scriptures. The Sadducees are in charge of the worship in the temple. The rituals and the sacrifices, these are the things that are the primary concerns of the Sadducees. The Sadducees were also the elite. They had the political power and influence at the time of Jesus. There is also one other curious thing about the Sadducees: they didn’t believe in an afterlife. The idea that someday the dead would come back to life, the idea of resurrection which eventually becomes a central tenet of the Christian faith, the Sadducees didn’t believe that. Once you were dead, you were dead, that’s what the Sadducees believed.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, were very concerned with the study of scripture and with tradition. And the Pharisees didn’t just study the law (the five books of Moses), like the Sadducees, they also studied the prophets. And while the Sadducees ran the temple in Jerusalem, it was the Pharisees that ran the synagogues throughout the land. The Pharisees cared about ethics and right conduct, because the Pharisees believed in a future judgement. The Pharisees had a bit more of the common touch about them; they were more popular and perhaps a little less elitist than those Sadducees that ran the temple. And most distinctively, the Pharisees believed in an immortal soul. The idea that someday the dead will rise again, it is the Pharisees that believe that and that belief is forevermore causing friction with the Sadducees. 

So you have these two Jewish parties that don’t agree and don’t really like each other. And then you have Jesus, who comes along preaching to both groups. Now you will recall that the Sadducees don’t believe in a resurrection, but Jesus does believe in a resurrection. Jesus says he IS the resurrection. Jesus has more in common with the Pharisees than he does with the Sadducees. Jesus studies the prophets; Jesus worships in the synagogues as well as in the temple. Jesus has a lot in common with the Pharisees, and maybe that is why he is so critical of them. 

But one time the Sadducees tried to make fun of Jesus’s belief in the resurrection. They asked him if a woman marries seven times and then dies, when she is resurrected who will she belong to? And Jesus answered  them and said: she will belong to God. Well that shut the Sadducees up for a while. And when the Pharisees heard about it they said to themselves “aha! This guy is on our side!” So the Pharisees wanted to trick Jesus into making an overt statement that would condemn the Sadducees. They wanted to force Jesus to pick a side. Maybe they wanted to use Jesus to further their division with the Sadducees. 

So they ask him “what is the greatest commandment?” 

Well Jesus was never afraid of being controversial, but this time his answer was completely uncontroversial: Thou shalt love the lord thy God with all thy heart, soul and mind. This was straight from Deuteronomy. This was something that both the Pharisees and the Sadducees would have agreed upon. They had different ideas about how to go about it, but even the Sadducees who didn’t believe in a resurrection from the dead, even they loved God. The Pharisee that asked this question probably hoped that Jesus would pick something that the Sadducees disagreed with, but he didn’t. He picked what united them.

And then he adds, and the second is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law…and the prophets…I imagine Jesus added, glaring down at the Pharisees. You want to use your tradition to separate yourselves from one another…and all the while your own tradition and your own God, is telling you that you need to love one another. 

People have been trying to use Jesus as a tool and as a wedge in their own divisions since he walked this earth. But Jesus wouldn’t play that game then, so I can’t imagine he’s going to play it now. The Pharisees were looking for another reason to be separated from their neighbors the Sadducees, and instead Jesus gave them a reason to come together.

When we ask Jesus what is right, are we doing so because we actually want to be closer to God, or are we asking so that we can separate ourselves a little more from our neighbors? Are we looking for reasons to be divided, or are we looking for reasons to love? 

I think that human behaviour has been much the same throughout history, but so too has been God’s response. We want to tear ourselves apart; God wants to call us back together.

Why did Paul write this letter?

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Sermon for Sunday, October 4th, 2020

Readings:

Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:7-14
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

In our second reading today, we hear Paul addressing the Philippians. We’ve gotten little snippets of this letter for the past couple weeks, but sometimes it’s hard when you’re only looking at a little portion of a scripture to get the bigger picture. It’s not enough to just sit and hear a few verses of scripture and then go home and think you’ve got it. You need to be prepared to ask the scripture some questions. You need to dig a little deeper.

Now the questions that I usually start with, whenever I approach a scripture are the 5 W’s that most of us were probably taught in high school or junior high: Who, What, When, Where, Why

Who is writing this? What are they saying? When was this written? Where was this written? Why was this written?

Now if you get a good study bible, and I highly recommend that you do get a good study bible, you may find the answers to some of these questions in an introduction in front of each book. Answers to questions like “who do we think wrote this?” “When do we think it was written?” “Where do we think it was written?” I say “we think” because to be honest we don’t always know for sure, but sometimes we have a good idea because the text gives us clues. 

So for instance, this is the Letter to the Philippians, it was written by the Apostle Paul, probably late in his career in the early 60s AD, Paul was writing it in prison, but we’re not 100% sure where. So that answers The Who, the when, and the where. So what about the what? What is Paul saying in this passage we heard this morning?

Well, this morning Paul gives us a tiny little glimpse of his background: he was a faithful Jew, he was raised to take God’s laws seriously, he was someone who strove to be righteous, he was an accomplished person,

 but he says none of that means more to me than knowing Jesus Christ. 

Paul wants to know Jesus. That is what Paul is saying here. Paul wants to know Jesus.

Now Paul knows that he’s not Jesus, he knows that he’s not following Christ perfectly, but that is his goal. Paul wants to know Jesus and to be like him as much as he possibly can, even if that means suffering and dying like Jesus did. 

So that is some of what Paul is saying in his letter, at least the part we heard today, but why is Paul saying it?

Why is Paul writing this letter to the Church in Philippi?

Well, they know he is in prison and likely suffering, so we can begin by saying he is writing to encourage them and to console them. Don’t worry about me. I’m ok. 

They slipped him a little money in their last letter, so he is also writing to thank them, even though he also wants to assure them that he really doesn’t need anything. 

So consolation and thanksgiving, those are a couple reasons why Paul is writing this letter, but they are very near the surface. There are some deeper why’s. 

 You see, I think that the word “why” is one of the most important, powerful and, sadly underused, words in the English language. The word “why” is like a shovel, the more you use it the deeper you go. The more we ask the question “why” the more we understand our own motivations and our own assumptions, and the more we are likely to understand what makes other people tick. But we don’t ask “why” enough. We get a surface answer and stop too soon. Sometimes, I think we stop asking “why” because we don’t want to go too deep, maybe we’re afraid of what we will uncover. Maybe we will find assumptions, and emotions and motivations that we don’t want to be there. But if we want to understand ourselves or anyone else, we need to go deeper. And with someone like Paul we need to go even deeper. We need to keep asking why.

Why is Paul writing this letter to the Church in Philippi?

Why is Paul writing letters at all?

Why is Paul in prison?

Why is Paul content whether he has a little or whether he has a lot?

Why is Paul prepared to suffer and die?

Why did this accomplished, educated man willingly give up his privilege, his money, his freedom and his life for the sake of others? 

Why was this gospel he was preaching so important?

Why is he constantly calling followers of Jesus Christ to live to a higher standard?

Why is Paul able to rejoice while sitting in chains?

Why is a man on death row more concerned about his future than he is about his past?

There are so many “why’s” that I want answered about the Apostle Paul, and the more I keep digging the bedrock that I keep hitting in my excavation is Jesus. 

You know, by my count there are 103 verses in the entire letter of Paul to the Philippians and in those 103 verses Paul uses the name “Jesus”, “Christ Jesus”, or “the Lord” 50 times. He only uses the word “gospel” about 9 times, but the name of Jesus, that is constantly on Paul’s lips. He says the name 7 times in today’s short passage alone: 

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.

 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 

The more that I keep digging into the “why” of Paul the more I keep finding Jesus. Paul believes that Christ Jesus has made him his own. Paul had an encounter with the risen Christ. Paul knows that this man Jesus has power over death. Paul believes that in Jesus, God has done something to forever change the world and human history, and Paul believes that because of that his life and his future belong to Christ. It is not his own anymore. Now he belongs to Christ, and not just Paul but also the Philippians, the Thessalonians, the Corinthians, the Romans, everyone that is a member of Christ’s body belong to Christ now and because they belong to Christ, Paul believes that should change how they live in this world. “Because God has done this, therefore we should do this”, that seems to be part of what Paul is saying here. When Christ makes us his own that should change everything for us. It certainly did for Paul. Jesus became the “why” for Paul. Jesus wasn’t afraid of prison. Jesus wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power. Jesus wasn’t afraid to challenge people or call them on their own hypocrisy. Jesus suffered all things, including death, and showed the world that he had victory over death. That is who Paul belongs to. And although Paul may not be able to follow him perfectly, knowing Christ and allowing Christ to shape and change his life, well that means everything to Paul now. Knowing and following Christ has changed everything for Paul, so the question that I am left with, reading his letter to the Philippians a couple thousand years later on the other side of the world, is has knowing and following Christ changed much for me? Have I been transformed by belonging to Christ? Because I bear the name “Christian” does that change how I live in this world? Do I get the courage and the determination and the hope that Paul gets from knowing Jesus? 

You know, you can look at Paul and see all sorts of things on the surface. People really struggle with Paul because his letters and his words have been so misused and abused over the centuries. Paul’s words have been used to support slavery, his words have been used against women and against gay people, but if you can keep digging past that and keep searching for what is really motivating Paul…if you keep asking “why” well, I think what you will find is a man whose life has been turned upside down by Jesus. So I have learned to love Paul because I think he is a testimony to what Jesus can do when he gets his hands on you. Paul is someone who knows that his life belongs to Christ and that guides everything he does.

I wonder if we dug deep enough into our own lives and our own motivations and if we asked ourselves constantly “why we do this” or “why we do that,” well I wonder if we could say the same. 


Words or Ways?

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Sermon for September 27th, 2020

Readings:

Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32
Psalm 25:1-8
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

Words.

Words are such important and powerful things. We use words to identify and make sense of the world around us. We use words to describe ourselves and shape our own identities. We use words to communicate with each other.

Everyday my life is filled with words. Sacred words, profane words, four-letter words, I use a healthy dose of each every day. There are the words of the Bible, words that may sound strange and unfamiliar or words that may echo with grace and dignity. There are the mundane words of everyday speech. There are the words that are spoken to us over the television or over the radio; there are the words we read on the internet and in the newspapers. There are the words we use to tell our children that we love them; there are the words we use when someone cuts us off in traffic; and there are the words we use to tell God our innermost wants, fears and regrets. Our lives are filled with words, and there is no sense in pretending that words don’t matter. Words do matter and they matter very much. 

Some preachers preach like they get paid by the word; I do hope I’m not one of them. When I write and when I speak, I do agonize over using the right word, but I don’t want to be one of those people that always uses a 50 cent word when a 25 cent word will do just fine. Words can be abused and misused. And words may not always mean what you think they mean. 

We use a lot of words in our worship here every week. There are the words of our prayers, thank you Thomas Cranmer, there are the words of the Creed, thank you early church councils, and there is the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God. As people of the book, we believe that one of the ways that our God communicates with us is through words: throughout the ages God inspires prophets and apostles to share his word with his people, and what does God’s word say on this fine Sunday morning?

I am going to judge according to your ways.

Ways not words. That is how God says that he is going to judge his people, according to their ways. That is the word or the message that God gave to Ezekiel: tell my people that I am going to judge them according to their ways. 

We have these words, these sacred words, words that are important and words that we believe are divinely inspired, and what do these words tell us? They tell us that there is something even more important than words: actions. Our actions, our ways, that is how God is going to judge us, by our actions. Words are important because they guide and influence our actions, but at the end it is the actions that really count. 

I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you, according to your ways.

You know we, I think rightly, make a big deal about the words of scripture, and even more so about the words of Jesus in the mass. So the gospels, which are our primary source for the words of Jesus, are given a special book, which is given special reverence, everyone stands to hear it read, we use different responses, etc. The words of Jesus and his teachings matter a lot to us. Those words should guide our thoughts and, more importantly, our actions. And We believe that they are more than the words of a clever teacher; we believe they are the words of God incarnate. But here is a little observation: the oldest books that we have in the New Testament are the letters of the Apostle Paul, but if you are looking for Jesus’s teachings, if you are looking for the words of Jesus, you won’t find them there. Paul almost never talks about what Jesus said; Paul talks about what he did. Paul talks about Jesus’s words when he talks about him taking the bread and the wine at his last supper and saying “this is my body” and “this is my blood,” but beyond that Paul is primarily concerned with telling the Churches what Jesus did. What did Jesus’s actions accomplish in this world? How should our actions be shaped by Jesus’s actions? That is the question that Paul is always asking…and answering. 

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God 

as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave, 

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself 

and became obedient to the point of death– 

even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name 

that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bend, 

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord, 

to the glory of God the Father.

Actions, actions, actions…this is what Jesus did. This is what Jesus’s life was about: God acting in this world. God humbling himself; God emptying himself. These are God’s ways, these are the ways of Jesus Christ, and according to Paul, these should be our ways as well. And that, after all, is how God says he will judge us, according to our ways. Tongues should confess, yes, but knees should bend first. It’s not that our words don’t matter; it’s just that our actions matter more. And Jesus, when he did use words, usually used them to remind us of just how important our actions are.

Just look at the story Jesus tells this morning. Two brothers, one of them responds to his father with the right words, and the other responds with the right actions. Which one of the two did the will of the father? The one with the right actions. It’s not that the words aren’t important; it’s just that the actions matter more. Jesus says “not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my father.” He who does the will.

Words are important. Words have power. Words have meaning and authority. But in the end, what does the Word say? That we shall be judged according to our ways, not our words. 

Jonah is a jerk.

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Sermon for September 20th, 2020

Readings:

Jonah 3:10-4:11
Psalm 145:1-8 
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

At one point in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is teaching his disciples and he says to them:

Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. 

Jesus was, of course, referring to his own death and resurrection. Jonah was three days in the fish and came back; Jesus will be three days in the grave and come back. So, in the early church, Jonah was often used as a symbol for Jesus. But Jesus also went on to say that: “something greater than Jonah is here,” and I think it is really important not to miss that, Jesus is far greater than Jonah, because although they were both gone for three days and came back, that is where the similarities end between Jesus and Jonah. 

Because Jonah, is a jerk. Jonah is a jerk. If you didn’t pick up on that from our Old Testament excerpt this morning, then let me fill in for you some of the back story.

God sent Jonah to Ninevah to tell them that if they didn’t change their ways their destruction would soon be upon them. But Jonah didn’t want to go. He didn’t care about the people in Ninevah. They were making their own beds, so let them lie in them. Jonah turned and headed off in the opposite direction. He got on a boat and headed out to see. But God sent mighty winds and waves, that rocked the ship and almost destroyed it and everyone in it, but did Jonah care? No.

Jonah didn’t care that his disobedience was threatening the lives of his shipmates. He didn’t even want to help them row or bail water. He just decided to crawl down inside the hull of the ship and take a nap. He went to sleep while his shipmates where scrambling to save their lives. Oh and when they did wake him up, he was really reluctant to own up to the fact that it was his fault that God was rocking the ship. His shipmates, they immediately prayed to God and repented, but did Jonah? No. 

Jonah didn’t start praying until he was tossed overboard and swallowed by a giant fish. When the fish spat Jonah up on shore a few days later, then he finally decided to go to Ninevah to do what God had told him to do in the first place. He goes there; he gives a very simple sermon about their coming destruction, and miraculously they all repent. They sit in sackcloth and ashes, they cry to God, they change their ways. 

Now as a preacher, I can tell you that that is the miracle in this story. Forget about the giant fish. The miracle in this story is that a bunch of sinners heard one sermon and decided to change. But I’m not even gonna go there right now, let’s get back to Jonah.

Jonah preaches his sermon and he finds himself a nice spot just outside of town where he can watch the action. He is ready for some Sodom and Gomorrah type destruction. He wants to see some explosions and some divine justice coming down hard on these sinners. But what happens? God decides to forgive Ninevah. God decides not to destroy the city and all the people in it, and it makes Jonah so mad he wants to die. He wants to die because he didn’t get to see God punish some people that he thought needed punishing. He didn’t get to be an agent of God’s justice.

Jonah is a jerk. He doesn’t care about the Ninevites, never did. He doesn’t want what’s best for them. He doesn’t want God to forgive them. He didn’t want to see them turn, we wanted to watch them burn. And oh is he mad at God, when God doesn’t treat the Ninevites the way he thinks God should treat them. He thinks sinners should be punished, not forgiven. But what Jonah can’t see, is that the most hardened sinner in this entire story is himself. Jonah was shown forgiveness, given a second chance to follow God, a second chance at life, but Jonah didn’t want anyone else to get a second chance. In the end, what we see is that Jonah never cares for anyone but himself. 

Jonah is a jerk and he is nothing like Jesus, because Jesus understands something that Jonah doesn’t: Jesus understands love. Jonah might love himself, but he certainly doesn’t love others. If you really love others, you want what is best for them. And if you really love someone else deeply, you will want what is best for them, even if it isn’t what is best for you. Probably the closest we get to that kind of love in this world is the way a parent usually loves a child. Good parents are often willing to suffer quite a lot to do what is best for their children. But there are other times when we see that kind of self-sacrificing love: between spouses, in the daily lives of soldiers and first-responders, even occasionally between complete strangers; we see love, love that isn’t concerned about what’s in it for me. That is the love that moves God to forgive, because God wants what is best for his children, he doesn’t have to destroy a village just to satisfy his pride, God would rather see them live. That is the love that caused God to be born among us as Jesus Christ. Was it best for him? No, he died on a cross. But it was best for us. 

How then should people who proclaim to worship and follow this God that died on a cross for the sins of others, how should those people live? Should we be concerned that everyone gets what is coming to them? Should we at all times do what is best for us? Should we be looking out for number 1? Should we act like God’s judgment is for everyone else, but God’s mercy is just for us? Do we really want what is best for others? That is the real test of love. Do we really want what is best for someone else, even if it means that we don’t get what we think is our fair share? 

You know what, let’s be honest, a lot of times we don’t. We don’t. Those early laborers in Jesus’s story in the gospel, they didn’t want what was best for the workers that came later. They weren’t concerned that these folks needed work and got work and got paid. For some reason, they thought they deserved more. The landowner hadn’t promised them more, but they thought they deserved it. They had ideas about what they thought was fair, but the landowner didn’t seem to be too concerned about what was fair; the landowner wanted what was best for all of his workers. 

You will not often hear me use the terms “justice” or “social justice” in my preaching, and there is a specific reason for that. I think that questions of justice are something of a red herring. Because when we start talking about justice we inevitably start talking about fairness and deserving, and that usually ends up with people just being defensive about their right to be angry and what they think belongs to them, sort of like Jonah arguing with God. Questions of fairness and justice have been a part of human civilization since the beginning of time, right along with war and fighting. Maybe they are the wrong questions. Maybe the question we should be asking is how can we learn to want, simply want and truly desire, what is best for someone else. How can we appreciate the gifts and the grace that we have been given and truly desire to see others share in them? You see, if you truly want what is best for someone else, then questions of justice and fairness become completely irrelevant. If I truly love you and want what is best for you, then I don’t have to worry about what is fair or whether or not I am getting what I deserve. Maybe, not getting what we deserve is truly a sign of God’s forgiveness and grace. Jonah didn’t get what he deserved, he was given so much more than he deserved. He was forgiven. He was given a second chance.

But Jonah doesn’t really want to see others blessed and graced by God the way that he has been. Because Jonah is a jerk.

O Lord, you know…

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Sermon for August 30th, 2020

Readings:

Jeremiah 15:15-21
Psalm 26:1-8
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

O Lord, you know.

That is how the prophet Jeremiah begins his prayer.

O Lord, you know.

He could have ended right there. Part of me expects that he did for a while: in exhaustion, in exasperation, in anger, in fear, maybe even in hope, Jeremiah manages to squeeze out those few little words to his creator, and then pauses, takes a haggard breath, tries to take it all in and think of what to do or what to say next.

O Lord, you know.

Is there a more perfect prayer in times of trouble? I don’t know that there is. Sure, Jeremiah goes on to elaborate; he tells God what he wants, he tells God about his pain and his frustrations, but I suspect that those extra words are probably more for Jeremiah’s own benefit than they are for God’s. Everything Jeremiah really needed to say to God he said in those first few words:

O Lord, you know.

Because God does know. God does know the situation that Jeremiah is in. Jeremiah is living in the midst of a world that has gone crazy. The Babylonians are about to invade and destroy Jerusalem. And why wouldn’t they? Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah are ripe for the picking. There is wealth to be plundered; people to be exploited. New slaves, cheap labor, easy money. Why wouldn’t the Babylonians invade? It’s not like the Judeans could put up a united front to fight them off. They were too busy destroying themselves.

That was Jeremiah’s real burden and pain, it wasn’t the destructive power of the Babylonians that upset him, it was the self-destruction of his own people. Jeremiah’s own kingdom, the Kingdom of Judah, was destroying itself from within and it’s breaking his heart. In the beginning of his ministry as a prophet, God gave Jeremiah a message for his people and the message was this:

I brought you into a plentiful land, to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination.

The priests did not say, “Where is the Lord?”

Those who handle the law did not know me;

The rulers transgressed against me;

The prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit.

Wanton waste

Faithless religious leaders

Lawyers that neither know or care about the difference between right and wrong

Politicians that recognize no power above their own

And boundless prophets of lesser idols urging them to keep chasing after the wrong things.

If you try to read Jeremiah and wonder why he’s in such a bad mood all the time, well just imagine if your entire life was one long 2020, and maybe you’ll cut him some slack. I think exasperation is really the best word for Jeremiah’s state of mind, because he is really struggling with what it means to be faithful in a faithless world. He’s exasperated and he doesn’t know how long he can keep doing it.

At one point, Jeremiah shows up in the temple, and on God’s behalf he calls everyone out for their hypocrisy:

Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal and go after other Gods, and then come and stand before me in this house?

Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord.

I am watching, says the Lord. That is the message that God gave Jeremiah to say. I am watching.

Needless to say, Jeremiah’s message was not popular and neither was he. He wanted to give up, at one point he regretted even being born, and that is when he slumps down before God and utters:

O Lord, you know.

I can barely imagine all of the thoughts and emotions that Jeremiah is packing into that simple prayer:

Lord, you know about the corruption in this world.

Lord, you know about people that have no respect for or belief in a higher power.

Lord, you know about people that only seek after their own good and care not for the needs of others.

Lord, you know about how careless and wasteful we are will all your gifts, especially with your creation.

Lord, you know that many of our religious leaders care more about secular power and influence than they do about faith.

Lord, you know about people that are suffering. You know about people that are sick and worried about their lives.

You know about people that are poor and hungry.

You know about the people that are trying to manipulate the system and you know about the people that the system has failed.

You know about injustice.

You know about cruelty.

You know about lying.

You know about incompetence.

I can imagine that Jeremiah is also looking for the faith to say: Lord, you also know about our hopes, and our dreams.

You know about our capacity to love and to forgive.

You know that despite how awful humans can be, that once in a while through that spark of love that you gave them, they can be pretty amazing too.

You know that only good can overcome evil.

You know, Lord, why you have called us.

And you, and only you, know the road that lies ahead.

Maybe it doesn’t look like much on paper, but when Jeremiah says “O Lord, you know,” he’s saying a mouthful. And despite the fact that Jeremiah goes on for about 37 more chapters, he really says right there all that needs to be said. Because recognizing that God knows, is really the battle isn’t it? That is the hardest truth for us to absorb sometimes, the fact that God does know what is going on in this world.

God knows when we are suffering and in need; God knows when we have a cross to bear,

AND God knows when we are following him and when we are not. God knows when we have turned away from him. God knows when I am chasing after false idols of my own creation. God knows when it is Satan’s words on my tongue and not his own. God knows when my mind is set on divine things and when my mind is set on human things. I may not always know, or I might know and hope that God doesn’t know, but God knows.

Jeremiah’s few little words they do so much, they give honor and recognition to God, and they remind us of something that we are liable to forget every minute of the day: that God knows.

Exasperation is an emotion that I know a thing or two about, and I am guessing that pretty much everyone these days could say the same. If you are struggling with how to pray, what to pray for, who to pray for, if you are frustrated with the way things are, if it seems like everyone has just gone crazy, if you are worried about the future and the road that lies ahead, maybe you could just take a moment and pray with me these words of Jeremiah’s, words that say everything when I don’t know what to say; words that I keep repeating more and more these days:

O Lord, you know.

Prison or Cocoon?

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Sermon for Sunday, August 23rd, 2020

Readings:

Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 138
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

March seems like decades ago.

When we were gathered together for our parish’s annual meeting at the beginning of February, I cracked a joke about sending our new Junior Warden to Wuhan China, where the people were battling the outbreak of some strange virus. I never imagined that within a little over a month we would be living in the epicenter of a new disease outbreak, Covid-19, caused by that same virus. I never imagined that our churches and our lives would be locked down. I never imagined that social gatherings would come to an end. I never imagined that our faces would become almost permanently covered by these masks.

It is hard to believe now, that we actually thought in March that things would be getting back to normal by Easter. And here we are, closing in on the end of the summer, and although we may be able to open our doors again and have some gatherings for worship, we are a long way from what any of us would consider “normal.”

In the beginning of March, Keith and I went to see Celine Dion in concert at the coliseum, something that I couldn’t imagine doing now. So much has happened since then. It seems like decades ago.

We have lost parishioners to this disease. Quite a few of you have had it and some I know are still suffering from its effects long after you have “recovered.” And of course, there has been more going on in our world than just covid-19. Our country is in the middle of one of the most divided, polarizing times in its history. Politics, race, medicine, science, it doesn’t seem like we can agree on anything. Everything is now a source of division. The internet, which we all know has this extraordinary power to bring people together, is used more and more to tear people apart. I don’t know, something about being online makes people lose their humanity. We stop thinking for ourselves. We stop reading critically. We share memes and news articles and headlines that other people have shared, not stopping to really question or investigate: is this true? Is this helpful? Is this intended to build people up or tear them down? Does this really reflect what I believe or am I just being used as a tool in someone else’s agenda? There is a huge difference between being informed and educated and being manipulated. There is a difference between opening our minds and poisoning them.

It is a difficult and painful time that we all live in. And yet,

I believe that God is still good.

I believe that Jesus is still the messiah, the son of the living God.

I believe that the lord is still the sovereign king of the universe

And I believe that the kingdom of God is still alive and well in this very broken world of ours.

Now some priests like to stand up and tell people that they need to go out and change the world. I’m not gonna do that. Oh I think the world needs changing, but I think most of us are too broken ourselves to go around thinking that we can fix things. If we aren’t actively allowing and asking God to change us first, then we are just going to make a bigger mess of things when we go out trying to change others. We need to change first.

When we were in the midst of the more strict and severe lockdown earlier this year, when things really were shutdown and we were far more isolated even than we are now, I had what was for me a bit of an epiphany. I was so frustrated at all of the changes and all of the restrictions that I frankly didn’t want to deal with, and it was really starting to get me down. And at some point I heard this little voice in my head that said: this can either be a prison, or it can be a cocoon. It’s your choice.

I could either choose to look at my situation as a prison, something forced upon me that I could sit around resenting and railing against, like some prisoner rattling his cup against the bars, or

I could see it as a cocoon. A time of transformation. A time for becoming something different. Something better. A time that ends, not just with a return to the life I knew before, but a time that ends with a new life.

I think that really is the challenge of the time we are living in: do we see it as a prison or a cocoon? Are we sitting around waiting to just go back to the way things were, or are we hoping for something better? Are we allowing ourselves to be transformed?

Our approach to this season of living with the coronavirus, may in fact be emblematic of our approach to faith, and life, in general.

Is our response to God just sitting around waiting to be set free on some future day by some cosmic jailer or are we actively offering ourselves, or souls and bodies, to God as something to be transformed and shaped like a piece of clay, or perhaps, a caterpillar?

Saint Paul, who knew a thing or two about sitting in a prison cell, wrote to the Church in Rome, a church that was itself struggling with internal division, a church living in uncertain and dangerous times, Paul writes to that church and says: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” Another translation puts it as “spiritual worship.” Either way, Paul is saying that if you really want to offer God something, offer God yourself. Offer God your life as a living sacrifice. Not as someone whose life is ended by the act of sacrifice, but as someone whose life is transformed, re-created, re-ordered or re-oriented by an ongoing act of living sacrifice.

“Do not be conformed to this world,” Paul says, “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God- what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Do not be conformed, but be transformed. During this strange time which we all find ourselves to be in, are we being conformed or are we being transformed? Are we renewing our minds? Are we allowing God to shape us and transform us? Or are we allowing ourselves to be conformed to the world as it is? Are we allowing God to use and shape the raw materials of our lives? Are we giving God full use of the gifts that he gave us in the first place? Because if we aren’t being transformed by God, we will never be able to truly know what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Now, I don’t think that Jesus is some self-help guru that wants you to attain some enlightened state merely for your own enjoyment and benefit. If God has given you gifts, if God is transforming you, then it is for the sake of all of his people, not just for you. But if we really care about God’s kingdom coming and God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven, then we will begin not with trying to change others, but by first allowing God to transform and renew us. That, Paul says, is a part of our worship.

Since March, none of us have been able to worship God the way that we are accustomed to and the way that we would like, and although I long for the day when we can get back to some of our honored and time-tested traditions, I also know that worship comes in many forms. Perhaps one of the ways that we are being called right now to worship God is through the renewing of our minds. Maybe we are being called to offer ourselves to God as a living sacrifice, by being called into a time of focused transformation. But if we are going to allow God to renew us, then we need to make sure we are actually being transformed by God and not conformed to the world.

My advice, as your priest and as someone who struggles with all this as well is pretty simple: spend less time on the internet. Use social media to share pictures of your kids or your cats, not for news and information. Maybe turn the news off and listen to the talking heads a bit less. I have said this before. I know that may seem pretty funny for some of you right now, that are watching this service on the internet. For many of you the internet is the only way you have been able to worship or keep in contact with other people throughout this crisis; it can be a wonderful tool for information and connection. But it also a powerful tool for manipulation and conformation. We are told what to think, how to think, what to believe, what to be angry about, what not to be angry about…my cultivated newsfeed tells me what to buy, who to vote for. My emotions, my fears, my hopes and dreams, they are manipulated and used. We end up spending more time getting into stupid arguments with people we don’t know, than we do learning a skill or showing love and concern. If you really want to transform your mind, stop wasting time reading and sharing articles that support and “prove” things you already believe or want to believe, and maybe pick up an actual, old-fashioned book for a change. An old book, one written a very long time ago by someone very different from you. Learn a language, try some new recipes, pray the rosary, go for a walk, read all of Paul’s letter to the Romans, or Luke’s gospel, or read a Psalm each day. If you are using the internet to worship and renew your mind, great, if you are using it to stay connected to your church or to loved ones, great, but if all you are using it to do is to share things that you didn’t write, and argue with people that you don’t know, about things that don’t affect you, and which you may, in fact, not understand, then I am here to tell you that you are being conformed to what the powers of this world want you to be.

“Do not be conformed to this world,” Paul says, “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

We are still living in this strange and difficult time. Restrictions have lightened a bit, we have gotten used to some things, but we are a long way from where we want to be. There are many things right now that are beyond our control. But one thing we do have control over is how we respond to this time. How we approach it. We can see it as a prison. We can grow ever more resentful, we can withdraw further and further into our little silos of like-minded but perpetually angry people. Or we can see it as a cocoon, a time of focused transformation and change, where what we become is far more beautiful and marvelous than what we were before. We can be conformed or we can be transformed.

We do not presume

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Sermon for August 16th, 2020

Readings

Isaiah 56:1,6-8
Psalm 67
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

Sermon begins at 10:23

 

 

There is a difference between a deep and sincere faith in God’s love and mercy and presumption.

 

There is a difference between believing that God does do something, and believing that God MUST do something.

 

I can have a sincere belief in God’s power and willingness to forgive wrongs that I have committed, but that is a very different thing than believing that God MUST forgive them. If we allow ourselves to think that God’s mercy and forgiveness are in any sense owed to us, that God is bound to show them, then we immediately turn God’s grace into something else. We turn God’s grace into a wage. Wages are owed, gifts are freely given. So, is God’s mercy and grace meant to be a gift or a wage? Do we think inclusion in God’s kingdom is something that we are owed or is it something that we know in our hearts we have no right to?

 

There is a huge difference between these two ways of thinking and acting, but the problem is, on the surface they can look very much alike. The line between them, although it is definite, can be quite fine. We really have to take a close look sometimes to see if someone’s actions, even our own actions, are a product of sincere faith or of presumption.

 

Are we approaching the Lord in sincere humility and trusting in his goodness, or do we think that God owes us something?

 

Today’s gospel passage is a difficult one for many, because Jesus doesn’t appear to be quite the pushover that we sometimes want him to be. I’ve heard plenty of creatively terrible interpretations of this passage, but what I think is on vivid display here in the actions of this Canaanite woman is the distinction between faith and presumption.

 

Jesus, spent most of his life and career preaching and teaching in the northern part of the Holy Land, in the region surrounding the sea of Galilee. Before the Babylonian captivity, when there were still two kingdoms, this region was known as the Kingdom of Israel. And before the Babylonians invaded and destroyed Jerusalem, the Assyrians invaded and destroyed the Northern kingdom of Israel, and the inhabitants of that kingdom were scattered and dispersed, most never to be heard from again. It was on the northern coast of this region, near the towns of Tyre and Sidon that Jesus is preaching in in today’s gospel.

 

And while Jesus is there, a Canaanite woman, comes up to him and begs for mercy for her daughter. Now the Canaanites were the ancient enemies of the Hebrew people. They were a different religion, a different race, and they had pretty much always been at war with the Hebrew tribes. This woman from the enemy camp comes up to Jesus, and calls him Lord and Son of David, and she asks for mercy. And Jesus says nothing at first. He doesn’t respond right away.

 

Now if Jesus’s disciples had their way, they would have just dismissed this woman and sent her packing. That’s what they want Jesus to do: just send her away. She’s annoying. She’s not one of us. She doesn’t belong here. But Jesus doesn’t do that either.

 

Jesus lets her speak. And when Jesus does respond, what he says to the woman, although it seems difficult to us, would have come as no surprise to either her or anyone else there: Jesus was a Hebrew. He was a law-abiding, observant Jew. His life was spent primarily preaching and teaching and healing and arguing with other Jews. What business does he have with this Canaanite woman? Is Jesus bound to listen to her and grant her requests? Is it fair for a Hebrew prophet to be showering God’s grace on people that are the historic enemies of the Hebrews? Does God owe this woman something? That is the real question here: does Jesus owe this woman anything?

 

And the answer is: NO. Jesus doesn’t owe this woman anything. That may make us a bit uncomfortable, because we don’t like it when Jesus doesn’t say yes to everything we ask, but it doesn’t seem to bother this woman too much. She doesn’t turn against Jesus or accuse him of being racist or unkind or unfair. This woman knows that Jesus doesn’t owe her anything. This woman knows that there is no reason why the Hebrew God should take any interest in her. She knows it isn’t fair for the Hebrew God to show mercy to the enemies of his chosen people, but she isn’t looking for fairness. She is looking for mercy. She is looking for something that she has absolutely no right to, but she believes inn her heart that this man Jesus will give it to her nonetheless. She trusts in Jesus’s love more than she trusts in the rightness of her own cause. That is faith in God’s love and mercy: knowing that you don’t deserve something, have no right to it, haven’t earned it, and believing that God will give it to you anyways. That is faith.

 

Presumption is a bit different. If this woman had been presumptuous this conversation might have taken a different turn. A presumptuous person would have tried to convince Jesus that he was in fact, being unfair. A presumptuous person would have told Jesus that it is unfair for their child to be possessed by a demon and suffering. A presumptuous person would have argued that God is supposed to be merciful all the time to everyone, regardless of their own actions. A presumptuous person would have tried to argue that God, in fact, owed this woman something. A presumptuous person wants to see Jesus’s mercy as a given, something that can be taken for granted, and not as what it truly is: a gift that we have no right to. Presumption is dangerous for all of God’s children, whether you are a Jew or a gentile. We can all fall into presumption. Let us remember that John the Baptist said to the Jews gathered at the Jordan river: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘we have Abraham as our ancestor’: for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” It is possible to trust in God’s mercy without presuming upon it, or taking it for granted, but we must always be vigilant.

 

You know, we live in a world of people that are suffering. We live in a world where people feel hopeless and condemned. We live in a world, where people think that IF God exists, that he doesn’t really care about them or their lives. We need to be able to preach faith to that world. We need to be able to talk about and to witness to the love and mercy of Jesus Christ, but we also need to be careful that what we are preaching and what we are practicing is faith and not presumption. Let us be sure that we aren’t turning God’s free gift into something that is owed or earned. Maybe the best way to know the difference between faith and presumption is examining how we respond when God says “no.” If God doesn’t do things exactly the way we want, when we want; if Jesus doesn’t grant our every wish, if he doesn’t pat us on the back every hour of the day and tell us we are doing a good job, how do we respond? Because if our response to God’s “no” is to turn away from God, then I guess that says something about whose righteousness we actually have more faith in.

 

The fact that people of every race and nation are welcomed by this Hebrew Lord into God’s one kingdom, is a miracle. When God shows us grace and forgiveness and love and healing, it is a miracle. The fact that God doesn’t send us willful and sinful creatures immediately on our way, the fact that God doesn’t immediately dismiss us, but is willing to hear our cries for help, that is a miracle, because you know what, the truth is…God doesn’t owe us anything.

 

Not a thing. God doesn’t owe any of us, anything. That is what makes God’s love and mercy so amazing.

 

The Canaanite woman is not asking Jesus for something she deserves. She knows better than that. That is what makes her faith so amazing. She trusts that this God will bless her with something that she does not deserve. It is a powerful image that should always be in our heads whenever we approach God’s altar and say:

 

We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.

 

 

The order of events

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Sermon for Sunday, August 9th, 2020

Readings:

1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

I want to take a moment and talk about the exodus story.

It’s one of the foundational stories of our faith. It is the foundational story of the Jewish faith as well. It has been depicted in film enough that even if you aren’t a person of faith you probably know the story of Moses, Pharaoh, the Hebrew Slaves and the crossing of the Red Sea. So, think about that story for a minute. Specifically, I want you to think about the timeline of that story.

God hears the sufferings of his people. God sees people enslaved. God demonstrates his power through Moses. The people are miraculously freed: the Red Sea parts, there are pillars of cloud and fire, God gives them food, God gives them water. Then they reach Mt. Sinai, where God gives them his Ten Commandments; his rules for living in this world. And finally, after much wandering, the people reach the borders of God’s promised land. All along the way the people kept wanting to turn back. They grumbled, they turned away, they made mistakes, they were unfaithful, but God was faithful.

So, God hears his people. God saves them and sets them free. Then God gives them the law.

The Children of Israel escape from Pharaoh, they cross the Red Sea, they are fed and watered by God in the desert, and then they reach Mt. Sinai where God gives them his rules for daily living.

God hears his people. God saves them. God instructs them. That is the timeline of this story.

I really want you to get the order of events here so I am going to keep saying them:

God hears his people. God saves them. Then God instructs them.

That is the order of events in this story that lies at the heart of our faith.

God hears his people. God saves them. God instructs them.

So why is it then that we are always turning that order of events upside down? We hear this story about God hearing people, God saving them, and then God giving them commandments for how to live, but we live our lives and we live our faith as if it happened in reverse order. And this is not a Jewish and Christian divide. We all, I think, have a tendency to do this.

We think that if I just get the commandments right: if I study relentlessly, if I get all the science right, if I make the right choices and do the right actions, THEN God will save me. And then and only then, after I have made the right choices, and after God has decided that I am worthy of saving, then God will hear me.  We may not come out and say it just like that, but isn’t that what we really think? Isn’t that how we act?

God hears his people. God saves them. God instructs them.

That is how the story goes, but we are so inclined to turn that story upside down, that every now and then we need someone to come around and turn it right side up again. We need someone to come along and say: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” In other words, God isn’t waiting for you to get it right before he hears you or before he saves you. Did God save the Children of Israel because they were obedient to the Law? NO, he had’t even given them the law yet. God saves them, because God loves them. God saves them, because that is what God does. This is a saving God. That is what we are called first and foremost to have faith in: the fact that God can and does hear us and save us, as we are, enslaved to whatever we are enslaved to in this world, before we have ever figured out how to live according to his commandments. God saves us first, then God teaches us. God is faithful to us, before we even have the capacity to be faithful to him.

As he began to sink into the water, Peter cried out, “Lord save me.” And Jesus Immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus has a lesson for Peter here, but you might notice that the lesson came after he pulled him out of the water. When Peter cried for help Jesus responded immediately. There is a time for teaching your children life’s lessons, but not when their lives are in danger. Jesus wants to talk to Peter about why he was doubting and about why he turned away from him, but he pulls him out of the water first.

God hears his people. God saves them. Then, God instructs them.

Of course, the instructions are important; of course, the commandments are important. Of course, Jesus wants us to listen to him about how we are to live in this world, and live in relationship with God and each other, but the Good News is that the commandments are meant to be our response to God’s salvation, they are not meant to be a condition of our salvation. Jesus did not quiz Peter on the Baptismal Covenant or on the Ten Commandments before he decided whether to pull him out of the water. Thankfully, that’s not how our God works. Our God is faithful, even when we are not. When we turn away from God, when we start focusing more on ourselves and on the work of our own hands, when we stop focusing on Jesus and start staring at our own feet, when we start to think we can do it on our own, and when we inevitably sink into the water, God is right there to grab us and pick us back up again. We just have to call on him.

Now to be sure, Jesus may have some words for us when we are back in the boat or on dry land. God’s commandments are important, Jesus’s teachings are vital, and we would be wise to pay close attention to them and heed them, but let’s always remember how the sotry goes and not get things out of order.

God hears us. God saves us. THEN God instructs us.

Action Jesus or Truth Jesus?

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Sermon for July 12th, 2020

Readings:

Isaiah 55:10-13
Psalm 65: (1-8), 9-14
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

Video of sermon

 

Sometimes when Jesus speaks in the scriptures he gives us direct commands: do this or don’t do this.

 

Love thy neighbor as thyself.

Forgive as you have been forgiven.

Heal the sick.

Feed the poor.

Follow me.

Take up your cross.

Make disciples of all nations.

Baptize, proclaim, pray, beware,

Do and do not.

 

This is action Jesus. And regardless of whether or not we actually heed Jesus’s commands and do what he says, I think we really like action Jesus because he gives us something to do. And we really like having things to do; that gives us power and control. When Jesus says to do something or to not do something, I get to decide how I am going to respond. I can do it or I can not do it, but in either case I am in control and I like being in control. So even if action Jesus is telling me to do something I don’t really want to do, I like listening to action Jesus because I still have power and choice and agency in how I respond to what he says.

 

But action Jesus is not the only Jesus we find in the scriptures. Sometimes, many times actually, the Jesus we meet in scripture is not action Jesus, but truth Jesus. Sometimes when Jesus speaks in the scriptures he isn’t giving us a direct command, but is instead sharing with us an important truth. Jesus wants to tell us something about God, about the Kingdom of God, or even about ourselves and we can choose to either accept that truth or reject it, but we can’t actually do anything to change it. I think we really struggle with truth Jesus, because truth Jesus doesn’t give us the same level of power and control that action Jesus gives us. Action Jesus calls us to respond, but truth Jesus calls us to understand, and let’s face it, sometimes responding is easier than understanding or listening. But time and time again, Jesus says “let anyone with ears to hear, listen,” “hear then the parable,” “let the listener understand.” Yes, a lot of times Jesus calls us to action in this world, but there all also many, many times when Jesus gets our attention to share with us a truth. It may be a truth we have no control over. It may be a truth that is good news, or it may be a truth that is very hard for us to hear, but either way, Jesus thinks we need to hear it. Sometimes the only response that we can have to the words of Jesus is just to hear what he is saying and to receive it as truth.

 

In today’s gospel lesson we have one of Jesus’s many parables, and perhaps one of his more famous ones. “Listen!” he says. “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

 

Immediately some of Jesus’s disciples came up to him (and this is the part that gets cut out of the reading this morning) and they ask him: “why are you talking this way? Why are you talking to them in parables?” It’s like they came up to Jesus and said, “Look man, why don’t you just tell people what to DO, that’s what they really want?” And Jesus says to them: “I am trying to help you understand secrets or truths about the kingdom.” And Jesus quotes Isaiah and says that many people’s hearts have grown dull and they have shut their eyes and closed their ears and have no desire to understand or know anymore. Then he makes very clear to them the truth in the parable:

 

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

 

The only thing Jesus tells his disciples to do in this passage is “hear.” Just listen to the truth he is sharing. Some people hear the word of God and just do not get it. It never has the chance to grown within them. Some people seem to get it, they may even been incredibly enthusiastic at first, but quickly their energy fades, they can’t manage to set down roots, and they fade away. There are others that hear the word of God and it takes root, but it is just one plant among many that eventually just gets choked out by the others that just seem to grow more quickly and be more vigorous. Finally, there are those who get it, who receive a word planted in their soul that continues to grow and thrive and to bear fruit their entire life long.

 

All Jesus asks us to do is hear this truth, but it is so tempting to hear this passage and to try and respond to it as if it were action Jesus talking; as if Jesus were telling us to get up and do something. So we start thinking:

 

How do I get those seeds off the path?

How do I help the seeds in the rocky ground set down roots?

How do I weed out the thorns?

How do I grown more fruit?

And how do I sew more of the seeds of God’s word in the world?

 

I want to respond to this passage by trying to think of something to do, but the only thing that Jesus actually asks me to do here is to listen. Hear what he is saying. This is truth Jesus speaking. Jesus wants me to understand something. He wants to share with me a truth about the way things are.

 

I have heard this parable so many times, but the longer I have lived and worked within the church, especially in active ministry, the more I appreciate the truth of it. The picture that Jesus paints in this little story is absolutely true in its depiction of how people respond to God, to faith, to the bible or to church in their lives. I can’t even count the times anymore that I have seen every one of these scenarios play out. Some people just don’t or won’t get it. Some people convert enthusiastically and then immediately disappear. Other people get distracted, or busy, or simply fall out of the habit and allow other things in their lives to take precedence. And then finally there are the people that just grow and grow from season to season, bearing good fruit, some more than others, and quite often surprising you with just how deep their roots are. That is church. That is faith.

 

And if what Jesus is saying here is actually true. If this is the way it is, then I can expect that this is going to continue to keep happening. I can expect some people to continue to have no interest in God. I can expect people to show early enthusiasm and quickly fall away. I can expect people to drift away from church, overcome or distracted by other cares and concerns. I can expect all those things, and even though I might not like it one bit, I don’t need to beat my head against that reality trying to change it, nor do any of us need to beat ourselves up trying to figure out what we are doing wrong when every seed that is planted doesn’t become the fruit bearing tree we envisioned. This is the way that God’s kingdom is breaking into this world and quite a lot of it is simply outside our control.

 

I think that we can fully expect that many people, not just in our parish, but throughout the church, will simply not return once the coronavirus crisis passes. I’m not talking about people that are exercising due caution for their health but are otherwise prayerful and active in worship in whatever ways they can be. If you are taking the time to watch this service online, then I imagine you still have an active desire for your faith to grow and bear fruit in your life. But for some people the closure of our churches, the social distancing precautions and all that is going on in our world and in everyone’s individual lives, will prove too much. Their faith may simply not be deeply enough rooted in their lives to withstand this. Some people simply will not be back.

 

Some seeds just won’t grow, but some will. It’s a shame, but we can’t let the fact that people fall away or walk away from God, faith and the church, get us down, make us despair or quit ourselves. We can’t be overwhelmed and discouraged by the seeds that don’t grow. Jesus told us it would be this way. Some seeds won’t grow, but some will. Not every life we touch is going to be transformed, but some will. This is a truth we need to understand. Jesus told us that it would be this way and I think he told us, I think he shared this truth, this secret of the kingdom with us so that we wouldn’t despair every time we see it happen. We don’t have time to despair about the seeds that don’t grow. Jesus has real work for us to do. There is action Jesus who calls on us to labor in God’s vineyard. But if we want to have the strength or the stamina or the perseverance or the determination to do what action Jesus tells us to do, then we need to be willing to listen when truth Jesus tells us to listen.

 

The hardest verse in all of scripture.

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Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2020

Readings


“And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”

You know, you don’t have to read very far into this book to come across one of the most challenging ideas in the history of the world. In the very first chapter of the very first book of the Bible, Genesis, there is a proclamation, a revelation of a divine mystery that is so profound we have never been able to fully comprehend it. It has always challenged us. Now, it is not the story of God creating the heavens and the earth and the beasts of the earth out of nothing, that is not all that challenging. I don’t find the belief in a divine creator of the universe to be all that hard to understand, and throughout the history off the world most people haven’t had a hard time believing that either. It might take some faith to believe that, but it doesn’t take a whole lot.

No, I think one of the most challenging statements in this entire book, which is full of many challenging statements, comes at Genesis chapter 1 verse 27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” I can’t think of many other verses in the Bible that are harder to comprehend than that. Now it may sound easy at first. We may be able to say it over and over again like we understand it. That verse may roll off our tongues very easily; we may give it limp service, but have we ever really comprehended it? Have we every really understood what it means? Well I think history has proven that we haven’t.

Think about this: what this verse is saying is that this force that created the entire world out of nothing; this all powerful being that is at the center of the universe and that is the source of all life and all that is good in the world, that God has gifted human beings with his image.

Every human being walking the earth today, every human being that has ever walked the earth, has within them a reflection of this divine creator. No doubt God loves all his creatures, but this one, this human creature is special. God has given this creature a part of his divine image or being. And Christians believe that God loves this one creature so much that when they had fallen away from him that he was born as one of them, and was willing to die as one of them, just to bring them back. That is how much he loves them. And Christians also believe that God is continually pouring a part of himself into them in ways that are just unfathomable. Sure, God loves all of his creation, but this one is special. This one bears God’s image. Now don’t hate me dog lovers, I’m a dog lover too. Animals can reveal God’s love to us in unique and surprising ways. You can see God reflected in all of creation, but why is it that the one place that God has told us that he has placed his image is so often the last place we go looking for it?

We are willing to treat other human beings in ways that we would never treat a dog.

God has told us that human beings bear his image. We christians believe that that same God was willing to die as one of these human beings to save them. And we believe that our bodies are, as Paul says, temples of the Holy Spirit, but somehow we manage to find reasons and excuses to talk about and treat other human beings as if they were less than animals.

So I think I can confidently say that Genesis chapter 1 verse 27 is one of the hardest verses is all of scripture, because we have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that we just don’t get it. We want other human beings to be just another part of creation that we have dominion over. We don’t want other humans to be equal to us, and we sure don’t want to have to recognize that the God we profess to worship is also present in them too, but from the beginning that is the challenge that God gives us.

What makes it so challenging is that people are not simple, people are complex. Nobody you have ever met in your life is just one thing. Nobody is just black or just white. Nobody is just a cop or just a criminal. Nobody is just a Democrat or just a Republican. Nobody is just a man or just a woman. Nobody is just gay or just straight. And with the exception of our Lord Jesus, in whom there is no darkness, nobody is just good or just evil. We are all a swirl of sometimes very contradictory things. People just do not fit into neat categories. People are a mystery. It is when we start trying to look at other human beings as anything less than a mystery that we really get into trouble.

I grew up quite literally at my grandfather’s knee. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents as a child, and I was close to both of them, but I was particularly close as a young boy to my grandfather. We would drive around town, sometimes we would go fishing or exploring, sometimes I would help him in the garden, but most of the time we would just sit in the corner of his little den, he would smoke his pipe and either read his paper or watch wrestling on the television and tell stories. I loved his stories about the war and about growing up as a dirt poor farmer in Georgia. Sometimes the stories were heroic adventures like crossing the Atlantic on a transport ship bound for the war in Europe. Sometimes his stories were a bit darker though. He had an alcoholic and abusive father that left him and his mother and siblings for a while when he was young. To survive my grandfather and his brother would sort through the town dump looking for food for the family. Or they would try and raise money anyway they could, which sometimes their father would “borrow” from them and never give back.

I was thinking about my grandfather this week, because after he married and had kids, he eventually moved his family to Florida, where he got a GED and eventually a job at the Space center. Not a high powered or glamorous job at all, but still he was a part of something amazing. He went from looking for food for his family in the town dump to looking for rocket parts to send men to the moon.

I have also been thinking a lot about my grandfather this week, because in many ways he was something of a mystery too: he could be loving or he could be harsh, he struggled mightily will some really ugly personal demons like alcoholism and depression and he was also a practical joker with a great sense of humor. He could be the best neighbor you ever had, unless of course you were black.

You see, my grandfather was incredibly racist. A man who was very much a swirl of contradictions himself, wanted other people to be either this or that.

I don’t know if he ever committed any acts of violence against a person of color, he certainly never told me if he did, but I do know that for him black people, which is not the world he used, they were all just one thing.

Now my parents were very clear with my and my sister, that this was not OK. We needed to learn to respect everyone and to treat people equally. I could see my grandfather’s prejudice and recognize it as evil, but still I loved him very much.

I learned from an early age what it means to love someone, really love someone, that is deeply flawed, that did and said things that I thought were wrong. I learned that people are complicated; that people have pain and hurt in their lives that you probably know nothing about. Not only was my grandfather in many ways a mystery, I think that his response to the mystery within himself was to try and simplify everyone else. Mystery can make us uncomfortable. Certainty and precision feels better. I’m sure there are plenty of people that would like to see my grandfather as simply one thing or another, but I loved him enough to know that its just not that simple. I wish I could say that he taught me to be color-blind, but that’s just not true. What can can say though is that inadvertently at least, he taught me that people are complicated.

People are complicated and it is hard to live in a world with complicated people, so we create categories to make everything easier to understand. We find ways to lump people together and make them just another creature that we have dominion over instead of a little divine mystery. We find ways to make sure that people stay in these categories. But the problem is real human beings don’t fit into neat little categories, they weren’t meant to. That isn’t how God created us. God created us to be little, individual bearers of his image. But of all the things the scriptures tell us, that is surely one of the hardest things to believe, because most of the time that’s not how we treat other people. We keep trying to make people simple, when they just aren’t.

And maybe that right there is proof that we really do bear the image of God. You see Christians believe in the Holy Trinity. There is one God with three persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. That is what we celebrate today, Trinity Sunday. At the heart of our faith is the idea that God is a mystery that is beyond our understanding. God has revealed himself to us in certain ways, but ultimately God is beyond our understanding. God is not simple. God is not just one thing. Every heresy over the past two thousand years has usually come when someone has tried to make God or Jesus too simple. Too much one thing or another. But God will not be put into a neat little box like that and neither will those that bear God’s image. You cannot understand or comprehend the Holy Trinity, but you can live in relationship with it and you can love it. And that is how we are called to live with everyone that bears that image in their soul: living in relationship with them and loving them. Part of the doctrine of the trinity is that a loving relationship is part of the very essence of the creator of the universe. It is part of the image that we have all been marked with. And if that is true then we will not fix the world by trying to simplify it and everyone within it.

This dumpster fire of a world we’re living in didn’t just happen over night. We have come to this point because we have never been able to grasp, since the beginning, Genesis chapter 1 verse 27. We have never been able to fully appreciate the divine image in our fellow human beings. We have either used power and influence to try and force people into simple categories that we can neatly classify and have dominion over like fish and cattle, or we have had people try and force us to be one thing or another. But people aren’t fish or cattle. People aren’t simple. I don’t fit neatly into categories and I’m guessing most of you don’t either. We are each and every one of us, a little mystery.

Now if it were up to me, I probably would have given up on the world and humanity long ago as “not worth saving.” It would be such an easy classification to dump the whole world in and just start over, but fortunately for us, God’s not that simple. God sees in every human being a little mystery, a reflection of himself, a life that is worth saving.

Maybe someday when it is all over and we stand before the throne we will be able to see each other the way that God sees us, but still I can’t help but hope that we don’t have to start living in the Book of Revelation, before we start to appreciate what God created in the Book of Genesis.