Moses parted the Red Sea, turned the Nile into blood, made water come out of a rock.
Joshua, fought the battle of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down.
David slew Goliath. Solomon was wise and built the first temple. Elijah called down fire from heaven.
But what did Abraham do? Not much.
He didn’t heal the sick. He didn’t command great armies. He didn’t possess great wealth.
I think that it is interesting that with all the amazing things done by and witnessed by Abraham’s descendants, the only thing that Abraham ever really does is listen to and follow the voice of God. When others around him, like those people in Babel, are building cities and great buildings to make a name for themselves, Abram is happy in his tent. Maybe it makes it easier to move when the Lord tell his to move. In fact, the only thing that Abram builds is an altar. Several altars actually…everytime Abram moves he builds an altar there to worship God. This, my friends, is really all that Abraham ever does: he listens to God, he follows God, he worships God.
You know, I am a great believer in celebrating the great saints of the church. There are saints and holy men and women that are very near and dear to my heart. They inspire me. And I believe that many extraordinary miracles have been performed by God through the hands of these holy people, but sometimes I need a reminder that you don’t have to be remarkable or special or extraordinary to be a jewel in God’s crown. And the ultimate reminder of that is Abraham.
He wasn’t terribly bright. He wasn’t particularly good, or honest, but he was willing to talk to God. He was willing to listen and he was willing to follow. Why?
God didn’t promise Abraham an easy life without pain, in fact if you go back and look at the missing passages in Genesis this morning you will find that God asked Abraham to do something quite painful indeed, and Abraham did it, not for his own sake but for the sake of those who would be blessed through him…his children. Abraham wanted to be a father more than anything else and he wanted God to bless his children. This is where the story of our faith begins, with an average father wanting to bless his children. This simple father put more faith in God than he did his own abilities; he was a follower before he was a leader; and he was loved by God before any commandments were ever made or broken. It was his faith that made him special, that was it.
We like to celebrate people in this world that are exceptionally gifted: the talented, the smart, the strong, the beautiful, but this man that God makes a covenant with is none of those things; he’s just faithful. Maybe we should start celebrating faithfulness a little more.
Abraham was an unremarkable, faithful follower of God, but you know what today more than half the world worships (in some form or another) the God of Abraham. If you think that one old, unremarkable, average person faithfully worshipping and following God can’t make a difference and can’t leave a legacy…you’re wrong.
One of the stories in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is the Miller’s Tale. Now they may have had you read the prologue to the Canterbury Tales in high school, you may know the background story that this is a bunch of pilgrims on their way to the shrine at Canterbury and they are passing the time by telling stories, but I doubt that you read the Miller’s Tale.
I doubt that they had you read the Miller’s Tale, because the Miller told a pretty dirty story. It also happens to be a very funny story, but I just can’t go into all of the details in the pulpit on a Sunday morning. What I can tell you is that the Miller told a story about a carpenter who had a beautiful wife, and this beautiful woman had two young gentlemen chasing her that were desperate to be with her and it didn’t matter that she was married. Racy stuff in the year 1387 to be sure. Anyways, one of the plot twists in this bawdy story is that one of the young gentlemen convinces the carpenter, the beautiful woman’s husband, that he has had a vision from God and that God has told him that he is going to send a flood next Monday twice as big as the one he sent in Noah’s time. So the carpenter had better prepare.
Well this sets the carpenter into a panic, and he falls right into the young man’s trap, and hilarity ensues. But you see, the carpenter would not have fallen for the young man’s trick if he read his Bible more closely. What did the carpenter forget? He knew about Noah. He knew about the flood and the ark. What did the carpenter in the Miller’s story forget? He forgot about God’s promise. The young man had told him that God was going to send another flood, but what does God promise in Genesis? What is an important part of the end of the biblical story? That “the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.” You see if the carpenter had remembered that, he would have known that the young man was lying. He wouldn’t have fallen for his trick.
It is dangerous to forget God’s promises.
You know we spend a lot of time talking about what God expects from us. We talk about the commandments; we talk about Christ’s summary of the law; we talk about Jesus’s teachings; we talk about the things that we commit to when we recite the baptismal covenant, and that’s all well and good, we should be working on improving our own behaviour. But how much time do we spend thinking about, or talking about, or reflecting on God’s promises.
Yes, the Lord has given us commandments about how we are to behave but he has also given us promises about what he is going to do. In our Genesis story today, God makes a promise to Noah and all of his descendants. Now I want to make clear here that this is a promise, it is not a bargain, it is not a deal, it is not an agreement. When you have an agreement or a deal, you have two side coming together: if you agree to do this, then I will agree to do this. That is a deal. This is not a deal that God is making here, it is a promise. God promises that there will never be another flood to destroy all flesh. That promise isn’t contingent on Noah doing anything. This isn’t about two side agreeing on anything. It is a commitment that God has made to us.
We get so caught up sometimes in the promises that we make to God; promises that let’s face it, we aren’t good at keeping; we get so caught up in our promises that we forget God’s promises. It is so typical of us humans, we like the focus to be on us and on what we are doing, and on how industrious or how clever or how righteous we are; we are so obsessed with our own commitments to God that I think we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that this is an equal partnership between us and God. We think we have brought something to the negotiating table. We did not. This is no equal partnership.
Here we are at the beginning of Lent. And doubtless many of you have been thinking about what your Lenten disciplines will be this year. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are the traditional Lenten disciplines and they are good traditions; I encourage them, but here is a question you need to ask yourself as you observe those disciplines: Am I spending more time thinking about what I am doing for God than I am thinking about what God has done for me? Am I spending more time thinking about my promises to God than I am God’s promises to me? Because that could be a problem. Human beings break their promises all the time, but not God. We need to focus on God’s promises more than we focus on our own. You won’t hear me talk a whole lot about the baptismal covenant in our prayer book, those questions we affirm as a part of the baptismal rite, you won’t hear me make a big deal out of all that, because the promises we make to God are never AS important as the promises he has made to us. What God is doing in baptism will always be way more important than whatever we think we are doing. I’m not saying that the commitments we make to God are not important, but they will never be AS important as the commitment that God has made to us. Forgetting God’s commitments to us, forgetting God’s promises is a very dangerous thing.
How many times did the Children of Israel forget God’s promise of leading them to the Promised Land and turn back?
How many times did their descendants forget God’s promises of providing for them and protecting them and turn to trusting in other gods or worldly alliances?
How many times did God promise in the scriptures that we would never leave us nor forsake us, and still we forgot?
And when Jesus is baptized and heads off into the wilderness for forty days, what is he tempted by Satan to do? He is tempted to forget God’s promises. With the hunger and the wild beasts and Satan taunting him, Jesus would have been tempted, tempted to give up on God, but he doesn’t and at the end of the story, God’s angels come to wait on him.
How many times in my life have I been tempted to forget God’s promises? How many times have I put more trust in the promises that I made to God than I do in the promises that God has made to me?
If you want a good Lenten discipline this year, as you read through scripture make a commitment to pay attention to the promises that God is making to his children. Pay attention to the promises that Christ is making to his disciples. Those promises are trustworthy and true. And we are so prone to forget them.
God said that he would put the rainbow in the cloud so that HE would remember his promise. Well I don’t know about God’s memory, but I do know about mine. I don’t know if God needs a reminder, but I know I sure do. I need to be reminded about God’s love and faithfulness. I need to be reminded that while men break their promises all the time, God never does.
So whatever commitments you decide to make to God this Lent, make sure you are paying more attention to the commitments that God has made to you. If the carpenter in the Miller’s Tale had remembered God’s promises, he wouldn’t have been so easily tricked by those devilish young men, but of course that wouldn’t have been nearly as funny.
Have any of you ever played the arcade game whac-a-mole?
Whac-a-mole is a game with a big rubber mallet and a box full of little holes, and when the game starts a mole will pop up out of a hole and your job is to whack it with the mallet. Then the mole goes back down into his hole. Then the mole pops up from another hole and you have to whack it again. And then another and another and the game gets faster and faster and more moles keep popping up and you have to hit them as fast as you can, because if you miss one, well that’s game over.
This, my friends, is the perfect illustration for what it is like trying to fight heresy in the church. It is like a 2,000 year-long game of whac-a-mole. You clobber a wrong-headed or misguided or misinformed idea over here, and it pops right back up over there. Old heresies never really die, not for long, they always pop back up. Not always in the same place; they don’t always look exactly the same, but it is really the same mole in a different hole.
A heresy is a denial of an important doctrine of the faith. A heretic is an individual who denies an important doctrine of the faith. Now if you think that faith and church is all just about nurturing good feelings, then you probably don’t want to hear about heresies and doctrines. But if you believe that there is real actual truth behind what the church proclaims, then doctrine and heresy are very important because they are a part of the church’s road map to truth.
The problem with heresies is that they can be very compelling or convincing; they seem like a great explanation or a good idea, but the church over time has discovered that they are dead end roads, or headed in the wrong direction. But they are nonetheless, very compelling or enticing ideas and what often happens is that you will get a charismatic church leader that latches onto one of these ideas, refuses to listen to others in the church saying “hold up, you’ve got something wrong there!” and then leads a whole bunch of Christians with them down this dead-end road. Usually we end up naming the heresy after one of these leaders. So you have Arianism, Marcionism, Nestorianism, Pelagianism, all named after their leaders. Heresies are very attractive on the surface, which is why they are so dangerous. And they never really go away.
One of the first heresies that the church had to grapple with was that of Marcionism. Marcion, who lived in the middle 100s, so a very, very long time ago, was the son of a bishop, and like many preacher’s kids he must have felt the need to be a bit of a rebel. Marcion was someone who believed wholeheartedly in the love of Jesus. Jesus was the supreme revelation of the God of love. God didn’t care about rules and laws. God was a God of love. Sounds good doesn’t it? Sounds compelling right?
I like the idea of Jesus as the revelation of the God of love. But here’s the problem, Marcion couldn’t reconcile the Jesus he wanted to believe in with the God of the Old Testament or the God of the Hebrews. Marcion decided that that had to be a completely different God. Judaism had to be a completely different faith, a different religion that worshiped a different God. The Hebrew God was a primitive backwards God of laws, and Jesus was the revelation of this new more enlightened God of love. A lot of people bought into Marcion’s argument, but there is a big problem with it, and this is what was pointed out to Marcion: it doesn’t agree with scripture. The records that we have of Jesus Christ, the authoritative guides that we have to all that he said and did, shows us a devout first century Jew who told his followers that he had not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. How could Marcion argue that this Jesus had nothing to do with the God of the Old Testament? Easy, he just cut that scripture out. Actually Marcion, went through the scriptures and cut out anything that made Jesus look remotely Jewish. The Jesus of scripture was not who Marcion wanted him to be, so the Jesus of scripture got tossed aside. Marcion created his own personal Jesus. And the rest of the church, most of it at least, stood up and said no.
That is not what God has revealed to the church. The love and the grace that we find in Jesus Christ was always present in the law and the prophets. Jesus is the radical fulfillment of God’s plan. Jesus is the fulfillment of the law that was given to Moses and the word that was given to Elijah. Jesus is not a departure from the Hebrew God, he is the embodiment of that God. And there is scripture to back this up. This is what was revealed to Peter and James and John on the mountaintop in today’s gospel. They have a vision, and this vision reveals to them that Jesus, their rabbi, their teacher and leader, is the son of the God of Moses, the son of the God of Elijah. He is in conversation with them, he is not separate from them.
Marcion would have cut this passage right out, but the rest of the church said, No! This is important. If you want to understand Jesus, the true Jesus, then you need to understand him as the Jew that he is. Yes, we believe him to be the Son of God, as it was revealed on the mountain, but the God he is the son of is the God of the Hebrews that we find in Moses and in the prophets. When Jesus quotes scripture, he quotes the Old Testament. When Paul says that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction and for instruction in righteousness” he is talking about the Old Testament, not his own letters. So we can’t just cut out scriptures that make us uncomfortable or that we don’t understand. We have to wrestle with them.
Incidentally, we owe Marcion one debt of gratitude: it was because he started cutting up and tossing out scriptures that the church leaders decided that it was time to start listing the New Testament texts that were considered authoritative. The fact that we have the books in the New Testament that we do, we owe in part to Marcion, who wanted to get rid of them.
Now even though Marcion was officially rejected, still as I mentioned earlier, heresies never completely go away. They still keep popping up. All the time I hear Christians talking about the Old Testament as if it is wholly distinct from and separate from the New Testament. Sometimes very well-meaning Christians will try and draw a bold line of distinction between Christianity and Judaism as if they were two completely unrelated religions that had nothing to do with each other. Misguided preachers will often only portray Jesus in opposition to the God of Moses and the God of Elijah, and not show him as the embodiment of that God. They want Jesus to be a departure from the God of the Old Testament and not the fulfillment of that God’s mission. Be aware of this kind of talk. Be suspicious. It may seem like an academic theological argument, but there are real, and dire consequences to this heresy. Misunderstanding Jesus is certainly one of them; but violence and anti-semitism follow closely behind. Trying to drive a wedge between Jesus and Judaism is not an enlightened or progressive argument, nor is it a conservative viewpoint. It is just an old heresy that is popping up again in a different place like that pesky mole. Only the best way to whack this mole on the head isn’t by picking up a rubber mallet; it is by picking up the scriptures. All of them.
She had a fever. That is what jumps out at me in today’s gospel reading. Jesus is entering into the home of somebody who has a fever. Jesus is touching someone who has a fever. Now if I had read that passage last year at this time, that little detail would probably have escaped me, but now…well now it seems truly remarkable.
Maybe it is because I have been asked several times in this past week if I have a fever. Maybe it is because over this past year, I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked if I have a fever, or how many times someone has shot me with a thermometer in the forehead on my way into the dentist or the hairdresser or the doctor’s office or any other number of buildings that I would have just walked into before, but now…everyone wants to know if I have a fever.
And we all know why. Because if you have a fever, then you might have covid. You might have a disease that could threaten my life. You could be spreading death and not even know it. So now, everywhere you go, someone wants to know: do you have a fever?
And in our gospel lesson today, Jesus walks into the house of Simon (or Peter) and his brother Andrew, and he walks up to and touches, touches someone that has a fever.
You know, people in the ancient world may not have understood exactly how diseases spread, but they sure knew that they did. They knew that it was risky being around sick people. The truth is, 2,000 years later we’re not THAT much better. We’ve learned a few things, but over the course of this past year I think we have also been reminded of just how much we don’t know. We still have diseases that spread and we can’t always figure out exactly how or why?
We all know that Jesus died on the cross, but Jesus had been staring death down his whole life, and he does it in the gospel today. When Jesus is touching and healing sick people, he is staring death down. Jesus was a great moral teacher; he told great stories, there is no doubt about that, but why are people searching for him in the gospel today? Because he has power. Real power. Not just the power to inspire. Not just the power to lead. Jesus has the power to heal. He has the power to cast out demons. Jesus has the power to bring people back from the brink of death, and eventually we learn that he has the power to bring back people from the dead. Jesus is demonstrating his power in today’s gospel, and we would do well to pay attention.
You see, I think we Christians have a bad habit of underestimating Jesus’s power. We also have a bad habit of overestimating our own. All the time I hear in diocesan meetings and church circles, how we all need to go out and change the world. How we need to be more missional, whatever that word means. The church likes to talk big about building communities and being positive change agents in the world. The church likes to talk about fighting for justice and equality. The church tells us how we need to be the hands and the feet of Jesus working in the world. I hear all these things time and time again, but the more I keep hearing them now, the more I keep thinking to myself: that’s nice and all, but I’m tired.
I am too tired to change the world. And I’m willing to bet, that if most of you are really honest, you could probably say the same. The thing is, it doesn’t matter if you have had covid this year or not. Many of you have, many of you haven’t. But we have all been affected by it. And if that weren’t bad enough, how many other serious illnesses have we had in our church? Cancers, serious medical emergencies, mental illnesses. Maybe you are struggling with chronic pain, or maybe you are just tired from working constantly.
Or maybe it isn’t physical illness that has weighed you down this year, but maybe it has been personal issues or family drama…there has been plenty of that too. Or maybe you are depressed from reading the news and witnessing all the fighting in our government. Maybe you are frustrated that you have been trying to make the world a better place for a long time, and sometimes it just doesn’t seem like it is getting better. We have been fighting the issues of racism and sexism and inequality for years. How many other issues could I list?
Are you tired yet? Because I am. I am tired. I am tired of social distancing and face masks. I am tired of those stupid directional lines in the grocery store telling you which way you are supposed to go. I am tired of having to learn a new piece of technology every five minutes. I am tired of constantly having to change the way we do things. I am tired of having vacations cancelled and not seeing my family or my friends. I am tired of the cheaters and the swindlers and the scammers trying to take advantage of everyone’s frayed mental state right now just for their own greed. I am tired of staring at people through zoom, but never actually touching them, Jesus touched people. He touched Peter’s mother-in-law and it healed her. How many other people just clamoured to reach out and touch Jesus, on the chance that his healing power might cleanse them? I’d be happy just to be able to shake people’s hands again. I miss that.
I miss seeing the kids walk in every Sunday. Every screaming, running one of them. I miss dinner parties at the rectory. I miss seeing the church full.
I don’t have covid, but in some way, it has infected me. It has infected all of us. You don’t have to have a fever to be sick. You don’t have to have covid, or cancer, or anything with a fancy name, to be suffering. I know that there are a lot of suffering people here. Not today obviously, because of course the weather has decided to make things even more complicated today, but this parish, this family of Christians gathered here on this corner in Rockville Centre, people may think that if you live in this community then you must have it made, and yeah it’s a nice town and a nice church and we all have a lot to be thankful for, but nobody in this parish is exempt from suffering. It may come in different forms, but I’m willing to bet that just about everyone here knows a little something about it. There are suffering people in this church. There are people that have worries and pains and concerns that you don’t know anything about. We have learned that you can’t tell from looking at someone whether they have covid or not. Well you also don’t know what else may be eating people inside.
And if someone, through the grace of God, finds the strength and the courage and the fortitude, to get up, and pull themselves together and either turn their television or computer on, or even manage to trudge through the snow or fight with traffic and parking and children and bring themselves in spirit if not in body before the altar of God, so that they can reach out and touch their saviour; if someone can make it that far, then the last thing they need when they come to this sacred place is to be told that fixing the world is all up to them. You know there are Christians that for some reason believe that God needs them and there are Christians that know that they need God. Rest assured I know that I need God.
I am too tired to fix the world. I’m guessing that most of you probably are too. Doesn’t matter if you are young or old, rich or poor, black or white. God’s children are tired right now. And you know I could blame it on 2020, but this tired has been building for a very long time. Humans have always been weak. We have always been too tired and beaten down to fix the world. That is part of the problem. What is the solution?
A long time ago the prophet Isaiah proclaimed “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
This is the same Lord that is reaching down and touching Peter’s mother in law in the gospel this morning. It is the same Lord that we meet in the sacrament of the altar. This is the same Lord that we pray to here in this space and in our homes, year in and year out. Day in and day out.
So if you are here or are watching this today, and if you are tired like me, then the good news I have for you is that it’s ok. God isn’t waiting on you to fix all the world’s problems. The Lord has more than enough strength and wisdom to take care of that on his own.
Now if you want to serve the Lord, that’s wonderful, but take a little advice from Simon Peter’s Mother in law and let him heal you first.