What can you do for me?

Standard

Sermon for Sept 19th, 2021

Readings:

 Jeremiah 11:18-20
Psalm 54
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

Children are useless. I think I may have said that before, but it bears repeating. Children are useless. They scream and cry and mess things up. They want attention all the time. They want food. Most of them have a real hard time holding down a steady job, so they don’t contribute much to society. They don’t pay taxes. They are always looking for some sort of handout. They don’t have a lot of skills. I keep thinking of Karen Walker from the TV show Will and Grace, when a button comes off her fur coat she says: “Children can’t do anything right!” 

Children may look cute, but they take way more than they give. They aren’t really useful, not when they are little. You have to serve them for a long time before they are even capable of serving you, and even then there’s no guarantee. Now maybe I am jesting a bit; you recognize that it is ridiculous to look at a child and wonder “What can you do for me?” But how often do we look at other adults that way? 

We know that it is absurd to look at little children and to value them based on what they can do or produce or give. They can’t do much at all, not at first. Children need more help and assistance than they can immediately repay. And as far as I can tell, most parents are really OK with that. The bonds of love are so strong that a parent can give and give without getting an immediate payback. Children don’t need to be useful to be loveable or to have value. Naturally you want them to grow into adults that are responsible and healthy with a sense of purpose and the capacity and inclination to give of themselves, but they don’t start out that way. They start out needing more from you than they can give back. We are OK with that with little children, most of the time, but when it comes to adults….that’s another story.

This is an unfortunate truth but it needs to be told: a lot of times, maybe not all of the time, but a lot of the time, when we meet another adult, one of the first things that starts to go through our minds is “how can you serve me?” How can you help me? What can you do for me? Now maybe that seems cynical, but don’t get defensive just yet, because I think it is just part of our human nature. Until we get to know and love people as individuals we often deal with people as objects. Something we can use. That’s what networking is all about. You know this person that I want to know. You’re a good lawyer, well that’s convenient because I need a new will. You’re good with computers, that’s great because I need a new website. We do this all the time with each other, and it isn’t always sinister, or meant to be nasty or mean, but we look at people and we wonder how they can serve us. 

Can you advance my career? 

Will you publish my book?

Will you vote for me?

Will you become a regular patron of my establishment?

Will you buy this thing that I want to sell?

Can you help my kids get into the right school?

Will people have more respect for me because they know I know you? 

Welcome to our church! We are so glad you are here! Would you like to serve on a committee? Oh don’t think for a second that us good church folks don’t do the same thing. It’s tough, because there are only so many people that volunteer to do things, and there are all these essential things that have to get done, I can’t do this by myself, so it is very tempting to look at every new person that walks through the door as someone who might be useful. You can serve on the altar guild. You can be a lay eucharistic minister. You can teach Sunday School. It doesn’t matter that I can’t remember your name yet, here’s the key to the building, please lock up when you leave. And this isn’t me pointing fingers, this is confession. I do this too. All churches do this, we always have. 

Think about the passage from James a couple weeks ago when he talks about showing favoritism to rich folks. That is all that is about: looking at people and wondering how useful they might be, or how useful their money might be. Humans do it all the time, it is a part of our nature, but there is a giant problem with looking at people this way: it’s not how God looks at people. God doesn’t look at us the way we look at each other. God doesn’t value us the way we often value each other.

The creator of the universe doesn’t need you for anything. Jesus didn’t need his disciples to help him up on Easter Sunday or to roll away the stone. God has more power than you can ever imagine. So, God’s love for you is not based in any way on how useful you are. God does not see us the way we see each other, that is all over the scriptures. So if you want to understand the mind of God and if you want to try to see the world the way that God sees it, which as followers of Jesus I hope you do, then you need to at least try to look at other people and see them as beloved before you see them as useful. You need to see someone that you are called to serve, without trying to figure out how you are going to benefit from this relationship in the long run. In other words, you need to look at them the way that a parent looks at their little child. It is hard to do that though. Old habits don’t go easy.

Some of Jesus’s disciples were arguing with one another along the way about which among them was the greatest. Basically, they were all trying to figure out how they were going to get the others to serve them. That’s what jockeying to be the greatest is all about: figuring out how to get others to work for you. Maybe Jesus got frustrated and wondered: is there ever a time when you people can just love something and serve something without expecting an immediate payback? Is there ever a time when you can just love someone and know that there’s gonna be a whole lotta work before they can ever do much for you? Is there ever a time when humans see each other the way that God sees them? I imagine that it was just about that time that a baby in the room started fussing and screaming. Now the gospel doesn’t say this, it just says that Jesus took a child in his arms, you probably imagined when you heard that that the little child was cute and asleep and precious, but I’d be willing to bet (or at least I hope) that he or she was screaming his or her little head off, because that would really have driven Jesus’s point home. Jesus takes this precious, beloved, and useless, child and says “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” It is one thing to love someone when they can serve you; but it is another thing entirely when you have to serve them. It is also one thing to follow Jesus when you have much to gain; and quite another thing to follow him when you have much to lose.

Distractions

Standard

Sermon for September 12th, 2021

Readings:

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 116:1-8
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

When we hear Jesus rebuke Peter in this familiar passage from the gospel story, I think that we are often inclined to focus on the first thing that Jesus says: “Get behind me, Satan!” It is a stinging slap in the face. Peter makes a mistake by trying to tell Jesus that he is wrong. Now, as an aside, please don’t make the same mistake. If you disagree with the Son of God about something, it’s because you’re wrong, not him. 

Anyways, at least Peter tries to correct Jesus privately, but Jesus responds by very publicly by saying “get behind me Satan.” I’m sure that Peter was a little shaken up by this. It would grab your attention too. But the real meat of what Jesus has to say is in the second part there. This isn’t just about name calling, Jesus has a point to make. “For you are setting your mind, not on divine things, but on human things.” That is what Satan does. He doesn’t run around with a pitchfork playing pranks on people, making children levitate and spit pea soup. That’s Hollywood. The real Satan is usually much more subtle, and all he needs to do is just refocus your attention. He sets out minds solely on human things. He doesn’t want us to stop and recognize that God is all around us. There are divine things all around us, only we often don’t see them because other things are taking up all our attention. Jesus needs to get Peter’s attention to make him see that.

Now we don’t need to pick on Peter too much here, because the truth is, he is just a human like any one of us. We all make the same mistakes every day. We can claim Jesus to be the Messiah and then turn right around and try to avoid actually following him, at least if we think it means we are going to have to suffer a little. I don’t know about y’all, but I’m not terribly fond of suffering. I like to avoid it if I can. And you know what, it is also really, really easy to get completely distracted by human things. Air conditioners break, refrigerators break, maybe your boss is being a jerk, maybe you have screaming kids, bills to pay, the Long Island Railroad is late again, some relation of yours is saying something stupid on Facebook, this beloved child of God in the car in front of you is looking at their phone while the light has turned green…don’t get too mad at Peter for getting distracted from God, because it is something we all do, even the most devoted among us. All these human things scream for our attention. The media will do or say anything to get or keep your attention. Billions of dollars are spent by companies every year to get your attention, that is how much your attention is worth. Our attention it is one of the most precious things we have, and yet how often do we just give it away to things that aren’t worthy of it? How much time and energy do we spend focused on things that aren’t going to matter six months from now? The Son of God wants to get Peter’s attention, so he has to make it very clear to him just how distracting these human things can be, and he needs to make it clear who those distractions serve. Distractions don’t serve God.

We are beginning a new program year today; we are bringing back the choir; we are bringing back the Sunday School; we are having a party for the first time in almost two years. We are trying to move on with our communal life, despite the fact that we are still dealing with covid. So I have been reflecting on what our mission is here as a parish. All churches are called to spread the good news, to share the Gospel story of Jesus Christ, to worship God and to serve God’s people in their community, but not all churches and not all communities are the same. What do the people in this community need? Yes, there certainly are people in our community that need food or other assistance and we do try to address that, at least in a small way, through grocery store gift cards, or through the food that is donated to the Mary Brenan INN. We do that, and I thank all of you who generously give to support that, those outreaches are necessary, but I wouldn’t say that is the greatest need of this whole community. This isn’t an urban area or an area with great poverty. It exists here, but it isn’t the thing I see most when I look at the activity right outside our doors. Yes, there is physical poverty in our community, but the bigger issue that I see is spiritual poverty. Distraction.

How many people every day walk right past our doors? They couldn’t find time to pray this morning, but somehow managed to wait 20 minutes to get a coffee next door. On the train, off the train, on the train, off the train…day in, day out. Redecorate the house, try to get that promotion, or that car, maybe find some time to gather with friends at a local watering hole, but mostly just chasing after something, although they’re just not sure what. Distraction, distraction, distraction. Well to quote the great Peggy Lee song: Is that all there is? Is that all there is to life? Just one never-ending stream of distractions and frustrations and acquisitions until you die? 

Well, no. That is not all there is. In the midst of all these distractions, in the midst of all these human things, there is God. God’s kingdom is in this world too, only most people are just too distracted to see it. Even those of us who are prepared to call Jesus the Messiah, we are still prone to getting distracted too. We all need to have our attention redirected back to divine things. So what do the people in this community need? They need someone to get their attention and to show them that there is more to life than all of these distractions. How do we do that? Well frankly I don’t have all the answers. I don’t think standing on the corner with a big sign that reads: “Get behind me Satan!” would be very productive, so we may need to be a bit more subtle than that, but we can’t be so discrete that people walk by and wonder if this is some kind of private club or secret society. We know that that isn’t what we are, but not everyone else does. We are people that have a story to tell. We are people that believe in the power of love and forgiveness, and we are people that believe in the resurrection of the dead. We are people that believe that in a world full of distractions, God wants our attention too. So we have a mission, here on this street corner, and it may not be exactly the same mission as it would be for a church in the inner city, or for that matter a church on a hill out in the country, but it is still the same Jesus that we are called to follow. It is the same God that wants our attention. He does not promise us that this will be an easy path following him, but he does promise that the rewards are eternal.

Low Anthropology – High Christology

Standard

Sermon for August 8th, 2021

Readings:

1 Kings 19:4-8
Psalm 34:1-8
Ephesians 4:25-5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

Before I really begin my sermon this morning there are two fancy theological terms that I want to make sure we are all acquainted with: anthropology and Christology.

Anthropology is the study of human beings.

Christology is the study of Jesus Christ. 

In the church world, your anthropology is your view of the role of human beings in history. How willing and capable are human beings to do good things, to change themselves, and to make a positive impact on the world?

Your Christology on the other hand is your view of the role of Jesus Christ in history. Was he a cool and clever teacher that just came to teach us how to help ourselves and then was put to an untimely death, or was he God incarnate, the savior of the world, who offers his life as a sacrifice for our sins?

I am sure that I have mentioned this before, but I have what you might classify as a low anthropology, exceedingly low actually, snake belly low. What that means is, that I basically think human beings are pretty awful creatures. We have neither the will, nor the capability to be consistently good or smart. Now I want to point out here that I didn’t come to this conclusion from reading the Bible, or at least the Bible isn’t first place where I saw evidence of humans being bad and dumb. It was history. I was a student of history before I was a student of the Bible. And what history has taught me, is that throughout time, human beings have NEVER been consistently good (magnanimous, self-giving, compassionate, loving, caring, honest, trustworthy), we may have breakthrough moments, but we have never been consistently good, AND we have NEVER been consistently smart (and by smart I mean ‘wise,’ using our brains and making decisions based on good evidence). We have never done these things consistently. Never, never, never. Yes, we can, and have accomplished amazing things, we can build amazing buildings, we can treat and cure lots of diseases; and we can, at times, be very noble, we can sacrifice our lives for the lives of others, we can be giving and loving. But we have never, not in the thousands of years of recorded history, we have never proven ourselves capable of being consistently good and smart without fail. 

Now you may start to object and say that this is a very pessimistic, negative view. You may think that this sounds depressing and hopeless, but it’s not at all. In fact, this low anthropology of mine is the key to the joy, the peace and the hope I have in this world. Granted, I don’t emote a lot, and I may not very often jump up and down and squeal with glee, but I do have great joy and I have a powerful hope, but they don’t come from my anthropology; my joy and my hope don’t come from any expectations I have for my fellow human beings. My joy and my hope come from that other fancy theological word we just heard: my Christology. I have a high Christology. My joy and my hope come from God. Specifically, my joy and my hope come from what I believe that God has done and revealed in Jesus Christ. 

Human beings have consistently, throughout time acted in selfish and self-destructive ways, and God has shown us in the life of his son Jesus Christ, that that is NOT his will for us or our lives. Jesus calls us to forsake sin, to repent and change our lives, BUT he also still loves us enough that he is willing to die for us while we are still these sinful, awful creatures. Jesus commands us to love God and to love our neighbors, and he knows darned well just how incapable we are of doing either one of those things with great consistency. How is the devoted follower of Christ supposed to live with this tension? 

You know, I think the Apostle Paul gives some great practical advice sometimes. Paul is well aware of this tension between our sinful selves and what God is calling us to be. Sometimes Paul describes it as the difference between the Old Adam and the New Adam. In his letter to the church in Ephesus that we heard a portion of this morning, Paul is distinguishing between the Old Man and the New Man. And he makes the point, that while we are often inclined to do one thing, what we need to do, as followers of Christ, is the exact opposite. 

Do you remember that Seinfeld episode where George came to the realization that his life was such a mess that he should try to always do the exact opposite of what he would normally do? I think that is what Paul is sort of trying to suggest here. The old man in you is inclined to do this; why don’t you try this for a change? Instead of lying for your own sake, why don’t you try telling the truth for someone else’s sake? Instead of stealing, why don’t you try working and not just working for your own benefit, but working so that you will have extra that you can share with others? Working for someone else’s sake. Instead of using your words to tear people down, why don’t you try using them to build people up? Instead of being bitter and angry all the time, why don’t you try being forgiving? Try doing the opposite. This is important advice, because NEWSFLASH, human beings are not always naturally inclined to do the right thing. We are complex creatures with a whole range of emotions and motivations for why we do what we do, but what history has proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt in my opinion at least, is that we are not capable of being consistently good or consistently smart. 

If your worldview is such that you need other people to be good or smart in order for you to find some peace and joy in the world, well I’m sorry but you are setting yourself up for a life of frustration and misery. You are expecting humans to be something that they are not. If your daily happiness is contingent on everyone else around you doing what they ought to do, showing care and concern for others, or being simply competent or rational or reasonable, then I hope you like being miserable, because you’re going to be. If your hope is based upon the belief that humanity as a whole is going to someday wake up and be consistently good and smart, well I guess I just don’t see much hope in that. If you think that human beings are just going to wake up one day and start being nice to one another and sensible in all their decision making, then you believe in miracles even more than I do, and I believe in the resurrection! 

Now that doesn’t mean that I don’t think there is room for anger when people do selfish and stupid things. Oh no. Of course there is room for anger and disappointment, but you have to find a way of letting go of the anger and getting past it, or it will eat you alive. Anger isn’t sinful in itself, but it can become its own sin real quick if you don’t watch it. It can become resentment and despair and hatred. And you know what happens when you let yourself hate something? You become it. You will become the very thing you hate. If you go around resenting people for being sinners, you’re going to become the worst sinner of all, I guarantee it. 

You know, living through all this covid stuff, I am remined on a daily basis how much we humans are neither consistently good nor smart. Yeah, we can be amazingly compassionate and clever sometimes, but we can also be selfish and dumb. All this time I find myself stuck here in the middle between folks who can’t be bothered to take the most basic and reasonable precautions, not only for their own sakes but for the sakes of others, and then on the other side are the hand wringers who either live in constant perpetual fear of every sneeze, or who think that if we keep people from living that we will somehow be able to keep them from dying. Fear and resentment on this side; fear and resentment on that side.

You’ve got the people that don’t want to pay any attention to science at all, and then you have the people that think science must have the answer to all our problems. You’ve got the people who don’t think we should bother trying to fix anything, and then you’ve got the people who think we can fix everything. 

And here I am, stuck in the middle, I’m sure with a whole bunch of other sensible folks just like myself. Naturally I think that I am sensible and that anyone either to the left or the right of me is foolish, but there we are. Do I get angry? Yes, but I’m not going to let the fact that humans insist on doing what humans have always done steal the real joy and hope from my life. You know, if it weren’t covid, there would be some other reason for you to be annoyed with how other people are behaving. How they vote, how they drive, what color they painted their house…people are going to continue to make bad decisions and sometimes, sadly, those decisions are going to have a direct effect on you. But it has ALWAYS been this way, ever since our ancestors started building their mudhuts next to each other. You can’t get 4 chapters into the Book of Genesis before you find humans getting annoyed with one another and even killing each other. If my hope, as a Christian, were based upon humanity’s ability to make good decisions it would be a very flimsy hope indeed. 

But you see, that’s not where my hope resides. As I said, my anthropology is low, but my Christology is high. My hope and my joy come from Jesus. Now that doesn’t mean that I think Jesus is just going to fix everything for us; it’s not that simplistic. Someday God’s kingdom is gonna be fully realized on earth, but that will be the last day and it will be a day that comes in God’s time, not ours. But until that day comes, Jesus has shown me a better way to live; it is a way that frequently involves doing the opposite of what I am inclined to do. But even when I fail to do that, even when I fail to live the way that God wants me to live, even when I fail to be good and wise…there is still love and there is still forgiveness. That is why Paul says “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”  I am reminded that no matter how sensible I think I am today, at some point in my life I have not been good, I have not been smart, and I have needed forgiveness. That is the way humans are. My hope and my joy are not based on the unreasonable expectation that humans on this side of glory are ever going to be anything else. My hope and my joy come from knowing that each and every time we fall, God is there to forgive us and pick us back up again. Yes, I think God wants us to make good decisions, but I know that he still loves us when we make bad ones. That is good news, that is true joy, that is real hope. And that my friends it doesn’t come from anthropology; it comes from Christology.

Love makes the beloved see beauty within himself

Standard

2 Kings 4:42-44
Psalm 145:10-19 
Ephesians 3:14-21
John 6:1-21

Love makes the beloved see beauty within himself.

Love makes the beloved see beauty within himself.

I wish I could say that these were my words of wisdom, or a grand epiphany that I had, but they are not. They are the words of a priest in the Church of England, a Father Bill Scott, who passed away just last year. 

Love makes the beloved see beauty within himself. When someone loves you, when you experience that love, you are reminded that you are in fact lovable. Despite all the evidence to the contrary; despite your failures and your sins, and your bad habits, and all those bits of yourself, whether they are moral, mental or physical that you consider to be unattractive, despite all of that, here is evidence that there is beauty within you, because somebody else sees it. Someone else can help you see beauty within yourself that you don’t see, and it is a miraculous thing.

This doesn’t just happen in romantic relationships. All loving relationships do this. Mother or Father to Child. Friend to friend. It can even happen between strangers on the street. When someone loves you, and shows you love, one of the first things that changes, is how you see yourself. And that can change your entire world. This happens in our relationships with one another, but think about when it happens in our relationship with God. What happens to us when we realize that we are beloved of God?

That really is Paul’s challenge to the Church in Ephesus in the epistle this morning. Paul wants these Christians to know, really know, the power of Christ’s love because that is going to change how they see themselves and it turn it will also change how they see everyone else in the world.

“I pray,” he says “that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Knowing the love of Christ is not just an intellectual exercise. It is an experience. I don’t think that Paul means “comprehend” in the sense that you understand exactly how God’s love works, or how love works in general. I think Paul uses “comprehend” to mean knowing that you don’t know. Knowing that there is a reality here that “surpasses knowledge” as he says. We can’t really know how big the universe is, but we can look up at the night sky in awe and wonder at the vastness of it. We can experience the limitlessness of it. It is one thing to say that the universe is big, but it is another thing to look up at the stars. Paul wants people to approach Christ’s love with mystery and wonder. Because this love, doesn’t just say something about the God that we worship; this love says something about us too. Despite all of our flaws and failures, God still sees something in us that is loveable and beautiful and worth saving. Worth dying for in fact. 

Experiencing that love MUST change us. How could it not?

We have not earned God’s love. The scriptures make it very clear that God’s love for us was there right from the very beginning. God’s love is WHY we exist. It was God’s love that created us in the first place. And it was God’s love that saved us through Jesus Christ. Paul says earlier in Ephesians:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not the result of works.”

In other words, God has a love for you that has nothing to do with your own sense or worthiness or accomplishment, or for that matter, your own sense of unworthiness or sinfulness or failure. Paul is praying for these Christians to really know and experience that love, because if they do, that should change everything for them. Not only how they see themselves, but also how they see other people. 

If Christ loves me so much that he was willing to die for me, then there must be something within me that is, in fact, loveable. There must be something beautiful, even if I sometimes have trouble seeing it. And if I believe that Christ loves you so much that he was willing to die for you, then something within you must also, in fact, be loveable. There must be beauty within you, even if I sometimes have trouble seeing it. God’s love challenges us to see beauty where it is sometimes hard to find. 

Immediately after the verses from Paul’s letter that you heard this morning, Paul goes on to say that “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” If we actually believe what we say about God’s love to be true, then that should invite a response from us. We didn’t earn this love of God, but we may certainly respond to it. Part of this response that Paul lays out in his letter is learning to love and respect each other as the beloved of God. We are challenged by God’s love to see beauty within ourselves, and to see beauty within each other. 

When we talk about love, we are not talking about some warm and fuzzy sentimental feeling. What we are really talking about, is a way of looking at the world through the eyes of God. We are talking about learning to see beauty in unlikely places, in the eyes of our fellow human beings, and even within ourselves.

The Miller’s Tale

Standard

Sermon for February 21st, 2021

Readings:

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.

Why did Paul write this letter?

Standard

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. 


O Lord, you know…

Standard

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?

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

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.