Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, 2021

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (12B) – July 25, 2021 – 2 Samuel 11:1-15, Psalm 14, John 6:1-21Trinity, Winchester

Let’s begin today’s sermon the way we begin the Eucharist, with the Collect of the Day.

O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 

With God as our protector, we pray to pass through the realm of the temporal without losing sight of the realm of the eternal. We pray that, with God’s guidance, we might live out our brief stint on this earth without forgetting those things that have always been and will forever be. 

We might think of it this way: As we walk the earth, we pray that the promise of heaven might ever be fixed in our sight. 

This is not to say that we should be focused on eternal things for the sole purpose of personal motivation or reward. I do not believe that we are meant to trod begrudgingly the pathways of our lives fixated on a heavenly reward like horses following a dangling carrot. 

Rather, I believe that one of the reasons we pray this morning to remember things eternal is because doing so gives us much-needed perspective. 

Eternal things–the things of God and of Jesus, of the religious and of the spiritual–remind us in the midst of our day to day lives that even that which is year to year and age to age is but the blink of an eye in the sight of the one who is everlasting to everlasting

One of the virtues of this kind of perspective is that it keeps us aware of the fact that God is God and we are not, that God’s ways are not our ways, that there just might be a better way to respond to present circumstances or envision future possibilities. 

This is the idea behind those little bracelets that they gave us in Youth Group, isn’t it? WWJD? What would Jesus do? Implicit in the question is the reminder that Jesus’ example gives us something to strive for, something to emulate . . . insofar as we can. 

In Jesus, son of God and son of the human race, God gives us a glimpse of the eternal amidst the temporal. 

When we pray that “we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal,” we are asking God to keep doing the very thing he did–and still does–in Jesus Christ. We are asking God to remind us that there is a better way, something for which we can strive along life’s narrow way.

“Give us a little glimpse of your kingdom, O Lord, for we need it.” Boy do we need it. Constantly we need it. We have needed it for a long, long time. 

Even King David needed it long, long ago. Like so many of us still, David confused what was really a longing for a glimpse of the eternal with his desire for a glimpse of something very different. “So [he] sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her.” 

David had a habit of getting so caught up in trying to create his own eternity that he forgot to take stock of his reality. He forgot what kind of king he was. 

“Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.” 

No, David, that’s not for you to decide. 

Surely it is David and those of his ilk that the psalmists had in mind when they wrote, “All are corrupt and commit abominable acts; there is none who does any good . . .  Every one has proved faithless . . . Have they no knowledge, all those evildoers who eat up my people like bread?”

Please understand, I’m not attempting to pit the Old Testament against the New. I am not saying that God sent Jesus to cure the evils of the Old Testament.

I’m not saying that the Word was made flesh because the teachings of Judaism couldn’t procure salvation. To say that would be to say that God failed, over and over again. To say that would be to say that all that stuff we read about from Genesis and Malachi is worn out and must be put up for good. 

To say that would be to call meaningless the prophecy God spoke through the mouths of his servants, the psalms God sang through the pens of his poets, the Red Sea waters that God lifted up by the hand of Moses, the bow that God set in the clouds for Noah and his clan to see, the sacred promise God made to Abraham, or even the creation which God fashioned out of nothing. To say that would be to say that these are not covenants worth remembering. 

Are these recorded in the pages of Holy Scripture, the very record of time and eternity, as reminders of what God could not do? Are they merely records of things that might have been but failed to be? 

I say no! These are the very essence of our salvation, a salvation that God has been enacting in human history ever since such a thing began. This is not a salvation redone or reimagined, but rather one that continued with the advent of the Messiah, and one that continues to this day in the presence of this Jesus whom God raised from the dead

These things are–all of them–glimpses of the eternal for which we pray this day. These things are–all of them–signs that God has, since time began, been showing us little bits of eternity. 

The real miracle is that God keeps doing it. 

In spite of our foolishness since the days of King David and long before, God has, time and time again, renewed the promise of eternity by reaching forth a hand in covenant loyalty as if to say, “I am here, and I will never go away. No matter what you do, no matter what you say, I am in this for keeps.” 

The one who formed you in your mother’s womb, who knew you even before you twinkled in the eye of some unknown beholder, is constantly calling you into relationship. 

That divine relationship is not a testament to something old or new, but to the one thing that is constant: the faithfulness of a God who never ceases to work the wonders of eternity. 

It is those very wonders that we pray to behold not only by recounting God’s saving deeds long past but today. 

Have you seen any lately? 

I remember a man leery of doing too much for others. “Better not give them all of that or they’ll get used to it, be back for more before you know it!”

We finally got him to go downtown with us into the basement of an old church. Hundreds lined the surrounding blocks waiting for a hot meal. 

“Don’t know what difference it’ll make. They’ve still gotta sleep outside tonight.” 

If you’d believe it, though, we got him to go back again. And again. After we took him a few times, he began to get a sense of it. He even made friends with a few folks who remembered his name. But it wasn’t until he began to remember their names that he really started to understand the difference it did make, he did make, God did make in that place.  

It was a difference that had very little to do with lumpy mashed potatoes or weak lemonade and much more to do with being named and claimed, with being called into relationship, with getting used to being there for someone. 

It is a difference that has to do with being a part of God’s plan for salvation instead of remaining ignorant of it, or worse–in opposition to it. 

So often we are the ones saying, “My salary could never buy enough food for all these people.”  

“There’s a kid here with a box of crackers, but I don’t know what good it’s gonna do in a crowd this size.” 

But that is not how we will move toward eternity. That is not how we glimpse the Kingdom of God. 

No, we can only do that if we show up faithfully and start passing out what is there. Once everyone’s had enough, we just might find that we can make quite a nice meal from what remains. 

Fourth Sunday of Easter, 2021

Fourth Sunday of Easter – April 25, 2021 – Acts 4:5-12; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

Today Jesus tells us that he is the good shepherd and that the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The good shepherd is different from the hired hand, he explains, because when the hired hand sees a wolf coming, he runs away. The good shepherd not only stays with the sheep, he lays down his life for them.

If it wasn’t clear before, it should be by now that this is no ordinary shepherd. In fact, “good” is probably an understatement.

I’ve never known any full-time shepherds. It’s not as common of a profession in 21st Century Tennessee as it was in 1st Century Palestine. But I imagine even back then that you’d have been hard pressed to meet one who was willing to die for his sheep.

Therein lies the point. Jesus is no ordinary shepherd. An ordinary shepherd would probably, like the hired hand, have run away. Or perhaps an ordinary shepherd would have sacrificed a weakling in order to protect the pride of the flock, or defend only a particular sheep that, despite his better judgement, he had named.

But the Good Shepherd? The Good Shepherd doesn’t risk his life only for the sake of a sheep that he’s especially fond of. The Good Shepherd neither fights off the beast nor scapegoats a lamb. Instead, the Good Shepherd willingly lays down his life to save the entire flock.

A sacrifice of that magnitude is based on a lot more than affinity or fondness. It requires nothing less than the Love of the One from who all love comes. That Love—God’s capital-L Love—is precisely the Love of the Good Shepherd who says, “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.”

This is the Love of the God who knows humanity and divinity inside and out. This is the Love of the Shepherd who knows what it’s like to be a sheep, and a sheep who knows what it’s like to be nabbed by a wolf.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is the living, breathing, flesh-and-bone manifestation of a Love so divine, so profound, so perfect that even after 2,000 years here we are still gathered together to celebrate it. But let us be clear. We do not only celebrate this Love because it led the Shepherd to lay down his life for us. We celebrate it chiefly because by laying down his life he took it back up again.

This is the paradoxical promise at the center of our faith: in dying Jesus was raised to new life.

We share in that same death and that same resurrection. When we renew our baptism each year during the Great Vigil of Easter, we are reminded that when we pass through the waters, we are buried with Christ by a baptism into his death so that we might be raised with him to new life.

By virtue of our baptism then, we share in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That’s important, not because it is some sort of “fire insurance” that saves us from burning for eternity, but because it has real-life implications for how we live our lives now.

In this post-resurrection world, we embody the risen life of Jesus. Here. Now. Today. Tomorrow. Next week. Always.

So not only are we inheritors of Love strong enough to bring back to life that which was three days dead, but we are called to proclaim it. Take Peter for example. In our lesson from Acts this morning we find him in the custody of the authorities after healing a man in the name of Jesus.

Peter says, “let it be known to all of you . . . that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.”

These words comprise one of the first sermons ever, in which Peter is testifying to the promise of the power of Jesus whom God raised from the dead. Because Jesus has new life, says Peter, so does this man have new life. Because Jesus has new life, so do each of you have new life. Here. Now.

Peter also says something that a lot of 21st Century Christians have trouble with. He says, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

Some hear it as exclusive. And indeed, it is hard for us not to when for generations we have heard Christians whose primary means of invitation to the faith is something akin to, “Believe or be damned to the fiery pits of hell!”

But I don’t think Peter’s message is meant to be exclusive. He is merely expressing his sincere belief that by raising Jesus Christ from the dead God acted once on behalf of all humanity for all time. As a result, no human person or entity can claim to have exclusive access to the power of God.

Yes, the claim comes from an unashamedly Christian perspective. It places Jesus’ resurrection as the hinge-point of salvation history. But, at its core, it also means that no person can with authority say, “Unless you believe like I do, you’re damned for all time.” That is not, nor has it ever been, the central message of Christianity.

The keys to death and hell have already been to Jesus given. And he has unlocked the door and thrown the devil out. Been there. Done that. Already taken care of.

God became human, the Shepherd like the sheep, even to the extent of death. By dying he destroyed death and by raising him to new life again, God has brought us all into free and lasting life in the presence of our redeemer. We are now united with God in resurrection life.

That means it’s never not Easter.

That means we are at present filled with the true Love of God.

That means eternal life begins at the font, not the grave.

Peter is simply inviting us to live like that’s the case. Do you hear the difference? The focus of Peter’s sermon is not what the resurrection is going to for us when we die. The focus of Peter’s sermon is what the resurrection means for us now, as we live.

Jesus’ resurrection changed Peter’s life. And by the power of the Spirit and in the name of the God who made it possible, Peter wants you to know that it can change yours, too. Here. Now.

How exactly?

Well, there are far too many examples to name here. But one that seems especially fitting for today comes from our reading from the first letter of John. It is this: if you happen to find yourself with all the goods of the world passing by someone in need, do not refuse to help them.

You just might begin to get the idea. 

The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday 2021

The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday – March 28, 2021 – Mark 11: 1-11; Mark 15:1-47 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

We squeeze a lot in on Palm Sunday. 

First, during the Liturgy of the Palms, we hear the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Then, we shift gears rather abruptly during the Liturgy of the Word as we listen to the lengthy passion narrative.

Both stories are familiar to us, but they are still exceedingly important for us to rehearse year after year. They are important, in part, because they are conflicting. As we listen to them, the pendulum of our emotions swings from a delightful pride to a shameful humiliation when suddenly we are confronted once again with the tragic example of just how volatile our human nature really is. 

The juxtaposition between Jesus’ triumphant entry and his tragic execution reminds us of just how quickly public support can evaporate, fear can take control, and people can be convinced to sacrifice their hope for the future for a little bit of temporary security. 

These stories are also important because they refocus us on an essential plot point of the Christian story: the crucifixion. Today, by directing our attention to Jesus’ death, but stopping short of his resurrection, we are reminded that all life—even Jesus’ life—includes suffering. 

We do not ordinarily come to church to focus on suffering, but it is important to acknowledge it, especially this day and this week, because it is very, very real. For Jesus, and for each of us.   

We are all acquainted with suffering. Our lives include the pains that accompany loss, failure, disillusionment, and rejection. That’s part of what it means to be human. And so, as Christians, we turn our attention this morning to stories that take us from celebration to suffering because they are stories that speak to experiences of the flesh. And they are stories that tell us the extent to which God is willing to go to identify with us in the flesh. 

Of course, God’s identification with us in our humanity began at Christmas, when the Word became flesh, but today, on Palm Sunday, the “Sunday of the Passion,” we are reminded that that same flesh persists, even unto death. 

As we meet Jesus walking willingly toward the cross, we must understand that to preach Christ crucified is to preach Christ incarnate, for one is not possible without the other. So, even today, the 12 days of Christmas long past, we preach flesh, and for good reason. Listen again to what St. Paul wrote to the Philippians:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself . . . being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

In other words, God became flesh in order to show us just how much flesh matters to God. Enough to suffer a state-sanctioned execution based on false accusations. 

In some paradoxical way, we might even find it comforting to dwell on Jesus’ painful last hours on earth. Comforting, not because we derive pleasure from making or seeing others suffer, but because we all experience suffering, and the image of Jesus on the cross reminds us that God identifies with us in our suffering. It is the ultimate act of divine solidarity. 

On the cross, Jesus teaches us that whenever we suffer, we are united with God. Does that mean that we should go around looking for ways to suffer? Absolutely not. Does that mean that we must thank God for seasons of suffering because they help us recall the divine presence? No. Not at all.  

God does not inflict suffering on us for our edification. Quite the contrary. On the cross, Jesus redeems our suffering for our salvation. And he does it by showing us, in no uncertain terms, that when times of trial inevitably come, we are not alone. God is with us. This is our Lord’s greatest miracle, is it not? A love so compassionate, so completely selfless, that it chooses to share even in the worst burdens of our fleshly existence?

We often speak of Jesus’ death on the cross as a sacrifice done on our behalf, or in place of us. That’s true, of course. What Jesus accomplished on the cross was done once for all people throughout all time. We cannot repeat it. There are some Christians who seem to be convinced that the proper response to this reality is guilt. But I don’t think that’s what Paul had in mind when he urged the Philippians to let the same mind be in them that was in Christ Jesus. I think Paul had in mind something more like embracing all that it means to be human, just like Jesus did.

Because of Jesus, we have the capacity to love selflessly, even in the flesh. Because of Jesus, we have the capacity to meet others in their suffering, their moments of deepest sorrow, not in some vain attempt to imitate his sacrifice, but because he willingly made that sacrifice in the first place. If we can do that, if we can meet each other at our lowest points, then we just might finally recognize—in one another and in ourselves—what Jesus has seen in us all along: the very essence of our humanity that is so worth loving.

It’s a tall order to be sure, and we may not be able to do it quite like Jesus, but if we take him as our example, then our fear of each other just might start to subside, our skepticism of each other just might begin to abate, and the barriers that we have erected between ourselves just might begin to crumble because we will have seen that which only God can make it possible for us to see: those little bits of the divine image, even in the flesh.  

We all suffer. If we remember that, and if we hold each other close when those times come, then we will be joined to God’s divine nature. In a sense, you might even say that, just like Jesus, we will be sharing in the world’s sour wine. And having tasted it, we will never be able deny someone a cold drink of water again.  

Lent 4

Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 14, 2021 – Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

First of all, you need to know that it’s Jesus who’s talking in today’s gospel. The lectionary people omitted some important context when they separated the eight verses that we just heard from the preceding 13.

This passage from John captures only the latter part of Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus. Nevertheless, you may be familiar with how the conversation begins. It’s nighttime when Nicodemus comes to Jesus and says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Some commentators are critical of Nicodemus’ assertion. By emphasizing the words “we know that you are…” they cast Nicodemus in the role of a self-assured expert who flaunts his status as a “teacher of Israel.” Others suspect that Nicodemus meets Jesus under the cover of darkness in order to avoid being seen with him.

It’s true that we can glean from the text that Nicodemus is an educated man, a “pillar of the community,” we might say. Likewise, themes of darkness and light play a role in this passage and throughout John’s Gospel. But I don’t think that these details are meant to throw shade (pun intended) on the Pharisee.

Furthermore, if we immediately cast Nicodemus in such a negative light, we might be tempted to hear the remainder of his conversation with Jesus as an adversarial one when, actually, I think the opposite is true.

In fact, as Becky Wright noted in Bible Study earlier this week, Nicodemus shows honor to Jesus by coming at night, on his own time, after a full day’s work, which may indicate that he is motivated by a genuine desire to learn more, rather than a selfish need to impress Jesus with what he already knows.

If we understand their encounter this way, then the Nicodemus we encounter in this story is less a self-righteous teacher preparing to go head-to-head with a colleague and more an eager student visiting his teacher during office hours in order to clarify his understanding.

And so, in search of clarity he says, “It seems to me that we know that you come from God because, otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to do the things that you do.” However, Jesus’ response is anything but clear. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

If I’m honest, I’d prefer Jesus was a bit more affirming of Nicodemus. If you’ve ever been in a class with me, you’re probably familiar with my tendency to quickly affirm participation. “Yeah, yeah, I think that’s right . . . Great point! Very well put!”

Couldn’t Jesus say something like, “Yes, Nicodemus. I think that’s a great way to begin to think about who I am, but there’s more to it than that.”? Alas, that’s not really Jesus’ style. Another example immediately follows.

Nicodemus asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Again, we could read Nicodemus as adversarial or sarcastic, but I hear the question as an example of honest curiosity. Still, Jesus doesn’t exactly simplify things.

“Very truly, I tell you,” he says, “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Jesus’ response may sound confusing to Nicodemus, and to us, but maybe that’s the point. Jesus is doing what a lot of good teachers do. Instead of providing a simple explanation or answer, he challenges his student to think more about it for himself. 

Perhaps you can remember a teacher in your life who didn’t answer your questions directly or simply so much as they helped you to develop the skills necessary to answer them for yourself.   

“Teach a man to fish,” right? That’s exactly what Jesus is doing for Nicodemus here, and the result is a first-class theological discourse.

Yes, like all theological discussions, it’s confusing. Jesus is attempting to reframe Nicodemus’ understanding of his relationship with God, and that’s not something that he can explain to him in simple terms. Jesus needs Nicodemus to be able to make sense of it for himself, and so he uses another tried and true teaching—and preaching—tactic: a real-life example.

You can’t see the wind, but you know it’s there because you can hear it rustling the leaves of the trees and see the branches bend and sway. Where does the wind start? Where does it go? I don’t know. It’s intangible, abstract. 

It’s the same with “being born from above.” How does that work exactly? It cannot be explained with a piece of chalk or an overhead projector. (Or a dry erase marker or “smart board,” for that matter.)

You can’t always see God working in your life or the world around you, transforming hearts, changing minds. But, if you begin to pay attention, every once in a while, you will realize that it’s happening.

This is precisely what Jesus is inviting Nicodemus to do: start paying attention to the presence of God in his life. This is especially important because Jesus won’t always be with Nicodemus, at least, not in the same sense that he is on this night. 

Jesus hints at this very reality in the first verse of today’s passage. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

As 21st Century Christians, we hear Jesus’ words (which are an allusion to this morning’s reading from Numbers) in full knowledge of his death and resurrection. We can easily draw a parallel between the serpent being lifted up in the wilderness and Jesus being lifted up on the cross.

Nicodemus obviously doesn’t know what’s going to happen to Jesus, but he will find out. And when he does, he will learn for the first time the answer to his question, “How can somebody be born from above?” Because Jesus died and rose again. 

Jesus himself is the answer to Nicodemus’ question. That’s what Jesus is trying to teach him. But Nicodemus will not–and cannot–completely understand this until he develops a relationship with Jesus. For that matter, neither can we. 

Developing a relationship with Jesus doesn’t happen overnight. There is no simple how-to guide for the process, no matter what anyone says. It requires taking time to pay attention to Jesus the Risen Christ’s presence in our lives. That, my friends, is a central task of the Lenten season. 

Remember the words (from our prayer book) that we heard on Ash Wednesday. “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” 

We tend to focus a lot on self-denial, but the rest is important, too. If we use the remaining days of Lent to lean into a period of self-examination, prayer, and scriptural meditation, then we will be walking with Nicodemus into a deeper relationship with the Risen and Living Lord. 

If you read through the rest of John’s gospel account, you will get a sense of Nicodemus’s own journey with Jesus. In chapter seven, he speaks in Jesus’ defense, even after several have turned against him. And in chapter 19, he joins Joseph of Arimathea, this time in broad daylight, to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. 

Remember, when he helped lay Jesus in the tomb, Nicodemus didn’t know what would happen in just two days’ time. We do. That’s all the more reason for us to be on the lookout for Jesus’ presence in our lives. If we do that, we will, right alongside Nicodemus, experience the joy of that beautiful Sunday morning all over again, even as if for the very first time. 

We’re allowed

Third Sunday after Epiphany – January 24, 2021 – Jonah 3:1-5, 10 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

Ordinarily, our Collect of the Day appears up front in the weekly Eucharistic liturgy. These days, since we’re worshipping with a service of Morning Prayer via Zoom, it comes later, after the Lord’s Prayer and suffrages. In this case preaching on it is a preview rather than a review.

When you hear it, it will go like this, “Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

“Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ…”

Readily. That’s the tough part! Willingly, without hesitation or delay. It’s one thing to be tasked with answering God’s call to proclaim the Gospel. It’s another thing to do it readily.

I don’t know about you, but there are times I can go for days, weeks, or even months without doing anything readily. I hardly ever even get out of bed readily. Being a millennial and prolific texter, I don’t often make phone calls readily. And I’m not too keen on vacuuming or cooking dinner readily.

Turning on the TV, on the other hand? At the drop of a hat! “Doom scrolling” through Twitter? Anytime, anywhere. Using four-letter words also comes all too naturally for me, especially if you switch on any cable news channel. (I may be a priest, but I’m only human!)

But as our Collect makes clear, if there is anything that we should do readily, it is to proclaim the Gospel. But that takes effort, and in late January of our “long, dark winter,” effort doesn’t exactly seem to be coming naturally.

All too often, when it comes to something I have to do, or am supposed to do . . . well, I’m not always eager. But I try not to beat myself up about it too much. It happens to the best of us, right?

*****

I know from my childhood a sainted old United Methodist pastor. Salt of the earth. Humble. Always there. Always willing. For decades after he left the congregation you could hear people say, “Well, do you think we should call Hubert and ask him to do the funeral?”

And ninety percent of the time, the answer was yes. Still is, in fact. How on earth could one person readily answer so many calls? How could he have time to do all those funerals? I’m not talking spare time. I’m talking time. Period.

Oh, and when he preached! I suppose over the course of his career Hubert could have been one of those preachers that other preachers got jealous of. My grandmother used to laugh and say that every time Hubert left a congregation, a quarter of them went with him.

Yes, I suppose he could have been one of those preachers, except that he is Hubert. I know my grandmother was exaggerating and that Hubert would never want that at all.

The truth is, it’s hard to utter a bad word against Hubert because Hubert is the very definition of one who readily answers “the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim[s] to all people the Good News of his salvation.”

But, this morning I am rather pleased to tell you that I have his number. You see, I know his secret. 

One Sunday morning—I must have been about eleven or twelve—we were lining up for the processional. The choir crowded around the sanctuary door to sing their introit. I, a lowly acolyte, stood behind them, shoved halfway in the coat closet but ready, if necessary, to wield my candle-snuffer in order to pass through. 

Standing next to me was my mother—she was at that time the acolyte coordinator—poised to light my taper before I began to walk in. Next to her was Hubert.

Now, if you ever happen to be standing silently nearby my mother, beware. Don’t be afraid, but beware. Beware because her calm and unpretentious nature makes her a very appealing confessor for whatever happens to be at the top of your mind.

So it was with Hubert. He turned slightly toward her and in a low voice admitted, “You know, I’m really just not in the mood for this today.”  

Mom returned a look of genuine sympathy. “I suppose that’s just the way it goes sometimes. I’d say you’re allowed.”

I couldn’t agree more. Sometimes we’re just not up to readily answering any call, let alone God’s. Even those who are for us conduits of God’s grace have a little difficulty doing so 100% of the time. I bet you do, too. Maybe it’s a lack of motivation, or maybe sometimes we’re just plain tired.

Whatever the reason, I’d say we’re allowed.

*****

Our readings this morning further assure us that, if we do not answer all calls readily, we are in good company.

Look at Jonah. This morning’s reading mentions that the word of the Lord came to him “a second time.” That’s because when it came the first time, Jonah ran from it.

“Go at once to Nineveh,” God says in chapter one, but Jonah instead catches a boat going in the opposite direction. As a result, he ends up spending three days in the belly of a giant fish before it finally regurgitates him onto the shore.

It’s no surprise then that Jonah is far more willing to answer God’s call the second time around. Not only does he go to Nineveh to deliver God’s message of repentance, but he’s a success! The people listen to him, turn from their evil ways, and enter into a period of fasting by command of their King.

God’s anger toward them abates.

Even still, Jonah is not willing to accept God’s response of mercy toward the Ninevites. Even though he admits that he knows God to be “gracious . . . and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,” he is furious when God forgives them.

He’s dramatic, too! “O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” In other words, “This just makes me want to die!”

Is it because the Ninevites are his enemies, symbols of his imperial oppressors? Or maybe he is ashamed to have been a part of their redemption? Or embarrassed that he didn’t anticipate God’s mercy? We’ll never know.

But we do know that even though Jonah runs away, questions God’s mercy, and appeals to God with a death wish, God does not respond with punishment or wrathful vengeance. Instead, when Jonah goes to pout in the desert, God sends agents of persuasion: a bush to grant him shade and a worm to take it away, so that he feels the sweltering heat.

“Is it right for you to be angry just because I took a little bush away from you?” asks God.

“Of course!” replies Jonah.  

Well, I’d say he’s allowed . . . as long as he considers how God must feel about those poor souls of Nineveh.

*****

Like Jonah, there will be times when we run from God’s call. And when we finally do answer it, we may grow frustrated or angry with the result. It is a bitter taste, isn’t it, the knowledge that those whom we would condemn God sees fit to save?

And, like Hubert, there will be times when we are a little unmotivated or just plain tired. Some of us might be distracted. Others of us might well be afraid.

If you’re ever tempted to beat yourself up about it, don’t. The truth is, you’re allowed. We all are.

But even though we’re allowed, we’re not off the hook. Our lack of motivation, our weariness, our anger, our ignorance—they are not excuses. They are merely realities. It’s helpful to be honest about them, and that’s exactly what we do in today’s Collect.

We pray for the help of God’s grace in assisting us in answering God’s call because we know good and darn well that we need it. We can’t do it alone. And we know that no matter how unmotivated or tired or frustrated or angry or confused we are, God will be good to us. God is always good to us. One might even say God is, “merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

One of the ways that we know God is all of those things is because God continually, freely, and abundantly gives us grace—no matter what.

And do you know why? Because in God’s eyes, we’re allowed. 

For Epiphany, 2021

The Epiphany – January 6, 2021 – Matthew 2:1-12

On the Feast of the Epiphany, we celebrate God’s manifestation among us in the flesh of Jesus Christ, which sounds a lot like what we celebrate on Christmas. Interestingly though, the celebration of Epiphany is older than the celebration of Christmas. The first mention of Epiphany comes from around the turn of the third century, and from those early days, the feast emphasized God’s physical manifestation among us by focusing on three specific biblical accounts from the life of Jesus—his baptism, his first miracle at Cana, and the rising of the star that led the Magi to him. [1]

To say the least, Christmas and Epiphany are linked. By the late fourth century, aspects of Jesus’ nativity began to be incorporated in Epiphany observances, but they were far from its main focus. Eventually, Christmas became the widely observed feast celebrating Jesus’ birth that we know it to be today.  

Because we hear each year on this night Matthew’s story of the Magi, it’s easy to think of Epiphany as the end of the Christmas season, especially when we make a big deal about reminding each other that Christmas isn’t just one day, but twelve. For this reason, we may be tempted to approach Epiphany looking back toward Christmas. This is the night on which our wise men figurines finally arrive at the crèche. Of Epiphany (and I might be the only millennial who can quote him) Paul Harvey might say, “Now you know the rest of the story.” On Epiphany, tie the Christmas season up with a bow like those packages torn apart under the tree. And tomorrow, take the decorations down!

Epiphany is far more than any of these. It is a hinge on which swings our incarnational focus from Jesus’ nativity to Jesus’ ministry. It’s not about looking back at Christmas. It’s about looking forward to a season in which we, like those early Christians, will experience God’s incarnation through accounts of Jesus’ baptism, his miracles, his calling of the disciples, and yes, with Magi who follow the star.

It is very important to remember, especially on a day like today, which has become one of turmoil in the life of our nation, that Epiphany is about looking forward. This is not to say we should ignore present events. What happened today in Washington D.C. happened for a reason. If we refuse to look for those reasons, or deny that they exist at all, we will surely become part of the problem. So yes, we must take stock of the gruesome reality of present events. No doubt about it! But we must also look forward in anticipation of our response to them. 

What better example could we have for this than the Magi? Tonight, we celebrate not only that God is revealed to the Magi in the flesh, but that they recognize it when it happens! The Magi recognize Jesus for who he is. And when the power-obsessed, status-obsessed, legacy-obsessed King Herod tries to use them as a part of his violent plan for self-preservation, they don’t take the bait. Instead, they follow the Prince of Peace on a path of peace. They refuse to engage in violent subversion of a divine plan. They choose to open their hearts and their minds to God. They have met the source of all life’s love, and their lives are forever changed as a result. 

Isn’t that our story, too? We have met Jesus, and because of it we are called to preach his Gospel of peace. So this night we pray for the Spirit to bestow upon us the wisdom of those “wise men” of old. God’s wisdom. Wisdom that will recognize the division in our nation. Wisdom that will acknowledge the anger of others even as we feel our own. Wisdom that will prohibit violence and rage. Wisdom that will keep us looking forward. Wisdom that will walk the way of peace. 

It is tempting to go down a path of selfish bitterness, to thwart plans that are not ours. But the violent road of self-interest is all too well trod. We best not venture too far down it, lest we meet despair. Better to follow the Magi’s example, to live into God’s wisdom, and to return to our country—and God’s heavenly one—by another road.

[1] Alexander, J. Neil, Celebrating Liturgical Time: Days, Weeks, and Seasons (New York: Church Publishing, 2014), 36.

In the flesh

Christmas Eve – December 24, 2020 – Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

It’s a joy to be able to write occasionally for Sermons That Work, an offering for the whole denomination. This sermon was published in “Sermons for Advent and Christmas 2020.” I encourage you to take some time over the next 12 days to read the words of these other fine preachers. Merry Christmas!
https://episcopalchurch.org/sermons-advent-and-christmas

Luke’s nativity story is familiar to most of us, whether we know it or not. That famous account of Jesus’ birth that we hear, year-in and year-out, begins with those ever-so recognizable lines, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered…” You know where this one’s going right from the very beginning.

Christians don’t memorize much scripture anymore. Smartphone in hand, any one of us can command verse after verse with a few swipes of our thumb. Come to think of it, nobody memorizes much of anything at all anymore. Yet even today, the children in the Christmas pageant commit themselves to those words that seem to rain down from heaven: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

The words from the letter to Titus, on the other hand, are not very well known to most of us. We are simply not as well acquainted with them as we are with Luke’s. They don’t provoke the same visceral awareness within us. They don’t transport us into the past quite as suddenly. They don’t put us in mind of singing carols or baking pies or unwrapping new pajamas.

The truth is, we often forget about the letter to Titus, and not just at Christmas time. “What’s your favorite book of the Bible?” “Oh, Titus, for sure!” (said no one, ever.)

Another sentiment never overheard: “Oh, how I love Christmas Eve services each year! The family gathered together, the church glowing with candlelight, and just before the sequence hymn… the reading from Titus!” Something about it just doesn’t sound quite right.

And yet here is Titus, enfolded neatly into our Christmas liturgy. Even at one of the most well-attended services of the year, I doubt if anyone leaves with Titus on their mind (or the sermon, for that matter). So, if you didn’t recognize the passage, you’re not alone. Titus makes a rare appearance in our common worship. In fact, Christmas is the only time the letter appears in the lectionary cycle. Because of that, and because this particular passage is so brief, it might just bear repeating.

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.”

Even though these words from Titus might not be quite as memorable as some others, they are surely just as applicable as we gather not only to observe the nativity but to celebrate the Incarnation.

You see, Christmas is just as much about giving birth to a firstborn son and wrapping him in bands of cloth and laying him in a manger as it is about the grace of God appearing, bringing salvation to all. In fact, they are two sides of the same coin, one in the very same.

At Christmas, God’s grace appears like never before: in the flesh. By coming in the flesh, God is making sure we understand how very close to us the holy presence really is. God not only wants us to see that presence, God invites us to feel it—in the flesh! And so that is precisely where grace appears. 

Sure, we may catch the occasional glimpse of grace in other places: the rainbow-sherbet sky at dusk, the music of the song thrush, or looking down on the clouds from the view of a mountaintop perch. But all such moments of grace are happenstance, fleeting, sheer coincidence. But grace appearing in flesh? That is with us always! Because the flesh in which grace appears is our flesh. Becoming one of us is God’s way of telling us that our lives matter. It is to us, in these bodies, at this time and always, that grace appears.

Through the miracle of the Incarnation, God did away with the silly notion that we are mere drones slogging our way toward some heavenly home, slowly but surely trudging through the earthly muck and mire. By becoming flesh in this world, God sanctifies our flesh, making it possible for us to be agents of God’s grace – right here on earth. In other words, eternal life starts now. You don’t have to wait to get to heaven to live in God’s kingdom.

Ever since God appeared in a flesh like ours, and lived a life like ours, humanity and divinity have been inextricably linked. I know it’s hard to believe. The paradox of this great mystery is certainly worth considering, but on this holy night, we do not come to worship in order to ponder exactly how the Incarnation is possible. We come to worship to renew our commitment to living in the world as if it is true.

“A child has been born for us, a son given to us.”

“The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.”

“This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

None of this means that the world is perfect. If you weren’t already convinced, 2020 should have taken care of that. If ever any year was filled with earthly muck and mire, it was this one. So much so, in fact, that not all Christians—not even some of the most privileged Episcopalians—will be able to worship together tonight, to pass the peace, to break the bread. A year ago, we could never have imagined the number of lives that would be lost or hearts that would be broken.

Jesus doesn’t guarantee that the world will be perfect, but he does supply the grace that we need in order to live like we ought to live. The author of the letter to Titus reminds us that it is this grace that teaches us how to live a life that is self-controlled, upright, and godly. Will this be a faultless life? No. A flawless life? No. A totally unspoiled life? Absolutely not! But it will be a life in which we can respond following the example of the one who appeared to us in flesh.

Because God became flesh and dwelt among us, each and every one of us, our bodies, our lives, our selves, are conformed to God during the good times and the bad. In the manger baby, God sanctifies all that we experience, even our suffering.

Perhaps at this point, it’s best to get specific. The life that God’s grace makes possible for us is not a life in which we go around blaming gay people for hurricanes or rioters for wildfires. It is not a world in which COVID-19 can simply be chalked up to God’s wrath upon all those people who are different from us.

The life that God’s grace makes possible for us is a life in which we, as Christians, operate from a place of compassion and love. It is a life in which we recognize the turmoil and the tragedy, the trauma, and the deep grief of the world and simply ask how we can help.

“What do you need? Where can I meet you? Stay right there. I’m on the way!” The world cries out for a response rooted in the grace of God’s appearing. Not, “What did you do to deserve this?” More like, “Given these circumstances, where do we go from here? How do we walk forward together?”

That is grace in the flesh, dear friends. That is what the world needs. That is what God offers us in Jesus: the grace of gifts given, not gifts earned; grace that comes to us in our own image and inspires us to live the Christmas life.

So may it ever be.

Magnifying our Advent Jubilee

Third Sunday of Advent – December 13, 2020 – Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Canticle 15; John 1:6-8, 19-28 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

Today’s portion of Isaiah 61 might sound familiar to you. If it does, it may not necessarily be because you’ve heard it directly from Isaiah.

You might also recognize it as the text for Jesus’ “first sermon” as it appears in Luke’s Gospel account. Remember that story of Jesus, just as he is beginning his ministry? At the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth he unrolls the scroll and reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

This text puts us in mind of something else you may have heard of, the “Year of Jubilee.” According to the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 25: 8-13, to be exact), every fiftieth year, debts were to be forgiven, slaves freed, and property reverted to its original owner. This was a practice meant to manifest the benevolent mercy of God, a way to act out (at least as best anybody on Earth can) the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Today’s tech gurus might call it a “hard reset.” It was a chance to wipe the slate clean, to start once again from a place of purity, unfettered by money owed and shackles bound. 

The important, some might even say miraculous, thing about the concept of Jubilee is that it was prescribed for everyone—no exceptions. It was meant to squelch that dreadful “me-first” notion that seems to have plagued each one of us since birth. We could think of it as a societal depiction of what we all learn—or are supposed to learn—in kindergarten: that sharing is caring, forgiveness is important, and selfishness does not lead to true success.

It’s no wonder Jesus chose this text for his first sermon. Not only is it a very real way to begin to enact God’s heavenly vision on earth, but it sets the stage for Jesus’ entire ministry by unveiling an extremely counter-cultural message, one that asks its hearers to confront some fairly uncomfortable scenarios. Having your debts forgiven may be one thing, but can you imagine forgiving the debts owed to you? The very notion upsets our concept of fairness. Jesus is going to be doing a lot more of that! Just think of the parables we’ve heard in the past several weeks about the talents or the laborers in the vineyard.

Today, in the middle of this season of preparation, it is especially important to remember that Jesus didn’t just make up all the counter-cultural stuff he preaches. His words are firmly rooted in God’s ancient law, and they were even echoed by others before him.

Jesus may be the “reason for the season,” but he isn’t the first person in the Gospel to give voice to this Jubilee prophesy. He wasn’t even the first person in his family to do so. That honor goes to his mother, Mary, whose song we sang this morning. 

“My soul proclaims he greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” We often call this important passage by its Latin name, the Magnificat. Perhaps the most famous translation of the first line goes like this: “My soul doth magnify the Lord.”

Magnify. During Tuesday’s Bible study, Amy brought to our attention the powerful images this word might generate for us. I found myself shot suddenly into a past where I stood in my grandmother’s kitchen, in front of the drawer where she kept her calendar, playing with the magnifying glass laying at its side.

What does it mean for one’s soul to magnify the Lord? Surely it’s more than holding an old magnifying glass up to your heart, enlarging the logo above your shirt pocket. I think it more likely has something to do with living your life in a way that draws attention to God’s vision for the world.

Mary magnifies this vision by reveling in the joy of a God who magnified her. “For he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed.”

God’s selection of Mary, a pitiable young girl by many standards, becomes for her—and for us—a kind of Advent Jubilee, a sign that something new is indeed coming to pass. The slate will be wiped clean, not only in the coming of Jesus our redeemer, but in the manner in which he comes—by a poor virgin’s womb.

God’s selection of Mary is a reminder for us that God often works in the ways we least expect, ways that tend to scandalize the so-called “natural order of things.” Perhaps God’s surprising methods are themselves something that we should by now have come to expect, for God has employed them over and over again.

God’s unconventional methods stretch all the way back to God’s covenant with Abraham, back to ninety-year-old Sarah’s pregnancy. (Joyful news to be sure, but no laughing matter.) And they stretch back to that Levitical prescription for the Year of Jubilee, and back to Isaiah’s proclamation of good news for the oppressed. Yes, this news that Mary’s son will soon share is news that God has been sharing for a long, long time, and it is news that takes center stage in her own familiar song.

A virgin, pregnant. The proud, scattered. The mighty cast down with the mountains. The lowly, like the valleys lifted up. The hungry, filled. The rich, sent to bed without dinner for a change.

And then there is, of course, a person I haven’t mentioned yet—John. The Baptizer, like Isaiah and Mary, knows what’s on the way. He knows that Jesus is coming to tell us God’s Good News like we’ve never heard it before. And so he joins the chorus of those crying out God’s favor, telling us that rough places will soon be made like a plain.

Yes, in their own way, I’d say that all of these folks pretty much sum up God’s vision for the world. A dear friend of mine puts it this way: the way things always have been need not be the way they always will be.

This is a vision that you and I know, too. It’s a vision of God’s mercy, a vision revealed at Christmas and confirmed on Easter—Death doesn’t get the last word! Your sins are forgiven! Salvation is at hand! It’s a vision that truly magnifies God’s presence among us. And it’s a vision that we must share—especially right now.

There’s no use repeating the laundry list of despairs that many of us have felt this year. I’m certainly not suggesting that we deny them. It’s just that it’s so often our habit to focus on them instead of God’s vision for us.

I know we’re still about two weeks from Christmas, but things are certainly ramping up. So I’d say it’s high time we took some time away from despair and started with a clean slate. I’d say we ought to magnify the Lord. Yes, I’d say we might as well revel like Mary in the joy of the One who comes, at least a little bit, until we hear the angels sing.

Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – November 15, 2020 – Matthew 25:14-30 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

I love game shows. Lately I’ve been watching a lot of Family Feud. I find it especially funny when an eager contestant slaps the buzzer before the host, Steve Harvey, has finished reading the clue.

“Name something a 90-year-old man might get rid of…”

“His car, Steve!”

Sounds reasonable, until you hear the rest of the clue. “Name something a 90-year-old man might get rid of, if he found the fountain of youth.”

It changes things completely.

If a contestant is this eager, Steve normally makes fun of them mercilessly. They have one job—just wait until he finishes reading the question! But their rush to respond is understandable. They’re nervous, jumpy, competitive.

Plus, we’re all tempted to rely on our assumptions from time to time. I think this can be especially true in church. We have a liturgical cycle, a definite seasonal rhythm for things like the hymns we sing and the readings we hear.

For example, a lot of us have probably heard today’s parable—and sermons on it—multiple times before. Even if you don’t remember exactly what was said, it’s easy to assume you know where it’s going and to stop listening very closely. But as the contestants on Family Feud remind us, it’s important to wait—even if it’s only to the end of the sentence—to hear what’s really being said.

When it comes to scripture, this might mean taking some time to sit with the text and ask ourselves important questions about it. What doesn’t quite make sense? Which words or phrases stand out? Which words or phrases might change the whole meaning of that text?

These practices can help us suspend our preconceived notions. Only if we do that can we begin to “read, mark, learn, inwardly digest” the living word of God (which is especially important with parables).

For instance, how many times have you heard a preacher liken the talents in today’s parable to your God-given abilities, urging you to put your natural gifts to work for the church? “Don’t hide your talents! Demonstrate the gifts that God has given you to further the Kingdom of God!”

While there are certainly worse things to preach, there’s really no direct basis for such an interpretation in the text itself. Here, talents refer to units of monetary value, not piano playing skills. That one word—talents—changes the whole meaning of the parable.

Today, let’s simply enter the parable, suspending our preconceived notions as best we can.

A man is leaving town. He gathers his slaves, and asks each of them to look after a large sum of his money.

After he’s gone, the one to whom he gave five talents trades with them and ends up doubling his money. The one with two talents does the same. But the one with only one talent, well, he buries it in the backyard.

When the master returns and settles the accounts, the first two report their earnings. “Well done,” the master says, “You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

But that third slave? Not so much. He says to his master, “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”

The master responds, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest . . . As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Whenever we hear a parable with a master in it, we tend to assume that that character represents God. But, try as I might, I’m just not getting the sense that this master is someone to look up to. His slave fears him because he is intimidating and unethical, because he reaps where he did not sow and gathers where he did not scatter seed. In other words, because he profits by taking advantage of other people.  

We don’t just have to take the slave’s word for it. The master himself says, “If you knew that about me, why didn’t you at least put the money in the bank to earn me a little interest? You’re worthless!”

To review: an extraordinarily wealthy master, with an unethical reputation, gives one of his slaves a pile of money (with no instructions on how to handle it, by the way). The slave, in turn, stores the money in a safe place and then returns it to his master. Then, the master punishes the slave. 

It just doesn’t make sense!

Unless of course, the master’s only goal is to make money. It says earlier in the parable that he gave the talents to each of the slaves according to their ability. It’s almost as if he was hedging his bets, giving the most money to the ones he thought could make him the most money. Call me suspicious, but it’s as if he expected the third slave to fail.

And, even though that slave didn’t gamble the money away, skip town with it, or skim any off the top, in the master’s eyes, he did fail. He failed because he didn’t add to it, not even with a piddly little bit of interest. That’s what his master can’t abide. He is not looking for an honest, cautious investor who plays it safe. He’s looking for a greedy, ruthless money-maker willing to risk it all for a huge payday. 

That’s exactly what he found in the first two slaves. And so he says to them, “Enter into the joy of your master.” But don’t be fooled. The master’s joy is a joy that comes from making as much money as he can, even if it’s at the expense of the wellbeing of those around him. That’s no joy at all! If it were, would the master be so harsh? So immoral? So greedy?

And the outer darkness into which the master casts the one who has failed him? It only seems like darkness to the master because he can’t imagine what life would be like there, without massive profit margins or huge dividends, without the rush you get when a big risk pays off.

But the truth is, the third slave took a risk, too. Not the risk associated with investing large sums of money, but the risk associated with asking hard ethical questions. Am I going to continue working for someone who profits at the expense of others? Am I going to do my best to make money for a guy who demands, at the very least, interest, a practice that the Levitical law forbids? How angry will the master be if I lose the money? What is one to do in the face of such enormous pressure—such bullying?

These are the kinds of questions that trouble the mind of the third slave. I bet Jesus brings them up because he knew his followers would be faced with similar questions. As he’s said before, “No one can serve two masters. You cannot serve God and money.”

These ethical challenges are by no means easy. But Jesus didn’t come to talk about the easy stuff. Jesus came to teach his followers to think about the tough situations that accompany their faith. If we have to choose between God and money, is it worth it?

Whatever you decide, these are the kinds of questions that Christian discipleship demands. As followers of Jesus, you and I should be constantly challenged by the ethical questions of our day. Without regard to money, political party or even denominational affiliation, none of which can be the source of true joy, we must constantly ask ourselves whether or not the decisions we make are in accordance with God’s will.

Do our choices reflect our identity in Christ? Do our actions work to bring about the coming kingdom? Are we living up to the responsibility of stewardship that God has entrusted with us for creation? However you want to put it—Are you living your life following Jesus’ example?

This is not to say that you will always be able to make the decision you’d like to make. Even if you choose not to divest from some morally dubious stock in your retirement portfolio, or even if you don’t leave a corrupt employer because you just don’t think you can put your family’s future at stake right now, that’s okay. Sometimes, as Martin Luther said, we may be faced with situations in which there are no sinless options.

Luckily, unlike your success on Family Feud, God’s love for you is not dependent on a right answer, or even a quick one. God will remain loyal to you no matter what. Even so, a life of faith is a life spent navigating tough questions. The good news is that God is in those questions. Just by asking them, you can—and you will—glimpse the joy of his heavenly kingdom.

It’s all about love

Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost – October 25, 2020 – Matthew 22:34-46 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

Last week, Liz preached on the first of three difficult questions that Jesus gets in this section of Matthew from the religious leaders of the day. It was a question of taxes, answered famously with, “Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s and to God what is God’s.”

The lectionary people skip the second question, which is one from the Sadducees about resurrection. We hear it instead during the Year C cycle.

Today we encounter the third and final question of the sequence, “Which commandment in the law is greatest?”

There are 613 commandments in the Hebrew Bible. That’s the genius of the Pharisee’s question. If Jesus singles one out, then he leaves himself open to criticism. What about the 612 others? Aren’t they important, too?

As we have grown to expect, Jesus doesn’t take the bait. Not only does he answer smartly, but swiftly and succinctly.

The greatest and first, he says, is what we know today as Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” The second comes from what we would cite as Leviticus 19:18, which we heard this morning: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

It’s important for us to realize that Jesus isn’t just making this stuff up. He’s quoting scripture, proving to his listeners that he does indeed know his Bible. Even more than that, by bringing these two particular commandments to the forefront, Jesus makes a definitive statement about his philosophy of legal interpretation.

Every time a Supreme Court nominee goes before the Senate, we hear an awful lot in the media about different philosophies of legal interpretation. To what degree should the Constitution be interpreted through the lens of the intent of the original framers, versus the moral standards of the present age?

Today, Jesus gives us his legal philosophy, not concerning the U.S. Constitution (to even attempt to guess what Jesus would say about that specific document would be silly), but of God’s law as it is found in the Torah.

Love God; love your neighbor. By these twin measures do we interpret all of God’s law. Or, as Jesus put it, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Keeping the law is not about memorizing exactly which rules say what. It’s not about ranking them in order of importance. It’s not about identifying who follows them the best. Above all, keeping the law is about loving God and loving your neighbor. All 613 laws speak to at least one of these two core principles.

For instance, I once heard a sermon that categorized the 10 Commandments. According to the preacher, the first five—the thou shalts—are about loving God, while the second five—the thou shalt nots—are about loving your neighbor.

Our Book of Common Prayer divides them differently. It puts the first four (having no other Gods, the making of idols, taking the Lord’s name in vain, keeping the sabbath) in a group relating to loving God, and the remaining six (honoring parents, not murdering, not committing adultery, not stealing, not lying, not coveting) in the category of loving your neighbor.

If you ask me, both groupings are acceptable (as long as you have a proper theological rationale, of course). Therein lies the point. What matters most is not how you categorize the laws, but why they are there in the first place: to teach us how to love God and one another.

Laws, rules, ordinances, statutes, commandments—whatever you want to call them—provide a necessary foundation for living in civil society and religious community. They can keep us safe, promote respectful boundaries, and encourage mutual thriving. But if we get too bogged down in the individual rules, then we may lose sight of their overarching purpose. So Jesus is abundantly clear: the point is love.

Again, Jesus doesn’t pull this out of thin air. Listen to what we heard this morning from Leviticus.

“You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great.” In other words, if you’re going to make a judgement, you must do so fairly, not based on your preconceived notions.

“You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin.” And by the way, if your neighbor does something they shouldn’t be doing, then help them correct their behavior.

It boils down to this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus is not prophesying some new truth. He is merely clarifying why the laws say what they say. Unless you get really clear about the fact that they are all about love, then knowing 613 different laws isn’t going to do you much good anyway. It doesn’t matter how many laws you know by heart if you don’t have the love of God written on your heart.

The Pharisee’s question in today’s passage is a great example of just how tough a job it is for all of us to stay focused on God’s love.

It’s no wonder that, after God gave us the law, he sent judges, kings, and prophets to point us back toward it; that is, to point us back toward his boundless love. Alas, we still get stuck in the nitty gritty of it all. After all, it’s far easier to argue about specific points of the law than it is to admit that everyone is worthy of love. And unless you are willing to do just that, then your relationship with God and our neighbors—the two most important things in all creation—will suffer.

Lucky for us, our faith comes with a built-in reminder that, above all, “love is the way.” No, it’s not the Presiding Bishop. I bet you probably have a pretty good idea who it is, though: the one through whom all things were made.

If we were in the church as usual, this is point in the sermon at which I would draw your attention to the altar, the table where we would soon gather to experience the grace of Jesus in the flesh. We may not be able to do that today, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have access to that same grace.

So, for now, instead of pointing over my shoulder, I’ll ask each of you to look into your hearts. For that is where you feed on him by faith with thanksgiving. Now. And forever.