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.

At least give it a try

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 6, 2020 – Ezekiel 33:7-11; Matthew 18:15-20 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

From the Book of Ezekiel today we hear what is, at least for me, a familiar message. It’s not necessarily a message that I associate first and foremost with God the Father, but it is a message I’ve heard all of my life, mostly from Thom, my father. The message is this: at least give it a try.

God has appointed Ezekiel as a sentinel of sorts, a watchman for the exiled Israelites. He is God’s mouth piece, a trumpeter of the divine word.

God’s instructions to Ezekiel’s are clear. If God says to the wicked, “O wicked ones, you shall surely die,” then Ezekiel is to warn the wicked ones to turn from their wicked ways. If Ezekiel does not warn these wicked ones, not only will they die in their iniquity, but Ezekiel will have their blood on his hands. And it’s pretty clear that if Ezekiel finds himself in that position, the result will not be good for him.

God also says to Ezekiel, “If you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.”

In other words, “At least give it a try, Ezekiel.” 

I really do think this is a lesson that most of us begin to learn at a fairly early age.

“You may not get up from this table until you at least try those Brussels sprouts, young man. With or without vinegar—your choice.”

“You may not go outside and play until you have practiced the piano for at least a half hour, young lady.”

“I know you don’t want to go to a new school, sweetheart, but you’ve got to give it a try.”

While it’s true that we might begin learning these hard lessons during childhood, they are by no means childish lessons.

On the contrary, it is certainly a sign of maturity when we come to the realization that, while there may be plenty of things in life that we do not want to do, there are several things that we must at least try in order to continue wandering our way through the world.

Maintaining a steady income, making friends, or serving the community. These are all things that start with giving it a try.

A life spent refusing to try is a life devoid of new experiences. If everyone refused to try, we’d live in a world without Eagle Scouts, law school graduates, and award-winning pastry chefs.

The truth is, personal effort is a key ingredient in all of life’s recipes, whether they be for success or disaster or butterscotch pie. But most especially, God emphasizes the importance of our personal engagement in our relationship with him.

A life spent in covenant relationship with God is not a life of sideline spectating. It certainly wasn’t for Abraham, who packed up and moved to the land of the Canaanites. And it wasn’t for his wife Sarah, who bore a baby boy at age ninety. It wasn’t for Jacob, who wrestled with an angel down by the Jabbok.

It wasn’t for the prophets or the psalmists. It wasn’t for Peter or Paul, or, well . . . Mary.” And it isn’t for you. As Christians, each of us is called to a life of rich participation in God’s reign on earth.

It’s not always easy to participate in such a thing as great as that reign. It takes courage to attempt the unfamiliar and to risk the possibility of failure. If, like Ezekiel, you have ever been tasked with trying to change your neighbors’ hearts and minds, you know well the frustrations associated with such an arduous undertaking. 

During this pandemic-plagued moment of national anxiety, there may well be a number of things that you wish you could force others to do. But most days, I bet it would seem impossible to accomplish those things.

Lucky for us, God takes failure out of the equation. Remember, God didn’t make Ezekiel responsible for forcing his fellow Israelites to change hearts and minds. God is not concerned with our statistical rate of success.

“If you can get at least 50% of folks to turn from their wicked ways, then I won’t hold you responsible, Ezekiel.” No. No, that’s not how it works at all.

Ezekiel is responsible merely for relaying God’s message, for passing on God’s warning, for spreading God’s word. Ezekiel is responsible only for giving it a try. That’s all God asks. Give it a try.

God doesn’t pass the buck or eschew his divine responsibility. God’s Word is just that—God’s. Whether it is speaking creation into being over the vast expanse of the deep, teaching crowds along the dusty roads of the Galilean countryside, or stirring you to new thought and action by the hearing of the scriptures this very morning, God’s Word is God’s alone.

God’s Word is responsible for changing hearts and minds. God speaks it, God sends it, God sustains it. The hard part is taken care of. When it comes to sharing it, our role, just like Ezekiel’s, is, at least, to give it a try.

It may be tempting to hear in God’s conversation with Ezekiel this morning a threat. Either warn folks of what is to come, saving your life—and at least some of theirs—in the process, or don’t, and suffer the consequences along with them.

But would God really threaten the life of his prophet just because he didn’t relay one lousy warning? I don’t think so. More to the point, I don’t think we are meant to interpret God’s interaction with Ezekiel as threating at all.

Instead, I think it’s an honest portrayal of what it means to be a child of God. God is telling Ezekiel that we have a responsibility to one another. That’s important, and God’s not going to let it slide. 

Episcopalians, among other denominations, emphasize the corporate nature of Christianity. A key part of our identity is the recognition that we don’t function individually.

We are members of one body, walking toward God’s dream for us together. So, when some of us lose our way, like those wicked ones in exile—or even the folks Jesus references in today’s Gospel—our job is at least to try to call attention to signs of sin and death within the community, and to help each other turn away from them.

If instead we ignore the pockets of darkness that we encounter, if we shrug our shoulders and role our eyes and continue on as normal, then it will be as though we are already dead, rendered useless as members of Christ’s body.

Useless, not because we are unable to convince our neighbors to repent, but because we have forsaken our responsibility even to try.

In other words, we are called to play an important role in spreading the Word, not because of the benefits it gives us, but because we are convinced of what it can do for others, and because we know it strengthens us all.

It’s not easy, but it is simple. Spread the Word. Not to save your life, but because your life has already been saved. Really. Just give it a try. With or without vinegar—your choice.

“Why did you doubt?”

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 9, 2020 – Matthew 14:22-33 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

This sermon, which I preached this morning, is a slightly different version of the sermon I wrote as a contribution to this week’s installment of Sermons that Work.

Today we find Jesus’ disciples terrified on the Sea of Galilee. It’s certainly not the first time. The disciples are no strangers to this lake. Even before Jesus called them to fish for people, they fished here for fish, no doubt risking life and limb for a good catch. 

A quick look back at Matthew’s chapter eight reminds us of another traumatic experience they had not so very long ago. You may recall the story. A windstorm arises, so strong that the boat is swamped and it begins to sink.

Scared to death, the disciples yell to Jesus, who is fast asleep in the back. “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” Jesus responds calmly, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he gets up, rebukes the wind, calms the sea, and the disciples are amazed.

Today, however, it’s not the weather that frightens the disciples. They can handle being tossed about by strong winds and waves. Been there, done that.

Today they are frightened by something else entirely—an eerie figure walking toward them on the surface of the sea. “It’s a ghost!” they cry. No, Jesus assures them, “It is I; do not be afraid.”

Alas, these comforting words do not quite satisfy Peter, who seeks further proof of Jesus’ identity. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Jesus agrees, “C’mon, Peter.” And Peter goes. But after just a few steps, the wind startles him and he begins to sink, crying, “Lord, save me!” Of course, Jesus does save him, but he also asks him this sobering question, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Jesus’ question is a different version of the same one he asked back in chapter eight. It’s déjà vu right here in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. Make no mistake, these questions are just as much for us as they were for those early disciples.

Why do we doubt? Jesus calmed a storm with his voice, fed five thousand people with only a few loaves of bread, and walked on water. In light of all this, why would Peter—or we—ever lack faith?

Well, right off the top of my head, I’d say: fear. Like the disciples, sometimes storms pop up in our lives and scare us half to death. That’s what storms do. It’s only natural for a dog to hide under the bed when he hears thunder; for a child to cling to her mother when she sees lightning; for the driver to pull over when he can no longer see the road. 

And it’s not just wind and rain storms that scare us. So do the metaphorical storms of our lives. Things like global pandemics, contentious election cycles, horrifying diagnoses, economic downturns, and relational discord can shake us to the core.

In the midst of difficult setbacks like these, it’s not uncommon for anyone to doubt their faith in God. That’s exactly what happened to Peter in today’s gospel, that’s exactly what the disciples did in chapter eight, and it’s exactly what can happen to us.

All Jesus does is ask why. Like any good teacher, he already knows the answer, but he wants us to learn it, too.

Simply put, I’d say it’s because we are human. Fear is, quite literally, instinctual. Humans are wired with a fight-or-flight response. We have this reflex for a reason. When our lives are in jeopardy or—more commonly for us today—when our identity is threatened, we are naturally inclined to react in fleeting ways.

When that happens, we tend to leave calm, rational thought behind, and we often need some assistance getting back to a more faithful frame of mind.

If you took Public Speaking in high school of college, you probably learned how important it is to engage the audience. Speakers have many tools for doing this, but perhaps the most important is the rhetorical question.

Rhetorical questions engage audience members by asking questions that get listeners thinking about their own answers. And as they do, they become personally connected to the subject in question.

This is to say, Jesus is not asking his rhetorical question, “Why did you doubt?” to shame Peter. Jesus is not in the shaming business. Instead, he uses the question to get a frightened Peter to focus on what’s most important. And in the realm of life’s storms, faith is more important than safety, or at least comes before it.

Faith is the foundation of human life, as important as food, water, and shelter. Only after faith is secured can safety add value to living. This is the message of the cross. This is the message of Jesus’ whole life. Faith is what Jesus wants Peter—and all of us—to focus on when storms come.

Jesus’ question prompts us to realize that faith is always within our reach. Even in the stormiest times of life, when we most doubt our ability to make it through, we can remain faithful to God.

It may not be easy. Staying faithful to God doesn’t simply mean going through the motions. It doesn’t mean saying the creed while thinking about a shopping list, or repeating Bible verses from memory. It means for us, just like Peter, refocusing on our commitment to faith itself.

We will not always be perfectly faithful. Doubts will creep in. The important thing is to return to a place of faith that is strengthened and sustained by a relationship with God and nurtured by participating in life in Christ.

You can return to faith by reading scripture, praying, attending worship. Each Sunday when we confess our sins, we admit that we don’t always get everything right, but we repent and recommit ourselves to walking in God’s ways once again.

Repent and recommit. This is the nature of the Christian life.

Peter is a prime example of what it means to live a life of holy imperfection. He has misunderstood before, and he will misunderstand—and even deny—again. But today we see him refocusing on faith (with a little help from Jesus, of course).

Watching Peter’s journey reminds us of our journey, a journey on which we can—and should—choose faithfulness. And a journey on which we, just like Peter, repent, recommit, and focus on a faithfulness that comes from the knowledge and love of Jesus, through whom we experience the grace of God time and time again.

In which we think about scriptural interpretation

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 11A – July 19, 2020 – Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again. “Want to make God laugh? Make a plan!” John Lennon put it this way: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Trained first as a journalist, and much later as a homilist, I cringe in the face of clichés such as these. However, they do contain their truths.

One such truth is this: we cannot control the future. We might crave—and even indulge—the illusion that we can. But it is undeniably just that—an illusion. The best we can do is faithfully adapt to what comes our way. (Although even that is easier said than done.)

The first portion of this morning’s gospel parable captures this truth well.

Jesus begins, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.”

Listen closely to get a sense of the whole arc of this brief story. When the plants begin to grow, the householder recognizes the weeds as the work of the enemy and then decides how best to respond.

“Shall we go and gather the weeds?”

“No. Gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat, too. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.”

The landowner’s decision is prudent. He cannot afford to sacrifice the wheat. Trying to get the weeds up now would do more harm than good.

Although he is responsible for managing the property, this man couldn’t control the wicked nature of the enemy, but what he could do was adapt to this new set of circumstances.

Perhaps his response gives us a little glimpse of the Kingdom. Think about it. Jesus does not compare the Kingdom to someone with absolute control of the future, or the ability to magically erase the events of the past. He compares it to a person with control only over how calmly and faithfully he responds to present circumstances.

At least, that’s one way to look at it. Matthew gives us another interpretation in the second portion of today’s reading.

“Explain it to us,” the disciples say to Jesus. “We need some help here. What does it mean? Lay it out for us.”

“Oh, yeah, well sure, that’s easy . . . the one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one; the enemy is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age; and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are burned up, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels; they will collect the sinful ones and throw them into the fire, but the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

Makes sense, right? It’s all very straight forward.  

But what if I told you that this second portion of today’s text does not stem directly from the words of Jesus, as does the parable, but is rather the author’s attempt to make sense of Jesus’s words for a particular audience facing a particular set of circumstances?

The interpretation is attributed to Jesus for legitimacy’s sake. But if, as scholars tells us, this attribution is merely a rhetorical technique, then what are we to make of it? Is the interpretation legitimate? Of course! I’m not here to argue with Holy Scripture.

I will, however, suggest that it is not the only legitimate interpretation of the parable. Matthew’s interpretation casts a particular view of the future. Because this particular interpretation is linked to Jesus, it is tempting to hear it as the only sure and certain way to understand this parable, but to do so would be an attempt to control something that we cannot control: the word of God.

Remember, one who embodies Kingdom principles is not one who can control what comes next, but rather one who calmly and faithfully responds to what does come.

As humans, we desire sureness and certainty. We want to have a say in future events. We want to understand exactly what things mean. Certainty brings a sense of security and completeness. Once we have it, we can move on to the next thing. You can’t blame Matthew for writing a neat and tidy explanation of this parable so the reader can learn the lesson and move on.

But to identify a specific interpretation of any passage of scripture as the correct one is to miss the point. We can’t even do that with human knowledge. A poet friend of mine recently wrote of the med school professor who tells his students on the first day of class, “Half of what we teach you here will be wrong. The only trouble is, we don’t know which half.”

Think of human forays into understanding DNA, the effects of DDT, or the mysteries of the human brain. Think of our attempts at space flight, witch trials, or religious inquisition. Eventually we learn that some theories are wrong, or at the very least, that there are others. An expectation of certainty is futile.

Just as sure as we cannot control the future, we cannot control the meaning of God’s word or God’s will, and it’s okay to admit that to ourselves. The point of scriptural interpretation is not to be “certain” of what God wants from us or expects of us. We can’t be.Why else would we pray, as we will this morning, “mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask”?

It is not the duty of the faithful Christian to define the word of God. It is the privilege of the faithful Christian to experience it, respond to it, and return to it time and time again. We read and interpret scripture in order to nurture our relationship with Jesus and to strengthen our ongoing commitment to the faith so that we can expand the Kingdom.

It is not my intent to question the legitimacy of Scripture, or of Jesus. I am merely proposing that there is no single, rock-solid-set-in-stone interpretation for any biblical parable, story, or teaching.

Surely there is an arrogance in the mind of any reader who believes themselves to have a monopoly on the truth. Our perspectives are colored by experiences we’ve had, and none of us has had every experience under heaven.

Nevertheless, we can take comfort in the fact that, while we may not have the capacity for absolute certainty, the steadfast love of God persists. God is always with us, even if we cannot always anticipate, and certainly never predict, how we will experience God.

If we read the Bible over and over and over again, it should not be because we take comfort in knowing precisely what it all means, or exactly how each story ends. It should be because we are continually humbled to participate in the covenant of God’s loyalty.

God’s word is not ours to define for all people in all places. It is not ours to specify or to stipulate. Its meaning is not stagnant or idle. To define it once and for all would be to kill it, to render it impotent in an ever-evolving world. And that’s impossible, because the word of God is alive, sustaining us always with the grace we need to get by.  

Holy Conflict

Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 21, 2020 – Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer (via Zoom)

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” When you first heard this morning’s Gospel, you may have been caught off guard.

Jesus’ words reek of division, not harmony; they hint at war, not peace. Indeed, Jesus doesn’t sound like Jesus at all, but I think we can still figure out what he means. 

Perhaps, if we read this passage from Matthew in light of the passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we might gain some perspective on it.

A portion of what we hear from Paul today will become part of the Pascha Nostrum (found on page 83 of the Book of Common Prayer). These words should sound familiar; we recited them together at the beginning of worship each Sunday during the Easter season. 

“We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

With these words, and those that precede them, Paul establishes a theology of the Christian life. He tells us that, as Christians, we are baptized into Christ’s death, so that we might be raised with him to new life.

In other words, we don’t have to wait until our physical deaths to be united with Christ. That unification first takes place in baptism, the ritual act that joins us to the Christian faith.

Submerged in the waters of baptism, we die with Christ, emerging from the font redeemed agents of the resurrection life. This is the Christian paradox: Jesus died, so that we may live, and so, in baptism, we die, so that we might live. 

Jesus took care of our sin on the cross. There is no guilt on this side of that great sacrifice. Sure, there is still sin—we see it all around: racism, bigotry, chauvinism, homophobia, and our refusal to take the perspective of others.

The difference is, through our life in Christ, we are freed from complacency to sin, no longer willing to submit to sinful behaviors, but instead empowered to fight against them.

In light of this understanding of Paul’s words, perhaps we will hear Jesus’ words in today’s gospel anew?

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”

It might seem a strange thing to preach on Father’s Day—Jesus’ words are indeed words of division, of enmity, but if Paul’s understanding of our Christian life tells us anything, it is that, sometimes, division can be a good thing.

Creation is full of helpful division—cell division, by which a parent cell divides into two daughter cells and creates new life; root division, by which perennial plants are divided at the root, planted separately, and propagated just as beautifully as ever; division of labor, by which tasks are shared among many in order to improve working conditions and promote efficiency.

So it is with division between life and death, sin and grace. 

Jesus is clear. Preaching the Gospel will cause conflict, even in our own households, but that “division” can be helpful.

Think about it. It’s a good thing to separate yourself from your weird cousin’s conspiracy theories, right? It’s a good thing to separate yourself from your aunt’s particular brand of homophobic humor. It’s a good thing to separate yourself from your racist grandpa’s musings about brainpans and bone structures.

This week, Jesus asks us, do we value our relationships with friends, our families, and our neighbors more than the Kingdom that Jesus calls us to strive for?

At Pentecost, God gave the Spirit necessary for us to do the work that God has given us to do. But what happens when that work comes into tension with our closest earthly relationships?

No simple answers to these questions exist. So it is with questions of faith, no one answer is right for all times, all places, or all people. Nevertheless, these are questions that we must consider, lest we make peace with oppression.

We must start by remembering that our old selves were crucified with Christ. Our bodies of sin were destroyed, that we might become active members of Christ’s resurrected body. “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Now, we are ruled by the grace of God. Jesus came to show us that grace in human form because we need it when we preach the Gospel, especially to the people we love the most. 

As we question our role in causing conflict for the Kingdom, we may find that it really is a holy thing whenever we “set ourselves against each other,” as it were, to have the tough, yet civil, conversations that our baptism calls us to have.

These conversations do not include picking petty fights or complaining about pet peeves. Nor do they include name-calling or spitefulness.

They do, however, include respectful, Gospel-centered dialogue about fairness and dignity, liberation and love.

Division between ourselves and our loved ones is not meant to imply giving up on them or desiring for them sin and death. Rather, it is a means of differentiating ourselves from particular brands of sin and death, which can breed fear, violence, and hate.

It is holy distance that gives us space to remember that Jesus, by his life, death, and resurrection, shows us another way.

It is holy conflict that gives us space to take a deep breath, to get a little perspective, and to remember that our role as followers of Jesus is to walk with all people toward eternal life.

It is holy division, that creates the space necessary to build bridges of love and a grace.

Friends, from time to time Jesus will call you to have tough conversations with the people you love for the sake of the Gospel, and today he reminds us all that to refuse to do so is to deny the presence of God in ourselves and in them.  

And so he gives us the grace to do it, now and always.