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.

Fifth Sunday in Lent, 2020

Fifth Sunday in Lent – March 29, 2020 – Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; John 11:1-45 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer (via Zoom)

At this point in the season of Lent, the lectionary makes it ever clearer that we are inching our way toward that glorious day of resurrection.

Our collect this morning will have us praying, even among the swift and varied changes of the world, for hearts fixed where true joys are to be found. In other words, for hearts fixed on Jesus.

As Christians, we certainly hear echoes of the resurrection life in this morning’s reading from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel. 

“. . . Suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together . . . there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them . . . the Lord God [said,] ‘Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live’. . . and the breath came into them, and they lived.”

Here we have Ezekiel witnessing the work of God, which is the restoration of God’s chosen people. But, more important than Ezekiel’s witnessing of God’s work is his participation in it.

God does not simply restore these dry bones in the presence of Ezekiel. God leads Ezekiel to the valley where the bones lay, and God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones on God’s behalf. Make no mistake—the work is God’s—but God invites Ezekiel to participate in it.

Likewise, God invites you to participate in God’s work this day and all days, even in the midst of your own dry and desolate valleys. Even in valleys of sickness, or grief, or isolation, God enjoins you and empowers you to participate in the work of creation and re-creation which never, ever stops.

I bet you do it all the time; maybe without even noticing. 

Did you support—in a safe and appropriate way—a struggling small business this week? Did you send a text, or make a phone call, or leave a message for a friend? Did you pray for someone less fortunate than you, someone who you thought really needed it? Or did you pray for someone a lot better off than you? Someone who doesn’t think they need your prayers at all?

God empowers you to do all these things and more, even when—especially when—you’re caught in the doldrums of life. 

It’s ironic that sometimes in the worst of situations we realize the greatest of blessings. It is actually quite miraculous how God can change your perspective in an instant.

Earlier this week I heard someone say, “My family is talking more. We’re staying in touch regularly. We’re checking in on each other every day. Sometimes it’s hard to get off the phone. We cannot physically be together, but it is as if we have grown closer in spite of—or perhaps because of—our distance.”

Perhaps you are comforted to know that you do not walk through these low and lonely places alone. You are joined, not only by the faithful assembled here and across the virtual scope of Christendom this day, but by the people of God in every age.

God’s people have been walking through dry and desolate valleys for a long, long time. Some have even written about it, prayed about it. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” You may have heard it before.

This morning’s psalm puts it a bit differently. “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice; let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.”

Whatever words are used to convey the message, the fact remains that the people of God have been here before. And now, not only in our Lenten season but in this time of physical isolation, we find ourselves waiting for the Lord once again. Waiting for the Lord, as Psalm 130 says, “more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.”

For Christians, this time of waiting is not passive. It is no time for boredom and complacency. Christian waiting is active waiting; it is expectant waiting.

It is the kind of waiting we experience each year during Advent and Lent. As Dr. Wright said during last Tuesday’s Bible study, this is “waiting in a particular direction.” We know what’s coming next.

God’s people know that things are going to get better. God’s people know that they will be recalled from exile and set back upon their own soil.

God’s people know that the scattered bones will once again be wrapped in flesh and filled with the breath of God. God’s people know that, as soon as Jesus finishes crying, the newly-resuscitated Lazarus is going to walk out of the tomb.

God’s people know that the pandemic will end, that the economy will begin to recover, that they will see their friends and family members again and be able to hug them up close.

We know these things, not because we cling to a naïve faith that ignores the suffering of the present time, not because we deny the desolate nature of this period of waiting.

On the contrary, we know these things because we see reminders of the resurrection all around us, every day. People re-build after storms. Volunteers travel thousands of miles to lend a hand. Leaves grow back on trees. Babies are born. New crops take root. Retirement accounts slowly begin to grow again. New jobs are created, obtained, learned.

Yes, crucifixion is evident as well. People get sick, and some die. Jobs and businesses may be lost. Communities will be changed in ways no one could ever have imagined.

But no matter how hard the crucifixions may be, they never have the last word. The last word is reserved for the Word which renews us in the wake of every obstacle. That Word to us is Love.

And so it is in Love we wait. Yes, we grieve, we work, we watch, we weep. But most of all we love because we have been through this before, and we know exactly what awaits us on the other side.

Feast of the Presentation

Feast of the Presentation – February 2, 2020 – Luke 2:22-40 – Epiphany, Sherwood

Today we interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple.

This feast is always on February 2nd, which means that it isn’t always on a Sunday. However, our tradition considers it such an important moment in Jesus’ life that, when it does fall on a Sunday, we are sure to observe it, eschewing the ordinary lectionary readings.

And so this morning we hear the familiar story of Mary and Joseph bringing their 40-day-old infant to Jerusalem and carrying him into the temple. They do this, not just for the fun of it, but because they are firmly rooted in the tradition of their ancestors. This is what faithful Jewish people do: offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving for the first fruits of their union.

Mary and Joseph can’t afford to sacrifice much, just a couple of birds. There is perhaps no greater evidence of the ordinary-ness of these average, workaday folks. Mary—young, innocent, curious. Joseph—aging, gangly, protective (and a bit awkward because of it). Their boy, Jesus—unusually smiley, yet somehow fussy all the same—is, most of all, just along for the ride.

That’s most infants, isn’t it? Just along for the ride. Carried wherever mother goes: bedroom, laundry room . . . ancient near-eastern Temple. Scoped up by dad, no choice but to tag along to the kitchen sink for a bath, the bassinet for a nap . . . Egypt to hide from Herod’s men.

As the youngest member of my family, I didn’t have much experience around babies until my nephew was born last year. I always thought of babies as very resistant to being taken from the loving and familiar arms of their parents.

To a certain extent that’s true, but there is something special about the earliest months of a child’s life before they are able to express their displeasure at being taken away from mom or dad.

During this time they are perfect examples of innocence and trust. They are, for the most part, content to go along for the ride, with aunt, uncle, grandma, grandpa, friend, neighbor, perfect stranger.

Once when I was watching my nephew I began to talk to him about some of the things that interest me. I explained the theological conundrums faced by homiletical scholars in the 21st century who attempted bring incarnational validity to bear on both their audience analysis and exegetical research.

He was riveted, right there with me the whole time, along for the ride down the path of a former—and perhaps still wanna-be—seminarian.

When I paused, he looked at me, dried formula on his bib, and even if only with his eyes seemed to respond, “Go on.”

This is the developmental stage that Jesus is in now. He’s a baby. He doesn’t understand what anyone is saying although he may be comforted by the tone with which it’s said. Before too long he will begin to recognize the ones who care for him most often, but for now, he’s content just to be along for the ride.

And so he goes not only to the temple, but into the arms of Simeon and Anna. These two have seen it all, and yet they never could have expected the unbounded joy they would feel upon experiencing God’s salvation for the very first time.

We’ve all been along for the ride. Not only as infants, but in our Christian journeys as well. Those of us who were baptized as infants, not yet fully understanding the implications of our joining the Church, were carried along by others who made promises on our behalf and committed to nurture and love us as we grew into them.

Those of us who were baptized as adults may not have been taken along for the ride quite as literally, but we were still carried to the font by the prayers, support, and love of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The people who took us in their arms, whether those arms be physical or spiritual, must be kin to Simeon and Anna. No, they didn’t proclaim the salvation or redemption that we offered to them; they proclaimed the salvation and redemption that Jesus offers to the entire world—including us.

They were able to do this because they experienced Jesus, but unlike Simeon and Anna, they didn’t have to wait until their old age. Instead, they experienced the promise—and the reality—of God’s salvation when they were younger. Perhaps as children, teens, young adults, newlyweds.

Nor do we have to wait until the end of our lives to experience Jesus. Because others brought us along for the ride, we have experienced God’s grace and peace and love along the way.

The remembrance and celebration of Jesus’ presentation in the Temple offers us an opportunity to reflect on those who brought us into the Church. None of us got here without going along for the ride. Some us might have gone willingly, or unknowingly. Others of us were perhaps resistant, even kicking and screaming. The question is, who carried you?

A parent? A child? Your grandmother or priest or teacher? A husband or wife or a friend you didn’t deserve? Were they just ordinary, average, workaday folks?

Maybe you were enveloped and sustained on this journey chiefly by a source that you could never seem to name. Maybe you were brought along by someone who is in this room right now, or someone who used to sit here Sunday after Sunday. Maybe you don’t know who brought you to this place in your life. Maybe they are unseen, but nonetheless real, communicating with you heart-to-heart.

Whether that person lives down the street or dwells in realms on high, they are still a part of you. They are a part of you because they played a role, however great or small, in taking you along on the ride of a lifetime, a journey on which you would discover the marvelous grace of God.

Because you were carried down this path, you are prepared to bring others along with you. Is there any greater gift than being grafted into the rich heritage of those who carry each other toward Jesus?

Is there any greater gift than taking hold of the gangly and green, or the tender and mild, or the fussy and frustrating, or the foul-mouthed and fiery, or the humble and holy and introducing them, as you once were, to God’s unconditional love?

Is there anything greater than that? Could there be anything greater than that?

Love. Your. Neighbor.

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – July 14, 2019 – Luke 10:25-37 – Trinity, Winchester

I invite you to listen to me preach this sermon here. 

You already know the story. 

It’s one of the Gospel’s most familiar. For this reason some teachers of preaching might even say, “Skip it! Focus on the Old Testament lesson. Try the epistle for a change.”

On the other hand, others urge the kind of strong exegetical work that leads to a cutting-edge interpretation. Such a familiar story deserves more critical attention, they say. Easier said than done. 

Either way, you already know the story. 

You’ve probably even heard a preacher say something like, “The priest and the Levite ignore the suffering man because they don’t want to be made unclean.”

Another likely brought to your attention the arrogance of the lawyer who seeks to test Jesus and justify himself.

One preacher no doubt wowed you by approximating the value of two denarii in today’s day and age. Still another stressed the animosity between Samaritans and Jews in order to emphasis just how unbelievable this radical act of mercy is. 

One of my seminary professors impressed me when he likened the robbers in the story to terrorists. They strip the man, beat him, and leave him half dead. These are no ordinary pick-pockets. These are much worse than the people who wave handguns at convenience store clerks. 

New exegetical interpretations might help you see something you hadn’t before. Different homiletical tactics may bring you into the story from a different angle. Still, you already know the story. 

No matter now many times you poke and prod it searching for new insight, the fundamental message remains: Love. Your. Neighbor. It really is as simple as that.  

All our lives—from the fables we heard in Kindergarten to the parables we learned in Sunday School—we have encountered this valuable lesson over and over and over again: Love your neighbor.

Just like the lawyer in the story, we already know what is written in the book. If asked we can probably quote it, too. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

There’s a shorter version, too. Matthew wrote it down this way: “Treat others as you want to be treated.” The Golden Rule. You know it well. 

But here’s the thing, friends. Jesus is not simply concerned with whether you know this important truth; Jesus is concerned with whether or not you practice it in your everyday life. 

It’s right here in black and white. Jesus tells the lawyer, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” It’s not just about knowing, it’s about doing. You know it; now go and act like you know it.

After Jesus tells this familiar story he asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer answers, “The one who showed him mercy.” 

Good! Another correct answer. More right belief. More good knowledge. But what is Jesus’ response? “Go and do likewise.” Do likewise. You already know it; now you have to do it. We all have to do it. We have to love our neighbor. 

Before we continue: a caveat. All this talk about doing stuff is bound to make good protestants nervous. 

I know that we’ve caught Dr. Luther’s attention and from the Communion of Saints he strains his ear even as we speak to make sure we get this right. So let’s be clear. You can’t earn your salvation by doing things. You can’t get into heaven by right action. 

We do not go about the business of loving our neighbor in order to earn something or to gain access to someplace. We do it to make the world the place that God wants the world to be. 

We do not do it for ourselves. We do it out of love for one another, out of a desire to see each other grow and learn and flourish and succeed. Most of all, we do it out of gratitude for the love, the saving grace that God has shown to each of us.

So just do it—love your neighbor. Not just in thought, but it in word and deed. The world needs your example. 

This community needs your example. 

The day after Governor Lee declared Nathan Bedford Forest Day, the great state of Tennessee needs Christians like you to stand up and say, “This is absolutely wrong.” 

So do it! Not because you don’t care about history. Not because you want to erase the past. Not because you prefer a sanitized version of an idealized nation. 

No. Do it out of love for those who live in the still-too-threatening shadow of the Klan. Do it because you stand shoulder to shoulder with Jesus beside the oppressed and victimized. Do it because you follow God who really does desire “liberty and justice for all,” not just for some. 

The Anglican Church of Canada needs your example. 

After a heart-breaking vote at their General Synod this week the Canadian church has once again denied marriage equality to its members. The bishops could not reach the two thirds vote threshold they needed to expand the marriage rite to include same-sex couples. 

It’s up to you to show the world that it’s possible to love your neighbor. 

The United States needs your example. 

As long as innocent children are separated from their families, as long as refugees remain trapped in unsanitary cages without adequate nourishment, Christians have work to do.

We have to show the world that it really is possible to love our neighbor. 

No matter who occupies the White House, no matter who wields the Speaker’s gavel, no matter who sits in the Leader’s chair, we are called to respond as bearers of the light and life of Christ.

This is not work we do to earn more jewels in our crown or a better seat at the heavenly banquet table. This is love that we share in response to a God who loved us so much that he deigned to walk among us as a human being, showing us that our flesh matters. 

Jesus led by example. He taught us that even in our frail, feeble, fleshy state we can put God’s love into action because that’s what we were created to do. 

Now, here’s the really hard part. I don’t want to scare you, but I feel I have an obligation to share this with you: every single one of your neighbors deserves the love of God. All of them. Full stop. 

That’s not only the people who you are called to stand up for, but those who you are called to stand up to. Even the men and women in the halls of power, even a few Canadian bishops, even Governor Lee. 

I must admit, I’m not exactly sure how we’re supposed to manage this all the time. I’m supposed to be a professional Christian of sorts, and I don’t always get it right. That doesn’t mean we can’t give it our best shot. 

We can take care not to vilify others before we take their perspective. We can do more to recognize how the thoughts in our heads and words on our tongues turn to hate in our hearts. We can remind ourselves—and each other—that we’re much better off with love, even when others don’t love us back. 

Most of all, we can practice being grateful to God who saves us. As has been said before, “I never knew a person to be mean who was first and foremost grateful.” Be grateful. 

Beyond that, I’m not really sure what more to say. We’ll just have to continue to do the work together. The good news is, we can. With God’s help and by God’s grace we can love anyone, everyone. It’ll be hard work, but then again, most things in life that are worth it are hard, and nobody ever said love was easy.

No, nobody ever said love was easy.

Good Friday 2019

Good Friday – April 19, 2019 – Trinity, Winchester

Pontius Pilate entered his headquarters and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.” John 19:9-11

*****

Pilate asks Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus remains silent. 

This utterly baffles Pilate. “Don’t you know that I have the power to either release or crucify you?” Jesus replies, somewhat calmly as I imagine it, “You have no power over me unless it was given to you from above.”

“You have no power.” 

Jesus is right. Pilate has no power. It is easy to see why Pilate thinks he has power over Jesus. In his mind, he can either have Jesus killed or he can set him free, but in reality, it’s not so simple. Nor does Pilate have power over the angry mob outside. He has no control over the hate welling up in their hearts and spewing from their lips.

Something far greater than human power is at work in the events of Jesus’ arrest and trial. Evil forces conspire to create divisions that Pilate and the angry crowd are completely unaware of. Only Jesus recognizes them as the work of Satan plotting to get exactly what he wants. 

Jesus sees Satan at work in the mob mentality. Tensions arise and instead of trying to discover their underlying causes, the group casts all the blame on one person: Jesus. They identify him as a scapegoat. He has been putting some crazy ideas in the minds of the poor, the widowed, and the sick. They consider him the source of their problems. If they can only kill Jesus, then all of their problems will go away.

Satan still works like this in the world. Truth be told, I get nervous throwing around words like “Satan.” Some of you might wonder, “What in the world is he talking about?”

I’m talking about systematic evil in the world. All around us the devil’s scandals run riot. Some develop quickly, others over long periods of time. They carry us unknowingly along with them, and all the while we are complicit in evils of which we are often unaware. [1]

This was the story of the United States during the Civil Rights Movement. “If only that black family would move back to their side of town! People would walk around the neighborhood again. Parents would let their children play in the yard. We could leave our doors unlocked.”

It’s still the case today. “If only we could keep the immigrants on that side of the border! Our jobs would be safe, our economy would be thriving, and our streets would be free of crime.”

That’s not the only example of our modern tendency to scapegoat. Think about the human impact on climate change or the societal acceptance of school shootings. Even as we cry out for solutions, systemic forces of evil keep us from working together to find them. 

We would much rather attack each other than work together to solve the problem. “If we got rid of Trump, everything would be so much better!” “If Nancy Pelosi disappeared, we wouldn’t have these problems anymore!”

As toxic partisanship takes over the political landscape it’s nearly impossible to have civil dialogue. Fear has become our only motivator. When we respond out of fear, we vilify people who are different from us. We lose sight of the real issues and instead mistake each other for the problem. We begin to think that if we can suppress our rivals, then all of our problems will be solved. [2]

As long as that’s our attitude, then the devil has us right where he wants us. As long as Satan keeps us afraid of each other, then we’ll forget about God. As long as Satan keeps us focused on destroying each other, then we won’t notice Jesus hanging over there on that tree. And as long as the devil keeps us at each other’s throats, then we can ignore the fact that we hung him there. 

Three years ago, during Holy Week of 2016, the House of Bishops issued a statement to the church reminding us to reject hatred and fear. They wrote, “We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others.” [3]

Their sentiment is, unfortunately, still relevant. Even in a country that stands in the shadow of the lynching tree, we continue to turn against our neighbors. As long as we seek safety and security at the expense of others, and as long as we engage in dialogue only with those who agree with us, then we have not learned our lesson. 

It’s as if we have forgotten about Good Friday. It’s as if we’ve forgotten that today is a crucial part of our Christian story. Today Jesus teaches us one of his most important lessons: fear has no power. 

Today Jesus refuses to play by the devil’s rules. Today Jesus refuses to lower himself to cheap scare tactics and manipulation. Instead, he does the one thing that Satan never expected. He gets up on the cross and he dies. 

He dies. 

Not because he’s weak. Not because he’s stupid. Not even because his Father willed it. No, Jesus does not die out of guilt or necessity or coercion. 

Jesus dies out of love. Jesus dies to show us what it looks like when you refuse to fight fear with fear. 

By dying Jesus upends our worldly expectations. By dying he teaches us that what we consider to be power is not power at all. By dying he teaches us that no matter how afraid we are, we cannot solve our problems by eliminating our neighbors; by dying he teaches us that fear never gets the last word; by dying he teaches us that love triumphs over death. By dying Jesus teaches us that we have no power to save ourselves. 

No matter who we persecute, no matter who we lock up, no matter who we expel, we can’t save ourselves. 

Only God can do that. 

 

[1] Rene Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), 41.

[2] Ibid., 38-41.

[3] The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, A Word to the Church (Holy Week 2016).

Our partiality problem

16th Sunday after Pentecost – September 9, 2018 – Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37 – Trinity Episcopal Church, Winchester, TN

Today the lectionary provides us with an embarrassment of riches. Today’s lessons at first feel and seem quite different from one another but upon closer examination, they work together to offer us a very important lesson about distinctions (or lack thereof) between God’s people. 

From James we hear, “If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say,  “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 

Proverbs is, perhaps blessedly, more brief. “The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.”

These two passages reveal a truth that we often forget. The distinctions that we make between people who are rich and people who are poor are our distinctions, not God’s. God created all of us. In America we sometimes hear it as, “All [men] are created equal.” 

Today we also have the Gospel according to Mark, from which we hear two healing stories—two miracles. 

One is about a Syrophoenician woman who goes to Jesus to ask for help for her sick daughter. This woman is a Gentile. In Jesus’ world, a world of Jews, she does not belong.  She takes the chance because she is desperate. He heals her daughter. 

In the next scene some folks bring Jesus a deaf man with a speech impediment. Because this takes place in the Decapolis, it’s likely that he is also a Gentile. They beg Jesus to lay hands on him. Jesus takes the man aside, puts his fingers into his ears, spits, and touches his tongue. “Ephphatha,” he says, and the man is healed. 

Jesus performs these saving acts on two people who do not belong to his community, two people who should never have belonged to his community. 

Knowledge of this, combined with what we have already heard from Proverbs and James reinforces what we are told again and again: God shows no partiality. God made both rich and poor. God loves all people equally, no matter what side of the tracks they’re from, no matter what community they belong to. 

You can’t believe in Jesus and give special treatment to the rich, or privilege members your own community. The Bible tells us and shows us that Jesus shows mercy to people who are *supposed* to be excluded. 

Jesus goes out of his way to help people that the religious leaders of his day are not to keen on. Even when he is tired, or wants to be alone, he makes time for people that the world has forgotten. 

Imagine that. It really was radical. And, unfortunately, it still is. I’ve heard people tell themselves, “Oh, I don’t see color” or  “I don’t judge,” but there truth is, they do. 

And worse than the stigmas, stereotypes, and snap judgments that we make, is pretending that we don’t make them at all. Instead of facing up to the realities of our participation in systematic oppression we find it easier to ignore any sense of guilt. 

The truth is, we still exclude— not just women, gays, and racial minorities. We exclude all kinds of people who are different than us. I know a student who is on the autism spectrum. He is not able to communicate clearly and confidently with others. He cannot interact socially to the same degree that his peers can. His peers struggle to relate to him precisely because he struggles to relate to them. 

It’s easier to give up or crack a joke to with your friends when he takes the whole class off on a tangent than it is to try to be supportive. 

The same is true when people get sick. Congregations often jump into overdrive When a member is diagnosed with a serious illness. Members bring mounds and mounds of cut up fruit, vegetables, lasagna, and cookies. 

But would you believe that sometimes after a person receives a bad diagnoses, that some people say nothing at all? Some people are afraid they will make a mistake or will not be able to relate. Some people fear that they won’t say the right thing, so they choose to say nothing at all. 

Typical. We all do it. 

Those are the rules of this world, but as Christinas we are called to be different. We know that God’s kingdom is not a kingdom of this world. We are called to live by the rules of God’s reign. No matter who wears what, or says what, or does what, we remember that God is the father and mother of us all. 

That’s hard work. It’s hard because we haven’t all been women, or queer, or a minorities. It’s hard because we don’t always understand difference—of any kind.

We haven’t all had direct experience with autism. We haven’t all been diagnosed with Leukemia or Parkinsons. When faced with differences fear gets ahold of us. Even around people we know and love, we don’t know what might help and what might make things worse.

We just refuse to treat people differently because we don’t want to give those who are different from us “special privileges.” In this country we think that if some people get special privileges then we might lose some of ours. We assume that there has to be inequality. But Jesus showed us that’s not the case when he died for us all. 

God shows no partiality. God’s saving acts are for everyone. Salvation is God’s work among all people. Jesus shows us that it belongs not only to Jews but to Gentiles, too. Even a Syrophoenician. Even a deaf man. Even poor people. Even rich people. 

We don’t obtain our salvation by ourselves. It comes from the one who loved us so much that he gave himself for us. The very same one who stands alongside those who are different from us and shows us that when we love them we love him. That’s salvation. 

James says, “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” Yes, and the autistic, and the sick, and the queer, and the women, and the men, and the blacks, and the whites, and the Mexicans, and the Muslims.

God created us all, and he loves us more than we could ever ask or imagine.

A different kind of song

15th Sunday after Pentecost – September 2, 2018 – Song of Solomon 2:8-13 – Trinity Episcopal Church, Winchester, TN

I regret not recording this sermon in some way. As a relatively new preacher, I’m still learning how sermons take shape in the unique moments of their unfolding. This one was prone to several additions and adaptations. As the living word of God, a sermon is meant to be absorbed by the ear. It is an event in time and not–as it appears here as text on a page–an object in space. Alas, this is what remains.

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The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stand behind our wall gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”

I’m not sure it’s a good idea, but I’m going to preach on the Song of Solomon today. I’m not sure it’s a good idea because some of the content here is kind of . . . sensitive. It’s about. . . passionate love. You know—sex. 

I don’t know if we’ve reached the point in our relationship where we can talk about such things. In fact, I’m not even sure what the proper stage is in the relationship between a pastor and his congregation when such talk is acceptable. Technically, I’m not even a priest yet, and I won’t be for a couple more weeks. 

But, here it goes . . . 

Today’s passage from the Song of Solomon is one of the only excerpts we get from this entire book in the three-year rotation of the Revised Common Lectionary. It appears today, in Proper 17B, but it also lands a second-string role in Proper 9A. 

If it sounded familiar to you it might be because the second half of this passage is often read during weddings. That makes sense. It is about two loving companions. Or, more explicitly, two lovers. 

We often use metaphors to define our relationship with God, but they don’t typically involve young lovers. The metaphor of a parent and child  is probably the most common. God is father or a mother hen gathering her brood. 

The Bible also speaks of the relationship between Christ and the Church as a marriage between husband and wife. A familiar hymn says, “From heaven He came and sought her to be His holy bride.” These are images of family, comfort, protection, and warmth.

These metaphors depict a God who wants to be in relationship with us, like a parent or a spouse. But other relationships in our lives may prove to be useful metaphors for our relationship with God.

Lucky for us the Song of Solomon does tend to stretch us out of our comfort zone in this regard. 

On his blog this week my priest-friend Evan wrote that a member of his parish staff, who grew up in the Baptist tradition, said that as a young person he was not allowed to read the Song of Solomon. The book was simply off-limits to children and young adults. “As an adolescent, I was told not to read it,” he said.

Some Christians think it should be off limits to adults, too. It is just too out there. It contains stories involving giving in to one’s passions which some see as much too erotic: sex before marriage; hiding from people during outdoor escapades. 

The author’s images are certainly beautiful and poetic. While they may not be too terribly explicit, what they represent definitely is. 

They can make us uncomfortable. Hands being thrust into cracks, channels blossoming with orchids and pomegranates, one’s beloved pasturing his flock among the lilies.

I bet just hearing that made some of you uncomfortable. Our discomfort with this topic and these images is precisely that—ours. The problem is not with the biblical text; it’s with us.

We are not comfortable talking about physical intimacy between two people, so why should we be comfortable talking about God that way? Even if it is a metaphor.  

We are created to be passionate, loving, sexual beings. Intimacy is part of our very identity. But for some reason we forget that God is a part of that. And we don’t talk about it, especially not in church. 

Instead we stick to what’s comfortable. We talk about God as a parent because Jesus did. We also know what it means to have, or need, a relationship with a mother and father. 

Even if we don’t have a spouse, most of us have probably at least been to a wedding so we talk about God as a spouse because we are familiar with the concept of marriage and the mutual support that comes with it. 

We even talk about God as sustenance, the very food and drink of life, because we need nourishment. 

But we don’t talk about God as a passionate companion or a lover. But when you think about it, it’s really quite apt. God will stop at nothing to be in a relationship with us. 

We’ve been there. And it goes far beyond our first kiss–a peck on the cheek in grade school. 

Most of us can remember that first time we really fell for someone. The way it felt to be around them. Butterflies in our stomach. Nervous babbling, sweaty palms, and shaking knees when we asked them to dance. In the afternoon we tried to study but we couldn’t. All we could think of was our love. 

Can remember your first love? Or the day you first met your spouse? You didn’t want your first date to end. You spent countless hours on the phone. You would have “leapt upon the mountains and bounded over the hills” just to see them. 

My sister Leslie was introduced to her husband Andrew on a trip to Austin, TX with some college friends. She met him at a New Year’s Eve and didn’t leave his side for rest of the trip. She was just a poor college student, but she later confessed to me that she would have gladly drained her entire bank account just to push her flight back one more day. 

That’s the way it is sometimes. We are so captivated with another person that nothing else matters. It is enough to stare into their eyes for hours. 

The author of Solomon’s song is reminding us that that’s also the way it is with God. No matter how uncomfortable certain subject matter makes us, God is a part of even our most intimate moments. 

In fact, God is the source of them. 

Perhaps it’s not so out of bounds for us to read today’s narrative and think of God. The narrator hears her beloved and she stirs. There he is, peeking through the lattice, beckoning her to come out. 

What if God came to us like that? What if our relationship with God was as special as a relationship with a new love? What if our relationship with God made our insides tingle and our stomach sink. 

Could we ever allow that? I think so. 

God does not just comfort us like a parent or love us like a spouse. God also pursues us with the voracity of young love.

God tells you, “You are mine.” I think of you all the time. God is so captivated with you that nothing is a distraction. Not all the money in your bank account. 

“I always want to be with you,” God says. And he will be.