Sermon: Palm Sunday 2020.
Our readings are Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 and Matthew 21:1-11. They can be found online here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=29
One of the things I love about Palm Sunday is the way that it threads together the Old and New Testaments. The readings – the same stories each year – always show us that we are being ‘grafted’ (as Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans) into the people of God through the one true tree of life: Jesus Christ. Why do I love that Palm Sunday does this? Well, I love the symbolic connections:
So this is why I love palm Sunday. It is filled with symbols, words, creatures, persons and events that weave together the Old and New testaments not just in these two passages, but across the Scriptures.
But this is an intellectual delight, an intellectual beauty that speaks to something more fundamental. And if it were not for this, that interweaving would be like that you find in any other well written story. No, the key here, at least for me is this. The reason it is so important that these passages have such interwoven fulfillment is because it proves to me that the God who claims to have made me, given me a purpose, a place, and a life – that he cannot and will not abandon me when things go horrifically wrong. We could have just read the Gospel lesson today and know that this man named Jesus is going to take a humble donkey ride while some folks lay down palm branches.
Nice story. Reminds me of many other legends and myths. And maybe this would give me some moments of refreshment or allow me to reset how I think about things. But I’ll tell you what, it would leave me with a sense of profound sadness about life. Why? Because it wouldn’t allow me to see who God is: that the one who made me from nothing – that rescued me from this profoundly messed up world where there is disease, suffering, brokenness, war, brutal violence, pandemics – is also the one who refuses to accept these things as dictating that I should succumb to brokenness, corruption, and evil in my life now. Although I may suffer and struggle – as all of us do and very much are to varying degrees through this pandemic – God has always been, always will be and so in the middle of this frightening, confusing, destructive, and uncertain time of pandemic, always is with us.
You see our story today, of Jesus taking the wise donkey of burden, carrying the God-man who has taken on my own and your burdens, allows me to see the world through a different light as the psalm puts it, or lens, as we might say today. If we look back through time in Scripture what we see is not just the events recorded in those scriptures. Instead we can see all of history and even our present right there in different parts of Scripture: we see wars, disease, corruption, violence, degradation and humiliation, aging, suffering, sickness, disease and death. And we see God present with us, his people. We see him not idly standing by, or standing above us shaking his head at us and our foolishness and our suffering. We see that he came into the world for us and walked a path that would lead to our redemption, our reconciliation and to life. A life offered to each of us not to live on our own, or in our own ways, but in relationship, following that path that God laid out for us in the life of Jesus. And we know that the gate came down with Jesus’s Cross and resurrection, so that we could walk the righteous path with him, we in him and him in us.
That my friends, is what allows me to truly live and give of myself when I am tired, scared, worried, stressed out, frustrated, confused, and profoundly uncertain. I am not alone even when no mere human knows my fear and anxiety, knows the deeds I must do and the things I must refrain from telling, or the ways in which relationships can scratch away the scabs or even old skin of scars from old fears abided, but never forgotten.
Today we begin holy week. In times past it has been a week of anticipation and of so much activity in the Church, times of gathering, preparing and worshipping. This week there will be no opportunity to gather together in person. This week is Holy Saturday. It is a time of collective exhaustion, of profound shock, sadness, worry, and maybe even for some of you (as I know it has been for many of my colleagues), of tears. My friends I say to you, let them flow. There is no shame in weeping, of wailing with lament and anguish. This is a world whose entire population is living a truth of human finitude: our Holy Saturday. It is okay to acknowledge this and allow yourself to remain there.
For we know something else. We know that The Son of God who goes down into the depths of Hell, that he rises. That he comes amongst us and that he remains with us, that he gives us His Spirit so that in these times, we can know that we are not alone. We are not standing outside the gates but we have the Holy of Holies inside us, deeper inside us that we are in ourselves (see Augustine). So as we are confined to our homes, uncertain of our futures, let us not forget that we are bound together, as were the Israelites, in and with Christ. From here, just where we are, we can reach out as we’ve been doing – in the hope and by the way of Christ – to talk on the phone, to write a letter or an email, to check in with one another, knowing that we have been given life, even through struggle and uncertainty, for the sake of one another as witnesses to this one in whom we find life. AMEN.
Lent 5 A Sermon for Sunday March 3, 2020
Our readings for the day: Old Testament: The Prophet Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Epistle: Paul’s epistle/letter to the Roman gathering of Christians 8:6-11; The Gospel of John 11:1-45 (see your Bible or the following link if you’re online: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=28)
My dear brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ,
This is the third Sunday since we last were together to hear the Word of God, of where he is at, of what he is doing in our lives. And it has been three Sundays since we have been able to come together to be renewed in fellowship with him and with one another by consuming his body and blood, the bread of heaven, the cup of salvation. I don’t know about you, but I know I have found this absence from you a sharp and stabbing reminder of our frailty, of the temporary nature of our lives – as our reading from Ezekiel puts it – a reminder that we are but dry bones without flesh or spirit without God’s sustaining presence with us.
To be quite honest, I often, and it would seem that most of us often forget our frailty and how temporary our lives are. Some of us certainly do have reminders. I am diabetic and relying on insulin to keep me alive does sometimes make me more aware of how vulnerable I am to other diseases and to death than perhaps is the case for many. I know several of you have had or have cancer, mental illnesses, chronic pain, severe headaches, etc. And yet these are certainly not situations or conditions that affect every human being on earth.
But now, now we are brought to the brink of our mortal existence – not just your or I, not in existential or abstract form – but concretely. The threat of one disease, COVID-19, has ground the culturally, nationally and linguistically diverse and geographically disbursed world’s economies to a halt. Here, as in most other places across the entire world, we have been asked to stay home, to stay inside, to stay away from one another for even unknowingly, we might carry a disease that affects the capacity for others to live. And as we have been asked to isolate, the things we take for granted – gathering for social events, for cultural events, for sporting events, even for worship, travelling, going to see friends and family near and far – have been halted. It is as if the world were covered by a flood that stopped all human enterprises of making families, of building and running businesses, of travelling to trade, of exploring of ladder climbing, of tower building (see Noah’s Ark, Genesis 7).
How does this make you feel? Fearful? Untethered? Uncertain? We are certainly not used to living with these things in the acute way they have occurred for us. We have no real immediate experience to compare this event to. Perhaps we’ve read history books and know about the plagues that killed millions throughout the centuries, about how towns and nations shut down at various times and places. We know, at least from a distance of time and experience, that what we are experiencing now, is not unheard of. But that’s just the point: we have no personal experience of the reality most people through history have lived with: physical, mental, emotional suffering and death, on a regular basis. We have medicines, hospitals, technologies, shelters, foodbanks, hospitals and senior’s homes in which the suffering and dying are removed from our immediate vision, from our homes, from our streets. But now that reality of human finitude is not just on our doorsteps but is being experienced in our physical bodies, in our hearts and minds.
And we might ask: where is God in all of this? Some pastors have claimed that this is God’s punishment of a way of life, or of one particular group or another. Is there truth in this claim? To be frank, I cannot say. One of the things that ought to be said, if you weren’t already aware of this, is that the events of plagues and diseases in Scripture which God caused or which he used, were interpreted ‘at a distance’ that is, often 2-500 years after they actually occurred. In other words, interpretation of God’s purposes and works is not only a retrospective (looking back at what occurred and what the longer range outcomes were), but also a communal and not an individual determination. So to imagine one can claim ‘what God is doing here’ with any certainty is, I think, the work of a true fool, not a fool formed in and by Christ.
Part of the reason we cannot say where God is in this is because we don’t yet know what this ‘break from our normal routines and ways and thinking’ will mean, of what it will change, of how it will change us, or those with whom we interact from the person who lives beside us to the person who lives over in Taiwan thousands of kilometers away from us. Another part of the reason we cannot say where God is in this is because I think we have for too long, imagined that God is somehow going to work consistently with what we think, believe, and desire, as if God is in our ‘employ.’ We imagine that “God with us,” means God “supports our way of life and thinking and doing and living.” We imagine that God’s judgment is something that only occurred in the past and that now we are set free to do as we please. But Scripture of course tells us that the ways that we as individuals and as a whole nation (by nation I mean the people of Israel and Church) live, are often inconsistent with what he desires of us.
So on the one hand, we must be open to the fact that whether God causes (I doubt this) or whether God uses the events that occur as a result of this virus (I think this is more likely), there may in fact be condemnation of aspects of how we live, of the presumptions we make, etc. What could these be? I think there’s a long list – destroying the created world God gave us to live on largely in greedy pursuit of land/homes, money and possessions, caring more about ourselves than fostering community and care for the most vulnerable, harming children through enslaving them, or neglecting them because we are too busy at work, hurting one another in relationships, concentrating most of the world’s wealth in the hands of a few while billions starve and live in their own feces, building suburbs and projects to amass more safe personal space for nuclear families while simultaneously creating the most lonely generation of people that has ever existed, failing to teach the Christian faith with specific Christ formed virtues, instead falsely presuming it to be coterminous with our nationalistic libertarianism – and the list goes on.
All of these things, along with everything else that we do and presume about who we are before God, all of these things I think we will need to individually and collectively question as we take them to God in prayer. Are they consistent with what God reveals throughout the whole Bible. What does it mean to be a steward of creation? Is the way we treat the earth we live on, the animals and plants we live with consistent with being the stewards God calls us? Is our constant material consumption of possession and food consistent with being God’s steward of his creation? What does God want of families? Why do they exist? What does he want of single people? What is their purpose? How does God call us to work? What is work for? What does it mean to return, through our work and through our families, to God these very things that God gave to us?
This morning the key theme of our reading is that it is God who judges wrong our sins by which we literally suffer and die. Psalm 130, verse 3 says, If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord who could stand? Iniquities are failures to follow God’s will; they are sin. So who can stand if God is judge of human failure to follow him? Well we see who it is who stands. It is the one who himself alone is both human perfection and as God is perfect: Jesus Christ. It is the One who, when he raises Lazarus in the Gospel from John, foreshadows or lets us know that He alone has the power to raise us; for it is He alone who is raised and rises from the dead.
In Lazarus’s being raised from the dead, we can see ourselves, having been raised in our baptisms, from death by Jesus. For far too long we have taken this basic Christian claim for granted. We’ve taken it for granted so much that we’ve forgotten or cannot figure out how to explain it to people who don’t go to Church because socially, they don’t have to. And so our Churches – all of them – have emptied out. This is the most basic claim of the Christian faith. Through one man – Adam’s, sin – all fell (that means you and me both). But through one man’s faith – a Jesus Christ’s faith – all are made alive. It is the claim that makes us distinct from groups that just follow a good moral story, or self-help manuals, or a variety of Western secular morals.
Where is God in all of this? I don’t know for certain. Is it a form of judgment? I don’t know for certain. Will God use it as a form of judgment? Scriptural precedent seems to indicate that he will. He will call us out of our iniquity. But here’s the central part – that reassuring part I think we’re all looking for – he doesn’t stand far off as we struggle in the sort of uncertainty and fear and anxiety, and upheaval that Lazarus surely did before his death, or that the people of Israel – in the midst of their judgment – did when being addressed by Ezekiel. Nope. God does not stand far off. He doesn’t even leave it to us to somehow get to him. What does he do? Well first, he does give us time. And sometimes that time is spent in suffering the fate of sin: disorder, struggle, and pain, whether in literal terms, or in more figurative terms.
What does he say when he’s told Lazarus is dying? He waits. He actually stays two more days “in the place he was.” He doesn’t go immediately and stop Lazarus’s march toward death. In fact, he says that this movement toward death is going to glorify God. This would be a horrible thing to say, a monstrous thing unfitting a loving God, if Jesus didn’t have the power to raise him from death not just at the end of time, but back into the midst of his family and friends, to be a witness indeed, to the power of God right there and then. Jesus did not leave Lazarus, even if he didn’t respond when everyone wanted or expected him to. God does things in his own time and in a time only he knows.
By the time Jesus got to him, Lazarus stunk because he’d been dead for four days. Jesus commands him to come out and sure enough, out comes Lazarus not at the end of time, but right then and there four days later, back to his family and friends, back into his life in one way, and yet into an entirely new life given and experienced and known and so seen through the life of God that is the true light shed on all the events that take place in this world: “O dry bones hear the Word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” And we see then that even though he did it in his own time and for a purpose we could not understand, God was never absent from Lazarus, not in life, and then we discover, not even in suffering, or death, and most certainly, not in the new life Jesus made happen.
This is what I think we can draw from this: even when we cannot see where God is, when we don’t understand what he could be doing, or why, even when we are faced with true, concrete fear, disease, suffering, anxiety, loneliness, we can be assured that God has not abandoned us. He has given us time. And in this time, potentially he will use this situation of having to face into the reality that we are mortal, that we are fallen sinners who are not living in accordance with his desire for us, as a kind of giant ‘reset button’ like that hit with the Flood and his Ark.
You see the Ark in our lives is the Ark in every human life: it is the Cross of Jesus Christ. That Cross casts judgment on the broken and sinful ways that we live. So when an event occurs that causes the kind of universal pause we have before us right here and now with COVID, as with the Flood, we are given time to ask what the Cross illumines in this world that is of God, and what it illumines that is not of God. And perhaps through this event, we can go to God with more humility and less anger, less presumption, less sense of control and autonomy, and ask: “O Lord, I wait for you, my soul waits and I cry out from the depths, hear my voice as I raise my questions to you, answer me Lord and give me direction.
In today’s gospel lesson, we hear a religious leader of the Jews named Nicodemus say to Jesus: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." Jesus replies to Nicodemus: “no one can see the kingdom of God without having been born from above.” Likely just as you and I would respond, with confusion and doubt, Nicodemus says, "How can these things be, we’ve already been born and grown up, how are we to enter our mother’s womb again?"
Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? You have heard God’s word and know the signs and the disciples and I we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. You fail to recognize the signs God told you of manifest in my works, so how will you believe if I try to tell you about being born from above, about heavenly things that is?
Here is the sign spoken through God’s word: do you remember when Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness? That was a sign of what is to come: and now the Son of Man, me, Jesus, must be lifted up on the cross so that your faith is not in vain but secured in my resurrection to life. I descended from heaven to the earth, all the way to Hell, and will ascend to heaven, so that the whole of creation might be transformed, and you might be reconciled to God, “that whoever believes in [me] may have eternal life.”
Now it’s important to understand something here: the signs that Jesus is doing, have been given already and we read about them in the Old Testament Scriptures. For example, we hear of Moses lifting the serpent so that anyone who looked at it would be cured of the venom of the serpent, literally, of the effects of sin. Recall it is a serpent who is spoken of in Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, so also is this Jesus’s tempter. Like this serpent lifted high by Moses, so Jesus Christ is raised on the Cross, and again raised from the dead, his faithfulness in enduring this, overcoming the effects of sin and granting life to those who believe, who have faith in God. We see similar signs in Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his Son Isaac. But that his Son Isaac, is saved from death by God by Abraham’s faithfulness, God’s own faithfulness, and Isaac becomes the ancestor of the Messiah and so every gentile, all of us.
So Nicodemus has no excuse: as a teacher of the Israelites, he knows these signs well. So Jesus says to him: “look I am fulfilling all the signs you ought to know in the things I’m doing here day-to-day. Can you not see dear Nicodemus, that only God himself could fulfill these signs, do you not recognize who I am, Nicodemus? Are you still blind to God come into your midst? If you do not recognize me as the fulfillment of the signs you know as an Israelite, how hard will it be for you to hear of the heavenly things? If you were to recognize me, you would know that you must be born not simply from a mother and father on earth, but from the grace of God above.
Let us contrast Nicodemus for a moment with the woman who risks her life simply to grasp onto Jesus garments in faith that he is the power who will heal her. Hers is a recognition that she must be born from above. Or think about Mary who anoints Jesus feet with oil, spending likely most of what she has, not paying attention to the housecleaning and the social customs that must be done, for she has this one moment to invite Jesus into her life, recognizing him as God, she gives freely of everything she has in that moment. Or think of Mary when she trusts an angel of God, giving up her safety, and likely her life, even her future, to bear the Son of God solely by faith. Hers is the recognition that one must be born from above by risking a life bound to faith in God, not certainty of her own circumstances. Or think of Abraham and Noah who step out to sacrifice a Son and to spend years laboring to build an ark with only the word of God to motivate them.
All of these people are signs of what it looks like to recognize Jesus Christ as Lord of all, as God, and to be taken up in him and born anew in him, of the Holy Spirit. To see the kingdom of God – isn’t a moment of insight – but a lifetime spent following the one who is the very kingdom unfolded across time: Jesus himself. But there’s this catch, to see Jesus Christ’s life unfold, to see the kingdom of God encompassing all creation, well, this requires faith. To be born from above in the life of Christ is, in this world still not yet reconciled to God, not a matter of knowing with certainty, but trusting God and so following him in faith that he will bring about the reconciliation he has promised.
To put this in Scriptural terms, to see the kingdom of God one must be born out of the womb of God; from the nothingness to which sin returned us, to new life, by grace won for us in Jesus’s death and resurrection; and in new life, to receive this grace taking our first breath in faith that the air given by God might fill our lungs and make beat our hearts; and in following being made fit, our dry bones enfleshed, crawling in confession and repentance and prayer on our knees; and in following, so also receiving the Spirit who enables us to first step out into the kingdom, into the very life of Jesus Christ. This is what it means to be born from above. It is the new life of faith that we receive by grace and mark in the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist. Having been born from below already, as Nicodemus remarks, to be born from above is to step out from the safety of our lives into the uncertainty that comes, inevitably with faith in God whom we see now only through a glass darkly.
We like safety though; so as much as we’d like to think we would turn to God like Abraham or Job, or Ruth, or Mary, or Paul, we often end up like Peter denying Jesus three times at our circumstantial cockcrows; or like David and Solomon, given much only to make a huge error of judgment which drags us into disordered relationships that affect all around us, or maybe even like Judas, in willing betrayal of God, even knowing and having seen him as the fulfillment of all the signs God has scattered throughout our history.
Even having been born from above, born in Christ, sustained in him by the Spirit, so too do we often fall back into what Paul calls, the old life, the life of flesh; a life ordered simply to the things of this world, forgetting how the kingdom of God looks. Why? Well why does it happen for God’s people? Likely because faith is a mighty difficult thing to sustain in light of what a lot of us go through, big and small events. To offer ourselves to God in faith, to step out and follow him has become unnatural for us, enmeshed as we are in a world of sin and brokenness. We’re so often stung by our encounters in life, in sometimes horrific ways: disappointment, a lack of experienced love, the loss of relationships, fear of judgment, exclusion and rejection; disease; fear of violence, or economic failure.
Mostly though, I think that faith is difficult to sustain because we lose sight of how the events of our lives that seem our only reality, are taken up into God’s own life. Perhaps it is because we do not know the Scriptures – all of them, not just the parts that we like to read – and so we think God cannot handle the most twisted and trying events of our life. It is very hard to trust and have faith in the trials of life if we do not see how God has already taken our trials of life and death, birth, work, self doubt, abuse and persecution, destruction and falling apart, betrayal, confusion, loneliness, anxiety, fear and anger, how he has already taken these on himself. If we do not see this, how can we know we have been given a place on the ark, raised out of a watery grave, a place to live, to love, to share, to give, and to grow, where we are reminded of hope brought to us in the midst of the figurative floods of our own lives. How could we catch glimpses through our lives of the figurative olive branch carried by the dove, the Holy Spirit, that indicates the flood of our circumstances will subside, caught up in God’s own ordering of all things and our lives therein, to the good, to the dry land where we are secured by the olive tree of the Cross which brings about new life in his resurrection.
Faith can and often is in fact filled with a lifetime of painful realizations, of acts of letting go, of humiliation and of humility, of patience, endurance, courage, perseverance and confessing that whatever circumstances we come from, we are utterly dependent upon the grace of God poured out for us in Jesus Christ. Only as we let go and go up to him again and again, can the most broken aspects of our lives be healed; for only in him is love poured out in perfection that provides a balm for our wounds, whatever they are. Only as we let go over a lifetime of following, can the pain we experience be soothed by the balm of his body and blood poured out for us; enfleshing our tired, cracked, dry bones and hearts chaffed raw by the trials of life. Only then can we come to see the kingdom of God; of our true birth from above; held in perfect love in the bosom of God himself. AMEN.
In the beginning our uncreated God created all things, including us, out of nothing. He created us to be images of him in the world he made and so to remain in relationship with him so that we could learn how to be like him and so a sign to others about who he is, as the particular people we are. God says to the two who represent humanity’s beginning, Adam and Eve, ‘I have given you everything you need to survive and to live well in relationship to me, fulfilling your vocation to be a created reflection or image of and because of this, living the most fulfilling life you could possibly have, since it is ordered to me, your creator.
But sure enough, Adam and Eve, like every human being, including Jesus Christ, are tempted to take their own path; to have autonomy and control over their own affairs, as if it were up to them to make of their life what they will. The serpent – who represents temptation either literally or figuratively, says to Eve, “Did God say, you shall not eat from any tree in the garden?” And She answers honestly, “yes.” The serpent, perhaps sensing her vulnerability or knowing of the capacity of desire we all have, says, “you will not die if you eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God is trying to trick you into being a slave to him. He knows that when you eat of that tree, that you’re eyes will be opened and you’ll be like him, yourselves knowing good and evil. He’s trying to control you. Don’t let him. Take back the control and autonomy that’s rightfully yours.” And of course Adam and Eve both eat of the tree God has forbidden them to eat of.
In our Gospel this morning we hear of how Jesus is tempted by this Serpent we call Satan: “Jesus I know you’re starving from fasting in the desert 40 days and nights, so make bread out of stone for yourself. You have the capacity to choose do it, just as Adam and Eve had the capacity to choose to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But unlike Adam and Eve, who, though they have the provision of all the food for survival and flourishing they need, still eat from the tree, Jesus rightly recognizes the temptation to satiate his own desire for asserting his autonomy and control, not simply as a human being, but as God himself, and he says to the temper: “it is said, one does not live by bread alone, but by the words that come from the mouth of God you hear in worship in your scriptures.”
He’s tempted by this fallen angel twice more: first he’s taken up to the pinnacle and told he should throw himself down to challenge God’s promise that he will bear his people in their sin and raise them up, that they will not suffer the inevitable injury and death that results from falling to a certain death, here both a literal reality of falling from height, and a figurative reality of falling from grace. Jesus implies something essential here, as the Son of God, God himself: “I could very well do this, but it is said, ‘do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Here he reverses Adam and Eve’s own presumption to fall to the temptation to put God to the test by asserting their own autonomy in their lives. And this of course foreshadows what it to come: take this cup from me Lord I do not wish to die on the cross, to suffer the death due to all humanity on account of sin; but your will be done. I willingly offer myself into your hands. Into your hands O Father, do I commend my spirit.
Finally, the tempter, Satan, takes Jesus to the top of a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world and says, “fall down and worship me and I will give all these into your command.” Jesus says, “Away with you Satan, for it is said, worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” This of course is Satan’s/the serpent’s/temptation not just to Adam and Eve, but to all of us, “follow your idols, follow your gods, and you will have control and autonomy not only over your own life, but over the whole world you live in because you can construct your life in the world however you wish, since you know what is good and what is evil. This is a stunning response to Satan because of course the Son of God who is God himself knows what is good and evil, of course he has control over everything he created, and yet God does not exercise what is in his power to do. Why?
This is the key question here. Why does he not do this? Because were he to fall to temptation here, he could not fulfill what he was sent into the world to do: to reconcile human beings to relationship with God; to change the very nature of a fallen world by fulfilling not only the commandments to love God and neighbor and enemy required of all human beings, but by fulfilling his promise to reconcile all human beings to himself. As God and man, Jesus Christ could do this only by doing the will of God: taking the final rejection of human beings, the final horrific act of self-autonomy and control in executing the Son of God and, as with Adam and Eve, overcoming the sin that separates every human being from God. That very act, of continuing his life to the Cross, of every human sin being nailed to the cross with Jesus, is the sole means by which the acts of each person past, present and future, do not lead to death.
Indeed we hear in Romans, “just as Adam and Eve’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so Jesus Christ’s righteousness, the act of a human being fulfilling the commandments of God, and the act of God in taking on all of humanity’s sin in his Son, leads to righteousness for all who receive this undeserved grace in faith.”
And here we come to look at our own lives. Each year in Lent, we look forward to the resurrection hope of Easter Sunday, where we celebrate our having been received into Christ through the Holy Spirit; into God’s own body, the Church, through our baptisms. In the Church we have been handed the faith, which we are to come to learn, to make our own as a community and as individuals.
But of course we stand with Adam and Eve, and so too with Jesus, as human beings tempted away from the faith, away from God. We are tempted so often by fear, by uncertainty that becomes manifest as the desire for autonomy and control over the affairs of our life. These temptations threaten to pull us away from God and in so doing, from finding peace in the provisions for life he has given to us. Lent is a time set aside in the Church to examine our motivations, our fears, our anxieties, our responses and behaviors and to offer these up to God; to ask that he might use, change or eliminate them so that he can shape and mold us into his image we find perfected in Jesus Christ. I don’t know what these things are for you; most of us know what these are, even if we struggle to admit and grapple with them. Take them to God this Lent in prayer. This offering, laying ourselves bear and recognizing our sole dependence on God is simultaneously what it means to love God, to offer ourselves to his service and to rely upon his provision alone, and to repent of those things we know and don’t know, that separate us from him, so that we might be cleansed, be made new, conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. It is for this alone that we were made: that we might be the created reflection of God in the world. AMEN.
This week we celebrate Jesus’s transfiguration. Put simply, what we’re celebrating today is the revelation that Jesus Christ is God, not a mere prophet, or rabbi/teacher. Jesus is the truth of God’s love for us because he is the fulfillment of God’s promise to heal, restore, reconcile and recreate us in his image so that we can have life now, and eternally, with him. God comes to us in the Son, and by his Spirit, gathers us to the Father. That’s what this transfiguration is all about.
It’s also though, about a moment of recognition of this tremendous revelation by God. It’s a recognition by the disciples who say, ‘this Jesus we’ve been following, he really is God, let us keep him here on this mountain and build him a special dwelling place, sort of like a shrine. Jesus says, ‘nope’ I’m not a shrine to worship. If you want to love me, that is, if you want to worship me, first come to me, but then my friends, you need to go down from this mountain, you need to go out of this church and enact – live out – the love that I have given to you. To worship is to offer yourself to me, to come to know me, so that I can equip you to go and make more disciples by sharing my love with other people. So guess what? You’re going to need to be constantly seeking, and continually open to changing so that you can join me not on this mountain top for right now, but out in your homes, in your neighborhood, in your schools, your hospitals, your senior’s residences, your grocery stores, your friend’s houses. In other words my dear brothers and sisters: you’re going to need to grow from where you are now, so that you can become more like me, if you want to share me with others.
I’m not sure about you, but I do know that for me, and apparently (having read a lot of the literature), growth is about coming to flourish – that is to live into the person you were created to be. As for what would compel me to grow? That’s an easy one: safety, security, being loved, having purpose, mattering to someone. Here’s the thing – as most of us know – if we rely on transient, ever changing things or people (people who come and go, people who might for one reason or another leave our lives) for safety, security, being loved, and having purpose, at the end of the day, we’re not going to have a solid foundation for the seed we are, for our roots to spread, for our leaves to blossom, for us to weather the inevitable storms life throws at us. Why? Because things and people are, well finite, limited, they hurt us, they leave, they move, they get sick, they die. And as important as these relationships are – and they are exceptionally important for us – they are not the bedrock, the foundation, the cornerstone of our very lives. Your best friend, or your spouse – they might be an essential part of your life, of how you think of yourself (a best friend, a life long friend, a spouse, a parent, a teacher, a mentor, an aunt or uncle), but these people did not bring you into existence, they do not define you completely, and they cannot be with you from cradle to grave, more inward to you than your very own self is to you.
What we all are seeking – however we might pursue it or speak of it – is an unbroken endurance of embrace: of physical, mental and emotional protection, of meaning and purpose, of being desirable and desired, of being desired for who we are even when we find ourselves twisted and broken and fragile in our own particular snaggled ways. Here’s the catch though. You often hear – usually in backlash to the sort of judgmentalism and exclusion that has too often been part of everyone’s experience – that we must love people, ‘just as they are.’
But true love, perfect love, cannot actually do this. Only imperfect love, love that is limited, itself fragile, and pulled in multiple directions without knowing fully the purpose for which it was made – only imperfect love can love people ‘just how they are.’ In contrast, perfect love, will embrace you indeed, and move you to the place, in accordance with the purpose for which that love made you. How do you feel about this? Does this make your neck hair stand on end? Does this sound coercive? Does this sound as if your freedom is being somehow suppressed? I have heard this said many times: I must be free to do as I please; if you love me, you will let me do what I want.
But is, ‘being free to do what we want, truly what we want?’ Think for a moment about those times you’ve been really hurt and you want to strike back at that person to get revenge. Have you ever actually done that? How’d that work out for you in the long run? I know several lost friendships, even marriages where someone was free and ‘did just what they wanted.’ The consequence turned out to be harmful to themselves and others. I’ve seen this with people who continue on with drugs and alcohol, or with sleeping around or open marriages. The root problems for why people did these things only ever being addressed when really serious consequences devastated them.
In contrast to freedom, unchecked, I have seen parents financially cut off and institutionalize their children who were addicted to drugs, who had eating disorders, who committed crimes. And in all these cases, wow, have I seen shame. Massive shame, anger, rage, embarrassment, fear, and desire for rebellion. How dare you strip me of my freedom to be me. How dare you judge me. How dare you try to correct me. How dare you try to redirect me. F- you. I want my freedom. Here’s the thing, while our collective human push for freedom has taken many shapes and forms, and our individual lives may have looked like some of these cases, or perhaps in far less drastic ways, one of the things that each one of us shares, are things that – when seen through the lens of perfect love – ought to bring us shame. This, my friends, is sin. Sin takes so many forms that I cannot possibly name the ways it is manifested in our own lives, in our own reasoning, in our relationships with others, in things we do or don’t do, in ways that are unknown to us (that others can often see when we can’t).
The thing is perfect love refuses, actually, to accept us just as we are because doing so would leave us without the capacity to go out and share God’s love with others. If perfect love just left us where we are – we would be left thinking, ‘hey, it’s okay to respond in this really nasty way,’ or, ‘it’s everyone else’s fault that I’m always angry or moody, or irritable,’ or, ‘I’m going to constantly criticize this person, never give them credit because I want them to be just like me and what I want, rather than grow into who they actually are.’ If perfect love did not shine light on the things we do out of fear, anger, bitterness, envy, jealousy, greed, sloth, gluttony, avarice, and lust, we would be left in a degenerate world where our meaning was solely about what power we could wield over ourselves and others.
Our reading today, about the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ – God’s revealing his presence, his power, his creation of us, his reconciliation of us, his love for us that reshapes how we even think of the good – this is fundamentally about the truth, not A TRUTH, but THE TRUTH, being unveiled. No longer can you and I live our lives as if the truth of God in Christ has been veiled to us so that we can’t see it. We have been baptized and adopted into God’s family. We are his children through Jesus Christ. In his Holy Spirit, the love he pours out that constitutes his very being, corrects, burns away, chastens, and reforms us into the image of his Son. This is why the disciples bow down in fear: they recognize the truth. God has come and because he is perfection fulfilled in Jesus’s own life, he enables us to see where our words and actions don’t live up to his own way of loving his neighbors and enemies; not always accepting as I said above, but when questioning, or critiquing, or challenging and correcting, doing it in a way that will enable a person to endure it and actually be transformed into Jesus’s own likeness too. AMEN.
I want to focus today on Paul’s letter to the Church in Corinth. And just a reminder that when we hear Paul speaking to this particular congregation, we should also hear Paul speaking to us here at St. Matthias. That’s how God works. He definitely gave words to Paul to speak to a particular time and place and context, but God’s word extends well beyond that particular place and time and so even to us today. How so, because we have been made members of this same body, the Church, through Jesus Christ. So what Paul says to the Corinthians, he says to us too.
So what does God have to say to us through his servant Paul? Well, here we go:
3:1 And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh.” Ouch. What does Paul mean here that this Christian body is still ‘of the flesh?’
This is what Paul says: “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?” So quite literally, Paul is looking at the behavior of these Corinthian followers of Jesus – these folks like you and I who have been baptized into Christ and brought into his body which we call the Church – and he says look you’re behaving in ways that suggest you are setting your goals in accordance with the ways of this corrupt world rather than with the ways Jesus lived and showed to you. So what exactly does Paul mean.
He’s called out jealousy and quarrelling as particularly problematic in the Corinthian community and I’ll bet that all of us have had this same sort of experience. Jealousy gets acted out in a whole variety of ways from gossip to intentionally tearing another person down so you can appear to be better than them or at least better than you really are.
Because of course underneath jealousy is our feeling of insecurity and lack of value and worth. We are jealous of another because we feel they make us less valuable, or less worthy to other people. But when we act out of jealousy in a community of people, we end up not just hurting others by tearing them down, but we create an environment where those hearing our acting out either come not to trust us – so we hurt ourselves – or come not to trust the whole environment of the Church, and so they withdraw or leave altogether.
This jealousy Jesus calls out as problematic in the Gospels when he says, my friends, the least of you will be first. That is, those who refrain from acting out of jealousy – which often manifests as the need to appear first, better than, more than, whatever the cost to others – will be most open to grace and so receive it and so receive the kingdom of God. You who do this will be most capable and so also my best witnesses for you will show me instead of your own jealousy and insecurity to the world.
And of course usually where we see jealousy – insecurity about who we are and what value we have in God’s kingdom – we also see quarrelling. And where quarrelling exists, it is hard for anyone to see Jesus Christ as the one whom quarrelers worship. Think for a moment about the story of the brothers Cain and Abel. Both Cain and Abel are going about their business of being the people of God, worshipping and offering to God through their labor. God accepts Abel’s offering but not Cain’s. Cain is angry, he is deeply jealous of Abel. So he says to Abel, ‘let’s go to work for God, let’s go out to the field,’ let’s get together and do work in the church … and when they’re doing their work for God, Cain rises up and kills Abel. But of course God sees this and says, “Cain, your jealousy will be your curse; your quarrel with your brother has destroyed your own capacity to work for me, the Lord.”
God will end up providing for Cain nonetheless, but the consequence of Cain’s jealousy and quarrelling remain to us this day a sign of tainted fruit; an unproductive fruit tree; to have one’s work burned up and to thereby suffer loss and so saved, as Paul says in the verses just beyond those we read today, “only as through fire.” In other words, it is not that your works will necessarily lead to your damnation – for God has mercy on his people through the glut of their deepest sins – yet one must know that that mercy comes with the consequence of experiencing Cain’s own consequence: a life saved but only through the refining fire, that, because of his own actions, will bring much personal struggle and suffering.
Jealousy and quarreling then are symptomatic of one’s failure to recognize something essential to faith: we don’t belong to a particular congregation, to a particular Church, to a particular job, to a particular human being. These things DO NOT define who we are. No, my friends: we belong to God through Jesus Christ who draws us ever closer to him in his Holy Spirit. Listen to what Paul says here:
3:4 For when one says, "I belong to Paul," and another, "I belong to Apollos," are you not merely human? 3:5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 3:6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 3:7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.
You see the Corinthians here were doing something the disciples had done with Jesus: they were attempting to secure themselves, to get rid of their fear and anxiety and insecurity by asserting that they belonged to Paul or to Apollos, and so because of this, they possessed the truth and everyone else was wrong. This assertion to have the truth and to be right because they belonged to a particular leader or congregation – Paul or Apollos – led to jealousy and quarrelling with one another, to the point that it blinded them to the actual truth: they belonged first and foremost to Jesus Christ. That all their self-assessment, all their work, all their lives, belonged to God in and through Jesus. To grow as a Christian, and particular as a witness or disciple, one must learn, as Cain had to, to accept this reality. You belong to Jesus Christ. This is who saves you, IN ORDER THAT, you might show his light to the world. And if you’re going to show his light to the world, then you have to choose to live not for your own needs and comforts, not out of fear, not out of insecurity, but out of the confidence that God has accomplished all things for you in Jesus Christ. This goes to your life right here and now: how do each of you, who in just a few minutes will hear the results of our survey, decide to witness to Jesus Christ? Is it out of fear or faith? Is it out of a sense that you ought to be served, or that you are a servant of God? Are you willing to set aside your fears, anxieties, jealousies, and quarrelling for the sake of showing this community to whom you belong? This is the decision before us, just as it has been before every Christian community through time right back to the Corinthians. We belong to God in Jesus Christ through his Holy Spirit. We are held, secured, moved, loved, shaped and formed by this reality … are we willing to acknowledge that and step into what might seem scary, worrisome, frustrating, with a sense of faith and hope? Or will we demand that we belong in to a modern day Paul or Apollos?
Last week I talked about what I think all our readings focused on: humility. And then I expanded on our gospel and Epistle lessons to explore what God means by humility. In concise summary, what I think God means by humility is to let go of what we cling to so that we can receive God’s grace and then share that grace, through our particular lives, gifts, and circumstances, with other people. In this way, we show people who Jesus is. That’s why humility is so important: so that we can get ourselves out of the way to show people who God is. It’s not that we’re unimportant. The particular people we are is extremely important or God wouldn’t have made us at all, or in the particular way he did. It’s that who we are has a purpose greater than and ultimately more fulfilling than mere self-fulfillment. What truly fulfils is to use the fullness of who we are to point to the very being and meaning of life: God whom we encounter, see and seek to follow, in Jesus Christ.
This week we hear, most particularly in our OT reading from Isaiah, a specific aspect of exercising humility. God’s message to his people starts as it might for us. Hear these words of God to us:
58:2 Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.
58:3 "Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.
58:4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.
58:5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?
Just for a moment think about how we often conceive of being humble. Ironically, it’s often all about us! I remember in seminary everyone talking about how they were going to do some elaborate fasting. It was hilariously emotionally and spiritually immature, like children or unformed disciples saying, ‘I’m first, no I’m first,’ Lord tell me who is the first among us, see how much I fasted today. People made their fasting into a kind of competition of suffering. God will see that I am THE MOST HUMBLE and MOST DESERVING because I’m going to fast the hardest: nothing but mere sips of water through Lent my friends. Surprise surprise when one of my professors pointed out that fasting wasn’t about us and our capacity, but rather about opening up to receive God more fully, so that we could direct our particular gifts to witness and so to caring for and serving others.
What was my professor getting at? God’s rebuke to this false notion of humility that is about securing one’s own sense of security and righteousness. Listen to God’s words: 58:6 “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
58:7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” Humility shouldn’t be confused with doing things in order to gain recognition, or notoriety, or acceptance. The true humility, a true fast, is about letting go of the things that push God away, that shield you from his fire, his cleansing, his rebuke, so that when cleared out of your life, you can make space, time, effort, and enduring and persevering commitment to care for others.
Now let me correct a wooden interpretation here. When we hear about the hungry, the poor, the naked, we tend to think only of those who are maybe out on the streets, or who are somehow socio-economically lesser than us. This is literally true, but it is not the whole truth. The whole truth is that every single person, whether rich or poor, in high or low status, every single person can be poor or naked or hungry. How so? For love, hungry for love, for attention, for acceptance. Everyone can be poor. Poor in character, poor in ability to understand, to endure, to persevere, to survive, to sustain mental or physical health. Everyone can be naked. Naked in having been stripped down through abuse, through shame, through crippling anxiety, exposing them in their raw, unclothed state, to the thorns of our cultural demand for endless stamina, productivity, and excellence; a habit that makes so many, though naked, cover themselves with arrogance, anger, hatred, bigotry, alcoholism and drugs.
So yes, absolutely, we are called, as Christians, to make space in our hearts and minds for those who are literally poor, on the streets, who are hungry because they literally don’t have enough carbohydrate and protein to sustain their body weight or they struggle to know where they can get enough from day to day. But we are called to recognize that this is not the limit of what God is saying to us here. God is saying that we must recognize that all of us have and will fallen into this state, and therefore that as we look around this room, this neighborhood, this city, this province, this country, our continent and this world, we are called to see everyone as those in desperate need of God’s grace, of his food, of his water of life, of his body and blood, of his ark, the cross, upon which all human life depends.
It is not enough to put money on the plate for some special cause of poverty, even though we absolutely ought to consider doing this if we can. The widow comes and she gives all that she has, though she has so little. What it is that she gives, what God demands from his people, Israel and Church, you and I, is that we give up clinging to things for security, power and control in this world, so that we can be made catalysts, witnesses, examples, knowers and lovers of God for others to see; so that all those who hunger and thirst, all of those who are lost and desperately seeking, might not be turned away by our wickedness and our selfishness and our self obsession and our entitlement and our grandiosity and our laziness, but turned to God, by our love, by our patience, by our kindness, by our willing to step out of ourselves and our fears and anxieties and hatreds to love our neighbor and our enemy, to give to the other our whole lives, as Jesus gave himself to us.
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
58:10 if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
58:11 The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
58:12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
If you do these things: 58:9a Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. AMEN.
One of the saddest hypocrisies I’ve encountered in Christian life in the academy and in the Church, is the extremely basic and clear overarching demand God has for his people to act with humility and so with love, patience, kindness, self-control, compassion and gentleness, and the all too often boisterous, ego driven striving for power, control, influence, winning, achieving, and lauded work-a-holism lived out by far too many theologians, ordained and laypersons within the Church. To be blunt, this hypocrisy is a turn off to the faith. It makes it appear as if Christians don’t believe what they say about God’s power, God’s timing, God’s ordering and God’s faithfulness, so that their own works appear to be mere human desires with Jesus mentioned to up the ante of legitimacy.
What do I mean here? Well, just a few examples: I’ve seen really famous and well-respected Christians scholars repeatedly (not just one time) speak of other scholars in their own or other fields, with condescension and vitriol. And so while said scholar might make a valid critique of another’s work, that valid critique is lost because of the lack of humility, kindness, and self-control exercised by the critical scholar. Likewise I have encountered bishops who, pressured by high profile priests with power in a diocese, have unfairly condemned a priests with lesser power when that priest calls out some behavior or action of the higher powered priest. I have seen rampant examples, within numerous Christian Churches, of tattling on someone to a third party rather than, as God in Scripture commands, ‘going directly to that person.’
The result, in almost all of these cases, is a loss of trust in relationships and so a loss of capacity to exercise any authority, order or discipline. In other words, what I have seen – over the last fifteen years of being a Christian – are far too many examples of impoverished witness. And I think it is this impoverished witness that, over time, has broken down relationships where people willingly submit and commit themselves to one another. After all, when civil law, or one’s capacity to obtain a position in government, or in business, or in society in general, is no longer dependent upon one’s belonging to a church, why would one willingly submit themselves to a group of people who claim to have this particular God, but whose lives do not take the shape of the one true relationship they purport to proclaim: Christ’s own. Why would someone willingly submit themselves to any relationship, let alone a mere moral rather than civilly enforceable authority, when the life of those to whom you would be joining do not have the humility, kindness, gentleness, patience, and self-control displayed by Christ?
Jesus says today: “5:3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” He does not say, blessed are those who are self-righteous and don’t mind telling everyone what they always think is ‘the right way to do things.’ In fact, Paul says to the Corinthian Church about that today: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart." Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” What Paul is echoing in Jesus’s own thought here is not that knowledge and wisdom and debate are bad things at all. What both are driving at is the basic need for humility, patience, listening, hearing, being gentle, and seeking to teach and be taught, when speaking to one another, rather than seeing relationships in the church and in life, as something to win, or as those we’re in relationship with as those to be conquered. To ‘win over’ someone to Jesus Christ isn’t to convince them of your truth; it is rather to give them the time and space, to provide relational structure and even sometimes discipline, to help them to drop their defenses so they can hear and go up to Jesus Christ so that HE can change them.
Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” I have sometimes seen Christians treat a death, a funeral, or someone’s suffering, as a personal pulpit opportunity for their own individual niche issue. In fact, I was talking to someone this week – someone seeking pastoral advice – who told me that she trusts few priests because she’s been to several funerals where priests have lambasted those in the congregation for not coming to Church. This is the foolishness of the world because it turns people away from God. It closes off the space the Church, in obedience to God, has created for those who have lost someone, to lament, to cry out, to express their sadness at loss, their recognition of our frailty, and to hear of grace and of our hope for reconciliation and restoration and resurrection in God. Jesus says here: pay attention to the particular context you are in. It is not wrong to express sadness or to lament or cry out in anger or frustration or loss; make space for this so that God might come into that person’s life more deeply to comfort them. And Paul would add, do not use this time of sadness, of emotional breakdown and vulnerability for someone else, to fulfill your agenda.
"Blessed are the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are pure in heart, for they will inherit the earth, and see God.” Too often people have characterized meekness as a kind of passive or weak character trait. This is not what Scripture means by meek. When Jesus is speaking here, what he means is that those who exercise humility will inherit the earth. Those who exercise humility will first listen to, watch for, and wait on God’s presence, his will, his timing. They will, therefore, be slow to anger, quick to listen. The reason they will inherit the earth is quite simple: to exercise humility in relationships is to live into Jesus Christ himself. To exercise self-righteousness, generally born out of fear and ensuing anger, frustration, and learned helplessness, is to live into the flesh, which is dead; which, that is, has no purpose and so must endlessly be refilled by seeking self-affirmation, or consumption.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. The thing is, when one lives with humility, living into the righteousness that Christ displayed for us, our expectations begin to change. Look for example at Paul. Recall how he tells us in the Epistles about his ‘successful career’ as a Jewish leader. He had everything, he was a man of the world and of God, he was strong, powerful, influential and given power and authority by others. Today, he says, and then when Jesus spoke to me through his Spirit, I realized that all the worldly things that I thought should order my life, they are nothing, meaningless, in the Kingdom of God. All the things of this world are just tools of this time to get us through life, but we do not bring these with us when we die, and they do not dictate our life after with God. So they are transient. Cling to them as if they are eternal and you shall live a foolish life. Cling to your power and your authority, cling to ways that harm others and distract them or dissuade them from Christ and you will live a meaningless life, a thwarted life ordered to the death of the flesh. To live the life of Jesus Christ – of humility, of kindness, self control, patience, generosity, etc – this stuff really does look foolish to this world that is perishing. It makes no sense. It can make us look as if we’re suckers, even lazy for not working our fingers to the bone like those rich execs or entrepreneurs of the world, of being patient and filled with self-control where a stronger person might fight, conquer, win, and prove strength and power, and gain a false authority (God has already said is overcome in Christ). The merciful receive mercy because their expectations of what they are owed and what they feel freed to give, what they feel the desire to give, changes. Life is no longer a matter of entitlement and control, but of learning to love and recognizing in that, the mercy of having first received life in the love of God by which that happens.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” When we live with humility, when we seek to live out Christ who is within us and also drawing us to him as we see in Scripture, we come to recognize God’s mercy in our having life at all. From this, we can seek to live righteously because we know by whom we’ve been made, and to whom our lives are to be conformed. This might make us look foolish if we compare how our lives might look to the ways of the world. The ideas of poverty, chastity, self-control, giving for the sake of others, being slow to anger, working to overcome our disagreements and anger or fear or frustration, yeah, that does look foolish – or at least unusual given how we see so much of our world look. But then, I go back to my opening statements: when the Church does not follow this way of Christ’s foolishness, history demonstrates that it repels rather than attracts others. The odd thing about the foolishness of living as Christ himself did for our sakes, is that it is precisely when this self-giving humility takes place, that new life, that followers, that seekers, come knocking. Why? I would suggest it is because this life – Jesus’s own – is the core self, our home, our very being, that every human made in his image seeks. So let us then seek to follow this foolish one into true life. AMEN.
Today we hear Jesus repeat what John had proclaimed before Jesus was born: repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Matthew’s Gospel repeats the prophecy from Isaiah, that the gentiles would see, wake up, and come to know Jesus; they would be enlightened and the figurative darkness, or literal lack of knowledge they had of who God is, would no longer exist. God is near: get yourselves ready to encounter him!
Repent, Jesus says, for the Kingdom of God is near. This isn’t a claim about a place coming near, or at least not a literal place. Rather Jesus is claiming that he – this one who is God – is coming for us and coming to us. He’s in fact taking on who we are, assuming everything we are, so that we are in him and he is in us. It’s kind of a weird thing to think about. But Jesus is saying that this kingdom of heaven that arrives is him and when he comes, he will reestablish relationship with God and between all created things: he will bring about a kingdom that is not of this world. Nope, it’s God’s own desire that he comes into the world in the Person of Jesus Christ, to establish.
The thing this kingdom who comes near – Jesus – asks of us seems pretty simple: repent. What does it mean to repent? Why does Jesus ask us to repent? What is repentance about? (ASK) … Repenting is actually about, as we’ve been discussing, first, coming to know who God is, learning what his desire is for us; and then second, it’s about seeing where our lives – decisions, choices, ways of engaging one another, ways of thinking about situations – isn’t reflecting how God asks us to live with him and one another. So first we have coming to know God, second, we have a step of reflection: am I living in the way God desires me to when I say, interact with my friends, my enemies, when I respond to this or that situation, third, we have the step of moving toward God.
That is, of letting go of the things that keep us knowing God more deeply – maybe this has to do with how we prioritize our time and energy – and that keep us from weighing our lifestyles, our choices, our decisions with him as the focal point of our lives – maybe this has to do with fear of letting go, fear of changing, fear of being challenged, fear of other people, frustration or disagreement with others, etc.
Because the very next thing Jesus says after, ‘repent for the kingdom of God is near’ is: follow me. He goes to two sets of brothers who are fishing – Simon Peter and Andrew and then James and John – and he says to both of them: let go of what you’re doing, drop your nets, let that go, and come and follow me. If you drop what you were holding and follow me, I will recast you: I will make you into who you are supposed to be, ‘fishers of men’, fishers of people. In other words, you’ve got to let go of your stuff so that I can remake you into who I intended you to be: my disciples, witnesses, missionaries, my children who can point other people to me: fishers of people, disciples of Christ, children of God, followers of the way.
Our Gospel reading says, ‘as soon as Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘follow me’, they left their nets and their boats and immediately followed him. As I think I’ve said before, I had this sort of experience upon coming into the Church: God broke through my daily work, my busyness, my rational defenses, he entered into me – my mind and my heart – when I was opened by suffering in my case, and he said, ‘follow me and I will make you a fisher of people.’ Off to church and then to seminary I went. I was highly zealous as were the four brothers here who first followed Jesus.
In fact, I dare say that at one point or another, many who have an awakening from the slumber of this life, to the fullness of God percolating new life in them, follow God with a sudden zeal of intense desire, focus, exclusivity and love. The difficulty, as these same disciples will later reveal, is that that simple phrase Jesus utters, ‘follow me’ which we now affirm requires repentance not just once or twice but over and over, can be as challenging, frightening, confusing, frustrating, as can be a human relationship that moves from childish lust and romance, to commitment through sickness, struggle, disagreement, loss of passion or drive, etc. The gravity of following God is so often lost on us for whom complacency rather than danger is more often a barrier to learning anew, knowing, and following him.
But think, for a moment, about what it has meant for people to follow God: for Job – seeing all lost, family and friends turn on him, yet not straying in his faith, for Peter to whom Jesus will say three times, ‘do you love me, are you following me’. Feed my sheep, Jesus says to Peter. And of course this caring for Christians will lead Peter to his death and the hands of enemies of the Way Jesus had set out. Think of all the martyrs over the last two thousand years, in the last year, in the last month, who lost their lives in order to follow God.
Grace is not cheap. While we may receive it for free, to live into the grace of God, we must learn to give up our former lives every single day. This might mean you have to let go of your animosity or disagreement with others. It might mean that you need to back down from a fight or to actually engage more deeply. It might mean that you need to accept a situation or reality you don’t want to for the good of others in your household, or in your church, or your diocese, or your national church, or the whole catholic church. It might mean you have to sacrifice your comfort or the things you hold most dear, or the things that you’ve always done a certain way. It might mean that you have to give up putting yourself and your worries and concerns first. It might mean that you do not get to claim priority in choosing what you do next.
To follow God, to take up your Cross, is not about your comfort. It’s not about getting your way. Look at this passage again: to follow God is to let go of your old life – the figurative fishing nets here – and allow your life, your words and actions and ways – to be reshaped by God. This will require humility. It’s why Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter really loves him. Because while Peter says, ‘yes Lord you know I love you,’ Jesus knows that to step into his grace, into the light and new life, is to often be taken (as he will to say to Peter) “where you do not wish to go.” This isn’t punishment. It isn’t that God is unfair. It isn’t that God working through his Church has failed it or you. Rather it is that to truly be a fisher of people, well this mission will lead you through the trials, tribulations, the muck, the frustration and disagreement, that simply is human relationships.
To be a fisher of people you will get figuratively wet, messy, you’ll be blown about by the winds of uncertainty and the cold sleet of rejection, disappointment, confusion, worry, frustration and lack of fit and fulfillment. You might even get pulled down into the water, treading so you do not drown, or swimming with no shore in sight. That’s what it is to step into a relationship with God, when that relationship is fundamentally about you participating in his gathering frail and broken people like you and I to him. To follow God is not to be first, but to be open, willing, ready, humble, and ready to serve others to engage with others. So my friends whom shall you follow in the months to come?
This morning we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ. So first we read from the prophet Isaiah whose words to Israel told of God’s coming into the world: “here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. Then we read from the Gospel of Matthew, that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise: he himself is God, the Son of God, sent, or coming into the world to bring about God’s own righteousness: “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him … And as Jesus came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And God the Father said, “this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And there we have God’s promise to come into the world to “fulfill all righteousness.” What is that righteousness: to make things as they were intended, to bring them to perfection, and since human beings failed to accomplish this, to reconcile, or to remake them from nothing. This in short, is the gospel: God came into the world and took on our sin, so that we could live as God intended us: to love God, to do his will, to follow his perfect ways by which he established everything that exists. This is manifested in Jesus’s baptism: God’s giving himself to us so that we can go to him and find our way, the righteous, true and faithful way to live here and now.
In our Triune God – Father, Son and HS – then, we receive life; a new life, created from nihil, non-existence, death. We enter into Jesus’s own baptism and of course we mark this with baptisms of our own. But this isn’t solely a mark of finality. It is also a mark of beginning. To be initiated into the new life in Christ, is to be initiated into a mission, into words and actions that communicate and share God’s life with others and to learn to give up those that don’t do this. So we are, by grace, made new.
But the acceptance of grace brings with it responsibility not unlike that of parents gifted with a child. Yes, you have this new bundle of joy – a new baby, a gift and miracle of new life – but that new life comes with a set of responsibilities as those who are to nurture this new life. As a parent must learn how to care for, teach, nurture, discipline and structure the new life of this new being, so too must the new Christian learn how to care for, nurture, discipline, and eventually communicate and even teach their new faith.
Where does a new Christian go, where does a Christian who has been in the Church for 60 years go, to learn what the faith is? How to care for and nurture and share it? Yes, to the Scriptures. Why? Because this is where God has revealed what his intention is for us; it’s where he tells us what it means to love him and to thereby, love our neighbors and even enemies. It is where God shows us – in his lived life amongst us in Jesus – revealed through time by the Holy Spirit – what our actions and words should look like if we want to follow him; if we want to love him, to be obedient and faithful.
The difficulty that we have everywhere, but particularly in the Western Church, is that we like to imagine that we can know who God is and that we can follow his will without knowing our Scriptures. For some reason – in most mainline churches – reading Scripture seems to be assumed to be superfluous to knowing God or doing his will. Reading Scripture, coming to know it deeply, has been replaced with a sense that, ‘hey if I’m a nice person and know some snippets of the text, and maybe do some nice stuff or put on good works, I’m being a faithful Christian. After all, I have my baptismal certificate.’
I’m not sure exactly how or why this has occurred, or perhaps there are so many reasons that it’s impossible to assign one particular reason for this occurring. I would suggest though that one of our greatest issues is that if we really dig into Scripture, we read things that challenge us, that make us uncomfortable, that call us out on our words and behavior, and that shine a spotlight on our sin: our failures to know God, to thereby love and obey him and to care for and nurture our neighbors. Furthermore, when we really dig into the Scriptures, and we then talk about them with other people, we inevitably find that we might disagree with one another. Those disagreements have too often been held in an environment of anger, bitterness, envy, and hatred, rather than as the Scriptures straight forwardly tell us, engaged in with love. And of course this extends to the doctrines, discipline and practices we have in our Churches.
So often, instead of engaging in a God revealed, i.e. Scripturally informed discussion about matters, we instead table discussions i.e. we delay them or stop them, and often simply go forward doing our own will because we lack the courage to face into Scripture, that is, into grace head on with other people. We avoid reading, understanding, learning, or seeking to consult Scripture, or doctrine, instead, thinking somehow we can avoid God’s notice if we just do our own thing in accordance with our own belief system. Or we ignore or write people off, or gossip in order to undermine them socially. But this is not consistent with what God asks of us when we are initiated into his life through our baptisms. God tells us straight up that following him is going to be really difficult. Why? Because we will have to constantly consult the truth – his life revealed in Scripture – and then talk about it not out of anger, judgment, bitterness, or frustration, but out of love (hope, patience, self-control, compassion, gentleness). And furthermore, this will require us to be courageous. It is unacceptable, God says through Paul, to be cowardly in our faith and witness. We cannot go about our lives in the Church, or outside of the Church engaging in gossip, slander, or with envy, jealousy, bitterness or anger. Why? Because these things hurt others who will respond in kind. Collectively, this will end up tearing down the Church, or a congregation, and it will push the weakest, or those just seeking, away from God and from us.
Let’s get really concrete here. Last week I came downstairs after service to overhear a conversation about someone’s unhappiness with Theo handing out bread during the service. This wasn’t said directly to me, instead, I overheard it second hand. When I spoke with the person directly, I was told that ‘several people were thinking of not coming up to communion because Theo was handing out the bread.’ This was the situation. Now let’s address this drawing on what we’ve learned from above about consulting Scripture together.
First and foremost, we spoke about the need to know God’s will for how we live with one another. This means, how do we engage one another as we try to live out the faith. I’ve said repeatedly that we need to know the Scriptures. So if someone has a problem with what a member of the congregation, whether priest or another staff person, or another member is doing, what do the Scriptures i.e. what does Jesus say to do? “if [you believe] your brother or sister [has] sin[ed] against you, go PRIVATELY TO HIM OR HER and point out the fault.” This did not occur. Instead, I overheard a complaint being made to a third party, something known as, ‘triangulation.’ The difficulty here, as Paul will raise in the Epistles, is that not going directly to a person doesn’t allow for a conversation about the actual topic at hand and so the ability to check, test, and clarify whether a practice is consistent with Scripture and with acceptable church practices. This practice of not going directly to someone communicates a lack of trust in the capacity and competence in them and so raises defenses as the other person will often feel undermined. Now perhaps the criticism is deserved. But Scripture is quite explicit that the WAY in which this situation was approached was inconsistent with God’s will for relationships, and the concrete result was, as Paul discusses in the Epistles, a break in trust, which is of course the foundation of relationships and the capacity to build up.
Let’s say that all those who were uncomfortable with Theo handing out the bread had actually come to speak with me one on one and we had gone to Scripture. What would we find? Now this gets a little more tricky to interpret because we have to look at several factors: what does Scripture say, what does church practice, policy or canon say, and why, and what is our concrete situation in the parish. In Scripture, what does God say about children and his relationship to them? In mainline Churches, where is Jesus Christ bodily encountered? In Word and Sacrament. So let’s go to Scripture to see what Jesus says about children and encountering him: God throughout the old and new testaments anoints and appoints children as his leaders and prophets (see Jeremiah for example, I am just a boy he says). But what about their seeking him? Let’s go to the Gospels and what do we hear? So there is this situation where Jesus’s disciples see children coming up to Jesus and they go to stop the kids from doing so. What does Jesus say to those disciples? “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” So Jesus dismisses his disciple’s attempts to hinder children from approaching him in person, in his body. Where again did we say Jesus is most present in an Anglican service? Right, the Eucharist and in our reading and preaching i.e. the Word. So when I am holding Theo during the Eucharistic Prayer, when he is present at the words of Institution said during the Eucharistic Prayer, he is present with the body of Jesus Christ. When, with me speaking the words, he hands you the bread that I have consecrated during the Eucharistic Prayer, he is participating in the mission of Jesus Christ, and by Christ’s own power, he is fulfilling his baptismal vows in a capacity permitted to baptized members of our church who are not ordained.
Now let’s go to the actual issue of distribution. Here we have to move into theology a bit. From the Scriptures, the Anglican Church, along with other mainline Churches, determined that an ordained minister was to be set apart or assigned to perform a particular portion of a liturgy along with a whole lot of other administrative or management duties. The liturgy portions for which a priest is set apart are these components and these alone: the absolution after we collectively confess, the words of institution during the Eucharistic prayer – this is when the bread and wine are consecrated, or when they become the body and blood of Jesus Christ (arguably), and finally, in the blessing. That is it. An unordained person can do the entire rest of the service. The distribution of the bread is usually done by the priest because of custom; but there is no unique particularity to the bread that is not also so for the wine. This should raise a question as to why it is okay for a baptized lay person to distribute the wine, as is done in our diocese, but not the bread? We have no requirement for licensing by the diocese, or else only Paul would be able to distribute the wine or bread (not Carolyn or Christine). To believe that only the priest can hand out the bread is false. It is inconsistent not only with Scripture, but with how the Anglican Church, at least here, presently understands & practices sacramental ministry. The ultimate result of not first seeking God’s will, which would lead someone who has an issue with another member of the church to go directly to the person, is a cascade of wrong presumptions, which could lead to wrong actions, frustration, resentment, and finally break down the trust upholding relationships in the church.
We continue to wonder, in the West, why a next generation of people is not coming into mainline Churches. I would suggest that one of the biggest deficits we have in ‘attractive ministry,’ is actual knowledge of our faith, our theology and tradition and our polity: what our faith is and how we are to come together to struggle with life’s challenges. Secondarily, I think we have lost the courage to dig into the Scriptures when facing hard questions, disagreements and challenges. I have asked for the last four weeks and now I ask again, do we know who God is? Do we know what he asks of us, how he speaks to us about how we are to live together, to go and share this with others? If we don’t know this, how are we going to fulfill the baptismal vows we took? If we do know these things, if we have faith that God has equipped us to share our faith in love, why are we so hesitant to rely on the Scriptures and to follow them when we engage in life with one another, and when we go out of here, with our neighbors and family? Amen.
The Rev. Dr. LEigh Silcox
Born in Windsor, ON, Leigh moved around Northern and Southern Ontario during his childhood. He attended North Carolina State University to play soccer, but after repeated injuries, instead took up mountain biking, road cycling, bouldering, trail running and hiking, which he continues to do to this day.