Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Sunday, July 16, 2017

YEAR A 2017 pentecost 6

Pentecost 6, 2017
Genesis 25:19-34
Psalm 119:105-112
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 When I was 18, for reasons I’d rather not disclose, I was sent to live with my aunt and uncle in Asheville North Carolina for a year.  Within the first couple of days, I was asking my Aunt Pat, “What on earth is this vine that is growing on everything?”  She told me it is called kudzu.  Which told me nothing.  But she told me horror stories of people abandoning their homes because this plant grows up to a foot a day, and they just couldn’t keep up.  I was fascinated by this stuff, so I did some research at the local library and by looking through old newspapers.  So, for those of you who haven’t done the research, I’ll fill you in.

My aunt claimed that the spread of kudzu was all because the Tennessee Valley Authority used it to prevent erosion.  However, that’s not really true.  It was first sold as an unusual houseplant, imported from Asia in the early 1900’s.  Then, it started to get used to prevent erosion in the 30’s, when erosion was the scariest thing in the country.  Eventually, it got planted along highways and in places where livestock couldn’t eat it, so as you drive down southern roads, you’d swear it was taking over the world.  But that’s because it tends to grow exactly where you tend to drive, and you get a distorted view of how invasive it really is.  Kudzu just happens to grow where it is most likely to get noticed, so it’s influence is magnified to those who see it.  But . . . there are all sorts of soils in the south where kudzu is not growing.

In today’s Gospel reading, from Matthew, we heard Jesus telling and then explaining what we call the Parable of the Sower.  For once, we call a parable by its proper name.  Though on reflection, we usually think of this as though it were called the Parable of the Soils.  And that is a mistake, for a lot of reasons.  The emphasis here is on the Sower and the seed.  Jesus himself calls it the Parable of the Sower.  Which leads us to ask, “Okay, who is the Sower, and what is the seed?”

Well, Jesus helpfully tells us what the seed is:  The Word of the kingdom of God.  The Word of God is not the Bible.  The Word of God is Jesus.  As John says, in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  The Bible contains the Word of God, or describes the Word of God, but it is not the Word of God; Jesus is.

Now let’s take a side road for a moment to consider farming in first century Palestine.  When we think of farming, we usually think of digging trenches or holes in the ground, and then carefully planting the seeds and covering them back up.  What Jesus is describing in this parable is what is called “broadcasting.”  The idea of this kind of planting, or sowing, is that you just scatter the seeds all over the place, and count on some of them taking root.  It’s terribly inefficient and wasteful, unless you’ve got an endless supply of seeds.  In broadcasting, you scatter the seeds with reckless abandon, knowing that some amount of them will turn into the plants you’re hoping to see grow.  Not careful; not stingy; but rather, generous, and everywhere.

The seed sown by the Sower is generous and everywhere.  But the sticky problem still remains: What about the soil?  Many people will tell you, as I said earlier, that this is a parable about the soils.  But it is not.  It is the Parable of the Sower.  Jesus says so himself.  I know it’s awfully tempting to make it about the soils.  It’s especially tempting for those who feel that evangelism is all about saving souls from hell, or, in this case, saving soils from hell.  But you can tell that’s not the point of this parable because the soil just sits there, passively.  It is not transported to some heavenly kingdom because it was suitable earth for the seed.  It doesn’t decide to accept the seeds.  They just fall on it, along with all the other soil.

Plus, the soil does nothing to make itself suitable, does it?  Just as the other soil does nothing to make itself unsuitable.  And I’ve never seen the dirt in our garden reach up and take seeds back from the birds.  The soil does nothing.  And the Word of God falls on the soil, whether it is ready for it or not.  And the Word of God falls on all the soil.  It is present everywhere.  We can’t bring it to people, we can only announce its presence.  Though we might not want to admit it, when we send missionaries, or (at one time) colonize the heathens, we are not bringing Jesus to them, Jesus is already there.  Jesus has always already been there.  What we do is point to Jesus, and tell them he’s there, which is what preaching the gospel really is: Announcing the good news of God in Christ.

The thing that gets us into trouble with this parable is when we focus on the soil.  Like most stories about Jesus, turning them into stories about ourselves always ends badly.  And in this case, it’s very important not to focus on the soil because it leads us to conclude that some soil is good, and some soil is bad, and we all know which soil is which.  You can tell bad soil just like you can tell a bad apple.  The good soil goes to church and obeys the law.  (And imagining a clump of dirt putting on its finest clothes and coming to church shows us just how absurd that is.)  Soil is always passive.  It receives the seed from the Sower like rain from the sky, whether or not it wants to, and whether or not the seed takes root.

And the most insidious thing about focusing on the soil (and assuming ourselves to be good soil), is that it impacts how we treat our neighbor.  And what I mean by that is, if we think of ourselves as good soil, where God’s Word is growing and taking root, we don’t want to be associating with the bad soil over there, the soil with all the weeds and the birds and the foot traffic.  We need to protect these precious little seedlings that are growing up in us.  We must be careful and stingy, lest the Word of God whither away in us.  Like there’s not enough Jesus to go around.

The Word of God is not precious and delicate; the Word of God is powerful and overwhelming.  How do I know?  Well, for one thing, Jesus says, the seeds that fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.  Now I’m no farmer, but as best I can tell, with modern techniques and machinery, a good yield is about 20 grains per stalk.  In Jesus’ time, a good yield would be about 3 grains per stalk.  Which means, a yield of 30, 60, or 100 is absurd!  That is just plain crazy talk.  And that is how we know that the Word of God is not precious and delicate; the Word of God is actually powerful and overwhelming.

And here’s why that is so important to the soil:  Because it doesn’t matter at all that 3/4 of the seed does not grow into plants.  It doesn’t matter that some seed lands on hard soil, or that some seed gets choked out by weeds, or that some seed gets eaten by birds.  (And seeds eaten by birds get another chance to grow, so haha on you, “evil one” who snatches them away.)  It does not matter that some seed doesn’t succeed, because the seed that takes root produces an absurd abundance of grain.  God does not need Monsanto to carefully engineer a genetic powerhouse of insect-resistant mutations; God only needs a little patch of dirt on which to scatter the Word of God, which is sown everywhere with wild abandon.

A little patch of dirt like St. Timothy’s Church in Massillon Ohio.  The Word of God is sown everywhere, but it doesn’t thrive everywhere.  But, like the kudzu I told you about in the beginning, it always grows where you can see it.  The Word of God lives in the community around us, and we can see it when we pass by.  When Jesus is present, you can’t miss him, with these absurd levels of abundance, flowing out into the world around us.

And this morning, you and I get to stretch out our hands at this Altar and let Jesus, the Word of God fall on us once again, into the palms of our hands.  And as we share in the Eucharistic feast with the saints of every time and place, may we be reminded of God’s generous abundance, and may we see that Jesus has been here all along.


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Jan Hus, 2017

Jan Hus, Prophetic Witness and Martyr, 1415
Job 22:21–30
Revelation 3:1–6
Matthew 23:34–39
Psalm 119:113–120

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

From Holy Women, Holy Men:  John Hus (1372-1415) was a Czech priest who became leader of the Czech reform movement, which called for a return to scripture and living out of the word of God in one’s life. As preacher at Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, he talked to the people in their native language. Hundreds gathered every day to hear his call for personal and institutional reform. Clerics he had offended had him exiled from Prague, but he continued his ministry through the written word. Hus took the radical step of appealing directly to Christ rather than to the hierarchy for the justification of his stance. 

When the Council of Constance opened in 1414, Hus traveled there
hoping to clear his name of charges of heresy. Hus had been given a pledge of safe conduct from the emperor, but his enemies persuaded council officials to imprison him on the grounds that “promises made to heretics need not be kept.” Although several leaders of the Council of Constance were in favor of moderate church reform, the council’s prime objective was the resolution of the Great Western Schism, which had produced three rival popes at the same time. The council therefore tried to secure a speedy recantation and submission from Hus. He maintained that the charges against him were false or twisted versions of his teachings, and he could not recant opinions he had never held. 

Faced with an ultimatum to recant or die, Hus chose the latter. As he approached the stake on July 6, 1415, he refused a last attempt to get him to recant and said: “The principal intention of my preaching and of all my other acts or writings was solely that I might turn men from sin. And in that truth of the Gospel that I wrote, taught, and preached in accordance with the sayings and expositions of the holy doctors, I am willing gladly to die today.”
His death did not end the movement, and the Czech reformation continued. Hus’ rousing assertion “Truth will conquer,” is the motto of the Czech Republic today.

Growing up Lutheran, I learned a lot about Martin Luther and the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  It was 500 years ago this October that Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg Germany.  Lutherans will often mention Jan Hus as the direct predecessor of Martin Luther’s ideas, and both men’s rebellion against the abuses of the Church led them to the same sort of place: testifying before councils and having Papal Bulls written to condemn them.  However, Luther had a wealthy benefactor who rescued him from certain death, while Jan Hus’ benefactor abandoned him to torture and execution.

But while Luther is usually credited with creating all these radical ideas, they were not wholly original.  Jan Hus had said many of these same things 100 years before Luther.  And John Wycliffe was burned at the stake for saying many of the same things 30 years before that.  There are threads that connect Wycliffe to Hus to Luther to Thomas Cranmer to every Protestant Church member across the globe today.

But here is the astonishing thing about Jan Hus in my opinion:  Though John Wycliffe and Martin Luther were both willing to stand up for the things they wrote and said, claiming them as their own ideas, Jan Hus was actually put on trial for someone else’s ideas.  In the case they built against him, the writings and ideas presented were mostly those of John Wycliffe, not Jan Hus.  And yet, Jan Hus did not deny that they were true.  His challenge to the authorities of the council was this: Though I did not write and say these things, I will not deny that they are true, unless I can be shown through scripture that they are not true.

That is, he was willing to die for the truth that he himself did not proclaim.  He was willing to go to the stake to defend the writings of another reformer, who died 30 years before him.  In fact, he did not agree with much of the writings presented at his trial, but he refused to condemn them unless they could be proven false.

It is a remarkable thing to be willing to die for the truth as expressed by someone else.  In some ways, it is not to far from the phrase Evelyn Hall put in the mouth of Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  When we clear away all the apocryphal stories about the Reformers and get down to what they were really after, they sought the truth, wherever that took them.  And in the life and death of Jan Hus, that meant seeking the truth, even when he did not agree with the truth.  Hear, once again, today’s Collect:

Faithful God, you gave Jan Hus the courage to confess your truth and recall your Church to the image of Christ: Enable us, inspired by his example, to bear witness against corruption and never cease to pray for our enemies, that we may prove faithful followers of our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

YEAR A 2017 pentecost 4

Pentecost 4, 2017
Genesis 22:1-14
Psalm 13
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So that was a very nice Gospel reading we just heard.  Welcome people and prophets.  Give a cup of water to little ones.  Nothing but hospitality and doing the right thing.  And we could focus on the Gospel reading this morning, as we so often do, and receive the reassurance of God’s love and unconditional welcome to all.  But there’s a problem with doing that today.  Or, not so much a problem, as there is a very large elephant in the room.  An elephant whose name is The Reading From Genesis.

Remember that one?  The first reading from today?  We call it “the binding of Isaac.”  It is a shocking story, to say the least.  But it is an important story for us, especially because Christians, Muslims, and Jews all consider this story important, since we are all part of what is called the Abrahamic Faith.  We can’t just pretend we didn’t hear what we heard this morning, and it is best to go back and look at it again, rather than sweep it under the rug.  So, all that said, let’s take a look . . .

The first thing we have to do is get the history right.  By that I mean, we need to look at what comes before today’s reading, in order to get the context.  Way back in the 12th chapter of Genesis, God called Abraham (then known as Abram) to begin the line of God’s chosen people.  And then later God says to Abraham, “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted.”

But remember just two weeks ago when we heard that Sarah laughed?  That was because Abraham and Sarah eventually grew to be very old, and still had no children.  When all seemed lost, God gave them a child at the age of about 100.  Sarah laughed because it was ridiculous to think that they could have children, and yet Isaac was born.  One child.  Not exactly as numerous as the grains of dust, but it’s a start, right?  And later, God tells Abraham that it is through Isaac that his offspring will be counted.  One child.  One chance to make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.

And then we come to today’s reading, when Abraham is told to take that same one child up the mountain and sacrifice him.  And, of course, we are shocked!  Shocked that he would be asked to do it, and shocked that he would be willing to do so.  But strange as it is to hear, child sacrifice was not uncommon in that time.  And this is another example where we have to guard against imposing our morals and values backwards into the stories of the Bible.  When we read the book of Genesis, we run into all sorts of things that seem unthinkable to us, things which were commonplace at the time the book was written.  That world is not our world.

In the culture of Abraham’s time, the gods demanded lots of things that are unbelievable to us.  Being told to sacrifice a child shocks us, but would not be shocking to them.  The gods of Abraham’s neighbors demanded such things, and in Abraham’s mind, this made God just like the other gods.  But the God of Abraham is supposed to be different from those gods.  And we’ll come back to that in a moment.

So Abraham dutifully takes Isaac up the mountain.  We get the full description, from saddling the donkey and getting servants, to leaving the servants behind and going on ahead with Isaac and the stack of wood.  We can’t believe he’s really going to go through with this.  And Isaac asks his father, “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”  And Abraham tells him, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering.”  And then we get to the dramatic climax as Abraham raises the knife, and the angel of the Lord calls out to him.  Phew!

But now I want you to get out your bulletin for a moment and turn to the reading from Genesis.  Though we don’t have numbered verses, I can point you where I want you to look.  You see how from the opening sentence we have the word “God.”  This is the Hebrew word Elohim, which is like the generic word for god.  And about halfway through, we read “When they came to the place that God had shown him,” (again the word, Elohim.) But then, two sentences later, “But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven.”  LORD is our translation for the Hebrew word, Yahweh.  Whenever you see the LORD in all capital letters like that in the scriptures, it is meant as the specific name for Yahweh.  This is the name God tells Moses when he asks God’s name.  Yahweh.  I am.  That other word, Elohim, that is the word God uses in the first commandment: Thou shall have no other gods before me.  Elohim could be any god; but Yahweh is the God of Abraham.

Now I don’t want to make too big a point of this, because we don’t know what the author actually intended in switching from Elohim to Yahweh.  But the case can be made that the distinction is intentional.  And it does make sense, since much of the first few books of the Old Testament are for the purpose of distinguishing Yahweh from the other gods.  All those dietary restrictions and moral codes serve to mark God and the Hebrew people as different from their neighbors.  As being set apart as a chosen people.

The gods of Abraham’s neighbors demanded sacrifice, and in Abraham’s mind, this made God just like the other gods.  But the God of Abraham is different from those gods.  The other gods still want sacrifice, but the God of Abraham, Yahweh wants salvation.

And so the child Isaac is spared, and a ram in a thicket takes his place.  Not because of the ram, notice.  No Isaac is saved because of God’s intervention.  The ram is not there because God needed a sacrifice.  My own guess is that Abraham needed to sacrifice something, and God provides.  But God does not desire sacrifice; God wants mercy.  It is not about the death of the ram; it’s about the life of Isaac.  Just as it is not so much the death of Jesus, but his resurrection from the dead that saves.  The LORD will provide.  And God desires mercy, not sacrifice.  God wants salvation, not death.

And even though the god’s of this world want sacrifice, the God of Abraham wants salvation.  The gods of selfish gain, and blind vengeance, and high moral principle want sacrifice.  The God of Abraham wants redemption.

And so the obvious question is, well, how do we satisfy a God who wants redemption and salvation?  It’s easy to satisfy the gods who want bloodshed and sacrifice.  We do it all the time, by throwing people under the bus, or dropping bombs on their cities.  But how do we conjure up mercy, and salvation?  And the answer is back there on that mountain: The Lord will provide.

Everything necessary for salvation is provided by God, not by us.  Our role is to listen and to trust, just as Abraham did.  Our part is to discern the voice of the gods of this world for what they are, and where they lead us, and to choose instead to follow the voice of the God of Abraham.  The one who says, “Stop," and provides another way.  Even though we can’t help but think God desires sacrifice and rejection, God shows us over and over that mercy and acceptance are the better way.  God’s story is about salvation and redemption, from the beginning of time until the day Jesus returns—Salvation and Redemption.

And as part of that redemption story, God calls us to this Altar today.  To the place where God feeds us and strengthens us for the journey ahead.  Today, you have come to the place where the LORD will provide, as God gives us the gifts of God, for the people of God.


Saturday, June 24, 2017

Luther 500 Festival, June 2017

Luther 500 Festival, June 2017
Romans 6:3-5
Psalm 67
Luke 23:39-43

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Remember your baptism.  Has anyone ever said that to you before?  Remember your baptism?  Maybe you do, if you were baptized as an adult.  But given that most of us here are Lutheran (with an occasional Episcopalian thrown in for seasoning), I’m guessing that most of us were baptized as infants.  Without going into the theology behind the justification of baptizing people who have no idea they are being baptized, I just want to raise an obvious question.

Remember your baptism, great, but can you remember a thing you never saw?  And what is it to remember a thing anyway?  Although we tend to  connect remembering to memory, there are other aspects of the word.  And we can see that separating it into the prefix “re” and the root word “member.”  In the simplest terms, to remember something is to put it back together.  To re-member it, which is the opposite of dismembering something.  Which is a gross thought, so let’s not dwell on that.  To re-member a thing is to bring it back into being.  Bring it back to reality.  Give it form.

In the United States, there was a time when people said, “Remember the Alamo.”  And here in Germany, during the 30 Years War, people said, “Remember Magdeburg” for a similar reason, and to create a similar reaction.    In those cases, calling people to remember something meant reminding them to consider the implication or the danger being faced, and inspire people to violence and vengeance.  Bring the slaughter of our people to mind, and see how that makes you feel?  Now go and do likewise.  Remembering is powerful stuff.

For Jewish people, being remembered is life itself.  As long as you are remembered, you are alive.  The Hebrew scriptures are full of references to being remembered by God.  Since God is eternal, being remembered by God is to have eternal life.  Forget me not, oh God.  So many of the psalms talk of seeking God’s face, of asking that God would not forsake us, or turn away from us.  Remember me, oh God, turn your face toward me, and do not forget me.

We want the face of God turned toward us, and not away from us.  And yet, no one can see God’s face and live.  The only one to have seen God was Moses, and from behind, through a bush, and shielded by a rock.  We cannot see God’s face, but we want it turned toward us.  Because to be remembered by God is the pathway to everlasting life.

Remember your baptism.  Having memory of your baptism is impossible if you were an infant at the time  But the act of re-membering it—to bring it back into being, bring it back to reality, give it form and purpose—that we can do.  And we do it in this way:  By reminding ourselves that God remembers your baptism.  God’s face was turned toward you as you passed through the water.  Not through a bush behind a rock from the back.  No God’s face was turned fully toward you as you were baptized by name—and in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  On that day you were claimed as God’s own.  Forever.

And for that reason, like the thief on the cross, we too can turn with confidence to Jesus and say, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  And Jesus does, will, and always will, and you too will be with him in paradise.

May God give us each the strength to remember that our baptism is remembered by God, and that God will never leave us or forsake us.


Sunday, June 18, 2017

YEAR A 2017 pentecost 2

Pentecost 2
Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7)
Psalm 116:1, 10-17
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35-10:8(9-23)
Preached at the 8am service only, due to the Bishop's Visitation.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.  But the first time I went there (which was back in the previous century), I was struck by one thing in particular.  Out of all the displays and memorabilia I strolled past, the main thing I remember was how small Elvis’ jumpsuit turned out to be.  Not in girth, I mean, but in height.  He was surprisingly short to my eyes.

And I’ve had the same thing at other museums, and maybe you have too, where you stand in front of some suit of armor from some legendary hero of history and it just looks . . . child size.  These people who loom so large in our minds are usually no bigger than anyone else.  And, given that people have become taller over the centuries, the heroes of history often turn out to be smaller than the people you know.

By contrast, if you go into a church called, St. Paul’s, for instance, you will often see a giant stained-glass window of St. Paul, looming over the Altar.  We tend to commemorate the heroes of the faith in this way, as larger than life  . . . and, with glass of many colors.  The people in our sacred scriptures are memorialized in statues, and windows, and—well—church names themselves.  Think how many places are named St. Paul’s, or St. Peter’s, or St. John’s, or St. Mary’s.  Though there are fewer St. Timothy’s churches around, they do exist . . . as you well know.  Here in our sanctuary, we have that little stained glass above the doorway over there for St. Timothy.  (Which is more like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame size: you’re surprised he was such a small guy, right?)

But my surprise at museums around the world about the smallness of human beings is actually tied to this glorification of human beings in our churches.  In fact, it’s the very same thing—except that television and movies have come to replace the stories of the Bible.  But whether someone is a rock star, an insurance broker, a construction worker, or a companion of Jesus Christ, they are  Still.  Just.  People.

And it’s important to remember that, because over time we weed out the bad parts of our heroes until we start to remember them as having done nothing wrong in forever.  Which is fine and all, except that they then become these impossible Greek-like gods who loom larger than life, and whose lofty perfection we can never hope to replicate.  Heroes are different than mentors.  It is good to have heroes; but it is better to have mentors.  Heroes of the faith don’t usually help us in our faith journey; but mentors do.  And that’s because heroes loom larger than life, whereas mentors point us to a life well lived.

So on to the readings from today . . . In the reading from Genesis, we heard about the birth of Issac.  Or, more accurately, the pregnancy of Sara.  It’s one of those strange little tales we encounter in the Hebrew scriptures that seems designed to tell us something else.  Like how Issac got his name.  But there’s something else in the something else here too.  We think of Abraham and Sarah as being these giants of the faith.  And yet, here is Sarah, having an ordinary reaction to a ridiculous promise.  She is not really laughing so much as gasping for breath and saying, “AS IF!”  I mean come on, right?  She is an ordinary person having a normal response to an extra-ordinary promise.  Abraham is like a hundred years old!  Forgive my skepticism, says Sarah.

And yet . . . Here comes God, using ordinary people of doubtful ability to carry out an extraordinary event.  Sarah laughs, then lies about laughing, then gets caught lying, and then says, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”  And when we hear this story, we probably laugh too.  Maybe because we doubt the truth of it; or maybe because we doubt the possibility of it; or maybe just because of the absurdity of it.  Which makes us prime candidates to also end up saying, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”  My point is, Sarah is an ordinary person, having an ordinary reaction to an extraordinary event.  And that makes her just like us: incredulous at the absurdity of God’s generosity and abundance.

And in Paul’s letter to the Romans, the reading we heard after the Psalm, Paul writes, “Christ died for the ungodly. . . . God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”  And we only get why that’s absurd when we look at how we think of our relationship to God.  Deep down, we are all convinced that Jesus only dies for the righteous ones, for the good people, for the people who go to church and stay out of trouble.  And it is just as crazy to believe God loves sinners as it is to believe that a hundred year old woman is going to give birth to a son.  It’s laughable, right?  As Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”

And then we come to today’s Gospel reading, from Matthew.  It’s a long set of instructions about how and where and why the disciples are supposed to go out and turn the world upside down.  And the parts of it we tend to remember are the parts that have filtered into our culture by way of Ben Franklin sounding phrases:  Sheep among wolves, and shaking the dust from your feet.  Those things are common to us, and we usually quote them completely out of context.  Like we do.

But here’s what I want us to notice about this gospel reading today:  The people who are listed as present with Jesus.  Of course we have the usual ragtag group of fishermen, as always.  Guys who have no idea what it is like to read and write or speak in public.  But there are these three others I want us to notice.  Matthew, Simon, and Judas.

Matthew is a tax collector, which means he is in collusion with the occupying Romans.  It’s hard for us appreciate what this means in that culture, because we’ve been independent for so long.  But this would kind of be like a tax collector for the British before the American Revolution.  Someone aligned with the oppressors, but then also making his living by overcharging his fellow citizens.  The Jewish people hated tax collectors.

And on the other extreme, we have Simon the Zealot (called Simon the Cananaean in this reading, to tell us that he is a different Simon from Simon Peter, as in St. Peter’s Basillica.)  This Simon was a Zealot, which is where we get the word . . . zealot.  And the Zealots in that time would be the ones working their tails off to overthrow the occupying Romans.  Think of them as the Minutemen in the War for Independence.  Simon was all about insurrection and asymmetrical warfare and doing everything he could to frustrate the plans of the Roman occupation.  Most ordinary citizens would have thought of the Zealots as being over the top, and making life more difficult for them by bringing down the Roman hammer in retaliation for their insurrection.

And then there’s Judas.  At this point in Matthew’s gospel, Judas hasn’t yet done what he is famous for, but Matthew wants to make sure we know what to expect of him in advance, so he calls him, “Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.”  To continue with our July 4th theme, we can think of Judas as Benedict Arnold.

If we were writing this movie, we would make all the disciples Zealots.  We would not include Matthew among the ones being sent out to preach the gospel and heal the sick.  We certainly would have Judas get bit by a snake or something right after Jesus stops talking.

But this is not a movie.  These are real people.  Ordinary people.  People being told by Jesus that he is giving ordinary people extraordinary power to turn the world upside down.  Not because of who they are, but in spite of who they are.  Not because they are pure and righteous, but rather because they are messy and complicated.  They are ordinary, and that is precisely the thing that allows God to use them to do extraordinary things.

Which inevitably leads us to this:  Every Saturday, the Altar Guild comes in and sets some bread and wine near the Altar on that little table over there.  Ordinary things just sitting in ordinary containers.  And every Sunday, we gather together here in the hope that something miraculous will take place.  And as Paul says, “hope does not disappoint us.”

Because in what takes place here each week, God takes what is ordinary and turns it into something extraordinary.  And I don’t just mean the bread and the wine.  Because week after week, God is taking the plain old ordinary you and me, with all our doubts and laughter, our pain and our joy, and transforming us into something revolutionary and extraordinary:  As we become the people of God, receiving the gifts of God.


Sunday, June 11, 2017

YEAR A 2017 trinity sunday

Trinity 2017
Genesis 1:1-2:4a
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20
Psalm 8

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So today is Trinity Sunday, the day that strikes fear into preachers around the world.  Every pastor and priest I know struggles over what to say on this morning each year, because you don’t want to get it wrong.  And actually, a lot of blood and ink have been spilled over the centuries trying to get this right, this idea of what we mean by “the Trinity.”

And people don’t take this getting it right lightly.  I mean, St. Nicholas is said to have punched Arius in the face at the council of Nicaea in 325, over whether or not Jesus is eternal.  St. Nicholas, I tell you!  (I’m guessing Arius got coal for Christmas that year.)  There is not a lot of room for opinion on the Trinity; you don’t want to get it wrong, and everyone struggles to get it right.

So in trying to explain the Trinity, people end up using fancy words in other languages, debating the difference between homoiousios and homoousios.  (The difference being one iota.)  Or, you end up describing some interaction between the Father, Son, and Spirit as being a perichoresis, which some people call a dance.  Or you end up talking about the same person wearing different masks, or persona in latin. All these foreign words are supposed to help, but some of us doubt their usefulness.

Using foreign words and concepts is supposed to make it easier to understand the Trinity, but . . . well, I’m not supposed to be telling you this . . . it doesn’t.  Using foreign words and concepts just makes it easier for the person talking to have something to hide behind . . . In case St. Nicholas is listening.

But then you have theologians who go to the other end of the spectrum, trying to use everyday shapes and materials to make their case.  The three-leafed shamrock of Ireland, or the three physical forms of water, or a tri-colored pinwheel, or a simple triangle.  The physical objects are supposed to help, but some of us doubt their usefulness.  And we end up with this big long continuum that runs from St. Nicholas punching a guy back in 325, all the way to a triangle on a piece of newsprint in some fellowship hall today.  That is a long line of people struggling to get it right.

And at the end of the day . . . well, how much does it matter?  I mean seriously, how much does it matter whether the Spirit proceeds from just the Father, or from both the Father and the Son?  (A distinction that keeps the Eastern Church split from the rest of us.)  How much does it matter whether Jesus was there from the beginning of time or just from the beginning of his earthly life?  (Which is what can get you a roundhouse from St. Nicholas.)  Since before the Council of Nicaea in 325, the Church has claimed that it is of the utmost importance to get this right, this definition of the Trinity.

So important to get it right, but so hard to even explain.  It’s more a case of, “I know it when I see it,” as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once wrote about . . . a different matter entirely.  Nonetheless, we live in this confusing tension of wanting to get it right when talking about the Trinity, and yet admitting it’s unrealistic to try, since the word “Trinity” isn’t even in the scriptures.  Every explanation of the Trinity has its downside, and some will still legitimately doubt whether it really matters in the end anyway.

And, you know, if this parish were called “Trinity Episcopal Church,” I would feel a strong need to press these various metaphors on you today in the hopes that one would stick.  That way, when your friends ask, “Why is your church called Trinity?” you could have a pithy little response all set to go, with Latin and everything. But since we are called, “St. Timothy’s Church,” instead we get to explain why our patron saint’s seal has a club and a bunch of stones on it.  Such is our fate.

We heard of the Trinity in today’s Gospel reading, where Jesus gives what we sometimes call, “The Great Commission.”  It’s at the end of Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus is sending out the 11 disciples and telling them how to baptize: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  And we’ve been doing it that way ever since.  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The Trinity.  That’s why we have this Gospel reading on Trinity Sunday.  Because it puts a nice little bow on the day by reminding us that Jesus himself is putting all three persons of the Trinity at the crucial moment in our lives: When we are claimed as God’s own in the waters of baptism.  Perfect finish to Matthew’s gospel, connecting us to our own baptism, and also reminding us to go and baptize others.

But take a look at what comes before that Great Commission from Jesus.  It’s really very strange.  The remaining 11 disciples go to the mountain where Jesus told them to go.  And then we hear, “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”  Some doubted?  Doubted what?  There are 11 disciples on the mountain, and apparently there isn’t anyone else with them.  So . . . does this mean that not all of 11 of them were convinced?  Weird, right?

But then notice how that goes right into Jesus sending them out.  There are 11 of them, worshiping Jesus, and some of them doubted, and he sends them all out.  They gather together and worship Jesus, but some doubted, and they are all sent out to preach the gospel and baptize all nations.  Whatever we may think about that passage, the message is clear:  Doubt is not a barrier to being accepted by Jesus, or to being sent out to preach the gospel.  And if you’re anything like me, this is very good news indeed!  You are welcomed by Jesus, and worship Jesus, and can still carry your doubts.  Even your doubts are welcome at the foot of the cross.

Today at St. Timothy’s, we mark our 181st anniversary of ministry in Massillon.  For 181 years, this congregation has gathered together to worship Jesus.  Some of our members have always doubted.  And all us have sometimes doubted.  And still, everyone who has entered these doors has been welcomed by Jesus, and sent out to preach the gospel to all nations in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  All those generations over all those years.

This parish would not exist if God did not want us to be here.  Or, in a more positive way: we are here, in our little postage stamp of Massillon, Ohio, because God has a mission for us.  God has a purpose for this congregation.  And that is why we continue together toward our 182nd anniversary and beyond.  We walk through these doors to worship Jesus, and we walk out these doors trusting that the Spirit will give us the tools to preach the gospel—even though we may doubt.

And that, my friends, is the most important thing to remember about the Trinity.  It might not matter one iota how you define the Trinity . . . especially since nobody who is honest is able to do so.  No . . . what matters about understanding the Trinity is the full presence of God in our common life together.  The most important thing to take away from here on Trinity Sunday is that God is with you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  God walks behind you, and beside you, and in front of you.

And this morning, the Trinity meets you at this altar, in bread and wine, in the body and blood of Jesus, which is sanctified by the Holy Spirit, who was sent by the Father to inspire us to faith together.  And when you come forward and stretch out your hand, you can know that God welcomes you completely.  Whether or not you are convinced, whether or not you have doubt, you are welcome and you are sent out.  The Creator is with you, and the Spirit is leading you, and Jesus is coming to meet you once again in the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Happy Anniversary, people of St. Timothy’s!


Monday, June 5, 2017

YEAR A 2017 pentecost

Pentecost 2017
Numbers 11:24-30
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
Acts 2:1-21
John 20:19-23

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

You know, even though you may not believe me when I say this, there are lots of very funny things in the Bible.  All sorts of clever inside jokes, and sarcastic comments, and creative taunts and insults . . . But to me, one of the funnier things in the Scriptures comes from the book of Acts, from the reading we just heard this morning.  And I don’t know that it’s intended to be funny, but it makes me smile every time I hear it: 

“Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed those who scoffed, ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem . . . Listen to what I say.  Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning’.”

To me?  That’s hilarious.  For a lot of reasons.  But, clearly Peter hasn’t yet figured out how to make a logical argument.  The scoffers say, “You guys are drunk.”  Peter says, “Aha!  We can’t be, because it’s too early to be drunk!”  As arguments go, this is called an Epic Fail.

But let’s go back to the scoffers.  What they have just witnessed, in sight and sound, is the coming of the Holy Spirit.  What the scoffers have seen is the arrival of this Spirit in a very tangible way.  Something like tongues of fire on people’s heads, rushing and violent wind, people speaking in a dozen languages.  Assumedly, they do not understand what is happening, and so they scoff.

But actually they do understand, and that is why they scoff.  Because remember how the disciples started speaking in tongues?  They weren’t speaking in some kind of possessed nonsense way; they were speaking in languages.  Real languages.  Languages that people spoke, and understood, and wrote with.  The scoffers did understand.  Everyone understood.  So why the hostility?  Why the accusation of drunkenness?  Why would hearing and understanding make them turn away and refuse to listen?

Well, let’s go back for a minute and imagine that the disciples were not speaking in languages that people understood.  What if the disciples were all speaking in, say, German?  No one in Jerusalem would have any idea what these men were saying, and therefore the disciples could be dismissed as some crazy little cult.  Filled with new wine, no threat to anyone, and certainly of no importance to you and me as we walk by.

But what if, instead, we suddenly understand what they’re saying?  And so does everyone else walking by.  In that case, there’s a sudden realization that this message is for everybody.  Before you know it, it’s a very short leap to making the move from God-and-me-and-my-personal salvation all the way to everybody.  Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Cretans, and Pamphylians . . . whoever those people are.  What the disciples are saying applies to every possible person in the world, and all together, and all at once . . . And that is what makes the scoffers scoff: The impossibility of everyone.

And what is the message they are proclaiming?  Well we hear it from the non-scoffers.  They say, “in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power.”  That’s the content of the message: God’s deeds of power.  Why would someone scoff at that?  Why is it that hearing of God’s deeds of power makes the scoffers scoff?  Well, we can only speculate, but here’s a possibility. 

Maybe the reason scoffers gonna scoff is because that’s not how life works.  You don’t suddenly become fluent in another language; it takes work.  You don’t give credit to God for your achievements; you give credit to your university, or your co-workers, or your own hard work and effort.  The disciples are not qualified, not authorized.

The disciples didn’t do anything to become these brazen apostles in the street.  In fact, they were still hiding from the world.  Since Easter!  The disciples have not been to rabbinical school.  Which means they have no knowledge of God’s power.  You’re going to listen to a bunch of scared losers who thought Jesus was the Messiah?  What are you, drunk? 

“Men of Judea . . . These are not drunk as you suppose, for it is only 10:15 in the morning.”  But Peter continues his defense by quoting the prophet Joel:  In those days, God’s Spirit will be poured out on all flesh, even upon slaves, both men and women.  And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.  Everyone.  All flesh.  Men and women, slave and free.  Even the Elamites and the Pamphylians—though I still don’t know who those people are—but this Spirit is for all people.  This message is for everybody.  Even the scoffers.  And what message is this?  This message for all people?

The impossibility of everyone.  It is a message of unity in the Spirit.  As Paul says in his letter to the church in Corinth: “All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.”  There are not many spirits giving a whole bunch of different gifts.  There is one Spirit.   And in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body-- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free-- and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. 

These gifts of the Spirit, poured out on the Church, do not rely on our earning them, or deserving them, or even needing them.  Those disciples huddled in the room that we just heard about in the gospel reading, they were frightened, and grieving, and doubtful, and not expecting Jesus to show up.  But he did.  And he breathed the Spirit onto them, and sent them out to be his witnesses.  And, I don’t know if you remember this from after Easter, but the next week, they were still huddled behind that same locked door with Thomas, and Jesus came back.

My point is, we have no idea if they ever left that room.  This is not exactly the crackerack evangelism team.  Jesus breathes on them, says, "Receive the Holy Spirit.”  And they were like, great.  See you next week Jesus.  Right back here behind the same locked door again.  And . . . take note . . . Jesus does come back.  Even though they did nothing, he comes back to them.  But that’s a story for a different time.  Back to Acts . . .

“But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them.”  Since you and I know how Peter went on to be one of the main leaders of the early Church, it is kind of hard to get this context right.  Think back on those two Sundays after the Resurrection when the disciples were cowering in the locked room and Jesus showed up.  And then notice the setup for this reading today:  “When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place.”  Now I’m guessing here, but I have a hunch they were all together in one place hiding behind a locked door.

And again we notice, they are not out knocking on doors and preaching with bullhorns.  They don’t seem to be doing much of anything.  And still, the Spirit rushes in with all her pyrotechnics, and they are emboldened to proclaim the power of God in languages they have probably never heard, let alone understood.  It is not because of them: it is because of the Spirit.  The Holy Spirit.  The one Spirit.  And, as Paul says, “in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.”  All of us.

And the same Spirit who gives trembling Peter the courage to raise his voice and address that crowd, that same Spirit is in this room today, as we gather in Massillon.  You and I were baptized into that same one body, in the same one Spirit.  This same Spirit who gave courage to those disciples gives courage to you and me.  Gives us the strength to speak a word of love.  Gives us encouragement to minister to those around us.  Gives us wisdom to know when to be silent.

We do not expect tongues of fire to descend on our heads this morning.  We do not expect to start speaking in languages that we don’t understand.  But we do expect God to meet us in this place.  We do expect to be fed with the body and blood of Jesus.  And that same one Spirit is still at work in our lives today, guiding us to do more than we know or expect, to go and proclaim God’s deeds of power.  And God is still shaping and guiding the Church, through that same Spirit.

Listen to today’s gospel a little differently:  “On that day, the first day of the week, Jesus came and stood among us and said, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on us and said to us, "Receive the Holy Spirit.” 

Whether you are frightened or bold, grieving or hopeful, doubting or faith-filled, American or Pamphylian, Jesus says to you, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”