Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Sunday, September 17, 2017

YEAR A 2017 pentecost 15

Pentecost 15, 2017
Exodus 14:19-31
Psalm 114
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

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

There are many Sundays when the lessons kind of speak for themselves.  We hear them read, one after the other, and they all kind of make us nod and say to ourselves, “That makes sense.  Sure.”  And in those cases, the best thing a preacher can do is just say, “You know what I mean?”  But, as usual, I have a bunch of stuff I want to say.  So, let’s jump in for a few minutes and take a closer look . . .

The reading from Exodus, you’ve all heard before.  It is a defining moment in the life of the Jewish people, and thus for Christians as well.  You know the whole setup . . . God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh to let his people go; Pharaoh refuses, then relents, then sends his army to chase them.  They get to the Red Sea, Moses does his best Charlton Heston, and the Hebrews escape, unlike Pharaoh’s soldiers.

There’s a lot to be said about this story, but for this morning, I just want us to notice one important thing: The Jewish people did not manage this escape by their own effort and skill.  In fact, they seemed pretty certain they were done for just a few verses back.   In one of my favorite bible taunts, they ask Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?”  Such sarcasm!  And then God tells Moses to stretch out his hand, the sea parts, and it’s on to chapter 15.  But as I say, we should be sure to note that it is God who saves Moses and the people.   As far as they were concerned, “It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”

Today’s Psalm is just a celebration of the first reading.  Well, and a little taunting of the earth for being no match for the hand of God.  And then we heard from Paul, writing to the Romans.  Paul’s main point is that none of us knows what wonder God is working in the lives of those around us.  What is mandatory to some is acceptable to others and forbidden by still others.  We are not to judge what God is doing in our neighbors’ hearts, but we are to welcome all people just as God has welcomed us.  And the main take-away from this section of Paul’s letter might be this: We should remember, when it comes to religious practices . . . some should . . . all may . . . none must.

Which then leads us to this gospel reading we just heard.  You’ll remember, Peter has come to Jesus, asking how many times he should forgive his neighbor.  And Peter really ramps it up, when you think about it.  Forgiving someone seven times is no small amount!  But Peter is, nonetheless, looking for a limit.  He’s trying to find the place in a relationship when it is time to choose justice over mercy.  He wants to know at what point it is okay to give up on his neighbor.  And I imagine Peter thinks he is being quite a merciful man when he suggests, “As many as seven times?”

But no, Jesus says.  Not seven times, Peter, 77 times, or some readings say 70x7, or 490.  But either way, the point remains: A LOT OF TIMES!  And, just in case people weren’t following his meaning, Jesus tells them a story, or a parable as we call them.

The slave is brought before the king for an unpaid debt, he pleads for mercy, and the king forgives him his debt.  As soon as the servant leaves, he runs into a guy who owes him some money, and has him thrown in jail.  The king hears about it, has him thrown into prison and tortured.  The end.  Cool story, right?  Well, maybe not a cool story.  But kind of an obvious one.  Or, at least, it seems obvious.  The danger is that we might be tempted to think the point is about conditional forgiveness.  That is, that God only forgives us when we also forgive our neighbor.  If we don’t forgive our neighbor, we will be tortured and burned in a fiery place of torment.

Let’s look at this story a little more carefully, though.  First, we need some specific translations of the money involved.  In Jesus’ day, a denarius was what a laborer earned for a day’s work.  One talent was equal to 80 pounds of silver, or 6,000 denarii, which is 20 years’ worth of work.  20 years of hard labor would earn you one talent.  The slave owes 10,000 talents . . . that means 200,000 YEARS of work!  In dollar terms, a talent is about a half a million dollars.  10,000 of them comes out to about $5 BILLION!  This is a slave who owes his king FIVE BILLION DOLLARS, and when he is brought before the king he says, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”

Seriously?  200,000 years of work?  $5 billion?  He’s going to pay everything?  Nobody in their right mind is going to believe for one second that this guy is going to pay off this kind of debt.  No way, no how.  And justice?  Justice says the king should proceed as planned: sell the man and his family to someone else and just take what he can get.  “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”  Riiiight.  The king knows that is never going to happen.  “But out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.”  The king says, essentially, this game of forcing people to pay debts they cannot pay is not going to work.  Consider the entire game cancelled.  The rules of justice no longer apply.  Mercy is the new game in town.  You are free to go.

Now this is where we need to hit the brakes hard and be sure we understand what just happened.  The slave was never going to pay his debt.  He and his family should have been sold.  A just king would send them away, collect what he could, and move on.  That’s justice.  That’s fairness.  That’s what we expect in our own society.  People pay their debts, one way or another.  “But out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.”

This slave is suddenly given a second chance.  More than that, the entire system has been cancelled.  His debt isn’t sort of reduced; he isn’t told to declare bankruptcy; he doesn’t even have to start working more overtime or take on a second job.  Because, “out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.”

I can’t emphasize this enough:  He didn’t get a second chance to try to stay in the game.  The game itself has been cancelled.  There is no debt to work off, or to unrealistically promise to work off.  The whole system of debt and debtors was declared invalid.  That’s it.  The king has declared that mercy will rule in the place of justice.

But then you remember, as the slave leaves, he runs into someone who owes him 100 denarii . . . which is about $2,000.  (May I remind you the other number we were working with was $5 billion.)  Now, under the old system of justice, the slave had every right to throw this man into prison until he could pay the $2,000.  Justice decreed that this was a legitimate method of dealing with a debtor.  Throw him into prison until he can work off the debt, which of course he can never do, because he’s in prison.

But listen carefully to this again:  His fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.”  Right before that, we heard this: The slave fell on his knees before the king, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”  The king chose mercy.  The fellow slave chose justice.  And under the rules of justice, well . . . In anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.  (That is, never.)

The amazing thing about this story is that it is in the slave’s hands to decide which set of rules will be in force.  He can choose mercy and have those rules apply.  (And, in practical terms, getting $5 billion for a $2,000 investment seems pretty okay.)  Or he can choose justice, as he did with his fellow slave, and have those rules apply.  (Which, we might note, has now been elevated to include torture, rather than just being sold.)

Justice is our right.  And mercy is our privilege.  We can choose daily which system we want to live under.  Which street we want to live on.  And part of God’s plan of mercy means your debt is cancelled.  All your own promises to straighten up and fly right, to pay your own $5 billion debt . . . that is all set aside as well.  Because there is a new king in town; a king whose nature is to show mercy.  May God give us the grace to choose mercy over justice, and forgiveness over retribution, and to forgive others, as we have been forgiven.


Sunday, September 10, 2017

YEAR A 2017 pentecost 14

Pentecost 14, 2017
Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 149
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

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

As we gather here this morning, the people of Florida are experiencing a life-threatening hurricane.  We will of course be thinking about them, and praying for them, and once the storm has passed, we will figure out the best way to be helpful to them, as well as the people of Texas who just went through this last week.  Hurricanes are terrifying things, and people’s lives will be upended for some time to come.

Now as Irma was barreling over Barbuda and St. Martin toward Cuba last week, I saw someone on the east coast of Florida write, “Please pray that the hurricane moves to the west coast, rather than over me.”  Which should make us all ask, “Wait . . . what about the people living on the west coast of Florida?”  In our modern parlance, we call this, “Throwing them under the bus,” right?  As long as it turns out okay for me and my people, then the other people are just collateral damage and numbers of dead and wounded.  This kind of thinking should trouble us, to say the least.  But it also leads us to take a closer look at today’s first reading, from the 12th chapter of Exodus.

I hope you recognized that story when you heard it.  We call this the Passover, and it sets the scene for every Passover meal that our Jewish neighbors observe each year.  If you’ve ever attended a Seder meal, you know they can be fun and celebratory, and they bind families and communities together.  And all those Seder meals commemorate this event from Exodus, when God passed over the homes of the enslaved Hebrew people and struck down the first-born of all the Egyptians.  We focus on the part we like: The Jewish children were saved.  Their parents’ anguish was avoided.  Pharaoh set them all free.  And then we get centuries of happy Passover meals.

But there is the other side of this story too.  There’s the part we don’t like to think about.  Because sleeping peacefully in their beds that night were all those innocent Egyptian children, who had done nothing wrong.  And all their grief-stricken parents who most likely had nothing to do with the fact that God’s people were living in harsh slavery.  Well . . . what about the Egyptians?

Now I don’t want to get into the disturbing picture this all paints of the merciful God we worship.  We will have to let that go for now, because we would have to spend hours discussing the historicity of the Old Testament writings, so we leave that for another time.  But suffice it to say that it is important for us to remember the others in this story, not just the ones we know.  Every time “our side” wins, it means there are people who suffered for that victory.  They are still people; they are still created in the image of God.

It is the height of self-centeredness to ignore the pain of others and remain comfortable and at ease because it is not our pain.  When we rejoice in the suffering of others we are putting ourselves on the opposite side of God.  How do we know this?  Because of Jesus.  Rather than ignoring the pain of others, Jesus takes it upon himself.  Jesus takes on people’s pain; Jesus takes on your pain.  Right up until the end, while hanging on the cross, when Jesus pleads to God to have mercy on the very people who put him on that cross!  Jesus does not fight a battle based on strength, but rather on mercy.  Jesus does not use the power of might, but rather the power of forgiveness.

Way way back in 2016 when I first interviewed with the Call Committee, I made it very clear that I would never preach politics from the pulpit, and I maintain that.  But I need to say this about the recent fights over DACA Act or the Dreamers as they’re called:  I’m not saying the recent decisions are good or bad.  There are well-meaning people on both sides of that conversation.  However, I am saying that it is totally inappropriate to say “it doesn’t matter because those are not my kids.”  They’re somebody’s kids.  And somebody’s kids live on the west coast of Florida, and somebody’s kids lived in Egypt when the angel of death did not pass over their homes.

So, all that said, I want us to take a look at the Baptismal Covenant this morning.  You can open a nearby Prayer Book to page 305, or I can just read it to you.  But every time we have a baptism here, we renew our Baptismal Covenant.  It starts with the Apostles Creed, and then the priest asks you five questions.  And the fourth of those questions is this:  Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?  And the answer you give is, I will, with God’s help.  I’ve heard you make that promise.  More than once, in fact.  With God’s help, you have committed to seeking and serving Christ in all persons.

Our Baptismal promises and our passing through the waters of Baptism are what makes us God’s children.  We cannot say that others are not our family, because the same God created them, and the same God has redeemed them.  One family, for whom Jesus Christ died and was raised to new life.

Now, lest you think I forgot about grace, I refer us back to Paul’s letter to the Romans.  I mean the part we just heard a few minutes ago.  He writes, “The commandments . . . are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”  Which is the second half of that question from the Baptismal Covenant:  Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?  I will with God’s help, right?

But, now you’re probably thinking to yourself, “In just a few minutes, I am going to kneel and confess that I have not loved my neighbor as myself.”  And yes, that is true (particularly in Rite II).  BUT, you will hear immediately after that confession that God’s mercy is upon you, and that God will strengthen you in all goodness by the power of the Holy Spirit.  We promise to do this thing, and then we admit that we don’t do this thing, and then we hear that God will strengthen us to do this thing.  It seems like an endless circle, doesn’t it?  Week after week.  As though we’re not getting anywhere.  We make promises we can’t seem to keep, even with God’s help!

And that’s where the important word is “we.”  Because in today’s Gospel, Jesus promises us that where two or three are gathered in his name, he is here among us.  We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.  And we hear of God’s mercy upon us.  And we ask for God’s help as we strive to live as we have promised.  We do this together.  All of it.  There is no east or west, slave or free, male or female.  God is the God of all.

We make promises to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.  And we break those promises.  But thanks be to God that Jesus does not break his promises to us.  Promises like, where 2 or 3 are gathered, I am among them.  And, this is my body broken for you, whenever you do this in remembrance of me.  And, I am with you, even to the end of the age.  And, I will raise you up on the last day.

May God give us the grace to trust in the promises of Jesus.  And may God give us the strength to love and serve our neighbors as we have promised . . . with God’s help.


Sunday, September 3, 2017

YEAR A 2017 pentecost 13

Pentecost 13, 2017
Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

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

Oh poor, poor Peter.  There he goes again, thinking he’s doing the right thing, when he’s doing exactly the wrong thing.  It’s kind of predictable in some ways, that whatever Peter’s answer is, you should assume the opposite is true.  Like when I’m trying to remember someone’s name, it’s a safe bet that my first guess is going to be the one name that is NOT that person’s name.  Or, when I’m driving somewhere around town, if my instinct is to turn left, I know that means I should turn right.  Some people are just not good at certain things, and Peter ought to have caught on by the 16th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, don’t you think?

Ah, but then there was last week.  Remember last week?  The Confession of Peter?  That was when Jesus asked, “But what about you?” Who do you say I am?”  Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.”  In that case, just a few verses ago, Simon got it so right he even got his new name, “Peter” out of the deal.  In that case, against all odds, Peter had the exact right answer, surprising though that might be.  Flying high in verse 17.  Trampled under foot in verse 23.

A couple weeks before that, he was walking on the water with Jesus, only to sink into the sea moments later.  And if we flash forward in the story, to Holy Week, you’ll recall that Peter is the one who says he will never deny Jesus, and then a few hours later denies him three times.

There is one reliable thing you can say about Peter: he is unreliable.
In the world of employment and human resources, that is one solid reason for letting someone go.  Unreliability.  If you can’t count on a person, you probably need to fire them.  Even though someone’s performance is consistently lackluster, you can count on their being lackluster.  It’s the unreliability that makes someone a risk in a corporation.  One day they outshine their bosses.  The next day they can’t sharpen a pencil.  Wall Street thrives on predictability, and that need for dependability trickles all the way down to flipping burgers.  Better to have someone who is constantly mediocre than someone who alternately excels and fails, week to week.

Peter, in short, is a risk.  And Jesus ought to dismiss him.  And this week, he does.  Back of the line, right?  Goes so far as to call him Satan, so that Peter knows he means business.  “Empty out your desk, turn in your keys, and get back to the mailroom Peter.  Or should I say, ‘Simon’?”

And some commentators want to connect this rebuke to Jesus’ rebuke of Satan back in the early chapters of Matthew.  Remember that?  Satan is dragging Jesus around town, showing him rocks and cliffs and the Temple and all that.  And, when Satan tells Jesus he will give him all the kingdoms of the world if he will but bow down and worship him, Jesus says, “Away with you, Satan!”  And the Devil departs from him.  Sounds a lot like what he said to Peter, right?  Go away.  Get behind me, Satan?

But here’s a funny thing about the words Matthew chooses in these two scenarios.  And this is where you can all say to yourselves, “Oh no—here comes the Greek again.”  But it’s just two words we need to look at.  Promise.  Back at the Temptation of Jesus, the word Jesus uses is hupage, which means “go away.”  He says to the devil, “Go away, Satan.”  And Satan does.

The word Jesus uses when he calls Simon Peter "Satan" is, opiso.  Which means, “after me.”  Jesus says to Peter, “Follow after me, Satan,” which is very different from saying “Go away,” I think you’ll agree.  And, in case you’re not sure about that, in the next verse in today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  That word there, “follow,” is the same word Jesus uses to tell Simon Peter Satan to get behind him: opiso.

Follow me, Satan.  And if anyone else wants to follow me alongside Peter, you also must take up your cross.  Jesus is NOT sending Peter away.  It’s not even a criticism of Peter, except for the “Satan” part.  Jesus does not want Peter to go away, like he wanted the devil to go away after the temptation in the wilderness.  No, Jesus is telling Peter to stay, right behind him, where all the other disciples are supposed to be.

In fact, this same word, opiso, is the word Jesus uses when he first calls Simon and Andrew away from the fishing nets.  He says to them, opiso, or “Follow me.”  And they drop their nets, and follow him.  It is not a condemnation; it is an invitation.  Get behind me.  Follow me.  Walk with me.

So, why does Jesus call Simon Peter Satan?  Good question.  Here’s my guess:  Jesus has just announced to the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem to be killed and then raised again to new life.  He has laid out the plan, painful as it must be to hear it.  Since the disciples instinctively carry the Jewish notion of the Messiah (one who takes names and kicks . . . Romans), this dying thing is not part of the plan, see?  The Messiah is supposed to come riding in on a white horse brandishing a sword, with the religious leaders cheering him on against Rome; the Messiah is not supposed to be put to death by the Romans, with the religious leaders cheering them on.

Jesus apparently has the wrong script, and so Peter says to him, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”  Which puts Peter on the opposite side of God’s plan.  And, lest we forget, the one whom we know to be on the opposite side of God’s plan is Satan—the one who tempted Jesus in the wilderness when this whole Gospel of Matthew was just getting started.  Satan wants to divert Jesus from his path toward saving people.  He wants Jesus to turn his back on people.  To send them away when they mess up, and to give up on them and choose what is easy, rather than what is good.  In short, Peter is trying to tempt Jesus into giving up and saving his own life.  Just like Satan did!

Jesus says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  Get behind me, Satan.  Follow me, Peter.  Take up your cross and go with me to find life.  It’s an invitation, not a condemnation.

And you, people of St. Timothy’s, you are invited, just as Peter was invited.  We all have our reasons why we think God’s plan will not work.  We all have our inner dialog of doubts as to whether God can really save us, really bring life out of death.  We all have our protestations that Jesus cannot save us, all these objections that Jesus might call “Satan.”

But here’s the thing: Jesus does not tell you to first banish those thoughts and then follow him.  Jesus did not tell Peter to get his doctrine straight before following him.  No, Jesus says, “follow me, Peter, and bring your Satan with you.”  Get behind me with all your doubts and fears and misunderstandings, and I will lead you to eternal life.  You do not have to understand how Jesus meets you, you just have to trust that he does.  And on the days when you can’t do even that, you are still welcome by God at this altar.  Follow Jesus . . . to the table, and be fed with the bread of life and the cup of salvation.


Sunday, August 27, 2017

YEAR A 2017 pentecost 12

Pentecost 12, 2017
Exodus 1:8-2:10
Psalm 124
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

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

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of The Jefferson Bible, and I hope I’m not about to disillusion anyone when I explain it.  You see, Thomas Jefferson liked the things Jesus said, but not the miracles attributed to him.  So, Jefferson sat down with a razor and cut out all the words of Jesus, which he then reassembled as a separate book, called “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.”  No miracles, no angels, no supernatural anything.  Who does Thomas Jefferson say Jesus is?  A teacher.

As those of you familiar with the actual faith of Islam know, Muslims consider Jesus to be a prophet.  Born of the Virgin Mary, sent by God to proclaim truth to Israel.  In fact, Muslims believe that Jesus was the final prophet sent by God, and that he will return to defeat the Anti-Christ.  But was Jesus actually God incarnate?  No.  Who do Muslims say Jesus is?  A prophet.

To his fellow Jews, Jesus was seen as a Jewish man.  One who seemed devoted to his faith, perhaps, but hardly observant enough to be the Messiah!  And, of course, the fact that he did not rescue Israel from oppression simply proved the point.  Jesus was a Jewish man who was killed by the Romans.  Who do Jewish people say that Jesus is?  An ordinary man, cut down in the prime of his life.

What about you?  Who do you say Jesus is?
Wait.  Don’t answer that yet.  Because first I want to help set the scene from today’s Gospel reading.  Well, not even the scene.  I just want to point out something in particular.  Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And they answer, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."  Teacher, prophet, faithful Jew.  You see?  The answers that a rational person would come up with.  You look at the facts, discount the miracles, filter it through your own faith understanding, and that’s what comes out.  Teacher, prophet, decent guy.

I like to think of Jesus nodding in response, as if to say, yes, yes of course.  That’s what you’d would expect people to say.  But what if the answer came from somewhere else?  What if God could tell us who Jesus is?  Then I picture Jesus looking sideways at them, pretending to be busy doing something else, as he’s about to kind of poke them to see if the experiment worked, almost doubting that there would be a difference.  And he asks, “But you . . . these disciples he has been teaching and traveling with . . . who do YOU say that I am?”  Poke, poke.  Raised eyebrows.  Hopeful expression on his face . . .  And all creation holds its breath, waiting on this one reply . . .

Simon Peter answers, well, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  YES!  Jesus jumps up in the air and kicks his heels together and knocks over the coffee pot when he comes back down!  It worked!  It really worked!  “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”  In other words, the lines of communication are open.  Simon Peter has seen with the eyes of faith.  Has seen beyond physical appearances.  Flesh and blood did not reveal this to Simon Peter.  God did!  It . . . really . . . worked!

And Jesus continues . . . “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”  Okay, stop the celebration for a moment as we digress into the underworld of the word Hades.  In the Greek, it is HAH-dace, which sounds an awful lot like Hades, so we’ll just go with the regular pronunciation.  But this place, this Hades, is not rivers of burning lava and devils with pitchforks.  Hades is the place of the unseen, in Greek mythology.  In Hebrew it is sheol.  To you and me, it is simply the grave.  Death.  The place where everyone goes while awaiting the resurrection.

Now let’s look at those words from Jesus again:  And on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of death will not prevail against it.  And you may be wondering, “Since when have gates attacked anybody?”  Gates are designed for defense, not offense.  Jesus is setting a pretty low bar if he’s saying gates won’t prevail against it.  Do gates ever prevail?  Well, the gates of death do seem to prevail defensively, don’t they?  The coffin is closed; the priest brushes the dirt from his robes; and then it’s all memories.  Five months out, 5 years out, 50 years out . . . as far as we can see, the gates of death have prevailed.  Who do others say that I am when I die?  A teacher?  A prophet?  A decent person?  But you . . . with the eyes of faith . . . who do YOU say that I am?  And all creation holds its breath, waiting on this one reply . . .
On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of death will not prevail against it.

On this rock I will build my Church.  That mention of the Church is what makes this version of the story special.  You see, this question and answer (what we call the Confession of St. Peter) appears in all four Gospel books.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, all have some version of this story in them.  That’s a clue to us that it’s important.  But it’s also a cue for us to look at what is different in Matthew’s account—the one we heard today—what sets it apart from the other three times we hear this story?

The answer is the connection to the Church.  The Confession of Peter (or Peter the Confessor, depending on your view of the Church) is what Jesus will build the Church on.  This confession can be thought of as the identifier of the Church.  The marker.  The thing that lets you know it is the Church of Jesus, and not Thomas Jefferson.  Peter shows Jesus that he can answer the question, Who do you say that I am?  Even if Peter has no idea what he himself is saying!

So, what about you?  Who do you believe Jesus is?  Wait.  Don’t answer that yet, because it’s a trick question.  I asked you who you believe Jesus is.  I want to point out something that probably seems obvious . . . at least to Episcopalians.  If I ask 50 different people who they believe Jesus is, I will get 51 different answers.  Same thing if I were to ask you who you think Jesus is.  And, what’s more, if I ask just one person on 50 different days who they think Jesus is, I’ll get 52 different answers.  What we think and believe about Jesus changes all the time.  Or, at least if we’re honestly trying to answer that question.  We think and see and feel with our worldly God-given senses, and in case you haven’t noticed, they can lead us astray.

But Jesus doesn’t ask the disciples who they think he is.  Jesus doesn’t ask them who they believe he is.  He doesn’t ask for an opinion, or a current best guess, or anything we might use to sum something up.  Jesus asks, "But who do you say that I am?”

And so now for you:  Who do you say Jesus is?  Wait.  Don’t answer that.  You don’t have to answer that.  Because, I actually know the answer to that question, for each and every person in this room.   Who do you say Jesus is?  You say that Jesus is the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light; true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.  Through him all things were made.  For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.  On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

That’s who you say Jesus is.  I’ve heard you say it.  But who you believe Jesus is might be radically different from that.  And you know what?  That’s okay.  Because the particulars of your individual faith will change over the course of your lifetime.  As a little child you might believe in the Virgin Birth; 20 years later you might think it’s preposterous.  Ten years later you might think it doesn’t matter either way; and 20 years after that you might find that the Virgin Birth is the most important aspect of your entire faith system.  What you personally believe about Jesus is subject to change.  Local terms and conditions may apply.  Void where prohibited.

But what you say about Jesus has been what the Church has said about Jesus for 1700 years.  These words are not your words.  And you may not understand them, or believe them, or agree with them . . . today.  But like it or not, you keep saying them, because this is who the Church says Jesus is, and you are part of this Church, along with the saints of every time and every place, who meet us at the altar of God.  And together we meet the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, or as Peter says, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.  Flesh and blood have not revealed him to us, but the grace of God in heaven.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

YEAR A 2017 pentecost 10

Pentecost 10, 2017
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Psalm 105, 1-6, 16-22, 45b
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

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

I have been waiting for ten years to preach on this text.  Ten years.  Due to a coincidence of my travel schedule in the past, and the way the Lectionary works, every time this Gospel text comes up, every three years, I seem to have been out of town.  Until today.  So, I finally get my chance.  Please excuse me if I seem a bit giddy this morning.

And the reason I’ve been pining to preach on this text is because I have heard so many sermons preached, and talks delivered at youth gatherings, where—quite frankly—they get it completely backwards and wrong.  I have heard dozens of speakers turn this story into one about Jesus condemning Peter, and ridiculing him for his lack of faith.  I have heard over and over that the point of this gospel text is for us all to somehow get more faith than Peter, so that Jesus won’t ridicule us for our lack of faith.  That is not right.  That is turning this text on its head, and—no surprise—making it about us rather than about Jesus.  That is using this story to tell people they have to measure up, try harder, Straighten up and fly right, get more faith.  And as I’ve said many times to you over the past year, when we make stories about Jesus into stories about ourselves, it always ends badly.

So let’s start here . . . as you know, the Bible didn’t drop out of the sky into our pew rack fully formed in its final state.  The original texts were mostly in Hebrew and Greek, which is why people in seminary have to take those languages . . . or used to have to take those languages.  If you want to know what the writers of the New Testament actually wrote, it is crucial to have at least some familiarity with Greek.  And this is a case where looking at the Greek gives you a completely different understanding of the text.  That happens sometimes.

The key to getting this particular story right turns on one Greek word, which I promise only to say once.  And that word is: Ὀλιγόπιστε.  That’s the word that gets translated as “You of little faith.”  Or, in the King James, “Ye of little faith.”  And we’re so familiar with that phrase that we use it in everyday language, when someone is doubting whether, say, I could sink a basketball from half court, or what have you.  You do something surprising, or you take on some big challenge, and you might turn to your friend and say, “Ye of little faith, just watch!”  And that’s because we misunderstand this text, and what Jesus is saying here.

That little word, the one I promised only to say once, is an adjective turned into a noun.  The word means “little faith,” and it’s one word.  Jesus is calling Peter “Littlefaith,” like a nickname, or a term of endearment.  My little faith one.  It is not a judgment.  It is not a criticism.  It is comforting.  It is reassuring.

And that is why I have been driven crazy for so long at hearing others turn this text upside down, making Jesus into a scolding demi-god who walks on water and ridicules a mere human who cannot do the same.  Jesus does not mock his little faith ones.  He does not taunt us for not being Jesus!  And you know why he doesn’t?  Because faith itself is a gift from God.  Faith is granted to us by God’s grace, not because we deserve it.  And, besides, what kind of God criticizes people for not having enough of what only God can give?  It makes no sense.

We must be careful not to turn faith into a competition, where the good people get a bunch of faith and the bad people don’t get any.  We’re already living in a system that views morality in this way:  Good people get more good stuff as a reward, and bad people go to jail because they’re bad.  That’s the way of the world; that is not the way of God.  Faith is a gift; we cannot get more of it by trying harder.

Jesus says, “My little faith one, why did you doubt?”  Aha, you may be saying!  See?  Jesus is judging Peter for his doubt, which is what caused him to fall into the sea!  Maybe.  But, actually, no; I don’t think so.  Because notice what comes right before that.  As Peter begins to sink, he cries out, “Lord, save me!”  And Jesus does.  What Peter was doubting was not his ability to walk on water.  I mean he was just doing that, for crying out loud!  That little faith one was totally walking on the water.  Amazing!  And when he begins to sink, he panics.  He screams out because he does not trust Jesus to save him.  That is Peter’s doubt.  Peter panics because he doubts Jesus’ willingness or ability to save him.

And so, obviously, Jesus yells at him, right?  No.  Of course not.  I mean, would you yell at your beloved Little Faith one?  Imagine you’re teaching a beloved child to ride a bike.  She goes a little bit and starts to fall sideways, panics, and screams out to you, and you catch her before she falls and gets hurt.  You might say to her, “My little biker, why did you doubt that I would catch you?”  What you would not say is, “You of little bike riding ability, why did you fall?”  You see how different that is?  My little faith one, why did you doubt?  It is caring, and reassuring.  And, maybe more importantly, it is not Jesus saying, “You got this,” and watching you fall, with his arms folded, shaking his head.  Not even close.  Rather, it is Jesus saying, “I got you,” and lifting you up.  When you fall, I’ve got you.

Jesus does not call us to have the faith to walk on water.  Or pick up snakes.  Or cast out demons.  What Jesus calls us to do is trust him.  Trust him to save us when we are sinking below the waves.  Trust him to save us when we all eventually sink below the earth.  Jesus will reach down for each one of us and pull us up to the resurrected new life.  Do not doubt it, my friends.

But of course, we do doubt it.  And that’s the best part, actually.  Because doubts don’t stop Jesus from saving Peter, do they?  Jesus still reaches down and pulls him up.  Peter’s fear and doubt do not stand in the way of God’s salvation.  Just as your fears and doubts cannot stop Jesus from saving you when you need him most.  Jesus will lift up you and me, his little faith ones, and welcome us with open arms.

Now I can almost guarantee you that at some point in your life, someone is going to use this story about Jesus and Peter as a way to say, if you only have enough faith, you can walk on water.  Which implies that if you can’t, you are somehow a failure.  Or cursed.  One without enough faith.  But don’t believe it, because that is not the point of this story (as I have been waiting ten years to say).

We are the little faith ones of Jesus.  And it is the power of Jesus calling to us that allows us to do miraculous things, like walk on water, or feed the hungry, or comfort those who mourn, or teach a child about Jesus.  Jesus calls to us, like he called Peter out of the boat.  And the things we do together as the people of God are no less miraculous than Peter walking on the water.

Sure, we too will have our doubts, our anxieties, our fears.  We will have moments when we think we are beyond redemption, beyond forgiveness, beyond help.  And in those moments, Jesus reaches down to us and says, “Little faith one, why did you doubt?”  And like the disciples in the boat that day, we gather together to worship him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

And today, Jesus reaches down in a different way, as he does every time we gather together in this place.  And in the bread and wine, he offers the assurance that he is with us, in body and blood, given for you.  As we gather at this Altar to celebrate the eternal feast with the saints of every time and place, we bring our doubts, and our fears, and our concerns for the future.  And to each one of us, Jesus says, “My Little Faith One, I have already redeemed you and you are mine.”


Sunday, August 6, 2017

YEAR A 2017 transfiguration

Year A, 2017
Transfiguration Sunday
Exodus 34:29-35
2 Peter 1:13-21
Luke 9:28-36
Psalm 99 or 99:5-9

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

Have you ever found yourself listening to a story from someone and then, when they’re done, the first words out of your mouth are, “So, was anyone else there?  You know, someone who maybe has a different perspective?”

Because sometimes, a story just doesn’t make sense.  The details don’t go together.  And you’re left thinking, there simply must be a different version than this one.

That’s the feeling I get when we read this story of the Transfiguration of Jesus.  No matter how many times I hear it, I’m always left wondering why we have this collection of details, without some more information, or conversation, or something.  Why Moses and Elijah?  Why the cloud?  And why on earth is Peter suddenly offering to start building houses for everybody?

And it doesn’t help to go to the other gospels, because the story is almost exactly the same in all three of the ones that record it.  Jesus, Peter, James, and John climb up a mountain.  Jesus glows in a glorious state, Elijah and Moses appear, a cloud covers them, Peter asks if he should build some little cabins, Elijah and Moses disappear, they all climb down the mountain, and Jesus tells them not to say anything until he has been raised from the dead.  Cool story bro’ . . . right?

And so I want to turn to James and John and ask, “What did you guys see?”  Because this does not sound like a story.  This sounds like a bunch of random facts put together, from one person’s perspective, and—to be honest—doesn’t seem to have any kind of point to it.  That’s what I want to say, but that’s not really an option, for the guy preaching.  So, we’re going to have to dig in and figure out the point here.  And there is always a point to a story like this, I promise.

The first thing we need to do is make the right connections.  Because this is one of those times where the people hearing Luke’s gospel at the time would recognize connections that we can’t see. If you remember last week, we talked about being too close to something to see it—like a fish swimming in water, or the sunglasses on your head.  But sometimes we are too far away from something to make sense of it.  And the Transfiguration of Jesus is one of those times where the vast distance of years between us and the story gets in the way of our hearing what is actually going on.  So, here come some seemingly random things to note; things that would be familiar then, and which may be new to us today . . .

First, let’s start with Moses and Elijah.  When Elijah reached the end of his life, he was taken up into heaven, and because of this, Elijah is a person who did not die . . . Or, at least, not in the way that you and I think of dying.  And Moses?  Well, according to Deuteronomy, Moses climbed up a mountain at the end of his life, and God buried him in a secret place that remains a secret.  These two giants of the faith departed in mystery, at the hand of God.  And, this means they’re both sort of “available” to be sent back by God in the fullness of time.  Especially Elijah.  There’s a prophecy in the book of Malachi that Elijah will return to usher in the day of the Lord.

Elijah is thought to attend every circumcision, so that he can keep track of who is fulfilling the Law.  He’s like God’s circumcision bookkeeper.  When your Jewish friends hold a Seder meal, there is a place left for Elijah, a cup left for him, a door opened for him.  There is an expectation among the Jewish people that Elijah will return to announce the Messiah’s coming.  Elijah will be the one who proclaims the redemption of humanity.  The point being, to those disciples with Jesus on the mountain, and to those hearing this story, it would be expected that the Messiah would be about to appear, because Elijah himself is standing there.

Now about Peter’s construction project . . . the prophet Zechariah declares that the Day of the Lord would be accompanied by a celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, or Feast of Booths, which is an annual festival, when faithful Jews build small dwellings and sleep in them to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt.  So—although it seems absolutely bizarre to you and me that Peter offers to build three houses—it totally makes sense if Peter is making this connection:

Jesus, Moses, and Elijah would need to have booths if this is indeed the moment when all Israel will be redeemed, because everyone needs a booth in order to fulfill the prophecy.  It’s like I randomly ask my wife if I should turn on the oven.  If she is standing there with a tray of cookies in her hand, the question makes sense.  Without the cookies, I seem a little crazy.  Knowing the connection to the Feast of Booths sheds light on Peter’s offer to start building things.  That prophecy is Peter’s tray of freshly prepared cookie dough.

And there are other connections in this story as well.  For instance, as we heard in today’s reading from Exodus, Moses climbs a mountain and encounters God.  When he comes back down, his face is glowing so brightly that he has to wear a veil around people.  The 7th chapter of the book of Daniel refers to the Son of Man, glowing and white, descending from the clouds.  He approaches the Ancient of Days, who sits on a throne of fire, with burning wheels, which sounds a lot like the chariot of fire that took Elijah into heaven.

All these connections would be the backstory that listeners to Luke’s gospel bring with them to this story.  They would know about Moses and Elijah; they would hear the triggers of the Son of Man and the dazzling glory and the cloud.  Those hearing this gospel in it’s earliest days would know all the imagery, and they would naturally make the connections.  It’s not a story of unconnected facts; it is a story that is part of the long woven narrative of God and God’s people, fully connected.  And the disciples see all this taking place, and then they hear something for the first time . . .

Remember how at the Baptism of Jesus, when the dove descended from heaven?  There was a voice saying, “This is my beloved Son; with whom I am well pleased.”  The disciples weren’t present at Jesus’ baptism, and even if they were, it’s not clear anyone else heard it besides Jesus.  But now, here on this mountain, they hear the voice from heaven talking to them.  Directly to them.  And the voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to Him.”

Moses and Elijah and Jesus, dazzlingly white, standing on a mountain, Festival of Booths, covered in a cloud, a voice from heaven.  To anyone who knows the connections, this can only mean one thing: 

Jesus.  Is.  The.  Messiah!  This is the one they have been waiting for!  At last, the disciples understand!

Well, okay, not really.  They still don’t get it, not totally.  But here’s the important point: Anyone standing around the marketplace hearing this story, anyone hearing this story read aloud at home, or walking down the street, anyone else would get it.  This is the turning point of Luke’s gospel, because there can be no doubt that this Jesus is God’s Messiah.  And now, everyone would expect, Jesus will jump on a white horse, pick up a flaming sword, and restore the fortunes of Israel, God’s chosen people.  The wait is over!  And Jesus will rule forever on this mountain!

But, as you know, the story doesn’t go there.  The journey takes Jesus and the disciples back down the mountain.  And this is the most important point.  Jesus is now stamped in our minds as God’s Son, the Messiah, but now he comes down from heaven, you might say.  Now he descends into the dirty streets, the messy lives, the dark places of the world.  Jesus’ real mission is about to start, yes.  But it is not going to happen the way anyone is expecting it to happen.

You and I know where this story is going, and it is heading straight for the cross.  Jesus is descending from the mountain, to where you and I live.  He is coming down out of glory to redeem what would seem beyond redemption: you and me, and the brokenness and struggles of our messy lives.  Jesus willingly descends from the mountain, knowing full well what that means for himself, and does so because he knows what that will mean for us.  Jesus comes down from the mountain precisely because you and I cannot climb up the mountain.  Jesus does not stand on the mountain and call us to an impossible task of becoming like him in glory.  No, Jesus leaves his glory and comes down to get us.

And so, what is our connection to this story?  What do we do now?  The answer comes from the voice up there on the mountain: This is my beloved Son; listen to him.  Listen to him.  Listen to him tell you that he is coming back for you.  Listen to him saying he is coming to redeem you.  Stretch out your hands to receive him, in the gift of Communion, because the Messiah is here, and he has come for you today.


Sunday, July 30, 2017

YEAR A 2017 pentecost 8

Pentecost 8, 2017
I Kings 3:5-12
Psalm 119:129-136
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 45-52

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

So have you ever wondered what you did with your sunglasses?  Looked in all the usual places.  Looked in all the unusual places.  Yelled up the stairs to ask the kids.  Went back over every place you can think of.  And then decided to leave without them, get in your car, look in the review mirror and . . . yes, of course, they’re on your head, right where you left them.  Someplace where you couldn’t forget them when you needed them.  On your head.  Of course, you aren’t aware that they’re right where you need them, when you need them, because you’re just completely used to them being there.  The top of your head is a reasonable place to store sunglasses, but how embarrassing, right?

And you probably have this with all sorts of things.  Car keys in your pocket.  Cell phone in your hand.  Coffee sitting on the table in front of you.  And on and on.  In a way, it’s just that things are hiding right in plain sight.  Can’t find your car in the parking lot because you walked right past it.  We don’t notice things when we’re looking for them because they’re so familiar to us.  You hope that doesn’t happen with family members, but it may be what’s going on in my mother’s head when she runs through all my brother’s names before she gets to mine.  You know, we just get used to things and it’s hard to notice them.

But then there’s this part of your brain called the Reticular Activating System.  It does a lot of things for you, even if you’ve never even said thank you to it.  Sometimes the Reticular Activating System replaces something real with something that makes more sense.  A good example of that was at a chapel service when I was in college.  During a sermon, one of my professors meant to say one word, but said something totally inappropriate and similar sounding instead.  Nobody even flinched.  We didn’t notice the bizarre substitution (and neither did the woman preaching). 

Our psychology professor noticed though, and after chapel asked lots of us what the preacher had said in her sermon.  And we all said we had heard the intended word, rather than the completely inappropriate word she had actually spoken.  The psychology professor was overjoyed at this accidental example, because that same day we were discussing the Reticular Activating System.  The very brain part that had offered the more appropriate word for us.  Perfect timing!  The word spoken was replaced in our minds by the word intended, and nobody even noticed until someone pointed it out to us.

Another thing the Reticular Activating System does is block out useless information while keeping us alert to useful information.  So, for example, with a little practice, you can fall asleep quite easily living next to the train tracks, and can still notice if your infant daughter cries out in the night.  You can sleep in moving vehicles racing along, but wake up with the slightest decrease in speed.  You can block out a ton of chatter and chaos while walking through an airport, but immediately notice if your name is called over the PA system.  The Reticular Activating System blocks out the clutter, allowing you to focus on what’s important, or even necessary for survival.  (It might also be how my children can’t seem to hear me calling them from the kitchen, but can definitely hear me opening a package of cookies from a hundred yards away.)

We often don’t see something even when we’re looking for it, because it’s so familiar (like the sunglasses), and we often block out things that distract us from what we really think is important.  And then there’s also the kind of situation where we don’t recognize something that’s all around us, because . . . well, we’re soaking in it, and we’re too close to it.  This is kind of like if you were to ask a fish, “How’s the water today?”  And the fish would respond, “Water?  What water?”  If you can’t step outside the world you know, you can’t recognize it for what it is.  A fish does not know it is swimming in water, because . . . well . . . the fish is swimming in the water.

The Kingdom of heaven is like this, see?  It’s hidden and it’s in plain sight; it’s everywhere all around you; and it’s the biggest thing you’d trip over and not even notice it.  Back in Jesus’ day, they didn’t have sunglasses or car keys; they didn’t know what a Reticular Activating System is, or waste time thinking about what a fish might say about water.  But they did know about plants and bread and farming and treasure.

So Jesus says, the Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.  Everyone listening would know that a mustard seed is very small.  And they would also know that it grows into a big shrub, and that it’s kind of a weed, really.  But Jesus upgrades it into a tree, and says birds come and build nests in it!  It’s like claiming that a raspberry bush grows into a big strong oak tree.  The point is not that big things grow out of tiny things.  The point is that Jesus is upgrading a scrubby mustard shrub into a glorious tree of life.  That’s what the Kingdom is like.  What we call scraggly, God calls beautiful.  What we dismiss as a weed, Jesus compares to the most beautiful thing in all creation.  Strange, isn’t it?

And then there’s that yeast and dough thing.  We tend to miss something because we buy yeast in cute little sanitized packets.  The woman in this example of what the Kingdom is like takes a lump of rotting moldy stuff and hides it in the dough, which was the way they kept the yeast going then.  It’s a gross disgusting thing that gets mixed in to make the dough rise.  And she’s not making a single loaf of bread.  The measurements in Jesus’ example come out to like a hundred pounds of dough!  Enough to feed . . . well, a lot of people.  But what else about the dough?

I don’t know if you’ve ever baked bread, but there’s one thing about yeast mixed in with dough:  once it is there, it is there for good.  There’s no taking it out.  Ask the dough what it’s like to have yeast working in it, and the dough will say, “Yeast?  What yeast?”  Because before there is such a thing as dough, there is only flour and water and some other things that bakers know about.  The yeast is mixed in with the whole creation.  You can’t take it back out.  The Kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman mixed in until all of it was leavened.  So, we might be tempted to ask Jesus, “when will the yeast be mixed in?  . . . . Yeast?  What yeast?”

And then the example of the pearl, and the treasure hidden in the field.  They sound awfully deceptive don’t they?  Like someone is pulling a fast one in order to get what they want, and tough luck for everyone else.  The Kingdom of heaven is like this:  our system of right and wrong do not enter into it.  Think about that for a moment.  The suggestion here is that God is willing to go against our rules of fair play in order to bring about the Kingdom.  To go against what we think is the “right” thing; to go against our system of justice and judgment and human decency.  God is not beyond doing questionable things in order to bring into reality the Kingdom of God.  It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?  When we make claims about the righteousness of God, or say that some people are not good enough.  Not good enough for a God who finds something that belongs to someone else, and then buries it in a field, buys the WHOLE field, and then claims it as personal property?  What kind of God is that?  Maybe it’s a God we weren’t really looking for, because we walked right past that God looking for some ethical god we expected, huh?

And then we come to the example of the net.  Now you might have to re-think your vision of what a fishing net looks like.  This is not a net for landing a fish you have already hooked.  The net that fishermen in Jesus’ day used is what we call a dragnet.  (And don’t go getting distracted by Sergeant Joe Friday now.)  This is the way people fished back then.  They did no sorting in the boat; they simply hauled in everything that the net could catch and then sorted it out on shore.  Everything.  Fish they wanted to eat, and license plates, and old tires, and fish they didn’t want to eat, and empty wine bottles, and fish they might want to eat.  This is a style of capturing things that makes no distinction between good and bad, useful and worthless, edible and defiled.  The net goes in, scoops up every single possible thing, and it is ALL hauled into the boat, with not one second of thought to sorting or choosing.  The Kingdom of heaven is like this: “a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age.”

A-ha!  You may be saying.  You see?  The good ones are kept and the bad ones are thrown away into a furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!  Exactly right, careful listener.  But don’t miss that little phrase, “at the end of the age.”  Because here’s the thing:  We do not know what the end of the age will look like, or when it will come, or who is going to be there.  We don’t know what defines good and bad fish.  In fact, we don’t even know what is meant by “the fish.”  The end of the age will come, and there will be some sorting once the boat reaches the shore.  But in the meantime, there is just one big net, containing fish of every kind.   Every kind.  And one of these days, someone might happen to ask you, “Hey, how’s the net today?”  And, of course, you will naturally respond, “Net?  What net?”

We may not notice that we’re all in the same net, and we might not accept that what we call a scraggly weed, God calls a beautiful tree.  But bread?  Well, you know about bread.  The body of Christ, the bread of heaven, freely offered, for sustenance and strength, to everyone in the net, every kind of fish.  Even you and me.