Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, September 24, 2023

YEAR A 2023 pentecost 17

Pentecost 17, 2023
Exodus 16:2-15
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

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

So, two explorers are walking through the jungle one afternoon, when they suddenly notice that a man-eating tiger is stalking them.  The one explorer turns to the other and says, “We’re going to die!  What can we do?”  As he is saying this, he notices that his companion is calmly putting on her running shoes, in the face of certain death.  Shocked in disbelief he asks, “What are you doing?  You can’t possibly outrun a Bengal tiger!”  She continues tying up her laces and says, “I don’t have to outrun the tiger; I only have to outrun you.”

And now you’re asking yourself, “What does this possibly have to do with the laborers in the vineyard?”  I’m glad you asked that, because the answer is “everything.”  To recap the story Jesus tells, the Kingdom of Heaven is like this:  a vineyard owner hires some workers for a fair wage and they start in the morning, assumedly content with what they are earning.  In a little while, they are joined by others, and later in the day some more workers arrive, and eventually—right about quitting time—even more workers arrive.  The owner pays the last to arrive first, working up to those who’ve been at it all day.  They all get the same amount . . . an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work.  

However, as you no doubt noticed, only the first half of that maxim holds true.  Everyone receives an honest day’s wage, sure.  But only the first group has performed an honest day’s work.  To which we all say, What is up with that?  This is a heck of a way to run a railroad, right?  The landowner’s actions go against everything we believe about making a living in this world.  Obviously, if this keeps up, everyone is going to be showing up for work at 4:55pm, just to collect their checks. Before you know it, the grapes are rotting in the fields, and the price of wine is going to skyrocket!  So, one thing is certain: the vineyard owner is a very bad business person.  And yet, Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven is like this.  Huh.

But let’s set aside economics for a moment and look at the emotional side of this story.  As far as we can tell, the workers who are first to arrive are completely content with the promise of an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work.  They’re looking for work, and the vineyard owner has hired them.  They go out and work as agreed.  Similarly, those who show up later in the day seem satisfied to have some employment opportunity, and they enter the fields and work along-side the early risers.  Everything is fine until it’s time to get paid, and the boss seems to intentionally stir things up by starting with those who just arrived, giving them a full day’s pay for a full hour’s work.

For the all-day workers, seeing the late arrivals get full pay must have seemed too good to be true!  If those people got $100 for an hour’s work, a quick calculation would mean they are going to get like $1,000 for the day!  You can just picture them rocking back and forth, dreaming of how they’re going to spend their hard-earned cash.  And, of course, when the vineyard owner gets to the back of the line, they find their pay envelopes have the same as everyone else: 100 bucks.  

And this is when they begin to grumble.  They say, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us.”  And what is their complaint there?  You made them equal to us.  They are not angry because someone else has worked less.  They are not angry because the lawyer down the street makes more than they do.  No, they are grumbling because these late sleepers have been counted on the same level as the faithful workers.  The extravagance is what angers them.

They are mad because the vineyard owner has “made them equal to us.”  They are upset because someone who SHOULD have less is getting the same thing they are.  They’re not mad because someone else has more; they’re mad because someone “inferior” has the same.  It’s one thing to be counted less than somebody else.  But it sends us around the bend to know that those who "deserve" less are getting the same thing we are.

We don’t care if there a hundred people ahead of us outrunning the tiger, as long as SOMEBODY is behind us.  As long as we can throw SOMEBODY under the bus.  It’s a slippery slope that we just can’t help but start down.  It is our natural response to be angry when the allegedly “undeserving” get what they don’t deserve.  And this, my friends is the scandal of the gospel in a nutshell.  People get what they don’t deserve.

And if you think about it, we’re okay if the undeserving people are fabulously rich.  We might not get angry when athletes and rock stars make millions of dollars a year.  But if you start telling me that the person in the next cubicle is getting a raise, when I know darn well he takes 2-hour lunch breaks, shows up late, and leaves early . . . oh hand me down my running shoes!

The sinful, poor, and lazy do not deserve God’s bountiful rewards of mercy, compassion, and salvation.  And, the sinful, rich, and hardworking don’t deserve them either.  Remember the complaint from the all-day workers? “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us.”  Jesus says, yep, the kingdom of heaven is like this.  The kingdom of heaven is like this!  But, they don’t deserve to receive what I have received.  My hard work means that I should receive more than somebody else. 

We are trapped in a way of thinking about the world that honestly doesn’t make sense.  Like, we naturally don’t want others to receive grace.  Here’s a great example: how can somebody else’s student loans suddenly be forgiven when I have spent decades struggling to pay mine off?  Here’s another: how can somebody live for decades with HIV/AIDS because of new medicines, when I lost my brother to the disease in 1994?  How can these others receive unmerited mercy and grace, and how dare you make them equal to us?  When someone else doesn’t suffer as we did, we resent it.  When everyone is treated with love and respect, we somehow feel cheated.

We all want to be loved, respected, rewarded.  We want to think that God is pleased by the good things we do.  That God sees our good works and will reward us for our good deeds . . . the money we give, the people we help, the kind words we speak.  And we desperately want to believe that we are not in bondage to sin.  In short: we want to earn our way into God’s favor.  Work a full day in the fields rather than showing up at quarter to five.

We secretly doubt that we have sinned against God and our neighbor in thought, word, and deed.  When someone we consider less than us receives mercy, or when someone who doesn’t work as hard gets rewarded equally, well . . . it exposes our secret assumption about ourselves: namely, that we can outrun the tiger, by sacrificing someone else.  If nobody is behind us, that means the tiger is coming for me and you!

And we can tell this system doesn’t work when we just flip it around.  Just think of a time when you were suffering and someone said to you, “Well others have it worse off than you do.”  If I cut my finger and a friend says, “I know a guy who got his hand cut off.”  Um . . . great.  Now let me think if that makes me feel better.  Nope.  Knowing someone else is hurting worse does not take away my suffering.  There is no reassurance that comes from outrunning my neighbor rather than outrunning the tiger.  And the tiger, it seems, is coming for us all.

But when the overflowing and generous mercy of God appears and tells us, “Nobody has to die today,” rather than celebrate, we grumble that others receive the same grace that we have received.  Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven is like this:  The vineyard owner chooses to give equally to all people, no matter when or why they show up.  We would love to think that it is by our own effort and strength that God reaches down and rescues us from the power of death.  And when all the others are ALSO lifted up, well, it exposes us to the truth:  None of us is worthy of God’s grace, and yet we all freely receive it.  

On his deathbed, Martin Luther said, “We are all beggars; that’s the truth!”  And it is as beggars that we approach this altar with outstretched hands, to receive the gift of reassurance that God’s love is more powerful—and God’s redemption is more certain—than any threat we face in this life. 

And Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven is like this.  No matter when we arrive, no matter what we are wearing on our feet, we cling to this hope, as do the saints who have gone before us:  God is big enough to save us all.  Nobody is beyond God’s love and redemption.  Nobody.  So come and receive the gifts of God, given for all the people of God, because God is merciful to all.


Sunday, September 17, 2023

YEAR A 2023 pentecost 16

Pentecost 16, 2023
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 it before.  It is the only required reading at the Easter Vigil, and 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?”  A classic!  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!”

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.  That could be like a church’s mission statement!  And the main take-away from this section of Paul’s letter might be this: When it comes to religious practices, all may, none must, some should.  This is the Anglican way to approach the sacraments, and everything else: all may, none must, some should.

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!  Just picture: Sunday morning, your neighbor throws a rock through your window.  They say sorry, you say hey, it’s okay.  Monday afternoon, the neighbor throws another rock through your window.  They say sorry, you forgive them.  Tuesday after work, the neighbor throws a rock through your window.  Then Wednesday, then Thursday, then Friday, you’re running out of windows, then Saturday . . .

Peter is, understandably looking for a limit.  He’s trying to find the place in a relationship where enough is enough.  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 merciful when he suggests, “As many as seven times?”  Seven rocks through seven windows?

But no, Jesus says.  Not seven times, Peter, 77 times.  77 rocks?  I don’t even have that many windows! And, just in case people weren’t following his meaning of absolute limitless unconditional forgiveness, Jesus tells them a story, or a parable as we call them.  

A 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 that forgiveness is conditional.  That is, God will only forgive us if we also forgive our neighbor.  Or worse, that if we don’t forgive our neighbor, God will somehow take back forgiveness, and torture us forever!

So we need to look at this story a little more carefully.  First, we need some specific translations of the money involved.  In Jesus’ day, a denarius was what a laborer earned for one day’s work.  6,000 denarii would get you one talent, which is like 20 years’ worth of work.  So 20 years of hard labor would earn you one talent.  The slave owes 10,000 talents . . . that’s 200,000 YEARS of work!  Or, in dollar terms, one talent is about a half a million dollars.  10,000 of them comes out to $5 BILLION!  This is a slave who somehow 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.”

For context, with $5 billion dollars you could buy Buckingham Palace.  And the Atlanta Braves.  And the White House.  And DaVinci’s Salvadore Mundi painting.  And still have a billion dollars leftover.

200,000 years of work.  $5 billion.  And a guy with no income is going to pay everything?  Nobody in their right mind is going to believe for one second that he can 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.  

“But out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.”  The king is saying, this game of forcing people to pay debts they cannot possibly pay is not going to work.  I’m cancelling the game itself.  The rules of justice no longer apply.  Mercy is the new game in town.  You are free to go.  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 just reduced, like our bizarre system of medical debt; he isn’t told to declare bankruptcy, which in our system wouldn’t include back taxes anyway; 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 a game he can’t win.  The game itself has been cancelled.  There is no $5 billion debt to work off over 200,000 years, or to laughingly promise to work off.  The whole system of debt and debtors was deemed invalid.  That’s it.  The king has declared that mercy will rule in the place of justice.  You are free to go.

And as the slave leaves, he runs into someone who owes him 100 denarii . . . which is about $2,000.  (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.  Which, if he gave it all to the king, would mean he only owes 4 billion, 999 million, 998 thousand dollars.  But, the rules of justice say that this is his right.  Throw him into prison until he can work off the debt, which of course he never can, because he’s in prison.

But listen to this again:  His fellow slave—a person just like him—fell down and pleaded, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.”  The king chose mercy.  The fellow slave chose justice.  And if he really wants to go back to the rules of justice, where nobody is free to go, well . . .

The amazing thing about this story is that it is in the slave’s hands to decide how the world will work, which set of rules will be in force.  He can choose mercy, and have those rules apply, and removing his own impossible $5 billion debt.  Or he can choose justice, as he did with his fellow slave, and have those rules apply.

Justice is an option.  And mercy is a 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 finally be the person you claim to be, to pay your own impossible $5 billion debt . . . that is all set aside as well.   You are free to go.  Because there is a new king in town; a king whose nature is always to show mercy.  We are free to choose which system we want to live under: mercy, or justice.  May God give us the grace and wisdom always to choose mercy over justice, forgiveness over retribution, and to forgive others, as we have been forgiven.


Monday, September 11, 2023

September 11th Remembrance, CAK Airport

September 11th Remembrance
CAK Airport, 9/11/23

We all remember that day.  We remember what we were doing, and who we were with.  We remember the lives lost, and the heroes who rushed into the chaos, hoping to bring life out of death.  All of us standing here today remember that day.  And that makes it a touchstone, a flashpoint, a shared common experience.

As a nation, we have always been a melting pot, or better yet, a colorful fabric woven together out of many different threads.  And on September 11th, and the days that followed, the fabric was stronger than ever.  People who never got along before found common purpose.  Ethnic groups, who'd assumed they had nothing in common, realized that they had everything in common.  Together, we too rushed into the chaos, hoping to bring life out of death.

And today, 22 years later, it is sort of hard to remember what that was like.  In our current disunity and divisiveness, it seems like we’ve forgotten about the beautiful fabric of so many strands.  Each of us thinking we can somehow get along without the other threads in the fabric.  But we can’t.  That is not who we are; that is not how our country was intended to be.  An America divided against itself, for whatever alleged "existential reasons," cannot survive.  As Jesus said—and Lincoln reminded us—a house divided against itself cannot stand.

So my prayer today is this:  That we will find our way back to something like the unity we felt and lived in the days and weeks after 9/11.  That we would be inspired to reach out, rather than draw back.  That we once again would put aside our differences in order to make this country better for our children, to make this world better for our children, and to make life better for ourselves.

May God bless you, and may God bless America, and may God bless all the nations of this world. 

Let us pray.

O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful
hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of
decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy. Grant
that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the
benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines. This
we ask in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  BCP 839

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so
move every human heart and especially the hearts of the
people of this land, that barriers which divide us may
crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our
divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  BCP 823

Sunday, September 10, 2023

YEAR A 2023 pentecost 15

Pentecost 15, 2023
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.

Wow!  There are a lot of rules in today’s readings!  In Exodus, in Romans, in Matthew, all three readings today come off like a list of instructions to follow in order to be members of some secret society.  And, I suppose, in some way they are.

In the first reading, from Exodus, God is explaining to Moses and Aaron exactly how to eat the Passover meal.  It is very specific, and very detailed, and—for our Jewish neighbors—it is very holy, and continues to be a high point of their sacred calendar, which as we heard, they are to “observe as a perpetual ordinance.”  And this passover meal informs how we Christians view the sacrament of Holy Communion.  At the breaking of the bread, the priest says, “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us.”  And the people respond, “therefore let us keep the feast.”  A perpetual ordinance of our own Passover, you might say.

But a thing that really jumps out about this first Passover meal is the emphasis on community.  Notice, God says, “Take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one.”  When you consider the size of  a lamb, and the instructions on how to eat it, most families would likely end up joining together with their neighbors.  Even though the word “family” is used, it would have become a community affair, with families joining together to share the meal.  Or, thought of another way, no one is left out.  There is no person sitting alone anywhere among God’s people.  They’re in this together.  Nobody eats alone!

And then, in Paul’s letter to the Romans, the second part is a list of things not to do.  Or, rather, ways not to be.  But in the first part, he hits on a few of the ten commandments.  Don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t murder.  And what do all those things have in common?  They involve other people.  That is, they are offenses against other people.  Adultery, theft, murder.  There’s a victim in each of those, you could say.  They are actions that destroy community.

And so, Paul says quite rightly that they can all be summed up in one phrase:  Love your neighbor as yourself.  And he adds, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”  So, if we love one another, then there is no need for the law.  Even in our punitive retributionist 21st century incarnation, the law is about loving your neighbor.  Like, I don’t have to worry about breaking the commandment not to kill people, if I truly love them.  If I love my neighbor, I don’t need the law to tell me not to steal from them.  Love tells us how to live in community.  Love your neighbor as yourself.

And then we come to our third set of instructions, from the gospel according to Matthew.  Many scholars believe that much of what we heard from Jesus today was added at a later date, when there were struggles and infighting in the church.  (Unlike today!)  That would help explain why Jesus suddenly sounds like he’s reading from the parish bylaws, or diocesan canons.  

In fact, the Episcopal Church canons work very much like this.  They are not designed to punish anyone or to serve as a behavior modification guidebook.  Rather, the canons are series of rules we agree to that tell us how to live together, despite our differences.  As Episcopalians, we agree to abide by these canons, even if we’ve never read them, or even heard of them.

But whether or not Jesus actually said these words does not stop them from being good advice for us on how to seek to live together.  Basic covenants like, don’t chase each other out of the church over some project or activity.  Don’t walk away in a huff when things aren’t going your way.  Try everything in your power to work it out.  This is how we live together in love.  Love your neighbor as yourself.

And then we have the kicker:  “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  Give it all you’ve got, but then . . . This sounds like Jesus is saying, try your best to be reconciled, but if you can’t be reconciled, if you can’t work it out with a couple of conversations on Sunday morning, then go ahead and turn your back on that person.  Shun them from the community.  You gave it your best shot, trying to follow Jesus’ Rules of Order.  So now, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

And now I ask you . . . how did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors?  I’ll give you a hint.  The Gospel of Matthew was written by a tax collector.  The Ethiopian eunuch, Cornelius the Centurion, and Dorcas over there in that window were all Gentiles.  As are most of the people in this room.  Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector?  I have to say, that instruction doesn’t really tell us what to do, does it?  I think it means, let such a person be welcomed as a disciple of Jesus, right alongside you.  We’re back to Exodus:  Nobody eats alone.

And this section ends with Jesus saying, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”  An interesting thing about that process of reconciliation that Jesus outlines here, with taking the person aside, and then bringing in two or three others, it requires more than one person.  Every step of the way, people are hashing it out in community.  If you have an issue with someone, but you just carry it around in your heart, quietly stewing in your anger, it’s just you.  The lone ranger of anger.

But . . . when you “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” as Jesus says here, guess what?  Now two or three are gathered!  And then?  “I am there among them.”  Community is what activates the promised presence of Jesus.  And you cannot follow this method of reconciliation by harboring grievances on your own.  It requires community, which is the very place where Jesus says, “I am there among them.”  Jesus is among us when we work out our problems together.  But when we harbor a grudge, or just quietly gossip about a problem, well, I’m not saying Jesus isn’t still there, but I can tell you Jesus hasn’t promised to be there, like he does in this gospel text.  (Which was written by Matthew . . . the tax collector.)

From all three of these readings today, we can glean key principles: Nobody eats alone.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Work out your disagreements in community.  All of these fit together around one theme:  Live together in love.

We need one another.  We were created to live together.  And when we gather together in love, Jesus promises to be in the midst of us, as he is today.  Love your neighbor as yourself, and together we will be the body of Christ in this world.


Saturday, September 9, 2023

The Burial of James Thomas

James Thomas, 9/6/23
Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 23
Revelation 21:2-7
John 6:37-40

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

I did not know Jim Thomas.  In fact, I don’t think I ever met him in person.  But I know many of you, his friends and family.  And I’ve read with interest the amazing obituary written by one of his children.  I feel like I have a sense of the man without knowing him, because I know you, and I’ve read those words.

A theme running through Jim’s life was a desire to give back.  And a person who so emphasizes giving back shows that they know deep down that everything they have is a gift.  You can see it in our use of the word “back.”  We have been given, and we strive to give back.  And this leads to caring deeply for others.  Helping those who were, “not given,” if you will.  Choosing to work in Legal Services is a perfect example of this.  No one gets a law degree and takes a job at Legal Services in order to make it rich.  Defending those who need help is among the highest callings.

Jim gave back because he could see the gifts in his own life.  And you can contrast that with people who think things are being taken away from them.  Who aren’t recognizing the gifts in their lives.  Who are losing the gifts they had.  Those are the people Jim spent time trying to help.  He knew that all good things in life are a gift, and he shared what he had as a person, and as a devoted father, partner, and grandfather.  Jim’s unrelenting love for his family shows that he knew all of you to be a gift to him as well.   

In the passage of scripture I read a few minutes ago, from John’s gospel, Jesus says, "Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.” And “I will lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”  Jesus does not lose what is his.  All of us are given the gift of life on this earth, and when our time here is through, we return back to the one who gave us that precious gift of life.

Jim spent his days giving to others, caring for others, helping others.  And he passed that desire to give back on to his children.  And now he has returned to the one from whom every good thing comes.  Though Jim is lost to us as we continue to live out our own gift of life, Jim is not now—and never was—lost to God.  Because Jesus does not let go of what is his, and he will raise each of us up on the last day.  May God bless Jim Thomas, and may God bless all of you.


Wednesday, September 6, 2023

The Burial of Jacqueline McLain

Jacquie McLain, 9/6/23
Isaiah 25:6-9
Revelation 21:2-7
John 6:37-40

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

I first met Jacquie McLain at the Massillon Woman’s Club back in February of 2019.  I had been asked to provide some piano music for the group, and afterward I got seated next to Jacquie at the luncheon.  It will surprise none of you to hear that I knew pretty much everything about her family by the time dessert came.

Jacquie was a talker.  Sort of an introvert’s dream lunch date.  But Jacquie’s stories were always packed with moral lessons, ethical points, and a general philosophy of life.  She didn’t just talk; she talked to make a point.  A story from Jacquie always included a reason to be telling you the story.

The story of her son Robert is a great example of this.  When Robert was told that he had terminal cancer, his first conversation with anyone was to be sure that his employees were taken care of.  Because, you see, it wasn’t just a story of how she lost her eldest son; it was a story about how to raise children.  Of how to be a good person in this world.  Of how to love others by remembering them.

Jacquie didn’t forget about others, and she passed that lesson on to her children, who are passing it on to her grandchildren and great grandchildren.  To be remembered is to continue to exist.  And that connects perfectly with the gospel lesson I read from John just a few minutes ago.  

Jesus says “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.”  Jesus promises that he will lose nothing the Father has given him, but will raise it up on the last day.  Jesus remembers us, and that makes all the difference.

Jacquie is remembered by God because of Jesus.  She has not gone anywhere she has not already been all along, safely in the palm of God’s hands.  Jesus says he will lose nothing that has been given to him.  Not Jacquie, not her husband Bob, not their son Robert, not you, and not me.  All of us remembered by God.

And I have every confidence that Jacquie is sitting next to all sorts of interesting people, telling all sorts of interesting stories, and marveling that there is always more to say.


Sunday, September 3, 2023

YEAR A 2023 pentecost 14

Pentecost 14, 2023
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.

I really wish we could have had last week’s gospel and this week’s gospel together, on the same Sunday.  Instead, if you missed last week or this week, you’re only getting half the story.  Like, it’s one story that got broken up into two movies, like the final Harry Potter book.  And you need both of these two readings together in order to see the distinction between listening to God and listening to the world.  Last week, Peter was receiving a revelation from God.  But today, Peter . . . 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.  Some people are just not good at certain things, and Peter ought to have learned to think before speaking by the 16th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.

Ah, but then there was last week, the first part of our bifurcated story.  Remember last week?  The Confession of Peter?  That’s 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—in Peter’s “hold my beer” moment—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.  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, right?  Back of the line.  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 of Peter 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 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 himself.  It’s the words of Peter that are wrong, just as last week it was the words of Peter that were right.  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 is to hear.  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 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 come 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 forgive 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.