Maybe we’re the wicked tenants: A Sermon for Proper 22A

Proper22A

October 4, 2020

We’ve been spending a lot of time in vineyards recently. This is the third Sunday in a row that we’ve heard Jesus tell a parable set in a vineyard. Two weeks ago, we heard the story of the laborers in the vineyard. Last week, the story of the of the father who asked his two sons to go to the vineyard. 

Speaking of vineyards…

Quite apart from the parables we are hearing, I’m thinking of the 17 vineyards in Napa and Sonoma that have been damaged by the Glass Fire, and the many more that are under threat—a stark reminder of our failure as human beings to be good stewards of the creation with which God entrusted us.

Today, yet another vineyard parable, but a particularly challenging one for us as 21stcentury Christians. The challenge is not in figuring out what it means. That’s pretty clear from the context, as Jesus’ listeners, the chief priests and the pharisees, got the point immediately.

The chief priests and pharisees knew that Jesus was talking about them. We, as readers, are likely to think the same thing, that Jesus is talking about the chief priests and pharisees. Or worse, to conform to nearly two thousand years of Christian interpretation of this parable that interprets it as an allegory. In this reading, the landowner is God; the vineyard is the world, or Israel, or the Promised Land. The tenants are the Jews; the slaves the prophets sent by God to urge the Jews back to faithfulness, and of course, the son sent at the last is Jesus who was executed by the Jews. That’s a deeply problematic interpretation, one with fateful consequences for the Jewish people, and in an age when we see a resurgence of Anti-Semitism, it is an interpretation we should resist and problematize.

One way of doing that is to resist the temptation to leave the parable’s interpretation in the first century, but to let it challenge us, to place ourselves in the role of the listener, not the reader. What might it mean if Jesus is directing the parable at us and at our context?

I would like to go back to the reading from Isaiah, “the song of the vineyard” because clearly this image of Israel as God’s vineyard undergirds the parable. 

As I think about the world in which we live today, the world we are passing on to the next generations, I think about all of the ways we have been poor stewards of the all that we have been given. The climate catastrophe that we’ve know was coming and is now here; the pandemic that has killed more than 200000 in this nation, thrown millions out of work, increased inequities, and now finally, has struck at the top of our political system, the racism and white supremacy that threat our nation, I wonder who the wicked tenants are.

Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard: 

My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill. 

He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines; 

he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it; 

he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.

And, then, at the end:

he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed; 

righteousness,
but heard a cry!

            God expected justice, but saw bloodshed, righteousness, but heard a cry.

            We should hear the indictment in Isaiah and in Matthew, as an indictment of us, not of some other group that we wish to demonize.

            It’s a hard message because even when we feel like we are the victims of injustice, that it is our views, or ourselves that are marginalized, and demonized, it is so easy to turn that language back on others, to respond in kind. But the tenants in the parable were not just protecting their own interests, they were operating as if it all were a zero-sum game. And in God’s economy, it’s never that, it’s never a zero-sum game.

            Think again about the parable, about the landowner, and about the song of the vineyard. Think about the generous, loving actions of God in Isaiah 5. All of the hard work, the care taken, to clear the land, build a wall and watchtower, plant the grapes. In the parable, similar effort. In the parable, after all that work, the landowner goes off and lets it to tenants. But when they don’t pay up, he doesn’t just evict them and find new tenants; he tries again and again to get a response from them. Finally, he sends his son, his beloved son, thinking that they wouldn’t harm him, that they would respect him.

            So, I ask again, what do we know about the landowner? He’s creative, generous, and patient. Given all that, what will he do next? The answer given in the gospel reading is an answer from the perspective of a dog-eat-dog worldview. I get mine. I get yours, too, unless you are stronger than me. We could translate the story very easily into our own economy and world

But are those the values of the reign of God? Is that what Jesus preached? What does Jesus teach in Matthew? The Sermon on the Mount, turning the other cheek, loving one’s enemy, if someone asks you for a cloak, give him your coat as well. 

How might we answer the question: What would the landowner do, from this set of values, trying to live out the values of the Reign of God? We might want to look at it from the perspective of the landowner, to imagine what we might, or ought to do, in a similar situation. But I’m not sure that’s the appropriate angle to take.

I think that on one level, the question Jesus asks challenges us to reconsider how we think about God. Can we imagine a God whose grace and mercy extend to the unimaginable, beyond our wildest dreams? Can we imagine a God so creative, so patient as the landowner in the parable? A God who has made us stewards of a lovely and bountiful vineyard, and asks us to give back to God, what is owed, and to be as generous to others as God has been generous to us? 

We know that we are loved of God. We know that God has given us so very much. What would it be like to approach the world, our relationships with others, our stance in these difficult times, with an openness to sharing as generously of ourselves and what we’ve been given, as God shares generously with us? What would it be like to recognize and confess all the ways we have squandered all that God has given us, sought to keep it as our own, protected our interests at the expense of others?                                    

By whose authority? A Sermon for Proper 21A, September 27, 2020

Proper21A

September 27, 2020

“By what authority are you doing these things?”

That’s the question the chief priests and elders asked Jesus in today’s gospel reading. It’s also a question that is very appropriate in our own context as we watch the assaults on democracy in our divided nation and continued protests over the apparent unbridled power of police to kill African Americans with impunity and celebrations for those who attack and kill protestors. 

By what authority? The context for this scripture is absolutely essential to understand what’s going on here. Today’s reading takes place the day after Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. He followed that display of royal symbolism by going to the temple and staging a violent demonstration—turning over the tables of the moneychangers and expelling all those who were buying and selling things there. The next day he returns to the temple, and upon his arrival is confronted by the guys in charge. Does any of this sound familiar? Does any of it resonate with you?

“By what authority do you do these things? And who gave you this authority?”

In a similar situation, we might ask, “What right do you have?” 

I don’t think it’s a legitimate question. I think they mean to put Jesus in his place, to remind him where he is, where they are, and where they are standing. It’s coming from a place of privilege and power, and it’s meant to stop the disturbances, to quiet things down, to shut Jesus up.

But he isn’t having any of it. He doesn’t back down. He responds, as he so often does, with a question of his own, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” 

It’s quite a risky thing to ask, from Jesus’ perspective. To put it another way, he might be asking, “Was John the Baptist’s ministry, his preaching of repentance, his baptizing in the wilderness, was all that right, did that come from God, or was it his own personal invention?” A risky question, because John had been executed by Herod. For Jesus is not just asking a question about the source of John’s authority, he is also aligning himself with John’s ministry—aligning himself with a prophet who was executed because he was a truth-teller and challenged Herod, calling him out for his immorality, venality, and corruption. 

The gospels tell us that “all Jerusalem went out to see and listen to John” but we can be certain that the temple authorities were not big fans of his, that they perceived him as a threat to their power and wealth.

Unlike John, he preached against immorality, greed, and corruption from the wilderness, Jesus has brought his message to the heart of Jerusalem, to the very heart of Judaism. By overturning the tables of money-changers, Jesus is bringing John’s message of repentance and God’s coming reign to the temple and to the temple elite.

For us, in this moment, the significance of Jesus’ actions, the significance of this question asked of Jesus, and the question Jesus asks in reply, may seem obvious. We may think it has to do with a conflict between Jesus and Judaism, or more narrowly between Jesus and a religious establishment that refused to acknowledge him as the Messiah. We may want to project it forward into the controversies and division of our own time and see it as a question to be asked of political leaders or police officers with whom we disagree, or to be asked of protesters who have taken to the streets. But I think any of those strategies are inclined to leave us off the hook, to let us avoid the uncomfortable question about Jesus’ authority that is being asked of us, and of exploring the nature and extent of his authority in our lives and in our world.

If we reflect on those questions, we might find ourselves in a position of question our own perspectives, the way we have appealed to Jesus’ authority to support our own arguments and positions. Instead, I wonder if we might learn something from the reading from Philippians.

Have this mind among you that was in Christ Jesus… Paul is addressing life in Christian community, in the first instance he is writing to the small group of Christians in the city of Philippi, urging them to resolve their conflicts, to deepen their relationships with each other. He tells them to imitate Christ and then, in language that soars like poetry and has inspired Christian theology and liturgy for nearly 2000 years, he writes:

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God 
as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave, 
being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,
he humbled himself 
and became obedient to the point of death– 
even death on a cross. 

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name 
that is above every name, 

so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend, 
in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 

and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord, 
to the glory of God the Father.

While there is much one could say about this, and let’s be honest, it includes language that we might find troubling or problematic, like slavery… I would like only to focus on what I think is Paul’s main point, that Christ emptied himself, did not himself grasp for power or prestige, did not demand his “rights” but emptied himself, becoming human in obedience to God. 

It’s a mystery that is beyond our comprehension, though we have tried to make sense of it for two thousand years—Christ’s love, his humbling himself, his self-giving. I’m not sure it’s something we can actually emulate or imitate, notwithstanding Paul’s admonition. Instead, it stands before us, not as model, but as gift—God’s gift of grace. And if there is a mind that we have in Christ, to see in Christ’s actions a new possibility for our own and for human existence in the world, a possibility of self-giving love, that offers love’s gift to the world. It’s a witness, a way of life that is desperately needed, especially in these dark days. And to circle back to the question that began this homily, to see Jesus’ authority, not in his divinity or his ability to work miracles, but in the self-giving love that brought him to the cross, raised him from the dead, and brings us hope.

Forgiveness and Mercy: A Sermon for Proper 19A, September 13, 2020

Proper19A

September 13, 2020

The familiar words come easily, unthinkingly off our tongues and lips. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive the trespasses of others.” In the contemporary version of the Lord’s Prayer, it’s “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive the sins of others.” In another widely-known version, it’s “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” 

Earlier in the liturgy, we ask God’s forgiveness more directly, though in most instances, no more consciously, “For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us…”

Forgiveness is one of those concepts that is central to our experience of the Christian faith, and central to our lives as human beings bound up in relationships with other people. It’s also something we may struggle with in our personal lives, as we may struggle with forgiving ourselves for not living up to our ideals or expectations. If we can’t forgive ourselves, or others, we can’t move on; we can’t open ourselves to hope, or to change. 

Forgiveness is hard. We know that. Like Peter, we are prone to wonder whether there are limits beyond which we need not forgive, and whether there are things that can’t be forgiven. There’s the spectacle, or demand, for forgiveness. We see that when grieving family members forgive a murderer. And in prominent, public cases, those rituals of forgiveness often help us avoid or forget the absolute horror of the crime, and the hatred or evil that led to it, as in the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

Forgiveness is hard—but there’s a sense that we may expect others, God, public victims, to forgive quickly and easily, to bring closure, as is said, to move on.

There’s something of an irony that today’s gospel reading comes so close to 9/11, when we remember the events of September 11, 2001. My social media feeds were full of memes and images with the motto “Never Forget.” But we do forget, or want to, what the events of that day unleashed; nineteen years of war now, countless lives lost or irreparably harmed; our nation changed forever by the fear and anger; by militarization, torture and a breakdown of our judicial system.

 In today’s gospel, Peter asks a question that we might understand to be a follow-up to last week’s reading about how to resolve conflict in Christian community. Peter wonders how far the need to forgive goes—do we have to forgive a fellow believer seven times? Seven is a good number with lots of biblical resonances—seven days in the week, for example and we could imagine ourselves asking that question. After all, how often does someone get a second or third or fourth chance in life? Seven times seems quite magnanimous.

Peter is thinking in terms of a calculus of forgiveness, something we often do. Jesus’ response may seem to be in keeping with that calculus, but of course 70 times is on a completely different magnitude.

Continuing, Jesus tells the parable of an indebted slave. And here the calculus breaks down completely. It may be that he has become enslaved because of his debt. His master, the king, demands payment. It’s a stupendously large debt—10000 talents; a talent is roughly 6000 denarii, a denarius, the daily wages of a laborer. So one talent is upwards of 20 years of work. That’s an inconceivable amount, a debt that couldn’t be repaid, but 6000 talents? 

The story continues. The slave pleads with his master. In doing so, he exhibits what we now call magical thinking: “Have patience with me, and I will repay everything.” A debt so large that we can’t imagine how big it is or how it was incurred, and a slave saying, “be patient, I’ll repay it.” But the master relents, having pity for him, and forgave his debt. 

But then the slave, who had been the recipient of such great mercy and forgiveness, sees a slave who owes him 100 denarii, no small sum of course for either of them, and when he can’t repay, throws him in prison. When the first

slave’s master hears what happens, he becomes as angry as he had been merciful, handing the slave over to be tortured until he could repay—which of course means that he would be tortured for the rest of his life. Jesus, or Matthew, concludes, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

It’s so easy to draw a line back from the reference to “my heavenly Father” to the king in the parable to conclude that if we don’t forgive from our hearts, we will burn in hell for eternity. But I’m not sure that interpretation is particularly helpful for us. Let’s pause for a minute and reflect on the first slave’s experience. He begged forgiveness for an unimaginably large debt and received forgiveness and mercy equal to that debt. What might that feel like? In the realm of economics, when we hear about the 100000s of thousands of dollars in debt that students rack up in pursuit of college or professional degrees, and the likelihood that much of that debt can never be repaid, what might it be like to suddenly have that debt forgiven?

Or medical debt… Have you heard about the churches that are buying medical debt for pennies on the dollar and freeing people from the money they owe hospitals? Debt incurred through no fault of your own

To be free of that debt, after having lived under its burden for years or decades, what might that feel like? 

Wouldn’t you want simply to enjoy the freedom of forgiveness? And perhaps be able to share that feeling of freedom with others, at no or little cost to yourself? 

We are forgiven. God’s grace and mercy extend beyond our capacity to imagine or calculate. Many of us have experienced that forgiveness; many of us have had our lives transformed by that forgiveness. To extend that to others, to offer that freedom and joy to people weighed down with the burdens of sin and debt, and like God, to ask nothing in return.

In a few minutes, when I say the words of institution over the elements, as I raise the cup, I will say, “This is my blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Jesus said those words to his disciples on the night that he would be betrayed, abandoned, and denied by them. He said those words, knowing what would happen, what they would do. He says them to us, knowing that we will fall short, that we will sin, that we will fail to love God and our neighbor adequately, when we don’t forgive our neighbor, our loved one, or our friend. But those words remind us that God never fails, that God is present, loving, forgiving, inviting us to receive mercy, and to extend mercy to others.

Getting behind Jesus: A Homily for Proper 17A, August 30, 2020

I was struck yesterday morning while sitting on my porch with just a touch of Fall in the air, that in normal years, this would have been the first weekend of college football. Nothing is quite the same, is it.

Some other impressions from the week:

The horrific shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, shot seven times in the back, paralyzed, lying in his hospital bed, handcuffed.

The 17-year old boy strutting down the street after gunning down protestors, unchallenged by police.

A politician’s speech, quoting the letter to the Hebrews and the Apostle Paul, replacing references to Jesus Christ with Old Glory, the American flag.

The sordid end of a prominent Evangelical’s university presidency.

And finally, on Friday, an article in the New York Times about alumni from Harvard Divinity School, my alma mater, who are marketing themselves as Divinity or Spiritual consultants in the corporate world. Perhaps you can imagine the outrage on social media.

What, if anything do these images have in common? Perhaps nothing at all, but perhaps they are evidence of the extent to which we as Americans, as Christians have lost our way.

It’s appropriate, I think that just now in our lectionary cycle we are at that pivotal point in the story of Jesus. Last week, the great confession of Peter in the shadow of empire and of Hellenistic religion: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

And just after that, Jesus begins to lay out just what it means that he is the anointed one, the Christ, the Son of God. To be the Messiah means that he will go to Jerusalem, be arrested, executed for the crimes of insurrection and revolution, and on the third day, be raised from the dead.

And Peter’s response? “This must never happen to you!”

This is one of those key moments in the gospels, crucial to understanding Jesus but crucial also to understanding the gospel writers portray him, his mission, and the disciples’ response to him.

Matthew is following Mark’s chronology closely here. There are a series of three exchanges between Jesus and his disciples, three times that Jesus makes a prediction that he is going to Jerusalem, that he will be crucified, and raised from the dead. Each of those three predictions is followed by an incident, like this one with Peter, that makes clear the disciples don’t understand what Jesus is talking about, that their ideas about him, and what will happen in Jerusalem are radically different. In response to their objections, Jesus then explains to them what it really means to follow him: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Two observations. First, when Jesus tells Peter to get behind him, he’s telling him to follow him, disciples are to follow behind their teachers. Yes, it’s a rebuke but it’s also a reminder to Peter where he belongs. To draw on imagery in the gospel itself, while earlier, after Peter’s great confession, Jesus had called him the rock on which he would build the church, now Peter has become a stumbling block.

Second, when we hear language of taking up one’s cross, or bearing a cross, it’s likely we think about burdens of one sort or another, personal struggles with which we have to deal. In the Roman world, “taking up one’s cross” meant only one thing. You were on your way to your place of execution.

In many ways our own reaction to Jesus’ words are much like Peter’s. We don’t want them to mean what they say literally, that following Jesus, becoming his disciples, means suffering and pain. We come to Jesus to find healing, to take away our suffering. And we think that on the cross, Jesus made everything Ok. But it’s not that simple. The gospels make clear that Jesus went to Jerusalem to confront the religious and imperial establishment, to initiate God’s reign, to transform the world. It’s also clear that he knew what would happen—that in Jerusalem, he would be arrested and executed, that he would die, as so many others did before and after him, crushed by the weight of imperial oppression. But he also knew that wouldn’t be the end.

His predictions of his coming crucifixion didn’t end with his death, for his death opened up the way to new life, his resurrection and the coming of God’s reign of justice and peace.

As we consider getting behind and following Jesus, we may wonder about the road ahead, we may wonder about the world around us. We see the deaths, again and again, of African Americans to police violence and to white supremacy, we see the suffering caused by COVID and the half-hearted response to it. We see the ravages of hurricanes and wildfires, intensified by climate change caused by our own greed. We see the drumbeat of hatred all around us, and a Christianity that either cozies up to power or seems ineffective to offer an alternative. We may want to escape into a spiritualism that denies any connection between our faith and the injustices and evils of this world.

But the journey on which Jesus is traveling is not a journey into escapism, fear or despair. It is a journey into the heart of the world as it is, with all of its struggles, suffering, and injustice. The journey ends, not at the foot of the cross but at the emptyw tomb, where we experience the joy of resurrection, and the possibility of a world made new by the transforming power of God’s justice and love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Confessing Christ in the Shadow of Empire: A Homily for Proper 16A, August 23, 2020

Last week, Jesus was in the territory of Tyre and Sidon. Those cities were originally Phoenician, on the coast of the Mediterranean, north of Judea and northeast of Galilee, Jesus’ homeland. It was not only foreign territory; its inhabitants were not religiously Jewish. Now, he inland from the coast to Caesarea Philippi. It’s still a good distance north of Galilee. More importantly, it was a significant religious and political site.

In Caesarea, there was a sanctuary to the Greek God Pan. A spring inside a cave was one of the sources of the Jordan River. As is so often the case, the site had been a religious shrine for centuries. In fact before being renamed Caesarea in honor of the Emperor, its name was Panion, in honor of the Greek god. Caesarea’s history was bound up both with the Roman Empire and with their clients in the region, Herod and his family. In Jesus’ day, the territory was controlled by Philipp, Herod the Great’s son. Caesarea was a city that Augustus had given to Herod and Herod had rebuilt. When Philipp succeeded his father, he continued the building spree and renamed the city Caesarea Philippi, in honor of his imperial patron and himself. Like all such cities in the Roman Empire, it was a projection of Roman power and culture. It was both symbol of that power and a central node of power. Troops headquartered there were responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD, events that would have been in the living memory of the first readers of Matthew’s gospel.

It was here that Jesus asked these two questions—“Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am? Those of us who are familiar with the story, familiar with the Christian tradition, know a little bit of how this story has been interpreted in the history of Christianity. It is a founding text for notions of papal supremacy, and the power of the institutional church. “On this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” As you probably know, one of the most common symbols of the papacy are the papal tiara above two crossed keys.

But I’m not interested in that tradition of interpretation. Rather, I want to focus on the power and significance of those two questions, and I want to imagine, if you can, Jesus asking those questions today, on Madison’s Capitol Square, or perhaps on Allied Drive, or in the halls of the US Capitol, or the White House, or on the streets of all the cities where protests are ongoing, or in ICUs all over the country where medical workers are caring for COVID victims.

Jesus asked his questions in the shadow of empire, with the presence of Roman military and cultural power dominating the landscape and no doubt the minds and lives of the residents.

Who do people say that I am?

That’s the easy question to answer. The disciples had no problem offering answers—John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the prophets. What answers would you give to that question today?

“Who do you say that I am?”

That’s the hard one and I can imagine the disciples looking away, looking down at their sandals, trying to avoid Jesus’ searching gaze. Awkward silence, until Peter blurted his response,, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  And I can see the other disciples rolling their eyes as Peter responded, thinking to themselves, “There he goes again. Why doesn’t he just shut up?”

But Peter’s answer was not because he had studied harder than the other disciples, that he had memorized everything Jesus had said. Peter’s answer came not from himself but from God. And even he didn’t know what his answer meant. A few verses later, after protesting in response to Jesus’ prediction of his arrest, execution, and resurrection, Jesus would call Peter, “Satan.” And as we know, Peter would deny Jesus at the moment it mattered most.

Still, now, he made the confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

The culture in which we live is dominated by religious imagery. We see appeals to Christian faith on bumper stickers and at political conventions. We see the cynical use of symbols of Christianity to win and consolidate power, to divide and conquer, to marginalize and disempower, to amass wealth and influence.

And we see the consequences of such cynical use of Christianity, in the alienation of so many from the teachings of Jesus and from churches, in the desperate search for meaning and connection in secular activities, in the rise of conspiracy theories.

What are the temples of idolatry in our culture? Where are the images and symbols of empire? What entities demand our allegiance and worship?

Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?”

It’s easy to confess with our lips that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, but to live our lives as expression of that confession is much, much harder. To commit ourselves to Christ apart from all the cultural trappings and imperial idolatry that has accrued to his image in this nation, to turn our backs on the temples of wealth, privilege, white supremacy, and American exceptionalism is another matter entirely.

From here, from Caesarea Philippi, Jesus would begin his long journey to Jerusalem, a journey that would end in his crucifixion, a victim of imperial violence.

In this world of violence and oppression, anger, hatred, and fear, it’s easy to lose sight of who Jesus is and what he means. It’s easy to remake him into an idol that reflects our desires and values, our greed and desire for power and influence. It’s easy to lose sight of the cross that stands at the end of his journey.

But if we want to confess Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God, we must open ourselves to be transformed into his image and likeness, to be shaped by the cross on which he died, and by the love for which he died. To confess Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, is to invite him to enter our lives, grow more deeply into holiness, and when we stumble and falter on that journey, to ask forgiveness and to be reconciled by his love. May we find the strength to confess his name and the joy of growing more deeply in relationship with him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Great is your faith: A homily for Proper 15A, 2020

I’ve sensed a shift in myself over the last few weeks. As the pandemic continues with no signs that we will be able to return to any semblancy of what we used to regard as normal life any time soon, I’ve moved out of crisis mode and begun to think about what our programming, worship, and other activities might look like in the coming months and year. I met with our music staff last week to begin talking about expanding our music offerings in the fall and to look ahead toward Advent and Christmas as we think about how we might observe and celebrate the seasons without in-person worship.

We’re working on other things as well. I’ve had conversations about Christian formation, both children and adult. We’re wondering what an annual meeting might look like; colleagues in the diocese are hosting discussions about stewardship and Christian Formation as well. It’s been over five months since we’ve gathered at Grace for in-person worship and I’m doubtful that we are half-way through this ordeal.

It’s so disheartening, isn’t it? Not just church, of course, but all of life has been upended. There will be no Badger football this fall, no concerts. What school will be like is still very much in the air, not to mention classes at the university. We long for some semblance of life as it was, to gather with friends or to go to restaurants and movies, and even as we try do those things now. For many of us things are even worse than that, with unemployment and uncertainty around housing and food security.

It’s enough for us to want to cry out like the woman in today’s gospel story, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” And like the desperate woman who had exhausted all options in her desire to help her daughter, Jesus’ silence in response doesn’t cut it.

This is may be of the most troubling stories in all of the gospels. Jesus is supposed to be merciful and compassionate, he’s supposed to respond with love and care when someone asks him for help. But that’s not what he does here. It’s not just that Jesus treats her with what appears to be enormous disrespect. It’s that she forces him to change his mind, to do something he seems not to want to do.

This story reminds of something quite important. Jesus is not quite everything we want him to be. We’ve got this warm, fuzzy notion about Jesus and this story breaks that notion apart. We want him to behave according to our standards and expectations, to fit into the box we’ve made for him, but unfortunately, the gospels tell a different story. As much as we want to domesticate Jesus and make his message one that confirms our preconceived notions of faith and of God, the gospels tell a different story. And this story may be the one that is most challenging of all.

One of the things I like about this story is that it shows a woman, an outsider, someone who has no religious power or even religious significance in the Jewish world of first century Palestine, challenging Jesus. More than that, as an outsider, as someone of reviled status, she forces herself into the story. She forces her way through Jesus’ disciples. She forces him to pay attention. She makes him stop in his tracks and notice her. When he ignores her and dismisses her, she doesn’t walk away. She flat out disagrees with him, takes issue with him, engages in wordplay, and beats him at his own game.

There is a great deal one could say about this story. It raises a lot of questions—about Jesus, about the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in Matthew’s gospel, about the extent of Jesus’ ministry, about his self-understanding. And if you’re interested in some of those questions, I encourage you to go to my blog and look up my sermons from previous years on this text.

But today, I want to focus on one moment—the woman’s reaction when Jesus doesn’t respond to her and when his responses to her don’t satisfy her. She doesn’t settle for his silence or his attempt to silence her. She persists. She kneels down and prays, “Lord, help me.” And when he seems to dismiss her with the saying, “It is not right to the children’s food to dogs,” her response is to say that “even dogs eat the scraps from their masters’ tables.”

We are in difficult times. I don’t need to tell you that. I’m not even going to recite the litany of everything that’s going on right now. As Christians, we are people of prayer. We ask God’s help for our loved ones and for ourselves, for our nation and for all of those who are suffering. But often our prayers are little more than words that cross our lips, pious statements that we make or read because well, that’s what we do after the creed and before the confession of sin.

But right now, many of us may find ourselves praying because there seems to be little else we can do. We’ve exhausted all of our options, we ourselves are exhausted. We may even cry out, or want to cry out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!”

If we have said those or similar words, we may have been at the very end and not really expecting a response from God. We are greeted with silence, and unlike Elijah in last week’s reading from I Kings, we don’t even hear a still, small voice.

Silence, or as in the woman’s case, a rebuke—perhaps when our prayer isn’t answered, the rebuke we hear is from the voice inside of us that says we deserve all this that we’re getting. The Canaanite woman didn’t accept the silence; she didn’t accept the rebuke, she persisted.

And because she persisted, Jesus recognized her faith and healed her daughter. Maybe, just maybe, those unsettling, disappointing conversations with God we call prayer can bring us to new discoveries and deeper faith. Maybe, when we wrestle with God, when we challenge Jesus, it’s not that we change God’s mind, but that a new, deeper relationship with God opens up to us. Whether or not our suffering ends, by returning to God again and again in prayer and petition, we hear God say to us, “Great is your faith.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Loud noises and sheer silence: A Homily for Proper 14A, 2020

There are biblical texts that are so familiar to me that I feel like I know them word for word, at least in the NRSV version. That’s partly because I taught Intro to the Bible at least 20 times over the years. It’s also because I’ve been preaching regularly for fifteen years now, which means that I’ve been through the three-year lectionary cycle 5 times. But with parents who took their children to church at least three times a week while I was growing up, my history with these stories goes back much further—some of them seem as though they have entered the very marrow of my bones.

That’s certainly true of the story of Jesus walking on the water. It’s drama and special effects made it a standard of Vacation Bible School and Sunday School. It’s also true of the story from I Kings—Elijah’s encounter with God on Mt. Horeb. I know I’ve got a sermon on it somewhere in my files but curiously I couldn’t find it—which means I’ve never preached this text at Grace.

It’s a story full of emotion and theological significance. Elijah, the great prophet of Israel has fled to this place, Mt. Horeb, also called Mt. Sinai. He had just won a contest with the prophets of Baal, and should have been basking in victory and in God’s victory over the Canaanite deity. Instead, King Ahab put a bounty on his head and Elijah had to flee the kingdom. Fearing for his life and despondent about his failure to convert king and people, Elijah came here as the text says, to die.

But God had other plans. What happens next is remarkable. If you were to go back and look at Exodus 19, which is the story of the Israelites’ arrival at Mt. Sinai after fleeing the Egyptians, you would read about God’s appearance to them. There was an earthquake, a mighty wind, a fire. And then God spoke.

Here, centuries later, at the same place, God tells Elijah to come out of the cave so that he can pass by. The text then reads: “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”

The contrast couldn’t be more clear. In the first instance God appeared to Moses and the Israelites in earthquake, wind, and fire. Now God appears to Elijah after all of the special effects were over, as if to say that God is present not in the powers of nature, but in the power of words and silence. What comes next is a recommissioning of Elijah and an anointing, of him, the kings who will come after Ahab, and of Elisha, Elijah’s successor.

There are significant parallels here with the gospel story. It occurs immediately after the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand-remember that the immediate context for that was Jesus receiving news that John the Baptist had been beheaded and his desire to go to a deserted place. Thwarted by the crowds, after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Jesus sends the disciples on ahead, while he went up the mountain to pray.

The disciples are crossing the sea of Galilee and are caught up in a storm. They struggle all night. When morning comes, they see Jesus on the water, walking toward them. Thinking they are seeing a ghost, they become frightened (first mention of this emotion in the story.” Jesus greets them with words that are common in biblical encounters of divine and human: “Be not afraid.”

But then comes an even more dramatic and significant dialogue. Peter enters the water, begins to sink, and cries out, “Save me!” Jesus reached out his hand, caught him, and said: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they arrived back in the boat, the storm ended, and the disciples worshiped him saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

These two stories speak powerfully to our situation. How many of us feel like we are drowning in a storm-tossed sea, that we’ve been in this mess forever and there seems to be no way out? How many of us are calling out to Jesus, “Save me!” right now? How many of us are doubting whether he is reaching out to take hold of us?

How many of us have been speaking truth to power? Advocating for justice and equality, crying out against corruption, and intolerance, and cruelty? How many of us are ready to give up as we watch the forces of evil grow and crush those who are working against injustice and oppression? How many of us want to flee out into the wilderness and die as Elijah planned?

Despair, fear, drowning. Those are all obvious responses to our situation. There seems to be no way out and the crises seem to heap up one on another with no end in sight.

Still, God came to Elijah in the wilderness, when he was at his weakest and deep in despair. God came to him, spoke to him, and empowered him to continue his work.

As Peter was drowning, he called out “Save me!” and Jesus reached out his hand and took him.

We can’t do it on our own. We should be at the end of our rope, sapped of energy and hope. We should be down in despair. But even here, when things look most bleak, when the storm rages most furiously, God is here.

Can we see him? Can we hear him? After earthquake, wind, and fire, after the sound of sheer silence, can we hear God speaking to us? In the midst of the storm, as we feel ourselves drowning, can we see Jesus’ hand reaching out to us, to save us?

God comes to us, in the middle of life, in the middle of our experiences, the suffering of the world, injustice and oppression. God comes to us, offering us grace, mercy, and love, to restore us and strengthen us, and to prepare us for the journey ahead. May we feel God’s healing and comforting power in our lives and may we respond in faith to God’s call to us to hope and to work for justice and peace.

A deserted place of healing and abundance: A homily for Proper 13A, 2020

Among the many challenges over the past months of safer at home, self-quarantine, and the suspension of worship, has been the sense that we are losing a sense of connection, not only with friends, family, and fellow parishioners, but with the very place where we worship, Grace Church. I was reminded of that fact a couple of days ago when we made a test run of our new hearing loop that has been installed in the church. Two long-time parishioners entered the church for the first time in four months to test the new system with their hearing aids. The good news is that everything worked great. At the same time, both mentioned how much they had missed the church and how good it was to be able to be in it again, if only for a few minutes.

Live-streamed worship is a wonderful thing. Thanks to the miracle of technology, we can see the space, hear the liturgy, and listen to the organ and soloist. But there’s so much missing—the sense of the light refracted through the stained glass windows, the unique and familiar smells of an old church, the sounds of the floor creaking, or the pews as we sit and move around.

Place is important geographically as well. And in this time of pandemic and protests, the presence of Grace Church on the square is a reminder of our mission to help heal our city, and to share the good news of God’s love in the midst of division and suffering.

While we may not think so, place is always important in the gospels. There’s Jerusalem, of course, and I have mentioned repeatedly the importance to the synoptic gospels of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, with that growing sense of drama as he draws nearer to his fate. But geographical references are important in other ways. In today’s reading, we are told that “Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” It wasn’t that deserted because crowds soon gathered around him. Still, we should imagine it to be something like a wilderness, far enough from any town to make traveling difficult, and remote enough that there were no easy provisions to be had.

The reason Jesus sought seclusion comes in the previous section of the gospel. There, Matthew tells of Herod killing John the Baptist, and it’s in response to that news that Jesus withdraws. The feeding of the five thousand takes on additional significance in light of this. We are offered a contrast between these two scenes, which reflect not only the difference between Herod and Jesus, but also between Herod’s court and the gathering around Jesus, the celebration of Herod’s birthday that culminated in the presentation of John the Baptist’s head on a platter with Jesus’ healing the sick and teaching the crowd, and finally offering them loaves and fishes. It’s the contrast between the power and violence of the Roman Empire, and God’s reign. The miraculous feeding of the five thousand in the wilderness calls to mind earlier stories as well—especially the Exodus, when the Israelites feasted on miraculous manna and quail after God delivered them from bondage to another empire, that of Pharaoh and Egypt.

Think of the contrast between those two scenes. On the one hand, a royal banquet, with all of the power and wealth on display, indulging every appetite and desire. It was meant not only to celebrate the birthday of Herod, but like all such banquets in the Hellenistic world, it was meant to display his power, and symbolize his place in the Roman order, as well as the places in that hierarchy of everyone in attendance.

On the other hand, a deserted place, where a crowd gathered to hear Jesus. There was no power and wealth on display. Instead, what was visible was Jesus’ compassion and gift for healing, restoring health to the diseased and infirm. And then, instead of exotic foods gathered from across the empire, a few loaves and fishes.

 

Jesus asks for the loaves and fishes. Then, in language that Matthew will also use to describe his actions at the Last Supper, Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, gives to the disciples the bread and the fish. All eat and are satisfied and there were twelve baskets of leftovers. Matthew, as do the other gospel writers, makes a connection between this miraculous feeding and that other miraculous meal, the Last Supper, the Eucharist. At the Last Supper, Jesus shared bread and wine with his closest friends and companions; he shared his body and blood. When he fed the five thousand, his gift of sustenance in the wilderness was a sign of God’s reign, a symbol of the abundance that is promised in the age to come; a symbol, too, of the bread of life he offers us.

In this contrast between royal banquet and simple meal we are offered a symbol of the world in which we live today. At a time when our political elites dither and some display their power and wealth even as they amass greater amounts, millions are threatened with eviction, food insecurity, and the end of unemployment insurance. Already we are seeing longer lines at food banks and pantries across the country. The poor grow poorer while billionaires grow wealthier.

Perhaps we look with a bit of envy on the ostentatious consumption by the 1% but as we gather around the Lord’s table, we are offered the abundance of bread and wine at the Eucharistic feast. We eat the bread of angels and it is food enough.

As we eat and are satisfied, we are also called—to offer food to the hungry, to fight for justice, and to call out the hypocrisy, oppression, and exploitation of the economic system that has left so many behind. May we invite all to partake of the food offered here, to eat and be satisfied, transformed by the vision of God’s reign proclaimed by Jesus and by the Eucharistic feast.

 

 

Sighs too deep for words: A Sermon for Proper 12A, July 26, 2020

Early on in the pandemic, I read a number of essays comparing our situation in lockdown with the lives of hermits who abandoned life in community to live in solitude in their search for deeper relationship with God. The tone of the essays was usually encouraging—offering the reader resources for deepening their spirituality in the face of this new situation. But the reality of life in lockdown, and even now as the limits on our movement and activity are being lifted, is rather different. For myself at least, the stresses and anxiety of the moment, the fear of pandemic, reading the news of the spread of illness, protests, and everything else, have left little space for deeper relationship with God.

With worship relegated to livestreaming, the suspension of the Eucharist, the lack of physical gathering with God’s people, the inability to sing hymns, my spiritual life has been something of a wasteland. It’s only the comfort of the daily office, morning prayer, that sustains me. Words written hundreds of years ago, updated, but still they speak to and for me. The psalms continue to inspire me and provide language with which to approach God, and language that often describes or names my feelings and desires. Cultivating a prayer life these days is both exceedingly difficult and indispensable.

In Romans 8, St. Paul has some interesting and surprising things to say about prayer:

 

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

“We do not know how to pray as we ought.” This is Paul talking, remember. This is the guy who had an encounter with the Risen Christ that initiated a radical change in his life. He’s someone who could confront the principalities and powers, challenge Jesus’ closest followers, even Peter. He wrote letters full of brashness and invective, was absolutely certain of his faith and of the correctness of his theology. He could write about his own mystical experiences, journeys to the third heaven. But still, even for him, prayer wasn’t easy.

Prayer isn’t always easy. Finding adequate language with which to address God is a struggle common to many Christians, To grope for language to address God, to express our uncertainties and doubts about God to express them to God, none of this is unique. It is part of the experience of most Christians, at least at some point in their journeys. Even the greatest mystics experienced such times. Teresa of Avila, for example, called such times in her life when God seemed absent, as dryness. For her, the dryness could last for years.

It’s not just prayer, of course. We struggle spiritually in so many ways. We worry that we don’t do the right thing; that we’re not quite dedicated enough. Some of us may worry that we don’t believe in the right way. We struggle with the creed, the resurrection.

Especially now, with all of our anxieties and fears, with all of the new tasks and responsibilities—child care and schooling, work from home that has collapsed the boundaries from the world of work and our home lives, the challenges of connecting with friends and family. We may be largely confined to home, but our lives are busier than ever, and finding time to pray, finding the quiet to pray may be impossible. And so, the idea that the Spirit may intercede on our behalf, may pray with and for us, can be of great comfort.

But that’s not all that Paul says in this passage. As he draws this section of the letter to a close, his rhetoric and language rise to a crescendo as he asks a series of questions:

 

Who is against us?

Who brings a charge against us?

Who condemns us?

What separates us from the love of God?

The answer to each of those questions is “No one.” In fact, these verses are not just the conclusion of chapter 8. They are the culmination and summary of an argument Paul has been making since chapter 5, that we can be certain of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. And in the midst of this powerful argument, Paul introduces another idea that speaks directly to what I was talking about earlier; our struggles with prayer and with God. Earlier, Paul had assured us that the Spirit intercedes on our behalf with sighs too deep for words. Now, it is Jesus Christ himself, who died, was raised, and sits at the right hand of the Father, who intercedes for us.

We are not alone. We don’t need to try to figure everything out; we don’t even need to worry about finding the right words to express our fears or doubts, or our faith.

What we need to do is trust in God and in Jesus Christ. And in those darkest and driest moments, when we can’t even do that, we can rest in the assurance that the Spirit intercedes on our behalf, with sighs too deep for words; that Jesus Christ intercedes on our behalf and that, in the end, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Thanks be to God!

Groaning in Hope: A Sermon for Proper 11A, July 19, 2020

It makes me want to scream. But I also have a sense that I am growing numb to the suffering in the world around us. As the numbers of death from COVID increase exponentially and the measures necessary to combat it mired in partisan conflict, as our planet burns with 100 degree temperatures in the Arctic; as the streets of our cities continue to see demonstrations and nameless uniformed thugs kidnapping protesters in Portland, the relentless beat of the news and our own need to survive incapacitate and paralyze us. The Christian faith, our scriptures, tradition, and worship, seem to lack the resources to feed our souls and inspire our action toward a better future.

All of this suffering, violence, and injustice is enough to make us want to scream out in anger and frustration, or perhaps groan at the emotional pain all of it is costing us. It’s just too much, there’s no end in sight, and our hope grows dim.

 

And then we read the verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans. All creation groans, he writes, and “we ourselves groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved.”

Let me try to unpack this a bit. Today’s reading comes from chapter 8. It’s the conclusion of a section of the letter that is focused on the meaning of baptism, sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection. And here we see that same theme being reiterated. While that language is also in our baptismal liturgy, I don’t think we usually connect our own experience, our journey faith, our baptism, with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But that connection is central to Paul’s own understanding of baptism and we would do well to take it seriously. In 6:4 he writes:t herefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Here, when Paul appeals to the use of “Abba, Father” as our address to God in prayer, he’s not just pointing out the obvious; again, he’s making a connection between the life of the believer and the life of Jesus Christ. There’s the Lord’s Prayer, of course; but also Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, where in a moment of deepest anguish, Jesus prayed, “Abba, Father.” And so, for all of the exalted language of union with Christ, sonship, and adoption, for Paul, part of our shared experience with Christ is our shared suffering with him.

But Paul doesn’t end there. He goes further, connecting human struggle and suffering in the present with the whole created order. The whole creation groans, he writes. It’s a jarring image to modern ears, I think, because we are so programmed to think of redemption in terms of our own individual souls, and nothing else.

That’s not the biblical perspective. We’re accustomed to think of the world of nature, creation if you will, as a pristine, beautiful, good, that its problems, its suffering, if you will, is the product of human intervention and despoliation. The biblical perspective begins at the same place, with the beauty and goodness of creation but as Paul suggests, it was affected by human action, not our ongoing destruction of the environment, but the consequences of our sin and death. Creation groans, because like we ourselves, it experiences the pain of existence short of the perfection for which God created it. Creation groans in longing for redemption.

Creation groans as well because of sin and judgment. Similar language is used in the Hebrew Bible to describe the cries of mourners as they grieve the death of loved ones or in the midst of community crises. It’s also used in the context of communal or personal oppression—one example is in Exodus, where the Israelites groan in bondage. God hears their cries and brings about their deliverance through Moses. In the prophets (Isaiah 24:1-6) the groaning of creation (ecological degradation) is caused by the sin of the people and is God’s judgment on that sin.

The term Paul uses, and indeed his statement in v. 23, that we groan inwardly suggest a suffering so overwhelming that it can’t be described. We’ve all experienced such pain and suffering; many of us are probably rendered speechless by all that’s going on in the world around us.

For Paul, that’s not the end of the story. Instead, in the midst of this suffering, he casts an expansive vision of a new future—of a world, our bodies and souls, redeemed by God. In fact, our groaning may be all the greater because we have begun to experience what Paul will the “first fruits” of that redemption—or faith in Jesus Christ and in his resurrection. Through the Spirit, through our adoption, we have begun to experience the new reality and the new life in Jesus Christ. For Paul, that makes the realities of our present lives all the more poignant; the suffering we experience, the sins in the world, all the more painful.

Still, suffering is not the end of the story. There is hope. In verse 19, Paul uses the phrase “eager expectation”—imagine yourself stretching yourself out to catch sight of the arrival of a long-awaited friend or loved one. We are saved in hope, Paul writes. We have a sense of that new world, the redemption that is promised by God, the redemption that is shown first in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, a redemption when the whole world, and we ourselves will be re-created as God intends. It is hope that gives our suffering and our world meaning; it is hope that gives us the strength to bear witness to that vision of God’s redemption. It is hope that empowers us to work for justice and peace.

So as we struggle in these difficult times, as we cry out in anger and frustration, in exhaustion and fear, may we also know hope. Some of what we are feeling is not only loss for what is gone and may not return, it is also a sense that we know the world can change. And we know that there are people who have a passion for justice and the courage to work for it against all odds, like the great American John Lewis who died this week, and whose life, faith, and hope inspire  us. In these difficult times, may our groans become calls for justice, and proclamations of hope, our hope in Christ and our hope that God is making all things new.