Sunday, August 13, 2017

Sermon; 10 Pentecost/Proper 14A; Matthew 14:22-33

Last week we celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration. And while that was a good and proper thing to do (or, as the people in the BCP study learned, it was “very meet and right so to do”), it took us out of our normal cycle of gospel readings. So I'll take a minute here and get us back up to speed.

Two weeks ago we heard the last set of kingdom parables. The kingdom of heaven is like a lot of different stuff – the discovery of buried treasure, finding one thing you do well, a tree full of beautiful, messy birds. That is followed by two stories not told in the lectionary, one being Jesus' difficulty in his home town, and the other being the beheading of John the Baptist.

Today's gospel follows immediately after the feeding of the 5000 men plus women and children, which we would have heard last week had it not been for the Feast of the Transfiguration. After hearing the news of John's execution, Jesus goes off alone only to be tracked down by the crowds. Once gathered, he spends the rest of the day healing those who were sick. As the day is coming to a close we are given the story of the mass feeding. And this is where we pick up the story today.

Immediately after the leftover food is collected, Jesus makes the disciples get into a boat to cross over to the other side while he dismissed the crowd and goes up the mountain to pray. There he spends the night alone. The disciples, meanwhile, have spent all night on the water battling a storm.

In the morning Jesus comes to them walking on the water, terrifying the disciples. Peter demands Jesus bid him to come out of the boat. He does, Peter walks on water, begins to sink, is saved, gets put back in the boat, and the storm ceases.

As usual I could talk about all kinds of things in this story – Was it a theophany? Is it a misplaced post-resurrection story? Is it a testing of God? And on and on. But wrapped up in all of these interpretations or understandings or explanations is the ultimate question for us today and for all Christians in all times: What does this story have to say to me today? So I'm going to skip talking about the miraculous aspect of this story and focus on three things that have value for us today.

First should be the obvious fact that following Christ is not always easy. As disciples, we may be asked to do any number of things for which we feel we aren't prepared, qualified, or even remotely ready. We also may be asked to do something for which we believe we are well-qualified, but once we undertake the mission we discover we weren't as ready as we thought we were.

Jesus sent the disciples out on ahead of him. Some were experienced sailors. Most were probably not. As the boat heads out onto the water a storm erupts; and the disciples, fighting a losing battle, are taken further away from shore. Doing what Jesus asks us to do can be hard, and it can feel like we're fighting a losing battle. Have you been asked to participate in the life of the church only to feel like you're being battered by a storm, not able to do what you were asked to do? Or maybe you've been asked to participate in the life of the parish only to decline because you are afraid of the unknown? Discipleship is hard, but Jesus is commanding us to get into the boat.

The next point comes from Peter. “Lord,” he said, “if it is you command me to come to you on the water.” This touches on the idea of discernment.

As disciples we are all called to use our time, talent, and treasure for the good of the kingdom. Sometimes that's relatively easy – it doesn't take much effort, for instance, to contribute from our surplus to the life of the church. Sometimes it's self-evident, such as a gifted musician sharing their talents with the music ministry. Other times it can be difficult – creating an intentional line item on your personal budget as a pledge or taking a risk and participating in something in which you've never participated before. And other times we need to be called by Jesus.

That calling can be as terrifying as asking Peter to get out of the boat in the middle of a storm. We need to pay attention to these calls, though. We need to make sure that it is indeed Jesus who is calling us to step out of our comfort zone. If we don't, we may simply be confirming our own desires, such as the Mormon missionary in “Book of Mormon” who was absolutely convinced that he was called to serve the people of Orlando, or anyone else, for that matter, who makes God to be a perfect replica of their own desires and hatreds. But there's another reason there, and that is that if we don't discern a calling from Jesus, we're likely to sink without ever walking on water or being rescued. In other words, we need to spend time determining if this is really what Jesus is asking us to do, or are we trying to make our wishes come true? “Lord, if it is you . . .”

The final point is to notice the chaos of the storm and when it ceased. Please note that this does not mean that as soon as you welcome Jesus to be in your midst that life gets easy. That is not the point and that is certainly not true. Here are a two biblical examples and two real world examples for you.

Jonah boarded a ship to escape God. The problem with that is that God is everywhere. A storm arose nearly sinking it. When the crew finally agreed to heed God by tossing Jonah overboard, the storm ceased. Today's story is a reverse Jonah where the storm ceases after the man in the water and God, in the person of Jesus Christ, board the boat. There's something about the calm of God's presence.

The first real world example is from my own life. Once upon a time a priest took me to lunch and said, “You need to go to seminary.” I won't give all the details here, but immediately my life got very chaotic, like I was in the middle of a storm. That storm quieted down after I agreed to heed this call.

The second real world example comes from just down the road, right here, right now.

The gospel story features the disciples in a boat. Traditional church buildings are built as upside down boats. This building is a boat full of disciples. The disciples in the gospel faced a fierce storm, the storm of chaos, that threatened to overtake them and drown them. In our world right now, a storm of chaos rages around us. In our world, that storm is threatening to destroy the goodness that overcame the raging waters of chaos in the first place.

Not far from here on the campus of the University of Virginia a group of right wing, anti-Semitic, white supremacists gathered to spew their chaotic storm of hatred. That storm has been brewing for hundreds of years and it has once again been whipped to life by the winds of hate and exclusion.

Jesus may have walked n the stormy waters of Galilee and calmed that storm; but Jesus is also God incarnate, the great I AM who is and was and will ever be. And right here, right now, Jesus is walking through the chaotic storm raging around us and this boat.

Jesus has boarded this boat. This boat will not be capsized by the storm of hate. This boat will not be sunk by the sin of white supremacy and exclusion or any other sin that tries to destroy the goodness of all God's creation. Jesus has boarded this boat and it will sail in peace.

But we still have far to go. Jonah spent three days in the belly of a fish and still had to fulfill his mission. The disciples still had to cross over to the other side of the water. I still had to go through the process leading to ordination. And we, as followers of Christ, as people who follow the God of love, as people who vow to respect the dignity of every human being still have much work to do in making that vision and mission a reality.

We are being called by Christ in the midst of a storm to offer our selves, our souls, and bodies for the good of the kingdom. Some of that will be done through our time, talent, and treasure. Some of that will be done by being called to new ministries. And some of that will be done by standing up to and naming chaotic storms that threaten to overcome and sink the people of God by saying, “Not in this boat.”

Because in this boat the peace of God through Christ is more powerful than the forces of any hate-driven storm. In this boat, Christ reigns. In this boat, love wins.

As with Peter, Jesus is calling to us over the noise of the storm and the raging waters of chaos. How will we respond?


Sunday, August 06, 2017

Sermon; Feast of the Transfiguration; Luke 9:28-36

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration. We don't get to celebrate this feast very often because it has a fixed, non-transferable day of August 6. That being said, the BCP rubrics do state that when this feast falls on a Sunday it takes precedence over the regularly scheduled Propers. So on this day we celebrate a theophany, a glimpse of the eternal God in the here and now, a revelation into the true nature of Jesus, and a recognition of the transfiguration event as a bright, sometimes blinding, light shining in dark places.

This idea of Christ's light shining in the darkness may be why the feast is celebrated on this day. Pope Callixtus III ordered its celebration on August 6 to commemorate the successful defense of Belgrade from the Ottomans in 1456 – because nothing says, “the light of Christ” quite like a military victory over the forces of evil . . . But I digress.

As I said, today is the actual date of the Feast of the Transfiguration. As we celebrate this event, there are several things to consider.

First, we need to look at some background material. At the end of Chapter 8, Jesus raises Jairus' daughter from the dead. In the room with him were Peter, John, and James.

As we move into Chapter 9, Jesus sends out the twelve to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. Luke says that they were successful in that mission. Upon their return he takes them away to a private place to debrief. During this time of solitude, however, crowds gather to hear Jesus preach and to be healed. And at the close of the day we have the story of the feeding of the five thousand.

Later, when they are alone, Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter confesses him to be the Messiah, and Jesus talks about his Passion and what it takes to be a disciple – take up your cross daily. All of this brings us to today's gospel.

About eight days after these sayings, Jesus took with him Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain. While there Jesus is joined by Moses and Elijah, when a cloud overshadows them, terrifying the disciples in the process. There are some major points in this story we can't overlook.

Eight days later. There are seven days in a week. The eighth day, then, is the first day of the week. On the first day, God created. It was also on the first day of the week that the women went to the empty tomb. The eighth day is symbolic of the first day of the new creation.

Peter, John, and James were with him on the mountain. These were the same three who were with him a short time earlier when he raised Jairus' daughter from the dead. These three witnessed his power to restore life. And now these three are witnesses to Christ in his eternal glory, Jesus as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets (as indicated by the presence of Moses and Elijah), and the voice of God confirming Jesus as his holy son.

This event took place on a mountain, a traditional place of holy events. It was on a mountain that God spared Isaac. It was on a mountain that Moses received the law. It is on a mountain that the Lord's house will be established. And it is here, on a mountain, that Jesus is transfigured and revealed.

A cloud overshadowed them and they were terrified. That word “overshadow” occurs only four times in the gospels, and once as a synonym in Acts. Three of those times are in reference to the Transfiguration when the cloud overshadows the disciples and they were terrified. Once occurs in Luke 1 when an angel tells Mary not to be afraid and that the power of the Most High will overshadow her, causing her child to be holy. And the synonymous time occurs in Acts 1 when the disciples are told that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon, or overshadows, them. This overshadowing act is symbolic both of God's presence and the terror of being within that presence.

The story of the Transfiguration is deeply symbolic and deeply meaningful. It refers to a new day of creation. It points out the true nature of Christ in the revealing of his holy light. It references the fulfillment of all God is working toward in the law and the prophets. And, maybe more than anything else, it points us to a significant change in how we can see the world through the light and power of God in Christ.

But all that I have just said is not the only focus on this day. Yes, there are theological implications of the Transfiguration event – the dazzling light of Christ, the glimpse into his true nature, and the cloud that overshadowed and terrified the people all have a theological construct. They also all have a practical construct as we can use this event to help inform and change our lives.

August 6 is also the date of another transfiguration event of sorts. On this day there was a blinding light that gave us a glimpse of the nature of humanity. On this day a cloud overshadowed and terrified a multitude of people. On this day there was a momentous event that informs and shapes our lives in any number of ways.

It was on this day when a plane named Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb over the city of Hiroshima. On this day, August 6, 1945, there was a flash of blinding light and a cloud overshadowed and terrified the people. On this day, the world was transfigured.

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration. On this day we remember two world-changing events – the dazzling light of Christ and the overshadowing power of God is paired with the blinding light of nuclear warfare and the overshadowing power of people to inflict untold harm on each other.

As we recall both these events, my question to you is this: Which event do you want to make the defining moment of your life?


Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sermon; 8 Pentecost/Proper 12A; Matt. 13:31-33, 44-52

Today is the last in the series of kingdom parables we've been hearing. As promised from last week, these are all of the parables we missed then. Also, as promised, these parables come in quick succession.

The kingdom of heaven is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a great shrub where the birds of the air make their nests. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman mixes with 50 pounds of flour. The kingdom of heaven is like treasure found in a field that gets reburied, after-which the person sells all they have only to purchases the field with the hidden treasure. The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant who finds a single pearl of great price and he, too, sells all he has to purchase the pearl. The kingdom of heaven is like a fisherman who catches fish of all kinds, keeps the good and throws out the bad. The kingdom of heaven is like a lot of things all at the same time, and our senses and sensibilities are assaulted with so many visions it can seem impossible to make sense.

The obvious question we ask is, “So what exactly is the kingdom of heaven like?” The answer is, “D – all of the above.” I think we ask that question because we want to know exactly what we are in for, or exactly how we are to behave to ensure we make it in. It's sort of like the difference between football and baseball fields.

If the kingdom of heaven were like a standard football field, we would have it all figured out. The kingdom of heaven is like a football field – 120 yards long, with a playing area of 100 yards, two end zones 10 yard deep, and 53-1/3 yards wide, regardless of whether you have NFL players, college players, or high school players. But it's not.

Instead, the kingdom of heaven is like a baseball field – it might be 280 feet to the fence, or it might be 320 feet, or it might be 440 feet. It may be a perfect arc between left and right fields, or it may have random cut outs. Outfield fences may be 10 feet high, 15 feet high, or maybe even 37'-2” high. The kingdom of heaven may be like an outfield that is smooth all the way across, or it may have a hill in dead center.

So what is the kingdom of heaven like? It is like a small seed that grows into a great shrub so big it becomes home to many different kinds of birds. The kingdom of heaven starts small, maybe as small as one church, but grows into something so big that it becomes home to many different kinds of people.

Have you ever noticed that when a variety of birds get together we find beauty in their different songs? Can we find beauty in the different voices of all the different people of the kingdom? Have you also ever noticed that when there is a large group of birds living in one place there is also usually a very large mess? Are we able to live with the idea of a messy kingdom?

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast mixed into three measures (or 50 lbs) of flour. We hear this today as a good and necessary thing. But remember that yeast is more often used negatively in the gospels. “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” In the gospels, yeast is often used as a warning against corruption and hypocrisy. Today we might use rust or a spoiled piece of fruit in a bunch that ruins and taints everything around it.

But here we have Jesus telling us that the kingdom of heaven is a small, imperceptible force that will corrupt the world. The kingdom of heaven is a force that ruins the world for good.

The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure in a field that someone finds, reburies, sells all his possessions, and buys the field for himself. The kingdom of heaven is like a dishonest man who withholds the fact of buried treasure to the rightful landowner and then buys it for a price well under its real value? Or maybe the kingdom of heaven is like a buried treasure someone stumbles upon, realizes its value, and does everything in their power to make it part of their life. The kingdom of heaven is like a visitor to this church who has no idea of the value of this place; but once coming through our doors, learns of its value and does everything they can to make St. John's part of their life.

Or the kingdom of heaven is like someone intentionally searching for fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great price, he sells all he has to purchase it. In other words, are you actively looking for the kingdom of heaven?

When we were in Montana, Joelene and I served on the CDC – Congregational Development Committee. We traveled around the diocese to (usually) small churches who were looking for help in finding a mission. During our time together we often heard people give us a litany of “if onlies” . . . If only we had more people, if only we had more money, if only we had more programs, if only we had more kids.

After doing some work together that told about their parish, I read this parable to them and asked, “What is your pearl of great price? What is the one thing you can do well?” And then they developed a plan to work on that. Because you don't need to do everything, you just need to do one thing well in order to make a change or a difference.

The kingdom of heaven is like a person who discovers the one thing they can do for the spread of the gospel.

The kingdom of heaven is like someone who brings out their treasure, both old and new.

The kingdom of heaven is not one thing. The kingdom of heaven is so big, so vast, so utterly incomprehensible that it takes many things to describe it.

The kingdom of heaven is like a tree full of messy birds, or the pursuit of a treasure, or things both old and new. The kingdom of heaven is small and disruptive, like yeast or rust, that will change the world.

How will the kingdom of heaven affect and change you?
How will you pursue the kingdom of heaven in your daily life?


Sunday, July 23, 2017

Sermon; 7 Pentecost, Proper 11A; Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43

Today we continue our journey with kingdom parables. If you remember from last week, I said that Matthew uses the word “kingdom” more than any other gospel, and because of that, how he presents Jesus' lineage, and his telling of the birth narrative, we refer to Matthew as a kingdom gospel. All of the parables we hear in this three week period have as their basis, “the kingdom of heaven is like . . .”

Last week's parable was about the sower scattering seed over a variety of landing places. Today we hear of a farmer who plants good seed only to find out later that an enemy has sown a weed in the midst of his crop. If Jesus were from Hagerstown, those parables may have been less agrarian and more along the lines of, “The kingdom of heaven is like a hub that draws to it all manner of highways and railroads,” or, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a city held hostage by an enemy army.” But he didn't, so this is what we've got to work with.

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a farmer who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat. When the plants came up, the slaves were astonished to find weeds mixed in among the wheat and they ask the farmer if they should pull up the weeds. “Let them be,” says the farmer, “otherwise you will uproot the good with the bad. I will have my reapers separate them at harvest time.”

Like last week the lectionary skips over several passages in order to focus on one parable. Unlike last week, what was skipped over today will be heard next week with another grouping of parables. And like last week, we also hear Jesus' explanation. The sower, he says, is the Son of Man, the field is the world, the good seed are the children of the kingdom of heaven, the enemy is the devil, the weeds are the children of the evil one, the reapers are the angels, and the harvest is the end of the age.

What's going on in this parable?

First is that both here and in the kingdom of heaven we are being asked to live with people who differ from us. This is easier said than done. It's difficult living with weeds when we ourselves are beautiful flowers. It's difficult living with prickly weeds when we are gentle to the touch. It's difficult living with people who seem to have no redeeming social values as opposed to ourselves who are morally upstanding individuals. It's difficult living with people who have the wrong ideas about church, liturgy, and theology, when we ourselves have the right, correct, and orthodox ideas that have been handed down for generations.

But this is precisely what God is asking us to do. He is asking us to live with those we consider weeds. He is asking us to share our resources with those who are different from us. He is asking us to be patient with those prickly people who annoy us to no end. The reality is that we don't always get along, even with flowers of our own species – just ask anyone who has been married or serves on a vestry. God knows this. God knows we are different. God knows there will be friction and competition for resources. And God asks us to live with weeds. Are you willing to obey God and wait until the end of the age, all the while living with the tension of difference?

Besides this issue of learning to tolerate the other, we need to understand that it is not our job to pull weeds. In this parable, the farmer tells his slaves that the reapers will gather and separate the wheat from the weeds at the harvest. If he let the slaves remove the weeds, all they would do would be to pull up the good along with the bad, and then the whole crop would be ruined. Removing people who differ from us is not our job because we just might destroy the kingdom. The job of separating the two will be done by the reapers, the angels, at the appropriate time.

And yet . . . we try anyway. We can be so firmly convinced of our own righteousness or rightness that we see anyone who thinks differently, acts differently, interprets differently, as a weed that must be pulled up and tossed aside. And while we think we are doing the Lord's work, the reality is that we are destroying the Church.

This happened during the Reformation when reformer after reformer broke away because the one before wasn't right enough. Luther was followed by Calvin who was followed by Zwingli who was followed by another who all decided that the previous reformer didn't go far enough and wasn't right enough because they still held to some doctrine that the next reformer found to be problematic at best and heretical at worst.

It happened in England when the Puritans tried to cleanse the church of all things “popish” including candles, vestments, wedding rings, icons, and organs.

And it is happening today in the worldwide church over issues such as full equality, environmental protection, biblical inerrancy, the place of women, healthcare, patriotism, and a growing intolerance for anyone dubbed “other.” The desire to pull up those we see as weeds in order to keep us pure and undefiled is strong. But that desire to pull up those we label as weeds will ultimately result in pulling up the good as well and leaving behind a barren patch of ground where nothing grows.

The kingdom of heaven is apparently like a big garden with sowers, seeds, laborers, and reapers. The kingdom of heaven has both wheat and weeds. In today's parable, we are asked to live with the weeds, to live with those different from us, to live with those whom we determine are detrimental to the garden, until the end of the age. That is a long time to put up with someone we deem worthless.

So here's something to consider: just exactly what is the definition of a weed? A weed is nothing more than an unwanted plant. We used to rent a house that was a veritable jungle of all kinds of plants and flowers, but no grass – because the owner thought grass was a weed. A weed, then, is in the eye of the beholder.

Sometimes weeds and wheat look awfully similar. St. Jerome noted this and said, “The Lord therefore advises us that we should not be quick to judge what is doubtful but should leave judgment up to God.”

Instead of spending our energy looking for weeds and then tearing up the garden trying to get rid of them, we should be spending our energy putting a stop to those things that are actively destroying the garden. We should be ever vigilant and on guard for those who claim to know the difference between weeds and wheat and have not only assigned themselves the role of reaper, but have promised a garden of only plants they approve. We should watch out for those spraying spiritual RoundUp in an effort to eliminate the unwanted.

In the beginning, God created plants of every kind, and he saw that it was good. Let's let God determine when to cull weeds from wheat, and let's spend our time ensuring that all the plants in the garden are healthy and growing.


Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sermon; 6 Pentecost, Proper 10A; Matthew 13:1-19, 18-23

Today we begin a three week journey with what are commonly called “kingdom parables.” One of the things we need to know about Matthew's gospel is that it is a kingdom gospel. Matthew uses the word kingdom more than any of the other gospels. He traces Jesus' lineage through a royal line going back as far as Abraham, the patriarch of the Israelites. He is the one who records the three wise men (or magi or kings) arriving at the Holy Family's house in Bethlehem. So as we listen to these parables, note that they are all about the kingdom of heaven.

Today's kingdom parable of the sower appears in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Next week's parable appears only in Matthew. And of the three parables we'll hear in two weeks, only the parable of the mustard seed appears in all three. Additionally, it is only that parable where all three gospels relate it to the kingdom. So while the other gospels may reference the kingdom, Matthew consistently does.

Parables are interesting things because even though we think we know the meaning of parable, there can be multiple layers and multiple meanings to it. It is that multilayered aspect that gives a parable life; it is that multilayered aspect that allows it to have meaning for us today.

Today's parable is a perfect example of this. For those of us who have been involved in church for some time, we have heard this parable countless times in our lives. The traditional way to understand this parable of the sower is that the sower is God and the various landing spots are the people. God scatters the seed of the kingdom and some people do not understand, some people cannot endure, some people are distracted by the ways of the world, while some people hear and produce results.. But because this is a parable, there are a variety of ways to understand it.

For instance . . . previously in Matthew's gospel Jesus gave us missional instructions to proclaim, cure, cleanse, and restore. If we go out into the world proclaiming the good news, then we become the sower. The seed we sow is the gospel message, and where the seed ends up is, again, the people. Some of those people will not understand, some will get distracted, and some will produce results for the kingdom.

The parable could also be about the foolish generosity of God. If I'm a farmer sowing crops, I want to make sure that what I sow has the best chance to produce. I will either plant each seed by hand, or drop seeds only in good soil, soil that will lead to yields of thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold. But here's God scattering seed willy-nilly across the land not really caring where it ends up, only caring that everyone has a chance to receive the good news. If we see ourselves as the sower, then maybe we need to do a better job of being foolishly generous.

A follow-up interpretation to this version is that there are no lost causes. The seed that was scattered on the path is often taken up and eaten by birds, having no time to take root. But that's not always the case. How many times have you been out walking and noticed a shoot of new growth springing up from a crack in the pavement? We all have cracks. It just may be that the seed, the word of God, finds a crack on the hard path and causes something good to grow. Maybe there's hope for being foolishly generous.

Another interpretation focuses on the use of parables themselves. Today's passage is, like last week, chopped up. What's been cut out is the section where Jesus tells the disciples that he uses parables to confuse outsiders but to deepen the faith of the disciples. The parable itself is given to those willing to learn, to those willing to dive in and explore, to those who want to deepen their faith. Those are the ones who will produce thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold. The parable is designed for people serious about their faith. Think of parables as an AP religion class.

And yet another way to see this parable is to connect it back to the second creation story and the Garden of Eden.

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, and there he put the man. The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden to till it and keep it.

The sower is once again God, planting “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.” But this time God isn't just planting seeds in a garden, God is scattering his seed of Good News throughout the world.

Notice this though: that when God planted the garden the first time, what was the very next thing God did? God put the man in the garden to till it and keep it. It became our job to care for what God had planted. In today's parable, the garden is the world. What's missing from the parable, then, is us.

If we were put in the garden to till it and keep it, can it not be that we are put in this world to help cultivate the word of God? If in God's generosity some seed falls on the path, is it not our responsibility to place it in good soil; or, at the very least, drive away the birds of Satan? If this parable ties back to creation and the garden, then we have work to do.

Parables are wonderfully engaging tools that allow us to study, delve, imagine, and play. In engaging today's parable, are you the sower or the seed? Are you rocky ground or fertile soil? Are you an active participant or a passive observer? Depending on the day, maybe you are a little of each.

Over the next three weeks, we will hear a variety of kingdom parables. My job isn't to explain them, but to help you engage with them. These are kingdom parables that apply as equally to us today as they did to Jesus' original audience.

Let anyone with ears listen.


Sunday, July 09, 2017

Sermon; 5 Pentecost, Proper 9A; Matt. 11:16-19, 25-30

The gospel passage for today is, in my opinion, misplaced. It has no context in which to place it. And it is a chopped up version of Chapter 11 that makes one wonder just what the lectionary committee was thinking. So let's see if I can put a frame around it.

First, it follows the missionary passages/instructions we heard over the past several weeks. Those missional instructions were given to both Jesus' original twelve disciples and his disciples of today – us. They were to go and proclaim, cure, cleanse, and restore in a world that is hostile to our cause, welcoming those who welcome you, and remembering to give cups of cold water to the little ones you meet.

Unlike Luke, though, Matthew never tells us how that mission turned out. Instead he moves Jesus into the cities to teach and proclaim the message. While doing this, word of Jesus gets back to John who is now in prison. His disciples are sent to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one?” Jesus answers by reiterating that the blind see, the deaf hear, and the lame walk. Jesus also chastises the crowd for not understanding who John was.

And that brings us to today's passage.

But then next week, as the lectionary moves on, it totally skips Chapter 12 in which Jesus has several run ins with Pharisees, performs a few healings, foreshadows his Passion, and turns away from his family in favor of his mission. Instead, next week begins in Chapter 13 with a three week focus on kingdom parables

So, again, we have this passage between mission and parables, with no connection to either.

That said, I want to focus on the first half of today's passage. This generation is like children calling to one another, “We played the flute, and you didn't dance; we wailed, and you didn't mourn.”

There are a lot of ways to go with this, and I want to focus on a dual allegory.

We played the flute, and you didn't dance. This can represent Jesus and his excitement, eagerness . . . passion . . . for the coming kingdom. With Jesus, the deaf hear, the blind see, the lame walk. With Jesus there is joy. It was Jesus who turned water to wine at a wedding. It is Jesus who is referred to as the bridegroom. Jesus plays the flute, but the people are unwilling to dance.

We wailed, and you did not mourn. This can represent John and his end-time focus. He was called by God to prepare the way of the Messiah. He was called to bring people to repentance. He was called to bring about a major change in the advent of the coming storm. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John has no time for frivolity. He wailed, but the people were unwilling to mourn.

The flip side of this dual allegory is that the children represent this generation and are the ones calling out to Jesus and John. They are the ones playing the flute wanting John to dance. They are the ones wailing wanting Jesus to mourn.

In either case, we, the children of this generation, are trying to make Jesus bend to our desires. Jesus is playing the flute and asking us to dance, but we refuse because it is beneath our dignity. We would rather spend our time wailing.

Or Jesus asks us to notice the hurt, neglected, alienated, disposed people of this world. He asks us to wail over their plight and mourn their predicament. He asks us to change. But we would rather turn a blind eye and continue to dance as if nothing were wrong.

I think this dancing and wailing story, more than anything else, may be a cautionary tale. First, as I've already pointed out, it cautions us against trying to bend Jesus to our will. There are times when we are asked to dance for Jesus. That might make us uncomfortable because we Episcopalians like to do all things decently and in order. But there are times we are asked to dance. Let us do so.

But let's not get so caught up in our dancing that we neglect to mourn. There are plenty of social ills that should cause us to mourn. We are each involved in plenty of activities from which we need to repent. Into what difficult situation are we being called? Where are we called to shed tears with those in pain? Let's not forget that Jesus isn't all happy clappy, 700 Club prosperity. There are times we need to mourn. Let us do so.

Second, and finally, this is a cautionary tale as to how we treat others. John was attacked for being too serious. Jesus was attacked for being a party animal (he eats with sinners and drunkards). They were both attacked for not living into the expectations of those around them.

We need to be careful we don't fall into that same trap. Parishioners attack clergy because they never leave the office; or that they are never in the office. People attack others for being too liberal or too conservative; for being too rigid or too loose; for being too lax with rules or for being too persnickety in following them.

I had a conversation the other day with a lady from another church. I told her I couldn't meet Monday morning because I was out making visits. She began complaining that her pastor, unlike me, never made outside visits and she wished she could make him understand how important that was. I said, “You know, this is the only job where a person is expected to be all things to all people. Why don't you look for what he does well?” We need to be careful about our expectations.

Today's passage isn't connected with the previous missional passages or the upcoming parable passages. It has no context in which to frame it. But maybe that's not the point.

Maybe the point of this chopped up, unrelated, non-contextual passage is to caution us before we get too busy. Maybe it's to caution us against seeing Jesus as only dancing or wailing, but to look for times when both are appropriate. Maybe it's to caution us about using our own expectations as litmus tests for others.

As we work to proclaim, cure, cleanse, and restore those out there in Hagerstown and those in here at St. John's, let's look for times to both dance and mourn as we participate fully in the kingdom of God.


Sunday, July 02, 2017

Sermon; Proper 8A; Matthew 10:40-42

Today's gospel passage closes out the section on missional instructions given to the twelve disciples. This section began two weeks ago when Jesus called the twelve together and sent them out into various parts of Israel (avoiding Gentiles and Samaritans for the time being) to proclaim, cure, cleanse, and restore. But as I alluded to last week, that is no easy mission. You know it wouldn't be easy when Jesus tells them not to worry about physical death, or that he has come to bring a sword, or that sons will be against fathers and daughters against mothers.

Both we and the disciples are being sent out among wolves to proclaim, cure, cleanse, and restore. And today that commissioning, that sending, is given its final set of instructions. We are being sent out to do great things, but before we go, there's one more thing you need to know. That one more thing is this short paragraph that is today's gospel passage.

Earlier in these missional instructions Jesus told the disciples to shake off the dust of a house or town from their feet if they were not welcomed. Now he's preparing them on how to behave should they be welcomed. “If someone welcomes you, they welcome me.” Both we and the disciples have been elevated to the place of official spokesman. In other words, when we speak, so does Jesus because we speak on his behalf.

This is just the opposite of that disclaimer you see/hear in places: “The views expressed by the participants do not necessarily reflect the views of . . . X.” Well in this case, they do; so we need to be careful about how we represent Christ and the Church.

Jesus' statement, “Whoever welcomes you . . .” and, “Whoever welcomes a prophet . . .” is primarily directed to the twelve. Jesus is implying that the twelve named disciples being sent out speak on his behalf, and anyone welcoming them welcomes both the Son and the Father. He is also elevating them to the status of prophet, a venerated position of that time. In short, the twelve are the VIPs of God's kingdom and not to be ignored.

But it isn't just the twelve who are VIPs. Yes, they include Sts. Peter, Andrew, James, John and the rest. And there are other VIPs who are well-known down through the ages. People like St. Paul and Justin Martyr, Polycarp and Perpetua, Francis and Claire of Assisi, Pope Leo, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, and our own Michael Curry are included, as are so many other great people and names of the faith. Anyone who welcomes those people in the name of God will receive their reward.

On the one hand, that's good news. On the other hand, though, this brings up a two-fold problem. First, and most obvious, how do we discern between a VIP and an impostor? That can be difficult because sometimes charisma is mistaken for charism. Without going too far down this path, using the Baptismal Covenant as a framework for discernment would be a good idea.

The second problem is that it can be distressing news because precious few of us rise to the level of those great saints and people I mentioned. What do we do with the myriads upon myriads of Christians living simple, faithful, anonymous lives? Lucky for us Jesus addresses this very issue.

“Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple . . .”

In Matthew, when Jesus uses the term “little ones” he is referring to the humble Christians who may also be poor, or those who are new to the faith.

Notice what Jesus says here: Whoever GIVES a cup of cold water to these little ones in the name of a disciple.

In the long history of God's mission on earth, in the long history of the Church in all of its variances, the vast majority of people are like Matthias – known only to God and a few others, living as faithfully as they can, serving in anonymity, and simply going on about their business as faithful witnesses. These are the foot soldiers of the Church. These are the ones who do the vast majority of the work. These are the 99 percent. These people are not to be neglected or treated with disdain by the so-called VIPs or other leaders of the church. These are the ones to whom we are to give in the name of a disciple.

In the Examination portion of a priestly ordination, the ordinand is charged to love and serve the people among whom they work, and to care alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor. There are no, or should not be any, VIPs in the eyes of a priest. It is my job, then, to treat everyone fairly and offer cups of cold water in the name of Jesus to even the little ones. Who, by the way, may actually need it more than others.

But treating all fairly and offering cups of cold water to the the little ones isn't only my job. You all are counted as disciples. You all have been commissioned to proclaim, cure, cleanse, and restore. You all also speak for Jesus. In the Letter of James, the author, writing to an unspecified group of believers, says, “If you take notice of one wearing fine clothes while denigrating one who is poor, have you not made distinctions?” Like me, it is your job to not distinguish but to offer cups of cold water even to the little ones.

We are being sent out to proclaim, cure, cleanse, and restore. Some of us may become VIPs. Most of us will not. And while you may not be called to far off mission trips, or to become a “superstar Christian,” all of us are called to respect the dignity of every human being. It just may be that our greatest mission field is right here within these walls, welcoming the stranger, proclaiming the good news of God in Christ as St. John's understands it, and giving cups of cold water to the little ones on our midst.

It just may be that our acts of curing, cleansing, and restoring happen right here. It just may be that those cups of cold water we offer will allow those little ones to experience the Church as it was meant to be experienced.

In the name of Christ, may we proclaim, cure, cleanse, and restore all people; VIPs and little ones alike.