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September 20, 2015, 10:00 AM

Proper 20 Year B -- The Good News of Children's Television

Proper 20

Year B

Christ the King, Quincy

 

    Great things, Thou hast done, O Lord, my God. I would name them and proclaim them, but they are more than I can tell. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

 

    A couple of weeks ago, this sermon basically wrote itself, I just didn’t know it at the time. Its not that I put pen to paper…or in this electronic age, digits to keys…but every insight I have on this morning’s Gospel lesson was gleaned from a family meal up at Bucks Lake. 

    One night, the grownups were clearing the dinner table, and the cousins all wanted to watch a TV show. So, as the tired but responsible parents we are, the kids got to watch Netflix while the grownups did the chores. But we set a limit on TV…they could only watch one episode because Netflix uses a lot of bandwidth, and grandpa had to begin his work doing infrared mapping of fires. At that point, John says, “Yeah, grandpa is nocturnal, he works at night then sleeps during the day.”

    The family was dumbfounded. Here is John, a week or two away from even starting Kindergarten, and he recognizes the Grandpa is active working at night and sleeps in during the morning and that this trait is defined as nocturnal. And the question four people ask in unison is: “How does John know how to use nocturnal in conversation?”

    And my answer was simple: I let him watch TV!

    And that it the main point I would like to make about our Gospel lesson this morning, we need to be watching more television, or at least emulate children’s TV. 

    How? Why?  Well then, let me back up a little bit…

 

    This morning, we have two small but profound vignettes in our gospel lesson. In the first half, we have Jesus explaining the nature of his messiahship: “Jesus and his disciples went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again." But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

    Ok. This is pretty common stuff. The disciples, once again, are described as being a little dense and timid. Nothing really new there. 

    So Jesus is explaining what is going to happen, and while we’re never told explicitly when or how, the silence of the disciples eventually turns into competitive gossip. “Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.”

    Now, I could give a whole sermon on how the disciples mistake Grace for a meritocracy. They were called by Christ, through no accomplishment of their own. And certainly, they can’t be heralded as the most capable lot of disciples, because again and again they fail to understand what Jesus is actually teaching them. But here they are, boasting in their status as one of Christ’s disciples, trying to determine which one of them is the greatest.  

    Jesus responds to their somewhat ignorant boasting by suggesting something totally novel. “He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

    Now, a lot of preachers will talk about a child’s innocence as the key to understanding Jesus’ allegory. Maybe, but I want to suggest a different childlike quality was what Jesus actually meant to highlight. 

    Spend any amount of time with a 5 year old, and you will quickly learn their two favorite phrases: “Why?” and “How come?”

    Children are inquisitive little creatures. They want to understand the world around them and to know how things work. I have spent the last two years explaining why the sky is blue, where planets come from, why Disneyland is shaped like spokes on a wheel, why moss grows on the north side of the tree, and other of life’s mysteries to Abby and John. And I am absolutely and completely convinced that this is the quality that Jesus wants in his disciples. 

    Listen again to our gospel lesson this morning: “he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again." But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

    What is so maddening to me is the fact that, not only do the disciples fail to understand Jesus’ teaching about his suffering, death, and resurrection, but they’re also too afraid to ask Jesus any questions about it!

    Can you imagine how valuable, how absolutely priceless it would be to hear Jesus explain why the Messiah has to suffer death? To have Jesus explain the relationship between suffering and faith.  To describe that teaching as illuminating would be a grotesque understatement. If we had, in Jesus’ own words, a teaching which once and for all said God values service and sacrifice more than strength and power—that alone would be enough to bring the light the world with our hope in Christ. 

    But we’re never given that opportunity. And as maddening as the disciples’ failure to understand or even ask questions with the hope of understanding may sound to us, how often are we guilty of precisely the same thing? How often are we afraid to ask a question because we think we should know the answer, or because we’re afraid our question is stupid, or even because we’re afraid of the answer?

    After all, if knowledge is power, then ignorance is weakness.    

    

    How did John learn to use the word “nocturnal” properly and in context? Well, I’m not ashamed to admit that he learned it from TV. He loves this PBS program Wild Kratts, whose narrative is driven by asking questions. Why does the cowbird lay its eggs in another bird species’ nest? Why do owls hunt at night? What’s it called when an animal is active at night and sleeps during the day?

    And so, if we are to grow in faith, we need to start asking questions, too. 

    And that is the good news this morning: All we need to do to is to watch more kid’s TV. 

    Now, I have folded a lot of laundry in front of our television, so I am somewhat of an expert on the subject of children’s television, and what our best kid’s show value more than anything is curiosity. They honor the sacred act of asking questions. That’s how people learn: they ask questions. They assert that there is a greater cost in not asking than in not knowing. 

    Here we are, some 2000 years later. Trying to understand the nature of Jesus’ predictions of his own suffering and death. We are trying to comprehend our place in society. We are surrounded by a materialistic world which preaches that our value lies in what we have, not in what we give. That power is best demonstrated by how many people serve us, rather than by how many we serve. We Christians are a strange bunch, and if we want to stand as Christ’s disciples, then we better be pretty sure we understand what kind of ministry he was calling us towards. 

    And the only way we discover that is in asking questions. 

    This morning, we heard Mark tell the story of Jesus predicting his death for a second time, but he never fully describes the Disciples’ reaction. We’ll never know about the gasps and the horrified stares and the hard gulps. And he says nothing about the heavy hush that surely descended upon the disciples. All Mark says is, “They were afraid…”

    That phrase should ring a collective bell for us. For on Easter Sunday morning in Mark’s gospel, we have Jesus instructing the women to tell his disciples that he has been resurrected, but instead they run away in terror, saying nothing to anyone “because they were afraid…”

    In his Gospel, Mark loves to link fear and faith. But I also think that Mark also links fear with ignorance. We don’t know, so we don’t act. Ignorance becomes indecision. But, there are those in Mark’s gospel who have learned the truth about this Jesus the Christ. And what they have learned about his mission, about his ability to heal, about the coming kingdom he heralds, leads directly into inspired action. They have learned who this person is and what he represents, and they go off into the world proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ. 

    Why does Jesus want us to understand that we should welcome him as a child does? Well, the innocence and trust that children exemplify are certainly part of it, but more and more I think that Christ wants us to come to him with our questions. He wants our questions about everything. Why bad things happen to good people? Why does evil exists? How long until we can relegate war to our history? What does God want with us? What does God want for us?

    If we approach Jesus like this, as a child unafraid of learning, it is then that we can learn about the nature of God and creation and salvation. But we won’t learn those lessons squabbling about who among us is the greatest, and we certainly won’t learn them if we are too afraid to ask the big questions. 

    We have to ask. And we shall be answered. 

Amen. 

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September 13, 2015, 12:00 AM

Proper 19

13 September In the year of our Lord 2015

16th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

Morning Prayer at Christ the King

 

Scripture                    Hymns

Psalm 116:4-8                #8 Morning has broken

Isaiah 50:4-9            #686 Come Thou Fount

James 3:1-12                

Mark 8:27-38            

 

My first series of sermons were delivered in a developing town called Poway, North of San Diego, in the spring and summer of 1968. I was 22 years old, a senior in college serving as Youth Minister at the Pomerado Road Baptist Church. They had a nice piece of land, a sanctuary, Sunday school rooms and a Hall for meetings and community lunches and dinners. The Campus Minister of Campus Crusade for Christ had referred me to their elder board. The church had no pastor at the time, so if I did not deliver, the people went hungry. When Jesus and the Scriptures were opened up to them, they were like Silicon Valley investors, scanning the Wall Street Journal. And as St. Paul said of the Brerean Jews in Acts chapter 17, they

Were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. (11)

When I preached the people followed along with their bibles, sometimes took notes and challenged me if they had questions, sometimes during the sermon. I was a wonderful time for me, my experience there, and my later service at Brooklyn Heights Presbyterian that followed, for a while led me to believe I had a call to formal ministry. 

 

I did my best for those fine Baptist’s and they were so loving and accommodating to us. We were constantly invited into their homes and treated with such affection and respect.

 

I remember only one dicey moment: it followed a meeting of their board where I suggested using the New American standard Bible in place of the King James for the sake of clarity. The board told me that it would be OK to do so when teaching the young people, but I should keep using the KJV from the pulpit. After that meeting a wizened member of the board with the easy grace and rock hard character of Phil Intorf came up to me to set me straight on where I had gone wrong. He looked me in the eye and said: I was saved on the King James Bible. I could not argue with that. 

 

It was for Margaret and I part of our formation in Christ and in His Church. The idea of being Anglicans had no place in our plans or thinking at the time. We just wanted to get to know Jesus better, and to serve his people in any way that we could. Part of that service for me has always been teaching.

 

Teaching involves sharing a message that provides context. Bible teaching teases out the meaning of the Scriptures and glorifies the Father and our Savior. All the while a proper homily engages the mind and grips the heart of the listener and speaker alike. Now let’s look a bit closer at the context of our gospel lesson for today. 

 

It begins with the following line: Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi, a Roman city 25 miles from the Sea of Galilee. Most of the public life of Jesus took place in and around the "city of Capernaum," on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee.  A tourist site with ruins and churches today, it had been inhabited in the time of Jesus for 200 years and would thrive for another 600. From our perspective it was hardly a city, having a population of about 1500 people. The "Sea of Galilee" is a freshwater lake, 13 miles long and 8 miles wide and lies 690 feet below sea level. Peter, Andrew, James and John were fishermen called from their work along the Sea. Jesus taught along the banks of the Sea, and sometimes crossed it, walking on its waters and calming a storm on one occasion. Capernaum was a rustic Samaritan town, whose inhabitants subsisted on the natural riches of the lake, much like Plumas County subsists on wood products and tourism. Fishermen worked in teams with nets on boats about 25 feet long. Capernaum was well to the north of Jerusalem, the center of Jewish life.  Stone Huts and houses in large numbers nestled on small hills and surrounded a prominent Synagogue, whose ruins brought me joy when I visited in July of 2010. Peters house was only 100 feet way. Its ruins are directly under a Catholic chapel with a partial glass floor that permits visitors to see into the stone remains.

 

Although Jesus would teach and preach in a variety of Galilean towns and villages, Capernaum remained the center of his mission, until he set out with his 12 disciples from there, to Jerusalem on his last journey. When our Lord left Nazareth in his thirtieth year to take up his public ministry, he went directly there and began calling his disciples.  Many of us have lived our whole adult life in Plumas County. I had colleagues who believed that I was wasting my career in a backwater. A close friend of mine who taught in an elite urban college once said to me: “even if you are a fine teacher, who would ever know it in Quincy.” I do not recall how I answered him, but what I would say today is “God would know, whether or not anyone else does.”

 

But why would Jesus spend most of his ministry there? Perhaps it was because Christ’s primary ministry was to the 12. They, save Judas were the ones who would take his message to the world. Gods’ plans and timetable are often not what the wise of the world would chose, as Isaiah said: 

My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways, for as high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my thoughts from your thoughts and my ways from your ways. [55: 8,9]

Christ had trouble getting his message through to those in his inner circle. Success was on their minds; they saw a great future with Jesus. They were convinced that bigger and better things were in store for them. So while he has them alone after ministering to multitudes, he wants to know who the 12 believe he is. The lead in is Who do people say I am? but what his is really after follows: but what about you?... Who do you say I am? Peter declares: You are the Christ. This is a messianic declaration. Peter as well as the others was looking toward a new era where Jesus will bring independence and glory to Israel and Jerusalem. 

 

So the Lord decides it is time to sober them up. For the first time he predicts his death and resurrection. Peter wants none of this talk about death, so he took Jesus aside to correct him. Our Lord’s response could not have been more direct: Get behind me Satan! … You do not have in mind the things of God but the things of men. How often have I been there with Peter, wanting God to do it my way not His.

 

This is a message that Jesus wants everyone to hear and heed, so he spoke to the crowds who were nearby. 

 

If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? 

 

Had I been standing there much of the Lord’s words would have seemed inexplicable: take up my cross? Lose my life to save it? What does that mean? Forfeiting my soul for material or political gain, yes, every Jew can understand that ambition is a terrible risk. But the idea that they are wrong about what Messiah will do in his first appearance on earth? This will not understood until the gifts of the Holy Spirit were distributed on the Day of Pentecost. 

 

And we need to also remember that Jesus in the same place foretold that he will come again in his Father’s glory with the holy angels. This too would have required a stretch of the imagination to the listener. We recite our belief in the 2nd Coming every week in the creeds … but it is difficult to grasp, as was the Return of the King in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. 

 

To think in these terms, to think and live with the Lord’s perspective, we must regularly shut down our mental and emotional systems and reboot. When we do in prayer, our default position must be the Scriptures that lead us to Jesus, the living Word of God.

 

To God be the Glory, both today and forever!

 

Joseph J. Muñoz 

Quincy, California




September 6, 2015, 12:00 AM

Proper 18 - Year B "Of Syrophoenician Mothers Then and Now"

 

 

Proper 18

Year B

Christ the King, Quincy

 

    Great things, Thou hast done, O Lord, my God. I would name them and proclaim them, but they are more than I can tell. In the name of the father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

 

    This has been a busy week in the Warren house. Besides all the usual household chores and errands, I guess you could say that I spent the majority of my time this week doing two things: combing through hundreds of back to school pictures on Facebook, and preparing for this morning’s sermon. The two are related, although in very strange ways. 

    A number of friends had posted pictures of their children with the same Elizabeth Stone quote: “To be a parent is to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” I think that is a wonderful sentiment, and captures so much of the vulnerability you feel as your children begin to carve their own path out in the world. As parents, we all want our children to be generally successful. Of course, as a parent, you want your children to really succeed in the spheres that are important to you. Kristy, for instance, is grooming Abby to be a pitcher. I, on the other hand, am carefully crafting her golf swing. Maybe “Parenthood is to have your ego walking around outside your body.” We believe that our children are the ultimate reflection of who we are, and, as such, we want them to be the best at the things we care about most. It sounds prudish, but one area where I place an incredible premium is our children’s behavior. I want Abby and John to reflect our values of etiquette and appropriateness. I want them to value compassion and altruism as much as I do. So you can imagine my pride when John came home from the first day of Kindergarten to report that his teacher told him that he was wonderful little student, sitting quietly at his table doing the work in front of him while other children were loudly parading around the classroom. 

    I want to contrast my pride in John’s behavior with my research in this week’s Gospel lesson. All week, I read excuse after excuse, theologians tripping over themselves trying to find a way to justify Jesus’ treatment of the Syrophenician woman in this morning’s gospel. 

    Here in Mark’s gospel, we find Jesus trying to find refuge outside of Galilee. Jesus has performed miracles and mighty works throughout Judea, and now simply wants to go somewhere where he could be anonymous. While staying in Tyre, a desperate mother, whose daughter has been tormented by a demon, somehow hears that Jesus is nearby, immediately goes to Jesus and begs at his feet to cast out her daughter’s demon. Jesus rebuffs this Syrophoenician woman, arguing that using his power to give relief to a gentile would be a zero sum game—that maybe a Hebrew would be better served by this exorcism. Jesus cuts down the desperate mother “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.”

    Explicitly, Jesus is likening this foreign woman to a dog, and implicitly, Jesus is saying that there is greater value in saving an Israelite than a Gentile. And so, all week, I have read commentators make some variation of the argument that “Jesus’ rude comments were merely tongue in cheek—a case of a skilled teacher teasing out the best in his pupil by presenting the most formidable challenge.”

    And to that, I say hogwash. 

    There is a simpler answer to explain Jesus’ behavior: he was human!

    That sounds strange to say, doesn’t it? Jesus was human. When theologians talk about the nature of the Incarnation—they have to answer two important questions. Was Jesus fully human? Yes, because unless he was fully human, the Godhead would never, and could never, fully understand experience the human condition. Of course, if Jesus was only fully human, he couldn’t perform the miracles ascribed to him, and his death would not have been salvific. So, was Jesus fully divine? Yes, because without it, what good could he have been to reconcile humanity back to God. 

    Mark’s gospel portrays Jesus’ ministry as frenetic and non-stop. Here, we see Jesus trying to escape the crowds that have followed him since he first called his disciples in Galilee by trying to find some anonymity in Tyre. No sooner does Jesus put his suitcase down does a woman arrive at his feet begging for something. Making matters worse, she’s a Gentile. Maybe Jesus was just tired that day. Maybe Jesus believed that the Jewish messiah was meant only for the Children of Israel. Other than believing that Jesus was a human capable of being tired and annoyed, I can’t explain or excuse Jesus behavior, only how it was changed by witnessing the faith of another. 

    Because, you see, a funny thing happens at the intersection of the incarnation and faith: Grace. 

    Jesus, in his incarnational experience of being a 1st Century Jew, believes that his mission is to the Children of Israel. But, when he is confronted with the faith of this Syrophoenician mother and her insistence that God's mercy can extend beyond the political and social borders of Israel, when Jesus comes face to face with that faith--we see the extension of God's Grace to include Gentiles. 

    Last week, we saw Jesus castigate the Pharisees for their incorrect vision of God's law. Our diet is not the arbiter of our holiness or sinfulness, it is our heart, which directs our actions which define our righteousness. This morning we find Jesus being corrected. Israel has and will enjoy a place of prominence in God's plan for salvation, but God's mercy was never meant to be limited to that one family. Instead, God's Grace is to originate from, and extend beyond Israel to include the Gentiles. That understanding is confirmed with Jesus additional miracles around the Decapolis. 

    And so, that is the Good News this morning. That the embrace of God's love and mercy has been enlarged, extended beyond Israel to include the Gentiles, as well. I use the passive voice purposefully, because while it may have been part of God's plan to extend salvation to all, it is a lesson that Jesus himself needed to be taught. This newfound understanding was not the result of some divine revelation, but of the insistence of a brave mother who would do anything for her daughter, even if that meant turning the ear of the Jewish Messiah. 

    That is the Good News this morning, but it is not the only lesson we are to learn this morning. 

    As I said, I spent this week trying to understand Jesus' treatment of this Syrophoenician woman--how Jesus could treat this woman who wants nothing more than relief for her child with such contempt. But this week we saw an allegory of our Gospel lesson play out on the international stage.  Syrophenicia and Tyre are both located north of Galilee, in modern-day Syria. So in our Bible, we see the harsh treatment of a Syrian mother, and regrettably, our news this week has been filled with Syrian mothers and fathers, desperate and pleading for the smallest crumbs of mercy and human decency, only to have the International community respond with something like to "our country has enough problems, we can't be forced to take care of these refugees." That answer, by the way, is something akin to "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.”

    Our Gospel lesson teaches us that God's grace is freely available to all. And that message is driven to the hilt by our Epistle reading this morning. In our lesson from James this morning we are given two demands, that we show no favoritism, and that our Christian faith be exemplified by some demonstrable action in the world.

    James denies can we really call ourselves Christians when we display acts of favoritism. More of an indictment, James believes that Christian faith can only be through action. James says, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

    And so, my point this morning is this: As Christians, we can not delineate between our care of our children and those of refugees. The response "our country has enough problems, our infrastructure is taxed enough already," is specifically and unequivocally defined by the bible as unchristian. It is showing favoritism. It is offering the seat of honor to those with while ignoring the plight of the needy in our midst. 

    Like so many of you, I was moved by the image of a Turkish police official carrying the body of Aylan Kurdi. And as tragic as that photo is,  I would argue that image is the most palletable for media consumption. There were close to twenty other drowning victims who died when their ship capsized. The media has shown the crowded overpasses of Budapest, but only rarely shows the violence that these refugees suffer after escaping the war torn villages they once knew. I saw a father being dragged from his wife and children. When several police officers wrested his hands from his wife, he bit her denim jacket, and despite being pulled by three men, you can see his jaw straining to keep his family together. 

    As a world, we have been shamed into action. There is a grotesqueness of the West crying poor to those displaced by the horrors of war, when merely the crumbs under our table could sustain them. 

    

    In our Gospel, we heard the Good News that God’s plan for salvation includes us all, that, in fact, there is no economy of Grace. That understanding came from a desperate woman who would do anything for her child. We are now witnessing more Syrophoenician mothers and fathers, who share that same desperation and determination to protect their children and provide them some chance at hope. 

    My prayer is that once again, Grace will be found at the intersection of Incarnation and Faith. What will we learn by witnessing the insistent faith that these refugees have in the generosity and graciousness of the modern West. They want a better life, one from from war and persecution. They want what all parents want, safety for their children and an opportunity for the pursuit of happiness. 

    Our platitudes will not be sufficient. We must offer prayers for the refugee crisis in Syria and around the world. We must advocate for their safety and their humanity. We, as individuals, as a nation, and ultimately as one of God’s children, must do all we can to provide for the least among us. It is when we see the body of Aylan and mourn his death as we would the death of our own child, it is only then, James argues, can we truly dare to call ourselves Christians. 

    The Good News is sometimes a hard instruction. But our lesson this morning reminds us that God’s Grace is often found in the midst of incredible faith. Sometimes we will discover it in places we were not expecting. But that is what grace is all about—helping us do the unexpected. In turn, that faith will lead us to the hard work of making the Kingdom come the Kingdom now. 

    Amen. 

 




August 31, 2015, 10:57 AM

Proper 17 - Year B (Service in the Park)

 

 

Proper 17

Year B

Worship in the Park 

 

 

    Great things, Thou hast done, O Lord, my God. I would name them and proclaim them, but they are more than I can tell. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen. 

 

    I was driving up Church Street here in Quincy this week, and I drove by the Lutheran Church and saw their marquee. “Worship in the Park 10AM. Potluck 11AM,” the sign read. And I thought to myself, “Wow! Kendrah is being optimistic…there’s no way lunch will start at 11 with an hour long sermon.”

    For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Father Matt Warren, I am the Vicar of Christ the King Episcopal Church here in Quincy, and many of you will be relieved to discover that I don’t anticipate preaching for a full hour this morning—it’ll be fifty-five minutes, tops…

    I am so happy to be here this morning joined by our Christian brothers and sisters from other traditions. It is a wonderful moment for us to come together and witness to the Body of Christ which is the Church. A Church, that, one day, will be reunited, when we lay aside our pride and remember that we proclaim the same Christ crucified, the same baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and we all await the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. 

    A Sunday in which we come together to worship in spite of the differences of our traditions makes an interesting backdrop to examine this morning’s gospel lesson, as Jesus engages the Pharisees in a debate over tradition itself. The Pharisees and the Scribes notice that some of Jesus’ disciples are eating with defiled hands, that they ate without first ceremoniously washing them. Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees, arguing instead “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

    All too often, the Pharisees are simply understood as the “bad guys” of Jesus’ time. Time and time again, they are described as interested only in the legalistic minutia, convinced that if they rightly interpret and follow all of scripture, then they can earn their lofty place with God. For us Protestants, the Pharisees’ worldview strikes as works before faith, and we know that Paul and Luther put that line of thinking down 500 years ago. But, what if, for a moment we could understand the motivations of the Pharisees? What if we understood that their interest in ritual purity comes from a place of reverence instead of one-upsmanship? What if we shared their concerns that Jesus and his disciples could not possibly represent a new revelation of the Holy if they held the holiness customs of Judaism with such contempt? As it turns out, Jesus’ teaching this morning is far more forceful when we understand the Pharisees not simply as “the bad guys,” but as ardent followers of the Jewish faith and Law. 

    To fully understand the Pharisees you need to take a step back and look at the larger context of Jewish history. For 1200 years, the holiness of the Jewish people has been inexorably linked with their fortunes. From the Exodus; to the wandering in the desert; to the giving of the promised land; to the battles with foreign nations. From Moses, through the Judges and Kings, from the exile and back to Jerusalem, their holiness or lack thereof is linked to their success or lack thereof. 

    The Pharisees then, arise in as a people obsessed with maintaining the ritual purity demanded by scripture. They saw the law as creating a holy nation, and it was only through their strict observance of the law could they lay claim to be God’s people. Their religious fervor was a demonstration of how seriously they believed the law of God was to be taken. These aren’t the bad guys, the Pharisees simply wanted to live into God’s call to be a holy people. 

    It is through this understanding that we can begin to understand just how shocking Jesus and his disciples must have been to the Pharisees. I mean, this fellow Jesus is going around claiming to be God’s anointed one, his messiah, his Christ, but instead of helping the Pharisees call people into a holier state of religious observance, his followers can’t even be bothered to was their hands before eating. How can this man be God’s messiah if he doesn’t even follow the Law?

    

    Now, I said that understanding the centuries long history of the Jewish people was key to understanding the Pharisees’ concerns for ritual purity. But that same context also allows us to understand Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees. When the “Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 

‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me.”

    When the Pharisees challenge Jesus’ relationship to God based on his cultic purity, Jesus responds by drawing upon the tradition of the prophets in asking about how the Pharisees’ can claim to have a relationship to God based on holiness instead of compassion. That is the heart of the debate between Jesus and the Pharisees this morning—do we define holiness and sinfulness through observance of dietary laws, or by the inclination of our hearts?

    This is the question which the prophets asked Israel again and again during it’s history. Time and time again, Israel believed that it could return to God’s favor through returning to the letter of the law rather than by observing its spirit. A man desperate to right himself with God approaches the prophet Micah, asking him “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? With the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten though sands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my souls?”

    Micah, in perhaps the greatest summation of religion ever delivered, responds “He has told you, O mortal, what is good: and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

    

    Brothers and sisters, God has told us what is good and what the Lord requires of us. It is not cultic purity, nor is our holiness based on dietary laws—(I’m sure that comes as a great relief to those of us who were planning of have a Cheeseburger after the service!) What God is concerned with is the inclination of our heart and our capacity to reduce the suffering of our fellow man. 

    It is there, within the human heart, where Jesus’ concern lies. Multi-grain rolls and cotton-polyester blend table cloths are not what will separate us from God. It is our heart, and whether it is drawn towards the service of other or to the service of self, which ultimately will decide our righteousness. 

    Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees represents more than a mere quibble over a legalistic interpretation of the Law, it is an attempt to correct the very structure of how we define holiness and sin and how the word of God should regulate the life of God’s people. Too often, the Bible tells us, people search for a way to justify themselves before the letter of the Law rather than obey it’s spirit. It’s the line of thinking which Isaiah, Micah, Amos, and other prophets rejected outright. They, like Christ, hoped that the Law would tip the heart towards God, not prop up a corrupt and broken society. 

    If I may be so bold as to speak for the Almighty: The Law was meant to incline our hearts towards God. There are 613 mitzvahs or commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures, and they are meant to orient every facet of our lives. Yes, there are restrictive dietary laws, and yes, there are commandments which we, with our modern eyes, dismiss as antiquated. But each of these laws had a purpose. They reminded the Israelites of their relationship to God and their dependence upon it. 

    There’s an old rabbinic admonition that insists, of anything and everything, “If you don’t give thanks for it, it’s bad for you.” The food you eat, the clothes you wear, the air you breathe, the people and the things of your life, if you don’t give thanks for it, it’s bad for you.That’s because giving thanks for something puts it in its proper place, it places the thing as part of our relationship with God and God’s relationship with us. 

    I think that is a wonderful understanding of how the law was meant to operate in our hearts. We should pause and think about the blessing of food before we eat. Whether that takes the form of a ritual washing of the hands, or if it merely means saying grace at every meal instead of only at dinner, the hope, the intention of the law, I believe, is that it will bring us closer to God, and make us more fully aware of the Grace of God which operates in our daily lives. 

    

    The Pharisees believed that they could earn their righteousness before God by their strict observance of the Law. And I want to underscore the point that there were some Pharisees who were motivated by a deep reverence. But we should not assume that the Pharisees are extinct. While they may not identify themselves as such, there Christian Pharisees in our own time. They seek to weaponize Scripture, to shame and separate God’s people by their own definition of sinfulness. They have the gall to label others as impure. 

    But the Good News this morning is that we have been given the template of how to respond to those Pharisees ancient and modern: “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.’”

    Where are our hearts? How do we honor God? How do we demonstrate our thankfulness for the Grace God has poured out in our lives? With what fast do honor God?

    The answer, once again, lies with the Prophet Isaiah, where God describes perfectly what the law requires: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

    The Good News this morning is a bit of a double edged sword. On one hand, we freed from the draconian dietary laws that governed our Jewish ancestors; on the other hand, we are bound that much more to the spirit of the law of Moses. The responsibility we cannot shake or shrink from is to love and care for our neighbor and the least among us. When that happens: when we feed the hungry, when the naked are clothed, when the sick and the dying are tended to, at that time, we will find ourselves once more brought into the unity of the faith of Jesus Christ, and can proudly bear the mantle of His name. 

Amen.




August 23, 2015, 12:00 AM

Proper 16 Year B

Proper 16

Year B

Christ the King, Quincy

 

    Great things, Thou hast done, O Lord, my God. I would name them and proclaim them, but they are more than I can tell. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen. 

 

    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life,[a] and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own,[c] and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

    This is the poetic introduction to John’s Gospel, the gospel from which we heard this morning. We actually have been listening to it for the the past five weeks, as our lectionary has traced our way through one single chapter of John’s Gospel—John 6. Beginning with the miraculous feeding of the 5000, the chapter is followed by Jesus contrasting the miraculous bread that sustained the Israelites physical needs with the spiritual bread which would enable eternal life: his own body. 

    This has not been an easy lesson. For starters, those crowds who tracked Jesus down after he left that hillside had to be redirected. Jesus knew that they were following him merely for sustenance, not for guidance. As Jesus himself says, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

    But this food which endures for eternal life is no easy lesson, either. Jesus tells the crowds “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.” There is no better surefire way to alienate devout Jews than the invitation to eat his flesh and drink his blood. To the followers of Mosaic law, this was more than scandalous, this was downright heresy. 

    And so now, this morning, we see the final reaction of the crowds, and it is hardly encouraging. When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”

    I want to pause for a moment to appreciate the seriousness of this scene. The gospels are filled with accounts of people rejecting Jesus and his message from the outset. Typically they are the arbiters of Jewsish law, the Pharisees, Sauducees, and Scribes. From the first time they hear Jesus’ teachings, they immediately reject his teachings as blasphemous. The Gospels are also filled with people who are tempted to follow Jesus, but ultimately decide that the cost is simply too much. Think of the rich man whom Jesus invites to follow him, all he has to do is sell his possessions. Instead, the young man remains, beholden to his material wealth and the blessing he believes it represents. 

    But here in John something far more dangerous is taking shape. Here we have disciples of Jesus abandoning ship. Looking at the textual clues, Jesus has been teaching and preaching for over a year at this point in John’s gospel. But it is this invitation to eat his flesh and drink his blood which causes them to turn back. 

    And for me, understanding why—why don’t people turn to Jesus and accept the promise of eternal life, both in John’s Gospel and in our own day—understanding why people turn away from Jesus is of critical importance. 

    Looking at John’s gospel this morning, I see two principal reasons why some of those disciples turned away and stopped following Jesus. The first reason is simple enough, as Jesus has already said three previous times in this chapter, and is repeated again this morning, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” 

    This, essentially, is Grace. 

    Peter, speaking for the Twelve is not smarter or more religious than those who turn away, nor are they necessarily the achievers, they, like us are merely “granted by the Father.” When we look frustratedly at the apathy towards organized religion in our community, perhaps it is important to remember that we must wait patiently for God’s Grace. This doesn’t free us from our obligation to evangelize, but perhaps it can remind us what Scripture teaches us, “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”

    Now, in case some of you are worried that I have become a Calvinist over the course of the last month, let me alleviate that fear right now. John’s gospel does not link election with determinism. Jesus turns to the Tweleve, those whom the Father gave principally to Jesus, if they too will go away. The disciples are free either to follow Jesus or to abandon him. 

    And why do people turn away from Jesus, if they even followed him at all? Well, quite simply, because being a Christian is hard, and the Christian message tends to offend sensible people. 

    We can look at John’s gospel and say “well, maybe they didn’t understand what Jesus was saying. Maybe they misconstrued Jesus words as a literal invitation to consume his body and blood.” Maybe. But giving the crowds a bit more credit, maybe they perfectly understood Jesus symbolism—they just didn’t accept Jesus demand to participate in his death as a means to eternal life. 

    Here in the 21st Century, we can rely on our sophisticated understanding to understand Jesus’ imagery, but we can not separate the act of eating and drinking Jesus’ body and blood from the destiny of Jesus. To participate in that sacrament, to truly enjoy the food and drink which brings eternal life, is to commune, to be together with, the one who dies. Whether you frame it like the synoptic Gospels “deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me,” or whether you describe it as “the foolish preaching of the Crucified Christ” as Paul does, or finally, whether you, like John invite someone to eat and drink Christ’s body and blood—all of these are tough demands, not polite invitations. 

    Being a Christian is difficult. There is no way to sugar-coat that. 

    Want to feel self-righteous about someone harming you? The gospels tell you to instead pray for your enemy. 

    Believe that God favors you because of your material blessings? Jesus says it is easier for a Camel to literally pass through the eye of a tiny needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. 

    Boast in your achievements, in all that you have accomplished!? It is the meek who will inherit the world. 

    Finally, do you seek eternal life? To reach it, you must first suffer death and be buried. 

    

    Christianity seeks nothing less than the total upheaval of this world, and fundamental reversal of our expectations of power and glory. That is a big ask. It is a question that not all of us can answer positively. 

    But, mercifully, Jesus understands the stakes at hand. Unbelief has a place in John’s gospel. The Jesus of John’s gospel is first and foremost a visionary. Jesus can sense and perceive everything in John’s Gospel. And that is important, because it is an understanding Jesus who, despite knowing exactly the costs, continues to follow the plans ordained by his Father. Jesus does not go to the cross as the victim of misguided hope, dying disillusioned upon the cross because good failed to triumph over evil. From the beginning, Jesus proceeds with eyes fully open to the presence of doubt, unbelief, and destruction.

    Our gospel lesson this morning ends where it begins, on a place of divine grace. Like Peter and the Twelve, “we have come to believe and know that Christ is the Holy One of God.” 

    As the lectionary this morning suggests, there is little for us to boast of on this account. Perhaps our presence here this morning is nothing more than divine Grace. Maybe we, like the early followers of Jesus would have abandoned were it not for a preponderance of grace outweighing our own logic. Perhaps we can not claim any agency in our faith. What then, can we do for those who have yet to be drawn to the Father? We can not abandon the difficult requirements of the gospel in order to make Christianity more palatable. Instead, we must rely on God, from whom all blessings flow. And trust that his Mercy and Grace will always precede us and the gospel we carry. 

    As Paul himself said, For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not, will not overcome it.

Amen.


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