Sermons

The Parable of the Talents was read by many churches this morning.  You may remember the story Jesus tells: a rich guy calls three slaves and gives them a certain number of talents.  He then goes on a trip and they are to do something with this talent (or these talents) they’ve been given.

It’s an odd parable, since it ends with a wicked slave being tossed out into the darkness.  If you read the parable quickly and think it’s about God or Jesus, then you get this mean God sort of reading that leaves a bitter aftertaste if you dwell on it.

Anyway, here’s my sermon on this passage about talents, the kingdom, Jesus and buried treasures.

From Matthew 25:14-30.

If you wanted to make a case that Jesus was a capitalist, our text from Matthew would be exhibit A.  The kingdom, he tells his disciples, is like a wealthy man who, when it was time to leave for a long business trip, gathered his workers and gave them huge sums of money.  This rich land owner gives a few talents to them, and we think it’s no big deal because it’s only eight talents all told.  But a talent is valued at about 17 years’ wages.  So even the dude who got just one talent was given a windfall.

This man—a quick reading might have us replace the word “man” with “God” or “Jesus”—hands over the cash to his workers based on their abilities and then goes on his journey.  It’s implied and the workers seem to know that he will return one day.  The first two—the ones getting 85 years’ and 34 years’ wages respectively—take that obscene amount of money and go to do something with it.  The bloke with the single talent, well, he chickens out not wanting to risk it and buries the money in the back yard and waits out his master’s return.

After some time the wealthy chap returns, the first two have doubled their master’s money and present it to him—now 170 and 68 years’ worth of wages if you’re keeping score at home—and they are highly praised by him.  “Well done! You have been trustworthy in a few things, so enter into my joy!”  The third one must be standing there getting a little warm under the collar.  So when he comes before the landowner, he dusts off the talent he was given and tells the master that he buried that treasure.  He digs his own grave when he starts talking: “Master, I knew you were a harsh man, reaping what you did not sow, and harvesting where you didn’t plant.  Because of this, I was fearful and hid your talent in the ground.  I present it to you now, a bit dirty, but all of it still here.”

The wealthy man turns on a dime and goes all Jekyll like.  “You knew this about me, did you?  You’re just a lazy and wicked slave who is worthless!  You could have taken my money to the bank, even the meager amount of interest would have been something to give back to me!”  And then he has the talent taken away and given to the one who now has ten, and then has him thrown out into the outer darkness.

“See,” some might say, “Jesus wants us to prosper, to have gobs and gobs of money so that we can be blessed.”  But if you read the parable that way, then God is portrayed as Dr. Jekyll, doing anything to make a buck, not caring about individuals, but rather reaping money from places where he hasn’t even invested his time.  And not only that, God hoards all this money for himself—some 239 year’s wages by the end of the parable and presumably has much more in other investments.

So Jesus must be a capitalist and he wants us to prosper financially too.  (And in case you think I am making this up, you can find an article that was published online earlier this year that makes this very point about this scripture. ).[1]

But that just doesn’t make sense with what Jesus is talking about.  Just before this parable, Jesus talks about being ready for the coming of the Son of Man, and the need to be prepared.  And the story he tells after this one starts the same way.  Jesus is talking not about attributes of God, but of ways to be ready for his second coming.  Jesus zeroes in on how his disciples can be prepared for that time.  What they did with their lives mattered greatly to Jesus.  Each of them had been granted amazing abilities by the Almighty and so how would they use those things—those gifts, talents and abilities—to be ready for Christ’s return?  I don’t think Jesus was telling them they needed to make money—given the fact that Jesus was himself a homeless rabbi, I find that reading very unlikely.  Rather, Jesus says to James and Peter and John and the rest, what will you do with what you have been given, this short time you are on this earth, in order to further the kingdom and be ready for the coming of the Son of Man?

So here’s the question of the hour: what have you been given by God and how are you using it to take part in the kingdom Jesus established here on earth?  What abilities do you have?  What gifts?  What things make you uniquely you?  Is it your artistic ability, or a gift of hospitality?  Is it how you cook, or your green thumb or your ability to bring a group together toward a common goal?  Is it your gentleness with children or the way you can explain new things to a group of students or is it your business smarts and savy or the way you can turn a phrase in writing?

If we read this parable with that lens—and I personally don’t think you can read it any other way—we must take stock of all that God has bestowed on us, and then ask what are we doing with those things.  Or maybe we need to ask if we’re taking those abilities and burying them in the backyard because of a fear that is insidiously making us less and less ourselves.

A few years ago the film “Akeelah and the Bee” addressed this very thing.  Akeelah is an eleven year old Middle Schooler from South LA who has a gift for academics but she doesn’t want to flaunt it for fear of being isolated from her peers.  She takes part in her school’s first ever spelling bee and wins quite easily even though she is hesitant to win.  She is paired up with an English professor, Dr. Larabee—played by Laurence Fishburn—who helps her prepare for contests that lead to the National Spelling Bee.  At one point in the film, Dr. Larabee has Akeelah read a quotation from Marianne Williamson.  She reads:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.  We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’  Actually, who are you not to be?  You are a child of God.  Your playing small does not serve the world.  There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.  We are all meant to shine, as children do.  We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.  It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone.  And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.  As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

“Does that mean anything to you,” Dr. Larabee asks.  “I don’t know,” Akeelah responds.  “It’s written in plain English.  What does it mean?”  “That I’m not supposed to be afraid,” she replies.  “Afraid of what?”  “Afraid of … me?”

It’s a turning point in the film.  Akeelah recognizes that she has this tremendous gift and that she has been hiding it due to fear.  She has been playing small.  She has taken what she has been given by God and run to the back yard and buried it.

We all do this from time to time.  We take the very abilities God has bestowed upon us and high tail it to a field or the flower bed or the place by the back fence, and we bury that ability never to be used by us.  We dig down deep and drop it in and pack the dirt on good and tight.  And then at some point in our life—maybe not till the very end of our lives or when the Son of Man returns—we’ll go back to that secret hiding spot and uncover it and try to dust it off as best we can so we can hand it back over to God.

“Why didn’t you use this?” God may ask us.  “I was scared,” we reply.  “Scared that it wouldn’t be good enough, that it wouldn’t make any difference, that it would make me stand out from the crowd.”  “You were born to shine,” God replies.  “Born to make manifest my glory in you.”

We were born to make a difference in this world for the sake of Christ.  And we can only do that if we take the chance.  We can only do that if we risk it all.  And in so doing, be prepared for the coming of the Son of Man.  May it be so.  Amen.


[1] “Jesus was a capitalist.” By Bryan Fischer, http://www.renewamerica.com/columns/fischer/100517

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One of my seminary professors wrote in a commentary that nobody would be preaching on anything other than the Gospel this week because it is so familiar and so focused on love (you can read it here).  And he’s right, given the texts most preachers would be drawn to it.  But having lived recently in a desert climate, I couldn’t help but think about the image of a tree planted by streams of water from Psalm 1.  I had planned to preach mostly on Matthew’s Gospel this week, but I got overtaken by the image of the tree needing water.  And so that’s what I did.

Sometimes life is pretty hard.  So I wanted to talk about that today, about what difference it makes to come to church and whatnot.  My sermon is on Psalm 1.

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A friend of mine has said to me a couple of times how difficult attending church was for him when he went through a rough spell in his life.  He was going through a divorce and lonely as all get out.  He had to change churches along the way—in a divorce it seems, even in spite of the best intentions of the clergy person, someone gets the church—and so walking in to a new church as a middle-aged single man was hard because not many folks reached out to him. He would be almost entirely ignored during the peace.  He would often go to coffee hour and stand by himself while others mingled around him.  He’s a gregarious person, mind you, but church was painful.

“People are hurting,” he’d say to me.  “How is your church connecting to them?  How are you bringing them life?”

It’s a tough question for a preacher and a pastor, of course.  But it’s a real one.  And unless we deal with the real questions of life from time to time, if not most of the time, then we might as well hang it up and shutter the windows.

I wish I could take away all the pain that is experienced by everyone who walks through the doors of this church.  I wish I could counteract the self-doubt and fear.  I wish I could magically heal each relationship that is broken and leaving destruction in its wake.  I would love to take each teen struggling with their sense of self-worth and reassure them that life does get better.  I wish I could take all of the financial hardships and make them disappear, and have new jobs for all those who want them.  I am not Aladdin’s genie or Harry Potter or Gandolf and certainly not Jesus.  I am a merely a priest.

“Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,” we heard the Psalmist declare this morning, “Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on it day and night.  They are like trees planted near streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither.”  Who are these ones meditating day and night on the law of the Lord, on the holy Scripture?  How are they nourished even in the midst of hard times?

We have a tendency to make things too difficult in our lives.  We can see the deterioration of a relationship over months or even years but be unable to take any action until it is too late.  We watch someone like my friend who is alone in a pew and just ignore him because we’re not sure what to say.  We hope our teens will figure it out along the way and we expect them to do this on their own.  We live on the sidelines in much of our relationships and in our spiritual faith, afraid sometimes to act, uncertain of what is next.

Thoreau lived less than thirty miles from here on Walden Pond when he penned the words, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”  They were published a mere 6 years before this church was founded.  It seems we still live behind masks, unnourished; we are trees withering and in desperate need of a drink.

“Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on it day and night.  They are like trees planted near streams of water.”

We think we are so advanced in our day and age.  We’ve got technology and an understanding of the human psyche and civilized notions, and yet we still face a life of difficulties like they did in biblical times.  If you read the stories of scripture and the screwed up things that happened back thousands of years ago, in many ways it’s not really different than picking up today’s Sunday Globe and reading it.

We heard the distilled version of the law this morning from Jesus, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, which is the greatest commandment.  And the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself.”  It comes down, all of it, to that.  Love.  God and your neighbor.  Love them without fail.  Love them without worrying about yourself first.  Love them when it’s not convenient.  Love.

Yet we do not fully love.  Either because we don’t know how or because we are hidden behind desperate masks of our own making.  Or because we’re afraid of what it might cost us.

I read an amazing op-ed this past week from the New York Times, called “Notes from a Dragon Mom.”[1]  Emily Rapp writes, “My son, Ronan, looks at me and raises one eyebrow. His eyes are bright and focused. Ronan means “little seal” in Irish and it suits him.

I want to stop here, before the dreadful hitch: my son is 18 months old and will likely die before his third birthday. Ronan was born with Tay-Sachs, a rare genetic disorder. He is slowly regressing into a vegetative state.  He’ll become paralyzed, experience seizures, lose all of his senses before he dies. There is no treatment and no cure.

How do you parent without a net, without a future, knowing that you will lose your child, bit by torturous bit?

Depressing? Sure. But not without wisdom, not without a profound understanding of the human experience or without hard-won lessons, forged through grief and helplessness and deeply committed love about how to be not just a mother or a father but how to be human.”

She writes about what it’s like to live as a parent knowing your child will have no future, when all of childhood seems geared toward that future on which hopes and dreams are staked.  She homes in on the thing that is necessary in life, “the only task … is to love.”

I do not know why we don’t love as we should, but I do know that for many loving God and loving our neighbor seems like an insurmountable task, especially when we are looking in from the sidelines.  I don’t know if it is fear or a lack of loving ourselves or pride or some combination of those or other things, but whatever it is, we hold back, and we are dying of thirst.  And when we hesitate and don’t move toward love, it becomes easier and easier to stay where we are, to remain closed off, to keep hidden behind the wall, to desperately languish by ourselves.

“Happy are those who delight in the law of the Lord,” “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  We are happy if we delight in love.  We are blessed if we love God, if we desire to follow God’s yearnings for us and if we show love to each person whose lives intersect with ours.  We are nourished and rejuvenated and strengthened and restored.

The first step is in looking beyond ourselves.  It is in reaching out to both God and others.

And this important reminder: we need to take that first step.  We cannot expect change without moving incrementally toward the goal.  As the Chinese philosopher put it, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  We need to lower the masks.  We must recognize our own quiet desperation and seek God, recognizing that loving God with all our heart begins with an action like coming toward this altar rail or kneeling quietly in prayer or taking a walk in the afternoon sun asking God for guidance.

I cannot wave a wand to make your life—or even my own life—better; I am no miracle worker.  But I think in the long run that’s for the better and that we can be made stronger by facing the challenges before us.  There have been times in my own life where I have worn the masks and been overcome by fear.  There were moments when I felt that I would not make it through the darkness.  I wish I could say that I always had amazing faith for those times and made it through unscathed, but that would be a lie.  Sometimes I have been the tree away from the stream dying for a drink.  I too bumble along at times needing to be reminded that it is about love and ruminating on that love day and night.

So how would I answer my friend’s question about how to bring life to those of us who are hurting?  I’d say this: I stand before you proclaiming that God’s deep desire for you is the fullness of life that you seek, knowing full well that I will lumber along myself in attempts to both declare that love and show it.  Yet I will keep trying because I know that it is the only way that I will draw closer to the stream of living water.  It is the only way that any of us will flourish.  So come.  Come to this church and to this table because it is here that we can reconnect with God; it is here that we can find comfort and grace and acceptance for who we are.  It is in this place that we can finally let down the masks and be vulnerable and share in the life God longs for us to have.  Amen.

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Jesus tells a pretty harsh parable about a wedding for a prince.  The king got it all ready and then the people invited decided not to show.  So the king gets really mad.

And Jesus thought this was a good way to talk about the kingdom.

This is yet another difficult text from this gospel, and this is how I dealt with it on Sunday.  I hope you enjoy!

Proper 23A—Matthew 22:1-14

Let’s just be honest.  The parable we just read is scary.  Especially when we start doing the one to one mapping that we like to do with Jesus’ parables to get the easy meaning.  We start by saying, God is the king and Jesus is the son getting married.  The Pharisees and other Jews are the ones who send back the rsvp card and then decide they are too busy to attend.  God gets angry, destroys the Pharisees and blows up their city, the wedding still goes on with others now on the invitation list (these would be the new Gentile Christians).  These new people come in and start enjoying themselves—or enjoying themselves as best they can, since the king is given to rage every so often, so they’re probably sitting on pins and needles.  And sure enough, the king finds one of these new attendees that isn’t wearing the right stuff, and he gets tossed out of the party to the place of utter darkness.

This image of God is pretty hard to deal with when we do this sort of one-to-one correlating.  It’s this view of God that can easily lead to a stance of anti-Semitism—which has often been done with this parable in the past—and that puts us on shaky ground.  A couple of notes about this: Matthew is writing to a primarily Jewish audience of Jesus’ disciples who have been persecuted because of their faith by the non-believing Jewish authorities.  These followers of Jesus are certainly a minority in that community, and so Matthew is a bit harsh on the Jewish leaders in his Gospel.  Also, Matthew is writing to them sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. If we were to map this parable, we could see that the destruction of the city mentioned here could allude to the destruction of Jerusalem.  If this is what God is like, this angry deity waiting to cast us into utter darkness, it can cause you to cringe or be afraid.  I don’t think that is really good news, which is what the word “gospel” actually means.  This interpretation of God is one that leads us primarily to a response of fear.

But the parable doesn’t start with “God almighty is like a king….”  Rather it starts, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king…” and that makes all the difference to me.  We aren’t learning so much about who God is in this parable as we are learning what it takes to be a part of the kingdom.  That is the ultimate end for us and all of creation, the hope that we all have.  Jesus is telling us what it takes to be a part of the kingdom he is proclaiming, the one that began with his ministry, the one that continues on even now, and the one that will ultimately come at the last day.  Is there judgment?  Of course.  I cannot just wave away the judgment aspect of this parable, and if I were to do so, I would be doing a great disservice in proclaiming the gospel to you.

Yet there is certainly good news to be found in these words from Jesus.  The kingdom, Jesus says, is like a wedding banquet thrown by a king for his son.  It is a time of unbelievable joy.  The kingdom is like a huge party.  And so the king invited all sorts of friends and neighbors to the bash, and a good number of them said, “Yes! We can’t wait!  We got the save the date card, and have marked the party on our calendars.”

But when the day came, many of those initially invited changed their minds.  They didn’t want to be a part of the feast.  In other words, they decided that the kingdom wasn’t what they were really interested in after all.  They had other things to do that were much more important.  One was anxious to close on the property he was buying.  Another guffawed at the whole idea, thinking he never really liked the king or his son.  Still others decided there was too much to be done at the office, and hopped in their cars for the commute.  A few even went so far as to mistreat the messengers from the king because they were so filled with animosity and were hell-bent on deriding the king.

And so after the king responded to these ones who had rejected his invitation, he sent others servants out and called in any they could find on the streets.  These he invited to be a part of the kingdom, no matter where they came from or what they had done, they were invited to the party.  And so they came in droves, not wanting to miss this wonderful opportunity.  They came and had unbelievable hors d’oeuvres and listened to the most fantastic music, and finally were called in to the hall for dinner itself.

However, one of those who came, as he made his way to the table, was called out by the king.  He didn’t have the proper clothes on; he wasn’t ready for the party.  When asked about it, he was dumbfounded, having nothing to say at all.  And so the king had him taken out because he showed he didn’t really want to be a part of the kingdom either; he was like the ones who mocked the king.  Many are invited, but few respond in a way that reflects kingdom living.

To me, there is much good news to be found here.  Jesus assures us that entrance to the kingdom—to the huge wedding feast—is open to us all.  The ones who don’t think they have a chance of getting in because of their social standing, and the ones who may have it all together, the good and the bad.  The glorious grace of Jesus is free to all.  But to stay at the wedding feast, we must be dressed in the likeness of Christ; we must live in the clothes of his kingdom.  To be a part of the kingdom Jesus proclaims, we must try our best to live in that way even now.

In our parable, this sort of kingdom living is best demonstrated by the generous hospitality of the king.  God swings wide the doors and takes anyone who shows up.  We are often much more cautious in our own lives,  especially when we talk about opening up our home to guests.  We agonize over cleanliness and having the perfect place to entertain.  If it’s a dinner party, we worry about the chipped plate on the bottom of the stack in our cupboards.  We think hospitality is somehow only possible if we are perfect.

Yet that is so far from what hospitality means.  At its core, hospitality asks us to open up our lives to one another.  To share of ourselves.  To sit around a table, or go for a walk, or grab a pumpkin spice latte and share our lives and listen to someone else as she shares hers.  The kingdom is like a party, a place of enjoyment, of shared connection around a dinner table.

As a college student I experienced this sort of hospitality at a professor’s house.  On Friday nights, Jim and his wife would open up their home to as many as a dozen undergrads and other professors to share a meal.  The menu ranged from homemade pizza and salad to beef curry and homemade bread.  Even more important on that menu was grace filled conversation.  We discussed the words from our college-wide convocation gathering, or the movies we had seen or books we had read.  We laughed often and on countless occasions someone would run to grab a dictionary or a cookbook or atlas to make their point.  We spoke of our travels and experiences and so much more.

Those moments changed me in more ways than I could imagine.  I developed deep friendships.  My love of cooking grew as a result of those dinners.  I felt profoundly cared for and totally accepted for who I was.  It was a wonderful gift.  It was kingdom living.

It isn’t by accident that we gather each Sunday around this table to eat and drink.  In the early church, this was done in homes, and so the bread and wine and prayers were shared in concert with the eating and talking around the table.  There is sacredness in the meals we share both here and in other places, be it in the parish hall or at the Red Barn or in our homes.  Nora Gallagher writes, “The early Christians practiced some form of an early Communion ritual… [and] these early communities almost always had a meal together.  In other words, the ritual was linked to actual food, a real meal, a gathering of friends over dinner.”[1]  They opened their doors to whoever came and wanted to be a part of the community.  They exemplified kingdom living by showing generous hospitality.

What might that look like for us today?  I think we have a tendency to shun getting together in our homes because of desiring perfection—be it the perfect house, meal, family or whatever.  We tend to not reach out to those around us because of fear of the unknown.  Often we don’t serve at the soup kitchen because we aren’t sure who we will encounter there.   We don’t share who we are or what we are experiencing either because we don’t make the time or because of fear that we won’t measure up.

But Christ’s kingdom compels us to a life of generous hospitality.  Of sharing our lives.  Of telling our stories and listening.  Of serving.  Of welcoming others into our midst both here at St. Mark’s and in our homes.  And through all this, making our faith real and visible and relevant.

May we become those who exhibit the generosity of God to others.  May we be people who open up both our homes and our lives in order to cultivate deep friendships.  May we live as those both invited to life in the kingdom and those who make the kingdom manifest in our own lives.  And may we yearn for the hope of the kingdom yet to be, that day of true joy and feasting and communion together with Christ.  Amen.


[1] Nora Gallagher, Sacred Meal, pg 102.

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We got a couple of passages that are, well, doozies.  They speak about God’s mercy which is way beyond what we could ask or think.  This sermon is a continuation of sorts from my sermon for 9/11 on forgiving.

Here it is.

Jonah 3:10-4:11 & Matt 20:1-16

We heard the tail end of a story many of us may remember from our childhood if we went to Sunday School: the story of Jonah and the Whale.  We know the part about Jonah being on the boat and getting tossed overboard and being eaten by that great fish, but the other details are fuzzy.

So I’ll give you the recap: Jonah, an Israelite prophet, was called by God to cry out against the Ninevites because of their great wickedness.  Jonah didn’t want to do this, so instead of heading east to Ninevah, he went west.  He gets to a sea town, pays his fare and hops on a ship.  In the middle of the Mediterranean, a wild storm kicks up, each crew member prays to their particular god.  Still stormy.  They throw everything overboard.  Still raging.  They draw straws, and Jonah gets the short stick so they want to know what he’s done.

 

He tells them that God is angry with him, and the only way to calm the sea is to throw him overboard.  They’re reluctant, but finally do it.

 

Whale enters stage right, swallows Jonah.  He prays there in the belly of that fish (and yes, I know whales aren’t fish; Scripture says great fish, but the size we’re talking has to be what we know today as a whale).  Indigestion sets in after a few days, the fish burps up Jonah on dry land.  And he high tails it to Nineveh.

 

He preaches, they repent and, as we heard today, God forgives them all of their great wickedness and decides not to destroy the city and all its inhabitants, both human and animal.

 

And Jonah is ticked.  He knew God was going to do this, which was why he fled west in the first place.  He wanted to see those blasted Ninevites suffer for all the wrongs they had done; Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire and had, many years earlier, destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  He wanted them to pay for their transgressions.

 

But they repented.  And God was merciful.

 

So instead of being thrilled as a preacher for bringing all those Ninevites to repentance, Jonah is angry at God.   He goes off to sulk on a hill overlooking the city to see if God might be fickle enough to flip-flop again and rain down fire and brimstone, because the relatives of these very Ninevites had destroyed the Kingdom of Israel, who were among God’s chosen people.

 

Last Sunday I spoke about Jesus’ call on us to forgive and how difficult that can be, and yet how it is the only real Christian response.  Some of you have followed up with me and said things like, “I can maybe forgive, but I can never forget” or “That’s fine, but I’ll still remember what happened on 9/11.”  We say things like this because we’ve heard that we are supposed to “forgive and forget,” as if forgetting traumatic experiences is something that can be done with the snap of a finger.  And we don’t want to forget.  And I would agree that forgetting isn’t really possible and that we should remember.  But I want to push a little and say that it’s important how we remember.  If all we are remembering is the hurt inflicted on us, if what we don’t forget is the anger or hurt, then we aren’t really forgiving.

 

One of my seminary professors, theologian Miroslav Volf, has written extensively on this topic of forgiveness and remembering rightly.  Prof. Volf knows what he’s speaking about.  He’s a Croat Christian from the former Yugoslavia, and tells of his experiences of being treated as a CIA spy when he returned from his studies in the US leaving his American bride behind in order to perform his compulsory military duty in the early 1980s for the then communist Yugoslavia.  He speaks at length about watching the horrors inflicted on his countrymen by the Serbs in the 1990s.  And he speaks about wrestling with the call of Christ to embrace the Serbian fighters, called cetniks, who were ravaging his homeland.

 

Ultimately what Prof Volf says is this: “the Passion of Christ requires us to recognize that the grace of God… extends to every human being”  Even more so, the cross “honors victims even while extending grace to perpetrators.”  And ultimately, the work of Jesus Christ “helps the wronged and the wrong doer reconcile.”[1]  We are to remember that through Jesus Christ those harmed and those doing the harm are each offered grace by Jesus, and while those harmed find solace in Christ’s being harmed as well, we are reminded as well that Christ died to forgive the wrongdoers.

 

And the catching point comes precisely at the next line often repeated in the Epistles, which is this: and we are, all of us, wrongdoers.  This is not to say that we should dismiss any evil lightly, or that we shouldn’t even remember.  But our remembering, as Prof Volf explains it, should be done in light of the work of God done in Christ’s Passion.  When we are harmed, we should through God’s grace take the long view, the one that recognizes in Christ that we are all to be reconciled.  We are not to overlook wrongdoing, we are indeed called to denounce injustice.  But that must never lead us to retributive violence.  He writes, “The Passion memory is a hopeful memory since it anticipates deliverance from the wrong suffered, freedom from the power of evil, and reconciliation between the wronged and the wrongdoers — for the most part, a reconciliation between people who have both suffered wrong and inflicted it.”[2]  Let me say that last line again, “a reconciliation between people who have both suffered wrong and inflicted it.”

 

In other words, none of us is as innocent as we might like to think.  It’s so easy to look over at the “other” —whoever that is, the person or group that we have vilified—and see the wrongs done.  But to see the wrongs we’ve done, well they’re not quite so bad in comparison.

 

But God shows mercy on us all, without regard of whether we think someone deserves God’s mercy or not.

 

Which is quite unnerving if we think about it from our perspective.  We are like Jonah wanting the Ninevites of our day to get their just desserts.  We’re not sure we want to share the message of God with them for fear that they too repent and come to experience God’s mercy.  We want, instead, to hoard God all to ourselves, letting the evildoers in our lives to enjoy the consequences coming their way.

 

We want, like Jonah, to go sit on a hilltop to watch the impending fireworks rain down on their lives.

 

So when Jesus compares the kingdom of God on this day to this unbelievable generosity, it makes us squirm, or I’ll speak for myself, it makes me squirm.  It is so much easier to place labels on people and say they are outside of the love of God.  It requires little work to determine who is part of God’s “in” group and who’s out.  But God keeps on showing that when we do this, we get it wrong.

 

One commentator this week repeated a lesson he learned from his first seminary professor: “I remember [her] saying that universal salvation may or may not be true, but it is certainly unchristian not to hope it is true.”[3]  That’s uncomfortable to us who want God to be fair, that is, we want God to be merciful to us and judgmental to those who’ve harmed us.  But what we see as fair, God sees as completely unfair.  God want to extend the arms of love that God offers to each and every one of us.  To the conservative one and the progressive one.  To the American and the Libyan.  To the border patrol officer and the illegal immigrant.  To the white woman on Wall St. and the Hispanic woman cleaning her home.  To the child on the streets of Bangledash and the pimp who claims ownership of him.  From the American soldier to the member of the Taliban.  The cross of Jesus is for us all so that we all can find God’s mercy and forgiveness, and, ultimately be reconciled one to the other.  That is the hope of God for us all.  Shouldn’t we join God in that hope as well?


[1] See Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory, 2006, Pg 118.

[2] Volf, 119.

[3] Todd M. Hobbie, “Jonah 3:10-4:11 Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 4, pg. 74.

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We are inundated with words today, and I suspect mine won’t add much to the mix.  These are the words I spoke this morning to my congregation as I reflected on the Gospel assigned this week—Matthew 18:21-35.  Once again providence shows in the readings assigned for the day.

Proper 19 Year A—Matthew 18:21-35 

            On that glorious Tuesday morning 10 years, I walked from my apartment to the Divinity School.  It was my second full week of studies as a new seminarian—I had left the corporate hi-tech world and was eager to be on my way toward my training to become a priest.  After saying Morning Prayer with classmates and sharing a cup of coffee with them, I headed off to an 8:30 am preaching class.  While I soaked up pearls of wisdom on how to bring the good news of Christ to a hurting world, four planes were hijacked, and three of them had been intentionally crashed.  I heard the news from some other students while checking email in the library, and I quickly scanned headlines on a news site to see if it was true.

I rushed back to my apartment, and I turned on NBC just as the South Tower fell.  I called family members not quite knowing what to say other than, “Are you watching TV?”  I watched in dismay as New Yorkers covered in that white dust ran from the horrific epicenter.  I waited as best I could for Melissa to return from her day of teaching, and when she came home I listened to her tell of the many students there in Southern Connecticut who called parents and others to learn the fate of loved ones.  I remember climbing into bed that night, holding tight to Melissa and praying that we would be safe, safe in this newly shattered world for us.

It impacted my preaching class significantly.  Fellow students in the weeks that followed preached at length about how our world had changed forever.  Innocence was lost.  Some weighed the demands for justice with a call for peace.  A few mentioned the homemade signs that had popped up around New Haven:  Nuke ‘Em, read one of the placards that I remember.  We heard about the ways we as Americans had let go of the divisiveness that appeared during the 2000 presidential election and how neighbors truly became neighbors.  Most of all, we wrestled with how to think theologically about September 11th.

You know what followed, of course.  The loss of nearly 3000 people on that day, stories of bravery and heroism, images of people rejoicing in Afghanistan, the Afghan War, the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the war in Iraq, the hunt for Weapons of Mass Destruction, the forming of Homeland Security, the capture of Sadaam Hussein, water boarding, airport screening, the infamous photos of Abu Ghraib, the Patriot Act, terror threat level Orange, the death of bin Laden, images of Americans rejoicing, and the loss of even more life: over 6000 American troops, hundreds of international troops from coalition forces, and over 100,000 Iraqi and Afghani civilians, never mind those maimed bodily or emotionally.

What we have learned most of all, I suspect, is that violence begets violence, which continues on and on like a never-ending game of ping pong.  We cite Just War and Self Protection, as do those labeled as America’s enemies, and the cycle never really ends.

We are justified, to be sure.  When we have been wronged, we long for retribution, for justice to be handed down.  You may remember that Presidential debate in the fall of 1988, when former Governor Dukakis was asked if his wife were brutally harmed would he want to enforce the death penalty.  He gave some lame answer, dodging the question entirely, when he should have answered honestly: “Absolutely!”  If he had, he could have gone on to say, “And I am glad that I don’t have that power, trusting in the courts and the rule of the commonwealth, recognizing that I wouldn’t be in the right frame of mind to make that decision.  I believe that death is not the answer.”  But he didn’t, and he sounded so shallow and hollow because of it.

But we desire justice; many of us instinctively want to throttle the one who harmed us.  Whether through the attacks of September 11th and its aftermath for which some here today may still be impacted, or maybe some other personal tragedy—a personal 9/11—that has turned your world upside down.  The infidelity of a spouse or abuse experienced in your life or the life of someone you love.  The constant belittling by a boss or co-worker.  The bullying experienced on a playground so long ago.  The betrayal of a close friend.  Whatever the tragedy, our initial response is that we want for things to be made right.

So when Jesus tells us that we need to be forgiving, we are right there with Peter.  How many times, Lord?  If we are wronged by someone, what’s the upper limit?  Two times?  Three?  Seven?  Surely not more than seven times.  “Seventy-seven times,” he says, “Or seventy times seven” in the ambiguous Greek.  In other words, “Too many to keep track of.”  Just forgive.  Vengeance belongs to God, we are reminded.  It is not up to us.  Forgive.

Before Peter or we can even respond with a “But, but…” Jesus tells a story.  A servant owed his lord an insane amount of money, all of his yearly wages for the next 150,000 years.  He would never, ever be able to pay it back.  Ever.  And the lord demands restitution.  Now.  And seeing that the slave can’t repay, the lord demands that he be sold, and his wife and kids as well.  The slave falls down on his knees pleading for time, if he just had enough time, he could make it all up.

He can’t, of course.  If it were today’s money, and assuming this person made only $25,000 a year, we’re talking 3 billion 750 thousand dollars.  The lord looks down on him and has compassion.  “Okay,” he says, “you’re forgiven.  All of it.  You don’t owe me a penny.”

The slave can’t believe his lucky stars and goes out on his way with that huge load removed from his back.  And the first person he runs into is a friend of his who borrowed some money from him.  A little under 10 grand, about the wages he’d make working for 4 and half months.  The debt-free slave grabs him by the neck and demands his money. The slave falls down on his knees pleading for time, if he just had enough time, he could make it all up.

Nothing doing.  There’s no mercy this time.  Even though this debt might be in reach in a few years time with some good budgeting, the slave is merciless to his friend.  He throws him into prison so he can squeeze every last cent out of him.

When the lord hears what has happened, he is stunned and furious and calls the first slave to him.  “You owed me nearly $4 billion and I forgave you, and this other slave owed you $10 grand and you couldn’t show mercy?” So he reneges on his debt forgiveness and tosses that slave in jail.  “So it is with my father if you don’t forgive a brother or sister,” Jesus tells us.

In other words, Jesus says to Peter and us, you may think that when someone wrongs you that there is a substantial debt owed to you.  You may want to harm that person, or torture them, or make them pay for what they did.  But you owe me even more.   You owe me for the ways in which you have been unfaithful to me.  It’s more than you could imagine.  It would take hundreds of years to repay.  And I forgive you.  No strings attached; I forgive all the ways that you have wronged me.

And then that line at the end, if we don’t forgive those who have wronged us, then God shackles us.  Actually, I think, God doesn’t even need to do it to us, we shackle ourselves.  I’ve seen it first hand.  Those who cannot forgive the one who wronged them.  They live with bitterness and cynicism.  They carry around this desire for revenge, for restitution and the life is being sucked right out of them.  The anger and hurt and depression pushes others away, and creates a living hell for them.  When we don’t forgive, we slowly die to the life we once had and never find peace again.

“But Jesus,” we say, “you don’t understand.  Innocence was lost.  Lives taken.  My childhood destroyed.  My marriage made a mockery.  You just don’t get it.”  And he looks down at us from that bloodied cross in silence.  Then looking toward heaven he says, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

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I think those of us who participate in the life of the Church often promote an unhealthy attitude about what God can accomplish.  We underestimate God’s ability to work in our lives, in the work of the kingdom, in transformation.  And so we set the bar accordingly.  In other words, low.

We have a tendency, I believe, to think that we know how all this works.  That people don’t change, or that our lives—collectively and individually—will not get better.

And that anemic view of God’s kingdom holds us back.  It limits what we hope for.  It makes us hamstrung.

That’s not to say that I am promoting a “health and wealth” understanding of the faith.  I don’t think that God’s desire for Jesus’ disciples is to be wealthy.  Jesus himself was homeless, so I just can’t buy into that belief that some Christians hold on to dearly (and more often than not they are getting that idea from charismatic leaders who have created a lifestyle that others desire—yes, I’m looking at you, Joel Osteen).

This past Sunday those of us reading from the Revised Common Lectionary heard two parables about the kingdom of heaven starting small—with a mustard seed or some yeast—and getting to be huge.  Jesus was saying that the kingdom is like the energizer bunny, it just keeps growing.  It may look like it’s insignificant or too small, but it doesn’t stop.  And then it becomes a place where the birds can come and nest.

If he were living in the US today, Jesus might say the kingdom is like kudzu—that ivy like plant that has grown over tress, signs, even houses, in the southeast.  It doesn’t stop once it grows.  In fact, even though it lies dormant in the winter, in the spring it picks up where it left off.  The kingdom is like that.

People in my denomination sometimes dole out statistics about the church’s impending doom.  That somehow we can see the end of the church.  Nope, Jesus says.  While we like to sometimes latch on to scarcity and the frailty of God’s work, God pays no attention to what we think and keeps on working.  God wants to use us in that work to be sure, but even if we don’t God’s work continues.  The kingdom just keeps on growing.

So what view do you take of the kingdom of God?  Do you think of it as a dying vine or a flourishing tree?  Is your view of how God can work in our world—in your life—limited or is it hopeful that God will bring life?

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I haven’t been posting my sermons online this summer not because I haven’t been preaching, but because I’ve been going it without a net.  No text.  Extemporaneously.

And that means no texts to post.

Which isn’t really fair, I know.  Especially since summertime is upon us and some might not be making it to church and may want to hear snippets from the previous Sunday.  So that’s what I’m doing today.  Giving you the highlights, not the full sermon.  Kinda like the Red Sox in 2.  Except shorter.

This past Sunday the gospel text was from Matthew 13.  Read it here.

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Once upon a time there was a farmer, and one day he awoke to find his only horse had gotten out of the stable and run off.  When the townspeople heard about they came to consul him, telling him how awful this was and that his horses fleeing must be so devastating.

“Maybe,” the farmer replied.

A few days later as he was out in his field, the farmer saw his horse racing back to the farm.  With him were three other wild horses.  When the townspeople heard, they came to him saying, “You must be so thrilled!  How amazing that your horse came back and brought these three other horses with him!  What a wonderful turn of events!”

“Maybe,” the farmer replied.

That weekend the man’s only son attempted to tame one of those new horses, and he fell and broke his leg.  Upon hearing the news, the townspeople rushed to him, “How dreadful!” they said.  “You must be so horrified to have your son injured this way.  Truly this is downright awful.”

“Maybe,” he said.

Later that week, civil authorities came into town looking to take all the young men of the town off to war.  The farmer’s son was left behind due to his broken leg.  When the townspeople hear, they came to him.  “You must be overjoyed that your son is not going off to war!  This is unbelievable news!”

“Maybe.”

 

Jesus tells us a parable this morning about a farmer and some wheat.  The farmer has done everything right, he’s planted the seeds, and is giving them lots of water and nutrients.  However, sometime during the planting season, an enemy has come in and sown the seeds of some weeds, and done so without anyone knowing about it.

Did you catch it in our reading? It wasn’t until the grain began to appear that the workers of the field noticed the weeds.  The Greek word is zizanion, and this type of weed looks exactly like wheat, that is until the grain head appears.  And by that time, the weeds would have had their roots all tangled with the weeds.  “Should we go and pull up all the weeds,” the servants ask.  “No,” said the farmer. “Let’s wait.”

We like to make determinations about people and their status as wheat or weeds almost upon meeting them.  We even use the same kind of language; “That girl over there, she’s a bad seed,” we’ll say.  We make distinctions and tend to root people out right away from the field.

But Jesus says that that isn’t our job.  We’re not called to judge.

A parishioner was telling me recently about a young man he met whose life had been turned around by Straight Ahead ministries.  He was a former gang member, and had been shot at and stabbed.  Through the ministry, he found Christ and his life was turned around.  And now he was hoping to begin something new.

And he was terrified.

The parishioner looked at him and asked why, since he had been in a gang, and injured and all that.  And he replied, “Because no one has ever believed in me.  I’m terrified of this not working out and letting people down.”

We aren’t called to judge, that’s God’s work that will happen at the end of the age, by the angels no less.  We “slaves” aren’t even inovlved in the process.

Instead, we’re called to tend the filed, to make conditions right for growing, and to go out and be wheat to the world.  Wheat brings nourishment, and we’re called to be the body of Christ to a hurting world, to bring nourishment to them.

God wants to wait it out.  God sees what we may think are weeds, and says, “Nope! That’s wheat.  Watch what happens!”  God is so patient with us.  And when we say surely this person is wheat and that other is a weed, God looks down and says, “Maybe.”

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I grew up in a pentecostal church, which meant that Pentecost was one of the few days on the liturgical calendar that we celebrated, although it often came out of nowhere and I wasn’t sure why we it was a big deal.  My church experience has changed a lot since then, and that change began while attending a UCC church during my time in college.  It was the minister there—Harold Bussell—who first preached about the idea of the Spirit controlling our tongues; that when the Spirit descended on Pentecost, the Spirit came in to our lives and began changing the way we speak.

That idea grabbed hold of me then and has never let go.

So this idea is not mine.  But it is a very intriguing way to think about Pentecost and the idea of proclamation.  With no further adieus….

Pentecost—Acts 2:1-21

I’ve heard of a marriage counselor that can predict in one session if a marriage will last or not.  When he sits down to chat with the couple—whether they are already married or if they are engaged—he pays relatively little attention to what issues they are talking about–be it finances, in-laws, the kids, work, intimacy, whatever—and homes in on the way they are talking to one another.  If there is any contempt in the exchange, he predicts that it will be an uphill battle at best for the relationship to last.  Whether or not you agree with him, he’s on to something given his track record of prediction.  How we talk to one another—how we make use of our tongues to communicate—is of vital importance to our relationships.

Tongues are funny things.  They are, we’ve been told, one of the strongest muscles in the body.  They control our speech, what we say, how we form our words.  With the words our tongues form, we can do amazing things.  And with other words formed by that same tongue we can destroy one another.

In his epistle, James writes about the tongue.  He says, “A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it!  It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell. This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!  My friends, this can’t go on.” (From James 3, The Message Bible)

In the movie “How to Train Your Own Dragon,” the protagonist, a teen aged Viking named Hiccup, tries desperately hard to fit in with the other Vikings of his village.  But he’s scrawny and weak, and while he tries his best to be a dragon hating person like them, he just can’t.  Instead, he befriends a dragon that has been hurt and takes care of him like a pet.  When his father, the chief of their village, learns that Hiccup’s been taking care of a dragon, he is overcome with rage.  At the end of an angry diatribe, he looks at Hiccup before storming out and says, “You are not my son.”

He is crushed, of course, this teen-aged boy who longs for the acceptance of his father.  As are any of us when someone spews angry words at us.  No matter how many times we may repeat that rhyme from childhood, words hurt a lot, and often more than sticks or stones, because the damage can last a lifetime.  I’m sure some of you can either recall words spoken to you, or words that you gave voice to, that you now wish you could remove from existence.

When the Spirit comes on Pentecost, isn’t it remarkable that after the rush of wind and the flames of fire alighting on the heads of all those there, the very next sign is that the disciples begin to speak in other languages as the Spirit prompted them.  The Spirit controls their tongues.  Immediately they begin to speak in other tongues, not unintelligible words, but they speak in the languages of each group gathered there, as the Spirit guided their tongues.  They proclaim the message of God and God’s work of salvation in the world.

Proclamation.  That’s what this day—this last day of the Great 50 Days of Easter —is about.  Proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.  And that good news can be summed up in one word: transformation.

But we cannot make these proclamations about how Jesus Christ transforms us if our tongues aren’t under control.  We cannot be a messenger of Jesus’ good news if we are constantly spouting off at our mouths, saying why this person or group of people upsets us, or how ridiculous they are, or how that person is really just an idiot.

If we want to truly be a part of the kingdom, then we must allow the Spirit to control our tongues.  And that means major transformation on the inside as well.

A friend of mine a couple of years ago underwent significant change in his life.  He changed old habits and took on new ones.  When I spoke with him about this, he wondered why it had taken him so long.  “If I had known what a difference this would make in my life, I would have started so much earlier,” he said to me.

“Yes,” I replied.  “But thank God that you began now.”  What I was trying to say to him was this: Don’t shame and guilt yourself in the ways you have failed in the past.  Deal with them, yes.  Recognize why you did certain things.  Learn from the past.  But don’t beat yourself up because you didn’t have the courage to tackle them earlier, and didn’t ultimately trust then that God could bring about the change you so desperately needed.  Rather, relish in the fact that God is working now.  Take joy in the transformation that is going on now.  Be joyful for the years ahead, now that you are changed and continue to be changed.

Transformation.  That is the work of the Triune God.  To break down the barriers of sin, to offer forgiveness, to shower us with mercy and grace.  To help us become the people we are called to be, and to bring our tongues into alignment with that call as well.  People that share the love of Jesus Christ with a broken world.   People who are about the work of the kingdom of God.

And the question is this: Do you want the Spirit to bring transformation to every part of your being—to your tongue, your heart and your mind? Do you want to be about the work of the kingdom of God?  Don’t worry about what you haven’t done up to this point, or how you might have been able to do more, or whatnot.  What can you do now?  How can you allow God to move in you?  How can you more faithfully become a disciple of Jesus Christ?

We cannot become those who have visions or prophesy or dream dreams if we are always spouting off at the mouth.  We cannot be the church unless we allow the Spirit to move in us and through us and to bring about change in us.  And I would argue that our tongues—the very first thing the Spirit takes over in those disciples on that Pentecost Day so long ago—are where many of us need the Spirit’s leading, transformation and healing.

Perhaps you need to make amends with a family member or a friend over something you said to them that you now regret.  Maybe you have hurt your spouse or children with words said out of spite.  Perhaps you need Jesus to bring healing to a wound inflicted long ago when someone hurt you with their words.  Possibly you’ve been feeling prompted by the Spirit to say something to a hurting co-worker or neighbor, but haven’t spoken to them because you are nervous about how they will respond.  Or maybe you need to seek forgiveness from God because your words have been filled with contempt, especially toward those you live with and love.

If we are to be a vital part of Jesus’ kingdom work, then we must invite the Spirit to work in us and through us.  To be counted among those of the kingdom, then we need to open ourselves up to the Spirit’s transformative power.  When we do so, when we become willing to the Spirit’s leading, then we too can be like Peter, James and Mary and all the rest on that day who shared the message of Jesus with all those gather there, so that these others might also call on the name of the Lord, and be saved.  That is the true gift of the Spirit.  May we be empowered to proclaim the good news.  Amen.

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I’m really in awe of the Apostle Paul in the story from Acts 17.  He’s in Athens waiting for some friends, but then he sees all the idols and altars the Athenians have made.  What he does is look at their culture finding the good qualities.  He engages with the culture he sees and uses it as a jumping point to talk about Christ.  Rather than saying, “Hey, you need to worship like me, you heathens!” he commends them for their deep spirituality.

So, I’ve been pondering what he might say to us.  This sermon is something of an outgrowth of that.

Easter 6A—Acts 17:22-31

            Paul does something pretty amazing in the story we heard from Acts this morning.  While he’s in Athens waiting for his friends Silas and Timothy to arrive, he goes wandering around the city.  We’re told he’s distressed that there are so many idols.  But notice he doesn’t unleash rhetoric on why they are so bad about this or how they are disobeying God’s commands.  Rather, he looks for their good qualities—their longings—and seeks to tell them about Christ through what they are already longing for.

 

He tells them he’s seen this altar with the inscription “To an Unknown God.”  He knows that there are deeply spiritual people, that there is a longing deep within them to connect with the spiritual realm.  And so he tells them, I want to introduce you to the Unknown God, who is, in fact, the Creator of the Universe. Paul shares with them the message of creation, how God made us, not how we fashion gods of our own devices.  He tells them that the Creator doesn’t live in temples or shrines or other buildings, that God doesn’t need us to wait hand and foot on him, as if God somehow needed us to do that.

 

But what God does, Paul tells them, is gives us plenty of time and space in order to truly seek after God; more than just groping around blindly in the dark trying to find God.  God longs to be known by us in order to bring about a better life for us and in this created world.   God desires repentance, true life-change, and God will one day have us give an account of our lives, with Jesus the resurrected one as our judge.

 

We in this day and age live our lives with great passions as well.  While we don’t erect shrines for idols as such—although on the week when the latest American Idol was crowned, it’s a little hard to make this statement—we do build massive stadiums to follow our sports teams—and what a great week it has been for that as well as the Bruins get back to Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in over 20 years and the Red Sox have moved into first place after their ghastly start.  We also honor education, and the arts, great food and spending time outdoors doing recreational activities.  We do these things because of the longing for joy that we have.  We think that if the home town team wins, or we hear a wonderful performance or hike a gorgeous trail or get the elusive degree, if any of those things happen then we will find what we have been searching for.  Inner peace.  Joy.  Wholeness.  When that inevitably doesn’t happen—when we didn’t find completeness after the Sox won not just one but two World Series—we go searching for something else.  Maybe the answer would be found in weight loss or a new love interest or other pursuits.

 

But if Paul were here, I’d think he’d tell us that while our longings for some many things is noble—and in fact God-given—that what we don’t recognize is that we are truly longing for God.  For God’s unconditional love for us.  God’s deep desire to be known by us.  God’s longing for us to not just grope around blindly but to truly seek after and find God and the life God always intended for us.

 

Whenever we talk about God, however, our defenses go up.  We say things like, “Well, I’m spiritual but not religious.”  Which is a code way of saying that we don’t like organized religion (or disorganized religion, for that matter).  We don’t care for institutions, or the people who run them, because often such places are full of hypocrites or demand us to give them our money or make us live our lives in a certain way.

 

Yet, the reality is, that sentiment doesn’t actually make sense.  You cannot be spiritual without being religious as well.  You might try to have spirituality feed a longing in you, but soon you’ll tire of whatever you are trying and move on to something else.  If you are truly spiritual, you’ll recognize that you cannot do that work alone, neither can you do it haphazardly.  Being religious—that is, being dutiful in your commitments to the faith you desire—is best done (and I would argue, only done) in community.  By connecting with others we can explore the deep longings we all have—seeing them as gifts from God, an innate curiosity to discover the goodness of God and to have fullness of life—and in doing so together, deepen our devotion to God.

 

In order to satiate our desires, we often pursue things that we think will make us feel fulfilled—we entertain ourselves, seek comforts, look for joy wherever we can find it—but in the end, many of us feel unfulfilled.  And so we ask ourselves is this all there is?  When we reach something we’ve been longing for and see that it doesn’t bring the serenity, we have deep questions.

 

I was a big fan of the TV series Lost, a drama that told the stories of the survivors of a plane crash who ended up on a mysterious island in the Pacific Ocean.  We learn along the way that the characters—like Jack, the gifted surgeon with significant issues around his father, and Kate, a fugitive on the run—cannot get away from their pasts even on this island where no one seems to know them.  Many of the survivors had achieved something they were longing for in life—a big pay off, the end to problems, marriage, success—yet even when they had, they still longed for something more. They were left searching for something else.

 

And so they were both literally and figuratively lost.  They were searching for meaning, for something else that was more elusive in their life.

 

So are we.  All of the pursuits we have and enjoy, all the hobbies, and the work and the things that delight us and entertain us, and those things that distract us, the addictions, the vices, all of it grows out of deep yearning from within.  A profound ache in our souls.

 

That for which we long is wholeness.  To be fully known.  To experience true joy.

 

And that is found in following Christ.  The God of Creation—the One who made us—knows our longings and wants to bring us wholeness, reconciliation and healing.  God does this when we seek for him, when we turn our full attention to God and God’s work of establishing his kingdom.

 

It’s important for me to say this, because this is the work that I feel called to do as your priest.  In a few days, I will officially be installed as your rector, and I want the focus of my ministry to be on inviting all of us into a more meaningful relationship with Christ, in sharing the good news with our neighbors, and working together in service to the world.  I personally know that it is when I do these things that I find myself experiencing great joy in my life.  While things I may pursue for myself in the world are fleeting, the things of God are lasting.

 

So that is why I desire to focus on faith formation for all ages, in outreach, providing opportunities to connect with one another, and above all else to live authentically as disciples of Jesus.  I want to point all of us to the one we’ve been longing for, whether we know it or not.  The God of the Universe is for many in our society the Unknown God, but that doesn’t stop God from reaching out to us.  God is so full of love for us—we heard it again this morning in John’s gospel—and God wants us to become the people God created us to be.  Our longings can indeed be satisfied when we actively pursue God through Jesus Christ.

 

Will we?  Will we seek and find the God of Creation?  Or will continue to push God aside as we follow after all that is short-lived in our world hoping to find contentment and joy?  God longs for us, and whether we know it or not, we long for God too.  May we, as we continue our journey forward both find God and be found by God.  Amen.

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It was a great day yesterday at St. Mark’s.  I was given the great blessing to baptize 8 young ones and welcome them on behalf of the church into the Christian faith.  And whenever I baptize someone I am reminded to think seriously about my own baptismal promises, and the desire I have to follow Christ on the way.  Our gospel was from John 14 when Jesus tells his disciples that he is the way.  As I mention in the sermon, since I’m reading Eugene Peterson’s book The Jesus Way with the vestry right now, I couldn’t help but to draw form it and make connections.

So, here it is.  A baptismal sermon on the importance of following Jesus on the way.

Our text was: John 14:1-14

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            I’ve been thinking a great deal about Jesus’ words that we heard this morning, especially when he says that his disciples know the way to the place where he is going.  Thomas—always seeming to speak aloud what many of us are thinking—says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”  To which Jesus responds, “I am the way, and the truth and the life.”  Jesus is the way.

And the way of Jesus is always a way of humility, of peace, of love.  A way of sacrifice and of giving, a way of reaching out to those on the margins.  It is a way of life.  Your vestry has been reading Eugene Peterson’s book The Jesus Way together this year, and in our reading so far we have looked at how the way of American culture—and even the way many churches operate in the US—is extremely different, if not downright destructive of, the way of Jesus.  Peterson focuses on how our society and our churches have become places where consumerism is king.  Our wants and desires need to be met and fulfilled, so we believe all that Madison Ave. has to tell us and go looking for salvation in a plethora of ways.

Peterson writes, “We Americans have developed a culture of acquisition, an economy that is dependent on wanting more, requiring more. We have a huge advertising industry designed to stir up appetites we didn’t even know we had.  We are insatiable….  If we have a nation of consumers, obviously the quickest and most effective way to get them into our congregations is to identify what they want and offer it to them, satisfy their fantasies, promise them the moon, recast the gospel in consumer terms: entertainment, satisfaction, excitement, adventure, problem solving, whatever.  This is the language we Americans grew up on, the language we understand.”[1]

The problem is that the American way for church is downright more exciting to our tastes than the Jesus way.  Especially when you have a story like the one we heard this morning about Stephen being martyred for his faith in Jesus.  If the Jesus way leads to death, are we sure we want to follow this way?

And let’s make no bones about it: Jesus’ way does lead to death.  Death to self, to our desires, to that which says “me first” in our lives.  Jesus’ way is the way of the cross.  And talking about self-sacrifice is not easy nor always appreciated.  But it is the way of Jesus.

We’ll hear language about death as we go to the baptismal font today.  Whey we gather there, we’ll pray, “We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.”  We die to sin and are led to eternal life.

And the life we’ll invite these eight children into this morning here at St. Mark’s is one that is challenging.  We’ll welcome these young ones into a life of building relationships, of serving others.  When we give our lives to the way of Jesus, while we aren’t promised riches or having all of our needs met, or even happiness at every turn, we are promised a deep and meaningful life.  The way of the cross is, as our prayer book puts it, the way of life and truth.

To be fully alive means above all else that we live relational lives, that we live incarnationally.  We can invest in the people who live with us and near us—our neighbors—and recognize that we can make a difference in this world right now.  Just before Jesus told his disciples he was the way, he showed them what his way meant as he washed their feet at the last supper.  Taking time to serve, to take someone else’s feet and gently wash them, to see that we all need support and care and that we can truly change each other’s lives.

That’s where the American way has fallen down.  We have lost our connection with one another.  We have grown further and further apart from one another, thinking instead that people are merely objects, they are the way to meet our desires.  We tend to think that we are islands, as those who can live walled off from one another.  We need to be reminded from time to time by the John Donne’s and the John bon Jovi’s of the world that none of us is an island.

So when these children take these vows, and when we all renew our baptismal covenant this morning, what we say is that we will follow the way of Jesus, no matter where it takes it, as best we can with God’s help.  We will not put ourselves first.  We will seek to share the good news of Christ.  The news that the Christian life isn’t spent to be worrying about when judgment day is coming, nor how to get to heaven, but how to bring Jesus’ message of hope, love, and peace to a broken world, to our broken worlds.

And that is ultimately what the Jesus way is about.  Life.  Healing.  Restoration.  Renewal.  When we die to ourselves, we find life in Christ.  We find a life that is based in the here and now and not just some time in the future.   May we find Jesus to be the way we follow.  May we see that the way to God entails self-sacrifice and extravagant love.  May we become aware of Jesus’ desire to bring reconciliation, and may we bring his reconciliation to others.  And may we, on this day, remember that we have been marked as his followers, and may we have the courage to follow wherever he leads.  Amen.


[1] Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way, pg 6.

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