Pentecost 21

It’s no secret that we’re living in tense and fractious time, and this past Thursday night was a stark example of that.  Neither side seemed to land any convincing blows; the rules were often flouted; feelings were hurt.  The flurries of texts amongst friends lamented the seeming uselessness of it all.  I am, of course, talking about the Giants-Eagles game, though, by all accounts, the same thing could be said about the other great contest that night.   

We’re living in interesting times, in the Chinese curse sense of the term, and the tension and stress can be exhausting.  Studies have shown that when a population is under long-term and multi-faceted stress, bad things happen: bonds of friendship are broken, and violence increases even within societal and ethnic groups.  

So imagine for a second being a first Century Jew.  Oppression was just there, and the Romans weren’t going anywhere anytime soon.  On top of the Romans, you would have the Pharisees to contend with, along with the tax collectors, the tolls on your own roads, all of which had to be paid for with coinage bearing the image of a false god.  If you got too far out of line, the authorities, both civil and religious, had ways of dealing with you.  

Those were truly interesting times, and there’s nothing that fits into interesting times like keeping the status quo.  Into that world came Jesus, who wasn’t very good at that.  

Case in point: today’s Gospel lesson. We’re told that Jesus had already ‘silenced’ the Sadducees – remember that He bested them in last week’s Gospel about giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s – and so the Pharisees take their shot.  “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”  

This, by the way, was not a difficult question.  A Jewish preschooler could have answered it with “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” 

But then Jesus essentially upends the system.  “And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

We get these two phrases, these two laws drilled into us at every normal Mass, of course – The Summary of the Law – and so we’re used to hearing them, maybe a little too used to hearing them.  But no one until that random day two thousand years ago when Jesus was challenged by that lawyer, no one had heard these to laws put together, made Law1 and Law1a.  On these two, Jesus proclaimed, hangs all of the Law and everything the prophets every said.  

Now imagine again that you’re a first Century Jew under Roman rule, when it was hard enough to just live, to get by day by day, on top of knowing that things will likely never get better.  Would you be in a rush to love your neighbor who plays his music too loud or your aunt who insults your cooking?  How about that jerk you went to high school with who rats on you to the Roman centurian? 

Fast forward to now.  The world’s a mess, anxiety is high, and you can’t even go to Old Town Pub without fear of literally dying.  Any disagreement is now a major disagreement.  And trust me, I get it: the graces of ordination do not include endless patience or an imperviousness to annoyance.  So am I in a rush to love everyone God puts in front of me?  I don’t want to answer that, except to say that I better be, even when it’s not so easy.  

Law1 and Law 1a.  One feeds the other.  When we love God, He gives us the grace to love our neighbor; when we love our neighbor, we are, in a very real way, loving God.  To do both is the only way through these interesting times.  

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Pentecost 20

So, according to most of the Episcopal Church, this is “Stewardship Sunday.”  If I’m following the plot correctly, the sermon is supposed to address stewardship explicitly or implicitly, and given the monetary content of the Gospel reading, surely I’m supposed to ask you for money.  So here it goes: 

1- The mission and ministry of the church takes money.  If you can afford to give in the midst of a global pandemic, give, and give generously.  Check out electronic giving on our website if you’re so inclined. 

2- Mission and ministry also takes your time and talent.  See something that needs to be done and you can do it?  Step up.  You’ll be a part of a large group of fellow parishioners who truly execute our mission and ministry.  Not only is it good for the soul, it’s (often) a lot of fun. 

3- Giving is good for you.  You know how you feel good after being generous, after doing something good for someone else?  That’s because you’re made in the image of God, and because He is a giving God, we become more godly when we give.  

Which leads me to the actual point Jesus was making in today’s Gospel.  Contrary to common perception, this Gospel lesson has very little, if anything, to do with money.  Sure, there’s nothing wrong with paying tribute to Caesar – I mean paying your taxes – God knows this is how government works.  And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with the flip side of that coin (forgive the pun) of giving unto God what is God’s, which monetarily, at least, always seems to be less than what we give to the State.  

But again, not the point.  Listen to the question Jesus asks the Pharisees while examining the Roman coin they produced: “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”  Whose likeness is this? 

Likeness is the point of the story.  It is the honor and glory of every human being to made in the likeness of God.   

Being made in the likeness of God is also a responsibility.  If our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, made in the image of God, then it’s a great sadness when we abuse that likeness, when we distort the image of God by way of sin, or even by way of holding onto our shame or guilt or on the flip side, holding onto our vanity and conceit.  Our whole bodies, not just our eyes, betray the condition of our souls.  It’s not the years, as they say, it’s the miles.  

Worse yet is how we can fall into abusing the likeness of God in others.  Racism, for instance, is a sin, and not just a bad attitude, because the racist fails to see the image of God in those who don’t look like him.  Neglect is never benign, and so neglect of the youngest and oldest, the sick and the poor, the differently abled among us, is sin.  Remember how Jesus told us in Matthew 25 how we would be judged: “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”  And so the likeness, the image of God is not just literal in terms of Jesus; whatever we do to others and to ourselves, we do to Him.   

“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  “Just as Caesar’s money belongs to Caesar, so we belong to God.  We are his own.”  And because we are His own, He has promised that in following Jesus, we will be changed into His likeness, from glory to glory.   

Being made in the likeness of God is our honor, our glory, and our responsibility.  So every time you see yourself in the mirror, every time you lay eyes on another person, remember the question of Jesus: Whose likeness is this? 

[1] Eleonore Stump: https://liturgy.slu.edu/29OrdA101820/reflections_stump.html

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Pentecost 20

So, according to most of the Episcopal Church, this is “Stewardship Sunday.”  If I’m following the plot correctly, the sermon is supposed to address stewardship explicitly or implicitly, and given the monetary content of the Gospel reading, surely I’m supposed to ask you for money.  So here it goes:

1- The mission and ministry of the church takes money.  If you can afford to give in the midst of a global pandemic, give, and give generously.  Check out electronic giving on our website if you’re so inclined.

2- Mission and ministry also takes your time and talent.  See something that needs to be done and you can do it?  Step up.  You’ll be a part of a large group of fellow parishioners who truly execute our mission and ministry.  Not only is it good for the soul, it’s (often) a lot of fun.

3- Giving is good for you.  You know how you feel good after being generous, after doing something good for someone else?  That’s because you’re made in the image of God, and because He is a giving God, we become more godly when we give.

Which leads me to the actual point Jesus was making in today’s Gospel.  Contrary to common perception, this Gospel lesson has very little, if anything, to do with money.  Sure, there’s nothing wrong with paying tribute to Caesar – I mean paying your taxes – God knows this is how government works.  And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with the flip side of that coin (forgive the pun) of giving unto God what is God’s, which monetarily, at least, always seems to be less than what we give to the State.

But again, not the point.  Listen to the question Jesus asks the Pharisees while examining the Roman coin they produced: “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”  Whose likeness is this?

Likeness is the point of the story.  It is the honor and glory of every human being to made in the likeness of God. 

Being made in the likeness of God is also a responsibility.  If our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, made in the image of God, then it’s a great sadness when we abuse that likeness, when we distort the image of God by way of sin, or even by way of holding onto our shame or guilt or on the flip side, holding onto our vanity and conceit.  Our whole bodies, not just our eyes, betray the condition of our souls.  It’s not the years, as they say, it’s the miles.

Worse yet is how we can fall into abusing the likeness of God in others.  Racism, for instance, is a sin, and not just a bad attitude, because the racist fails to see the image of God in those who don’t look like him.  Neglect is never benign, and so neglect of the youngest and oldest, the sick and the poor, the differently abled among us, is sin.  Remember how Jesus told us in Matthew 25 how we would be judged: “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”  And so the likeness, the image of God is not just literal in terms of Jesus; whatever we do to others and to ourselves, we do to Him. 

“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  “Just as Caesar’s money belongs to Caesar, so we belong to God.  We are his own.”[1]  And because we are His own, He has promised that in following Jesus, we will be changed into His likeness, from glory to glory. 

Being made in the likeness of God is our honor, our glory, and our responsibility.  So every time you see yourself in the mirror, every time you lay eyes on another person, remember the question of Jesus: Whose likeness is this?


[1] Eleonore Stump: https://liturgy.slu.edu/29OrdA101820/reflections_stump.html

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Pentecost 19

One of the secondary if very real consequences of the crisis we’re living through is that so many events have had to be pushed, altered, or abandoned altogether.  Even when some events actually happen, we’re often forced to miss them; we end up celebrating apart, connected only by a screen.   

Today’s Gospel lesson reminds me that we’re still in what would be the height of wedding season – I officiated a wedding just yesterday with four people – and of how weddings are usually such celebratory occasions, feasts you might say.  

In the Parable of the Wedding Feast, Jesus gives us a look into what the Kingdom of God is like, into what goes on in Heaven.  The King is throwing a party to celebrate His Son’s wedding.  He  

has not skimped on the provisions, and is excited to call everyone together to savor the best of everything he has.   

So far, so good.  But this is a parable meant to be a warning more than anything else.  The invited guests refuse the invitation, give excuses, even rough up the king’s messengers.  So the king takes care of those ungrateful wretches and extends his invitation to the masses, to the common folk, the riff-raff. 

Unlike some other parables, this one is not difficult to figure out.  The banquet is heaven, and the king is a stand in for God, of course, and messengers are the prophets, all of whom were not well-received by the king’s own people.  The riff-raff, whether we like it or not, is us, the welcomed-if-not-chosen people.  

All this is a vision of eternity, of course, the wedding feast of Christ and His Church, when we will be gathered together with the Saints, with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, when we will see God with our own eyes.  

It’s fitting that today several of our young people will receive their first Holy Communion, because the closest we can get to this eternal feast of heaven while still on our earthly voyage is in the Eucharist, in the presence and reception of the Body and Blood of Our Lord.  It’s not called the Eucharistic Feast for nothing.  In the consecration of bread and wine as the Body and Blood of Christ, heaven comes down to earth; their feast becomes our feast; it’s even said that at the moment of consecration, time stops, if only for a blink of an eye, and we experience the eternal even in the midst of our transient world.  

Every year, the kids who are candidates for First Holy Communion are prepared by their parents and their Church School teachers leading up to the rite.  This year has been a little different, of course, but even as prepared as our kids are, there’s only so much that can be understood about the Blessed Sacrament.  I remember, years ago a pastor told a local clerical group I was a part of that she didn’t let people in her congregation receive Communion unless they understood it, and I wondered why then she would receive.   

That’s not to say she was at fault in any way.  There is no adequate explanation of the Eucharist for the same reason that, in the end, there is no adequate explanation for love or grace or even hope, outside of experiencing those things coming from God.   

In the end, the Holy Eucharist cannot be any more understood than the thought that the Living God, He who made heavens and the earth and all that therein is, would bother to invite us to the wedding feast of His Son.  

And yet, that feast has been prepared for us.  We get a glimpse of it at every Mass, where we find unbounded love and grace and hope.  And in the Body and Blood of Christ, we receive more than we could ever understand, ask for, or imagine.   

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Pentecost 18

St. Jerome, whose feast day was Wednesday, once wrote that “A fat stomach never breeds fine thoughts.” 

“That’s kind of harsh,” I thought, as I finished my spaghetti Bolognese and garlic bread from Palermo’s.  And then, just as a matter of course, I read today’s lesson from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, telling them that even some Christians live as though they are enemies of Christ: “their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”

Ugh.  I’m continually impressed with people who make things, farmers and artists and anyone who makes something beautiful or useful, because I generally only consume things.  Consumption (the non-tuberculosis kind), is all well and good until one’s consumption becomes conspicuous, or it becomes an end to itself. 

Waaaayyy opposite of the idea of conspicuous consumption is another Saint of the Week, St. Francis of Assisi.  Francis has the misfortune this year of his feast day falling on the Sunday, and since the propers of any Sunday supersede any non-dominical feast, churches throughout the world will essentially just skip over Francis (unless the church is dedicated to Francis, which makes today their feast of title).  We’re doing it both ways: Sunday propers and the Blessing of the Animals.

Back to Francis.  Francis was “the son of a prosperous merchant of Assisi, was born in 1182.  His early youth was spent in harmless revelry and fruitless attempts to win military glory. Various encounters with beggars and lepers pricked the young man’s conscience, however, and he decided to embrace a life devoted to Lady Poverty.  Despite his father’s intense opposition, Francis totally renounced all material values and devoted himself to serve the poor.”[1]

Francis “got his meals, not by asking for money so that he might live at the expense of others, but by scrounging crusts and discarded vegetable from trash-bins, and by working as a day laborer, insisting on being paid in bread, milk, eggs, or vegetables rather than in money.”[2]  He fearlessly lived among and ministered to lepers, which made him famous or infamous, depending on who you asked.

After a couple years of this, Francis attracted a bit of a following, and so he formed the Order of Friars Minor, more commonly known as the Franciscans.  As constituted, they would have no money and no property, individually or collectively.  Their task was to preach, and preach they did.  Francis especially would preach to anyone and anything that would listen, including birds and rabbits and lizards and fish.  He would return to the water fish that had been caught by local fishermen, warning the fish not to get caught again.  He once made a wolf pledge not to kill anymore livestock or people, and the wolf literally shook on it and made good on his pledge.

Because of all this preaching and poverty and talking to animals and living with lepers, Francis is perhaps the most popular and admired of all the Saints, but probably the least imitated.

It’s much easier to have a fat stomach than to think fine thoughts, literally or metaphorically.  It’s more immediately pleasurable to consume, whether it be food or drink or stuff.  Trust me, I know; like St. Paul also said, I am the chief of sinners in this regard. 

And not to let myself or anyone else off the hook for consumption without regard for others or ourselves, it’s not really the lean physiques of Francis and Jerome that set them apart.  What set them apart is that they sought and found God everywhere and in every thing.  Jerome found God mainly in the Scriptures and in arguing with friends (really).  Francis found God in the birds and trees and reptiles and bunnies, yes, but mainly in the leper, the outcast, those forgotten and left behind. 

And so it seems that when we demote our appetites from god to servant, the true and living God is found almost anywhere we look. 


[1] Lesser Feasts and Fasts, 2018

[2] http://satucket.com/lectionary/Francis_Assisi.htm

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Pentecost 17

On top of the obvious stress of living through a pandemic, we’re also just five weeks away from a presidential election, which, as we know, always brings out the best in all of us.  Presidential elections always tend to bring to light the state of our culture; they shine a light on how we operate as a people.  Cultural anthropologists – besides being among the only people giddy about their work right now – they have broad ways of defining cultures.  We here in the U.S. live in a dignity/slash/guilt culture: we define ourselves by our own conscience, and we proclaim that sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.  On the opposite side of that is the honor/slash/shame culture: what matters is not how you feel about yourself, but what the group, the village says about you.  An insult must be met by an insult of equal or greater force, eye for eye, life for life.  If you’re thinking right now about our present culture, one in which likes on Facebook determines value and in which anyone could be “canceled” at any time for any reason, good for you: honor culture is alive and creeping. 

As my friend Fr. Bret Hays said, “One thing we might not appreciate about the parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel is the expectations it would have challenged in its original Middle Eastern setting.  It’s hard to overstate how important honor, respect, and deference were, and are, in that culture.  But briefly put, showing proper respect was more important than following up with the promised or implied action.  The audience would have expected the son who answered with the expected respectful, deferential words to be the hero of the story, even though he failed to follow up with a meaningful action.   

“But that’s OK, because the story isn’t really about family relationships or agriculture.  It’s about how we respond to God and what God wants us to do, and it carries the implicit understanding that the metaphor of God as Father only goes so far: that we should approach God in a different way from an immediate family member, without unthinkingly applying familiar expectations, but rather in a more open-minded, more authentic way.

 

“After telling the parable, Jesus does not ask the question his audience was expecting: which son honored his father?  Rather, he asks, “Which of the two did the will of his father?”  This is critical.  While it is good for us to honor God, acts of honoring God are good for us, but God doesn’t need our protection from insults.  God is the source of honor, and God has throngs of angels offering honor and praise day and night, so human slights aren’t going to get God down.  

“So if we accept that our greatest concern should be to do God’s will, how can we know what God’s will for us is?  Jesus makes the point in dramatic fashion that notorious sinners, those who had been socially ostracized, were ahead of the religious authorities in doing God’s will, not because their sins didn’t matter, but because they were open to God’s message from their first encounter with John the Baptist.  They are close to God because they are listening with open hearts and minds, willing to consider that God is doing a new thing, calling them to a new way of life, offering forgiveness, compassion, and reconciliation, and calling them to offer those things to others.  But in painful irony, the religious authorities are closed off to the spirit of the living God.  They are invested in preserving one way of doing things, which perhaps not by coincidence involves preserving their own power and status.”[1] 

So our question today is, Who do we want to be, as persons and as a people?  We get to decide that in ways both big and small; by going to the ballot box, for sure, but more importantly, by deciding continually and habitually to listen to God at all times and in all things.  By seeing ourselves and others as God sees us, not as the worst of our culture attempts to define us.  By not only acknowledging but seeking the challenge of God, the challenge heeded by the tax collectors and the harlots, the challenge of a new way of life, of offering forgiveness and compassion and reconciliation, even in times like these.   

Who will we be, as persons and as a people?  And will we do the will of our Father? 


[1] Fr. Bret Hays, Sermon for Proper 21, 2014 

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Pentecost 16

So if your Coronatide has been going anything like mine, than you’ve been watching more television than ever before.  With social activities being restricted as they are, Doan and I have been working our way through the vast catalog of British detective shows, and one of our favorites is called Endeavor.  One of the main characters, a detective named Fred Thursday, is the kind of guy most guys want to be: tough yet empathetic, dignified, a man of integrity.  Thursday is a seasoned cop and has always done things right, but through a series of events, he finds himself tempted to take dirty money from corrupt cops for looking the other way and for the occasional services rendered.  Why not take money?  Wasn’t he owed something extra for his years of faithful service?  Thursday starts heading down a precarious road, but then he wakes up.  He remembers that the reward for faithful service is the opportunity to faithfully serve.  He wasn’t owed anything: service is the reward.  

There’s nothing new or profound about that lesson, but it’s somehow remarkably difficult to put into action.  At one time or another, we all feel like we deserve something, that we’re owed something.   

I’ve done my job well for the last couple years, so my employer owes me a raise.  I’ve eaten more than one salad this week, so I deserve a sleeve of Oreos.   

On the flip side, we all have opinions on what other’s deserve (or don’t deserve).  My colleague only barely does his job, he doesn’t deserve to become a manager!  My neighbor is a bit of a dolt, how can he afford that new mower?  Doesn’t he owe me ten bucks? 

Oh, and there’s a third side to this coin – don’t think too hard about the coin.  The third side is what we think God owes us.   

And so we get the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.  It’s a long parable and I won’t recount the entire thing here; what it boils down to is that those who worked for one hour got the same amount of money as those who worked for three hours or six hours or for the whole darn day.   

That’s unfair, right?  What about what is owed, what is deserved?  It’s not fair at all.  And so, a couple things to think about: 

– Why does everyone always identify with the people who worked all day?  I sure do.  There are people in this story who didn’t work all day, and most of us never place ourselves in their shoes.  There’s no evidence that they were lazy or shifty, just not immediately hired.  Have there been times when we haven’t been given the opportunity that others have? 

– Life isn’t fair, and Jesus doesn’t expect that is would be or even should be.  Fairness and justice are two different things.  The owner of the vineyard fulfilled all justice in paying each worker what he had promised him.  Fairness, or what we sense as fair, doesn’t enter into it.  And just to make it clear, the owner of the vineyard in this story is God, and so God’s economy is not based on fairness, but on generosity. 

And that makes us mad, at least when we feel that God’s generosity is not directly focused on us all the time.  We forget, sometimes, that God does not owe us anything, just as much as we forget that we should be grateful to not get what we really deserve.  And we can forget, when we have once again borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat, that the reward for faithful service is the opportunity to faithfully serve.   

God’s generosity, the abundance of His grace, can be bewildering at times.  So will we begrudge our generous God?  Or would we rather He be fair? 

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Pentecost 15

I read a blurb this week from writer Scott Hoezee about George H.W. Bush, Bush the Father.  Hoezee noted that author Jon Meacham describes American President Bush’s popularity throughout his life. As he was growing up, he very popular with other boys. They liked him and felt “protected and secure in his orbit”.  But one time he stepped out of character and used an anti-Semitic slur to describe a Jewish friend.  The sensitive Bush accused himself for this gaffe for the rest of his life.  Interviewed by Meacham nearly seventy years later, “Bush volunteered the story and cried, shaken by guilt over a remark made in the 1930s.  He shook his head in wonder over his own insensitivity.  ‘Never forgotten it.  Never forgotten it.’  (The classmate remained a Bush supporter and friend for many years.”).”[1]

That got me wondering how many of us “accuse” ourselves, the way President Bush did, accuse ourselves of our own misdeeds.  Most of us – and I am all too guilty of this – are more inclined to remember and recount the sins and foibles of others than our own.

This kind of thing comes naturally to humans, of course, and Christians, well, Christians are really good at it.  I have friends of the Pentecostal variety who think I’m as good as lost, thinking I’ve lost my mind to believe that the bread and wine of the Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of Our Lord.  And on the flip side of that, I accuse them of not discerning the Body and Blood of Our Lord, which is a much, much worse accusation.  On the lighter side of things, I’ll make fun of my friends who prefer bongos and praise music, while they make fun of me for liking good music – I mean old music.

All of this kind of thing, the lighter and deeper differences, can rip a community apart.  And of course it has, right?  There are eleven Christian places of worship in the square mile of Bordentown, all presumably operating toward the same goal, all very separate from each other on Sunday mornings (and pretty much every other morning).

To all of this, St. Paul says Stop it.  “Why do you pass judgment on your brother?”, he asks.  Paul was asking the Church in Rome that particular time.  They were quarreling over things.  Some ate meat and others thought it unclean to do so.  Some of great faith looked down on those seen as having a lesser faith.  Some thought Saturday should be the Sabbath – hadn’t it always been?  Some drank wine and others didn’t.  Reminds one of the old joke about liquor stores and the difference between Baptists and Episcopalians.

But this quarreling was no joke – it was dividing and damaging the Church in Rome.  And so Paul sends them advice; advice you’ve heard before, at pretty much every funeral in the Episcopal Church.  “None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

And so if both the living and the dead are the Lord’s, how much can the differences among the living matter?  Enough to shame and shun the weak?  Enough to walk out on each other?  Enough to tear the Body of Christ apart?

Paul says No.  It’s not that judging ideas or practices is wrong – one must discern what is good and what is evil – it’s judging people that gets us in trouble.  It’s not that arguments will never arise, that we should seek a false peace, but that there should always be the understanding that we’re all in this together.  As Paul says, if each of us will give an accounting of ourselves to God, how is it that we can presume to accuse each other?

These past few months have been, I don’t know, stressful?  The pandemic continues, our national politics are a mess, and now large parts of the world are literally on fire.  It’s the kind of situation that can prompt us to turn on our neighbor, and to forget, somehow, that none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.  So remember, beloved, that we – you and me and the vocal vegetarian and the church music snob – we are the Lord’s.  And if we are the Lord’s, how does that change how we treat one another?


[1] https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-19a-2/?type=lectionary_epistle

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Pentecost 14

“To err is Human; to Forgive, Divine.”  Lots of people are surprised when they learn that Jesus didn’t say that, but rather English poet Alexander Pope.  Alexander Pope was the foremost poet of the 18th Century, and is the second-most quoted writer in the English language, per The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, after Shakespeare, of course.  And like Shakespeare, we get a ton of idioms from Pope, including Damning with faint praise; A little learning is a dangerous thing; Fools rush in where angels fear to tread; Hope springs eternal; and Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.

Jesus seems to be expecting much more than nothing from us this morning.  After all, to err is human and to forgive, divine; somehow God expects us to do both, to behave poorly and to forgive each other for it.

“If your brother sins against you.”  Jesus might as well have said “When.”  When your brother sins against you just sounds more realistic, and Jesus knew how sinful people can be.  Think about when Jesus came across the crowd preparing to stone the woman caught in adultery.  “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.”  Jesus wasn’t worried that some sinless person was to be found.

Nothing, of course, has changed.  Jesus didn’t think that even the Church would be a utopia in which sin is eradicated, the need for forgiveness obsolete.

In the Gospel we just heard, Jesus seems to be setting up an ecclesiastical legal system of sorts, a way to work things out in the Church.  We don’t stick to these things, of course, because they’re easier said than done.  Jesus tells us to actually talk to the person who sinned against us, and why on earth would we want to do that?  If we, by some stretch of the imagination, get past that first step and the sinner does not acknowledge his crime, we are supposed to gather up a witness or two and talk to a priest, a move that I’ve seen and usually works.  But if the sinner still refuses to fess up and apologize, that sinner is to be kicked out of the Church, shunned by the community. Shunning can be difficult and dreary work however, so it rarely gets done nowadays, which I think is good, since real forgiveness so rarely gets done either.

But it’s really the last couple things that Jesus said that give us the clue about the bigger picture here.  “Again I say to you,” Jesus said, “that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”  Jesus is being very clear here that no sin is committed against a single person.  A sin, any sin, is committed against the actual victim, yes, but also against the community of believers and against the God who sustains them.  Sin has a ripple effect, then; the harm that it causes spreads.

Thankfully, forgiveness has that same effect.  Again, wherever two or three are gathered together in His Name, Jesus is there.  And if Jesus is there, divinity is there, the ability and even desire to forgive is there.  And when forgiveness takes hold, grievances dropped, entire systems, entire groups of people can be relieved, healed, revived. 

Alexander Pope was correct: to err is human; to forgive, divine.  It is of our nature to fall into sin, just as it is of God’s nature to forgive.  If that seems like a lot to expect from us, remember that Jesus is with us, divinity amongst us; Jesus became like us so that we could become like Him.  Forgiveness is possible – where, or with whom, should we begin?

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Pentecost 12

When I was growing up, I would end up in varied Christian circles – Episcopal, of course, but also Assembly of God with their speaking in tongues (which I’ve never done) and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes with their version of muscular Christianity (which has its appeal).  But across the board, one of the challenges all Christian circles face is the difficulty of explaining what it means to accept Jesus as your savior.  What does that look like?

And again, across the board, the metaphor that was used was (and likely still is) the idea of God giving you a gift and you accepting it.  If salvation is free, it is a gift; and if someone gives you a gift, all wrapped up with a bow on top, but you don’t take that gift, unwrap it and use it, then the gift has no real value.

You can only hear this metaphor so many times, especially as a fifteen year old, before you get really sick of it.  Like any metaphor, it can’t help but lack a certain fullness in the understanding of what it means to become a Christian, or for that matter, to remain a Christian.  But it does get the basic exchange right.

Salvation is a free gift, given by the grace of God, but you have to receive it.  The typical American Christian definition of receiving the gift is to accept Jesus into your heart as your Lord and Savior.  If that language puts you off, congratulations, you’re probably an Episcopalian, so let’s put it this way: to accept the free gift is to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Savior.  Like the Te Deum says, “The holy Church throughout all the world doth acknowledge thee…”

Think about Peter in today’s Gospel lesson.  Jesus asks His disciples who people, other people, say that He is.  Jesus was a full on celebrity at this point, remember, a teacher and wonder-worker.  We’ve been hearing about Jesus healing people for weeks now, so it’s good to remember that up until really not that long ago, the whole world was sick all the time.  And so if a wise and humble man showed up and could heal people with a word, well, you’d know about him.  He might even attract, say, a group of people who followed him around.

Surely the disciples had gotten to know Jesus; they had heard His teaching and seen what He could do.  Jesus had hinted at His identity, and who else could possibly do what He did, but still, it’s difficult to wrap your head around the guy in front of you being divine, being the Son of the Living God.

Enter Peter.  “But who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks.  Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Woo-hoo!  Bells and sirens and confetti should have gone off, and maybe they did in heaven.  “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!”  You are now Peter, Petros, the Rock, even the rock on which I will build my Church.  Holy Cow.

So what did Peter actually do here, to get all this honor?  He acknowledged Jesus for who He was and is.  Did Peter accept Jesus?  I guess, but accept sounds too passive for both Peter and us.  To acknowledge something or someone connotes positive action.  To acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Savior, as divine, as the Son of the Living God, means that your reality, really all of reality, must now be oriented toward Jesus.  Anything less is to not acknowledge Jesus as the Lord.

The free gift of salvation in Christ Jesus is almost unspeakable in its magnitude, and that gift is indeed of at least less use if left in the package, bow intact.  But if we use that gift of grace to see clearly, to see and acknowledge Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, we, like Peter, will indeed be blessed.

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