The Second Sunday of Advent: A Sermon

Readings

“Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light…” That’s from last week’s collect; it’s one of the primary projects of the Advent season.

How does God give us that grace? In many ways, also because there’s such variety in humanity—even in a parish—and what I responded to last year may not match what I respond to today or next year. In last week’s first reading from Isaiah God presents us with a breathtaking vision of the future, and caps it with “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!” Let’s drag that future into our present! We encounter other ways in today’s readings, so we have opportunity to notice these, and wonder about how we’re responding.

John the Baptist, for example: repent, flee the wrath to come! If we respond to that, alleluia! But today the guy with the “The End is Near” sign is usually a comic figure and, even if right, is mostly ignored. The more serious problem is that John’s wheat/chaff image tempts us to assume that the wheat and chaff are easily distinguishable, and that God loves the wheat more than the chaff. Once we start wondering about those assumptions, we’re able to wonder what repentance means.

Our first reading from Isaiah pictures a different divine strategy: a righteous ruler in whose presence the wolf and lamb can live together and, yes, the lamb can sleep soundly. Leadership matters, which is why the Book of Common Prayer has a whole series of prayers for our civic leaders. We pray for them whether or not we like them, whether or not we voted for them, because what they do matters. And their actions encourage or discourage us casting away the works of darkness.

We read that Isaiah text because we see in Jesus the primary fulfillment of that prophecy. The King—in the language of today’s psalm—is present. This is what much of the traditional choreography of our worship celebrates. We’re not dealing with an absent Jesus, but with a Jesus who is very much present. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matt. 18:20).

So, does our belief in Jesus’ presence mean this is a place where the wolf and lamb can live together? “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain:” that’s not a bad test for what welcome we’re giving this King. Which brings us to Paul’s words in Romans.

We read from the fifteenth chapter. The entire fourteenth chapter focused on the conflicts caused by different beliefs regarding acceptable foods and the relative importance of particular days. The different beliefs about food probably related both to meat that had been slaughtered/offered in a pagan temple and to the Mosaic law’s distinctions between clean and unclean food. Paul’s bottom line—repeated in today’s reading—“Welcome one another.”

Pulling back the camera, the challenge of Jewish and Gentile Christians living together runs through pretty much the entire New Testament. Do the Gentile Christians have to follow the Mosaic food laws? No. Do the Jewish Christians have to abandon those laws? No. But getting that to work in practice… In the first century the challenge was creating space for the Gentile Christians; before the second century was over the challenge was preserving space for the Jewish Christians (“Are you really a Christian if you turn down a ham sandwich?”). And having usually avoided Paul’s “welcome one another” when it came to Jewish and Gentile Christians, we weren’t well-positioned do deal with all the other issues over which we Christians have split/splintered.

Dealing with our differences: that’s hard work, and for that Paul pulls out the heavy artillery. “For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’” Here, notice, Paul appeals not to Jesus’ presence (like our first reading), but to Jesus’ example. “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” Particularly in Lent we may do the Stations of the Cross. In Paul’s mind, if doing the Stations isn’t molding us to be more welcoming of each other, there’s a major disconnect.

Again, it’s hard work: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus.” So, those moments when parish life is difficult: not necessarily a sign that we’re doing something wrong. It could be that we’re doing something right.

Circling back to my opening question (How does God give us that grace?) in today’s readings we’ve already encountered three ways: unwelcome prophets like John the Baptist, Jesus’ presence enabling wolf and lamb to live together, Jesus’ example of not pleasing himself, an example that requires—alas—steadfastness and encouragement. We have time for one more, also in Paul’s letter: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you.” Christ has welcomed me. That’s…more than a little surprising. Now, Christ has no interest in me making that the centerpiece of my spirituality. Christ has every interest in my being in touch with that surprise when I’m tempted to withhold welcome.

So, preacher, you’re saying that anything goes? Hardly: there are works of darkness to cast away. The problems arise when I’m too confident in my ability to identify just what those works are (back to the ham sandwiches!) Our history suggests that we’re much more likely to be erecting a wall where Jesus would like a door than vice versa.

Bottom line. “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light…” God answers that prayer, not in a one-size-fits-all way, but in a generous variety of ways: Jesus’ servants the prophets, Jesus’ presence, Jesus’ example, that “power of the Holy Spirit” to which Paul appeals at the end of our reading. Which of those ways might get some traction with us, individually and collectively, in the coming week?

The 1st Sunday of Advent: A Sermon

Readings

It’s always been easy to believe—or fear—that justice and peace come only through resorting to or threatening violence. So at the start of the church year and entering the season in which human yearning for justice and peace are on full display, our first lesson offers a welcome reset. The peoples—the nations—head for Jerusalem to learn to live peacefully, justly. They do so not at the point of a bayonet, but freely. Justice, peace: in the vision these are embodied in Jerusalem’s life. If we wonder how Jerusalem gets there, in the previous chapter we heard both about God’s initiative (“I will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy”) and human responses (“learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow”). If we asked Isaiah which is it, he would probably have said “yes.” The nations come to Jerusalem for the same reason that in Jesus’ parables the man buys the field in which he’s found the treasure, or the merchant sells all she has to buy that one pearl. Moses had laid it out: “You must observe them [the statutes and ordinances] diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” (Deut. 4:6) It’s what Abraham and Sarah are called for: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you… in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:1-3).

This vision isn’t a done deal in Isaiah’s time, hence the last verse: “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!” That’s our future; let’s act accordingly now.

Something like Isaiah’s vision resonates through today’s psalm: “there are the thrones of judgment, / the thrones of the house of David.” But it’s not yet reality. So: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: … I pray for your prosperity. … I will seek to do you good.” Isaiah had cried “Come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!” In the psalm we hear a response: “I will seek to do you [Jerusalem] good.” We might hear an echo of the psalmist’s words in Jesus’ “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33).

Jerusalem: a geographical place, certainly. Equally certainly, one of Scripture’s most potent symbols. McCann: “not just a place, but a symbol of God’s presence in space and time.” In the New Testament, between Jesus’ “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn. 2:19) and Paul’s “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16), the Church, Jesus’ Body, assumes the role of that “symbol of God’s presence in space and time,” a place where God’s nurturing and healing are experienced here, now. So while Isaiah speaks of the peoples coming to Jerusalem, Paul will say: “so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10).

The church as the place to which the peoples turn to learn to live peacefully and justly? This is in fact what drove the growth of the church in the first centuries. The Church Fathers saw Isaiah’s vision being fulfilled in their time. Here’s Justin (2nd Century): “and we, who once killed one another, [now] not only do not wage war against our enemies, but, in order to avoid lying or deceiving our examiners, we even meet death cheerfully, confessing Christ” (Lohfink Jesus and Community 173). And when the emperor Julian a few centuries later attempted to revive paganism he complained:

Why do we not observe that it is their (the Christian’s) benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done the most to increase atheism (Christianity)? …When…the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us” (Lohfink Jesus and Community 163).

“In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed:” that’s still the goal. The nurture of communities—parishes—so marked by justice and peace that the peoples will want to find out what’s going on: that’s still the strategy. So the New Testament letters devote little attention to evangelism (marketing) and a great deal of attention to the quality of community life. As in our Romans reading.

There are intriguing echoes of Isaiah. Paul picks up the light image (“O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!” “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light!”). More, the “works of darkness” Paul lists (“reveling and drunkenness…debauchery and licentiousness… quarreling and jealousy”) are remarkably like Isaiah’s concerns. We people of God do have trouble trusting God, and so easily revert to “every man for themselves.”

There’s a lot more in these readings. Let me notice two. First, Jerusalem: insignificant from the perspective of the great urban centers in Isaiah’s time: how’s it supposed to matter? How are we supposed to matter? This is why, I think, Jesus told the mustard seed parable. It starts small… God repeatedly starts small: Abraham was 75 when he and Sarah responded to that “Go from your country.” Not to mention Abraham’s outsized concern for his own skin, repeatedly telling Sarah “Say you’re my sister so they won’t kill me.”

Second, what of this “coming of the Son of Man” in the Gospel reading? It would be a mistake, I think, to assume that it’s about only a single grand-scale event in our future. The Son of Man comes repeatedly, and it’s prudent to stay awake. Recall the scene Jesus describes at the end of the discourse from which our reading is taken: “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?’… And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” The Son of Man comes repeatedly.

Bottom line: God is preparing a better future for this world than we could achieve, and in the multiple Jerusalems, the geographic one and the multiple congregations scattered over our planet, is nurturing that future in our common life. Today’s texts deploy various images to encourage our participation. Stay awake (so Jesus and Paul). It’s no time—we might say—to go on autopilot. Keep choosing light over darkness. “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!”

All Saints: A Sermon

Readings

In the church calendar All Saints is the last of the “Principal Feasts,” and in a way it’s the feast towards which the other feasts aim. If we ask what Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, et al accomplished, the primary answer is in today’s feast. Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, et al: so that there may be saints.

OK, preacher, so what are saints and what are saints for?

It doesn’t help that the words in question typically show up in negative contexts: “Holier than thou.” “Sanctimonious.” ‘Holy’ sometimes means set apart for God. But God is described as holy, not because God’s “set apart” but because God is completely off whatever scale we’re using. When we encounter God we encounter someone wholly other than ourselves. Not Captain Kirk meeting the Klingons or Romulans, but meeting the Hollywood suits. God is holy.

But here’s where it gets interesting, because God’s holiness is not just about God, but about how God relates to us creatures. Recall the first time the word ‘holy’ appears in the NRSV: God to Moses from the burning bush: “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exod 3:5). And this Holy God is about to send Moses back to Egypt to turn things upside down: “Let my people go!”

Holiness, in other words, regularly gets associated with mission. The Holy Spirit comes on Jesus, and next thing we know he’s in the synagogue in Nazareth reading Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Lk 4:18).

The Holy One calls Israel to participate in this holiness. The Lord to Israel on Mt Sinai before the giving of the Ten Commandments: “you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6b).

A good chunk of Leviticus develops this theme: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (19:2). And that turns out to involve pretty much every area of life, time (observing the Sabbath, the weekly reminder that everything we have is gift), space (how thoroughly the fields are harvested so that the poor can glean after the harvesters come through), to justice in the courts, to “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s holiness.

The Lord seeks to cultivate a holy people because that’s the Lord’s best idea for how to heal this world. That was the strategy with Israel; it’s the strategy with the renewed Israel onto which us Gentiles have been grafted that is the Church.

The collect for this feast celebrates the communion of saints and prays that we might have grace to participate in this communion and so come finally to joy. True enough, but I wish the collect had paid attention to why God seeks to cultivate saints in the first place—because there’s a world that needs healing.

So what’s a saint? Someone God’s drafted—typically through baptism—into the project of healing the world.

OK. All that’s by way of introduction. I’m going to try to do two things in the time remaining. First, look too briefly at the first reading and the Gospel. Second, look at how the theme of holiness plays out in the Eucharist.

In the reading from Daniel the saints of the Most High contrast with the four beasts who represent four kings or kingdoms. Such kingdoms whether then or now regularly represent themselves as the vehicles through whom the world’s healing will come. It was entirely characteristic that the Caesars liked to call themselves “Savior” and “Lord.” Daniel—and the rest of Scripture—is uniformly clear that we’re not to look to them for the world’s healing. Honor the king or the president, but don’t confuse either with the one Savior and Lord, Jesus of Nazareth.

In the middle of the Daniel reading we heard “one like a human being [the older translation is “one like the Son of man”] coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship…” That’s the text Jesus used of himself, most decisively at his trial before the high priest. Within the context of Daniel that figure could be taken as an individual or as the symbol for a group; within the context of the whole Bible it’s clear that the figure shows us Jesus as representative Israel, and ourselves as participants in Israel by virtue of our union with Jesus.

So where are we in Daniel’s vision? On the one hand, still among those great beasts, and it’s easy to fear that they get the last word. On the other hand, in union with that “one like the Son of Man” with Paul praying—our second reading—that we “may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.” We run on hope.

The Gospel reading from Luke gives us a series of blessings and woes. In light of God’s coming kingdom, who’s in a good place, who’s in a bad place? (Within the context of our feast, what does a saint look like?) Each of the groups vying for the soul of the Jewish people in Jesus’ time—the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Herodians, the Zealots, the Essenes, would have had their own very different answer to that question. Here Jesus lays out his. It all comes, we might say, from having a mother who went around singing the Magnificat. “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (Lk. 1:51-52).

It would be easy to hear Gospel text—or the Magnificat for that matter—as a call to arms. So Jesus’ turn midway through our text is important: “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” The Zealots in the crowd really like those verses in today’s psalm: “Let the praises of God be in their throat / and a two-edged sword in their hand; / To wreak vengeance on the nations / and punishment on the peoples…”; Jesus understands that the interpretation of these verses is perilous. We run on hope.

Finally, and even more briefly, holiness in the Eucharist. Echoing what Isaiah heard in the temple, we acclaim “Holy, holy, holy Lord.” We say other things about God, but that’s front and center.

Somewhat later holiness is again front and center, but obscured somewhat in English, which uses both ‘holy, holiness’ etc from the Old English hālig and ‘saint, sanctify’ etc from the Latin sanctus. Using ‘holy’ throughout in prayer A we get “Make them holy by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him. Make us holy also that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace; and at the last day bring us with all your holy ones into the joy of your eternal kingdom.” We’re asking the Holy Spirit to effect two transformations: one on the bread and wine, one on us. In every Eucharist we’re asking the Lord to move us a little closer to “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy”—for the sake of this broken world.

I said early on that holiness gets regularly associated with mission. God is working at creating saints so a broken world can be healed, so that a broken world can again hope. So nothing more appropriate than that the Eucharist ends with the Holy One sending all of us out in mission: “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” “Thanks be to God.”

The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

O LORD, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?

There are so many places in today’s world that prompt that cry. Too many places. Habakkuk was a contemporary of Jeremiah, prophesying around 600 BC, about the time the Babylonians were beginning to throw their weight around.

Habakkuk seems to have been crying out about local injustice and violence. The Lord’s initial response: I’m bringing in the Babylonians to clean things up. So Habakkuk cries out again: that cure is worse than the disease. Here’s a bit of that second cry, Habakkuk telling the Lord just what he thinks of this response:

You have made people like the fish of the sea,
like crawling things that have no ruler.
The enemy brings all of them up with a hook;
he drags them out with his net,
he gathers them in his seine;
so he rejoices and exults.…
for by them his portion is lavish,
and his food is rich.

And so, returning to the text we heard, Habakkuk’s on his watchtower, waiting for an answer. The Lord’s answer speaks of waiting and of living by faith.

If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.
Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.

That’s by no means all that’s in the answer, but it’s enough for the moment: waiting and living by faith. Notice that the answer does not reduce the tension between what is and what ought to be. Nor is the answer “suck it up.” Wait…in faith, in trust. The proud assume that they need neither faith nor trust: they’re in control. In this situation what our response to the Lord (our righteousness) needs is faith and trust.

We’ll come back to what faith and trust might look like momentarily, but first our second lesson, Paul writing to the church in Thessalonica, about 180 miles up the coast from Athens. Habakkuk was complaining about the violence surrounding him; the Thessalonians seem to have been on the receiving end of local violence. Paul prays that the Lord give them power to live out the faith and trust Habakkuk talked about.

In that prayer Paul speaks of the Lord “revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” The waiting to which Habakkuk is called will not go on indefinitely. At the same time, these verses make clear that vengeance is the Lord’s business, not ours.

Which brings us to the Gospel. Jesus is passing through Jericho and notices Zacchaeus, whom Luke describes as “a chief tax collector and… rich.” We wonder if taxes here could be any worse—and yes, they could. The Romans subcontracted their tax collection, and if the subcontractors happened to collect more than required… Recall Habakkuk:

The enemy brings all of them up with a hook;
he drags them out with his net,…
for by them his portion is lavish,
and his food is rich.

Not a bad description of the tax collectors. So in Judea under Roman occupation, if you’re looking for someone who symbolizes everything that’s wrong, look no further than Zacchaeus. If there were ever a time for some of that flaming fire that Paul talked about… And Jesus invites himself over to Zacchaeus’ home.

Let’s slow down for the last part:

Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Jesus’ presence and choices have seriously messed with Zacchaeus’ head.

From one perspective this is an unfortunate text to pop up during stewardship season, because Zacchaeus says nothing about contributing to the temple. From another perspective it’s a fortunate text, reminding us of the intimate link between faith/faithfulness and the checkbook.

We saw this a few weeks ago, in that scene in which the Lord tells Jeremiah to buy the field from his relative Hanamel because “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” The timing could not have been worse: the Babylonian army, then laying siege to Jerusalem, probably had its spare chariots parked on that field. But “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land,” so take out your checkbook, Jeremiah.

Elsewhere Jesus says “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Lk. 12:34). That works, I think, both ways. My heart (my center) shapes my budget. And the decisions I make about my resources shape my heart.

Changing one’s heart in any significant way is near impossible. But one way change happens over time—for good or ill—is through the choices I make with my resources. So, when the General Thanksgiving speaks of “the means of grace,” that covers not only prayer, Scripture, etc., but also the checkbook. But back to our story.

“For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” The justice that Habakkuk cried out for, the vengeance Paul described: that will come. But meanwhile, what waiting and having faith look like often look something like how Jesus interacts with Zacchaeus. It would have been easy not to notice Zacchaeus, or, noticing him, to immediately write him off. We’ll be coming up to the altar rail in a bit: “Unite us to your Son in his sacrifice.” Who knows how God might answer that prayer, how God might mess with our vision so that we see—really see—folk we overlook and respond in ways that somewhat reflect what Jesus did that day in Jericho.

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

So, last Sunday on the way home I stopped at Ski-Hi Fruit Farm just off Highway 12 south of Baraboo. A gallon of unpasteurized apple cider, an apple pie, and four bags of different varieties of apples later, I continued home. I love October: so many things are ready for harvesting: apples, broccoli, cabbage, plums, pumpkins, squash, sweet potatoes, watermelon. I wasn’t planning on getting a jump start on participating in the joy of our first reading and psalm, but I’ll take it. As the psalm puts it:

12 You crown the year with your goodness, *
and your paths overflow with plenty.

So let us rejoice now—even though we postpone a good chunk of that to Thanksgiving in late November!

For today’s lessons let’s focus on the psalm, drawing in the other readings as appropriate.

The components of our psalm, Psalm 65, sit on the border between a hymn and a community thanksgiving, maybe at harvest. The references to Zion and the temple encourage us to use it as a lens to think about what we’re doing in worship.

2 To you that hear prayer shall all flesh come, *
because of their transgressions.
3 Our sins are stronger than we are, *
but you will blot them out.

Our transgressions, our sins: always an issue. We come to worship not because we’ve got them under control, but because we don’t. That’s one of the things the tax collector in Jesus’ parable gets right. “Our sins are stronger than we are.” You might recall that scene from Uncle Remus’ Br’er Rabbit fighting the Tar-Baby. “I’m gonna kick the stuffin’ out of you,’ Brer Rabbit said and pounced on the Tar Baby with both feet. They sank deep into the Tar Baby. Brer Rabbit was so furious he head-butted the cute little creature until he was completely covered with tar and unable to move.”[1] Sound familiar? Some of us have a collection of Tar-Babies, so we keep coming back to the One who can do something about it. And having acknowledged all that, the psalm moves on!

4 Happy are they whom you choose
and draw to your courts to dwell there! *
they will be satisfied by the beauty of your house,
by the holiness of your temple.
5 Awesome things will you show us in your righteousness,
O God of our salvation, *
O Hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the seas that are far away.

We gather for beauty. The beauty of the building and its surroundings, the beauty the altar guild works to preserve and enhance, the beauty of the music, certainly. Equally, the beauty of the language, as we strive to use language that’s not simply ugly. The Baptist preacher Tony Campolo describes our world as a market where all the price tags have been jumbled. So at least in the sanctuary “we praise you for your glory” is directed to God, not the latest political/entertainment idol. And the beauty of what God is working in each of us—despite the tar! And the beauty of the Eucharist’s preview of the coming feast: there is enough for everyone; there is room for everyone; everyone is welcome.

“Awesome things will you show us in your righteousness.” God’s righteousness (Hebrew tsedeq): we may hear that as threat, but usually in the psalms and prophets and Paul (!) it’s about God’s faithfulness, God’s willingness to do whatever it takes. So here the NRSV translates “deliverance.” We see that particularly in the Eucharist. Jesus, God incarnate, gives us his Flesh, his Blood, doing whatever it takes. There is such hope woven into the Eucharist.

“Awesome things”—yet God does not leave us as passive recipients. In our Eucharistic Prayer: “Unite us to your Son in his sacrifice.” Pray that, and in one form or another we’re with Paul as he speaks in our second reading “I am already being poured out as a libation,” what Paul elsewhere describes as sharing in Christ’s sufferings (Phil 3:10). This is one reason why, by the way, there’s that rubric in the bulletin “All baptized are welcome to share in our Communion.” It’s good to have some idea what you’re getting into, which is what the preparation for Baptism addresses.

The following verses in our psalm, vv.6-12, celebrate God’s ongoing creative and saving work, crowned by that harvest:

12 You crown the year with your goodness, *
and your paths overflow with plenty.

Whether the roaring of the primordial waves at creation, or the clamor of the peoples, this God can deal with it.

This very brief look at the psalm as a lens for what worship is about also sets us up to hear Jesus’ parable. If this is what worship, coming into the temple, is about, bringing our sin before God, drinking in God’s beauty, holiness, righteousness, consenting again to be united to God’s ongoing work, then the Pharisee’s “God, I thank you that I am not like other people” is simply a non-starter. Non-starter? The Pharisee’s right there with Br’er Rabbit: “completely covered with tar and unable to move.” And some Sundays—God help us—we’re right there with them.

“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Here we need a brief sidebar on those tricky words ‘humble’ and ’humility’. It’s bad enough that ‘humble’ gets understood as ‘prone to grovel’ (Monty Python repeatedly nails this one), but then there’s the patriarchal overlay. As the Benedictine Joan Chittister observes[2] “Pride and self-esteem became marks of mental health for men. Humility became a trait of the well-developed female.” Drawing on the Benedictine tradition, Chittister writes:

“Humility in the Rule of Benedict is not subservience. It is openness to the totality of life, both within the soul and within the human community. From a Benedictine perspective, humility does not diminish a person; it provides a basis for realistic evaluation, for accepting who and what I am, for being willing to grow beyond my demanding self, and so for allowing other people to be who and what they are. This kind of humility requires a new kind of self-acceptance.… Pride drives a wedge between us and reality; humility is its glue.”

OK, finally, what happens if we bring our first reading from the prophet Joel into conversation with the psalm? Well, two things at least.

First, we’re reminded that “You crown the year with your goodness, / and your paths overflow with plenty” is often not our experience. The folk in the Ukraine need no reminder: they’re in the middle of “the swarming locust…the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter” part. Nor the folk in Bangladesh: the effects of global warming keep putting an increasing number of fields underwater. So our reading of these texts is—should be—a praying with, a hoping with. These texts lay out what God desires, what God will restore. Neither the Russian military nor the corporate greed that hobbles our response to global warming will get the last word.

Second, midway through Joel’s words there’s a gear shift: “Then afterward / I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.” God’s after restoration, but not stopping there. Paul captures it in the letter to the Romans:

“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom. 8:19-25).

So, in the spirit of today’s psalm, stop by places like Ski-Hi Fruit Farm to celebrate and enjoy this year’s harvest. And let that feed your hope and patience for that harvest Paul describes, “creation itself… set free from its bondage to decay and… obtain[ing] the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”


[1] https://americanfolklore.net/folklore/2010/07/brer_rabbit_meets_a_tar_baby.html.

[2] This and the following citations from her Heart of Flesh: A Feminist Spirituality for Women and Men.

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

One of Madison Avenue’s favorite words is ‘instant’. This is not new; I grew up on commercials with jingles like Alka-Seltzer’s “Relief is just a swallow away.” Over time, these shape our expectations of how things should work, even of how God should work. Our increasingly urban environments don’t help, where milk is something you get at Quiktrip (notice the name) rather than from a cow whose health requires long-term care. But today’s lessons: they give us multiple opportunities to recalibrate our expectations. Let’s walk through them.

The first reading from Jeremiah is an excerpt from the collection of announcements of salvation in chapters 30-31. Of the three announcements in today’s text, the third, the one about the new covenant, is probably the best known.

Prophecy often blends God’s long-term and short-term intentions—like here. “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” That sounds like some sort of spiritual surgery, something that contrasts with continual teaching. Many usually discerning readers have read it this way. Gerhard von Rad in the last century: “in the new covenant the doubtful element of human obedience …drops out completely.” But if that’s the case, whatever we’ve got now, it isn’t the new covenant, as Paul’s instructions to Timothy in our second reading remind us. Better, I think, to hear “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” as the goal of a rather long process.

It’s no accident, I think, that it’s precisely in this book that we find Jeremiah’s anguished complaints: what is God up to? What does it mean to be the servant of this God? These complaints are, I think, one of our clearest pictures of what putting the law within them, writing it on their hearts looks like.

In studying any text it’s useful to ask how the text was subsequently heard. In the case of this text, what we encounter are individuals and groups claiming that text: yes, this is what we want! So, subsequently in a text that is now part of Isaiah:

Listen to me, you who know righteousness,
you people who have my teaching in your hearts;
do not fear the reproach of others,
and do not be dismayed when they revile you. (Isa 51:7 NRS)

And we encounter this in the Psalter, particularly in Ps 119, a portion of which we read this morning:

Oh, how I love your law!
all the day long it is in my mind.

In other words, God’s people, hearing Jeremiah’s words, understood that their role wasn’t simply passive, and were actively claiming those words, with all the continued reflection that Ps 119 implies.

“I will put my law within them;” “Oh, how I love your law!” In both cases the word in question is tôrâ, which can as properly be translated by ‘instruction’ as by ‘law’. And that points us toward the description of “the sacred writings” in Paul’s letter to Timothy:

“useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

And here our, well, addiction to the instant tempts us to hear this text saying we read Scripture once, and, having learned what it says, go on to other issues. The word we’re gliding over is ‘training.’ So in both the Jewish and Christian traditions our engagement with Scripture is ongoing.

The easiest way of unpacking this is to recall Anaïs Nin’s “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.” As God succeeds in healing us, transforming us, changing us, what we see in both Scripture and the world will change, and we have new questions, or new ways of coming at old questions. “What does it mean to live humanly?” Hopefully I keep getting better at answering that question. And, note, the question isn’t answered in the abstract but in my daily choices as I interact with the folk around me. Jesus saves! OK, what does he save me/us from? What does he save me/us for? Hopefully our answers to those questions haven’t ossified!

By the way, this is not a call to stay up-to-date with the current shibboleths of either the left or the right. One of the lovely things about Jesus’ teaching is how he normally cuts diagonally across the entrenched positions. Taxes to Caesar or not? Well, whose head’s on the coin? Stone her or not? Well, who here’s without sin? It takes serious training to even see the diagonals.

Bottom line, God’s work is more interesting, more life-giving, than I can imagine, and God desires that I be increasingly free to appreciate it. (That passion for our freedom is the motor for the training Paul highlights, and is picked up in the chorus of our closing hymn: “Let my people go!”)

So, at the center of what Cranmer was doing in the creation of the Book of Common Prayer in the 16th century was sketching out a form of parish life so that “everyone who belongs to God” could daily drink from the deep wells of Scripture. Those multiple monastic offices for hearing Scripture and prayer? He reduced them to two so that everyone in the parish could participate—and put them at the beginning of the book.

So while the recovery of the Holy Eucharist as the weekly Sunday celebration was one of the positive gains of the 1979 BCP, that the dirty pages start there is not a sign of parish health. In sum, it’s too easy for us—also the clergy—to assume that we know what we need to know and simply need to get on with it.

“Relief is just a swallow away.” Hard to find a clearer contrast with that than today’s Gospel, with that widow who finally wears down the unjust judge. Jesus is talking about prayer, and his parable assumes a noticeable period of time between when we make our requests and when we receive an answer. The wicked judge is simply no match for this persistent widow. If that judge responds to the widow, how much more will God respond to those who pray!

What is remarkable about the parable is that Jesus is uninterested in defending God’s justice. That’s something Israel periodically wondered about. It’s something the psalms regularly complain about. We wonder and complain about it. Jesus leaves that question on the sidelines and responds pragmatically: be like the widow, keep praying. And this is a classic Old Testament response. Recall Isaiah:

You who remind the LORD,
take no rest,
and give him no rest
until he establishes Jerusalem
and makes it renowned throughout the earth. (Isa 62:6b-7 NRS)

“Be like that widow” isn’t the only take-away from our text; the other is more subtle. There’s an inherent tension between Jesus’ “I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them” and the set-up, the “need to pray always and not to lose heart.” If we experience God acting quickly, then losing heart isn’t an issue. And having introduced the tension, Jesus does nothing to resolve it.

What’s in play here is, I think, the logic of friendship. Each of us is different, and friendship requires accepting that difference, not trying to ignore or remove it. The Bible thinks what we’re invited to is friendship with God. “Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exod. 33:11). Jesus to the apostles: “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (Jn. 15:15). And from the Wisdom of Solomon: “in every generation she [Wisdom] passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets” (7:27). And one of the obvious differences in this friendship is our experience of time. This God does time differently, so part of friendship with this God is living with that difference, a difference that can be periodically profoundly unsettling.

Now, with Paul’s words about Scripture and Jesus’ “be like that widow” we’re looking at the two main elements in Cranmer’s Morning and Evening Prayer, the daily offices. So while this sermon didn’t start out to be an invitation to use these weeks before Advent starts as an opportunity to explore these first hundred or so pages in our prayer book, here we are.

So, two things, briefly. If you work with your smartphone as happily as with the printed page, if you aren’t using it already, check out the Mission St. Clare website whose address is in the bulletin. It has apps for both the iPhone and Android systems that insert the scheduled readings into the various offices automatically, so no page turning! If you prefer the printed page, remember the single-page condensations of the offices on pages 137-140 of the BCP.

Listening regularly to this Friend, talking regularly with this Friend: nothing instant about it, but if we want freedom we’ll make time for it, and, as often as it gets stale, change it up.

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings

Last week we were in Lamentations, mourning the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian armies in 586 BC and all that went with it: the destruction of the temple, the sacrament of God’s presence, the end of Davidic rule, the end of what was left of national sovereignty. Today, fast forwarding, we’re with that group of survivors who’d been escorted to Babylon.

Those survivors: so vulnerable to con artists and false prophets. “The Lord’s going to smite Babylon and bring us back this week. Don’t unpack.” And their vulnerability, rather like ours. Recent decades have us going through profound changes: the non-Hispanic white population percentage is shrinking; the Census Bureau estimates it’ll be around 44% in 2060. The path that by-passed college for long-term employment and a secure middle-class life has pretty much disappeared. This has hit men—used to being the breadwinners—particularly hard: David Brooks writes “Men account for close to three out of every four ‘deaths of despair’ — suicide and drug overdoses” (NYT 9/29/2022). Con artists and false prophets who promise a return to an increasingly imaginary past, who stoke our fear of the “other”? Yup, we’re vulnerable.

So Jeremiah’s letter to these exiles—prompted by these false prophets—is one we might want to listen to.

“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem.” The exiles are still in the hands of the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel. God isn’t AWOL.

“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.” They’re (we’re) going to be here for a good while. Unpack. Put down, continue to put down roots.

And equally important: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” The temptation’s very strong to hunker down, self-isolate. Centuries later Jesus would pick up this commission: “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:13-14). Seek, pray. We often don’t have the slightest idea what to pray for; the problems seem so intractable. The good news is that God isn’t limited by our imaginations. Rowan Williams has suggested simply holding the problem and God in the same frame: Lord, be present here. “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

In situations like this it really helps to have the Exodus as your central story. As today’s psalm put it, “He turned the sea into dry land, / so that they went through the water on foot.” So folk like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and, later, Esther, followed this God through the waters. And in such different ways! Daniel and his companions stayed as far away as they could from Gentile food; Esther gave banquets for the king and selected guests. So the Jewish community in Babylon thrived for centuries. The central text for rabbinic Judaism:  the Babylonian Talmud.

In situations like this is really helps to have the new Exodus, Jesus’ cross and resurrection, as your central story. Really hard to defeat someone who doesn’t stay dead. So Jesus’ followers—some of whom are in our calendar—have shown us many ways to seek the welfare of the city. In October we remember folk like Wilfred Genfell, who “built the first hospital of the Labrador Medical Mission in 1893, eventually opening boarding schools, hospital ships, clothing distribution centers, and the Seaman’s Institute at St. John’s, Newfoundland” (Holy Women, Holy Men). Vida Dutton Scudder, who helped found Denison House in Boston to provide social services and education to the local population, and organized unions, and Alfred the Great (9th Century), who turned back the Danes and sponsored translations of classics in history and theology into English.

Following this God, seeking the welfare of the city: we can empathize with Thomas: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” And Jesus’ response: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” The way, the truth, the life: the wonder of that is captured in a poem by W. H. Auden:

He is the Way.
Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness;
you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek him in the kingdom of Anxiety:
you will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life.
Love him in the World of the Flesh:
and at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

We’ll use that poem for our offertory hymn.

In closing, today’s Gospel provides a lovely P.S. to Jeremiah. Following this God, seeking the welfare of the city: sounds like it could be a pretty lonely quest. And then there’s that unexpected Samaritan, the one of ten lepers who returns to give praise to God. As Elrond said to Frodo as the nine left from Rivendell: “you may find friends upon your way when you least look for it.” Who knows what allies we might discover if we ignore the many voices seeking to divide us?

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

This Sunday our readings go in quite different directions, so we’ll look first at Lamentations and then at our Gospel.

Lamentations. Since Pentecost our Old Testament readings have had us listening to the prophets’ warnings: if you continue to turn away from the true God and continue to oppress the vulnerable (who, like you, bear the image of that true God), things will turn out badly. In last week’s reading the Babylonian army had Jerusalem surrounded, and soon after that were inside. But rather than a triumphant “I told you so,” what Scripture gives us are five powerful laments.

If you look at them in the pew Bibles, you’ll notice that chapters 1, 2, 4, and 5 all have 22 verses, and chapter 3, 66 verses. Why? The Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters, so we’ve got five acrostic laments, each verse beginning with the next letter in the alphabet, giving voice to grief from A to Z, and then back again. Chapter 3, the centerpiece, devotes three verses to each letter, so 66 verses total.

Grief over the loss of the beloved city, or—poetry is open-ended—a loved one, or a cherished dream: Lamentations knows that that’s hard work, but necessary work, and work in which there are no short-cuts. It’s part of being human. So, grief from A to Z, and then again, as often as needed.

Mercifully, the Bible doesn’t end with this book. There is an “after,” and the Bible explores what this “after” can look like. I could sketch out this exploration, but that might give the impression that grief is something to be moved past to get to the important part. No: grief is just as important as any other part, and we’ll know when we’re ready to wonder about that “after.”

We never want to be in a situation in which we need that book, but it’s there when and as often as we need it.

Deep breath. Our Gospel reading. Today’s reading comes directly after the rich man and Lazarus story we heard last week. That story was part of Jesus response to the Pharisees. Verse 14 in that chapter: “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money heard all this, and they ridiculed him.”

How do we speak truthfully about the Pharisees? It’s clear from the Gospels that Jesus had much more in common with the Pharisees than he had with the Sadducees, the Herodians, the Zealots, etc. When God looked for someone to spearhead the mission to the Gentiles, God drafted Paul the Pharisee. And, pulling back the camera, we acknowledge with gratitude the beauty and holiness that rabbinic Judaism, child of the Pharisees, has continued to produce over the centuries. What drove Jesus’ opposition to the Pharisees was the twofold recognition that (1) too many of their leaders were not successfully resisting the temptations of power, and simply stuck, and that (2) his own disciples were too often not even recognizing that these were temptations to be resisted! The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ opposition—written decades later—have more to do with the conduct the church leaders should avoid than with what the Pharisees were doing.

So how is Jesus instructing the disciples?

Don’t be the cause of someone else stumbling. You’re responsible for each other.

If another disciple sins, rebuke. If that disciple repents, forgive—as often as necessary.

Following these instructions isn’t a matter of having more faith/trust. As Yoda put it “Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.”

If you’ve followed these instructions, don’t give yourself airs. You’ve just done what needed to be done. (By the way, we don’t want to misuse that “worthless slaves” as a starting point for our self-definition. Jesus is happy to use hyperbole to help us avoid fatal mistakes, as in the prayer that starts “God, I thank you that I am not like other people…” [Lk. 18:11])

OK. Jesus probably doesn’t get the warm-and-fuzzy award for these words. And as we look at these instructions, I think we see that Jesus is envisioning a more cohesive—and, frankly, riskier—community than we often settle for. The “safe” way of doing community is through a general hands-off pact: I’m OK, you’re OK, and we’ll leave it at that. “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender.” But rebuke only works if through experience I know that the person rebuking me is doing so out of concern for me, not as an exercise in one-upmanship. That is, Jesus’ vision of community is of one that’s nurtured over time, not one that comes into being overnight.

A community that’s nurtured over time: that’s also behind “And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” We’re slow learners. Sometimes my first “I’m sorry” is “I’m sorry I got caught out,” then, later, “I’m sorry that my action didn’t produce the result I intended.” Hopefully I eventually get to “I’m sorry that I even thought that was a good idea.” So seven times a day may be at the low end of the possible scenarios.

Pulling back the camera, how well have we attended to Jesus’ instructions? Too often, not very well, with results that periodically go sideways very publicly, the abuse scandals being simply the latest example. “She weeps bitterly in the night, / with tears on her cheeks…” We have Lamentations also to grieve over these failures.

So why does Jesus even bother? There’s a new world to be created. And God/Jesus, ever hopeful, who prefers to redeem rather than replace, doesn’t choose folk well-suited for the task, but folk like the disciples, folk like you and me, folk like Paul.

Speaking of Paul, what does our second reading contribute to all this? Perhaps this, that Paul really cares that Timothy get it right. It matters to Paul. And so, in a bit, when we pray “joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven,” we’re not talking about a crowd that doesn’t care how the game goes, constantly at the concession stands or doing the wave. They care and intercede, and, supported also by their care and intercession, we’ll again go forth to “love and serve the Lord.”

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

One of my favorite sayings about optimists and pessimists runs like this: the optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist agrees. In that context, we might hear Paul’s words as hopeful: there are alternatives.

On the one hand, Paul tracks with the cynic and stoic philosophers: choosing contentment is key to happiness. Then and now that means swimming upstream in a culture that constantly and stridently proclaims that happiness depends on always having more. (It takes effort to swim upstream, hence our collect’s “running to obtain your promises.”)

Notice that the problem is not wealth, but the desire for wealth. Good work can produce wealth, but when the desire for wealth replaces a commitment to good work, it’s never pretty, as in the typical grocery store: too many products that are simply bad for our health, produce like tomatoes that retain the name, but not the taste.

But Paul sets his invitation to contentment in the context of our confession of God as generous Creator (“God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment”). Luke Johnson puts this provocatively: “human existence is in itself a gift from God that cannot in any significant fashion be improved by material possessions.”

But preacher, doesn’t “contentment” mean “boring”? Well, notice how Jesus does contentment, spending so much time at the table that his enemies: “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Matt. 11:19). OK, preacher, but doesn’t “contentment” mean stagnation? Here the historian Lynn White Jr is helpful: technological progress—harnessing water and wind power—is driven by the monastic commitments to find an alternative to slavery (the source of this power in the classical world) and to live out Paul’s injunction “to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.” Contentment—Paul thinks—frees us to mirror God’s creative generosity.

“God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” That’s deeply rooted in the opening chapters of Genesis, and it’s easy to forget how counter-cultural it was/is. Israel, remember, lived between the two cultural powerhouses of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and Egypt, with Mesopotamia being more relevant in this context.

The creation stories in Mesopotamia ran something like this: sowing, harvesting, keeping the canals dredged: that’s backbreaking work, and finally the minor gods had enough and revolted. The major gods solved the problem by creating humankind—to do the work no one else wanted to do. So if you’re wondering why life is the way it is…

In that context—and that’s the context in which these chapters of Genesis took their present shape—one of the big surprises is that we humans aren’t created to solve a divine problem. So if we weren’t created for that, what were we created for? Genesis—and the rest of Scripture—wonders about that question.

But back to our reading. Living like the gods is a common human dream. And Scripture happily encourages it—as long as we remember how the Living God lives. “God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” So go and do likewise: “do good…be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.”

Jesus’ story in our Gospel reading covers much the same ground as our second reading. No surprise: Jesus and Paul are drinking from the same wells. We might notice the last bit: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” As Christians our faith is properly centered on this someone. But if “they” aren’t listening to Moses and the prophets, that “someone” isn’t going to be convincing. Moses and the prophets: to hazard a summary: the generous Creator expects us to live generously. If “they” find that unbelievable Jesus isn’t going to register. This is why the quality of our parish life is so important: the world badly needs to be able to see what living generously looks like. Our common life is an intrinsic part of our message.

We can imagine responding to Jesus and Paul in good weather; what about in nasty weather? I’m thankful for Jeremiah. In the middle of the Babylonian siege Jeremiah’s cousin comes to him asking him to buy up some family property—a field. The timing could not be worse, for that field is almost certainly currently occupied by some unit in the Babylonian army. Responding to the request and to the divine word, Jeremiah buys the property and dots all the legal i’s and crosses all the legal t’s so that the family’s ownership will remain undisputed. Even in nasty weather by God’s grace Jeremiah is able to act generously, in imitation of this generous God.

Now, a sidebar. While today’s texts have a lot to say about what we do, our images of God are equally important. Jesus is not the Son of just any god, but of the God revealed in Moses and the prophets, the generous God who digs very deep for our healing. Do I believe in that God? Most days that’s a work-in-progress. And what image of God reigns in my gut profoundly shapes what I feel, think, and do.

We might wrap all this up by noticing that the story Jesus tells is open-ended. On the personal level it challenges us: how are things around my gate? On the local, state, and national levels, who are getting our votes? Those concerned that the rich man continue to feast undisturbed, or those concerned that Lazarus not lay at the gate indefinitely. We pray “God bless America;” what are we doing to encourage God to think that’s a good idea?

It turns out that imitating God and encountering God dovetail in surprising ways. “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?… And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’” (Matt. 25:37-40).

The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross: A Sermon

Readings

The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross: how might we join in this feast’s celebration today?

We might start with that scene at the end of Genesis. Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, is now second only to Pharaoh, and he’s been providing for his family in Egypt. But their father Jacob has just died, and the brothers fear that Joseph will now settle some scores. Here’s Joseph’s response:

“Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones” (Gen. 50:19-21).

You intended to do harm; God intended it for good. This is likely one of the primary uses of that divine sovereignty celebrated in our first reading and psalm. Human intentions aren’t the only ones in play. And the Holy Cross is one of the most potent symbols of that. When it came to Jesus, the cross did not accomplish what the Romans and religious authorities intended. For all their use of it, the Romans weren’t even able to control what the cross means—as a visit to any jewelry store will attest.

So, with Joseph “Do not be afraid!” The Holy Cross—what God has done with that cross—just might unsettle our assumptions about what deserves our fear.

But this is perhaps to get ahead of ourselves, as does, I suspect, the collect for today’s feast. “Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him…” Well, yes, of course. But moving immediately to “take up our cross and follow him” is perhaps to encourage us to run while we’re still trying to get the hang of walking.

So I really appreciate Paul’s choices about when to speak of the cross in our second reading. The Romans with their endless supply of crosses haven’t gone anywhere. Earlier in the letter he speaks of some of the readers suffering, but that’s not where he speaks of the cross (“Jesus bore his cross; you bear yours.”) Rather, he speaks of it in the context of the conflicts that are normal in communities and parishes: “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit…” And what he wants them—us—to see is the cross as the expression of Jesus’ “mind,” Jesus’ way of approaching things, Jesus’ way of making decisions. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” That’s Jesus’ “mind,” and the motor for the story Paul retells. Had Jesus looked to his own interests, “equality with God as something to be exploited” would have been just the ticket! But Jesus looks to the interests of others, and so begins a story that bottoms out on the cross, and results in the healing and restoration to which all creation had been invited. From today’s Isaiah reading: “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!”

Put differently, we might hear the collect’s “grace to take up our cross and follow him” in dramatic or heroic terms. Paul’s “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” reminds us that most of the time looking to the interests of others is where taking up the cross starts. Not at all dramatic or heroic, but perhaps even more difficult given my standing—but never articulated—assumption that my interests, my perspectives really do deserve to be first in line.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” OK, preacher, how does Paul think we’re supposed to do that? Well, three things that we might observe.

First, this “mind…that was in Christ Jesus,” this way, is at once Jesus’ way and our way. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” is not something to file under advanced forms of Christian spirituality for those who are into that sort of thing, but core to our Christian identity. This doesn’t answer the “how” question, but does tell us we’re not dealing with something optional.

Second, elsewhere in the letter Paul reminds his hearers of how Timothy, Epaphroditus, and Paul himself have embodied this way in their dealings with the Christians in Philippi. “I am hard pressed between the two”—writes Paul—”my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.” The point is to pay attention to the folk in our lives who’ve looked “to the interests of others.” That just might nourish our desire that this way be more central to our identity.

Third, toward the end of the letter we hear “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel…” (Phil. 4:2-3). This looking to the interests of others—not easy, and we need each other’s support.

Let’s pull the camera back. Joseph: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good… So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones” Jesus, from our reading a few weeks back: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk. 12:32). This “mind…that was in Christ Jesus” rests of Jesus’ trust that God has Jesus’ back—so Jesus can attend to other’s backs. As Paul describes it, it turns out to be a virtuous circle: as I trust that God has my back I’m freer to attend to others’ backs. As I attend to others’ backs, I find it easier to trust that God has mine.

The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross: an invitation to enter into the mystery of our salvation as captured in Morning Prayer’s collect for Friday:

“Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.”