Author Archives: Fr. Tom McAlpine

About Fr. Tom McAlpine

Fr. Tom is a semi-retired priest in the Episcopal Church living in Fitchburg, Wisconsin.

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

The Readings (Track 1)

We’re going to give the lion’s share of attention to the Ephesians reading, but, first, a bit of muddling around in the other readings.

Tour guides often have pages like “If you have only one day in New York…” Any equivalent guide to the Old Testament would include our first reading. God’s promise to David of an eternal house (dynasty) is the basis for all the hopes for a coming son of David. It’s the reason ‘Messiah’/’Christ’ (the anointed one) is such a key title. It starts here with Nathan’s words to David.

One element worth noticing in Nathan’s words is the repeated reference to houses of cedar (houses at the high end of the market): “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” “…did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’” There is probably some exasperation in God’s response: I don’t need a house of cedar; why do you think you need a house of cedar? Why this question? Consider, a few centuries later, Jeremiah’s words (22:15) to the current Davidic king: “Are you a king because you compete in cedar?” This is the sort of question God directs to many of us from time to time: “Tom, why do you think you need…?” The Book of Proverbs nails it:

7 Two things I ask of you;
do not deny them to me before I die:
8 Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that I need,
9 or I shall be full, and deny you,
and say, “Who is the LORD?”
or I shall be poor, and steal,
and profane the name of my God. (30:7-9)

So Paul, in the other Testament: “for I have learned to be content with whatever I have” (Phil 4:11). That’s a hard sell in this culture, but probably necessary for our sanity and sanctity.

The Gospel. The omitted verses (vv.35-52) mostly narrate the feeding of the five thousand. The lectionary omits these because in the next five weeks we’ll be hearing John’s narrative. That’s fair, but misses Mark’s mischievous juxtaposition of the two feasts: Herod’s, in which John the Baptist loses his head, and Jesus’, in which five thousand are fed. Mark’s suggesting, I think, that we need to choose which feast we end up at, a choice not unrelated to our ability to say “enough.”

In our first reading house as temple and house as dynasty contrast: David won’t build God a house (temple); God will build David a house (dynasty). But as Ephesians makes clear, God’s option for the dynasty gets God the temple God really wanted: “In him [David’s son, the Messiah] the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”

“You also.” Throughout the chapter Paul’s focused on the Jew/Gentile division, now abolished through the generous and costly work of the Messiah. In this vision the Jews don’t stop being Jews; the Gentiles don’t stop being Gentiles. But in Jesus these differences no longer divide, no longer fuel enmity. And Jew/Gentile is paradigmatic for the many divisions in our world.

“Built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” Our building projects usually seek homogeneity. It’s simpler that way. “Birds of a feather…” But that’s not Paul’s vision: Jews and Gentiles, male and female, slave and free. One commentator, Marcus Barth, puts it this way: “There is no ideal of a Christian personality applicable to all church members alike, but there are men, women, children who because of their diverse origins, pasts, privileges, hopes, or despairs are by nature inclined to hate one another and God (Rom 5:6-10). Now they are enabled by the work and rule of Christ to contribute in common repentance and common faith their various idiosyncrasies, histories, experiences, and gifts to the peaceful common life of God’s people” (Ephesians 1-3, 311).

“Built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” That word ‘spiritually’ can trip us up. It’s not a synonym for ‘immaterial’. Barth again: “The people of God who are built together and become God’s house—the church—are as material, temporal, spatial, and concrete as sticks and stones” (Ephesians 1-3, 320).

“Spiritually,” because only the transformative power of the Holy Spirit can give this mad project any chance of success. At the beginning when all was waste and void, darkness on the face of the deep, God sent the Spirit. And today the Spirit continues to assist in the heavy lifting.

“Assist.” I use that word cautiously. It’s not as though the Spirit does 50% and we do 50%. It’s that we really need to want this project to succeed, to put our backs into it. Building cross-culturally is hard work. But, recalling the original cross-cultural challenge, men being from Mars and women from Venus, oh the pay-off!

The temple, the meeting point of heaven and earth. God is happy for that to be at the corner of County C and Windsor St [Good Shepherd’s location]; God has no interest in it being only there. The vision is that the temple, the meeting point of heaven and earth, be everywhere we are 24/7, so that there is no place that the glory, mercy, love of God is not visible and tangible. So that we—to pick up Paul’s language from last week’s reading—“might live for the praise of his glory.”

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Lessons (but reading all of 2 Samuel 6)

You’ve all seen, I’d guess, the Publishers’ Clearinghouse commercials with the reps and cameras rushing to the front door: “You’re the winner.” There’s more than a little of that spirit in the Ephesians reading, an over-the-top celebration of God’s generosity, providence, and glory. With God having covered all the bases we can go on auto-pilot? The second half of the letter gives a clear “no,” but rather than jumping ahead let’s go back to the other readings to see what we can learn about the intersection between divine and human glory. As you see, the theme of glory/honor from last week’s texts is still ringing in my ears!

In Imperial Beijing perhaps the two most important complexes were the Forbidden City, the emperor’s residence/court, and the Temple of Heaven, the primary place of worship. My biggest surprise the one time Elvice and I were in Beijing was that these two complexes are four kilometers apart. That’s an impressive expression of humility on the part of the emperors: they ruled by the mandate of heaven, and that mandate was not under their control.

Over to David. He’s now got his capital. The Ark, the people’s most important religious symbol, has been in Baale-judah ever since being returned by the Philistines, and David wants it in Jerusalem. He puts together an impressive military procession: the thirty thousand (v.1) match the thirty thousand slain when the Philistines captured the Ark. All goes fine until the Ark gets jostled, Uzzah grabs it to steady it, and God strikes Uzzah. It’s a strange story, but prompts David to ask the right question: “How can the ark of God come into my care?” Maybe being God’s patron isn’t as simple as it seemed. Is David God’s patron or is God David’s patron? David hits the pause button and the ark gets parked with Obed-edom the Gittite.

Over the next three months God blesses Obed-edom’s household in ways obvious enough to prompt David to resume the procession, this time in a more pious key. But the question of who’s sponsoring whom remains open: David dresses as a priest, David offers the sacrifices, David blesses the people, David distributes the swag. When the Ark was captured by the Philistines the cry was “The glory has departed from Israel” (1 Sam 4:21). The glory’s back, with David receiving an impressive share.

David’s exuberance is real; it’s also the tipping point for Michal. Michal, Saul’s daughter, had loved David and on at least one occasion saved David’s life when her father’s men came to kill him. But she’d been given to another, and then yanked away at David’s demand to be added to David’s collection of wives and concubines. So there’s a lot of history behind her proud verbal attack. She attacks David’s honor. David, with equal pride, attacks hers and claims the right to define his sexual honor as he pleases, a right demonstrated, sadly, in the affair with Bathsheba.

“And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death.” So the chapter has two deaths, Uzzah, encroaching on God’s honor, and Michal, encroaching on David’s. It’s profoundly sad, foreshadowing the split after Solomon between Saul’s old kingdom (Israel) and David’s old kingdom (Judah). David has a golden opportunity for reconciliation, but the price is David’s sense of honor. It’s a striking vignette on the price of weaponized honor.

And the price of the ambiguity in the coexistence of God’s and David’s honor. Who’s patron of whom? In next week’s reading that issue plays out over houses. David, builder of God’s house (the temple) or God, builder of David’s house (the dynasty)? As it turns out, Solomon builds the house, but, in contrast to the humility of the Chinese emperors, it’s right next to the palace, virtually a royal chapel. Location, location, location.

We can hear today’s Gospel reading in multiple ways. Still wondering about honor, Herod is a case-study of a rudderless man pursuing honor. He wants Herodias, so he takes her. John the Baptist challenges his honor, so he imprisons him, but his fear of him prevents him doing more. He’s swept away by Herodias’ daughter, vows rashly, and in a vain attempt to hold onto honor fulfills the vow—and Herodias gets John’s head. Rudderless.

“How can the ark of God come into my care?” David’s question is not a bad one to keep in mind as we read Ephesians. We are blessed, chosen, destined for adoption, recipients of a staggering inheritance for—the author repeats the phrase— “the praise of [God’s] glory.” The ark of God in our care, Jesus’ body and blood in our bodies. God our Patron or we God’s patron? Whose glory gets priority? Of course we hardly ever ask the question in these blunt terms! But if I’m effectively God’s patron, then my priorities stay intact and I’m free to channel Herod. But if God’s my patron, then at some point I might ask whether God has priorities I might need to pay attention to. And here’s where the Ephesians reading gets interesting, for the God portrayed there has the shirtsleeves rolled way up trying to bring this world to a truly beautiful dénouement.

“How can the ark of God come into my care?” How might “my care” transform my priorities? What might we learn from David?


The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Lessons (Track 1)

Today our readings intersect with the Fourth of July. Which has the preacher wondering: how might the readings inform our celebration? The operative word is ‘wondering’; if these reflections prompt your own reflections, that’s more than enough.

In the collect we prayed “Lord God Almighty, who hast made all peoples of the earth for thy glory…” (BCP 207). That captures the surprising divine hopefulness in our readings, hopefulnesss in the face of profound human ambiguity.

David: throughout his career—most of which the Sunday lectionary necessarily skips over—his enemies have a habit of conveniently dying, David, like Pilate, always having clean hands. The text never accuses David, but it does give us enough information to force us to wonder about those clean hands. In today’s reading those hands are busy taking Jerusalem. Why Jerusalem? It gives David a power base independent of the decisions of the tribal elders: it is his city. Equally pragmatically, it, like Washington D.C., is a suitable national capital precisely because it’s not integrated into the tribal territories.

But what God hopes for in Jerusalem is reflected in Psalm 48: a very human city that witnesses to God’s protection, God’s loving-kindness, God’s justice. Humanity in God’s image: despite a very ambiguous human history that is already very long before David takes Jerusalem—Jericho was founded some 8,000 years earlier—God has not given up on human cities imaging God’s character.

And that human ambiguity has been equally on display in Corinth and Galilee. The Corinthian Christians: quite ready to trade in Paul for a newer, shinier model. Galilee: Jesus’ hometown has Jesus amazed at their unbelief. Nevertheless, Paul keeps engaging with the Corinthians, Jesus sends off his disciples to cast out demons, heal, proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom.

God remains hopeful despite the human ambiguities—and that’s perhaps a model for us. God knows, there are enough profound ambiguities in our history, so much so that there are multiple arguments over how sanitized a version to present in our schools. But if the Old and New Testaments are any guide, we do not need to whitewash our past to be hopeful about our future. God, eyes wide open, retains hope, and so might we—also on this July Fourth.

From the Gospel: “So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.” Repentance, absolutely necessary, gets tricky very quickly. We all have our lists ready-to-hand of what our opponents need to repent of. Calls to repent, to wake up, etc. easily become favored weapons in our rhetorical arsenals. But one of the many interesting things about Scripture is that it often treats the content of repentance as something needing discovery. Take Paul’s well-known words from Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect.” So that you may discern

As a contribution to that discernment, let’s circle back to Paul. If we wonder why Paul is having problems with the Corinthians, recalling the social context helps. Three elements. First, honor (or glory—one’s reputation) was key in the empire. Honor (glory) is necessarily comparative: if you have more, I have less. So there’s a constant jockeying for honor. Second, honor is closely tied to occupation. Working with the mind is more honorable than working with the hands. Third, the social order was organized by patronage: wherever you were on the social scale, you sought to be a client of a more honorable (powerful) patron. You gave the patron honor, the patron gave you protection. And in Corinth all three of these elements seem to have been on steroids.

Had Paul conformed to this world, he would have become a client to one of the powerful local Christians. This would have meant not having to work, all the skids well-greased. Instead, he refused patronage and worked with his hands. The stench of his profession probably never completely disappeared. So his competitors—at one point he calls them the “super-apostles” (11:4) are eating better, dressing better, don’t stink, and certainly have more time on their hands.

That’s the trade-off Paul faced. Accept patronage, and any number of doors open easily. But accepting patronage in that context meant exempting society’s glory game from criticism, a game that placed too many in the category of poor, foolish, weak, and expendable, a game in which “Blessed are the poor” is absurd.

And that’s the trade-off Paul couldn’t make. He’d come to Corinth proclaiming “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). If that’s the starting point for envisioning God’s glory, then it’s our notions of glory that need revision. So Paul talks of having “this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Cor 4:7). And in today’s reading “whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

God’s glory and our notions of glory: oil and water. So Jesus in the Gospel of John: “How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God? (5:44)

That’s a trade-off that we constantly face. Satan is, I suspect, quite happy for us to focus on inner peace and how-do-I-get-to-heaven-when-I-die if that leaves untouched the ways honor/glory are allocated here. Satan would have been quite happy for Jesus to have a long and peaceful career had Jesus been willing to leave the current honor/glory arrangements unchallenged:

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” (4:8-10)

That’s the hard part about that prayer “who hast made all peoples of the earth for thy glory:” God meddles with our assumptions about God’s glory, about what glory looks like. ‘Meddles’ is maybe too weak a word. “Blessed are the poor;” “whenever I am weak, then I am strong:” what habits does the Spirit need to nurture among us to make these self-evident?

So, repentance. Our July Fourth celebrations typically celebrate the new thing that this nation claims to be. Perhaps repentance means wondering if we’ve taken “new” seriously enough. Perhaps there’s no road to something genuinely new that doesn’t pass through encountering Christ crucified as the starting point for our notions of glory and where to look for it. Otherwise, same old, same old. Been there, done that. Isn’t it time for something new? Let’s give July Fourth the celebration it deserves!

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Lessons (Track 1, 1st set)

What a combination of texts! Let’s start with David and Goliath.

“The battle is the Lord’s.” That’s probably the take-away. Goliath, for all his high-tech armaments and rhetoric, is not a serious threat. Truth—but not the whole truth. We’re early in Israel’s national history, and even God, apparently, is unable to tackle all the relevant issues at once. David’s trusting speech to Saul (“Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them.”) dehumanizes Goliath as effectively as any modern government propaganda office. With more self-understanding and humility, this from the Wisdom of Solomon, one of the latest of the Old Testament books:

21 For it is always in your power to show great strength,
and who can withstand the might of your arm?
22 Because the whole world before you is like a speck that tips the scales,
and like a drop of morning dew that falls on the ground.
23 But you are merciful to all, for you can do all things,
and you overlook people’s sins, so that they may repent.
24 For you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made,
for you would not have made anything if you had hated it.
25 How would anything have endured if you had not willed it?
Or how would anything not called forth by you have been preserved?
26 You spare all things, for they are yours,
O Lord, you who love the living. (11:21-26)

That text may be unfamiliar—it didn’t make it into the Sunday lectionary, although it is the inspiration for one of the collects that closes the Prayers of the People (“for you are gracious, O lover of souls”).

The Lord who loves the living loves David…and Goliath. We celebrate “the battle is the Lord’s”—our God is lacking neither power nor awareness. We might recognize that David-and-Goliath is a poor script for our encounters with our enemies.

“You who love the living.” I don’t think we ever get our heads fully around this. Among many other things, it explains God not saving at arm’s length, but ending up in situations like this very small boat in a very large storm. But, as with David, “the battle is the Lord’s.” With only the wind and waves in play, not a serious threat. If there’s a threat, it’s the disciples’ lack of trust.

If we want serious threat, there’s our reading from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. The Sunday lectionary has us in this letter for eight weeks. The letter makes for painful reading: Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians is badly strained, and Paul is working way outside his comfort zone to set things right. “We urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.” At some point most readers probably ask why Paul didn’t simply cut his losses and walk away. Perhaps part of the answer is in a portion of last week’s reading:

14 For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15 And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. 16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. (2 Cor. 5:14-16)

“The love of Christ urges us on” –seen also in Paul’s listing of the ways he and his coworkers have commended themselves (“through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities” etc., vv.4-10). It’s a further example of that cross-shaped combination of death and life I noticed last week, a combination that reworks expectations regarding what it is to see glory.

There are at least two ways we might hear this Corinthians text:

First, Paul’s choices mirror Jesus’ choices. Listen to the last part of that list: Paul could equally well be describing his or Jesus’ choices: “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see– we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” And as a mirror image, the following verses are a direct challenge to our too-often restricted hearts. (“our heart is wide open to you…open wide your hearts also.”) We tend to be a cautious, distrustful bunch, tending to hold God and God’s projects at arm’s length until everything makes sense to us. What more does this God who loves the living have to do to get through to us? There are not a few moments in which that’s not a bad question for the preacher.

Second, Paul’s choices might serve as a model for how we do reconciliation. If we think about reconciliation—and we often don’t, given the current wealth of Goliath wannabes—often the starting point is “I’ll meet you half way.” Well, when I find myself starting there, I might wonder just how deeply “you who love the living” has penetrated my grey matter. Paul working way outside his comfort zone is a model we might pay attention to. Back in his first letter to the Corinthians, love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Here we watch that love with its sleeves rolled up, and are invited to notice where our sleeves are.

Let’s give Solomon the last word:

23 But you are merciful to all, for you can do all things,
and you overlook people’s sins, so that they may repent.
24 For you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made,
for you would not have made anything if you had hated it.
25 How would anything have endured if you had not willed it?
Or how would anything not called forth by you have been preserved?
26 You spare all things, for they are yours,
O Lord, you who love the living. (11:21-26)

The Third Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Lessons

“…for we walk by faith, not by sight.” You can get a decent sermon out of that line from Paul. But some care is needed, since it’s vulnerable to misunderstanding and abuse. Misunderstanding: thinking that the invisible per se is more valuable than the visible. Abuse: recall Orwell in 1984: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” Bluntly, when we talk about faith, what distinguishes us from the folk who wear aluminum foil hats to keep the aliens from controlling their minds?

It turns out that appeals to the senses show up at some key moments in Scripture. For example:

Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Matt. 11:4-6)

[From the beginning of John’s first letter:] We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life– (1 Jn. 1:1)

Not to mention the very visible harvest and fully-grown plant in Jesus’ parables. And Paul, earlier in the same letter to the Corinthians:

…always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. (2 Cor. 4:10-11)

In the middle of the last century the then Archbishop of Canterbury captured it well: “Christianity is the most avowedly materialistic of all the great religions.”

So when does sight or, more broadly, the senses, become problematic?

First, in our lesson from the Book of Samuel, the prophet Samuel anoints David. Working through the line of older brothers we hear:

“Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”

Appearances can give incomplete information. This is a point the Book of Proverbs, solidly empirical in orientation, makes repeatedly. You see a wealthy person. Wealthy through hard work or through theft? Can’t judge by appearances. You see a poor person. Poor through sloth or oppression? Can’t judge by appearances.

(Paul uses the same outward appearance/heart contrast in v.12. I wonder if he is alluding to the David story, which might align Paul with David and “those who boast in outward appearance” with David’s older—and rejected—brothers.)

Second, we’re in a story, and where we are in the story can determine what’s visible or invisible. That appears to be what’s in play in that line from Paul with which we started. Here it is in context: “So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord–for we walk by faith, not by sight.” In this part of the story the Lord’s out of sight, so, faith.

In the previous chapter, “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:17-18 NRS). The glory is now invisible—but still worth attending to!

And story (time) is central to the logic of both of Jesus’ parables. Someone scatters seed, and for a good stretch nothing seems to be happening. But, oh, the harvest. Again, the proverbial mustard seed. Looking at the seed, we’d write it off. But just wait!

So, reliance on sight can be problematic because it gives incomplete information or because what’s visible depends on where we are in the story. The third reason is more profound—and more challenging. God coming in Jesus’ vulnerable flesh which climaxes in Jesus’ death and resurrection profoundly recasts what it means to see glory. So in the Gospel of John’s vocabulary Jesus being glorified and Jesus being crucified can be synonymous.

Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn. 12:23-24).

And this in turn shapes Paul’s understanding of glory. Recall what we heard earlier:

…always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. (2 Cor. 4:10-11)

When I cited this earlier I focused on the “visible” part. Now notice what is visible: a cross-shaped combination of death and life. If the Corinthians aren’t paying attention they’ll conclude that Paul isn’t to be taken seriously because there’s little worldly glory in his ministry. But that’s to miss the point. If the crucified Jesus is the central revelation of God’s glory, then what we look for when we look for glory needs serious readjustment.

Where does this leave us? Briefly:

First, “the Lord looks on the heart.” We do well to remember the limits of our perceptions. And faced with decisions we pray for guidance.

Second, where we are in the story can determine what we can see or not. As often as not I find this very good news. With the problems we face “you can’t get there from here” can haunt me. Jesus’ parable reminds me that there are situations in which I not only don’t need to see—I don’t need to understand. “…and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.”

Third, Paul’s cross-shaped combination of death and life: the losses, the deaths we experience: united to Jesus’ story these can also make life visible. This isn’t a matter of technique; it can encourage our hope and patience.

Earlier in the letter to the Corinthians the issue of letters of recommendation comes up, and Paul doubles down on the visible: “You yourselves are our letter…to be known and read by all.” Paraphrasing slightly, “We don’t need no stinking letters.” That’s Paul’s hope for Corinth…and for Sun Prairie. “You yourselves are our letter…to be known and read by all.”

The Second Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Lessons (Track One)

Centuries before the meeting described in our first reading at one of our world’s key turning points:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:1-3)

The Lord’s task from then on—very much including our present—is making that happen. The patriarchs, the exodus from Egypt, the Law received at Sinai, the occupation of the land, the long period of the judges: all that’s in the rear-view mirror. Samuel is the last of the judges—and the people want a king.

Samuel’s displeasure is hardly surprising; what is surprising is the Lord’s response: “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” “Appoint for us…a king” could have been a deal-breaker, a rejection of the Lord, and, given the typical conduct of earthly kings, it was certainly a remarkably bad idea. But the Lord treats it as negotiable, looking to see—as we’ll see in coming weeks—what good can be brought out of the situation.

At the Lord’s command Samuel lays out why human kingship is a bad idea. He offers a pretty good description of the conduct of the kings in the countries surrounding Israel. It turns out to be a pretty good description of the future kings of Israel. The more things change…

In very broad brushstrokes, here’s how kingship plays out:

  1. Even the best of Israel’s kings doesn’t disprove Samuel’s words; most don’t even try.
  2. Deuteronomy makes a valiant attempt to redefine kingship, including “And he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself” (17:17). From Solomon on that’s a non-starter.
  3. There is enough remembered good in David that a son of David or anointed one (Hebrew ‘Messiah’ Greek ‘Christ’) is part of many of the prophets’ hopes for Israel’s future.
  4. Given the greed, lawlessness, and violence typically associated with kingship, Jesus keeps the title ‘Messiah’ at arm’s length, even while privately accepting it among the apostles and working hard to rescue it: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mk. 9:35).

But back to Samuel. It turns out that in the quest to realize the vision in Abram’s call (“in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”) the form of government is negotiable. Are there political questions that aren’t negotiable? This morning’s psalm reminds us of one. Consider vv.5-7:

All the kings of the earth will praise you, O Lord,
when they have heard the words of your mouth.
They will sing of the ways of the Lord,
that great is the glory of the Lord.
Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly;
he perceives the haughty from afar.

Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly.” It’s easy to forget how counter-intuitive this is. The default is to assume that those who are high care only about their peers—anything less would be beneath them. In pre-Christian Greco-Roman literature, if the lowly appeared on stage or in literature, it was only for comic relief. The Gospel narratives are extraordinary also in this respect, filed with “ordinary” people whose decisions and lives mattered. And there are plenty of voices today encouraging us to think that if someone is lowly, it’s their own fault and certainly not our problem.

No. “Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly.” That is the glory of the Lord; this is the way of the Lord. That is where Jesus gets what we just heard: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” That’s Jesus’ God. Recall God speaking through Isaiah:

3 Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
all the remnant of the house of Israel,
who have been borne by me from your birth,
carried from the womb;
 4 even to your old age I am he,
even when you turn gray I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear;
I will carry and will save. (46:3-4)

We no longer live in a monarchy. But we have plenty of words assigning power and authority: Boss, CEO, President, Supervisor. I don’t know that God cares particularly which set of words we use; that seems to be negotiable. God does care how we use the power and authority—and all of us in our different spheres have some measure of power and authority. “Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly.” That’s our God; that’s therefore our mandate for our use of power and authority.

For David, Solomon, etc. the challenge is the tension between God’s character and kingship-as-usual. For us it’s the tension between God’s character and politics-as-usual. So we read their stories also as a sort of mirror and a source of hope. God did not easily give up with them…

Now—one final point before I wrap up—who are “the lowly”? Our political parties like to pick and choose, and often encourage distrust and fear between different groups. If we confess Jesus’ God that’s not an option. “The lowly”: those on the receiving end of systemic racism, certainly. Dwellers in our many small towns decimated by market forces, certainly. Family farms that are closing at alarming rates, certainly. With the psalmist we cry out

O Lord, your love endures for ever;
do not abandon the works of your hands.

There are so many lowly, so many different ways people are vulnerable to lowliness.

“Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly.” The good news is that the Lord does lordship in ways that regularly undercut our expectations. The good news is that even when we choose badly (“Appoint for us…a king”) God does not abandon us, but continues to incite us to let God’s character muddle our politics, causing “good trouble,” so that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Pentecost 2021: A Sermon

Lessons (Ezekiel & Acts)

Back bone connected to the shoulder bone
Shoulder bone connected to the neck bone
Neck bone connected to the head bone
Now hear the word of the Lord.

Ezekiel’s vision: what a vision! I treasure the way it works from the hearers’ experienced reality. In v.11 Ezekiel recalls what the hearers have been saying: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” God hears that, takes that seriously, doesn’t negate it. The vision takes it as the starting point: OK, and here’s what the Lord can do with dry bones. The Lord’s Spirit comes, and where there was death and despair there’s now life and hope. And today we’re celebrating the coming of that Spirit that day in Jerusalem.

Today’s psalm celebrates the Spirit as a core expression of the Lord’s generosity. Let’s read vv.28-31 together.

28 All of them look to you *
to give them their food in due season.
29 You give it to them; they gather it; *
you open your hand, and they are filled with good things.
30 You hide your face, and they are terrified; *
you take away their breath,
and they die and return to their dust.
31 You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; *
and so you renew the face of the earth.

The Ezekiel reading and the psalm are not a bad setup for the Prayers of the People. For better or worse, the prayers in the BCP use calm and measured language, which is sometimes just a veneer for Ezekiel’s hearers’ complaint: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” The Lord hears, and again and again sends forth the Spirit to recreate, to renew. There are so many situations in which we ask “Can these bones live?” And the good news of the Gospel is a resounding YES!

That would be a pretty good place to end the sermon, but that would ignore an apparent tension in the other two readings that we may be familiar with.

The Gospel reading from John has a strong adversarial edge: the Spirit will come to “prove the world wrong.” The Spirit will testify; the disciples will testify. This isn’t sounding very good newsy. Done badly—and it’s often done badly—it makes us want to head for the nearest exit. And in the Acts reading we hear it happening: the Spirit arrives in a quite spectacular fashion, a large crowd gathers, and Peter preaches. Had we read a bit further we would have heard:

“You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know–this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. (2:22-24)

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” (2:37-39)

“Prove the world wrong” indeed. But notice the crucial element back in v.6: “And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” The Gospel, the good news, the promise of the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit, is heard “in the native language of each.” Like Ezekiel’s vision, the good news starts on the people’s home turf.

The tension I referred to: on the one hand, every individual and group has an inestimable dignity and worth. On the other hand, there isn’t an individual or group that escapes participation in our world hell-bent on destruction. The Baptismal Covenant includes both proclaiming the Good News (which necessarily involves proving the world wrong) and respecting the dignity of every human being. How does that work?

Pentecost provides an important part of the answer. Peter’s preaching is the second thing. The first thing is everyone hearing “in the native language of each.” Even with the Spirit’s aid that’s not easy. What’s easy is to use my language, my frame of reference, and demand that my hearers move over to it. What’s evangelical (Gospel-like) is to learn to use my hearers’ language, their frame of reference. So Peter in Jerusalem with a Jewish audience refers repeatedly to the psalms. Paul in Athens with a pagan audience refers to one of their altars and cites two of their poets.

We can notice what’s at stake here with the help of an interview with James Davison Hunter that came out this week.[1] He’s the sociologist who made the phrase “culture war” part of our shared vocabulary. Talking about the difference between political and culture war fights: “On political matters, one can compromise; on matters of ultimate moral truth, one cannot.” Here’s Hunter on culture: “Culture, by its very nature, is hegemonic. It seeks to colonize; it seeks to envelop in its totality. The root of the word ‘culture’ is Latin: ‘cultus.’ It’s about what is sacred to us. And what is sacred to us tends to be universalizing. The very nature of the sacred is that it is special; it can’t be broached.”

The Spirit at Pentecost breaks that open: everyone hears in their native language. The Gospel is translatable, expressible in terms at home in every culture. And this in turn means that my culture’s assumptions about what is sacred are not the last word. Peter has to wrestle with this—that’s what his vision prior to preaching at the gentile Cornelius’ house is about.

13 Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15 The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (Acts 10:13-15) 

So, back to the language of the Baptismal Covenant, part of “the dignity of every human being” is that every human being, every culture, has something important to teach us about how to use words like “holy” and “sacred,” something important to teach us about the Good News. That too we learn reflecting on the Day of Pentecost.

The good news of the Gospel: these bones can indeed live, and God cares for us enough to tell us so in our own language. That’s news worth translating and spreading—and thereby encountering it anew.


[1] https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/05/20/culture-war-politics-2021-democracy-analysis-489900, referenced 5/21/2021.

The Seventh Sunday of Easter 2021: A Sermon

Lessons

In eight days we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, and already today’s readings are setting us up for it. The reading from Acts picks up from Thursday’s Ascension Day reading, and brings us to the end of the 1st chapter; chapter 2 opens on the Day of Pentecost. The Gospel narrates the heart of Jesus’ prayer for the disciples: Protect them! Sanctify them (Make them holy)! And the Father’s response to that prayer is chiefly in the gift of the Holy Spirit.

To appreciate what’s going on in Jesus’ prayer, recall the scene toward the start of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers in which Gandalf the wizard and Pippin the hobbit are in conversation: “Pippin glanced in some wonder at the face now close beside his own, for, the sound of that laugh had been gay and merry. Yet in the wizard’s face he saw at first only lines of care and sorrow; though as he looked more intently he perceived that under all there was a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth” (1965, 34).

“[A] great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth.” Something like that same combination of care, sorrow, and joy is present, I suspect, in Jesus’ face and certainly in his words. Here he is, hours away from Judas’ betrayal and the tender mercies of the Roman garrison, talking about “my joy made complete in themselves.”

The joy is intimately connected to God’s Name: “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.” Now that’s odd: they didn’t know God’s name? What’s going on here? It turns out that Jesus making God’s name known is multi-dimensional, each dimension inviting us to joy.

The fundamental revelation of God’s Name up to this point occurred when God through Moses brought Israel out of slavery. In that first conversation at the burning bush, God has announced his intention to deliver Israel from Egypt, and we get this interchange:
—If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?
—I AM WHO I AM.… Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’

“I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.” The most frequent form of the name was probably pronounced “Yahweh” (in some older translations, “Jehovah”). In its abbreviated form it’s the ‘Jah’ in ‘Hallelujah’. Whatever the form, the Israelites learn the meaning of this Name in God’s actions for their liberation. They start out slaves; they end up free; that’s what ‘I am’ means. And periodically in the Old Testament we encounter this I AM again, particularly in the Greek translation with which Jesus and the NT writers —specifically John— would have been familiar:

  • See now that I AM. There is no god besides me. I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and no one can deliver from my hand. (Deuteronomy 32:39; my translation)
  • You are my witnesses, says the LORD, and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I AM. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. (Isaiah 43:10; my translation)

In the Gospel according to John, Jesus takes up this name “I AM” in a whole series of statements:

  • Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (6:35)
  • Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (8:12)
  • So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.” (10:7)
  • “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (10:11)
  • Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live…” (11:25)
  • Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (14:6)
  • “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” (15:1)

And in case we’re thinking “well, talk is cheap,” recall that Jesus says “I am the bread of life” after the feeding of the 5,000, “I am the light of the world” after giving sight to the blind, and “I am the resurrection and the life” just before calling Lazarus out of the tomb.

Nor did “I AM” always come with a predicate. Recall Jesus’ “Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.” (John 8:58 NAB). Again, when the disciples in a small boat in the middle of a big storm cry out in fear as they see Jesus walking towards them over the sea, Jesus responds, “I AM; do not be afraid” (John 6:20 my translation).

Yes, Jesus has made the Name known to the disciples. Jesus’ actions, Jesus’ words, Jesus’ very being have taken that divine name revealed to Moses to a whole new level. The Israelites were filled with joy when finally out of the Egyptian army’s clutches; as we remember the liberation God has accomplished for us through Jesus, a greater joy can be ours.

There is a second dimension to this “I have made your name known.” The first is the presence and power of “I AM;” the second is Jesus’ distinctive use of “Abba,” the Aramaic word children typically used to address their fathers. We have no evidence of Jesus’ contemporaries using the word to address God; it probably would have seemed far too intimate. Most of the time the Gospels translate it into Greek. Its one appearance in the Gospels during Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane —“Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mk 14.36)— is a window on Jesus’ customary usage. And the intimacy with God Jesus experienced —evident also through today’s Gospel text—is offered to the disciples. Here are the other two appearances in the New Testament:

  • For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15 NAB)
  • And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:6 NRSV)

So Jesus making God’s Name known to the disciples isn’t simply about giving them —us— information, but about inviting us to participate ever more deeply in God, God our Abba, God the “I AM” who can bring out of any situation life, freedom, and joy.

There is a third dimension to this “I have made your name known.” Jesus sends us out into the world to baptize in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. By the end of the New Testament, that is clearly the Name of God that Jesus has made known to the disciples. Our God, not a monolithic unity, but a community of love and joy into which we are invited to enter. Who is the God in whose presence we live? A loving Father, whose two arms, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, are constantly extended to strengthen, guide, embrace us. “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

You see, today’s Gospel text is pretty dense. I have tried to go for the core, the many ways Jesus has been revealing God’s Name —God’s reality, God’s character— to the disciples. Grasp this, and the rest falls into place: the deep gratitude in Jesus’ words, the awareness that all that he has is gift, Jesus’ trust in his Father’s continued care for the disciples, and the sense of passing the baton: You sent me into the world; I am sending them into the world. The world —the many ways we organize ourselves to shut out God— will do its worst, but will not succeed, any more than closing your eyes real tight, clenching your fists, and wishing real hard will keep the sun from coming up.

But all that falls into place only if we start with God. “I have made your name known…” Jesus said. Do not settle for anything less here. Do not get sidetracked. Life is too short to settle for anything less than “great joy, a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing.”

The Sixth Sunday of Easter 2021: A Sermon

Lessons

The first lesson from the Acts of the Apostles tells of the Holy Spirit coming upon the Gentiles —Romans, mostly— while Peter was still preaching. And with that all the parts of Jesus’ commission and promise “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” begin to be fulfilled. For once this still very Jewish Church crosses the enormous cultural hurdles to preach to the Gentiles it’s a relatively short step to the ends of the earth. Once the doors are open to the Gentiles, it doesn’t matter much if they’re in Samaria, Salzburg, or Sun Prairie. “And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith” indeed.

If we ask about the motor for that victory, there are two obvious answers. The first is the Holy Spirit. Who else but God’s Spirit could have given the apostles the backbone to stand before the Jewish leaders and the Roman Empire? But the second equally obvious answer is the love that has been the constant theme in our readings these past weeks. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” And in another context Jesus said “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you…have love for one another.” All the things that Jesus could have said but didn’t: “if you have flawless theology; if you are without sin; if you…” Well, we might as well segue into Paul’s paean to love in 1st Corinthians: “if you speak with the tongues of angels and men…” Nope: “if you have love for one another.”

I thought very briefly about organizing this homily around the question “What does the Bible say about loving one another?” Then I quickly realized that that was absurd, because you wouldn’t be far wrong if you said that on the whole the Bible is about nothing else than loving God and loving one’s neighbor. So “What does the Bible say about loving one another?” would be a very long homily. Better, it’s something we spend our entire lives learning.

So the question pretty quickly became What might I say that would be useful to us here and now about “love one another”? Here are four themes to chew on: confession, generosity, no-fault, and forgiveness.

Confession. “Love one another” doesn’t get very far unless we’re willing to acknowledge ourselves as serious sinners. If my own experience is an indication, we’re ready to admit we’re sinners, but not serious sinners —that’s other folk. Years before I got married a friend described marriage as the ideal context for discovering the depth of one’s selfishness. He was right. And in the first years of marriage the times I came closest to throwing in the towel were the times in which my choices were to flee or acknowledge to myself just how selfish I was being. To which the Christian tradition with exquisite pastoral sensitivity says “Well, duh! What did you think Jesus died for, your parking tickets? So repent & learn how to love this woman.” How often do we walk away from each other because the relationship is an occasion of unwelcome self-knowledge?

Generosity. “Love one another” is about —to steal from St Paul— hoping all things, believing all things. St. Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises put in best: “it should be presupposed that every good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it. Further, if one cannot interpret it favorably, one should ask how the other means it. If that meaning is wrong, one should correct the person with love; and if this is not enough, one should search out every appropriate means through which, by understanding the statement in a good way, it may be saved.”

So when we find ourselves mentally mapping a conflict in a way that puts the others entirely in the wrong and us entirely in the right, all the warning bells should be going off, first because we are offending against charity regarding the others, and secondly because this mapping blinds us to our own sinfulness. The sad thing about this is that all of us have been working hard since kindergarten at getting good at this sort of mapping, and by puberty it’s mostly instinctive. As with the barbarian hordes, so with us: following Jesus means laying down weapons that we’ve gotten very good at using.

No-fault. “Love one another” is pretty much a no-fault policy. That’s the point of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” Again, notice what he doesn’t say: not “if you remember that your brother or sister did something bad to you” or “if you remember that you did something bad to your brother or sister” but simply “if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you.” If the relationship’s broken, that’s the trigger, and whose “fault” it is…is irrelevant. What relationships need some TLC?

Forgiveness. “Love one another” is about forgiveness. The stakes here couldn’t be higher. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” I don’t know of anything harder than forgiveness, whether of others or of ourselves. Many times the best we can do is to pray for a little more openness to forgiveness.

And when it comes to forgiveness we need to be careful not to cut corners. People say: well, I forgive him, but see if I’ll trust/respect/talk to him again. That doesn’t work, and here’s why. It’s not simply that Jesus ties us forgiving others and God forgiving us together. It’s that the way we imagine God forgiving us is linked to how we forgive others. And God’s forgiveness is reckless and extravagant. The prodigal son gets new robes, the fattened calf, and a seat at the head table. The Epistles repeatedly celebrate our boldness and freedom of access to God’s presence. “[You have] made us worthy to stand before you” says one of the Eucharistic prayers. And this is the way we’re to forgive. It is an integral part of the freedom Jesus has won for us. The flip side: if we persist in forgiving at arm’s length (“I forgive you, but…”) we should not be surprised if we wake up one morning and discover that our image of God looks less like the prodigal’s father and more like the prodigal’s elder brother: well, you’re back, but don’t you dare make yourself at home.

“Love one another” It’s about being willing to learn the depth of our brokenness. It’s about putting the best interpretation possible on the conduct of our brothers and sisters.  It’s no-fault. It’s about forgiving as God forgives us: recklessly, extravagantly.

Let me leave you with a final image. Football games are usually won or lost in the trenches, the hard away-from-the-cameras work. It doesn’t matter who’s playing quarterback for the Packers if by the time he gets the ball the backfield is filled with guys wearing the wrong color jersey.

Loving each other when us each others are hard to love is that work in the trenches. There’s no glamour to it, but it wins games —and our Lord is out to win the world. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The Fifth Sunday of Easter: A Sermon

Lessons

There are many things we might wonder about in today’s Gospel. I’ve found myself wondering about two in particular, and these serve as the backbone for the sermon. First, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” What does ‘abide’ mean? What does it look like? Second, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” What’s the fruit Jesus is talking about?

“Abide.” If we’d read a little further in the Gospel we’d have heard “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love” (v.10). And then “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (v.12). It sounds like “abide” points to life in a community that includes Jesus and the disciples and—as we’ll see—the Father and the Spirit, which is so characterized by love that the author of the epistle can say flatly “God is love.”

The epistle—the Dummy’s guide to the Gospel—focuses on this love. What does it want to say? First, that the starting point is God’s love for us. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” That’s the starting point, the starting point of our history, the starting point for each day. Each day I awake to the world in which God showed his love by sending Jesus to give us life.

This is where the author focuses; he could equally have focused on God’s love shown in creation. And this love is so immediate that it’s easy not to notice it. Let’s try this: please shut your eyes. Pay attention to your breathing: inhaling, exhaling, inhaling, exhaling. Every breath: pure gift. Now open your eyes. There’s light, another great gift. We exist in a world saturated with God’s generosity, God’s love.

“Beloved, let us love one another,” because that’s the response that fits with our reality. Anything else is a fruitless and usually painful exercise in forcing a square peg into a round hole.

Just past the end of our Gospel reading Jesus says “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.” And this reminds us that Jesus’ life is our clearest picture of what love looks like. Recall Jesus’ self-description that we heard last week: Jesus the Good Shepherd, tender with the sheep, but not pretending that the wolves are other than wolves. The good news: we don’t have to stay wolves.

“Beloved, let us love one another.” Why do we find that so difficult? We live in a world saturated with God’s love, but it’s also a world in rebellion against God, so it’s very hard not to learn from a very early age that it’s everyone for themselves. Money, power, status: whatever I think I need to stay safe: I’m going to hold that tight. That limits the love I can risk.

It’s something like that story of the guy hiking in the mountains. His foot slips and he goes off the edge of the trail, just managing to grab a root to halt what would be a very long descent. He cries for help. A voice that could only be divine responds “I’m here and will help you…Let go of the root.” The guy thinks for a long moment and then responds “Is anyone else up there?”

We’re fearful folk, living in a world that encourages us to tell ourselves stories that don’t start with God and don’t end with God. As long as I’m holding onto that root—whatever it is that I think assures my security—my hand can’t reach out to my neighbor. Happily, working at “love one another” makes it easier to remember to tell ourselves stories that are true.

Before I move on, here’s another take on love from Thomas Merton: “The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”

“Abide in me as I abide in you.”

“Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” What’s the fruit Jesus is talking about? At the start of our reading we hear “I am the true vine.” Throughout the Old Testament the vine is a symbol for Israel, perhaps most importantly in Isaiah’s parable:

1 Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
2 He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.

And a few verses later:

7 For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
righteousness,
but heard a cry!

Justice and righteousness: Isaiah’s shorthand for a healthy community, a community—recalling Jesus’ summary of the law—characterized by love of God and neighbor. Since Jesus is constantly playing off images in his Scripture (our “Old Testament”) I think this is what the fruit is about: a community of love. A community, therefore, with open borders, receiving with open arms folk like the Ethiopian eunuch Philip received in the reading from Acts.

Philip, by the way, is the Deacon Philip, not the Apostle Philip (see Acts 8:1). Deacons often do far more than their job description would suggest. And this portrait of Philip, opening his heart and Scripture to this Ethiopian isn’t a bad portrait of a deacon whose presence we miss today. There will, God willing, be time to give him a well-earned “thank you.” And there’s time to follow his example, opening our hearts to our neighbors. But back to the Epistle…

Love of God and neighbor. It’s so easy—fatally easy—to think that these are two separate issues. But if there’s anything our reading from the epistle wants to say, it’s that there’s no space between these two loves. Loving God and not loving the neighbor? Not simply a bad idea, but simply impossible. Or, more precisely, if I love god and don’t love my neighbor, it’s not Jesus’ God that I’m loving.

“In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us.”
“Beloved, let us love one another.”

The world is such that it’s easy to forget that we’re in a story that begins and ends with God’s love. Forgetful, our memories need all the help they can get. This is why the Book of Common Prayer starts with the Daily Office, an extended exercise in jogging our memory. And towards the end of that section… Please grab a copy and turn to page 136. Pages 137-140 contain short forms for the morning, noon, early evening, and the close of the day. In the coming week, notice when it’s hard to remember. See if any of these forms might be useful.