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 Fifth Sunday in Lent: A Sermon


“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” Paul’s words from our second lesson give us a way of focusing what’s at stake in the other readings. The other readings, in turn, remind us that Paul isn’t spouting theory, but capturing Israel’s experience with God, before & after Jesus’ resurrection.

Our first reading comes from Israel’s exile in the bowels of the Babylonian Empire. To get into the spirit of the text, had our 2003 invasion of Iraq gone very badly, we could have spent the last twenty years with a large portrait of Saddam Hussein displayed at every major intersection, on every dashboard, and —if we were prudent— in our living rooms. What hymnody the Israelites are producing is coming out like this: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” This is not a faith you either can or want to pass on to the next generation. The portrait of the exiles in this text is a vivid picture of “flesh,” flesh as human possibilities. “Flesh” is not evil, but it is limited, vulnerable, and tends to leave God out of the equation.

And this is precisely where Ezekiel’s vision picks up, taking the people’s self-description with utter seriousness. Precisely there, where hope has flat-lined, the Spirit begins to work. And before long there is a very large army. To set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

John gives us a story within a story. The inner story: Jesus, Martha, Mary & Lazarus. To set the mind on the flesh is death; in situations like this one, flesh can see no other option than death. What Jesus comes up against, particularly with Martha, is the natural assumption that we all know how the real world works, so that when Jesus shows up in the real world the most he can do is participate in the grieving process.

It’s the most natural thing in the world. We assume we know how the world works, and then sort out whether we think there’s a god, who Jesus was, etc., all within the constraints of how we know the world works.

Mercifully, Jesus doesn’t let himself be trapped, even by Martha’s theology, at once pristine and dismissive: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” —not that it’s going to do our brother any good right now. He goes to the tomb: “Lazarus, come out!”

Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa in the 4th Century, used to say that any god we could understand was not worth worshipping. Well, we certainly don’t understand Jesus. Why the delay in coming to Bethany? It’s there in the barely veiled complaint/greeting the sisters give Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Between this and last week’s text (“Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”), some fear a darker possibility: we’re just props for an egotistical god. No. “Jesus began to weep.” Whatever is going on, the motor is God’s love.

Any god we could understand is not worth worshipping. And the God worth worshipping —my corollary— is going to turn our notions of the world upside down. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in our philosophy.”(Hamlet 1.5.168-169) The C of E clergyman J. B. Phillip’s Your God is too small is as relevant to us now as when it was published in the mid twentieth century.

That, too briefly, is the inner story. The outer story is Jesus vs. the religious leaders. Setting the mind on the flesh is death —not only ours, but the death of others. In this case, Jesus. Recall Caiaphas’ brutal logic:“it is better…to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”

That brutal logic still reigns. Affordable drugs? At the cost of the pharmaceuticals’ profits? Curb global warming? At the cost of the energy companies’ profits? So it’s just about evil CEOs and Boards? No: how long would the shareholders tolerate loss? It is better that one man/the vulnerable die than that we try getting off the tiger’s back.

“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” Ezekiel and John have let us watch how that plays out. Flesh qua human possibilities: death & despair, both for ourselves and for others. Spirit. Not any spirit, but the Spirit who enfleshed Ezekiel’s bones to create a formidable army, the Spirit poured out by the risen Christ.

Ezekiel’s bones, Lazarus’ bones, and too many situations today where fear, anger, and the brutal logic of every-man-for-himself have the upper hand. As the psalmist put it “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord!” Too many situations in which our immediate response is some version of Martha’s “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”

Last Sunday we heard Paul’s “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.” Whether at the family, local, or national level, what might the Spirit want to do with our bones? As in Ezekiel’s experience, the Spirit isn’t bound by our menus (“It’s either X, Y, or Z.” “It’s either what this or that caucus in Congress wants.”) As in the Exodus, the Spirit is good at making a way where there is no way.

The Fourth Sunday in Lent: A Sermon


Today’s readings test our ability not to use the A word [Alleluia] during Lent. Our first reading: the Lord can deal even with Samuel’s limitations so that he anoints the right son and the story of David can begin. The reading’s from the 16th chapter. Samuel’s been onstage since chapter 1, has built an impressive CV, yet here he is about to anoint Eliab. The Lord intervenes—thank God Samuel doesn’t blow that off—and David is finally located, brought onstage, an anointed.

In our Gospel we hear Jesus’ “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” And that turns out to be wonderful news for the man born blind, who not only gains his sight, but is empowered to give the authorities some serious lip: “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. … If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”

As John put it in his prologue: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” This is what we celebrated through the twelve days of Christmas and throughout Epiphany: the light has come. We do not have to keep wondering what a truly human life looks like, whether there is a Creator, what that Creator is like. The light has come.

The Lenten dimension to these readings: even a top-notch prophet like Samuel is going to choose Eliab as often as not. The Pharisees, who had far more in common with Jesus than did the Sadducees or the Herodians or the Zealots, even they as a group stumbled badly.

At the end of the reading: “Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,” your sin remains.’”

Jesus’ response is a challenge for the Pharisees—and for us. In his letters, Paul repeatedly claims knowledge of many things. But he also writes: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12; italics mine).

We know. We know only in part. You wouldn’t think it would be that hard to hold these two together, but twenty centuries of church history tell us otherwise. Between our egos and our fears it can be hard to acknowledge that there are important things we don’t know. Thomas Merton spoke to this: “We do not want to be beginners. but let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything but beginners, all our life!”

Hard, for that matter, to hear Paul in our second reading: “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.” Paul, with the whole Bible (our “Old Testament”) available, apostolic letters in circulation, Jesus’ words and deeds on their way to being compiled by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, you’re writing “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord”? Yes. That’s what living in that space between “We know” and “We know only in part” means.

But having brought in Paul’s “Now I know only in part,” I’d better let him finish his thought, for the next verse reads (concludes): “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). In other words, it’s not just about knowledge. As he says elsewhere in that letter “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1).

“Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.” That’s a call to a lifetime of learning. How do I play my various family roles, my roles in the other circles in which I move? What do I do with my resources, gifts, passions? Since there’s always change, there’s always need for adjustments—without going into the opportunity to learn from, rather than simply repeat, my mistakes.

“Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.” Organizations have the opportunity to learn—or not—over multiple lifetimes. World Vision, the Christian NGO I worked with for 18 years, was on this pilgrimage. To sum up about 50 years of one part of that pilgrimage: they got into community development when their founder, Bob Pierce, was handed a child in South Korea, and asked to respond. The first response was orphanages, but it quickly became clear that it would be better to focus on the children in their communities before they were handed off to orphanages. That led to multiple rounds of learning: what are the dimensions in rural life that make it more or less likely that families will be able to stay together? Agriculture, potable water, healthy practices: just the start of a substantial list. And Jesus: what role did his invitation to discipleship play? Over time, issues of power became increasingly central. At the core, community development is about who decides, how decisions are made, whose voices are heard or silenced. And that in turn helped us understand how to bring Jesus into the conversation, not as a rival to the Buddha, Mohammad, etc., but as One who had plenty to say about how power, about greatness, about servanthood. We were trying to learn from him (“We know in part”) and encouraged the communities with which we worked to weigh his words and example. Later, advocacy emerged as a major focus. Often this was on the national level. In one country, the government ran primary schools throughout the country. But the further from the capital, the more likely that the teachers (who often lived in the capital) would show up later than Monday morning and depart earlier than Friday afternoon. So advocacy was about encouraging the government to do what it said it was doing. Sometimes this was on the international level: what policies in Washington, London, Paris, etc. made development in Cambodia, Cameroon, Columbia, etc. more or less sustainable? There’s always more to learn. And in every national or local office there are the recurrent choices: are we trying to learn (which is often disruptive) or simply content to run the programs?

“Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.” It’s an invitation for our parishes, for St Peter’s. Where do our gifts align with opportunities? What do we do when our notions of what the Lord might find pleasing differ? Here we really need to remember Paul’s “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

Whatever the context, I like that story about Thomas Edison. The hard part about inventing the light bulb was apparently finding the right filament (material, thickness, etc.). A reporter asked how it felt to fail 1,000 times; Edison replied that he hadn’t failed; he’d succeeded in eliminating 1,000 dead ends.

At the end of our second reading Paul quotes a current hymn: “Sleeper, awake! / Rise from the dead, / and Christ will shine on you.” In the context (“Live as children of light… Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord”) he’s not pointing to a once-off event, but to an ongoing process. We’re not orphaned. Christ is shining. The Spirit that moved over the waters at creation, that inspired young David, that rested on Jesus: this Spirit is even yet at play in that space between “We know” and “We know in part.”

Post script: if we wonder how all this might translate into prayer, there’s substantial overlap between the themes I’ve explored in today’s texts and Living Well Through Lent 2023, the study guide we’ve been using on Wednesday nights (see Living Compass). So, to close, Thomas Merton’s prayer as found in that guide:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.

And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

The Third Sunday in Lent: A Sermon


John, author of today’s lesson, seems to have been incapable of telling a single story. Here he’s telling at least three.

First, Jesus’ proclaiming the good news across ethnic and religious boundaries. A quick bit of geography: from north to south: Galilee, Samaria, Judea. Galilee and Judea: Jewish; Samaria: Samaritan. No love lost between the two groups; “Eat your vegetables or a Samaritan will snatch you.” When Jews traveled between Judea and Galilee, they’d cross the Jordan River to avoid Samaria. So Jesus’ going through Samaria is an unusual choice.

Second, Jesus the Bridegroom encountering a bride. John the Baptist has just described Jesus as the bridegroom. A metaphor, clearly, but the classic place to find a bride is the village well. And here we find Jesus sitting at the edge of the well. Although Jesus is not looking for a bride in the literal sense, the setting shapes our expectations, and perhaps the woman’s expectations.

Third, how the Samaritan woman becomes a witness. One of the more carefully drawn characters in John’s Gospel; but I’d never play poker with her.

It starts slowly. Jesus is resting at the well “tired out by his journey.” The woman comes up; he asks for a drink, too tired, perhaps, to soften the breaches of custom: a man addressing a woman, a Jew asking to share a cup with a Samaritan.

The woman points all this out: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Like her subsequent responses, in this response she shows herself a master at keeping all her options open, at committing herself to nothing while obtaining commitments from Jesus. It’s a talent one has to have when one’s in a dangerous world without much power.

“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” This could easily have ended the conversation. At any point she could have filled her jar and returned to the village. Maybe Jesus, “tired out by his journey,” was not inclined even to start a conversation. Maybe he knows that this conversation needs to develop indirectly.

The woman chooses not to let the conversation die: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” She is still keeping Jesus at arm’s length, still, perhaps, playing. But it’s serious play, as it always is when dealing with the unknown.

The conversation continues until Jesus’ “Go, call your husband, and come back.” This elicits the first self-revelation on the woman’s part: “I have no husband.” And Jesus: “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’…” Rubbing salt in the wound? Hardly. Revealing more of himself, yes.

As much as we fear it, there’s a part of us that does want to hear the truth about ourselves. And here he’s given it to this woman —and not used it against her. Maybe to buy time to chew on this, she poses another question:Nevertheless, with a different woman Jesus’ response could have ended the conversation. The woman chooses to keep it going: if Jesus has this knowledge, what other knowledge does he have? “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” (Nothing like theology for keeping important questions at arm’s length!)

Jesus responds: the Jews have had it right, but the hour is coming—and is now here—when the Jewish-Samaritan conflict is beside the point.

 “I know that Messiah is coming… When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Another parry. Nevertheless, she’s picking up clues on which to make a decision: this Jesus, who hasn’t used her past against her, for whom her future is more important than her past, who’s giving her respect…

Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” And before the woman can or needs to respond, the disciples arrive. The narrator tells us not only about their reaction, but —between the lines— how they must have looked at her. (Meteorologists would have reported that the temperature suddenly dropped about 20°.)

And the woman has still not shown her cards. But it’s now clear that —and neither for the first nor the last time— if she’s going to have a relationship with Jesus it will be despite and not because of the disciples.

She announces her decision. By leaving her water jar there (not an insignificant household asset) she announces that she’ll be back. In the city: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” The question is phrased cautiously; she knows better than to put the men in the position of having to agree with a woman. “Come and see” — the same invitation extended by Philip to Nathanael, and by Jesus to John’s disciples. She started the story going out for water; she ended a witness.

And because of her witness the village responds and Jesus stays over two days.

As John tells of the village’s response we meet the woman again. The villagers say to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” John records their words because of the confession, one of the strongest that’s appeared in the Gospel to this point, doubly strong coming from Samaritan lips, and in marked contrast to Nicodemus’ response. But John also records their words, I suspect, because John knows that being a witness is costly. You have to put up with a lot, including, in this case, self-defensive male egos. Precisely in receiving their “thanks” the woman’s credentials as witness are again confirmed. Jesus’ statement two verses later, “a prophet has no honor in the prophet’s own country” applies as much to the woman as it does to Jesus.

Why has John told us this story?

In terms of the story of the Gospel as a whole, this chapter as “first fruits” of the mission beyond the Jewish world. There’s a contrast here with the reception among Jewish leaders (Nicodemus again).

How one person becomes a witness. One of most interesting people in John’s Gospel, a survivor who’s concluded that cards must be played very close to the chest. At the same time, she’s someone who intuits that there’s something to this Jesus, so she keeps probing… even as she recognizes that she’s also being probed. She makes her decision and lays it all out there: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

Perhaps Jesus learns something too. While the woman is off gathering the village there’s this strange interchange between Jesus and the disciples: “Rabbi, eat something.” “I have food to eat that you do not know about.… My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” The way John’s told the story it’s possible that Jesus had the whole conversation planned out. It’s equally possible that “tired out by his journey” it fell into his lap, and only gradually did he recognize the banquet his heavenly Father had set before him.

Jesus, someone who can speak truth about us without using it against us. Jesus, someone for whom our future is more important than our past. With as much  or more distrust than this woman, we too have the opportunity this Lent to enter into dialogue with this Stranger.

The Second Sunday in Lent: A Sermon


There’s a Pfeiffer cartoon of a couple sitting in front of a TV set. The woman: “Do you believe in life after death?” Her husband: “What do you call this?”

When we talk about eternal life or the kingdom of God, we’re not talking primarily about what happens after physical death, but about the possibility of life before death.

Speaking of television, we’ve all seen those “John 3:16” signs people hold up during sporting events. Well, here it is in the assigned readings: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

So let’s wonder about that. How does one have eternal life, this life with God that begins now?

The simplest and safest answer is Jesus. Safest, because if we focus on Jesus, Jesus is quite capable of dealing with our misunderstandings. Providing—a proviso that applies in any relationship—that we remember that Jesus and our understanding of Jesus are not the same thing. Nevertheless, the text has a bit more to say to us, so let’s keep listening.

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” There’s a Greek word here that can be translated “from above” or “again,” so the KJV translated “born again,” the RSV “born anew” and the NRSV “born from above.” Jesus’ sense seems to have been “from above,” that is, from God. Nicodemus understood it as “again” and so asked about the possibility of entering one’s mother’s womb a second time. The logic is simple: to participate in this world one needs an earthly father; to participate in the reign of God, a heavenly father, God Himself.

Jesus develops this affirmation in these terms: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” In Jesus’ time this pointed to John (who baptized with water) and Jesus (who baptized —according to John’s testimony— with the Holy Spirit). It’s not a generic affirmation (any water, any spirit), but a specific one: the road to the kingdom passes through John & Jesus: don’t bother investing time in other teachers, other traditions.

After Jesus’ time —in the time when the Gospel of John was written— “of water and Spirit” points to Christian baptism, where those baptized are born from above by water and the Holy Spirit. The New Testament assumes that being baptized and believing go together.

“…so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Let’s think about that “believe in him” part.

Believe in Christ. This is not simply believing things about Christ, as, for instance, in the Apostles’ Creed:

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.…
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

All this is true, but believing these things are true doesn’t make one a Christian. The devil, for example, knows all this is true…

Believing in Christ means trusting Him, learning from Him, obeying Him. The actions associated with baptism by immersion express it clearly: dying with Christ to be able to live with Christ. In every baptism there’s the opportunity to remember the core of our faith.

To see what this looks like we’ve got Abraham in the first lesson. Contrary to many pious legends, there’s no reason to think that Abraham wanted anything more than the good life as defined by his culture: a large family, wealth, stability, proximity to one’s people. But God sent him out to an unknown land to become father of nations.

Abraham and Sarah arrive in what will be Israel, but remain childless—for decades. And Genesis has a story about that: Abraham confronts God with their childlessness. God responds by taking Abraham outside: “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them…. So shall your descendants be.”

Abraham’s identified the problem, and God responds with…more words. Implicit in Abraham’s complaint there was another question: how come this is taking so long?—and as far as we know Abraham never got an answer to that one. So Abraham has a choice: he can keep hanging around with this God in the middle of nowhere—or go back to Haran, where the rest of his family is…not to mention Starbucks, reliable internet, etc. What does the text say? “And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Despite the fact that he’s only received more words, and still has lots of pretty important questions unanswered, he stays—and that’s what believing looks like. It’s not just about Abraham and his dreams, but about God and God’s dreams, and Abraham’s choosing to stay means that his life will play out on that larger canvas.

Recall the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary to announce the divine plan. Mary responds: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Again, that’s what believing looks like.

Who knows what Mary dreamed of growing up! Jewish girls of her time and place typically dreamed of being married, being a mother. Mary’s “let it be with me according to your word,” her belief, means that her life is going to play out in quite unexpected ways, off-the-chart joy and off-the-chart grief. Because now it’s not just about her and her dreams, but about God and God’s dreams, and she has said “yes” to her life playing out on that larger canvas.

John 3:16’s not perishing but having eternal life turns out to be double-edged: a life with God now that is stronger than death, certainly. But it’s a life that plays out on a larger canvas than my personal dreams and preferences, a life which this side of death often generates as many questions as it answers.

St Paul rightly talks of Abraham as the father of all who believe. And Mary, the Church has often said, is the mother of all who believe. Her “let it be with me according to your word” is the paradigm of Christian discipleship, for as Jesus was born of Mary, God desires that Jesus’ life be born in every believer in ways that are unexpected, creative, and beautiful. Sin makes life monotonous; faith opens room for unlimited discovery.

Faith is, obviously, something involving all of one’s life. “But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13). We struggle with the temptations to act against our faith, and so confession is a regular part of the Mass. More importantly, in the Mass we receive “the Gifts of God for the People of God” through which God nurtures Jesus’ life in us in our daily life.

Can I know that I will be saved in the end? We Anglicans are all over the map on this one. What I can know, on the one hand, is the tenacious mercy of God that seeks to bring me to salvation, and, on the other hand, my virtually unlimited capacity to try to make of God a means for my own ends. As the Anglican C.S. Lewis observes, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”[1]

How do I attain eternal life, see God’s reign? Believing in Jesus. In the beginning this is expressed in baptism. Afterwards, I attempt to allow God to nurture Jesus’ life in all the spheres of my life. I constantly must depend on God’s grace, for my commitment to this project is too often ambiguous. Sometimes I have the joy of seeing the effects of this grace in my life and in the lives of people around me. I hope that in the end God will find me still seeking to follow.

[1] The Great Divorce (Macmillan 1963), 73.

The First Sunday in Lent: A Sermon


You all know Murphy’s Law. What I didn’t know, until I googled it, is that there’s a cottage industry developing corollaries to Murphy’s Law. For instance:

  • If something can’t go wrong, it will.
  • If a series of events can go wrong, they’ll go wrong in the worst possible order.
  • After things have gone from bad to worse the cycle will repeat.
  • Nothing is so bad that it can’t get worse.
  • Nature always sides with the hidden flaw.

Some of you may have seen The Fly, either the original with David Hedison (1958) or the remake ofwith Jeff Goldblum (1986). A scientist develops a means of electronic transport. Two pods are linked by wires and a powerful computer. You go into one pod and come out the other. The scientist tests it successfully. He decides to try it himself, but a fly happens to have entered the pod. The computer does its work and out comes the scientist with his own and the fly’s DNA, and by the end of the movie the scientist is pretty much, well, fly.

OK, here’s the question. With Murphy’s Law and The Fly in mind, what’s going to happen if God decides to assume human nature in order to save the human race? Is that not the script for a disaster of cinematic proportions?

And from that perspective we can recognize what’s at stake in today’s Gospel. Jesus, declared Son of God at his baptism: what choices will this human being make?

Today’s readings tell two stories of temptation, and by attending to the first we can better understand the second.

In the Genesis story the first pair faces the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God has forbidden eating its fruit; do they eat it? But it’s not just or even primarily about the fruit—it’s about God’s character. Is God to be trusted? Notice what the serpent says: “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” God’s selfishly keeping something good from you! And if the serpent was right about that, most of us would think that Eve had a good case for eating the fruit. Is God good? Is God watching out for Eve?

(By the way, there’s a long tradition of putting the blame primarily on Eve, which works only if we ignore the text. The text doesn’t say “and she found her husband, and gave him some” but “and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.” Adam’s been standing there the whole time and has contributed squat to the conversation.)

In Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, behind the specific temptations is the issue of God’s character. Is not Jesus something of a fool to be obeying this God? At the simplest level that question is present from the beginning. The Spirit, the text tells us, led Jesus into the wilderness. So up comes the devil reciting Ps 23, and wonders aloud where the green pastures went. “Jesus, you can do so much better than this! Start by getting yourself some bread…”

Unlimited bread, spectacular miracles, a discreet acknowledgement of the gatekeeper: getting all the kingdoms of the world does not need to be difficult. Challenge the gatekeeper and you’re liable to end up on some cross. Is the God that asks this of Jesus trustworthy? Is God good? Is God watching out for Jesus?

Ethics, what we do, are grounded in what is. If God isn’t good, isn’t watching out for us, it’s every man or woman for themselves! If God is good, if God is watching out for us, then obeying God is, in principle, a no-brainer.

Here’s where we get really good at mental games. Here’s one of my favorites: yes, God is good—to most folk. But God tends to forget me at critical moments. Rational? No. But it opens the door to very familiar emotional scripts: impatience, anger, etc.—precisely when I need the energy to stay faithful to what I profess.

The link between what is and what we should do is present also in the Ten Commandments. Because the Ten Commandments start not with “You shall have no other gods before me,” but with “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have…” God has already shown Himself to be good, merciful, our liberator. That’s who the commandments are coming from. “I am the Lord”—and therefore we don’t need to kill, to steal, etc.

But back to the Gospel, what does Jesus do? Between Murphy’s Law, The Fly, and the first temptation story we’ve got plenty of reason to hold our breath.

To each of the devil’s suggestions Jesus responds with Scripture: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God… You shall not tempt the Lord your God… You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” The point is not that Jesus is quoting Scripture, as though that’s how you’re supposed to argue. The point is that Jesus’ familiarity with Scripture empowers him to recognize that the devil isn’t offering anything new, isn’t offering anything that hasn’t already been tried and found wanting.

Is God good? Is God watching out for Jesus? Jesus, son of Mary, knows not only the Scripture of his people, but also the family stories, how an angel kept them safe from Herod, how an angel kept them safe from Herod’s son Archelaus. And so Jesus makes Moses’ words his own: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve”—and we can stop holding our breaths.

The core of the account of the temptation isn’t so much a theology of temptation or a psychology of temptation—though we can usefully explore these—but an event: a new possibility in human history. When Jesus and Murphy’s Law step into the ring, it’s Jesus who emerges. Something new is in play in our history.

Our Elder Brother, Jesus Christ, has given his testimony. If we permit it, his testimony can aid our hearts in encountering a God who merits our confidence, our obedience. May we open our hearts to receive this aid! Amen.

Ash Wednesday: A Sermon


Today’s psalm begins:

1 Bless the Lord, O my soul, *
and all that is within me, bless his holy Name.
2 Bless the Lord, O my soul, *
and forget not all his benefits.
3 He forgives all your sins *
and heals all your infirmities;
4 He redeems your life from the grave *
and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness;
5 He satisfies you with good things, *
and your youth is renewed like an eagle’s.

As I enter Lent this time around I’m drawn to these verses, one of the Psalter’s more important portrait of God’s character and action. Had someone piped up in the middle of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, wondering where Jesus was getting “for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” or “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” or “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him,” Jesus could have easily pointed to these verses.

Recall the story of how we first went off the rails:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen. 3:1-5)

The fruit is a secondary issue. The primary issue is the portrait the serpent paints of God: selfish, deceitful, stingy, in a word, untrustworthy. If that’s what God is like, go for the fruit!

So, card-carrying descendant of that those parents, I need those verses from the psalm.

So, entering Lent this time around those verses give me plenty to work on. What in my daily or weekly routine makes it easier or harder to trust this portrait of God, to trust this God? That’s a question I want to regularly ask. And then there’s v.2.

Bless the Lord, O my soul, *
and forget not all his benefits.

The psalmist lists some of those benefits—in, necessarily, general terms. But what would my personal list look like? So, today I’ve started a list of what I’m thankful for. Day one, so there’s just one item. Each day I’ll add an item. Many, like the first, will be people. Some will be moments or situations in my life when things didn’t go off the rails. Some of them may generate phone calls (“I was thinking about you today…”). I wonder what the list will look like when I hit Holy Saturday.

If you don’t already have other plans, would you like to discover what your list would look like?

20 Bless the Lord, you angels of his,
you mighty ones who do his bidding, *
and hearken to the voice of his word.
21 Bless the Lord, all you his hosts, *
you ministers of his who do his will.
22 Bless the Lord, all you works of his,
in all places of his dominion; *
bless the Lord, O my soul.

The Last Sunday after the Epiphany: A Sermon


In today’s Gospel we encounter a “no” and a “yes.”

The “no” is to Peter’s apparently quite reasonable proposal: “if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Jesus’ glory revealed, Jesus with Moses and Elijah, the “dream team” of Jewish piety: who could ask for more? Why not stay here…permanently? Down below so many needs…and the Pharisees…and the Roman occupation. Here, peace and glory.

Why the divine “no”? What’s at stake here? Perhaps the issue is the temptation to reduce discipleship or faith to the search for religious experiences. It doesn’t get more sublime or spectacular than what Peter, James, and John were witnessing. “This is my Son…listen to him!” Listening to and following Jesus means descending from the mountain, not hanging on to even the best of spiritual experiences, because Jesus is already down below; ahead of us.

Having said that, among us Episcopalians the more common temptation is to write off these moments on the mountain. Jesus knew that Peter, James, and John needed to be there. Jesus knows that perhaps most of us need some moments on the mountain.

But perhaps the “no” is about something else, the temptation to idolize a particular moment in the church’s history or in a parish’s history. “If only we were back in the 1st Century!” “If only it could be like it was under Father X.” And the text encourages us not to get stuck: we may even get the three dwellings built, but by then Jesus will be a considerable way down the mountain.

The glory of God on the mountain and the descent. That’s one of the rhythms of life, a rhythm this text encourages us to appreciate and fall in with. The “no” may help us appreciate that.

The “yes.” To focus the “yes” we need to wonder about what happened on the mountain. Why Moses and Elijah? That was important information for the disciples, for as good Jews they knew who Moses and Elijah were, but were still trying to figure out who Jesus was. Moses: giver of the Law; Elijah: representative of the entire prophetic tradition; Jesus? How does Jesus fit with Moses and Elijah? The Voice: “Listen to Jesus!” That is, when push comes to shove, don’t interpret Jesus in terms of Moses and Elijah; interpret Moses and Elijah, that is, the institutions of law and prophecy, in terms of Jesus.

Now, once we recognize that the text is also about how Jesus relates to institutions, Jesus’ primacy over institutions, the text can really open up. That issue is our issue. How does Jesus relate to our institutions? The human being, Aristotle observed, is a political animal: we’re born into them, live, move, and have our being in them. Nations, the economy, custom: in their own way they’re as real as anything. Many cultures treat them as gods. Our culture says it doesn’t, but I wonder. We say, “The economy’s healthy.” “The economy’s sick.” More ominously: “The economy demands sacrifices.” TV and the internet give us instant access to competing priesthoods of the economy, a.k.a., the economists, with their competing prescriptions for what will make the economy happy.

As gentiles, our issue isn’t how Jesus relates to Moses and Elijah. Heirs of the Graeco-Roman world, it usually is how Jesus relates to Venus, goddess of love; Mars, god of war; Pluto, god of wealth, Athena, goddess of wisdom, etc.

So…picture Jesus together with whichever of these gods or goddesses are relevant to you. They’re talking. Imagine what they might be saying. Now comes the cloud and the Voice from the cloud: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

All of these authorities, institutions, etc. depend on and will be transformed by Jesus. This is one of the points of the Transfiguration, with Moses and Elijah as representative authorities. It is Paul’s point as he speaks of Jesus: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers [here we might say “systems, institutions, customs”]– all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:15-17)

It doesn’t matter much which gods seem to be most important to us. Without Jesus they’d blink out of existence; in the end they’ll be visibly in submission to Jesus. In the light of this future, a future prefigured in the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah as stand-ins for the many possible authorities, our challenge is our ongoing relationship with them today.

This is some of the hardest work we do as Christians. When we get it right, it’s wonderful (the abolition of slavery in the British Empire comes to mind, the non-violent end to apartheid in South Africa). When we don’t… Today we’re badly divided on any number of issues. What today’s Gospel tells us is that Jesus needs to be in our conversations about these issues from the start. Jesus—not my picture of Jesus. That’s an important distinction. If my engagement with these issues isn’t pushing me to encounter Jesus afresh through Word and Sacrament and through my sisters and brothers, then there’s a problem.

My sisters and brothers. The issues the Transfiguration raises for us are not the sort that lend themselves to individual resolution. They, like so many challenges in the Christian life, demand a corporate response. They demand that we get better at listening to each other, talking with each other. I’m probably not better at hearing Jesus than I am at hearing the brother or sister with whom I disagree.

Deep breath. The Transfiguration: also an invitation to us to use our imaginations. Pluto, Venus, Mars, etc: what are the gods that claim turf in our lives? What will their visible submission to Jesus look like? How do we live that future now?

The 6th Sunday after the Epiphany: A Sermon

Readings; expanded Gospel reading here.

In the last two weeks we’ve heard Jesus pronounce “blessed” or “happy” an astonishing group: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the merciful, the peacemakers, etc. “You all,” he declares, are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. And “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” And behind this, the previous chapters with Jesus as Emmanuel (God with us) and Jesus’ baptism (“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”) Something new is onstage; there are new possibilities.

OK, Jesus, what does this mean in practice? So Jesus starts with some examples, six texts from the law he’s not abolishing, but fulfilling. The lectionary allots two Sundays to these examples, but since this year next Sunday’s Gospel is the Transfiguration, we’ll look—too briefly—at three of them. (For the other three, see the longer sermon on the blog whose address is at the bottom of the Gospel handout.)

Do these examples constitute a new law? No. They’re about how to interpret the law in light of God’s character, the character Jesus places centerstage in v.45: “for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous,” God’s generosity. And they’re about what is now possible with Jesus on stage, Emmanuel, God with us.


“You shall not murder,” or, as normally translated in the Decalogue, “You shall not kill.” So as long as I’m not doing that I’m showing God’s generosity, being that “light to the nations”? Hardly. So Jesus focuses on anger, how we deal with our anger being s a big part of what it means to “not kill.” This is clearly not a new law, for Jesus himself calls the scribes and Pharisees “blind fools” (23:17), and it’s hard not to sense Jesus’ anger as he delivers the speech of which that’s a part.

What’s  at issue both here and in the following paragraph: anger and desire start out as things that happen to us. That’s why Jesus’ world called them passions: we’re initially passive. But after that initial moment we can make decisions, decide what to do with that anger or desire. Jesus is focusing on what we do with our anger: do we carry it, do we nurse it? This is Bruner’s take: “Jesus is confronting our more frequent sin of irritable, irascible, temperamental anger—the decision to be angry people.”[1]

We often don’t handle our anger well, and so Jesus focuses on reconciliation. How important is reconciliation? More important than sacrifice. Here Jesus is taking up a common prophetic theme (God is not impressed with sacrifice apart from justice) and pushing it further, for reconciliation seeks not simply justice, but the restoration of broken relationships. This is one of the reasons for the Peace in our liturgy, the opportunity to make things right—even if only in a very provisional way—before coming to the altar.

How important is reconciliation? Our very freedom may be at stake. Jesus’ example deals with literal freedom, but that is probably not the only freedom in play. I recall a comic who described how difficult it was to name her children, because all the names she thought of were names of people she was mad at. She finally ended up with ‘Eliezer’ and ‘Hagar’. Our very freedom may be at stake: I wonder if Jesus was thinking also of his people’s current angry trajectory that would lead to the destruction of the temple.

So how do we who have Jesus in our midst do “You shall not kill”? Paul’s “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil” (Eph. 4:26-27) isn’t a bad paraphrase of part of Jesus’ teaching. Early in our marriage a Jewish friend passed on advice in the same spirit: “As you argue, remember that eventually you’ll have to reconcile, so don’t make that harder than it needs to be.”


The second paragraph: “You shall not commit adultery” (from the Decalogue). Good luck fulfilling that if we don’t focus on the desire that draws us to the act. Think of the stories of desire that go badly wrong in Jesus’ Bible: David desiring Bathsheba, wife of Uriah, Amnon desiring Tamar, his half-sister, the two elders desiring Susanna. Usually there’s plenty of time to encourage the desire—or not—until the desire dominates the whole decision process and events spiral out of control. Matthew himself tells the not unrelated story of John the Baptist’s beheading, with Herod giving free rein to his desire for Herodias’ daughter, with the result that he, the king, ends up being the least free figure in the story. Pay attention to the Bible’s stories, and you learn that if you look at a woman in order to lust after her you’d better start figuring out now how you’re going to deal with the consequences of your “free” actions.

In this paragraph Jesus is addressing men, and in that context makes the important point that the desire is the man’s responsibility. No room for “if only she hadn’t been wearing that.” Different cultural contexts give women greater freedom to act on their desires, and I doubt that Jesus would mind them making the necessary transpositions to hear themselves addressed by his words.

Of course, not everyone who desires acts on their desire. For those who do not act, Jesus’ words may suggest something else: Do not think you are virtuous when what you lack is courage, opportunity, or creativity.

“If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away…” From the start we’ve recognized that Jesus is not speaking literally, much less giving us a new law. What he is doing is encouraging a certain ruthlessness: to recognize what situations are too tempting and to stay away from them.

The damage uncontrolled desire does to families and communities gives Jesus plenty of reason to talk about it. But that’s not the whole of it. One of the fundamental goods of marriage is the erotic delight portrayed in the Song of Songs. God desires that for every couple. Uncontrolled anger makes that difficult. Uncontrolled desire makes that even more difficult. Here as elsewhere Jesus challenges us because we often settle for too little.


The next paragraph: divorce. Here Jesus is referring to the law in Deuteronomy that starts “When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her…” (Deut 24:1). In Jesus’ time there was a lively argument regarding what ‘some indecency’ meant. Rabbi Shammai thought it referred only to adultery; Rabbi Hillel thought it could refer to anything…burning the toast, for example.

What does it mean to fulfill the Law with Jesus in our midst? Jesus in our midst gives us the freedom to wonder about what God intended marriage to be—and this is precisely the move Matthew records Jesus making later in the Gospel, returning to Genesis: “’For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (19:5-6).

Fulfilling the law in Jesus’ presence starts with the principle Jesus points us to in Gen 1-2: marriage is to be a permanent union, a union in which human faithfulness mirrors—however imperfectly—God’s faithfulness to us. This is a principle, not a law, and the attempts of various expressions of the Church to make a law of it witness, involuntarily, to the futility and inhumanity of the enterprise:

  • The law is “no divorce” and we respond by multiplying annulments, declarations that there was never a marriage in the first place. Sometimes an annulment is appropriate; too often, the larger the gift to the church, the easier it is to procure an annulment.
  • The law is “no divorce except for adultery” and we respond by enriching lawyers and detectives who can make a case that there has been adultery.
  • The law is “no divorce except for a really good reason” and we’re back to Hillel’s burned toast.

None of this is to downplay the pain and tragedy of divorce or the good that one can encounter after divorce, but to suggest the futility of trying to come up with the right law or set of laws to achieve a righteousness greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees.

Ironically, Jesus’ approach to marriage via Genesis drives us back to Jesus’ words about anger and desire in the preceding sections. How I handle my angers and how I handle my desires will have a lot to do with whether I end up joining the Pharisees to ask Jesus “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”


The next paragraph: Oaths. Calling on God to guarantee the truth of one’s words: what could be wrong with that? Well, someone testifies before Congress, and our first question is whether they were under oath or not. If not, we can safely ignore their testimony. Tellingly, the only folk who use oaths in the rest of Matthew’s Gospel are Herod (to Salome), the High Priest (to Jesus), and Peter—when he’s in the process of denying Jesus.

Human interaction is too important, too valuable for these games. And so Jesus says “Let what you say be simply `Yes’ or `No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” And when we think about that, we realize that the principle Jesus is articulating goes beyond the formal use of oaths. Think of our patterns of speech. How often do we hear “Honestly…” (So what preceded was something else?), “To tell the truth…” (So what you were doing before was…?)


The fifth paragraph: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” In the Old Testament context that was about limiting retaliation: only one eye for an eye. In understanding Jesus’ words our first problem is whether ‘resist’ is a helpful translation. Throughout his life Jesus is resisting evil, Paul proudly resists Peter’s error (Galatians 2:11), and we’re all told “Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).

The context can help us. Jesus has cited “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” a law which limits retaliation. He tells us: do not retaliate at all. So, as a translation I like “do not take revenge on” (TEV) or Bruner’s “Do not ever try to get even with.”

“Do not take revenge on…” is hardly easy: Jesus’ examples make that clear. But what the examples do is flesh out the portrait of the peacemakers as surprising people (Bruner). Klassen: “to be a peacemaker is to outwit the opponent, using the tactic of surprise and refusing to retaliate in the way the opponent expects” (cited in Bruner).

We are fortunate that Jesus’ hearers have periodically shown us the power of Jesus’ words—some of them not even Christian. Recall the scene in the movie Gandhi in which Gandhi and an Anglican cleric are discussing whether “turn the other cheek” is to be understood literally or metaphorically. Thank God Gandhi understood it literally. And Gandhi’s obedience to Jesus fed a tradition that in turn fed Martin Luther King, Jr., the Philippine revolution (1986), the African National Congress’ largely non-violent opposition that finally brought the South African apartheid regime to the bargaining table (1990), etc.

Encouraging as these modern examples are, there is no suggestion that turning the other cheek will always “work.” “Turn the other cheek” recalls what happens to Jesus’ cheeks in the Passion, ditto the disposition of his garments, and turning the other cheek is one way of ending up in Lesser Feasts and Fasts (Again, Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Let me come at it another way. A recent documentary on primate behavior included graphic footage of violence between baboon troops. Do we primates have an alternative? Moses gets us half-way there: only one eye for an eye; vengeance has its limits. (And this world would be a much better place if we would just listen to Moses.) Jesus challenges those of us who identify as his followers to go the other half: “do not take revenge.” Full stop.


The sixth paragraph: “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” “Love your neighbor” is from Leviticus; “hate your enemy” was a common interpretation, but not an Old Testament command.

 The status quo, Jesus observes, leaves the people of God indistinguishable from the tax collectors and Gentiles, replaying the Hatfields and the McCoys ad nauseum, which is to say, not all that distinguishable from the baboons. That’s the push, what might motivate us to seek something different.

The pull is God’s conduct and character. It is natural to picture God as rewarding the good and punishing the wicked. Parts of the Jesus’ Bible—our Old Testament— can be read that way. Other parts reveal its limitations, Job, for instance. And what Jesus is arguing is that it shouldn’t be the first picture of God that should come to mind. Rather, as we look at God and the world, watch God making the sun rise on the evil and the good, sending rain on the just and unjust.

And this is the most useful picture for making sense of what God is doing in Jesus. Were God simply about rewarding the good and punishing the wicked, Jesus’ tour of Galilee would have looked much more like General Sherman’s march through Georgia. Instead, he is announcing the good news to all, healing the sick, delivering the possessed—all without first determining who deserves it and who doesn’t. Jesus’ portrait of God and Jesus’ conduct are two sides of the same coin.

“You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” ‘Perfect’ is a possible translation of the text, but perhaps not the most useful. “Complete” (CEB) and “Perfectly mature” (Bruner) have been suggested. (On the other hand, Jesus might have really liked Vince Lombardi’s take on it!)

Combine “love your neighbor” with Jesus’ description of God’s conduct, and there’s no room for “hate your enemy.” Love your neighbor: “Commit random and senseless acts of kindness.”

Jesus has covered a lot of ground since saying “You are the salt of the earth…the light of the world.” It leaves us, if we do not flee, poorer in spirit than when we started. Who is up to this? It is tempting to flee, to reduce Jesus’ words to something manageable. But consider this. Our children and grandchildren often see more clearly than we do the brutality and senselessness of the world they are inheriting. Teen drug use and suicides rates have been going in alarming directions. To make Jesus’ words manageable in this world is to say that Jesus offers no real alternative to this world. The next generations deserve better news, and with Emmanuel (“God with us”) we can give it to them.

[1] Bruner, Frederick Dale (2004), Matthew, 1:209.

The 5th Sunday after the Epiphany: A Sermon


If it feels like someone hit the fast forward button to send us into the Lenten readings, that’s not accidental. In the older lectionaries in the West the three Sundays prior to Ash Wednesday were treated as part of a “the Greater Lent,” and some of our readings reflect this older treatment.[1]

So, certainly, the first reading, which pretty much says all we need to say about fasting as a Lenten discipline. Our Lectionary omits the last two verses, the verses about the Sabbath, which ignores the text’s logic. If I don’t receive the Sabbath as God’s generous gift, then the generosity the text describes toward the vulnerable is not going to come naturally.

The second reading, as we heard, continues Paul’s challenge to the Corinthians re wisdom. Centuries and tradition have distanced us from the shock of the cross; back then even words like ‘cross’ and ‘crucify’ would not appear in polite society. If Jesus on the cross displays God’s wisdom, then God’s and our wisdom are not the same, and the Corinthians’ wisdom is less effective than they assume.

Our Gospel reading makes at least three points. First, the images of salt and light restate the rationale for there being a “people of God.” It echoes multiple Old Testament texts, starting with God’s words to Abraham “and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3b). Jesus is not starting a new project, but restarting that old project.

Over in the Gospel of John we hear Jesus saying “I am the light of the world” (8:12; 9:5). Here, “You are the light of the world.” We might say: Jesus is the light of the world so that God’s people can be the light of the world. To get into the spirit of it—and since we’re in Wisconsin—here’s Vince Lombardi: “Gentlemen, we will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence.”[2]

Second, Jesus not abolishing, but fulfilling the Law. We’ll need to wonder about how that works as we continue in the Sermon on the Mount.

Third, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” That’s a warning that itself needs a warning label: Jesus is talking about the scribes and Pharisees as a group, so we can’t extrapolate to every member of that group. The scribes and Pharisees are supposed to be good at righteousness, but, like most groups in every time and place that are supposed to be good at righteousness, they’re vulnerable. Why not maximize the benefits and minimize the costs—also when it comes to interpreting the law? Like Isaiah’s audience, whose practice of fasting was simply self-serving. Joseph’s story, the first in Matthew’s Gospel, displays a different sort of vulnerability. Joseph is righteous, but without angelic intervention, his righteousness would have meant discarding Mary. And Jesus will spend the rest of the Sermon on the Mount describing what that righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees looks like.

As a sort of preview of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, let’s look at today’s psalm. And that means looking at Psalms 111-112, for the two psalms are a matched pair, the only such tight pair in the Psalter. Please find them on pp.754-755 of the BCP. Both psalms are acrostic, each line ordered—after the initial “Hallelujah”—by the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, running from A to Z, as it were.

Psalm 111

1 Hallelujah!

I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, *
in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.

2 Great are the deeds of the Lord! *
they are studied by all who delight in them.

3 His work is full of majesty and splendor, *
and his righteousness endures for ever.

4 He makes his marvelous works to be remembered; *
the Lord is gracious and full of compassion.

5 He gives food to those who fear him; *
he is ever mindful of his covenant.

6 He has shown his people the power of his works *
in giving them the lands of the nations.

7 The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice; *
all his commandments are sure.

8 They stand fast for ever and ever, *
because they are done in truth and equity.

9 He sent redemption to his people;
he commanded his covenant for ever; *

holy and awesome is his Name.

10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; *
those who act accordingly have a good understanding;
his praise endures for ever.

Psalm 112

1 Hallelujah!

Happy are they who fear the Lord *
and have great delight in his commandments!

2 Their descendants will be mighty in the land; *
the generation of the upright will be blessed.

3 Wealth and riches will be in their house, *
and their righteousness will last for ever.

4 Light shines in the darkness for the upright; *
the righteous are merciful and full of compassion.

5 It is good for them to be generous in lending *
and to manage their affairs with justice.

6 For they will never be shaken; *
the righteous will be kept in everlasting remembrance.

7 They will not be afraid of any evil rumors; *
their heart is right; they put their trust in the Lord.

8 Their heart is established and will not shrink, *
until they see their desire upon their enemies.

9 They have given freely to the poor, *
and their righteousness stands fast for ever;
they will hold up their head with honor.

10 The wicked will see it and be angry;
they will gnash their teeth and pine away; *
the desires of the wicked will perish.

Back in Genesis we hear “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (1:26); we might hear these two psalms as a meditation on how that plays out: the righteous God, the righteous human being.

The divine-human relation is certainly not symmetrical. Both psalms begin with “Hallelujah!” (Not first “Praise Yah” and then “Praise Us.”) The first psalm ends with “the fear of the Lord;” the second begins by declaring “happy” (there’s that word again that we met in last week’s Beatitudes) “they who fear the Lord.”

OK; Sidebar. “Fear the Lord.” There are good reasons why that phrase makes us nervous, and we often gloss it with “reverence.” That gloss is not wrong, but something can be lost. Ellen Davis: “Fear is an elemental response; reverence is a head trip. Fear is the unmistakable feeling in our bodies, in our stomachs and our scalp, when we run up hard against the power of God.”[3] Recall that scene in C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia in which Mr. Beaver is preparing Lucy to meet the lion Aslan:

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. 

Not safe, but good: not a bad framework for sorting out what sorts of fear are appropriate. But back to the psalms.

What is striking is the celebration of image/likeness, first in the identical vocabulary in vv.3-4 (the English translation’s decision to translate the same Hebrew words differently is a head-scratcher). The celebration continues, taking the differences of scale into account. The Lord is generous (vv.5a, 6b, 9a), as are the righteous (vv.5a, 9a).

God is glorious, and it is a glorious thing to be a human being. This pair of psalms can remind us of that when it’s not obvious, when we begin the day by putting our pants on backwards (last Thursday).

Besides the Creator/creature difference, perhaps the most obvious difference is that the Lord is unopposed; the idols of the nations are not worth mentioning. The righteous, on the other hand, live in the midst of the wicked. And here’s where the psalm notices a corollary to the fear of the Lord. The righteous fear the Lord. So they do not fear evil rumors (v.7), they do not “shrink” (v.8, same Hebrew word). So I wonder: if I feared the Lord more would I fear what Wall Street is doing to my IRA less? Anyhow, as the psalm lays it out, we might say that the righteous get the image of God right: generosity toward the vulnerable. The wicked get the image of God wrong: abusive, tight-fisted, egocentric. The righteous have a future underwritten by Lord; the wicked do not.

From the perspective of the two psalms it’s a no-brainer: we’re created in God’s image; image God’s generosity. But that it needs saying shows that it’s not self-evident. We see things not as they are, but as we are, and that includes “seeing” God. So some see a god who does whatever he wants, likes throwing his weight around, who’s accountable to no one, and set about imitating that.

So this pair of psalms that we’ve been examining also examines us. How do we perceive God? What elements of that perceived divine character are we in fact imitating? As we wonder about that we may be able to better hear what Jesus might be telling us as we continue in Matthew’s Gospel.

How do we perceive God? What elements of that perceived divine character are we in fact imitating?

[1] See, conveniently, (accessed 1/30/2023).

[2] (accessed 1/31/2023).

[3] Getting involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (2001), p.102.

The 4th Sunday after the Epiphany: A Sermon


Each of these readings deserves its own sermon. This time around let’s wonder about three things. First, the Beatitudes as a rereading of that last verse in Micah. Second, Paul on wisdom and folly. Third, that phrase in Paul’s letter, “the message of the cross.”

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah’s audience (Isaiah’s audience—they were contemporaries) was justly very proud of the temple. Solomon had built it, had spared no expense in building it, and it was breathtaking. And as long as the multiple sacrifices and festivals stayed on schedule, it was easy to assume that the Lord found it breathtaking. So prophets like Micah had the thankless task of reminding the people that while worship (including prayer) was essential, it was not the only essential thing. In characteristic prophetic hyperbole: “what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” And over the centuries we’ve periodically needed this reminder: worship is essential; it’s not the only essential thing.

(Parenthetically, we might hear today’s psalm, Psalm 15, as a reminder, in the temple, to remember the prophets’ teaching.)

Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God: we can hear Jesus’ Beatitudes as sketching out what, with Jesus’ coming, that looks like.

The Beatitudes, the beginning of what we refer to as the Sermon on the Mount, are set just after the calling of Peter, Andrew, James, and John that we heard last week. Matthew sets the stage: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan” (4:23-25)—and then our text.

Why’s that important? Coming at the Beatitudes cold (“Happy are the poor in spirit, those who mourn…”) one might be tempted to call the local asylum: one of your patients is loose. But after that long list of folk Jesus has touched, it’s possible that he knows what he’s talking about. That’s important for us as hearers. We’re not meant to come to the Beatitudes cold. If Jesus hasn’t touched me in some important way, they’re not the place to start.

Micah set up his summary with “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you.” Jesus sets it up with “Blessed/Happy are…” Translation of the Greek makarios is a challenge, the English versions opting for ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’, both of which have drawbacks. ‘Blessed’ can suggest something disconnected from real life; ‘happy’ can suggest something fleeting. It helps to notice that it’s the opening word in the Book of Psalms: “Happy are they who have not walked…” We might say it’s about describing a truly human life.

Most of the beatitudes focus on character as seen in conduct, the merciful, the peacemakers, etc. The beginning and ending beatitudes focus also on the vulnerability tied to that character. While in a perfect world good character would produce good fortune, we’re not in a perfect world, so good character carries risks. As Ben Sira put it “My child, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for testing” (2:1). So “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” not because that’s how the world works, but because, as Jesus has been proclaiming, “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” As Jesus has been proclaiming, underlined in the last beatitude which shifts from “Blessed are the…” to “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” So the Beatitudes are news, tied to Jesus’ arrival, rather than timeless truths.

And the thing about news (worthy of the name) is that it guides the conduct of the wise. Snow’s in the forecast—so leave the sand and shovel in the trunk. “Blessed are the poor in spirit”—so that’s the character we want to encourage. Parenthetically, here, as in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, the focus is first on the community (the congregation), then on the individual. What sort of community are we? What sort of community are we becoming?

And the community/congregation is integral to when/how these futures happen (“they will be comforted…will inherit the earth…will be filled”). Only in heaven? That would make “inherit the earth” meaningless. “They will receive mercy” only from God? Jesus’ teaching seeks to mold us into congregations in which the Beatitudes are experienced to be true in our dealings with each other. (“Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times’” (Matt. 18:21-22). The Beatitudes are news; let’s respond wisely.

Paul, as we heard, pays attention to what the message about the cross does to words like ‘wise’, ‘foolish’, ‘strong’, and ‘weak’. The way of the Beatitudes, executed supremely by Jesus, looks foolish and weak to the world, then and now. The meek will inherit the earth? Or, as Stalin put it, “The pope! How many divisions has he got?” So the Corinthians need to realize that being baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection overhauls the meaning of ‘wise’, ‘foolish’, ‘strong’, and ‘weak’. These “I belong to Paul/Apollos/Cephas/Christ” games need a second look.

That’s something we have trouble hearing. We categorize: there’s culture, economics, politics, religion, etc. “Christian” goes in the religion box, so leaves the other boxes undisturbed, leaves the meaning of ‘wise’, ‘strong’ etc. in these other boxes undisturbed. Or, worse, ‘Christian’ becomes another argument for whatever cultural, economic, or political positions I already hold. It’s easiest to see this in others. Putin invades Ukraine; the Russian Orthodox Patriarch declares that it’s God’s will. No. To be baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection means a mental asterisk on words like ‘wise’, ‘foolish’, ‘strong’, and ‘weak’ as I learn from Jesus how to use them.

So much—too briefly—for Paul. But what of “the message of the cross”? In today’s reading Paul focuses on what it does to words like ‘wise’, ‘foolish’, ‘strong’, and ‘weak’. But that’s not all, or even primarily, what the cross is about. So let’s pull back the camera. Micah: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Well, why is that good, why does the LORD require that? Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God: that’s what reflects God’s character, that’s what fits with God’s creation. And that, combined with the suffering it often attracts (think the Beatitudes, Jesus’ performance of the Beatitudes, “the message of the cross”) is how the LORD heals this world.

But that’s not the end of the story. Toward the end Paul writes “He [God] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” That’s more than Jesus messing with our use of ‘wise’, ‘foolish’, ‘strong’, and ‘weak’. That’s our walking in the way of the Beatitudes, the way of the Cross, to participate in the healing of our world. We keep remembering Jesus’ story not because he’s back there and we’re here, but so that his story becomes our story.

Bottom line:

  • When we come to receive the Body and Blood we’re asking God to work in us so that we—and others—experience the Beatitudes in our common life.
  • When we come to the receive the Body and Blood it’s to receive Jesus as gift and to become the Jesus-like gift for others.