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 Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Readings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

How does change happen?

Change is at the core of our Eucharists. In the Great Thanksgiving the celebrant prays:

“Sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him. Sanctify us also that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace…”

The change in the bread and wine: that’s the simple part. The change in us (“sanctify us”)—how does that work? One of the images Scripture uses is that of potter and clay. From Isaiah we hear “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand” (64:8). And texts in the Wisdom of Solomon (15:7), Sirach (33:13), and Paul highlight the potter’s freedom to do with the clay as he wills. From Romans: “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?” (9:21). The meditation in today’s psalm runs along parallel lines: “For you yourself created my inmost parts; / you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”

From the way Paul uses the image in Romans we might conclude that we have as little to do with the change in us as we have in the change in the bread and wine. Which is why we need Jeremiah. If we listen to what Jeremiah is saying—as opposed to what we assume he’s saying—what we hear is that the potter is responsive to what the clay does.

“At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.”

When it comes to change in us, our choices matter.

That, of course, is what drives Jesus’ words in our Gospel reading. Hyperbole is one of Jesus’ favorite rhetorical tools, and here, in the style of Moses’ final speeches in Deuteronomy, he lays out the either-or: disciple or not, life or death: your choice. And sometimes we need that sort of wake-up call.

But most of the time, I’d guess, we need something other than the sledgehammer—which brings us to our reading from Philemon.

I recalled this letter a few weeks back. Philemon’s slave Onesimus had run away, ran into Paul, and become a Christian. Paul is sending Onesimus back with this letter, in which he appeals to Philemon to receive Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.” “Welcome him as you would welcome me.”

The stakes are high for everyone. Onesimus: the owner’s free to do whatever he wants with his property, so returning to your owner might look like a monumentally bad idea. Philemon: he’s a Christian, but one look at Onesimus may be enough for him to revert to business as usual. Paul: Paul can write inspiring letters: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:27-28). When push comes to shove, is that true?

The stakes are high, which makes Paul’s approach all the more surprising. In much of our experience, the higher the stakes, the greater the coercion. Come April 15, Washington does not appeal to me to file my tax return. And it’s easy to take the absence of coercion as evidence that the issue isn’t important. For the state that’s often true; for Paul—or God, for that matter—no. Paul values Philemon’s freedom—God values our freedom—too highly to coerce, even when the stakes are high. (Not that Paul won’t get pretty close to that line, even while trying not to cross it!)

So Paul points toward the desired outcome: that Philemon receive Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.” “Welcome him as you would welcome me.” “Knowing that you will do even more than I say.” But Paul leaves the details—all the crucial details—in Philemon’s hands.

How does change happen? Paul’s letter to Philemon is an important model. The safe thing would have been for Paul to keep Onesimus away from Philemon. Paul—and Onesimus—choose to give this slave-owner Philemon the opportunity to contribute to this “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” business.

Let me take the “so what?” in two different directions.

Paul’s encouragement to Philemon to let his Christian identity shape his conduct: who knows what that might inspire if we stay awake? My home parish, St. Dunstan’s, aware that the church sits on property previously belonging to the Ho-Chunk, put together a Land Acknowledgement Task Force a while back, which concluded that simply saying “Sorry ‘bout that” was insufficient. So, starting this year, there’s a $4,000 line item in the annual budget—under building, not outreach—to go to the Ho-Chunk. It’s a step.

The way Paul appeals to Philemon is probably a helpful model for us as we interact with each other regarding the important stuff. Paul really cares what Philemon decides. He’s not shy about appealing to their shared history. But he wants Philemon’s decision to be free, not coerced. You could do worse than read Philemon together with your new rector!

The psalmist prayed “I will thank you because I am marvelously made; / your works are wonderful, and I know it well.” Philemon, Onesimus, Paul, you, me: all marvelously made, all terribly vulnerable. And our ever-hopeful God sends us together into the coming week.

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

We’ll start this morning by recalling the first part of today’s collect:

“Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works…”

What’s worth noticing about this and many of our collects—the prayers that collect our thoughts and intentions at the beginning of our worship—is that it implies a story. There’s a past: God, “the author and giver of all good things.” There’s a future: “the fruit of good works” which have yet to ripen. We’re in the middle of the story. And who we are, what we should do, what we can hope—all of that is determined by what story we’re in the middle of.

We’re in the middle of a story. We’re not at the beginning, so there’s no question of starting with a blank sheet of paper. And we’re not at the end, which is why despair is never an appropriate response.

The “author and giver of all good things” in our collect also points to a theme that runs through our readings: gratitude and its proper expression.

Today gratitude is seriously under-rated as a virtue; we may even think of it as a sign of weakness. Other times and places got it right: The Roman politician and philosopher Cicero claimed “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” The modern psychologist Abraham Maslow: “[The most fortunate are those who] have a wonderful capacity to appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy.” And Albert Einstein: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

The “author and giver of all good things.” If that’s who God is, if that’s what God has done, if that’s the story we’re in, then gratitude is the fitting response.

And, conversely, it’s the failure of gratitude that regularly gets us into so much trouble. Our first lesson, for instance: Israel had received so much from God: deliverance from slavery in Egypt, guidance through a trackless desert, a plentiful land. And Israel too often ignored it all, and set off to jury-rig their own story.

Creation invites us to gratitude. Many of our psalms give us words to express this. “All of them look to you / to give them their food in due season.” Or we can attend to the conversations in the hard sciences. It turns out that a good number of physical constants like the strength of gravity need pretty fine tuning for life to be possible. The fine tuning of our world is so improbable that to avoid thanking the Creator we have to postulate a virtually infinite number of universes, with us happily in the one that holds together. (Google “John Polkinghorne” and “anthropic principle.)”

Equally, as Christians God’s project of restoring all creation elicits our gratitude. From the First Family on, God has responded to our rebellion with ever more daring attempts at reconciliation, culminating in taking human flesh in Jesus.

The theme of gratitude runs just below the surface in our second reading from Hebrews. On the surface it’s about what worship is pleasing to God. If we think of worship as primarily what happens in the sanctuary, we’re surprised, because the text talks about what we do out there as worship: mutual love, hospitality to strangers, holding marriage in honor, contentment, sharing what we have. All this can sound rather much if we’ve forgotten what came before our reading: “since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks!” Gratitude.

Our Gospel reading: the lectionary prescribed verses 1 and 7-14, eliminating the man with dropsy in vv.2-6. The Pharisees would have been happy to eliminate him; with apologies to the lectionary editors I’ve left him in.

Jesus has gotten an invitation to eat with some leading Pharisees on the Sabbath. And “just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy.” Today we use ‘edema’ rather than ‘dropsy’, swelling caused by the retention of fluid. There’s a predictable argument about what work is lawful on the Sabbath, and Jesus heals the man. Jesus then shifts the conversation to what he’s watched the Pharisees doing and starts giving them some unwelcome advice: don’t keep jockeying for the places of honor, stop limiting your invitations to those who can reciprocate. God’s in the business of humbling those who exalt themselves and of exalting those who humble themselves.

So we’ve got a healing and Jesus admonishing the Pharisees. Outside of it all happening at the same meal, is there anything else that holds it together? Turns out there is, for in that culture edema—various parts of the body all puffed up with extra water combined with an insatiable thirst—served as a metaphor for greed, the sort of behavior the Pharisees are exhibiting, the antithesis of gratitude.

Most groups have a pecking order: who defers to whom. We all learned this on the playground. As we get older, negotiating that pecking order gets more subtle, but rarely disappears. In 1st Century culture, meals were prime opportunities to display the pecking order: who’s closest to the host? Who’s at the head table? So, predictably, a lot of jockeying takes place. Likewise, lunch and dinner invitations are a prime opportunity to cement and maybe even augment one’s rank. It’s very easy for it to become a form of greed, not for food or for money, but for status.

As you may have noticed, the man with edema is introduced abruptly: “Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy.” It’s surprising, and commentators wonder about how he got there. Well, once we realize that the Pharisees are suffering from their own form of edema, we can see that the surprise is intentional: we don’t expect someone who’s ritually unclean in the home of a leading Pharisee;
we don’t expect the Pharisees, spiritual athletes every one, to be so afflicted with greed for status. But there we have it.

The text as Luke’s given it to us is a gem. It turns out to be about what Jesus can heal easily and not-so-easily. Jesus can easily heal the man with the physical edema; he finds it harder to heal the Pharisees’ greed for status—they don’t think they’re sick. It turns out to be about what sorts of work are appropriate for the Sabbath. Healing, just like pulling a child or even an ox from a pit, is appropriate for the Sabbath; the work of jockeying for status is not.

The text is a gem, but there’s also a sharp pointy end to notice: “He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’” We usually think of gratitude as a sort of reciprocity: we receive something from someone; we reciprocate. Here Jesus breaks it open: don’t confine your generosity to those who can pay you back: include those who can’t pay you back.

That’s where Jesus’ vision of God’s generosity has been heading. God gives generously to us, but not to set up another closed circle! Recall Isaiah from a few weeks back: “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats” (1:11). God gives generously to us so that our gratitude is expressed in giving to others.

What we’ve got here is the logic implicit in Jesus’ joining of the two commandments to make the Great Commandment. “Love the Lord your God” alone can be—well, is often—misunderstood as setting up a closed circle: just me and Jesus. “And your neighbor as yourself” reminds us that loving this God is about creating open, ever-expanding circles.

So, to try to pull all this together! The story we find ourselves in has as its center a breathtakingly generous God, to which our proper response is gratitude. Because strong currents in our culture discourage gratitude, we often need to be intentional in nurturing gratitude. But—here’s the sharp pointy end—we’re not talking about generic gratitude, which can settle into a comfortable closed circle, but a gratitude expressed in generosity toward those who are currently in no position to reciprocate. As we prayed in this morning’s collect “Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works.” Amen.

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1); Gospel: Luke 13:22-30

Well, that was a cheerful Gospel! They say that sermons are supposed to have good news. I suppose that the good news in this one is that if we periodically experience the Christian life as quite challenging, that’s not because we’re doing it wrong.

“Will only a few be saved?” That was one of the hot questions in Jesus’ time, the sort one might use to size up new teachers. Who’s included in God’s coming Kingdom? It’s a sort of multiple-choice question: the very faithful Jews, all the Jews except the notorious sinners, all the Jews, all the Jews & the very virtuous Gentiles? This isn’t so much a question about life after death, as about who participates when God’s Kingdom is established on this earth.

Jesus’ answer is “None of the above.” Jesus offers a number of quite troubling images: a narrow door, an unsuccessful interview with the house’s owner, other people streaming in from all the compass points. More importantly, he shifts the question from a conversation about “them” to an exhortation to the crowd: “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.”

Today we talk about the Church as wide and inclusive. That’s in Jesus’ answer too: “Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.” But to talk of wideness and inclusivity alone is perhaps not the whole story.

Back to our text, it’s not hard to place this interchange within Jesus’ ministry. Like John the Baptist, Jesus warns the Jewish audience not to presume on their Jewishness. So, we non-Jews can devote the rest of this homily to feeling superior? Nope. The repeated warnings in the Epistle to the Hebrews remind us that going on autopilot is even more dangerous for us: “if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!”

So, if “Strive to enter through the narrow door” is also directed to us, what’s it mean? What response is it calling for?

“The narrow door” is—obviously—a metaphor. In Luke’s Gospel it seems to point towards the Great Commandment and Jesus himself.

The Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God —that is, Yahweh— with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” So much for all the other gods that diminish our humanity! So much for the multitude of temptations to love our neighbors less than ourselves or end up loving ourselves less than we’d love even a pet. “Strive to enter through the narrow door” and “strive to live humanely” may turn out to be the same exhortation.

It’s worth noticing that this strive-to-enter-through-the-narrow-door exhortation is one that Jesus has already applied to himself. Jesus is making his way to the death that awaits him in Jerusalem. This is what loving God and loving his neighbor mean for Jesus in this situation. Doors usually involve four pieces of wood; Jesus’ narrow door is constructed of two.

But the narrow door is also about Jesus himself. It’s sometimes said that Jesus preached the Kingdom of God and that the Early Church preached Jesus. And that’s half of the truth. The other half? Jesus’ words and actions implied a unique role for Jesus in the Kingdom: the anointed / the Messiah / the Christ. “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” The Gospel of John comes at it differently: how are we supposed to love God (so the Great Commandment) if we don’t know God? Jesus makes God known. Jesus is the reality check on our images of God.

For the Gospels, the Great Commandment and Jesus are not two separate doors but one and the same door. For this reason, from the beginning, the Church has engaged in mission, so that there are places like Holy Cross very far from Jerusalem, with none of us looking particularly Jewish.

“Strive… For many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.” Turning our attention from ‘the narrow door’ to the trying-and-not-being-able part, what’s that about?

First, “strive” is rather like the verb we met last week in Heb 12: “run with perseverance.” Athletic and military metaphors are frequent in the New Testament; this is a world in which the virtues of the soldier and the athlete are needed.

“And will not be able” recalls another text from Luke: “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” And for “wealth” we could substitute any number of other gods.

Recall the traditional way to catch a monkey. Take a coconut and make a hole in it, just large enough for the monkey’s hand. Tie the coconut down, and put a sweet inside. The monkey smells the sweet, puts his hand into the coconut, grabs the sweet and the hole is too small for the fist to come out. The monkey will do anything except let go of the sweet. So you can wait till it falls asleep, goes unconscious from exhaustion or simply walk up & throw a net over it.

The sweet: for us humans it may be an addiction, or an exaggerated need for survival or security, affection or esteem, power or control. All of these can fatally get in the way of our loving God and our neighbor. They can warp our perception of our surroundings, so that we see others simply as competitors, and make us vulnerable to leaders who play on our fears.

We really want God’s Kingdom; we really want that sweet, whatever it is.

Recognizing that we’re holding onto the sweets —we typically discover a whole series— letting go of them, more single-heartedly loving God and our neighbor: all these are different ways of talking about the same life-time project. For this we are baptized and come to this communion rail. For this we rely on each other’s prayers and Jesus’ intercession. For this we make use of the means of grace: prayer, Scripture, the neighbor who doesn’t tell us what we want to hear. Jesus is our door.

Our culture encourages us to see ourselves as free. Scripture tends to see freedom as something we achieve, like the freedom to play a musical instrument well, or the freedom to speak another language well. So, to circle back to today’s psalm, if we pray it with today’s gospel as background the focus does shift:

Deliver me, my God, from the hand of the wicked, *
from the clutches of the evildoer and the oppressor.

Looking down at the clutched hand… I really want that sweet; I really want freedom. Sweet Jesus, have mercy.

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1; Psalm 72 used in place of Psalm 80).

If you think back to the last time you finally got all the pieces together for a grand project only to have it spectacularly fail, whether a project in the kitchen or the shop, at school or at work, you’ll be able to empathize with the Good Lord in the first reading.

In this case it’s been a centuries-long project: from those long journeys with the patriarchs and matriarchs, through the exodus, into the land flowing with milk and honey, and now the unbridled greed of the elites in the Northern and Southern kingdoms, forcing folk off their ancestral lands to make way for wheat for the cities, wine and olive oil for export. What was supposed to be a harvest of justice and righteousness: a harvest of bloodshed and cries.

Justice and righteousness. We’ve been hearing these words repeatedly during these last six weeks as we’ve listened to the 8th Century prophets: Amos, Hosea, and now Isaiah. In today’s fractured discourse it’s often hard to figure out what ‘justice’ means, other than what the speaker happens to like. So it’s worth recalling what these prophets meant, fairness and a bias toward approximate equity. Fairness: the same set of weights and measures for buying and selling, the contents matching the labeling. A bias toward approximate equity: this has to do with what stories you tell. Israel lived between the great and ancient centers of Egypt and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). In Egypt the Pharaoh was divine. In Mesopotamia the story was that first the common folk were created, and then the gods brought together the beautiful, the glorious, the mighty, and produced the king. Whichever of those stories you told, it was only right that the king and his court had all the goodies. Israel’s God had given Israel a different story: humankind as a whole bear God’s image. (In other words, until we deciphered the Egyptian and Mesopotamian scripts in the 19th Century we weren’t in a position to know what “Let us make humankind in our image” was about, because we didn’t know what conversation—what argument—it was part of!) And if all of us bear God’s image, all of us have the right and responsibility to steward this good earth. The difference between king and commoner? Almost not worth talking about.

So the law given to Moses includes provisions that limit debt slavery, allow folk to periodically regain their ancestral lands (the Jubilee), etc. If all bear God’s image and have the right and responsibility to steward this good earth, then a legal code is just to the degree that it promotes this—not that arriving at a set of workable laws is any easy matter, then or now. Back in the 8th Century BC, the problem was that the Israelite kings and their courts (both Northern and Southern Kingdoms) generally preferred the Egyptian or Mesopotamian stories. So, predictably, bloodshed and cry.

To get a sense of how it was supposed to work, look at Psalm 72, which we used a few minutes ago. “Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son.” The psalm focuses on three issues: the well-being of the most vulnerable, the fertility of the land, and the nation’s security vis à vis the surrounding nations. The division of labor is pretty clear: the king worries about the most vulnerable (vv. 2, 4, 12-14); the Good Lord worries about fertility and the king’s international enemies. The irony—well, the scandal—is the contrast between Psalm 72 and the 8th Century BC elites. The irony—well, the scandal—is that with “In God we trust” on our currency we’re giving Psalm 72 about the same attention that the 8th Century BC elites gave it.

Holding the Hebrews reading in reserve for the moment, on to the Gospel.

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” Coming at Jesus’ words cold, it’s understandable if our first reaction is “Well, someone got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning.” For texts like this, it often helps to look back to see what’s been happening earlier in the text.

Here, as Luke tells the story, it started with someone in the crowd: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” So Jesus tells the parable about the rich man who ran out of storage space, the parable that ends with God saying “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.” We heard that two weeks ago.

And Jesus stays with this theme, pointing us to the ravens, the lilies of the field, and reaching a crescendo with

“And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

We heard that last week. It doesn’t take much reflection to recognize that this message is a formula for division, not peace! “You want to do what with the family budget?”

And, having just heard Isaiah’s Vineyard parable, it doesn’t take much reflection to see that Isaiah and Jesus are working the same script. The problem with Jerusalem’s elites is precisely that they’re striving for what they’re going to eat, drink, wear, and are driven by fear, whether of their neighbors next door or next kingdom over.

And if we see this, we can perhaps understand Jesus’—well—impatience. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” The Holy Trinity has been working this problem, seeking to cultivate sustainable justice and righteousness in Israel, for well over a millennium. And now the Holy Trinity has—as they say—skin in the game, Jesus’ skin, Jesus’ body, Jesus’ blood. Jesus’ body, Jesus’ blood: which will soon receive the full impact of the division he describes. Jesus’ body, Jesus’ blood: which we’ll be receiving in a few minutes.

Where do these readings leave us?

Please open a prayer book to p.305. At the end of the Baptismal Covenant the Celebrant asks “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” And the people reply… Readings like today’s readings help us hear this more clearly:

–Justice: not something one of the factions in the church slipped in, but central to God’s agenda;

–Justice: its meaning not determined by the speaker’s agenda, but deeply rooted in the Bible’s story: fairness and a bias toward approximate equity. Fairness, what we might call procedural justice. But that’s only half the story, for a bias toward approximate equity is equally important: all bear God’s image; all have the right and responsibility of stewarding this good earth.

–The dignity of every human being: particularly a challenge today with too many loud voices declaring many beneath this dignity.

–Peace: not always the immediate result of our striving, but given Jesus’ words and life, that’s par for the course.

And at the start of The Baptismal Covenant: “Do you believe in God the Father…maker of heaven and earth?” Jesus’ words, the words we’ve heard in the last two weeks leading up to today’s reading, spell out what this belief looks like:

–This Father knows what we need, and is generous—and believing that means letting it be the motor for our attention and actions

–So, parenthetically, Genesis 1 is in our Bible not so we can argue about evolution, but first to bring God onstage as a generous God whose creation has enough for everyone, and second (“humankind in our image”) to counter the recurrent claim of the elites that they alone ought to steward God’s creation.

–We grow our belief, our faith, as we work on throttling back our worry about what we need.

–We grow our belief, our faith, as we work on throttling back our fear.

And here the preacher’s with that distraught father in Mark’s Gospel: “I believe, help my unbelief!”

We return to the Baptismal Covenant at various points during the year because our calling as a community is to live together in a way that makes it easier for us to believe in this generous Father, easier for us to be generous, easier to engage in that striving for justice.

And we return to the Holy Communion every week because we need Jesus’ life coursing through us for this work, and Jesus’ story in the center of our consciousness.

How to close? The words from our Epistle give us the words. Let us read together the last two verses, Hebrews 12:1-2:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

The working title for this sermon could be “The Rich Fool, Part 2,” since in Luke’s staging we’re still in the scene that starts with that guy in the crowd’s “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Jesus responds with the parable of the rich fool, and in today’s reading lays out its alternative.

The fool had said to himself “relax, eat, drink, be merry.” Jesus has no problem with the “eat, drink, be merry” part per se. Jesus is the one of whom people say “’Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Lk. 7:34). The prophet Isaiah: “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear” (25:6). The problem is who isn’t participating—recall Lazarus at the rich man’s gate (Lk. 16:20). And as long as too many aren’t participating, “relax” doesn’t cut it.

There’s this to be said for the rich fool’s strategy: it provides a clear framework for organizing one’s life, measuring one’s progress. But, as Jesus argues in today’s reading, it’s doubly disconnected from reality. First, God is already generously giving what we can spend so much time stressing about. Why would God be less generous to us than to the ravens or lilies? Second, the rich fool’s strategy confuses precarious and stable wealth, a rookie mistake. Notice the contrast between these two verses: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” (12:21) and “Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (12:33-34). Nothing wrong with seeking treasure, but be smart about it.

Be smart about it. In today’s reading that means understanding that treasure is a byproduct of God’s kingdom (“strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well”). And notice the interesting tension in the verbs Jesus uses: “strive for his kingdom… it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” It’s that tension that prompted the saying usually attributed to Augustine: “pray as if everything depends on God, and work as if everything depends on you.” I like what the Jesuit writer Jim Manney does with it: 

“’pray as if everything depends on you, and work as if everything depends on God.’ This means that prayer has to be urgent: God has to do something dramatic if everything depends on me. It also puts our work in the right perspective: if it depends on God, we can let it go. We can work hard but leave the outcome up to him. If God is in charge we can tolerate mixed results and endure failure.”[1]

So relax and strive are held in a tension that would make a Zen master smile.

What does that striving look like? Before continuing with our Gospel reading, let’s notice what the other readings contribute. Isaiah: “seek justice, / rescue the oppressed, / defend the orphan, / plead for the widow.” That doesn’t exhaust “strive for his kingdom,” but it’s an important part, and, as Jesus’ sheep and goats parable in Matthew suggests, one of the unexpected ways in which we meet Jesus (“’Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food… [Matt. 25:37]). The Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us of Abraham and Sarah: sometimes “striv[ing] for his kingdom” involves doing things the neighbors think really dumb, leaving the comfortable urban life in Ur for the middle of nowhere. Remarkable how often we people of faith end up using “It’s only stupid if it doesn’t work.”

But back to Jesus. Jesus’ parable gives us one picture of striving for the kingdom; let’s give it some time. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.” We stay alert, we listen for Jesus knocking, we open the door. We can hear that parable, I think, as an invitation to respond to the opportunities God sets before us.

Recall Paul’s letter to Philemon. One of Philemon’s slaves, Onesimus, had run away, but had run into Paul and become a Christian. Paul could have simply sent Onesimus back without rocking the boat. Instead, he sees and takes the opportunity to remind Philemon that he and Onesimus are now brothers in Christ, and urges Philemon to pay attention to how that unsettles the owner-slave relationship.

Slavery. For centuries it was assumed to be simply part of how things are. Then William Wilberforce—an Anglican layman whose July 30 feast we just celebrated—and his colleagues saw an opportunity and—it was a long grind—got the slave trade abolished in the British Empire in 1807 and slavery itself in the Empire in 1833—with the exception of the territories held by the East India Company.[2]

That’s a telling exception. I like capitalism: wouldn’t want to part with my Honda, iPhone, or expresso maker. But capitalism, like any strong acid, needs solid containers—like “No Slavery”—or it does frightful damage. And we’re usually short on containers. Reuters reported record oil company profits at the end of last month: “Exxon, Chevron, Shell and Total returned a total of $23 billion to shareholders in the second quarter in dividends and share repurchases.”[3] Where might there be an opportunity to strengthen the distinction between fair pricing and price gouging?

Usually the opportunities are local. Your monthly gifts of resources to local charities are an important response. Jesus’ parable encourages us to continue to keep alert for further opportunities.

I love the banquet scene tucked in today’s reading. Early on in the scene we had the rich fool’s “relax, eat, drink, be merry.” Here, in Jesus’ parable “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.” That’s the banquet I want a seat at.


[1] https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/work-as-if-everything-depends-on-god/ (accessed 8/1/2022).

[2] See, conveniently, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Wilberforce and links (accessed 8/1/2022).

[3] https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/big-oils-q2-profits-hit-record-50-bln-with-bp-yet-come-2022-07-29/ (accessed 8/1/2022).

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

Between the reference to greed in the Epistle and its leading role in the Gospel, the preacher’s set up for a barn-burner of a sermon, perfect for Lent. Not perfect for this year, when the combination of the stock market’s year-to-date performance and inflation have too many of us just trying to keep our heads above water.

So, if not greed, what? We might start with the Epistle’s remix of baptismal language to describe our ongoing pilgrimage. “Raised with Christ” (v.1), “stripped off the old self” (v.9), “clothed yourselves with the new self” (v.10): that’s the language of baptism. The remix suggests—no, assumes—that this stripping off and putting on is an ongoing process, a process that the Epistle calls “renewal.”

Read in isolation, the Epistle’s language might suggest a process we direct—self-help on steroids. Our recent Gospel readings tell a different story. Recall what we’ve been hearing. Three weeks ago the lawyer asked “And who is my neighbor?” (Lk. 10:29), certain that the obligation to love applied to only to some people, and Jesus’ Good Samaritan parable blew that out of the water. Two weeks ago Martha wanted to talk about that love (“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me” [Lk. 10:40]) and Jesus redirected the conversation to the one necessary thing. And today, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me,” and Jesus shifted the focus to greed.

The protagonists in these stories are confident in identifying their situations (What we need is a clear boundary between those who are and aren’t my neighbor. Mary needs to shape up! My brother’s cheating me!). And they’re confident that they know exactly what they need from Jesus, what help they need from Jesus. But Jesus in each case radically redefines the situation.

A modern writer (Anaïs Nin) put the very old observation succinctly: “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.” If that’s the case—and our recent Gospel readings point us in that direction—we’re hardly in a position of direct our own renewal. We may be fervent in prayer (“Help me correctly identify my neighbor!” “Tell her to help me!” “Tell my brother to divide it with me!”), but the end result can be pretty much as described in our first reading: “The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.”

So where does that leave us?

The crucial bit’s in the first reading. Faced with this crazy-making people, we hear the divine soliloquy: “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? … My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 9 I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” Well, what is the Lord going to do? There’s a pretty direct line from these words to the Incarnation: we’re going to make this work; we’re going to do this together. Jesus does not want us to stay stuck.

OK, but how does Paul—or whoever wrote Colossians—think that works? A full answer would hardly fit into one sermon, but here are some things we can notice in today’s reading and in the rest of the letter (since this is the last week the Lectionary has us in Colossians).

There’s a lot in today’s reading about, well, weeding. “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication… [etc.]” A bit later: “But now you must get rid of all such things—anger… [etc.].” Weeding is important. But, recalling our recent Gospel readings, it’s the start, not the end of an answer, also because we can confuse flowers and weeds, and because an exclusive focus on weeding sets us up for pride and intolerance. So let’s keep reading.

“In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” That’s not just a statement about who’s included in the renewal, but about how the renewal happens: throwing together—in Christ—folk who otherwise wouldn’t be associating together, let alone listening seriously to each other.

Because notice what follows in the next verse: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” There’s that clothing language again, but now with precisely those dispositions that allow folk trapped in their own worlds (“We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.”) to learn from each other, to be transformed by each other.

Later the author turns to relationships within the household, wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters. This part sometimes gets written off as undigested cultural commonplaces, but it looks like there’s more going on. Perhaps the most important is that each of the parties are addressed as responsible moral agents. They have choices, and their choices matter. In the context of our how-does-renewal-happen question, what’s interesting is that rather than giving any encouragement to “now I’m a Christian and all these earthly things don’t matter, the author pushes the readers—including us—to take these relationships more seriously. There’s a lot in these relationships beyond our control, and God, who’s out for our renewal, will use that. As one of the desert fathers observed, it’s not the challenges we take on but the challenges that show up uninvited that are often most decisive.

And behind it all, Hosea’s God (“How can I give you up, Ephraim?”), who is not content that “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are” be the epitaph for any of us.

The “new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.” Can’t accuse the author of thinking small. Renewal, transformation: we like these words, despite the fact that both involve change (“How many Episcopalians does it take to change a lightbulb?”). So we’ll give the last word to a former Episcopalian, John Henry Newman: ““To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

Last week, looking at the Colossians reading, I said “And that’s the question for us: Jesus as the solution to my ‘spiritual’ needs, or Jesus as the victor/healer in relation to all that ails our world?” That set up Jesus’ conversation with Martha and listening carefully to Jesus.

But if we stay with Colossians, what more might it want to say about “Jesus as the victor/healer in relation to all that ails our world” now?

Of course, “Jesus as the victor/healer in relation to all that ails our world” does sounds unbelievable, which is why Abraham and Sarah pop up so frequently in the New Testament. Well past the childbearing window, the Lord says “I will make of you a great nation” and they head for that new land, and hang in until they’re changing diapers. “Sounds unbelievable” is familiar territory for us people of faith.

But back to Jesus as healer/victor. How does societal healing, or, more broadly, societal change happen?

That’s the key question for organizations like World Vision, the relief & development agency where I worked for a couple decades. How, for example, to introduce a promising agricultural innovation? What you usually need is a few farmers willing to try it. If it works, it sells itself. The neighbors have been watching, now they want it too.

This is the strategy behind God’s calling Abraham/Israel. Here’s Moses in Deuteronomy:

“See…I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’” (4:5-6)

And it remains the strategy with the renewal of the Israel project in Jesus’ followers. Here’s Paul in Ephesians: “and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (3:9-10). This is why the New Testament gives little attention to evangelism and a great deal of attention to the quality of life in the emerging congregations.

Quality of life. That would take a lot of unpacking. Here, let’s focus on what Paul is doing in Colossians. Last week Paul spoke of thrones, dominions, rulers and powers. He’s speaking of civil authorities, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg, for he’s also speaking of the customs, institutions, mental frameworks, that pretend to rule his hearer’s lives. Adjust the vocabulary a little and it all sounds very familiar: how many dimensions of our lives get ruled by “that’s just the way things are!” Take the economy for example. No one controls it. It has its priests (the economists). Sometimes it’s healthy. Sometimes it’s sick. Sometimes it demands sacrifices. Paul: the congregation is the place where the defeat of these powers is visible. Jew and Greek? One in Christ. Slave and free? One in Christ. Male and female? One in Christ.

That’s hardly easy. As in most agricultural test plots, we’re not dealing with virgin land, but with land that’s been badly treated. So Jesus’ life-giving death and resurrection needs to play out again and again in Jesus’ followers. This is, I think, what Paul was talking about in last week’s reading: “in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body.” Our baptism sets us up for this, as Paul reminds us in today’s reading: “when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”

The New Testament scholar Gerhard Lohfink writes:

Sin does not just vanish in the air, even when it is forgiven, because sin does not end with the sinner. It has consequences. It always has a social dimension. Every sin embeds itself in human community, corrupts a part of the world, and creates a damaged environment.

So the consequences of sin have to be worked off, and human beings cannot do so of themselves any more than they can absolve themselves. Genuine “working off” of guilt is only possible on a basis that God himself must create. And God has created such a base in his people, and in Jesus he has renewed and perfected it.

Lohfink continues, quoting from Dag Hammarskjöld’s diary:

Easter, 1960. Forgiveness breaks the chain of causality because he who “forgives” you—out of love—takes upon himself the consequences of what you have done. Forgiveness, therefore, always entails a sacrifice.

The price you must pay for your own liberation through another’s sacrifice is that you in turn must be willing to liberate in the same way, irrespective of the consequences to yourself.[1]

“Jesus as the victor/healer in relation to all that ails our world” now? Yes, as Jesus empowers his followers to continue his costly healing/forgiving work, to continue to show in their common life that the powers don’t get the last word.

Showing in their common life that the powers don’t get the last word: that’s a long-term project. The powers don’t get the last word; “that’s just the way it is” doesn’t get the last word. A few random examples: In the 4th Century, Basil in Caesarea established the first hospital with inpatient facilities, professional medical staff, and free care for the poor.[2] In the Middle Ages—as I recalled last week—water and wind power took the place of forced human labor. In recent centuries Genesis’ declaration that all humanity—not just the elites—bear God’s image began to be heard in new ways, and voting rights slowly expanded. So today governments claim legitimacy based on the people’s continued consent—however flimsy that claim. Quite breathtaking, really, what Jesus has accomplished through the Church.

Our story, of course, is not one of unbroken progress. God values our freedom, so things can go forward, backward, or sideways. We now have—God help us—for-profit hospitals. So Abraham and Sarah remain crucial as pioneers in trust. And speaking of Abraham, in God’s generosity loss doesn’t get the last word. The rabbis noticed that poor ram caught in the thicket that Abraham sacrificed instead of Isaac; Rabbi Hanina ben Dossa said this:

“Nothing of this sacrifice was lost. The ashes were dispersed in the Temple’s sanctuary; the sinews David used as cords for his harp; the skin was claimed by the prophet Elijah to clothe himself; as for the two horns, the smaller one called the people together at the foot of Mount Sinai and the larger one will resound one day, announcing the coming of the Messiah.”[3]

Our Colossians reading started with “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him.” Continue: there’s a world out there badly needing healing, badly needing transformation. What might Jesus be seeking to do through us?


[1] Jesus of Nazareth pp 255-256.

[2] Cf. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/lostinaoneacrewood/2020/01/03/basiliad-basil-of-caesarea-social-justice-worlds-first-hospital/.

[3] Wiesel Messengers of God 101.

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

How to enter into today’s readings? The psalm’s an entry point: it’s a rare day when some news story doesn’t have us more or less echoing the psalm’s opening: “You tyrant, why do you boast of wickedness / against the godly all day long? / You plot ruin; / your tongue is like a sharpened razor, / O worker of deception.” And it’s easy to echo the psalm’s wish (“Oh, that God would demolish you utterly…”).

There’s much of value in that psalm, but it shares with other psalms a weakness that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn identified in the Gulag Archipelago: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

It took some time, but the Old Testament writers figured this out as well. As a corrective to psalms like today’s psalm, Psalm 143 has: “Do not enter into judgment with your servant, / for no one living is righteous before you.”

But where does that leave us, still living in the world portrayed by the psalmist, in which evil is often loved more than good, lying more that speaking the truth, or the world portrayed by the prophet in which the poor and needy are usually not on a level playing field, doing the work that no one else wants to do? How do we deal with this world? “Oh, that God would demolish you utterly…” In a democracy that translates into some combination of (1) how to get more votes than you and (2) how to make it difficult for you to vote. Is that what we’re stuck with?

The recipients of Paul’s letter were no strangers to this world, and how to respond to it is the question that runs through the letter. The letter isn’t easy reading, regularly using vocabulary that’s unfamiliar. “Rulers and authorities” we can guess at, but in today’s reading we meet thrones, dominions, rulers and powers, and in next week’s reading we encounter the “elemental spirits of the universe.” Twenty centuries distant, the details escape us, but in broad outline it’s reasonably clear. The vocabulary reflects what we might call their current political science: the world is driven by innumerable agents straddling the spiritual/material divide, and before whom the individual is pretty much helpless. Paul’s opponents are arguing that while Jesus deals with some issues, other issues, not so much. We need to map out this world, figure out who’s who, and get some of these agents/angels—preferably with brass knuckles—as our patrons.

Nonsense, Paul thunders. First, God has responded to prayers like our psalm in a very unexpected way: “and through him [Jesus] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” This is not about God blessing the status quo, getting us all singing Kumbaya together. As we’ll hear in next week’s reading “[God] disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in [the cross]” (2:15).

Second, it’s not simply that Jesus is the one who reconciles. Jesus is the one through whom everything hangs together in the first place: “for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers– all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Not an easy sell, then or now: This One on the cross: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer?

Third, Paul’s own experience (“I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”) makes it clear that the cross is not confined to Jesus’ past, but is integral to how God is continuing to heal the world through Jesus’ disciples.

So the Colossians, buried with Jesus by baptism into death, so that they might walk in newness of life (cf. Rom. 6:4), have a choice. Framing the question in our terms, Jesus the answer to their spiritual needs, but only marginally relevant to their world’s economic, political, social challenges or Jesus as the cornerstone of a new world that God’s birthing in their midst? And that’s the question for us: Jesus as the solution to my “spiritual” needs, or Jesus as the victor/healer in relation to all that ails our world?

Our imaginations need some work. Which brings us to our Gospel, to Martha and Mary, no strangers to the world of the prophets and psalms. Our short Gospel holds up Mary’s response as worth noticing—and emulating. Mary: “who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.”

It’s a surprising story, because Luke puts it right after Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. With Jesus’ “Go and do likewise” ringing in our ears, doesn’t Martha have a slam-dunk case? She’s the one responding to her perception of her guests’ needs.

We could wonder about Martha’s perceptions, about the sometimes large gap between what’s actually needed, and what custom/role definition/”what will people say” dictate. But I’d guess that Luke’s focus is more on the importance of hearing the word as emphasized elsewhere in the Gospel, e.g., “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (8:21; cf. 11:28).

Mary, “who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.” I wonder: do we ever reach the point at which we’ve heard all we need to hear? It’s easy to assume that (though we’d never say it), and our practices don’t help us here. We’re used to referring to ourselves as Christians or Episcopalians, which can imply a settled identity. We have various curricula for Confirmation, but learning after that tends to be treated as optional. What if we paid more attention to that prayer at Baptism: “Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works”? That prayer implies ongoing learning, continuing to listen to Jesus.

A few Sundays ago in a different context I recalled Stephen Covey on listening. “’Seek first to understand’ involves a very deep shift in paradigm. We typically seek first to be understood. Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak.”[1] Listening with the intent to reply—speaking from personal experience it’s easy for that to kick in particularly when it’s Jesus speaking.

We could still be in the early stages of discovering what listening to Jesus might unlock. Two examples before I close.

Lynn White Jr., a professor of medieval history, gave a lot of attention to the technological developments in that period in Europe, e.g., the windmill. He writes: “The chief glory of the later Middle Ages was not its cathedrals or its epics or its scholasticism: it was the building for the first time in history of a complex civilization which rested not on the backs of sweating slaves or coolies [those folk at the bottom that Amos talked about] but primary on non-human power.” The Greeks and Romans had the science, but why bother with so many slaves available? The monks had been listening to Jesus, or, as White puts it, “The labor-saving power-machines of the later Middle Ages were produced by the implicit theological assumption of the infinite worth of even the most degraded human personality, by an instinctive repugnance towards subjecting any man to a monotonous drudgery which seems less than human in that it requires the exercise neither of intelligence nor of choice.”[2]

A second example. Einstein said something like “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” But too often “the same thinking” is the order of the day, and we’re told that it’s either this or that. Then along comes Jesus, who regularly come at problems diagonally:

“Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” And Jesus starts doodling on the ground—resulting in all the accusers making a hasty exit.

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” And Jesus asks whose head is on the coin, how the inscription reads.

“And who is my neighbor?” Well, we heard Jesus’ non-answer to that question last Sunday!

At the simplest level, whether in an election year or not, we need Jesus’ diagonal thinking. We need Jesus to get us out of our mental ruts. At the less simple levels, we need the life of the crucified and resurrected Jesus in us and for that we’ll come to the altar in a few minutes.

Jesus, through whom all things were created, in whom all things hold together: what might listening more closely to Jesus today produce? Sounds like that’s worth finding out.


[1] Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

[2] “Technology and invention in the Middle Ages,” reprinted in Medieval Religion and Technology.