Category Archives: Sermons

Making G-d’s Generosity Visible: A Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany

Good Shepherd, Sun Prairie, February 16, 2020.

The Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

Three years ago, I had the privilege of being with you to celebrate and to preach when we last heard these lessons. I focused on the Gospel text: how are we supposed to hear it today? Some interpreters think Jesus is promulgating a new law, others, that he is encouraging us to pay attention to the intention of the law. I sided with the second group for a variety of reasons. If “do not be angry” is a law, then Jesus is in trouble, because he is periodically angry, even calling the scribes and Pharisees “blind fools.” Again, almost from the start teachers have had to warn the enthusiasts that “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away” is not to be taken literally. Again, the various destructive attempts of the church to make “no divorce” a law are evidence enough of the shortcomings of this strategy. So, as sermons go, not a bad one, and I hope it was helpful.

Today I want to approach the text differently, focusing on its immediate context in Matthew, because it’s really important that today’s lesson is not recording the first words out of Jesus’ mouth. Or out of Matthew’s, for that matter. Recall: Matthew devotes the first two chapters to Jesus’ birth, starting with a genealogy that highlights his link with Abraham and David, and includes the story of the Magi, who set Jerusalem on edge asking “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” The third chapter introduces John the Baptist and closes with Jesus’ baptism with the heavenly voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Whatever else that voice is doing, it identifies Jesus as royal.

So—chapter four—we hear the temptation story, arguably about just what sort of king Jesus is going to be, about just what sort of kingdom Jesus is going to announce. Jesus returns to Galilee: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, the reign of God: throughout the Gospels Jesus tries to help us catch the vision. Here are two of the parables from later in Matthew:

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

Find that treasure, find that pearl, and so many issues sort themselves out. Returning to today’s Gospel, hearers often find the teaching absurdly demanding. And it is: if we haven’t encountered the treasure/the pearl. As we begin to catch the vision, the teaching approaches being self-evident.

Chapter 5, in which we find today’s Gospel, opens with the Beatitudes. Catch the vision of the kingdom, and you understand who is fortunate: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, etc. Or, take seriously Jesus’ declaration that these are the fortunate, and you get a sense of what sort of kingdom Jesus is proclaiming.

And then comes what may be the truly scary part. It’s one thing to hear Jesus say “I am the light of the world.” Wonderful: it’s on Jesus. But here, right after the Beatitudes: “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.” We’re on the critical path for the world’s healing, the world’s restoration: “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

It’s important that that light shine, that God’s generous character be visible in the lives of those who bear God’s name. That, I think, is close to the heart of Jesus’ quarrel with the scribes and Pharisees, that they were spending too much energy seeking their individual purity, and way too little energy making God’s generosity visible.

Making God’s generosity visible: that may not be a bad way of summarizing what Jesus is getting at in today’s lesson. Handle your anger, handle your sexuality, in ways that make God’s generosity visible.

OK. Where does that leave us? I’ve read today’s lesson as flowing from Jesus’ vision of the kingdom. As we catch Jesus’ vision—and note that there’s no space between Jesus Himself and Jesus’ vision of the kingdom—texts like today’s lesson move from being absurdly demanding toward being self-evident.

But there’s where the rub is. Our vision of Jesus and the kingdom varies in clarity—to put it generously. But it’s fundamental. The Jesuit Pedro Arrupe put it this way:

“Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will direct everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.

“Fall in love, stay in love and it will decide everything.”[1]

It’s easy to get the impression that all this—motioning around the sanctuary—is about what we’re supposed to do. And what we’re supposed to do is, of course, important. But that risks missing the point. The point is what this generous God has done, is doing, and will be doing, and that this generous God invites us to join in the quest that what pleases this God be done on earth as it is in heaven. It’s worth protecting time for this reality to work on our imaginations, to mess with our imaginations. So we gather here, and at home we pray and open the Bible to catch and hold this vision, or, as Fr. Arrupe put it, to fall in love and stay in love. It’s a royal waste of time that our tradition cannot recommend highly enough.

But, since our bodies and spirits are intimately connected, it’s also true that as we follow Jesus’ teaching so that our bodies make God’s generosity visible, our spirits find it easier to catch and hold this vision of this God’s generous kingdom.

Let’s give John’s witnesses in the Revelation the last word:

17 The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

[1] From James Martin’s The Jesuit Guide to (almost) everything, p. 219.

Living when off the map

This year St Dunstan’s (Madison WI) developed its Vacation Bible School around the Book of Tobit and the two Sundays after VBS bumped the normal Old Testament readings to continue the focus. I was invited to preach on the second of these two Sundays.

Readings: Tobit 14:3-4a, 5-8; Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

How do you live when you’re off the map? Moses had provided a pretty clear map: live righteously and you’ll prosper in the land; live unrighteously and you’ll lose the land. But when you’re off the land through no particular fault of your own, what then? So it’s not surprising that we encounter a number of stories about that in the Old Testament: Joseph (minus his technicolor dreamcoat) in Egypt, Esther in Persia, Tobit in Assyria. The Joseph and Esther stories have a certain fairy-tale quality to them: Joseph becomes the #2 man in Egypt; Esther wins the beauty contest and marries the king. Tobit, after achieving some success in exile, gets bird poop in his eyes and goes blind, the loss which kicks off the main story in the book that eventually results in Tobit regaining his sight.

How do you live when you’re off the map? In addition to telling us a rollicking good story, complete with a carnivorous fish, a damsel in distress, and an angel in disguise, the book gives serious attention to that question. This morning we’ll look at two elements in its answer: bless God and give alms.

Bless God

God blessing us: we’re used to that idea. In the catholic (small c) tradition we believe that priestly ordination authorizes the priest to convey God’s blessing to us, and so we leave each Mass with “the blessing of God Almighty” ringing in our ears and working its way into our very selves. Scripture takes blessing as a given and so doesn’t define it. An approximate definition might include God’s presence, God’s generosity, health, fertility, success in ways designed to benefit us and those around us.

That’s important in Tobit. But Tobit focuses on our blessing God. We heard it in our first reading: “to be mindful of God and to bless his name at all times with sincerity and with all their strength.” It shows up at the beginning of some well-known psalms (Ps 103, 104). What’s that about? It’s like praise, but more oriented to the future: God’s reign really is beautiful; may it grow and expand! It’s like thanksgiving, but not tied to something specific I’ve or we’ve received.

We Christians haven’t done much with this, but our Jewish brothers and sisters have, and their practice might enrich ours. A Jewish prayer book puts it this way: “A berachah acknowledges God as the “Source” of whatever we eat or enjoy, or whatever natural marvels excite our awe.… The blessing makes us conscious that nothing in nature is to be taken for granted…” [1]

So there’s a blessing before drinking wine or grape juice:

Blessed are You, the Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.

One for seeing beautiful trees or animals:

Blessed are You, the Lord our God, King of the universe, who has such as these in His world.

One for hearing good news:

Blessed are You, the Lord our God, King of the universe, who is good and beneficent.

One for hearing bad news:

Blessed are You, the Lord our God, King of the universe, the true judge.

You get the idea. For the vision behind the practice we might look to Psalm 19. It starts:

The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the firmament shows his handiwork.

It continues in this vein for a number of lines. The heavens clearly their act together. What about us? Notice how the psalm ends:

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

Blessing God is one of the quite lovely ways this can play out.

One more thing about this before I move on. Part of most people’s consciousness is this running series of responses that plays as a sort of sound track throughout the day, approving of this, disapproving of that, being anxious about this, being relieved about that. The practice of blessing God can be part of that running series, helping our responses to be more mindful, more realistic, perhaps less anxious.

Give alms

We heard that in our first reading too: “Your children are also to be commanded to do what is right and to give alms…”

What’s that about? In the last month or so our first reading has been from the prophets, Amos and Hosea. In coming weeks we’ll get a good dose of Jeremiah. And one of the primary prophetic themes is God’s passionate concern for the poor, God’s anger at how the poor are getting crushed. That anger explains why Tobit is in exile in Nineveh rather than home in the Upper Galilee. And the prophets were speaking directly to the folk in power, the folk who could do something about it:

Cease to do evil, learn to do good;
seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isa 1:16b-17 NRS)

But in exile, or in the bowels of some foreign empire the possibilities for doing something about it are severely limited, so God’s passionate concern for the poor translates into the repeated exhortation to give alms. Give, that is, to those at the bottom, to those who have no realistic prospect of paying you back or returning the favor.

The language for this practice is important: that “give alms” that we heard could be translated more literally as “do mercy.” “Doing mercy” is, of course, broader than giving alms, and in Tobit includes Tobit’s dangerous practice of burying discarded bodies. But “doing mercy” often, from context, means “giving alms” and that’s important because it connects the mercy we hope to receive from God with the mercy we’re exhorted to show to those who need it.

Being in exile makes it difficult to follow the Law’s commands regarding gifts for the sanctuary. And in exile the faithful connect those commands with almsgiving. So earlier in Tobit we hear Tobit tell his son Tobias:

Indeed, almsgiving, for all who practice it, is an excellent offering in the presence of the Most High. (4:11)

This shows up in other writings of this period (Sirach), and lies behind some of Jesus’ teaching on almsgiving:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. (Mat 6:19-20)

We, probably, are at a point somewhere between the prophets’ audience and Tobit’s audience. We have some power to “do something about it” with regard to the condition of the poor, and to that degree we need to listen to the prophets. But we often don’t have the power to do much, and to that degree we need to listen to Tobit, and pay attention to whether some of our resources are going into mercy, helping those in no position to return the favor. So Tobit is, alas, not particularly helpful for a capital gifts campaign, but very relevant when we pass the plate for the Middleton Outreach Ministry.

Bless God & Give alms

How do you live when you’re off the map? Bless God and give alms.

Looking at these two themes we might think of them as pointing to the twin virtues of gratitude and generosity. I could go on about this for a good stretch, but I’ll leave that for you in the coming week. Notice how many elements in our culture work against any sense of gratitude. Notice how nurturing gratitude, also through the practice of blessing God, helps us see our world more clearly. Notice how gratitude, in turn, frees us for generosity. The world is not zero-sum. God continually drenches the world with gifts. All of us have the privilege of blessing God for it, and mirroring God’s generosity in our own.

The privilege, that is, of doing so with Tobit and Anna, Raguel and Edna, Tobias and Sarah. And that’s not bad company.

[1] The Authorised Daily Prayer Book of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth (1998) 742.

The Damascus Road was the easy part

A Sermon on the 6th Sunday of Easter (5/5/AD2013)

Acts 16:6-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:9-12, 21-22:5; John 14:23-29

We don’t often think of it in these terms, but the Book of Revelation may be the most important book in the Bible for understanding Christian worship. It offers a set of images to describe this world’s future: a future better than we deserve, a future we certainly can’t achieve. It is a future so glorious that it’s only right that we start celebrating, giving thanks for that future now. And so one of the most frequently used words for our worship is eucharist, a transliteration of the Greek word for celebration. Further, the same book describes the worship revealed to the seer: angels and archangels and all the company of heaven singing out “Worthy is the Lamb…” So in our Eucharistic prayers when we say “with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven” we’re acknowledging that our worship is joining with something bigger.

That future is a given. “After this I looked, —writes John—and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev 7:9-10 NRSV) In the midst of a world bleeding from more divisions than most of us can keep track of, it sounds wonderful. And we have the privilege of witnessing to this future now in our actions.

Wonderful. Piece of cake. Or—in light of the first reading—maybe not. Because if we pull out a map to make sense of those first verses it’s clear that Paul’s trying to go anywhere except Macedonia. And why would that be?

Well, although the Jews had been oppressed by many nations (Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, etc.), it was only the Macedonians, Alexander the Great and the leaders who followed him, that had seriously tried to abolish Jewish faith and practice. Less than two hundred years earlier Antiochus Epiphanes, paragon of enlightenment, had offered countless Jews a simple choice: eat pork or be tortured to death. (Read about it in the books of Maccabees!) Which nation had shown itself to be the deadliest enemy of the Jews? Macedonia. And Paul was supposed to go there?

“Those who love me—Jesus had said—will keep my word.” Paul, loving Jesus in the only way that mattered—kept his word. It took the Holy Spirit vetoing his travel plans twice and a vision in the night, but Paul kept Jesus’ word, went to Macedonia.

That was good news for Macedonia: for Lydia and her household, for others whose story we’ll hear next week. It was good news for our ancestors, for Macedonia represented the beginning of Paul’s mission to Europe, to our people. It would be nice if Acts had reported that Paul was eager to evangelize our people. Kicking and screaming would be closer to the truth—but we’ll take it.

And it turned out to be good news for Paul as well. Years later he writes a letter that readers refer to as the joyous letter. There’s so much joy in the letter, joy over what’s happening in that city, the joy that the Christians there give Paul, the ways they nurture his spirit. And that’s the letter to the Philippians.

We come together each week to celebrate the future that God is preparing for this planet. People “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” will participate. Some days we find it easy to witness to that future; other days—like Paul—we find it not so easy. Some days we deal with folk we hope are part of that future; other days… “Those who love me—Jesus had said—will keep my word.” May God grant us grace to continue loving Jesus, to continue witnessing to his vision of our planet’s future each of our days.