Tag Archives: Revised Common Lectionary

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 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 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.

The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany: A Sermon


What might the Spirit be saying to us in these readings?

Let’s start with Paul on Jesus’ resurrection from our second reading. “If Christ has not been raised…” What’s at issue here? Paul gives multiple answers to the question; here’s one of them: “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (v. 32). If Christ has not been raised this [our presence in this Mass] requires a special kind of stupid. Another answer implicit in the text: If Christ has not been raised, then this world doesn’t matter. It’s disposable. But Christ raised—that’s God’s strongest statement that this world matters, that this world has a future.

The Gospel describes that future. Jesus’ words are surprising, by many accounts nonsense. No one wants to be poor, hungry, etc., and those who are poor, hungry, etc. are not obviously blessed or happy. So the verb tenses are important: “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” This future is not simply a continuation of the present. And perhaps a better translation than ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’ is ‘fortunate’: as in you’ve got the winning lottery ticket.

But wait! How can Jesus be pronouncing the poor etc. fortunate and the rich etc. unfortunate? How, for that matter, could his mother sing “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, / and lifted up the lowly; / he has filled the hungry with good things, / and sent the rich away empty” (Lk. 1:52-53)? Here we need to pull the camera back, say, to Psalm 82. It’s short; I’ll read it.

1 God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
2 “How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?
3 Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
4 Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
5 They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk around in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
6 I say, “You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
7 nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
 and fall like any prince.”
8 Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
for all the nations belong to you!

Within Holy Scripture this vision is an uncontested portrait of our world. Our world is usually unjust. While there are exceptions, the wicked, sinners, and scornful of Psalm 1 usually play an outsized role in making and interpreting our laws. The Golden Rule: those with the gold rule. So Jesus, with only some hyperbole, declares the poor, hungry, etc. fortunate and the rich, full, etc. unfortunate, because usually the poor are poor because of injustice and the rich are rich because of injustice.

Within Holy Scripture the benchmark for justice is the law of Moses, that law that this morning’s psalm celebrated. And there it’s clear that justice is both about how wealth is acquired and how wealth is stewarded. Acquired: only one set of weights and measures in the marketplace. Stewarded: “my” wealth is what I hold in trust for the community. Harvests are to be incomplete, so the poor have something to glean. In Deuteronomy all debts are cancelled every seven years. In Leviticus every fifty years there’s a Jubilee in which all return to their original tribal inheritance. Justice means nobody stays poor—or rich—indefinitely. [NB: this vision of justice aligns with the Native American critique of European society in the early dialogues, for which see Graeber & Wengrow The Dawn of Everything.]

Of course other factors influence where wealth or poverty cluster. Proverbs talks a lot about diligence and sloth, wise and foolish decisions. The larger environment plays a role, all those things over which we have no control: droughts, locusts, armies passing through. But when the Bible pulls back for the big picture (like Psalm 82, Mary’s Song, the Beatitudes), injustice is centerstage.

The poor, hungry, etc. of the Beatitudes are fortunate because God will respond to the prayer at Psalm 82’s end: “Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!”

How do we respond to these texts? Before moving to our other readings, three observations. First, between Psalm 82 and the Beatitudes, to the degree that I’m rich, full, etc. it’s sheer folly to assume that that’s simply the result of my virtue. On the personal level, that might be. On the corporate level, no way. So one of our confessions speaks of “the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.” We live on stolen land, our consumer goods are cheap because we’re happy to get them from countries that discourage trade unions—or use slave labor. Should we wish to move from confession to amendment of life, there’s plenty to keep us occupied.

Second, the two verses immediately following today’s Gospel reading: “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” So understandable as it might be, our response to the Beatitudes is not to take up the sword, to set ourselves up as judges.

Third, the poor, the hungry, etc. need to wait until Jesus’ return? Absolutely not. Jesus’ vision is that his church be the sphere in which his words are experienced to be true. Recall Jesus’ words to Peter: “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age– houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions– and in the age to come eternal life” (Mk. 10:29-30). But from the start we’ve tended to downsize that vision, so Jesus’ brother James has to write:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (2:14-17)

[In other words, we’re used to hearing James’ words as an argument with Paul re the roles of faith and works. Perhaps equally at issue: whether the church incarnates Jesus’ communal vision, or is simply a group of folk each pursuing their individual salvation.] What’s the church for? (What’s faith for?) The Beatitudes can do wonders for our imagination.

Turning to Jeremiah and Psalm 1, we might hear that image of the tree planted by water as a strategy for life in the world as described both by Psalm 82 and by Jesus’ Beatitudes. It’s an unjust world, and God’s addressing that, but it’s not a quick fix. God’s playing a long game, and the image of the tree planted by water urges us to likewise play a long game. That can be hard. The trust on which Jeremiah focuses is the trust that God’s timetable is preferable to ours. (And, parenthetically, like Jeremiah we’re free to repeatedly bend God’s ear about that—as long as we’re willing to listen to how God might respond.)

Did you notice the chorus in today’s readings? Jeremiah: How fortunate/blessed/happy those who trust in the Lord. The Psalm: How fortunate/blessed/happy those who delight in the law of the Lord. Jesus: How fortunate/blessed/happy the poor. Why (bottom line)? God raised Christ from the dead. God has plenty of skin in the game, and, shifting the image, God regularly invites us to share His Body and Blood so that we play that game well.

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.” Blessed are we as we continue to examine ourselves and make the choices that position us to together hear Jesus’ words as good news, to together experience Jesus’ words as good news.

Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
for all the nations belong to you!

Our God is responding to that prayer today, and invites us to join in that response today. We’ll let Isaiah take us out:

For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field—all us trees of the field—shall clap their hands. (55:12).

The Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year C): A Sermon


There’s a double dose of good news in today’s readings: God is indeed coming to set things right, and God generously invites us to be part of this. We’ll start with the invitation, then move to the setting things right.

The Gospel reading starts out “In those days…” If we ask “which days?” we need to go back a few verses and hear the angel Gabriel saying to Mary: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

“Do not be afraid…” first, probably, because angels are powerful creatures. Gabriel’s one of the more powerful and he’s standing right there in the living room. But “Do not be afraid…” also because Mary’s a Jew, whose people have been colonized by a series of pagan empires for over five hundred years, Rome simply being the latest. Mary has to think back over 500 years to remember a time when the Jews were free—if only in theory. If we had to think that far back it’d put us before Columbus. After all that time, can the God of King David, who many think has been conspicuously absent for the last 500 years, be trusted?

Mary trusts, and at the end of the conversation responds “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” God gives Mary—gives us—the quite amazing dignity of being agents in this story. Recalling our reading from Hebrews, Jesus is able to say “See, I have come to do your will” because Mary has given her “Here am I.” Jesus offers up his body because Mary has offered hers up: “let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary’s response brings us up to today’s reading, in which Mary heads for the one person who might understand what she’s just gotten herself into. Elizabeth, her relative, is also pregnant, despite being “advanced in years” and previously judged barren. An angel had been involved in that one also. A year before all this happened, neither Elizabeth nor Mary would have had any thought of being part of a divine project of this magnitude. But here they are.

Elizabeth greets Mary, and her speech takes up most of the Gospel reading. We read Mary’s reply, “The Song of Mary,” between the first two lessons. It’s one conversation.

Why did Luke include this scene? It doesn’t particularly advance the action. But it shows us something we almost never see elsewhere in the Gospels, and never at this length: two disciples talking to each other. And what comes through in both their speeches is a combination of “Oh, good, I’m not crazy,” wonder at being in the story at all, and a fierce joy at what God is doing.

“Oh, good, I’m not crazy.” Neither of them say that; I suspect both were thinking it: Elizabeth, preparing to be a mother when most of her friends are enjoying being grandmothers, Mary, with the angel’s voice—it was an angel, wasn’t it?—ringing in her ears. When you get caught up in God’s projects it helps to have someone with whom to run a sanity check. This is why God puts us into congregations.

Both are a little dazed at being in the story at all. “[W]hy has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” “[F]or he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.” And the joy: present in Elizabeth’s “the mother of my Lord” and developed throughout Mary’s song.

Repentance, about which we’ve been speaking these last weeks, is not the focus of the Christian life. That would be like a photographer spending all her time cleaning her lenses. But it’s necessary so that something interesting can happen. And in the encounter between Elizabeth and Mary, we have an image of what that “something interesting” might look like. Two strong women, dreaming dreams and seeing visions, supported by and rejoicing in each other’s friendship, rejoicing in the first stirrings—quite literally—of what God is doing in their midst.

God’s generous invitation to be part of God’s good news, extended not just to Elizabeth and Mary, but to each one of us. Recall Paul’s absurdly mixed metaphor: “My children, I am going through the pain of giving birth to you all over again, until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4:19 NJB). Until Christ is formed in you.

Now, what about this business of God coming to set things right? Here we might focus on these lines from Mary’s song:

He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.

Mary’s channeling pretty much the entire biblical witness here: we as a race have turned away from God and as a result regularly commit atrocities against our neighbors, all of whom bear God’s image. So “setting things right” is more than a bit of reform here or there. The status quo is inhuman. No wonder that the British banned the singing of Mary’s song in India during their rule, or that in the 1980’s the Guatemalan government banned its public recitation, or the military junta in Argentina banned its public display.[1]

Is God’s coming good news? If my status and riches depend on oppression and violence, not so much. So, not surprisingly, some of the most pointed prayers in the Book of Common Prayer are assigned to these four weeks of Advent:

Week 1: …give us grace to cast away the works of darkness…

Week 2: …Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins…

Week 3: …because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us;

Week 4: Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation…

So, in one of our prayers of confession, we acknowledge “the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.”Is God’s coming good news? Depends on which side I’m on, the sheep or the goats, and the Advent season pleads with us to take this seriously.

OK, preacher, how do we witness to this? If the status quo is inhumane, what do we do? A good chunk of the New Testament is devoted to this question; consider these snapshots:

Jesus’ instruction: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mk. 10:42-44)

Philemon is a slave-owner and Onesimus a slave: Paul tells Philemon they need to treat each other as brothers in Christ. That plants the seed that eventually results in many countries abolishing slavery.

The first witnesses to the resurrection are women, and Junia is recognized among the apostles (Rom 16:7). Things like these plant the seed that eventually results in women winning civil rights and, in some parts of the Christian Church, the barriers falling to ordination.

“Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17)—and hold the empire accountable for the pretty language it uses to describe its values (Acts 16:35-40).

In short, the default strategy is consenting to God transforming our life together in the church (“let it be with me according to your word.”) and that acting as a catalyst—as leaven—for the whole loaf. And, when it comes to it (“We must obey God rather than any human authority.” ([Acts 5:29]), not being afraid to cause “good trouble.”

God is coming to set things right and—wonder of wonders—we’re invited to be a part of that. How might that play out in the week ahead?

[1] See http://enemylove.com/subversive-magnificat-mary-expected-messiah-to-be-like/, accessed 12/7/2021.

The First Sunday of Advent: A Sermon


This morning’s readings set before us a feast, beginning in our first reading from the prophet Jeremiah. King David will have a descendant—we might mentally cue up “Once in royal David’s city” as the sound track—through whom through God will establish, well, righteousness. “A righteous Branch… execute justice and righteousness… Jerusalem… called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”

“Righteous” and “righteousness” are today pretty much restricted to religious contexts. That’s a pity, because ‘righteous’ (tsaddiq in Hebrew) is a remarkably useful word. A person who is righteous is a person who does what needs to be done to fulfill the obligations of a relationship.

The Lord, precisely in this sense, is righteous. It doesn’t matter how powerful Israel’s enemies are. It doesn’t matter how deep a pit Israel has dug herself in. The last thing the Lord will say is “Well, you brought this on yourself; what do you expect me to do?” The Lord is righteous. If that means bringing Israel out of Egypt, the Lord will do it. If that means toppling the Babylonian Empire so the exiles can return home, the Lord will do it. If it means taking on human flesh to live as one of us, the Lord will do it. The Lord is righteous.

It’s that confidence in the Lord’s righteousness that animates the psalm. It doesn’t matter what combination external enemies and self-inflicted wounds the psalmist is dealing with: the Lord can sort it out.

The psalm—and there’s more to it than we read a moment ago—does a good job of balancing awareness of being a sinner and being sinned-against. That language is Raymond Fung’s, who served for years as the WCC’s Secretary for Mission and Evangelism. We are both sinners and sinned-against, and as we acknowledge both the Lord’s righteousness is good news.

It’s that confidence in the Lord’s righteousness that animates the Gospel reading. For this reading, however, we need a bit of context. It occurs in the conversation that starts with some touristic oohing and aahing over the temple. “Not one stone—says Jesus—will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” Asked for more information, Jesus responds with a collage of images and instructions that—like most prophecy—intermingle the immediate and the distant future.

Toward the end of this we get “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” The NRSV sets off ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ in quotation marks since it’s a quote from one of Daniel’s visions. In that vision four monsters, each worse than the last, stake out their turf. That’s Daniel’s take on about 500 years’ worth of empires in that region: four ill-tempered beasts. But God intervenes and vindicates a human figure: “with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom.”

Our future is not bestial but human. The terrorists will not have the last word; the institutionalized terror of the nations will not have the last word. The advertisers with their pictures of happy mindless consumers will not have the last word. Alleluia!

Jesus has been using “Son of Man” as a way of referring to himself; he hears the phrase in Daniel’s vision as pointing to himself, and so uses it later in the week when, now a prisoner, he’s questioned by the council about his identity: “But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God” (22:69), at which point the council either turns leadership of the meeting over to Jesus or sends him off to Pilate for crucifixion.

Scriptures like today’s second reading, together with our creeds and Eucharistic prayers confess that Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” Through repetition it can easily go right over our heads, but it’s profoundly good news: our future, the future of this world, is human, not bestial. It’s good and dependable news: this Jesus is righteous, and will continue to do what it takes to make it happen.

Alleluia. Notice, though, Jesus’ warnings toward the end of the text: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.… Be alert at all times…” Why be on guard/be alert? Mark’s account spells it out: “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (13:32). So these elaborate interpretive machines into which we dump Jesus’ collage of images and instructions so that they can spit out a precise timeline? Save your money.

We do know what Jesus’ coming again will mean. It is the definitive triumph of God’s righteousness, God’s willingness and ability to move heaven and earth for our salvation. Our salvation: the people who harvest our crops not themselves suffering from malnutrition, the people who build our homes not themselves living in leaking shacks, all of us offering worship not to the idols that teach us to hate, and rob us of our humanity, but to God alone, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

That’s not a future we can bring about. It is a future to which we can—and must—witness, a witness expressed also in response to Jesus’ words: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly… Be alert at all times…” To the degree that we believe in this future, dissipation, drunkenness, etc. are not temptations. But, if all we can expect is one more ill-tempered beast after another, then dissipation etc. begin to sound pretty good. Advent is about there being a better future for this world than it deserves, a better future than any of its current trajectories would lead us to expect. Because of that better future, that Jesus-shaped future, it makes perfect sense “to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.”

Someone once asked Bishop Lesslie Newbigin whether he was an optimist or a pessimist on some issue. His answer was “I’m neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.” The Lord has acted and will again act in righteousness, remaking heaven and earth. “Be alert at all times?” Sounds like good advice.

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Lessons (Track 1)

“Does Job fear God for nothing?” asked the accuser, the satan. (‘satan’ is simply the Hebrew word for ‘accuser’.) (The accuser could with equal justice have asked it about James and John, and we’ll get to that later.) God permitted the accuser to find out, and Job lost nearly everything. That was in the first two chapters.

Since then, Job has been demanding action from God, and Job’s friends –I use the term advisedly—have been demanding that Job confess whatever sins have brought on his suffering. The arguments of Job’s friends don’t change much, aside from becoming increasingly vitriolic. God rules justly; if Job is suffering, he must be justly suffering, and the only puzzle is why Job is being so stubborn. What is unnerving is how often we hear these arguments today, how often we either use them or find ourselves tempted to use them. At least part of each of us, I suspect, wishes that Job’s friends were right: a completely just God insuring that each person received exactly what he or she deserved now. Some people believe in reincarnation, and one of the attractions of reincarnation is that it allows one to believe in a universe that is completely just at every moment: I am receiving precisely the mixture of weal and woe that my previous lives merit.

And even within the Old Testament, there are plenty of passages in the law that promise weal for obedience and woe for disobedience, plenty of passages in the prophets that interpret disasters as God’s punishment, plenty of passages in Proverbs that connect righteousness and prosperity, wickedness and ruin. And only a fool would deny the truth in these. But is this the whole truth? Is it the whole truth for Job? Obviously not, despite Job’s friends’ eloquent arguments.

Job’s complaints and demands for divine action do change through the course of the book. Job’s initial speech sounds like a demand that God retroactively snuff him out of existence: better never to have been born than to experience this. But as Job continues to reflect on his suffering, he recognizes that he is one of many who suffer, and his demand for God’s action correspondingly shifts: too many innocents are getting crushed.

Job is clear throughout that his problem is God: “When disaster brings sudden death, / he mocks at the calamity of the innocent. / The earth is given into the hand of the wicked; / he covers the eyes of its judges— /if it is not he, who then is it?” [9.23-24] And here, despite the rough edges, Job is speaking rightly about God. We try to protect God, buffer God from evil. Does God get joy from the suffering of the innocent? Is that his will? No. But does God continue to give breath and strength to the wicked, to keep the nerve endings working as the torturer does his work? Yes. “If it is not he, who then is it?”

We do not suffer unless God consents to our suffering. The New Testament assumes this, although notice that Paul adds “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

And Job pushes the limits of language, logic, and faith by appealing to God against God. For I know that my Redeemer lives, / and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; / and after my skin has been thus destroyed, / then in my flesh I shall see God, / whom I shall see on my side, / and my eyes shall behold, / and not another.” [19:25-27]

Jesus on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The problem is not Judas, not the Jewish leaders, not Pilate: it’s God. And precisely in knowing that God’s the problem, Jesus appeals…to God. And so may we. So must we.

Well, that brings us up to the beginning of God’s response to Job in today’s lesson. Read it during the week if you can: Job 38-41. God responds to Job’s questions with God’s own questions, pointing Job to the ostrich, the war stallion, Behemoth, Leviathan, and to the challenge of mounting any useful response to the wicked.

What all that comes to we’ll wonder about next week. What I’ve focused on today is, I think, the necessary prequel to all that: Job’s insistence that God is the issue, and that only from God will come Job’s salvation, that, confronted with suffering, what we want is not explanation, but action.

This last point is, by the way, two-edged, as captured in a dialogue between two characters in a cartoon a few years back.
–Sometimes I’d like to ask God why he allows poverty, famine and injustice when he could do something about it.
–What’s stopping you?
–I’m afraid God might ask me the same question.

Our prayers for God’s intervention need to be matched by the interventions that are within our power. So, for example, as you work through your Christmas gift list, look at the Episcopal Relief and Development Christmas Catalogue. For that person who’s hard to buy gifts for or pretty much has what they need, you could give—in their name—a mosquito net, a goat, or even a cow.

Perhaps the next time through our lectionary cycle I’ll be able to give more attention to Hebrews. For the moment, simply notice that Hebrews’ portrait of Jesus looks surprisingly like Job: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death.” This Jesus is clearly one with whom we can be honest about our struggles.

So we turn to the Gospel—and yes, I remember that the Packers-Bears game is one of the early games. I don’t think I need to belabor our solidarity with James and John. At least from the pre-school playground all of us have been honing our skills at claiming and defending turf. It may be large, it may be small, but it’s ours and it’s for a Good Cause. And it is so easy to assume that when we are baptized, initiated into the Great Cause, the Kingdom of God, that the business of claiming and defending turf don’t change.

So Jesus has to keep reminding us: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

The other James, Jesus’ brother and author of the letter, got it right: there are two kingdoms: this world, a zero-sum game in which claiming and defending turf is the only game in town, and the Kingdom of God, in which God’s generosity means that I can relax and serve.

But the text doesn’t end there, but with this final curious verse: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

We choose which kingdom we live in, and that’s true. But that’s not the whole truth. Something closer to the whole truth is that we start out enslaved to the kingdom of this world, the habits of claiming and defending turf embedded deep in us. But Jesus gave his life a ransom for many, for James and John, who on the road to Jerusalem still didn’t get it, for the Roman soldiers awaiting him in Jerusalem, for you and for me. Because Jesus has ransomed us we can choose. The gates are open; we can leave the darkness for the light.

Learning to live in the Kingdom of God is something that takes a lifetime, particularly this business of lording it over others verses serving others. And we learn it –if we learn it—in the midst of our conflicts. So think of the people –family members, colleagues, neighbors—with whom you’ve disagreed in the past and will probably disagree in the future. God can use these relationships to teach us stuff we can’t learn any other way. And here Job and Jesus do not have a monopoly on “prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears.”

Does Job serve God for nothing? Do James and John serve God for nothing, for that matter, or serve only when it helps them to claim and defend their turf? Do we? In God’s severe mercy we don’t have to answer that in the abstract, but as we find ourselves in conflict. In the words of the collect: “Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name.”

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon


Today’s readings introduce a series of readings in the books of Job and Hebrews. In the Gospel readings in Mark, Jesus continues his march towards Jerusalem, accompanied by the apostles who continue to argue over whose name will be in the biggest lights on the marquee. I’ll comment briefly on the first two readings and devote the bulk of the sermon to the Gospel.


The book tells the story of a paradigmatically righteous man who suffers massively and undeservedly. The book doesn’t explain why, although it soundly rejects a number of bad explanations. Instead, the book focuses on more immediate questions: how do we respond to such suffering, either our own or our neighbor’s? What does this suffering say about humanity? About God? (Is God good in any meaningful sense, or just very powerful?) Do we only serve God as long as we perceive it to be profitable? We’ll be in Job most of October; if you read about a chapter or two a day you’ll be able to engage the Sunday readings at a more satisfying level.


Hebrews is one of the least accessible books in the New Testament. It was usually ascribed to Paul, who was almost certainly not its author. It seems to assume that its audience is in danger of abandoning faith in Jesus for some other form of Judaism. In any case, the bulk of the book is devoted to Jesus’ superiority. In the process, it offers perspectives that Christians throughout the centuries have found illuminating and encouraging.

For instance, in the second half of the 20th Century, Christians sought –as they have in every time and place—for ways of speaking of Jesus that resonated with their hearts. One of these: Jesus our Brother. Not: our God, our Lord, our Master –all true enough—but Jesus our Brother. And it was in this prickly epistle that we found the richest resources to develop this image: the one who “is not ashamed to call [us] brothers and sisters,” the one who shared our flesh and blood. Jesus is our Brother, who can help us when we suffer and are tested, because he suffered and was tested too; one of the few human beings worthy to be Job’s brother.

Hebrews is significantly shorter than Job; reading a chapter every other day or so should keep you current with the Sunday selections.


One of the jokes about my people, the Scots, is that if there are three of us, there’ll be four political parties. This could have been said of the Jews of Jesus’ day, as illustrated by today’s reading. Moses permitted divorce; on what grounds could a man seek divorce? The School of Shammai said: only for unchastity; the School of Hillel said: for practically anything, including burning the roast. The Pharisees wanted to know what Jesus thought.

Jesus asks what Moses commanded; they reply citing the provision for a certificate of divorce. Jesus interprets that as a concession to their hardness of heart, and returns to the creation story: “‘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.”

That certainly sounds as though Jesus is taking a position to the right of Shammai: there are no grounds on which a man could seek a divorce.

So that’s all we need to say about that? Hardly. Matthew tells the same story as Mark, but in his story Jesus says “whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.” So in Matthew, Rabbi Jesus aligns with Rabbi Shammai. Paul takes up marriage in his first letter to the Corinthians—we read this in the Daily Office in the last couple of weeks—and permits divorce and remarriage in the case of a Christian whose non-Christian spouse wants out.

So how do we respond to the NT as a whole? Over time the Greek-speaking Eastern Church and the Latin-speaking Western Church came to give quite different answers. The Western Church understood Jesus words as transmitted by Mark as canon law: no divorce. Unfortunately, what that often ended up meaning was that if you were well-connected (money helped), you could get an annulment, and if you weren’t, then you could either divorce & remarry or continue to receive Holy Communion, but not both. The Eastern Church read the same texts and concluded that marriages could die, and so divorce and remarriage were permitted as tragic concessions to our continuing hardness of heart. The history of the Western Church has been a history of gradually approaching the Eastern Church’s position; although some parts –most notably the Roman Catholics—continue to prohibit divorce.

Marriages can die. This certainly rings true. But does it really take Jesus’ words as recorded in Mark seriously? Well, yes, for I think what Jesus is doing here is like what he does in the Sermon on the Mount: “if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment;” “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Does this mean we adjust our laws accordingly? No. Jesus is, I think, making two points: we must not fall into the trap of equating obeying the law with goodness, because anyone with half a brain can figure out how to satisfy the law and still do evil. Second, if we tightened up the law to eliminate this problem, most of us would be locked up.

More broadly, the various ways we Christians have read today’s Gospel is a prime example of the danger of taking a single text as the basis for doctrine or church law without attending to the rest of Scripture!

Returning to Paul, while Paul has his opinions—and bless him for acknowledging them to be opinions and not trying to pass them off as Gospel Truth—he’s clear that both the single and married states are vocations, callings in which we can reflect God’s holiness. So, at a marriage, we’re asked “Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?” And we respond: “We will.” And we’re reminded of this obligation to mutual support as we celebrate marriage anniversaries. Sadly, there are no liturgical affirmations of this obligation to uphold those whose vocation is the single life. (Perhaps the folk thinking about Prayer Book revision could think about that!) But the obligation’s there, the obligation to uphold each other in either state, married or single. Perhaps today’s text can encourage us to take this obligation more seriously, to listen each other more carefully, to live as brothers and sisters in this new family Jesus is shaping, to do better than Job’s friends, who, hovering just offstage, can’t wait to tell Job what he’s done wrong.

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Help us, Lord, to become masters of ourselves, that we may become the servants of others. Take our minds and think through them. Take our lips and speak through them. And, take our hearts and set them on fire. For Christ’s sake, Amen.

Masters of ourselves, that we may become the servants of others: that’s where we’ll end up; it will take some time to get there.

The first reading is the Lectionary’s only selection from the Book of Esther, the story of God’s saving the Jews from Haman’s genocidal attack throughout the Persian Empire through a Jewess named Esther. It’s a gem of a short story, filled with sharp humor, and is the basis for the Jewish feast of Purim, or Lots, which next year [2022] will be celebrated on March 16.

It is also a subversive story. When Cyrus the Persian gave the Jews permission to return home from exile toward the end of the 6th Century bc, Jewish leadership was united in urging, exhorting, guilting the Jews to return. Isaiah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi: all agree that Good Jews belong on the road back to Jerusalem. Esther is one of the Bad Jews who didn’t make the trip, and whom we encounter in Susa, the Persian capital. Obviously, God will be attending to the Good Jews, and not to Jews like Esther. But when this threat of genocide comes, deliverance comes not from Jerusalem, but from Susa. If there were ever a tale warning us against writing some portion of the Body of Christ off, it’s this one.

“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” Jesus, one suspects, has been reading Esther.

Our second lesson is the last part of the Epistle of James, in which James speaks to us of patience and the tongue.

Patience.Ambrose Bierce, probably in The Devil’s Dictionary, says “Patience is a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.” So we exercise patience when we don’t have other options. James’ vision of patience is quite different. The future is assured because Jesus is coming. There will be a rich harvest, so we can settle into the farmer’s patience. And, James reminds us, Jesus is coming as judge, so judging is something we don’t need to do and are positively forbidden to do.

But some people require so much patience! Yes; us –and God is patient with us. If, by the way, we don’t think that God has to exercise extraordinary patience with us, we don’t know ourselves very well, and are either very young or in a very dangerous place spiritually. So, our exercises in patience with others become a matter of exercising the same patience that we know we need from God. And, notice, the last thing we want from God is any hint of condescension. Are we in the company of an obnoxious person? Well, we have an excellent opportunity to mirror the patience we need from God.

The tongue. A couple chapters ago James warned us of its dangers; here, in an unguarded display of hope, he turns to its positive uses. Three points to notice:

  • Echoing Jesus, he warns us against oaths. Our ordinary speech should be trustworthy, so that “I promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” is quite unnecessary. And have you noticed how often our speech betrays this problem. “Speaking frankly…”: so the rest of the time you aren’t? “Honestly…”; and what was I hearing before? “To be perfectly truthful…”
  • We use the tongue to bring our illnesses before the community and before God. “Are any…sick? They should call for the elders of the church…” Illness is not a private matter; if one of us is sick, all are affected. As we pray for the sick, we’re saying “God, this is our problem, not simply their problem. “The Lord will raise them up.” ‘Raise up’ is used both for healing and for resurrection. We do not know how God will respond to any particular request for healing. We pray for healing both because we can do no other, and because, bringing the sick to Jesus, there is no better place we can bring them.
  • We properly use the tongue to bring back those who wander from the truth. This sounds quite foreign to us, because we’re used to thinking of each person as having a rather large sphere marked “private” and live in a culture that constantly tells us that one person’s truth is not another’s. Ironically, the same society that hungers for community encourages us to act as strangers to each other. I have no interest in bringing in judging through the back door. But not judging is not the same thing as remaining silent. When we see a brother or sister acting self-destructively, we need to risk saying something. If our society can manage “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk,” we Christians should be able to take the principle a bit further. There are, in other words, things worse than conflict, and one of them is watching someone taking a wrong turn and saying nothing.

Our Gospel comes from that part of Mark that is structured thematically by Jesus’ repeated warnings of the fate that awaits him in Jerusalem. “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands” says Jesus, and Mark follows this warning with stories of the disciples arguing over who’s greatest, trying to silence those who don’t follow them, etc. The human hands into which Jesus is most immediately betrayed are the disciples’!

Jesus follows his rebuke to the disciples regarding their treatment of others with exhortations regarding their treatment of themselves. The ruthlessness they’ve displayed towards others needs to be focused on themselves: If your hand, your foot, your eye, causes you to stumble, cut it off, tear it out.

One of society’s most seductive promises is “you can have it all.” It shows up in songs, as the goal of various self-help schemes. A women’s organization that should know better will even sell you a t-shirt for your daughter: “Girls can have it all.”

Nope. We have to choose, and the higher we aim, the more we have to give up. A relatively innocuous example of a literal enactment of Jesus words was provided by the NFL defensive back Ronnie Lott, who had the tip of his left pinky finger amputated during the offseason so he wouldn’t risk injuring it in the future and miss more football games. Any sort of excellence demands hours of practice and preparation, time that’s simply not available for other things. “OK, so I’ll aim low” –and the price of that is soul-destroying boredom.

More fundamentally, Jesus’ words are about paying attention to the choices we have. Rather than spending our energy on the faults of others; we might spend our energy on the choices we have regarding how we live before God. Here some ruthlessness isn’t a bad thing, being as attentive to our life before God as the new car owner is to the sound of the engine, or the photographer is to the cleanliness of her lenses.

Why? Because the stuff that destroys us and those around us often starts so innocently. There are so many good reasons to complain; it is so natural. But over time we can spend more and more time complaining, until there is no longer a person complaining, just an incessant complaint. Again, the disciples’ “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him…”: well, they don’t have much power and that “someone” is probably safe. But at the end of that line lie all the diabolical instruments of torture of the inquisition.

Bottom line: we have more power, more choices than we imagine. We may not appear center-stage to deliver our people as did Esther. All of us can pray, as did our brother Elijah, and thereby transformed the weather and the politics of Israel. And all of us daily make decisions: how much slack do I cut those around me; how much slack do I cut myself? Those around me: a lot, as God cuts us a lot of slack. Myself: very little, for little decisions add up, for good or ill, and at the last day I hope to be one who seeks, rather than avoids, God’s gaze.

Help us, Lord, to become masters of ourselves, that we may become the servants of others. Take our minds and think through them. Take our lips and speak through them. And, take our hearts and set them on fire. For Christ’s sake, Amen.

[The prayer that bookends this sermon I learned from Fr. George F. Regas during our time at All Saints in Pasadena, California, who entered into glory on January 3 of this year.]